The Abu Eesa Niamatullah Controversy
by Sheila Musaji
If you are an American Muslim and you haven’t heard anything about the flap over comments made by a British Sheikh, Abu Eesa Niamatullah who is affiliated with the Al Maghrib Institute, then you are totally disconnected from social media.
Many Muslim women took these comments to be sexist and inappropriate, especially since they were made on March 8th which was International Women’s Day. The comments were made on Facebook, and subsequently there was a firestorm of response including requests for a clarification and an apology. A number of responses were made by Abu Eesa, but they did not end the controversy. Although, Abu Eesa is British, the controversy does not seem to have made much impact on the British Muslim community, and most of the anger about his comments has come from the American Muslim community.
Here is a link to Abu Eesa’s Facebook page posting that set off the controversy. On the page you will see a picture of Abu Eesa giving a lecture - with these words superimposed over the photo:
“Don’t try to understand women. Women understand women and they hate each other.”
If you go to the twitter hashtag #IWD you will see hundreds of tweets regarding this controversy. There are numerous articles that have been written, and each has received lots of comments, and been re-posted on twitter, facebook, and other social media.
Sana Saeed published The Shaykh and the F Word. She noted that:
... Niamatullah often has received flack for his sense of humor which is often, in his own words, “subtle, dark, dry British”. At the same time, he’s been a bit irresponsible of his social media, seemingly unaware of the stature he’s been given through his work and his affiliations. After all, the Al Maghrib institute is a reputable organization and Niamatullah’s expertise is Adab and Siyasaa.
His “jokes” on International Women’s Day, however, took the self-labelled teacher’s “humor” too far. The comments came across as promoting and enabling the hateful attitudes towards women that are prevalent throughout our societies and within our communities – Muslim and non-Muslim. Responses to his comments were split -many of his Facebook followers applauded his commentary, adding fuel to the incendiary comments by making further grossly misogynist statements. Others, primarily in the US as well as several of his Facebook followers and Al Maghrib enthusiasts, condemned the comments and attacked the Shaykh with several even demanding, on Twitter, that the Al Maghrib institute fire him immediately to distance itself from him and his comments. Worst of all, Niamatullah responded to criticisms on Facebook by condescendingly admonishing many critics as though all cut from the same cloth of Kufr. He then later further responded by continuing to attack Feminists and Feminism as antithetical to Islam and paramount to, again, Kufr. Such accusations, made without any qualifications of definitions of terms used, are especially grave for someone who, by his own account, specializes in Adab.
Instead of taking this opportunity to get in line and bash the Shaykh- who I do respect otherwise and who actually has done great work in his community – I want to take this opportunity to navigate the underlying, insidious problem that makes it okay for Niamatullah to get away with saying what he said about Feminists, in the eyes of many.
The F-Word: Defining Feminism and Navigating Your Discomfort
Shaykh Niamatullah’s greatest issue with International Women’s Day was that it was and is a Feminist project. In his own words, Niamatullah says that he absolutely believes that Feminists “with all the nuances of that title…are the enemies of Islamic orthodoxy and to refute them is a rewarded act.” He continues that the reason for this is because they have a “corrupt and insincere approach with other people.”
For Niamatullah Feminism is a problem because it is an intellectual and methodological framework that uses non-Islamic (defined strictly in terms of Shariah, Qur’an, fiqh) tools to redress gender-based social, economic, political and physical violence — violence that, according to Niamatullah, can be redressed by Islam itself. What he and so many others in our community who adhere to this perspective completely miss, however, is the inherent contradiction that exists in the belief that Islam is an “in and of itself” framework of thought, expression and justice. ...
Humaira Basith has posted a back-and-forth Twitter exchange between herself and Waleed Basyouni of Al Maghrib in an article titled In Search of Al Maghrib’s Position. She opens the article with the statement: “This is an abbreviated exchange with Waleed Basyouni, VP of Al Maghrib Insitute on their (or need for) official position regarding Abu Eesa’s statements. This was not a call to fire or keep the teacher but for them to make an institutional statement. The rest speaks for itself.” She had posted a request asking “Does al maghrib have any intention of putting out a position statement re. ae? He has created a public controversy?” She received a response from Waleed Basyouni saying “we did please see our FB”.
Not surprisingly, many Muslim women have joined in a discussion of this controversy. Rabia Chaudry posted Wa’‘Mutasima!, and Beware the Fire. Nadia S. Mohammad posted The shock jock Imam and the “Brown Man’s Burden”. Orbala published Feminism, Male Privilege, and Abu Eesa. Nida Chowdhry published Oh, Abu Eesa: An Apology Letter On Your Behalf. Zuha Shaikh published Feminism, Abu Easa and Constructive Global Dialogues. Dania Sandfia posted “It’s just a joke!”: How influence means it’s not. A Sober Second Look site posted Damsels in distress, the chivalrous caliph, and the misogynistic scholar: a modern fairy tale. Samar Kaukab Ahmad posted An open letter about rape culture tolerance and community priorities. Metis’ blog on Muslim feminists posted The psychology of hate and why men hate the ‘other’ women.
Not only Muslim women, but also Muslim men have posted articles on this controversy. The fact that some Muslim men were coming to the defense of Muslim women was noted. For example, Yasmine Hafiz posted Honoring Muslim Male Allies For Women’s History Month, and Hind Makki posted The Adab of #MuslimMaleAllies, and there is now a twitter hashtag #MuslimMaleAllies.
Here are a few articles on the controversy by Muslim men: Sami Elmansoury posted On Islam and Feminism. Prof. Omid Safi posted How we miss the point of International Women’s Day-and how to get it right, and We deserve better than sexist and racist “teachers”: Honoring real leaders, and a rejoinder to Abu Eesa, and What a real apology from Abu Eesa should look like. Junaid Jahangir posted ‘Islam’ That Mocks International Women’s Day is Not My Islam. Mohamed Ghilan posted Drama with Abu Eesa.
A few Muslim scholars and Imams have weighed in on this controversy: Shaikh Ahmad Kutty of the Islamic Institute of Toronto published Speak Good or Remain Silent: A Response to the Recent Remarks of a Muslim Teacher. Imam Dawud Walid published Imams, Misogyny, Racism & Accountability. Sheikh Yasir Qadhi published Thoughts on (AE) Abu Eesa-Gate. Imam Suhaib Webb posted My Response and logic to Abu Eesa Gate. Imam Marc Manley posted a response on YouTube titled Keepin’ It One Hunned - Fair and Balanced with the Fair and Balanced. The Al-Tawhid Unity Mosque of Toronto posted A statement in solidarity with those harmed by Abu Eesa Niamatullah’s misogynistic language.
Junaid Jahangir has posted Hold Neo-Conservative Muslim Scholars To the Same Standards As Other Muslims in response to Sheikh Yasir Qadhi’s defense of Abu Eesa.
Hind Makki has now posted Linksies: Misogynies, Fauxpologies — We Deserve Better Than These on Patheos Muslim blog. She provides an excellent outline of this entire controversy including links to articles. She notes:
... As far as I can tell, Dr. Ingrid Mattson and Anse Tamara Gray were the first scholars to react to Abu Easa’s comments, strongly denouncing his violent and reprehensible words, distancing Islam from his misogyny, encouraging other scholars to speak up, and calling for him to be censured by Al Maghrib. It does not escape my attention that, as Western women who converted to Islam and whose work in the Muslim community require them to interact with male religious leaders regularly, both Dr. Mattson and Anse Tamara have likely had to deal with breaking through institutionalized internal sexism in ways many of us on the outside cannot fathom. I salute them both and am grateful that I can learn and benefit from their wisdom, humility and leadership.
Many male religious and civic leaders have also joined the discussion in support of Muslim women, including imams, chaplains, Islamic teachers, fathers, husbands, brothers. I encourage you to check out the hashtag #MuslimMaleAllies to see some of their supportive messages.
Hind Makki also gives this useful Timeline of Apologies:
Navaid Aziz (also of Al Maghrib) posted his take on the dispute Abu Eesa, Feminists, AlMaghrib, and Islam, and only added fuel to the fire. Abu Eesa posted what he termed his final comment on IWD-gate which did nothing to lessen the controversy. And, Al Maghrib Institute posted On Recent Remarks of an Instructor.
At this point, those on both sides of this disagreement are no closer to reconciliation. As Rabia Chaudry noted in her most recent article summing up her understanding of the entire chain of events - Beware the Fire:
... He issued many apologies, over 450 private ones, and about half a dozen public ones. But there doesn’t seem to be satisfaction in us, his critics. Why is that? How depraved are we that the sheer number of apologies is not satisfying us? It may be because sincerity can be spotted with your eyes closed and insincerity stinks to high heaven. It may be because he never once retracted his statements, or admitted they were inappropriate. Saying you are sorry you offended someone is different than being sorry for what you said. We learn these semantic games by the time we’re teenagers. I’ve played that word game many times, I’m married for God’s sake. It may also be because every public apology included a disclaimer embedded in it, and excepting from the apology an enemy du jour (or du hour). Sometimes it was feminists, sometimes feminazis, sometimes liberals, and finally, and most sadly, scholars who reprimanded him. He always saved a special paragraph or two to call out a group that he was currently praying a certain demise for. ...
The discussion that has come about because of this controversy is an important one. Most of those who have weighed in with an opinion have been courteous even when they held strong opinions or disagreed with others. Some individuals, however have taken to insults and degrading comments. This is truly unfortunate, and wastes an opportunity for understanding. The article Sheikh Abu Eesa’s Facebook “slip up” hijacked by American modernists posted on 5 Pillarz is a good example of this type of unfortunate argument that does nothing to create understanding.
This controversy has obviously “hit a nerve” within the American Muslim community, and I am certain that there will be a great deal more discussion.