The following was inspired by the #NoAllMalePanels conversation that took place on Twitter. Speaking of which, if you’re a Muslim man and agree that there should be no more all-male panels, your support is useless without your signature on the pledge. Sign here. But understand that the #NoAllMalePanels wasn’t limited to acknowledging the authority of women scholars of Islam: it was about acknowledging and appreciating women’s knowledge in all fields. Many people made the discussion about academics versus traditionalist scholars, but that was just one part of the campaign.
One of the major and more recurring points in the discussion, coming from the opponents of the conversation, was that “This isn’t about gender! Stop making this about gender! No one ever / we don’t invite women to talk about Islam because there aren’t any qualified women to speak on Islam. The women you’re talking about who you claim are ‘scholars of Islam’ are actually not scholars. They are academics! Know the difference, okay, you feminists?” To deny that gender has anything to do with this is to deny that there are serious structural obstacles to women’s religious authority (I’ll talk about this below), but for now, let’s acknowledge that we rarely/never hear anyone questioning the men’s qualifications. We simply assume they must be scholars if they have a beard of an acceptable length, wear a head-gear of some sort, preferably wear Arab clothing. When it comes to the qualification of the men “scholars,” we remember to focus on their knowledge, not the details of where/how/by whom they were educated about Islam. Zakir Naik anyone? Or some 95% of the other men “scholars” of our time. It helps them immensely that they merely say what the community wants to hear, that they only satisfy the community’s patriarchal expectations of what Islam is like. But when it comes to a woman who speaks about Islam, her knowledge becomes completely irrelevant, and we have a whole bunch of other important questions to ask. Like is her hair covered, did she study at a secular institution, is she a feminist, etc. You can read more about this problem here. And here’s something on the gendering of knowledge and authority (so when you say something like, “no, no, she’s just not knowledgeable. It’s not about her gender at all. Stop making this about women, you feminists!” maybe you can look a little more closely and see that gender is actually a huge factor in the denial and dismissal of women’s religious/interpretive authority in our communities). Also, “not enough qualified women scholars of Islam” my foot. Check out this positively overwhelming list of scholarship on Islam, most of which is by Muslim women – and it’s not even comprehensive! And, while I’m at it with this whole self-promotion thing, I might as well also share a link to something I wrote once on female authority, the role of justice and ethics in Islamic feminist hermeneutics, and my response to the idea that “Muslim women/feminists would be able to exercise some authority in the Muslim community if only they’d just …” (insert appropriate patriarchal statement).
1. The other day, a dude on Twitter who insists he’s a “scholar of Islam” was arguing with me over the supposed invalidity of Amina Wadud’s status as a scholar. He insisted that one must study at a traditional religious (Islamic) seminary in order to be a scholar, and I naturally vehemently disagreed but reminded him that Wadud has actually studied at Al-Azhar, which is in fact considered a perfectly legitimate institution for traditional Islamic Studies. He goes, “hm. Well, al-Azhar is losing its credibility. Nowadays they’ll give anyone an ijaza [diploma/certificate]!”
Why do I even bother talking to these people? They’ll say anything to invalidate a woman’s right to speak on Islam authoritatively so long as what she’s saying isn’t within the patriarchal tradition they want maintained. If the women were trained at the exact same institution as the traditionalist (patriarchal tradition-supporting) men scholars of Islam, for the exact same amount of time, the reason of dismissal shifts to: “Well, if she had sincere intentions, she wouldn’t be maligning Islam with books like Qur’an and Woman/Gender Jihad!” Nothing knows our intentions well like patriarchy does.
But, for those interested in this discussion–and that should be every Muslim–Juliane Hammer’s American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More Than a Prayer is an important book to read. She does a brilliant job articulating this tension between the different groups of authority, this question of authenticity, the relationship between knowledge and authority. One of many important points she makes really sticks out to me – though, needless to say, I highly recommend the whole book:
In several Muslim-majority countries (Turkey, Morocco), the state has initiated training projects for Muslim women preachers and in some cases even legal scholars and hsa developed programs for their placement and employment in the service of state-defined religious interpretations and doctrines. Here the celebration of women’s advancement becomes ironic in that women preachers usually receive very little training (contrary to the decade or more that traditional education required), which qualifies them only to disseminate existing interpretations and a codified (or simplified) system of regulations. (Page 115 – the whole of chapter 5, “Authority, Tradition, and Community” is of profound importance to this discussion on authority and authenticity and all.)
We can get trained – but only in institutions that will ensure that we maintain the patriarchal attitudes that inhibit any sort of progress towards gender egalitarianism in the first place.
This demand that women be trained in traditional institutions is also ironic: “The irony in the critiques of the purported lack of qualifications and traditional Islamic training of Muslim women scholars lies in the fact that the institutions of higher Islamic learning and their products, the ‘ulama, have undergone transformations and a decrease in significance over the past two centuries, resulting in the challenge to traditional religious authority” (page 115).
I think we should just agree that the only people who have any authority to speak on Islam are the internet celebrity sheikhs. Everyone else can just keep trying but will never be considered authoritative and knowledgeable enough to speak on Islam.
2. Many people, especially the anti-feminist folks, tell us that the “reason” Muslim women (academics mostly) don’t get to speak on Islam, don’t have authority to speak on Islam, is that they are not trained classically. First, let’s establish that there are some sorely misleading assumptions about what the academic study of Islam is like. My personal issues/experiences with it aside, I value it for several reasons. Few people seem to know that we actually get trained to read original material (in (Classical) Arabic). Yes, the commentaries, too (people actually write books on the Qur’an commentaries, folks! And those books aren’t coming from people trained in traditional seminaries).
Those of us pursuing a PhD in Islamic studies are required, at least in the US, to master Arabic (classical, in most (all?) cases) and classical Islamic studies otherwise, in addition to at least one other Islamic language (language spoken by a Muslim population, like Persian, Turkish) to taking a whole bunch of classes in other fields (religion, gender, anthropology, linguistics, whatever is most relevant to what we wanna be experts in). And people dare to claim that we don’t have the credentials to speak on Islam? I should NOT have to go to Saudi Arabia to study Islam! I should NOT have to study Islam in Pakistan or any other Muslim country in order to be considered a scholar of Islam. In fact, students of Islamic studies in Pakistan (and likely in other non-Arabic speaking Muslim countries) are not even required to study Arabic! But they get more authority than those of us studying in the west do because, what, they don’t challenge the patriarchal (not Qur’anic, by the way) guideline that a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man? This is just an example – based on intellectually stifling talks that the department chair of an Islamic Studies program from a Pakistani university gave at my university last year. (It should be obvious by now that I think critical engagements with tradition, religion, life, etc. should be required of all humans claiming to be scholars.)
If our idea of training is that it has to repeat exactly what the earlier (male) scholars said, we don’t get scholarship at all–heck, we don’t get education, period. What’s the point of studying Islam, of studying anything at all, if the purpose is to merely repeat what others have said, to come to the same conclusions as theirs? More importantly, actually, this is not even what Islamic studies was historically like, and Muslim scholars historically rarely ever agreed with each other – not even on the “essential” things, because there’s actually no agreement on what the essential things are, either. (Heartbreaking, potentially faith-shattering, I know.)
Let me quote from two scholars (of Islam) here – Karen Bauer and Rumee Ahmed:
a) Karen Bauer on stratigraphy – in her book Gender Hierarchy in the Qur’ān: Medieval Interpretations, Modern Responses on Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir) and how the exegetes were able to get away with disagreeing with each other and still play authoritative roles (any typos/misspellings are mine and not the author’s):
The earliest exegetical authorities are in some ways akin to the founders of legal schools, in that almost all subsequent works refer, obliquely or overtly, to their views. These works were written in a way that seemed simply to record and preserve the views of the earliest authorities and the Prophet. Yet, they not only preserved but also modified and even erased past interpretations. The term stratigraphy … refers to the layering of meaning and interpretation: one story or interpretation can be retold in many different ways, with layers of detail added in subsequent generations. Used in this sense, the term stratigraphy can describe the continual accretion of meanings in the genre of tafsir. Through time, interpretations built up in layers, and the very process of building up could also impose new meanings on the text and on the earlier interpretations…. Rather than acknowledging that the views of the earlier authorities were incompatible, [Ibn ‘Arabi] reinterpreted disagreement so that it became agreement, thus imposing new meanings on the earlier authorities’ words. (Page 12)
She continues: “When writing a work of tafsir, authors would selectively pick and choose from previous works, usually without crediting the original author. But we know very little about the practical mechanisms that enabled such picking, choosing, and selective accretion of tradition…” (page 13).
Point being, the mufassireen (the men who interpreted the Qur’an for us) were actually constantly picking and choosing what to keep from previous tafsir works.
But what happens when women, especially contemporary Muslim women, enter the conversation? Women who, whether they identify as feminist or not, challenge the patriarchy that is so embedded in Islamic scholarship (as in all religious scholarship/literature from the past)? We’re not fools, people; we’re not naive. We know that Islamic history, Islamic scholarship is not stagnant. We have access to the material you use against us to tell us our scholarship is not “real scholarship” … as was said by a “real” scholar of our time, the Abu Eesa (who’s Pashtun, by the way. Imagine how how I felt when I found out a Pashtun man lived up to the stereotypical image of the men of my ethnicity!):
Ok that’s my last bit of support for modern women activists. Next week, I’ll be supporting some actual female scholars and what *they* want.
— Abu Eesa Niamatullah (@Niamatullah) October 31, 2015
One can only wonder, what the heck does an “actual female scholar” look like? Who are these “actual female scholars” he’s talking about? Who are these “modern women activists” he’s talking about? Clearly, the “actual female scholars” must be those who support his misogynistic jokes and attacks on Muslim women. As long as he can get one woman on his side, a woman who has internalized misogyny and follows him, he can say, “Whatevz. I’ve got this real woman on my side; I don’t need the rest of y’all fake women to agree with me.” (For more, see this.)
A look at his Twitter shows that this man lacks all sense of adab (decency, manners, proper Islamic etiquette for interacting with others), and his followers/worshipers don’t even acknowledge that. Yet, when a woman speaks her mind and attacks misogyny, or the misogynistic “jokes” of a misogynist, in a way that she finds is most appropriate, everyone goes, “Ugh, the feminists. They have no adab!”#DIEpatriarchyDIE
But I digress. Naturally.
Back to the misleading claim that Muslim scholars of the past must have agreed with each other.
b) In his book Narratives of Islamic Legal Theory, Rumee Ahmed shares a fascinating account of this question of authority and scholars’ disagreement (any typos/misspellings are mine and not the author’s):
While conducting research on Zaydi legal theorists in Sana’a, Yemen, I fell in with local scholars of shafi’i jurisprudence. Together we studied several Shafi’i legal theorists, and especially the legal theories of the eminent jurists Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) and Abu Is’haq al-Shirazi (d. 1083). I was struck by the Yemeni scholars’ incredulous response to any suggestion that these two giants of Shafi’i jurisprudence held any significantly different opinions on legal theory. They took great pains to explain that any differences were in appearance only, and that the two were actually in harmony on every matter, as were all Shafi’is. Their insistence on this point kept the study at a superficial level, and I figured that they were reluctant to take sides when jurists whom they held in such high esteem disagreed. So I went to a local bookshop to find legal theory works of Hanafi jurists whose differing theories we could discuss without the need to homogenize. I settled upon the works of two renowned Hanafi jurists: the Taqwa al-Adilla of Abu Zayd ‘Ubayd Allah b. ‘Umar al-Dabusi (d. 1039) and the Muharrar fi Usul al-Fiqh of Muhammad b. Ahmad b. Abi Sahl al-Sarakhsi (d. 1090). A cursory glance at the two texts suggested that they were in consonance on most key issues, but if there were significant differences then perhaps they could be teased out through careful study and discussion. O returned to the scholars with renewed hope.
Within the first few days of discussing Dabusi’s Taqwa al-Adilla, one scholar in particularly had many objections. He asked if I was sure that Dabusi was an actual Hanafi jurist, since his explanations for the positions he held, though couched in familiar language and promoting accepted positions, were unfamiliar and, according to the Yemeni scholar, unbecoming a Hanafi. I assured him that Dabusi was one of the leading Hanafi jurists of his time and among the most celebrated in the medieval period, and so we agreed to continue discussing his theory. The next day, after having read more of Dabusi’s approach to legal theory, the scholar asked if I had not mistaken this Dabusi with some other Dabusi, who was perhaps a real Hanafi scholar. He explained that this was an understandable mistake….I eventually persuaded him that this was indeed the correct Dabusi, leaving aside for the moment Ibn Arabi’s membership in the believing community.
The following day, in the middle of the discussion, the scholar closed his books, stood up, and refused to continue discussing Dabusi. He protested that this Dabusi character was clearly trying to undermine Islam with deviant opinions and that he was obviously out of line with the Hanafi tradition, which the scholar claimed to know well. In a bid to blacklist Dabusi from being discussed in the mosques of Sana’a, he conferred with other scholars from his mosque and neighboring mosques, describing the ideas that Dabusi had put forth in Taqwa al-Adilla. He reported back that all of them agreed that Dabusi was a dangerous threat to Islam in general and of true Hanafism in particular, no doubt an agent provocateur working for the enemies of Islam. He was more than happy, however, to move the discussion to the works of Sarakhsi, whom he praised as a true scholar and Hanafi. (Pages 10-11)
We have constructed a certain image of Islam, of the Muslim past, of Muslim scholars, and that image is overly romantic. And completely unreal and unrealistic. What happens when we learn that our romanticized image is actually not reflective of the reality? Well, we tend to do what happened in the above anecdote: accuse people of maligning Islam, of serving Islam’s enemies, of not being Muslim. Our kind of Muslim.
3. There are legitimate reasons a lot of Muslim women aren’t studying Islam traditionally in a Muslim country in a seminary. We shouldn’t be saying, “You think she’s a scholar? Oh yeah? What are her qualifications?” We should be asking “Why aren’t more Muslim women scholars choosing to take the madrasah route? Why’s the madrasah so much more appealing to men than to women?” Because the madrasah system is too patriarchal to begin with; the madrasah system of “qualifications” is intrinsically designed to prevent women from exercising authority. That’s to say, something’s wrong with our expectations and demands for qualifications, with the system itself, not with the women.
Let me quote/summarize one of Kecia Ali’s points on this problem here: She argues that male authority has been successfully continued because of the Islamic tradition’s tendency to privilege textual Islam as not only more authentic than lived Islam but actually the only authentic source (Sexual Ethics & Islam: Feminist Reflections on the Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence, p. 155). This specific discussion is about sex and marriage, but it’s applicable to any and all topics:
Although there are no restrictions on female participation in scholarly endeavors in theory – and a number of exceptional women, past and present, have been recognized as religious authorities, there are significant practical obstacles to female education in madrasa-settings. Likewise, there are social considerations restricting the ascription of religious authority to women. If mastery of the classical tradition is required in order to be considered credible, women are likely to be marginalized, if not entirely excluded, from interpretive reforms. And it matters deeply that women, whose concerns and perspectives differ from men’s, be among those engaging in renewed ethical thought on topics including marriage and sex. (Also page 155 of Sexual Ethics)
The point about textual versus lived Islam is critical to the discussion of women’s authority. You can read more about it in Leila Ahmed’s A Border Passage: From Cairo to America–A Woman’s Journey (where she discusses “two quite different Islams, an Islam that is in some sense a women’s Islam and an official, textual Islam, a ‘men’s’ Islam” – page 123 – an insightful comparison of her Islamic knowledge and training as a child/girl and Zeinab al-Ghazali’s begins on page 122. Ahmed makes some thoughtful conclusions that are relevant to this discussion of men’s and women’s Islam and of authority).
Juliane Hammer (American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More Than a Prayer) again, who writes (and all typos and errors are mine, not the author’s):
The women scholars, challenged and questioned in different venues, are keenly aware of these challenges, which often take the form of personal attacks, and tend to explain their need to engage in exegesis in two ways: as a personal voyage of faith and their direct challenge to the classical Islamic interpretive tradition and the educational structures associated with it. As Muslim women they have no choice but to challenge the traditional system of knowledge transmission and preservation, for there has historically been little space for them within such a system. And while women could historically acquire Islamic knowledge, their ability to build interpretive communities was hampered by their social and legal status in Muslim societies. (Page 116)
Also, there’s no agreement on what makes a person a scholar. Who decides which institutions we should be trained in in order to be an authority on Islam? (Remember what that Twitter scholar said earlier? That al-Azhar isn’t even legit anymore? Yeah.) Who decides what valid training in Islamic studies looks like? Who decides which kinds of Islam we should be supporting, embodying, and imparting to others? Who decides which former scholars are legit and which ones not?
Besides, which of the “real” Islamic institutions even allow female students? How many of them have female teachers? What kinds of women will they permit in their institutions? (Just FYI, I once tried to set foot in al-Qarawiyyeen, a university in Fez, Morocco, founded by a Muslim woman–Fatima al-Fihri–in the 9th century, and the men forbade me, saying, “men only!” This was a tragic experience because I was so excited to be in Morocco because I wanted to visit al-Qarawiyyeen desperately. I’m sure I would’ve been able to had I reached out to the “right” people – but why? Why should I have to know the right people to enter a university that, of all things, was even founded by a woman?!) And then can you imagine a woman like me in a male-/patriarchy-dominated institution? I have a hard time in a secular environment from time to time keeping my mouth shut, and I cannot imagine what it must be like to be myself in a religious, patriarchally traditional environment where to disagree with (men) scholars is to disagree with God.
Imagine my friends’ reaction when I tell them that after graduation, inshaAllah, I will be going abroad to an Arab country to study at a traditional Islamic institution. Be trained in a secular academic setting and in a religious one; let’s see what patriarchy says then. (And I bet no Muslim man ever has to worry about having to do this in order to be able to say, “I do have credentials: I studied at Muslim Institution X.” I can’t even imaging being at Al-Maghrib, which is in the West, let alone in an Arabic-speaking country where I’ve been before and where I have faced serious problems during my 2-month stays (in three such countries), let alone if I were to go for longer.
I can’t figure out where this anecdote (from Ayesha Chaudhry) goes, but it’s deeply relevant to this discussion, so I’m going to share it here. In Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition, she writes (and all typos/misspellings are mine, not the author’s):
When I first encountered [verse 4:34], while reading a translation of the Qur’an in middle school, I was both unsettled and defensive…. What did it mean that men were in authority over women? … [fast-forwad to many years later] Armed with university-honed analytic skills, I began to ask these questions of various religious leaders…. Unfortunately, the scholars I spoke to were stuck in a bind; on the one hand, they felt it was necessary to justify and defend the violent wording of Q. 4:34, and on the other hand, they tried to restrict the violence permitted by it…. Invariably, accompanying these defensive, violent interpretations of Q. 4:34 were lengthy lectures about the wisdom of God and the “complexity of the Islamic tradition.” These were both dismissive moves. The “wisdom of God” talk was intended to cast doubt on my value system and to encourage me to formulate a value system based on a more literal reading of the divine text. If I was troubled by a verse, then the problem was on my end, not with the text. The “complexity of the Islamic tradition” talk was intended to breed humility and and faith: humility in the face of the thousand-plus years of Muslim scholarship on related issues, and the faith that the eminent Muslim scholars of the past had provided satisfactory, authoritative answers–if only one read their works. “All the questions that you are raising have already been answered by scholars in the Islamic tradition. These scholars were well-educated in the Islamic sciences, they were brilliant, had photographic and encyclopedic memories; they were qualified to ask and answer these questions. If you want to ask such questions, you must first study the illustrious Islamic tradition, which has all the answers.” I heard various versions of this response from different scholars. It was and continuous to be used to stifle critical inquiry and to delegitimize new positions, perspectives, and criticisms that seek to make Islam relevant to contemporary concerns. But what is the “Islamic tradition,” I wondered, and what does it say about Q. 4:34? For all the talk of the “Islamic tradition,” it is not easily defined…. The scholars I spoke with about Q. 4:34 called upon the authority of the “Islamic tradition,” speaking about it as a vague and disembodied concept…. The “Islamic tradition” is invoked as as the solution to all modern problems, even if the content of those solutions is never clear. (Different excerpts from Pages 2-7. I very highly recommend reading the whole book.)
I share this to note that women are often told “if only you’d study the tradition, you’ll understand” almost as though to silence us, to suppress our questions and concerns and discomforts with violent, oppressive interpretations of the Qur’an. It’s as though we’re not expected to study this tradition, and so it’s an empty reaction to our perfectly valid questions. Or, as Chaudhry says it, this appeal to the “Islamic tradition” “was and continuous to be used to stifle critical inquiry and to delegitimize new positions, perspectives, and criticisms that seek to make Islam relevant to contemporary concerns.”
4. Today, in order to be considered a scholar, one should be required to study contemporary & modern texts on Islam (and not be limited to pre-modern ones)–including, yes, the feminist scholarship. Just like a scholar shouldn’t and doesn’t have to agree with what the (often disturbingly misogynistic) things scholars of the past said (and their worshipers today repeat but in sugarcoated, more “modern,” “scientific” ways), no one has to agree with what’s being said today by feminist scholars. But especially if I’m required to sit through disturbing material about women in classical/medieval texts because that’s a part of the legacy our scholars left us and because that’s what I have to read and am expected to believe and accept as more authentic than any egalitarian interpretations of God’s original Word, then the traditionalists should be required to read what’s being said by women today about that past material. Is that not the least we can demand of our “scholars” today?
Otherwise, that training should be considered incomplete and dishonest. And completely unfair and untrue to the spirit of Islam. Any study of Islam should be as comprehensive as possible, as honest as possible. At the very least, the study of contemporary feminist scholarship by traditionalists should be so that the traditionalists don’t have to rely on assumptions when talking about feminist scholarship. When I mention a decade-old, groundbreaking book by a woman academic scholar of Islam, the traditionalist’s response shouldn’t be, “I will check it out” or “who’s she? Where did she study?”; it should be, “yes, I’ve read it” – and “I disagree with her” if that’s relevant to the conversation. Someone once told me that one traditionalist scholar, when teaching his students about the works of one of the most important Muslim woman academic Islamic scholar of our time, introduced her work as “intellectual masturbation.” I don’t even know what the term means, but it’s very telling.
It seems so unethical to me that someone can declare himself a scholar of Islam and not know about some of the most important women scholars (and their scholarship) of our time. How have we managed to let them get away with such intellectual dishonesty for so long?