I just began reading “And God Knows the Soldiers”, a book by Khaled abou el-Fadl that deals with authority in Islam. I’ve only read the preface so far, but it has some interesting anecdotes:
I was attending a lecture in a mosque in North America when the imam advised the congregation that it is improper for men to sit where women once sat. He asserted that after a woman leaves a seat, men must wait until the woman’s body heat dissipates before taking the same seat or, if they wish, they can fan the spot. The reason for this rule, the imam explained, is that the female body heat lingering in a seat is bound to cause fitnah (sexual seduction).
I have heard of this idea before, although it seems slightly ridiculous. However, although I’ve heard it from several Muslim men I have never seen it in any text or lecture.
I had never heard of such a rule despite having attended hundreds of lectures on Islamic conduct in many parts of the Muslim world. Furthermore, I had not encountered such a bizarre assertion in any classical or modern book. In fact it seemed to me that a person who is sexually aroused by the lingering body heat of a woman is probably in need of professional attention.
Years later, I found this same opinion attributed to the jurist Abu Hanifah who reportedly recommended that men not take the seats of women until these seats lose their warmth. I also located this same ruling attributed to the Prophet in the form of a hadith. Reportedly, a woman sat down with the Prophet to discuss some affair with him. After she left, an unidentified man was about to take her seat when the Prophet instructed him not to sit in her place until her body heat dissipated from the seat. Importantly, this report is found only in classical texts that document FABRICATED traditions that were attributed to the Prophet.
I am not sure if the above-mentioned imam dreamt up the female-body-heat ruling of if he picked it up from one of the books on fabricated traditions. In either case, it is bewildering that such traditions would become buried and forgotten in Islamic history only to re-appear in one form or another centuries later. A historical awareness would have easily deconstructed the discourse of the imam but instead his so-called Islamic ruling became a material proof of his piety and Islamicity.
The last point Fadl makes is extremely important. If we were more aware of which traditions are authentic and which are not, we would be able to know that certain “rulings” from imams are not authentic. But how can we ensure that Muslims know enough history to know this? And what about hadith that no one is sure about?
What also struck me is that the ruling contradicted common sense and also belittled men. What kind of man would get turned on from sitting on a seat previously occupied by a woman? Like Fadl said, that man should probably get some help.
And why is there no similar ruling saying a woman should not sit on a seat previously occupied by a man? Do men not create fitnah, or are women better able to control themselves? I personally disagree with both those ideas – it is wrong to say only women or only men create fitnah, and it is also wrong to say that women are more capable of controlling themselves physically than men (although many people have said that science has “disproved” this – women DO have lower sex drives). I think if a woman controls herself better it is because it is socially unacceptable for her to do otherwise.
What do you think the imam in the story would have said if Fadl had pointed out his mistake?