Given the touch-me-not attitude one experiences in Kashmir, I have observed that many rational voices steer clear of indulging in talking about controversial topics, especially those related to religion and politics. Several months ago during my annual visit to Kashmir, I had expressed an objection to the extensive use of loud speakers for broadcasting religious sermons or Qur’anic recitations at night, at which occasion I was dubbed as an “anti-Islamic” and “westernized” non-resident Kashmiri by a friend without giving an explanation of as to why it was necessary to do so. The primary reason for my objection being my two-year old daughter who was unable to sleep, not to mention the inconvenience this might have caused to many other people wanting to sleep for various reasons. Since religion and politics have become so intertwined, if not synonymous, over the many years of political turmoil in Kashmir, it is extremely challenging to talk about these topics in the public domain without apprehensions. One is bound to face extreme amounts of criticism even when there is a compelling need to question and respond to matters of social injustice and oppression. I am writing this article keeping in view the risks of disappointing certain conservative schools of thought.
An article recently published in a Srinagar-based daily (November 20, 2013, Rising Kashmir) cited a mufti objecting to the visit of a noted Muslim women’s rights activist Amina Wadud to the Kashmir valley. Wadud, an accomplished scholar and social activist of international repute, was condemned for her advocacy for the Muslim women’s right to lead prayers in mixed gatherings in mosques. Indeed, what a blasphemy! The mufti had further stated that, “such people should not be allowed to visit the masjids, khankahs and shrines in Kashmir”. As a woman of Kashmiri origin, who was brought up in a fairly conservative Muslim family, and who has repeatedly suffered the male-dominated oppression of many kinds back home, I took the opportunity to respond and register my protest in the form of this article.
As I write this piece I am reminded of many incidents of Kashmiri male hypocrisy and misogyny but I will cite only one here: an incident that happened around February 2013 when three young Kashmiri Muslim girls had decided to pursue music as their career and a fatwa (‘a religious decree’) was extended by the afore-mentioned mufti about music being “un-Islamic”. Hordes of young Kashmiri netizens, mostly males, had come out in severe criticism and condemnation of the young girls in the name of Islam. Amidst all the controversy, the girls eventually decided to quit for “the happiness of all”. What their critics failed to recognize was that if music were actually harām (‘prohibited’) in Islam, it should be equally so for both men and women. It is no news that there are scores of men’s musical groups and bands in Kashmir thriving and performing for millions of Kashmiris who regularly listen to and enjoy different kinds of music. No such religious decrees were extended to these men. Incidentally the same mufti had, at a later point, been spotted on camera at a musical performance.
As far as the question of whether music is harām in Islam is concerned, there has been a long debate over this subject over centuries. In fact, many extremist Muslims may say that the increasing popularity of music “poses a tremendous danger to Islam”. Interestingly, there are a number of references in historical texts, which claim that Prophet Muhammed and his wife (Ayisha) had, in fact, at various occasions, enjoyed, encouraged or expected musical performances. Different kinds of music were part of the festivities of various kinds even during those medieval times. The best ever music that we enjoy and appreciate today originates from some of the important Islamic countries and Muslim cultures of the world. From the best recitations of the religious scriptures to the qawwāli and na’at (songs of devotion), poetry and music have been an important and intrinsic part of the Islamic cultures of the world. Yet Muslim women of Kashmir are largely deprived of this blessing on the basis of unsubstantiated claims in the name of religion and Islam.
Now, going back to the earlier question of whether women can in fact “lead” prayers in mosques. For those who subscribe to such patriarchal and outdated views, it needs to be clarified that there is neither such a theological restriction in the Qur’an nor any attested statement made by the Prophet where women have been particularly prohibited from leading prayers, or where men have been specifically prescribed to do so. Such restrictions were placed about 300 years after the death of the Prophet when Islamic law was encoded, depriving Muslim women from this position by a majority rule that was put to practice for centuries up until this date. As also maintained in many important Islamic texts, praying is perceived to be a very direct and personal relationship between an individual and (his/her) God; there is no requirement for any third person to intercede between the two. Thus, a Muslim woman is entitled to a direct relationship with God as much as a Muslim man is. In other words, the question of “leading” does not even arise. However, the act of “leading” is a mere functionary practice of organizing the prayers and not a leadership role per se. The latter of course is another controversial issue in the context of the women’s role in social and religious practices in the public domain, as well as the their role in the fiq’h, the Islamic jurisprudence, which again, is based on consensus, and which in turn is male-dominated, not surprisingly.
To conclude this article, I would like to barely touch upon the notion of taqlid (lit. ‘unthinking imitation’) as being propagated by the Muslim Ulema all across the world (including Kashmir) and blindly followed and adopted by the general masses as opposed to any emphasis whatsoever on the concept of Ijtehad which should rather be highlighted as the need of the time. Ijtehad, which literally means ‘to strive to make efforts to solve a problem’, or more broadly, the concept of change and reform in organized religion, has unfortunately taken a backseat in the development and evolution of Islamic thought and thus led to various decadent and deteriorated practices which are not only old-fashioned but oppressive in character. There is an imminent and increasing need for a feminist re-interpretive schema that revisits the scriptural sources in an effect to address the gender-based discrimination in social and political rights vis-à-vis Islamic law, or Shari’a.
About the author: Dr. Sadaf Munshi is an associate professor in Linguistics and an affiliated faculty in the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Institute at the University of North Texas. For feedback email the author at email@example.com.
(This article appeared in the daily Kashmir Observer, Dec. 20, 2013. URL: http://kashmirobserver.net/news/opinion/male-hypocrisy-and-lies-about-islam )
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