One of the strongest shifts we see in contemporary Islam is women who call for and practice and reinterpretation of the Qur’an, a non-patriarchal, egalitarian interpretation that they claim is at the heart of what Islam really is. Their desire is to have their religion address the violences of gender inequalities experienced by so many women. One woman wrote of ‘feeling alienated as a woman by a religious tradition to which I was deeply devoted.’ Women exegetes are using the interpretative frameworks of Islam to challenge the dissonance where Islam is said to have brought in gender reform and equality for women, and yet where women’s subservience, and controlling of them, is declared lawful according to particular interpretations of the Qur’an.
These women largely seek to distance themselves from being labelled feminist, wanting to avoid the labels of Western and secular. Amina Wadud, perhaps one of the most famous of these women for those from the West, says: ‘I consider myself a believing Muslim who works for justice on the basis of my faith. I consider myself a pro-faith, pro-feminist Muslim.’ Asma Barlas positions her work in opposition to Islam conservatism and to feminism. However, these women identify they are seeking a central place within Islam.
Women exegetes want to increase the volume of discussion around the dissonance between what they believe the Qur’an says about women and the traditions and social conditions that contradict those interpretations. They want Islam to be interpreted and practiced from a women’s perspective and not just from a male space. Other scholars, like Jerusha Tanner Lampety, engage with Christian feminists in her efforts to provide a broad faith basis for fresh interpretations of Islam from an egalitarian perspective.
Although these women seek to self-identify with the mainstream Islamic religious scholarship, their position is tenuous. Patterns in their arguments and thinking can clearly be linked to the discourses of feminism, leading to the charge they are promoting Western ideologies. However tenuous their position it is having an impact. One scholar of the Qur’an noted: ‘This movement seeks to take the Western “hermeneutic” methodology and apply it to the Noble Qur’an and Islamic religious texts in general, with complete indifference to the principles of Qur’an exegesis and rules of interpretation established in our Arabic-Islamic heritage … the dangers of this phenomenon may not be obvious today; but as this “intellectual” output continues, the cultural environment will become polluted by its by-products until future generations are left unable to breathe clean air…’ The work of female exegetes is now described as a movement that has “grown by now into an identifiable field of Qur’aninterpretation with which increasing numbers of Muslims are beginning to grapple.”
As Muslim women exegetes seek to reinterpret gender justice through a religious/theological lens, it calls for us to ask what our theology/missiology of rights and dignity is. It demands we demonstrate what the Kingdom of God among us is; what it looks like, how it is lived, how it transforms lives and communities.
Jesus interaction with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Matthew 15:21-28 subverts theologies that promote marginalisation of the other. He lays bare the inequities of an egocentric view of belonging that is premised on an exclusivity of culture, tradition and religion. He demonstrates that the coming of the Kingdom of God among us breaks down barriers; that he is revealed and his kingdom is made know as barriers that divide are removed. Given that mission among Muslims is often happening in the midst of profound brokenness and the disfiguring of human dignity by violence and injustice, the desires for justice and equality must feature prominently in our mission and missiologies.
Jesus’ own description of his ministry, as he read from the scroll in the temple, roots justice and righteousness in the scriptures: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord (Luke 4:18-19). This is not new. Justice and compassion are spelt out as foundational to God’s people living in society; they were to do as God had done for them (Deuteronomy 10:12-16, cf Micah 6:8). There are theological foundations for understanding and practicing human rights and justice.
This desire of Muslim women for justice and righteousness, community and belonging, healing and wholeness, compassion and mercy resonates with the way Jesus describes the Kingdom of God among us. Their search for equality and justice which is authenticated by religious texts opens the door for companionship in the journey.
© When Women Speak … September 2023
CH spent nearly four decades in South Asia and the Middle East working in education, community development and the Church, and has returned as part of Interserve’s International Leadership. A co-founder of the When Women Speak… network, her research has included women’s activism and social change in South Asia, violence against women and missiology. She is currently focussed on developing new streams of ministry among women who live under Islam and enabling women academics and practitioners to shape missiology and mission practice. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies (Australian National University).