On Terminology, Politics, and “Islamic Feminism”

Much has been written lately on the subject of Islamic feminism. Tears, as well as blood, have been shed. Insults have been hurled at women and men alike, and especially at Amina Wadud. MRA’s and WRA’s have been at each other’s throats. Articles such as this have fed the waves of controversy.

At this point, one principle is essential to keep in mind–no matter what our contentions are, insulting people is forbidden in Islam, unless said individuals have perpetrated some kind of significant harm. There is a difference between criticizing theological perspectives and shouting “feminism is cancer” at the heavens. As Muslims, everything we do should be Quranically rooted. This requires thorough knowledge of the subject material. If we Muslims were to collectively make an effort to understand the Quran, devoid of traditional biases and secondary source reports, it would make our job much easier. After acquiring an understanding of Quranic guidelines, we would be able to resist Western occupation of Muslim lands and at the same time expose those who claim the shahada while betraying its tenets.

What does all this have to do with feminism?

This has to do with feminism because it’s such a divisive term. Muslims from all ends of the theological spectrum have gathered, either to denounce it or to embrace it–often with zero understanding of what it stands for, and what the Quran stands for. We have to comprehend the Quran before we can launch a critique/endorsement of feminism from an Islamic perspective.

Feminism is a diverse umbrella term and covers a wide range of movements. It also invokes an expansive array of connotations–some people recoil in horror at the sound of the word (“Blue hair! Horrible!”), while others celebrate (“Women’s rights! Yay!”). The word means different things to different individuals. Depending on its usage, it can refer to modern third-wave feminism, second-wave feminism, or simply advocacy of women’s rights. “Islamic feminism” is usually used to denote the promotion of women’s rights on the basis of Islamic principles.

This is where I digress from objective analysis, and proceed to explain my own perspective on the issue. Everyone has probably noticed that I occasionally cite the work of Muslim feminists. This is because I find insight in some of their work. It is not an endorsement of all of their viewpoints.

I’m not a Muslim feminist. This is because the term “Islamic feminism” seems to indicate that an external ideology is being imposed on Islam, even if this is often untrue in practice.

Many Muslim feminists assert that the Quran is inherently just (true) and that both genders have equal value in Islam (true). Therefore, Islamic feminism is revivalism rather than reform, because it seeks to reclaim the Quran from scholars who have undermined its core principles of justice and decency.

Other Muslim feminists believe that while Islam is actually innately patriarchal, its teachings must be “reformed” and “contextualized” to combat the patriarchy. I disagree with this viewpoint. Islam is just and needs no “reform”–it simply requires revitalization.

Because Islamic feminism is such a diverse and complex movement, I feel that being a “Muslim feminist” would simply foster controversy and throw people off.

To me, Islam is enough (at least with regards to nomenclature/terminology). I don’t like having to affix terms to Islam or Quran, because it implies, to some degree, that they need supplements.

My main point remains that work must be judged solely on the basis of its merit. I read and cite both orthodox and modernist/feminist perspectives on Islam. It is wrong to denounce a work of literature just because its author is a feminist, even though said work of literature may contain valid arguments. My interpretive approach requires that every argument is judged on the basis of its adherence to Quranic principles. It doesn’t matter whether the author is a feminist or a self-proclaimed Salafi or both–what matters is the cogence of their reasoning.

One principle of Quranic understanding which must be taken into account is that the text is gendered. The Quran clearly decrees that both genders are equal in value, are representatives/vicegerents of God, and are required to use their gifts to better the world–whether this is through teaching, writing, or research. It is also abundantly clear that neither gender has the right to limit the other’s autonomy or to claim authority over the other beyond what God has deemed lawful. Both genders are required to be active participants in society. Seclusion and total asceticism are forbidden.

However, the text is gendered in the sense that it prescribes responsibilities by sex. This is exemplified by the mandate for a dowry (given to the woman) and the mandate that men fulfill household financial obligations. Divorce processes defer by gender (women have fewer duties when seeking divestiture than men do). In some cases, testimonial weight in court and inheritance division differ by gender. Gender roles in their entirety are fairly flexible–beyond certain financial requirements, households may be run at the discretion of their owners. Women are neither required to earn an income nor prohibited from doing so. However, the fact remains that many Islamic responsibilities differ by biological sex. To eliminate gender-based differences from the Quran is almost to commit kufr–disbelief–just as violating the ontological equal value bestowed upon both genders is kufr.

If feminism means eradicating gender-based variance in Quranic rulings on the basis of “contextualized goals of the Sharia,” I do not agree with it.

“Liberal Islam” and “Progressive Islam” both tie into this. If Liberal Islam means imposing secular worldviews on the Quran, I disagree with it. But if it simply means defending the Quran against stampedes of misinterpretation, I endorse it.

I find that this is a moderate and balanced perspective, in line with the Quran:

“Thus we have made you a community of the Middle Way, justly balanced, so that you may be witnesses over mankind…” (2:143)

Terminology, I have found, is often amusing. One term that never fails to entertain me is fundamentalism. The other is extremism. If doing so didn’t terrify people, I would consistently identify myself as both a Muslim fundamentalist and an extremist, since I believe fully in the fundamentals of Islam: Justice, compassion, and monotheism.

In the end, it is up to us to walk the middle path, and judge everyone’s claims on the basis of their adherence to Quranic principles.


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