I wrote recently about Yunique Saafir, a teenage immigrant from Jamaica living in Brooklyn, who recently converted to Islam. She recalled feeling the pull to convert when she learned about “Islam’s emphasis on racial and gender equality.” I offered evidence, from both the hadith and from many different Islamic scholars, of what can only be described as the crudest racism expressed by some of the most important figures in Islam. I also discussed the scope, and duration, of the Arab Slave Trade in Africa, the number of its victims, their treatment, their rates of mortality, and how that trade was finally ended — where it was ended — not by Muslims themselves, but by the Western world.
Now I would like to address her other curious belief, about Islam’s “emphasis on gender equality.” Wherever could she have gotten such an idea? In Islam, under the Sharia, a daughter inherits half that of a son. (2:11) A woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man. (2:282) A husband can take up to four wives, while a woman is limited to one husband. Polygyny cheapens a woman’s worth. If a man wants to divorce his wife, he need only repeat the word “talaq” three times, and need give no reason for wanting the divorce. This triple-talaq is, under Islamic law, quite enough. But if a wife wishes to divorce her husband, she is required to return her dowry (mahr) to the husband and, furthermore, she must offer a legitimate reason for seeking the divorce.
Furthermore, by Qur’an 4:34, the husband may beat his wife if she is disobedient. Some Muslim scholars claim he can only beat her “lightly,” while others do not endorse this mitigating adverb, but surely what matters the most is that the Qur’an explicitly gives the man the right “to beat” his wife (or wives). One wonders what Yunique Saafir would make of this information?
The Prophet Muhammad himself said, explaining why a woman’s testimony was worth only half that of a man, that “This is because of the deficiency of the woman’s mind.” (Bukhari Vol. 3:826) This same statement is quoted in several other hadith in the most authoritative collection, that by Bukhari.
Then there is the whole matter of female genital mutilation, that is, the cutting of the clitoris, of girls in order to curb their sexual desire and preserve their sexual honor before marriage. The practice, prevalent in some majority Muslim countries, has a tremendous cost: many girls bleed to death or die of infection. Most are traumatized. It is true that there is no specific Qur’anic verse that commands or justifies this practice, but there are several hadiths that show Muhammad approving of it. Yet non-Muslims also practice it, in areas where Muslims are the majority. In Egypt, for example, where 97% of the girls undergo this operation, not just Muslim girls but also Coptic girls take part. Yet Muslims in the villages perceive this practice to be connected to, and legitimized by, Islam. It does fit with the view, in Islam, of dangerous female sexuality that has to be curbed. The requirement of cover, from hijab to niqab, has to do with protecting men from the seductiveness, the sexuality, of women.
Honor killings have no specific Islamic religious sanction, but fit with the view, in Islam, that the behavior of a girl or woman can reflect on a family’s honor, and she may be punished, or even killed, by her father, brother, or other male relative, in order to preserve that honor. The most celebrated case in North America has been that of Aqsa Parvez, a Muslim girl in Canada who was murdered by her brother (with the approval of her father) because she refused to wear a hijab. That refusal was deemed to damage the family’s honor; she had to be punished — in this case killed — to regain that honor. Honor killings are found throughout the Muslim world, and very often the punishment for them is either slight or even nonexistent.
Robert Spencer notes that “Muslims commit 91 percent of honor killings worldwide. A manual of Islamic law certified as a reliable guide to Sunni orthodoxy by Al-Azhar, the most respected authority in Sunni Islam, says that ‘retaliation is obligatory against anyone who kills a human being purely intentionally and without right.’ However, ‘not subject to retaliation’ is ‘a father or mother (or their fathers or mothers) for killing their offspring, or offspring’s offspring.’ (‘Umdat al-Salik o1.1-2). In other words, someone who kills his child incurs no legal penalty under Islamic law.
The punishment for honor killings is often slight or nonexistent. Spencer summarizes the situation thus: “The Palestinian Authority gives pardons or suspended sentences for honor murders. Iraqi women have asked for tougher sentences for Islamic honor murderers, who get off lightly now. Syria in 2009 scrapped a law limiting the length of sentences for honor killings, but ‘the new law says a man can still benefit from extenuating circumstances in crimes of passion or honor “provided he serves a prison term of no less than two years in the case of killing.”‘ And in 2003 the Jordanian Parliament voted down on Islamic grounds a provision designed to stiffen penalties for honor killings. Al-Jazeera reported that ‘Islamists and conservatives said the laws violated religious traditions and would destroy families and values.’”
In summary: Muslim women can inherit half as much as men (Qur’an 4:11); their testimony is worth half that of a man (2:282); polygamy is licit (Muhammad, the Perfect Man, allowed himself twelve or fourteen wives, depending on whether or not one sex slave is counted as a wife) and so are female slaves, “those whom your right hand possesses”; a Muslim man is allowed to beat his disobedient wife; a Muslim man need only pronounce the triple-talaq to divorce his wife. Women are described in the Qur’an as inferior to men, for “the men are a degree above them” (2:228); and they are, as Muhammad said, “deficient in intelligence.”
Yunique Saafir deserves to know the truth about the position of women in Islam. And once she realizes just how badly Muslim women are treated, not despite but according to the texts and teachings of Islam, and learns, too, about the racism to be found in the writings of Muslim historians, philosophers, and theologians, perhaps she will curb her enthusiasm for Islam and what she has dreamily described as “Islam’s emphasis on racial and gender equality.” Recognition of Islam’s dismal reality can’t come soon enough.
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