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The Absence of Muslim Women in Shaping Islamic Thought: Foundations of Muslims' Peaceful and Just Co-Existence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 April 2015


This paper explores the ethical and legal pedagogy of the current debates on “reforming” Muslim societies, whether they claim to reform social and legal systems, reform educational institutions, or liberate Muslim women. Since these debates claim to achieve balance in global or domestic conflicts, I address the foundations of these debates by answering three questions:

  1. Are the rationales for American and/or European governments' interventions justified?;

  2. Can the discipline of civil law help in rethinking Islam for Muslims; and

  3. Are Muslims themselves ready to critically address the use and misuse of Islam's primary sources (the Qur'an and particularly the Hadith) in their rethinking of Islam?

I argue that rather than seeking to “reform others,” in this case Muslims with an elitist attitude and sometimes violent interventions, we scholars of law and religion, scholars of Islam, policy-makers, and social justice researchers would be better off if:

  1. we thought of Islam as a religio-moral rational worldview, rather than a set of laws,

  2. we recognized Muslims as subject to historical transformation, like any other religious groups, and understood how they developed their present views of Islam, and

  3. we considered our own real responsibilities to address the forms of global injustices as powerful shapers of world politics, particularly the politics of difference—the view that the “other” is inferior, and women's role as mostly complementary to men.

Copyright © Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University 2008

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2. Barazangi, Nimat Hafez, Woman's Identity and the Qur'an: A New Reading (U. Press Fla. 2004)Google Scholar. See ch. 2 for further details on Qur'anic sciences and literature.

3. Qur'an, Surah 17, Bani Israel: 9. My reference to the Qur'an is mainly taken from Ali, A. Yusuf, The Holy Qur'an: Text, Translation and Commentary (McGregor & Werner 1946)Google Scholar. The few exceptions are either from a website (provided) or represent my own translation (noted).

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8. Badawi, Jamal, Gender Equity in Islam: Basic Principles (Am. Trust Publications 1995)Google Scholar; also, the President of ISNA (Islamic Society of North America), Ingrid Mattson, still talks about gender equity, resonating the sentiments of male leaders. Dr. Ingrid Mattson, Gender Equity: The Islamic Perspective, (accessed May 16, 2009).

9. See Doorn-Harder, Pieternella Van, Women Shaping Islam: Indonesian Women Reading the Qur'an 23 (U. Ill. 2006)Google Scholar (discussing why traditionalists view all sources of Islam, including jurisprudence (fiqh) books as holy texts).

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13. Jawdat Sa'id, in his Law, Religion And The Prophetic Method of Social Change, supra n. 1, at 83, also talks about “the world sheltering the intellectual viruses that destroy us.”

14. The Formation of Islamic law (Hallaq, Wael B. ed., Ashgate/Variorum 2004)Google Scholar, suggests that the idea that Islamic law is a viable legal system is questionable in light of the changes in the conception of legal authority brought about by the advent of the nation state.

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18. The Salzburg Global Seminar announcement of October 25-30, 2008, for the Islamic and International Law program, is a good example of this perception. It starts with “Shari'a law and Islamic legal traditions are. …” as if these are two different entities! (on file with author).

19. The Qur'an states: “Thumma Ja'alnaka 'Ala Shari'aten mina al'Amr fa-Itabi'ha, wala tatb' Ahwa' alladheen layaa 'lamun.” (Then we put thee on the [right] way [path] of Religion: so follow thou that [way], and follow not the desires of those who know not.). Qur'an, Surah 45, al Jathiyah: 18.

20. Barazangi, supra n. 2, at 103-104.

21. Van Doorn-Harder, supra n. 9, at 262.

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28. Qur'an, Surah17, Bani Israel: 14.

29. Qur'an, Surah 96, al'Alaq: 1, 4.

30. Nasir al Din al Albani makes Hadith the “central pillar of juridical process.” Lacroix, Stephan, Al-Albani's Revolutionary Approach to Hadith, 21 ISIM Review 6 (Summer 2008) (available at'1887/13326/1/review_21.pdf)Google Scholar. For al Albani, “hadith alone … may provide answers to matters not found in the Qur'an without relying on the school of jurisprudence.” Id. Also, traditional Muslims, according to Martin Van Bruinessen are those who “rely on the teachings of Jurisprudence, or Fiqh, and mostly use Hadith in a ‘processed form’ as quoted in the Fiqh texts.” Van Doorn-Harder, supra n. 9, at 61 (quoting Bruinessen, Martin Van, Traditions for the Future: the reconstruction of traditionalist discourse within NU', in Nahdlatul Ulama, traditional Islam and modernity in Indonesia 165 (Barton, Greg & Fealy, Greg eds., Monash Asia Inst. 1996)Google Scholar.

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39. Fuess, Albrecht, Islamic Religious Education in Western Europe: Models of Integration and the German Approach, 27 J. Muslim Minority Affairs 215 (08 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, states that European models of integration “follow mainly the existing example of state-church relations,” thus ignoring that “Islam is organized quite differently from other religions that they have dealt with in the past.” Id. at 215 (in Abstract).

40. I here distinguish between civic order being clearly outlined in the Qur'an and the ongoing debate on political order of the state by political scientists, such as Bassam Tibi's assertion that the latter is not spelled out in the Qur'an. See Tibi, supra n. 23, at 101.

41. An excellent example is the unprecedented furor in inter-religious conferences that are taking place even as part of the UN General Assembly activities. Donald H. Argue & Leonard A. Leo, The Saudis' Dubious Interfaith Agenda at the UN, (accessed Mar. 20, 2009).

42. Barazangi, supra n. 2, at 121-123.

43. Barazangi, Nimat Hafez, Understanding Muslim Women's Self-Identity and Resistance to Feminism and Participatory Action Research, in Traveling Companions: Feminisms, Teaching, and Action Research 21 (Brydon-Miller, Mary, Maguire, Patricia, McIntyre, Alice eds., Praeger 2004)Google Scholar.

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46. On April 22, 2003, Reuters quoted Loubna Freih, the U.N. Human Rights Commission Representative, reporting to the Commission that was ending its annual six-week session in Geneva, that “The international community has allowed warlords and local military commanders to take control of much of the country” by maintaining law and order in some places through the creation of “a climate of fear, not unlike under the Taliban” only 18 months after the U.S. forces toppled the Taliban regime, Afghanistan: “Climate of Fear” Growing, (accessed Mar. 25, 2009).

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51. Barazangi, supra n. 2, at 73 (quoting Ali Yusuf translation of the Qur'an, with some change in vocabulary).

52. Muslim Women League Newsletter (2001) (on file with author).

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57. I specifically address the missionary literature and the literature that deals with legal change based solely on human rights perspective, such as Mayer, Ann Elizabeth, Aberrant ‘Islam’ and Errant Daughters: The Turbulent Legacy of Beijing in Muslim Societies, in Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation 29 (Afkhami, Mahanz & Friedl, Erika eds., Syracuse U. Press 1997)Google Scholar.

58. I specifically address the literature that deals with legal change through secular laws, such as the work of Moghadam, Valentine, Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East (L. Rienner 2003)Google Scholar.

59. See e.g. Fernea, Elizabeth W., In Search of Islamic Feminism: One Woman's Global Journey (Doubleday 1998)Google Scholar; Interview with Margot Badran, Islamic Feminism Is a Universal Discourse (2005) (available at Qantara de: Dialogue With the Islamic World,

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61. Sahih Bukhari, book of Adab, 5531, Al-Bayan, CD (Harf 1998, Version 2.0).

62. Barazangi, supra n. 54, at 132.

63. It is interesting to see how Muslims ignore an authentic narrative attributed to the Prophet in which he says (in al Turmudhi, 1026 (Barazangi, trans.), (Arabic) (accessed Mar. 27, 2009)): “On the authority of Malik Bin Anas, The prophet said: the widow has more right in her affairs than her guardian, and the virgin may give her own permission, and her permission is her silence,” meaning that a woman can marry herself. Meanwhile they emphasize a weaker narrative which actually does not negate the previous narrative, but rather emphasizes the presence of a guardian (in id. at 1020): “On the authority of Ibn Ishaq that the Prophet said: ‘No marriage without a guardian’ meaning that a marriage may not be consummated without [the presence] of a guardian.”

64. I specifically draw attention here to Muslim societies' treatment of women as perpetual minors by requiring the approval of a male guardian (even their own sons) of their affairs. See the report Perpetual Minors: Human Rights Abuses Stemming from Male Guardianship and Sex Segregation in Saudi Arabia, (accessed Mar. 20, 2009).

65. Watt, Montgomery, “Muhammad” in The Cambridge History of Islam vol. 1, ch. 2, 30 (Holt, P.M., Lambton, Ann K.S., Lewis, Bernard eds., Cambridge U. Press 1970)Google Scholar.

66. The most recent of these views is expressed in Tibi, Bassam, Political Islam, World Politics, and Europe xii (Rutledge 2008)Google Scholar; and is propagated by other European Muslim scholars such as Asif Bayati's lecture, Making Islam Democratic: Social Movement and the Post-Islamist Turn (Cornell University, 10 29, 2008)Google Scholar (based on his book with the same title, Bayati, Asif, Making Islam Democratic: Social Movement and the Post-Islamist Turn (Stanford U. Press 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar). Both authors, in their efforts to distinguish between Islam and “Islamists,” have, perhaps unintentially, created a rift between morality and politics within the Islamic faith.

67. Qur'an, Surah 2, al Baqara: 30.

68. Barazangi et al., Connecting the Ideal to Practice, in Islamic Identity, supra n. 1, at 41, 44 n. 1.

69. Qur'an, Surah 42, al Shura: 38.

70. Barazangi, supra n. 2, at 10, 104-105.

71. The recent cases in Germany and France of Muslim women's divorce are glaring examples. See for example the story, With Pop's visit, Sarkozy challenges French secularism, (accessed Mar. 20, 2009).

72. See e.g. Issues of Hijab in France and the interference of European governments in teaching Islam in schools, or of the Americans in changing the curriculums in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco.

73. Barazangi, supra n. 2.

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75. Ingrid Mattson, the Director of Hartford Seminary, and the first woman president of (ISNA), “supports male privilege in leading prayers, based on her understanding of Sunnah (Muhammad's example),” (accessed Mar. 20, 2009).

76. See Barazangi, supra n. 2, at 9,48.

77. See text accompanying supra n. 46.

78. Exemplified in Barbara Finlay's “critique of President George W. Bush, whom she argues has waged a war against women on many fronts.” Esterchild, Elizabeth, Book Review, 22 Gender & Socy. 824 (2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar (reviewing Finley, Barbara, George W. Bush and the War on Women: Turning Back the Clock on Progress (2006)Google Scholar).

79. “Archbishop of Canterbury Surrenders to Islamic Law,” (accessed Mar. 20, 2009).

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81. Chitnis, Varsha & Wright, Danaya, The Legacy of Colonialism: Law and Women's Rights in India, 64 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 1315 (2007)Google Scholar.

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84. The conflict resulting from the proposal to introduce shari'ah in Canadian law is a good example here. See e.g. Korteweg, Anna, The Sharia Debate in Ontario: Gender, Islam, and Representations of Muslim Women's Agency, 22 Gender & Socy. 434 (2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

85. Ali-Dib, Edith Szanto, On the Quest for ‘Truth’ in Damascus, VIII Syrian Stud. Assn. Newsletter 8 (Winter 2008) (available at Scholar.

86. Pieternella Van Doorn-Harder, supra n. 9, at 2.

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90. Amina Wadud, supra n. 73.

91. Ghazali, Zaynab al, Humum al mar'ah al Muslimah wa-al da'iyah Zaynab al Ghazali (Dar al I'tisam 1990) (Arabic)Google Scholar.

92. According to Kroissenbrunner, Sabine, Islam and Muslim Immigrants in Austria, 22 Immigrants and Minorities 188, 206 n. 30 (2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Smail Balic, an Austrian of Bosnian origin (d. 2002) made the first step to introduce the concept of “European Islam” or “Euro-Islam,” but the concept was not accepted by either of the two major Muslim organizations in Austria, the Islamic Religious Council of Austria and the Turkish-Islamic Union in Austria (ATIB); Tibi, Bassam, Islam Between Culture and Politics 202 (Palgrave 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar also uses the concept to promote accommodation over multiculturalism. He further comments on this term as being his in his 2008 works. Supra n. 23, at 94 n. 24; supra n. 65, at xiv.

93. Barazangi, supra n.1 at 77.

94. Wadud, Amina, Citizenship and Faith, in Women and Citizenship 170187 (Friedman, Marilyn ed., Oxford U. Press 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar states:

[G]ender disparity was an underlying characteristic in the development of Islamic shari'ah historically, which was the means for establishing the basic moral rights and wrongs, as well as the checks and balances to maintain them in the context of Muslim civil society. This shari'ah construction of women can only grant the female person a deviant status, insufficient for the completion of her khilafah before Allah: the ultimate purpose of her humanity.

Id. at 186.

95. Barazangi, supra n. 2.

96. Kelly Pemberton, personal e-mail communication with the author, Aug. 2007.

97. See Barazangi, supra n. 2, at ch. 3.

98. I borrowed this idea from Razack, Sherene H., Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics 5 (U. Toronto 2008)Google Scholar, but I take an optimistic view of her argument. She argues that the stereotypical figures that came to represent the “war on terror” are promoted to justify “the expulsion of Muslims from the political community, a casting out that takes the form of stigmatization, surveillance, incarceration, abandonment, torture, and bombs.” I hope that by deconstructing the arguments about the exclusive use of civil law to assess Muslims attitudes, we will be able to help facilitate a change in the prevailing perspectives of Islam. Consequently, Muslims may renounce violence as a means to achieve justice when they are included in the development of their own and that of Western law and politics.

99. One should not forget that the environment in which early Hadith was documented was an adverse and violent one too.

100. Shahrur, supra n. 35, at 19.

101. Afsaruddin, Asma, The First Muslims: History and Memory 7 (One World 2008)Google Scholar.

102. See supra n. 41 on inter-religious conferences.

103. Shahrur, supra n. 35, at 29.

104. Qur'an, Surah 8, al-Anfal 63-64.

105. Qur'an, Surah 21, al-Anbya' 108.

106. Afsaruddin, supra n. 99, at 15.

107. Id.

108. Afsaruddin states, “According to the Mu'tazli pro-Alid scholar, Ibn ˋl Hadid (d. 1257), the supporters of 'Ali were the first to put into circulation reports that praised his unique virtues immediately after the death of the Prophet.” Id. at 22.

109. Even when Asma Afsaruddin tries, in other parts of her book, The First Muslims, supra n. 99, at 73-74, to show the positive contribution of these early Muslim women to the community, her mention of 'Aisha, for example, was incidental to the issue of idealizing early companions at later sources.

110. Though I have not discussed domestic violence per se, I have discussed other perspectives that look at women as inferiors. See for example my discussion of minimizing the importance of women's participation in Friday congregation prayer in order to exclude them from public discussion of community affairs and to prevent them from playing their role of Khalifah, in Barazangi, supra n. 1, and my discussion of domestic affairs by proxy, Barazangi, supra n. 54.