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  • Contesting Justice: Women, Islam, Law and Society
  • Khanum Shaikh
Contesting Justice: Women, Islam, Law and Society. Ahmed E. Souaiaia. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008. Pp. xiv, 195. ISBN 978-0-7914-7397-9.

In Contesting Justice, Ahmed Souaiaia offers an innovative examination of the link between social justice and the Islamic interpretive and legal tradition. The author’s main argument is premised on the need to maintain a clear-cut distinction between what are explicitly stated legal proofs within Qur’anic texts, and those that are implicit and ambiguous and have been given meaning through human interpretation. It is the latter, i.e. implicit and ambiguous proofs that remain rooted in values of those who lived in the time of the Prophet’s Companions and have acquired immutable status, that are the subject of this study. Certain rulings within classical Islamic law that continue to thrive under the claim of settled precedents, then, must be challenged by Muslim scholars who face the urgent need to “revisit and reexamine the concepts of justice, fairness, and equality under the faculty of reason and common sense” (101–2). Persistent inequities perpetuated by such codified rulings must be re-evaluated through activating the explicitly stated principles of justice and fairness in the Qur’an, according to the author.

Souaiaia’s work adds to an existing body of literature by activist-scholars such as Asma Barlas, Amina Wadud, Riffat Hassan, and others who have employed a multiplicity of approaches to excavate tools within the Qur’an that promote equality and social justice, particularly in relation to women. The author claims to make two unique contributions to the field: first, based on the results of statistical data collected for this study he concludes that merely increasing the numbers of women in the interpretive process does not guarantee interpretations that are more favorable toward women; second, he dismisses the idea that reinterpreting and/or re-formulating certain Islamic laws may provide the path to rectifying biases in the law, since by its very nature the law may protect the rights of some while simultaneously limiting the rights [End Page 104] of others. Banning polygyny, for instance, may benefit some women while impinging on the rights of women who actually wish to be in and benefit from a polygynous marriage. Pursuing legal remedies will also strengthen the state’s apparatuses and encourage a wholesale application of laws rather than allow for a case-by-case analysis of each unique situation within which the law is being applied. For Souaiaia, the solution lies in strengthening civil society institutions such as private arbitration agencies, community councils, and professional and other non-profit organizations in order to facilitate a democratic praxis. He also advocates for maintaining certain ambiguities that exist within the Qur’an which may allow for case-by-base analyses and application and protect the interests of a maximum number of individuals with competing interests in society.

In chapter 2, the author sketches an outline of the key features of Islamic law and jurisprudence which serve as the backdrop for his analyses of polygyny and inheritance laws in chapters 3 and 4. In chapter 3 he analyzes legal proofs on polygyny in the Qur’an to show that the full range of interpretive possibilities has not been explored by classical Islamic exegetes. Through his analysis of Qur’anic verses and exegetical literature dealing with polygyny, he demonstrates that there are potential interpretations that lead to more egalitarian gendered practices, but that these interpretations have not been pursued. The goal of this exercise is to challenge the fact that “despite Muslim scholars’ claim to the contrary, interpretations are rarely based on linguistic and syntactical analysis of the legal proofs and usually rely on authorizing oral traditions” which can then not be overturned by later consensus (124).

Souaiaia’s methodology is indeed innovative and combines critical analysis of established legal opinions related to polygyny and inheritance laws with a quantitative survey of over 900 individuals including men and women, Arabic-speakers and non-Arabic speakers, Muslims and non-Muslims, etc. Participants in his study were given legal three verses of the Qur’an that deal with...


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