Dr. Ameer Ali,
Murdoch Business School,
Etymologically, the name mullah derives from the Arabic mawla referring to a vicar, master or guardian but theologically it applies to an Islamic religious preacher or sheikh or alim or mosque leader. Mullah is not only common to both sides of the Sunni-Shia divide, but also prevalent among Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish communities. However, that name has also earned derogatory connotation for a community of dogmatic and pedantic Muslim preachers. It was the national poet of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal who was fearless in condemning this community for its narrow interpretation of Islam and diehard conservatism, which had kept many a Muslim society divided, backward, poor and stagnant. Here is one of Iqbal’s poetic gems rendered in English:
When in a vision I saw
A mullah ordered to paradise,
Unable to hold my tongue,
I said something in this wise:
“Pardon me, O Lord,
For these bold words of mine,
But he will not be pleased
With the houris and the wine;
He loves to dispute and fight,
And furiously wrangle,
But paradise is no place
For this kind of jangle,
His task is to disunite
And leave people in the lurch,
But paradise has no temple,
No mosque and no church”.
Two years before the Arab Spring of 2011, the women of Iran, supported by a disgruntled electorate, joined in mass revolt against the mullah regime that hijacked the 2009 Presidential Election to get its lackey Ahmadinejad elected. That protest lasted from June 2009 till early 2010 and was suppressed with the full force of state armoury. This was the Green Movement in which the post-revolutionary generation of Iranian women called for system change and an end to mullahcracy. These women, unlike their elders, who idolized Ayatollah Khomeini, were fighting for their human rights to be free from centuries of religious and cultural shackles imposed by a misogynic religious order.
That movement was a precursor to the 2011 Arab Spring sparked by a 26 years old Tunisian vegetable vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who self-immolated, because the police confiscated his scales for not possessing a permit to be a vendor. Once again, it was the demand for system change that became the battle cry for the throng of participants in that spring, which, like in Iran, also ended in a winter of despair and restoration of the ancient regime.
Twelve years after that disappointment, and once again in Shia Iran, a 22 years old Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amini died on 16 September 2022 while under the custody of Iran’s Gasht-e-Ershad or popularly known as the morality police, an equivalent of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia’s mutawa, allegedly for wearing her hijab or veil loosely. Her death once again set off countrywide riots, arrests, police brutality, deaths and executions. In this instance, unlike in the Green Movement, women took the frontline and led the struggle for freedom, dignity and system change. On 2 November 2022, Elham Modaressi, a 32 years old artist was arrested, tortured and facing grave human rights violations. The regime also arrested and later released Taraneh Alidoosti, an award-winning film actress for denouncing the regime’s executions of young demonstrators. Women in Iran are bearing the brunt of a misogynous regime.
Lately, but not lastly, in another part of the Sunni world, in Taliban Afghanistan, another regime of mullahs, suspended all undergraduate women from attending universities and ordered all NGOs not to employ women in their workforce. One should remember that it was a Taliban gunman who shot the 15 years old Malala Yousafzai on 9 October 2012 for speaking for the rights of girls to be educated.
Throughout the history of Islam, except during the leadership of its Prophet and that of his immediate successors (622-660) Muslim women had been the victims of a misogynic and patriarchal Islamic order. Although this is true of women in many other patriarchal societies, misogyny in the world of Mullah Islam seems to possess an exceptional degree of resilience. How does one explain this phenomenon?
In a brilliant piece of research titled, “Most Masculine State” (Cambridge University Press, 2013), its author Madawi Al-Rasheed, a British citizen of Saudi origin and Professor of social anthropology, has traced and critically evaluated decades of protests in the Wahhabi kingdom of Saudi Arabia by women, just to win such frivolous rights as possessing a passport or a driving license. In general, the name masculine state could aptly be applied to the states in many Muslim countries from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to South and South East Asia. Whether in Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, Shia Iran, Taliban’s Sunni Afghanistan or other Muslim states, Muslim women are openly and subtly discriminated by a religious order created, defined and controlled by mullahs.
The constitution of that order is entrenched in the content of the shariah, an Arabic word which literally means taking the horse to water. Theologically however, it stands for the right or proper path to be followed by a Muslim to attain success in this life and the Hereafter. But this path was constructed not by the Divine as claimed by mullahs but by humans and almost exclusively by men with guidance from Islam’s two primary sources, the holy Quran and the life and teachings of Prophet Muhammad. Yet, while these two sources are historically static, there were other dynamic factors that assisted the human endeavour, such as the stock of knowledge available at the time of compiling the shariah, the level of development of societies in which the authors of shariah lived and other environmental influences that shaped their thinking and interpretation of the primary sources. These dynamic factors are subject to change and therefore shariah is not a static construct but a dynamic exercise driven by contextualization. The Arabic word ijtihad meaning independent reasoning determined the dynamism of shariah. But sometime during the 12th century this healthy evolution was said to have come to an end, and in its place taqlid or imitation came to rule the religious order. Many would argue that it was during that period the doors of ijtihad were closed, although scholars like Wael Hallaq, a Professor of Humanities at the Columbia University, would contest that conclusion.
However, the pre-12th century shariah which was essentially misogynic when it comes to gender issues laid the foundation for Mullah Islam’s religious order. But, underlying that misogynism is an economic reason that is hardly mentioned in discussions on shariah. The Islam that was preached by mullahs at the mass level emphasized almost exclusively the ritual side of that faith rather than its philosophical or theological side. Rituals are meant to be followed and practiced methodically according to certain prescribed set of rules and traditions in which the mullah claimed expertise. Hence their services were always in demand and that service guaranteed a source of income to these functionaries. Not every Muslim government is rich as the oil producers to keep the mullahs in government pay roll. The vast majority of this community has to find its own means of economic survival with their limited knowledge and skill, and today’s employment market has very few openings for them to gain access. How then could they earn an income?
Historically and sociologically women had been the repositories of traditions, rituals and ceremonies. Before modernity and secular education entered the Muslim world even men for that matter remained religiously superstitious, ritualistic and tradition bound, and required the leadership and guidance of the mullah. Thanks to modern education and secular thinking men have advanced from that base and are prepared to dispense with the services of this community. This means one half of mullah’s religious market has collapsed and they have to protect at least the other half. Already, the spread of modern education among Muslim women is threatening to endanger even that half. The wave of women’s protest in conservative Saudi Arabia, which surprisingly had registered few successes under the dictates of Crown Prince MBS, and women’s ongoing struggle in mullah-ruled Iran and Afghanistan should therefore be seen as threats to mullah Islam’s religious order and its economic base. Closer to home, evidence of that threat could be seen over the current controversy over Sri Lanka’s Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act. What is happening under the cover of shariah therefore is a rearguard action by misogynous mullahs to protect their religious market.
There is a new wave of Islamic scholarship challenging the Mullah religious order in which Muslim women themselves are taking a leading part. Madawi Al-Rasheed is just one hundreds. Hossein Kamaly’s “A History of Islam in 21 Women” (Bloomsbury, 2020), shows only a sprinkle of what Muslim women could achieve on a level playing field. Their publications of fiction, non-fiction, drama and poetry are a testament to the female awakening in the world of Islam. In short, Muslim women are leading their own struggle to liberate themselves from nearly fourteen centuries of shariah made shackles. If some want to call it Islamic feminism, so be it.