A Feminist Reclamation of Islam?

“Absolutely fantastic!” is what Ingrid, a young Puerto-Rican woman sitting next to me ….said of Akhtar’s latest work, his second play to be performed at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theatre in New York City, which I saw June 27th 2014 during an 8-week run through July 27. “What makes it so?” I probed further. “Well,” she obligingly smiled, “it’s so realistic in its portrayal of these characters, and the actors are so convincing.” A young Pakistani-American friend of her’s sitting on the next seat over chimed in, “Yes, but I think what makes it a really important play for me is that it raises issues we Muslims need to confront and discuss.”

The title of the play points to the limitations in our own questioning to “get at” texts by asking “who” and “what” types of questions of them. Asking, as Muslims generally do (or Christians, or Jews for that matter)—“what does the text [in this case, the Quran] actually say”—is to go down a literalist dead end. Orthodox Muslims attempt to delimit and “authenticate” the “what” (the meaning) of the Holy Book, by trying to establish its veracity through a chain of the “who”—i.e by establishing the “truth” or “authenticity” of the interpreter/translator of the Prophet’s words and thus, of the Quranic text itself.  Such a “dead-end” is what even culturalist, liberal Muslims are guilty of when we choose some hadith as true and discard others based on some factitious chain of command and dissemination over centuries, as though there was a way of “getting at” the “truth” of what the Prophet said or didn’t say, and which verses of the Quran thus seem authentic revelations of God or not.

Instead, Akhtar is suggesting a different approach to Islam beyond a reductive exegetical one, which is unfortunately the kind held on to in the play by the central character, a Pakistani immigrant to the USA named Afzal, who has made a success of his life here by going from being a cabbie to owning a cab company, bringing up his two daughters after his wife passes away,  in material comfort and raising them as “good “Muslims.

To illustrate Akhtar’s non-orthodox approach let me quote a passage from a different context, from an essay by Norma Klahn on Latin American testimonies and their translations:

Texts, if felicitous, survive in translation and transit, in what Walter Benjamin and translation theorists following him have called an ‘after-life.’ They believe not so much in the property of the original but in its potentiality, a prolongation that continues to extract shifting and redefined meaningful reading experiences.

For them, the historical significance of the original is ensured by its trans- latability, which ‘constitutes a way of signifying—rather than a what.’ (Samuel Weber, cited in Klahn, 45).

That “way of signifying” the Prophet Muhammed’s life, of ensuring the “translateability” and hence ensuring the “after-life” of Islam and its Holy Book, the Quran—is the quest that the character of Zarina, Afzal’s older daughter– is engaged in, and which provides the source of the conflict and drama in Ayad Akhtar’s humorously provocative new play, The Who and the What.

Like Rushdie before him, Akhtar’s play is built upon questions about the Quranic and hadith literature that a large percentage of its over 3 billion Muslim believers—not just the lunatic fringe– follow to the letter around the world even in the 21st century. Whereas Rushdie alluded to the incident of the Satanic Verses, based on a story told by a man named Ibn Ka’ab, and later included in a biography of the Prophet transmitted orally by Ibn Ishaq, and as such, easier is to dismiss as a “distortion”  by literalist Muslims due to its weak chain of verification, the story around which Akhter’s play revolves is harder to ignore as a false or “satanic” verse in the Quran.

This is the story about Zaynab bint Jaysh, a first cousin of Prophet Mohammed’s whose marriage he had arranged with a freed slave of his whom he had adopted, Zayd ibn Harithah. Neither party had been keen on the marriage, and it was not a happy one according to the main biographers and historians of Islam and the Prophet such as Ibn Tabari and Abu Hurayra. From Quranic verses that refer to the dissolution of the marriage and subsequent remarriage of Zaynab to the Prophet, it appears that Prophet Mohammed counseled Zayd not to divorce, but the marriage did not last. Here is the Quranic verse 37 of Sura 33 (Al Azhab) that explains what came to pass and why:

And [remember, O Muhammad], when you said to the one on whom Allah bestowed favor and you bestowed favor, “Keep your wife and fear Allah ,” while you concealed within yourself that   which Allah is to disclose. And you feared the people, while Allah has more right that you fear     Him. So when Zayd had no longer any need for her, We married her to you in order that there   not be upon the believers any discomfort concerning the wives of their adopted sons when they  no longer have need of them. And ever is the command of Allah accomplished. (http://quran.com/33/37)

Most believing Muslims understand the above verse and its attendant incident as showing that Allah knew the Prophet was discouraging the dissolution of a clearly unhappy marriage out of his fear of “what people would say”—especially, perhaps as this marriage was one that he himself had arranged and insisted upon. Here, Allah counsels him to do the right thing, rather than the expedient one based on his fear of others’ perceptions. That the Prophet later marries-or as the verse states– Allah counsels/arranges for the Prophet to marry- the divorcee, is seen as further proof of the justice and compassion of Islam and its God and Prophet toward women, as the act of marrying the Prophet will rehabilitate Zaynab and provide her a means of support and protection after her divorce. Since, according to the mores of the society marrying ex-wives of adopted sons was not permitted, the verse above also cleared the way for Muslim men to be able to do so now by declaring that adoption was un-Islamic, in the sense not that people should stop caring for children other than their own when and as needed, but rather, that adoption should become a transparent practice where no one is confused about the real identity of the child or parent.

Obviously, this exegesis is not the only way to understand what happened, as many questions remain unresolved regarding the who , what, why of this incident and what it might reveal about the Prophet as a man with sexual desires and a penchant for possessing beautiful women otherwise forbidden to him, as Zaynab while married to his adopted son certainly would have been. Indeed, a quick google search reveals many Muslim men posting tortured questions about their prophet’s motives and behavior in this incident in the hopes of finding answers like the one I’ve laid out above which can allay their anxieties about the man they admire as one who may have lusted after another man’s wife. For some, like the fictional father in Akhter’s play, the only answer to such questions—questions his favorite and brilliant elder daughter Zarina asks in her novel about the Prophet—is to declare them heretical, and to ask that any book or tract that asks such questions or proffers a picture of the Prophet of Islam as anything but utterly pious and above any sexual hanky-panky, be destroyed. As Afzal commands his daughter once he discovers what her book is about—“You have to destroy this book—you can write another book,” calling it a “cancer” which is “destroying our family’s happiness.” When she refuses—encouraged by her husband who is a white American convert to Islam and an Imam at a local mosque, and who defends the book and his wife when he tells Afzal “She has done something important, she has reminded us our Prophet was human”—the father lashes out at them both. “I don’t ever want to hear that girl’s name again—she is dead to me” he screams, breaking household objects within reach. Earlier in the scene, he had already lashed out at his once-adored son-in-law, Eli, for his supposed inability to “control” his wife, especially her writing of such a “blasphemous” book. Afzal, (played with great aplomb by Bernard White) taunted Eli contemptuously, “what kind of man are you? What kind of Muslim?”

According to Islamic and Quranic tradition—here represented by Afzal the Patriarch, those who raise questions such as Zarina does, about the Prophet’s sexual appetite as a contributing factor to his decision to marry multiple wives (there is a portion of her book the father reads out in horror in the play, in which the Prophet is described as cupping Zaynab’s breasts in his hands)—or like her, interpret the widely-believed injunction for pious Muslim women to “veil” as a convenient ploy for the Prophet to consummate his marriage to the lovely Zeynab and/or to shield her from the admiring gazes of other men, justified by timely “arrival” of  Quranic verse 53 of Sura 33 which is also referred to as “the descent of the hijab” —is to commit heresy. It is to be kin to the “munafiqeen” or “hypocrites” as they are called in the Islamic tradition, who were an influential faction in Medina at the time of the Prophet and who attempted to sow dissension in the ranks of Muslims just as Islam was gaining ascendance. By asking similar questions 1500 years later, Akhter via his character Zarina, could be seen as a “munafiq”. Within the play, the fear voiced by the father for his daughter’s safety arises out of his understanding of munafiqat’s consequences, since heresy or blasphemy is punishable by death according to Sharia Law. As he points out to Zarina, to his younger daughter Mahwish, and his son-in-law Eli, “In Pakistan she would be killed for this.”

It is Zarina’s response to her father’s fear veiled by his anger, that moves the play and its creator out of the realm of a possible accusation of munifaqat and in to the realm of a feminist interpretation of Islam (or maybe into the realm of feminist interpretation as munafiqat!). She says, quietly, “I don’t care; we can’t be so afraid.” When he still can’t stop lashing out at his daughter, accusing her of distorting Islam in her book, she lashes right back at him, “You, dad, erased and distorted me—veiling is also a metaphor!”

The problem with plays like The Who and the What is that it can easily be twisted—to use the play’s language, “distorted”–to suit the needs and prejudices of an Islamophobia industry in the USA that is alive and well and thrives on using such plays as alibis for their Islam-bashing—“you see, Islam is a backward, misogynistic religion, its prophet a sex maniac and hypocrite.” Certainly, Akhtar’s first play, Disgraced, which won the Pulitzer last year, stays largely within an Orientalist paradigm even as it seeks to challenge some of its reigning orthodoxies. And when the “family quarrel” in The Who and the What goes public in the neocolonial, imperial context such as the one we live in today, seeped in the geopolitical realities of our times where we are bombarded ad nauseum by images of poor Israeli youngsters kidnapped by evil Islamic fundamentalists from Hamas, but hear nothing about the Jewish fundamentalist settlers’ killing and maiming of Palestinian children and occupation of their lands, where we have the Laura Bushes of this world justifying US-led invasions of Muslim countries in the name of “saving Muslim women from Muslim men”—well, we have a problem. It is a problem typified by the closing remark of Charles Isherwood, in his review of the play for the New York Times:

“She has more power over you than she really wants,” Afzal says to Eli, accusing him of failing to  treat his wife as a Muslim husband should. … And then, in a line that Mr. White [Afzal] delivers with a chilling casualness, he adds, “And she won’t be happy until you break her, son. She needs you to take it on, man.”

Here, the father, as Muslim Patriarch par excellence, is seen as the abusive and controlling “man of the house” —urging his son-in-law to do and be the same, as he objectifies his own daughter as “just” a woman who needs, nay wants to be “broken.”  Akhtar, in this scenario ends up playing, willy-nilly, the role of the Muslim native informant, reifying western stereotypes about oppressive Muslim fathers and their oppressed Muslim daughters. However, if we can draw attention to such a reductive and dangerous politics of reception and expose it for what it is, we can also, I think, claim a different space and valence for Akhtar’s bold second play: a feminist reclamation of Islam.

For, what Isherwood doesn’t say, is something that the father knows—and which the audience has also witnessed—and which her husband can also vouch for—that the woman in question is a strong one, with a mind of her own and a personality to match. She is an obedient daughter only up to a point—one might even argue she agreed not to pursue marriage with her former boyfriend Ryan not just because of her father’s insistence but possibly because she herself is a believing Muslim and could not in the end conceive of a marriage with a non-Muslim man. Much like Kate in The Taming of the Shrew—she is a force of nature who is not easily “tamed”—and indeed, her husband, Eli wins her love not by trying to “break” her but by dealing with her as a woman possessed of a formidable intellect who knows her own mind. And Afzal too, knows this. Nay, as he himself says, he has encouraged his daughter’s willfulness, her independence of mind and spirit. Thus, his off-color comments to Eli about “breaking” his daughter as though she were a wild horse, have more to do with a crisis of masculinity than with anything else. This crisis is not just personal to Afzal, but, I believe, is at the heart of the play’s understanding of the Muslim cosmos, a crisis that has lasted 1500 years and must surely be recognized and dealt with if the text of Islam is to survive, to be “felicitous”.

If we believe as Zarina does, or as she wishes to explore in her novel—and as explicated at great length by noted Islamic feminist and sociologist Fatima Mernissi in her scholarly tome, The Veil and the Male Elite —that

The hijab-literally ‘curtain’—‘descended,’ not to put a barrier between  A man and a woman, but between two men. (Mernissi 85)

then the thesis I am putting forth makes sense. The verse on the hijab descended at precisely the moment when the Prophet’s desire to consummate his marriage to the beautiful Zeynab was frustrated by the boorish behavior of his male guests who kept sitting in his living room long after the wedding banquet was over, and who the overly polite (“bordering on timid” as Mernissi describes him)—prophet of Islam, simply could not muster up enough courage to ask to leave. Finally, when they did depart, one male companion still hovered around, by the name of Anas Ibn Malik, and it is he who reported the event of the revelation of the verse about hijab as a witness. Mernissi quotes reputed Islamic historian Al-Tabari who reports Anas Ibn Malik as saying:

I don’t remember any more whether it was I or someone else who went to tell him that the three individuals had finally decided to leave. In any case, he came back to the nuptial chamber. He put one foot in the room and kept the other outside. It was in this position that he let fall a sitr [curtain] between himself and me, and the verse of the hijab descended at that moment. (qtd. In Mernissi 87)

Thus, according to Mernissi, the circumstances of this revelation point to an understanding of the notion of hijab as a tool to protect the intimacy of the wedded pair—their privacy—and to do so by excluding a third person, the man named Anas. He becomes a symbol, then, of a male dominant community that had become too invasive in the life and personal affairs of the prophet. Further, the hijab comes to symbolize the necessary separation of a public and a private sphere—the public being that sphere where the Prophet had to contend with other men, the private one being a respite from the public exercise of masculinity, a domestic space where he could be at peace with his own “femininity” .

Rather than approach the meaning of the hijab this way, Islamic exegetical tradition, which has been male dominated  from the time of the Prophet to the present day, has chosen to read the meaning of the Veil as an injunction to women to cover themselves, to remain within domestic walls, to refrain from the exercise of power which has been coded male and public.

Certainly, Afzal reads evidence of the intimacy between his daughter and her husband as a loss of the latter’s “manhood”. To acknowledge that the Prophet himself could have preferred the company of his wives (at times) over that of his male Companions, and especially that he might have used the symbol of the hijab-as-sitr or curtain to demarcate a border keeping men out of his private life with women; that he could have elevated one of his wives, Hazrat Aisha, to the level of the “Mother of the Believers” and on whose advice in matters political and personal he relied; and that he could have (and did) resist his Companion Umar’s proclivity to solve the problem of control and authority by treating wilful wives with violence ( including the violence of the veil), would require of Afzal, a total rethinking of the meaning of masculinity. Explains Mernissi,

the Prophet persisted in not consenting to the hijab, not being of the same frame of mind as         Umar…. He himself was very shy….which, as we have seen, in the absence of tactfulness on the part of some men of his entourage, forced him to adopt the hijab. …The hijab represented the exact opposite of what he had wanted to bring about. It was the incarnation of the absence of internal control; It was the veiling of the sovereign will, which is the source of good judgment and order in a society. Umar, who had never reflected about the principle of the individual that the new religion emphasized, could not understand this. To him, the only way of reestablishing order was to put up barriers and to hide women…. (Mernissi 185)

One could add to Umar’s prescription for “re-establishing order” Afzal’s admonition and advice to his daughter Zarina’s husband, to “break her.” After all, one only needs to “break” someone who is seen as “Other”, as a source of “fitna” or chaos, a challenger of the status quo where “real” men reign supreme on one side of the “barrier” or “curtain, and women submit to their power by staying on the “other” side, silenced behind the hijab. Part of the crisis in masculinity that Zarina’s writing-back en-genders in her father, can be traced back to the history of the early Islamic society of Muhammad’s time, where his version of masculinity was at odds with the boorish norms of his surroundings and of some of his closest Companions such as Umar who succeeded him as the Second Caliph. Rather than open up questions about who the Prophet might actually have been—a feminine or even feminized man, given his reliance since his early youth on women such as his first wife Khadija who not only was his boss, but who proposed marriage to him and which offer he accepted, living happily in monogamy with a woman 20 years his senior till she died after 25 years of wedded life—Afzal the Patriarch prefers to fall back on Umar’s version of masculinity, which rests on the denial of the intrinsic femininity that inheres in all men, of the feminine as sacred:

All the monotheistic religions are shot through by the conflict between the divine and the feminine, but none more so than Islam, which has opted for the occultation of the feminine, at least symbolically, by trying to veil it, to hide it, to mask it. Islam as sexual practice unfolds with a very special theatricality since it is acted out in a scene where the hijab (veil) occupied a central place. (Mernissi 81)

The Who & The What resignifies Islam as  sexual practice, unfolding, imploding, expanding and challenging our understanding of its special theatricality as it is performed on the stage of today’s complicated and confusing world.

Fawzia Afzal-Khan is a Professor of English, University Distinguished Scholar, Director of Women and Gender Studies at Montclair State University. She can be reached at: khanf@mail.montclair.edu

Works Cited

Klahn, Norma. “Locating Women’s Writing and Translation in the Americas in the Age of Latinamericanismo and Globalization.” In Translocalities/Translocalidades: Feminist Politics of Translation in the Latin/a Americas. Eds. Alvarez, Sonia et al. Duke University Press, 2014.

Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam. Addison-Wesley, 1991.

The Holy Quran: Surat Al-‘Aĥzāb (The Combined Forces).33:37. http://quran.com/33/37


Fawzia Afzal-Khan is University Distinguished Scholar at Montclair State University in NJ. Her latest book is Siren Song:Understanding Pakistan Though it’s Women Singers. She can be reached at:  fak0912@yahoo.com