Women as an 'Awra, Chapter 12: The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books

The Conference of the Books consoles our reality with a dream. The dream is complex and rich but serene. It is the serenity of faith directed by the intellect and disciplined by morality. In this dream, the human soul and mind are uplifted by the Divine. The Divine affirms the innate worth of the human being. A dream might exist at the edge of reality, yet it remains only a dream. By its very nature, a dream urges, teases, and provokes reality, but a dream is not real.


Early in the morning hours you sit engulfed in your dream. The last ten days of Ramadan break down your body. Liberated, you further abandon the physical to the metaphysical, and you abandon what you know for what you hope to know.


As the hours pass, a knock on the door announces the end of supplications and the serenity of isolation. If the Conference is a dream, then our reality is a nightmare. Why is it that the victims of this nightmare are most often women, and the victimizers are genderless beings?


Yet another woman attracted to the religion and repulsed by the followers—validated by the Qur’an and voided by Muslims. “When I first visited the mosque, believe me, I was dressed modestly. But a man ran yelling at me,” she insists. My first lesson in Islam was that men have bodies, women only have ‘awras (private parts). In fact, I am nothing but an ‘awra. Her eyes fill up with tears. I have become so desensitized to those tears.


The second lesson learned was even more painful. Allah says, “When you are greeted with a greeting, then greet with one fairer or repeat the same greeting” (4:86). Allah also states, “And when you enter houses, greet each other with a greeting from Allah, pure and blessed. That is how God explains things to you clearly so that you may understand” (24:61).


But I don’t understand. I was told that when you enter the house of God, you may not greet men. In fact, when you enter anywhere you may not greet men. I was told that if greeted, I may respond in a low voice. Al-salamu ‘alaykum, may be answered in an equal salam (greeting). Greet only if greeted embodies the same logic of speak only if spoken to.


“I am not a petty person,” she says in her typically defensive fashion, “but I don't understand.” How could the religion that “liberated” women transform them into an “‘awra?” How could women be liberated, but denied existence? If I am denied the right to greet someone, I am denied the right to assert my existence. If I wait to be greeted before I may respond, then I am awaiting my existence to be acknowledged before I may exist.


On the Final Day, the righteous will be bestowed with an immeasurable favor. They will be greeted by God, and their greeting will be “salam” (33:44; 10:10). Their merit will be acknowledged by God—a generous greeting that affirms their worth. But men are not my God, and my worth cannot hinge on their acknowledgment or generosity.


I pull Fath al-Bari, the commentary on al-Bukhari (d. 256/870), from the bookshelf, and I review the rules with her. I wish I could respond to a moral argument at a moral level. Instead, I review the rules.

The evidence conflicts and the jurists disagree. The Kufan jurists forbade women from greeting men. Other jurists allowed it without restriction. Maliki jurists espoused a subjective standard—both sexes may greet each other if there is no fear of sexual enticement. I wonder what type of person becomes aroused by an act of common courtesy?


She pauses lost in thought. Legalities can stun morality. She asks, “And what do you think?”


What do I think? I think the pedantic indulges the absurd. I think you should say, “Peace be upon you, we do not seek after the ignorant” (28:55).