Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar on women rights in Islam
The Nation
October 19, 1997
ISLAMABAD: An adult, rational and mature” woman can marry a man of “equal social status, educational background and behavioral conduct” without the consent of her guardian or Wali, says the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Dr Sheikh Muhammad Sayed Tantawai.

“Imam Abu Hanifa is of the opinion that there is no harm if an adult, rational and mature woman herself marries someone without the consent of her guardian or Wali, provided the man she is marrying is equal to her in social status, education and behavioral conduct, Dr Tantawi told me in an interview. “The condition of equality (of certain things) is there to make marriage suitable, and to avoid the worst thing in marriage—divorce,” he said.

Cairo’s Al-Azhar is generally known as the citadel of Islamic learning, and its Grand Sheikh an authority on the interpretation of the Quran and Hadieth. After acting as its Grand Mufti for ten years, Dr Tantawai assumed the current position in early 1997. Besides many other works on Islam, he has published a 12-volume interpretation of the Quran. “The Holy Prophet (PBUH), while in Madina, had allowed many such marriages without the consultation of the guardian,” he said.

The issue, whether an adult woman can marry a man on her own, has become quite controversial in Pakistan, a country inhabited by a large of the followers of Imam Abu Hanifa’s school of thought. This is especially after the September 1996 ruling by a judge of the Lahore High Court, Justice Abdu Hafiz Cheema, which stated that for an adult woman’s marriage to a man, the consent of her guardian or Wali was a must.

Dr Tantawai said that, besides Hanafi, there are three other schools of thought, namely Humbali, Shafi and Maliki, which are also of the opinion that in such marriages the consent of the guardian is needed. Since Islam has room for local traditions and human rights, it has many schools of thought, said Dr Tantawi.

Therefore, according to him, each Muslim country can follow any of these schools of thought while “bearing in mind” the following three factors: First, the new international consensus of upholding human rights; second, the fact that the Holy Prophet (PBUH) had allowed many such marriages in Madina without the consultation of the guardian; and, finally, that in Islam, “the ruler or the government is the guardian of those who have no guardian.

The Grand Sheikh was also questioned on women’s right to education and work as well as about the Islamic concept of veil and the prevailing reactionary attitudes in the Muslim world. “Education for women is the same as for men. As Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself says it is the right and duty of all Muslims, including men and women, to seek knowledge. The same principle applies to women’s right to work. They have equal right to sustain themselves through work. Under Shariah, the nature of the work has to be such as acceptable by Islam. This means that it should not be an illicit work, like working in night clubs.”

On Islamic concept of veil, he said that the veil means “a reasonable cover of body,” adding: “There is consensus among Ulema and Fuqiha that a woman is not required to cover her face and hands. The Quran says that women should not show their beauty except what is necessary to be shown.”

As for the prevailing reactionary attitudes in the Muslim world, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar said: “Islam supports forces that stand for justice, fairplay, moderation and tolerance. Islam was against any approach of violence and terror. Islam forbids even the pointing of a weapon by a Muslim on a fellow Muslim.”