Rereading “Status of Woman in Islam” (IV)

(continuing where we left off…)

“In terms of religious obligations, such as the Daily Prayers, Fasting, Poor-due, and Pilgrimage, woman is no different from man. In some cases indeed, woman has certain advantages over man. For example, the woman is exempted from the daily prayers and from fasting during her menstrual periods and forty days after childbirth….”


Early ’80’s ghost: So, women are equal to men in God’s sight. Women and men have the same basic religious obligations.

Commentator: This passage is really misleading. Women are not “exempted” from salat and fasting when during their menses or bleeding after childbirth, they are forbidden to perform these rituals at these times. Neither may they take part in an important part of the pilgrimage—going around the Ka’ba. There are also significant limitations of their ability to  touch and read the Qur’an, as well as to enter a mosque. The specifics of these limitations vary in severity depending on the views of different scholars.


Super-commentator: It is interesting to see what the author has done here.  Remember, in the previous section, he states that according to the Qur’an, “woman is completely equated with man in the sight of God in terms of her rights and responsibilities,” quotes several verses from the Qur’an that seem to support his point, and ignores hadiths completely. But now, he mentions several differences between women’s and men’s prayers and fasts that are not mentioned in the Qur’an at all. They are from the Hadith, as well as from the views of the jurists. But he does not quote any hadiths, most probably because these hadiths do not say that menstruating women are “exempted” from prayer and fasting—they are forbidden to do these things.

Early ’80’s ghost: Exempted, forbidden… what’s the difference, really?

Super-commentator: There is certainly a difference in meaning in English. If I am “exempted” from writing the final exam in a course because I got above 80 percent in my term work, then I don’t have to write that exam—though I can choose to write it if I want to for some reason. But if I am “forbidden” to write the exam, then I am not allowed to write it, and whether or not I want to is irrelevant.

It is interesting that the author does not use Islamic legal terms here, even to provide them in a footnote, so it is difficult to pin down exactly what he means, legally speaking. But almost any Muslim reader would know that in Islamic law, it is forbidden—haraam—for a menstruating woman to make salat or fast. Meaning, that were she deliberately to do so, she would be sinning, and her praying or fasting would not be accepted by God. But the average non-Muslim reader would probably get the impression that a menstruating woman can choose whether to perform salat or fast, which is simply not true—neither in Islamic law, nor in the practice of nearly all Muslim communities worldwide even today.

Early ’80’s ghost: I don’t really understand why women can’t make salat or fast when they are on their periods, but I guess that the author is right that it is an advantage, especially when Ramadan falls in the summer and the days are long. I remember hearing a Muslim man say that during Ramadan, they really envy women.

Super-commentator: Here again, we are dealing with slippery word-choices. In English, the word “advantage” means a benefit, or something that puts a person in a better position than another. It is vague enough that the reader could interpret it as referring to what could be perceived as a short-term benefit, or as a long-term one. The two are often not the same. Whether or not some men envy menstruating women when Ramadan falls in the summer months, more to the point is whether such exclusions really give women more autonomy and status than men (as might be expected if they really are an “advantage”).

Is menstruation equated with, say, spiritual power or authority or any other significant or long-term advantage in the sources that the author says that we should be referring to—the Qur’an and the Hadith? A very well-known hadith reports that the Prophet told a group of women at an Eid prayer:

“O women! give alms, as I have seen that women are the majority of the inhabitants of Hell.” The women replied, “Why it that so, Messenger of God?” He answered, “You curse frequently, and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in religion and intelligence than you. A cautious, sensible man could be led astray by you.” The women asked, “Messenger of God, what is deficient in our intelligence and religion?” He answered, “Is not the witness of a woman like half of the witness of a man?” They replied, “Yes.” He said, “That is the deficiency of her intelligence. And is it not the case that when she menstruates, she does not pray or fast?” The women replied, “Yes.” He said, “That is the deficiency of her religion.”

Early ’80’s ghost: Wow. That sounds pretty… harsh.

But… I don’t understand why menstruation should be a religious issue anyway. It’s just a natural process, right? It means that you are a healthy woman who can bear children. How can it mean that women are lesser? Isn’t having children supposed to be a good thing? So, maybe the Prophet was sort of joking? Or saying in a roundabout way of saying that periods can be a real drag?? I suppose periods might have been pretty uncomfortable for lots of women before Midol was invented.

Super-commentator: Some preachers today make claims like this—which are attempts to explain this hadith away. But claims like that don’t reflect how this hadith was understood by the scholars before the twentieth century. Bukhari quotes it in several different chapters of his hadith collection. This particular version is from his “Chapter on menstruation,” under the heading, “Menstruating women are to leave aside the fast.” In other words, he is not reading this hadith as some kind of a joke, or as a backhandedly sympathetic comment about menstrual cramps—as far as he is concerned, this is a statement of the Prophet that can address a question about how women are to worship.

We should not impose modern assumptions about reality on the Hadith, which were written down centuries ago. Keep in mind that our ways to looking at human bodies, and our understanding of how human bodies work—including human reproductive systems—is very different from Bukhari’s time. For people who learned about menstruation in biology class, complete with detailed diagrams explaining ovulation, menstruation is a natural process that is not mysterious. But hadiths like this are from way before the microscope was invented. People did not really understand what menstruation is, what causes it, and exactly how it relates to pregnancy and lactation. But different religious communities tried to make sense of it, as part of making sense of the world they lived in.

Early ’80’s ghost: But I suppose it doesn’t really matter how Bukhari or anyone else understood that hadith centuries ago, as long as nobody is telling me today that I have to believe that I am lesser than a man because I have a period… and nobody thinks that any more, do they??

Super-commentator: How blatantly that idea is expressed depends on which Muslims you mix with, and which communities you get involved in.

I would say that it is important not to underestimate the power of religious symbolism. Or the connection between the words used in hadiths such as the one we just discussed, and the larger picture.

Does substituting words such as “advantage” for “deficiency” change anything, really? The idea that women’s spiritual lives are significantly different from and in some important ways subordinate to those of men is indirectly acknowledged even in this booklet, as we will see.

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  1. #1 by JDay on January 28, 2013 - 3:19 pm

    Oh you troublesome woman! Are you trying to rob conservative women from their last toe-hold in the community of scholars of the Tradition? Without those Ustadhas of the Uterus, Doyennes of Discharge, and Maulanis of Menustration, there would be no female representation in that Old Boys Network of Islamic Scholarship. Let’s face it, no matter how conservative your Fatwa-minded group may be, there will always be at least ONE woman doing her own version of the Vagina Monologues on infinite repeat. The more she can get her querents to worry, angst, and obsess (“Am I clean enough down there?”) about ritual purity, the more secure her own tenuous position in the Boys’ Club becomes.

    Because let’s face it, what kind of guy wants to drone on about vaginal secretions and soiled bed linens?

    • #2 by xcwn on January 28, 2013 - 11:53 pm

      JDay—The Vagina Monologues on repeat!! 😀

      I can’t stop laughing.

  2. #3 by luckyfatima on January 28, 2013 - 4:09 pm

    Sort of thinking of part 4 and 5 together…I don’t feel attached to past jurists and I believe in renewal of interpretation. Still, this hadeeth is awful and I really don’t know what to make of it. It has always been one of those that seems to cause the devil to whisper doubt into my ear whenever I force myself to acknowledge it. I have read Abou El Fadl and others who explain it in terms of being perhaps a joke or maybe one of the possibly inauthentic ahadith in the authentic collections of Muslim/Bukhari. (Ha ha, what a great fucking joke o.O ?!?!) But the fact is that it is there, and that today in my experience in many Muslim communities here and abroad this hadeeth has effects on how women are treated. In fact, when I lived abroad I heard this hadeeth evoked to prove that women are less intelligent than men many times (by other girls and women, too) …even to prove that we are worse drivers than men due to our lack of intelligence. For Muslims who take this hadeeth without any modern grain of salt, it is there in the back of their minds to prove that a world view of male superiority is sanctioned by the Prophet and is God’s own will. I live in the hope that there is some reasonable explanation (that isn’t faith shattering)…there must be one…but yep, doubts, doubts, doubts. 😦

    • #4 by xcwn on January 29, 2013 - 12:14 am

      Sigh. It’s complicated. But it certainly isn’t the only misogynistic hadith out there. And regardless whether you interpret them differently, or decide that they aren’t authentic, you still have to deal with them and their impact if you deal with conservative Muslims or read their stuff.

  3. #5 by ahmad on January 30, 2013 - 9:31 am

    Here are the typical traditionalist explanations of this Hadith

    • #6 by xcwn on February 2, 2013 - 9:31 pm

      Ahmad—LOL. Those “explanations” could be summed up in one sentence: “Now don’t you worry your pretty little head about it.” But I guess they have the measure of most of their target audience—which by and large wants reassurance more than anything else.

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