Friday, June 12, 2009

Women and Sharia

By Yasmin Salah Amer

The lecture given by Dr. Aisha Almannai, who is the Dean of College of Sharia at Qatar University, raised a lot of questions. 

First of all, based on what Dr. Almannai said about women and men being equal in faith and religious accountability, what is the issue with women leading prayer or women giving the Friday sermon? 

Just a little bit of background, it is not typical for a woman to lead a coed prayer or Friday sermon. Among all women or family, yes, but otherwise, it’s very rare. Just as a note, this is traditionally the same case for all of the Abrahamic religions, but some newer interpretations are starting to state otherwise.

Amina Wadud, who I mentioned as an example, is a professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. She became controversial after leading a mixed-gender prayer and a Friday sermon in the U.S. I’ve read a couple of articles by Wadud and much of her rhetoric sounds very similar to Dr. Almannai’s in particular to women having equal faith. She even mentions the way that the Quran addresses both women and men as a way of emphasizing that equality--“Muslimeen wa Muslimaat.”

The answer that Dr. Almannai gave was that women and men differ (mainly biologically) and therefore they have different roles. It’s basically the “separate but equal” philosophy. Almannai asked, “Would you [women] accept carrying luggage or being the security guard in front of a building at night? No.” This is an example of the fact that it inevitable that women and men are sometimes meant for different roles, but ones that are not supposed to privilege one over the other. 

However, I did not find these examples particularly relevant to her argument. Prayer and sermon do not need the same male muscle mass required to carry luggage nor does the mosque contain the same hidden dangers as a dark alley.

Here’s a good argument: prayer is a time of deep commitment and concentration and if you are familiar with how Muslims pray, you’ll also know this one. A woman can’t lead because then she’ll have to be in the front and so not only is this distracting to whom she referred to as “sick-minded people” but it also protects her from being looked at the wrong way. 

During the prophet’s time, women and men prayed side by side—separated by a few feet so it limits any “distractions” from one’s immediate or peripheral vision.” Also, I found the story about the prophet shielding the man’s eyes away from the woman interesting. As I interpreted it, this puts a lot of emphasis on male modesty, responsibility and self-control. These are points that I really wanted to discuss with Dr. Almanni if there had been enough time. 

In terms of giving a sermon or Khutba, I didn’t have time for a follow-up question asking Dr. Almanni’s view on it. She mentioned how women are leading in education and are starting to take on more leadership roles in society. She, herself is the Dean of Sharia at Qatar University, which is obviously an extremely important position. Obviously, Dr. Almannai gives many talks and lectures about Islam and Islamic scholarship. So my question is how is the fact that she is giving those talks fundamentally different from giving a sermon, which is meant to educate a group of people about religion?

Dr. Almanni brings up a very good point; she said that no one can possibly understand everything since mankind’s understanding of religion and divine power is limited. However, I think that a deeper understanding would come about from the debates, discussions and questioning of different interpretations. Now, to be fair and to take away some of my own credibility, I have not done a deep analysis of the Quran nor am I qualified to be a scholar—like Dr. Almannai. My critique is only based on the arguments that were presented to me in this lecture and my own limited understanding. So feel free to criticize or comment.

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