12/09/2011 02:51 EST | Updated 02/08/2012 05:12 EST

Shafia Honour Killing Prompts Canada Muslim Clerics To Band Together In Denouncing Them

TORONTO - Violence against women has no place in a religion that proclaims equal rights for males and females, Canada's Muslim leaders say.

Ongoing publicity surrounding an Ontario murder trial featuring prominent discussions of honour killings motivated imams throughout the country to tackle the topic of domestic violence in their Friday prayer sessions.

Their sermons reinforced one of the key messages of the Qur'an and reminds Muslims that respect for women is a fundamental part of their faith, they said.

Imam Syed Soharwardy planned to deliver the speech twice in his Calgary mosque. Members of his congregation were to hear a message of gender equality that originated with no less an authority than Islam's founding father, he said.

"Domestic violence is very un-Islamic. It's a crime in the eyes of the law, it's a crime in the Islamic teaching," Soharwardy said in a telephone interview. "Prophet Mohammed has clearly said in very unambiguous words that women has rights on men and men have an obligation to treat their wife and daughters . . .with kindness and courtesy."

Soharwardy said members of the Islamic Supreme Council and other Muslim organizations across Canada felt the need to speak out against the image of repressive violence emerging from a courtroom in Kingston, Ont. There, Mohammad Shafia, his son Hamed and his wife Tooba Yahya are facing four counts each of first degree murder in the deaths of four female family members.

The bodies of three teenage Shafia daughters, as well as Mohammad Shafia's first wife in a polygamous marriage, were found floating in a car that had been submerged in an eastern Ontario canal in 2009.

The Crown alleges the victims died for dishonouring the family either by dating, skipping school or planning to leave the household. Shafia, his wife and son have pleaded not guilty to all charges, and Shafia has told court that he is "not a killer."

Soharwardy said any Muslim who took family honour upon himself is violating fundamental tenets of the faith they claim to uphold.

"Hypothetically, if a person has killed a family because a person, male or female, is doing something un-Islamic, Islamic teaching says this person should be brought to a court," he said. "I cannot take law in my hands. This is un-Islamic."

Ariel Salzmann, associate professor of islamic and world history at Queen's University, described the Qu'ran as an "incredibly progressive document" for its time. While it maintains strongly patriarchal elements common to most religious texts, Salzmann said the Qu'ran enshrines female rights and economic freedoms not seen in Christianity or Judaism.

The socially conservative views supposedly espoused by members of the Shafia family often take root in areas where religious teaching is oversimplified, she said, citing the remote regions of Afghanistan where the fundamentalist Taliban first flourished.

"You've got to separate what people call Islam from just social conservatism," she said.

Soharwardy acknowledged the Qu'ran has been widely misinterpreted according to cultural divides. Commandments pertaining to the superiority of men have been misconstrued by some, he said, adding the text was meant to reinforce the fact that men bear responsibility for providing for their female family members.

He said imams planned to caution their congregations against such scriptural missteps and offer alternatives on how to resolve faith-based conflicts in the home.

"It becomes the duty of our imams . . . to educate people that it is against Islam if you have domestic violence against your spouse or daughters," he said.

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