Book excerpt: Muslims – The Real History by Ali Mahmood



The status and role of women is an issue which affects every Muslim home. When The Prophet and his group arrived in Medina they noted the different behaviour of the Medina women. Umar, the champion of male privilege, commented, ‘We men of Quraysh dominate our women. When we arrived in Medina, we saw that the Ansar let themselves be dominated by theirs. Then our women began to copy their habits.’ One day when he was railing at his wife, she answered him in the same tone of voice. When he expressed his shock and disappointment, she replied, ‘You reproach me for answering you! Well, by God, the wives of The Prophet answer him.’ It did not help that the two most influential leaders of early Islam, The Prophet and his most powerful and admired lieutenant, Umar, had very different views on women and how they should be treated.

After the wedding feast on the marriage of The Prophet and Zainab, the guests stayed too long and didn’t leave. This led to the Quranic verses instituting seclusion,

O ye who believe, enter not the houses of The Prophet, unless you are invited to a meal, and then not in anticipation of its getting ready. But enter when you are called, and when you have eaten, disperse, linger not in eagerness for talk. This was a cause of embarrassment for The Prophet…When you ask any of the wives of The Prophet for something, ask from behind a curtain. That is purer for your hearts and for their hearts. (54:33)

In Medina, rowdy hooligans were harassing even decent women on the streets. Men would make advances and try to pick up women they came across. When challenged, they gave the excuse that they had believed the women they accosted to be slave girls. In this context Allah revealed verse 59 of Sura 33 in which He advised the wives of The Prophet to make themselves easy to recognize by pulling their jilbab over themselves, ‘O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close around them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognized and not annoyed.’ In this way the hijab descended on Medina. Throughout Muhammad’s lifetime, veiling, like seclusion, was observed only by his wives so that the phrase, ‘she took the veil’ is used in the hadith to mean that a woman became the wife of The Prophet.

Of all the wives of The Prophet, Um Salama was the most demanding for the rights of women. She asked The Prophet why women did not receive equal mention in the Quran; she also asked about the Quran’s position on inheritance rights of women. Till then a woman could not claim an inheritance, but she herself could be inherited by her stepson on the death of her husband. Um Salama’s questions were satisfied by Sura 4 An-Nisa (Women). But even so, the debate continued with Umar in the corner of men’s rights and The Prophet protecting the rights of women. Umar did not condemn violence against women; The Prophet never raised a hand against anyone, let alone his wives. This debate still carries on today.

After the Battle of the Camel, al Bakra claimed to have heard The Prophet say, ‘Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity.’ This hadith has been frequently quoted as a saying of The Prophet. But was it? Al Bakra was not highly respected and had a history of coming up with opportune hadith. Once he was whipped by Umar for giving false evidence in an adultery case. Hadith were always suspected unless there were very good grounds for acceptance. Al Bukhari studied over 600,000 hadith before concluding that there were 596,725 false hadith in circulation, and only 7,275 were reliable. Muslims have certainly not given too much importance to this hadith, because from the middle ages Muslim queens took power—Razia Sultan, daughter of Iltutmish in India; Shajar al Durr, who started the Mamluk dynasty; and Sitt el-Mulk, sister of the Fatimid caliph, al Hakim. In modern times Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia, Tansu Ciller of Turkey and the two Bangladeshi leaders, Khaleda Zia and Shaikh Hasina, are well known names. Senegal, Mali, Kosovo and Mauritius have all known female heads of state, and even Iran has had a woman as Vice President.

Once Umar tried to instruct Um Salama on how to behave; she was offended. In front of the other wives she told him off, ‘Why are you interfering in the private life of The Prophet? If he wanted to give us such advice, he could do so himself.’ After the death of The Prophet when Umar became Caliph, Aisha’s sister, Um Kulthum, refused to marry him because he was very harsh and rough with women.

In the Abbasid times, the position of women became worse. Conquest and wealth resulted in a multitude of slaves and concubines. This trend continued under the Ottomans, whose caliphs, for several generations, gave up marrying altogether, preferring to live with concubines and slave girls, until Hurrem captured the heart of Suleiman the Great and he made her his queen. In the nineteenth century, Britain and the other colonial powers became master of most of the Muslim world. They imposed their values and frowned on Eastern habits such as polygamy and the veil. Many of the Muslim elite followed the British example, hoping to win the favour of their colonial masters. The veil started to disappear in high society. Lord Cromer, in Egypt, condemned the veil as contrary to the rights of women, but back home in England he was founder and President of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage. In Egypt his crusade against women’s rights led him to discourage the education of Muslim girls and the training of female doctors!

Despite the desire of The Prophet to protect and promote the rights of women, it has been a hard struggle throughout the 1,400 years of Muslim history. Today, there is still a clash of views. On the one hand, modernists and reformers follow a lifestyle closer to the West (though without the total focus on women as sex symbols), and on the other, traditionalists believe firmly in the veil and that a woman’s place is in the home. This clash became international drama on 9 October 2012, when subsequent to the Taliban banning girls, attendance at schools, a gunman boarded a school bus in Swat, in Pakistan, asked for Malala Yusafzai by name and then fired three bullets at her, one of which entered her head and exited her shoulder. Malala recovered, determined not to be cowed. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the youngest ever to receive this prestigious award and was named by Time magazine as one of the hundred most influential people in the world in 2013.

Today there is no stereotype Muslim. There are jihadis and heart surgeons; there are glamorous young women and there are veiled girls covered even to the tips of their fingers, with gloves which hide their hands from male eyes. In the oil-rich countries there are the international tycoons with their private jets, and in the highly populated poverty-stricken nations of Asia and Africa, there are uneducated villagers living hand-to-mouth. There are the Sunnis and the Shias. There are those that look back at the past, and those who see change and the future as their hope.

There are some glaring differences between the world of the Muslims during their golden years and the Muslims of today. Whereas education, justice and the concern for right and wrong were exceptional in the Islamic world during its rise, they are conspicuous in their absence today. Perhaps it was education, justice and the concern for right and wrong that in turn, was the real cause of the rise and fall of the Muslims. An enlightened Muslim traveller who visited Europe a century ago commented on his return, that in Europe he had seen Islam everywhere but Muslims nowhere, whereas back home he saw Muslims everywhere but Islam nowhere.

We have not reached the end of the story; only the crossroads. Where does the future lie? The philosopher, George Santayana, commented that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But this was not his only brilliant saying. Another Santayana quote, much less known, is very appropriate to the Muslim world of today: ‘Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.’



About the book

From the seventh till the seventeenth century, Muslims dominated the world. Inspired by the Prophet and his emphasis on education, justice, and social consciousness, they created a civilization that led the world in knowledge, science, culture, architecture, and quality of life. For a thousand years, the Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids, Timurids, Ottomans, Safavids and Moguls ruled, establishing the golden age of Islam while Europe slumbered in the Dark Ages.

Then, in the seventeenth century, the Europeans emerged as the new masters of the universe and Muslims were cast to the bottom of the heap. For three hundred years, the Muslims suffered the indignities and deprivations of a conquered people.

After the two World Wars, Europe and Great Britain’s monopoly of power declined, the new Muslim States in the Middle East were born, and great leaders began the long fight to re-establish their people. In the twentieth century, a new generation of freedom fighters and nation builders emerged including Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, Ataturk, Sukarno, Jinnah, Gaddafi, King Faisal, and Khomeini.

Muslims is the exciting story of these great men and their amazing achievements. The lucid writing and interesting facts make it an enjoyable read.

About the author

Ali Mahmood was educated in the UK and Pakistan for degrees in politics, economics, and law. His career has spanned all three fields. His political activities in Pakistan have taken him from jail to parliament; he was elected as a senator under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and was sentenced to fourteen years’ imprisonment by Zia-ul-Haq’s government.

His business interests have included ownership of companies in the business of television in Pakistan and Dubai, private power generation in Pakistan, construction in Abu Dhabi, oil trading in Kuwait, and trade and airline marketing in Kazakhstan, giving him substantial experience of business and government in developing countries. He has also been elected to the governing body of the Karachi Chambers of Commerce and Industry. He lives in Dubai.

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