The American Muslim community is reeling this week 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.
The Prophet also established women's right to inherit and own property -- rights that were not given to Christian women until the 19th century in Europe and America. Considering his concern for women's welfare, it is not surprising that the Prophet's earliest followers were female. The first Muslim was his wife Khadijah, a wealthy widow who had been his employer and had proposed marriage to the penniless Muhammad when he was managing her caravans. The first martyr of Islam, Sumaya, was an elderly woman who was killed by Meccan idolaters for refusing to renounce monotheism.
So if all this is true, where does this idea of "honor killing" come from in the Muslim world? Unfortunately, it is one of the ugly elements of pre-Islamic Arabian culture that continues to reassert itself, despite the Prophet's efforts to eradicate the practice. In fact, Prophet Muhammad nearly lost his own beloved wife to the madness of the crowds screaming about "sexual honor." In my novel, I detail how his wife Aisha was once falsely accused of adultery and was the victim of a gossip campaign meant to destroy her reputation and potentially her life. The Holy Qur'an exonerated her of the false accusations, and then demanded that anyone accusing a woman of adultery would have to bring four witnesses to the act of sexual intercourse. Of course, such a requirement is impossible to meet, and its purpose was to end the threat to women's lives under claims of "preserving honor." Aisha was saved, but generations of women continue to be haunted by this curse from The Days of Ignorance, as Muslims refer to the era before Islam. The greatest tragedy of Islam is that some Muslim men continue to uphold these pagan practices that the Prophet outlawed 1,400 years ago.
As a believer, I have no doubt that those who commit murder in the name of Islam will face the wrath of God in this life and in eternity. But personal belief is not enough. Islam is a religion of action. Muslim men must stand and fight against this evil of "honor killing" that destroys lives and families, shatters the bond of love between men and women, and brings disrepute to Islam, which was sent as a beacon of light to the world. If we fail to do so, we will have failed to follow the example of Prophet Muhammad, a kind and compassionate man who never struck a woman or child in his life. If we remain silent, we will have earned the cruel labels that Islamophobes and bigots seek to give us -- barbarians, fanatics and monsters.
The choice that stands before Muslim men is stark. Do we follow ancient and evil practices, creating a cycle of violence and grief, and use culture as an excuse for our sins? Or do we follow our Prophet and create a better world where men and women treat each other with dignity and love? Do we turn life on this Earth into Hell, or into Paradise? The answer will reveal whether we are Muslims, people who have surrendered themselves to the true God of mercy and compassion, or idolaters, people who fashion God according to their own self-serving desires.
May God have mercy on the soul of Aasiya Hassan, and on her children and loved ones. May her tragic death serve as a catalyst to end this ancient and un-Islamic practice of "honor killing" forever.
Kamran Pasha is a Hollywood screenwriter and the author of Mother of the Believers, a novel on the birth of Islam as told by Prophet Muhammad's teenage wife Aisha, to be published by Atria Books in April 2009. To pre-order his book, go to www.kamranpasha.com