Print Edition



Feb 6, 2023

The Fundamental Contradiction of Islamic Feminism

Read Time

Jawad Haifaa 2016

Haifaa Jawad

University of Birmingham

Haifaa Jawad is an honorary senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.

More About this Author

The Fundamental Contradiction of Islamic Feminism

1049Px Tile Girl  Iran  Louvre Museum  Ad 27814

Tile with young girl, seventeenth century / Wikimedia Commons

What drives the gender critique of religion in general and Islam in particular, and what are its aims? Haifaa Jawad, honorary senior lecturer in the department of theology and religion at the University of Birmingham, UK, discusses this with Renovatio’s digital editor, Faatimah Knight. They discuss the current discourse around gender and religion, the tensions that exist between traditional and reformist views on the topic, whether these views are reconcilable, and how the Qur’an might be read to derive a view of gender that shows parity. Their conversation was edited for clarity and length.

Faatimah Knight: I want to begin with a general question about the current discourse regarding gender and religion: Is it a discourse, broadly speaking, about the tension between a traditional view and a reformist view, or is it more complex than that?

Haifaa Jawad: I think it is a bit more complex than a simple tension between the two. Unfortunately, due to established negative views about religiosity, some so-called reformists or modernists do not listen to theological reasoning. One can argue that since the advent of the Enlightenment, right throughout the emergence of modernism and postmodernism, religion has come under heavy assault from newer ideologies that represent a worldview alien to the traditional concept of religion. These ideologies, aimed primarily at deconstructing religion, were first incubated and nurtured in the West, and then spread gradually to the rest of the globe, including the Muslim world, threatening not only traditional institutions, such as family, community, and society, but also faith itself. Hence, within the context of the West, there is no longer an issue of conflict discourse between the traditionalist and reformist views. Religion in the West can no longer compete with the secular trends that are dominating the scene, except in a few corners. Within Islam, this is not so much the case. Why? Because Islam as a traditional faith is still prominent and has an essential bearing on Muslim lives. However, there are segments in most Muslim countries actively engaged in reforming Islamic principles to suit modern secular Western life. They have not succeeded yet, but certainly they are pushing Muslim society toward their goals. Every time I visit a Muslim country, I can see the secular trends infiltrating deeper and deeper into people’s way of life, which is of course a sad reality.

FK: Feminist responses to religion in general, and Islam specifically, are abundant. In your view, what is driving this field of critique, and are some of those motivations valid or understandable?

HJ: We can say that most of the negative views seem to be coming from a basic misunderstanding of theological arguments. I think feminists, especially Western feminists, see religion in general as their enemy, and they have singled out Islam as patriarchal and anti-women. Hence, in dealing with the subject, the emphasis has always been on anthropocentrism. Little has been done to understand the teachings of Islam on gender relations on its own terms. These critics seem unable or unwilling to understand the philosophy of Islam regarding women’s rights and the relationship between men and women in society.

Further, they seem to believe that Islam oppresses women in a way significantly worse than the ways women of other faiths and cultures are treated. Their tone underpins a sense of the superiority of Western culture and the inferiority of Muslim culture. They encourage and applaud the so-called secular Muslim feminists who have managed to get rid of their religious heritage and offer them platforms to express their views. Western feminists accuse women who disagree with them of caving in to patriarchy and working against those struggling to advance gender rights.

FK: Do you think a traditional understanding of religion can be integrated with a feminist outlook?

HJ: Muslims with modernist views say there is possibility for integration between traditional Islam and feminism. They say that what really matters is the interpretation of equality in the basic concept of gender equality. For them, a bit of critical thinking reveals that equality has limitations in all aspects of life; once that is understood and taken into consideration in the discourse, then yes, the traditional understanding of religion can be integrated with the feminist outlook. I am not sure about that. I believe that traditional Islam and feminism are very difficult to reconcile, as they represent two different perspectives.

Hence, labels such as “Islamic feminism” or “feminist Islam” are not correct. Feminism is a human ideology, while Muslims see Islam as a dīn, as living one’s life in accordance with divine law. There is a difference between the notions of ideology and dīn. Ideology refers to the individual’s efforts to formulate values with a view to establishing a system on the basis of reason unaided by revelation. In our understanding of Islam, dīn is a far more comprehensive term, encompassing the totality of life and implying a primary orientation toward the divine as the source of final authority. To talk of a religious ideology, such as Islamic feminism or feminist Islam, is a fundamental contradiction in terms and betrays confusion about the essence of religion, which is divine revelation.

FK: In Islam, there are seemingly no female prophets—except Ibn Ĥazm holds a minority view that Mary was one—and there are only a handful in Christianity. Some scholars attribute the lack of female prophets to a historical context that would not have welcomed women in that role. What do you think of this argument, and how do you reconcile this nagging fact with Islam’s egalitarian principles in the realm of spirituality?

HJ: I believe that if we adopt the context-based approach for this question, then we have to keep changing important Islamic rules or regulations, especially what I call thawābit. Adopting that approach leads to the deconstruction of the religion. Whether or not Maryam is a prophet is of course a huge issue, one I could write an essay about. Ibn Ĥazm was not the only one to say that she’s a prophet; in addition to him, Abū al-Ĥasan al-Ash¢arī and then al-Qurţubī, Ibn ¢Āshūr, and, if I’m not mistaken, even Shaykh al-Qaradawi agreed. Abū al-Ĥasan al-Ash¢arī added another five women: Ĥawwā’, Umm Mūsā, Hājar, Sārah, and Āsiyah. From my understanding, those who agree on the prophethood of women are unanimous on Maryam’s status, and perhaps that of Umm Mūsā. The unanimity about Maryam has to do with the fact that, in the Qur’an, Allah said that He chose her above all women of the world.

All scholars, however, agree that there are no female messengers. Of course, they rely on texts to support this opinion, particularly on Sura al-Anbiyā’, which says, “Nor have we ever sent before you, anything but men whom we inspired” (21:7). This issue is not related to the precedence of one gender over the other. It is about Allah’s choice. Therefore, the principle is to not search for alternative reasons. First, it is not the scholars who decide who should or can be a prophet or messenger. Furthermore, Allah’s choice should not necessarily affect the question of equality between males and females, because the notion of equality has limitations in all aspects of life. Why, for example, has Allah the exalted chosen Muhammad as the last messenger, not Ja¢far or Ĥamzah? It’s purely His choice.

FK: Contemporary critics of the classical tafsīr tradition argue that the authors of those tafsīrs have commitments or lenses through which they are reading the text that limit their hermeneutics, especially around gender. What do you think of that criticism?

HJ: One can agree to a point. After all, if there were no standards for the mufassirūn, then what would be the value of their interpretations? This is true for modern interpreters as well. But it’s very difficult for me to believe that the mufassirūn intentionally targeted women. All generations have cultural and historical standards, and consequently they are shaped by these standards.

Lots of critics, especially Muslim feminists, talk about the patriarchal nature of the jurists, such as al-Shāfi¢ī and Abu Ĥanīfah. I personally do not agree. My understanding is that they didn’t deliberately seek to limit the rights of women; they were just people of their time and reflected what they genuinely understood of the Qur’an. The interpretation of any ancient text must always be in accordance with the core ethos and the core principles of its era.

FK: Many Muslims argue that while the Qur’an treats women and men differently, this difference is not evidence of inequality. Certainly, there is no direct or overt statement in the Qur’an that one gender is inherently more human, more noble, or more worthy than the other. How would you define the Qur’anic ethos regarding the relationship between men and women?

HJ: The Qur’an stresses the principle of justice between men and women as a universal value that serves as an ideal model for their mutual respect, dignity, equity, and happiness.

The Qur’an never uses the term “gender equality” in the literal sense, as it is understood in the modern Western context, primarily because it does not accurately reflect human nature from the Qur’anic perspective. Why? Because the Qur’an usually refers to the human state in general terms as al-insān. This term includes both the male and the female, rather than one sex. The Qur’an regards this human being as both God’s servant and caliph on earth.

It is within this divine framework of human condition that one can understand the philosophy of the role of male and female relationship, both in social and religious life. The Qur’an has a complete and universal doctrine on the relationship between the two sexes. It sets rules and regulations for how the male and female should live and conduct their lives in the social order. This perennial doctrine covers metaphysical, spiritual, and outward aspects of this relationship.

Spiritually and metaphysically, the Qur’an regards them as both moral agents and equal beings before God and the divine law. From the social and economic perspective, the Qur’an sees the roles of men and women as complementary rather than as in opposition or dissent. The role of women is envisaged to be primarily but not exclusively taking care of the children and tending the family, while the main role of men is protecting the family and sustaining it economically.

But the Qur’an does not prohibit women from engaging in political, social, and economic activities. In fact, both men and women have complete economic independence before the law. What the Qur’an strongly stresses is the protection and preservation of the family’s central role in society, which has remained visible until the present time despite the impact of modernity on the Muslim family.

The Qur’anic or Islamic family order is a universal system primarily because it responds to human nature, fiţrah. This system can bring harmony, stability, happiness, and equilibrium, which are qualities desperately needed these days by both men and women. With all social and spiritual relations between the two sexes weakened, it is time to stress and restore the traditional values of this doctrine. It offers a solid alternative to the modern way of life, which has proved to be incomplete and has left people disoriented because it does not have permanency or the divine origin that complies with human nature or fiţrah. For Muslims, this is more important than ever before: to hold on to it, to hold on to the traditional Muslim way of life.

FK: Is there any value to nontraditional or contemporary approaches to understanding gendered texts in scripture?

HJ: I think a nontraditional approach could help believers read the text more thoughtfully, but by that I do not mean deconstructing the text or adopting a historically critical approach. Such a reading can enhance our understanding of the text so long as it is done alongside the traditional approach and the standard of our classical tradition.