By Carla Power
When I was eleven years old, I bought a tiny book containing a verse from the Koran from a stall outside a Cairo mosque. I was neither Muslim nor literate in Arabic; I bought it for its dainty proportions. The stall’s proprietress watched me bemusedly as I cooed over the matchbox-sized object.
I found it over a quarter century later, one sticky summer afternoon in St. Louis, wrapped in a jewellery box in my parents’ house. By then, not only had I inherited my father’s interest in the Islamic world, but my childhood fascination had been seasoned by reporting on Muslim societies as a journalist at Newsweek and then Time magazine.
Yet, until 2012, I’d never done more than dip into the Koran – the source of the faith the jihadists and extremists I was writing about claimed was driving them.
The Koran began as a series of revelations to Muhammad, a caravan trader, in the seventh century. These word grew into a spiritual, social, and political force whose impact is now global.
As the scripture of the planet’s fastest-growing religion— with 1.6 billion followers, Islam is second in popularity only to Christianity— it stands as a moral compass for hundreds of millions. Reading it should be a prerequisite for understanding humanity.
I was surprised to discover that the Koran can refract in dazzling ways. The San Francisco civil rights lawyer may discover freedoms in the same chapter in which a twelfth-century Cairo cleric saw strictures.
The Marxist and the Wall Street banker, the despot and the democrat, the terrorist and the pluralist—each can point to a passage in support of his cause.
Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, the Islamic scholar who taught me the Koran, once told me an old Indian joke. A Hindu goes to his Muslim neighbor and asks if he could borrow a copy of the Koran.
“Of course,”said the Muslim. “We’ve got plenty! Let me get you one from my library.”
A week later, the Hindu returns.
“Thanks so much,” he said. “Fascinating. But I wonder, could you give me a copy of the other Koran?”
“Um, you’re holding it,” said the Muslim.
“Yeah, I read this,” replied the Hindu. “But I need a copy of the Koran that’s followed by Muslims.”
“The joke is right,” said Akram. “All this talk about jihad and forming Islamic states, that’s not what the Koran says!”
That day at Oxford, the mood was bleak. Since 9/11, we’d watched relations between Muslims and non-Muslims fray in ways destined to remain unrepaired during our lifetimes.
When the Twin Towers fell, the world had cleaved in two, we were told. “You’re either with us,” intoned my president, George W. Bush, “or against us.”
In such a climate, our friendship felt freakish. It had always been an oddity: I’m a secular feminist, Jewish on my mother’s side and Quaker on my father’s. Akram is a conservative alim, or Muslim scholar. Yet we both sought connections between our seemingly divided worlds.
Educated in India and Saudi Arabia, with twenty years in Britain and seasons spent studying in Damascus and Medina under his belt, the Sheikh has a cultural scope that spans continents.
My own cosmopolitanism was born of a childhood being towed around the world by a restless father, a man who yearned for minaret-studded skylines lit by scimitar moons.
I had lived in Tehran, Kabul, Delhi, and Cairo growing up; I was a well-trained little nomad, comfortable most places as long as I had my parents, a Laura Ingalls Wilder paperback, and the occasional playmate.
My earliest lessons in cultural difference were crude: in Qom, the Iranian city of seminaries and scholars, every female, even five-year-olds like me, wore a black cloak called a chador. In Afghanistan, you never went sleeveless, never photographed someone without permission, and never refused a cup of chai.
When I told a Muslim friend of mine that I was to be studying the Koran with a sheikh, she had one request. “Ask him,”she said, “why Muslim men treat women so badly.”
When I did, he said it was because men weren’t reading the Koran properly.
All too often, people read the Koran selectively, the Sheikh explained, taking phrases out of context.
“People just use it for whatever point they want to make,” he shrugged. “They come to it with their own ideas and look for verses that confirm what they want to hear.”
In 1998, I went to Afghanistan to report on life for women under the Taliban. During their five-year reign in Kabul, the Taliban’s major policy initiative was to ban anything that they deemed to be un-Islamic, including kites, nail polish, and the public display of women’s faces.
The most devastating of the Taliban edicts, however, was the ban on women’s education.
At one point during my trip I asked the father of a ten-year-old girl whether she ever went out. His answer: “For what?”
In the years that the Taliban were busy keeping women at home and uneducated, Akram was uncovering a radically different version of Islamic tradition. Its luminaries included women like Ummal-Darda, a seventh-century jurist and scholar who taught jurisprudence in the mosques of Damascus and Jerusalem.
Her students were men, women, and even the caliph. Another woman in Akram’s research discoveries: the fourteenth- century Syrian scholar Fatimah al- Bataihiyyah, who taught both men and women in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, drawing students from as far away as Fez.
It had begun by accident, he explained. Reading classical texts on hadith (the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad), he kept running across women’s names as authorities. He decided to do a biographical dictionary—a well-established genre in Muslim scholarly culture—that included all the women experts of hadith.
“A short book, then?” I teased.
“That’s what I thought, too,” said Akram. “I was expecting to find maybe twenty or thirty women. I was planning to publish a pamphlet. But it seems there are more.”
“Really?” I said. “Well, like how many more?”
Akram’s work, al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam, stands as a riposte to the notion, peddled from Kabul to Mecca, that Islamic knowledge is men’s work and always has been. “I do not know of another religious tradition in which women were so central, so present, so active in its formative history,” Akram wrote.
Women scholars taught judges and imams, issued fatwas, and traveled to distant cities. Some made lecture tours across the Middle East.
At first, I assumed that these women’s names had been forgotten in much the same way that Western women’s lives had been ignored. For most of Western civilization, men wrote history, and they wrote what they knew. Until feminist historians began unearthing women’s achievements after the 1960s, women’s contributions were left unsung.
In the context of Islamic culture, the erasure of women was rather more complex. “Muslim society prizes female modesty,” Akram explained one day on the phone. “Traditionally, many Muslim families didn’t want the names of their wives or their daughters published.”
Keeping women’s names out of classroom, madrasa, or mosque records was just a broad interpretation of the concept of hijab. The term, commonly used to refer to women’s head coverings, in fact referred more generally to the modesty required by both men and women. In an effort to keep women shielded from public view, the lives and works of learned women were simply left unrecorded.
The broad interpretation of hijab persists today, he said.
“Once, I wrote an article about going on hajj [the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca] for an Urdu newspaper,” Akram told me. “I wanted to include the names of the people in my pilgrimage party, but all the men told me not to use the names of the women in their family.”
“So how did you refer to them?”
“As ‘the wife of so-and-so’ and the‘daughter of so-and-so.’ ”
A generation ago, my own mother had done the same. Her address labels from the 1960s read “Mrs. Richard W. Power.”
Given the tradition of the unnamed woman, the nine thousand women the Sheikh had found were probably just a fraction of the female Islamic scholars through history.
Bust of Aristotle, ca 384 – 322 BC. DeAgostini/Getty Images
“You know when Islamic scholars get really against women?” the Sheikh asked me. “When they start studying philosophy.” Aristotle, a man who held that the subjugation of women was both “natural” and a “social necessity,” influenced key Muslim thinkers who shaped medieval fiqh, the theory of Islamic law, argued Akram.
Before Aristotle became a core text, and before the medieval scholars enshrined their views on gender roles in to law, men and women were accorded far more equal freedoms in Islam.
“I tell people, ‘God has given girls qualities and potential,’ ” he said. “If they aren’t allowed to develop them, if they aren’t provided with opportunities to study and learn, it’s basically a live burial.”
The Sheikh’s work on women scholars challenges bigots of all types. The Taliban gunman who shoots a girl for going to school. The mullah who bars women from his mosque. The firebrand who claims that feminism is a Western ideology undermining the Islamic way of life. The Westerner who claims that Islam oppresses women, and always has.
And yet, with the exception of a single-volume introduction, published in English, his research lies dormant in the hard drive of his computer. Forty volumes would prove too expensive, said his usual publishers in Damascus, Beirut, and Lucknow.
Despite entreaties from his students, he wants to see it as a book before publishing it online. Some of his students have started a Muhaddithat fund, attempting to raise money for publication.
If there was ever proof that a pious Muslim woman need not be a submissive wife and mother, it is the life of Aisha, the third of the Prophet’s eleven wives. She has divided opinions ever since the seventh century, among both Muslims and non-Muslims.
A top Islamic scholar, an inspiration to champions of women’s rights, a military commander riding on camelback, and a fatwa-issuing jurist, Aisha’s intellectual standing and religious authority were astonishing, by the standards of both our own time and hers.
Aisha is not the only wife of Muhammad whose life explodes notions of what constitutes a “traditional” Muslim woman. Khadija ran a caravan business in Mecca. A wealthy and successful trader, she was also a twice-widowed single mother, fifteen years Muhammad’s senior, and his boss.
Her marriage proposal to the future Prophet was forthright: “I like you because of our relationship, your high reputation among your people, your trustworthiness, your good character and truthfulness.”
Khadija emerges as an impressive presence, but it is Aisha who shimmers: her penchant for wearing safflower red, her jealousy of her co-wives. Here is her crisp account of a quarrel with Safiyya, a Jewish convert and the Prophet’s tenth wife: “I insulted her father, and she insulted mine.”
She was betrothed at six or seven. “I was playing on a seesaw and had become dishevelled,” she said. “I was taken and prepared and then brought in to him. He was shown my picture in silk.” The silken image appeared to the Prophet in a dream. The Angel Gabriel appeared holding the portrait, and said, “Marry her. She is your wife.”
The marriage was an extremely happy one. Muhammad’s love for Aisha was “like a firm knot in a rope,” he once told her, ever constant. Even today, she is known by the epithet “the Beloved of the Beloved of Allah.”
Still, Aisha’s description of the short route from seesaw to silk picture disgusted me. I couldn’t help thinking of Nujood Ali.
She was ten when I met her, in Sana, Yemen. I’d been sent by an American magazine to interview the girl who had become Yemen’s most famous divorcée. A child with a passion for Tom and Jerry cartoons, she had been married at nine.
After one sister was kidnapped and another raped, her unemployed father, who had sixteen children and two wives, figured an early marriage would keep Nujood fed and safe. On her wedding day, she got a twenty-dollar ring, three dresses, and two hijabs, but the excitement wore off by the evening, when, she said, her thirty-year-old groom raped her.
A year later, she made Yemeni history by taking a taxi downtown to the courts and demanding a divorce. Asked by her future lawyer why, she responded: “I hate the nights.”
Nujood’s case made headlines across the world. When a law in Yemen was passed raising the minimum marriage age to seventeen, it met with so much opposition from conservatives that it was repealed.
In 2010, the Associated Press reported that Yemen’s Muslim leaders had issued a statement declaring that any supporters of the new law would be denounced as un-Islamic, and apostates. It took until 2014 for there to be a concerted push to pass a law banning child marriages.
Akram teaching a class. Cambridge Islamic College.
One Sunday, the Sheikh was teaching a class on child marriage in Oxford. “There were about forty guys in the room, and just a few women,” recalled Arzoo, one of those women.
Arzoo raised her hand and asked how Islamic law could possibly condone anything that led to such suffering. She spoke of parents marrying off their kids for money rather than protection; of internal bleeding and prolapsed uteruses, those all-too common results of underage intercourse and underage childbirth.
For weeks, Azroo and Mehrun, another female student, debated the issue with Akram. At first, he held that while child marriage was permissible, no girl should have sex before she begins menstruating.
Then, one Sunday, Akram made an announcement.
“He said, ‘I have been talking to Arzoo and Mehrunisha and I’ve revised my position,’ ” recalled Arzoo, in a Skype conversation.
He had gone back to the sources, and had found an eighth-century judge and jurist, Ibn Shubruma, with a sound fatwa against the practice of child marriage. Ibn Shubruma argued that the issue hinged on autonomy. When girls reach puberty, they can choose whom to marry. By being married in childhood, this choice was taken away from them.
Arzoo and Mehrun had changed Akram’s mind. “I’ve learned from these girls,” he said.
Unfortunately, many of the men who deny their wives and daughters basic freedoms hide behind their Korans. A favourite passage for patriarchs is the famous 4:34, the thirty-fourth verse of “The Women,” the Koran’s fourth chapter.
These six lines must surely rank among the most hotly debated in Muslim scripture. The women’s group Musawah has called them the “DNA of patriarchy” for the Islamic legal tradition. For it is here that many scholars have claimed to find Allah setting out men’s superiority and authority over women, an authority that can be backed up by force.
One popular translation, by the early-twentieth-century English translator Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, reads:
“Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property [for the support of women]. So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them.”
Debates on how to translate the verse rage. New translations suggest less sexist meanings than earlier ones.
One casts men as women’s “protectors and maintainers,” another says that “men are to take care of women, because God has given them greater strength.”
Suffragettes in Zurich, Switzerland, January 1971. Corbis
One thing remains certain: men’s interpretations of the verse have made millions of women miserable.
Muftis, or Islamic judges, cite it to excuse domestic violence. The Saudi Arabian government leveraged its message to legislate a “guardianship” system wherein women could not, until recently, open a bank account or travel abroad without a male relative’s permission.
When I raised it with him, Akram told me that verse 4:34 starts by saying men and women are created “from one soul.” So the Koran starts from the assumption of absolute equality in creation.
Besides, he noted, the Prophet never hit his wives. “The best among you,” said the Prophet Muhammad, “is the one who is best towards his wife.”
Once, when a student asked him what he thought of feminism, Akram answered without hesitation.
“Feminism wants justice for women. Where Muslims aren’t doing justice for the women, these movements will come.”
But changing prevailing attitudes will take time, Akram advised me. “In Europe,” he said. “They talk as though it was always the way it is now for women. But in some places, women have only been voting since the 1970s.”
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani advocate for girls education, 2013. Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images
From the moment the first revelation—“Read!”—came down to the Prophet, Islam was established as a faith of the word. The good Muslim must read the sources. But with a text as intricate and powerful as the Koran, reading meant far more than mere literacy.
Across the world, Muslim progressives in places as disparate as Jakarta and Virginia have read 4:34 anew, chiselling off the man-made prejudices that have hardened into Truth over centuries.
Pakistani schoolgirls are defying Taliban edicts in their quest for education. African activists are demanding that local mullahs point to where, exactly, the Koran advocates female genital mutilation. Meanwhile, Malaysian campaigners travel to small-town mosques and schools, handing out pamphlets with bright red covers asking, “Are Men and Women Equal Before Allah?”
More and more people are realizing that the answer to that last question is yes. A few years before I started studying with Akram, I attended a conference organized by Musawah, the global women’s organization devoted to reforming Islamic family laws, held at a glittering hotel ballroom in Kuala Lumpur.
Toward the evening’s end, the Koran’s verse 33:35 was read over the loudspeaker. It was revealed to Muhammad after one of his wives, the formidable Umm Salamah, asked him why, exactly, it seemed sometimes as though God only spoke to men, not women. The response came soon after:
For the men who acquiesce to the will of God, and the women who acquiesce,
the men who believe and the women who believe,
the men who are devout and the women who are devout,
the men who are truthful and the women who are truthful,
the men who are constant and the women who are constant,
the men who are humble and the women who are humble,
the men who give charity and the women who give charity,
the men who fast and the women who fast,
the men who are chaste and the women who are chaste,
and the men and women who remember God a lot, God has arranged forgiveness for them, and a magnificent reward.
It was the promise of this forgiveness, of this reward, that drove the Sheikh.
He wouldn’t call himself a feminist. Just a Muslim who has read his Koran.