What Bakwaas is this?
Muslim [American] Twitter is currently ablaze with condemnations, support and whatever else in between over sexist comments made by UK-based Shaykh Abu Eesa Niamatullah, affiliated with the Al Maghrib Institute. On his public “personal” page, Niamatullah decided to commemorate International Women’s Day (March 8th) by denigrating it as a “bakwaas day” (bakwaas means ‘bullshit’ more or less in Urdu). He didn’t stop there though; he continued to post insulting and sexist status updates, ending with an image of himself with text imposed reading “Don’t try to understand women, women understand women and they hate each other.” Niamatullah (who prefers to refer to himself as a teacher, not Shaykh or anything else) proudly boasts of his dark sense of humor. In fact, for those who follow his Facebook page (myself included), there’s nothing surprising about his penchant for sardonic perspectives and pushing the comfort parameters of those following him. His Facebook page is often filled with insightful commentaries on socially and politically relevant and poignant topics that offer spiritual frameworks – a approach that is often a refreshing departure from ideological and essentialist discussions (i.e. his recent commentary on activism and silence of scholars on political issues). Niamatullah often has received flack for his sense of humor which is often, in his own words, “subtle, dark, dry British”. At the same time, he’s been a bit irresponsible of his social media, seemingly unaware of the stature he’s been given through his work and his affiliations. After all, the Al Maghrib institute is a reputable organization and Niamatullah’s expertise is Adab and Siyasaa.
His “jokes” on International Women’s Day, however, took the self-labelled teacher’s “humor” too far. The comments came across as promoting and enabling the hateful attitudes towards women that are prevalent throughout our societies and within our communities – Muslim and non-Muslim. Responses to his comments were split -many of his Facebook followers applauded his commentary, adding fuel to the incendiary comments by making further grossly misogynist statements. Others, primarily in the US as well as several of his Facebook followers and Al Maghrib enthusiasts, condemned the comments and attacked the Shaykh with several even demanding, on Twitter, that the Al Maghrib institute fire him immediately to distance itself from him and his comments. Worst of all, Niamatullah responded to criticisms on Facebook by condescendingly admonishing many critics as though all cut from the same cloth of Kufr. He then later further responded by continuing to attack Feminists and Feminism as antithetical to Islam and paramount to, again, Kufr. Such accusations, made without any qualifications of definitions of terms used, are especially grave for someone who, by his own account, specializes in Adab.
Instead of taking this opportunity to get in line and bash the Shaykh- who I do respect otherwise and who actually has done great work in his community – I want to take this opportunity to navigate the underlying, insidious problem that makes it okay for Niamatullah to get away with saying what he said about Feminists, in the eyes of many.
The F-Word: Defining Feminism and Navigating Your Discomfort
Shaykh Niamatullah’s greatest issue with International Women’s Day was that it was and is a Feminist project. In his own words, Niamatullah says that he absolutely believes that Feminists “with all the nuances of that title…are the enemies of Islamic orthodoxy and to refute them is a rewarded act.” He continues that the reason for this is because they have a “corrupt and insincere approach with other people.”
For Niamatullah Feminism is a problem because it is an intellectual and methodological framework that uses non-Islamic (defined strictly in terms of Shariah, Qur’an, fiqh) tools to redress gender-based social, economic, political and physical violence — violence that, according to Niamatullah, can be redressed by Islam itself. What he and so many others in our community who adhere to this perspective completely miss, however, is the inherent contradiction that exists in the belief that Islam is an “in and of itself” framework of thought, expression and justice.
Nothing is ever in and of itself, to quote Chuck Klostermann. There is Islam in terms of Aqeedah (creed) and fundamental belief and then there is the Islam that Muslims live day to day, that Muslims – lay Muslims and scholars – create and evolve day to day. It’s a bit disingenuous to consider that any and all interpretations (key word) of Islam as a political, social and economic framework are created within a vacuum of human interpretation devoid of, well, humans. The way you and I envision Islam to help us confront issues of poverty, abuse, destitution and other social justice ills is not an approach to Islamic ethics, law and history that is divorced from any modern conditioning, any modern frameworks of intellectual, social and political thoughts. We are not separate from history and from our contexts – and, even if we wanted to be, could we ever be?
So what is Feminism? Or feminism?
Journalist Rebecca West put it perhaps in the most bare-faced way:
I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.
Doormats aside, how can we talk about Feminism beyond witticisms? Well, for starters, Feminism is (take a deep breath) a sociological framework focusing on the hows and whys of gendered private and public spheres and is rooted in post-Enlightenment European intellectualism on the nature of the individual and his/her relationship to the state. You okay? In other words, it is the child of a European intellectual era that elevated the individual above the group and sequestered God to Churches and out of the public space (more or less). The interest was no longer on the community, per se, but more so on the individual and his or her rights and liberties.
The most fundamental argument of Feminism is that men and women are inherently equally rational. Just as Adam has the ability to come to a conclusion by way of using his own thought processes, so do I. Mary Wollstonecraft, considered the mother of Feminism, argued in the Vindication of Women’s Rights that there was actually nothing to suggest that women were in any way inferior to men. Rather, she argued, the lack of access to education was the primary reason that women were not considered equal to men. While the social and political context of the intellectual inception of Feminism was different from that of other societies – Muslim and non-Muslim – the practical core of Feminism in the premise of equality through access is something we can find in our own tradition. If we understand Islamic equality to be through equity (rights distributed by virtue of needs and functions), then we understand the importance of access – to knowledge, education, work, health, leadership, worship. The Prophet (pbuh) was able to radically change the situation of women in his community by granting them, through Divine Ordinance, unprecedented access to certain financial, marital and social rights and liberties that increased their standing, in relation to their male counter-parts, in the immediate post-Jahilillya (ignorance) era.
Over the course of a couple of hundred years, Feminism – like any academic and social discipline – has evolved into different schools of thought and practice. It has been fundamental in ensuring women in Euro-American societies (while the rest of the world tried to make sense of a post-colonial period, yay) have access to women worker’s rights (genesis of IWD, in fact), voting rights, marital rights, legal recourse for domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment, reproductive assistance and health; access to safe work environments, to running for public office and to owning property. None of this is ultimately different from the very same access Islam provided to the women of the Hejaz over 1400 years ago.
None of this is to say that Feminist frameworks – be they Liberal, Radical, Sex-Positive, Difference, Intersectional, Islamic, whatever – are without problems. I, personally, do not self-identify as a Feminist or feminist because of epistemic issues I have with contemporary Feminism. That does not mean, however, that they do not carry legitimate tools and that I do not take the good knowledge and ideas produced within the discipline of Feminism into my own life and practice. After all, it were Feminist analyses that showed me how capitalist and statist mechanisms strip me of my stature as an equal in my society, how my body is used to promote grand scale consumption and how I am taught to expect little of myself and my gender from a young age. Can I not use Feminism as a description and Islam as a prescription?
Not all Feminism is secular, anti-religion, antithetical to being a person of faith. And faith is not rigid, immovable and archaic; it is, after all, more of an experience that evolves with us. There is a lot in the discipline and social movement of Feminism, like in anything, that certainly challenges orthodox practices and orthopraxy as well as vice versa – but they’re not completely incommensurable and they do not have to exist at the prerogative of the other.
Onwards and Upwards: Re-Discovering the Productive Middle Way
As deplorable as the jokes made by Shaykh Abu Eesa Niamatullah were, much of the response (both from supporters and critics) was also unfortunate. Many supporters of the Shaykh came out with even harsher comments about Feminism and women, pushing misogynist tropes under the guise of defense of the faith. Many, if not most, social media critics of the Shaykh (many who discovered him through his comments) immediately jumped to Niamatullah’s throat, calling for Al Maghrib to dismiss him immediately and issuing ad hominem attacks. So much effort was put into so little of consequence. Public shaming, Twitter arguments, defending Niamatullah, attacking him and pontificating on just how ‘bad’ of a person he is (or how awesome he is for his comments) didn’t really achieve anything. At all. Very few, at least in my own interactions and observations on social media, seemed interested in seizing the opportunity to address the core, underlying issues that were bubbling up because of the Shaykh’s comments.
We have a real problem of sexism and misogyny within and outside our communities – social media chants can be cathartic (and I do love them) and yes we have a right to be angry, but we have an even greater responsibility to be productive in finding the solutions to our ailments.
And to our Shayukh – especially those who have lessened the seriousness of the impact of Shaykh Niamatullah’s ‘jokes’: you have a responsibility to promote that which is good and forbid that which is evil. When you have a segment of your community, of this Ummah, which is constantly under a barrage of hatred and suspicion, constantly have their bodies used as cultural warfare fronts – those jokes that you may see as misunderstood playful banter become daggers in the back.