by Amina Darwish
Imam Tirmithi narrates a hadeeth where Abu Bakr [may God be pleased with him] said: “O Messenger of Allah! You have become gray.” He said: ‘I have gone gray from (Surat) Hud (11), Al-Waqi`ah (56), Al-Mursalat (77), `Amma Yatasa’alun (78) and Ithash-Shamsu Kuwwirat (81).”
Surah Takweer (81) describes the horrors of the Day of Judgment: the sky falling apart, the movement of the mountains and the pairing of the souls with their bodies. The first consequence of the souls being returned to their bodies is the mau’uda being asked why she was killed. The mau’uda is the infant girl in pre-Islamic Arabia that would be buried alive by her father – the man that should have been her biggest protector – out of fear that one day she would bring shame to her family. Pre-Islamic Arabs were made up of tribes that were often at war, thus inflating the value of sons who could carry arms over daughters who could be captured and turned into the property of their enemies. But on the Day of Judgment, humanity would stand in silence as that little girl pleads her case and speaks for herself. The Quran’s description of these events had turned The Prophet’s (peace be upon him) hair white.
I wonder what then would the Prophet (peace be upon him) say of how we treat women and girls that were victims of sexual violence. Would it turn his hair white? Like the mau’uda their only crime was being a girl. And like her, their voices are often silenced. We need to understand the nature of sexual violence. It is not about lust. It is about power. It is about physical control that translates into a power structure that goes against the essence of our humanity. In pre-Islamic society, where patriarchy was completely ingrained into the culture of the warring tribes, the potential of shame that may be felt by the patriarch of the family or the tribe was given precedence over the pain felt by victims.
Islam was sent to change the ignorant ways that existed before it, when right and wrong were based on power and strength and not virtue. This reality was all too real for women, slaves, orphans, and anyone else society had deemed powerless and unworthy of their humanity. In carrying on the tradition of the Prophet (peace be upon him), it is not enough to rid our communities of specific practices; we also must rid ourselves of a culture that blames the victims for crimes committed against them.
AbulFath AlBasti, the famous poet says, “Oh servant of the body, how much you complain about maintaining it. Do you seek success in something that is fleeting? Realize your spirit and complete its virtues. Your humanity is in your spirit, not your body.” Blaming the victims for the harm that has come to their bodies also effectively dismisses their spirits and acts like they are nonexistent.
There is a sexual nature to such attacks, but because the consent of the victim is removed, the aspect of thulm, or injustice, supersedes the sexual nature of the crime. Therefore, sexual assault is not comparable to fornication, or zina, because the victim does not give consent. To compare zina and sexual assault would be like asking for two witnesses to a robbery as a comparison to needing two witnesses to financial transactions. The two are incomparable because of the oppression and the removal of consent from one of the parties. No victim chooses to be sexually assaulted in the same way that no one asked to be robbed.
Another problem of blaming the victims is that it accepts an out of control sexual desire of the perpetrator as fact and dismisses the sexual pain of the victim. When it comes to sexuality, Islam holds men and women equal and does not belittle the sexuality of women. This fact is highlighted in the hadeeth narrated in Tirmithi and Sunan Abi Dawud when the Prophet (peace be upon him) was asked about the ritual purification after a sexual experience, and he stated that in these matters, “Women are the partners/ counterparts of men.”
These concepts culminate in the story of Sumaya (may God be pleased with her). She is the first martyr in Islam, and her murder was graphic. If you do not want to hear the story, this is the place to stop. Abu Jahl, who is the Pharaoh of this ummah, tortured her, her husband and her son. He tried to break her will, and she spat in his face. He was so angry that he drove a spear between her legs until it came out the other side. He couldn’t break her will, so he decided to physically control her body to exert his power. That is the nature of sexual violence. Her murder was violent, sexual and in clear sight of her husband and son. Her husband did not make it out alive. Part of the torture was the psychological warfare of torturing her and sexually hurting her in clear sight of her husband and son. When we hear about abuse, you can choose to side with Lady Sumaya (may God be pleased with her), who is a hero in Islam and was promised Paradise from Allah’s messenger (peace be upon him) or you can look at the victims with the disdain Abu Jahl had in his eyes when he killed her.
Blaming victims for what they have endured is beyond unconscionable. It is also in clear opposition to the message of the Prophet (peace be upon him) who elevated them instead of putting them down. The scholars of our tradition have passed down these lessons in tact and no one had any shame in telling the story of Lady Sumaya (may God be pleased with her) as it was. She was a hero to all the believers and she will remain so till the end of time. May God be pleased with her and her family. The sexual violence that she endured did not take away from her martyrdom. It did not cause her or her family shame. This example stood in clear contrast to Arab society at the time. In fact, the pride the Muslims took in Lady Sumaya (may God be pleased with her) and her family was a clear message to the tyrants in Mecca that the will of the Muslims could not be broken.
The bodies and spirits of victims must be protected. The goals of the Sharia, as defined by Imam Ghazali, maintain those rights for everyone. It is an Islamic imperative to protect those rights for everyone especially those who were wronged or oppressed and stand up to the oppressor. This is especially true when someone within the Muslim community is the perpetrator. God says in the Quran (4:135), “O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just. And if you distort [your testimony] or refuse [to give it], then indeed Allah is ever, with what you do, Acquainted.”
People who abuse the trust the community put in them do not deserve 70 excuses any more than a murderer or a thief. Rather, it is those who are wronged that deserve the community’s protection and understanding. They also deserve to not be questioned about how they became the victims of such abuse. The 70 excuses can be given to victims, but excuses cannot be made to justify an oppressor. In fact, if we were truly acting out of love for the perpetrators, we would stop them from being able to continue the oppression. Facing their victims is scary, but it is nowhere near the fear of having to face God knowing that you have taken the rights of others. Justice cannot be separated from Sharia, and we owe it to the victims to protect them. If we do not stop sexual offenders in our communities, we are complacent in the assault of their future victims.
In the climate of Islamophobia, some may be reluctant to report abuse; however, we have learned from the experience of the Catholic Church that not reporting abusers ultimately hurts the entire community instead of only holding to account the few abusers. We must also help the victims and not revictimize them through unjust or insensitive social expectations. They need to heal from the hurt they endured. Their spiritual and psychological well-being may depend on such community support. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Sexual abuse is a dark part of humanity that cannot be hushed or wished away. Sexual abuse can only be addressed by forcing it out of its darkness. We must support those who speak out against the abuse they endured. May God help heal our hearts and give us the strength to live out the compassion and justice our Prophet peace be upon him so perfectly embodied.
Amina Darwish is a graduate of the Qalam seminary under the guidance of Sheikh Abdul Nasir Jangda. She is the Muslim chaplain at the University of Cincinnati. She earned a BS in Chemical Engineering from Kuwait University, a MS in Industrial Engineering and PhD in Chemical engineering from the University of Cincinnati. She worked as an adjunct faculty at the University of Cincinnati Clermont and as the content development coordinator at the Muslim Youth of North America. She is a recognized national youth advocate and speaker.