Who Doesn’t Get to Speak on Islam?: The Silencing of a Protest

SHAFAQNA – In the last week of February, I published an article on Shafaqna.com called, “Who Gets to Speak on Islam?” about the first ever conference on Fatima az-Zahra that was going to be taking place in a few days with an all-male panel of speakers and sheikhs. A number of women – and men, I might add – became upset and began arguing on social media when the event was announced because there were no women on the panel. I decided to write about some of the sentiments that were being heatedly discussed and Shafaqna agreed to publish the piece.

If you didn’t see the article, you’re not alone. It was only up for an hour or so. There hadn’t been any views yet nor any comments on the site. It had only been seen on Facebook. Apparently, who gets to speak on Islam is even more limited than I had once thought.

Within minutes, a couple of my friends liked it. Then a friend shared it, and that’s when my own firestorm began. It was deemed incoherent, irrational, unsubstantiated. Several people told me I wasn’t speaking like a Muslim or properly representing Lady Fatima or Lady Zaynab. I was accused of seeking fame and fortune, rather than seeking to please God, and being upset at not getting it. I needed to get my intention right, I was told. One woman from Canada obsessively and viciously insulted me and mocked and belittled everything I said. Only men who had graduated from hawza and had been pre-approved beforehand could speak on Islam, she said. Then, after an hour of abuse, apparently one single phone call was made to the publisher, and boom!, the article was pulled from Shafaqna.

First things first, it was not an academic article or a piece of reportage, it was not dumbed down for anybody. It was not meant to be substantiated. It was an emotional, stream-of-consciousness, op-ed piece. So when an author publishes an opinion piece, are they supposed to engage in a legalistic debate with their detractors? Or respond to the line-by-line mockery of someone who swallowed the patriarchal and hierarchical Kool-Aid?

Just what did I say that was so incendiary?

Did I advocate for women to take over????? My advocating for women to have a place to speak in the mosque is worlds apart from Amina Wadud’s project of women leading a mixed gender congregation in prayer or a woman-centered mosque where women can feel free to wear hijab – or not.

So what did I really say?

I spoke up for women and represented a voice rarely heard in our religious circles. Not only was it a description of a Facebook argument about women not being included in an upcoming Lady Fatima conference in London, and whether or not women were qualified to speak before a congregation if they had not been to hawza, it also described, among other things, the strange phenomenon of Western-raised Muslim men who subscribe to old-fashioned ideas which keep women subservient to men, while any sort of agency or protest on her part was silenced as a symptom of her being overly influenced by Western-style feminism.

Although the men tell you that Islam is not a male-dominated religion, ask a typical man about female scholars and most likely they’ve never heard of any. Maybe they can name a few “lowly lecturers,” but certainly not any “lady of worth” who has actually been to hawza. If only they know how many sheikhs had entered sheikhdom by correspondence course – even when there was no need to! These same men who either ignore or try to restrict women’s place in Islam will be jealous of anyone or anything, especially a woman, that takes the limelight away from them, and maybe that’s why they try to limit the “competition.”

In the article, I mentioned how not all women have the opportunity to go to hawza. I told emotional stories about how some women are not allowed to be educated, let alone go to hawza, because of their husbands or parents, including mothers, who sometimes even tricked their children into believing they would allow them to go to school if only they would do want they wanted, but did not keep their promises when their daughter obeyed.

How sad is it when your own mother doesn’t want you to be educated? What does it say about some women in society that buy into the “biology is destiny, and the only destiny” fallacy? Islam speaks of men and women of being equal but different, but surely this does not limit the role of women to only being wives and mothers, or to hide behind a curtain in purdah so that no man sees her face or hears her voice. Though women are born angels who can stray very far from their celestial fitrah and can be angry, deceitful, calculating, and demanding – they can also be very close to their primordial nature, even though their mind is in the dunya. The unseen calls from beyond and makes its presence known from to her. This is the natural order. Thus, how can half of humanity be made to be an invisible partner to her husband and caretaker of her family, and to fall short of any dreams despite a litany of limitations that, if given the opportunity, she could overcome?

Whether a woman does or does not choose to educate herself formally or informally, or have a profession, her duty is to seek knowledge the same way a man seeks knowledge, for Prophet Mohammed’s dictums, “Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave,” and “Seek knowledge, even unto China” does not solely apply to any specific gender.

Woman has honor in her own right for all the good choices she makes, for all the beautiful prayers she makes, for all the Divine knowledge she consumes in her being, for all the inspirational wahy that is no less Divine than what would come to an alim if she has truly purified her self and elevated her nafs, if he has as he was supposed to, perfectly fixing her gaze on the One Most High.

Pull the rug out from under her, she may temporarily fall from her exalted perch, but intuition and connection are her God-given attributes, so how far and how long can she who is blessed stray from God if He intended for her to be close to Him, whether she knows it or not? A man who spends his life with his head in books of fiqh may not even be close to God. He may have lost the letter for the law. He may have even forsaken Him. Why do we denigrate the pure woman over the learned man, for what can purity lose?

Knowledge in and of itself does not guarantee anything to the one who seeks it – it is only intention and communion (with Allah, exalted be his name) that carries it forward to something, to something Divine. Without communion, even intention lays flat and dormant at the flimsy curtain of purpose when it is derailed by a thousand other unknown things emanating from existence.

Rather than spare the big guns, I went in for the kill – for is it not true that, “woman is a scorpion whose grip is sweet?”- because, unfortunately, some of the people we call scholars are frankly not worthy of the title. When are we going to stop worshipping anyone who went to hawza? Some are worth less than the dust on their shoes, while others have given themselves a value beyond earthly-bound delights. Sadly, few can tell the difference. In fact, it is the ones that are worth less than the dust on their shoes that seem to get elevated beyond reproach in this haunted and shadowy dunya.

I cannot help it if my sweetened words exposed decay, for those whom we have idol worshipped who actually have been to hawza have failed us. Some of them stick to the basics and never venture beyond them. Others have no imagination or no idea how or no desire to address real world topics that the community is suffering from. And still some of them are more interested in philandering and abusing women rather than teaching their communities anything beyond the lowest common denominator.

I exposed the nifaq that some men who are scholars and who dedicate their books to female saints also invoke those same ladies to shamelessly trick innocent young ladies or vulnerable divorcees into temporary marriage. We should not idol worship a hawza qualification, we need to see the character, intellect and insight of the person, not the credential. Of course, credentials are important and not all alims and sheikhs are manipulative, impure and out of touch. But nobody says anything publicly about the ones who are, and nobody praises those who self-educate and self-purify and raise the stakes of the game. Unknown beyond their communities, they are the silent shaahid (witness) to submission and perfection in the realm of all manifested entities, yet their impact on you may be nil because they are not allowed to share their knowledge widely.

No doubt about it, there are those who have never been to hawza who are more learned than those who have, those who are gifted by God, even those who are Taught without being taught. Indeed, Prophet Mohammed never went to hawza, nor did Imam Ali, nor Imam Hussein. Who knows? Maybe they might have even been kicked out for not agreeing with a certain stance the teachers were trying to promote, or even one they were trying to avoid…or maybe another “school” would try to change Islam’s attitudes about women, thus influencing the general public’s attitudes about women. I don’t think that has ever happened in our history.

Or has it?

The truth is many men don’t care about women’s issues – although, let’s be fair there are many who do, and Prophet Mohammed was not the only one, not then and not now – but most men don’t even notice there is a problem because it doesn’t affect them. This is something I have seen over the years. However, there are alims who do know about women’s contribution to Islam. They just don’t talk about it. When you ask some of them a question about women’s contribution to Islam, they may have a near encyclopedic knowledge of the subject. As for the ones who don’t know about women’s contribution to Islam, they just assume it doesn’t exist when it actually does!

Some detractors want their women barefoot and pregnant, submissive and silent – and yet post about the insidious influence of Western feminism upon Islamic women. As if. While that is definitely an issue, the real argument here in this particular instance is when a man doesn’t want his future wife to speak up or speak out, to have an opinion, or to be seen in the world, when he doesn’t want his future wife to even be human, when he wants her to be a puppet, a doll, a sex toy. He is scapegoating Western feminism for his own Islamic fascism. Perfectly suitable marriage candidates become “next!” when such men realize she speaks, she writes, she has opinions and she is “too out there” in the public forum, too public in fact to be his wife. “Fatima and Zaynab were appropriate for their times. Khalas. That was history,” he says. A man who thinks like this – well, he is, in short, a neanderthal, someone and something that should be totally passé in our lifetime.

But why did you need to scrawl a screed about all this, you might ask? Why isn’t this just private talk between women deep within the confines of their purdah at the back of the bus? Why beat the rugs and sweep the proverbial dust back in the building, you might ask?

What was the point of it all anyway?

The point was to prove a point! Assuming we all have the same knowledge base, I felt I didn’t need to explain anything further. I guess that was not the case. So let me further explain.

In Islam, we are asked to enjoin the good and forbid the wrong – or amr bil marouf wa nahy anil munkar in the Arabic. It is our religious duty to admonish our brothers and sisters and this cannot be argued with. In this respect, God says in His Quran:


The believers, both men and women, are in charge of [and responsible for] one another: they [all] enjoin the doing of what is right, and forbid the doing of what is wrong; they keep up prayers, render the purifying welfare dues (zakat) and obey God and the Conveyor of His Message. It is they upon whom God will bestow His Grace; Surely, God is All-Mighty, All-Wise. [9:71]


My piece was a way to admonish the community about how we include women and who we deem important and of value to communicate knowledge. We, as women, are responsible for both our own sex and its opposite, as the ayah says. If we leave out half of the equation, isn’t half of the answer missing?

We have also forgotten that women are guaranteed Paradise as mothers, for Prophet Mohammed says that it is under their feet – اَلْجَنَّةُ تَحْتَ أَقْداَمِ الْأُمُّهاَتِ – not because their feet are in the kitchen, behind a screen, in another room at a mosque, but because they are mothers, even the bottom of their feet – which are considered a lowly, dirty thing in Islamic and Middle Eastern culture – the bottom of their feet contain Paradise.

But why would Prophet Mohammed say such a thing? The scholars explain that a mother is responsible for the education and upbringing of children, which is a mighty task indeed. Is it a stretch to then ask why she cannot speak in the mosque? Has she not acquired any wisdom in her life to impart to others? Sure, some women are frazzled by motherhood, others tune out and hang out with their girlfriends while their children run wild and drive everyone around them crazy. Even some sheikh’s wives watch specifically haram-themed-and-plotted soap operas all day long and haven’t even taught their children the Arabic alphabet. Yet there are others who have six kids and get Phd’s or become hafizahs or somehow, amid all the chaos, manage to make something of themselves intellectually or creatively, or are still in the process. Are we not going to give them a voice because they didn’t travel to the far corners of the world to go to hawza when life’s circumstances prevented them from doing so?

If I was accused of being disrespectful, just who was I being disrespectful to? To the person arguing with the women on Facebook about women and their qualifications to speak in a mosque and how we should not just have a token woman to even the balance? My op-ed piece was not a personal attack, but even if it was, the point was not to attack, but to expose falsehood and educate rather than validate a score of incendiary personal opinions based on personal conjecture. Sure, I described the argument, and my responses to it. The original piece was an editor-approved personal response to a phenomena we see in our society and this is an editor-commissioned personal response to the reaction of what happened after it was published and how certain voices are silenced in our community, and I myself was silenced for it.

But when does the silencing stop?

Do I need to be from a sayyed family and go straight to hawza after high school? Should I have been a former choir girl who found love and Islam in college and married, converted, studied and birthed young? Should I have lain at my father’s and grandfather’s feet all my life and absorbed all their knowledge? Do I need a credential to speak on who should speak?

As a woman who did not graduate from hawza herself due to illness and its unexpected aftermaths, but who came to Islam rather late in life after a long and continuous call, who has a degree in anthropology, who has studied Arabic and comparative philosophy and religion, who has visited and even lived in the the Middle East several times for short periods, lived in New York City, worked in the media, education and publishing industries, is extremely well-rounded, educated, cultured and intellectual, who lives to read and reads to live, is a professionally-trained writer and editor, and knows eight languages in varyingly bad degrees, am I not allowed to speak on Islam? And if not me, then who is?

By Kawther Rahmani exclusively for Shafaqna

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