Reading: Kecia Ali — Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence

Probably Twitter is where I first saw Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence, and a few months ago at that, before this revised edition was published. Probably it was also mentioned on one of the Middle East / Central Asia / Feminist blogs I read; things I’m interested in tend to circulate unconnected across multiple disciplines and fields, the same names coming up like ear worms. So onto my reading list it went, and being read it is.

Mid-late last year—October-ish, when I do my annual Books of the Year—I realised I was frustrated with my reading, and looking at previous years when I was mad-thrilled about far too many books, realised also I needed to diversify. That has been partly turning my euros towards—and here I get caught in words I’m not so fond of, so caveats ahoy—feminist-ish, Middle-East-ish, philosophy/ethics/human rights mashed with a secular-ish Islamic frame of reference, plus migrant perspective also.

I have a tendency to define things from the negatory: not this, not that. Yeah, so what? It helps elucidate what this or that is by shaving off what isn’t, often because I can’t say or don’t know what a thing is until I’m partially clear on what it’s not. So what I was not looking for was primarily yet another voice coming from white, Anglo-Euro-American culture. I’ve read enough feminism from that dominant perspective already, and part of that negatory process of mine is divining what’s being missed, not talked about, ignored, excluded. It’s a pretty simple and dumb method, and works for me.

That negatory resolved into a clear delineation of what I did want to read: it’s kinda, “What if Hannah Arendt was a secular Muslim (Turkish, Middle Eastern, Persian, you get the picture) in the 21st century, what would she write?” I dunno, probably something along the lines of Seyla Benhabib, Ruth Mandel, Katherine Pratt Ewing, Afsaneh Najmabadi, or Kecia Ali.

Let’s just say there’s some fully awesome women writing on these interconnected subjects, and Kecia Ali is one of them. And like black/brown, trans women feminism coming out of Anglo-American locations, it’s where the real hard work is being done. Compared to Seyla Benhabib, Sexual Ethics in Islam is light reading, which is not to say it’s not demanding and well-researched, just that Benhabib is more like ploughing through The Life of the Mind, and Ali I can read over breakfast without my brain leaking. Too much.

I’m about halfway through, so against my desire to write about why I’m reading a particular book rather than review it, this is slipping between the two. This far through, it’s pretty clear that Islam is unsalvageable. Just like Christianity. Unsurprising when they both share the same Abrahamic root, so could roll Judaism into that as well. It’s unsalvageable because either you’re a literalist or you’re a contextualist; you can’t be both, but that’s precisely what people in those religions try to do. There’s no way around God hates fags, women, and quite a few other things. So if you’re looking to resolve that in Islam or Christianity, it requires entering the realm of contextual interpretation—as well as historical revisionism, because whatever queer or homo is in the 21st century is substantially incomprehensible in medieval religion. It’s this approach also that’s seen by literalists and fundamentalists as ‘picking and choosing’ from the infallible divine word, and more or less defines the opposing sides in what Islam will become.

Mediæval history is full of extremely intelligent logical philosophers, of whom perhaps I could say their prime concern is internal consistency. This applies as much to Islamic theologians as it does to Christianity, centuries-long impenetrable debates that were as much political as they were religious. In Islam, or rather the medieval Islamic jurisprudence I’ve brushed upon, I often find a logical extrapolation that is either well-buried or not explicitly stated in Christianity, it’s a thinking through the implications of a statement, often well outside what empirical knowledge can deliver. While Ali isn’t proposing a manifesto for an Islamic reform, what she does do is work through these debates and decrees, point out their inconsistencies, and point out how they can be reconciled with a 21st century Islam.

One of the things I was thinking about early on in reading was how this book is contingent on 20th century history. The secular nationalist projects of the early years of the century in Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere, the post-war decolonising of Africa and the Middle East, all propose a different path for Islam than we currently have if these same countries hadn’t been the sites of West-East proxy wars and meddling. What kind of book would Sexual Ethics and Islam be if the 1979 revolution in Iran hadn’t happened, and the invasion of Afghanistan, if the 1950s and ’60s revolutions and coups hadn’t happened, or hadn’t become military dictatorships, if the 21st century ‘International Community’ hadn’t been so hungry for invasion and war across the Middle East and North Africa? Would it have even needed to be written? Would it have been only of academic or sociological interest? Or is it that anyway? Is the Islam that’s lived far more a secular, contextual experience than it’s possible to apprehend or understand while Anglo-Euro-American islamophobia and racism remains ascendant?

One thing that is missing though, and for which I’m pretty cynical about, is trans people—particularly trans women—in Islam. Ali mostly subsumes trans identities under homosexual/queer sexuality (when they’re mentioned at all, which is not bloody often) in the chapter “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Same-Sex Intimacy in Islam”. In itself that’s fine, considering the issues—legal, social, medical, religious—which determine the lives of people whose sexuality isn’t narrowly directed into normative roles affect trans people equally as they do lgbt/queer/non-straight people—and let’s dispense with glossing over trans lgbt/queer/non-straight people being a thing too. As well, she originally wrote the book some ten years ago, when cis feminists could easily get away ignoring trans issues with no repercussions. Now it’s all Tranny-Tipping Point (thanks tumblr, 4chan, and Twitter!) so there’s gotta be at least the effort made to lip service, tokenism, ‘intersectionality’. Yeah, pretty disappointed here on this one.

Najmabadi wrote a whole book on transsexuality in Iran—two if you count some of Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards as well as Professing Selves; Kohmeini’s Fatwas from 1963 on intersex people and 1987 on transsexual people is still remarkable (as I’ve said before, I’m using transsexual specifically to differentiate from umbrella transgender/trans/trans* cos I think if we’re gonna appellation everything, then there’s a need for a term under that umbrella for trans people who go down the ‘transitioning’/‘gender confirmation’ path, with all the institutional legal and medical processes that involves); there’s ample evidence in mediæval Islamic thought and writings that people who were somehow not categorisable as unequivocally male or female were a thing, and that Islam had far less of a problem with this than Christianity, more than enough that a whole new chapter on this would be more than appropriate. Nope. Disappointed. Really a missed opportunity there.

As a kind of muslim/non-muslim/wtf I don’t know … what happens when a parent is Muslim or was the child of Muslims, but raises their child without this ever being mentioned? Sure, you’re not brought up Muslim, but how much of the parent and grandparent’s experiences slips over? Not having a Halal kitchen is something a person who has never had anything to do with Islam has ever thought, “fark, that’s ruined it for the grandparents.” Anyway as an I don’t know with Muslim ancestors who is dead curious about that side of my family, I keep thinking of my grandmother while reading this. Also would recommend over any of the other books I’ve mentioned because it’s a much easier read, and far broader in scope, one of those fundamental texts, even if you read nothing else on Islam, there’s enough nuance, depth, scholarship here to actually understand the issues and what’s at stake.

Kecia Ali — Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence
Kecia Ali — Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence