This weekend those of us not performing the ritual pilgrimage, or Hajj, will enjoy the Festival of the Sacrifice of Eid al-Adha. Celebrated on the 10th day of the 12th lunar calendar month, it tends to creep up without warning, since we operate on the solar Gregorian calendar. The next day I jump a plane to Southeast Asia so my attention is already diverted.
The sacrifice here refers to Prophet Abraham’s botched contract with God over his first son. Muslims stick with the sheer biology that it was his first son, Ishma’il rather than Sarah’s first biological son, Isaac as recognized in Christianity and Judaism. It’s political, I won’t go there.
Instead I want to focus on this veneration of things masculine across all three Abrahamic faiths with the attention surrounding this particular patriarch. For example, I recall an Eid sermon which dwelt at length on Abraham circumcising himself in full adulthood without anesthesia. All I could think was, WHO should care about that? This particular manhood seems to excel over any reminder of his humanity, or of his devotion to monotheism in a community steeped in Idol worship.
My favorite Abraham story in the Qur’an tells about him being booted out of that Idol worshiping community so he goes in search of Ultimate Truth through nature itself. First, he directs himself to the stars, then the moon and the sun as each one outshines the other in the sky. Finally he has an Aha moment that the stars, moon or sun are each a sign POINTING towards the Ultimate. He arrives at this Truth, the Qur’an tells us, through his fitrah: primordial predisposition towards the Truth. This is something at the core of all humanity.
But Abraham’s journey pales when I think about how he abandoned that child and his mother Hajar (Hagar) to fend for themselves in the harsh desert. Each year Pilgrims walk seven times between the foot hills of Safa and Marwa to commemorate Hajar’s frantic search for water. Now this rite is performed in the cool crisp air conditioning of the modern mosque development. No longer do we labor directly under the direct sun. At one section of the walk there is a green light to signal where she actually ran. It is recommended that we pick up our own pace. That is unless you are a woman.
According to the keepers of this holy sanctuary, running is limited to men.
Each year the limits placed on women’s participation in the various rites and rituals of the Hajj are increasing. All attention is taken up with complaining about too many modern developments around the mosque with its subsequent loss of ancient and historical sites, but no one is in an uproar over the ways women are forcibly denied the equality of worship which used to be the corner stone of this sacred experience. Folks are fond of saying that in Islam, women and men are equal spiritually…but not social-culturally. Women are subservient to men in that arena and somehow that is expected. Yet, men exercise their authority over all aspects of women’s lives and this impacts the Hajj experience. Understand that performing Hajj at least once in a life time is incumbent upon women and men alike.
Yet the prayer space surrounding the Kaaba (that cube shaped building towards which over a billion Muslims direct their ritual prayer, from every corner of the earth, and have done so for over a thousand years) is now prohibited to women for their prayers. They are forced to make their way to two tiny corners of the main floor FAR AWAY from the Kaaba. Even if they were in the midst of doing tawwaf (or circumambulation) around the Kaaba, a most central rite during the Hajj, and the time for prayer comes, women will be physically assaulted by female guardians if they attempt to begin the prayers from right where they stand. What is more, the cordoned off section of the main floor is never big enough for the teaming flow of worshiping women and their children.
Makkah and Madinah were once celebrated as the place to actually experience ritual equality between women and men. Now, Masjid al-Haram has become haram—or prohibited—to women’s free expression of devotion to their Lord. And nobody says anything. So every year, the infringements increase.
In recent years, these restrictions also surrounded the second most sacred spot: the Prophet Mosque in Madinah. An ugly white tarp is laced throughout the mosque to form a strict passageway dividing women and men on their way to the Rawdah, which represents, the ground of the mosque built by the Prophet himself. Furthermore, women are no longer permitted to past by his tomb and offer greetings of peace while awaiting the promised return greetings from beyond time. Two or three hundred women are herded together like cattle to perform the two rak’at (units) of ritual prayer in a space big enough for maybe 75 people. Then once again we are rushed off, since permission to do even this is further limited to three select times during the day.
The Prophet had promised for whoever prayed on his rawdah a place to pray in Paradise. Many women and men are not even aware of the extent of these restrictions which now limit our fulfillment of our divine right. With no chance to give greeting inside, I chose instead to stand on the outer wall of the tomb and say my greetings. I also call on God for relief from this outrage. For while I am always grateful for our ritual celebrations, I want to go on record to say, I do not agree with these restrictions placed in the historical location of Islam’s beginning due to patriarchy that have nothing to do with the ritual or my Lord.
I do not intend to take this without some effort to reclaim my rights.
amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives. Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.