Page 1 of 2 COMMENT
Unveiling men in the Arab world
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - Many years ago, there was a highly conservative teacher of Islam at
one of the private schools in Syria. He taught a mandatory course in the
curriculum called "religion". This teacher ordered the girls in class to show
up wearing a headscarf. All of the women in class were unveiled (this was the
1950s). Only one was wearing a headscarf.
The next day, the unveiled ones covered their heads, obeying the
teacher's orders. The veiled one came to class with no headscarf. This story
demonstrates how sacred freedom of choice and belief were for this young Syrian
girl. When it was a matter of choice, she wore the veil at will. She refused to
put on a headscarf, however, when this was imposed on her by a superior
That was 50 years ago. Times have changed, and so has wisdom, along with the
freedom of expression and belief.
In May, a lecturer at al-Azhar University in Egypt, one of the most prestigious
institutions of Islamic education, issued a fatwa (religious decree)
saying that adult men could breast-feed from a female colleague at work. He
added that this, when done five times, establishes a degree of maternal
relations between the man and woman, enabling her to remove her headscarf if
veiled, before him, and legitimizes their presence together - alone - without
raising suspicion of sexual relations.
Ezzat Attiya, the controversial "scholar" who headed the department of Hadith
at al-Azhar, was fired for his deed, and the entire event caused a storm of
controversy in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
In Muslim tradition, if a wet nurse breast-feeds a baby (under the age of two),
that baby cannot (when he becomes older) marry her children because they would
become his sisters "by breast-feeding". Attiya based his fatwa on a
so-called hadith (oral traditions relating to the words and deeds of the
Prophet Mohammed) that says the Prophet once told a woman to nurse a teenage
boy who was not hers but whom she had raised, to establish a family bond with
him. Many claim that this fatwa is not authentic and should not be used.
I contacted an Islamic scholar before writing this article, and he verified
that indeed there is no such hadith in the life of the Prophet.
I am not an Islamic scholar, nor do I claim to have the knowledge to speak on
Islamic law. I am sure, however, that the Prophet did not issue such a fatwa,
because Mohammed, probably one of the most inspiring and brilliant men of all
time, would never legitimize illegal sexual activity. This is a fact. The
entire ordeal, coming after the crisis of the Danish cartoons in 2005, and the
controversy of the pope's remarks last year on the Prophet, brings up several
points that are worth raising at this stage, to revisit our Muslim community at
large, and the direction in which it is heading. We are becoming increasingly
occupied with the small details (dare we say "silly" details), and forgetting
the truth behind the Muslim faith.
Polygamy and women actresses
Another fatwa surfaced recently in Egypt - thanks to another cleric
associated with al-Azhar - weeks before the beginning of Ramadan. It was in
reference to the numerous television drama productions that are annually made,
mainly by Egypt and Syria, and aired on Arab satellite television to millions
of viewers around the world.
It basically says that any two people acting out a marriage scene onscreen in
effect get married in real life, even if this is not their intention. The
minute they speak religious phrases that confirm marriage (even if it is
onscreen), then the marriage bond between them becomes religiously legal. This
is a particular problem for actresses, the fatwa added, because if they
are married in real life, then they are committing polygamy - which is illegal
for women in Islam.
If the actresses is an unmarried virgin, the fatwa adds, then she cannot
marry in real life unless her "actor husband" divorces her. This argument was
based on another hadith by the Prophet, who once said that Muslims
cannot joke (or in this case "act") when it comes to marriage. The hadith
says: "There are three [matters] whose seriousness is serious and whose humor
is serious: marriage, emancipation [of slaves], and divorce."
Sheikh Farhat al-Saadi al-Manji, a member of the fatwa committee at
al-Azhar, seconded the fatwa, saying that screenwriters should avoid
marriage scenes altogether (which is impossible in Arab drama) so as not to
inflict sin on actors and actresses. He refused to deal with the issue simply
as "just acting" and added, "An [actor] cannot tell a young man [another actor]
seated next to him: 'I [give you] consent to marry my daughter.' The one next
to him will reply: 'I agree.' Then they tell us that this was just humor."
When asked about the timing of such a fatwa, given that Egyptian cinema
(which is more than 100 years old) is riddled with scenes of marriage and
divorce, he replied: "You cannot ask 'why' in religious matters!" It is the
right of Islamic scholars, he said, warning actors and actresses - especially
those who play the role of a religious authority who blesses the marriage - to
avoid such conduct. The fatwa caused a thunderstorm in the Arabic press
and, more recently, vibrated throughout intellectual circles in the Arab world
when a story about it appeared this week in the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar.
Revisiting history, and Salman Rushdie
One cannot but wonder, why have the religious authorities of today abandoned
every problem in the Muslim world to concentrate on cartoons published in
Danish newspapers, debate the crazy ideas of a silly scholars like Ezzat
Attiya, or the recent fatwa on actors and actresses?
Yes, the cartoons were very wrong and very insulting, and yes, the fatwa
on breast-feeding was wrong and should have been avoided. But as well, Muslims
should have shown solidarity on other issues, such as Israel's digging beneath
al-Aqsa Mosque, invading Beirut in 1982, bombing Ramallah, killing innocents in
the West Bank, and destroying Lebanon in 2006, and the sectarian violence in
Iraq. The death of Palestinians, Lebanese and Iraqis is certainly more
important to Muslims (or at least should be) than what obscure Danish cartoons,
or the views of an until-then unknown Indian-British writer named Salman
Rushdie, or those of Ezzat Attiya.
We are not saying that one should ignore the cartoons or outrageous statements,
but rather, one should only give them the attention they deserve, with no
exaggerations, and concentrate on more concrete issues relating to the Arab and
Muslim worlds. The Prophet is too great to be affected by these ugly cartoons
or the words of Ezzat Attiya. The reality is that these Arabs cannot - for a
variety of reasons - speak out on the real issues that torment their lives. And
even when they can, they are completely incapable of changing reality. That is
why they go on to the next level - the small things in life - that they can
control. It makes them feel important.
Last year, Pope Benedict caused international Muslim outrage by criticizing the
Prophet Mohammed. Instead of sending a senior Muslim delegation to meet him,
sound their objections, and educate him if he was misinformed about the
Prophet, Arabs resorted to street violence. They stormed churches in Palestine
and murdered an Italian nun in Somalia.
Many years ago, the same thing happened with Salman Rushdie. In 1988, the
Muslim world was enraged by his book The Satanic Verses, claiming that
"verses" (translated into Arabic as ayat) is used only in reference to
the Holy Koran. Rushdie pleaded innocence, but anybody who has read the book
(which is about two Indian girls, their immigration to Britain, and return to
India) finds clear offensive allusions to the Muslim faith. A prophet in the
book is called Mahound, a derogatory name used for Mohammed by the Crusaders.
Banning the book in various countries was 100% legitimate. Bombing bookstores
in the US and London, however, was not. Issuing a fatwa against Rushdie
- calling for his death - was