Shaykha Fest: Celebrating Female Scholarship in Islam – Part 2

Who better than Dr. Kecia Ali to open the afternoon session with the topic of Gender Justice in Islam? An Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University, and published author of Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Professor Ali started by acknowledging the weighty responsibility that comes with framing questions.

Historically, she explained, the mode of speaking about Islam with phrases such as “Islam says” and “The Islamic view is” has fostered parochialism rather than contribute to the humanistic expansive view of Islam. Focusing on the issue of authority, the question of who is allowed to speak for Islam emerged, which Dr. Ali eloquently presented by drawing parallels with Catholicism and the seemingly contradicting viewpoints on contraception.

With the introduction of print in the post-Gutenberg era, Dr. Ali suggested, a shift resulted on the issue of authority, as now the sacred text “spoke” for itself as reading became widespread, leading to the question of who can interpret the sacred text. Similarly, Dr. Ali argued, who gets to define justice and whether it is bound to time and place as gender is, are key questions that need to be answered in the quest for the irreconcilable notion of gender & justice.

Touching on Islamic jurisprudence as it relates to marriage law and arguable inequality on issues of obedience, divorce, and even racism, Dr. Ali expounded on role models and women’s roles being tainted by interpretations, such as in the case of the female supervisor of the marketplace in the time of Prophet Muhammad (saw), and how her role metamorphosed from originally overseeing business ethics and economic probity to the belittling function of scrutinizing women’s morality and dress.

To conclude, Dr. Ali reminded us that until gender justice is established, women will continue to be robbed from their God-given ability to be His vicegerents on Earth, which in turn converged with Shaykha Halima Krausen’s discourse on women and the public and private sphere. Shaykha Krausen is one of the most renowned European female scholars in Islam and a founding member of the Inter-Religious Dialogue Circle at the Department of Theology at Hamburg University, Germany.

Shaykha Krausen posed the utopian idea of men and women collaboratively working together for a common good, and expounded on how gender segregation impacts learning, knowledge, and decision-making. Stories abound of prominent women in the time of Prophet Muhammad (saw) with powerful roles as contributors to the betterment of society, Shaykha Krausen shared, yet seldom are the details of their social interactions and how they made it to their posts expounded on. Indeed, the widely accepted notion that women moving about in the public sphere translates into social corruption is supported only through the disproportional emphasis placed on gender segregation, as if it was a pillar of Islam.

Drawing on the story of Aisha (ra) and the scandal, Shaykha Krausen beautifully illustrated how the verses from the Qur’an relating to the lie against Aisha (ra) did not disapprove of her actions but rather warned those who spoke ill of her. Interestingly, Shaykha Krausen proceeded, the incident did not result in a command being revealed to admonish women to stay home, nor an injunction came against the Prophet Muhammad (saw) for taking her, but rather a stern warning to produce witnesses to those who accuse her or any woman, for that matter, was revealed.

God as the ultimate law giver, Shaykha Krausen concluded, swiftly setting the stage for Ustadha Sabira Lakha’s address on Women and Ijtihaad, independent reasoning. Ustadha Lakha is one of UK’s most prominent female jurists (faqihah), with formal training in Islamic Jurisprudence, and extensive comparative knowledge of Sharia and the English legal system.

Summing it all up with her opening remarks, Ustadha Lakha reminded us that Prophet Muhammad (saw) was sent as a mercy to mankind, and Islamic law was intended as a source of ease not of subjugation, oppression, or marginalization. Bringing tears to our eyes, Ustadha Lakha affirmed how women were made to feel safe in the republic of Islam, through sharing the story related in Thirmidhi, where a woman accused a man of raping her, and how the command to punish the man was pronounced instead of asking her to produce additional witnesses.

Ustadha Lakha stated how extrapolation to the best meaning of Allah’s words comes through critical thinking and independent reasoning, and how justice in itself comes through interpreting Allah’s words in the collective context of mercy and compassion. Contesting the abuse of societal customs such as in the case of female circumcision, Ustadha Lakha shed light on the idea of marriage as a partnership in humility, reframing the notion of obedience as obedience to Allah, not to another creature who is our equal.

Elevating women with the story of the Queen of Sheba, Ustadha Lakha shared how Sheba exemplified leadership of a nation, and how Qura’n eloquently differentiates between her submitting together with Solomon, not to him. Historically, Ustadha Lakha continued, women were entrusted with guarding and authenticating ahadith, with no records of women ever whimsically forging or fabricating narrations as their male counterparts are known to have done.

Ustadha Lakha concluded by passing the baton to the last speaker, Shaykha Zaynab Ansari, and reminding women to promote scholarship by encouraging each other to seek knowledge. Shaykha Ansari spent over a decade studying traditional Islam, Arabic and Farsi, in Iran and Syria, and is currently pursuing a M.A. in World History at Georgia State University.

Speaking on female scholars of ahadith, Shaykha Ansari explained that the recognition of scholarship comes generally through acceptance by peers, and how female scholarship must not be approached from the question of absence of male counterparts. Shaykha Ansari continued by pointing out that our stories go “unsung” because typically our work takes place behind the scenes, yet the apparent absence of female scholarship must not be misconstrued as a lack of interest or capability. The legacy of female scholarship, Shaykha Ansari concluded, and their sacrifices and traveling in the quest of knowledge, is evident in the recent compilation work of Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadvi’s: The Women Scholars in Islam.

Ustadha Chantal Carnes, who interlaced the speakers’ introductions with historical jewels of the vibrant legacy of female scholars, moderated the entire event, and closed by giving the mic to Andrea Assaf for a powerful performance that included Oprah-style affirmations from the audience.

Shaykha Fest is bound to become the platform needed to inspire and support the revival of female scholarship for centuries to come.

Heading home, as I listened to Andrea Assaf’s poem “Alert” while stuck in traffic at the George Washington Bridge, I thought: Yes, Andrea! Shaykha Fest’s banner is orange, knowledge is orange, perseverance is orange, strength is orange, female scholarship is orange: Alert! Alert!

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