Could a Mixed Community Be Genuinely Accepted in Islam?
Today, in some Muslim communities, there are increasing numbers of those who support segregation on the pretext of following religion. However, does religion really enforce the separation of the sexes?
Reflections From the Quran
When I started to delve deeper into the subject, I was shocked and in awe of a verse in the Quran. It reads:
“God has heard the statement of she who argued with you concerning her husband, as she complained to God. God heard your conversation. God is Hearing and Seeing” (58:1).
My understanding of this verse is that the woman was talking directly to the Prophet without any mediator or moderator. She was openly discussing her private problems with him without any embarrassment or fear. She was given the complete right to express herself and be heard as she complained about the ill treatment by her husband. Moreover; she, and all women in her case, who suffer from repudiation are supported by the Divine. This is revealed in the following verses (58:2-3) that show that the repudiation of a woman does not give the man the right to "touch her" until he pays one of the penalties set by God.
Another verse that perplexed me was when God says, addressing people who believe:
“Thus We made you a moderate nation … “ (2:143)
And I wondered are we really a moderate nation with all those chains of segregation?!
Umar Ibn Al Khattab’ Story
There is a very interesting and popular story about Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, (the second Caliph after the Prophet Mohamed) when he was giving a speech about dowries in an attempt to prohibit large dowries. He was corrected by one of the women who argued loudly with him on this matter and reminded him of the verse that says:
“And give the women their dowries with good heart … “ (4:4).
He didn’t rebuke her and he immediately confessed that he was wrong and said: “Umar was wrong, the woman is right.” This simple story shows many human aspects of Islam that have been intentionally buried by harsh communities and ugly traditions. It shows that segregation was never applied in the early Islamic community, and demonstrates the respect that Islamic society had for women and their contribution in decision-making, political issues, and public affairs. Women had the freedom to dispute with the Caliph (Head of the State) in front of the congregation without any fear or blame. And I wonder, does anyone, man or a woman, have the right nowadays to interrupt the president and tell him he is wrong without expecting some penalty?
Arguments with Fellow Muslims
Sometimes, I argue with fellow Muslims about segregation. In an attempt to refute my argument, they recite the verse of the Quran that says:
“O wives of the Prophet! You are not like any other women, if you observe piety. So do not speak too softly, lest the sick at heart lusts after you, but speak in an appropriate manner, and settle in your homes; and do not display yourselves, as in the former days of ignorance… “ (33: 32- 32).
Indeed, in this verse God explicitly orders women to settle in their homes, but which women? The verse starts by addressing the Prophets’ wives and mentions that they are not like any other women. So, these orders could be understood as explicit commands to the Prophet’s wives only, and not to all women. It is very clear that they are treated differently in Islam. God granted them the honor of being Mothers of believers, so they were not allowed to remarry after the Prophet.
More Evidence Against Segregation
We also have to remember the role of Aisha (the youngest wife of the Prophet) in conveying 299 of the Prophet’s quotes. Companions of the Prophet used to ask her about the statutes; Ata ibn Abi Rabah said that Aisha is the most knowledgeable of all people, and highly regarded by public opinion. Abu Musa al-Ash'ari said, “Whenever we are confused about a certain quote, we go and ask Aisha, we find that she was given the clue by the prophet.” And Ibn Zubair Ibn ElAwam said, “I’ve never seen anyone who is more knowledgeable than Aisha in the following aspects: admissible (Halah) and forbidden (Haram), knowledge, poetry, and medicine.” Does this sound like she was completely isolated?
I really wonder where some Muslim communities get those principles of segregation! To me, segregation is a degradation of humanity, where men are considered animals that cannot control their instincts. This implies that men have no will, no principles, and no character when they encounter the opposite sex! However, Islam acknowledges the utmost power and will of men and women, as every Muslim should refrain from food, water, and sex from the dawn to sunset for 30 days, annually (during the holy month of Ramadan).
It is well known that many segregated communities suffer from instability, and many have personal and social problems. A genuine Islamic community should accept mingling with the opposite sex in an atmosphere of complete respect, modesty, and responsibility. In the Holy Quran, God asks believers (men and women), to lower their gaze and protect their private parts. If it were forbidden to encounter the opposite sex, then there would be no point to have this command. In fact, I see people in the West lower their gaze much more than we do in our societies. Unfortunately, in radical communities, if men encounter the opposite sex, they either stare at her as if she was from another planet, or they ignore her completely thinking that they are following God’s command. However, if we go back in history, we will find that amongst early Muslims, women were active participants in the cohesive functioning of the society. Women expressed their opinions freely and their advice was actively sought. Women nursed the wounded during battles, and some even participated on the battlefield. Women traded openly in the marketplace, so much so that the second Caliph, Umar, appointed a woman, Shaffa bint Abdullah, as the supervisor of the bazaar. In Islamic history, women participated in public affairs, lawmaking, and teaching.
It’s worth mentioning that the attitude of early Muslims compared to medieval Christians was freer. The Orthodox theologian Nicolas Zernov argued, “The Christian East on the eve of the Islamic conquest had forgotten the limitations of human nature. Many members of the Church desired to imitate the angels; hence the mass movements towards the sexless life of monks and nuns; hence the exodus from towns and villages into the desert; hence the feats of self-mortification which showed the extent to which men could subdue their bodies at the dictates of the spirit. Islam stopped all these excesses. It swept away the exaggerated fear of sex, discarded asceticism, banished the fear of hell for those who failed to reach perfection.”
The Bottom Line
God says in the Holy Quran:
“O people! We created you male and female, and made you nations and tribes, that you may know one another. The best among you in the sight of God is the most righteous… “ (49:13)
As we see, God created us male and female. He did not ask us to be detached or isolated but to get to know one another with complete dignity and respect, as the best among us is the most righteous. This universal religion doesn’t differentiate between race, gender, or tribe. In fact, we are all equal in the sight of God and best among us are the most virtuous!