Tuesday, April 3, 2018



Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan sociologist, was a pioneer of Islamic feminism. Her most relevant work for the purposes of this chapter is her book The Veil and the Muslim Elite in which Mernissi engages in a critical re-reading and critical reassessment of  the authenticity of two misogynist hadith found in Al-Bukhari’s Sahih hadith collection.[1] Mernissi’s  broader thesis is that the egalitarian if not the  feminist message and the persona of the Prophet of Islam has been manipulated  and distorted by the Muslim male (scholarly ) elite. Recognising the importance of hadith on the collective consciousness of Muslims and their societies and especially the detrimental effect that they have had on women’s rights, Mernissi adopts the methodology and the criteria of the classical hadith scholars themselves to cast doubt on the reliability of the transmitters of the following two hadith:

“Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity.” (transmitted on the authority of Abu Bakra )
“the Prophet said that the dog, the ass, and woman interrupt prayer if they pass in front of the believer, interposing themselves between him and the qibla [the direction of Muslim prayer]”( transmitted on the authority of Abu Hurayra).

In relation to the hadith transmitted by Abu Bakra, Mernissi, by consulting the classical biographies of hadith transmitters, not only questions the circumstances under which Abu Bakra remembered this statement but also argues that his character does not satisfy the isnad-based criteria developed by classical hadith scholars in order for the hadith to be considered authentic. As such Mernissi opines that according to the criteria developed by classical hadith scholars themselves Abu Bakra should be considered as an unreliable transmitted of hadith.[2] In this respect she states: “if one follows the principles of Malik for fiqh, Abu Bakra must be rejected as a source of Hadith by every good, well-informed Malikite Muslim.”[3] Thus, for Mernissi, the abovementioned hadith, despite being found in Al-Bukhari’s Sahih collection, is not to be considered authentic and ought not be used as an argument to prevent Muslim women from assuming the highest level of political leadership.

In relation to the second hadith Mernissi takes aim at one of the most prolific hadith transmitters in Sunni Islam, Abu Hurayra. While Mernissi’s strategy in problematising the trustworthiness of Abu Hurayra as a transmitter of hadith is multilayered including strong elements of interpolation (Ghani,2011), we only focus on those aspects that are aligned with classical hadith authenticity criticism. In this respect Mernissi makes note that Al-Bukhari ignored the fact that ‘Aisha, the prophet’s youngest wife, refuted this hadith on the basis that it was only a partial recollection of what the prophet had actually stated.[4] For Mernissi, this is indicative of Al-Bukhari’s own androcentric bias and methodology. As in the case of Abu Bakra, Mernissi ‘s examination of classical biographical works on Abu Hurayra  leads her to conclude that he had a  number of reasons to exhibit a misogynistic attitude including his frequent quarrels with  ‘Aisha.[5]
In both cases, Mernissi uses the methodologies and tools of classical hadith criticism to defend her broader thesis of Islam as a gender egalitarian religion and a Prophet as an early   proponent of Islamic feminism. More specifically, she in a way de-canonises what is widely considered the most authentic collection of hadith among traditionalist Sunnis , that of Al-Bukhari’s Sahih,  in order to open doors for contemporary Muslims as a whole ( and not just the fuqaha)  to develop a more self-reflective and critical attitude toward the “authentic hadith”. In her words:
What conclusion must one draw from this? That even the authentic Hadith must be vigilantly examined with a magnifying glass? That is our right, Malik Ibn Anas tells us. Al-Bukhari, like all the fuqaha, began his work of collecting by asking for Allah’s help and acknowledging that only He is infallible.[6]
Importantly, Mernissi’s approach, like that of other scholars discussed in this chapter,  also implies that, at least at times, [7]the classical hadith sciences  can be employed to ‘subvert from the inside’ the  patriarchal residue that exists  in the Islamic (interpretative) tradition in general and the hadith collections in particular.

[1] Mernissi also engages in a very contextualist reading of the Qur’anic verses on the hijab and the hadith which document the occasions of the verses in question  but since the focus of this chapter is entirely on the hadith this aspect of Mernissi’ book will not be discussed.
[2] Veil,49-61.
[3] Veil,p.53.
[4] A specific Jewish tribe who had this vision of women.
[5] Veil,70-81.
[6] Veil,76.
[7] A number of scholars have criticised  Mernissi’s methodology  on the grounds that there are other instances of misogynist hadith  that cannot be ‘rescued’ on the basis of following the classical hadith criticism sciences. ( Rhouni, 2010.)

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