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November 2005
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Women in Islam

Can A Woman Be A Leader Of Muslims?
By Fatima Mernissi


Not only have the sacred texts always been manipulated, but manipulation of them is a structural characteristic of the practice of power in Muslim societies.


“Can a woman be a leader of Muslims?” I asked my grocer, who, like most grocers in Morocco, is a true “barometer” of public opinion.


“I take refuge in Allah!” he exclaimed, shocked, despite the friendly relations between us. Aghast at the idea, he almost dropped the half-dozen eggs I had come to buy.


“May God protect us from the catastrophies of the times!” mumbled a customer who was buying olives, as he made as if to spit. My grocer is a fanatic about cleanliness, and not even denouncing a heresy justifies dirtying the floor in his view.


A second customer, a school teacher whom I vaguely knew from the newsstand, stood slowly caressing his wet mint leaves, and then hit me with a Hadith that he knew would be fatal: “Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity!” Silence fell on the scene. There was nothing I could say. In a Muslim theocracy, a Hadith (tradition) is no small matter. The Hadith collections are works that record in minute detail what the Prophet (Pbuh) said and did. They constitute, along with the Quran both the source of law and the standard for distinguishing the true from the false, the permitted from the forbidden - they have shaped Muslim ethics and values.


I discreetly left the grocery store without another word. What could I have said to counter-balance the force of that political aphorism, which is as implacable as it is popular?


Silenced, defeated, and furious, I suddenly felt the urgent need to inform myself about this Hadith and to search out the texts where it is mentioned, to understand better its extraordinary power over the ordinary citizens of a modern state.


Going through the religious literature is no small task. First of all, one is overwhelmed by the number of volumes, and one immediately understands why the average Muslim can never know as much as an imam. Al-Bukhari’s prestigious collection of traditions, Al-Sahih (The Authentic), is in four volumes with commentary by an al-Sindi who is extremely sparing with his comments. Now, without a very good commentary a non-expert will have difficulty reading a religious text of the ninth century (al-Bukhari was born in 256 of the Muslim calendar, which begins in AD 622). This is because, for each Hadith, it is necessary to check the identity of the Companion of the Prophet (Pbuh) who uttered it, and in what circumstances and with what objective in mind, as well as the chain of people who passed it along - and there are more fraudulent traditions than authentic ones. For each Hadith, al-Bukhari gives the results of his investigation. If he speaks of X or Y, you have to check which Companion is being referred to, what battle is being discussed, in order to make sense of the dialogue or scene that is being transcribed. In addition, al-Bukhari does not use just one informant; there are dozens of them in the dozens of volumes. You must be careful not to go astray. The smallest mistake about the informant can cost you months of work.


What is the best way of making this check? First of all, you should make contact with the experts in religious science (al-fiqh) in your city. According to moral teaching and the traditional conventions, if you contact a faqih for information about the sources of a Hadith or a Quranic verse, he must assist you. Knowledge is to be shared, according to the promise of the Prophet (Pbuh) himself. Fath al-Bari by al-’Asqalani (he died in year 852 of the Hejira) was recommended to me by several people I consulted. It consists of 17 volumes that one can consult in libraries during their opening hours. But the vastness of the task and the rather limited reading time is enough to discourage most researchers.


The school teacher in the grocery store was right: the Hadith “those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity” was there in al-’Asqalani’s thirteenth volume, where he quotes al-Bukhari’s Sahih, that is, those traditions that al-Bukhari classified as authentic after a rigorous process of selection, verifications, and counter-verifications. Al-Bukhari’s work has been one of the most highly respected references for 12 centuries. This Hadith is the sledgehammer argument used by, those who want to exclude women from politics. One also finds it in the work of other authorities known for their scholarly rigor, such as Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, the author of the Mustiad and founder of the Hanbali Madhhab, one of the four great schools of jurisprudence of the Sunni Muslim world.


Al-Afghani used the works of the great names of Muslim religious history, especially al-Tabari, one of the most unassailable monuments of that literature - “that author who enjoys an unparalleled reputation among historians ... an author of unquestionable probity and honesty, a major model for all those who followed him as historians.” The 13 volumes of al-Tabari’s Tarikh (History) are truly a marvellous source of reference and a dazzling panorama for all who want to learn about the first days of Islam.


1 read al-Tabari and the other writers, especially Ibn Hisham, author of the Sira (biography of the Prophet); Ibn Sa’d, author of Al-Tabaqat al-kubra (a biographical collection); al-’Asqalani, author of Al-haba (biographies of the Companions of the Prophet); and the Hadith collections of al-Bukhari and al-Nasi’i. All of this, in order to understand and clarify the mystery of that misogyny that Muslim women have to confront even in the 1990s.


The Muslim Prophet (Pbuh) is one of the best-known historical personages of our history. We have an enormous amount of information about him. We have details about the way he led expeditions, but also a myriad of descriptions about his private life: how he behaved with his wives, his domestic quarrels, his food preferences, what made him laugh, what irritated him, etc. It, is impossible to distort his personality in a Muslim country, where, religious education begins in pre-school. Nevertheless, a Muslim expert has been able to say that the Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) excluded women from public life and relegated them to the household. But to do this, he had to do outrageous violence to Muhammad as a historical person about whom we have good documentation. The question then becomes: To what extent can one do violence to the sacred texts?


Not only have the sacred texts always been manipulated, but manipulation of them is a structural characteristic of the practice of power in Muslim societies. Since all power, from the seventh century on, was only legitimated by religion, political forces and economic interests pushed for the fabrication of false traditions.


(To be continued)

(The writer is Professor of Sociology at the University of Rabat, Morocco and the author of Beyond the Veil and Women in Muslim Paradise).