The Prophet said:
If a man calls his wife to bed and she refuses, thereby upsetting him, the angels will continue to curse her until the morning.
If it were permissible for a human to prostrate to another, I would have ordered a wife to prostrate to her husband because of the enormity of his rights over her. By God, if there is an ulcer excreting puss from his feet to the top of his head and she licked it for him – she would not fulfill his rights.
After my conversion it didn’t take long for the advice to start rolling in. A lot of it was couched in more cultural expectations, such as: “change your name to a more Muslim (read: Arab) sounding name” or “you can’t be a vegetarian now, God has made meat allowable for you to enjoy.” But sometimes people would give me sincere religious advice based on sayings made by the Prophet. A few were excellent and made sense to me: “Eat and drink moderately,” “please your partner sexually,” and “tie up your camel” — meaning: do everything you can to ensure your safety, protect your property or implement a plan, and then trust in God. But if you just leave everything up to God and hope that everything will turn out okay, instead of taking personal action, your camel will walk away.
But sometimes I was offered advice based on sayings that didn’t sit well with me. Especially the religious advice for women that seemed to come at the price of personal freedom or with the threat of hellfire — and backed with, “well the Prophet said it, so it must be valid and important” and “if it doesn’t sit well with you, you’re not being faithful enough.” True, for many Muslims worldwide, following the Sunnah or the Prophet’s example is just as important as revering the Qur’an as the word of God. The Prophet is untouchable, a model human to be admired and loved. To deny any of the sayings attributed to him could be blasphemous.
I was once bombarded by a group of women at a mosque in Toronto, who upon learning of my conversion, not only wanted to immediately set me up with a husband, but also had a wealth of prophetic knowledge to share with me.
They taught me how to “properly” tie my hijab and warned me to never associate with strange men. They encouraged me to speak softly (but not sultry!) when in public. They said music and pictures were forbidden, that I couldn’t pluck my eyebrows or wear perfume and ironically, that it was better for women to pray at home than to cause social strife by appearing in all of their covered womanly glory at the mosque. Most importantly, I should be prepared to obey my future husband — serve him and care for his rights with never a moment’s hesitation or an ounce of ungratefulness.
Doing contrary is the reason the Prophet said that most of hell’s inhabitants are women.
To the women at the mosque it didn’t matter that some of these sayings are often questioned, were related by only one or two people — judged “weak” by scholars, and that in some cases, related by people who were distrusted by the Prophet’s own wife or ordered by the Caliph Omar to refrain from fabricating sayings or otherwise face exile (source). It didn’t matter that for every one demeaning saying there were five others which proved the contrary or are proven contrary by the Qur’an. It especially didn’t matter that the Prophet never spoke to or treated his wives or the women in his care with an expectation that they should prostrate to him or lick his oozing sores. Certainly not a man who darned his own socks, cleaned his own home, allowed women to fight at his side in battle, appointed women to be leaders of their communities and overthrew a patriarchal society making it illegal to continue the common practice of burying new-born daughters alive.
What matters is that generations of scholarship told them that women are inherently weaker, more prone to sin, are the source of men’s sin, are deficient in their religion and hell bound because of their sex. And the best way to deal with the limitations of their gender is to submit to the rights of their husbands (source).
There’s no doubt that patriarchy and misogyny influences how these traditions and sayings are interpreted, implemented, constructed and perhaps even *gasp* fabricated. People have sent me the above examples of prophetic sayings in the hopes of proving to me that the Prophet was a horrible person and that they’ve exposed an evil, misogynist side to Islam. Of course as a believing Muslim who loves the Prophet and who follows the parts of his Sunnah that make sense to me, I have to question when I hear these sayings. And I’ve had my share of religious crises trying to deal with the things that seem completely out of place with the character and actions of a person I revere.
But valid or not, the effect that these traditions have on the rights of women is lasting and primarily damaging. Worse are the discourses around these traditions, that try to make them work or explain them away that are just as damaging. There are more women in hell because women are naturally more prone to backbiting, gossip and not being appreciative of their husbands? There are more women in hell because of population ratios? A woman could be pregnant with a nursing child, busy at the stove or “riding her camel” and still have to submit to her husband’s desires? Where does her agency factor in all of this? What about women who don’t marry? Men who don’t desire women? I suppose the angels are just cursing them anyway.
As the Islamic legal scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl says on this subject in his brilliant work, Speaking in God’s Name, “Regardless of the jargon generated by apologists about how Islam liberated and honored women, these traditions subjugate a woman’s honor to the will of men.” (212)
So. It comes down to how we as individuals understand and use these sayings.
The prophetic traditions are second only to the Qur’an and along with juristic consensus and cultural mores, help explain the Qur’an and lay a foundation for Islamic law. Not every Muslim community follows or believes in the prophetic traditions, and not every community recognises the same collection or sources. But suffice it to say that most Muslims turn to the prophetic traditions to discover just about every aspect of Islamic practice – from prayer and menstruation to gender interaction and hijab. They’re that important.
But following the Sunnah without understanding it or simply picking and choosing sayings to one’s liking without investigating their source and their potential impact on others means taking away people’s rights. Particularly when a demeaning tradition has a vast effect on a woman’s relation to herself and her religion.
As God said (through the Prophet), “do not oppress and do not be oppressed.”