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  • Muslim Feminist Exegetes, Not "Handmaidens of Empire"
  • Mahjabeen Dhala (bio)

In her essay "Feminism, Democracy, and Empire: Islam and the War of Terror," the late anthropologist Saba Mahmood used the term "handmaiden of empire" to express her wariness of how the Euro-American tropes of freedom and gender equality were directed at Muslim women.1 Her critique inspires my own interrogation of the autonomy of contemporary Muslim feminist qurʾanic discourses. We must ask ourselves: Has feminist Qurʾan scholarship become a "handmaiden of empire" in the context of the Islamophobic and secular underpinnings of Western academia? Have we already become unwitting bedfellows with the "caesars and sultans" of academia that Celene Ibrahim describes?

Indeed, unabating Islamophobic rhetoric misconstrues Muslim women's embodiments of religious identity as signs of religious subjugation and has kept Muslim feminist scholarship mired in a prescriptive paradigm charted by white feminist thought. Concurrently, the secularist strategy of promoting liberal and progressive scholarship has deterred feminist approaches that argue for the empowerment of Muslim women from within the tradition. In opposition to such trends, my research centers premodern Muslim women as theologians, exegetes, and activists, and from this vantage point, I develop constructive methodologies for feminist readings of the Qurʾan, including those that consider Muslim exegesis and extra-qurʾanic literature, as advocated for in this roundtable by Hadia Mubarak and Rahel Fischbach, respectively.

Moreover, secular scholars often dismiss constructive methodologies as not being "critical" enough based on a secularist understanding of the purpose of "critique" that stems from their own historical contentions within Christian-dominated [End Page 83] institutions that have claimed a monopoly on authenticating knowledge. From a Muslim epistemic standpoint, critique has functioned more as a significant feature inherent to traditional systems of Islamic knowledge production. Muslims subscribe to the monotheistic notion of God and the Qurʾan as the word of God on the tongue of God's Prophet; however, in traditional scholarship, Muslims debate details pertaining to God's precise attributes and debate how the Qurʾan should be read, interpreted, and applied to Muslim life, among other themes. In this intellectual tradition, difference of opinion is often regarded by scholars as both natural and essential. Hence, I ask: Should European Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment notions of critical scholarship be prescriptively applied to nonwhite, non-Christian, indigenous scholarship as well? Furthermore, must qurʾanic studies in Western academia, including feminist readings of the Qurʾan, comply with secularized modalities of knowledge production to be considered sufficiently "critical"? Put plainly, how autonomous is feminist Qurʾan scholarship in the secular academy? Where are the female indigenous voices, those voices (often pejoratively) considered "traditional"?

Early Islamic history, much like world history, is primarily a record of men by men, but if amid the androcentric set-up, traces of resilient female voices exist, they must be retrieved and studied. The presence of these women's voices, however marginalized, testifies to their license to and interest in contributing to public discourse and provides a significant glimpse of the worldview of women who engaged with scholarly and activist communities. An example is the seventh-century sermon of Fāṭima, Prophet Muḥammad's daughter (d. 11 H/632 CE), which is the focus of my forthcoming book, Feminist Theology and Social Justice in Islam: A Study of the Sermon of Fatima. The government confiscated her inheritance and justified the action by producing a hadith that God's messengers neither receive nor leave inheritance and that their assets become state property. Realizing that the matter had extended from land rights to the integrity of the application of the Qurʾan and hadith, Fāṭima lodged a public oral protest in the Prophet's mosque. She invoked five qurʾanic verses, challenging a hadith allegedly from the Prophet. Her sermon sparked a theological, symbolic, gendered, and moral discourse in Islamic history that is yet to be fully appreciated by Euro-American academic scholarship.

Narratives of seventh-century African Muslim women like Fiḍḍa al-Nūbīyya (d. c. 68 H/690 CE), who had memorized the Qurʾan and for twenty years spoke solely through it, are invisible in early and contemporary qurʾanic exegetical commentaries...