Asra Q. Nomani is a journalist and self-described "modern Muslim woman" (p.32). Her book, Standing Alone in Mecca (2005), details a personal history and journey as she tried to sort out "the contradictions about religion" (p. ix) as she started out "very much at odds with” her religion (ibid). Asra proclaims, “This book is a manifesto of the rights of women based on the true faith of Islam. It heralds a revolution in the Muslim world of the twenty-first century" (p. ix). The story revolves around her journey to make Hajj and her lessons regarding women in Islam.
The following does not aim to be a comprehensive page-by-page review of Standing Alone in Mecca. The aim is simply to point out that the main areas the author aims to discuss and ignite her revolution are not understood nor well researched. Being a professional journalist Ms. Nomani knows well about citations and research, thus it is surprising to see them absent (in particular when quoting the Prophetic traditions). I’d like for readers to ponder for themselves, whether a book that aims to speak about women in Islam that is devoid of evidence and/or missing vitally important and relevant information, is worth spending ones time upon.
Throughout the text Asra Nomani provides readers with a critical and often condescending commentary on various aspects of Islam and Islamic thought. However, much of this commentary is her opinion, such as her being “disgusted” at a practice that has origins with the Prophet (peace be upon him) and so forth. I have not focused upon these opinions because each is welcome to hold an opinion, rather I will, inhsaAllah, point out some clear errors in understanding of Islam and Islamic scholarship.
As mentioned, Asra’s physical journey in the book is the Hajj. Within this journey she faces various challenges. Regarding needing a mahram while travelling to go for hajj Asra provides an uncited hadith: "Go and perform the hajj with your wife" and gives the explanation that: "To me, that seemed interesting, but it certainly didn't make it a rule" (p. 12). She presents this as the only proof and/or evidence that a mahram is required when travelling, or in her case going in Hajj. And, for a book about a woman going on Hajj written by a professional journalist, one would think this issue would have been investigated. The following Prophetic narration is just one of many narrations that relate to women, travel and a mahram: Abu Huraira (Allah be pleased with him) narrates that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said: "It is unlawful for a woman who believes in Allah and the last day that she travels the distance of one day and one night without a Mahram accompanying her." (Sahih al-Bukhari) This hadith, and other well known authentic narrations from the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), were not mentioned. Either the author wanted not to mention them within her text or the research was simply not done.
Asra continues her journey and begins to question other religious practices other than that of travelling with a mahram. She says, "Often religion is used to impose boundaries that ultimately deny women rights that have now been articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" (p. 20). More than 1400 years ago Allah revealed: "Today I have perfected your religion for you, and completed My grace upon you, and approved Islam as your religion" (5:3). As Muslims we believe that 20th Century rulings do not override the Qur’an or abrogate the legislation found within.
Regarding the hijab Asra says, “But if you believed the scholarly evidence that hijab isn’t mandatory – as I did – then this wasn’t an issue” (p. 149). Although Asra quotes the verse 33:59, she has misunderstood the meaning of Arabic, or may not know the meaning of the Arabic words and is relying upon translations. The translations she has used for this verse (quoted below) translated “khimar” as veil. The word khumur, a plural of khimar, linguistically, socio-culturally and according to the practice of the people of the Prophet’s time (peace be upon him) is a headscarf. The scholarly explanation of Al-Qurtubi explains: "Women in the past used to cover their heads with the khimar, throwing its ends over their backs. This left the neck and the upper part of the chest bare, in the manner of the Christians. Then Allah commanded them to cover those parts with the khimar." Allah says:
“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers [Arabic: Khumur] over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers, their brothers' sons, their sisters' sons, their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment. And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, O believers, that you might succeed.” (24:30-31)
Asra continues to question the traditions practiced by Muslims in saying, "Because the prophet wore a beard, Muslim men are supposed to wear beards, according to the logic of Wahhabism" (p. 38). The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) said: "Trim closely the moustache, and let the beard grow" [Muslim - and there are multiple variations of ahadith found in Muslim with the same meaning from multiple narrations and narrators]. Once again, one wonders how a professional journalist did not search the authentic preserved sources of Islamic knowledge before making such statements.
Asra then continues and expands her criticism in stating that, “Our modern day Muslim way of referring to God as Allah came from this ancient name [al-Lah], but the Qur’an doesn’t even mention him [chief pagan god]. It talks about his three daughters: the goddesses al-Uzza, Manat, and most significantly, al-Lat, the fertility goddess, or “the Goddess.” Like most religions, Islam came from a pagan tradition that revered the power of a feminine divine. I had learned this while studying Tantra ….” (p. 59). First and foremost, Islam did not come from a pagan origin, rather it came to confirm previous scriptures of monotheism at a time when paganism was prevalent. Allah says:
“And We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], the Book in truth, confirming that which preceded it of the Scripture and as a criterion over it. So judge between them by what Allah has revealed and do not follow their inclinations away from what has come to you of the truth. To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.” (5:48)
Secondly, simply because a pagan god shared the same name does not mean that is its origin. Linguistically and historically this is an incorrect statement which she again provides no evidence for. One quick example of this is that Christians who speak Arabic also use the name “Allah,” and clearly their tradition is not referring to the pagan god known in the deserts of Arabia before the emergence of Islam.
Asra Nomani concludes her book with "An Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in Mosques" (Appendix A), and "An Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom" (Appendix B). Although she's neatly mirrored them to a 10-commandment style, she does not quote the Qur'an or ahadith once. I am not going to comment specifically on each statement here, however it will be clear to most that a person who wants to create a "bill of rights for Islam” needs to, at bare minimum, be basing these claims and evidences from the Qur'an and Sunna. Otherwise they are mere opinion and hence ought to be labeled "Asra Nomani's Bill of Rights ..." not in the name of Islam. Islamic scholarship demands proof and evidence for claims, and in particular claims such as these where one is out to create bills of rights for Islam and Muslims.
May Allah guide us all. Asra may say “To me, these were all the rules of blind faith, and I didn’t buy them.” (p. 177) Allah says:
“Do they await but that Allah should come to them in covers of clouds and the angels [as well] and the matter is [then] decided? And to Allah [all] matters are returned.” (2:210)