A long post – you might want to get a cuppa before starting!

This is an interesting Khutbah (sermon) by Khalid Latif, the Imam of the New York University Islamic Centre and the New York City Police Department, in which he highlights the lack of knowledge regarding gender issues, specifically women’s issues, in Islam. I think it’s a good khutbah for three reasons:

  1. It’s not just a reminder, it’s an inspiration. The Khutbah is supposed to remind and inspire you to hold on to your faith. It’s supposed to leave you wanting to learn more, to do more for this amanah we have been given.
  2. It addresses the audience specifically – that is, it’s a discussion of an issue that affects the Ummah as a whole, but in a way that makes it pertinent for those who are in the congregation: Muslims in NYC / America. This talk was obviously delivered in March, which in America is National Women’s History Month.
  3. The topic is relevant to our times. The imam addresses an issue that is currently of great importance to the Ummah: the issue of women in Islam.

Here’s a breakdown of what I thought were some of the most important points that Imam Khalid made in this Khutbah.

N.B.: 

  1. I still strongly recommend that you listen to the whole thing, because I’ve only highlighted a few issues that I want to discuss further.
  2. Obviously it takes a little while to start in the video because of the introductory khutbah, which is in Arabic, followed by the English translation.
  3. Much of this (like, 95%) is my interpretation / discussion of issues which Imam Khalid Latif brought up in his talk.

One of the first points the Imam makes that really resounded with me (who am I kidding? A lot of his points resounded with me, that’s why I’m writing this, duh!) was that we are our own worst enemy. We, the Muslim people, are mistreating our own women. It’s Muslims who make it hard for Muslim women. How? Well, you tell me: where are the people who should be protecting us? Where are the role models in our communities for young girls, for teenagers, for new sisters, young women, mothers, etc? Where are they? Can you name one in your community? Because when I was growing up, there was nobody that I looked up to for their Islam. There were plenty of people who were well-educated. Plenty of beautiful, healthy sisters to reinforce a healthy body image. Plenty of busybodies tut-tutting if I did anything they didn’t approve of. But there was nobody that I looked up to as a good Muslim, somebody that I wanted to be like Islamically. This is a big problem in our ummah as a whole.

He then goes on to say that we are so confused about matters of gender that we don’t even know where to begin. This is so true. In our communities, in our discourse, we don’t even know where to start discussing gender issues or women’s issues in Islam. Do we start with hijab? Do we start with marriage issues? Do we start with Aqeedah? And how do we address women’s matters in our society anyway? As Imam Latif mentions, the prophet (pbuh) already outlined 4 women in Islam as role models. Role models for both men and women. And these four women are so different from one another that we can draw so many lessons from them. They are:

  1. Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, the wife of the prophet.
  2. Fatima bint Muhammed, the daughter of the prophet.
  3. Maryam, the mother of Isa (Jesus).
  4. Assiya, the wife of Pharoah.

But the problem is, when we talk about these great women we do so in a manner that is too idealistic and so much just gets lost in translation. We set them on a pedestal and talk of them with respect, but then we treat our own women like ‘garbage’. All of which begs the question: what benefit do we derive from their being in this world? What do we really understand from them? And what are we going to do about it?

Another very important matter that the imam brought up, is the necessity of identifying solutions as well as problems. It’s easy to look at the way things are and criticise and find fault with them. But the only use in pointing out all the problems we have is if we are prepared to find solutions to them. In this khutbah, Khalid Latif identifies two problems with how women’s issues are approached in Islam. These two problems are, perhaps, most acutely felt in the West, but I think we can all agree that they are present and widespread in the Ummah as a whole. Theses problems are (drum roll, please):

1 – Knowledge and how it’s disseminated.
While many women attend seminars, talks, etc, very few of these courses are aimed or intended for women, and as Imam Latif points out, its a different conversation as to what it means to be a Muslim man in comparison to what it means to be a Muslim woman. This needs to be addressed in our Ummah as a whole. Furthermore, and perhaps more specifically in the West, as well as in some cultures across the Islamic world, women often don’t have the access to the scholars, lecturers, students of knowledge, etc, that they need. (The reason that I don’t feel that this is as widespread an issue as the manner in which women are addressed, is that across the Islamic world Imams, scholars, etc give talks in mosques on a regular basis, often specifically for women, in which these women can ask and acquire the knowledge they need. The problem then becomes a social and physical one, of getting to the mosques.)

His solution to this particular problem is two-fold:

a) They need as much access to scholars as men. Women need – it’s their right, Subhanallah! – to be able to learn their religion from good sources, and not left to wade their way through heavy tomes that are subject to misinterpretation. This religion is learnt from other people, people who can correct mistakes, discuss concerns and answer questions. And this is precisely what women are unfortunately so often denied.

b) Women need to seek the knowledge they require for themselves. Amongst both men and women, too often Muslims don’t think of Islam as a career-choice. We think of becoming lawyers, doctors, teachers, etc, devoting our lives to these areas. But how many of us ever consider devoting our lives to the learning and understanding of Islam? This is especially pertinent with regards to women, because the knowledge becomes empowering. As Imam Latif says, when you have a question about why someone is treating you a certain way and they’re the ones in possession of the knowledge base, and they can manipulate it, and you don’t know if they’re right or wrong, you’re going to get stuck where you are.

How is knowledge empowering? Simple, it enables us to develop our own sense of entitlement so that we can stand up for ourselves. It’s not enough to go ask is it ok for someone to do whatever, if you know for yourself what is and isn’t allowed in this religion, you can stand up for yourself as and when the issue arises. And the simple fact of the matter is that until we can do this, we can’t really deal with any of the major issues that we have. Issues such as: why wear hijab? What do I do if I want to get a divorce? Can I travel without a male relative for Hajj? Can I work? Can I be the president of an organisation? Can I speak in front of men? If we learn for ourselves nobody will ever be able to keep us in the dark.

2) The hijab:
The problem with hijab is how it’s used to identify women in Islam. Just because it’s Fard (obligatory) it doesn‘t mean that we can use it as a way to measure the good and bad of a person. If you want to use it as a symbol of modesty, great. But does that necessitate that one who doesn‘t wear it is immodest? Of course not, and that‘s what we need to understand. As Imam Latif says, just because someone doesn’t have the qualifying term of what you deem the hijab to be, it doesn’t mean that they’re the extreme opposite. The problem with hijab is that our rhetoric is disenchanting, and so nobody wants to do it because of how we talk about it.

Another problem with hijab is that instead of focusing on what women can offer to everyone, all anyone focuses on is the hijab and they all go on about how if you don’t wear it you’re going to hell. Where’s the gentleness, compassion and mercy in how we engage one another? One of the most comforting things the Imam said during this Khutbah was that it’s not easy to wear our religion on our sleeves. And we need to support and understand that. Too often it’s taken for granted that women should wear hijab and it’s obligatory, so they should just get on with it. There is no understanding of how hard it is to always be making a statement of your religious beliefs every single time you step out of the door. It requires courage, strength, faith and heaps of support. But so rarely is that fact recognised. And I’m not saying that it’s not a matter of pride to wear hijab, because it is. I’m proud to be able to wear it for the sake of Allah and like any form of worship it brings me closer to Allah when I do. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The one part of the talk that I actually paused and replayed a few times to get down the quote verbatim was when Imam Latif said the following about the hijab in the west: “Most of us as men are only identified as Muslim because we’re walking next to a woman who’s wearing a headscarf.” I was like, YES!! Thank you!

He then reminds us that Allah looks for a reason to be merciful, not a reason to be harsh (which is just as well, because nobody will enter paradise except by the mercy of Allah). But for us to qualify for that divine mercy we have to show and exercise mercy and compassion amongst ourselves. And we don’t do that.

There is a hadith of the Prophet in which he (saw) says: “Whoever has three daughters or sisters, or two daughters or two sisters, and lives along with them in a good manner, and has patience with them, and fears Allah with regard to them will enter Paradise.” (Reported by Abu Dawud, Al-Tirmidhee) And in another narration: “They will be a shield for him from the Fire.” (Reported by Ahmad and Ibn Maajah) We need to really understand what exactly this means, and then try to live up to it.

Furthermore, we need to have healthy conversations about gender in our Ummah. People are looking at whether or not we oppress or liberate women. The question is: which category do we fit in? Are we evidence for the negative stereotype, or are we evidence for the dismantling and demolishing of that stereotype? We need to ask ourselves while we still have the time to do so.

What do you think of this khutbah (good or bad!)? What do you think are the reasons for the problems discussing gender in Islam and what do you think we can do about them?

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