June 21, 2003
recently participated in a panel discussion on why Muslims are misrepresented by Western media. Next to me was a man, young enough to
be my son, who made an excellent high-tech presentation. Afterwards,
when I put out my hand to congratulate him, he pulled his hand back and
said solemnly, "I don't shake hands with women."
I found his attitude enormously disrespectful and wanted to challenge
him, ask why he was there. Was he afraid of women or his own sexuality?
But I held my tongue because to take him on would have involved making a
mockery out of Muslims, which is exactly what we were there to discuss.
As I fumed about this incident, someone pointed out certain restrictive
misinterpretations of Islam condemn shaking hands with the opposite sex.
I reminded her that those who judge the actions of Muslims without
looking at the intention have a narrow view of
A few days later, I was speaking on Islam and women at a human rights
event. A youth remarked that maybe my message would be more meaningful
and make more impact if I covered my head! I looked him in the eye and
asked: "Were you listening to the message or looking at the
highlights in my hair?"
It's this kind of monitoring and bickering over petty issues, both
rampant in our faith, that reduce the status of God to a mere policeman
and move us away from the Prophet Muhammad's beautiful message of love,
compassion, justice and truth.
In this case, I reminded the young man that the injunction for modesty
is for both men and women. However, since sharia has always been
interpreted by men, they spend more time telling women
how to be proper
women, thus losing sight of the actual message. Through this exchange, I
gained valuable insight into the subject of interpretation, which often
causes confusion among Muslims.
A friend sent me an article by Holly Lebowitz Rossi from the Religion
News Service headed, "Scholars say that the Battle for the Soul of
Islam Neither Accurate nor Appropriate." In this article, Sulayman
Nyang, professor of African and Islamic Studies at Howard University in
Washington D.C., is quoted as saying we should be asking who controls
the power of interpretation of the Muslim belief system or din
(pronounced deen) in Arabic. "The battle is for what that din
Nyang is referring to the emerging trend in some countries, such as Pakistan, to enforce sharia law. Nyang says "there is this
contestation over who defines Islam and who can use his or her
interpretation of Islam to justify the right of certain people to govern."
I see these so-called sharia laws being used specifically to target
women and curtail their human rights. In some cases, women themselves
interpret sharia to their own detriment. For example, a Muslim woman in
has sued the state
for suspending her driver's licence after she refused to remove her niqab or face-covering veil for the photo. Florida law states
a driver's licence must have a colour, full-faced image of the bearer. My
view of this case is simple: Follow the laws of the land, or choose
to live happily in a place like Saudi Arabia where women aren't allowed to
drive anyway. That, along with other misogynistic injunctions, is the
Saudi interpretation of sharia.
Amina Wadud, a professor of Islamic studies at Commonwealth University
in Virginia, presented a paper last month at the 2nd International Muslim
Leaders Consultation on HIV/AIDS in Kuala Lumpur. Twenty conservative
delegates stormed out of the session and accused Waddud of blasphemy for
saying, "Islam and Muslims exacerbate the spread of AIDS and ...
traditional Islamic theological response can never cure AIDS." She
explained that Muslim women are bound to comply with their husbands'
desire for sex, and can be punished if they do not. This includes women
who know their husbands are HIV positive.
Accused of demonizing Islam, Wadud told reporters she stood by her
comments: "My paper just states opinions that are different
from others. ..." Nevertheless, she withdrew her paper to spare the
chair of the Malaysian AIDS Council further difficulty.
Difference of opinion has long been the hallmark of Islamic
jurisprudence. But today, the willingness to accept a difference of opinion is
Sharia is a body of rules and regulations based on the Qur'an and Sunnah
(sayings of the Prophet). To follow the sharia means living a morallyresponsible life. It's ironic that
sharia, which means "the broad
path leading to water," (the idea of water being fluid and flexible),
has been made inflexible and rigid. It's the road of moral, ethical and just
activity that all Muslims can follow wherever they live. Many Muslims practise
sharia living under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which
is not at odds with sharia as it should be understood and practised. It
doesn't have to be imposed as in Nigeria and Sudan where assertion of
sharia is a political act that reduces women and minorities to second-class
Al-Ghazzali, a renowned 11th-century thinker, held that each Muslim must
have enough knowledge of the sharia to put it into practice in his or
her own life. Other scholars point out sharia cannot exist without ijtehad
(working out principles), ijma (consensus), qiyas (analogy) and, most of
all, aql (reason).
Essentially, the laws of Islam should never be distorted to destroy the morality of Islam. Those who misuse laws in the name of Islam destroy
the moral fabric of society. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has warned
his country against adopting the Taliban version of Islam while
struggling for economic recovery and progress: "We are being called
terrorists, fundamentalists, extremists and intolerant. We have to
decide whether we need Talibanization or progressive Islam."