It is widely accepted that the Prophet Mohammed (SAW) transformed Arabian society enriching, “inter alia”, its moral, judicial, spiritual and political dimensions. What often seems to be less appreciated is that these monumental transformations took place in only 23 years.
Given this minuscule span of time, much of what we know of as Islam today has been influenced by historical developments long after the death of the Prophet. Islamic history has influenced Islam itself. This is an obvious point but profound in its implications.
In contrast to what many Islamists would have us believe, history is replete with examples of Muslim women in leadership roles outside the domestic sphere. Consider the following:The Prophet’s first wife, Khadija (RA) was a successful businesswoman. Bibi Aisha accompanied the Prophet on several military expeditions and even led the Battle of the Camel. Al-Shifa bint Abdullah was deputed by Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab to be market inspector and manager. Amra bint Abdurrahman was one of the greatest scholars among the second generation of early Muslims. Aisha bint Sa’d ibn abi-Waqqas was a jurist and scholar. She also taught the famous Muslim man jurist Imam Malik, the founderof the Maliki juristic school. Umm Salama was the Prophet’s political counsel. Nusaybah bint Ka’ab (also Umm Ammarah) shielded the Prophet from the arrows of the enemy, and received several wounds during the Battle of Uhud. Sayyida Nafisa, the Prophet’s great granddaughter was a teacher of Islamic jurisprudence. She taught and financially supported Imam Shafi’i, another great founder of the Shafi’i school of law. Shuhadah bint Ahmad al-Ibrii studied in Baghdad with leading scholars to become herself a great scholar of hadith and jurist. She was known as “the pride of women.”
While the spiritual and moral underpinnings of Islam have remained constant, the application, interpretation and practice of these fundamental tenets has in practice varied through time and context, even during the Prophet’s lifetime.
The Quran is rich with examples of context-specific application of religious tenets. It can seem contradictory needs the context of its revelation to be taken into cognisance, in order to be properly understood.
In fact, because any Quranic verse, when taken out of context, could be misapplied or misunderstood, a science known as “Asbāb al-nuzūl” (circumstances of revelation) was developed to enable interpreters to better determine their meaning, by understanding the specific conditions and reasons related to any particular verse.
After the death of the Prophet, given that the Quran was revealed in only 23 years, there was a great flurry of intellectual activity targeted at trying to better comprehend Islam. More than 300 schools of thought emerged with arguably the Mu’tazilite and Ash’arite schools at two ends of a very broad spectrum.
For its first five hundred years or so, Islamic thought was fundamentally democratic, diverse, and stimulating – a stark and tragic contrast to how the religion is often preached today.
Intolerance towards diversity of thought, which began during the latter part of the Abbasid dynasty, thrives today under the various banners of political Islam. Advocates of political Islam impose their prejudices upon society in the name of God, conveniently forgetting that throughout much of its history, debate, enquiry and diversity of interpretation and opinion had been celebrated in Islam.
Thus, when the leadership of Hefazat-e Islam attempts to relegate and confine women to the seraglio, they display not only a pathological mindset, but also a pathetic ignorance of the role of women in the enrichment and spread of Islam.
No doubt, there are verses in the Quran which seem to suggest that women should engage in professions of a more nurturing kind. However, the above examples demonstrate the danger of cherry-picking verses to draw such a sweeping conclusion, without appreciating the context of revelation and Islamic history.
Revelation is of course timeless, but its application to our daily lives must be dependent on time and context, if religion is to remain a dynamic and relevant influence in our lives.