“Seeking knowledge”: a cure for patriarchal abuses?

In my experience, yet another important way that the blame for some men’s failures to fulfill their “responsibility” to provide for and protect women is often shifted onto women is through the imperative that all adult, sane Muslims “seek knowledge.”

That is, when a Muslim woman ends up being poorly treated or abused by a Muslim man who is supposed to be providing for and protecting her—whether this be her husband, her father, or any other close male relative—or by a Muslim man in a position of power or authority, such as an imam, shaykh, or community leader, then the main person at fault is supposedly… her.

If you don’t “seek knowledge from cradle to grave,” Sister, then of course you won’t know what Islam Really Teaches…. Yes, this is a madrasah for boys, true. But there are so many opportunities for sisters to learn all about their Islamic duties and rights. For instance, you should ask your husband to teach you….

Because, if she had only done her Islamic duty and sought knowledge, then she would have known that the way this man was behaving is haraam, or that his interpretation of Islam is wrong. She would then have been able to protect herself from ill-treatment or abuse by her knowledge. But, because she was somehow remiss in seeking knowledge, and therefore did not know what True Islam (TM) teaches, she ended up in this tragic situation.

From time to time, I get comments to this effect: How sad that I and my convert friends were treated so badly. But then, this is because we didn’t know what True Islam is.

I recognize this rhetorical move quite well, because I used to do it. As far as I was concerned, any kind of abuse done by Muslims—even if they were justifying their actions with the Qur’an, the hadith, Islamic law, the ruling of a recognized scholar, ijma’—couldn’t possibly be anything to do with True Islam. There must have been some sort of misinterpretation somewhere. Or, the abusers were just cynically using Islam as a justification, but they didn’t really, honestly believe that their behavior is Islamic. And so on. This rhetorical move is a faith-saving device, essentially. Motivated by the concern with husn al-dhun (“thinking well”—of God, of his Prophet, of the scholars, of other believers…), as well as a wish to avoid having to deal with some really difficult issues.

But anyway. Leaving issues of faith-saving moves aside (as well as the question of what True Islam (TM) might be, and who gets to define it), there are a number of underlying assumptions in this all-too-common claim. That women have access to learning, for one.  Muslim women in North America don’t have anything like the access to advanced Islamic learning that men do. Nahida recently discussed this topic here.

Back in the early ’80’s, it was much worse. Recently, I tripped across a highly laudatory post about Hamza Yusuf’s life, with a detailed discussion of his travels in search of learning, and his teachers. Reading about how when he was in London, as a recent convert who only knew a few words in Arabic, he was introduced to an Arab scholar who immediately saw his eagerness to learn and made it possible for him to study in the Gulf, moved me to tears. Because that was absolutely not the response that I as a woman received from an Arab scholar that I encountered in London, back when I was a new convert. I wanted to ask a few fiqh questions. Not just “is this halaal or haraam”-type questions, but I wanted to know how the result of these particular rulings in the madhhab that I was trying to follow had been arrived at.

I was very polite and deferential to him. I was wearing conservative hijab. I had my husband with me, who I had dragooned into playing translator.

That scholar wasn’t very enthused about answering my questions, clearly. He appeared to find the whole scenario rather ridiculous. Why was this western woman, who didn’t even know Arabic, worried about the details of fiqh?? He excused himself as soon as possible. He certainly didn’t encourage me to study, or suggest ways for me to seek knowledge, much less facilitate my traveling to the Arab world to do so!

Years later, I would find out that many scholars take pains to avoid dealings with women (including would-be female students) as much as possible, in order to ensure that in future, no man who wants to undermine them will be able to imply that perhaps he did or said something untoward. Refusing to take or deal with female students was a shield against attempts to tarnish one’s reputation. And (I have been told) male scholars who seem to be too interested in teaching females or in addressing issues of interest to women in much detail could leave themselves open to the charge that they are somewhat liberal (which is not a good thing, in those circles).

Back in the ’80’s, promising North American male converts were being given scholarships to study at places like the University of Medina (by the Saudis), or in Qom (by the Iranians). Sometimes, philanthropists might help them study elsewhere, or folks with connections might assist them in finding a school or a teacher who would be willing to instruct them. But there was nothing like that for female converts.

Even in North America, there were few opportunities for women to learn in the communities I lived in or had dealings with. Most halaqas were for men, and they didn’t usually allow women to attend. Forget about halaqas, I couldn’t usually even learn much from the Friday khutba—I was stuck with the other women, seated at the back, or on the mosque balcony, or in the basement, where we couldn’t hear properly.

I could write an entire post about how difficult it was to learn anything beyond the absolute basics of Islam back then, and how it was an uphill struggle all the way. While a couple of men did at various times take pity on me and try to make the process a little more possible, they were exceptions. The rule was that women had limited access (unless they were lucky enough to have been born into, or to have married into, the family of an imam or a scholar), and any woman who was trying to actively seek knowledge was suspect. She was probably a feminist. She certainly didn’t know her Proper Place as a modest wife and mother, and she had her priorities upside down.

But there’s another, even more central issue here: Even supposing that we had had equal access to knowledge that certain male converts had, would it have made a difference??

Of course, we used to fervently believe that knowledge would make all the difference. My best friend and I pushed our daughters into learning as much Qur’an as possible. We wanted them to become hafizas, as the first step to becoming Islamic scholars. We wanted to send them abroad to study. We were sure that as Muslim women in North America gained more access to knowledge, that this would bring about so many changes for the better. Among other things, women would be equipped with True Islamic Knowledge, so that they could teach other women all about their god-given rights and status. Surely (we thought) female scholars would uncover interpretations that would oppose all kinds of abuse of wives, and that would uphold women’s dignity.

Well, our daughters didn’t go along with our wishes for them, for a lot of complicated reasons. But even if they had… what would have been the result?

Reading the archives at Sunnipath, it doesn’t look as though female scholars answering fiqh questions come up with significantly less chauvinistic answers than the male scholars on that site do.

For instance, a questioner asks if it is true that women are encouraged to pray at home rather than in the mosque because praying at home will better protect their modesty, and help guard against the temptation to adorn themselves when they go out. The ustadha’s response is that this is correct, with the usual apologetic rationales, plus the comment that women can attend the mosque in order to learn. Another questioner wants to know if a woman can travel within her own city without a mahram accompanying her; the ustadha’s answer is that yes she can, if she has her husband’s permission—because a husband can prohibit his wife from leaving the house. Nothing that one wouldn’t see from a male neo-traditional scholar, in other words: Women, when it comes right down to it, don’t have the same degree of access to public space (or even to sacred space) as men. And men’s sexual rights over their wives extend to being able to forbid their wives from leaving the house. The ustadha conveys these ideas in nicer, more sympathetic wording than a male scholar sometimes might, but with the same basic content.

Why? I don’t know her. I expect that she honestly has the best interests of her female questioners in mind, and believes that she is benefiting them with her knowledge. But, in order to become a scholar, and to be recognized as having authority to teach by your fellow Muslim scholars, you have to buy in to the larger assumptions upon which fiqh is built. Buying into these assumptions is the basis of learning fiqh. And these assumptions definitely include the idea that men are in charge, and therefore have certain rights over women, who were created as subsidiary to men. The texts are interpreted through the lens of such assumptions. These assumptions undergird not just rulings governing husbands and wives (who in North America at least can often be assumed to be consenting adults), but relations between fathers and daughters.

The “tunnel vision” that neo-traditional learning can create with its guiding assumptions is sadly evident in the ustadha’s response to a question asked by a seventeen-year-old girl, who writes that her parents wanted her to become engaged four years previously (i.e. when she was thirteen), and she did so, in order to please them. Now, she is in love with a boy her age, and although she has tried to break off the relationship with that boy, she feels unable to do so. Her parents would not agree to her breaking the engagement and marrying this boy. She can’t stop “sinning” by hanging out with this boy. What should she do?

The ustadha tells her that she must break off the relationship with the boy, because even if she were not engaged, the relationship would still be “illicit.” Second, she needs to seriously consider whether or not she still wants to marry her fiance, and pray the guidance (istikhara) prayer about it.

While the ustadha’s answer shows some compassion for the questioner—“you’ve been engaged since the tender age of 13… Perhaps you need to give yourself time to grow spiritually and emotionally”—she doesn’t condemn the parents for pushing her into an engagement at such an age.

Some Muslim parents in North America do railroad their daughters into getting engaged in their early teens, with the idea of preventing them from dating, or choosing a spouse on their own, because they will feel that they have a mate already (and they will feel guilty for “cheating on” said mate). One could say that in some circumstances, it might make some girls feel happier and more secure, because they don’t have to worry about finding someone to marry. However, when guilt is used in order to manipulate a girl into thinking that she has to go along with an arrangement that her parents talked her into when she was only thirteen, then it should be recognized as abusive.

One might well ask how anyone could think that the girl should be held morally accountable for such an agreement (which she doesn’t seem to have fully consented to, and now apparently doesn’t want), and why the ustadha wouldn’t have begun by reassuring her that she isn’t “sinning” by being you know, human enough to be attracted to someone at the ripe old age of seventeen. Or why she doesn’t condemn the parents for manipulating their daughter like that. But the ustadha is locked into the fiqhi paradigm, according to which a girl is mature (and thus morally responsible for her deeds) when she reaches puberty. And dating, even if no physical relationship is involved, is classified as illicit.

According to traditional fiqh, the parents did nothing wrong here. At most, it could be said that perhaps they didn’t act wisely, given that this is North America, but it could also be argued that they did their duty, trying to save their daughter from the temptation to fornicate.

According to traditional fiqh, even minors can be married if their guardians wish it, and the marriage contract in such a case is valid.  Therefore, the age of the girl (13) at the time of the engagement is irrelevant, no matter how emotionally and socially immature she is. Also, she apparently consented. Traditional fiqhi texts are not all that interested the nuances of whether or not a girl or woman “consents.” A never-before-married girl who has reached puberty’s “consent” to her marriage is established by her silence—meaning, if she does not speak up, she is assumed to have consented, and later objections don’t demonstrate that she didn’t in fact consent.

Moreover, it is the man who controls the marriage tie, not the woman, so if by “engagement” what the questioner means is that she is formally married, but the celebration and consummation haven’t happened yet, she can’t simply walk out of the marriage on her own initiative because she now has cold feet; either the husband has to agree to divorce her, or she has to get a divorce through a judge (in North America, an imam or a Muslim scholar).

In such a paradigm, there is little room for recognizing the abusive nature of this girl’s situation. The ustadha likely gave the most compassionate answer that she felt she could, while still remaining within the boundaries of traditional fiqh.

I must say that in a sense, I am relieved that none of our daughters did agree to go along with our ambitions for them to “seek knowledge” and become scholars. How would I feel today if a daughter of mine were delivering such rulings? Even if she were framing them in the kindest language possible?

Anyway. These kinds of rulings make it clear that by itself, “seeking knowledge” of “True Islam” is no simple answer to the abuses that Muslim women face, whether in marriage, or anywhere else.

The claim that it is somehow the fault of abused women for not “seeking knowledge” should be recognized for what it is: yet another attempt to shift the responsibility for oppression from the perpetrators, onto the victims.

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  1. #1 by Saliha on July 9, 2012 - 2:16 am

    You touched a lot of my tender spots in this one. I still have a lot of hurt and anger over the way I was treated as a young woman seeking knowledge compared to the young men I knew.

    The few young women I’ve known who’ve been able to access “knowledge,” even those who’ve spent years in the seminary are brain-washed into believing that their job is only to teach “sisters” and then only the most rudimentary aspects of the faith in a very hierarchical Q&A style. I’m so sick of being treated like an idiot. Real teaching that’s accessible to your average believer, the kind of teaching that requires critical thinking is almost nill. And I’ve only met one person, one in all my years, who had traditional training and was willing to open a window in the factory and really discuss how fatwa sausage is made. That’s because the process and results far less certain than the True Guardians of “True Islam” would have us poor, ignorant commoners believe.

    Yeah, tender spots…

  2. #2 by Saliha on July 9, 2012 - 2:25 am

    Oh, that’s the other thing, the LIES. I don’t know about you, but I remember very clearly being told VERY OFTEN that there is NO forced marriage in Islam. If the woman doesn’t consent explicitly, even enthusiastically, then the marriage isn’t valid.

    This is a lie. lie lie lie lie lie, just one of many outright lies that are intentionally floated amongst common believers to keep them in check. I don’t blame average people for repeating the lies, because they believe them to be true, but I have great contempt for the imams/shuyookh/ulema etc. who intentionally deceive people in order to propagate the faith.

    Fuqaha have made a broad path available for fathers to marry off even their infant children and for that contract to be considered binding. Theoretically a girl could petition for divorce, practically the obstacles in many families and cultures are so huge as to make the option non-existent.

    • #3 by xcwn on July 9, 2012 - 2:55 am

      Yes, the lies. This is one of the reasons why women who end up managing to “seek knowledge” don’t end up challenging the paradigms they are taught, I think. I mean, when faced with the realization that you have been lied to, what do you do? Especially when these lies have been told in the name of God? You can turn on the liars, declare them hypocrites, and dump their whole world-view, but this is not the route that most devoutly religious women will take. It is easier and much less disillusioning in such circumstances to buy into the liars’ worldview. To decide that such lies are just harmless fibs told to protect the faith of the ignorant commoners, so there is really nothing wrong with them. To decide, along with the liars, that maintaining the patriarchal social order is the most important thing, and that religion depends on it. And to get busy doing just that.

  3. #4 by xcwn on July 9, 2012 - 2:46 am

    Saliha—Thank you for your comment. I remember we Sunnis used to envy the Shia sisters’ comparatively better access to knowledge. Some Shia sisters did manage to study in Iran way before the Sunni neo-traditionalists in North America began to actively provide more access to study for women. But still. They are trained to use their knowledge so that it doesn’t pose any interpretive challenge to the patriarchal power of the male scholars. And male scholars themselves don’t often want to risk undermining their own power by giving the rest of us insight into how “fatwa sausage” is made… I love that sausage analogy; it works on more levels than one, lol. 🙂

  4. #5 by Saliha on July 9, 2012 - 3:21 am

    Yeah, I’m kinda right there as the (formerly?) conservative woman trying to work her way through the lies and figure out how to make this all work in a way that honors reason as well as the reasons I became a Muslim in the first place. There’s some heresy involved, Allah (swt) knows how it will all turn out in the end.

    • #6 by xcwn on July 9, 2012 - 7:15 pm

      It’s really hard (and heart-breaking) to sort through all the lies. Partly because it involves dealing with feeling of having been betrayed.

  5. #7 by x_x on July 9, 2012 - 6:24 pm

    This is a brilliant post (as is the whole blog). While I was in Morocco, I was told that the traditional schools of education, such as the famous Qarawayyin Mosque University, were open to women. But then I found out that the entrance requirements for women are nearly doubly as hard. I asked why. Well don’t you know that women would simply attend to find husbands! Women are permitted to study in the associated colleges, but not in the Alimiyya program which produces scholars of great authority.

    • #8 by xcwn on July 9, 2012 - 7:21 pm

      x_x : Thank you for your kind words.
      Goodness, I didn’t realize that about Qarawiyyin. Doubly as hard entrance requirements? When most women anyway have to deal with so many more obstacles to reaching the point of applying than men do?! Talk about a kick in the teeth. They not only want to make it almost impossible for women to reach a scholarly level that men might have to pay attention to what they (women) say, but they want to be sure that women get the message that their “proper place” isn’t in places like Qarawiyyin. Just a few highly exceptional women can get in–and the exception only proves the (patriarchal) rule.

  6. #9 by Saliha on July 10, 2012 - 12:54 am

    I just read an altmuslima article the other day that states Qarawayyin was actually founded by women! “…the Tunisian sisters Fatima and Mariam al-Fihri, who used their inheritance for architectural patronage and founded the world’s first academic degree-granting university, University of Qarawiyyin, and the Andalusian Mosque in Fes, serving the spiritual and scholarly needs of their community.” http://www.altmuslimah.com/b/b/4660

  7. #10 by /Anonymous on July 10, 2012 - 5:02 pm

    To be fair to the jurists, they clearly recognised the facts of consent and agency; these aren’t categories whose existence is precluded by the idea that a guardian/wali (more specifically, a father who meets the criteria for guardianship) has the right, under certain circumstances, to compel his minor charge (male or female) into marriage. However, as Imam Shafi`i advised (as cited by Kecia Ali), it is better to consult the parties involved first. Kecia Ali is very good, as always, at pointing nuances of these kinds in early legal texts. If you haven’t read her ‘Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam’ I strongly recommend you do so.

    • #11 by xcwn on July 11, 2012 - 4:12 am

      Anonymous–Yes, I have read Kecia Ali’s Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam. An excellent book. Thank you for drawing everyone’s attention to it.

      However. It is a good idea to bear in mind the purpose of this blog. I’m not interested in making excuses for the jurists. There are plenty of sites already doing that. Jurists are not my main focus here—just the impact of their ideas on some real, living people such as myself. I am writing about the process of recovering from patriarchal religion, and part of that recovery process is sorting out the bafflegab. Scholars such as Shafi’i (as Kecia Ali explains in detail in that book) didn’t treat men’s and women’s consent in the same way. Their approach to men’s consent and intention was far more nuanced than their approach to girls’ or women’s. And, it is misleading to speak about minor girls and boys being forced into marriage as though this is equivalent, for obvious reasons. The recommendation that a father seek his daughter’s consent before marrying her off is just that, a recommendation that he can ignore if he wants, or treat as a pro forma issue. It doesn’t nullify the fact that he has the right to force her into marriage. But that is another post.

  8. #12 by rosalindawijks on March 20, 2015 - 10:58 am

    Here is a new blog post by Nahida on female scholarschip and the concept of “milk al yamin”.


  9. #13 by rosalindawijks on April 12, 2015 - 8:16 am

    Wow………this guy even goes as far as criticizing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You know, the same declaration that gives him the right to bring his ultra-conservative stuff in the world.

  10. #14 by rosalindawijks on April 12, 2015 - 8:27 am

    And mufti Ismail Menk, Zakir Naik and Khalid Yasin. I used to like Khalid Yasin, until I discovered that he thought it was ok for men to hit women. Yes, I’m seeking knowledge alright. And it’s helping me to expose all these leaders.

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