*The author first presented this review at the Sixth Annual Graduate Students Book Review Colloquium on Islam and Middle Eastern Studies in 2022 organized by Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University and the Maydan.
Tired tropes on women’s oppressiveness in Islam are out of fashion, while nuance and insight are once again in vogue. In this vein, Ziba Mir-Hosseini adds numerous voices to the topic of gender in Islam through an in-depth journey into the minds of six ‘reformist’ Muslim scholars in her latest book Journeys Toward Gender Equality in Islam. An anthropologist by training, Hosseini attributes her interest on the topic to her time spent in the family courts of Tehran in the 1980s, where women would often thump the desks of the presiding Muslim judges, demanding to know whether it was truly possible that their husbands could take a second wife or divorce them without their consent.
Hosseini is clear about her goal in writing this book. Upon being told that the family courts were not the right place to learn about shariah, she took it upon herself to converse with religious scholars in the seminaries in the city of Qom.
In Journeys, she documents her conversations with six scholars of varying backgrounds, some with a traditional education in the Islamic sciences and some without, over the course of a decade. Many of these conversations took root in the 1990s and have continued through today, but the documented portion for this book is on conversations Hosseini had with them between 2009 and 2020. Hosseini is clear about her goal in writing this book. Upon being told that the family courts were not the right place to learn about shariah, she took it upon herself to converse with religious scholars in the seminaries in the city of Qom. Through this experience, she recognized the need to engage the tradition from within in order to make any sort of meaningful change to the laws that operated against women and stripped them of justice in family matters. Her intellectual trajectory was to ask the question of where one could go in this matter, what avenues could one traverse. All six intellectuals in her book have, therefore, “transcended the limitations of classical jurists” and her discussions with them have the intent of finding solutions grounded in Islamic law (2). Of the six intellectuals whose ideas on Islamic law, shariah, and fiqh, Hosseini presents, two are traditionally trained. Khaled Abou El-Fadl has the traditional credentials of a faqih, or a legal jurist in Islamic law, and Mohsen Kadivar studied the traditional sciences in Iran and was granted the position of mujtahid – one who is qualified to create legal rulings. The remaining four, Abdullahi An-Na’im, Amina Wadud, Asma Lamrabet, and Sedigheh Vasmaghi, have academic credentials in fields such as gender, human rights, and law, along with some seminary training.
“Of the six intellectuals whose ideas on Islamic law, shariah, and fiqh, Hosseini presents, two are traditionally trained… [t]he remaining four, Abdullahi An-Na’im, Amina Wadud, Asma Lamrabet, and Sedigheh Vasmaghi, have academic credentials in fields such as gender, human rights, and law, along with some seminary training.”
Their approaches to this topic are varied, but each scholar arrives at essentially the same conclusion: that the fault lies with fiqh, not with Islam. Abdullahi an-Na’im does not believe that shariah, the term he uses for scholarly interpretations of Islamic law, acknowledges ‘the equal human dignity’ of women, while Amina Wadud uses Amin Ahsan Islahi as her spiritual mentor to read the Qur’an cohesively in a ‘gender inclusive’ manner. Asma Lamrabet is of the view that the Qur’an’s stance on morality is contained in 90% of its verses, and that those verses which specify punishments are not necessarily meant for all time but were meant only for the period during which revelation was being sent down and the Prophet Mohammad was alive. In Hosseini’s discussion with both Khaled Abou El-Fadl and Mohsen Kadivar, both of whom are traditionally trained jurists, they insist that Islam is justice, plain and simple, and when we approach the texts through a view of its end-goals, or maqasid, it is impossible for the resulting laws to be unequal or unjust towards women. Sedigheh Vasmaghi, a scholar on Islamic law, has similar positions, but takes it one step further. In her view, Islam dictates no laws governing people’s social and political lives; whereas others, like Lamrabet, believe that a small percentage of laws are meant to apply to Muslims across time, Vasmaghi is of the view that Islam dictates for all time only the underlying principles of laws laid out in the Qur’an and Sunnah, such as justice and kindness.
The above is just one example of Hosseini’s vital and enriching conversations. In the current field of gender in Islam, these are the discussions which must take place, exposing the roots of Islamic laws and questioning whether those roots are premised in faulty suppositions. In conversation after conversation, Hosseini grabs at the essence of the problem: how do we challenge traditional so-called Islamic doctrines and dogmas about women’s rights? Each scholar has the same answer: to de-tangle fiqh from sharia. Sharia is the universal, perfectly just law of God; fiqh, on the other hand, is the man-made, interpretive exercise of shariah. Despite the significance of this topic, and possibly because of it, Hosseini and the scholars she converses with equate justice and equality in a flawed manner. From the beginning of her book, Hosseini insists that the justice she is looking for is necessarily to be found in gender equality. This is a mantra that gets repeated in every conversation and it is baffling that, in a work that speaks so emphatically about checking one’s presuppositions, this particular concept is not questioned. In her introduction, Hosseini groups Muslim approaches to this topic and there she titles the group that believes in justice as not necessarily being rooted in equality as the Neo-Traditionalists. However, she does not provide sufficient reasoning for discarding that premise and instead asserting that absolute equality is the ideal form of justice.
From the beginning of her book, Hosseini insists that the justice she is looking for is necessarily to be found in gender equality. This is a mantra that gets repeated in every conversation and it is baffling that, in a work that speaks so emphatically about checking one’s presuppositions, this particular concept is not questioned.
This is particularly problematic because some of her conversations, such as the one Hosseini has with Asma Lamrabet, contain statements that should be questioned but are allowed to pass. “For our fuqaha,” Lamrabet says, “men and women are equal spiritually but not in their rights and responsibilities. This doesn’t make sense; how can it be that I, as a woman, am only equal to man spiritually, but not otherwise?” (131). Difference, in this instance, is considered unequivocally invalid, and the assumption made by Lamrabet is that only in sameness can there be equality. Could this idea perhaps be re-interpreted as a spiritual equality in which men and women will be held responsible for their own speech and actions, based on their individual rights and responsibilities that may or may not be the same? Khaled Abou El-Fadl asks how we should “approach textual sources from an ethical perspective in line with contemporary notions of justice, to which gender equality has become inherent in the course of the twentieth century” (152). Hosseini herself clearly states that “gender equality is a modern ideal, which has only recently, with the expansion of human rights and feminist discourses, become inherent to generally accepted conceptions of justice” (22), and yet she ends her stance here and repeatedly insists on equality as being synonymous with justice, choosing not to explain why this premise must be accepted simply because it is of our time.
This premise creates faultlines in an otherwise dynamic and crucial set of conversations, and may prevent these conversations from reaching a wider audience. However, despite this, the essence of Journeys is the sincerity behind Hosseini and the six scholars. None of them, with the exception of perhaps Vasmaghi, are against the Islamic tradition and looking to transform it into a secular society. These conversations are occurring precisely because of their desire to remain within the folds of Islam. The refrain we get from them is that Islam is just, but man-made interpretations of shariah may not be. But here again we reach another instance of unexamined premises. Specifically, Vasmaghi asserts that unjust laws cannot be of the shariah. She does not, however, define justice, nor explain how one would recognize laws as being just or unjust. Without a stable definition to start from, how can we be expected to proceed forward towards gender justice? “Let us assume,” Vasmaghi says, “that our understanding of the Qur’an and other religions is that they all favor marriage, that they do not approve of adultery, lying, stealing – things that humans themselves, through their reason, realize are bad and harmful to their lives” (222). Hosseini does not question her on why or how one should understand lying, or remaining unmarried, as being harmful to one’s life. This blind spot is the work’s biggest weakness: aiming to free past scholars from their presuppositions while neglecting to examine one’s own.
As many of us in the field of Islamic gender studies recognize, there is a wide gulf between the traditionalist and the progressive narrative. This gulf cannot be bridged unless both sides are willing to come to the table to have the kinds of conversations that Hosseini does with these six scholars.
As many of us in the field of Islamic gender studies recognize, there is a wide gulf between the traditionalist and the progressive narrative. This gulf cannot be bridged unless both sides are willing to come to the table to have the kinds of conversations that Hosseini does with these six scholars. Hosseini appears to have a painfully acute awareness of this, which is why she holds these conversations through Islamic law, not past it. There is much in the book that both camps would agree with. Amina Wadud accepts that jurists may have opinions which are unjust and not rooted in the textual sources of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and she asks only that they not put such opinions “out there as if [they are] sacred” (98). Khaled Abou El-Fadl is staunchly against using reason as the only benchmark with which to judge justice and injustice. Asma Lamrabet talks about how she always felt uncomfortable being a poster child for progressive Muslims against the Islamists: “I don’t want to be used as an instrumental tool against the Islamists,” she says, “that is not my aim. I just want a good society, justice in society, I don’t want to be with either Islamists or secularists” (136). These are all thoughts and beliefs that both sides would agree with if they stayed in the room together long enough to hear them. In order to get there, however, we must retreat back to our shared first principles and build upwards from those water-tight premises.
Fatima Razvi is finishing her master’s degree in Islamic Studies with a concentration in Islamic Sciences at The Islamic Seminary of America in Dallas, Texas. Prior to her studies at the seminary, she obtained a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Houston. Her academic interests lie at the intersection of theology, law, gender, and politics. Upon graduation from The Islamic Seminary of America, she will be pursuing further graduate training in Islamic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where her research focus will be on the legal application of the concept of nushūz within Muslim societies in the early medieval period.