Find Your Voice

‘My sisters, my daughters, my friends – find your voice,’ Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said after collecting her Nobel Prize in 2011.

Can you hear her?

A woman’s voice tells us about the immigration of the Muslims to Abyssinia. Another woman’s voice tells us details of our beloved Prophet’s ﷺ life. A woman’s voice gave protection to an enemy of Islam in Madina. And a woman’s voice chanted out cures for people suffering from psoriasis. Our prophetic tradition is ripe with the voices of women, their opinions, their disagreements, and their ideas.

The women of the prophetic era had a clear voice that welled from within, and influenced the society around them. Their inner voice was clear and strong; and when vocalized interacted with other voices to build a society of goodness and belief. It is in the quieting of that inner voice that our societies have begun to lose their way. Once the inner voice is quiet, the vocalized words become empty and meaningless and change cannot occur.

If we are to take hold of the times we live in we must find our voice and use it.

A Woman with a Voice:

Asmāʾ bt. ʿUmays (r) embraced Islam in the early years. In those years Muslims were beaten to within an inch of their lives, their livelihood was cut off as Quraysh interfered in their ability to buy and sell, and they lived in constant fear for their loved ones. All of this difficulty did not offset the emotional upheaval of the immigration to Abyssinia. They were in tormented anguish at the prospect of leaving their beloved Prophet ﷺ. Speaking for all the Muslims who were setting out to migrate, ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān said, “O Messenger of God, our first, and this – our second – migration to Negus and you are not with us?” to which their beloved responded, “You are immigrating to Allah and to me – both immigrations count for you.” ʿUthmān responds with great adab and says, “Then that suffices us, O Messenger of God.” They are comforted by his words, as they leave their hearts in his care.

Asmāʾ made this journey to Abyssinia. She endured the days away from the Prophet ﷺ along with the rest of the Muslims. She adapted to her new environment, and held on to her faith; growing in confidence and deepening in religion. In that faraway place, without the connecting graces of Facebook, Whatsapp and Skype, she managed to remain true to Islam, loyal to her Prophet, and strong in faith.

Asmāʾ bt. ʿUmays went to visit Ḥafṣa bt. ʿUmar (r), Mother of the believers, wife of the Prophet ﷺ, after her long awaited return to Madina. While she was visiting, ʿUmar came to the house and when he realized that she was Asmāʾ bt. ʿUmays who had returned from Abyssinia by boat, he said, “We beat you to the hijra, and thus we have more of a right upon the Prophet ﷺ than you.” Whatever motivated him to say this is unclear – Asmāʾ’s reaction was, however, very clear. She was furious. It was an unbearable affront. All the years of missing the Prophet ﷺ and living in obedience to him could not mean that she – or any of her companions – had been beaten by anyone. She responded, “No by God, you were with the Messenger of Allah, he fed you when you were hungry, and he educated you when you were in ignorance and we were in a faraway and despicable land in Abyssinia – and we were there for God and His Prophet ﷺ. By God I will not eat a morsel nor drink a drop until I tell the Messenger ﷺ what you have just said… And we were harmed and afraid! I will tell all of this to the Prophet ﷺ and I will ask him and by God I will not lie, nor trim, nor expand on what you said.”

When the Prophet came ﷺ she said, “O Prophet of God! Verily ʿUmar has said such and such”

“And what did you say to him?” he asked

“I said, ‘such and such.’”

He said, “He does not have more right upon me than you, for him and his companions are one hijra and for you, the people of the ship, are two hijras.”

Asmāʾ’s voice rang strong and true those 1428 years ago. She was not plagued with the depression of distance, nor was she too ‘busy’ to speak. She was not intimidated, and did not doubt her stance. She spoke to the Prophet ﷺ – who listened and responded. Asmāʾ’s choice to be heard became a source of joy for the people of the boat, and she herself tells us, “Abū Mūsā and the people of the ship would send me messengers asking about this ḥadīth; and there is nothing more joyful or greater in this dunyā for them than what the Prophet ﷺ said about them.” (Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī)

Her inner voice, vocalized, brought about a change in attitude and perspective.

Finding Our Voices:

The term “finding our voices” refers to the process of finding our underlying enthusiasm. Stephen Covey defines it as, “the overlapping of the four parts of our nature: our body, our mind, our heart, and our spirit.” He says that finding our voice is akin to “…finding potential that was bequeathed you at birth. Latent and undeveloped, the seeds of greatness were planted. You were given magnificent “birth-gifts” – talents, capacities, privileges, intelligences, opportunities – that would remain largely unopened except through your own decision and effort… [that which] taps your talents and fuels your passion – that rises out of a great need in the world that you feel drawn by conscience to meet – therein lies your voice, your calling, your soul’s code.” (Covey)

Our missing voices indicate a deeply troubling reality. We are no longer drawn by conscience to any needs outside our own. Busy with personal problems that come and go like a sink of dishes, we do not reflect on our deeper callings. We have silenced our own voices.

Yet we are faced with serious issues. Children who have lost their Muslim identity, refugees in need of Muslim ‘cultural brokers’[1], converts who are ‘de-converting’ as they become disenchanted with the Muslim people in their lives. We have problems of domestic violence, incest, and other despicable sins that are not meant to be part of the lives of those who were called to ‘enjoin the good and forbid the wrong’. With few exceptions, we are not talking about these problems. The silence is deafening.

It is time to reach deeply within and find our voices once again. In the tradition of the women around the Prophet ﷺ we must recognize our talents, find our enthusiasm for the roles Allah has given us, and take responsibility for our knowledge, our communities, and our umma.

Finding our voice will take practice. We must practice offering solutions that may be ignored, and opinions that might be laughed at. Knowing our voice means knowing that we have a responsibility to speak. It means understanding that the potential we have been given must be tapped, for we will be asked why we left it dormant.

Follow the Sound Waves of Our Predecessors:

A Muslim is the epitome of adab, and as such, finding our voices should not be an excuse for a shouting match, or a reason to be nasty. Indeed if we are to find our voices and use them effectively, we must follow the prophetic example.

→ Do speak the truth, and be kind, wise and confident.

Fāṭima bt. Qays (r) had a unique ruling from the Prophet ﷺ regarding her divorce. She continued to narrate her hadith to the chagrin and downright disagreement of many including ʿĀʾisha (r) and ʿUmar (r). And as a result, in the development of jurisprudence regarding marriage and divorce law – all four schools found a way to incorporate it into their law. Her story was not typical, but it was her story. Her voice made sure it was not an ‘absent narrative.’

→ Do volunteer; in our deeds is our loudest voice.

Fāṭima al Fihriyya used the inheritance money she received from her father to build the Qurawiyyīn mosque and university. Her work provided for the first formalized degree-granting institution. Her voice encourages us to speak through deeds; building institutions, giving money, and creating vision.

→ Do write for local papers, magazines online and off, write fiction books and non-fiction, poetry and real life experiences.

Al-Khansāʾ (r) was a poetess who was encouraged in her poetry by the Prophet ﷺ. Before her Islam she wrote and recited famous poetry that lamented the death of her brothers. After Islam, she continued to write – but as her worldview changed, so did her poetry. Her verses expressed the creative voice of one who saw the ākhira as a blessed reality to be sought. Her voice calls out to the world of literature and the written word – it calls us to put fingers to keyboard and to express our voices on screens and paper everywhere.

→ Do read widely and deeply so that you have something to say.

Nana Asma’u was a West African woman of profound scholarship and educational activism. Her home housed hundreds of hand written volumes of sacred texts. The bookshelves included works on politics, Arabic, literature, and poetry as well. She was fluent in four languages and used her breadth of knowledge to build a network of female scholars and educators in West Africa in the nineteenth century. Her voice calls us to fill the empty places inside with knowledge and learning so that we too may be called forth to teach.

→ Do speak up.

Um Salama had a difficult series of hijras. She immigrated twice to Abyssinia, and then went out to immigrate to Medina, but was held back by her family. Her son was snatched out of her hands by his paternal kin, her husband went on his hijra to Medina, and she was left in Mecca. When her son was finally released to her, she went forth on her final hijra, alone. She was finally reunited with her husband in Madina, and they began their life with the Prophet ﷺ. Perhaps because of her unique hardships, she longed to hear specifically about women and hijra in the Quran. She went to the Messenger ﷺ and said “O Messenger of God, I do not hear God mentioning women of the hijra.” She spoke up and was rewarded with revelation, Allah revealed to His messenger, {And their Lord answered them, ‘Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, whether male or female; you are of one and another.} (Āl ʿImrān: 195) Her voice calls out and says not to allow timidity to silence you, for in speaking up you may find a connection to your Creator that is overwhelming in its response.

Use the Mute Button:

On the other hand, be wary of these pitfalls – words that feel like voice, but are actually ego and far from the sunna of our beloved Prophet. Using our voices in these ways is not an authentic contribution to the betterment of society, but rather an exercise in self-righteous cacophony.

Χ Do not complain and threaten to quit.

This was a habit of the hypocrites; one in which Abdullah b. Ubayy b. Salūl was especially proficient. At the Battle of Uḥud, he drew away, taking three hundred soldiers with him. The reason he gave for deserting the Prophet and his companions in their time of need? His opinion was ignored. He said referring to the Prophet ﷺ, “He defied me and complied with young men and those who are not worthy of offering an opinion…” How often are shouting matches begun because someone thinks his or her opinion is the only one that should be regarded as valid? How often are important projects dropped because committee members could not leave their egos at home? Knowing our own voice means recognizing voice in others. It means authentic listening and putting aside of the ego. When our voice is used to complain, or to create drama, or to end good projects, we walk on the dangerous path of hypocrisy.

Χ Do not speak badly or poorly about anyone working for Allah (you can disagree with an opinion – but that is very different than making sweeping statements about individuals or groups).

Allah (swt) says in Sūrat al-Hujarāt {O you who have believed, avoid much assumption. Indeed, some assumption is sin. And do not spy or backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his brother when dead? You would detest it. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is Accepting of repentance and Merciful.} (49:12) Ibn ʿAsākir, in advising his brother, said, “And know my brother… that the flesh of the scholar is poisonous.” Be wary of the temptation to speak badly about people who are working for Allah (swt) in any way. Finding fault and spreading rumors about people whose lives are dedicated to the preservation of God’s religion is a treacherous road. It is not only divisive and dangerous for the community, but in ‘eating his/her flesh’ you poison yourself and thereby use your own voice to take you to hellfire.

Χ Do not use your voice to gossip or tell other people’s scandalous stories.

Our mosques are full of drama – but drama is only dramatic when discussed. Abū Hurayra narrates that the Prophet ﷺ said: “Do you know what ghība is?” They said, “Allah and His Messenger know best.” He said: “Mentioning about your brother what he dislikes.” Someone said: “And if what is said is true about my brother?” He said: “If what you say is true, you have committed ghība against him, and if it is not, you have slandered him.” (Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim) The best place for a gossipy story is nowhere. ʿĀʾisha, may Allah be pleased with her, suffered at the hands of gossip mongers and slander slingers. Her story is a painful reminder of the ugly places that words can take us as individuals and as a community. As Muslims we have enough people on Fox News and elsewhere competing in smear campaigns against us – we must not add our voices to that mix.

Χ Do not raise your voice to a yell or shout or scream.

Luqmān’s advice to his son in the Quran, {And be moderate in your pace and lower your voice; indeed, the most disagreeable of sounds is the voice of donkeys.} (Luqmān: 19) is an Islamic rule of voice. We are not a people who shout in the mosque, or yell at women, or scream at children. The voice that Allah gave us should be used to comfort, spread joy, and bring smiles. When our voices are used to admonish and advise they should carry with them the respect found in low and quiet tones. Anas (r) tells us, “Allah did not send a prophet except with a beautiful face and a beautiful voice and your Prophet was the best of face and voice.” We are called to imitate the example found in our beloved Prophet ﷺ, and thus we must work to have a beautiful voice –one that is easy on the ears, does not irritate or antagonize. The Quran is very clear; our voice must not become as the braying of a donkey. (Luqmān: 19)

Χ Do not speak for the sole purpose of hearing yourself talk – each word should be measured and have a goal.

Ibn Umar (r) narrates that the Prophet ﷺ said: Do not be excessive in words, other than in the remembrance of Allah, for excessive talk without the remembrance of Allah hardens the heart, and the farthest people from Allah is the hard heart. (al-Tirmidhī)

The ‘committee’ meetings wherein members argue again and again about issues that have already been beaten down with a stick are some of the most painful places to be. Voices are not used to thoughtfully find solutions, but to show off to others that she or he is ‘smart too’. The Muslim’s worldview is knitted to the concept of ḥisāb or being held to account and, as such, we recognize that each word we say is written, either for us or against us. Even in this dunyā our words never disappear. Their sound waves go out into the universe where they hold record of every word we have ever said. Finding our voice implies finding meaning, which is far from the emptiness of talk meant to establish presence. Our words must be rooted to a deeper goal, the goal that helped us find our voice in the first place.

A Call to Speak:

Are our voices silenced by depression? Ignorance? Oppression? Are our voices made quiet by the distraction of ‘busyness’? Lack of fervor? Self-indulgence? Or is it our very distance from Islam and our Prophet that silences our voices?

Look deeply in your heart and find your voice. Follow the rules of adab, and speak up, write, do!

As Muslim women, our missing voice has meant that we have allowed others to tell our stories. The story least heard is the story of the Muslim woman; missing is her happy story; her story of hard-work and commitment; her story of love for the Prophet ﷺ and years of study; her story of overcoming hardship and reaching success; missing also is the female voice in scholarship and activism based on the prophetic model; and missing is her voice against the wrongs done in the name of Islam.

We must reach deeply into our sacred texts, seek out organized Islamic learning (to coincide with secular learning) and turn up the volume on our unique perspective.

Perhaps your voice will be the voice that heals a heart, soothes a troubled soul, calms a mind; perhaps your voice will be the one that offers a viable solution for some of our deeper and more embarrassing problems; perhaps your voice will bring the love of the Prophet ﷺ into the hearts of Muslims and non-Muslims; perhaps your voice will carry forward the teachings of our beloved Prophet. It is certain that if we do not find our voices, that we will remain silent – and in silence is the quiet acquiescence to a status quo that is not the Prophetic example. Rather, let us speak. Let us speak with a voice that rings clear with the echo of our beloved Prophet ﷺ.

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