Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh. Thanks to the organisers for the invitation and the opportunity to present to you today my perspective on Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Faslallah’s work on women and its impact on women’s lives.
I must admit, to me Ayatollah Fadlallah is a late discovery for me. Though I had heard of his maverick and rather ‘untraditional’ views and fatwas I was put off by the populist rhetoric of how ‘dangerous’ and ‘misguided’ he was. That should have been the very catalyst to further investigation but I was too religious immature to venture further.
Unfortunately, like many geniuses and bright minds that walk this earth, I became aware of him once, he had passed away. That is why presentation will be an analysis of his unique approach to what often seems to be the last bastion of religiosity and piety in society and that is women and their role in the world. However, my approach will be based on an sympathetic outsider looking in.
Without going into extensive biographical detail and as has been mentioned earlier Ayatollah Fadlallah was born in 1935 in Najaf and early on in his childhood it became clear that he was no ordinary student where by the age of10 he was writing poetry, excelling in his education and seeking knowledge beyond the realms of a traditional seminary/religious education with an avid interest in cultural, artistic and social subjects. That in itself is a sign of the more holistic and innovative approach that Seyyid Fadhlallah was to bring to the world of Marji’iya.
To me what made the Seyyid an interesting and authoritative figure was his very traditional schooling and training in Najaf and the way that he used traditionalism to challenge the incumbent readings of Islam and the different facets of life of a believer.
I would argue that his holistic interest in life, culture, history, modernity, civic values and humanism as well as his acute awareness of contemporary social and cultural trends inspired his ability to challenge traditional interpretations of many things but particularly the role of women in society.
I also believe that his multiple and rich layers of identity and interest uniquely positioned him to be possess a level of knowledge and wisdom, displayed in his style of writing, thinking and fatwas that I have yet to see in other Marji’s. He was an intellectual, a poet, a philanthropist, a historian, a jurist, a literati and most of all he held open, regular and relaxed gatherings with the public. One woman recounts how he had immediately put her at ease by looking her straight in the eye when meeting at his court and smiling rather than speaking to her via gazing at the floor or through an imagined separation or divide.
This ability to disarm and humanise I believe is central to his popularity and following. He communicated to followers including women complex and protracted theological or cultural arguments in a clear manner, using every day language and chiefly through interviews and telecommunications. His wisdom was to use the telecommunications revolution to spread his message far and wide, being acutely aware of the extensive presence and the role of telecommunications, internet and media in forming and shaping our knowledge in the modern world.
This made his writings and views extremely accessible to women. He was able to reach and communicate with women unlike any other marji’ of our time. He gave interviews to what we derogatorily call women’s magazines or television programmes in which he outlined his re-interpretations of issues around work, the household, childcare, marriage, politics and even nail polish!
That is not to say that he wasn’t scholarly in his approach or robust in his analysis, far from it he was a prolific writer and one could read his works through his academic works and books. I guess what I am saying is that he had a very democratic and just way of sharing knowledge that was rooted in the very real and everyday experiences of people’s lives. Unlike others he wasn’t a recluse, or a marja that can only be reached through representatives or third parties. He didn’t disconnect from the world he or all Muslims were living in. After all how could he understand, write and analyse aspects of the world if he wasn’t leaving in it?! He was of the people and genuinely believed that they too could teach him as much as he could teach them. To me these are very rare qualities indeed, particularly in our Muslim societies where unfortunately not many women are allowed to access the closed and male dominated world of the ‘religious sciences’. He not only opened the door but if I was being stereotypical, I would say he firmly placed it in the kitchen and living room of everyone woman’s home.
Ayatollah Fadlallah alternative perspective to history, theology and behaviour is what made him such a controversial figure, especially his alternative perspective on women and their right to not only participate in politics but to stand as leaders and candidates for the highest political or even religious office.
His work and thinking is often described as belonging to the rationalist rather than historical school of thought. Here rationality and reasoning supersede historical interpretations. In one of his articles he states that we should come to learn about women’s characteristics, personalities and abilities through real life examples rather than traditional historical readings of the capabilities of women. Whilst it may be an obvious point to you and me but it’s a revolutionary one for a marji’ to make. It not only threatens traditional and very old /historical accounts that were written by men and about women but puts women at the centre of defining their own self. It also places religion at the heart of the here and now rather than just relying on accounts written over a thousand years ago and perpetuated to this day.
Ayatollah Fadlallah does not discard of important Shia and Islamic figures like Khadija, Fatima and Zainab (A.S). In fact he draws on their lives and that of Quranic figures like Mariam and Balqees, the Queen of Sheba and Pharaoh’s wife to illustrate the diverse and empowering roles played by women since the beginning of time. His emphasis being that the Quran cites women as examples for both men and women therefore illustrating the Quranic equality that is given to both sexes by Allah as opposed to Western notions of gender equality.
He stated that men and women’s roles are only different in society when it comes to the role of parenting, in all other areas of life they are capable of carrying out the same duties. More so he argued that motherhood per se should not hinder women in aspiring to achieve their other goals in life.
In his book, Al-Zahra Al Qudwa he argues that Fatimatul Zahra (A.S) is a clear and shining example of the extent to which women can shape society. He states that at the essence of Fatima’s life is the fight against injustice regardless of where it is and where it takes her, be it outside her home; at the heart of the political and religious establishment of the time, or as the leader and ambassador of the poor, destitute or those marginalised from society. According to Ayatollah Fadlallah, her life and career illustrate far from being the image of the recluse or victim figure that some Shias some time ascribe to her, she is a political, religious and cultural activist who taught men and women amongst other things cultural and social responsibility. He also firmly believes that she was the first recorder of Hadith in Islam which makes sense rationally.
To him and distinguishing criteria is weakness of the mind and strength of emotion, in other words, rationality. He believed that women have the ability and potential not to only lead nations and the Islamic Ummah through becoming Marji’s of taqlid themselves if they had the sharpness of mind and rationality to attain wisdom and learning and over come anything that may get in the way of achieving this just balance which has often been interpreted as strong emotion that overcome their common sense or rationality. He states that a woman (or man) in such a position of authority should be ruled by her mind rather than her emotions which he firmly believes is not only possible but a fact.
Taking into consideration all of the above I believe that Ayatollah Fadlallah’s legacy goes far beyond his life time or that of Islam and Muslims. He has set not only his peers but believers everywhere the challenge of searching for a way in which one half of humanity, Allah’s creation, can be finally given the opportunity to fulfil its potential and godly duty. I believe that he has mapped out a way forward where words like weakness and emotions are not used to de-humanise, de-rationalise and de-value women rather they are re-defined or re-labelled to highlight and reinforce their value and essence to life.
After all, it is us weak and emotional women that go through unimaginable pain and endurance to give birth to you men, our sons, husbands and brothers that have the opportunity to become leaders and Prophets. It is us weak and emotional women that choose to wear our hijab and practice our faith in public in the face of insurmountable discrimination, hostility and some times violence. It is us weak and emotional women who use our biology and emotions to co-create with Allah a humanity that is supposed to worship and glorify Him.