Feminist Interpreters of the Qur’an


By Shaykh Dr. Ḥasan al-Shāfi‘ī | Translated and introduced by Sohaib Saeed Al-Azhari

Required Response to Feminist Reinterpretations of the Qur’an: Part I | Part II | Part III

Riffat Hassan

Riffat Hassan was born in the 1940s to a Shi‘ite family in Pakistan; her grandfather was a poet and playwright and the family was known for its creativity and patronage of music and dance. She now holds American nationality and teaches Religious Studies at Louisville University. Her earlier studies were at a Christian missionary school in Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan. Then she went to Durham University in England to receive an Honours degree in English and Philosophy in 1964, then a doctorate in 1968 on the philosophy of Iqbal, maintaining excellence throughout her studies. Before outlining some of her theories as expressed in a number of articles on “feminist theology” (she uses “theology” in its broad Christian sense, not limited to belief; rather, it means all religious thought concerning women), as well as in her three books about Muhammad Iqbal, it may be appropriate to give an account of an influential Pakistani intellectual who preceded her.

Fazlur Rahman Malik

Fazlur Rahman Malik (1919-1988) prepared the ground for Dr. Riffat and those she influenced, even if unwittingly. He received his training from Toshihiko Izutsu at McGill University in Canada, and was perhaps the first to apply the hermeneutical method to the Qur’an. He challenged the traditional definition of the Qur’an in its conception as recited revelation from Archangel to Prophet (peace be upon them). He claimed that there was a subjective aspect to the revelation on the part of its recipient, and that this aspect was what Muslim academic research had thus far failed to appreciate. He was considered a leading authority in Islamic and Qur’anic studies in the West, despite his criticism of many Orientalists.

As for Riffat Hassan: she proceeds from a prior assumption of the low regard for women in traditional Islamic thought, and attempts to explain the Qur’an using hermeneutics from a purely feminist perspective. Thus she attempts to uncover its rulings related to women and restore the Islamic perception of women based on the primary source of the religion, using free thought and removing from the Qur’anic text the effects of aḥādīth (Prophetic statements), which she criticises and eventually rejects on the basis of their conflict with the right of women to absolute equality with men. For example, she refutes the adīth of the “curved rib”, considering this idea to have been taken by Muslims from the Torah rather than the Qur’an. In her feminist theology, she virtually abstains from prophetic ahadith, even though many exhort to proper treatment of women and urge respect for them.

Riffat Hassan has claimed that:

  1. Religious thought and narrations in the three revealed religions assume that God’s primary creation was man, in that woman came from his rib;
  2. that woman was created not only from him, but for him; and
  3. that she is responsible for the descent from Paradise.

It appears that – despite her numerous qualifications in Christian theology – Dr. Hassan is unaware of a fact known to any beginner in Islamic studies: the fact that these three beliefs are foreign to Islam. She exerts great effort at numerous junctures, such as with her strained interpretations of the opening verse of Sūrat al-Nisā’ and her conclusion that “Adam” does not refer to a particular human being, but to the human race. As for the “spouse” (zawj), she claims that as a masculine word it does not refer to the woman. Therefore, there is no primacy in the creation of either gender, and the two origins of the human race are equal.

She continues this painstaking effort – in vain, as the problem is itself fabricated with respect to the Islamic texts – to conclude that the aḥādīth are falsely attributed to a Prophet known to be fair towards women and to recognise their rights. All of this reveals an extremely shallow acquaintance with the Arabic language, and obvious weakness in knowledge of Islamic sciences and religious facts, particularly in the sciences of ḥadīth, tafsīr and uṣūl al-fiqh.

Amina Wadud

Amina Wadud embraced Islam in 1972, and has long worked hard on feminist interpretation of Islamic texts, based on a complete belief in the absolute equality between men and women. She stayed for a year in Cairo during the 1970s, after receiving her first degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She then completed an MA in Near Eastern Studies and a doctorate in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Michigan in 1988. She worked as assistant professor at the International Islamic University Malaysia from 1989-1992, then professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University until 2008.

Dr. Wadud carries out her activities through her position as a successful university lecturer, and she has received a number of prizes. Her first book, entitled Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, has been translated into many languages. She follows Riffat Hassan’s approach in focusing upon the Qur’an and prophetic narrations, interpreting them from a feminist hermeneutical perspective, whereas other female activists within this movement focus on history and subjecting the entire Islamic enterprise to critique. Also, despite her extreme conception of gender equality, she affirms her commitment to Islam according to the understanding she embraces.

In the aforementioned book, Wadud highlights her dependence upon the Qur’an alone, such that if the Sunnah contradicts her understanding of the former, she rejects the latter. In what she calls her “progressive” understanding of the Qur’an, she rejects its divorce laws and approval of polygyny, considering both to be examples of a mistaken, regressive understanding of Islam and the Qur’an. She calls for a cultural break from these backward interpretations, while referring in her discussions only to one work of tafsīr, namely the Kashshāf of Al-Zamakhsharī, without explaining the reason for her choice.

Wadud’s level of Arabic seems, despite her qualifications, to be comparable to that of Riffat Hassan. She calls for interpreting the Qur’an in a variety of cultural contexts and environments, rather than being restricted to one. Like Dr. Hassan, she re-visits the question of creation and the “zawj” in order to establish complete equality between the two origins of the human race – as well as discussing the concepts of afḍaliyya (preference), qiwāma (guardianship) and nushūz (marital discord) – ignoring, in the process, the requirements of Qur’anic context and linguistic signification.

Fatema Mernissi

Dr. Mernissi had a traditional upbringing in Morocco, and studied political science at Mohammed V University and the Sorbonne before travelling to America and attaining a doctorate in sociology from Brandeis University in 1974. Upon her return, she began to lecture in sociology at the Mohammed V University of Rabat and is nowadays a research scholar acclaimed in Western circles in the field of Qur’anic and Islamic studies. In 2003, she was granted an award for her contribution to feminist literature. She has numerous published studies concerning the ḥijāb, Islam and democracy, certain aspects of Islamic history, women and Islam, and other topics.

Before summarising her opinions and contributions to the feminist interpretative movement, I wish to mention two well-known names in the field of hermeneutics in the North African environment. The first is the late Mohammed Arkoun, who went further than Fazlur Rahman in his efforts to “deconstruct” the verses of the Qur’an in search of the “real Qur’an” whose text had, he claimed, become mixed with myths which ought to be separated from it. He called for the light of investigation to be directed at the project of compiling the Qur’an – which was flawed in his opinion – putting aside the supposed historical sanctity and authenticity of its text, so that the original text could be purified of the mythical contents contained in the Muṣḥaf in the hands of the Muslims.

These are the boldest claims to surface against the mutawātir (indisputably narrated) text of the Qur’an throughout the centuries, across the regions of the Muslim world and among all strata of society – scholars and laymen, old and young, women and men – but they were echoed subtly by another Moroccan writer, ‘Abd al-Hādī ‘Abd al-Raḥmān, particularly in his book Sulṭat al-Naṣṣ (“The Authority of Text”).

In his introduction, Professor ‘Abd al-Raḥmān speaks about “historicism” concerning the event of Islam’s emergence, and its content and use. He attempts to specify a methodology to study the Qur’an and other texts based on a break from traditional methodologies, which ought to be replaced by a method of deconstruction and reconstruction, with the standards used to critique the Greek tradition. Responding to an analysis by Mohammed Abed al-Jabri of the famous hadith concerning innovations (“Kullu muḥdathatin bid‘a...), he suggests that “bid‘a is genitive, as is “ḍalāla” in the next phrase. As for the statement “every misguidance is in the Fire”, he claims that this is the predicate – or, in his novel phraseology, the “result”. We must ask what analytical method this is, and what novel grammar this researcher is applying .

‘Abd al-Raḥmān calls people to consider the psychological aspect of the Qur’an – given that the Qur’an is in a human language – and to remove the aura of sanctity from it and employ every methodology “whether linguistic, psychological, historical or dialectical”. He applies the method of “reasons of revelation” to Sūrat al-Nisā’, deconstructing and interpreting, concluding with nothing but doubts cast upon the text, and the charge of wrongdoing against women either by its contents, or via its application by the Prophet ﷺ (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him).

It was in this environment that Dr. Fatema Mernissi’s views developed. Her books presented her bold opinions based on a feminist worldview and using thematic and historical analysis: not only on religious texts, but indeed on the entire Islamic historical experience. In The Veil and the Male Elite, she explores prophetic aḥādīth concerning women in terms of their matn (text) and isnād (chain), with critique based upon the assumption that traditional research is unable to reach the proper position on women and must be corrected. She believes that politics has affected religious texts, particularly aḥādīth, which she discusses under the title: “Sacred Text as a Political Weapon” – this being behind their negative attitude towards females. In the second part, she discusses the first three years of the Madīnan state from a historical angle to prove that the rulings applied to women there, including segregation and ḥijāb, were temporary measures limited to a particular historical context. In the final chapter, she concludes that the oppression faced by the Muslim woman is not due to Islam, the Qur’an or the Sunnah, but rather to the society and male interests.

In Beyond the Veil, she does the same sort of historical analysis, attaching great significance to political considerations and discussing the various hadiths about women. She claims that the narration of Al-Bukhārī from Abū Bakra (ra) concerning female leadership – when news reached the Prophet ﷺ of the Persians appointing a woman as their leader – was nothing more than a weapon in the political stance taken by its narrator, justifying his seclusion from the strife. She accuses the same Companion over the narration of Al-Ḥasan’s (ra) conciliation between the warring parties, accusing him of having a memory that shifts for the sake of convenience: a crude form of ridicule. No less crude are her comments about Abū Hurayra (ra), whose allegedly misogynistic attitude was due to his displeasure at being so nicknamed rather than as “Abū Hirr” (a masculine word). It is by such “academic” standards that aḥādīth are rejected or accepted in the feminist interpretative movement.

Even if Mernissi’s explanation of the historical circumstances behind the “temporary” obligation of ḥijāb in Madīna is accepted, what is she to do – after critiquing the Sunnah – with Qur’anic verses like Al-Ahzab 33:53? The response is the same: historical context, specifically the military threat in the year 5 AH and the burden of many visitors coming to the Prophet’s ﷺ home – all of which brought about the ruling which is comparable in her eyes to the Original Sin in Christianity. Consequently, Mernissi states that the ruling was temporary in nature, in response to a situation that ceased to exist: this is historicism as applied to Qur’anic texts and their meanings and spheres of application.

She also discusses the inheritance rulings in terms of their historical connections, also in a manner not free from ridicule. Her analysis of numerous Qur’anic verses is in terms of cause (historical circumstances) and effect (the revelation), in language that expresses grievances or criticisms against the Companions and the Prophet ﷺ himself concerning any revelation sent down against what Dr. Mernissi considers to be the interests of women.

Leila Ahmed

If the prolific Mernissi was something of a pioneer in this type of historical critique, then Dr. Leila Ahmed has taken on her mantle. She received all her university education from the UK’s Cambridge University and became a professor at the Harvard Divinity School.

She has published a number of books: some about women and others on academic, professional and personal interests, but her primary work is Women and Gender in Islam. In it, she uses a historical method to present the origins of the contemporary struggle between these three elements, as well as detailing the position of woman from the early days of Islam up to its major eras. Then she outlines feminist discourse in the modern period in various Muslim regions including Egypt, and its relation to issues of ḥijāb, divorce, polygyny and so on. She concurs almost completely with Mernissi’s opinions and the evidences she presents, but with a comparative style and attention to cultural influences. As for the “curved rib”, she sees in it the influence of Byzantine culture. She also contrasts African conservatism with Egyptian libertarianism with respect to women. She attacks the term “Jāhiliyya” for its negative effect, while stating that Islam restricted the Arab woman’s sexual freedom. She makes a distinction between – on the one hand – the technical or juristic understanding of prophetic directives, which transforms them into lasting rulings of permission and prohibition, and – on the other – an ethical interpretation that focuses on values and addresses the conscience. She considers the former to be the most serious error into which Islamic orthodoxy has fallen.

Turning to the Qur’an, Dr. Ahmed challenges the Muslims’ belief in the authenticity of its text established by tawātur (successive multiple narration), opining that what is in people’s hands today is different from what was revealed upon the Prophet ﷺ.

I do not know what is behind this enthusiasm, by which she – as an educated Muslim woman – challenges the dearly held beliefs of every Muslim.

In the third and final part:

Towards an Arabic Hermeneutics

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31 Comments

  1. Ali says:

    Assalamu alaykum

    In general what I find is that these feminists reject the traditional methodology of interpreting the texts. They all seek to reinterpret the Quran out of this false sense that traditional Quranic interpretations misinterpreted it. They go so far as to reject some hadith of the Prophet (S) which is a pretty serious thing to do.

    Man, sometimes i feel like they either are trying to fit in with the western world by looking at it in a feminist lens or that they just can’t accept what the Prophet (S) and the sahabas say about the Quran. Or maybe they had an upbringing that pushed the notion that women are inferior.

    The advent of Islam was the advent of womens’ rights, something the world has never witnessed since. . . I don’t even know when. Contrary to Europe and even America where women had to get up and fight for their own rights. They seek to make men and women equals but at the end of the day, inequalities will always exist. Men and women are not the same. One can give birth while the other can’t. From a biological and physiological standpoint, they are not equal. Similar but not equal. Psychologically, they are not the same. Men and women both think in different ways. And in Islam, when it comes to the family and who the most important member is, what did the Prophet (S) say? Your mother. Four times!

    The hadith goes as follows: “Abu Hurairah (May Allah be pleased with him) reported: A person came to Messenger of Allah (PBUH) and asked, “Who among people is most deserving of my fine treatment?” He (PBUH) said, “Your mother”. He again asked, “Who next?” “Your mother”, the Prophet (PBUH) replied again. He asked, “Who next?” He (the Prophet (PBUH)) said again, “Your mother.” He again asked, “Then who?” Thereupon he (PBUH) said,” Then your father.”

    Its as though after you treat your mother once, instead of going to your father, you go to your mother again, then again, then again, then again, and then you go to your father.

    The Prophet (S) also said Jannah is under the mother’s feet.

    I think that the reason why feminist muslims exist in the first place is because of our failure as an ummah to embody the principles of the Quran and Sunnah which honor woman. Often times you see women being mistreated. That’s not the religions fault. That’s your fault (meaning the person mistreating the women). But remember that Muslims are not the only ones who act in these ways. Non Muslims as well as muslims violate the rights of women many a times. We ask Allah to guide us and to allow us to embody the principles of the Quran and the Sunnah.

    AsA
    Ali

    • Shiva says:

      I think your concern for the situation is appreciated, but the accusations can easily be returned to you and the rest of traditionalists:

      -that the traditionalists interpret the Quran out the false sense that traditionalism is the only pure interpretation of religion.
      - that maybe it’s because you just can’t accept that it’s actually traditionalism that calls for the total submission to and “fitting in” to the a generational custom of norm, not being born in a certain age and region.
      - that perhaps you don’t see as problematic the rulings that clearly make women caged and inferior because of your own upbringing and impounded cult-like custom of traditionalism.
      - that the giving of a handful of rights to women in a certain age is no proof of the absolute truth of a tradition that built over time.
      - that many advents of women’s rights have been witnessed besides that of the traditionalist interpretation of 1,400 year old Arabian society, and the interpretations of granted “rights” that we have today are a result of the human construct of religious methodologies.
      -that Muslim countries still today suffer worse woman’s oppression and discrimination than in the West, sometimes due to misogynistic Arab culture, but also sometimes indeed due to “orthodox” religious interpretation. Denial of that is your option to choose, but it doesn’t suffocate reality.
      - that respecting a mother as a mother is no excuse to then restrict her adult dignity in many, many other areas. Respect in one area is no excuse for disrespect in another.
      - that people who fight for woman’s rights are not stupid to think that the female gender is absolutely equal to that of the male gender. If they believed such, then there would be no need for human language and biology to distinguish between the two with separate words. To bring up biology and bio-psychology (which by the way, I wouldn’t be surprised if those same feminist activists are actually more aware of than traditionalist communities) as a means of disproving the notion that woman deserve fair treatment is only a manner of diverting the main issue into nuanced nonsense.
      - that non-Muslim engaging in horrible practices is no excuse for Muslims to now believe that their ways are okay. People who fight for woman’s rights don’t ignore what is happening with non-Muslims.
      - and finally, that “the reason why feminist muslims exist in the first place is because of our failure as an ummah to embody the principles of the Quran and Sunnah which honor woman” is the same claim that feminist Muslims have, only that your interpretations of the “principles of Quran and sunnah” differ as a result of differing human constructs of theological and historical sciences.

      Best regards.

  2. Dawud Israel says:

    Now, I don’t know if Imam Suhaib or the author of this can answer this question (if not perhaps censor this question lest it be tribulation for people) that in Mernissi’s book she mentions Aisha radiallahu anha and Abu Hurayra radiallahu anhu had a rocky relationship and there is one hadith where Aisha radiallahu anhu exposes Abu Hurayra as fabricating a hadith or have narrated a hadith he heard from someone else but saying that he heard it first-hand, and Abu Hurayra admits to Aisha that she is right and he made a mistake.

    I haven’t read her work yet, but would like to hear more about this story.

    di.

    • SohaibS says:

      Salaam,

      You can find this discussed in “The Sunnah and its Role in Legislation” by Sh. Mustafa as-Siba’ee, pp.384-389. This book, in my opinion, is essential for Muslims today.

      The main points regarding this incident:

      1. It’s an example of “mursal of a Companion” which is accepted by all scholars of hadith. Many Companions did this, including ‘A’isha, Anas, Al-Bara’, Ibn ‘Abbas and Ibn ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with them all). Review the books of hadith sciences to understand why. In this case, Abu Hurayra (RA) had narrated from other Companions, namely Al-Fadl Ibn ‘Abbas and Usama (RA) and there is nothing problematic about that whatsoever.

      2. The authentic books of Sunnah do not have ‘A’isha (RA) “exposing” or “repudiating” anyone, but rather it was a case of each issuing a ruling independently when asked, and news of the contrary ruling of ‘A’isha and Umm Salama reaching Abu Hurayra. When he heard of their ruling, he humbly withdrew his own, saying “They are more knowledgeable than I”. (Interesting, from someone accused of being a “misogynist”.)

      3. Even supposing she HAD repudiated his view, that is by no means an accusation of lying. Each ruled according to what he or she knew, and ‘A’isha would often correct other Companions with her superior knowledge of the Sunnah. (Interesting again.) Imam Ibn Hajar says that most scholars assume that Abu Hurayra believed that what ‘A’isha and Umm Salama knew ABROGATED what he knew, so he abandoned his own opinion.

      And Allah knows best.

  3. Dawud Israel says:

    Its good there is discussion on this, but this looks like a salafitalk/troid profiling of people, rather than actually tackling their arguments and ideas.

    Also Mohamed Fadel has an excellent paper on how the jurists of the past interpreted the verses about woman’s testimony being different from the mans: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1113891

    Thank you.

    di.

    • SohaibS says:

      Not a very kind comparison, but as I said in the introductory paragraphs, it’s not intended as a detailed refutation. One paper cannot be expected to refute the number of thinkers and books the Shaykh has covered. He is also pointing the way to a more constructive engagement with Islamic texts and tradition for the modern age.

    • African says:

      SA Dawud,
      You wrote ” Its good there is discussion on this, but this looks like a salafitalk/troid profiling of people, rather than actually tackling their arguments and ideas. “. Right on brother!

      I find that this serie and the comments do not address any of the strong arguments Mernissi, Hassan and Ahmed have made. And to say that Abu Hurayra couldn’t possibly have been a mysoginist simply because he held the Mothers of the Umma in high regard really doesn’t hold water. We shouldn’t look at how he treated them but how he treated “regular” women.

      These 2 first articles are charged with value judgements. For exemple when he talks about “extreme” forms of equality, what exactly does he mean by “extreme”? And “extreme” for whom?

  4. Muslima82 says:

    The way that you described how these ladies interpreted these texts was similar, if not, the same as how one learns the theories and critical thinking for English and Sociology degrees (I believe that a couple of these ladies have these).

    I wish there were more/actual examples of the author’s claims other than ‘well she did this or did that’. On that, I will admit I have not read of these ladies works, but I personally don’t take things at face value. I will encourage those that read this article and doesn’t know these ladies and/or have read their materials to do so rather than take one person’s interpretation.

    Hopefully this won’t be deleted like the first part was the first go around on Facebook.

    • SohaibS says:

      Absolutely. I think the very point of the paper was to call Arabic-speaking scholars to read these authors’ works, and the lack of point-by-point refutations only gives support to this view. He is drawing attention to the phenomenon and encouraging critical engagement.

      As you noted, these authors make use of their degrees in sociology, political science etc., but lack training in established methodologies of tafsir, hadith, usul al-fiqh etc. Therefore what may be “strong arguments” to some readers, may be trivial errors in the eyes of a scholar of these fields. We ought to note that this paper was initially addressed to scholars of Arabic, so the detailed discussion in English needs to be taken on by other researchers.

      By the way, the presence of some “value judgements” and “personal opinions” does not deprive the paper of its academic content, least of all in the bases of Islamic hermeneutics outlined in Part III.

  5. Muslima82 says:

    African,

    EXACTLY!!! This is not a good example of any kind of academic paper at all. Rather, it’s a collection of personal opinions.

  6. Hannah says:

    The thought that women, whose voices have historically been excluded from the interpretation of Islamic texts, are somehow being unruly or unreasonable for adding a new perspective is disturbing to me.

    If a person’s analysis of the Quran or Hadith is based on nonchalantly dismissing disagreeable or difficult texts, then I agree that is out of line and counterproductive. But, that’s not necessarily what’s happening here. Some of these “feminist” interpretations are questioning a traditionalist view of the Quran and Hadith, which is undeniably linked to a particular cultural paradigm. To claim that any human being can read religious texts without filtering them through their own values and experiences is misguided.

    Additionally, there are numerous misogynist interpretations of Islamic texts that should be called just that. And as stated above, just because a man says he respects women, or a select group of them, does not mean that he’s invested in the creation of society in which women thrive and are free to think and feel and contribute. I believe Allah (SWT) who created me with a strong voice and mind would never want me to be silenced under the guise of “protection,” which is so often the fall back logic employed by those who see women as fit to serve only one very narrow role.

    The author’s problem with these interpretations seems to be that they are coming from women. That because women are speaking about women’s issues, they are automatically manipulating things for their benefit. Perhaps, they are pondering interpretations that were skewed for the benefit of men to begin with, and are therefore adding balance to the discussion.

    None the less, I appreciate these articles being posted. They will IsA open the way for this important discussion.

  7. Hannah says:

    I should also say that I’m no expert in this area and haven’t read much from the people in question.

    I’m hoping to improve my own understanding and acceptance of things that are difficult for me in my deen by really reflecting on these sorts of questions.

    Please take no offense to my initial reaction to the article.

    • SohaibS says:

      Salaam, Hannah. There is no cause for offence, but I must say that my reading of this paper (as I am just a reader like you) does not suggest at all that the criticism is of women interpreting. As it happens, this abridged version of the paper – presented like this for easier reading – missed out the first example, who was a man (Harun Nasution, Indonesia). You also see he addresses some male thinkers like Arkoun and Fazlur Rahman.

      I see no prejudice here against females being involved in the interpretative enterprise, but what I see is a call for qualification and to respect the Qur’anic text above any ideology, feminism included. It’s not as though feminism is only practised by females!

      I think we need to see this specific discussion within the broader context of responding to Orientalist theses on the sources of Islam, which have been adopted by many Muslim writers, consciously or unwittingly. I really don’t care about the gender of a person who impugns the Companions, or calls for a de-sanctification of the Qur’an, or throws away all established methodologies – citing bias but not proving it – but I should care about tackling those notions head on, because they affect the very foundations of Islam.

      Finally, regarding the point you made – and is often made – about women historically being disenfranchised from the process: even if we go along with this fully, that cannot provide a justification for whoever wants to say whatever she wants as long as she has no Y-chromosome. I find this appeal less academic and more emotional, unless it should be expressed with a little more precision.

      • Hannah says:

        I agree. Being a woman doesn’t indicate an automatically justified position with respect to religion anymore than it automatically indicates a flawed one.

  8. African says:

    Sister Hannah is right on point! I couldn’t have put it any better.

    What really aggravated me in the first place is that he dismissed a whole field of expertise – muslim feminism – by only referring to 4 of its theorists! That in itself is intellectual dishonesty.

    If I understood him correctly, the problem he has with muslim feminist scholars is that they contradict what traditional scholars have said and written in the past. But what exactly would be the point of being a muslim feminist scholar if your work was simply a remixed version of something that was already set in stone. In other words what should be the goal of muslim feminists if not dismantling patriarchy and mysoginy away from The Book and The Prophet’s (pbuh) teachings?

    • Dawud Israel says:

      Excellent point!

      Saba Mahmood is one “Muslim feminist” who is a little different and worth looking into. Her book ‘Politics of Piety’ looks at how Egyptian Muslim women study Islam and how they support each other in learning fiqh and whatnot from a woman’s perspective. That, I think is relevant since 1) this piece is by an Azhari and it was interesting to note how neglected female Islamic education in Egypt is, being done by former daiees (not scholars) and 2) she shows how these women use Islam to empower them, and they identify Islam as part of their womanhood and they choose that over any imposed Western interpretations.

    • SohaibS says:

      Salaam, African.

      I don’t know how much you’re involved in academia, but it’s not strange to focus even on one thinker to exemplify a trend, let alone four; especially as the author has stated that they are merely examples. The full paper actually has more.

      I think you miss the mark when you state that Sh. Hasan has “dismissed Muslim feminism” in this paper. What he criticises repeatedly is the wholesale adoption by under-qualified researchers of Western sceptical assumptions about Islamic text and tradition, and their applying ideological interpretations without engaging with the established processes (see Part III). If I may add to this point: they could critique tafsir and hadith methodology, usul al-fiqh etc., but that should start with respect for the thorough debates that have already taken place, rather than throwing the whole lot out the window.

      Can there be a feminist approach better than this? Very possibly, and maybe that already exists.

      Finally, I am sorry to say that many comments I have seen about this paper (or rather, what was released so far) have been more about what the reader assumed the writer’s intent was, rather than what he said – or what he explicitly stated was the purpose of the paper: i.e. to draw the attention of scholars to a trend. So I wonder at those who are either supportive or unsupportive of feminist re-readings who were looking for a thorough refutation or cannot see the value in this paper if it doesn’t provide one. My own view is that it is only one (quite significant) step in the process, or contribution to the debate. And Allah knows best.

  9. ZAI says:

    I agree with what “Hannah” and “African” are saying w/ insofar as the core of their argument. They’re raising very legitimate questions as to whether accepting the “textual sources”, Quran and Sunnah, as a starting point is what’s required or whether following all/most FIQH based on those sources, and which have almost exlusively been opinions/interpretations of male scholars of the past, are also required.

    I feel traditionalists often carry out a bait and switch regarding this issue. They SAY that TECHNICALLY it is only the clear verses of Qoran or mutawattir and sahih hadith, on which there is overwhelming ijma’,that are obligatory to accept as unchanging, but in PRACTICE even opinions/interpretations on Zahir matters are also made obligatory to acceptas eternal.

    Most of our scholars simply REFUSE to overule or reinterpret rulings that applied to specific times or cultures, even when it is obvious. Thus, technically ijtihad is allowed, but in practice it is not except for issues that simply didn’t exist to be commented on during earlier times.

    It is totally ridiculous to think that scholars of the past were not influenced by prevailing culture and somehow totally objective. That’s complete nonsense. I do not think most of them had CONSCIOUS biases against women, but I think SUBCONSCIOUSLY the environment, culture and context they were raised in definitely played a part in formulating their opinions.They were human beings just like we are and those factors played a part in their thinking, just like it would any of us.

    I think a type of total fear has crept into our ummah. We have become scared of challenging opinions that came before and we seem to think that doing so is an insult to scholars of the past, as if we were accusing them of being malicious. It does not seem to occur to us anymore that totally sincere people could have made errors in opinion, because all human opinion is subjective to some degree no matter how hard we try to be objective. That is simply a reality of human nature.

    I do not share the sentiments of Mernissi, Ahmed, Wadud, or the newer one’s like Nomani and Manji who haphazardly want to demolish and change everything, even regarding the unchanging, very core of our religion. They have zero training in any of the sciences and aren’t even qualified to engage in that work and they definitely often read their desires into the text, if they bother to respect it at all.

    At the SAME time though, most traditionalists are at the OTHER extreme…not because they disregard the primary texts, but because they insist on NOT disregarding centuries of outdated or contextual FIQH as well. It is not enough to accept the core clear verses and hadith which have ijma, they want the entire aggregate of opinion on ALL matters to be accepted as well. It’s resulted in total ossification of the ijtihad process and what made Islam so dynamic.

    There MUST be some middle ground here. We have to be able to take what we think is valid and sound regarding fiqh of the past based ON THE TEXTS, while being able to disregard fiqh which is not if a new interpretation upholds the Quran and Sunnah as well…and that includes fiqh which has definite shades of misogyny or sexism in it’s interpretation.

    This MUST be done. If we do not reach this consensus on a middle ground, more and more of these ideological feminists are going to crop up and unfortunately be more and more successful.If the average Muslim woman is seeing ZERO progress within orthodoxy, she will sooner or later get fed up and I for one couldn’t blame them. We can’t simply wish this challenge away or wait it out.

    I think that Dr. Tariq Ramadan has done a great job in defining what it is we have to do and more of our traditional Ulema have to be willing to take that step as well. I give Imam Suhaib credit for getting the conversation going…

    • SohaibS says:

      Salaam, Zai.

      I appreciate a lot of what you’re saying. I think it’s noteworthy that this paper hasn’t focused on fiqh, but has focused on the question of interpretation of texts, particularly the Qur’an.

      A question that arises: If there is going to be a radical redressing of the structures that have been built around the core sources, just how radical would be too radical? So many sciences were developed after the revelation and in service of the Qur’an and Sunnah – even including Arabic grammar. Much of this is indispensable.

      More to the point: some of the assumptions of the project in question verge on disbelief in the divine origin of the Qur’an. Can this be reconciled with Qur’anic studies, as Muslims consider it? It has its place within Orientalism, but tafseer is a faithful process as well as an academic one, in terms of its basic assumptions and objectives (such as understanding the intent of the Creator through the revelation).

      We can’t deny the influence of environment etc., but we need to recognise corrective factors too, such as numbers, geographical spread and evidence-based debate. Was scholarship overwhelmingly male? Yes, but women were never absent from the scene. Is it a given that males will get it vastly wrong? I can understand how sceptics can see this, but what about the promised preservation of the Qur’an and all this entails?

      You speak of traditionalists’ fear of new opinions, but we must also ask why revisionists appear to be so afraid of tradition that they must dismiss it rather than engage with it as it deserves. When someone masters the sciences, they can present new theories concerning their basic assumptions. In the absence of that, it’s little wonder that scholars of Sh. Hasan’s stature fail to be impressed.

      • SohaibS says:

        I should have added: the recent publication of “Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam” by Shaykh Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi is a welcome contribution regarding this assumption of patriarchy. I hope that feminists and other thinkers will engage constructively with this work (as well as the author’s 40-volume biographical dictionary to which the aforementioned publication is an introduction).

      • Shiva says:

        They’re not “afraid” of tradition, they disagree with it, or at least parts of it. You could say the fearful people are actually the ones who just stubbornly stick to the same exact rhetoric no matter what type of reasoning is presented to them. That sounds a lot more like traditionalism to me than it does anything else.
        Traditionalism doesn’t allow them to present the theories core to their message. That’s the whole point. Why would someone engage in traditionalism if their very theory isn’t traditionalist in the first place?

        • Shiva says:

          A lot of times it’s presented to critics that “we had women scholars too!” “We had women teachers too!”
          Well then, where are their books and theories, and are they even comparably influential to those of the many, many male scholars whose books and theories define traditional Islam?
          It’s important to note that the feminist concept is not to deny that some woman existed in the sphere of Islamic matters throughout history. In fact they, just like others, often use the several examples we have from history to show the acceptability and importance of women’s involvement in society and even in academics. They know there were women teachers.
          The idea isn’t that no women have ever been involved. The idea is that traditional interpretation is largely and nearly entirely based on the premises defined by males, and is interpreted through a patriarchal lens. If the women of the past as well as the men of the past showed no objection or restricted their opinions to those of their shaykhs before them, then they may have very well been doing so in the name of tradition just like us, who are taught that anything besides tradition is anti-Islam and against salvation. The feminist interpretation is often not according to traditionalism, and so it’s understandable (and obvious) that traditionalists would disagree with them. But to say that they have no credibility just because they aren’t adhering to tradition is a very problematic idea. It says that no one except those specifically trained to regurgitate the same rhetoric are qualified to give any rational or academic opinion. It’s circular.
          And it’s also problematic to think that even if (supposedly) absolutely no women of the past showed differing interpretations, then that becomes proof that the feminist interpretations of today are null.

    • Daayiee says:

      Zai, Salaam. Really appreciated your comments and I am in agreement with your points of view. Where we differ, and we shall all differ on points, I do not agree with your conclusions on the various authors mentioned. I hold that you are overreaching to say all seek to demolish and change everything–that is far from the truth in my humble opinion. Since I have read their books and have spoken to some in person, I do not believe all of their opinions hold this goal to demolish and destroy everything.

      Yes, they do cover an expanse of ideas and ideals, and so do more progressive Islamic scholars like Khalid Abu El-Fadl. Do you hold his scholarship seeks to demolish and change everything? Do you think he is less qualified than Tariq Ramadan? By the way, I don’t care for his ideas and ideals either.)

      Back to my point, yes, we definitely need a movement away from dependence upon the ancient as proof of “right.” The shift means changing the parameters of our focus away from the culture and times. We glean deeper understanding of Quran when we work with the themes that help humankind–alleviates suffering rather than adding to it by demanding the layers of thoughts composed at a time where our current world could not be understood.

      So I ask you for your opinion as to what level of change is needed and how much of a shift is required in the middle ground you propose? Is it just enough for what you want to see (a gradual) change, revamping by time and cultural biases, and giving ourselves a little more wiggle room. Or should we seek a thorough review and making the middle ground inclusive in scope–this requires the field to be very broad and very deep in subject matter–and to come with new conclusions that expand beyond the limitations of the past. This is the only way informed alternative opinions can be debated and some conclusion promoted for our times and culture. Otherwise, we continue to play in the orthodox sandbox and remain susceptible to the perils of their “bait and switch” routine you spoke about in your comments.

      We are going to either use Quran as first source and leave the dinosaur tracks of ahadeeth and lots of fiqh–even if they appear to be “authentic” sunnah that harms Muslims–and choose to see a better way. It is very easy to stay on their tracks and get railroaded back to the dinosaur tracks dressed up as spiritual transportation into our different future? Yeah, right, not on my watch.

      Appreciate your comments and hope you reply to my concerns. Salaam.

    • Shiva says:

      Who are you to say they have zero training and are ruining the very core of the religion? What gives you the right to make such an accusation? The people who say that are the very traditionalists themselves, the same ones who insist that only their way and only their passed along custom is the possible correct way. What makes Tariq Ramadan more credible than feminist Muslim academics? They have similar backgrounds, so what makes his training and his method more acceptable than the rest? Is it simply that he brings the least differing view with regard to traditionalism? That’s what it sounds like.

  10. Son of Adam says:

    I’m not sure if this is the right place to ask this, but I guess I’ll throw it in anyways.

    I was recently skimming through the The Oxford History of Islam and one of the authors wrote that the part of the Hadith of Gabriel that refers to the signs of the Day of Judgement were “probably added at a later date,” but never cared to explain why. Is there any legitimacy to this claim?

    • SohaibS says:

      I don’t know. When people don’t justify their claims, it is impossible to assess them and they lose most of their force except to cast doubts.

  11. Peter says:

    Salaams, everyone :)

    I came across this article on twitter, and was very interested in reading it. Unfortunately I found it lacking in several respects (I read the full pdf as well).

    1. Where are the citations and quotes? People can’t make sense of this critique without a clear understanding of what’s being discussed. I could follow it because I’ve read some of these authors’ work, but what about others?

    2. Dr. Asma Barlas has written quite passionately and extensively on Qur’anic hermeneutics; I was surprised her work was not addressed.

    3. ‘Feminists’ were blamed for having “complete indifference to the principles of Qur’anic exegesis and rules of interpretation”, but nowhere are these ‘principles’ explained and defended.

    4. When “our” “Arabic-Islamic heritage” is mentioned, I’m not sure what that means. Actually, many so-called feminists question this heritage for it’s cultural baggage and historical bias toward males. This important point was not addressed.

    5. As another commenter mentioned, there was more “Western vs Islamic” framing than was really necessary.

    • SohaibS says:

      Wa ‘alaykum as-salaam. Granted, addressing some or all of these points would have made the paper more valuable. But did you derive any benefit nonetheless?

      Ever gap left is an opportunity for subsequent researchers.

  12. Takoua B. says:

    Assalamu Alaykum,

    Mashallah, I love reading all the commentary posted here. Great job guys! It’s about time issues concerning this topic arise and are ‘openly’ discussed. From all the feedback that’s going on out there, I think it’s safe to say that there is a mutual agreement, amongst us all, that all scholars, who wish to critique Islam, should do it whilst keeping the Qur’an and Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)in mind. Both forms should be and remain the basic foundation within the context of any scholarly critique in order to attain a sound Islamic reasoning/conclusion in regards to any issue (especially of that within a Muslim community) that’s being discussed/critiqued.

    I agree with what everyone has to say here. I, myself, for one, became confused at what the intention of the Arabic scholar was, at first. I thought it was to dismiss the works of these women, because they offer a different approach than that of the traditionalists’ perspectives and interpretations of the Qur’an, Sunnah, hadith, and fiqh. When in fact, he’s trying to show that the women have very little to no background knowledge in any of the four areas mentioned (in the previous sentence), and, thus, Muslims -who’re reading their works- should be aware of this.

    Other reasons of why I was confused about the Author’s intent are:
    1. Basically and quite obviously, the title. It’s quite vague/broad, and with the added effect that the author is an Arab male really tells one otherwise. [no offense]
    2. No quotes and sources/bibliography. No alternative ‘feminist’ Muslim scholars that branch away from the cliche of Muslim women critiquing Islam, and that have a secular studies/degree background. For any paper to be considered academically objective it needs to have the former, as well as, a sound argument that presents multifaceted sides to it – for a more thorough analyzable discourse.

    I appreciate that the author critiqued on male ‘Islamic-scholars’, as well, whom are commonly found in the Eastern societies, and from what I’m witnessing, are the common cause of a lot of confusion regarding Islamic principles, practices and values – especially concerning that of women, in the same light (some of them are even supported by their respective governments). These ‘scholars’ are obviously the root cause of a lot of extremist ideologies (that are un-Islamic), let alone, the mentalities and practices centered about misogyny, sexism and sexuality. And, unfortunately, are being continually practiced by a majority of first generation immigrants in the West. Hence you’ve got this whole generation gap going on – but that’s a whole another topic in of itself.

    Furthermore, as hinted previously from some of our wonderful commentators, is understanding where these women are coming from; what personal experiences have lead these women to distrust the teachings and legitimacy of the Qur’an and Sunnah of the Prophet (SAW)? Since some of these women are knowledgeable in history and religious studies, don’t they know that Islam has given women their desired/needed rights way before that of the first wave of the feminist movement emerged during the Enlightenment/Scientific Revolution era in European history? As well as, the Islamic definition of the ‘bent’ rib is different than that produced by the Bible? And if not, why not?

    Thus, we come to an apparent conclusion, that Muslim women never needed feminist ideologies nor Feminism in its entirety, because Islam has liberated women (and all those that were treated as 2nd class citizens) from their respective patriarchal-based cultural paradigm. And this is still true to this day – although, we arrogantly call it the ‘modern’ age of human civilization; as if it has perfected/diagnosed the flaws from the past. Last but not least, is that we shouldn’t dismiss ideologies, but rather critique them. And this is needed in the case of Feminism (or even pop-culture); where it encompasses a whole array of issues, such as how the 2nd wave of feminism differed from that of the 1st wave of feminism, and why is it so popular amongst female Muslim scholars. And despite the common myths centering about Feminism – the fact of the matter is, is that secular, dare I say, global political/economical society needs this ‘radical’ (believe it or not, but just like Islam, it’s negatively stigmatized, as well) intervention; because, non-Muslim women (as well as children, abused men/woman and children, and immigrants) find it as a primary means for themselves when addressing their rights and disadvantaged situations at the political/economical level[such as the over-sexualization of young women in the media, the selling of children, and the growing Porn industry]. Fortunately, Subhanallah, as Muslims, these issues are important, and Islam has already provided us the means and solutions to them; and from my own personal experiences, when I was studying about Feminism and the global issues concerning women, I became more proud of the fact that I was Muslim, and actually evolved a deeper understanding and appreciation of Islam. So, it depends on how one utilizes/prioritizes their knowledge, as well. All knowledge is needed – there’s no need to censor material – we’re not the Vatican. It’s just that, as evident by the women (and men) the scholar critiqued on, (Allahu-Aalam) not every Muslim youth has the opportunity to live and learn in/near a Muslim practicing society that is based on the foundations of the Qur’an and Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) – where a variety of humanely-based topics are discussed and critiqued in an intellectual and practical manner.

    Jazzakumu-Allahu Khairan. Wa Salamu Alaykum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuhu.

    P.S. The dude that commented on equality – is that Allah (SWT) created men and women equally before him. Thus, the concept of equality must have a logical context to it, and that just because one is different, doesn’t mean that they’re not entitled to equality. The issue of women and men not being equal because of their physiological/biological differences or commonly noted as the ‘battle between the sexes’ is irrelevant to the whole concept of equality defined in Islam. These differences, in fact, are constructed as a basis for Judeo-Christian cultures and their westernized patriarchal institutions to treat women as second class citizens; and that is why the 1st wave of Feminism sprung about in Europe – but that’s a whole another story. [Allah knows best.]

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