History Speaks EP4 – Qur’an/Gender/Feminism

In this episode of History Speaks, Dr. Roshan Iqbal speaks with Dr. Celene Ibrahim and Dr. Hadia Mubarak on Gender as a lens to study the Qur’an, Muslim feminism, its contributions and challenges, the limits and role of texts, and questions of power and authority in academia, among other topics.

Dr. Celene Ibrahim is the author of Women and Gender in the Qur’an from Oxford University Press (2020) and Islam and Monotheism from Cambridge University Press (forthcoming 2022). She is the editor of One Nation, Indivisible: Seeking Liberty and Justice from the Pulpit to the Streets from Wipf & Stock Publishers (2019). Ibrahim holds a doctorate in Arabic and Islamic Civilizations and a master’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University, a Masters of Divinity from Harvard University, and a bachelor’s degree with the highest honors from Princeton University. She offers lectures, workshops, and seminars around the world as a trusted voice on issues of religion and civic engagement, spiritual care and chaplaincy, Islamic intellectual history, and women’s studies. She can be reached at celeneibrahim.org.

Dr. Hadia Mubarak is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Queens University of Charlotte. She previously served as Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Guilford College and as a Research Fellow at New York University-Abu Dhabi (NYUAD). Her forthcoming book, Rebellious Wives, Neglectful Husbands: Controversies in Modern Qurʾanic Commentaries (Oxford University Press, March 2020), explores significant shifts in modern Qurʾanic commentaries on the subject of women against the backdrop of broader historical, intellectual and political developments in the early twentieth century. Mubarak completed her Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from Georgetown University, where she specialized in modern and classical Qurʾanic exegesis, Islamic feminism, and gender reform in the modern Muslim world. She currently serves as a scholar-in-residence with the Muslim Community Center of Charlotte (MCC) and a scholar with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).
Mubarak’s publications include, among others, “Women’s Contemporary Readings of the Qur’an” in The Routledge Companion to the Qur’an (Routledge, 2021), ed. George Archer, Maria M. Dakake, Daniel A. Madigan; “Violent, Oppressed and Un-American: Muslim Women in the American Imagination” in The Personal is Political, ed. Christine Davis and Jon Crane (Brill, 2020); “Gender and Qurʾanic Exegesis” in The Routledge Handbook of Islam and Gender, ed. Justine Howe (Brill, 2020); “Change Through Continuity: A Case Study of Q. 4:34 in Ibn ʿĀshūr’s Al-Taḥrīr wa-l-Tanwīr” (Journal of Qurʾanic Studies20.1 February 2018); “Breaking the Interpretive Monopoly: A Re-Examination of Verse 4:34” (Hawwa 2.3); and “Crossroads,” I Speak For Myself: American Women on Being Muslim (White Cloud Press, 2011). You can read her work at https://Queens.academia.edu/HadiaMubarak


Dr. Roshan Iqbal hails from a small hamlet of 20 million–Karachi, Pakistan. She received her PhD in Islamic Studies from Georgetown University. Prior to this she read for her MPhil at the University of Cambridge. She has studied in Pakistan, the US, Morocco, Egypt, Jordon, the UK, and Iran. Her research interests include gender and sexuality in the Qur’an, Islamic Law, Film and Media Studies, and modern Muslim intellectuals. Her forthcoming book is titled, ‘Marital and Sexual Ethics in Islamic Law: Rethinking Temporary Marriage.’ As an associate professor at Agnes Scott College, she teaches classes in the Religious Studies department and also classes that are cross-listed with Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Film Studies. When she is not working, she loves talking to her family and friends on the phone (thank you, unlimited plans), tracking fashion (sartorial flourishes are such fun), watching films (love! love! love!), reading novels (never enough), painting watercolors (less and less poorly), and cooking new dishes (sometimes successfully).






[TRANSCRIPT] History Speaks: Episode 4 – Qur’an/Gender/Feminism

[Opening Music]

Roshan Iqbal 00:13    

Hello and Salaam. Thank you, Hadia and Celene, for speaking with me on the History Speaks podcast. It is a pleasure and true honor to have this conversation on gender and Qur’an with you. For Muslims, as we know the Qur’an as the direct speech of God and therefore sacred and infused with divine power. For centuries, Muslim poured over the pages of the Qur’an to try and discern the various meanings of the text for the individual day-to-day life for their spiritual life or their social existence. Hadia and Celene, as someone who specializes in the study of modern and medieval Quranic commentaries on gender issues, what do you find to be the main differences in the Quranic commentaries in the modern period? Does anything really change?  

Hadia Mubarak 01:01    

Thank you so much for having us on. Actually, in my inshallah upcoming book, Rebellious Wives, Neglectful Husbands: Controversies in Modern Qur’anic Commentaries, I look at this question through the lens of women and gender specifically. What we find is that the historical context in the late 19th, early 20th, century invest the question of women and gender with theoretical significance in a way that was not true pre-modernity and, therefore, what I found is that modern exegetes are very much responding to this contemporaneous reality in which they find themselves. In many ways, interestingly, the tafsir, the commentaries, becomes this dialectic where they are not only interpreting the words of the Qur’an, but they’re also engaging with certain debates that are happening in their societies. In fact, I look at three different commentaries and what I find is that each one of them is responding to a very specific debate. For example,  Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida, they are responding to, in some ways, to Christian missionary and colonial criticism of Islam’ treatment of women on one hand, but interestingly, they’re also in some ways critiquing Muslims themselves, especially with Abduh. You see that he internalizes that colonial gaze and says, you know what? We Muslim Jurists have made things difficult for women, and we need to push for certain reforms, but there is a dialectic happening in the tafseer itself.  With Sayyid Qutb, he is responding to the liberal secular Arab who has, in some ways, internalized some of this colonial rhetoric of Islam being an obstacle to women’s progress and that’s probably a function of where he is in history as well. He wrote from 1950 until 1966, and at this time the modern nation state has fully developed. There is this liberal modernist agenda being pushed by indigenous Arabs and so he’s responding to them. Muhammad Tahir ibn Ashur, who is also mid 20th century, at the time that he was writing, a little bit after, there is also a dialectic going on in terms of women and gender, but I find that it’s more a response to the classical tradition in some ways. He’s very much, in some ways, a guardian of the classical tradition, but he’s also responding to it and pointing out, in very subtle ways, where he thinks the classical tradition got it wrong in terms of women and gender. In all three, we find the story of dialectic and I think that’s what I found to be very different than the medieval period, where this question of women’s rights and women’s treatment and Islam were just a non-issue, it wasn’t really something that you would invest any sort of stock in trying to defend  

Celene Ibrahim 03:55    

Going off that question and just hearing you provide that window in time, it also makes me think about how the contemporary period is adding another layer onto the question of what is tafsir because with this merger, especially coming out of the English language and other European languages, the merger between the academic study, which is where a lot of Muslim intellectuals have found a home, and then more traditional modalities of tafsir, there’s a blending of the commentary genre, you could say maybe a stretching. The wonderful thing about that is that it allows for not just new perspectives, but a new way of taking the quarter and not as much verse by verse, but more thematically. I’m looking forward to seeing where the future takes us in this regard and how well the commentaries that have been coming out of the academic tradition that are more thematic, how they’ll eventually, in terms of a wider Muslim audience, have some staying power, like some of the more classical tafsirs have been able to have staying power.  

Roshan Iqbal 05:15    

Thank you, Celene and Hadia. I agree in the sense that there was a change that happened over time, which is that the woman’s question became a really important question, especially during post-colonialism. What we have in the last two or three decades is this change in tafsir for more verse to verse to thematic. It is interesting, in my own work, I look at two women exegetes, <inaudible> who was a Sunni scholar and preacher and <inaudible>, who is a shi’i exegetical scholar. It’s interesting that they at least do not tow the feminist line and they also do not apologize for failing to do so. Interestingly enough, they do not differ in interpretation from male exegetes, which is fascinating, but maybe it can be explained by how such continuity is the initial price of being included and being considered as authorities. How would both of you situate your scholarship along the spectrum of Islamic feminism or Muslim theology? Would you identify with either and why?  

Celene Ibrahim 06:25    

For me, coming out of a convert background, I already have a Western frame of mind. That’s how I’ve been educated for most of my life and so when I think about explicitly identifying as a feminist, I think it could cloud the reception of my scholarship among some of the audiences that I would like to reach. This is on the one hand because feminism has, in some ways, been entangled problematically with discourses of women’s liberation that put Western women above other women, above Arab women, above South Asian women, in a cultural hierarchy. I’m very careful that, especially when I am writing for an audience that is recovering from colonial traumas, that identifying as feminist is problematic, it doesn’t help my work and it could reinforce some of the ideas about Western women’s superiority. For those reasons, while I think there’s great benefit that feminist movements have brought in terms of thinking about women’s solidarity and thinking about issues of justice as they impact the socially marginalized and I do take inspiration from a number of feminist thinkers, Bell Hooks, who just recently passed away is someone who comes to mind, looking at how she really inserted herself into conversations and changed the conversation because of not who she was as an African-American woman scholar. There are so many ways in which I think we can be inspired by feminist thought as contemporary women without necessarily letting the platform of feminism overshadow our own work and our own desires to be nuanced in ways that if we’re writing for a feminist audience, per se, there would be boundaries that  have to be more ideologically feminist. It wouldn’t allow us to actually represent what the Qur’an was saying, for instance. That division is something that I’ve always had to tiptoe around a little bit. I also want my work to speak to an audience that cares about justice issues and that is embedded in a feminist perspective. I’m trying to appeal to both audiences without letting my voice get overshadowed by any strong ideological perspective.  

Hadia Mubarak 09:15    

I see that actually seen very clearly in your book, Women and Gender, and I think you do a great job of navigating that balance. I actually teach a little bit on a Islamic feminism and I understand, and I sympathize, with some of the Muslim, what would you call it, discomfort with feminism itself as a label, but I also think that to some extent there is a misunderstanding of what feminism is. I think within the Muslim community, if I can put that critical lens on, is that there tends to be a lack of appreciation for the evolving nature of feminism and the evolving nature of transnational feminism itself. Transnational feminism itself has transformed in such a way to allow indigenous people in different parts of the world to claim for themselves what feminism would look like, to claim for themselves what the priorities should be for people who care about women’s rights and gender justice and equality and these are things that, in my opinion, are very much inherent to the Qur’an itself, the equality of all human beings, the idea of justice, the idea of God as being the ultimate embodiment of justice and so, in my humble opinion, I feel like by shying away from feminism, we concede that this is as a Western enterprise and that we as Muslims have nothing to say or contribute to this very important discursive framework. Therefore, transnational feminism gives us a gateway as Muslim women, as people who believe in the Qur’an and are invested in the Muslim tradition to say, you know what, our feminism, Islamic feminism, would look different. We do not believe religion, or let’s say specifically Islam, and feminism are mutually exclusive in any ways and that we can articulate a form of feminism that is aligned with our religious beliefs and our priorities. These priorities may look very different, as Celene noted, than the priorities of Western feminists. I note this all the time to my students. For example, when we look at Laura Bush’s address in 2001 about the plight of Afghan women when she’s talking about how they’re not allowed to listen to music and they can’t wear nail polish and I’m like, let’s just think for a second, do we really think those were the priorities for women who didn’t have access to healthcare, who couldn’t send their kids to school without fear of a bomb or a landmine or something killing their children on the way to school and for women in the West Bank territories. Political priorities are very much embedded in the feminist agenda and I think if we are courageous and claiming that and saying that is very much part of feminism is like the autonomy and independence of an anti-imperialist agenda of these Muslim communities. Maybe we can shift the discourse. Maybe we could actually make a dent in what transnational feminism looks like for women in occupied parts of the world.  

Roshan Iqbal 12:19    

Thank you, Hadia and Celene. I do agree that lay Muslims have not been able to acknowledge the evolving nature, as you put it Hadia, of feminism and how that it continues to our own tradition and we don’t need to be stuck in its history, which was where colonizers appropriated feminism for their own cause. That made it very problematic for Muslim women to take up the cause of feminism, but I think we need to take seriously what Celine was trying to say, which is that sometimes some forms of feminism can be divisive and they can create epistemological violence. I have a particular question for you, Hadia, which is that there is a plethora of literature in both academia and the media on verse 4/34, which is one of the main verses that you work on. How do you approach this verse in your work? What’s something that you would tell your audience about the worst that hasn’t been stated before, or hasn’t been stated enough, or as we were talking, hasn’t been stated from the Muslim feminist lens enough?

Hadia Mubarak 13:26    

One area where I’m attempting to intervene is to reclaim a space for the medieval Muslim commentary, for any commentary. I feel there’s been a trend in contemporary Quranic studies to some extent, but specifically when it comes to women and gender and the Qur’an, to dismiss the tradition, the Quranic tafsir tradition, and a lot of it is based on a priori assumptions that it’s monolithically patriarchal, that it’s misogynist, and all of these different claims. Of course, I’m not denying that patriarchy is very much there in many of the medieval commentaries, but I also would say that there’s a lot that the tradition can offer. Even when we look at verses that have spurred a lot of controversy, like verse 4/34, there seems to be, in my opinion, in my short reading of contemporary literature, this notion that throughout Muslim history, medieval commentators have all read this verse in a very literal, straightforward way and it’s only the modern period that we’re saying no to a straightforward reading of this first, which is really not true, it’s it can’t be substantiated by reading the medieval commentaries. We find that actually exegetes displayed discomfort with the idea that a man could just hit his wife even as a third procedural step. We find that they imposed limitations. Even in the medieval commentaries, this is not the norm. We can say there were a few who just said based on the hadith, we would say no, that this is not a verse to be implemented. This is not a prescription. They read it in different ways that it’s actually maybe a karahiya, something that’s disliked by God, and that it takes a certain sophisticated hermeneutic to understand the worst in that way. One of the earliest mufasireen and scholars to read it in that way was from <inaudible> from the second Islamic century in Mecca, who was a mufti of Mecca, who literally said that this verse was misunderstood. He’s saying this in the second century Islamic Mecca, saying that he felt his people around him were misunderstanding the verse. He said that the husband could get angry at the wife, but could not hit the wife. Also, you have, based on this, Ibn Arabi, the Andalusian exegete, who takes that opinion and says, yes, for this reason, a man should not hit his wife regardless of her nushoos and regardless if the first two procedures are not effective. Then you have in the contemporary period, you have an astral sort of taking this opinion as well, but even Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, who was a sheikh, a scholar taking a position that yes, it’s preferred that a man never hit his wife regardless of the situation. What I find is that there’s a lot within the medieval Muslim tradition to build on in our current efforts to revive or find that egalitarian ethos in the Qur’an. So I would say, instead of completely dismissing this genre of tafsir, we should try to dig for the treasures that we can find within.  

Roshan Iqbal 16:36    

Once I read your dissertation, I really started thinking about the significance of how you are so critical in reading classical commentaries and trying to understand that all of them are not homogenous and maybe that some scholars were maybe not thinking of it in the terms we understand, which is feminism, but at least they were trying to say that if something is literally permissible, that doesn’t mean it’s ethical or moral. Celene,I have a question for you, which is in your work, what were the different troops and teams that you uncovered in your research of women in the Koran? What are the values that are constantly demonstrated throughout the use of female narratives? How central are women and girls in the stories of revelation that you thought about and wrote about?

Celene Ibrahim 17:26    

Before we go there, just to note on 4/34. I’m thinking about this from the practical context of working in communities. The way in which I often encounter people asking me as someone who studies the Qur’an and about 4/34 is actually that they heard about this verse, not necessarily from their own exploration of the Qur’an, but actually from polemics that are out there in the wider cultural context. It goes to show something about Islamophobia that I wanted to highlight and underscore. That is to say that so much of the things that have been made problematic in our tradition, if we would take a traditionalist point of view, meaning if we would dig back and see our own intellectual history on it, it wouldn’t really be problematic. It’s points of the Qur’an that people who are coming without any background or expertise in Islamic studies have an idea that we just are non-thinking and taking things absolutely literally. When you stop to say to maybe it’s not an Islamophobic audience, actually, we don’t always read every verse. Literally some verses are read bitterly and others aren’t just that level and I’ve seen it because I’ve done so many Islam 101 programs, faces glaze over they don’t just reinforce the Qur’an completely literally and we’ve talked about how stereotypes can just be injusted. I think this is one of the problematic areas that if our young people aren’t educated in their own tradition enough, they might actually have this come up as a crisis of faith moment when need not be, that’s just illiteracy about our own tradition that is not just among maybe non-Muslims or nonspecialists, but it’s even in our own communities, but it’s not sufficient. You will hear on 4/34 people explain this first to Muslim audiences and say something like it is a third step or these are sequential and I think as Muslims who are embedded in temporary communities of practice, we have to be able to give more sophisticated answers, but they can’t be so sophisticated that we lose the audience. How do we explain our scriptures in a way that is accessible. To transition that into your question about my own project, that’s part of what I set out to do in that project, because I realized there were so many rich resources for demonstrating how women’s intelligence and spirituality and wisdom is in fact demonstrated in the Qur’an. I gravitate it to stories because that’s an genre that people can connect to easily.I was thinking about my work, not just making a contribution to the academic studies of the Qur’an, but I wanted it to be work that your everyday Muslim could pick up and could find something in there to reinforce their own spiritual quest and questions.

Roshan Iqbal 20:48    

I have to say that with 4/34, if I’m being a hundred percent honest, it is as a practicing Muslim woman, something really hard to read and it’s so deeply embedded in our culture. From Pakistan, I feel like this is where some of the male attitudes come from because they find a particular valence in the Qur’an. I do think that a lot of work needs to be done before it can dissolve and go away. Some of it has to be done because we’re not reinventing the Qur’an, but it can be seen in many different ways by classical scholars. This is also a reaction to colonialism where we are very afraid of a break and we want things to be continuous, which I agree with for the most part.

Hadia Mubarak 21:46    

If I can just tag on and also add something that is, Celene, I think to your point, the idea of the role of Islamophobia in why we’re paying so much attention to one verse out of over 6,000, two verses of the crowd is definitely something worthy to mention, but I also find it a problem of how we understand the role of texts and Muslim societies, that we want to absolve humans of their behavior and blame things on their texts. We see this with this question of violence in Islam or Muslims who perpetuate or inflict violence, where we want to look for that verse, that verse that we can blame for the terrorism of human beings who have decided and to inflict the violence on other human beings and human beings are really complex people that the idea that you could reduce the action of a human being to a single verse in a single passage in the text is really flawed. It also equally applies to the problem of domestic violence. Domestic violence, as we know, is a universal problem that women face and even men in all cultures and all religions in all geographies, but when it comes to Islam and Muslim communities, we somehow, both within and without, the community, we want to say that it’s this passage in the Qur’an that somehow is playing a role instead of looking at the psychology and the social cultural context of these people, specifically the men who are perpetuating violence. Trying to understand what are the other factors contributing to this violence because it’s very reductionist for us to say, oh, it’s their understanding of 4/34 that’s why. I just wanted to add that part to it.  

Celene Ibrahim 23:31    

That’s so important and it’s a reduction of the ethical tradition to not realize that any given verse or any piece, any hadith, fits in the context of a broad intellectual tradition and that’s also a point of reduction almost. The way we encounter, we meaning people who have done Islamic studies in a Western tradition, we sometimes encounter bits and pieces without having this holistic framework. You might have an undergrad student, let’s make her a woman, who comes into a class on Quranic interpretation and you might have one lecture looking at 4/34, but maybe the student hasn’t even really had a background in what is the Islamic ethical tradition? How do all of these different sources of knowledge inform one another? What is the relationship that living practicing Muslims have to a really vast commentary tradition as well? It’s not that we read one piece of commentary on one verse and that’s why we’re forced to believe in the principles that we find in the commentaries, so there’s a lot of the way that I think our young people, I’m thinking specifically in Western societies where a lot of people do go to college and take courses on Islam, especially as people who work in universities as Muslims, really have to think about how the different aspects of the curriculum are introduced and when and how these courses that are just really piecemeal courses, how do they come together to actually give someone a sense of what it means to be a member of their Muslim tradition, their Muslim community? What does it mean for them to be a part of reading these whether they’re ancient works or more contemporary works. Maybe that’s the space of the chaplain or something at the university, but it’s really, it might be something more thinking through with more depth and rigor particularly among Muslim academics.  

Roshan Iqbal 25:45    

Definitely. I find, even in classrooms, especially with Muslim students, I find it even when you try and give them the context, try to trace the history, try to complicate and nuance the understanding, a lot of young people are just, especially when they’re women and now I think a lot of men do, are left with this question. Why does it even exist? I think that we need to speak about this. Why would God have such a verse? What are we supposed to understand about our agency? Something that I was trying to say that I think can be permissible, but is it ethical? Is it moral? How should we think about our agency in such an ethical universe? Thank you so much, Celine and Hadia. The next question I have for you both is how do you think your work informs the field of women’s studies specifically as it pertains to Muslim women or women in the Muslim world?  

Hadia Mubarak 26:43    

That’s an important question. One is, inshallah, when my book is out. I would be very open to any feedback readers have in terms of what could be improved and what could be changed. What I’m hoping to do is on multiple levels, there are various audiences I’m trying to address through both the book and obviously previous publications I’ve done, but one is to instill confidence in the average Muslim in their own tradition, trying to, in some ways, give people the tools that they need to begin to access this tradition. Instead of it seeming like just a plethora of names, for the average Muslims, who are these people. Trying to give some context, both historical context and as Celine mentioned placing them within the intellectual tradition, where do they belong? Who are they? Trying to give people the tools they need to be able to read and access the tradition themselves and become literate in the Muslim tradition itself as intellectual, this very rich pluralistic, intellectual tradition that I feel we have as a resource and as an asset. To your point, Roshan, I love that you mentioned complexity because this is so true. You both mentioned that the tradition is very complex and I wanted to also bring to attention the complexity within the Muslim tradition, that there hasn’t been one single way of understanding any particular verse. There’s been a plethora of ways. A lot of it is based on the external sources that we are applying to read the texts. One thing I want to also add to this is one of the issues I’m very concerned about is where does androcentrism or where does patriarchy in medieval commentaries, where does it come from? What is the source? Is it coming from the Qur’an itself or is it coming from somewhere else? I’ve reached the conclusion that actually it’s coming from, not from the Qur’an, but it’s coming from commentaries on the Qur’an and it has to do with not patriarchy, but it has to do with a genealogical tradition of commentaries where one commentary is responding to another and by responding to that commentary, they’re often repeating things that commentator said. For example, what I found, which was actually new information to me, like <inaudible>, for example, he was a brilliant mufassir in many ways because of his mastery of Arabic philology and philosophy, what he did is he actually introduces some really patriarchal interpretations of certain ayats. Then I would find verbatim the exact same quotation in Razi, which you both know are incredible giants in the field of tafsir and so very much well-read and used in madrasas, in Sunni madrasas, throughout the Muslim world historically. If they’re repeating this, they’re not repeating it because they necessarily believe it, but repeating it because that’s the way the tradition worked, you repeat it to reply to it. What I found is that it entrenches it those patriarchal interpretations in a way that might just be incidental. My hope is that would be my intervention that we begin to distill and understand where are these patriarchal ideas coming from? They’re not necessarily coming from the tradition as a whole. I would argue they’re definitely not coming from the Qur’an itself, but rather if we understand the way the genre itself works, historically and intellectually, then we can begin to untangle that patriarchy that we think is so embedded to the tafsir tradition.  

Celene Ibrahim 30:22    

Just to build off that, thinking about what contribution can our work make to women’s studies as well as to gender studies, it’s really thinking in nuanced ways about questions of authority. How can we, for instance, be able to say so-and-so was a phenomenal grammarian, but we cannot take their opinion as reliable when it comes to this or this. The way that our tradition has worked is putting people up on pedestals as amazing thinkers and polymaths. Sometimes their work in Islamic medicine was great, but their work on it was something else was not. If we’re able to take what is good and what is beneficial and what is informative and then allow ourselves to simply discard the things that are not worth repeating or taking into education on Islamic ethics. In terms of my own engagement with women’s studies, it’s been that ability to look at things and recognize certain biases and then be able to say, well, we’re moving forward in a different way.  That’s something that I think scares a lot of people who are just your mainstream practicing Muslims because so much of our intellectual heritage is about preservation. That’s like a framework and we don’t want to lose anything, but there does come a point, especially when you’re in an information age where so many things are so readily available to anyone, we really have to come together as contemporary societies and say, no, this is what we’re in fact taking forward. We don’t need to preserve things just for the sake of preserving them. Maybe you call it constructive Muslim theology or something, but we need to not simply categorize and classify what has previously been, we need to be taking ethical positions on what should and can be normative in our own age.  

Roshan Iqbal 32:29    

I also wanted to add, I really agree with you Hadia, that the power of repetition builds a reality, but in terms of how I see both of you or most of us who are women partaking in Islamic studies, what was happening previously was there was a critical mass and there were no women involved in exegetical works. We have hadith scholars, but we have not had, up until the last three or four decades, female Muslim scholars who are looking at or providing us with exegesis. Once we have the critical mass of women doing this, I think that we will be able to change and we’ll build on each other’s work and we will be able to change Quranic studies and tafsir is. Celene, as you were speaking about authority, the question of authority is a huge question. Female authority in Muslim spaces. It’s slowly, by many of us entering the field and asking for authority, we are slowly changing the face of what the field looks like. So inshallah in the future, there will be a different understanding of these verses that we find problematic because so many of us will have spoken on it. To end the podcast, I wanted to say that your research, both of your research, is unprecedented in many ways, and it’s opening up a new genre of exegesis. What do you hope for in the future of studying women and gender in the Qur’an?

Celene Ibrahim 34:04    

I’m actually thinking a lot about masculinity studies these days and part of that comes from realizing that I, in some ways, reached a limit with what I could say about women in the Qur’an without also doing robust work on depictions of men and masculinity in the Qur’an, so that’s where I’m personally taking my work these days. Hadia, where are you looking for in the future?  

Hadia Mubarak 34:33    

What you mentioned, having this idea of having more female voices, I mean, that in itself is a game changer in many ways and when I recently read your manuscript, what struck me about your upcoming book is the fact that you are reinstating Aisha as an exegetical authority in a way in in which you point out that it’s very much true that yes, they referenced her hadith, but she wasn’t necessarily really occupying the space as an exegetical authority. I think it’s interesting that you do this, the idea that, yeah, there have been female voices in history as well, but we didn’t really label Aisha as a mufassira. Then, of course, you’re looking at contemporary women as well, but I think just the the fact of women becoming today, the 21st century having more female scholarly voices, I think that in itself is changing the field because now, especially even in traditional Muslim communities, men are taking notice and needing to, in many ways, engage, they can’t ignore it. I think there’s also, it’s important to know that there is a, what do I want to say, a diversity of male Muslim voices as well within the community. Many of them welcome and embrace this change and bring us to the mosques, for example, and bring us to these traditional spaces where women’s voices, at least in the last few decades, were not really heard, and I was really happy to see Celene also on a few webinars with very traditional Muslim audiences as well and very happy to see her work advocated. That to me shows me that what’s happening in academia in Western academia is also making an impact on Muslim communities. As a Muslim academic, that is really what I would like to see. I don’t want our scholarship to be lost in these ivory towers, but to actually speak and engage with the communities that we are writing about.  

Roshan Iqbal 37:04    

I do think that it does put a lot more pressure on us in the sense that not only do we have to do “strictly” academic work, we also have to make it meaningful because we have come to it from a different place than let’s say vanilla academia. We’ve come to it from a place where we want these things to move something and we feel like if women’s voices are not included, then, at least I speak for myself, when I look at people around me, maybe it’s a class thing that I feel like religion or Islam could fall off the globe because we don’t get involved in the conversation, something is going to break. That does put a lot of pressure on us, but maybe that’s the blessing. That’s what motivates us, keeps us motivated, which is different from being just in a plain academic, Ivy tower type space.  

Celene Ibrahim 37:58    

It’s so powerful to think of the ways in which different contemporary Muslim academics, like in the US and in other places that have this Western academic tradition, how we are allowed to occupy the space of both serious academics and people of deep spiritual commitments and deep ethical commitments as well. As Muslim writers who are looking at women and gender, what we’re doing is to be able to say I am a whole person and I cannot be dissected out into this is the academic part of me and this is the humanitarian part of me, that actually those perspectives are informing each other. That’s so much of what I think feminist studies brought to the academy is to say, people write from embedded perspectives but we have to, in many ways, struggle for that to be the case. Not all institutions are open to people who bring their whole selves to the teaching profession or the writing profession, the research profession, so it’s still a struggle, but there are more and more spaces that are open.

Roshan Iqbal 39:18    

I have always felt like, even with the whole talk about diversity, Muslims can, for example, ask for space to pray, but they dare not make truth claims. Those are two different things and what we are trying to do in academia is to vote, make truth claims, bring spirituality to the fore and it’s hard. The solution is critical mass. When we have many of us, we are the first generation of Muslims entering PhD programs and now graduating and doing work, which has not been the tradition in the west. I have good hope for the future.

Hadia Mubarak 40:07    

I think that’s such a great point, Celene, and I think in many ways your work actually helps create that precedent where others, like myself, could write or feel like I could write more authentically and bring awareness. What I think you called the privilege, like the question of power and privilege and Quranic studies, which is a reality, but I think by tackling the elephant in the room, you make others of all faiths and stripes and colors aware of this going on. What we want is we want authentic scholarship and we want people, like you said, to bring their full selves to their writing and their teaching, because I think we will have more to offer if we’re allowed to do that. After reading your work started to think in terms of my book that I was writing at the time, am I, in some ways, stuck in this state of double consciousness where I am very much aware of the way the dominant culture is going to judge my writing and, in some ways, holding back or seeing certain things because of this double consciousness that I’m bringing, to quote W.E.B. DuBois. Trying to just be really authentic and true to who you are and, at the end of the day, for all of us, we are both Muslim and Western at the same time. I very much claim my Western identity. There’s no hiding. My parents are from the Middle East, but in terms of my cognitive framework and my socialization, it’s very much in many ways, it’s both Western and Muslim. That’s just the reality of what it is. We’re also disrupting this dichotomy of thinking of Western Muslim views as diametrically opposed. 

Roshan Iqbal 42:00    

Thank you, Celine and Hadia. We are grateful that you were able to speak to us and we wish you the best in your future endeavors. Thank you again for doing this.

History Speaks

History Speaks
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The past, present, and future are intimately bound to one another. In short, history matters. History Speaks situates the Islamic intellectual tradition within its socio-political context and connects it to pertinent issues today. Join Saadia Yacoob as she speaks with Islamic studies scholars about their work on gender, Iaw, and theology in the Islamic tradition. In each episode we move across different time periods and regions to discuss how aspects of Islamic history speak to concerns today.


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