by Rita Faraj*
Olfa Youssef, a Tunisian scholar and author, is considered one of the most important Arab voices on the nexus of Islamic studies and women’s issues. Her publications explore Islamic views on gender and inheritance, marriage, divorce, and homosexuality. She also analyzes Qur’anic verses in a distinctive way, believing that “the Qur’an, despite being the word of god, is also a linguistic discourse and, just like any linguistic discourse, it has multiple meanings.”
The language and linguistics professor is aware that the battle of interpreting religious texts in Islam, particularly those related to women, is fraught because religious ignorance is deeply rooted in the society, making it difficult to widely spread more progressive interpretations which are largely the domain of Arab intelligentsia.
Youssef has worked to free women from the “inferiority curse” imposed by Islamic fiqh (Jurisprudence). Through her books — including Deficient in Religion and Wisdom: Lessons from the Prophet’s Hadiths, The Perplexity of a Muslim Woman, and The Male is Not Like the Female in Gender Identity — she challenges cultural axioms with the aim of introducing new interpretations that overcome the rigidity of religious tradition.
In her interview with Al-Mesbar Center, Olfa Youssef discussed the role of women, religious knowledge in Islam, equality between men and women in the Qur’an, the relationship between the “Divine Masculine” and “Divine Feminine,” and women and modernity.
Q: The past few years have witnessed significant progress in the participation of women, in the Arab and Islamic world, in the field of religious studies, interpretation, and criticism. Brave figures have appeared to sometimes demand abandoning Qur’anic verses if they stand in the face of equality between the two sexes. This is what Amna Wadud, a member of the Islamic feminist movement, has called for. What are your views on overlooking Qur’anic verses to achieve equality? And do you think that the problem lies more in the Qur’an or Fiqh (jurisprudence)?
A: It is neither in Qur’an nor Fiqh, but in the way Muslims engage with religion. Up until the 8th century AH, ideas about religion developed boy connecting religious understanding with ”Ijtihad” and putting the verses in a historical context, and there were long discussions between scholars of Islamic jurisprudence and scholars of Islam without conflict. In the beginning of the 8th century, Ijtihad was abandoned and we started following what our ancestors said and worshiping scholars and translators. We stopped engaging the Qur’an directly. In its essence, the Qur’an does aver equality between men and women.
The purpose of Islam and any other religion is not to interpret or apply scriptural texts for the sake of doing so, but to acquire moral values that regulate the lives of people so they can live in harmony with each other. The prophet, peace be upon him, said: “I was sent to perfect honorable morals.” The Qur’anic scripture is flexible. Its Fiqh (jurisprudence) is informed by temporal social conditions and realities. If a wealthy woman is married to a person with little or no money, she has the right to divorce him de jure. This is what Shari’a calls for, because it is required for married couples to meet the challenges of life together. This the essence of morality that we strayed from when we started dealing superficially with religion. This is the main problem, and it’s not connected to the Qur’anic scripture nor jurisprudence per se. Our problem, as Muslims, is similar to the story of the wise man and the moon: Whenever the wise man points at the moon, the idiot looks at his finger. So what’s the lesson here? Religions point at God, but we’re invested in superficial matters in our relationship with god, and that’s why we’re still ignorant. We haven’t produced new knowledge or ideas.
Q: If we go back in Islamic history, we find that there were proto-feminist movements on the level of religious discourse. There were female scholars in jurisprudence, female modernists, and female Sufi leadership figures. But they have been marginalized in the collective consciousness, and even in the consciousness of the elite. What is your reading of the situation? And what are your views about the current research and academic interest in the role of women in religious scholarship of Islamic history?
A: The role of women in religious scholarship of Islamic history is not new, nor is it limited to Arabic and Islamic history. It exists in other religious, such as Christianity and Judaism. In Europe, there is feminist theology: Women engage religious scripture through exegesis and interpretation. In Islam, the feminist movement is based on instilling awareness on the one hand and the advancement of women in society on the other. And of course, there’s a historical continuum in which women played important roles in jurisprudence, hadith and Sufism. We can take Rabia Al-Adawiya as an example: Her impact on the history of Sufism endures.
The modernist movement in the West gave women the prerogative to analyze scriptural texts. They produced new interpretations — though this appeared at a late stage, amid rapid social development and the expansion of democracy. These elements and others contributed to a more effective feminist movement. As for us in the Arab world, we tended to adopt the material trappings of modernism without embracing the revolution in conscience that came with it. Our societies remained behind, unable to keep pace with the knowledge and social transformation that the West is still experiencing to this day. Despite our backwardness and the dominance of masculinity in our society, Arab women overcame many difficulties and they positioned themselves in society, education, and religious scholarship. Women in the Arab world are progressing in all fields, including the religious field. But sometimes there are obstacles that stand in their way and lead to a delay in progress. In general, there is a type of revolution in terms of the relation between men and women in the world, this revolution started and began to develop in the war of equality, and there are still some other rights that women haven’t obtained yet.
Q: Some exegeses adopt the view that there is tension in the relationship between the “Divine Masculine” and “Diving Feminine.” What bearing does this concept have in Islam?
A: There is no tension. When religions appeared historically, women were marginalized and weren’t regarded as complete humans, so it was normal for some canons to regard women as second-class social beings. On the other hand, the essential principals of religions were based on equality, because our relation with God is one, It suffices to say the concept of divine reckoning applies equally to women and men. The Qur’an refers many times to male and female Muslims explicitly. The essence of Qur’an is justice, and denying equality between men and women violates Divine justice.
Q: You are a pioneer in studying the position of women in Islam in terms of Qur’anic and Fiqh texts, and your book The Perplexity of a Muslim Woman: On Inheritance, Marriage, and Homosexuality stirred positive and negative reactions. The topic of homosexuality that you tackled is the most controversial in a society that does not acknowledge the existence of homosexuals. To draw a question from the title of one of the book’s chapters, “”Why didn’t the Qur’an talk about lesbianism?”
What I tried to show in The Perplexity of a Muslim Woman is that the Qur’an is silent on the subject of homosexuality. Its reference to “Liwat” is not a reference to homosexuality in the sense of a voluntary relationship between two men as we know it today. “Liwat” rather refers to a form of rape, as I demonstrate through close reading of the ancient texts. When our societies deal with homosexuals negatively by rejection and exclusion, this will not end homosexuality. Even if homosexuals are executed — which happens in some countries — homosexuality will remain. Sufis too were killed throughout history, and their absence is one of the reasons for our ignorance. Sufism says: everything in the universe exists because of God’s will. Homosexuals exist because of God’s will. In any case, their private relations harm no one. Moreover, our Arab history is filled with literary references to homosexual relations without criticism. The Qur’an does not even mention this issue; we are the ones who are applying readings from Judaism, Christianity, and other cultures on Islam. The rejection of homosexuals will lead to nothing but violence, and you cannot change a homosexual, as surely as you cannot make someone homosexual.
Q: How would you explain the spread of Hijab in Arab societies since the 1960’s? And to what extent is there a causal relationship between backwardness and the spread of Hijab?
A: I don’t think that Hijab or miniskirts are a way to measure backwardness or advancement. The problem is that there are people and political currents working hard and paying massive amounts of money through TV channels to discourage women from having their own opinions. But this doesn’t change anything in reality. I’ll give a small example: In the 1960s and ‘70s, a much smaller proportion of women wore hijab, yet sexual harassment in the streets was not widespread. More recently, the number of women wearing hijab increased and sexual harassment increased as well. So it is not true that wearing hijab prevents harassment; that claim is simply an attempt by certain currents to influence Arab societies by preying on a perceived ignorance. Hijab is a personal matter. These currents seek to spread fear by telling women that those who do not wear hijab are not true Muslims. These currents have not had a positive influence on the society. Working on superficial issues such as a woman’s style of dressing is not what changes the society. What brings the society forward is efforts to build a culture of openness and acceptance of others, whether through media or other means. And the morals and principles of religion can be a part of the solution to many of the problems we are facing.
Q: What are your upcoming projects as an author?
A: I am studying religion at its essence, as opposed to the formalities of jurisprudence. And I am focusing on spirituality, which can help provide answers to essential questions, such as, where did we come from? What is our purpose in life? How are we supposed to behave?
Q: It seems as if you have moved away from the “knowledge pyramid” that you worked on through women’s issues and are now dealing with the inner world of humankind. Why is that?
A: Women issues are of course an integral part of human issues. And I believe that men who insult or assault women need help because they have mental problems. That is what I find when I come to know such men.
In fact, Arab societies are mentally ill. My next book will explain the danger of useless jurisprudential wars, in which we stray from the spiritual essence that can truly unite both genders in forming a society rooted in values. The focus on values is one of the tenets of Sufism and spirituality, which is why I am hopeful that those stands of religion can help us overcome these conflicts which have been going on for the past 1,400 years.
Q: Will Sufism help save contemporary Islam from violence?
A: I believe so. Sufism has multiple layers. It embodies moral values and is built on love and forgiveness. It also connects to God directly, transcending jurisprudential conflict. I’ll say it again: Scholars of Fiqh murdered Sufism over Islamic history — not just physical killing, as happened to Mansur Al-Hallaj, but also a murder of thought.
*Lebanese sociology researcher at Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center and a member of the Center’s Editorial Board.