The Shaykha's Endless Jihad, Chapter 78, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books

The Conference of the Books is soon to begin, and he sits eager to abandon himself to the debates of the long-past—to the tradition that once defined us as Muslims.  Once, it defined us as Muslims—but now it has denounced us, as we have disowned it. 


The Conference of the Books—the sum total of our convictions, thoughts, ideas, dreams, hopes, and aspirations; the sum total of our disagreements, disappointments, fears, and failures—it is a legacy that is profound and great, but it has become long abandoned to mythology—it stands abandoned like the rooms of a great mansion: grand but dead. It is a tradition of Muslim speech, speech by Muslims, speech about Islam, and speech inspired by Islam.  It is the tradition of the search for the Divine in our land and souls—a tradition that now stands as a glorified tombstone or as a long abandoned gravestone.  We, Muslims, have turned it into a sepulcher of roaming ghosts haunting our memories and delusions and foreboding terrors.  It is as if a castle of irredeemable dreams and devirginated ordeals.  


We the people of Islam have been raped by the twin beasts of despotism and Colonialism—animals of the same nature and identical in their objectives and cause.  In shame, we turned against ourselves, exchanging blame, and indulging in the death of self-hate.  Torn from our roots and soil we were thrown to a Western wind.  Neither could we stand our ground and then firmly march ahead, nor could we avoid the turmoil and ravishes of the modern world.  We did not bandage our injuries with the dignity of the self, and then stand on the anchor of our tradition in order to progress.  Instead, our injuries festered inside ourselves until our dignity became listless and ill. 


We are not defined by the Conference, our tradition, or religion—we are defined by our hurts, pains, and injuries.  Our visions are blurred by the ceaseless flow of blood, and our ears are plugged by the thunderous clouds of agony encircling our world.  Mercy and compassion, which we owe ourselves and others, have been buried under incrustations of salivations over power and obedience to the rules of obedience, but without the discipline of law. 


Torn from our roots, orphaned in modernity, alienated from ourselves and each other—our ethical actions have become an indulgence in computational configurations or whimsical divinations.  That imperceptible and ethereal thread that ties brothers and sisters together in empathy and love has been torn, ruptured, and unraveled from every side.  What remains is the arrogance of supremacy claimed by the pretense of knowing the law of the Divine.  Law by its very nature is power, and only arrogance can empower ignorance and its pretenses—so ignorance transforms into the key to the law.  But it is this corruption of the law that rips apart the threads of love, and overrules empathy, compassion, and mercy in favor of egoism and in favor of the lust for dominance.  In the clutches of egoism and ignorance, the corruptions of law are inseparable from the evils of power—they exist in unity and unwavering reciprocity—extinguishing love and mercy from the body of the religion and its plighted community.


Yes, the Conference of Books, the citadel of knowledge, stands in all its grandeur enormous and supreme—but it does often seem that there are no more Muslims for it to teach.


He sat in the Conference as the years raced by and it is but a very short while before he will stand before God.  “Interrogate yourself before you are interrogated,” the Prophet said, and God warned us to remember ourselves before we are forgotten.


Have we already been forgotten?


The pains only draw him closer to God—pain exposes that the truth of material reality to be indeed fragile.  Pain divorces the soul from its body—the body enslaves the mind within the confines of its reality, but pain declares to the soul and mind their right to liberty.


He has spent his prime in a microcosm of the Muslim world—the communities of Muslim minorities in the West.  In a past long gone after years of studying Islamic law and its many fields and disciplines, despotism made him covet the pure air of liberty.  And so he traveled to the country founded on the principle of freedom, and to a people who forever have struggled with their fear and love for liberty.  But in this country, the Muslim minority has for long struggled with its fear and love for authority—perhaps even power.  It is a minority that is zealous in its search for identity but so often what it finds and then fights to guard and protect is reactive and false—like a promised land forever elusive; lost in the fogs of broken, enervated, effaced, and then invented memories.


His long jihad—with its torments of rejection and acceptance, envious denouncements and shared moments of love, appreciative criticism and callous ingratitude, but worst of all, treacherous betrayals—left his body ailing, mind exhausted, and spirit worn out.  His memory traveled to the days of fantastic excitements, frenzied thoughts, and eruptions of enlightenments—the days of his shaykhs, his teachers—the days when he was but a novice and a humble disciple.


Most of his shaykhs, may God bless their souls, had passed on to the next life awaiting the final judgment.  But he traveled to Egypt in search of the few who were rumored to be alive.  His heart longingly embraced his hope as he visited the mosques of his past and the many sights of the conferences once held and the circles of knowledge (halaqas) that died with the death of their teachers.  Most of his leads and searches took him to the graveyards in which the blessed bodies of his teachers rested.


He heard, however, that one of his teachers was now holding her halaqa in her apartment in Cairo.  Umm Umar was a lighthouse of knowledge, but she was the only female teacher in the circles of knowledge that he frequented back then.  The secular schools are full of women teachers, but sadly the religious circles of education are not similarly enriched. 


Despite the fact that a single woman founded one third of Muslim jurisprudence; that the first centuries of Islam were replete with women jurists such as Umm al-Fadl bint Harith, Maymouna bint Sa’d, ‘Amra bint ‘Abd al-Rahman bin Zarara al-Ansariyya, Nadba mawlat Maymuna, Fatima al-Khutha’iyya, Hind bint al-Harith al-Farisiyya, Umm ‘Abd Allah al-Dusiyya, ‘Aisha bint Sa’d al-Zuhriyya, Umm ‘Umar bint Hassan al-Thaqafi, al-Salam bint al-qadi Abu Bakr bin Shajara al-Baghdadiyya and many others, and despite the fact that Islamic history boasts hundreds of women jurists throughout and until the Ninth Hijra/Fifteenth century AD, today the number of women jurists are abysmal.  All the founders of the main Islamic schools of law, such as al-Imam Malik, Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, al-Shafi’i, and Abu Hanifa were tutored partly by women.  In this very country and city, Egypt and Cairo, the granddaughter of the Prophet, al-Sayyida Nafisa filled these lands with the wisdom and knowledge teaching hundreds of people including Ahmad Ibn Hanbal and al-Shafi’i themselves and the disciples of Malik, Abu Hanifa, and al-Laythi.


Data rushed through his mind as he remembered the kind face of his teacher.  She used to teach her halaqa at the Mosque of Khalifa al-Ma’mun in Misr al-Gadida.  He wondered what made her teach from her apartment as he struggled to climb the aged and deteriorated stairs of her building,

The door to her small and crowded apartment was open, and so he bashfully entered.  He held his breath in anticipation as he approached the halaqa in the living room at the center of which sat a figure curved over a book, speaking in a tired and slightly trembling voice.  Sitting at the edge of the circle, he clearly recognized his old teacher, Shaykha Umm Umar Zaynab al-Laysi, and a wave of love overcame him, bringing back the memories of the happiest days of his life.  He humbly waited until the Shaykha finished her class and then approached her.


“The days have taken you away from us!  It has been so long that I thought the lands of Cowboys and Hollywood made you forget us!” the Shaykha softly spoke after her eyes lit up with the joy of recognition and familiarity.


“Shaykha, may Allah bless and honor you and allow you His peace and well-being, if I forgot you I would deserve to forget myself.  May Allah honor you, I have held all my shaykhs deep in my heart and I owe them and you everything that I am.  The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, taught that scholars are the inheritors of the Prophets, and he also taught that the ink of scholars is more valuable in the eyes of God than the blood of martyrs.  Shaykha, haven’t you taught us that in the Sunnah of the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, that respect and gratitude towards one’s teacher is among the most honored moral qualities?  To forget or to deny the worth or value of one’s teacher or to forget or deny the debt owed to one’s teacher is among the greatest of sins.  Even to deny that someone who taught you is in fact your teacher is a vile sin.  I have not forgotten you—you and all my shaykhs have been with me every night I spent searching the beloved Will of God through reflection and reading.”

“May Allah reward you my son—I thank God Who decreed that I see you before I die.  You take me back to days that I feel were so close and yet so far.  I recall I taught you Qur’an and then hadith—now time has taken its toll and I teach only once a week, and one year I dedicate to hadith and the other to the Qur’an.  I praise God that the spark I saw in your eyes back then is still there.  But now the spark is touched by exhaustion, perhaps touched by pain, perhaps sadness, perhaps disappointment—my son, your eyes are full of battle scars.”


“My Shaykha, does it show that much?”


“Yes, but my son, it is like luminous glass that has fallen many times.  It is cracked, perhaps—but the light within it still shines.”


“My Shaykha, so many of my teachers passed away and as I visited their graves, I could not help but wonder if I was on their mind.”  A tear slipped away.  “I find so much peace in your presence—I wish I could glue myself to you until the end of times.”


The Shaykha smiled: “Glue yourself to me!  You wish to escape your troubles—like a child that longs for the womb.  Your faith ought to guard you, but instead you seem to be plagued with anxieties.  Your speech about the duties of a student to his teacher only betrays your fears and anxieties.”


“My Shaykha, as always—your perceptiveness humbles me, and I do apologize.  I did not mean to lecture my teacher, and in your blessed presence, far be it for me to give a speech.  I ask your permission to say that I respectfully disagree—I am not anxious and I have no fears.  Rather, it is sadness and even agony that squeezes and suppresses my heart. 


“Shaykha you have planted seeds and I can attest that all your students learned the lessons well.  You taught us that the heart and mind must be put at God’s service, and that to know oneself and know His creation is to know God.  God cannot be truthfully served unless God is first known.  And knowledge of God brings about the realization that God is served by al-ta’aruf wa ta’mir al-‘ard (serving human beings through genuine empathy and intercourse and preserving creation).  At the same time, it is imperative to observe ‘adam ifsad al-‘ard (not to corrupt earth or creation through violence or other means).


“Shaykha, we learned these lessons well and we spread on the face of this earth—peace in our hearts, seeking to spread peace.  Ours was jihad for peace and in peace.  But…”


“But what my young shaykh?”


He smiles because he feels older than the Conference itself.  Nothing in him has remained young—not his mind, not his ailing body, and not his worn out heart.


“Shaykha, there are so many buts—so many buts!”


“Let us start with you my son.  What makes you so anxious to the point that your words seem to come out seethed and parched with heat?”


“Shaykha, the seeds I’ve planted in the U.S. have not borne any fruit. In fact, the rule is that many of those that I taught have met my favor with ingratitude. I can’t tell you how many of those that I taught and helped the most have responded to kindness with betrayal and arrogance, and acted as if they could respect the knowledge and dishonor the teacher.”


“Subhana Allah!”[1] the Shaykha exclaimed, “Haven’t they heard the Prophet’s report: There is no piety in that who is ungrateful and betrays?  But my son, you should remember the old proverb: The more a scholar cares less about the way people react and respond to him, the closer he approaches the truth.”

“My teacher, perhaps it is me—perhaps the problem is the way I teach.  But what I suspect and fear is that the problem far exceeds any personal idiosyncrasies.  Shaykha, what I fear is that throughout our history, the love of knowledge has been the barometer measuring our relationship to God and the thermometer reflecting our moral well-being.  I fear that as a people, instead of God’s guidance we are guided by egotistical idolatry.  Shaykha, what is the love of knowledge but a part of husn al-khuluq (upright morality and good manners)?  It is good manners—basic human decency and the exploration and internalization of ethics—is the very fabric of our religion.  Muslims in the West seem to think that they can pray, fast, give alms and so on but do not have to worry about reflecting upon, understanding, and abiding by good manners and common decency.”


“Subhana Allah!” the Shaykha exclaimed, “Haven’t your brethren and sisters in America heard Ali’s, may God be pleased with him, saying: ‘People are of two types, either your brothers in religion or your peers in morality immune from wrongdoing’?  Haven’t they heard the Prophet’s saying: ‘The most beloved by God and the closest to God in the Hereafter are those who are adorned by the best manners’?   Or, the Prophet’s saying: ‘The most pious of you are those who are best mannered’?  Or, the Prophet’s saying:  ‘Those of you who are the most like me are those who are the best mannered and the most forgiving’?  Or, the Prophet’s saying: The source of all good is sound manners?  The Prophet’s report that best summarizes the truth and nature of Islam is the Prophet’s response to a person who asked him what is Islam?  The Prophet responded: ‘ Islam is the pursuit of good manners and virtue.’”


“Shaykha, may Allah bless you, your words comfort my heart and mind.  You say what is rarely heard among Muslims in the U.S.  In the U.S., Muslims have forgotten these basic foundations, and these types of traditions are rarely heard.  For instance, Shaykha, the U.S. is full of the homeless, of those who are sexually and physically abused.  The U.S. is full of poverty, prostitution, and drug addicts.  Yet, Muslims live oblivious to all that surrounds them—they rarely help and they rarely engage their communities in such a way as to set a moral example.”


“Shaykh,” she said, “you had your fair share of learning—you are not a novice.  If the Muslims in the U.S. do not know why did you not remind them?”


There is a stern look in her eyes; he pauses and lowers his head.  What can he tell her of his struggles?  To complain is not dignified and he has already complained enough as it is.


He says: “Shaykha, you are better than myself—I do remind and teach to the best of my ability.  In fact, shortly before coming to Egypt I was delivering a lecture and I spoke about the tribal chief Aktham bin al-Sayfi who sent two messengers to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, to ask about Islam.  Among other things, the Prophet instructed the two men that God commands justice in all things and goodness in all things.  Upon hearing what the two messengers had to report, Aktham addressed his tribe saying that Islam in summary enjoins the best of moral qualities and forbids what is immoral and reprehensible. 


“Shaykha, the problem, however, is not reminding Muslims of this or that.  The problem is the prevailing moral and intellectual climate.  The problem is one of emphasis—what gets emphasized in Islamic centers, mosques, or classrooms.  Often the difficulty is the difference between the principle and application—the difference between the general claim and frame of reference.  For instance, many concede that good manners are imperative but they claim, for instance, that a Muslim should not assist a non-Muslim. Put differently, the problem is that people claim: How do we know what constitutes good manners and virtue?  Many respond to this by saying: We know good manners and virtue are imperative but we define good manners and virtue only by reference to the religious text—to rely on intuition or reason is strictly prohibited.”


Umm ‘Umar took a deep breath and exhaled.  She felt the burden so heavy and so she smiled.  “My young Shaykh, first do not say I am better than you—do not plant the seed of arrogance in my heart.  Only God knows who is better than who for only God knows the nature of the piety that fills one’s heart. 


“My young Shaykh, you know that what these people say is nonsense and God knows best.  We know good manners by referring to the text, intuition and the intellect—each of them complementing the other.  For instance, numerous texts tell us that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, while being in a state of war with Mecca, he sent five hundred dinars to be distributed among the non-Muslim poor living in Mecca.  In addition, the text tells us that Ibn ‘Abbas, may God be pleased with him, explained that God commanded in the Qur’an that the sadaqa (alms) be given to the needy—whether the needy is Muslim or not.  Thus, I wonder on what basis those people claim that Muslims may not assist or help non-Muslims.  Indeed, it is virtuous to help a needy human being regardless of their creed.


“As to recognizing good manners and virtue, reason, intuition, and the text all do their parts to guide a Muslim towards what he should know. 


“We know by text and reason that two essential qualities of God, justice and graciousness, give rise to God’s mercy, compassion, and love.  Simply knowing this allows us to explore the nature of good manners and virtue.


“As the Hanafi jurist al-Dabbusi said, we know through the application of reason that ignorance, justice, and frivolity are ugly and undesirable conditions and qualities. 


“It is through reason that we know that objectives rationally known to be necessary for rational people are in turn necessarily permissible and whatever obstructs rational people from attaining their rational objectives is forbidden (yuharram bi’l ‘aql ma tafut bihi aghrad al-‘uqala’).  Thus, we know that what is needed for self-preservation and the promotion of well-being is legally obligatory.  This opens the door to knowing that actions that lead to justice, graciousness, mercy, compassion, and love is virtuous.

“It is intuition and reason that inspired Umar, may God be pleased with him, to declare: People were born free and so who can claim the right to enslave them.  Yet, this intuitive position reached us through the text that transmitted this report to us.  From it we learn that the original condition for human beings is freedom, and there must be a compelling reason to deny a person their freedom.  We also know that all that unfairly takes away human freedom is contrary to virtue.


“We also read that through intuition, Abu Hanifa reasoned that human beings are deserving of dignity and are entitled to live a dignified life.  Therefore, Abu Hanifa freed his slave girl Halima, and refused to own slaves.


“Sometimes reason and intuition can allow us to know ultimate and foundational values.  Through intuition and reason, for instance, Zayd bin ‘Ali, may God be pleased with him, proclaimed: By God, if I heard a voice call out from the skies that Allah has made lying permissible, I would never lie.  From this we learn that certain virtues are inherent and fundamental and it is impossible for any text to deny or negate these virtues.


“Sometimes, reason is the instrument that we rely upon in order to scrutinize textual claims.  As you will recall when I taught you hadith, we have what we call ‘ilm al-Diraya according to which we assess the authenticity of reported traditions by analyzing if such traditions are in accord with the Qur’an and also if they are consistent with reason.  Therefore, as you will recall we rejected a report in which a conversation is said to have taken place between Abd al-Muttalib and the Prophet on the eve of the Prophet’s migration to Medina.”


He quickly commented: “Yes, I recall the report is not authentic because Abd al-Muttalib died three years before the Prophet’s migration and so it is logically impossible to claim that the incident took place.”


“Yes, yes, that is correct,” Umm ‘Umar responded, and then she quickly continued, “The dynamic interaction between text, intuition and reason can yield specific knowledge of what is virtuous and well-mannered.  Therefore, the text tells us, for instance, that there was a Muslim man named al-Husayn bin ‘Awf and he had two daughters who were Christian.  He asked the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, for permission to force his daughters to convert to Islam and the Prophet strictly forbade him from doing so.  We learn from this text that it is not virtuous to use coercion and duress against people even in order to achieve a noble end.  But the ugliness of coercion is intuitively and rationally known because it is contrary to freedom and dignity.


“By text, intuition and reason, we know that good manners include smiling in the faces of people and speaking to them kindly.  Al-Hasan, the Prophet’s grandson, said: good manners include meeting people with a cheerful face and being gracious with all.  He also summarized the nature of good manners very well when he said: good manners mean living with people without causing them harm.  The Qur’an commands not to spy against one another or to defame each other.  This is a textual command but it is also known rationally and intuitively because spying and defaming is contrary to freedom and dignity.”


“May God bless you Shaykha,” he commented, “what you’ve just said reminded me of something I read in al-Durr al-Mukhtar the commentary on al-Qaduri: In that book the author said: In all legal matters, when one is forced to choose one position or determination over another, one must consider the practices and customs of people and their condition.  Then, one must choose the legal position that is less cumbersome and more kind and merciful towards people.  And if one cannot determine which legal decision is more kind and merciful then one should return to the legal presumption of innocence, non-obligation, or the non-existence of a legal duty.  It is the duty of a jurist to seek the alleviation of hardship and to choose the legal solution that is most merciful and kind.”


“Yes my son,” the Shaykha said, “doesn’t every Muslim know that the Prophet taught us: You (Muslims) have been sent to people to bring ease and kindness to people—you have not been sent to bring hardship and suffering upon people.”


With a hint of sarcasm he smiled to himself. “Shaykha, at times I wonder what Muslims really know about their religion.  There are things that you just said that if you repeated in an Islamic center in the U.S. would get you promptly ejected out of the door.  But even leaving aside the Muslims of the U.S., how about the actions of some Muslims in the Muslim world?  Consider the repulsive actions of some Muslims who grab hostages and then make films of themselves cutting the throats of their victims.  I remember studying the well-known incident that took place during the Caliphate of al-Mansour.  At that time, the Romans kidnapped Muslim hostages and then murdered them.  The Caliph brought the great jurist Abu Hanifa and asked him if it would be lawful for the Muslims to retaliate by killing the Roman prisoners of war.  Abu Hanifa resolutely refused, arguing that doing so would violate Qur’anic prescriptions and would be contrary to virtuous behavior.  The Caliph was unhappy with the response and it got to the point that he imprisoned Abu Hanifa; but then later the Caliph forgave him.  But Abu Hanifa never changed his position, and later the vast majority of jurists praised Abu Hanifa for his moral uprightness.  How did we ever get from this to where we are now!”


Umm ‘Umar lowered her head and then shook it.  “Yes.  How did we get to where we are now?  That is the question.”


“Shaykha,” he continued as if answering himself, “What amazes me is how the tradition is broken down, re-invented, and corrupted. Why this particularly horrifying way of killing the hostages?  Why the cutting of necks?  The Qur’an does mention the striking of necks in the context of urging Muslims to be steadfast and vigilant in battle.  It is a figure of expression anchored in its historical context.  Therefore, the Qur’an speaks of fast horses, sharp swords, and striking the necks of the enemy.  If the Qur’an would have been revealed today it would have said shoot your enemy in battle instead of cut their necks. 


“In fact, the hostage takers do not fight with swords and knifes—they use guns.  So what is the point of this gruesome demonstration of bloodletting except to spread fear and terror!  The irony is that the only other place that the traditions speak of cutting the neck of anything is in the context of slaughtering animals.  The Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, is reported to have urged Muslims to slaughter livestock by using a sharp knife to swiftly cut at a certain point of the throat so that the animal will not suffer and so that all the blood will flow out.  But it seems to me that killing the hostages this way increases their suffering—it does not minimize it.  Even when fighting our enemies, we are commanded to be merciful and we are barred from using torture or mutilation.”


The Shaykha exhaled heavily again before cutting in: “I doubt that any of this is relevant for the folks who commit these acts.  The Qur’an warns us not to let our grievances against a certain people lead us to become unjust.  I fear that these folks allow their morality to become framed by their enemies instead of by their faith.  They are obviously angry because their country has been invaded and because the invader has committed many indiscretions and they have every right to be angry.  But they seem to believe that in order to fight and repel the invasion they have a right to use any method regardless of how inhumane or cruel, and that is clearly wrong.”


He moved closer to his teacher and lowered his voice as if trying to hide his words: “But Shaykha Umm ‘Umar, don’t you think that the problem has become greater and our plight even worse—don’t you think that instead of mercy, there is a culture of cruelty and inhumanity that seems to have become an affliction plaguing many in the Muslim world?  Shaykha, I remember in the 1970’s when we, in the Usuli circles, used to have heated arguments with the Wahhabi students.  I recall that among our primary criticisms of them were that they were too extreme, harsh, and even cruel—especially with regards to women.  In the 1970’s it was not clear, but now it seems that their ideas, attitudes, and influence have become widespread.”


Umm ‘Umar shook her head from side to side and then exclaimed in pain: “Ah! Ah! Ah!  This is a painful matter that leaves so many open wounds.  If you recall, in the 1970’s, there were many shaykhs right here present in the mosque I used to teach in that stood up to the Wahhabis and debated and refuted their claims.  But then everything changed.  There came the lucrative sabbaticals and invited lectures in Saudi Arabia, and the profitable book contracts with Saudi presses and the Saudi government and its many semi-official institutions.  In a short while, the shaykhs who dreamt of owning a car, marrying off their kids, paying medical their expenses, or creating secure retirement funds—everyone knew what they had to do.  No one had to use a whip or gun to coerce the scholars around here.  There was so much self-censorship until it became official.  Before we knew it, the Azhar seminary itself changed its curriculum on many issues including the Shi’is, philosophy, and kalam[2]—after all, the seminary itself needed funds. Before long, the Azhar started to demand that the Egyptian government ban books that the Wahhabis found troublesome.  Even at the level of students, there was always money for those who wanted to study in Medina or study with certain shaykhs friendly to the Saudis.  It was all downhill from there—it is a long complicated story but a very unhappy one.  Believe it or not, for the first time in modern Egyptian history, we had people imitating Saudi Arabia in banning books of tradition that are hundreds of years old.  People actually had the gall and arrogance to ban books written by the great masters of the Islamic tradition.  If you took the intellects of a thousand of those so-called scholars issuing the recommendations as to what ought to be added to the black list—a thousand of their despotic intellects would not equal the intellect or knowledge of one the great masters they banned.  No, no, the circles of knowledge and even the quality of students are nothing like what they used to be in your days.  Things have changed my son and for the worse.”


A solemn and sad silence flowed between them as they both gazed at the floor.  He felt the peace of silence and the sense of tranquility defied the limits of time.  However, he started to feel that the prolonged silence is too familiar and forward or even brazen towards his teacher.  He mumbled: “Shaykha, things in the U.S. are not much better at least among the Islamic centers and institutions.  The same ideology and attitudes have found their way to the institutions that claim to represent American Muslims.”  


“This is what I find puzzling,” Umm ‘Umar commented, “Money was the key that opened the door to the Wahhabis here and in other places.  But in the U.S aren’t Muslims affluent enough to be immune from this kind of influence?”


Despite himself, he found himself smiling: “Yes, but Muslims are too miserly to support their own institutions financially!  But the problem is not just money but ignorance, egoism, and arrogance.  Shaykha, I’ll give you an example of the type of non-sense that goes on in many of the Islamic centers.  I know of a shaykh who taught this married couple for many years.  During these years, he helped out the couple financially, morally, and many other ways.  The wife’s father is a medical doctor, they are an affluent family, and this father on top of that is the chairman or president of a local mosque.  The shaykh got gravely ill and his family sought to ask that student’s wife for help.  You know what her response was?”


“Considering the rights owed to a teacher, and the compelling entitlements of the ill in Islam and considering that her father is a doctor and a leader in the Muslim community—her response must have been favorable.”


“Shaykha, no—her response was I am sorry I cannot ask my father for any favors.  Even her father knew that his daughter’s and son in law’s teacher was gravely ill and he did nothing to help.  The so-called students and the doctor father did not even bother to call the shaykh in the hospital.”


The Shaykha’s jaw dropped and her eyes jutted out:  “May God protect us from His anger and the evil of Satan.  How could this doctor be a leader in the community?  How could this be the daughter of a leader in the community?  How could these be students of Islam?”


“Shaykha, I will tell you an illustrative story that is even worse.  A Muslim woman belonged to an Islamic center.  This woman excelled as a student, she became a well-renowned journalist in one of the most prestigious newspapers in the U.S. and she published a book with one of the top publishers—a book that spoke about her faith and femininity, in general.  For being a shining example of a Muslim women in the community, her reward was that the Islamic center she belonged to formed a tribunal, tried her, and then expelled her.  Her charge was that she exceeded her proper bounds as a woman.”

The Shaykha’s face changed to anger and he knew her anger.  “May God guard us from ignorance and arrogance, and from the worst of deeds!  May God protect us from the trickery of Satan and from his likes!  By what right do they judge her or expel her!  By God, do these people know that the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, suffered so much from the trickery of the hypocrites of Medina and yet simply because they declared themselves to be Muslim the Prophet never gave himself the right to harm or expel them.  Hasn’t the Qur’an affirmed the principle that it is not permissible to expel Muslims in 11:29; 26:114; and 6:52?  How can those people give themselves the right to expel anyone from the house of God?  Has God put them in charge of His house!


What does that mean ‘she exceeded the bounds as a woman’!  How many times has the God reminded us that men and women are equal in accountability, responsibility, and deserve before God?  In 3:195; in 4:124; in 16:97; in 40:40; and then again in 49:13.  Has not the Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, taught that men and women are the partners and counterparts of each other!


“Shaykh, I want to tell you something—did you know that in the first century al-Sayyida Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, may God be pleased with her, taught Islamic law to 232 men and 67 women; al-Sayyida Umm Salama, may God be pleased with her, taught 78 men and 23 women; al-Sayyida Hafsa, may God be pleased with her, taught 17 men and 3 women; Asma’ bint Abu Bakr, may God be pleased with her, taught 19 men and 2 women; Asma bint ‘Umays taught 11 men and two women; and Ramla bint Abu Sufyan taught 18 men and two women.  This is our history—so what bounds are they talking about!  Yet, I am not surprised for those influenced by the Wahhabis imagine women to be no more than cattle or slaves to their husbands!”


“Oh my Shaykha, the stories that I could tell you!” he said as his head started to ache, “I am a man with a modest knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence and yet I often feel aggravated by the false assumptions and closed mindedness.  Shaykha, you on the other hand, with your vast knowledge, I don’t know how you would survive in this environment.  Shaykha, the things I’ve seen have broken my heart.  Because of this ignorance, Islamic law as a discipline—as a scholarly field, is not respected by non-Muslim legal scholars.  Non-Muslims think that Islamic law is all about oppressive and inhumane rules that are not susceptible to any change. 


“Shaykha, I was once arbitrating in a case in which a woman left her marital home because her husband mistreated her.  He would yell at her, call her names, leave home for long hours and rarely take her out.  The woman left her marital home and returned to her parents.  The husband was informed by the imam of their local mosque that the wife owed her husband the duty of obedience and patience.  Therefore, she had no right to leave the marital home.  As the arbitrator I ruled that the woman was within her right to leave the marital home and that unless the husband improves his treatment of his wife, she under no obligation to return to her marital home.  Upon reading the judgment the imam jumped up from his seat and pointing a finger at me, he declared that I one of those Americanized feminists who rules according to whim and not Islamic law.  I calmly noted that in the Fatawa al-Hamidiyya and in the Tahdhib both sources stated that mistreatment that does not rise to the level of abuse (su’ al-mu’ashara) was sufficient grounds for a wife to refuse to co-habitat with her husband.”


“Yes, many jurists have held this position, and of course, all the sources you cite, and all the jurists who wrote these sources lived long before America ever existed and at a time when Europe lived in the dark ages.”


“Yes, Shaykha but that imam dared call me a liar and so I went got the relevant books and showed him.  His response amazed me.  Over the tip of his nose he looked at the texts for about half a second and then said, ‘Yes, I know about this—but it is wrong.  Much of what is found in these books is wrong.’“


Umm ‘Umar struck a hand against another and exclaimed: “Subhana Allah! Truly the words of God are true: ‘Say: Are those who are knowledgeable like those who are ignorant.  It is only people of sound reason who will know.’ (39:9)”


“Shaykha,” he continued with an unmistakable fervor, “There are so many things that would make the hair turn white!  Shaykha, I was involved in a divorce case in which a man divorced his wife and with the help of another local imam, these guys wrote a divorce settlement dictating that the ex-wife is entitled to alimony.  However, the ex-husband put in the settlement that he reserves the right to observe the behavior of the ex-wife.  If he deems her behavior to be sufficiently appropriate and pious, he continues spousal payments.  If, however, the ex-husband does not deem the conduct of his ex-wife to be sufficiently pious or Islamic, he has the right to complain to the imam, and if the imam agrees with the ex-husband, the imam will terminate the spousal support.  When consulted about this I said that in my opinion this arrangement is in direct contradiction with the Qur’anic verse: “For divorce women there a right to maintenance at a reasonable level—a duty upon the righteous.” (2:241) In fact, I said, if they check the books on the occasions of revelation, they will see that no discretion was granted to men on this matter at all.  The continuance of spousal support cannot be made contingent on the approval of the ex-husband or an imam or anyone else.  In fact, the very reason this verse was revealed was terminate any discretion men have over spousal support.  Pre-Islamic Arabs used to make spousal support subject to the whim of men, and this verse terminated this unfair practice. 


“Upon hearing my view the imam went ballistic—accusing me of being one of those Westernized liberal men who want to encourage women to become promiscuous.  But Shaykha, as you said, all these texts were written at least a thousand years ago.  How could I be Westernized when I rely on determinations that come from the heart of the Islamic juristic tradition?


“What made this whole encounter even worse is that the divorced couple had a fourteen year old boy.  The imam of course said that custody belongs to the father.  I, on the other hand, said that in my opinion the boy should be consulted as to where he would prefer to reside, and only if he has no preference custody should go to the father.  I explained that this was the view of the jurist and traditionalist al-Tirmidhi and that a very large number of the early jurists held this view.  Apparently, this imam had never heard of this view.  This only increased his anger and it further confirmed that I am a Westernized corrupt jurist.  He eventually stormed out saying that he refuses to be in my presence.”


The Shaykha stared at him as if she was at a loss for words.  Finally, she murmured: “Truly, as God says: ‘The blind are not equal to those who could see, and darkness is not the same as light.’ (13:16; 35:19; 39:9)  The light of knowledge creates facility, flexibility and ease, and the darkness of ignorance makes people immobile and frozen with fear. The darkness conceals the growth of so much that is deformed, twisted, and unseemly.”


“But Shaykha,” he said with a puzzled look, “Many of these imams spend a considerable amount of time in prayer, and they often recite the Qur’an beautifully, and often on that basis they become the leaders in their Islamic centers.”


Umm ‘Umar cut him off: “My young shaykh this reminds of a story reported about Umar bin al-Khattab, may God be pleased with him.  Umar once asked if anyone knew a particular man.  A fellow came forward and said: Yes, I know him.  Umar inquired: Have you dealt with him on some matter involving money or have you perhaps traveled with him?  The man said no, I have not.  Umar said:  Perhaps you saw him in the mosque praying or moving his head back and forth while reading the Qur’an?  The man said: Yes, this is what I observed.  Umar then said: If so then you do not really know him. 


“Piety my son is in the heart for God to judge.  When piety turns into a public performance it tells us nothing.  We judge people according to the way they treat others, and according to their knowledge, which ought to be used in the service of others.


“But my son, I have two questions:  Who are those leaders?  What is their background? And, how are these Islamic centers governed?  Are they plagued by the narcissism of individual despotism or the cult of personality or by institutional structures guaranteeing that the best can rise to the top and a free flow of information and open criticism?”


He smiled for he knew that his teacher with her typical perceptiveness cut to the heart of the matter.  “The leaders of the Islamic centers are for the most part medical doctors, engineers, and computer scientists.  Alternatively, they are controlled by individuals who traveled abroad, typically to Saudi Arabia, for a couple of years and then returned to declare themselves experts on the whole corpus of Islamic law. And no Shaykha, there are no institutions guaranteeing anything.  Certain cliques form around an individual and they cling to power with all their might and strength.  Each Islamic center is like a fiefdom owned by a group of self-declared noblemen. Each center has its group of owners and rulers and they believe themselves entitled to control.  They treat those who come to their centers as customers—not a congregation.  Ironically, the same attitude prevails in their treatment of Islamic law—it is as if each group in control assumes the power to define Islamic law within its territory.  The bases for the claimed or asserted Islamic legal rules are the general impressions and attitudes picked up haphazardly from the moral and ethical climate prevalent among Muslims in the U.S.   Of course, this fiefdom-like territoriality and the prevalence of despotic governance in the various Muslim institutions in the U.S. permits the abysmal condition of Islamic law to continue for the most part unchallenged, and the quality of our thinking about our own intellectual heritage and tradition remains stagnant and unimproved.” 


He was quiet for a second but then recalling something, he raised his eyebrows and wrinkled his forehead as he exclaimed: “Shaykha, at times I do think that the condition of Islamic law in Muslim countries is not much better than it is in the U.S.  A few days ago I read something that really made me wonder as to what kind of pit and abyss we’ve fallen.  Two Saudi shaykhs issued a fatwa claiming that it is a sin for women to access the internet without a male mahram[3].  According to this fatwa women have ‘bad intentions, are weak, and are susceptible to corruption.’  Therefore, the fatwa goes on to say, the mahram must be someone who is aware of women’s ‘bad intentions and their conniving tricks,’ Shaykha, this is not jurisprudence—this is an exercise in bizarre paternalism.  I assume that these Wahhabi shaykhs are basing this on the idea that men should not travel without a mahram, but on what basis do they assume that women are full of bad intentions and are conniving?  This reminds me of another Wahhabi fatwa that held that women should not wear brassieres if they intend to deceive men into thinking that they have ample chests.  What insanity brought us to this level of thinking when our history is full of women jurists and scholars, and there are hundreds of Islamic law books written by women?“


The Shaykha smiled despite herself and then a small chuckle slipped out: “You know my son, it is not women who usually access the pornography sites!”


He looked surprised that the seventy-year old Shaykha knows about what goes on in the internet.

The Shaykha perceptibly noticed his surprise: “Oh my son do not be surprised—a true jurist must know his time and its ills!”  She paused in reflection then continued, “As you know, my young Shaykh, the mahram rule was decreed for the physical safety of traveling women—it was not intended as a form of custodianship.  This is why most jurists held that if physical safety could be insured—for instance, if travel routes are safe from highway robbers—women may indeed travel without a male companion or mahram.  The issues raised by the internet are entirely different than travel—this fatwa is like saying men have the right to decide what women may or may not read or that men may control what women may or may not learn.  In Islamic law, women have the right to be educated, and in our age, the internet has become a method of education.  As to the internet access, who says that as a rule that a man will be more sagacious, pious, or discerning than women?  Men are the ones who indulge in the sins of the internet and they are also the ones who go to London and spend millions of pounds on prostitutes!  Sometimes I think that in the age we live in it is women who should act as the chaperons of men and not the other way around! ” 


“As to what is behind these masochistic determinations?” the Shaykha wondered smilingly, ”Forgive me for saying this, but in the modern age men have not done a very good job protecting the Muslim nation or keeping Muslims united or advanced and competitive in relation to the rest of the world.  And so they blame women—they project their failures on us women!  What is most striking about this internet fatwa is its despotism.  We have moved from insuring the physical safety of women to controlling them.  This fatwa is about controlling women.  Until we learn to treat women with serious respect and dignity we will go no where.”


His eyes sparkled as his lips parted in a wide smile: “You know Shaykha!  The Wahhabis and fanatics are going to say, you are one of those wild feminists suffering from West-intoxication!”


“Yes, for sure,” she retorted, “although your teacher has never been out of Egypt, only reads Arabic, and does not even own a television!”


In reaction both laughed whole heartedly as automatically their hands rose to cover their mouths.  The laughter tapered off and the silence between them seemed to grow deeper.  The somber reality set in again and as if weighed down by their thoughts, they both looked down at the floor.     


The Shaykha’s face had grown sad—her advanced age showed, and the wrinkles covering her face seemed much more pronounced. But she remained silent. The pain in his heart was such that he wished to throw himself in her arms, weep for a long time and then jointly pray.  He wanted to weep for all the learning that now seems to have been lost, to weep for the suffering of Muslims everywhere, and to weep for all the aborted Conferences of the Books that could have taken place.


After what seemed like moments of silence that lasted forever, the Shaykha sadly smiled and still looking at the floor she said.  “You know my American shaykh,” she commented, “The All-Wise warned us not to erect from amongst ourselves Lords other than God. (3:64) The Prophet, may the best blessings and peace be upon him, told us: ‘As you are so you will be led.’  Didn’t the Almighty say: ’Because of what they’ve earned, We make the unjust rule the unjust?’ (6:129).


He nodded his head solemnly.


The Shaykha raised her head and looking straight into his eyes she spoke in a steady and firm voice: “My son, my dear American Shaykh, this is our reality—this is our situation.  But we are never to despair and we must struggle in an endless jihad against ignorance and despotism until one day in all the lands of Islam and among all Muslims the just will lead the just again.”


They parted that day promising to see each other again, and indeed he saw her two times again, each time he attended her classes and she honored him by having him sit next to her facing the class—a sign of respect and honor.  After each class he lost himself for hours browsing through her voluminous library, and conversed with her at length.  But not two weeks had passed and the Shaykha passed away in her sleep with a serene smile on her beautiful face.  Shortly before he returned to the U.S. he attended her funeral and spent hours praying at her grave.  Although she is dead, her endless jihad continues to this very day.     


[1] Subhana Allah is an exclamation praising the wonders of God.  It is often pronounced in prayer or when one is surprised or dismayed by something.

[2] Speculative theology.

[3] A man enjoying a blood relation to the woman like her husband, father, uncle, brother, or son.