Freedom from the Forbidden

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Summary of “Journeys Toward Gender Equality in Islam” by Ziba Mir-Hosseini (video script)

Here it is!! My latest video on What the Patriarchy?! Conversation with the author coming up soon. Script below the video.

Hello, salam, and welcome to What the Patriarchy, where we work on destroying the patriarchy. Which I know sounds very ambitious, but we got this!

Today, we’re going to talk about this wonderful exciting new book by Ziba Mir-Hosseini called, Journeys Toward Gender Equality in Islam, published in 2022 with OneWorld Publications. If you’re not familiar with Ziba’s other work, I highly recommend it! She’s author of other books, like these two I have on my bookshelf, Islam and gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran, and she’s editor, co-editor, of Men in Charge? [with a question mark!]: Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition. I have a review of the latter book on my blog that I’ll link to in the video description here.

So what I’m going to do here first is to give you a brief intro to the book, some of the main themes covered, and then in the next video, you’ll get to hear from the author herself.

So what happens is, over the course of more than a decade, the author interviews the following scholars in different settings: Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, amina wadud, Asma Lamrabet, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Mohsen Kadivar, and Sedigheh Vasmaghi. Ziba and the six other scholars she speaks with are contemporary influential scholars of Islam who have been working for decades on gender and social justice issues from an Islamic perspective, using Islamic sources, and in most cases, working with Islamic, religious institutions, like seminaries in Muslim-majority countries, to promote the change that they want to see in their societies. Sadly, though, in nearly all, or many?, cases, they are forced to leave their positions from these institutions because the religious patriarchy, the traditional ‘ulama (scholars of Islam) are somehow so very threatened by the call for a just, compassionate, beautiful Islam that can accommodate gender equality.

So why should you read this book? Because it’s an excellent reminder that we’re not alone, those of us working for positive social change, we’re not alone. That gender justice is a process, a journey, and each scholar whose story and whose perspectives on Islam, sharia, fiqh, the Qur’an, gender justice, Muslim societies that we get in this book is on that journey with us. Some of us are new on this road, but the folks in this book have been fighting this fight, making good constructive trouble – feminist fitna, if you will – for decades. And that makes me very hopeful. That makes me feel loved and valued as a woman, as a young person, as a feminist. It’s the fuel I need to continue the work that I do because others have laid such important foundation for getting me to this point.

One of the many things that I love about this book and in general about Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s other scholarship also is this serious commitment to using Islam itself as a source of positive change. It’s like there’s all of these things that she knows about the sharia, about fiqh, about Muslim institutions, and she knows how patriarchy works, how power works, and she’s so concerned with why Muslim institutions she’s constantly in conversation with just won’t let go of male privilege. In her book Islam and Gender, she has detailed, extensive conversations about all things marriage, gender, divorce, women’s rights with different kinds of scholars, traditionally trained Muslim male scholars in Iran, and the traditionalist ones – most of them, but some of the others also – just are so committed to patriarchy, so influenced by patriarchy that they don’t see what she see, they just can’t see things a different way.

And so one of the questions she asks each of these scholars precisely about this issue – of how effective, if at all, it is for Muslim feminists, Muslim reformers, Muslim activists working toward positive social change to work with Muslim institutions. Is it helpful? And their responses vary, understandably, often stemming from their own personal experiences in these institutions. I mean, keep in mind, some of these folks go to prison for their views, they face betrayals by folks who privately support them but publicly won’t speak up.

Another question that the author discuses with each scholar is that of the meaning and role of the Qur’an – many of them point out that the Qur’an is not a legal document and it’s not intended as such, and so what does it mean to insist on the unchanging nature of rules in fiqh that are totally man-made, that are not from the Qur’an, most of them are not even based in the Qur’an!

Now, in the interest of keeping this video somewhat short, I won’t talk in detail about each scholar in the book. I’ll give quick overviews of those that I think you’re likely to be familiar with already, but I’ll give a little more detail on those that I think aren’t as well known yet but should be.

I’m especially grateful that we get here Shii and Sunni scholars, because Shii scholarship doesn’t get much attention in Islamic feminism, or in the American Islam context, and the scholar who’s totally brand new to me in this book is Sedigheh Vasmaghi, who’s an Iranian jurist, activist, and intellectual, and she has been studying and teaching in Muslim seminaries for decades.

Now, while too often, Muslim scholars who are critical of patriarchal and unjust interpretations of sharia or fiqh are accused of being westerners or being westernized or using western methodologies and frameworks to bring their critiques, that’s just not true in most cases – and even if it were the case, by the way, so what? Because historically, Muslim scholars relied heavily on western notions of gender inequality to read injustice into the Qur’an and prophetic tradition, so why can’t we do the same today to get the opposite results instead, to read “wastern” notions of gender equality into the tradition?! The reality, however, is that the patriarchy has already made a conclusion that Islam is inherently inegalitarian, inherently unjust, that women in Islam are inherently inferior to men. And again, historically, they cited western “intellectuals” like Aristotle to support this claim! And Muslim patriarchy won’t tolerate alternative viewpoints just on gender and sexuality issues! On everything else, they’ve made changes! Economics, politics, even something like worship and rituals, we’ve seen changes. You’d think gender inequality is an essential message of Islam and that’s why it’s not to be meddled with!

A main take away for me in this book is this: today’s traditionalist, patriarchal Muslim scholars pretend that their hands are tied because “but Islam says …” but that’s not true at all. They’re being dishonest and deliberately incorrect when they tell us that Islam does not accommodate something like women’s equal rights, or equal shares in inheritance, or equal access to divorce, or women’s right to marry non-Muslims, and so on. Because they’re talking about fiqh there, and fiqh is very, very human, and it’s entirely a product of scholarly – male scholarly, to be sure –  interpretations of Islam, of sharia. It needs to change with time, it is expected to change with time, and trust no one who tells you otherwise!

Ziba speaks with each scholar about their intellectual journeys, their opinions on gender justice and gender issues in Islam generally, sometimes their approaches to sharia and fiqh, if and how their opinions and approaches have evolved with time, what they find of their publications to be most significant, and so on. There are times when they disagree with each other, times when they share a common principle but disagree on the language, and it makes for a very rich, fascinating conversation. 

In describing her own journey, when Ziba’s talking about her influences and her sources of inspiration, she talks about folks before her who challenged patriarchy from within using Islam itself, including Tahir Haddad whose book Our Women in the Sharia and Society (1930) had a huge impact on Ziba; Fazlur Rahman’s The Status of Women in Islam: A Modernist Approach (1982) was important for her; and Nasr Abu Zayd The Status of Women Between the Qur’an and Fiqh, the writing of which got interrupted by his untimely death in 2010. I think that one of the most tragic things to have happened in Islamic history is that Haddad, who was Tunisian, was severely penalized for his critiques of women’s treatment in Tunisian society (he simply argued that the sharia grants women full equality with men!) And apparently this was so wrong to say that he was condemned heavily for saying it! And I’m talking here he was declared an apostate, his degrees were revoked; he lost all kinds of support; and he died in isolation and poverty. And then???! This is the tragedy, Tunisia later uses exactly his arguments to give women so many of the rights that Tunisian women enjoy today, including women’s right to marry non-Muslims! And equal share in inheritance! He was essentially killed for saying the things that have now become mainstream in Tunisian society!add

She also beautifully summarizes the different approaches to gender issues in Islam, which she classifies as traditionalist (which is rooted in the idea of inequality between women and men), neo-traditionalist (the whole women and men complement each other argument, or gender complementarity), and reformist-feminist (gender equality on all fronts). This chapter is a very useful text if you’re looking for a quick summary of Islamic feminist arguments, approaches, methods, frameworks, and so on.

The first person she talks with is Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na‘im. One of the most fascinating points in this conversation is that of their disagreement on the distinction between fiqh and sharia. Ziba insists in this book, as she has in much of her other work, that the sharia and fiqh are not the same, that sharia is broad and abstract, while fiqh is an attempt, a human attempt, to make the sharia applicable and relevant to human life. For Ziba, this distinction is fundamental for social justice and gender justice work, and it’s liberating for Islamic feminism in particular, because it means that fiqh is naturally and by definition supposed to be evolving, it’s supposed to be constantly evolving and changing to accommodate new human realities. Abdullahi, however, does not find this distinction so useful. And I’m not quite sure I understand why, because the whole time that I was reading their conversation, I kept thinking, wait that’s exactly what Ziba is saying too, and yes that’s true! So, for example, he says, on p 72, “There must always be a human understanding of the divine” – precisely! And that’s fiqh! I think what he’s trying to say is that fiqh and sharia are one and the same because you can’t have one without the other.

Then there’s amina wadud. We learn here about amina’s upbringing, her journey to Islam, her father’s influence on her work on social justice, on justice and activism, the origin of her book Qur’an and Woman: Re-reading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (on which I’ve done a video before), her involvement in Sisters in Islam, which is a Malaysian women’s organization using Islam for feminist change, just generally her history of challenging patriarchy from within the Islamic tradition. The story behind her leading the famous 2005 prayer that got sensationalized in ways she didn’t approve of, and her evolving relationship with feminism, Islamic feminism. And one of my favorite parts of the conversation is about the origins of her model the tawhidic paradigm and her argument that patriarchy is shirk (idolatry), which is one of her most important contributions to the study of Islam. We also read here about her idea of the feminine divine or divine feminine, where she rejects masculine constructions of God, because as she points out, “people tend to read the Qur’an to exclude females simply because the language is in the male form” (p. 98). Her journey also includes experiences with patriarchal interpretations of Islam, of the Qur’an more specifically as they were explained to her by those she was studying the Qur’an with and she just couldn’t accept it because she noticed that these scholars, these teachers were reading things into the Qur’an that weren’t there, and then later, as she studies more and she studies theory, she’s able to understand what happens when humans impose meaning on to text or try to make sense of texts. Like some of the other scholars in the book, she also points out the Qur’an, or any other text, isn’t just a piece of text, not just writing; our explanations and understanding of it are responses to our experiences, our location, our positionality.

And then we have a chapter on Asma Lamrabet, who I think is very underrated and needs to be more well known in our conversations on Islam and gender and Islam generally. She works against both patriarchy and Islamophobia, so is challenged and critiqued – and dismissed – on multiple fronts, so the secular feminists reject her ideas, the traditionalist ulama she worked with reject her ideas, the Islamophobes. It doesn’t end! She’s author of a book that’s been translated into English; it’s called Women in the Qur’an: An Emancipatory Reading (I have a review of this book on my blog that I’ll link to in the video description). Her journey is very moving, it’s very beautiful but also very sad. It’s a very sad story here about how she works in Islamic institutions in Morocco, and why and how she was forced to resign – ultimately literally just because she argued that Islam does allow women to have an equal share in inheritance. She received so much pushback and ridicule from Islamic scholars, from male ‘ulama for a lot of her interpretations on gender in Islam. There’s anecdotes that she describes that make you really sad. The way that male scholars speak to women? But she shows them in their faces that they are illogical, that they’re the ones who don’t have an argument, that they’re the ones who don’t know Islam, because they keep telling her she’s not qualified to speak on Islam because she didn’t study in a seminary and therefore isn’t allowed to have opinions on anything Islam. Her interpretations of the words hijab vs khimar are also interesting here, since she points out that the word hijab, which the Qur’an uses to mean literally a curtain and a physical barrier, but that the patriarchal Muslim male tradition applies to gender segregation and women’s head-coverings – and that’s incorrect because it comes with serious implications and impacts on women’s lives. She argues that the qur’anic concept of hijab – again, literally a barrier – was distorted to qur’anically justify women’s seclusion and relegation to the private.

Khaled Abou El Fadl gets a chapter here, and his story also an important one. Here, we see so many more examples – like in the other chapters – of how politics, greed, corruption, despotism, tyranny disrupt work on gender justice, how some scholars agree in private about the fact that Islam is and can accommodate gender equality from within, but publicly they won’t admit that because then they might lose power and influence and money. Ziba talks with Khaled about his major influences, like his mother and his wife who have a very important impact on his journey. And his major works, like Reasoning with God and Speaking in God’s Name, both of which are very difficult to read but I still highly recommend them because of the ways that especially the book Speaking in God’s Name challenges the misogyny we find in so many hadiths. And Khaled is trained in both traditional Muslim and western institutions so offers excellent arguments to challenge the patriarchy using Islamic arguments and sources. He describes Reasoning with God as the work that most reflects his latest thinking (this book took him ten years to write), which emphasizes the idea of reasoning outside of the text, that we as readers of the religious texts must take ethical stances, that the texts themselves are not sufficient – we have to make choices about what they mean, and the choices we make should necessarily be ethically grounded.

Next up is Mohsen Kadivar, who’s an Iranian jurist trained in religious institutions in Qom, a major center of Islamic learning, in Iran. He, too, like many of the other folks in this book, has suffered tremendously for his religious views, again, literally for arguing that justice, compassion, equality, dignity are all inherent to Islam. Some important themes in this chapter that I recommend you look more into are Mohsen’s idea of structural ijtihad, vs say traditional ijtihad – the idea of holistic reforms in fiqh rather than piecemeal reforms. You can read more about this idea in his article “Revising Women’s Rights in Islam,” which I’m linking to in the description of this video. The main message here is about justice as an essential, fundamental element of Islam. He talks a lot in this article about how Muslim jurists have historically drawn heavily from Aristotelian notions of justice, such that they were able to grant women fewer rights using Aristotle’s patriarchal view of the world. Talk about western influences! Another important theme here is that of his approach to the sharia and Islam generally – which he bases on four principles, four criteria: justice, rationality, effectiveness, and morality. Using these principles, he argues that too many historical and current fiqh rulings are actually un-Islamic; they just don’t qualify as Islamic anymore because they don’t follow these principles.

Mohsen Kadivar remains firm throughout his life in his belief that religious texts should be understood from a justice- and freedom-oriented perspectives, in an egalitarian way because they have the inherent potential to be read and applied that way. He highlights that the Qur’an never calls itself a book of law but a book of light, a book of guidance, and that it’s humans’ job to read the Qur’an, to read religious texts, in such a way that it remains a source of light and guidance, to read it and make the best meaning of it. Also? He supports women’s’ right to marry non-Muslims, using the Qur’an itself! And I love that especially because that’s what I’m currently working on for my research!

On to our last content chapter in this book is on Sedegheh Vasmaghi. She taught at the Faculty of Theology at Tehran University in Iran, she has studied fiqh in seminaries – and she talks about the challenges she faced as a woman studying and teaching in these institutions. She’s published extensively on sharia, on Islamic law – in Persian, though, so not available to non-Persian readers – although one of her books was recently translated into English as Women, Jurisprudence, Islam. As you can see, a common thread here in the works of each of these scholars is their work on fiqh, really the ways that fiqh holds contemporary Muslims back from a compassionate, just practice of Islam because it is so deeply discriminatory and unjust to women. Like the other scholars in this book also, Sadegheh asks questions like how do jurists, Muslim scholars, come to know what they know about Islam, in their fiqh rulings? The jurists give their own opinions divine validity by claiming that they are unchanging, divine, shar‘i, Sharia rulings, but that’s never been true and never will be. A great example is something like family laws and criminal laws in fiqh – they’re not from sharia; they’re not from the Qur’an; they’re human-made, literally man-made, laws, and therefore they must be subject to change and development. Importantly also, she argues that the sharia should not be applicable to everything, that it should not govern every aspect of life, because neither God nor the Prophet Muhammad s. mandated laws that governed people’s social and political lives. The Prophet’s own sharia is different from what Muslim jurists have historically claimed, she argues, that we’re making a huge mistake as Muslims, as humans, if we keep archaic laws of different cultures and realities and consider them to be sharia. She proposes limiting sharia’s application to ibadaat, or worship, relations between God and humans only, social interactions. And she also disagrees with using hadiths and sunnah as a source of law (I also disagree with that!). I also find her views on marriage really fascinating and relevant – that marriage is not something that Islam defines for us, and when it talks about humans’, say, sexual relations with each other, it’s very rooted in customary and cultural notions of marriage, of sexual relations, and it’s up to humans to decide what marriage is. Lots of other great examples in this discussion of how Islam affords humans immense flexibility in re-defining customs, practices, concepts in ways that are useful and practical in their own contexts rather than keeping only what was acceptable in the past.   

Also, in case I forgot to mention, she, like some of the other folks in this book, have gone to prison for literally holding the opinions like, God loves humans, God is beauty, Islam is a just, egalitarian, kind, compassionate religion. Great job, Muslim patriarchy, for making a point about how beautiful Islam is by actually punishing people who say Islam is beautiful! #sarcasmsInFeminism

And then there’s the conclusion of the book, where the author talks some more about the work of Musawah, which is a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. Musawah understands and teaches Islam to be a source of justice, equality, and dignity for all humans, works for equality in the Muslim family form an Islamic lens, from an Islamic framework. The conclusion summarizes some of the common themes shared by the individuals in the book – so, for example, how they use the Islamic legal tradition into conversations about gender justice and human rights, the challenges they’ve all faced negotiating notions of justice that include – unlike in past fiqh – gender equality. And, of course, there are disagreements among them all, but they do agree on some main essential points: they recognize that the main issues at hand, like gender equality and justice, are social constructs, which is to say that humans decide what they mean and how to apply them, and that the textual sources of Islam are not inherently patriarchal OR exhaustive or eternal, so that their application and interpretation must change with time. After all, early Muslim scholars themselves understood the sharia as a moral rather than a legal concept; they themselves agreed that God, not law, determines what’s right and wrong, that law is the result, not the cause, of humans’ moral responsibility.

And remember, as I always say, if it doesn’t look like justice, it’s not Islamic.

I’ll stop here, and next up will be my conversation with Ziba Mir-Hosseini on this precise book. So stay tuned!


Categories: Death to patriarchy

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