Still On Women Preachers And The Challenge Of Vocal Nudity

My last week column on the tafseer of Mallama Zainab Ja’far Mahmud Adam elicited some reactions. I cannot address all. However, some observed that there seems to be more to be said than what I penned. This is true. You cannot address such contentious issue in just a column or two. I will therefore build on my previous argument that criticisms against women mufassiraat (exegetes) is cultural; not Islamic.

It is to be noted that Islamic scholars who littered their writings with many unkind and terrible remarks about women were those whose thoughts were conditioned by the general cultural prejudices against women in the environment they lived. It has nothing to do with Islam. For instance, Fakhruddeen al-Razi did not substantiate his grotesque and worthless characterization of women with any verifiable reference. So, himself, and many others who demonized women do so—seeing from their misogynistic lens; not from an Islamic prism.

It is funny to note that some overly conservative scholars went as far as making literacy unlawful for women. This, they argued, affords them (women) the opportunity to write love letters to their boy friends while in their marital homes. Even the staunchest enemies of Islam who conduct research—day and night—to disparage Islam will find it difficult to believe that this is what Islam teaches.

The root of this misunderstanding is the uncritical reading of a very weak hadith which says “do not teach your women kitabah (writing). This hadith does not prove anything but the contrary of what it says. This is especially in view of many authentic ahadith that do not only permit teaching women how to write but emphatically oblige them to acquire knowledge.

Those who claim women could not be Islamic scholars, teachers, preachers etc. hold the most ahistorical position. They are gruesomely cut off from history; and this seriously damaged their sense of understanding the present. The eminent scholar, Prof. Muhammad Akram Nadwi, authored a 43 volume biographical dictionary of women narrators of hadith which is a chronicle of the lives of about 10, 000 female hadith scholars and narrators.

We read from his other book ‘Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam’ an interesting story of Ummu Darda—a tabi’iyyah (a member of first generation in the anal of Islam)—who is a great teacher. Both males and females attend her learning circle. In fact, the fifth Umayyad Caliph, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan regularly attends her class in Damascus to learn fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) from her and he would sit among her other students.

Nadwi quoted a report which states that “Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan was sitting in the rock [of Jerusalem] and Ummu Darda was sitting with him (teaching). When the adhan of Maghrib was called, he stood up and she stood up leaning on Abd al-Malik [and so they remained] until he entered the mosque with her. Then she sat with the women and Abd al-Malik went forward to lead the prayer.”  Imam Adh-dhahabi RA also reports this in his Siyar.

Fatima Bint Abbas was one of such female historical figures—a great student of Ibn Taymiyyah RA. She is a jurist, a worshipper, very ascetic, a teacher and a preacher. Fatima would harangue a sinful public (both men and women) with her preaching, move them to tears, and inspire them to repentance. Many scholars of her time, including her teacher Ibn Taymiyyah, fulsomely praised her (see Ibn Hajar’s al-Durar al-kaminah, Vol. 3:226; al-Munawi’s al-Kawkabu ad-Durriyya, Vol. 3:64 Ibn Kathir’s al-Bidaaya wa’l-Nihaya, Vol. 16:109 etc.).

Nadwi chronicles many great scholars, including Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, as-Sakhawi and as-Suyuti, who learnt under different female scholars. In addition, it is on record that legion of Sunni scholars approved of women giving fatwa (religious verdict) if they attained the degree of qualifying knowledge to do so. Ibn Hazm az-Zahiri RA said “if a woman attains fiqh in the science of religion it would be incumbent upon us to accept her warning.” That is to say, if Mallama Zainab admonishes us (men and women) on some of our sinful acts, it is incumbent upon us to accept her warning and the warning of other female preachers whose preaching is based on the Qur’an and Sunnah.

So, how does female voice that wasn’t nude to the classical Islamic scholars suddenly become nude?  When, how, and why did people sexualise female voice? I cannot give any detailed answer due to space constraint. But I can say women share in the blame.

It is the norm in some of our cultures to see women/mothers prioritizing teaching their fellows/daughters how to seduce men with their fake voices, seductive movement, and heavy face makeup than teaching them to be scholars and righteous. Thus, they became useless; only useful in the ‘other room’. In other words, they have been reduced to sexual beings whose input is not needed in the realm of knowledge, ideas, politics, economy, and societal reformation.

We can also blame men for their stubbornness in following their desires. For instance, when Carla Power (the author of ‘If The Ocean Were Ink’) asked her teacher Nadwi “why Muslim men treat women so badly.” His answer was simple and straight to the point: “It was because men weren’t reading the Qur’an properly…People just read it for whatever point they want to make. They come to it with their own ideas and look for verses that confirm what they want to hear.” Hence, it is the pre-conceived notion of men that female voice is ‘awra (nude) that makes it nude; not Islam.

To conclude, women public preaching is nothing new. Rather, it is our skewed sense of history that outlaws it. I fear, one day, with this kind of thinking, great scholar like Asmau, the daughter of Usman Dan Fodio will be regarded as a mythical historical figure that does not exist. Let’s mine the literature and be guided. May Allah guide us.

NB: The Harvard scholar, Dr. Rahina Muazu made it known to me that ‘Vocal Nudity’ is her coinage. In her words; “The coinage was born out of my struggle to understand the perception of the female voice in northern Nigeria.” It is therefore apt to attribute it to her.

Abdulkadir Salaudeen



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