Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 May 2008
Issue No. 895
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In her favour

The storm kicked up after it was suggested that the testimony of a woman should be equal to that of a man has died down after a detailed explanation and a seal of approval from the Islamic Research Council, Reem Leila reports


Women have been struggling for their rights and in consequence, are improving their status in the societies in which they live. One more step in the direction of women's empowerment was made at a round-table discussion at Egypt's National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) on 23 April which urged that a panel be set up to "revise and rectify" reference books on Islamic jurisprudence to remove controversial literature which participants said fanned extremism, especially where women are concerned.

Keynote speaker at the round table, Zeinab Radwan, the People's Assembly's deputy speaker, said that such a panel "would help put an end to incorrect thought which does not agree with Islam, but rather is used as justification for preventing Islamic exegesis from stepping in line with successive developments and changes in today's world."

In March, Radwan suggested that the testimony of just one woman be acknowledged in a business transaction. At present, two women are needed if they are to act as witnesses whereas one male witness will do. Radwan also advocated enabling non- Muslims to inherit Muslims and vice versa.

Radwan drew harsh criticism for her call that the testimony of one woman be equal to that of one man, an idea said to be against a text in Islam's holy book the Quran which says that testimonies of two women equal that of one man. But Radwan offered a different perception. "The text of the Quran is related to a specific situation in which women were illiterate at the time, and could also forget the details of the incident since what they were giving was verbal testimony, not written," Radwan, a professor of Islamic philosophy, told the round table.

Traditionally, many people, needless to say most of them men, have harboured doubts about Islam's position regarding a woman's self-worth. According to Radwan, a common but erroneous belief is that as a rule, the worth of a woman's testimony is one half of that of a man's. But a survey of all passages in the Quran relating to testimony does not substantiate such an assertion.

Agreeing with Radwan on the need to revise Islamic thought, Fouad Allam, a former Ministry of Interior official who participated in the round table, urged that Al-Azhar, which is the Sunni Muslim world's most influential institution, be part of a mechanism to renew Islamic discourse.

Speaking at the NCHR gathering, Ahmed El-Sayeh, a professor of Islamic philosophy at Al-Azhar University, strongly rebutted what he termed "the beliefs of some members of the centre which were inherited from extremist sects in pre-Islamic eras, underestimating the position of women." He stressed that Islam provides for full equality between men and women. El-Sayeh explained that testimony means giving information about a certain person. This involves two stages: bearing the burden of testimony and giving the testimony. As far as the former is concerned, a woman can handle such responsibility in all spheres of life. In other words, a woman can be a witness to an incident of whatever kind. "Most Quranic references to witnesses do not make any reference to gender. Some references fully equate the testimony of males and females," added El-Sayeh.

In her address, Radwan underlined the importance of correctly understanding the actual meanings of texts of the Quran and sayings of the Prophet Mohamed so as not to fall into error while implementing principles of Islamic Sharia. "The West criticises Islam because of incorrect practices that we claim as part of Islam. In reality, the error stems from our incorrect interpretation or implementation of principles of Islam," she added.

Much of whether the new interpretation of women witnesses is accepted will depend on how the leaders of Al-Azhar and the Islamic Research Council (IRC) react. A majority of IRC members are backing Radwan, among them Abdallah El-Naggar, who says Islam did not only accept the testimony of one woman in many instances, but also acknowledged that of children, though they are neither mature nor requested to testify. According to El-Naggar, Islam accepted children's testimony as they have the ability to watch, observe and give information about a certain person or situation in order to preserve people's rights. "If Islam accepts children's testimony, then it would easily acknowledge that of a woman," argued El-Naggar.

Regarding the issue of enabling or allowing non- Muslims to inherit Muslims, Radwan stated that Islam allows a Muslim man to marry a Christian or Jewish woman, thus granting to both man and wife the same rights and duties. Why then, she argued, should a woman not inherit her husband? Islam would not agree that a wife becomes destitute after her husband's death especially if she is unemployed. Concurring with Radwan, El-Naggar added that Islam can never deprive a non- Muslim wife of her right to inherit as she has spent all her life in a Muslim house, gave birth to Muslim children and served them.

Accordingly, after an extensive study of Radwan's suggestion, the IRC, while deciding not to allow non- Muslim wives to inherit Muslim husbands as there is no Quranic verse which stipulates such a situation, did agree on allocating a mandatory will to non-Muslim wives in order to enable them to lead an honourable life after their husband's death. The IRC's decision was described as a victory by Radwan. "It does not really matter how non-Muslim wives will be granted their financial rights. What really matters is they are going to take it," Radwan said after the IRC announcement.

The IRC also agreed on formulating a joint committee with the NCHR and Al-Azhar to revise and rectify all reference books currently espousing unacceptable radical thought.

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