Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Defying the Saudi Arabian driving ban for women

‘Driving’ home a point

‘Gap is widening between application of religious regulations and realities of life’

Islam is a practical religion that aims to regulate people’s life in the best possible manner. Since its laws are logical, Shariah has in its inner depths a mechanism to adapt to changing times and places.

The Ijtihad (the exercise of personal judgment in arriving at a legal opinion or verdict on a case on the basis of a precedent found in the Qur’an or Sunnah) has been viewed in the past as a tool for achieving consistency between religious regulations and the realities of inevitably changing lifestyles.

The tendency to misinterpret religious texts and the discontinuation of Ijtihad have led us to a situation, in which the gap is widening between the application of religious regulations and the realities of life. The situation has also led to increasing rigidity of fiqh (religious laws) resulting from the extensive application of the principle of “Sadd Al-Dharaei (blocking the means). In the religious terminology “blocking the means” is a tool to prevent evil before it materializes and is often invoked when lawful means is expected to produce an unlawful result.

While invoking the provisions of “blocking the means” against new situations in modern life, scholars warn believers to be careful. The unfortunate outcome is that the Muslim community is up against countless issues without any logical solutions compatible with religious regulations. The faulty understanding of the Islamic laws blocks adopting a logical and pragmatic legal system that would guarantee the welfare of believers.

The late Egyptian writer Abdul Haleem Abu Shaqqah made an extensive study of the issue of the principle of “blocking” in his voluminous work “Liberation of Women in the Era of the Prophet.”

Abu Shaqqah said in his book that the principle of “blocking the evil” has been carried out with such a zeal that the conditions set by the early Muslim scholars while implementing the principle were neglected.
The early scholars had warned that extreme care should be taken while invoking the principle of “blocking the means” to ban a lawful deed.

THE conditions set by them permitted the ban of an act only if the act would lead to wrong in most cases, not rarely. Another condition set by them is that the evil resulting from the act should not just be a probability. They also stipulated that a ban should not be a total prohibition of the act but the questionable act should be placed between karahat (reprehensible) and haram (unlawful) depending on the degree of the evil.

They also stipulated that if a wicked act is most likely to result in goodness, then that act should be considered a desirable act.

In spite of all the clear stipulations and warnings laid down by the early religious scholars while invoking the provision, many scholars of later generations discarded the stipulations and adopted an extremely zealous stand in applying the principle of “blocking the means” especially in matters related to women, the author said. The book also discussed the situation that led to the misunderstanding of the meaning of women’s temptation by misinterpreting verses, Hadith and even using weak or fabricated Hadith.

The present controversy over women’s driving is just one of the many rights they have been deprived of because of a distorted view on religious regulations.

The late former Information Minister Muhammad Abdu Yamani, who wrote a number of articles before his demise on the injustice done to women, had repeatedly warned scholars to fear Allah in their treatment of women.

HE pointed out the glaring contradiction in not allowing a woman to drive her own car but at the same time permitting a woman to travel in a car with a foreign driver. While there is no Shariah text to support the ban, there are texts to prove the unlawfulness of traveling alone with an unrelated man.

“Woman’s driving is a need of the time and hardly there is any proof to deny her that right in the religious texts. Women must be permitted to drive in order to avoid many evils. Prevention of evil is more important than doing good deeds,” the late minister said.

He added that the society denied women many of their rights in the name of old customs, while Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has clearly stated what is permitted and prohibited. Almighty Allah said about women: “And they have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable…”

In the ancient times women used to travel on camel backs or donkeys while in the modern times cars have replaced animals. “So people need a fiqh that is suited for the modern times,” he argued.

“Is it safe for a woman to travel with a foreign driver, who might harm her, or to drive herself,” he asked.
He also pointed out that not only women but even small girls and boys also stood the risk of being harmed by some drivers. He wondered why people do not learn from the reports issued by the Interior Ministry and local newspapers about the criminal acts of drivers.

“Why don’t we have the courage to face the issue and find a solution so that the resources of one half of the society are not wasted on invalid grounds. Have all Muslim countries that permit women to drive adopted a misleading fiqh?” he said in one of his articles.

Yamani had also urged the Council of Senior Scholars to make clear their stand not only on women’s driving but also on women traveling with expatriate drivers.

Saudi women should have the freedom to travel as they have established beyond doubt their capabilities in much more complicated fields such as medical sciences and advanced technologies.

— The writer is a consultant doctor and chairman of the board of directors and executive president of the International Medical Center. He can be contacted at