Friday, October 08, 2010

Review: Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections by Kecia Ali

Update 2016-06-12. Update 2015-November-13. A new edition is coming out. This review is based on the first edition.

I finally read Dr. Kecia Ali's (Twitter) anticipated book Sexual Ethics & Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur'an, Hadith and Jurisprudence four years after its publication. I'm only reading on vacation these days. Ahough this book has long been on my to-read list, the suicide of Tyler Clementi moved it up to the top. I finished this in a day of travel.
The author presents 8 chapters which each contains an issue that typically generates discussion in the context of gender relations among Muslims (or "in Islam"). In each, she shows how the conservative tradition, as exemplified in the fiqh (the intellectual process to discover shariah, Muslim moral law) and tafsir (exegesis of the Qur'an) books from the 4th century A.H. through the 13th, the neotraditionalist apologists and piecemeal reformers do not address the fundamental assumptions of patriarchy and hierarchy which undergird law and practice relating to gender issues.

For example, neo-traditionalist apologists argue that shariah, when understood and applied properly, actually benefits women. So while the fuqaha' (scholars of fiqh) understood the dowry Muslim husbands pay to their wives (or their families) as the price for sexual access, 20th century Muslims "defending" Islam from criticisms of Muslim women's status defended the dowry as economic support of the wife without discussion of sexual access or more specifically, the consent which forms the basis of modern Western sexual ethics.

Dr. Kecia also exposes the apologists and some reformers for their intellectually dishonest treatment of texts of Qur'an and hadith. The best examples in the book relate to slavery, passages untranslated in Nuh Ha Mim Kellar's The Reliance of the Traveler and the passage of the Qur'an "to the men over [the women] is a degree."

The chapter on homosexuality accurately pointed out that Muslims invented "Don't ask, don't tell" long before the U.S. military. Of course, this policy has major limitations. Moreover, the Muslim concern with concealing "sin" adds a complication to any attempt to move gay and lesbian behavior/lifestyle/relationships/being beyond its current status as simply illicit sex. Another interesting point that Dr. Kecia makes here is that, if Muslims were to accept gay marriage, it would also represent an example of non-hierarchy in a marriage relationship, as there would be no gender hierarchy to enforce.

While Dr. Kecia obviously agrees with the idea that equality and justice are primary values, she criticizes those who interpret the texts of Islam based on these values without making an effort to explain why, just as she criticizes those who explain the texts of Islam on the values of patriarchy and hierarchy without an effort to explain why.

Dr. Kecia does not present "answers" in the first eight chapters of "what Islam says about x" or "how Muslims should reform." Instead, she shows how the approaches tried so far run into dead ends because they don't address the fundamental questions of patriarchy and hierarchy and what to do when Muslim beliefs, arrived at through the process of historical consensus, clash with contemporary ideas of justice and equality.

I believe Dr. Kecia or her colleagues could have added at least one more chapter related to ritual purity. Is Allah's describing of the menstrual cycle as adhaa, a harm, an obstacle to genuine improvement in sexual ethics? What about the Shafi`i school's different treatment of a male infant's urine from that of a female infant?

Or what about the difference in the recommendation of charity on the occasion of the birth of a male (weight of his hair in gold) or female (weight of her hair in silver)?

I remember listening to a series on cassette tape by the Egyptian scholar Muhammad Najiib al-Mutii`i. It was an explanation of al-Imam al-Nawawi's book on Shafi`i fiqh called al-Majmuu`. In the chapter on pilgrimage, and this was by no means exceptional, I was astounded by the necessity to consider the possibility (or probability?) that a slave was performing some part of the ritual, either for himself/herself or the owner.

Dr. Kecia's book is an excellent step in opening up issues which, in my mind, cannot be resolved without a major change in the way contemporary Muslims understand their relationship to canonical textual sources. Muslims, for the most part, have so far not been willing to do so.