It was St. Valentine's Day in 2000 when I first heard "Losing my Religion". I was happily dancing to the beat until the lyrics hit me. My feet lost the rhythm and I came to a complete stop. How could anyone sing along, or dance to, such a song; "That's me in the corner … That's me in the spotlight … Losing my religion … Trying to keep up with you … I thought that I heard you laughing … I thought that I heard you sing … I think I thought I saw you try …"? It was the first of many more things to challenge my deeply rooted conviction that religion is neither open for questioning nor subject to doubt. I was brought up, like many other Egyptians, to take religion for granted. Asking "why?" is transgression and wondering is the first step of atheism.
Last month, my aunt invited me, along with all my siblings, for dinner to welcome our American-born cousin and his wife who were in town. I was happy to meet up with my cousin. There was a time when we talked about everything from cultural differences and social pretences to physics and astronomy. Seven years ago Ahmed got very religious but he was still fun to be around; his soul and essence were untouched. Two years ago he got married to the daughter of a Sheikh. I met her briefly after the wedding; I only saw her eyes. That night we did not shake hands, let alone talk. His wife launched an attack on me for taking off the veil ten years ago saying that I looked prettier before and that I had the light of God on my face instead of make-up! When we all took our seats on the big dining table, Ahmed's wife sat alone in the living room. Our kind hostess left her food and joined her.
One thought haunted my drive home; this utter humiliation cannot come from God. God loves us! He did not create us to doubt us! He has faith in us just as much as we have faith in Him! He does not think of us as pieces of meat governed by lust! Instead of going to bed, I went on a treasure hunt; I was looking for material on the relationship between men and women. On IslamToday.com, Sheikh Sami Al Majid compiled all the verses and quotes I needed. I loved his opening statement; kind of defies the purpose! "We cannot find direct references in the Qur'?n and Sunnah that say that free mixing between men and women is unlawful." The Sheikh continued saying that Islam "has defined the limits of interaction between men and women. Moreover, Islam has closed all doors that lead to temptation and promiscuity."
He quoted scholars saying that a judge should try women separately from men, women are not obligated to attend the Friday prayers, a party invitation may be refused if there will be any clear wrong doing at the party because "under these circumstances, desires are kindled and temptations are greater and regrettable things happen, as is seen time and again in co-ed schools and mixed social events." said the Sheikh as he listed the evidence:
1. Allah says: "And when you ask the ladies for anything, ask them from before a screen. That makes for greater purity for your hearts and for theirs." [S?rah al-Ahz?b: 53]
2. The Prophet said: "Never is a man alone with a woman except that Satan is the third party with them.
3. The Prophet also said: "Do not enter into the company of women." A man then asked him: "What about her male in-laws?" The Prophet replied: "The in-law is the most dangerous".
4. The Prophet also said: "It is better for one of you to be pierced by a steel pin in his head than to touch the hand of a strange woman."
5. The Qur'?n clearly forbids women from being soft of speech while talking to men. Allah says: "Be not too complaisant of speech, lest one in whose heart is a disease should be moved with desire: but speak with a speech (that is) proper." [S?rah al-Ahz?b: 32].
6. The Prophet said: "Any woman who puts on perfume then goes and passes by some men to let them find her scent is a type of adulteress."
7. Allah says: "Nor come nigh to adultery". In this verse, Allah does not say "Do not commit adultery" but tells us not even to come close to it.
8. Allah says: "Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them." and says: "And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty." [S?rah al-N?r: 30-31] This shows us how men and women are to conduct themselves.
As if that was not enough research for me, I had to take my confusion into the chat room; I told Sherif that the devil was in our head and that temptation came from within. He was shocked and asked me if I am a believer. I told him that I am a believer in a great God and in a merciful religion but people who came between us and God's book did all the damage; I was not talking about prophets, I was talking about sheikhs who try to interpret God. He told me that the Qur'an mentioned the devil clearly. I told him that the Qur'an also mentioned Heaven and Hell clearly, but the words and visuals used were metaphorical; a palace is not a palace, a river is not a river, and a devil is not a devil. I asked Sherif to try to let go of the interpretations that we were fed growing up, but he insisted that Satan was an outside force; he is the source of temptation. I asked him about the Holy month of Ramadan; God promised us that the demons would be chained, so where did temptation come from? At this point I mentally signed out.
From Sherif I moved to Ehab. I told him that I was writing an article about questioning religion. He told me that this was a place where angels feared to tread. I shared with him a link to an article titled Wondrous Treatment of Women in Islam. He said that it must have been written by some "ignorant worm". He declared his disliking of the article from the start. I asked him to leave the tone of the article aside and to focus on the facts. He refused, saying: "I am one of those people who believe that our religion is without reproach … if we choose to go astray here or there then we do it at our own peril… we should not try and fault our religion to find excuse for our own behaviors. I am no saint but I know where not to cross the line … no matter how much of a drone I may seem to be, there is no heroism in challenging God." I asked him if he believed that if a man and a woman were left unattended to, the third party would be the devil. He jokingly said that he did; not because he knew the devil but because he knew guys.
My chat with Ehab ended when he said that in the absence of light, dark prevails, referring to me, I guess. I replied telling him that one man's poison is another man's bread; it is all a matter of perception. In this case light and dark are very relative and are subject to our interpretations. Islam promotes the principles of trust, integrity, honesty, wisdom, and freedom of choice. Why did this sheikh, and others, turn a loving forgiving God into a tyrant? Why did they interpret the verses to favor one gender over the other, when God created us as equal? Darkness is in the head of someone who says that for women to go about uncovered in the company of men is inarguably a gross violation of Gods' commands. It is pitch black in a world that believes that everything that may seduce a person to fall into adultery is unlawful. Depraved of light are those who fear getting turned on by shaking hands with a woman or by smelling her perfume. Blind are those who lock their God-given brains in their stubborn skulls, and let others think on their behalf!