A few years after the Prophet’s death, a daring woman was forbidden from ever marrying any free man. The order came from Caliph Umar. After the woman had disclosed to him that she had taken one of her young male slaves to bed with her (outside of a marriage), the Caliph, incredulous, sought to punish her. When he had demanded to know her rationalization, she’d responded, “I believe that ownership by the right hand made lawful to me what it makes lawful to men.”
Milk al-yamin, or “property of the right hand” appears in multiple Qur’anic verses that describe enslaved lawful sexual partners alongside spouses. It is typically interpreted by both classical and contemporary scholars (or the few contemporary scholars willing to discuss its existence) as pertaining only to male slave-owners in conduct toward their female slaves. The Qur’an, however, makes no assignment of gender. Umar was stunned and distressed by the woman’s actions and her assertion to have God’s authorization for it. When Umar brought the incident to the Companions, they responded that “She [the woman] has applied to the Qur’an an interpretation that is not its interpretation.”
I don’t necessarily disagree with apologists—a term I mistrust, though I will use it here—who argue that misogynistic interpretations of Quranic verses do not originate with the most classical scholars, that these interpretations are deviations from their original analyses, but I accept this conclusion on vastly different grounds. Apologists who claim that misogynistic interpretations have no foundation in Islam, even though these interpretations might have a precedent, simultaneously accept and discard potential female scholarship: the “adulterous” woman who bedded her male slave, who was of the Prophet’s time (practicing Islam only a few years after his death), spoke classical Arabic, understood the culture in which she lived and in which the Prophet had lived, arrived at an egalitarian interpretation of the Quranic euphemism that was understood by male Companions to apply only to themselves as men. The woman herself and her interpretation was denied validation by the male authority of the Companions. She cannot, to this day, be considered a scholar, but only her conclusion, viewed as incorrect, deprives her of the title. Her methodology, comprising the linguistic and cultural insight of the people who lived during the Prophet’s time, can not be brought into question by most contemporary Islamic scholars, who often claim that the Quran should be read according to its time as justification for misogynist readings, since this woman was a woman of her time.
If we want to claim that misogynist readings do not originate from classical scholarship, we should be forced to expand the scope of that scholarship. Because, in order to substantiate this claim, our understanding of “original scholarship” must include women whose agencies and authorities were and are not recognized. In order to claim misogynist readings do not originate from classical scholarship, we must admit that non-misogynist classical scholarship involves the understanding of women who were misogynistic-ly denied validation by existing classical scholars. We are forced to recognize this if we want to make this claim of origins, because male classical scholarship was in fact demonstrably misogynistic, as in this case. This, of course, involves structural rearranging, and raises a number of questions.
What it means for contemporary women is this: there is no scholarly lineage, because it has been deliberately obstructed by classical male scholarship. And lineage matters on a structural level: when potential male scholars are born into a legacy that their forefathers have established for them, their scholarly ventures are anchored by this legacy and their interactions with it. Any potential female scholarship, denied the stability of an acknowledge legacy, is either lagan or a spectacle—a lone ranger, detached.
The manifestation of this arises in nearly every conversation pertaining to any kind of feminist interpretation of the Qur’an. When describing to a man the problems in the interpretations of 5:38, which most scholars identify as permitting the removal of the hands of thieves, I was confronted by the man’s adamant refusal to accept my methodology, which consisted of peeling away at the layers of the word itself and in its grammatical context. He insisted that because I lacked (male-approved) credentials—my “credentials” came into question often during this conversation—I must have had no right to speak on the matter, although he believed it was appropriate to interrogate me regardless. But what was most astounding about this conversation is that another male contributor to the discussion linked to an article by Hadia Mubarak, in which she destabilizes and ultimately discredits misogynist interpretations of 4:34, the verse believed to permit domestic violence against women—an article which I’d already read long ago. Hadia Mubarak uses the same methodology I’d applied, but because her credentials were approved by the male audience and her scholarship was not perceived as independently noteworthy, our methodologies could not be linked.
Men are asked to defer to scholars when their methodologies differ from those scholars; I have yet to have ever asked a man for his credentials when he arrives at a different conclusion using the same methodology (though maybe I should start.) I won’t claim that Hadia Mubarak is a feminist—a violent interpretation of 4:34 is so backwards that one needn’t even be a feminist to disagree with it—but she is a woman, and this incident of asking women to be like established scholars on the assumption that these female scholars would disapprove of these women and not of the men citing them this way is comparable to several others that involve feminist scholars. In a discussion where a friend of mine voiced her distress about the number of women the Prophet married, she was told by a man to be more like Kecia Ali in the disposition of her argument, although I doubt Kecia Ali would have found any issue with her expression of dissatisfaction. When commenters rushed to defend the now-infamous short shorts article, amina wadud was cited by misogynistic men as a woman whose scholarship was valid because “even she” dressed “properly” (and not in short skirts.) I can assure anyone that amina wadud would have found this laughable.
But feminist critics (who are not scholars) are separated from feminist scholarship because female scholarship in itself has been denied lineage. Because the recognition of female authority by Muslim men in the community is too frequently based not on the insightful, groundbreaking, hard work of these scholars or what they are actually saying but on how they are presenting it (Kecia Ali) or on how they dress (amina wadud), their arguments and scholarly voices are fallaciously pivoted on whether they visually or sensorally appeal to a male audience, regardless of the atrocity the scholars themselves would find in this. That atrocity—and the vocalization of it—is silenced by the assumption that it does not exist and by male insistence on refocusing the conversation on what amina wadud is wearing instead of what she is saying or how scholarly and detached Kecia Ali sounds instead of the actual implications of her provocative questions. When the arguments themselves are denied validity, male members of the community become incapable of identifying in female inquirers congruity with these scholars except on superficial terms, and they are able to fashion feminist scholarship to suit their patriarchal viewpoints instead of conceding to the scholarly argument-based lineage from which male scholarship benefits.
Having bedded her male slave, the woman who interpreted Quranic verses referring to “property of the right hand” as applicable to herself (which at least once in the Qur’an it explicitly is) as it is to any free man, was prevented from marrying, but the grounds on which her interpretation was deemed “incorrect” without justification—her femaleness—is evidence of a thread of bias in classical scholarship. The impact of this bias, and the patriarchal order that was established from it, serves as a perpetual blockade to female scholarship by rendering the quality of femaleness as unlawfully exceptional to Quranic commands and authorizations and of female behavior as regulated by male expectations.
I don’t expect classical female scholarship to be retroactively declared (though I would support that it should be) but artificially separating feminist scholars from unrecognized predecessors and potential successors is problematic to intellectual honesty, because it privileges a male lineage of scholarship. And a male lineage [of scholarship] is the definition of patriarchy—and that is an ideological bias.