ONE EXAMPLE OF how female reality can oppose male (scholarly) perception is in an anecdote regarding the great scholar, Al-Shaykhah Al-Muftiyyah Fâṭimah bint ¢Abbâs Al-Baghdâdiyyah. She used to debate with the ¢ulamâ’ of her time, the majority of whom were men. One such debate was with Shaykh Ṣadr Al-Dîn ibn Al-Wakîl, on the topic of ḥayḍ (menstruation). She won the debate, and she said to him, “You know about this only from the knowledge (of the books), but I know it from the same knowledge and also in practice!”
Likewise, there is the example of discussion on how often a husband is obliged to be sexually intimate with his wife; while it is unanimous that a husband who desires intimacy must be responded to immediately by his wife, the reverse is not held as automatically true by the vast majority of scholars. [*]
Instead, as Imam al-Ghazâli says in his chapter on marriage,
The husband should go to his wife once every four nights. This is fairest, because the [maximum permissible] number of wives is four. One is therefore allowed to extend the interval up to this limit. It is best that the husband should increase or decrease the amount of intercourse in accordance with his wife’s need to guard her virtue, since the preservation of her virtue is a duty of the husband. If the woman’s claim on intercourse has not been fixed [in fiqh], this is because of the difficulty of making and satisfying such a claim. [†]
While at first glance this statement is commendable, one should note that the language is quite different in comparison to the discussion of a husband’s right to intimacy. A husband “should” go to his wife “[at least] once every four nights…” There is no “he must”; there is no, “when his wife calls to him, he is obligated fulfill her desire immediately.”
In fact, a later Hanafi jurist made the bald claim, “After the first time [i.e. consummation of marriage], intercourse is his right, not her right.” [‡]
As well, it has been a common view of various scholars to say that a man is held liable, blameworthy, or accountable to the law [only] if he withholds sexual intimacy from his wife for longer than four months; the obligation is that he provide it at least “once in every third of the year.” [§]
The ‘up to four months’ rule is considered to be derived from the ruling of ¢Umar ibn al-Khattab, when he consulted his daughter Umm Al-Mu’minîn Ḥafṣah Bint ¢Umar on how long a woman could withstand being separated from her husband without sexual intercourse. Ḥafṣah responded, “Four months.” Yet while this statement of hers has been taken to be a general one, applicable to all marriages, it notably ignores the context in which this statement was made – that is, in a context of war. ¢Umar asked this question not in a normative state of peace, but with regards to Muslim soldiers who were deployed in Jihad, and whose wives remained behind.
How, then, could it be that what was a ruling for clearly extenuating circumstances, became the basis of general statements regarding Muslim women’s right to sexual intercourse with their husbands? Al-Ghazâli states that it is ‘difficult to make a claim’ about how often women desire intimacy – well, why must it be specified at all in terms of times per day or month?
Why wasn’t it automatically understood that just as husbands have the (general) right to intimacy from their wives at any time, the reverse would hold true of wives with their husbands? And why was it so difficult to discover this information – couldn’t these scholars simply have spoken to women and found out what their opinions were on the topic? Why is it that codifying a wife’s right to sexual intimacy was made dependent solely upon one statement by a woman, issued regarding non-normative circumstances? This, despite the fact that there is a narration from Al-Bayhaqi that says,
Women have 99 times more desire than men…[**]
Although it must be noted that this narration is graded as weak, there have been discussions surrounding its meaning, with the general idea being that it can best be determined by medical opinions on the topic. (Of which there are many. [††] [‡‡] [§§])
Despite all of this, there instead appears to be a lack of interest in seeking out any additional information from women, and complacency in depending upon that one statement of ḤafṢah’s alone.
While there were scholars such as Ibn Taymiyyah who held that a husband was obligated to fulfill his wife’s desires and that not doing so was grounds for annulment, [***] this view is considered a minority in the vast tradition of Islamic scholars.
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Going back to the point of male scholars’ biases with regards to women, it should be clear now that yes, lack of active and engaged female scholarship has led to a male-dominated perspective on Islamic legal matters that is harmful to women in more than a few ways. Whether this harm was deliberately intended or not, is beside the point.
As Shaykh Akram emphasized repeatedly in his lectures on the History of Islamic Female Scholarship, traditional Islamic scholarship does have a significant lack of female voices, input, and perspectives on fiqh matters. Outside of a handful of women, the most well-known of them having been Ṣaḥâbiyyât or Tâbi¢iyyât, it is nigh-impossible to find female scholars’ names, rulings, and contributions to fiqh in any given discourse.
Where female scholarship is noted and recognized, these cases are very often examples of transmission of knowledge rather than production of knowledge. One notable consequence of this is that there is a significant dearth of scholarly literature produced by female scholars themselves. Omar Kahala, the author of A¢lâm Al-Nisâ’ –which is a veritable encyclopedia of notable women in Islamic history– listed the names and biographies of around a thousand women, of whom only ten were known to be writers (excluding poetry).[†††]
Having said all of what we have noted: Does this mean that those of us who acknowledge and point out these biases automatically believe that the corpus of Islamic scholarship should be thrown out as invalid?
No. Rather, it means that we recognize that over 1400 years of Muslim scholars worked to provide what they believed were the correct answers to religious matters; but that from their work, there is evidence that certain matters need to be re-evaluated and redressed. It must especially be stressed that we desire to do so in light of the Qur’an and Sunnah, going back to the original texts and the evidences derived therefrom… not, as it is wrongly assumed by so many, that we wish to begin from scratch and impose a 21st century Western, secular, liberal paradigm on the texts themselves.
This is not to say that we today do not have our own biases either, but rather, that we should be aware of the biases which we bring to our effort and that we should ensure as best we can to set any prejudices aside and to focus on the foundational principles of our religion and its system of law-making.
It is beyond the scope of this article, or the qualifications of this author, to lay out a specific methodology for doing so (although it should be noted that the experts of Islamic sciences have already developed numerous rigorous methodologies to ensure the authenticity, validity, and strength of Islamic knowledge that is transmitted and built upon).
One question that we should ask ourselves in relation to this, however, is: Just as we in the present must be held to those rigorous standards… how much of the scholarship of the past, including the quotes mentioned previously –as well as others on different topics and opinions– would be considered strong and authentic according to those selfsame methodologies? Again, this is not to imply that we must reject classical scholarship in general, but that we have an obligation – both scholars and laypeople – to be more discerning in what is considered acceptable to share and teach amongst the masses.
Furthermore, it is erroneous to claim that the practice of revisiting past scholarship, critiquing it, and arriving to different conclusions is a somehow new and dangerous invention. Rather, to do so has always been an integral part of the history of Islamic scholarship – scholars debated and critiqued each other’s’ opinions, or the opinions of their teachers, or of scholars from the past, or of different schools of thoughts. Books were written criticizing others, often using strong wording.
Thus, it is wrong to claim that a call to revisit our past scholarship and to make an effort to derive rulings and conclusions more in line with the now more widely available and authenticated texts of the Qur’an and Sunnah is a prohibited innovation. In fact, this flies in direct contradiction to our actual history of Islamic scholarship.
It is in the spirit of Islamic scholarship itself –the desire to seek guidance in both the technical and spiritual aspects of our religion and our lives, to embody the spirit of the Qur’an and Sunnah– that we must acknowledge the reality of biased Islamic scholarship. In fact, we must work towards improving that scholarship such that it more accurately reflects our goal to live in a manner most reflective of Divine Justice and Mercy.
Special thanks and credit to brother Omar Anchassi for his invaluable assistance in providing material regarding female literacy; and Shaykha Somaya AlZahrani for her patience with my numerous requests for translations.
[†] Book on the Etiquette of Marriage (chapter from Ihya’ ‘Ulûm Al-Dîn)
[‡] Ibn ¢Âbidîn, Radd Al-Muḥtâr
[§] Ibn Jibrîn, “The Ruling on Either of the Two Spouses Denying the Other Their Lawful Rights.” http://www.fatawaislamiyah.com/post/3683/the-ruling-on-either-of-the-two-spouses-denying-the-other-their-lawful-rights/