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  • Carving Out a Public Space for Multiple Interpretations of Islamic Law:A Look at the Conference on "Women's Rights: Beyond Rhetoric"
  • Naazneen Diwan

The Los Angeles Muslim community, positioned in a Western metropolis, thriving with intersectional views of transnational migrants from first- and second-generational backgrounds, mostly Egyptian organizational and clerical leadership, and a burgeoning population of white and black American converts, is contemplating the contemporary evolution of a seemingly intractable Islamic law and its implications for Muslim women living in the diaspora. A conference titled "Women's Rights: Beyond Rhetoric"—venue provided by the Office of Religious Life and the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California, and intellectual fuel and platform provided by the Islamic Center of Southern California—ventured to reinsert public debate and multiplicity into the rigid, monolithic, modern formulations of Islamic law's jurisdiction in society. The momentous questions on women's rights posed by LA's Muslim community gained enough propulsion that on October 17, 2009, some 50 to 100 people, mostly those active in the Muslim community and with a scattering of students, sat in rows filling USC's Salvatori Auditorium, facing the stage and the shared knowledge that would rise from it. Those taking the stage chose the tools of social justice, agency, and public engagement in place of the reactionary, defensive channels often used to demean and reject Western reclamations of Islamic social viability, while still questioning [End Page 115] the strictures that Western models of governance pose for Muslim societies. The conference represented layers of the Muslim umma (public), from generations of respected Muslim male leadership in Los Angeles to Muslim think tanks devoted to inserting a comprehensible and audible Muslim voice into US public culture and politics.

Asifa Quraishi, a Muslim professor from the University of Wisconsin School of Law who in her everyday public presence acts as an agent of legal and academic guidance and knowledge production, was one of the few to actually interrogate Muslims' rights to reinterpretations and the infused hierarchy within and external to Muslim communities in a Western-run and -powered global order, by presenting an adept, grounded analysis that offered proactive solutions. Through the multiple and often contradictory voices of members of the Muslim public present at this event, a liberatory, inclusive, and progressive public assertion of Islamic principles was promoted by Quraishi as a tool for social reform, one that would have to release some of the authority of Islam in order for social progress to blossom.

Gasser Hathout, nephew of the late Dr. Hassan Hathout (ethicist, scientist, and leader of many interfaith endeavors as well as a prominent Muslim elder in the LA community), alluded to the dilemma that modern Muslim societies face and which Quraishi later developed and gave life to: "how the creative human endeavor to synthesize religion and custom has failed and turned mutable social custom into immutable religious dogma." The work of offering substantial evidence and a review of the historical trajectory of Islam's social dictates was done by Quraishi, a specialist in Islamic law whose scholarly advancements propelled her from a J.D. degree at the University of California-Davis eventually to a doctorate in juridical science (S.J.D.), the highest degree in legal education and research, at Harvard Law School. Quraishi made a distinction, not merely between culture and religion as others have done when attempting to explain away unjust applications of religion in society, but between the "mutable" and the "immutable" (in Gasser Hathout's words), and how and why these concepts of foundational principles and social growth and development get intermingled and confused. Just as some have sought to de-link Islam from violence such as honor killing by chaining the practice to Arab culture instead, oppressive interpretations of Islam from within it or from the West cannot [End Page 116] be countered by an easy, causal displacement but by an interrogation of the complex power negotiations that solidify injustice in society, no matter how ostensibly just the base.

Quraishi began by asking a rhetorical question: What was the room's consensus on the definition of shari'a? Responses from the audience included "path," "law," "Islamic law...


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