(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.