“My Companions are like the stars; follow whichever you like and you will be rightly guided.”
–the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ
Wherever there is a discrepancy in power, there exists the possibility of abuse. As Muslims, we believe this is true of every relationship between willful beings, except the relationship between God and His creation. He is Just, at the level of the absolute, and His Justice will absolutely be realized, if not on this worldly plane, then on that of the Next.
It is due to the truth of His Absolute Justice that man must be careful in his relationships. Yes, power discrepancies lend themselves to abuse, but they also allow for the actualization of the highest of human potential. Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says in the chapter on Women (al-Nisa’):
إِنَّ اللّهَ يَأْمُرُكُمْ أَن تُؤدُّواْ الأَمَانَاتِ إِلَى أَهْلِهَا وَإِذَا حَكَمْتُم بَيْنَ النَّاسِ أَن تَحْكُمُواْ بِالْعَدْلِ إِنَّ اللّهَ نِعِمَّا يَعِظُكُم بِهِ إِنَّ اللّهَ كَانَ سَمِيعًا بَصِيرًا
BEHOLD, God bids you to deliver all that you have been entrusted with unto those who are entitled thereto, and whenever you judge between people, to judge with justice. Verily, most excellent is what God exhorts you to do: verily, God is all-hearing, all-seeing! – 4:58
In every relationship a human being has–whether with his parents, spouse, children, neighbors, teachers, even (and especially) with God Himself–there are “entrustments” (amanat), rights or duties, he must fulfill in order to do justice. Allah ta‘ala assures us that to act justly is a “most excellent” thing to do. But He also warns us with a subtlety that is not lost on the conscious heart: if you choose not to act with justice, and you instead violate the rights you owe others, then know that God sees and hears, and His perfect justice will eventually bring you to task.
In our current age, there is a particular emphasis placed on rights violations that occur between men and women, specifically the rights of women that men violate. It is a great and highly commendable act to help rectify these abuses, but this must be done while keeping in mind the big picture of human relationships and human existence. We are not disparate individuals, making random connections with each other as we float through life. Instead, we are connected to each other laterally through broad networks of family and social relationships, and God commands us to honor our place within these networks by fulfilling the amanat to those to whom they are due. If we decide to shirk our responsibilities, and oppress those who have a right over us, it is to Allah Himself that we must answer.
Unfortunately, this latter and most vital connection, between men, women and God, is the one most ignored in present-day discussions on the rights human beings owe to each other. We must not forget that it is our connection to Allah, and our submission to Him, that helps us most wholesomely realize our highest potential, within all of our various relationships. It is this connection, or sila, that we at the Sila Initiative hope to emphasize over and above all else in our research and educational efforts.
The following account1 provides a compelling model for how to place Allah Most High at the center of our attempts to find answers to the most difficult questions, and to find relief in the most challenging of situations. It is based on the tafsir (exegetical) literature surrounding the first four verses of Surah al-Mujadilah (“the Arguing Woman”2).
Khawlah bint Tha‘labah was an Ansari woman, from the Medinan tribe of Khazraj. She was married to Aws b. Samit, the brother of the famous Companion ‘Ubadah. Unfortunately, Aws was known for having an ill nature, especially as he had gotten older. He was a poor man, weak-sighted, and quick-tempered, some say even slightly mad3.
One day, Khawlah was engaged in prayer. As she bent down to make prostration, her husband noticed her shapely figure. As soon as she ended her prayer with the salam, he asked her to be intimate with him. She refused, and he went into a rage, instantly pronouncing on her words of zihar: “You are to me like the back of my mother!”
Zihar was a form of divorce used in pre-Islamic Arabia. Men could use certain verbal expressions in which they compared their wives to their mothers, as a way to say, you are now unlawful for me (sexually) just as my mother is. This would result in immediate divorce, and that too of a particularly harsh kind, since the woman would remain stuck in marital limbo. She would not be able to stay married to the husband who pronounced zihar, nor could she marry anyone else.
However, Aws b. Samit had not really intended to permanently divorce his wife. At this point there are different accounts of what happened next. In one narration, he again tries to be intimate with her, but she pushes him off firmly, exclaiming, “By the One in Whose Hand is the soul of Khuwayla4, I will not come to you after you’ve said what you’ve said until God and His Messenger decide our case!” In another account, Khawlah does not initially comprehend the ramifications of Aws’ statement. It is he who immediately feels regret, saying “I think you are now forbidden to me,” at which point she becomes distraught. In this version, it is Aws who sends her to the Prophet ﷺ to find out what can be done.
Khawlah went out and asked some of her female neighbors to let her borrow an overgarment to wear in front of the Messenger of Allah5 ﷺ. She then rushed to the house of ‘Aisha, where she found him. Her level of distress was obvious. “Verily, Aws married me when I was young and he desired me. Now that I have aged, and worn out my body (by bearing children for him), he has made me like his mother!” She begged the Prophet ﷺ for a solution, hoping he could find a way to have the ruling changed.
But the Prophet ﷺ could only reply, “I have nothing (with which I can help you) in your matter. He is forbidden to you.” He was cognizant of her pain, but even more conscious of the fact that he, just like she, was a slave of Allah and was required to await His command. Until and unless he was told to do otherwise by divine command, the Prophet ﷺ generally upheld the custom of the pre-Islamic Arabs. Zihar was one such custom. The zihar of Aws was the first instance to happen among the Muslims, and since the Prophet ﷺ had received no revelation regarding this practice, he treated it as divorce in the same way that the Arabs had always done.
But Khawlah did not let go of the matter. She presented him with argument after argument, hoping to convince him to find a way out of her predicament. Each time the Prophet ﷺ answered in the negative, unable to help her, she’d present her case again. “He did not pronounce the word ‘talaq’ (divorce),” she said. “He is the father of my child, and the most beloved person to me.” “He’s made me like his mother, and left me to no one