Is the Legacy of Muslim Women a blank page?

By MASQ UK

I recently read an interview with Amina Wadud entitled ”Islam belongs to all of its believers.” It was conducted by Qantara, a German based project set up by the Federal Center for Political Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung) in order to promote open discourse with the Islamic world. 

Dr. Wadud is a retired Professor of religion and philosophy who quickly rose to fame in March 2005 when she led a mixed congregation of Muslims in a Friday prayer; something she repeated in Barcelona and Oxford later that year. While for many she will be remembered for these very public statements, it would be fairer if she is remembered for her many books designed to rebalance what she would argue as more than a thousand years of patriarchal readings of the Qur’an and hadith literature. She is by no means alone in this quest, with a whole host of other academics seeking to carry out female readings of the Qur’an. 

What spurred me to write about Dr. Wadud is that her Qantara interview reignited a general grievance surrounding scholarship, or rather the lack thereof, that I have with the lion’s share of today’s prominent western academics who focus on gender studies in Islam and what the role of the Muslim women should be. So while the focus of this post is aimed towards Dr. Wadud, there exist of host of other interchangeable academics. 

I should here state that my criticism is quite specific and in no way general. There is no doubting the fact that the immense contribution of women in the West to Islamic scholarship cannot be distinguished in merit, worth and impact from the corresponding male scholarship. It is also reasonable and fair to say that the treatment of women in Muslim countries is littered with all too many examples of inequality, injustice and a clear departure from the Islamic teaching. Furthermore, that securing the rights of women MUST be a universal ambition that knows no boundary.

The problem, however, is that when one moves from contemporary studies on the Qur’an, hadith, ritual devotion and history, to the area of gender studies, there is a distinct drop in academic rigour. This is quite damaging in so much as it undermines the transcendent ambitions of academics who seek equality and justicefor Muslim women, when they themselves do not conduct their research at an acceptable scholarly level.

In the interview, for example, Dr. Wadud states: 

‘Until the 20th century, not only do we not have any tafsir, i.e. exegesis generated by women, we don’t even have a record of a Muslim woman writing anything in a journal that might serve as part of a legacy of women reading the Koran… 

‘We know that women read the Koran, and that they have memorized the Koran from the time of the Prophet. But we don’t know what women think about the Koran, we don’t have any record of that. So we’re trying to fill in the gaps and to construct a gender-inclusive reading that will open up the issue and give us a better understanding of what the Koran means for us as human beings. So yes, it does make a difference and the good news is that now we are aware of this, we can seize the opportunity to learn more about the Koran.’ 

This is a view common to academics specialising in Islamic Gender studies. The disintegrating premise here is that over 1,400 years we find isolated examples of female piety, but nothing which would allow us to construct an intellectual female legacy. So while the historians studying early Islam (Myrne, P., 2010; also Bint al-Shati, 2006), the medieval period (Rappaport, Y., 2005), the Fatimid rule (Cortese, D., 2006), post 6th CE Persia (Nashat, G., & Beck, L., 2003) and Chinese history (Jaschok, J., 2000) find ample examples of a female intellectual history, Dr. Wadud appears to view the legacy of Muslim women as negligible at best.

This contention seems at odds with the numerous works detailing that the Prophet’s (saw) wives ‘A’isha and Umm Salma (rh) were of critical importance to the development of Islamic law and in safeguarding both the source material and accurate interpretation of that material which is the basis of Islamic law. The role of ‘A’ishah (ra) as the primary teach of her nephew ‘Urwa b. al-Zubayr, who went on to become one of the seven jurists of Medina, is seemingly of little importance also.

It thus stands to ‘reason’ that little attention should be paid towards Imam Shafi’i (rh), one of the most important figures in the development of Islamic law, who is reported as having learnt the hadith literature from a female contemporary of his, Sayyida Nafisa (rh), and that he instructed her to oversee his funeral and execute his will. It may also, therefore, seem inconsequential that Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (ra) stated that his wife was his equal in her knowledge of jurisprudence and also that people used to seek her opinion in his absence. 

These are but a few cursory examples and do not even begin to explore the depths of the intellectual legacy of women in the history of Islam. The Arabic biographical literature, both medieval and modern, is filled with volumes of entries detailing the lives of strong, pious and highly intelligent Muslim women (see, for example, Akram Nadvi’s recent publication of a forty volume biography of Muslim women who studied and taught the hadith literature). 

And so it is not unreasonable for us to call upon certain sections of academia to show greater respect to the standing of women in Islamic history than evidenced in statements such as: ”we don’t even have a record of a Muslim woman writing anything in a journal that might serve as part of a legacy of women reading the Koran.”

This leads me onto the following statement made by Dr. Wadud:

”And if Islam is not just and fair to all of us, to every single one of us, then it means Islam is not just and fair. So while each of us may not be an expert in every aspect of Islamic fiqh, i.e. jurisprudence, or tafsir, i.e. interpretation, the contribution we can make is to consider whether an understanding of Islam is being applied to our lives in a fair and just manner. In conclusion, even if we are not experts, we are not beyond influencing the discourse.” 

The pretext upon which she makes this statement is wholly erroneous. It is rather for each Muslim to consider whether or not other Muslims, in authority, are just and fair in how they apply Islamic law; with Islam in the context of state governance today merely amounting to a political agent moulded to meet the selective ambitions of each ruling elite. From this perspective, it is clear that what she considers Islam is not in fact Islam at all. 

Furthermore, and to conclude with this post’s salient point, it is Dr. Wadud and others in her field who themselves need to be fair in how they treat Islam or, more precisely, the women who practised Islam from 6th CE Arabia to the global Muslim community that exists today. A more rigorous and systematic academic approach, which sees scholars engaging with primary the sources in a far more granular way, as in line with academics in other fields, would add considerable value and credibility to a field that so often leaves readers short-changed. 

Until then, sadly, ignorance of the considerable legacy of Muslim women will almost certainly hinder the progress that is so desperately needed.

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3 thoughts on “Is the Legacy of Muslim Women a blank page?

  1. I found this to be a really well written and informative article. I would highly encourage you to submit it to altmulsimah.com– a website that deals with a wide variety of Muslim gender-related issues. They have a really wide readership. I think many can benefit from a piece like this. JazakAllah for taking the time to write it.

  2. Maybe her motives are more selfish and sinister like that of KIng Henry the Eighth of England when he dumped Catholicism to create the Church of England putting himself ahead of the Pope so he could do he pleased. After all she too has a history of playing sacriligious a Imam.

  3. very interesting!
    perhaps it is an over compensation to counter the oppressive manner in which Islamic teachings are (ab)used and twisted to “control” and “silence” women in many Muslim countries. just a thought…

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