As a “Muslim feminist scholar,” Williams College Assistant Professor of Religion Saadia Yacoobhas a “very complicated relationship” with her Islamic faith, as her Duke University dissertationexplains. This research, the basis for an April 3 presentation at Georgetown University’s Saudi-funded Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU), reveals the chasm between her “progressivism” and historic Islamic orthodoxy.
The leftist Jewish publication The Forward wrote over 15 years ago that Yacoob is a founder of the Progressive Muslims Network, whose members “appear to be working toward a new Islam.” She was a “heterosexual ally of Al-Fatiha,” a now defunct “national organization of gay Muslims.” Recently she has helped found the Feminist Islamic Troublemakers of North America (FITNA).
These biographical facts reflect the personal faith conflicts of Yacoob, a Pakistani-born woman who grew up in America, as noted in her dissertation:
As a Muslim woman raised in a devout and religious family that cultivated in me the love for my religious heritage as well as independence and confidence as a woman, I found certain aspects of that tradition oppressive as a woman, creating a sense of alienation.
Yacoob described the clash of worldviews between her questionable modern gender mantras and traditional Islamic gender distinctions while studying in Egypt and Jordan. She argued there to her teachers that “there is no essential characteristic of men and women, but rather cultural norms that construct individuals into particular gender identities.” By contrast, many “legal scholars refused to teach women out of fear of temptation” while others teaching courses “only allowed women to attend from behind some form of barrier.”
Yacoob seeks to resolve these conflicts with a “critical traditionalism,” an approach that entails radical departures from received Islamic doctrines. As she wrote in an online Festschrift(“webschrift”) for her mentor Amina Wadud, Yacoob wants to “conceive of Islamic law and ethics beyond the classical fiqh tradition.” In particular, she rejects standard Islamic teaching that the Quran is God’s perfect revelation; rather the “language of the text itself is finite and fallible, incapable of encompassing the entirety of the Divine message.”
Yacoob’s doctoral study of the Hanafi Islamic jurisprudence school, focused on the 11th century scholar Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Sarakhsī, clearly indicates the stark challenges facing her feminist theories. Gender “is the most crucial distinction between individuals in Islamic law,” she wrote, for this difference is immutable in contrast to other legal statuses. “Other impediments to full legal subjecthood are factors such as enslavement and insanity, both of which can change.”
For example, Yacoob observed at Georgetown that the “normative condition of femaleness is one of concealment” under the Islamic doctrine of ‘awra, or body parts that should remain covered. “From her head to her feet, a woman is ‘awra,” she cited al-Sarakhsī in her dissertation, although a “man may look upon and touch the body of a slave woman, he argues, as she must often emerge in public to serve the needs of her owner.” “Slave women are not allowed to cover in ways that resemble free women,” she additionally wrote and noted at Georgetown that clothes and bodily exposure marked status. As this author noted in an audience question, this teaching has disturbing implications for modern Muslim sexual assaults upon uncovered women, Muslim or non-Muslim, a concern dismissed by her as a “racialized argument.”
Yacoob’s Georgetown remarks on Islam’s female slaves had an especially troubling nature in the presence of her moderator, ACMCU director Jonathan Brown. He has previously made scandalous assertions that slavery, including sex slavery, is not a priori immoral, for Islam’s prophet Muhammad, considered a perfect moral example in Islamic doctrine, condoned such practices. As she noted in her lecture, free Muslim men traditionally had a right to “unrestricted concubines if they have the financial means.”
Yacoob analyzed in her dissertation that Islamic sharia law’s understanding of marriage, in which Muslim men may practice polygamy with up to four wives, is no bed of roses for women. Quoting the canonical traditions of Muhammad or hadith, al-Sarakhsī had argued that “marriage for women is a humiliation in that they enter into a form of slavery.” “In Islamic law, the wife’s right to financial maintenance is tied to her sexual availability to her husband” and therefore there is “no legal conception of sexual coercion” in marriage or concubinage, she wrote. This denial of rape reflected that sharia “marriage is a contract of sale in which the man acquires ownership over his wife’s vulva and the sexual enjoyment of her body.”
Yacoob’s dissertation further examined how only Muslim men had an independent ability to negotiate such marital “contracts of sale.” “Of the four Sunni legal schools, only the Ḥanafīs allow a virgin woman to contract her own marriage,” she wrote. “However, the father of a virgin woman retains the right to contest the marriage if he finds the match incompatible.”
Even the terms of possible marriage contract dissolution favored the husband, Yacoob analyzed. He could renounce a marriage by merely repeating “ṭalāq” three times; the “marriage contract thus gave the man sole ownership of the contract, granting only him the unilateral right to divorce.” Contrastingly, women could only divorce subject to the husband’s consent through a khul‘, in which a woman offered financial compensation such as returning the dower amount.
Yacoob’s dissertation also examined how sharia’s prosecution of illicit sex outside the bounds of marriage or sex slavery concubines imposed severe disadvantages upon women. “The evidence for proving illicit sexual intercourse is quite stringent, requiring four male witnesses to see the act of penetration. This puts victims of rape at a significant disadvantage,” she wrote. Yet “pregnancy can also be presented as evidence under Ḥanafī law, which can unduly punish women who become pregnant through rape” as adulterers.
Yacoob observed in her dissertation on sharia that it is no mere academic discussion. “The pre-modern Islamic legal tradition continues to have a life in the contemporary period, informing Muslim ethics on gender and sexuality.” For example, in the Wadud Festschrift, Yacoob noted the orthodox understanding of Quran 4:34 as giving husbands the authority to discipline wives physically. Accordingly the “public discourse against domestic violence is still very precarious in Muslim communities.”
Yacoob in her dissertation introduction highlighted her previous study of “child marriage in Islamic law,” something today “pathologized as pedophilia and considered rape.” With analysis shockingly suggestive of cultural relativism, she wrote of being “particularly intrigued by how Islamic law makes ethical sense of sexual intercourse between adult men and minor girls.” Hanafi ethical concerns ominously included the “ability of the female child to bear penetration without harm,” an issue of enormous modern relevance to, among others, Nigerian girls grievously damaged by their Muslim “husbands.”
As with domestic violence, Yacoob noted that Islamic child marriage derives from the canonical example of Muhammad’s seventh-century child marriage to a nine-year old Aisha. Contrary to Quran 33:21, “to make moral or ethical claims against child marriage would run against this precedent and Muhammad as an exemplar.” Therefore efforts in Muslim-majority societies to end child marriage face “often a significant backlash.”
Sharia treatment of issues like child marriage starkly contrasts with Yacoob’s embrace of modern individualistic sexual and gender mores. If traditional Islamic tenets hinder the abolition of child marriage horrors, the Muslim backlash against her LGBT advocacy for historic novelties like same-sex “marriage” will probably be even worse. Islamic canons like the Quran condemn homosexual behavior, often brutally so, and even the Ivory Tower academic Brown in his understanding of Islam takes critical positions towards LGBT agendas.
Thus it is questionable how authoritative Yacoob’s example will be to other Muslims, particularly given a scholarly gaffe in her dissertation. She listed 1126, the year of Andalusian Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd’s (Averroes) birth, as his death year, which was actually in 1198. This novice mixup, coming from a Pakistani-American who has mastered Islamic disciplines like Arabic only after extensive study, will hardly impress her teachers in Islam’s Arabic lands of origin.
Yacoob has a truly difficult ideological balancing act. In 21st-century America she wants to live out a personal piety in the Islamic faith of her fathers while consigning to a medieval ash-heap any submission to Islam’s historically all-encompassing political framework. To what extent her visions will become real or remain a “fantasy Islam” remains to be seen.