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 ( 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 :