Kecia Ali is a self-declared progressive Muslim feminist. Her Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence is an important addition to the growing literature of critical Muslim scholarship on issues that are vital to the future of Muslim communities worldwide. So far, this progressive trend continues to be limited to academic circles because as Ebrahim Moosa has pointed out years ago in his thoughtful introduction to Fazlur Rahman’s last and posthumously published book, when severe economic and political conditions are predominant within so many Muslim communities worldwide, it is likely that calls to rethink old notions and beliefs would find little resonance, if not be completely rejected. However, Ali introduces an important element into the discussion by making American Muslims the focus of her analysis. This is a community that is largely stable and in general economically comfortable. Perhaps, such scholarship would slowly find room to grow in this context although the challenges to its spread are significant. Importantly, Ali’s book is also part of the debate over the status of women in “Islam” and within Muslim communities. It builds on earlier works from scholars like Leila Ahmed, Fatima Mernissi and Amina Wadud but attempts to engage the premodern Islamic juristic tradition more comprehensively than these authors did. The result is a thought-provoking book that raises very important questions (although it does not always provide explicit answers) and that deserves a wide readership.
Ali shows the importance on one hand of evaluating how the premodern Islamic legal tradition affects the dynamics of contemporary Muslim communities and on the other hand of rethinking Islamic sexual ethics based on this assessment. The author highlights the serious barriers that the inherited tradition creates for a healthy understanding of issues related to sexuality and gender within the American Muslim community today. Ultimately, Kecia Ali argues for challenging the assumptions, bases, and conclusions of the premodern jurists, but also criticizes the dominant trends in contemporary Islam that, in her mind, produce highly inadequate alternatives to the inherited tradition.
According to Ali, the Islamic legal tradition is a historical construction that has its own deep logic. Different parts of this system can only be understood in relation to the whole. That is why as contemporary Muslims engage their heritage, they must eschew patchwork as an easy way to solve seeming contradictions or dilemmas. A piecemeal approach and a pick-and-choose method would lead to an inadequate understanding and would be harmful to the future of the Muslim community, especially women and sexual minorities. Looking at the tradition as a comprehensive whole is an important first step because it allows Muslims to recognize some crucial characteristics of the classical Islamic legal system.
Firstly, this tradition views itself as the representative of God’s will on earth. This does not mean that Muslim jurists explicitly equated their legal rulings/opinions with the will of God; at the theoretical level, these jurists were very much aware of the flawed human element in their intellectual output. However, at the practical level, the methodology that the jurists came to accept as authoritative created an exclusive club. The latter soon imposed itself as the only legitimate interpreter of God’s will and thus the definer of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Importantly, this authoritative status was based on the claim that the Qur’an and the Sunna of Muhammad were the two main sources of the legal methodology of the jurists. This also meant that some “fundamentals” were posited as divine and unchallengeable. However, a closer look demonstrates that many of these “fundamentals” are the historical products of the cultural milieu of the ancient Near East and are shared by other communities in that historico-geographic area.
Partly as a result of being an integral part of that Near Eastern environment, the premodern Islamic legal tradition was hierarchical, deeply gendered, and patriarchal/androcentric. In addition, it had overtime become more and more invested in maintaining social and political stability. Jurists (particularly Sunni ones) have been consistently antagonistic to chaos or fitna. All these characteristics have led to the sacralization of a patriarchal status-quo. Yet the Islamic legal tradition has historically shown a strong commitment to both a sense of justice and a grounded pragmatism. Regularly, Muslim jurists in their fatwas and Muslim qadis in their court rulings strayed away from a literal rendering or implementation of the law. Instead, in order to protect the public good and social justice (and stability), the men of law would find loopholes and create legal fictions to avoid harsh punishments or to give women more leeway against oppressive husbands, for instance.
Secondly, this inherited legal tradition with these characteristics poses serious challenges to American Muslims as they navigate murky waters in a new environment and a new era. The difficulty stems from the fact that people (including of course the average Muslim) living in the contemporary world are shaped by different social and economic realities as well as new intellectual trends. The result is that someone growing up in the American context today would take some notions about gender relations for granted and would have different sensibilities from someone who lived in an earlier time and different place. Ali contends that these new sensibilities would inevitably conflict with the “givens” and “fundamentals” of the inherited legal tradition.
But beyond that, the author is keen to show that the dominant Muslim discourse that builds on this tradition has in fact managed to be at odds with both the internal logic of the premodern legal tradition and current realities. Ali characterizes this dominant discourse as apologetic, inconsistent/selective, authoritarian, and unwilling to seriously engage the ethical problems that the Islamic tradition and the American Muslim community face today. In other words, there is no strong and consistent alternative presented to American Muslims that would be true to the principles of Islam and at the same time respond to the new social, psychological, and intellectual needs of Muslims.
Therefore, thirdly, Muslims must develop new Islamic ethics concerning gender and sexuality. For Ali, this can only be borne out of asking tough questions about the assumptions, bases, and conclusions of the premodern Islamic legal tradition. In a way, I interpret Ali’s vision as tearing down the myth that the way Muslim jurists constructed gender and sexuality was the only possible “Islamic” view on these matters. Using this framework of 1)understanding the tradition on its own terms and in its own context, 2)engaging this tradition critically and comprehensively, and through this engagement, 3)building a new Islamic ethics, Ali details her feminist perspective in the various chapters of Sexual Ethics and Islam.
For example, chapters one and two consider the issues of marriage and divorce in an Islamic context. Ali shows that the premodern legal tradition had no problem likening the marriage contract to slave ownership. It was understood and accepted that men had authority and control (but also economic responsibility) over their wives, and that these wives had to be obedient within the relationship created by the contract. Importantly, the dower that the groom paid to the bride upon marriage was the price of access to her “vulva.” The dominant “neo-traditionalist” Muslim perspective dodges some of the ethical issues that the traditional vision creates for contemporary American Muslims. Instead, it apologetically focuses on issues like the woman’s sexual “rights” in “Islam,” disregarding that these barely compare to the man’s “rights,” nor do they make up for blatant inequality. Not to mention that issues like marital rape, marrying minors, viewing female sexuality as inherently dangerous, equating man’s displeasure with God’s, intermarriage with non-Muslims for men but not women are all left untouched. Ali argues that the very definitions and presuppositions of the traditional structure of marriage fit neither the social realities of today’s Muslims nor most current understandings of the roles of the spouses in a marriage partnership. Similarly, the inequalities enshrined in talaq law cannot simply be dealt with through adding clauses (sometimes unenforceable anyway) to the marriage contract because that leads to these inequalities becoming even more strengthened at the philosophical level, thus maintaining the de-facto supremacy of men.
The rest of the chapters take a similar approach and deconstruct other contentious matters, including slave concubinage, “illicit” sex, same-sex intimacy, and female “circumcision.” In addition, Ali tackles the sensitive question of the marriage of the Prophet Muhammad to the young Aisha. In dealing with all these issues, Ali does not shy away from raising tough questions concerning both the way Muslim jurists constructed their discourse and the problems of re-reading the textual sources of the Qur’an and Hadith through a feminist lens, given that these sources themselves contain challenges to the notion of equality between men and women. However, Ali’s analysis does not aim at discrediting the religious significance of the textual sources or the juristic tradition. Rather, she methodically opens a dialogue with them to find the ethical voice of Islam. Ultimately, the feminist author’s goal, as she delineates it in the last chapter, is to keep Islam a relevant and meaningful force in the lives of American Muslims. It is true that Ali does not take clear and unambiguous stances on many of the issues discussed, but she definitely raises many vital questions and opens the door to future fruitful debates on sexuality and gender in Muslim settings.