Fadl, one of the world’s leading authorities on Islam and Islamic law writes about the conflation between ‘awrah (modesty) and fitnah (social ills). This is all contained within a book of 360 pages, footnoted and well-referenced. “Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women” One World Publications 2006.
He makes these claims:
1. The Quran does not use the word fitnah to refer to sexual arousal/seduction. It refers, instead, to non-sexual temptations such as material consumption (money) and a ripple of other social ills.
2. Early Islamic reports did not link the issue of the hijab to the problem of fitnah. The technical issue of the proper form of hijab is not directly related to the possibilities of fitnah, but to social status and physical safety. Interestingly, what becomes known in modern discourses as the hijab is discussed in classical juristic sources in the chapter on prayer.
3. Fadl invites us to ASK whether the problem of fitnah (fitnah determination) is an EMPIRICAL or DOCTRINAL issue. Meaning: is detriment of women’s immodesty to social ills determined by doctrine (Quran, Sunnah), or is it empirical, i.e. determined by people’s observation/experiment, and then read into the doctrine.
Fadl does not debate out the causal relation of whether ‘awrah leads to fitnah, in determining the extent to which women’s modesty should be regulated. He disregards this causal relationship on the basis of one over-arching principle, that is a core Shariah value.
There is a serious conceptual and moral difficulty with the idea of fitnah. The principle that no one can be called to answer for the sins of another is a core Shariah value. In Quranic discourses, one person or a set of people cannot be made to suffer because of the indicretions, sins, or faults of others – each individual is responsible and accountable only for his or her own behaviour. (Quran 6;164, 17;15, 35;18, 39;7, 53;58, 24;11)
In fact when addressing the issues of modesty, the Quran is quite careful to place the blame on those it labels the hypocrites, who harass or molest the innocent. (Quran 33;58-60). Reportedly these verses were revealed in response to several incidents in which the hypocrites of Medina harassed and molested Muslim women. (Tafsir al-Tabari, Kathir, al-Qurtubi al Jami, al Razi al-tafsir al Kabir)
The jurisprudence on women’s modesty thus runs the risk of violating (going against) the Quranic principle of self-responsibility/self-accountability for one’s own discretions, sins or faults.
He continues: Assuming that the reason we are confronted with a fitnah situation is because of men with an overactive libido (uncontrolled sexual drive) or who are impious (not religious) or ill-mannered (rude). Demanding that women should suffer exclusion or limitations would violate the principle that the innocent should not pay for the indiscretions of the culpable (the one to be blamed). From that perspective the whole logic between fitnah as seduction becomes quite suspect. Whether a person covers his or her awrah or not, he or she should not be made to suffer from the indiscretions (lacking in good judgement) or impiety (lack of respect for God) of others.
The laws and imperatives of modesty ought to be set by God and not by immoral individuals who are violating the law of God.
Fitnah determinations rely on the dubious logic that women should pay the price for the impious failures of men. Therefore, according to this logic, women’s education, mobility, safety, and even religious liberty should be restricted in order to avoid fitnah.
Under the guise of fitnah some women have been banned from serving in the military, working, driving, appearing in public life. Fadl asserts that this has resulted from the abusive treatment of the evidence (Sunnah), and an extreme lack of willingness to implement critical insight into evidence that could have dire consequences in perpetuating intolerable injustices against women.
The first point of inquiry : do fitnah determinations make an empirical or normative claim? Are these traditions saying that as an empirical matter, women will always have this affect on men? If the answer is yes, then the question is, what if the empirical reality contradicts the claim of the tradition (Sunnah)? In the science of hadith, any tradition that contravenes (goes against) human experience cannot be accepted as valid. So for instance, if a tradition says that the people of Yemen walk on 3 legs, since the tradition is empirically incorrect, it cannot be relied upon in legal determinations.
The Chapter is pretty long so I will put up his arguments in bullet points:
- There are many Hadith that objectifies women’s bodies as site of immodesty.
- Fadl’s claim is that we are unable to ascertain that the Prophet played the primary role in the authorial enterprise that generated these traditions. Since we are unable to ascertain this, considering the impact of these traditions, (and the higher values of social justice espoused in the Quran – see above), there is no possible justification for taking the tradition at their word.
- Difficult to reconcile the traditions of fitnah and women’s exclusion with the numerous reports about the active participation of women in public life during the life of the Prophet and after his death as well.
- Reports documenting incidents of women’s seclusion are few in comparison with those documenting the opposite.
- Reports of women’s public participation includes:
a) Prophet racing his wife in public
b) Aisha and other women watching sports in Medina
c) One of the widely reported incidents is one in which a group of women were meeting with the Prophet. Apparently their voices had become quite loud; when Umar entered upon the rowdy group, the Prophet laughed at how quickly everyone quieted down.
d) Women used to take Prophet by his hand, sit him down to discuss their problems.
e) The mosque of the Prophet was full of rows of women lining up for prayers. At times, men arriving late for prayer would pray behind women – men would be in the front rows followed by women, followed by rows of men who arrived late. Yet the prayers of the men who prayed behind the women were considered valid.
f) The Prophet wanted all women to join the community in Eid prayers and that he urged even menstruating women to listen to the sermon and join in the celebrations. Several reports stated that women attend iktikaf prayer with the Prophet in the mosque, and did so during menstruation.
- The overwhelming majority of the traditions of the fitnah genre do not purport to describe a historical practice. Rather they present declarations, aspirations, claims or normative prescriptions. Fadl introduces that many men (transmitters of the Hadith) were fueled by the laxity (not strict) of the Prophet’s dealings with women. Afraid that their women might argue against them (as many did), attributions to their womanhood and sexuality were made. If these traditions are to be believed, then there was an enormous disparity between the these declarations, and the actual historical practice of the Prophet in Medina.
- Umar for instance shares his worries to the Prophet. “One day I became mad with my wife and she started arguing with me. When I chided her for talking back, she said “Why do you hink I cannot argue with you! By God, the wives of the Prophet argue with him and one even abandoned him from morning until night.” I told her, “Whoever does this is truly shameless!” How do they know that God might not become angered because of the hurt caused to the Prophet, and then they would be truly ruined! In response to ‘Umar’s reports, the Prophet smiled!
- Some claim that all this took place before the imposition of the hijab. Fadl raises this: The hijab was introduced to the Prophet’s wives in the very last years before his death. Taking that the hijab extends to all other women and cancels out all other hadith on women’s active and public participation with men, then we end up with a peculiar result that most of the Islamic historical experiences becomes an utter nullity (becomes erased), as far as gender relations are concerned.