The Prophet and the Women

What is the Koran's real attitude to women? Should every sura be taken at face value? Is it time for a change of attitude? Nahed Selim, a liberal Dutch Muslim, offers a female perspective on Islam's holy scriptures. Abdul-Ahmad Rashid reports

In "Take the Koran From the Men!" (not yet published in English), the Dutch Muslim journalist Nahed Selim has some very critical things to say about her brothers and sisters in the faith. Her close study of Islam's holy book began with a traumatic historical event: in 1967, as the 15-year-old daughter of a liberal Egyptian family, she had experienced Israel's crushing of the Egyptian army during the Six Day War. This military disaster had far-reaching consequences for the land on the Nile.

More and more people sought solace in their long-neglected Islamic faith, while fanatical Muslim organisations gathered masses of recruits and gradually made inroads on women's right and liberties.

Theological ambiguities

In the course of her research, Nahed Selim focussed first of all on the Koran's description of the Creation. She discovered that it differs substantially from the account given in the Bible; and she claims that this fact has not yet entered the consciousness of most Muslims: "There is a great deal about Islam that non-Muslims do not understand. This is perfectly understandable, because even we contemporary Muslims are frequently faced with unclarities and ambiguities that cause confusion."

Nahed Selim's book offers numerous examples of the ways in which the Koran's message has been – and still is – deliberately interpreted in ways disadvantageous to Muslim women. From strict dress codes to unjust laws of inheritance to the way men are allowed to use their women as sexual partners according to their whim: the book is filled with forthright criticism of Koran interpretations that greatly disadvantage women.

According to Selim, responsibility for this state of affairs lies mainly with the men. In the Islamic world, especially in the early years following the death of Mohammed, men laboured to prevent women from exercising their God-given rights, intimidating and indoctrinating them in the process. The men set about these tasks in a variety of ways and with considerable ingenuity.

Struggling with Islam's highest authorities

Nahed Selim breaches a taboo in the Islamic world by venturing to cast doubt on Islam's highest authorities, including even the Prophet himself. She discusses quite openly certain allegedly misogynistic statements by the founding father of Islam – although she also insists that many later theologians had good reason to put words into Mohammed's mouth as a means of furthering their own agendas.

She illustrates this point by examining the term "zina", which is used in the Koran in connection with dress codes for Muslim women: "In Arabic, 'zina' means jewellery or make-up; i.e. anything that accentuates a woman's beauty. But Ibn Abbas, a companion of the Prophet who recorded many of his sayings, claimed that the word actually refers to beauty itself. So if the Koran says that women are not permitted to show their zina in public, and if 'zina' means 'beauty', then women are obliged to conceal their entire bodies."

Contemporary realities

The author calls, then, for a fresh interpretation of the holy scripture that takes full account of contemporary realities. Nowadays, certain verses of the Koran are no longer regarded as valid; and Selim argues, as an emancipated Muslim woman, that the same should apply to verses with a misogynistic message:

"I compare it to the institution of slavery. Although the Koran disapproves of slavery and strengthens the rights of the slave, it did not actually abolish slavery. In the modern world, slavery no longer exists, and no one would demand its reintroduction just because it's mentioned in the Koran. The same principle should apply when it comes to the situation of women: verses that were granted validity in ancient times should not be taken seriously today. Otherwise, we will end up with an underdeveloped society."

Nahed Selim devotes several chapters of her book to the wives of the Prophet. She describes their elevated and respected position in early Islamic society, and she stresses their importance as role models for all free-thinking, independent women in the Islamic world today. Indeed, the original Dutch version of her book is entitled "The Prophet's Wives". Despite the sensationalist title chosen by the German publishers ("Take the Koran From the Men!"), Nahed Selim's book remains a highly thought-provoking read.

With her radically critical approach, she opens up aspects of her theme that have so far received little attention in such a form. Though some of her arguments lack a firm theological foundation, those arguments are very courageous, and they provide a basis for a debate that is long overdue.

Abdul-Ahmad Rashid

© 2006

Translated from the German from Patrick Lanagan

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