Yes, Robert, I’m back. And I’m teed off.
In 2005, shortly after Dr. Amina Wadud led a Friday prayer service in NYC, a Muslim activist I know stated that it may be time for an American madhab (school of Islamic jurisprudence). I figured she was going a little overboard- after all, Islamic law is much more nuanced and sophisticated than most people, including Muslims, believe it to be. It’s definitely not “kill all the infidels” and a general rubber stamp on whatever horrors Muslim men wish to visit upon women. What it is, however, is a collection of ancient and medieval legal systems that its keepers refuse to bring out of its intellectual Brigadoon.
I’m taking an online class on a rather narrow but personally useful branch of Islamic law. A faith with rituals and law will develop law related to those rituals, which is why one could study rulings and legal concepts related to menstruation and lochia for quite some time before being considered expert. The class is merely an introduction to these issues.
It takes quite a bit to bore a nerd like me; my idea of a wild night is a concert/lecture on the musics of the Ottoman Empire, followed by coffee. Still, I was bored stiff with the mere question and answer tennis match that this class turned out to be. We aren’t expected to explore concepts or reason through problems; we’re expected to swallow and regurgitate answers whose origins are still cloaked in mystery. I could stand seeming inconsistencies and illogic regarding past rulings, presuming that certain medical facts wouldn’t always be known to medieval religious scholars. All that I would expect from someone who had perhaps never been exposed to alternate methods of education. But for an American woman born in the 20th century to think up and spout the rubbish I heard Saturday last was too much.
The discussion turned to feminine hygiene during Ramadan, and while I didn’t immediately see the connection, I figured it would make loads of sense by the time I took it all in. It still doesn’t. Apparently, if any substance enters female genitalia (water, urine) while fasting, it breaks the fast. Considering that cleanliness is essential to prayer, does this mean that one must choose between fasting and being clean for prayer, as washing up carries the risk of breaking one’s fast?
What made me want to “walk out” in protest, however, is her insisting to her female class that gynecological exams were only neccessary for sexually loose women. Many fatawa on medical matters have been quite pragmatic, and I thought that the possibility of a broken, stretched, or absent hymen would take a backseat to the need to protect and preserve the health of a young woman. I thought wrong. Apparently, having your annual Pap smear, or being checked for infections (which aren’t always sexually transmitted) makes you a floozy.
How much of this rubbish will American Muslims put up with? When can we stop the insanity? for surely God does not require foolishness of His servants. Fiqh is not a static tradition, and an Islamically sound case can be made that the stuff I had to slog through for half a semester was not just dangerous rubbish, but contradicts the respect we are to have for Divine Order and our own bodies.
This class focused on opinions from one school of Islamic jurisprudence, but all four have hosted hair-raising nonsense, so simply avoiding a particular scholar or school of thought won’t work. Neither will throwing the baby out with the bathwater- pretending that 14 centuries of scholarship is irrelevant will only result in making many of the same mistakes that our predecessors have. What is needed is to examine the past, draw from it what is best preserved, but we should not hesitate to leave old errors to gather dust. Islam came to correct past errors and misguidance. That fact alone should point the way forward.