Khaled Abou El Fadl, Chapter 9: "Donkeys Carrying Books" from The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books

The symbolic world of Islam invokes pain—fear and pain. The verse, “We have not sent the Qur’an upon you to cause you distress” (20:2), does not resound in many hearts. The Qur’an talks of donkeys carrying books (62:5), and these donkeys continue trampling on many minds. “We made some of you the means of trying others. So will you persevere?" (25:20). God, we do try to persevere but the trial of these donkeys is more demanding than any other.

Today’s class is about Surat Yusuf (Joseph) and there is so much to analyze and ponder. “Alif Lam Ra, these are the verses of the immaculate Book. We have sent it as an Arabic Qur’an so that you may understand” (12:1-2). The story told is painfully current and relevant. The saga of hope and despair, of weakness and strength, and of stupidity and wisdom requires careful handling. He struggles to recall every thought and every word heard in the Conference of the Books about this Sura, and prays “God, let us not carry a burden we cannot bear” (2:286).

A woman, her mouth open as if in a gasp, sits fixedly staring at the performance. Her white pale face protrudes in front of her blond hair. Excited, she struggles to overcome an obvious exhaustion. He had seen her in previous classes, but many audit his courses, and most faces come and go.

After class, there is an inevitable feeling of let-down. An idea could have been done better justice, and a thought could have been better explained. Expression always uncovers the silent incoherence of many ideas. Invariably, ideas sheltered by silence always seem much more coherent than when expressed. As he stands surrounded by students demanding elucidations and clarifications, he notices the woman standing away from the group talking to his wife. Their faces seem solemn and serious; his wife speaks with intensity, and the woman listens anxiously.

The circle of students starts to dissipate and he notices his wife edging her way towards him with the woman following. They stand close and his wife urges: “Ask him! Ask him!” For some reason the woman hesitates; bashfulness has always been a virtue! His wife finally exclaims with an obvious sense of distress, “She’s been wanting to take her Shahadah for a year now but the people in the mosque tell her she must first wear the hijab!”

The people at the mosque! And who are these people? She has been studying Islam and has read the Qur’an a few times. For a year, she has been on the verge of taking the Shahadah and becoming a Muslim, but each time she is dissuaded by a debate on the hijab. She is told that the hijab must accompany the Shahadah or, at least, a declaration that the hijab, in due course, will be adopted. Inquiry into the matter is foreclosed by ijma‘ and no further reflection or discussion is warranted. Perhaps, and perhaps not.

The claim of ijma‘ is the very process by which ijma‘ is formed; the claim of ijma‘ always far proceeds its existence. Does the ijma‘ of an age bind every age thereafter, and how does one define a particular age? Does it matter that the jurist al-Razi (d. 606/1210) and many others held that whoever contradicts the ijma‘ is not a kafir or fasiq? No matter, these are complicated issues that do not yield to polemic debates. The question before us is a basic sense of priorities. No, not even priorities, but a basic sense of decency and respect of rights. If a person wishes to take the Shahadah, one must take it from them, advise them, and pray.

The Prophet accepted the Shahadah of an untold number of people, and even the Shahadah of a soldier in the battlefield was considered valid. After Mecca was conquered, those who gave their bay‘a to the Prophet promised to uphold the five pillars and refrain from committing any of the hudud crimes. Needless to say, a Shahadah is not a bay‘a, and hijab does not involve a pillar of Islam or a hadd crime.

Does it make any difference that the hijab was not decreed until the very end of the Medina period, and that the verse says, “This is nearer to them being recognizable so that no harm will come to them”? (33:59). Must the ‘illa (operative cause) of the law exist for the law to exist? (al-‘illa taduru ma‘a al-ma‘lul wujudan wa ‘adaman). If harm is the operative cause of the law of hijab, what greater harm is there than to desire the Shahadah and to be denied it?

Later that night, in the secluded comfort of the Conference of the Books, he finds himself reading Ibn al-Qayyim’s (d. 751/1350) I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in. The Conference of the Books gives no comfort to donkeys. The invention of the automobile has made donkeys entirely irrelevant to this Conference.

Whatever causes hardship and misery cannot be a part of Shari‘a even if people believe it to be so, Ibn al-Qayyim argues in the I‘lam. Shihab al-Din al-Qarafi (d. 684/1285), al-‘Izz Ibn ‘Abd al-Salam (d. 661/1262), and Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi (d. 790/1388) speak of the processes by which the Shari‘a eases hardship and begets facility. The Prophet is reported to have warned us against repulsing others and God declares: “Allah desires ease for you and desires not hardship for you” (2:185). Perhaps all of this is irrelevant. Perhaps there is no greater hardship for the Muslim Ummah today than the calamity of women not being properly covered.

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