Jumu’ah: Claremont Main Road Masjid
29 March 2019
الْحَمْدُ لِلّهِ الَّذِي هَدَانَا لِهَـذَا وَمَا كُنَّا لِنَهْتَدِيَ لَوْلا أَنْ هَدَانَا اللّهُ
All praises due to Allah, who has guided us to this, and had it not been for the guidance of Allah we would not have been guided
All praises are due to Allah, the most High
The Lord of Mercy and the Lord of Justice
The Lord of the oppressed, the marginalised and the dispossessed
Our Lord who has promised liberation from all oppressive systems, and
Our Lord who has promised to annihilate oppressors and all forms and structures of oppression
The past year we’ve seen a necessary rupture in the NGO and social justice sector in South Africa. The rupture began with women in one organisation coming forward with their experiences of sexual harassment and assault by powerful men within that organisation. Women in other organisations, then, also came forward. It forced the sector into deep introspection. A few organisations within the sector began the process of dismantling uneven power dynamics internally. The realisation was that these institutions are microcosms of a society that constantly devalues women and where one in five women over the age of 18 has experienced physical violence at the hands of a male partner (Pather; 2018). The institutions that are meant to protect the oppressed, marginalised and dispossessed were the very institutions that allowed a culture that not only further oppressed and marginalised women but protected predatory men with power.
These men with power are employers who are relied on for financial stability. They are men with influence and networks who are relied on for access and social capital. They are men who are political and religious leaders, who are relied on for guidance and counsel.
Most recently, the male leader of a South African Palestine solidarity NGO – an organisation that is very familiar to Muslims – was accused by at least three women of indecent assault and sexual harassment. One of the women came forward fearing that the crude way in which she was harassed by him is a likely indicator of past and future harassment on his part. In a statement, she warned against the ostensible concern that coming forward will “hurt the Palestinian cause”. She urged that the principle of the “indivisibility of justice” prevail and that it is hypocritical to fight for justice for Palestine while exploiting women who are vital to that movement.
I believe that at this moment it is imperative that I, also, speak to another incident involving a prominent U.S based Muslim speaker – who is no stranger to South African Muslims – Nouman Ali Khan. About a year and a half ago, Khan was accused of having a history of using his religious and economic power to manipulate, spiritually abuse and seduce women, particularly young and economically and emotionally vulnerable women that have placed their trust in him as a religious leader, worked for him or sought his counsel. The validity of these accusations was upheld by community panels. There have been no real repercussions for Khan, who still enjoys a mass following, public platforms and still makes money of his continued religious authority. The women, on the other hand, received harsh backlash after coming forward and are still overcoming trauma. Of great concern is that this year, Khan has been invited to Cape Town as Ramadhan guest speaker. I do not believe that the invite was sent out in ignorance of Khan’s injustices towards women, but I believe that the invite was sent out in spite of this. This is a crude illustration of the way that, as South African Muslim men, we continue to protect other abusive men in power at the expense of vulnerable women, while hiding behind religious rhetoric.
This despite the injunction of the Qur’an:
2:42: “Do not cover truth with falsehood, nor conceal the truth when you know what it is.”
It seems that we are too comfortable with concealing the truth when that truth is inconvenient and when it is an indictment of those we like or respect – irrespective of their immoralities and abuses.
The rupture in the South African social justice sector; this moment of crisis, introspection and pursuit of a systematic change is also critical for South African Muslim communities and institutions. As a matter of urgency, we need to bring about our own rupture. We know too well that our communities are plagued by gender-based violence and widespread abuses of women’s rights. We know too well that amongst us are men who abuse their wives and are religious leaders who have histories of exploiting women. We know too well that in some of our communities women are even denied access to our sacred spaces because the ‘ibadah of men is more important than that of women.
These ills don’t exist in a vacuum. They are founded in an interpretation of Islam that believes that the desires of men are more important than the needs, rights and freedoms of women. They are also based on the authority of the religious leadership in this country that is deeply flawed and continues to perpetuate this interpretation.
To illustrate the urgency of a rupture, I will tell the real stories of two women.
Fatima (not her real name) lives in Johannesburg. She recently escaped a marriage of over five years to a man that constantly abused her emotionally and economically. After almost three years of abuse, she gathered enough courage to pursue recourse. She approached an established Ulema body, as the tradition demands, in Johannesburg which showed her no support and gave her the run around for almost a year. In their first meeting, they insisted that she go back to her husband and make amends. When this failed, they approached the husband who denied any allegations of abuse or turmoil within the marriage. This was accepted as absolute truth, they remained married and the abuse continued. After some counsel, she approached a small fringe Ulema body in Cape Town – who showed her support and after about a year provided her with a divorce. The husband then approached an established Ulema body in Cape Town who, noting male rationality, administered a fatwa stating that the divorce is void and the marriage is still intact. And the abuse continued. Eventually, after five years of abuse and two years of trying to escape the abuse, she took an “audacious” decision that she is divorced and is comforted by the reality that Allah is Just and Merciful.
Ayesha (not her real name) lives in Cape Town. She’s married for 15 years and was physically abused on a regular basis by her husband for 12 years. She eventually garnered the courage to seek recourse. She, independently, approached an Ulema body in Cape Town to seek counsel. They insisted that the husband grant permission in order for the separation to take place. The husband, obviously, denied all allegations. She was told to go back to her abusive husband and “have sabr (patience)”. Ayesha is still married to her abuser.
Let’s be clear: the pervasive issue of Muslim women being trapped in abusive relationships, in favour of abusive men, is not only objectively unjust but is not even founded in the classical Fiqh that is espoused by these Ulema bodies.
These are by no means isolated incidents, and this type of “Islamic patriarchy” is reproduced in numerous forms in Muslim life. Islamic patriarchy ensures that women are exploited and discriminated against both in the private and public domains. The notion of men as superior and as more valuable permeates our community’s culture in many other ways.
Islamic patriarchy regards men as being naturally gifted with special attributes (Shaikh; 2007). Men are (Dadi Patel; 2018) resistant and rational, therefore morally and intellectually superior to women. Women, on the other hand, are mere temptresses – meant to serve men’s desires and be confined to the home.
Therefore, let’s be honest, our tradition does not treat men and women equally. The assumption at the root of this unequal treatment is that men are, and should be, in charge of women (Mir-Hosseini, 2015). The fundamental idea is that men are strong, they protect and provide; women are weak, they obey and must be protected. But even the terminology – “in charge of” – suggests that women are not only weak; they are, in fact, infantile, like children. They cannot be in charge of themselves, so men have to be in charge of them.
This, surely, is inconsistent with an Islam whose overriding imperative is Justice and which regards all human beings as equal in the sight of Allah.
The Indivisibility of Justice
8th-century Islamic jurist, Ibn Al-Qayyim, may Allah have mercy on him, said: Verily, the Sharia is founded upon wisdom and welfare for the servants in this life and the afterlife. In its entirety, it is justice, mercy, benefit and wisdom. Every matter which abandons justice for tyranny, mercy for cruelty, a benefit for corruption and wisdom for foolishness is not part of the Sharia even if it was introduced therein by an interpretation.”
Ibn Qayyim further states: “Allah the Exalted has made clear in His shari’ah that its objective is the establishment of justice between His servants and fairness among the people, so whichever path leads to justice and fairness is part of the deen and can never oppose it.”
Justice, therefore, is fundamental to Islamic law and how we determine social relations. It is also the overriding imperative provided to us by Allah in the Qur’an and by the Prophet (SAW) in his Sunnah. In Surah 4, verse 135, Allah, the Most High proclaims:
“O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, as witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or your parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you swerve from being just.”
Allah commands us not only to pursue justice but to audaciously and uncompromisingly defend justice – even in the face of huge sacrifice. Audacity and the Indivisibility of Justice is pleasing to Allah.
Our current understanding of Islam seems not to centre justice, but, even, precludes it. It is an Islam that serves the interests of the powerful, rather than the powerless. If justice is the Shariah – as Ibn Qayyim insists – then shouldn’t it be the guiding principle for the Fiqh, as well? Shouldn’t our Islam serve the powerless rather than the powerful? Isn’t our imperative, then, to protect the oppressed, marginalised, dispossessed and vulnerable?
Ibn Qayyim argues that the foundation of the Fiqh asks: “What is in the best interest of justice?”.
So, what is in the best interest of justice?
- Abusive and predatory men should be exposed and dealt with.
- Women should be empowered to access their Islamic right to separate from a marital relationship – regardless of their reasons.
- As a matter of principle, abusive and predatory men should not be given any platforms in Islamic institutions. This includes speaking on Jumuah platforms and at Ramadhan events.
- Our approach to investigating and exposing sexual assault and harassment should centre the needs and vulnerabilities of women, rather than the reputations of men and their institutions.
- Women should have full and equal access to sacred spaces and platforms of authority.
Rethinking the Fiqh
To achieve this, we need to pursue a radical rethinking of the Fiqh. Towards a Fiqh that centres women and other marginalised groups rather than a Fiqh that centres those that hold power, that centres men.
The idea of a radical rethinking of the Fiqh and the contextualisation of the Shariah is not a new phenomenon, but it is embedded in the juristic process. Radical rethinking took place immediately after the death of the Prophet (SAW), even before Fiqh as we know it existed. Take, for example, when Umar (RA) was caliph: In a period of famine, he suspended the punishment of amputation of the hand for theft – even though it is an explicit Qur’anic verse.
A radical rethinking of the Fiqh, now, must be in the interests of justice as we understand and experience it today.
Earlier in this talk I called for a rupture. What we urgently need is a rupture of a fiqh that’s deeply rooted in patriarchal norms. We need to engage in a robust and radical rethinking of the fiqh of marriage and the fiqh of gender-power-dynamics. We need to undo our misogynistic attitudes towards female sexuality and women’s bodies. We, also, need to uncompromisingly root out elements of misogyny in our communities.
This process is not going to be led by the established Ulama bodies which continue to perpetuate Islamic patriarchy. Our history here demonstrates that this type of progression will be led by youth movements, by women’s groups, by Muslim activists, by individual progressive ulama and scholars and by groups on the margins. The established bodies may follow, with pressure. It is a big and long term project. But it has to begin by us forcefully expressing our intolerance of those in our community, who are guilty of these abuses, and to more carefully listen and support those who are vulnerable.
We have a lot of work to do.
I will end by praying that Allah, the Most High, guides us towards a Just and Equal society.