A virtual book club fuels one writer’s passion for faith and feminism, as she uncovers pro-feminist themes that embolden her confidence in her Muslim beliefs.
“In order to maintain its relevance, the Qur’an must continually be reinterpreted.” Yet another line jumps out at me from Amina Wadud’s book Qur’an and Woman. “The lives of women have been comprehensively, adversely affected by interpretations,” reads another. These days, I’m going through highlighters like hair ties. Hunched over my books as my tea turns cold, I’m highlighting at a frenzied pace, as if neon-tinted backgrounds will help forever etch the text into my memory. “The thirst for knowledge and the openness to exploring new ideas, inspired by a deep love and commitment to Islam, is an addictive but also contagious experience,” says Dr Sofia Rehman, to whom I owe my renewed fervency for exploring feminism within a framework of faith. In 2018, Dr Rehman launched an Islam and Feminism critical reading group at the University of Leeds, and during the pandemic, extended a similar invitation to her followers on social media. Initially wary of entering a “religious” space – which, from my experience, can often be eclipsed by a tendency to instil a fear, rather than love of God – I quickly relaxed among the group of like-minded women who meet every Sunday on Zoom to discuss the readings, chapter by chapter. Books on Islamic discourse are often dry, difficult to digest, and written from a male perspective, but this book club, devoted to female authors, has helped me view faith in a refreshing and empowering light.
“It was this disconnect between the injustices being perpetrated in the name of Islam and my absolute conviction of Allah as a just and merciful God that led me in pursuit of answers, many of which I found in these gender-just readings of Islam,” says Dr Rehman. With her extensive background in Islam, Hadith, and gender studies, she is well-equipped to lead our “read-alongs.” After completing university, Dr Rehman traveled to Syria in 2004 to study Arabic, and while in a Damascene bookshop, came across the Arabic text The Corrective: Ā’isha’s Rectification of the Companions by the 14th century Islamic scholar Imam Badr al-Dīn al-Zarkashī. “I was enthralled by this book, comprising a selection of statements made by Aisha bint Abu Bakr, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad, whereby she was mostly correcting, corroborating, or outright refuting statements of her almost invariably male peers,” Dr Rehman shares. A decade later, after earning her master’s in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, she translated and studied this text for her PhD, exploring Aisha’s methodology and approach to the Prophetic tradition, and its implications on Islamic jurisprudence and Qur’anic interpretation.
Though female voices are not prevalent in mainstream Islamic literature, some played pivotal roles following the Prophet’s death, I learn, while reading Asma Sayeed’s Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge in Islam, which explains that later generations were “constrained by the norms of their communities.” But a revival of female-led discourse on religion is underway. “We are witnessing a resurgence of female scholarship in Islam as more Muslims detach themselves from old-fashioned patriarchal ideas that mainly stem from cultural beliefs,” says Egyptian-British author Yousra Imran. “Women have had enough of men acting as gatekeepers to the religion and are reading and studying divine texts for themselves.”
The heads of our families are our fathers and then our husbands. The imams at our mosques are male, and the small prayer rooms for women pale in comparison to the majestic halls of the men’s areas, often deterring us from visiting in the first place. Translations of the Qur’an ascribe the pronoun “He” to Allah, even though the text asserts that God has no gender. “For far too long, the Islamic soundscape has been male… Only men have been at the helms of knowledge production,” Dr Rehman explains. “It is far overdue that Muslim women be granted the opportunity to redress this imbalance and restore the scales of justice.”
Female scholars of faith like Asma Barlas, Fatema Mernissi, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, and Wadud acknowledge that the Qur’an was revealed to a 7th century society and has many context-specific verses. They advocate for following the egalitarian spirit of the Qur’an, which promoted a trajectory of continuous – not stagnant – social reform. In mainstream Muslim circles, the mere mention of a female scholar offering a tafsir, or interpretation of the Qur’an, can be controversial, and if she doesn’t cover her hair, it’s as if her credibility is further forsaken. Hijab is just one of the topics we read about, along with women’s roles and rights in marriage, motherhood, divorce, polygamy, and inheritance. Together, we endeavor to “unlearn” supposed religious ideals that are branded as divine and authoritative, but are actually clouded by a culture of patriarchy.
Muslim women often refer to each other as “sister” and as cliché as it sounds, a spirit of sisterhood is what has manifested through my book club – a coven of sorts, with a shared plight to understand, practice, and promote the essence of our faith. My impulse buys are now books – the soul-enriching sort. The fashion purchases that were once delivered frequently to my door have been replaced with flatter, rectangular packages, and the photo gallery on my phone is now cluttered with images of compelling reference points for digital safekeeping.
Our eager energy has perhaps in part been triggered by the pandemic. “People are seeking connections with one another – we want community,” says Dr Rehman. “We have been forced to look our mortality straight in the eye, and in the abyss of its pupils we seek a deeper purpose to our lives. We seek God.” But the pandemic isn’t the only catalyst to this spiritual reawakening – Tamreez Inam, head of education initiatives at the Emirates Literature Foundation, says that her motivations stem from her role as a parent. “As I raise a son, I’ve become very concerned with not perpetuating the patriarchy, and have been raising him with values of equality and tolerance,” she says. “When he started asking me questions about religion that didn’t fit the egalitarian values I was raising him with, I found it hard to answer his questions in a satisfactory manner. I realised I needed to step up and re-examine some of my own beliefs so I could either discard them or recommit to them.”
This heightened focus on progressive, faith-based scholarship comes at a time when many Arab countries are also rethinking their legal policies and discarding outdated laws that were rooted in tradition, yet inhibited the advancement of women’s rights. Women in Saudi Arabia can now drive and travel without the permission of a male guardian, and veiling rules have become relaxed. In the UAE, “Islamic” laws were significantly reformed by the end of 2020, allowing women more freedom in personal and family law, and abolishing the archaic category of so-called “honor” crimes.
Muslim Women’s Day, which falls on March 27, was founded to amplify the voices of Muslim women in the media. Right at the frontline are the trailblazing females who are finding footing on platforms previously reserved for men, and are stimulating discussions that question problematic aspects of orthodoxy, where male-dominated dogmas reign supreme. “As an Arab woman, I’ve been always told by well-meaning people that having big or complicated questions could lead me astray and I would end up on the wrong path,” says Engi El-Naggar, who calls our book club “a safe environment” that opened up “a whole new world” for her. “I feel empowered by reading these books and finally don’t feel alone with my questions concerning my rights as a Muslim woman and how society views and treats me. I’m still at the beginning of the road but I’m thankful I’ve found such an intellectual group of women who are holding on to their religion and, at the same time, trying to change the Muslim female status quo, one book at a time.”