Akrita Reyar Increasingly the battle lines seem to be drawn between the West and the Muslim world. As I am neither a Western Christian nor an Arab Muslim, I enjoy a ringside view of the events and thus the luxury of neutrality. While the West considers the Arab world to be stuck in medieval times, where women are browbeaten and every man is a fundamentalist, the Muslim world blames the West for being oppressive and nearly Satanic; where women are loose and men exploitative. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between. What needs to be acknowledged is that there is space for all, that each way of life is unique and must be respected. And that in this day and age we cannot live with a “my way or the highway” attitude. It is my firmly held belief that Islam is one of the most misconstrued religions of the world. And I don’t think many in the Muslim world are doing much to educate the rest of world or clear the cobwebs. Popular Perception Vs Reality The two most misunderstood notions that have now stereotyped Islam are the concept of Jehad and the status of women.
The world considers Jehad to be a war that the Muslims wage against Kafirs(non-believers) in order to save the Islamic world from repression and to establish the order of Allah. Unfortunately, some Muslims do proclaim this to be their religious duty and are willing to go to any extent in the service of God. Well, one version of the Prophet’s Hadiths(sayings) does indeed allow Muslims to take up arms. But the permission is applicable only to a Muslim state, and not just any bunch of mercenaries. Even when it involves the state, there should be a strong political motive behind going into the attack, and should preferably be done only in self defence; and that too as a last resort. So dialogue must be tried out first. "The best (Jehad) is (to speak) a word of justice to an oppressive ruler." - Sunan of Abu-Dawood, Hadith 2040 Enlightened Muslim thought believes in a more esoteric version. Jehad, in the wider sense, is originally supposed to have been representative of the struggle that a man wages within himself. It is that perennial battle between our virtuous side and the malevolent. The idea is therefore to strengthen our own will power so as to make the correct choices and let right prevail over wrong; so that we in the end emerge as better human beings. So for the justification that is given in the name of Jehad after every wave of violence, nothing could be further from the truth. The second prevalent misconception relates to the position of women in Muslim societies. Most of the world feels they are a subjugated lot, not given their due and expected to be subservient. They therefore feel sorry for their state. Here I must admit that I myself am not sure whether women in Muslim societies share the Western empathy for them. The first prototype cited by the West to prove the secondary status of women is the existence of polygamy. That a woman may have to accept three others to share her husband is an abominable thought. It is actually. What needs to be understood is that Islam, though it accepts polygamy, does not recommend such an arrangement. A man is given the advice that he must treat all his wives equally, else it is better to marry only one. Here I would also like to draw attention to the zeitgeist for such an edict. The Muslim man was allowed to marry multiple women at a time when most men were at war and therefore the women outnumbered men. That was one reason. Apart from this, many women also lost their husbands in battle. Unlike today, when women can eek out their own living, at that time women were not so economically independent and were therefore vulnerable to exploitation. In that scenario, sharing a husband with other women may have felt like a more respectable option. What is also of significance here is the time in history. Prophet Mohammad lived in the 6th and the 7th Century. At that time, in most of the world, some form of polygamy or polyandry was perfectly acceptable. In that scenario, such an arrangement may not have looked so out of place. The second impression pertains to the Hijab or the veil or its various versions. Quran only calls for women to dress modestly and not be unnecessarily provocative. Interestingly it also calls on men to treat women with respect. “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty......And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms...." (Quran 24:30,31). That they must be covered in a set format from head to toe is man’s construal. The aim was also to keep unnecessary male attention at bay. "O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their bodies (when abroad) so that they should be known and not molested" (Quran 33:59). I do know for a fact that lot of Muslim women find a sense of security in their veil and think it helps them move more freely in public. But then there are women, like some in Iran, who do not want this to be binding on them any more. So here, I feel, we must leave it to the Muslim women to decide how best they feel comfortable and not impose our views on them. The third relates to the one sided divorce system, where the woman is perceived to be at the mercy of her husband who by uttering the word Talaq, can discard her without a fair hearing. The Prophet has in fact called upon men to treat their wives with due respect and love and never resort to physical abuse. The Prophet Muhammad said: "The best among you are those who treat their wives in the best manner." - Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 217 Narrated Ayesha - "(The Prophet Muhammad) never beat anyone with his hand, neither a woman nor a servant." - Sahih Muslim, Hadith 1082 While the concept of divorce is present in Islam keeping in mind the realities of society, the idea is still to encourage reconciliation. The man is undoubtedly given the upper hand, but divorce cannot be pronounced in a matter of minutes or in a fit of rage. Only when things have broken down to point of being irreconcilable can a man initiate the procedure of divorce. After having pronounced the word Talaq once, there has to be a gap in time, when he can contemplate his decision before he repeats the word the second time and then again ponders over it before he finally pronounces the word of separation. The man cannot just throw the woman out of his house. There has to be a waiting period of three months, so as to ensure that the woman is not pregnant. This also allows things to cool down, and provides an opportunity for the couple to think over matters. In the interim if the two decide to get back together, the divorce is automatically annulled. Even in the case when divorce is the only way out, the woman is compulsorily given due maintenance. Moreover it is not just that the man can call off a relationship; a woman too can initiate divorce proceedings against her husband if she is feeling suffocated in matrimony. "And if you fear that they may not be able to keep the limits of Allah, then there is no sin for either of them, if the woman redeems herself with that" (2:229). In the point that I want to make is that the world ought to know that the Prophet was ahead of times when it came to taking up the cause of women. The concepts of maintenance, giving rights to women to initiate a separation etc were avant-garde in those days. Another ground breaking provision was that of including women in inheritance rights. Islam empowered women by providing for them a share in property, about half of that given to men. This ensured she would not be at the mercy of men for her livelihood and could lead a life of dignity. It has taken literally centuries, after the Prophet left this Earth, for us to start demanding a share of the economic clout. The Prophet was also a catalyst in stopping the practice of female infanticide, when newly born girls were buried alive in the deserts. The Prophet Muhammad said: "If anyone has a female child, and does not bury her alive (a pre-Islamic practice), or slight her, or prefer his (male) children to her, God will bring him into Paradise." - Sunan of Abu-Dawood, Hadith 2443 In many parts of the world including India, we are yet to learn this lesson and continue to murder our daughters in the womb.