The question that we must confront is whether Muslim men who profess to uphold Islamic values are willing to redress the indignity and humiliation that Muslim women continue to suffer.
The key question that one is prompted to ask, is where does all this come from? Is this the Islamic way? Is this the way our Prophet intended women to be treated? The problem is that much of what has been historically handed down to us, even from sources which many in this hall would consider unquestionable, is steeped in obvious male-dominated bias. Before I discuss the role of the Prophet's wives, let me demonstrate that even our so-called "unquestionable sources", such as Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, are replete with false ahadith - and I want to emphasize "false" ahadith as opposed to "weak" ahadith. There is a fundamental principle regarding the authenticity of ahadith, which is accepted by all Muslims, that any hadith that conflicts with the Qur'an must be rejected. There are no "ifs" and "buts" regarding this principle. Unfortunately, when it comes to women, there are many ahadith that conflict either with other ahadith of the Prophet or with verses of the Qur'an.
We have a very sad situation: most Muslims say that they hold the Qur'an as the most important source for all Islamic issues, but when it comes to practice, it seems that "traditions" determine how we conduct our lives. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the treatment of women. And apparently it all stems from the perception that Eve, or Hawaa, who was supposedly created from the rib of Adam, was the cause of the downfall of man.
Ask most Muslims where they get this information from and they will readily tell you it is from the Qur'an. Now, if I were to pose the question how was Eve created, I am almost always told, even by those 'ulama' that we call the 'imams' of mosques, that she was created from Adam's rib. But that is not what the Qur'an says. So where do Muslims get this information from? Surely they haven't started to read the Bible? - for this is a Biblical view. In fact, they get it from ahadith. Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim have between them six different sayings on women's creation that are demeaning and insulting to women. The question then is whether the Prophet could have made such statements, especially as they run contrary to what Allah says on the subject.
Instead of giving you all six ahadith, let me quote you one from each source:
From Sahih Bukhari: "Treat women nicely, for a women is created from a rib, and the most curved portion of the rib is its upper portion, so if you try to straighten it, it will break, but if you leave it as it is, it will remain crooked. So treat women nicely."
From Sahih Muslim: "A woman is like a rib. When you attempt to straighten it, you will break it. And if you leave her alone you will benefit by her, and crookedness will remain in her."
If we are going to talk about the Seerah and the Sunnah of the Prophet, let us be absolutely sure that we will not accept blind adherence to hadith sources, however "sahih" or "authentic" they may be labelled. If they conflict with the Qur'an, then they must be so completely rejected that no doubt is left as to their rejection. The ahadith which I have quoted are in clear violation of what Allah says in the Qur'an.
In this conference about the Seerah of the Prophet (saw), I cannot overemphasize the need for very close examination of the Prophet's own treatment of women. Muslim women have suffered much over the years because of false accounts of the "seerah" of the Prophet. Now we need to understand that to accept the texts of early historians uncritically is an insult to the pristine honor accorded to the wives and daughters of the Prophet. We must remember that truth is often camouflaged in the very source of information we use as reference. Often the information at our disposal is imbedded in the indiscriminate use of isolated traditions or of groups of traditions emanating from single biased sources or from well-defined socio-political and religious groups. Each seeks to establish that version of "history" that is best suited to its own aspirations and prejudices.
The contributions and dynamism of these revered mothers of Islam are almost always viewed through the skewed lenses of traditional conservatism, in brief complaisant descriptions or tales. They are often marginalized as weak, weeping women, constantly quarrelling and bickering amongst themselves for the love, affection and attention of the beloved Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (saw).
We need to remind ourselves that emotional and personality traits are among the things that make us human, men and women alike. Did Prophet Muhammad not weep? Did he not show irritation when a blind man approached him while he was talking to a pagan Quraish leader? Did he not doubt Hadhrat Ayesha (ra) when a malicious rumor was spread about her? Early in his prophethood, did he not become frightened and seek solace and comfort from Hadhrat Khadijah (ra)? Did he not become anxious? Did he not despair? Why is it that when a man displays these emotions and behaviour then it is viewed with sympathy, and in many instances as signs of strength and character building? But if women, let alone the revered mothers of Islam, show their "humanness", they are labelled as weak and flawed, to the extent that they are robbed of their significant contribution to the advent of Islam and to humanity.
The fact of the matter is that Muslims have become the mules of politics that engender nothing. A woman's God- given status, character and honor becomes as much a symbol of political struggles as anything else.
All of us present here today believe in the Islamic movement and have gathered here to explore, understand and implement the lessons drawn from the studies of the Seerah of the Prophet Muhammad (saw). We must be aware, however, that our efforts will be in vain if we continue to cling to the rope of conservatism. Conservatism, though a mental attitude, has a social base and finds anchor in intellectually bankrupt and stagnant societies, even when these societies give a superficial impression of being progressive. We must bear in mind that in these societies conservatism provides an inner defense-mechanism for an externally perceived threat. As far as Muslim communities around the world are concerned, this externally perceived threat is nothing more than the aspirations and internal resurgence of Muslim women who wish to reclaim their rightful place as educators and community-builders, thus helping to evolve their societies constructively towards an Islamic Revolution which will benefit the whole of humanity. We Muslim women today want to follow the example of the first Islamic movement lead by Prophet himself, in which the inclusive and active participation of women played a vital role in bringing about the desired change.
What was the attitude of Prophet Muhammad towards women? We know that he treated them with respect, love, kindness and commitment. All his wives were noble, strong, intelligent and assertive women. Each one contributed in a profound way, not only in molding and shaping the first Muslim society but also in shaping and enhancing the personality of Prophet Muhammad and his companions (may Allah bless them all).
Let us now turn our attention on the first wife of the Prophet, Hadhrat Khadijah (ra). As we all know, she was a wealthy businesswoman, of noble character, and proposed to and married Prophet Muhammad. At the time of the marriage, the Prophet was twenty-five and Khadijah was forty years old. This marriage between a mature woman of understanding and a valiant, honorable young man bears testimony to the needs of a man who was chosen by Allah to change the destiny of humanity.
She was his anchor and model of encouragement, she was more than just a moral supporter, she was also a leader in the truest sense. Her ability to reason and comprehend surpassed that of the men of her time. Even when Prophet Muhammad was frightened by his first encounter with angel Jibril, she had genius enough to realize that something tremendous and awe-inspiring had happened to him. She was the first to recognize the Prophet of Allah. She became the first Muslim and a staunch supporter in the face of determined and distressing opposition. She was firm in her faith, energetic and enthusiastic, and never faltered in encouraging her husband to persevere in the face of adversity. Her support steadied Muhammad's troubled spirit in the earliest days of his prophetic career.
The annals of history can no longer ignore the important and vital role this outstanding lady of Islam played in mobilizing the first Islamic movement. Her contribution to the economics of the movement was two- fold: firstly, the Prophet's marriage to her brought him economic freedom and time for spiritual contemplation and the eventual preparation for prophethood. And secondly, she used her wealth to finance the missions and expeditions of the Prophet. She provided the financial and economic base, which is a crucial and essential pre-requisite for any political movement to succeed. Her entire wealth was spent in the way of Allah. This economic base was used to spread the message of her husband, for freeing slaves who had embraced Islam, and helping to feed and shelter the emerging community of Muslims. This is a very profound and significant contribution, and its outcome we all know. If wealthy Muslims around the world follow the example set by our revered mother of Islam, contemporary Islamic movements around the world would not only surpass the spirally usurping economic system of the west but would be able to challenge and crush this exploitative system. It is also worth remembering that Hadhrat Khadijah, may Allah be pleased with her, also inspired Hazrat Abu-Bakr to contribute his wealth.
The relationship between Hadhrat Khadijah and Prophet Muhammad was one of mutual love, respect, mercy and understanding. Prophet Muhammad never stopped loving her, and although he married several more wives in later years and loved them all, it is clear that Khadijah always had a special place in his heart. Once Ayesha (ra) asked him whether Khadijah had been the only wife worthy of his love. He replied, "she believed in me when no one else did: she accepted Islam when people rejected me: and she helped me and comforted me when there was no one else to lend me a helping hand." Could all this have been done by a 'weak, dependant' woman? Of course not.
The Prophet Muhammad's marriage to Hadhrat Ayesha was also an exceptional one. Here we have a man nearing the end of his life and a woman still near the beginning of hers. Hadhrat Ayesha had a lively temperament and was quick to learn. She had a clear heart and an accurate memory. It is important, however, to dig deeper and to bring out the real significance of this union. The emphasis here is on education and the cultivation of the intellect, which every human is blessed with. Allah has blessed humanity with the ability to think and reason. Knowledge is a continuous process. The acquisition of knowledge is regarded as one of the most important acts of worship, which must be infused with love and action to achieve the desired outcome. We must remind ourselves that if knowledge is not related to and acquired through action, it cannot be transformed into power, and cannot be used for the reconstruction of society and environment. What we lack today is the application of knowledge. Most of us are educated - in some instances, very highly educated - but how well do we understand what we have learnt? And how many of us have the commitment and the strength to apply it? Let alone implement it? That is what made the marriage of Ayesha to the Prophet so exceptional.
Prophet Muhammad encouraged intellectual growth and debate. Although Hadhrat Ayesha was intelligent, she had a great deal to learn. The Prophet tutored Ayesha with love and understanding, and enhanced her potential. Through this interaction with the Prophet and the other wives she became very knowledgeable. Like any student, she would sometimes feel insecure regarding her progress and the Prophet would always help her and assist her to improve herself. Like Hadhrat Hafsa, she was never short of words and was not afraid to question or debate in order to find out the truth. When she got older she passed on the knowledge she had received from the Prophet, and long after his death she was a source of knowledge and wisdom for both women and men.
Ayesha accompanied the Prophet on many expeditions. She participated with total courage and commitment in the battles of Badr, Uhud and al-Khandaq (the ditch), and learned through these experiences. Through this kind of training, and as an active participant, she developed into a mature eloquent woman who could fully participate in the affairs of the first Islamic state, alhumdulillah. This is the sunnah that we should all be aspiring towards, not the sunnah which has been fabricated to suit the needs of our men's nafs.
In conclusion, let me come back to what I said at the outset. The marginalization and dehumanization of women through the error and deviation of historical texts cannot be left unchallenged. Writing and debating about the problem, and confining it to academia, is not going to bring about the desired change. We need to start now. The resurgence has begun and the reformers and advocates of change should not only persevere with patience but should also have the right perception of the situation and a proper understanding of the various factors inhibiting change in order to initiate the proper course.
In his paper Processes of error, deviation, correction and convergence in Muslim political thought (1989), Dr Kalim Siddiqui marhoom wrote:
History is a crucible. It is relentless and impartial in dealing with error and deviation. History is intolerant of all degrees of perversion of the truth, however well-meaning and sincere the human motive behind it. All kinds of religious traditions have fallen into the trap of exaggerated self-righteousness and absurd claims of having discovered the whole truth to the exclusion of all others."
Dr Kalim wrote this in the context of sectarianism and the false claims of some Islamic groups, current and past. But precisely the same can be said of the positions taken by many male ulama and male-dominated Islamic traditions vis-a-vis women. The error and deviation introduced into Muslim thought on the subject of the role and position of Muslim women need to be corrected for the sake of the Islamic movements currently struggling for truth and justice all over the world, as much as for the sake of Muslim women ourselves. Without the full support, participation and input of Muslim women, as demonstrated by the women of the earliest Islamic community and the first Islamic state, contemporary Islamic movements cannot hope to achieve the goals they have set themselves.