Boko Haram’s Deluded Understanding of Faith and Women

The author and his family in Pakistan.

By Haris Tarin

It was 1984.  The Russians had invaded Afghanistan, and the country was in the midst of a brutal war that destroyed cities, pillaged villages, killed hundreds of thousands of people and ruined millions of lives. My parents’ only concern was to get their six children out of the country so we could continue our education and pursue a better life, especially for their two daughters.

My father and three brothers left first to escape the brutality, leaving me — a five-year-old — to escape with my mother and two sisters. I remember vividly the strength with which my mother and two sisters smuggled me out of the country. I remember their bravery as we travelled through mountains and deserts in the darkness of night. I remember my mother’s embrace on camel back as we fled bombs and dodged bullets. I remember my sister’s fearless determination, which calmed my fears, as we escaped on the back of a mule.

I remember how it was three women who showed me the true meaning of courage as we spent two weeks escaping war and finding sanctuary in a small home in Pakistan. Those memories of the strength and intelligence of the women around me were permanently etched in my mind at the tender age of five. It did not stop there. It was my mom who taught me how to become a man when my father passed away early in my life. She was a mother, father, mentor and caretaker all with resounding belief in the power of her faith.

Why do I share this? I share this because when I see extremists in Nigeria kidnap more than 200 young girls from a school, or the Taliban shoot a thirteen-year-old girl because they seek to better their lives through education, I become infuriated by the stupidity and criminality of their thinking.

As I follow the news of those young Nigerian girls being held captive and threatened to be sold or married off and my faith is being used as a basis for their criminal action, I cannot help but think that something has gone utterly wrong.  These criminal actions cannot be reconciled with Islam, a faith which was founded on the principle that “acquiring knowledge is an obligation for every man and woman.”

So as a man who was brought up by remarkable women and who today has strong women in my life, I say enough. Enough justification of criminality and medieval behavior against women in the name of my faith.  Enough subjugation of women for cultural and political agendas in the name of my faith. Enough of me having to explain to my daughter that these actions do not represent the faith which she holds dear.

The illogical and antiquated justifications given by people like Abubakar Shekau, the senseless leader of Boko Haram, to diminish the role of women in public life must be challenged by mainstream scholarship and leadership. Although he flaunts the most extreme opinions on the role of women in society, many religious and political leaders, who are considered more mainstream, do hold views on this topic that do not coincide with the spirit and texts of Islam. These religious and political leaders are getting a pass from their followers.

It is not enough that we merely condemn these actions and forget that they happened once the media coverage has passed. The international community must take action to ensure that the plight of women around the world, especially in areas of conflict, is not ignored. It is women who bear the brunt of violence in conflict zones such as Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo or Myanmar. Ensuring the well-being of women is no longer a just matter of human rights or charity. It impacts the security and stability of the international community.

As I grapple with the reports that come out of Nigeria regarding the fate of the young women, I for one fully understand that those who had the biggest impact on my life were strong women, and I pray that those young girls will have the strength to resist the criminality of Boko Haram and their ideology.

Pondering on the journey my mother and sisters took me on as a young child, I am vividly reminded that in Nigeria and many other places in the world, it is women who are making the biggest sacrifices for the well-being of their families and societies. The young girls abducted by Boko Haram were not just educating themselves; rather they were empowering their societies and investing the future of their children and nation. It is proven beyond doubt that for every extra year of education for a female in primary or secondary school their quality of life and that of those around them becomes exponentially better.

I find solace in the fact that my daughter is growing up with strong role models around her, like her mother, and countless other women who are taking their rightful place in societies as scientists, entrepreneurs and leaders.  All of our daughters around the world should have similar opportunities. This heinous act should be a wakeup call to all of us in positions of privilege and ability to work towards eradicating this perverted ideology and empowering communities to work towards positive change.

Haris Tarin is the Director of MPAC’s Washington DC office, is the author of Intro to Muslim America and Co-Author of Rethinking the Red Lines: Religious Freedom and Free Speech.


  • Fay

    May Allaah bless you and your family Br. Haris.

  • Joseph Perera

    Qur’an (4:24) and Qur’an (33:50) – A man is permitted to take women as sex slaves outside of marriage.

  • Janusz John Kacztowski

    The problem is that this outrage in Nigeria does have support in both the spirit and texts of Islam. Quran 4:24-25 allows taking about captive girls (those which your right hand possesses). The hadith are much worse. What do you think the raids that Mohammed conducted were all about? Delivering flowers? There are many stories in the hadith — all collections — as well as all early histories, about attacking villages and taking slaves, and yes, about rape of captives. For obvious reasons Muslims prefer not to talk about these – they will quote a ‘nice’ story in one verse and ignore a ‘bad’ one across the page. BTW, the hadith are online and easily available, or if you prefer, here is a list of the expeditions:

    This tragedy will continue, not because Muslims don’t condemn it, but because of the support evil men find in Islamic texts. Until Muslims face this, condemnations and hashtag campaigns will solve nothing. It seems that for Muslims, feeling good about Islam is more important than the suffering of young girls, in Afghanistan, Nigeria, or anywhere else…. Sad.

    • badtooth

      it is strange that muslims will not denouce anything in islam for being out dated. although i did once have a female muslim say that 4:11 is no longer applicable.

      Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri: that while he was sitting with Allah’s Apostle he said, “O Allah’s Apostle! We get female captives as our share of booty, and we are interested in their prices, what is your opinion about coitus interrupt us?” The Prophet said, “Do you really do that? It is better for you not to do it. No soul that which Allah has destined to exist, but will surely come into existence. (Book #34, Hadith #432)

    • norzri ramli

      Please be cautious of what you write and respect other religion. You have no legitimacy to interpret the hadith and quran literally. And hadith should be read in concordance with the full understanding of the context and history by whch the sura were revealed. Without any prejudice I would like you to study Islam with open heart and mind and make the right choice.

      • badtooth

        norzri, what context are you speaking of? boko haram is at war with the christians. so why not take christians as war booty?
        have you read this book?
        “”…Allah has promised you much booty that you will take…”301One cannot imagine that Allah would promise his servants booty but disallow them to desire it! The action of the Messenger of Allah is also evidence. He has sent many raids on the caravans of the nonbelievers. Some other references to show that such an intention is valid:
        172. Abdullah bin Huthafah said: The Messenger of Allah sent us on a raid to win booty…302 The Messenger of Allah sent us on a raid to win booty…302 This is clear since the Messenger of Allah sent them specifically to win booties. Now taking booty does decrees the reward but it does not invalidate the intention of jihad:
        173. Abdullah bin Amr bin Al Aas narrated: The Messenger of Allah said: “Any army that wins and takes booty has received two thirds of their reward. But if they loose and take no booty they receive their entire reward” 303″

      • Janusz John Kacztowski

        Norzi, Respect? Since when
        does Islam respect others? The Quran is full of hate and slander against
        non-Muslims. Everywhere Islam dominates it discriminates against and
        persecutes others, so spare us the ‘respect’ talk. I can read and draw my
        own conclusions, thank you very much. In case you don’t know, the Quran
        says that it is easy to understand (verses 54:17, 54:22, 54:32 &
        54:40) — so much for context and nuance. I would like you to be
        honest and think about what your religion teaches and what your prophet did to
        his neighbors (see prior list of raids). Well, on the other hand, the Quran
        says to never ask questions (5:101-102). That’s right, don’t use your brain,
        just follow ahead, blind to the pain, suffering and destruction caused by
        people that accept an ideology that ignores basic human rights.

      • Gradus Quia

        You cannot tell a Westerner that one has to be Muslim before one can understand Islam. We’ll simply laugh at you, then tear you and the Quran and Hadiths apart with the sort of basic Scholastic logic which al-Ghazali couldn’t understand. (We know of your philosophers and “the defender of Islam”, and reject them, too.) There exists no “open heart and mind” with which the intelligent and informed can read your scriptures acceptingly – except the thing we call “brainwashing”. And to that we shall not submit.

        Respect is a euphemism for fear.

        We need not fear your religion.

    • cristen

      visit site …………

  • lcham678

    Pretty much everybody condemns what Boko Haram did in kidnapping these girls. My question is the Muslim view of killing people through Sharia Law because they leave the Islamic faith. In the Sudan for instance:

    Meriam Ibrahim, 26, was sentenced Thursday after being convicted of
    apostasy. The court in Khartoum ruled that Ibrahim must give birth and
    nurse her baby before being executed, but must receive 100 lashes
    immediately after having her baby for adultery — for having relations
    with her Christian husband. Ibrahim, a physician and the daughter of a
    Christian mother and a Muslim father who abandoned the family as a
    child, could have spared herself death by hanging simply by renouncing
    her faith.

    “We gave you three days to recant but you insist on not returning to
    Islam,” Judge Abbas Khalifa told Ibrahim, according to AFP. “I sentence
    you to be hanged to death.”