As humans we like to categorize things. Categorization is useful for many things. Categorizing books by subject and author makes them easier to find in a library or to search for online. Categorizing lumber by tree species makes it easier for consumers to find wood that fits their needs. But categorizing people presents some significant problems.
Each individual is unique. That uniqueness doesn’t stop when they become a member of a group. Two Democrats can have wildly different views about gun ownership, two Catholics can have wildly different views about same-sex marriage, and two Muslims can have wildly different views on women’s rights:
Akram’s work, al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam, stands as a riposte to the notion, peddled from Kabul to Mecca, that Islamic knowledge is men’s work and always has been. “I do not know of another religious tradition in which women were so central, so present, so active in its formative history,” Akram wrote.
Women scholars taught judges and imams, issued fatwas, and traveled to distant cities. Some made lecture tours across the Middle East.
If there was ever proof that a pious Muslim woman need not be a submissive wife and mother, it is the life of Aisha, the third of the Prophet’s eleven wives. She has divided opinions ever since the seventh century, among both Muslims and non-Muslims.
A top Islamic scholar, an inspiration to champions of women’s rights, a military commander riding on camelback, and a fatwa-issuing jurist, Aisha’s intellectual standing and religious authority were astonishing, by the standards of both our own time and hers.
Aisha is not the only wife of Muhammad whose life explodes notions of what constitutes a “traditional” Muslim woman. Khadija ran a caravan business in Mecca. A wealthy and successful trader, she was also a twice-widowed single mother, fifteen years Muhammad’s senior, and his boss.
Her marriage proposal to the future Prophet was forthright: “I like you because of our relationship, your high reputation among your people, your trustworthiness, your good character and truthfulness.”
I’m not sharing this article to start an argument about how Islam views women, I’m sharing it to show that there is disagreement within Islam about the religion’s views on women.
I hear too many people say, “Muslims believe killing infidels is acceptable,” or “Muslims believe that women shouldn’t have any rights.” Truth be told, there are approximately 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. It’s difficult enough to get three coworkers to agree on where to go for lunch so getting 1.5 billion people to agree on what a holy book says about anything is impossible.
Treating groups of individuals as a single entity is foolish. Each member of that group is likely to be quite different from the other members. They might have a single idea that holds them together but even their views on that idea are likely to differ.