This post was inspired in part by a vibrant discussion on Facebook at this FITNA group. (FITNA = Feminist Islamic Troublemakers of North America). Both the discussion and the group are public intentionally, and we invite readers and participants in the group from all over the world.
If it were mere exemption, if it were a mercy, if it were a break, you would still have that option to OPT OUT of the exemption if you wanted; you’d have the option to say, “Aww, I really appreciate this! But, hey, since it’s Ramadhan, and Ramadhan comes only once a year, I’m going to go ahead and continue praying and fasting and everything. But I’ll take you up on the exemption thingie when it’s not Ramadhan, especially during the first couple of days of my period. Those days are the worst, ugh. I’m totally willing to just chill in my bed, wrapping my body around myself while I’m suffering from pain, thanking God that I don’t have to get up and do wudhu and pray. Although, come to think of it, the more merciful thing to do here would be to NOT declare my prayer invalid while I’m menstruating.”
Folks. It is naïve to think that the reasons we *are not allowed* to pray and fast (or even go to the mosque or listen to the Qur’an or touch the Qur’an, according to many Muslims) during menstruation are because someone out there cared about our feelings and didn’t want to overburden us so exempted us from prayer. That’s actually far, far from truth. In fact, the claim that exemption from prayer and fasting and partaking in other religious rituals while we’re menstruating is a mercy from God is a very modern notion. The all-male ‘ulama industry (who spoke about our bodies and our period like they bled like us or even remotely knew what it was like to menstruate) are probably dying laughing at us for thinking like this.
As I write what’s below, please understand three major points:
- I’m not suggesting that we be required to pray five times a day while we’re menstruating, given especially that many of us really do need this break from prayer. I’m not advocating a change in the laws at all. I’m just not a fan of this very filtered version of the rules that currently exist about menstruation and prayer in Islam that has no basis in the texts whatsoever. (Anyone who knows me even a tiny bit knows that I’m a huge advocate of the idea of the need to re-examine past, historical, traditional fiqh rules on all things gender-related and that I have little interest in what an all-male body of scholars has to say about my monthly cycle and what invalidates my prayer. That the scholars were all men and issued rulings from a deeply male experience (that, too, a very specific sort of male experience – based on class, region, age, etc.) needs to stop being ignored in the mainstream.)
- Practices evolve. Meanings attached to certain practices evolve. Ideas evolve.
Interpretations evolve. Since our perceptions of things are constantly evolving, it’s no surprise that many Muslim women, especially in the West, attribute this notion of “aww, I’m exempt from prayer during menstruation because it would be a huge burden on me otherwise.” And this is great. There’s nothing wrong with this sort of thinking at all. But I’m more concerned with the utter denial of the fact that the texts that speak about our menstruation and what all we’re “exempt” from during menstruation are actually not at all in our favor. Those texts are misogynistic as hell. (And surprise surprise, they’re all written by men. I don’t apologize for pointing this out at all relevant times in this blog. Gender is everything. But note that I distinguish between God and men (men as in men, not as in humans, dafuq). When I say that these men spoke about our menstruation like they were entitled to, I’m not equating their words and ideas with God’s. We’ll talk a little bit about menstruation and the Qur’an below, too, but for now that the (cis)male ulama do NOT = God. (Funny #butnotreallysofunny story: In some countries, like Pakistan, this would count as blasphemy, and I can potentially be killed for saying this. Astaghfs.)
The point is, I value the way many Muslim women (or people who menstruate) today approach menstruation and prayer. I don’t discount what they have to say about menstruation, and it means everything to me that people who menstruate view their menstruation positively and that they’re re-interpreting the rules from their own perspectives. That’s beautiful. My only concern is the denial of the all-male textual tradition in Islam (as in other religions) that abhor menstruation and the menstruant.
- Menstruation is real. Menstruating people are real. And the prohibitions placed on us during menstruation are all just as real with even more real consequences for our spiritual lives. These prohibitions are talked about as if we don’t exist at all (the irony, I know! It’s like they’re talking to or in some vacuum) as if we’ll just take them and leave with them like they have no effect on our relationship with our religion or our spirituality. But also, (cis)male bias is also real as fuck.
Imagine. Imagine what it must be like to get your period during the most blessed month of the year when every good deed is converted to thousands, when blessings are multiplied, when Muslims compete for blessings by giving charity, by praying extra, reading as much of the Qur’an as they can at all time. And you’re doing all of this because you’re convinced that you’re equally likely as everyone else to have access to these blessings. And on top of this all, there’s the last ten days of Ramadhan, with the most beautiful night of the year taking place any time during these last ten days – Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Power. And you’re praying and praying and reading the Qur’an. And you’re nervous about the fact that you’ll be getting your period any day now, and you’re upset that you won’t have the opportunities that everyone else (all non-menstruating humans) will have, that they’ll be able to make use of this beautiful night or these last ten days, and you won’t. If anything, we’re even told that by “obeying God’s command not to pray or recite the Qur’an during your period,” we’re already worshiping God!
And you’re asking around trying to figure out what all you can do that’ll equal up to the amount of blessings you would get were you not menstruating. You’re not allowed to pray while menstruating; many Muslims will tell you you’re not even allowed to read the Qur’an during menstruation (see below on this); some will even say you’ can’t even enter a mosque while on your period. Others will go so far as to even say you’re forbidden to even hear one full verse of the Qur’an, let alone a surah. A very popular opinion is that you’re not allowed to touch the Qur’an (Hanafi law prohibits touching the physical copy of the Qur’an, its pages, its margins, even its covers) or read the Qur’an *uttering the words out loud*, but you can hear it or listen to it, think about it, read it in your heart (this is critical, girls). According to the ever-authoritative Islam-QA.com, “But if she is reciting it out loud, the majority of scholars are of the view that this is not allowed.” Apparently, we’re not even allowed to touch a translation or tafseer of the Qur’an!
You’re hurting (spiritually and emotionally, though most probably physically, too), but you’re afraid to admit that all this seems unfair. Because you keep hearing, “This is a blessing from Allah! You are exempt from prayer.” When in reality, this is anything but exemption – it’s prohibition because you and everything about you is impure while you’re menstruating.
So you just hear and you obey, like any good Muslim is supposed to do. And you might even hush the voices in your head that are telling you that this is just so unfair. You’re told that this is Shaitaan doing waswasey – evil whispers intended to misguide you. And then you feel worse because, omg, Shaitaan is supposed to be in chains during Ramadhan, so what does it say about you and your faith and your relationship with your religion and the Creator that Shaitaan still has access to you? Ya.
And then you learn that according to some Muslim histories, Fatima (r.), the Prophet’s daughter, never menstruated – because menstruation is an impurity, and how could a woman as holy, as pure as Fatima (r.) have anything impure about her?
Last year, exactly around this time (the last ten days of Ramadhan), I wrote the following:
You see, we’re in the last ten days of the holiest month of Islam, and, as some women lament the fact that nature had to call necessarily in these last ten days & their period had to prevent them from enjoying all possible spiritual benefits now instead of coming just a few days earlier, the following is a good reminder. The pain of my female friends as they seem to experience religious deficiency, a sudden mournful disconnect from their Creator just because they’re bleeding, something without which humanity would actually stop existing (#deathtopatriarchy for its inconsistent attitude towards motherhood!) … Girls, stop it! Don’t give in to these ideas that make you feel like you can’t access God just because you’re menstruating! It’s not God but patriarchy that says you stop worshiping your Creator when you bleed, that you allow yourself to be deprived of enjoying these last fruitful days of Ramadhan. Own your period! Own your menstruation! Own your blood, and own your body!
Too many people think it’s no biggie at all that our prayers and fast are disrupted and that we’re prohibited from continuing them when our menstruation calls. As if faith works in this simple way where you can be distracted from your normal routine of worship and think nothing of it – just pick it right back up where you left off. I’m going to quote an old blog post of mine from last year:
So what that I’m rewarded during menstruation? So what that I am not obligated to participate in worship the way a non-menstruating individual is? There’s something special and beautiful about being able to participate, being able to communicate with God, being able to pray and read the Qur’an and touch the Qur’an and fast – and when you take that away from me not because you care about me and want me to focus on taking care of myself because of how much in pain I might be while menstruating but actually because you’ve forbidden me from partaking in these rituals, because I invalidate your prayer/etc. if I joined you in prayer as you pray with everyone else, you take away from me that intimate connection I’m striving to build with my Creator. Building that connection with the Creator is a long process for many among us, and when we have to take “breaks” in between, that doesn’t help.
is it really an exemption, a mercy, tho?
Look. Here’s the thing, okay. If it were mere exemption, if it were a mercy, if it were a break, you would still have that option to OPT OUT of the exemption if you wanted; you’d have the option to say, “Aww, I really appreciate this! But, hey, since it’s Ramadhan, and Ramadhan comes only once a year, I’m going to go ahead and continue praying and fasting and everything. But I’ll take you up on the exemption thingie when it’s not Ramadhan, especially during the first couple of days of my period. Those days are the worst, ugh. I’m totally willing to just chill in my bed, wrapping my body around myself while I’m suffering from pain, thanking God that I don’t have to get up and do wudhu and pray. Although, come to think of it, the more merciful thing to do here would be to NOT declare my prayer invalid while I’m menstruating.”
If it were just that you’re not obligated to pray, then the people telling you that they envy you because you get this break from an otherwise obligatory ritual would not be angered or offended by your choice to go ahead and pray if you didn’t see it as a burden. If you didn’t see prayer or reading the Qur’an or fasting as a burden, if it didn’t inconvenience you during your period, then you would have the option to do it if you wanted to. And that, girls, is how you know it’s not that it’s just a break; it’s that you’re strictly prohibited from prayer, fasting, and other sacred performances while you’re menstruating.
If it were just a break, we wouldn’t have to make up the fasts we miss during Ramadhan. (Right? Just like how we don’t have to make up the prayers we miss.)
If it were merely an exemption, it wouldn’t be common for Muslim women to ask each other how they manage to finish the entire Qur’an in the month of Ramadhan when their period disrupts them (i.e., when they get their period, they’re not allowed to continue reading the Qur’an), and they hear things like “just read 1 ¼ juz’ daily so that you can finish the Qur’an in 24 days.” (I saw this exchange on a MuslimMatters article on menstruation and Ramadhan recently.)
Where’s the mercy here?
“But, sister, you’re rewarded during menstruation for your pain! And you don’t have to pray!”
Not quite. A friend of mine recently pointed out that the claim that we’re rewarded is not textually supported – i.e., you don’t get rewarded for substituting dhikr, etc. for the obligations from which you’re prohibited. Remember that hadith that tells us that the majority of inhabitants in hell are women, because of our lack of piety every single month? (The hadith is in Sahih Bukhari, and it’s all about how we’re deficient in intellect because of the female testimony issue, and deficient in religion because of no prayer or fasts during our period.) Yeah. Don’t you see what’s going on here? So essentially, what men did was to set up rules that are intrinsically designed to destine us to hell solely because we’re women: We’re not permitted to pray, read the Qur’an, etc. during our period because the laws say so, but we’re actually punished for this. If we’re to accept this hadith as real and all, then we’re not rewarded for menstruating at all; we’re actually punished in that the time we spend not praying is counted against us, and our period is given as an explanation for why there are more women than men in hell. (BUT, to be fair, as Marion Katz, in Body of Texts, discusses this specific point, she notes that the classical Islamic discourse in this case appears more egalitarian than the hadith.)
Remind me again why I should take these men seriously at all.
“But it’s only that menstrual blood is just as impure as any other blood! So how can you keep performing wudhu while on your period since you’re bleeding throughout the day and your wudhu is constantly breaking?!”
Now, you might say, “This is nonsense! This has nothing to do with men or women; Islam has no gender – it’s for everyone! These scholars aren’t saying these things because they’re men – they’re saying these things because these words are from God [except, they’re not from God. Not at all]. The only reason we can’t pray while on our period is because everything that comes out of our bodies, all the fluids, etc., are impure. And that applies to women AND men.”
Or you might respond with, “Oh, please! This isn’t about purity and impurity! Menstruation is a beautiful thing, and it’s a normal part of (most) women’s lives. All these rules in Islam exist for hygiene purposes. Stop spreading fitna!”
Okay, brace yourself, sister: you’re only half correct. Here’s the thing.
Yes, bodily fluid is generally considered impure – but not all, and gender does have everything to do with the establishment of the rules of purity. (According to some ridiculousness, semen (male fluid!) is not exactly impure, or that not all things that come out of a man are impure; but everything coming out of women is impure. Impure = requires ghusl/ritual bath before you perform your prayer.)
But medically speaking, we need to understand that menstrual blood is actually not the same as regular, ordinary, non-menstrual blood that everyone else can shed at any given time. Menstrual blood is blood, yes, but it’s not the same as regular blood. It’s different in texture, smell, chemicals, etc. The blood a woman sheds form her arm or leg or finger or knee isn’t the same as the blood that our uterine walls (the walls of the womb) shed as a sign of non-pregnancy. This blood, this shedding of the uterine wall, is different from normal blood in texture, content, etc., and it’s not just blood alone: It contains at least two other things that we know of, which would be the unfertilized egg (it’s a cell – too tiny to be seen with the naked eye) and something called endometrium, which is “mainly made of cells and their fibrous support. The shed endometrium is not blood! It is hard material that may be seen in the normal menstrual blood as tissue or clots.”
Now, while research on menstruation remains very limited, we still know far more about menstruation than we did centuries ago when Islamic laws were being developed. The scholars didn’t have this knowledge that we have today; in fact, even most scholars (of any religion! Not just Islam) who speak on menstruation and women and blood and impurities and such so authoritatively still have no medical and scientific knowledge about what they’re actually saying.
the scholars had the choice to not declare menstrual blood impure.
Now, you might just have had enough of what I’m saying, so you might go, “Okay, what the hell is this – you don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s GOD who told them that our blood is impure! It’s not their fault.”
Okay, your outrage at what I’m saying is understandable – I know this is unsettling (but I’m not the bad guy here; the bad guy are all those telling us our bodies are impure). BUT it’s actually not God who told them that our blood is impure; it’s their opinions that told them that, it’s patriarchy that dictated that our blood is impure, that we’re impure, etc. I mean get this, y’all: The tradition that tells us that menstrual blood is impure and that we can’t pray or touch/read the Qur’an, etc. also said in its earlier stages of development that we’re so impure that when menstruating women pray in a congregation with us, they can’t contaminate us because we’re already as contaminated as possible; however, menstruating women can and do contaminate men and thus invalidate their prayers if they pray in a congregation. I mean, y’all! In Behnam Sadeghi’s book The Logic of Law Making in Islam: Women and Prayer in the Legal Tradition, beginning on p. 51), we read the following:
The adjacency law [re whether women and men can pray side by side] has its roots in certain notions about the transmission of ritual impurity that originated in Basra in the first half of the seventh century AD. Broadly speaking, in the first century of Islam, there were three main approaches to the question of feminine ritual purity. The majority considered women as ritually pure in the sense that the water they use remains usable for the purpose of ritual ablution or ritual bathing and their walking in front of a worshiper does not affect his or her prayer. This majority appraise was symmetric in the sense that a woman contaminated neither women nor men. Another approach rooted particularly in Mecca, held that a menstruating woman contaminates water and invalidates the prayers of men and women by walking in front of them. This approach was symmetric in the sense that a menstruating woman contaminated both men and non-menstruating women.
A third approach, popular in Basra, held that women contaminate water and break prayers perpetually, that is, regardless of whether they are menstruating or not. Unlike the others, this minority approach was asymmetric: a woman could contaminate men but not women. Thus, a female passerby would “break” a man’s prayer, and a man’s ritual ablution would be invalid if he made use of water already used by a woman for the same purpose. Other women presumably would not be contaminated in this way because, by virtue of being female, they could not be contaminated in this way because, by virtue of being female, they could not be further contaminated….
This last approach became extinct with the spread of the well-known personal schools of law, largely due to the fact that Bsra itself did not give rise to such a school, or at least not to a successful one. However, the Basra-based approach left an imprint that has endured until today, namely the adjacency law. The Basra-based approach was also known in Kufa in the second half of the first century, although it had only a small number of proponents there. It was there that the first-century Kufan jurist, Ibrahim al-Nakha’i, took the adjacency law from this approach without, however, borrowing anything else from it. His tendency to pick and choose elements from the three early approaches rather than adopt one of the approaches in its entirety is also illustrated by the fact that he saw no problem in the leftover water from a menstruating woman’s ablution but disapproved of her leftover drinking water.
Sidetracking here, but alongside Sadeghi’s, I’d recommend Marion Katz’s Prayer in Islamic Thought and Practice where she argues that the underlying concern for the scholars was not that menstruation women were inherently polluting (starting on page 178):
There was general agreement that a menstruation woman – like any person in a state of major impurity (janaba) – should not linger in a mosque, based on hadith reports (although a small minority of scholars contested the texts’ validity). However, this limitation is not based on the idea that menstrual pollution is in any way contagious or inherently threatening to the sanctity of the mosque. (In a hadith recorded in the Sahih of Muslim, the Prophet tells Aisha, “Hand me the mat from the mosque”; when she objects that she is menstruating, he declares, “Your menstruation is not in your hand!”) Some scholars considered it permissible for menstruating women to pass through the mosque, although others found this problematic as well. In any case, the underlying concern was not that menstruating women were inherently polluting, but that blood might actually drip on the floor of the mosque. The eleventh-century Shafi’i jurist al-Mawardi frankly states that a woman ought not to pass through the mosque if her flow is heavy and she has taken inadequate precautions to bind it, but that she may do so if the opposite is true.
Then there’s this, from IslamQA – where we learn that everything that comes out a woman is impure and requires, at the very least, new ablution/wudhu, but men’s semen isn’t impure apparently (and am I hearing people correctly that this has nothing to do with the gender of those issuing these rulings? seriously?):
What is well-known is that the scholars say that everything that is discharged from the front and back passages is naajis (impure) except for one thing, semen, which is taahir (pure); apart from that everything else that has substance is naajis and breaks one’s wudoo’. On this basis, whatever fluid comes out of a woman is naajis and requires her to renew her wudoo’. This is what I understand after researching the issue with some scholars and consulting reference material.
There’s also the fact that women who bleed longer than most other women (e.g., they bleed for more than 6-7 days, which is considered the normal amount in Islam) are still required to perform their ghusl on the 7th day or the day after and pray like she would normally. Yes, Islam always considered “exceptional” cases like these, but my point is that if the scholars could determine this blood not impure enough to invalidate a woman’s prayer, they could also have taken the route to consider all menstrual blood pure. It’s not like that they didn’t have that option. The truth is that what’s impure and pure, what invalidates one’s prayers/fasts, etc. is all very subjective. The Qur’an doesn’t talk about these things; hadiths talk about them to an extent (but that’s a different discussion to be had another time). Even if they’re from hadiths, hadiths are all culturally rooted, region-specific – hadiths, too, weren’t born in some vacuum. They existed to affirm or reaffirm particular social norms, so it makes perfect sense to me that – given that impurity laws were similar in the existing religions in early Islam – different bodily fluids had different status with regards to ritual.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that Islam is always making exceptions to every rule. The scholars were huge fans of making exceptions to virtually every rule they came up with. Heck, the mere fact that we’re prohibited during menstruation from *otherwise mandatory* prayer/ritual is an exception in itself to the rule of, well, mandatory ritual performance. So even if that scholars were to say that all things that all bodily fluids are impure, they certainly had the option to exclude menstrual blood for the following important reason:
Menstruation is a regular thing (even for women with irregular period, it’s still something that happens for at least a few decades for most women); it’s expected from most women; and it’s consistent (in the sense, again, that it occurs mostly every month). It’s a part of a cycle for women. It’s not like an occasional accidental blood caused by some random wound. It’s not like that regular discharge that our bodies release during sex/masturbation/excitement or during the day or night or whenever. It’s literally an important part of menstruating women’s lives and bodies.
So the scholars could’ve simply exempted menstrual blood (and postpartum blood (fyi: women don’t menstruate when pregnant, so they menstruate for a loooooooong time after giving birth; women who have given birth are considered impure for ~40 days, and ghusl is mandatory afterwards; we learn below that in the Zoroastrian and Christian laws, women are considered impure for forty days after childbirth.)). Had they so wanted, they could very easily have viewed menstrual blood differently from other blood *for religious purposes.* They had the power, the legitimacy, and the authority to do that, and we know that if men menstruated, that power would have been used. But they didn’t. And this means something.
new questions, new concerns, new methods and products: pads? tampons? menstrual cups?
Now, many of the rules regarding menstruation and (im)purity have to do with the things being used to absorb (in the case of pads, tampons, and cloth) or collect (in the case of menstrual cups) the blood during menstruation. E.g., important to these scholars was the fact that the blood is coming out of the body (like any non-menstrual discharge). If the issue for the scholars was that (especially menstrual) blood is impure, then should these purity/impurity laws remain effective if the blood doesn’t end up leaving our body the way the scholars imagined it does or would, depending on what we use to contain it?
In the FB discussion I referenced at the top, over at FITNA ( ❤ ), one of the participants in the discussion asks a great question regarding the use of menstrual cups and this impurity issue:
When we use a menstrual cup, the blood isn’t leaving the body because you “wear” the cup inside you as you menstruate. Every few hours, you remove the cup from inside of you, throw out the blood, and put it back inside for another some hours. The menstrual cup is also called the Diva Cup. (Visit their website for more details.)
Also, funny story, y’all: Check out this fatwa on whether tampons are permissible for use by unmarried women. A part of the answer is:
It is offensive (makruh) to have this cotton (kursuf) inserted fully in the internal part of the vagina, because it resembles masturbation. (See: Majmu’a Rasa’il Ibn Abidin, 1/84-85).
Did y’all see that?! What EVEN! These men literally just compared using tampons to masturbation! Like, anything that enters a woman brings the woman pleasure!
Again, folks, it matters that it’s men talking about women and our menstruation and bodies. Having never used a tampon, these guys think that using tampons during our period has the potential to give us pleasure. Maybe they should menstruate for once and see how pleasuresome the whole experience of menstruation is indeed.
influences on Islamic ritual purity laws
Islamic laws – about anything, not just about menstruation and women – didn’t develop in some vacuum that we’re imagining. Like, “this is Islamic” means anything at all. What is “Islamic” in the first place? Islamic laws are not immune to “cultural” assumptions and taboos. In the centuries that Islamic laws about menstruation were being codified, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, Western (Aristotelian, etc.), and other religious and cultural notions of purity and impurity were heavily in place. (FYI, check this website on popular western theories about menstruation. Note how inferiority and impurity are attributed to women solely because of their ability to menstruate. There’s a pattern here.) Traditional Islam isn’t alone in its attitude towards menstruating women (e.g., that we’re impure during our period) and thus the prohibition on our access to the Qur’an during that time. In fact, some religious communities still hold on to them (including many Muslims, of course, but also many Jews and Zoroastrians). In some of these communities, as you approach the end of your period, you have to take a sample of your menstrual blood to a religious authority (a man no less) who evaluates it to determine if you’re still impure or not.
For details on the influences on Islamic law – Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, ancient Greek, and so on – I highly recommend Marion Katz’s book Body of Text: The Emergence of the Sunni Law of Ritual Purity, where, in the Introduction, she gives a background of these influences and what was going on during the emergence of Islam and the development of Islamic law. E.g., in Talmudic law, which had totally been canonized by the 7th century, menstruating women were considered contagiously impure; in the Zoroastrian tradition, too, menstruating women were viewed as contagiously impure and had perform ablution once their period was over. In Zoroastrian, Christian, and other traditions, women are/were impure for forty days after childbirth.. (n Jewish laws, it was/is that a woman’s impurity after childbirth is determined by the sex of her child: if a male child, she is impure for seven days; if a female child, 14 days.)
(FYI, there’s some shocking information in this book, folks. Like things about cooked foods and meats that have touched fire and all – and how so many of our purity laws don’t at all stem from the Qur’an. But we understand how that works, right?)
It doesn’t surprise or upset me that Muslim male scholars adopted so many of the existing ideas of menstruation and purity/impurity, or that they, too, held these ideas. What angers and frustrates me is that those ideas have been permanently mis-identified as divine, as Islamic, as essential to a Muslim woman’s correct practice of Islam.
If you still don’t see how gender has everything to do with both the creation of laws and the discourse of purity/impurity, did you know that according to the Shi‘i tradition, Shi‘i imams are claimed to have been birthed in such a way that their mothers’ birth clothing had not one single drop of blood or fluids on it? (That is, the imams are pure because their mother never contaminated them with their blood or fluid during birth.) AND that Fatima (r.), the Prophet’s daughter, never menstruated. (For more on this, my friend who pointed this out to me/my FB friends suggests the following: Karen Ruffle’s book Gender, Sainthood, and Everyday Practice in South Asian Shi’ism (Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks), Amir Moezzi’s The Divine Guide in Early Shi’ism: The Sources of Esotericism in Islam and Matthew Pierce’s Twelve Infallible Men: The Imams and the Making of Shi’ism: (because “The ‘affliction’ that plagues women did not afflict Fatima. Her vagina was completely untainted by the impurity of blood. …”.)
to the all-male ‘ulama industry that thinks that being fuqahaa’ entitles them to telling us how menstruation works, whether our blood is pure or impure, whether the blood that we sometimes leak especially in the first couple of days of our period that stains our clothes or beds – or that we sometimes leak without noticing it ourselves – is pure or impure, whether using tampons is permissible or impermissible (or even whether tampons cause pleasure): Sit back down and chill. Leave this to us; we’ve been bleeding for millennia – we got this, we don’t need your opinion on anything related to our bodies or the blood (or other fluid) that comes out of it.
the future of classical fiqh laws about women.
Now, remind me again, folks, why we still need to hold on tight to laws about women created by men who conveniently neglected to recognize that, well, women actually have to live with the consequences of the rulings they were issuing.
read (if you have the time/means).
If you’re not convinced that “culture,” popular/existing/already accepted or established notions of gender, sexuality, the body, impurity, etc. (i.e., all things that are constantly changing, that vary from culture to culture, time to time, generation to generation, etc.) have everything to do with what (in)validates your prayer, I suggest the following readings:
- Behnam Sadeghi’s book The Logic of Law Making in Islam: Women and Prayer in the Legal Tradition
- Jamsheed K. Choksy’s Purity and Pollution in Zoroastrianism: Triumph over Evil
- Gillian Towler Mehta’s dissertation, European Zoroastrian Attitudes to Their Purity Law
- Marion Katz’s Prayer in Islamic Thought and Practice
- Marion Katz’s Body of Text: The Emergence of the Sunni Law of Ritual Purity
- Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlieh’s Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation
- Sharon Faye Koren’s article “The Menstruant as ‘Other’ in Medieval Judaism and Christianity.” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Studies issue # 17 (2009) pages 33-59.
- Shai Secunda’s article “The Fractious Eye: On the Evil Eye of Menstruants in Zoroastrian Tradition.” NVMEN 61 (2014) 83-108.
- Inbal Cicurel & Rachel Sharaby’s “Women in the Menstruation Huts: variations in preserving purification customs among Ethiopian immigrants.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Vol. 23. No.2.(Fall 2007), pp. 69-84.
- Elizabeth Shanks Alexander’s “Women’s Exemption from Shema and Tefillin and How These Rituals Came to be Viewed as Torah Study.” Journal for the Study of Judaism 42 (2011), pp. 531-579.
- Christopher R. Hutson’s “Saved through Childbearing” The Jewish Context of » Timothy 2:15” Novum Testamentum 56 (2014), PP. 3 92-410.
- Michelle Fletcher, “What comes into a Woman and What Comes Out of a Woman: Feminist Textual Intervention and Mark 7:14-23.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Vol. 30, No. 1 (Spring 2014), pp. 25-41.
more another time.
Great post Shanu. This shame on menstruation is evident in how reluctant people is to talk about. Love.
Thanks for writing this. It let to a lively discussion between me a friend, in which we reached a common ground, but also agreed to disagree. 🙂
Was Jesus killed according to the Quran? Follow Yahaya’s blog for response
According to most Muslims, at least today, no, he was not killed; according to some, yes.
Talk about bias! You write, “The tradition … said in its earlier stages of development that we’re so impure that when menstruating women pray in a congregation with us, they can’t contaminate us because we’re already as contaminated as possible.”
The book you quote says this was a short-lived, minority view in one city, Basra. So, “the tradition” doesn’t say that. History contains many different approaches — that approach and its opposite. In fact, the tradition mostly forgot about the approach you ascribe to it. It mostly adopted the originally Medinan view that says women in general do not transmit impurity. Why do are you so biased in the way you present the material?
No, that’s certainly the tradition because the guy who wanted that idea to be included in the tradition wasn’t just any random minority; he was important enough to be a major contributor to the tradition. The point being that there were discussions about women’s impurity & prayers – women as walking impurities, literally – by the same folks we hold in such high esteem. Context & other nonsense, sure, but these aren’t just some lame google scholars – they were actual major elected scholars.
And the tradition managed to keep the idea that we’re too impure to pray or read & touch the Quran during menstruation.
Are you trying to say the tradition has anything positive to say about women during menstruation?
So what’s the end?? We were all waiting for the end!! 🙂 I think we always have to go back to the Qur’an and the authentic traditions of the Prophet for clarification, and we know the hadith in which it is said that your menstruation is not in your hand. So I think that negates the idea that we are too impure to touch the Qur’an. Also….why does it agitate people so much that you aren’t allowed to pray during your period? I am inane enough to be glad i don’t have to pray while cramping and raging at the world, lol. I don’t feel like it has been stolen from me- and there are so many other acts of obedience to Allah we can perform while menstruating. (And about the impurity- most often it is referred to as ‘ritual impurity’. She’s not impure in general, but for the detailed rituals then ritual purity is required.)
It agitates a lot of Muslim women that we’re considered “ritually impure” during this time for reasons I mentioned above, especially during Ramadhan – one month, hardly 30 days per an entire year, and our prayers are interrupted, our worship is interrupted, and we’re told “oh, it’s because it’s a mercy from God!” Okay, perfect – if it’s about mercy, then why actually invalidate my prayers when I pray during menstruation? No one’s saying require women to pray while they’re in pain; we’re saying there’s too much male bias in *forbidding* us from prayer during this time. Make prayer voluntary during this time and don’t make our prayers invalid.
This idea of ritual impurity is very subjective, very historical, and very much rooted in prevalent social norms about women, gender, sexuality, (im)purity, etc. It’s amazing which ideas of impurity stayed in Islamic law and which ones didn’t – and that wasn’t some objective process.
But what do you mean ‘which ideas of impurity stayed in Islamic Law and which ones didn’t’? Which ones didn’t? And if you don’t think the Prophet’s telling us that we shouldn’t pray while menstruating is valid and should be changed, why believe that we have to pray at all? Worship at all? How do you choose what to believe and what to reject? Surely you have to make up your mind on some authority other than your own ideas? Not trying to be rude or anything. I just honestly don’t get it. Shaykhs? Ditch them if you like. Fatwas, whatever. But as a Muslim, you do believe that the Prophet’s dictions were sent to him by Allah. And the Traditions weren’t all a male-dominated field. In fact- check it out- a lot of the Traditions concerning women were narrated by women, and haven’t disappeared from history yet. So how can you order by just your imperfect- as we all are- judgement that it shouldn’t be this way?
Thanks for your comments.
“Which ideals didn’t?” A lot of them didn’t. See the book I’ve referred above by Behnam Sadeghi (and other sources on Islamic laws on purity) for more detail. Things actually aren’t as black and white as we like to imagine they are, and even when there’s the nuance that we recognize there always has been, the scholars didn’t always stick to the Qur’an/Sunnah, like you (and many other Muslims) suggest and rightly expect.
That goes for our purity laws, too. Islamic legal scholarship has a LOT of stuff to say about purity and impurity *that is hardly from the Qur’an/Sunnah*, so your question about how dare I question the Prophet… well, 1) I don’t see anything wrong with asking where the sunnah gets its ideas from (could it simply be because that’s how people in 7th century Mecca/Medina dealt with these things? And not necessarily that that is the most ideal, best, only correct, or even only possible way to deal with those things?), and 2) there are a bunch of hadiths that are questionable, even if they have been authenticated. Not to mention that even hadiths, too, are open to interpretations (it’s like saying the Qur’an is very clear on something and if it says one thing, we can’t disagree with that. Sure, but it also depends on how you interpret it and who’s interpreting it. Same goes for hadiths, and hadiths are even more complicated because of how human human involvement, how much subjectivity went into what counts as a good or authentic or acceptable hadith and so on.)
There’s a reason why the 6 different (Sunni) hadith books that we have don’t have the exact same hadiths. Think about that.
I don’t think anyone can deny that women narrated hadiths – Aisha, yes, has the second highest number of hadiths that are attributed to her (Abu Hurairah, interestingly, has more than her, the most number). But narrating hadiths is, well, not even remotely as authoritative as giving a legal opinion that, well, can eventually become a law. How many legal schools do we currently have? (4 in Sunni thought.) How many did we have history? Thousands! (Okay, perhaps hundreds, but you get the idea.) How many of those were founded by women? (At least 2 that we know of: Aisha and Umm Salamah both had their own legal schools; they didn’t survive. I wonder why…) When you think of historical legal scholars, how many female names can you invoke? Of course, it’s not that there weren’t any – it’s more likely that their names were buried in history and Muslim feminist scholars are working today to revive those names and those contributions, but the point is that the male monopoly on Islam can’t be denied, and I think it’s naive to think that because Aiah narrated the second highest number of hadiths, we can’t argue that there’s a male monopoly on scholarship on Islam. That’s cray.
Also, I *highly* recommend this book by Aisha Geissinger called Gender and Muslim Constructions of Exegetical Authority. We find some shocking things there about how Aisha was received by scholars in the earlier generations.
By the way, it’s interesting that menstruating women aren’t allowed to touch the Quran, even though in a hadith, the Prophet pbuh told Aisha ra that she could – he said “you don’t menstruate with yout hands, don’t you?”
Fascinating. What do you make of what the Holy Quran says about ritual impurity in the ayat which talks about women having to purify themselves before they sleep with their husbands after their period is over and also how prayers are not to be made before both men and women are ritually clean
4:43 “…Draw not near unto prayer …nor in a state of ritual impurity – unless you are passing through- until you have washed. But if you are ill, or on a journey or one of you has come from satisfying the call of nature, or you have touched women, and you find no water, then resort to clean earth and wipe your faces and hands…”
2:222 “they ask thee concerning menstruation. Say, it is a hurt so keep away from women during their menses and do not approach them until they are purified…”
The word janaba is not used here to refer to menstrual blood, but it does say women are not clean during their period “tahir”. 222 then goes on to reveal “For Allah loves those Who keep themselves pure and clean ie:mutahireen”. In this context about keeping bodies clean and free of impurity.
If ritual impurity isn’t expressly defined in the Quran except to say that those who are ill, on a journey, have engaged in daily bodily functions or had sexual relations must clean themselves, a case could be made that menstruation is not expressly included. Or it could be alluded to in the reference to toilet. Then there is the statement that says women have to purify themselves after their periods implying that they are not clean while menstruating. This could of course only be in reference to sexual relations not worship.
Perhaps the take home is to follow what you understand from these verses. What do you understand? Would you engage in formal prayer while menstruating?
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Hey, Muslim women do have a break from fasting and Salah during menstruation. As much as they love to do it, they can’t. You can pray through reciting duas on TASBEEH but cannot offer SALAH or touch the holy book.
lol. Please read the article before commenting and sharing your (obviously wrong) opinion. Thanks!