Freedom from the Forbidden

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

Script: A Discussion of Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics & Islam – Intro and Ch. 1: Marriage, Money, Sex | What the Patriarchy?!

The following is a (rough!! very rough!) script of the video on Intro & Ch. 1 of Kecia Ali’s classic Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on the Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence (2006 & 2016).

Link to the video: https://youtu.be/C7VPGdTw9Mw


Hello, pa khair [welcome in Pashto, my native tongue], and assalamu alaikum wr wb! Welcome to hashtag what the patriarchy where we strive to uproot the patriarchy from Islam. Thank you for being here. This is Shehnaz!

So today, we’re going to be talking about another classic book on Islam. It’s called Sexual Ethics & Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence by THE Kecia Ali. And when I was taking notes on this book for this vlog, I literally wrote like 30 plus pages and I refuse for them to go to waste, so we’re going to do separate episodes on just a couple chapters at a time for this book. We’ll be talking about the 2016 edition of the book. It was first published in 2006.

I’ve read this book several times since my first read in 2008, and I’ve never met anyone who has actually read this book who didn’t like it. I’ve met plenty of people who’ve never read the book and hate it, though. But that’s, you know, that’s a thing that exists. I know folks who teach Contemporary Islam courses who’ve never read this book or even heard of it. Like … can you really call yourself a scholar of Islam or a researcher at all if you don’t know about this book? That’s a rhetorical question – but the answer is no, obvi, you can’t. But people think that if the word “gender” or “women” or “sexuality” appears in a book on Islam, that you can’t assign it in a general Islam class; it’s relevant only to gender stuff as if that’s supposed to make sense at all. Patriarchal biases are so destructive, aren’t they. #DeathToPatriarchy

So basically, if you teach an Islam class and do NOT usually assign this book, you’re not teaching Islam right. You’re gonna need to fix that yesterday. And, no, not just an Islam class on gender; this is also an essential read for Intro to Islam classes, Islamic philosophy, Islamic ethics, Contemporary Islam, Historical Islam, whatever it is that you teach. In my experience, dudes think that they don’t have gender and that books on gender especially if written by feminists aren’t relevant to their courses. You need to fix that attitude.

Also, a word on the title. I really don’t like the word “reflections” in the subtitle. This book is not a reflection. The word “reflection” is so dismissive – it’s as if anything on gender written by a woman or a feminist must be “reflections” only. Uh, no, these are serious, critical engagements with the patriarchy. It’s an analysis – a scholarly thing to do; it’s not a reflection, which patriarchal academics don’t consider serious scholarship.

The chapters here are on: marriage and its many facets, like the dower (or mahr), sex, interreligious marriage (she talks about women’s marriage to non-Muslims – a thing I’m currently obsessed with); another chapter is on divorce; of course there’s a chapter on sexual slavery or the idea of having sex with – i.e., raping enslaved women; illicit sexual acts, like pre-marital sex;  same-sex sexual relations; female circumcision, or FGM – female genital mutilation; ch 7 called “female bodies and male agency in the Qur’an” is one of my personal favorites, although having read more on the topic, I have different ideas now – like on the audience of the Qur’anic verses on marriage and gender and sex; Aisha’s marriage to the Prophet s.; and finally toward an Islamic ethic of sex.

For me personally and intellectually, it also does something significant: it’s an excellent reminder and also an excellent illustration of the now hopefully obvious fact that “Islam” doesn’t have to be just, only the interpretations of the misogynist dudes who’ve interpreted it historically. If the misogynist interpretations and practices of Islam are supposedly valid – and in my opinion they’re objectively not valid – then so are the feminist interpretations and practices.

And the book does this by totally questioning what the word “Islamic” even means. What makes something Islamic? Is it in the Qur’an? And if so, is it clear or has it been debated? Is it Islamic because its in hadiths? Because its in the fiqh? In my objective and professional opinion, something isn’t Islamic just because a bunch of male scholars said so.

Needless to say, any unprofessional words or phrases or tones I use in this episode are my own and not the author’s and probably not endorsed by the author. I’ll try to be clear about where I’m speaking as me and where I’m getting ideas from the book.

There are several key points of this book that I want to highlight here before I get to specific points from each chapter because believe me, each chapter offers such significant knowledge that it blows the mind.

These points are not listed in any order. It’s really mainly from my memory and notes.

First is the point about the inconsistent ways that Islam is defined and approached in questions of gender, sex, sexuality, women, men. So if we accept one hadith in Bukhari – like the idea that women must be sexually available for their husbands at all times – because it’s Bukhari and too many Muslims wrongly believe everything in his collection is correct, then what do we do with a hadith like the Prophet consummated his marriage with Aisha when she was 9? If we claim that polygyny is allowed for all times and all contexts because the Qur’an authorizes it, then what do we with something like slavery, which also the Qur’an permits? Whatever we do, we have to recognize that our interpretations are choices; they’re not objective facts, but we choose from a set of options, they’re judgments we make based on what hopefully what our conscience tells us is right. It’s never simply “Islam” that’s telling us what to do. (More on this coming up.) And whatever we choose WILL have consequences and we have to be willing to recognize the impacts of those consequences. One of Ali’s recommendations – and there are many – is that our values be guided by – and I quote – “deep ethical reflection on the overarching divine purpose of human life on earth: to command what is right, to forbid what is wrong, to do good deeds, and to be ever-conscious of God” (p. 199 in the 2016 edition).

Second: There’s a gap between historical, classical teachings and ideas, and contemporary present-day values, and actual sexual practices, and these gaps actually allow for a very fluid practice of Islam.

Third: Who gets to speak about Islam authoritatively esp when it comes to sex related stuff?

Fourth: what gets to count as Islamic? So, for example, while historical fiqh allows a father to marry off his daughter AND son, by the way, in some legal schools or madhahib, without their consent, today’s Muslims – like those with positions of authority – invoke hadiths on consent for marriage and do not allow child or forced marriages in theory anymore.

Fifth: Our understanding of Islam is very much rooted in what’s important to us as a community or society at a given time and place. Islam, in other words, never happens or is practiced in a vacuum; it’s a product of larger things. So, for instance, historical fiqh took for granted the presence of slavery and developed a system of marriage that was very much founded on slavery: More specifically, a MAN was allowed to have sex with anyone he owned or had ownership of, whether through marriage or slavery. Marriage was milk al-nikah and slavery was milk al-yamin, possession through marriage/nikaah or possession of the right hand, which is euphemism for slavery. Now, people think that just cuz slavery is no longer officially present, this conversation is irrelevant. BUT! This book shows that actually, slavery remains integral conceptually to the regulations of marriage and marriage-related stuff. The jurists – in my opinion shamelessly – used similar language for slavery as for marriage: so a husband gained access to his wife through mahr, sort of like a man gained sexual access to a woman by enslaving her or purchasing her, and both could let go of the woman whenever they felt like it.

Oh! People often ask, “What, so are you saying that ALL the scholars of the past are wrong just because they said these things about women?” … Well, yeah. Is it not possible for ALL people to be wrong about something? They were ALL also wrong about slavery and child marriage and wife-beating – because they all allowed all these three very wrong and unethical and immoral and objectively un-islamic things. So yeah they were wrong. I don’t know why that’s controversial.

Fun fact: did you know that al-Ghazali, whom everyone loves for some reason, advises a man who can’t afford to marry a free woman but has sexual urges to satisfy to go ahead and marry a woman enslaved by another man so that at least he won’t masturbate! For Ghazali, marrying an enslaved woman whose kids will be enslaved if you marry her is a lesser evil than zina AND masturbation! That’s why not everything dead dudes said about Islam is “Islamic.”

Now, there are gems in each chapter, so let’s walk through them beginning with the Intro. In this episode, we’re covering ONLY the Intro and chapter 1.

In the Introduction: By the way, this introduction is so well written and so useful that I think it can stand on its own as well without one’s having to read the whole book.

So, in the Intro, we get the whole point of this book. We get the problems with the idea of “the status of women in Islam” and the different ways this phrase is often approached and imagined. And the problem with “Islam and the West,” as if the two are mutually exclusive, as if there’s  such thing as Western Islam or Western Muslims, as if the two are inherently contradictory or in a constant battle with each other – they’re not. You get an either or – either Islam is oppressive and the Muslim woman is a poor oppressed woman who needs saving by the colonizer or now the descendants of the colonizer, or the Muslim woman is a queen and royalty and Islam is the best religion in the world that treats women like precious little diamonds and pearls (that’s supposed to be a good thing—but it’s not) and if you need an example, the hadith about how heaven lies beneath the feet of the mother. The worst of the west – in practice – is compared with the best of islam in theory, as if that’s supposed to make sense, and as if Muslim women don’t have literally identical problems that women anywhere in the world have. In the latter, the Muslim woman is juxtaposed against the “western” woman, the western woman being the oppressed one because look how she has to show skin and how her boyfriend won’t marry and her husband cheats on her (as opposed to I guess just practicing polygamy?!) – and so on. In both cases, Muslim women are talked about – either by western, feminist women, by western misogynist men, or by Muslim misogynist men. Muslim women aren’t talked to in either case.

Also, an important argument of the book is introduced here: the reality, the existence of slavery absolutely shaped the way that historical, classical ideas of gender, sexuality, marriage, and sex developed and are still talked about. But slavery is no longer officially happening, so it’s not explicitly part of the conversation, but its legacy continues through the way we talk about gender relations.

It also highlights the point that the way that Islam talks about marriage, wifely obedience, slavery, etc. isn’t unique to Islam. Other religions and religious texts, including biblical texts, have had nearly identical ways of talking about these things as well. For example, did you know that up until the end of the 20th century, Christian wedding vows included a statement on wifely obedience because it was that important to the biblical idea of a wife?

We also understand why the author’s engaging these texts in the first place – one of the reasons is because of the assumptions that shape these texts. And here, I quote the author: “In part, this book is an attempt to demonstrate that constructive and critical engagement with the Islamic intellectual heritage can be important in providing a framework for renewed and invigorated Muslim ethical thought.” END QUOTE. In other words, the tradition does offer a lot that’s valuable, especially for moving forward, for considering new ways to practice Islam. New AND ethical and better ways to practice Islam. To quote Ali again: “[A careful investigation of the legal tradition] illustrates that some of the doctrines taken for granted as “Islamic” emerged at a particular time and place as the result of human interpretive endeavor and need not be binding for all time” (p. xxi). So these men’s interpretations of Islam aren’t all there is to Islam and don’t have to be followed by us eternally and universally, AND this also authorizes us, Muslims today, of all kinds, to continue that tradition of interpretation. And this question of what is properly Islamic and what’s not, the question of authenticity, is a recurring key theme throughout this book.

Now, on chapter 1… We’ll talk about mahr and nafaqah, or spousal maintenance. Prepare for some pretty unacceptable things that the fiqh tells us about marriage and mahr and divorce. It will make you angry but hopefully reinforce the need for a feminist fiqh and the death of patriarchy, so it’s ultimately not SO bad a thing.

First on mahr. Mahr is something that virtually all Muslims agree theoretically is required of husbands to wives. Virtually all Muslims also agree that husbands are required in Islam to financially provide for their wives. Yet, in practice, neither is universally necessarily true. The author’s focus is on U.S. Muslims. Where Muslim wives largely contribute financially to their households – and this isn’t just an American thing: Muslim women, as women generally anywhere, universally contribute financially to their households. Often out of need. So the central argument of this chapter, widely related to the rest of the book, is that the arguments that are used by Muslim scholars and often adopted by regular, ordinary Muslim people to insist that classical rules on marriage be followed – because, you know they’re Islamic and all – are actually not compatible with other commonly held ideas about marriage. These rules, these theoretical doctrines, don’t take into account the contexts of people living in the U.S. or really contemporary Muslims anywhere.

So the author suggests – and I agree – that we may need to reconsider the way we think about dower or mahr, spousal support, and women’s interreligious marriage SO that a more ethical, more egalitarian structure of marriage is made possible.

In this chapter, we get some groundbreaking information like, did you know that the purpose of mahr is actually to provide exclusive sexual access to the husband? I KNOW!! It blew my mind too. It’s literally called thaman al-bud’a ­= price of the vulva!And the husband is required, in the fiqh rules, to give the full mahr, by the way, once the marriage has been consummated. Mahr wasn’t invented by Islam or by Muslim jurists; it was a common practice in Arabia before Islam and viewed as a gift to the bride’s family in exchange for considering her children as belonging to the father’s tribe rather than the mother’s tribe. So mahr was a symbolic thing given in exchange of some form of property. The Muslim jurists kept the idea of mahr but gave it a different meaning: instead of making it about children or lineage, or essentially purchasing lineage rights, they made it about sexual access to the wife. This isn’t a qur’anic idea, btw, although that’s debatable somewhat because apparently everything in the Qur’an is debatable. But for sure, the Qur’an does NOT force the woman to accept the marh; the fiqh forces the woman to accept mahr in order for her to stay married to the husband. And now you understand why – he basically can’t have sexual access to the wife if there’s no mahr. So, now, it’s actually not a liberating and wonderful and feminist and woman-friendly thing that we get mahr – it’s rooted in some serious-ass misogyny. We also learn in the chapter on divorce that women actually have to return their mahr if they initiate the divorce, or what is called khul‘. So here’s a break down of mahr: according to fiqh, a bride accepts mahr from the groom in exchange for giving him sexual access. She is entitled to this mahr so long as she is giving him sexual access. If she choose to divorce him, a thing called khul‘, then she has to return the mahr to him. (There are exceptions we’ll talk about in a bit). And that’s because she’s choosing to deny him access. If he himself initiates the divorce, however, she gets to still keep the mahr since she’s not the one making the decision. We’ll come back to this in a bit. Divorce laws in the fiqh are pretty ridic.

MY opinion: Oh, and as feminists, we CAN keep mahr as an Islamic thing if we like but give it a whole different meaning, something that reflects our egalitarian values rather than the patriarchal idea of a woman’s body as the husband’s sexual property. That could totes be part of feminist fiqh.

Basically, the symbolism of mahr is problematic. The author suggests that if the dower or mahr IS supposed to be intended as economic security for the wife, then its probably more ethical not to attach it to things like consummation, and perhaps something like wages lost and earning potential and the length of the marriage and childbearing and such should be taken into account instead.

Let’s now talk about nafaqah, or spousal maintenance or support. Today’s Muslims explain nafaqah as, well, the husband works and the wife takes care of the kids and the home. But that’s not what the classical jurists reasoned. For them, she gets nafaqah in exchange for sex with the husband. They actually do NOT require the wife to take care of kids or household stuff. She has only one obligation and that is to be available for her husband sexually whenever he wants it regardless of her own interests and wishes and feelings and needs. This is important because the jurists agreed that the WIFE does not have the right to demand sex from her husband whenever and however she feels like it; so he’s not required to have sex with her whenever she wants, only either occasionally or when he wants to. She on the other hand is required to grant him access to her body and vagina whenever the man wants.

Let’s now talk about sex. Muslims be like, hey look how sex-friendly Islam is and everything, while invoking fiqhi ideas on sex, but like … did you know that, while that’s somewhat true, it’s men’s sexual needs that are prioritized? AND female sexuality IS recognized but mostly in a negative way – like, shit, let’s regulate the woman’s sexuality and make sure that her husband is sexually satisfying her or else she’ll cause fitna – the bad kind, not the feminist kind that I try to produce, or that Feminist Islamic Troublemakers of North America (FITNA!) tries to produce over on Facebook (join the group) – and destroy families by sleeping with other men because good God, women and their extremely high sex drive. They literally thought this, y’all. It’s also not framed as the wife’s right but as part of the husband’s obligation. It’s his duty that if he fails to fulfill, the wife’s sexual desires will create a fitna in society. But, yes, they stressed the obligation of the man to make his wife orgasm. #hashtagdeardudes 

But so much for the whole, omg the fiqh totes recognizes and honors a woman’s sexual needs. Don’t get too excited about that. The woman as a temptress trope is nothing to be pleased about. This is how it works, ok:  Men need to satisfy their wives because if not, we women will go out into the world and seek satisfaction by other means, tempting innocent men whose wives aren’t satisfying them, so that we end up having sex with men we’re not married to and destroy other families and the whole of society because we’re powerful like that. But note how woman is the evil in this case no matter what she does: as the wife of man A where A isn’t sexually satisfying us, our strong uncontrollable sex drive will tempt us to go and seek sexual intercourse with Man B, who WILL agree to have sex with us because his WIFE isn’t sexually satisfying him. The second woman is why all women need to be sexually available for their husbands; the first woman is why women’s sexual activity needs to be regulated. Bad, bad women. And this isn’t just a classical thing. Talk about the classical ideas still affecting our lives today – today’s Muslims still largely insist that the wife needs to be readily available for her husband whenever. And yet, the power of women’s high sex drive isn’t recognized in the contemporary. And we know there’s no shortage of hadiths to defend the idea that the wife MUST be available for her husband whenever. We’ll talk another time about the falsity of those hadiths, clearly invented by dudes who weren’t interested in satisfying their wives so that the wives would look forward to sex, so they decided to attribute their rage and misogyny to the Prophet and lo and behold, it worked. (Oh! Fun fact – not from the book, just my thought: if your wife doesn’t like to have sex or if you know a woman who doesn’t like to have sex, while I can’t speak conclusively to that, I can assure you it’s because you’re not doing a good job sexually satisfying her. Do better and she’ll want more sex with you.)

Oh, and sex by force – or marital rape in this case – while not haram (apparently lol) was still viewed as unethical by the jurists. (See why you need to question what exactly makes something “Islamic”? If it’s unethical, how the hell is it not haraam?!)

BUT! The wife was still entitled to sex from her husband – almost all of the schools agreed that impotence was reasonable grounds for divorce, BUT here’s the catch: the wife could leave her husband ONLY if he isn’t able to consummate the marriage. Once he has consummated the marriage, she can’t use impotence against him later to get a divorce, because most of the schools don’t allow that anymore. Consummation was viewed as her right and sex is her duty, but sex is the man’s right.

This “Islam is such a sex-positive religion” is very apologetic discourse and selective in which parts of the fiqh it highlights and how it chooses to read and frame it.

The last theme of this chapter is intermarriage. This refers to marriage between Muslims and People of the Book, understood as Christians and Jews. There’s a very long debate in the Islamic tradition (Sunni because Shii scholars didn’t allow men to marry any non-Muslim woman.) But generally, they didn’t prohibit men’s marriage to non-Muslims in the way they did women’s.

This is a current topic of my research, so I promise to come back to it soon – fun fact: it turns out, Islam DOES allow women to marry People of the Book, contrary to what everyone and their imam tells you. (The author doesn’t say this; this is Shehnaz speaking.) The author tells us that Qur’anic verse 5:5 grants explicit permission for men to marry People of the Book, but no explicit prohibition for women to do so; Q.2:221 prohibits all Muslims to marry all mushriks; 60:10 prohibits women from returning to their kuffar husbands. Now, while the majority of the scholars historically understood these verses collectively to prohibit women from marrying ALL non-Muslims while allowing men to marry virtuous women from the People of the Book, AND they historically claimed that a marriage is automatically dissolved if a non-Muslim woman converts to Islam while her husband remains a non-Muslim, today’s Muslims have a different view on the latter part. There was a historical minority view that a woman who’s converted to Islam and married to a non-Muslim for years CAN stay married to her non-Muslim husband. Many scholars today support this view because they think divorce and breaking the family apart is the bigger evil than staying married to a non-Muslim.

It was historically assumed that it made totes sense to forbid a Muslim woman from marrying ANY non-Muslim while allowing a man to marry Christians and Jews. That no longer makes sense today, of course. But here’s the logic of the prohibition: again, we go back to the scholars’ conception of marriage as a form of slavery: milk al nikaah, remember? Ownership, dominion over someone through nikaah. Two significant VERY un-qur’anic assumptions are the pillars of this very un-qur’anic prohibition (the un-quranic is my word, not the author’s; she’s far more careful about how she talks about what’s Islamic and what’s not. I’m not. We have different audiences.) Those assumptions are: all men are superior to all women; and all Muslims are superior to all non-Muslims. So as a result, every woman has to obey her husband – remember the wifely obedience nonsense we talked about earlier? Yeah, that’s instrumental to this prohibition. For these men, marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man would disrupt the hierarchy they read into Islam because both spouses are superior to each other in some way: the wife because she is Muslim, the husband because he is male. However, marriage between Muslim men and non-Muslim women made sense, according to the hierarchy, because he was superior both as a Muslim and as a male. See how excellently that worked out in favor of the patriarchy? Exactly.

And again, today’s Muslim scholars seem to agree that, CONTRARY to what the fiqh says, if a woman converts to Islam and is married to a non-Muslim, she doesn’t have to leave her husband and their marriage isn’t dissolved; the historical scholars said, na, the prohibition they invented out of their… mouths was so important that NO marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man can EVER be legitimate no matter what. Except for the minority view that has now become the majority, it looks like.

There’s literally NO evidence and NO good reason for why women cannot marry other monotheists like men can. This gets me real excited so I must pause this discussion right here and return to it in hopefully a few weeks. (I do have a detailed blog post on the topic!) The author does an excellent job pointing out the flaws of the popular claim that the Qur’an or Islam prohibits women’s marriage to non-Muslims. Highly recommended since there’s very little research on this topic.

The author provides what I think are excellent suggestions in the Conclusion for what we can do about the problems raised in the chapter. Like alternative, more egalitarian, more ethical alternative ways of thinking about mahr, divorce, marriage, sex, and so on. After all – and this is my thought – there’s literally NO reason to think that the historical scholars’ opinions and interpretations of Islam are ANY more Islamic than our own. So alternatives are possible, and certainly needed, and they too can be Islamic.

All right, so I’ll pause here and continue chapter 2 in the next episode!  Bottom line so far: excellent and essential read! So pick it up if you can and have fun with it!

Salaam.

Categories: Death to patriarchy

1 reply

  1. I have always thoroughly enjoyed reading your posts and really enjoyed this one as well. Thank you so much for the work you do and for this platform. It has taught me so much and has made me feel so validated with regards to Islamic teachings I have been uncomfortable with while growing up as a teenager and now as a young woman.

    PS: I definitely need to get my hands on this book.

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