The American Muslim community is reeling from news of the horrific beheading of Aasiya Hassan, allegedly by her husband Muzzammil Hassan. They were respected members of the community and co-founded BridgesTV, a television network ironically dedicated to fighting negative stereotypes of Muslims. As one of the first Muslims to succeed as a writer in Hollywood, I have been interviewed several times on BridgesTV and was delighted by the professionalism and media savvy of its staff. I had never met the Hassans, but I had been proud of their accomplishments. They were bringing an Islam of love, compassion and human brotherhood to the world, while countering the horrific images of violence and misogyny that had tainted how my fellow Americans saw my faith. The Hassans were people I admired -- educated professionals and patriotic Americans with a commitment to family and community.
And then I heard how Aasiya Hassan died and I wanted to throw up.
Right now there is a great deal of discussion in the media about whether her murder was an "honor killing." And among the more bigoted commentators, there are cries that this horrific murder has proven the "true face of Islam" to the world. That no matter how hard Muslims try to sell an Islam of peace and social justice, a headless corpse of a poor, abused woman will always be its legacy to humanity. I hear these words, and I want to cry out "No! This isn't Islam! This isn't the beautiful religion that brings comfort and joy to a billion people worldwide." But then I see images in my mind of Aasiya Hassan lying decapitated in a pool of blood and I am left wondering why anyone should listen.
The greatest tragedy for me as a Muslim is that my faith is associated with such horrific actions that run counter to everything that Prophet Muhammad stood for. To those who know little about Islamic history, it may sound laughable to assert that Islam began as a proto-feminist movement. But it's true. Perhaps the way out of this madness for the Muslim community is to look back at the life of Prophet Muhammad and remember his true legacy as a visionary champion of women's rights.
I recently finished my first novel, Mother of the Believers, which tells the story of Islam's birth from the perspective of Aisha, the Prophet's young wife. As a scholar, poet and warrior, Aisha was one of the most influential women in history, and her life reveals how empowered the women of Islam were at the onset of the faith. As I researched the story of early Islam for my novel, I was struck by how central women's rights played in the community's identity from the beginning. The Prophet was a sensitive man who had been orphaned at a young age and grew up in poverty. He saw from childhood the suffering of women and children in pre-Islamic Arabia, where the strong crushed the weak, and dedicated his life to changing the system.
One of the first Arab practices he outlawed was female infanticide. Pre-Islamic Arab men would bury alive unwanted baby girls in the desert, a horrific tradition that Prophet Muhammad ended forever. There is a powerful scene in the Holy Qur'an depicting Judgment Day where the souls of all girls who were slain would rise and confront their fathers, asking the men: "For what crime did you kill me?" And then their fathers would be flung into Hell. It is a vivid image meant to inculcate the true horror of such crimes in the minds of Arabs accustomed to centuries of brutal child murder.
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