Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 October - 2 November 2005
Issue No. 766
Profile
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Souad Saleh

Souad Saleh: Time to tear down divides

Her area of academic specialisation is fiqh , or Islamic jurisprudence. And, though one of the best known women preachers in the Islamic world, she remains a faithful child of the 1960s. And in this respect she feels she has had the good fortune of growing up within an open-minded family, one that strongly believed in its female members' right to equal educational opportunities. Success came early to Souad Saleh as she followed her father's advice to study religion at the then newly-founded Al-Azhar University women's department. At first she was reluctant to do so. "'Why study Islamic religion?' I told myself then. But it's a decision that inspires nothing but pride." A vehement proponent of women's rights, she also listens attentively to her husband's injunctions.
Interview by Gamal Nkrumah

Click to view caption
'The perception is growing in Egypt and throughout the Muslim world that attitudes like ours make sense. Islam is winning hearts and minds the world over'

"Islam is not what it used to be."

The petite, yet iron-willed preacher-professor fidgets in her armchair at her office in Nasr City. "We have watered down the inspired message. We have forsaken the true spirit of Islam." She does not argue against a literal interpretation of the Quran but does not delve too deeply into what she sees as petty sideline questions -- such as whether a swimsuit is shar'i (abiding by Sharia or Muslim law).

"I am for swimwear that does not cling to the body," she arches one eyebrow and launches into a spiel that manages to sound both well- rehearsed and articulate.

Saleh does not mince her words. "Today, we stress rituals and disregard the real essence of Islam." She warms to her theme. Souad Saleh is on a mission to put Muslim women first.

Saleh has a sprightly step and an impish grin. Her tone, however, is earnest. She was the first woman dean of faculty at Al-Azhar University. She is a prolific writer, who has written extensively about Islamic topics ranging from family law to women's rights -- more than seven volumes on Islam, and at least four in-depth research works.

She is outspoken, even curt at times, but she also exudes feminine tenderness and love. "The perception is growing in Egypt and throughout the Muslim world that attitudes like ours make sense. Islam is winning hearts and minds the world over," she chuckles triumphantly.

Saleh is no feminist, though, and abhors notions of Western feminism that pretend that women have the same duties and responsibilities as men. The first duty of a Muslim woman is to be a conscientious mother and home-maker. The Muslim man is the head of the family and the bread-winner. If a woman feels that she can honestly combine a career with her first obligation as a mother and home-maker, then so be it.

"I am not saying that women must not work, far from it. I have worked all my life."

Strangely enough, she had barely finished her sentence when her phone rang and she smiled coyly at me. "It is my husband," she giggled girlishly. She asks if he needs anything and they discuss a number of domestic matters.

Saleh ponders the highlights of her teaching and preaching careers. "Making people of all walks of life interested in the religious dimension -- in Islam." She appears regularly on pan-Arab satellite television channels. She lectures and gives talks on the faith and on the position of women in it. She has emerged as one of the most articulate female preachers in the Arab world. Her message is loud and clear: Islam is pure and simple, and it holds women in high esteem.

The nuptial vow is sacred, Saleh stresses. Marriage in Islam is based on al-mawwadah war- rahmah (the affection and compassion) exchanged by spouses. Tender words and unselfish care is vital in cementing conjugal ties. She acknowledges the centrality of marriage in Islam.

Saleh stresses the central role of the family as the basic unit of Muslim society and hence the vital importance of Muslim family law in governing and regulating Muslim communities. Marriage, she insists, is incumbent on every Muslim except in cases of financial insufficiency or physical handicap. Saleh cannot see the world through the prism of feminism and female economic independence, whence the rights, duties and responsibilities of men are not taken into account. The sort of feminism prevalent in the West where women want to take on male roles in societies is unacceptable in Islam. "Men are men and women are women," she says nonchalantly. "Marriage is the legal and moral provision for regeneration among Muslims," Saleh says.

Her dark eyes hold mine intently as she speaks. "In the days of the Prophet Mohamed, peace be upon him, there was no strict segregation of the sexes. Women and men prayed together and they fought battles together side by side. There was genuine equality," she stresses.

She speaks with the authority of the preacher that she is.

Saleh rolls her eyes at the mention of Sufism. "Now that is a subject that fascinates many Westerners. Orientalists, in particular, see Sufism as the acceptable face of Islam," she says without hesitation. "Contemporary Sufism is a product of Western colonialism. Indeed, the colonialists encouraged the spread of Sufism and Sufi orders in the Muslim world in order to divert the colonial people's attention from the anti-colonial struggle. Sufi Islam was the opiate of the masses."

According to Saleh, the real jihad is against the self and she cannot understand or sympathise with the mindset of those who claim to be the modern-day mujahideen. "We eschew the jihad of the self which is the noblest and most sublime of jihads in Islam."

Pure Islam is revealed to the receptive heart, Saleh explains, speaking of the infinite distance between pristine Islam and the hocus-pocus that passes for Islam today. She smiles wryly at the topic of women's rights and dress code in Islam being broached.

There is no Quranic text that promotes niqab, Saleh says. The injunctions urging Muslim women to don the hijab are clearly stated in Surat Al-Nur and Surat Al-Ahzab. "The Quran clearly states that a Muslim woman should wear the hijab, even though the face should not be veiled." Saleh recounts how she has had to force her munaqabat students at Al-Azhar University to remove their facial veils when they sit an exam. "How else can I ascertain the identity of the young woman? How do I know if another individual is sitting in her place. The niqab, in my view, is not acceptable."

Saleh believes that niqab is foreign attire imported into Egypt by people returning from oil-rich Gulf Arab countries. "Egyptians sought employment opportunities in the Gulf in the 1970s and 1980s and they returned with novel ideas. They came back with ideas that were neither traditional Egyptian nor Islamic. They were not part of a universal Islamic tradition." Saleh expresses concern about the new trend of preachers spreading their own brand of Islam. She strongly believes that a Muslim woman should wear the customary hijab. But she insists that Islam never stipulated how it should be worn. "There are cultural variations and different designs. But Muslim women are free to chose the style of dress, colours and textiles of their attire.

"We have a tendency to bury our heads in the sand like ostriches."

Unfortunately, she says, the vast majority of modern Muslims focus on appurtenances and appearances and often end up splitting hairs. About militant Islamist preachers, she says, "they do not allow for growing complexities, for social and historical factors. There is a growing demand for direct engagement that extremists cannot deal with.

"There is a global awareness, in the Arab and Muslim world as elsewhere, with religious and political leaders who leave no space for the emergence of participatory democracy -- one in which women have full and equal rights," Saleh insists. "Law in Islam is both universal and egalitarian, but not uniform." And it is at this point that I put it to Saleh that the militant trend is a threat. "I go to the Opera and enjoy listening to Um Kalthoum. And one of my all-time favourites is Amr Diab's Nur ala Nur. Music is not in itself haram (prohibited by Sharia). Only decadent music is," Saleh explains. "The sexually suggestive video clips are most certainly haram."

For preaching, she recommends the works of Sheikh Mohamed Al-Ghazali, whose most important treatise on women in Islam was banned in Saudi Arabia, and categorically rejects the ridiculous notion that women are fitnah and aoura (temptation that must be concealed). The hadith verses advocating niqab are all weak (not verified), she says, and most are unsubstantiated.

"The Sufism that I admire is that of Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Ibn Al-Arabi, exceptionally spiritual people who were first and foremost true believers," Saleh explains. In the course of a career spanning more than 30 years, Saleh has become one of the country's most outspoken female defenders of Islam. She is a firebrand preacher whose main goal is to inculcate a sense of obligation to religion in the young. Her main audience is young women.

As head of Al-Azhar University's Islamic and Arabic Sudies Department, Women's Branch, her students are exclusively women -- the vast majority young.

Her students hail from a wide range of social backgrounds, both urban and rural, and they come from all over the country, Cairenes and provincials. She cares deeply for them all. But she is especially interested in the welfare of the foreign students who come from as far afield as Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries.

"I supervise the doctoral dissertations of several of these students from Southeast Asia and I am especially interested to know how they practise Islam, especially in countries where Muslims are a minority such as in Thailand and the Philippines." Saleh has fond memories of her teaching experience. She proudly confides that one of her students has been nominated for the position of women's affairs minister in her native Indonesia. "Her doctoral thesis was intriguing and very engaging -- women's political participation in the early days of Islam." Surat Al-Mumtahana, she reiterates, clearly gives women the right to participate in all aspects of public life.

During a visit to Italy last December, Saleh explained to her Italian hosts the position of women in Islam. She is adamant that the conception of women introduced by the Prophet Mohamed marked a turning-point for women across the world, not least incorporating the notion of women's inheritance which lies at the heart of the new conceptualisation of their rights. Muslim women were the first to be granted the right to inherit property and conduct their own private business affairs. This was so at an age when the women of Europe and Asia were not allowed to own property, inherit wealth and in some instances were treated as chattel.

There can be no uniform justice, and especially when it comes to the laws governing inheritance of men and women. At the conference Saleh pointed out that the Sharia inheritance laws are regarded as something of a time bomb by secularists. Westerners, unfortunately, do not understand the basis on which women are made to inherit half of what men inherit.

Saleh is especially indebted to her husband the literary critic El-Sayid Abdel-Raouf. He has encouraged her in both her teaching and preaching careers. She feels exceptionally lucky to have had a father who encouraged his daughters to "learn and be educated and work". Her husband has been equally supportive. "I believe women have the right to be heads of state, but women cannot be made grand sheikh of Al-Azhar," Saleh says. "But there is no injunction in Islam to ban women from issuing a fatwa or religious edict," she insists.

There is no compulsion in religion, she says, but there are rules and regulations that Muslims must adhere to. In Saleh's book, however, women must accept the guardianship of their male members of the family and especially the father and husband. But Saleh is careful to note that guardianship entails duties and responsibilities. " Al-qiwamah ala al-nisaa (guardianship over women, a vital and sensitive cornerstone of Islam) does not give male members of the family licence to oppress their female counterparts. Islam enjoins men to protect, love and care for their women folk."

But Saleh has some harsh words for a certain kind of women. "Women are often their own worst enemies. I learnt from bitter experience that some women do not take kindly to being given orders from women bosses. Many women prefer male bosses. Some women, including colleagues, have been among my harshest critics."

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