What Do We Have to Hide? The Islamic Principle of “Satr” and Cultural Bias
Many of the victims who reach out to KARAMAH face a serious dilemma. They are told by those around them that bringing such issues into the public eye violates the Islamic principle of satr. However, the popular understanding of the principle of satr in our community is loaded with cultural biases. It reduces the options of a victim into two equally unfair and unrealistic ones:
• Obey God who ordered us Muslims to cover each other’s shortcomings and flaws, and remain silent at the expense of the victim’s safety and well being; or
• Speak up and publicly denounce the perpetrator of the abuse, and hence disobey God and create fitnah (chaos and conflict) in the community.
This understanding shows no regard to victim’s rights. In fact, it contributes to the problem by injecting it with an element of spiritual abuse. It forces the abused to abandon legitimate protections or feel deeply guilty for defying God. Furthermore, Muslim women who opt against the advice of some “well intentioned,” “God fearing” relatives and friends, and publicly disclose the abuse or harassment, are often faced with hostility and pushed out of the community.
Are these really the only options an abused Muslim woman has? Is a good Muslim woman a voiceless and submissive woman in the face of abuse and harassment? And are the Qur’anic principles of justice, accountability, and dignity compatible with such an understanding of the principle of satr? The answer to all these questions is in the negative. To establish this fact we turn to the basic sources of Islamic jurisprudence.
Satr, an Arabic term that means covering/protecting one’s privacy, refers in the context of social behavior to:
• Being discreet about one’s own sins, which means keeping one’s life, especially one’s sins, private; and
• Lowering the veil of discretion/privacy over the shortcomings, flaws or sins of others (which do not involve rights of additional people) as opposed to exposing them to the public eye or reporting them to the legal system. (For example, advising a teenager against consumption of alcohol.)
The second meaning is the one of concern to us today, as it applies to domestic abuse and sexual harassment situations.
There are many hadiths (statement of the Prophet PBUH) that praise people who, when they discover other people’s flaws, they do not expose them. Instead, they advise them and encourage them to reconsider their behavior. In one instance for example, the Prophet (PBUH) said “Whoever covers the flaws of a Muslim in this world, God will cover his/her flaws on the Day of Judgment.” (al-Bukhari). Some Muslims have misunderstood this hadith, and others of its variations, to mean that covering Muslims’ flaws and shortcomings is an unconditional duty. That is incorrect.
Ibn Hajar, a renowned Muslim scholar and hadith interpreter, commented on the aforementioned hadith as follows: “It means (a situation where) someone witnesses something bad (wrong) and does not disclose it to other people. This does not mean abstaining from vehemently reprimanding (the offender) in private. This also involves testifying against (the offender) when reprimand and advice fail to work…It appears therefore that satr applies to past sins, while reprimand and advice apply to flagrant (present) sins. However, if the sinner does not refrain then it is one’s responsibility to report (the sinner) to the ruler…” (Fath al-Bari, 5:97) So, the purpose of the principle of satr is not to create a secret society that covers up various sins. Rather, its purpose is to counsel a person who errs, and afford him/her an opportunity to reflect on his/her wrong doing or flaw and correct his/her behavior before it becomes one of public or even legal concern. Sometimes all a person needs is to step back from a situation and see it through someone else’s eyes to become aware of the gravity of his/her actions and repent. This is particularly true when the sin/flaw committed involves the sinner alone.
What happens then when a person is subject to or witnesses an injustice or crime? Does satr still apply? In other words, is the subject of abuse (or any other form of injustice) expected to keep silent in order to be a good Muslim? Of course not; that would be inherently unjust. Yet, some Muslims have confused satr with impunity. They believe that the duty of satr is unconditional and requires Muslims not to expose each other, regardless of the circumstances. This confusion is not new despite the fact that Muslim jurists clearly defined satr as “forgiving and covering someone’s sin or crime if nobody else’s rights were involved.[i]
Jurists also set strict criteria for practicing satr. They include the following:
• The sinner has not already disclosed the sin him/herself as a way of showing off;
• The sin/offense is not in the making and hence could still be prevented;
• The sin/wrong doing does not cause any harm to anyone else but the sinner;
• Satr offers wrongdoers a chance to repent and rectify their actions. If they persist, then it is the duty of a Muslim to expose them;
• Satr should not stop a person from testifying against injustice. After all, the Qur’an orders us: “And do not conceal testimony, for whoever conceals it – his heart is indeed sinful, and God is Knowing of what you do.” (2:283); and finally,
• Satr is limited by victim’s rights. If an act of satr perpetuates an injustice done to the victim, then it is prohibited. Furthermore, the person who covers for a wrongdoer is an accomplice in the crime of violating the victim’s right.[ii]
The last requirement means that when the sin violates the rights of other people, as in the case of sexual harassment and domestic violence, it is no longer just a sin. It becomes a crime that has to be addressed in a way that restores the right of both the victim and society at large.
In short, satr is not an unconditional pass given to repeat offenders who persist in their offenses and whose actions affect others and violate their rights. Satr is a second chance given to people whose actions harm them and not others. They show remorse and a readiness to repent and redeem themselves. If other people’s rights are involved, satr cannot be invoked. Accountability, individual responsibility, and justice are the Islamic principles that control in these situations. For, as the Qur’an states, “whoever does wrong shall be requited with it. He will not find, besides God, any protector or helper.” (4:123)
Silencing women victims of domestic abuse, sexual harassment and other types of injustice and suffering not only adds insult to injury but goes against the very core of Islamic values and principles. The Qur’an states very clearly that “God commands Justice” and that He “forbids all shameful deeds and injustice.” (16:90)
One quick note about the “maslaha” or best interest of the community, an argument used sometimes to support the misguided demand for unconditional satr. It is in the maslaha of the community to correct its own mistakes and promote just behavior among its members. This principle is deeply rooted in Islamic law and ethics. The Qur’an states it clearly when it says: “O ye who believe, stand out firmly for Justice as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin…” (4:135)
The fact that others may exploit the situation against the Muslim community should not stop us from doing what is right. Instead it should strengthen our resolve to fight injustice and prejudice wherever we find it.
[i] Abd al-Lateef al-Ghamidi, As-Satr fi al-Qadaya al-Jina’iyyah
[ii] For more on criteria for satr, see: an-Nawawi, Al-Minhaj Sharh Sahih Muslim Ibn al-Hajjaj; Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmou’al-Fatawi, 28:220; and Khalid Ibn ‘Abdillah ibn Muhammad Ashayi’, As-Satr ‘ala Ahl al-Ma’aasi, 2001.
Raja El Habti
Recently, the Atlantic Wire published an article entitled “Tunisian Teens Are Helping Out the Syrian Rebels with ‘Sexual Jihad’.” Although the author of the article, M. Abad-Santos, made some good observations about women’s exploitation in times of war, his article is unfortunately grossly misinformed.
Here are the facts: Tunisian officials reported that Tunisian underage girls were traveling to Syria to offer their sexual and reproductive services to the rebels in support of their cause. This traffic was triggered by a fatwa (juristic opinion) supposedly issued by Sunni Saudi scholar Mohammad al-‘Arifi a few months ago on “Jihad an-Nikah” (literally, Jihad through marriage/intercourse). Similar articles reported the existence of the practice among Egyptian Islamists, especially in Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyyah Square in Egypt.
But then it gets more interesting. The Syrian rebels have denied Tunisian claims, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Rabi’a also denied the claims of the Egyptian government. The parents of Rahma, a Tunisian teen age girl, reported on TV that their daughter left to Syria, later sheepishly corrected their statement when they discovered that she had run away, only to return days later and confess to her parents what had actually happened. More recently, the Tunisian Interior Minister raised the issue again stating that hundreds of Tunisian teenage girls are coming back from Syria pregnant with illegitimate babies conceived with Syrian jihadis. Al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s ally in Syria, and the Free Syrian Army flatly denied the existence of the practice in their territories, and considered it un-Islamic while other pro-Syrian regime television channels like al-Jadeed, al-Manar, and al-‘Alam confirmed it.
Surprisingly, independent data confirming this practice on the ground are at this point still pretty rare. So far, no girls have come forward either to affirm the practice or denounce it. Yet we are told that these voiceless girls managed to travel thousands of miles to engage in sex and then return home safely but pregnant from a war zone. The charges and denials we hear are all made by men who are engaged in a political conflict with each other. For this reason, we find the currently available information on the subject puzzling and confusing. We therefore turn our attention instead to a study of the fatwa itself.
So, here are more facts: Sheikh al-‘Arifi’s supposed fatwa first appeared in a tweet in March 2013. The Arabic newspaper, al-Hayat, published from London, reported in an article that month that Tunisian teen-aged girls were traveling to Syria for Jihad al-Nikah. The article quoted the Tunisian Minister of Islamic Affairs, al-Khadimi, who rejected the fatwa as invalid and non-binding on Tunisians. Since then al-‘Arifi repeatedly and vehemently denied issuing the fatwa attributed to him. He did so on Television, in newspapers, and on his twitter page. He also stated very clearly that whoever engages in such a practice is committing Zina (adultery). But no one was listening. Reports about the false fatwa continued to spread like wild fire. After all, this is a sexy topic.
Here is the Islamic jurisprudential take on this: To be valid, a fatwa must meet rigorous formal and substantive criteria. Even then, the fatwa is not binding on Muslims. They are at liberty to adopt it or reject it. To many average Muslims who saw the text of the “fatwa,” it did not seem to contain any of the usual formalities present in other fatwas. More importantly, anyone who is familiar with the basics of the institution of marriage in Sunni Islam will immediately know that this fatwa is invalid. After all, one major jurisprudential difference between Sunni and Shi’i jurisprudence is that the latter permits instances of temporary marriages. But even in Shi’i jurisprudence, temporary marriages are very carefully regulated by law to protect the parties.
Marriage in Islam is a big deal. It has been described by the Qur’an as a “solemn covenant” (4:21), a description that was used only in momentous contexts such as the covenant between God and the children of Israel. Furthermore, the marriage contract has very strict conditions that must be fulfilled for it to be valid, not the least among them is the intent of durability. A marriage contracted with the intent to divorce even after a hundred years is not valid in the opinion of all Sunni schools of legal thought. Furthermore, if divorce occurs, whether in the Sunni or Shi’i tradition, the woman must observe a three month-waiting period, called ‘iddah, before she can remarry in order to insure, among other things, that she is not pregnant. All these conditions make it clear that the so-called “Jihad an-Nikah,” which is supposedly contracted for a short period of time, hours according to some reports, and in which the woman can remarry immediately after getting divorced, run completely contrary to the Islamic view of marriage and family. It cannot be approved, let alone encouraged or legitimized, by a Sunni or Shi’i scholar for that matter.
Whatever were the motives behind forging the so-called “Jihad an-Nikah” fatwa and its continued circulation in the media, harm has been done on many levels. Islam as a world religion and value system has been denigrated and demonized yet one more time. Women are once again objectified, used and abused in a time of war. Furthermore, the whole controversy around the fake fatwa has effectively turned the public opinion’s attention away from the horror of what is happening in Syria and the suffering of thousands of innocent civilians, including women and children that are caught in the middle of the Syrian war.