This question was asked in order to learn Fethullah Gülen’s views regarding the widespread belief among Westerners, as well as Turkey’s secular segment, that women in Islam recede to the background and are isolated from social life.
Fethullah Gülen answers this question by calling our attention to the contradiction between the spirit and basic principles of the religion and their practices in social life:
Islam does not have a problem regarding women. If today there is seemingly one, it was produced in later times by those who had hardened Islam, narrowed the possibility of entrance, those who produced impossibility within the possibilities, allotting a narrow sphere for women. During the Age of Happiness, namely the times of the Prophet and the Rightly Guided Caliphs following him, the women were inside life; there was no problem whatsoever.
Then he complained about the animosity and the prejudices of the West:
The Westerners see us as enemy and say there are no human rights in Islam. On the contrary religion does not confine women into home. Some economists are establishing a relationship between women’s participation in the process of production and development. As long as physical aspect of women is taken into consideration and their special situation is protected, it is not prohibited in Islam for them to contribute in some fields of life. The women had contributed in every aspect of life according to their capacity all along, anyway. For instance, their participation in wars were permitted, their education was approved, preferred and encouraged.
So much so that during the period of Golden Age, Aisha, Hafsa and Ummu Salama were among the legal scholars and mujtahids [expounder of Islamic Laws]; even the women in the household of the Prophet in terms of learning religion, in a sense were the sources that the men used to recourse. Many people from Tabiin [the generation after the generation of the Companions of the Prophet] used to refer to the spouses of the Prophet regarding the things they wanted to learn. It was not limited to them and their period, in even later times, some competent women continued to serve as teachers for many.
That is to say, it is not a matter of consideration in Islam limiting the life and the field of activities of women. The points which seem to be negative as of today should be evaluated also from the point of view or considering the circumstances of the time and the practices of the contemporary governments. In addition, the fact that in some regions and societies, the customs and traditions continued after they became Muslims has to be taken into consideration. Islam should not be held responsible for any faults inherent in them.
What is important is thinking about the matter by taking into consideration the physical situation of women and their special states; for instance should the women work in heavy mining industry? Should they be conscripted into the army as men are? Should they go through heavy military training?
If it is deemed there is a great necessity in doing these, then it is my conviction that nobody can say anything about it.
At exactly this point, Fethullah Gülen raises the issue concerning formal prayer and the requirement that women stand behind men, which indicates to some that women are seen as second class citizens in Islam. He recognizes the heated discussion on this matter in society. According to Fethullah Gülen, it is not a matter of inequality, and he defends the practice, explaining that it is a formulation of convenience based on gender differences:
I would kindly request that some of the realities should not be overlooked, especially during the daily prayers nothing other than God should be in the mind of the performer. I have to state that before Him one has to stand his arms tied one over the other as if ready to receive humbly the command coming from Him.
Second, during the performance of the prayer, as well as the pasture of our body, the concentration and the orientation of our soul, in other words, without giving permission to our imagination to indulge in other fantasies, let’s remind us that our hearts and souls are shut to all considerations other than God. Keeping in mind those two issues, let us ask ourselves: Why do we ignore some realities?
I surmise that even if it is during the circumambulation of the Ka’ba, the men whose eyes capture a lady, slim and beautiful, cannot say, “We did not feel anything.” If someone claims the contrary, I would say I beg your pardon, please, God is seeing you; at least here, let us not lie. Why are we exaggerating some matters and belittling and ignoring some others?
In short, praying with a complete tranquility of the heart is indispensable for both the woman as well as the man. Now overlooking these, exaggerating the little things and approaching Islam with critical attitude, seems to be a decision made in haste.
Fethullah Gülen then states that women in our age should be able work in any place in the public sphere and occupy any position.
The female could become a soldier, she could become a doctor. She can receive education in every field. What is important is be able to practice her religion. As there might be some who practice their religion while serving in the public, there might be some others while staying home unable to practice their religion to the full.
Moreover, he mentions the implementation of the Presidency of Religious Affairs regarding the employment of women in the local branches in order to facilitate the worship of women, thereby congratulating the administration.
The topic of conversation then turns to Catechism books written for the purpose of teaching basics of Islam. In the appropriate sections of these books relating to women, it is observed that women are treated as second class citizens. Does this have historicity? Are these interpretations bound by the circumstances of the epoch or do they directly stem from the precepts of the religious? This question comes up one more time regarding the status of women in Islam. The greatest criticism is leveled at the Muslim societies and it is claimed that this cultural background is not suitable either for human rights or social equality or the proper development of democratization. When asked his opinion on this matter, Fethullah Gülen replies:
Since the special conditions and physical state of women are taken into consideration, the responsibility and the arena of her movement had become a little different from those of men. For instance, the heavy jobs and the responsibilities outside the home are loaded on the shoulders of the man. The interpretation during the periods of legislation [period of the Prophet and the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs] and codification [of the books and the systematization], depending on the contemporary culture had come into existence in a particular direction. Perhaps it might be better to say that consideration of the special traits, attributes and characteristics separately for men and women played a role in particular formulations.
No matter how you look at it, the woman is a woman, the man is a man. When they come together they make up the whole. We should not look at the matter from the perspective of equality or subject of a second class, because women in some matters are ahead of men. For instance, our Prophet placed women forward in some matters. He said: “Paradise lies under the feet of mothers,” but no mention of fathers were made. Again he replied to a person who asked: “Whom do I have responsibilities to?” “To your mother.” After repeating the same answer several times, he said, “After that to your father.”
In our day and age, the woman has positioned herself ahead of men in some places. In some other places she is told: “You should halt here. There is no need for you to guard the frontiers; you do not have to struggle with the enemy.” Instead of interpreting this approach as a deprivation, and it is possible to approach it with a sense of appreciation, to treat it as an item to try to protect the right of the woman.
By freeing from the argument of first or second class, the differences in the duties and responsibilities, it would be more proper to assess it as a matter of division of labor that these kinds of things are also based on the historical experiences.
Here, commencing from a couplet from Mehmet Akif, I am going to say:
By taking the inspiration directly from the Golden Age,
We should make Islam speak to the needs of the contemporary century.
In some matters the woman comes to the fore, and in some other man does. We cannot see our Prophet making discrimination in this issue. In a society which had different conceptions and understandings, our Prophet held his granddaughters, as well as his grandsons Hasan and Husayn, and prayed with them on his shoulders and rectified the faulty conducts in that society.
After making this assessment, Fethullah Gülen notes that the precepts of the Qur’an were implemented in the best in the period of the Golden Age. If religious injunctions which came into existence due to special social conditions are to continue as they did in the past, progress is prevented as well as contemporary interpretation. Complaints would take place concerning the function of religious life (not necessarily of religion) and give way to conservatism and serve the status quo.
Fethullah Gülen offers a solution: to consider the religious rules during the time of Prophet Muhammad; look at how they were implemented then and apply the Qur’an and its rules to the circumstances of our time.
In summary, it is understood that there are two main factors which make the issue of women in Islam complicated. First, the interpretation of religious precepts is done within the context of the past conditions, which entailed a lot of discrimination and inequalities, because they were dependent on the dominant patriarchal political systems of men. Many scholars insist on retaining these interpretations under the circumstances of our own age. This insistence pushes one to question the essence of religion, by taking the problem out of the social and political culture. For this reason, Muslim societies should try to maintain the principles of equality, which they believe are contained within the essence of their religion, and should not be eroded in contemporary applications. But by setting out with the purpose of preventing the abuse of women, they should not end up with discrimination that results in their social isolation.
Second, the majority of the Muslim societies has not completed their development; and therefore, cannot yet incorporate modern equality and its praxis in every field of life (including the family). Against this, Fethullah Gülen tells Muslims that, along with individual rights, the equality between human beings and between the genders are not prevented by their religion. While retaining the essence of religion and examining how that essence can be made compatible with current conditions, he is advising us not to fear innovations and go with the change.
To the accusation that Fethullah Gülen’s references are taken from the Qur’an and the hadiths and belong mostly to the early period of Islam, the response is: Fethullah Gülen is a man of religion. He is neither a man of politics nor part of the judiciary nor a scientist. The role that he finds suitable for himself, and there is no concrete evidence to the contrary, is to contribute to Islamic research, to purify it of the superstitions and historical residues, to provide advice to raise mature and moral humans under the current circumstance, and to encourage the formation of stable societies based on solidarity.