“Look at fiqh, i.e., Islamic jurisprudence. Isn’t it so misogynistic? Isn’t it so biased against women? If we didn’t know better, we would think Islam was a sexist religion. But, we know that Islam is perfectly aligned with modern gender egalitarianism. Only Islamophobes and people ignorant of Islamic history say otherwise. What is really happening is that all of the millions of Muslim scholars over the past 1400 years who were involved with the development of that fiqh were the real misogynists who distorted the religion. After all, how could they all agree to give men and women unequal rights to divorce? How could they all agree to give men and women unequal rights to inheritance? How could they describe men and women’s capabilities and interests in unequal terms? That’s injustice, so obviously we must dump fiqh and look elsewhere for our understanding of revelation.”
How do we respond to this?
This is the basic logical error at the core of all reformist and feminist discourse on Islamic law: that by simply knowing the content of a juristic opinion you can definitively know whether or not it represents a power differential in favor of one group and opposed to the interests of another. For any legal system, a specific ruling must be read and situated in context of the entire legal system, and then the entire legal system must be read and situated in context of the larger social, cultural, and intellectual milieu.
But those who cite these rulings as evidence of a kind of ethical deficiency on the part of historical Muslim scholars, may Allah have mercy on them, have no interest in that kind of analysis. Rather they have a halfbaked conclusion that they’ve coopted wholesale from modern feminist discourse, namely that all social phenomena must be understood in terms of gendered power and the subjugation of women, and then they go scour the fiqh texts for these easter eggs of male bias and question-beggingly confirm to themselves the frame with which they had interpreted those texts in the first place. That passes as great, exemplary, even brave scholarship in modern academia, which itself is beholden to a kind of civilizational chauvinism very much in the same heritage as Orientalism, which is at pains to prove that all historical civilization was beset with the same moral and intellectual failings that characterize the Western European historical trajectory. But the rest of us see through these cheap maneuvers.
Take any current law in American jurisprudence and give it the same treatment. In 50, 100, 200, 300, 400 years, once social sensibilities have sufficiently shifted, those laws can just as easily be taken out of context and depicted as discrimination and examples of unjust power dynamics. It’s a trivial exercise.
As a simple example, look at the emergence of transgenderism, where people now believe that there are no genders inherent to a person, rather it is all a social mediated choice that can be usurped by the imposition of illegitimate power pigeonholing individuals into a binary. All Western law historically and even today presupposes this binary for the most part, but now all of a sudden all those laws can be depicted as “transphobic” and “ciscentric” and representative of inherent bias, etc., when interpreted according to current “transfriendly” cultural and intellectual standards. This is what is done for Islamic law as well. Simply define gender roles and gender expectations in a very specific way as informed by your cultural background and then whatever does not seem to accord with that structure deem misogynistic, biased, and discard accordingly.
It’s all really silly, which makes it all the more sad to see so many Muslims leaving and losing touch with their faith because of it. Allah protect us and our children.