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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 8 Sept 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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

By Dr. Adis Duderija, New Age Islam

08 September 2016

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-centred 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 on-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 torah 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.

Adis Duderija is a Visiting Senior lecturer at the university Malaya. His academic and non-academic works can be read here: He blogs at: Critical-Progressive Muslim Thought: Islamic Hermeneutics, Gender and Interreligious Dialogue.


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