A Muslim Woman Speaks Her Mind

The Muslim-American scholar Azizah Al-Hibri illustrates the democratizing ethos of Islam with a wonderful story that she found in the pages of al-Ghazali’s Ihya Ulum al-Din:

“During the khilafah (period of rule) of ‘Umar, radiya’llau ‘anhu, young men were complaining about the large amount of mahr (dower) women were demanding. Afraid that such a trend might discourage men from getting married. ‘Umar announced in the mosque that he was going to place an upper limit on the amount of mahr. An unknown old woman rose from the back of the mosque and said to “Umar: ‘You will not take away from us what God has given us.’Umar asked to explain her statement. Citing a clear Qur’anic verse, the woman established that the amount of mahr was potentially unlimiting. ‘Umar immediately responded: ‘A woman is right and a man is wrong.’ He then abandoned his proposal.”

Al-Hibri takes this story to illustrate the following:“The story of ‘Umar and the unknown old lady underlines the fact that the Muslim “head of state” is a servant of God and of the people, not an authoritarian ruler who exercises dominion over his people. This democratic view, incidentally, applies not only to the state, but to any type of hierarchy in society. For this reason, Muslim have no “church hierarchy,” but only ‘ulama.’ True ‘ulama are modest about their own views, recognizing that only God known the truth with certainty. They also respect the differing, and something opposing, views of other Muslim scholars. This is yet another way of respecting diversity, in this case, an intellectual one. In keeping with this attitude, righteous ‘ulama often ended a statement of their views with the phrase, “wa’llahua’lam (God knows best).”

I would also added the story may tell us something about early mosque life and the participation and role of women in the Mosque. If the woman could hear Umar and he could hear her, where was she seated in relation to him? It says the back of the Mosque, but then the sacred building must have been small. Was it normal for people to debate inside the mosque (I picture the House of Commons 🙂 ? Was it normal for women to debate in the mosque? The woman was clearly educated in quran (she was after all correct), so what does that say about her social status and the education she received? etc. etc. I love juicy primary texts!

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