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Meet the Muslim Women Writing About Marriage and the Status of Wives in Islam

Vogue Arabia speaks to the female Muslim writers whose 2022 books examine marriage in Islam from modern perspectives.

Life-coaching duo Zahra Aljabri and James Faghmous

“Reclaiming Khadija and Muhammad’s marriage as an Islamic paradigm”. This is the title of a chapter from Justice and Beauty in Muslim Marriage: Towards Egalitarian Ethics and Laws, a new book that released last week with Oneworld Publications. This chapter title embodies the message at the heart of the book: that the ways in which Muslim marriages are widely perceived and practiced need to be reformed, and that this reform should be rooted in the Islamic tradition and Prophetic example.

Edited by Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Mulki Al-Sharmani, Jana Rumminger, and Sarah Marsso, the book features the voices of 17 contributors from Indonesia, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, Canada, and elsewhere, brought together by the Musawah movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. Imbued with an activist spirit and produced by voices historically marginalized, Musawah’s anthology is undeniably topical, published at a time when Muslim women – such as those in Iran, are pushing back at the regimes that oppress them under the guise of religion.

Books to enlighten, educate and enact change

“We must change how we view marriage, because many people are suffering under current laws, practices, and norms around marriage and family life,” the editors tell Vogue Arabia. Their aim was to separate patriarchal customs, laws, and practices from sacred principles of the faith, while showing how marriage can be reconstructed to align with Islamic teachings and human rights principles. “This book goes back to the basics, emphasizing how equality, justice, fairness, goodness, and beauty are core ethics in relation to marriage in the Qur’an, Sunnah, and Muslim tradition,” they explain.

The secondary status of wives in many Muslim communities has evidently triggered not only activism, but also, literature. Female Muslim writers are going back to the roots of their faith to unearth the ethics that they believe have been eclipsed by authoritarian groups. Such was also the case with Hadia Mubarak, whose book, Rebellious Wives, Neglectful Husbands: Controversies in Modern Qur’anic Commentaries, was published this year by Oxford University Press.

“As I pursued my MA in Contemporary Arab Studies with a focus on women and gender in the Arab World, I began to recognize that any meaningful change in Muslim societies needed to engage with religious texts,” Mubarak tells Vogue Arabia. “It wasn’t Islam that was the problem, but the way extremist groups distorted and weaponized Islam to impose oppressive policies on women.” The research Mubarak did while completing her Islamic Studies PhD inspired much of the content of her book, which was written during her fellowship at NYU Abu Dhabi.

While Musawah’s book looks at reinterpreting religious texts to reconstruct a system of ethics for the present day, Mubarak’s analyses how religious scholars interpreted Quranic verses pertaining to women in the past. Both books help transport the writers’ works from the realm of academia to the more accessible world of mainstream publishing. Both also engage with the faith’s tafsir (Qur’anic commentary) and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) traditions, and focus on the primary sources of Islam – the Qur’an, and Sunnah – teachings embodied by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

Compelling arguments with credibility

Staying grounded within these Islamic traditions is essential, not only as Muslim women of faith, but also so that their work earns legitimacy under the umbrella of Islamic, rather than secular, scholarship. “The only way to push back against gender oppression in the name of Islam and correct the narrative is to engage with religious texts and the Islamic tradition, more broadly,” believes Mubarak.

The editors of Justice and Beauty in Muslim Marriage point out that many inequalities Muslim women face are based on human-made assumptions about gender roles from long ago, which have been unnecessarily fossilized. “Instead of relying on centuries-old human ideas, we should go back to the core ethics in the Qur’an and the lessons from the Prophet (PBUH), balanced with universal human rights standards and contemporary needs and realities,” they say.

After all, legal rulings are human efforts at understanding the divine, and are not divine or immutable in themselves. Even among Muslim jurists, historically, there have been varying – and sometimes conflicting – interpretations. “The tafsir tradition has always been characterized by its pluralism – I believe this pluralism needs to be celebrated. It provides modern Muslims a plethora of ways by which to understand the Qur’an’s meanings,” says Mubarak.

Yet, women’s voices have been largely absent from scholarship and literature that tackles these issues, which is why female-fronted work in the field that remains rooted in faith, is so refreshing and revolutionary. “We highlight women’s realities, amplify women’s voices, and strive to legitimize their perspectives,” say the editors of Justice and Beauty in Muslim Marriage. “We hope this book will help shift the concept of marriage from a relationship of domination and obedience to a partnership of equals.”

Bringing the basics back home

This very notion of partnership inspired married, life-coaching duo Zahra Aljabri and James Faghmous to create 150 Questions Muslims Must Ask Before Marriage, a guidebook that provides courting couples with questions to ask one another in order to assess their compatibility.

While Musawah’s book calls for urgent reform, Aljabri’s work answers that call in a simple, actionable, and personalized way for real-life couples. “The book is a step-by-step guide to deliberately create a blissful and God-centred marriage,” says Aljabri, who also approaches the subject from a religious framework. “When we turn to the Qur’an and Sunnah we turn to simple, timeless wisdom that can cut through the noise – the principles are still the same and the path can still be simple. That’s what we present in our book, a straightforward clear guide to establishing a meaningful connection that is the foundation for a miraculous marriage.”

She too, uses the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) union with his wife Khadija, as an exemplary model, based on “openness and trust”, for contemporary Muslims to look to. 150 Questions is currently an e-book, with plans to release in paperback next summer.

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