Fatwas from Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s most prestigious university, are seldom the stuff late-night comedy is made of. A recent ruling about women working in offices with unrelated males is going to entertain the sleepless this week. Beyond the humor, the reaction in the Arab world is perhaps more important for exposing the fault lines of contemporary Islam. As usual, it may be the Jews who are to blame. Really.
According to a recent report on Memri’s website, Dr. Izzat Atiyya, head of Al-Azhar’s Hadith Department, addressed shari’a’s ban on women working in private with a man not of her immediate family. He opined that the legal objection could be overcome by making the unrelated male a part of her family, and this could be achieved simply by having her breastfeed him.
The source of the ruling is a hadith attributed to Aisha, wife of Mohammad, which tells of Salem, the adopted son of Abu Hudheifa, who was breastfed by Abu-Hudheifa’s wife when he was already a grown man with a beard, by the Prophet’s order. “The logic behind [the concept] of breastfeeding an adult is to transform the bestial relationship between [two people] into a religious relationship based on [religious] duties,” explained Atiyya. He was quick to address squeamishness about accepting the premise behind the ruling. “The fact that the hadith regarding the breastfeeding of an adult is inconceivable to the mind does not make it invalid. This is a reliable hadith, and rejecting it is tantamount to rejecting Allah’s Messenger and questioning the Prophet’s tradition.”
There are added dividends from this procedure as well. “After this, the woman may remove her hijab and expose her hair in the man’s [presence].”
I have no intention of mocking or ridiculing. I am fully aware that there are elements of all revealed faiths that appear to be entirely ludicrous to the outsider. Chazal’s very definition of one variety of Divine commandment – chok – is a mitzvah for which we are mocked and derided by the nations. I will leave the pot-shots to others. More interesting to me are the reactions from different parts of the Islamic landscape.
The fatwa was repudiated in many circles, for vastly different and conflicting reasons. Taken together, they show fault lines in the wall of extremist Islam’s rejection of modernity, and underscore how ill-prepared some forms of Islam are for confrontation with ideas that, like it or not, are inexorably seeping into the Muslim world.
Al-Azhar’s chief cleric, Dr Sayyid Tantawi, scolded Dr Atiyya for failing to anticipate its impact upon the public.
This is not surprising. Sheikh Tantawi is a very practical man, who knows how to please his handlers, and how to reject the scourge of modernity. His doctoral dissertation focused on one of the most pressing theological issues in today’s Islamic world: just how Allah turned the Jews into pigs and monkeys. (He presses for a literal, rather than allegorical, understanding.) When then Chief Rabbi Lau visited Tantawi at Al-Azhar some years ago, the rabbi pressed Tantawi to sign on to a statement deploring suicide bombing in the name of religion. Tantawi refused. True to his role as defender of tradition, Tantawi apparently had no problem with the ruling per se, but saw a problem in its application – or misapplication. “We must not be too lax in matters of religion, especially when the matter at hand is a fatwa that significantly affects people’s actual lives, inclinations, and views – because it speaks to their natural emotions which [lead them to] embrace what is permitted and shun prohibitions.”
A very different reaction – really the polar opposite – came from Al-Sayyid Abd Al-Rauf, former editor of the Egyptian religious government weekly Aqidati. While Tantawi urged restraint in order to preserve tradition, Al-Rauf saw the need for tradition itself to change. ” The reality of the modern world, with all its struggles and changes, requires new outlooks that acknowledge the Islamic legal tradition and maintain its principles, [but at the same time] deal with the changes in [this tradition] – in accordance with the principle that fatwas must change with time and place…Fatwas like this also reflect a frozen outlook, a petrified point of view…”Some clerics are dragging the nation back [into the past] … without exercising their own minds…”
A more succinct criticism came from a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who had little room for legal niceties, simply refusing to accept the application of such thinking to the “modern” world. Dr. Sayyid Askar, agreed that the hadith was reliable and binding, but that the fatwa was still off-base. “In our modern society,” he added, “it makes no sense to talk of breastfeeding adults.” One can only speculate what parts of current Islamic practice in Egypt might “make no sense” to people with the passage of time.
Yet another approach seems to steer a middle course between the poles of ignoring modern mores and their embrace. It may prove to be the most dangerous for the survival of extremist Islam – and therefore the one that offers the West the most hope.
Dr. Abd Al-Fatah Asaker , argued that not all hadiths are created equal, and that discretion had to be used in dividing between the authentic, binding ones, and those of spurious origin. Even the most reliable ones need be rejected if they contradict a teaching of the Qur’an. In this case, he questioned the provenance of the hadith, calling the story of Salem a legend spread by the enemies of Islam with the aim of discrediting Aisha. “It is inconceivable,” he concluded, “that Islam, which commands the believing [men and women] to lower their eyes [in modesty],” should permit such an immodest act.
The call to critically examine the hadith – the sayings of Mohammed and his companions that flesh out the teachings of the Qur’an – has been made before. A different Tantawi, Dr. Abd Al-Sabour Tantawi, also studied at Al-Azhar. While imprisoned for Islamist beliefs in Kuwait , he had time to reconsider them while focusing on the study of the Qur’an. His conclusion was startling – and dismissed as heresy in traditional circles. Dr. Tantawi urges the paring down of the entire hadith system to some 300. He rejects the traditional tools used in centuries of study to elaborate upon – and often to change the apparent meaning of – Qur’anic texts, such as the Sunna (traditions about the way of life and teachings of Mohammed) and itjihad (independent and original legal judgment).
Such an approach could easily prepare the way for the penetration of Reason into the Islamic world – as it did in the past. Without the burden of the hadith, “problematic” passages in the Qur’an could be dealt with in the same manner that most Christian learned to deal with problematic passages in the Gospels – as products of their time and milieu, rather than statements of doctrine.
How did the literalists and traditionalists ever achieve prominence? Perhaps it was our fault. (What follows is a half-whimsical exercise in pure speculation.)
Islam, like early Christianity, absorbed much from nearby Jews. Sometimes, the response was to attempt to outdo the Jews – such as the insistence on five times of daily prayer, wanting to turn every day into the Jewish Yom Kippur when we daven five times.
In other instances, Islam heard part of the Jewish message – and failed to comprehend the rest. Hence, the oft-repeated midrash in which Hashem held Mt. Sinai over our heads to compel acceptance of the Torah is fully incorporated in the Qur’an as part of the “biblical” narrative. The notion of full acceptance of, and submission to, the Law became the basis of the Qur’an’s rather unusual handling of the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer), in which the Jews are condemned for asking too many questions about the color of the cow, its age, etc., rather than just heeding the Divine command without quibbling about the details. It is likely that the law that the fatwa sought to circumvent – barring a woman sequestering herself with an unrelated male – was modeled upon the halachic prohibition of yichud, except that they got it backwards. Attiya said, “A man and a woman who are not family members are not permitted [to do this], because it raises suspicions and doubts. A man and a woman who are alone together are not [necessarily] having sex, but this possibility exists, and breastfeeding provides a solution.” The halacha of yichud is meant to keep temptation at bay, not prevent wagging tongues and suspicion. Temptation would hardly be lessened by Dr. Attiya’s novel approach.
Early Muslims knew that Jews accepted traditional parts of the Torah without equivocation, refusing to bend or stretch their meaning. This may have served as a model for them – a model that they would exceed as pious Muslims. Unfortunately, they were a bit sparse on the nuance. Jews accepted firm traditions – and argued about everything else. As the Gemara says in several places, אם מסורה, נקבל ואם לדין יש תשובה – if it is a clear tradition, we will accept it. If it is something derived through methods of explication, there is room to disagree.
Moreover, we had particular reluctance to extrapolate halachic conclusion from stories, unaccompanied by rigorous halachic analysis. אין למדין מן המעשה – we do not learn from stories.
Could it be that Islam, not to be outshone in its devotion by the Jews, consciously or unconsciously determined to show unquestioning reliance upon all the source material of the emerging faith, not discriminating between different levels of reliability?
Whatever the answer, Islamists may find confirmation in this recent episode for another of their beliefs – that women are the source of most fitna (strife and tension). The bizarre ruling about women in the workplace may augur much trouble ahead for the fundamentalists, as the cracks in the edifice of rejection of reason and modernity continue to widen.