Tuesday, October 18, 2016

ON HIJAB AND AWRAH OF WOMEN AND SLAVES ( from FROM EL FADL’S ‘speaking in God’s name p.481-484)

ON HIJAB AND AWRAH OF WOMEN AND SLAVES ( FROM EL FADL’S ‘speaking in God’s name p.481-484)-reproduced verbatim
There are several material elements that are often ignored
when discussing the issue of ḥijāb or the ‘awrah of women.
These elements suggest that the issue of fitnah might have
dominated and shaped the discourse on the ‘awrah of women,
but they are also informative as to the possible authorial
enterprise behind the fitnah traditions. There are six main
elements that, I believe, warrant careful examination in trying
to analyze the laws of ‘awrah, and that invite us to
re-examine the relationship between ‘awrah and fitnah.
Firstly, early jurists disagreed on the meaning of zīnah
(adornments) that women are commanded to cover. Some
jurists argued that it is all of the body including the hair and
face except for one eye. The majority argued that women
must cover their full body except for the face and hands.
Some jurists held that women may expose their feet and their
arms up to the elbow. Importantly, someone such as Sa‘īd b.
Jubayr asserted that revealing the hair is reprehensible, but
also stated that the Qur’ānic verses did not explicitly say
anything about women’s hair.124 Secondly, the jurists
frequently repeated that the veiling verse was revealed in
response to a very specific situation. As explained above,
corrupt young men would harrass and, at times, assault
women at night as these women headed to the wild to relieve
themselves. Apparently, when confronted, these men would
claim that they did not realize that these women were Muslim
but thought them non-Muslim slave-girls, and, therefore, not
under the protection of the Muslim community. In Medina
society any individual was under the protection of either a
clan or, if the individual was Muslim, under the protection of
Muslims. Therefore, these verses seem to address a very
specific, and even peculiar, historical social dynamic. The
interaction between the text and the text’s social context is not
easily transferable or projectable to other contexts.125
Thirdly, as
noted above, Muslim jurists consistently argued that the laws
mandating the covering of the full body did not apply to
slave-girls.126 In fact, it is reported that ‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb
prohibited slave-girls from imitating free women by covering
their hair. Apparently, Muslim jurists channelled the
historical context of the verses into legal determinations that
promulgated a particular social stratification. However, it is
not clear whether the social stratification addressed by the
Qur’ān is the same as that endorsed by the jurists. Fourthly,
the jurists often argued that what could be lawfully exposed in
a woman’s body was what would ordinarily appear according
to custom (‘ādah), nature (jibillah), and necessity (ḍarūrah).
Relying on this, they argued that slave-girls do not have to
cover their hair, face, or arms because they live an active
economic life that requires mobility, and because by nature
and custom slave-girls do not ordinarily cover these parts of
their bodies. This makes the focal point of the law custom and
functionality. Arguably, however, women in the modern age
live an economically active life that requires mobility and,
arguably, custom varies with time and place.127 In other
words, if the rules prescribing veiling were mandated to deal
with a specific type of harm, and slave-girls were exempted
because of the nature of their social role and function,
arguably, this means that the rules of veiling are contingent
and contextual in nature. Fifthly, several reports state that
women, Muslim or non-Muslim, in Medina, normally would
wear long head-covers – the cloth usually would be thrown
behind ears and shoulders. They would also wear vests open
in the front, leaving their chests exposed. Reportedly, the
practice of exposing the breasts was common until late into
Islam. Several early authorities state that the Qur’ānic verse
primarily sought to have women cover their chests up to the
beginning of the cleavage area. Sixthly, there is a sharp
disjunction between the veiling verses and the notion of
seduction. Seduction could be caused by slave-girls, or could
be between woman and man, woman and woman, or man and
man.128 A man could be seduced by a slave-girl, and a
woman could be seduced by a good looking man, yet neither
slave-girls nor men are required to cover their hair or faces.
Does the fact that a particular man might be sexually enticing
to women affect the obligations of concealment as to this
For the six points above see, al-Ṭabarī, Jāmī‘ al-Bayān,
18:93–95, 22:33–34 (mentions a variety of early opinions
including the up to the elbow and the beginning of cleavage
area determinations; also mentions the distinction between
free and slave girls; mentions the historical practice);
al-Nasafī, Tafsīr al-Nasafī (Cairo: Dār Iḥyā’ al-Kutub
al-‘Arabiyya, n.d.), 3:140, 313, (mentions ‘ādah, jibillah, and
ḥājah; women need to reveal their faces, hands, and feet by
custom, nature, and need; mentions the distinction applicable
to slave-girls; mentions the historical practice); al-Jaṣṣāṣ,
Aḥkām, 3:409–410, 486, mentions that slave-girls do not have
to cover their hair; mentions the historical practice); al-Kiyyā
al-Harrāsī, Aḥkām al-Qur’ān (1974), 4:288, 354 (notes
slave-girls do not have to cover their faces or hair); Ibn
al-‘Arabī’, Aḥkām al-Qur’ān (n.d.), 3:1368–78, 1586–87
(mentions a variety of details to adornments; discusses the
rule as to slave-girls); al-Qurṭubī, al-Jāmī(1993), 12:152–153,
157; 14:156–157 (mentions that the verse was revealed to
address the harassment of women, and to differentiate
slave-girls from Muslim women; notes the opinion that held
that the verse called for the covering of the bosom area); Ibn
Kathīr, Mukhtaṣar Tafsīr Ibn Kathīr, 2:600; 3:114–115,
(mentions determinations as to the bosom; also notes that free
Muslim women must cover their faces); Abū Ḥayyān
al-Andalusī, Tafsīr al-Baḥr al-Muḥīṭ, 6:412; 7:240–241
(mentions custom, nature, necessity; mentions the historical
practice as to revealing the bosom; mentions the distinction as
to slave-girls); al-Zamakhsharī, al-Kashshāf 3:60–62, 274
(mentions the historical practice, distinction as to slave-girls,
the rules as to functionality and custom, mentions that
covering ought not cause hardship); Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād
al-Masīr fī ‘Ilm al-Tafsīr, 5:377–378; 6:224 (mentions
mashaqqah – hardship); al-Māwardī, al-Nukat wa al-‘Uyūn,
4:90–93, 424–425, (notes the opinion that the purpose of
revelation was to instruct women to cover their bosoms;
mentions the differentiation as to slave-girls); al-Shinqīṭī,
Aḍwā’ al-Bayān, 6:192–203, 586–600 (mentions a variety of
positions; mentions determinations as to revealing the arm up
to the elbow and the view that the point is to cover the bosom;
mentions the historical practice and differentiation as to
slave-girls; author supports covering the face); Ibn Taymiyya,
al-Tafsīr, 6:23, (notes that the law of veiling does not apply to
slave-girls); Fakhr al-Dīn Muḥammad al-Rāzī, al-Tafsīr
al-Kabīr (a.k.a Mafātīḥ al-Ghayb), 23:176–179; 25:198–199,
(mentions al-‘ādah al-jāriyah (the habitual custom) and
functionality as the focal issues in determining what women
ought to cover; mentions the historical practice and the
distinction as to slave-girls); Ibn ‘Aṭiyya, al-Muḥarrar
al-Wajīz, 4:178, 399 (mentions the determinations as to the
bosom and arm up to the elbow; mentions the rule of
functionality and custom; mentions the historical practice and
the distinction as to slave-girls); al-Suyūṭī, al-Durr
al-Manthūr, 5:45–46, 239–241 (mentions the determinations
as to the arm up to the elbow and the bosom; notes the
discussion regarding the beginning of the cleavage area;
mentions the historical practice and the distinction as to
slave-girls); al-Burūsī, Tanwīr al-Adhhān, 3:57–59, 254–255,
(mentions the determinations as to the arm up to the elbow
and the bosom; mentions the historical practice and
distinction as to slave-girls); Abū Ḥafṣ ‘Umar b. ‘Alī Ibn
‘Ādil al-Dimashqī, al-Lubāb fī ‘Ulūm al-Kitāb, 14:355–358;
15:588–590 (mentions that according to some reports the
verse was revealed to vindicate ‘Alī’s family. Also mentions
that other reports contend that hypocrites of Medina would
solicit women at night. Girls who practiced prostitution would
respond to their solicitation. The verse was revealed partly to
end this practice. Mentions the rule of practice and custom
(mā u’tīda kashfuh), and functionality and rule of necessity;
mentions the distinction as to slave-girls); al-Alūsī, Rūḥ
al-Ma’ānī (1985), 18:140–142; 22:89, (mentions the issue of
functionality and that slave-girls lead an active economic life;
mentions custom, habit, and
nature; mentions the historical practice); al-Ṣāwī, Ḥāshiyat
al-Allāmah, 3:136–137, 288–289 (mentions various
-it is not used in the early discussion on
women’s attire in prayer. The traditions instead address the
kinds of clothing a woman must wear in prayer, and
distinguishes between the appropriate attire for free and slave
women. Specifically, al-Ṣan‘ānī relates traditions on two
issues. The first issue concerns what a free woman must wear
when praying. Generally, the items for consideration are a
khimār, jilbāb, dir‘ sābigh, and milḥaf Al-Ṣan‘ānī,
al-Muṣannaf 3:128–129, 131, 135; Ibn Abī Shayba,
al-Muṣannaf 2:36–37. See also, al-Māwardī, al-Ḥāwī
al-Kabīr, 2:169; Ibn Mufliḥ, al-Mubdi’ 1:366; al-Ramlī,
Nihāyat al-Muḥtāj (1992), 2:13–14; al-Bahūtī, Kashshāf
al-Qinā‘, 1:318; Ibn Ḥazm, al-Muḥallā, 2:2:249–250. The
second issues concerns whether a slave woman must also
wear a khimār for prayer? The khimār is generally a garment
that covers a woman’s head. Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān al-‘Arab,
4:257; Ibn Mufliḥ, al-Mubdi’ 1:366; al-Bahūtī, Kashshāf
al-Qinā‘ 1:318. The meaning of dir’ sābigh generally
suggests some type of loose-fitting garment that extends to
one’s feet. The relevant distinction is that a dir‘ does not
necessarily cover a woman’s head. Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān
al-’Arab, 8:81–82; Ibn Muflih, al-Mubdi’ 1:366; Lane,
Arabic-English Lexicon 1:871–872. Jilbāb refers to a garment
that is larger than a khimār and generally covers a womans
head and chest area, but may also cover her entire body. In
some cases it is used as a synonym for khimār; and in others
for an izār. Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān al-‘Arab, 1:272–273. And a
milḥaf is a blanket (dithār) or cover which is wrapped over
other clothes. Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān al-’Arab, 9:314. Al-Ṣan‘ānī
reports that the Prophet said that menstruating free women
must wear a khimār, otherwise their prayer will not be
accepted. Al-Ṣan‘ānī, al-Muṣannaf 3:130, 131; Ibn Abī
Shayba, Kitāb al-Muṣannaf 2:39–40. The reference to
menstruation is generally regarded as a reference to adulthood
or the age of majority. Al-Marghīnānī, al-Hidāya, 1:43.
Women who are not adults are not necessarily subject to this
requirement. Al-Ṣan‘ānī, al-Muṣannaf 3:132. In another
tradition, a woman is supposed to wear a khimār, a dir’ and
an izār, although there is some countervailing traditions
against this position. Ibn Muflih, al-Mubdi’ 1:366. Some
traditions suggest that an acceptable dir‘ must be long and
loose enough to cover the appearance of a woman’s feet,
although without a khimār, it is insufficient. Al-Ṣan‘ānī,
al-Muṣannaf 3:128; Ibn Abī Shayba, Kitāb al-Muṣannaf 2:36.
One tradition relates that ‘āisha was seen wearing during
prayer a garment around her waist (mu’tazirah), a dir‘ and a
thick khimār. Al-Ṣan‘ānī, al-Muṣannaf p. 129. On the other
hand, Umm Ḥabībah, a wife of the Prophet, is reported to
have worn a dir‘ and an izār that was large enough to drape
around her and reach the ground. Notably, she did not wear a
khimār. Id. Yet another tradition relates that the Prophet’s
wives Maymūna and Umm Salamh would wear a khimār and
a dir‘ sābigh. Ibn Abī Shayba, Kitāb al-Muṣannaf 2:36.
The issue of ‘awrah is complex partly because it is
extremely difficult to retrace and reclaim the historical
process that produced the determinations as to ‘awrah. The
conventional wisdom maintains that early on, Muslim jurists
held that what should be covered in prayer should be covered
outside of prayer. This, however, is not entirely true. The
dominant juristic schools of thought argued that the ‘awrah of
men is what is between the knee and navel. A man ought to
cover what is between the knee and navel inside and outside
of prayer. A minority view, however, argued that the ‘awrah
of men is limited to the groin and buttocks only; the thighs are
not ‘awrah. The ‘awrah of women was a more complex
matter. As noted below, the majority argued that all of a
woman’s body except the hands and face is ‘awrah. Abū
Hanifa held that the feet are not ‘awrah, and some argued that
half the arm up to the elbow, or the full arm, is not a ‘awrah.
A minority view held that even the face and hands are ‘awrah
and therefore, must be covered as well. An early minority
view held that the hair and calves are not ‘awrah. In addition,
some argued that women must cover their hair at prayer, but
not outside of prayer. Importantly, the jurists disgreed on
whether the covering of the ‘awrah is a condition precedent
for the validity of prayer. The majority held that covering the
‘awrah is a fard (basic and necessary requirement) so that the
failure to cover the ‘awrah would invalidate a person’s
prayers. The minority view (mostly but not exclusively
Mālikí jurists) held that covering the ‘awrah is not a condition
precedent for prayer – accordingly, this school argued that
covering the ‘awrah is among the sunan of prayer (the
recommended acts in prayer), and the failure to cover the
‘awrah would not void a person’s prayers. A large number of
Hanafī jurists argued that as long as three-fourth of the body
is covered the prayer is valid. Interestingly, Mālik reportedly
allowed people to pray naked (‘urāh), if they were unable to
procure dressing garments. However he suggested that such
people should pray alone so as not to see each other’s ‘awrah,
and remain standing throughout. However if they are praying
in the dark of night (layl muẓlim), they may pray in
congregation with an imām leading them. Saḥnūn b. Sa‘īd,
al-Mudawwana al-Kubrā (Beirut: Dār Ṣadr, n.d.), 1:95–96.
See also, al-Qarāfī, al-Dhakhīrah, 2:106–107; Ibn Mufliḥ,
al-Mubdi‘, 1:370–374. The Shi‘ī al-Tūsī adopts the same
view and also allows them to pray in congregation during
daylight hours, as long as they pray in only one line and in a
sitting position. al-Ṭūsī, al-Mabsūt, 1:87. Al-Bahūtī goes so
far as to say that even in this case, congregational prayer
remains obligatory. Al-Bahūti, Kashshāf al-Qinā’, 1:324. See
also, Ibn Ḥazm, al-Muḥallā, 2:255–257. Being unclothed for
prayers does not allow one to steal clothes out of necessity,
according to al-Ramlī. Since one can pray naked, there is no
necessity as in the case of stealing clothes to protect oneself
from heat or freezing temperatures, or stealing food to prevent
death by starvation. Al-Ramlī, Nihāyat al-Muḥtāj (1992),
2:12. See also, al-Bahūtī, Kashshāf al-Qinā‘ 1:322–324, who
addresses the various means by which those without sufficient
clothes can pray. The overwhelming majority of jurists held
that the ‘awrah of a slave-girl, or even a female servant girl,
is different. Some jurists argued that the ‘awrah of such a
woman is between the knee and navel – the same as a man.
The other jurists held that the ‘awrah of such a woman is
from the beginning of the chest area to the knees and down to
the elbows. Therefore, the majority agreed that a slave-girl or
servant-giri may pray with her hair exposed. A minority view
argued that slave-girls should cover their hair in prayer, but
do not have to do so outside of prayer. In short, it seems to me
that the conventional wisdom is not exactly correct; there
seems to be sufficient grounds for differentiating between the
‘awrah in prayer and outside of prayer. Furthermore, as noted
below, the ‘awrah of slave-girls or servant-girls, inside and
outside of prayer, raise serious questions about the basis for
the historical juristic determinations regarding the ‘awrah of
women. See, on the law of ‘awrah: al-Ṣan‘ānī, al-Muṣannaf
3:128–136 (documents some of the early opinions). For
Mālikī school, see: Ibn Rushd (II), Bidāyat al-Mujtahid,
1:156–158; Ibn Rushd (I), al-Muqaddimāt al-Mumahhtdāt,
1:183–185; Sahnūn, al-Mudawwana (Dār
Ṣadr), 1:94; al-Ḥaṭṭāb al-Ra‘īnī, Mawāhīb al-Jalīl,
2:177–187; al-Qarāfī, al-Dhakhīrah, 2:101–105. For Shāfi‘ī
school, see: al-Shāfi’ī, al-Umm (Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, n.d.),
1:109; al-Ramlī, Nihāyat al-Muhtāj (1992), 2:7–8, 13;
al-Māwardī, al-Ḥāwī al-Kabīr, 2:165–171. For Ḥanafī
school, see Ibn Nujaym, al-Baḥr al-Rā’iq, 1:467, 469–476;
Ibn ‘ābidīn, Hāshiyat Radd (1966), 1:405; al-Kāsānī, Badā’ī
al-Ṣanā’ī, pp. 543–546. For Hanbalī school, see Ibn
Qudāmah, al-Mughnī (Dār Iḥyā’ al-Turāth al-’Arabī), 1:601;
Ibn Mufliḥ, al-Mubdī, 1:361–367; al-Bahūtī, Kashshāf
al-Qinā‘, 1:315–317. For Ja‘farī school, see al-Ṭūsī,
al-Mabsùṭ, 1:87–88.
Some of the late jurists argued that if a slave-girl will
cause a fitnah she must cover her breasts or hair. Al-Ḥaṭṭāb
relates that although a slave womans ‘awrah is the same as a
man’s, some have said that it is reprehensible for someone
who is not her owner to view what is under her garments, or
to view her breasts, chest, or whatever else “leads to fitnah”
(wa mā yad’ū al-fitnah minhā). Consequently, despite having
the same ‘awrah as men, it is preferred that she bare her head
but cover her body. Al-Ḥaṭṭāb, Mawāhib al-Jalīl, 2:180, 184.
See also, al-Qarāfī, al-Dhakhīrah, 2:103–104. Al-Bahūtī
relates views suggesting that as a matter of caution (iḥtiyāṭ), it
is preferrable that the slave-girl cover herself in the same
fashion as an adult free woman, including covering her head
during prayer. Al-Bahūtī, Kashshāf al-Qinā‘ 1:316. Ibn
‘Ābidīn also argues that most of the scholars of the Ḥanafī
school do not permit a slave woman to have her breasts,
chest, or back exposed; however it is said that a slave
woman’s chest is part of her ‘awrah only in prayer but not
otherwise. Nevertheless, Ibn Abidin finds this latter view
unconvincing. Ibn ‘Ābidīn, Hūshiya Radd (1966), 1:405. See
also, Ibn Nujaym, al-Baḥr al-Rā’iq, 1:474; al-Marghīnāī,
al-Hidāya, 1:44

Monday, August 29, 2016


The Burqini Dilemma
By Dr.Adis Duderija
Islamic Studies 
University of Melbounre

What do we do when competing ethical systems with incommensurate ethical conceptualizations of the ‘good’/’reasonable’ and ethical priorities clash? The burqini issue is yet another in a series of other dilemmas that have emerged in the recent years in the context of immigrant Muslims’ presence in the West. Other examples of similar aporias include what to do with ‘radical’ imams, infiltration of ISIS fighters via refugee routes into Europe, Muslim male polygamy, the issue of niqab, female genital cutting, western nation-states foreign policy in relation to the Muslim majority world, shaking of hands with the opposite sex, establishment of Muslim arbitration tribunals to name but the most prominent.  Both Muslims and non-Muslim disagree with each- other and within their respective communities as to what the real causes and solutions to these dilemmas are.
The possible answers can be approached from a number of angles: I.) security related, ii.) multi-cultural policy related (i.e.at the level of the nation state) , iii.) universal human rights norms related and iv.) normative (i.e. from the perspective of religious tradition itself)  related.
The first insight is that we can find ‘reasonable’ arguments at all these levels to support both sides of the divide on the basis of evoking ‘national’ /cultural/common values, the idea of common citizenship, scriptural hermeneutics or that of personal liberty. That is why the conflicting answers to these and similar conundrums will not be going away any time soon.
Furthermore, it could be argued that while the debates regarding the first and second level ( i.e. security and multicultural policy ) are primarily, but not exclusively,  situation specific and take place  in the context of the nation state in question,  the third and the fourth levels pertain to the realm of the universal injunctions/values  however differently these might be conceptualized in terms of the actual outcomes.
My contribution to the debates concerns the third and the fourth levels. I must, however, admit that I do consider that nation-states have considerable power in dictating the terms of reference as long as they are in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ( UDHR) generally speaking. As a scholar of progressive Islam who has been dealing with (and publishing on) gender issues in Islam  from a hermeneutical cum historical perspective for a decade or so I have come to a conclusion that (neo)-classical interpretations of Islam subscribe to an ethical system which is  Aristotelian and androcentric in nature. Furthermore, in terms of its gender cosmologies it is strongly associated with the cultural cum customary outlook of the pre-modern societies in which the crucible of classical Islamic jurisprudence was forged and which it for many Muslims also canonized.  This outlook pertains to the nature of male and female gender roles and norms such as the nature of male/female sexuality, the concept of   modesty, the concept of family/male/tribal honour, the status and role of genders in public and private spheres, the concept of male guardianship over women and others.
Importantly, in the context of late modernity/ (post)-coloniality, changes in the ethico-moral compass among conservative-minded Muslims of various ideological viewpoints, including those living in the West, have taken place. These, in turn, have given rise to a novel phenomenon whereby selective and for all purposes un-principal appropriation of aspects of pre-modern Islamic gender cosmologies and discarding of others occurred. This process resulted in dislocation of the very rationale on which the actual practice of veiling was originally justified, namely the belief that the very presence of women in the public sphere is a major source of socio-moral chaos (fitna) that must be curtailed or minimized to the greatest extent possible. The recent return to various forms of veiling in many Muslim majority countries as well as among Muslim women living in the West is an example of this phenomenon. Hence, we are dealing with a distinct form of modern religiosity.  The influence of Wahhabi Islam and its petrodollars has a lot to do with this phenomenon.  Therefore, these various practices of (re-)veiling among western Muslim women, including the burqini, should be viewed from this conceptual lens. Indeed, the invention of the burqini was justified on the basis of it being a tool for Muslim women’s gaining of freedom to engage in an activity (swimming) that otherwise could not be ‘justified’ normatively. This reasoning, however, overlooks other elements of the tradition which would also preclude such an activity because of it taking place in the context of gender mixing or the visibility of body shapes /curves of women wearing the burqini.  Indeed, I doubt very much that the traditionalist scholars in the bastions of traditionalism Sunnism or for that matter Shi’ism such as Deoband, Islamic institutions in Saudi Arabia, Qom or Al-Azhar would approve of the burqini on normative grounds. This does not mean that I personally do not welcome the burqini. I am merely pointing to it being a symbol of modern religiosity that is in many fundamental ways at odds with the established tradition.
As I argue in my forthcoming book titled the Imperatives of Progressive Islam,  progressive Muslim scholars consider that the spirit or the objectives of the Islamic tradition, including those pertaining to gender norms and roles, are conceptually commensurate with that of the values underpinning the UDHR. Hence, I and many other feminist/progressive/secular/liberal Muslims, do not subscribe to the view  that the various traditionally prevalent forms of veiling among Muslim women  and the kind of gender cosmologies that underpin them are actually normative. We form this view on a basis of a different interpretational approach to the Islamic tradition. In many ways these Muslims find the ethical system that underpin traditional gender cosmologies to be ethically highly problematic because it paints an ethically ugly view of women and men as a category.
In summary, ethical dilemmas surrounding the issues such as the burqini are emblematic of competing worldviews and ethical systems that cut across religious boundaries. As such, they must not be framed as pitting Muslims against non-Muslims. Such a view would only aid the agendas of Islamophobes and well as ISIS minded Muslims. Importantly, when viewed from a theoretical and ethical lens of classical Islam the burqini is a decidedly modern form of religiosity that does not sit comfortably with (neo)-traditional Islamic orthodoxy. Many Muslims, however, reject the assumptions behind traditional Islam’s gender ideologies as contrary to the very spirit and the objectives of the Islamic tradition. Hence, for them the wearing of the burqini is not considered a religious norm and many choose alternative style of dress, both on and off the beach, that they still view to be in accordance with principles of the Qur’anically mandated concept of modesty.

The Hermeneutical Fight for Muslim Women’s Rights: Toward a Scriptural Hermeneutic of Islamic Feminism

The Hermeneutical Fight for Muslim Women’s Rights: Toward a Scriptural Hermeneutic of Islamic Feminism
Dr. Adis Duderija, Islamic Studies, University of Melbounre

The fight for women’s rights in the Muslim majority world has a long history. The idea of Islamic feminism as part of this struggle is of more recent provenance and probably dates back to the 1980s.Since that time many Muslim scholars, particularly women, have attempted to dislodge the firmly entrenched male epistemic privilege  on the basis of developing  their own  interpretations of the Qur’an  and Sunna/hadith as well as the larger Islamic  tradition ( turath) as they realised, especially in the post-revolutionary Iranian context,   that women’s rights cannot be secured in the long run unless they are systematically justified in religious terms.
In my article   Toward a Scriptural Hermeneutic of Islamic Feminism that was published in late 2015 in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion I outline a number of mechanisms pertaining to Islamic scriptural hermeneutics that are affirmative of the very concept and goals of Islamic feminism  as a practice ground in scriptural reasoning. After a brief summary of the existing scholarship on the topic in the article I not only attempt to identify and discusses the delineating features of Islamic feminist scriptural hermeneutics but also how exactly they support the ideas underpinning Islamic feminist thought.
The identified hermeneutical principles as the basis for Islamic feminist scriptural hermeneutics include the following:
1.       an interpreter-centered hermeneutics;
2.       a comprehensive contextualization approach to textual sources;
3.        a thematico-holistic approach to textual sources and the dialogical nature of the Qur’anic discourse;
4.       a non-salafi-based worldview/epistemology;
5.       an ethico-religious values and purposive-based interpretation
6.       a non-hadith dependent Sunna hermeneutics
In what follows I will briefly explain how each of these hermeneutical principles supports the project of Islamic feminist hermeneutics.
The hermeneutical recognition that interpreters and their various subjectivities (e. g. subscription to a patriarchal worldview) play an important role in the process of interpretation and creation of meaning (rather than simply objective extrapolation from texts) that can be gleaned from contemporary literary theories such as that of a reader response theory can, at least, in part account for the patriarchal bias in (neo)- classical Islamic hermeneutics ( both exegetical and legal ). In addition the recognition of meaning as always tentative and biased allows contemporary proponents of Islamic feminism to develop and defend the viability of non-patriarchal interpretations.
A comprehensive contextualisation to textual sources including the Qur’an and the hadith ( a feature that is warranted on the basis of recognising their essentially dialogical and oral nature)  are premised on the idea that the socio-legal injunctions featuring in these sources ( e.g. those pertaining to divorce ,inheritance, the hudud etc.) in essence in many ways  reflected those of the pre-Qur’anic context and are therefore customary 9’urfi) and not immutable ( ta’budi) in nature. Thus, for interpretational purposes they are only procedural in nature and were not meant to institute absolute rules and regulations and are to be interpreted in the context of the overall spirit and objectives (maqasid) of the Qur’an and Sunna such as contextually sensitive concepts of justice and fairness (we shall turn to this point below) that are discovered on the basis of a thematico-holistic approach. Classical Islamic law fell well short of this approach and adopted at best a semi-contextualist hermeneutic. Comprehensive contextualisation for the purposes of the Islamic feminist project, therefore, permits a hermeneutical departure from the classical Islamic laws on gender and opens up alternative and more gender just interpretations.
A salafi worldview/epistemology is based on a hermeneutical mechanism central classical Islamic law which at least, in theory, a   priori privileges the interpretive efforts of the early Muslim communities (especially the distinguished Companions and the Successors) over all others. When combined with the other mechanisms explained above a salafi worldview/epistemology implies a subscription to an epistemologically pre-modern episteme that lacks internal hermeneutical mechanisms to incorporate ethical values and system of ethics that were not prevalent at the time of the formative and classical periods of Islamic thought into its ethical and legal canon. The entire edifice of this traditional/classical/pre-modern Islamic law, legal theory and ethics was based on an Aristotelian, ethical voluntarist-based system of ethics. This system of ethics awarded women an ontologically, ethically, legally, religiously, socially, and politically inferior status vis-à-vis men. When combined with the above discussed hermeneutical tendencies inherent to classical Islamic tradition this  salafi worldview , considers this ethical system to be reflective of Divine Will and as such the most just system there could ever be.
A non-salafi based worldview/epistemology, in turn, is premised on the rejection of this worldview/epistemology and theory of ethics on the basis of an ethically objectivist, post-Aristotelian system of ethics and a progressive (in the sense of possibility of change) worldview, informed by contemporary discussions on gender justice and equality considered to be embodying the spirit and values of the Qur’an and Sunna. Therefore in the article I argue that an adoption of such a worldview and system of ethics as a theoretical lens through which the Qur’an and Sunna are interpreted would enable the Islamic feminist hermeneutics project to account for the patriarchal nature of the traditional Islamic hermeneutics as well as develop non-patriarchal interpretations of the same.
An ethico-religious values and purposive based (maqasid) approach arises from the previous four discussed hermeneutical mechanisms. It is akin to Gadamer’s concept of teleological hermeneutics in which the text is interpreted in terms of the world it projects to the interpreter. This hermeneutic stipulates that the intended meaning of the text embodies or approximates the spirit or the purpose of the text better than the literal meaning itself. While this approach is to some extent present in the turath its hermeneutical significance is greatly reduced as it identifies the maqasid within the confines of a largely textualist and ethically subjectivist interpretational matrix of classical Islamic  law outline above. As I argue in the article an Islamic feminist hermeneutics project would benefit from teleological hermeneutics as it would provide arguments based on scriptural reasoning for a purposive and ethico-religious-values-based hermeneutic whose values are based on contemporary ethically objectivist derived values such as gender justice and equality and not the salafi-worldview-embedded, pre-modern ones.
Finally, I argue that a concept of Sunna that is conceptually, epistemologically, hermeneutically and methodologically distinguished from that of a ‘sahih’ hadith and interpreted in line with the other hermeneutical mechanisms explained above is another important hermeneutical tool for the project of Islamic feminism. This is so because it permits the proponents of Islamic feminism project to simultaneously embrace the concept of Sunna ( as a dynamic and meta-textual concept/practice)  and yet reject many patriarchal and misogynist ‘sahih’ hadith that classical Islamic tradition considers as having probative value.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


I often read articles (or engage in online debates) that either conflate progressive Islam with liberal Islam or employ the term progressive /liberal without much conceptual theorizing. So I have decided to reproduce a chapter from my 2011 book in which I outline some delineating features of progressive Muslim thought ( in relation to the modern period- in chapter 2 I do it in relation to the pre-modern) that are not available in my other separate publications on the topic in hope to clarify some of these conceptual/terminological issues :https://www.academia.edu/27992301/CHAPTER_FIVE_PROGRESSIVE_MUSLIMS-CONCEPTUALISING_AND_ENGAGING_THE_ISLAMIC_TRADITION

Tuesday, June 28, 2016



Is violence by ISIS and similar jihadi-salafist groups Islamic?  Is wife -beating Islamic? Is the killing of homosexuals Islamic? Is subjugation of non-Muslims Islamic? Is the resistance to abolition of slavery Islamic ? (the list can go on). These and similar kinds of questions (and accompanying ethical aporias) confront Muslims perhaps more than ever before and have elicited different and at times symmetrically opposite responses. For the proponents of the Islamic State and their intellectual sympathizers across the world the answer to these questions is a clear ‘yes’.  For many other Muslims it is a clear ‘no’(although many would struggle to justify this view hermeneutically).  How is this possible? Of course, what is or isn’t Islamic depends to a significant extent upon how Muslims have been not only defining but also conceptualizing the concept of Islam itself.
Shahab Ahmad’s book under review is a major step forward in assisting us to coherently conceptualize in descriptive and analytical terms the full array of complexities involved in Muslims living and assigning meaning to their Islam and making normative claims about it in various and often conflicting ways.
The book is divided into three parts (questions, conceptualizations and re-conceptualizations) and consists of six chapters and a conclusion.
The aim of the first chapter is to demonstrate that the only manner in which we can coherently conceptualize the human and historical phenomenon of Islam is by analytically and conceptually accommodating not only the diversity of responses of Islam meaning making by Muslims themselves but their absolute and complete contradiction. Ahmed provides many relevant examples of this coherent contradiction from a period of time in Islamic history (approximately 1350-1850 CE) that is the most representative of centrality of this phenomenon, a period of time in Islamic history which was a major intellectual paradigm for Islam meaning-making for over half a millennium for both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.  He refers to this historical epoch as ‘the Balkan to Bengal complex’ which was “the most powerful and influential social group in Islamic history” (p.80) and included the thought, conduct, behaviours, values and ideals of both  educated and cultivated Sunnī and Shīʿī elites ( which were  also diffused among the masses) of that time and geographical space.
Ahmed uses the Balkan to Bengal complex methodologically also to assess and critically evaluate existing scholarly writings on the theme of conceptualizing Islam in the second part of the book. The second, third and fourth chapters are a tour de force  in that regard. Ahmed in this author’s view convincingly  demonstrates why the existing and most influential conceptual and analytical tool paradigms premised on the conflation of Islam as Islamic law, the distinction between  Islam and Islamicate ( Hodgson), Islam as religion and  Islam as culture, Islam as  civilization, the binary between the religion and secular ,sacred and profane, Islam as orthodoxy and Islam as discursive tradition ( Asad) are all inadequate in conceptualizing the full gamut of meanings and contradictory normative claims that permeated Islam as a human and historical phenomenon within this intellectual paradigm.
In the third part of the book Ahmed makes his case for re-conceptualizing Islam that is conceptually able to coherently capture the entire edifice of the human and historical phenomenon that is Islam characterized by enormous complexity of meanings, ambiguity, ambivalence, polyvalence, diffusion, relativism, exploration   and importantly outright internal contradiction in terms of Truth making claims.
The cornerstone of his re-conceptualization is a novel and in this author’s view brilliant theory of the nature and function of Revelation. It is beyond the purview of this review to do full justice to it but to highlight those aspects which are of particular interest to this author. The point of departure for Ahmed’s  reconceptualization of what is Islam/Islamic is the  idea of the centrality of a hermeneutical engagement of (the Muslim) Self with Revelation for the process of meaning making (p.345) where Revelation is its object or source. Ahmed emphasizes how the idea of a     ‘ hermeneutical engagement’ has important implications for meaning making purposes of the Self by bringing into focus the questions of  source, truth ,agency, self , method, interpretation, understanding and process (p.345). Importantly, Ahmed underlines the fact that the source-object of meaning of the hermeneutical engagement is not restricted to scripture alone because “ the act of Revelation to Muḥammad plus the product of text of Revelation to Muḥammad does not encompass and is not co- extensive or consubstantial with the full idea or phenomenon or reality of Revelation to Muḥammad” (p.346). This is so   because what he terms Unseen reality or reality of Revelation (ʿālam al- ghayb) is the source of Revelation from which the text of Revelation proceeds and is ontologically and alethically prior to it. It is the Pre-text of Revelation to use Ahmed’s terminology.  Importantly, the truth of Revelation is not only a subset of a larger Truth of Pre-text but is also contingent upon the truth of the Pre-text. While there is no disagreement among all Muslims concerning this point there is disagreement about the epistemologies and methodologies of accessing and knowing the Truth of the Pre-text, namely without a text , via the text  or only in the Text. Muslims, past and present, have made normative hermeneutical claims using all three of these approaches when conceptualizing their concept of Islam giving rise to a particular structural relationship between Pre-text and Text. Islamic philosophers and Sufi, for example, deemphasized the Text in their hermeneutical engagement with Revelation whereas Islamic jurists emphasized the Text and theologians where caught in between ( i.e. search Truth about Pre-text but confine it to the hermeneutical engagement to Text).
Conceptualizing Islam as hermeneutical engagement of the Self with revelation as both Pre-text and Text is, however, incomplete unless one adds an additional element, namely what Ahmed terms Con-text. It is defined as a ‘body of meaning’, ‘an entire vocabulary’ of meanings of Revelation engendered over the course of Islamic history. In other words, it is a product of historical outcome of the hermeneutical engagement with Revelation at any point it time (p.356). Con-text includes “epistemologies, interpretations, identities, persons and places, structures of authority, textualities and intertexualities, motifs, symbols, values, meaningful questions and meaningful answers, agreements and disagreements, emotions and affinities and affects, aesthetics, modes of saying, doing and being, and other truth- claims and components of existential exploration and meaning- making in terms of Islam that Muslims acting as Muslims have produced, and to which Muslims acting as Muslims have attached themselves during the process of hermeneutical engagement with Revelation”(p.357). As such Con-Text is not restricted to texts or textual discourse alone as it includes practices, both individual and collective, that have meaning in terms of Islam to those who engage in them ( e.g. prayer, fasting etc.). Importantly, the contents of Con-Text are not somehow to be viewed as extraneous to Islam but can be genealogically traced back to a particular Pre-text- Text  structural  dynamic. Moreover, both hermeneutical engagement with Pre-text and Text is only possible from a vantage-point of a particular Con-text (at any point in time and place) which is by default  constitutive of them. It is a ‘built environment of meaning’ (p.357) in which an individual meaning-making person is embedded. Finally, Ahmed distinguishes between Con-text in toto and Con-text in loco. This distinction is premised on the idea that not all Con-text is actively present in a particular context ( in sense of space and time). That which is actively present is called Con-text in loco (p.361) and inactive element although  potentially present and available is  Con-text in toto .
Ahmed’s theory of revelation includes additional elements such as multidimensionality, hierarchy, exteriority-interiority, the distinction between the private and the public dimensions of Revelation, ambiguity and ambivalence etc. which due to space contains I am unable to comment on at any length.
In what follows I would like to return to the questions I raised at the very start  in the light of  Ahmed’s  reconceptualization of the concept of Islam and some of the work I did previously on making sense of how two contemporary communities of interpretation ( in the sense of theorized and employed by Stanley Fish  ) I term neo-traditional Salafis and progressive Muslims make normative but outright contradictory claims about what it means to be a religiously ideal ‘Believer’ and ‘Woman’ in Islam (Duderija 2011)on the basis of their respective methods of interpretation (manahij) .
While it is true that Ahmed’s book does not aim to provide a prescriptive answer to questions of normative Islam in the name of Islamic ‘orthodoxy’, it nevertheless successfully analyses and brings into focus the idea of accommodating the competing normative claims surrounding the question what is Islamic (or more precisely qualifies to be termed ‘Islamic’) as being constitutive of conceptualizing Islam as a human and historical phenomenon adequately.
Ahmed clearly states that one can meaningfully speak of Islamic violence (as one can of American or Israeli violence) as an outcome of a hermeneutical engagement of Self with the Pre-text, Text and Con-text of Revelation not in a sense that Islam causes such violence but that “that the violence is made meaningful by the actor in terms of Islam”. Although Ahmed makes note that Muslims would disagree whether this violence is indeed legitimate (i.e. coherent with its source), a question that Ahmed  (and many others who engaged the question of is ISIS ‘Islamic’ ) does not pose is whether the kind of violence perpetrated by jihadist -salafi groups like ISIS is hermeneutically reasonable given the textual discourses present in the Context in toto  on this question.  I emphasize the textual discourses element of the Con-text in toto since it is evident that the salafi-jihadist groups hermeneutical engagement with Revelation  is very much restricted to the Text in relation to not just the question of violence but also other questions I outlined above. The same can be said about the pre-modern juristic discourses which reached their  hermeneutical stability in the late fifth or early sixth century hijri  (Duderija,2011).  Importantly, as noted by Ahmed, in the modern period ( for various reasons such as the rise of the nation state ) in particular there has been a shift in reorienting historical consciousness of Muslims with respect to their hermeneutic engagement with Revelation in which Islam meaning making in terms of Pre-text only has become unrecognizable. On top of this, a significant depletion of the Con-text also took place (p.515-516) resulting in dominance of Text based hermeneutical engagement with Revelation . Ahmed terms this phenomenon aptly the Downsizing of Revelation from that of pre-Text, Text and Con-text to Text only or Text read in a highly depleted Con-text.
 In other words what we are witnessing is a further increase of hermeneutical affinity between jihadist Salafist approach to Revelation and how Islamic law is conceptualized and applied today by those who have a Text oriented hermeneutical engagement with Revelation for the purposes of conceptualizing Islamic law. This increase in hermeneutical affinity operates in the context of an existing hermeneutical affinity between pre-modern Text oriented juristic discourse and that pre-modern salafi -jihadist approaches ( on pre-modern see Mourad and Lindsay,2013 with reference to jihad and  Adang, Schmidke, Ansari and Fierro,2015 with reference to takfir) .
Drawing upon my previous work (Duderija, 2011) I want to do now is to identify levels or points of hermeneutical affinity between (pre)-modern Text oriented hermeneutical engagement with Revelation  of the jurists and that of salafi-jihadist ( I will refer to them collectively as ‘traditional’)  and the kind of implications this has in terms of describing the  actions of ISIS as Islamic or not.
The first one is at the level of the nature of language and the nature of revelation. Traditional approaches to interpreting the Qur’an are heavily philological, with interpretations largely restricted to observable linguistic features of the Qur’an text. According to this methodology, readers retrieve the text’s meaning through analysis of the Arabic grammar, syntax, and morphology. At the same time, the Qur’an text is considered as the verbatim Word of God essentially different from human language. Moreover, its meaning is completely independent of the psychological make-up of the Prophet Muhammad and his prophetic experience. Qur’anic language is thus considered to be operating outside of history and possessed of a fixed meaning that is, in principle, not dependent on human modes of perception and analysis.
The second level is in terms of location and breath of meaning. Traditional approaches largely consider that readers can perceive authorial intent and recover some objective meaning of the text. Since the meaning of the text is fixed, the role of the reader in determining or influencing meaning is minimal. Belief in the objective existence of meaning in the mind of the author, which is readily accessible in a similarly objective fashion to the reader, contributes to the idea that there is only one correct interpretation of the text.
The third level concerns the relationship between text and context. Because of the affinities at the first level outline above philological hermeneutics tends to marginalize the historical context in which the Qur’an text was revealed. Although there is recognition of the historical character and development of the Qur’an when speaking of “occasions of revelation” (asbab al-nuzul) and “abrogation” (naskh), there are no clear hermeneutical models for fully integrating and utilizing these aspects in interpreting the language of the Qur’an. To the extent that historical context is considered, traditional philologists do not systematically distinguish between historical and ahistorical dimensions of meaning to the text. As a result, there is a strong tendency to universalize what, from a contextualist perspective, would be a historically particular meaning.
The fourth level is with respect to textual coherence. Both exegetical approaches downplay the essentially oral and kerygmatic nature of the revelation and mainly take a word-by-word segmental and sequential analysis of the canonical text. Thus this approach fails, among others, to fully appreciate the Qur’an’s thematic coherence and has a tendency to interpret the general in terms of particular instead of other way around. It also renders didactic and ethical elements of Revelation under the purview of the legal.
The fifth level is about the role of reason in ethico-legal interpretations of the Qur’an. Traditional exegetes heavily restrict the role of reason to its analogical form, so that all ethico-legal interpretations must be linked to textual evidence. If there is no directly pertinent text, then every effort is made to identify an indirectly pertinent text with a common underlying principle and to interpret it in light of its significance to the new case. The underlying assumptions are that ethico-legal knowledge must always derive from revelation and that humans cannot know what is ethically or legally right by independent reason. As such any discussion of underlying values and objectives of revelation can be only identified on the basis of a text based hermeneutic and their conceptualization as well as application is not to be extended beyond it.
At the sixth level the affinity is with respect to identifying universal vs contextually /historically contingent elements of revelation. As a result of the above five (and the one below) both approaches for example consider the various hadd punishments, the institution of slavery, polygamy, forms of divorce ( e.g talaq) and gender roles and norms mentioned in the Qur’an to be in principle beyond negotiation, universal and immutable aspects of revelation.
The finally seventh level is regarding the nature and the conception of the Prophetic Sunna. For traditional approaches, recourse to the sunnah as an exegetical device is necessarily constitutive of, and constrained by, the textual corpus of Hadith. One noteworthy implication of this textual conception of sunnah is that interpretive reasoning, while to some extent important in selecting and evaluating individual hadith reports, is not constitutive of the concept of sunna itself as an exegetical device. When coupled with the above outlined hermeneutical tendencies (especially levels three and five) it renders the concept of sunna dependent on that of ‘sahih’ hadith.
So given the above, my contention is that because of these hermeneutical affinities between (pre-) modern conceptualizations of Islam ( or Islamic law in particular) the interpretations of scholars affiliated with ISIS on a range of issues including  burning of gays,  subjugation of non-Muslims, wife beating  and use civilian non-combatants as human shield  to name but a few ought to be conceptualized as ‘Islamic’  from the perspective of those who subscribe to (pre)modern conceptualization of Islamic law centered on a Text based approach to a hermeneutical engagement  with the Revelation whose delineating features were outlined above ( if they are to remain true to their hermeneutical  approach and keep their hermeneutical integrity ).
Consequently, for approaches to Islamic law of the (pre)-modern jurist to be rendered  hermeneutically unreasonable vis a vis those of the jihadist -salafis would require some fundamental shifting of the hermeneutical  tendencies identified above as embodied by progressive interpretational approaches. From a perspective of a progressive or modernist  approach to Revelation which is based on a markedly different approach to the seven hermeneutically delineating features outlined above ( see Duderija 2011) the same  practices identified above  are  rendered hermeneutically unreasonable and hence are rightfully considered as unislamic.


Duderija, Adis (2011). Constructing a Religiously Ideal 'Believer' and 'Woman' in Islam :Neo-Traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslim Methods of interpretation (manahij), New York:Palgrave.

Suleiman A. Mourad and James E. Lindsay (2013), The Intensification and Reorientation of Sunni Jihad Ideology in the Crusader Period: Ibn ʿAsākir of Damascus: The Forty Hadiths for Inciting Jihad, Leiden:Brill.

Camilla Adang, Hassan Ansari, Maribel Fierro and Sabine Schmidtke (ed.) (2015) Accusations of Unbelief in Islam, A Diachronic Perspective on Takfīr, Leiden: Brill