Friday, 2 April 2004

Misrepresenting Islam on Air

Since I originally posted this in 2004, my views on hijab have shifted - namely, that I do not consider it proper to impose any dress code on anyone else, regardless of what anyone's opinions are on the view of Islam and clothing.

This is a revision of what I sent to Border Crossing's email address, Border Crossings is a public Affairs programme that airs on KPFT 90.1 FM Houston/89.5 FM Galveston every other Thursday.

On 11 March 2004, some South Asian women activists who were guests on Border Crossings discussed women's rights in Pakistan and neighbouring regions. Through the natural course of the discussion, the topic of how women are treated by Islam and by Muslims came up. Several things about the nature of the programme disturbed me. First and foremost was the nearly monolithic nature of the views of the guests on the show. No female activists were included whose opinions on the topic differed with those of the guests. Neither were phone calls taken so that affirming and dissenting opinions could be gathered from the listening audience, even though at least one Muslim attempted to call in to express her outrage at the way in which Islam was being mal-portrayed on the show.

More disturbing, however, were the vilification of Islam and the distortions of the religion that took place when the guests presented their opinions on Islam. The several verses of the Qur'an which either treat women equally or even give them a special status to women were ignored, as were ahadith that accomplish the same. The fact that there have been several female Muslim scholars throughout the ages, from the very daughter or Prophet Muhammad during the earliest days of Islam to Aminah as-Sadr (the one who was murdered by Saddam, aka "Bint al Huda") in recent years to such up-and-coming modern giants as Shaykha Aisha Bewley, was completely ignored.

The famous (and overused!) myth of the two witnesses was dredged up once again without any effort to offer the explanations of the principle by Muslim scholars. In addition, the fact that the Qur'an does not specify the amount of female witnesses in many other verses was misused to rationalise the disposal of that rule by way of classifying it as an exemption to the rule. However, the fact is that the principle of the application of the Qur'an in Islamic Law is that such a singular reference is thereafter treated as a general rule which defines proceeding otherwise indefinite references. Furthermore, the introduction of another number and means of witnessing in the altogether different situation of adultery stands as witness that heretofore a general principle had been in application, contrary to the opinion of the guests on the show. Lastly, when the example of the witness for adultery was brought up as a way of introducing the idea that one woman could testify in court, the guests failed to realise that the same could be true of a man whose wife has accused him of adultery.

In their ignorance of the complexities of the Islamic Sciences and Islamic Law, and spurred on by modernist and anti-Islamic definitions of what constitutes gender equality, the guests on the show attempted to rip Islam apart by attacking its sources. For example, the excuse that many scholars have been men was used as a way to dismiss centuries of Qur'anic commentary, even where the work of female scholars has agreed with that of male scholars. The fact that the methods used by Islamic scholars in interpreting the Qur'an and ahadith and applying the Qur'an, Prophetic Sunnah, Scholarly Consensus, and Logical Analysis to formulate Islamic Law were actually set out by Prophet Muhammad, his family (including the women), and his pious companions (including, again, the women). In fact, the Qur'an and the Shari`ah were treated as completely separate concepts, when the truth is that the Qur'an is one of the four major sources of Islamic Law as listed above.

Even the hijab suffered when the concept of the khimar in 24:31 was dropped to the shoulders and chest and labelled an "unwarranted innovation", in complete ignorance of the wealth of ahadith and scholarly commentary that exist on the topic of the headscarf from the very days of Prophet Muhammad. Among these are the hadith of the likeness of crows atop the women's heads, the hadith of the hands and face, the hadith of covering in front of the blind man, the hadith of remaining unseen by non-related men, and the hadith of women's prayer. Of course, the fact that most of these ahadith were related by the daughter and wives of Prophet Muhammad were also ignored. Incidentally, the last-mentioned hadith, the hadith of women's prayer, states that a woman's salah is invalid without a khimar. No Muslim woman, even today, dares to say that a Muslim woman can pray with a bare head. Obviously, the word khimar has never referred to a chest covering, or women all over the world would be praying with naked heads and cloths draped over their shoulders. The fact that so many women feel liberated under the hijab from what we see as the oppression of make-up and nakedness was mentioned, but no more than 30 seconds was devoted to that topic before the attacks on the hijab began.

The next time that Islam is covered on Border Crossings, I hope to hear the viewpoints of some qualified scholars of Islam discussed on the show - either by such scholars themselves, people who espouse their views, or at least by the guests who wish to challenge those views. Unlike clear-cut cases such as my neighbour who verbally abuses and beats up his wife and then mistakenly tries to base his abuse on Pakistani culture, Islam has various scholarly and more than a few unscholarly interpretations that can be discussed well enough by people whose opinions may not coincide.

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