Freedom from the Forbidden

All things gender and Islam. No bigotry is allowed in this feminist territory. #DeathToPatriarchy

The Link Between Authority and Knowledge – or: how knowledge is gendered

Nobody believes me when I say authority has everything to do with gender (well, okay, some people do believe me, especially the Muslim feminists – God bless you all!). I’ll write on this–i.e., on how knowledge is gendered, on how the production of knowledge is gendered because of who creates it–in more detail some other time, though I attempted to sketch out the problem with gendering authority in a guest post for The Fatal Feminist’s blog under the title Muslim Women and the Politics of Authority. Or: How to Determine a Woman’s Right to Speak on Islam. But for now just know this: We gender knowledge, we gender the main sources of our knowledge by interpreting them in a very narrowly gendered way (if you ask me, I insist that the sources of Islam aren’t the Qur’an/Sunnah but actually the consensus of the male ‘Ulama), and then we tell especially the feminists: “No, no, you got it all wrong. You don’t know your stuff. Your KNOWLEDGE of Islam is wrong,” denying that our (traditional, agreed-upon) “knowledge” of Islam is gendered to begin with, with women’s attempts to contribute it almost completely dismissed and seldom appreciated and accepted as “real” knowledge; the only time they’re accepted as “real,” “authentic” knowledge is when the women’s contribution/addition reiterates the same patriarchal nonsense the men teach and insist upon. Plenty of examples, but one of my favorites is as follows – watch what happens when a woman tries to interpret the Qur’an – hint: “it’s an interpretation that’s not its [the Qur’an’s] interpretation”! Or the position of a woman is “one of ignorance”! Ugh, patriarchy gives me a headache.

Quoting below from Kecia Ali’s book Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam starting on page 12 in the Introduction:

In the Arabian peninsula, a few years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, an audacious Muslim woman took one of her young male slaves as a bed partner. She mentioned having done so to the caliph Umar, who inquired incredeulously as to her justification. “I thought, she replied, “that ownership by the right hand made lawful to me what it makes lawful to men.” “Ownership by the right hand” (milk al-yamin, also “property of the right hand”) is a Qur’anic euphemism for slavery. It appears in several verses that refer to “what your right hands own” alongside wives or spouses as lawful sexual partners. This scriptural allusion went neither unnoticed nor unchallenged by ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, a notoriously stern figure. Shocked and dismayed by her action as well as her implicit claim to have God’s permission for it, he sought the advice of the Companions, those Muslims who had known Muhammad during his lifetime and whose collective wisdom and judgment came to be considered by later Sunnis a vital source of legal precedent. Their verdict: “She has [given] the book of Exalted God an interpretation that is not its interpretation.” Though ‘Umar refrained from punishing her for committing illicit sex, he forbade her from ever marrying any free man. Most importantly, in the account of this episode preserved in the Musannaf of Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanani, Umar put an end to the liaison by “order[ing] the slaver not to approach her.

Other versions of the story exist as well, and the Intro mentions those, too. Like in another version: *”Umar retorts that her position is not that “of a man” but rather one “in ignorance.”* … And so he chooses not to have her stoned to death only because of her “ignorance.” Poor woman thought she could apply a verse of the Qur’an for her own pleasure – but, of course, all verses of the Qur’an that talk about forbidding things apply to women and men equally. Just not those permitting pleasures of any sort.

While you’re at it, read every other book of Kecia Ali’s as well – and everything she writes for the Feminism and Religion blog.

Another pertinent quote is from Aisha Geissinger’s Gender and Muslim Constructions of Exegetical Authority: A Rereading of the Classical Genre of Qur’an Commentary that further shows how knowledge is gendered, how women are structurally, intrinsically excluded from knowledge production and from other interpretive authoritative domains that have been a historically male monopoly. And this is particularly in response to those folks telling us that the exclusion of women from discussions about/on Islam has nothing to do with gender, that “well, we don’t/didn’t invite women speakers because there are no or not enough qualified women to speak on Islam!” Quit it already – this is entirely about gender, and that’s because the bases upon which you evaluate an individual’s authority are patriarchal from the on-set.  No one today (or I guess very few might) is going to come outright and say, “Women can’t be authorities!” because no one wants to be a sexist, obviously. But our standards are such that they exclude women–or certain “kinds” of women, like feminists, or those who “look/think” like feminists–from exercising certain kinds of authority. To put this in perspective, ask yourself: when was the last time I questioned a man’s credentials, or at least wondered if he has the authority to speak on Topic X (Islam-related)? You see, few ever questions a man’s credentials so long as he has a beard and wears a thaub preferably (but not necessarily), no matter what, but if the speaker’s a woman? We have to talk about how immodesty she’s dressed if she’s not wearing a headscarf, but we prefer she wear a niqaab (i.e., cover her face and full boy), and if she’s got a hijab on, then, well, where did she get her training? Who are her teachers? If she’s got training at an institution that’s got some historical value, like al-Azhar, then say, “Well, fine, but al-Azhar has no standards these days! They’ll let anyone be a scholar!” But be sure not to make this remark if the authority in question is a male. The excuses to not acknowledge women as scholars are endless. Another thing to put this into perspective: The same Muslims who question a woman’s training never bother to question Zakir Naik’s training! the man has no training, by the way; he’s self-taught. I’ve seen a lot of people question women’s credentials if their tajweed isn’t good, but have you ever heard Zakir Naik recite a Qur’anic verse? His Arabic is terrible. But no one cares. And somehow, he’s a scholar. Zakir Naik is just one example – there are thousands more, and we see most of them here.

Now for the quote I promised from Aisha Geissinger’s book Gender and Muslim Constructions of Exegetical Authority:

This study examines the attribution of exegetical materials to female figures during the formative and early medieval periods, and what this phenomenon indicates about the hermeneutical bases upon which the genre of Quran commentary authored by medieval Sunnis came to be built. As will be demonstrated, concepts that are central to pre-modern quranic exegesis (tafsir)–as a process and as a textual genre–are gendered. That is, ways of conceptualizing gender that were widespread during the formative and early medieval periods underpin the historical processes that constructed quranic exegesis as a sacred undertaking, which therefore must be carried out in certain ways, by those who possess the requisite authority. Historical debates as to which hermeneitical approaches to the Quran are appropriate, what ways of doing tafsir are methdologically inferior or unacceptable, as well as what interpretive authority is and who can exercise it were carried out using gendered language and categories. Moreover, a number of proto-Sunni and Sunni Quran commentators from the formative and early medieval periods utilize gendered figures and evocations of gendered spaces (such as the abode of the wives of the prophet) in order to negotiate complex exegetical issues involving social hierarchies, as well as communal and sectarian boundaries. Gender was far from being a marginal concern for pre-modern exegetes; rather, it is central to their visions of a divinely-mandated social order. Therefore, an analysis of how gender functions in their works is in fact an examination of the very foundations of their worldviews. (This is on pages 1-2.)

We also then learn later on that the mufassireen (the guys who interpreted the Qur’an/wrote commentaries on the Qur’an) were actually quite hesitant to consider the Prophet’s wives as potential authorities on the Qur’an/Islam. And I’m not shocked.

Just … just read the book yourselves, folks. I can’t type everything here. Ad while you’re at it, read a whole bunch of other Muslim feminist scholarship, too.

Check this one out, for example: when Muslims opposed to feminist or to a gender-egalitarian interpretation of Islam (or who deny that existing interpretations of Islam/the Qur’an are actually patriarchal, sexist, and far from egalitarian), they claim that the Islamic feminist effort at seeking gender equality and justice in the Qur’an and Sunnah is replete with “agenda” – as though patriarchy has no agenda, as though patriarchal/traditional Islam has no agenda, or, even, as though having an agenda is effectively bad. In the book Men in Charge?: Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition (in Ch. 4, “Wilayah in Prophetic Practice”) as well as in Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition, Ayesha Chaudhry points out this hypocrisy:

This methodology of searching hadith for counter-patriarchal influences [of the Prophet] might be criticized as agenda driven and not a genuine search for the ‘true’ prophetic impulse. However, this methodology may surprisingly be in line with the way prophetic reports were used in the Islamic scholarly tradition in the precolonial period. For example, when Qur’an commentators and jurists cited prophet reports to support their particular interpretations of the Qur’anic text, they often drew only on the texts of prophetic reports, regardless of whether the chain of transmission was weak or strong. The chain of transmission of prophet report usually came into play only when a scholar wanted to debunk another scholar’s position or interpretation.

Furthermore, Qur’anic commentators and jurists drew on the prophetic practice selectively to argue for a particular legal position or Qur’anic interpretation, making prophetic practice fit into their own framework rather than portraying Prophet Muhammad as a complex person. For instance, in the case of the husbandly privilege to discipline wives in verse 4:34 of the Qur’an, exegetes and jurists supported the right of husbands to hit their wives for disciplinary purposes by citing prophetic reports that emphasized the magnitue of the rights of husbands over their wives, rather than prophetic reports that might challenge such disciplinary rights [for more details on this, see Ch. 5 of Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition]. They regularly cite prophetic reports in which Prophet Muhammad described a husband’s rights over his wife as so grand that if he had to command one human to prostrate to another, it would be a wife to her husband; or that a wife’s salvation lay in her husband’s pleasure/displeasure; or that Prophet Muhammad did not like a woman who complained against her husband; or that a husband ought not to be questioned about how he treated his wife, particularly with regarding to hitting his wife. In contrast, no scholar cited the Prophetic report in which Prophet Muhammad’s youngest wife ‘Aisha reported that Prophet Muhammad never hit anyone–not a child, woman or slave–in his life, except when fighting in war; or the report in which Prophet Muhammad cursed a man who repeatedly hit his wife; or when he divorced a man from his wife because the man had hit her excessively. In employing Prophet Muhammad’s [r[prophetic practice selectively to support a gender-egalitarian visions of Islam, Muslim feminists would be doing exactly what Muslim scholars did when using prophetic practice to support patriarchal perspectives of Islam. The malleability of prophetic practice is not new, nor is the methodology of selective reading; it is the gender-egalitarian principles guiding the reading, as well as the self-conscious and forthright nature of this reading that is modern and creative (pages 92-93 of Men in Charge?).

I’ve discussed the relevance of this quote in another blog post (“Feminist” Islam is biased Islam, but what’s “regular” (i.e., patriarchal) Islam?).

There are plenty of books and articles that address the gendering of knowledge and authority (and it’s not exclusive to Muslims or Islam, no — all religions have been historically dominated by men).  Here’s a list – any of these works will be a great start.

Death to patriarchy. InshaAllah.

Categories: Death to patriarchy, forbidden things, gender, God, Islamic feminism, Just stop, let's talk privilege, Muslim things, why we need feminism

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2 replies


  1. Muslim women scholars of Islam, the question of qualifications, and romanticized images of the “Islamic tradition” | Freedom from the Forbidden
  2. Muslim women scholars of Islam, the question of qualifications, and romanticized images of the “Islamic tradition” | The Muslim Times

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