Colonialism and Gender Discourse: A Case Study on the Unique Case of the Ulema

Umm Salamah narrates that Umm Sulaym came to the Prophet ﷺ and said: ‘O Messenger of God ﷺ God is not shy of saying the truth. Is a bath compulsory on a woman when she has a wet dream? The Prophet ﷺ said: [Yes.] When she sees the emission. Umm Salamah covered her face and said: O Messenger of God ﷺ do women have wet dreams? The Prophet ﷺ said: Yes. May your hand be dusty! How otherwise does [a woman’s] child become like her?’ A’ishah once said: ‘How good are the women of the Ansar! Shyness did not prevent them from acquiring an understanding of their din [religion]. [1]

I have sought worship in everything. I did not find anything more relieving to me than sitting with scholars and exchanging [knowledge] with them. (Umm al-Darda qtd in Nadwi 43) [2]

The respectful attentiveness that has ever characterized the traditional attitudes of Muslims students before their teachers, male or female, is derived from the example of women as from the men who attended and served him [the Prophet ﷺ]. Shahr ibn Hawshab has narrated from Asma’ bint Yazid that she said: “I was holding the rein of ‘Adba, the she-camel of the Prophet ﷺ when [verses of the] surat al-Ma’idah [were revealed] to him. Because of the heaviness of the revelation, the camel’s leg (‘adud) was on the point of buckling (daqqa).” [2]

The impact of Islam’s encounter with colonialism has often been referred to as a rupture, one which breaks pre-modern notions of self-hood, agency, authority, and society. One of the most significant consequences of the colonial encounter has been its impact on knowledge production in discursive traditions such as Islam. A significant aspect of the colonial encounter was the loss of power and authority in Muslim majority areas associated with the public sphere which was considered the domain of men. The loss of power became a major theme that the ‘ulema (scholars of Islamic law) and modernists grappled within their works and efforts to reform. Any subsequent production of knowledge aimed to come to terms with the reality of Muslims in an absence of power which has ramifications – such as construction of selfhood and agency – for Muslims but especially on the subsequent discourse on women. This essay attempts to trace the coloniality of knowledge production and in particular coloniality of gender discourse. 

Coloniality of gender (a concept argued by Maria Lugones) discourse argues that colonization has created a rupture in the sense of self and identity, “as well as understandings of cosmology, and most importantly gender relations in indigenous as well as pre-modern societies.” [1] And “in doing so, coloniality/modernity implemented European understandings of gender, erasing the various pre-existing notions of gender in the Non-European modern/colonial gender system.” As a matter of fact, Ashis Nandy has argued that the European understanding of gender, i.e., masculinity itself “originated in the colonial experience.” [3] Gender formation for the colonizer was formed in relation to the colonized, and the colonizer “cast their relationship to the colonies in terms of gender as part of their implicit justification of their imperial role.” [2] Any notions born of this binary relationship of superior/inferior explicit in the relationship of the colonizer and the colonized are bound to produce unjust notions of selfhood and gender. Much like how the binary relationship between the colonizer and the colonized is characterized and replete with violence and reductionism, notions of selfhood and gender are reductivist as well as violent to the indigenous self. Understanding this unequivocal link between gender and coloniality gives us a critical tool to help us understand contemporaneous debates on gender in Islam. By examining the works of reformist-oriented ulema, such as Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi, who were at the forefront of the colonial encounter and the work of Muhammad Akram Nadwi, my argument works to understand the existing frameworks on gender while denouncing the binary of theory/practice to recover the role and the lives of Muslim women in Muslim history. 

Knowledge production in the colonial period had certain distinctive features. It was majorly characterized as reform-oriented, i.e., an inward move that sought to reform the tradition that had become corrupt and burdened with culture and to reform it so that it is more compatible with modernity. The discourse produced within the ulema or the traditionalists sought to preserve the authority of the tradition as well as provide creative solutions for a rapidly changing world. On the other hand, modernists’ works focused on preserving the truth of the Quran in a way that was compatible with the demands of a modern world. Both these aims and concerns engendered contrasting and diverging discourses on the concepts of selfhood, agency, state, and society. But what was common to both the camps was an overwhelming emphasis on reform of women. 

Katherine Bullock categorizes the several camps that exist within the fold of Islam who seek to understand to what extent “early juristic proscriptions and prescriptions for women’s status and role ought to be the guiding norm for Muslims today”[4]. Bullock categorizes the following: the traditionalists who have complete belief in the consummate nature of Islamic law; Modernists of various types (including feminists) who more often than not negate classical Islamic law and interpret it to extrapolate gender egalitarianism; and Salafis who want to break free from adherence to Islamic schools of law. The genealogy of these camps has its roots in the colonial encounter. While the project of the modernists as well as the Salafis – a modern movement itself – are unique in themselves, Metcalf argues that it was really the ulema who paved the way for reform that was later taken up by the Modernists. Therefore, it is only proper that that the traditionalists’ arguments are given a deeper study. 

Ashraf Ali Thanawi’s most seminal work on the treatment of female reform, the Bihishti Zewar, is perhaps one of the most widely read books in Urdu literature. The book has chapters on the proper mannerism and etiquette of the ideal Muslim woman. The book also has the basics of everyday fiqh issues such as inheritance, Muslim personal law, etc. However, Barbara Metcalf, in her translation of Thanawi’s work, argues that he meant for the book to be a source of guidance for both women and men. She argues that because of the loss of power in the public — the domain of men — the ulema shifted their focus to the private world of women, associated with the material world such as marriage, birth and funeral rites, and social relationships. According to Thanawi, all the things that had corrupted the domestic world were in dire need of reform. It can be argued that this focus on the private world was the ulema’s way of asserting meaningful change in an absence of public authority.

For this purpose, we see the development of a radically different understanding of womanhood in their discourses. Thanawi argues that men and women were equal in the eyes of God and that women just like men were not “endowed with a special nature for spiritual or moral virtue nor handicapped in any way by limitations of intellect or character”. [5] Metcalf argues that for Thanawi, “for women to act as they should, they must be instructed” and that “basic to this confidence is in the power of instruction is an implicit conviction that women are essentially the same as men”. [6] Thanawi quoting from the Quran, argues that both men and women were created from a “single self”, therefore, one could not be superior to the other. The self was to live a life of submission to the will of God and that it “must contend with the fundamental human condition of the struggle between intelligence or sense, ‘aql, on the one hand, and the undisciplined impulses of the lower soul, nafs, on the other”. [7] Thanawi seems to give spiritual equality to women as well as extend intellectual equality to women as well. 

Such a move was unparalleled in the nineteenth century when Europe was dominated by ideas where women were seen as carriers of tradition and culture, ideas of biological dimorphism, and notions of a special spiritual capacity of women. Western figures such as Darwin, at the same time, were famously branding women to an ‘inferior race’. [8] In fact, Metcalf argues that any such notions that might be read into the Islamic tradition do not predate the colonial period, rather they are found during and after the colonial period. And that such notions have permeated the Muslim world, the necessary consequence of such a reading, for Muslim women, is the weight of the domestic world. Ethnographers and historians of gender have more recently argued for a dynamic reading of Muslim women by citing examples of a wide variety of Muslim women in public spaces, ranging from peasant field workers to enterprising traders to trained professionals. Katherine Bullock, in her work on the Veil, also cites examples of women from Damascus and Egypt with major shares in property trade. In fact, she argues that the idea of the seclusion of Muslim women became more pervasive than ever before. Thanawi’s insistence of reform in women was a way of penetrating the private world of custom which was blamed for distorted relationships and false paths. Through the acquisition of true knowledge, women could reform the private world and preserve true Islamic teachings. While spiritual and intellectual egalitarianism was afforded to women, it did not translate to the social, political, and economic life because Thanawi emphasized that women should remain in the private world, secluded and limited in their interaction with the outside world and strange men. It seems that Thanawi builds a promising case for an egalitarian spirit, however, the reader feels that he replaces the old patriarchy of the ulema with a new one.

The epigraphs quoted above represent a dynamic image of the women Companions of the Prophet ﷺ in their attitude towards religious knowledge and their spiritual duty towards attaining it. Dr. Nadwi in his seminal work, alMuhaddithat, argues in the preface to his forty-volume biographical dictionary that the active and central presence of women in Islam’s formative years is a rare occurrence, an occurrence hardly present in other religious tradition. In fact, he argues that women had the same access to religious authority that men did because any notions of authority in Islam are a result of the embodiment of a number of virtues such as self-discipline, piety, and willingness of submission to the will of God. Nadwi’s work goes on to provide biographical accounts of female scholars throughout the tradition’s history. His work dispels the impression that the only important or note-worthy female Muslim figures are found in the immutable so-called Golden Age of Islam.

On the contrary, the presence of nearly eight thousand female hadith scholars provides us with ample evidence from the practice of Muslim societies. Ayubi argues in her work, Gendered Morality: Classic Islamic Ethics of the Self, Family, and Society (2019), that classical texts such as the akhlaq texts of Imam Ghazali, al-Tusi, and Davani place women in a hierarchy below men because they were not imbued with the necessary faculties to attain true happiness. But with Nadwi’s work, we see that it does not translate to the historical reality of Muslim women. Verily, it has long been argued by eminent scholars such as Tarif al-Khalidi that biographical dictionaries give us access to the ideas and attitudes of Muslim societies towards a range of issues including gender. We have examples of powerhouses such as Rabia al-Basri, whose life and piety are recorded and recognized by the Muslim male clergy so much so that she has been attributed as one of the pioneering figures of the tradition of tassawuf and surpassed authoritative men in piety and in her love for the Divine. Furthermore, it is through Nadwi’s work that we are introduced to the female teachers of famous hadith scholars such as Imam Ash-Shafi;i, Khatib al-Baghdadi, and al-Suyuti; whose names have been dusted under the pages of classical and medieval texts. And even though Nadwi’s work is contemporary and does not directly address the colonial time period, nonetheless, he challenges and interacts with Orientalist as well as feminist discourses on Islam and women that have their origin in the colonial project.

Such examples, excavated from and embedded in the interaction between our discursive tradition and its praxis, can help us build an alternate framework through which we can understand the reality of modern Muslim women who would like to remain firmly grounded in their tradition as well as be dynamic individuals. They also help us navigate other gender-specific frameworks, which have their origin in the encounter of the European and the Non-European and subsequently the Enlightenment project. 

Works Cited:

[1] Thānvī Ashraf ʻAlī, & Metcalf, B. (1992). Perfecting women: Maulana Ashraf ʻalī Thanawi’s bihishti zewar ; a partial translation with commentary. Oxford University Press. 
[2] Nadwī Muḥammad Akram. Al-Muḥaddithāt: The Women Scholars in Islam. Interface Publications, 2016.
[3] Bullock, Katherine. Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil: Challenging Historical & Modern Stereotypes. International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2010.
[4] Tilley, Lisa. “Coloniality of Gender.” GLOBAL SOCIAL THEORY, 23 Feb. 2016, https://globalsocialtheory.org/topics/coloniality-of-gender/.

Photo via Ivan Cervantes


About the Author: Mahnoor Nadeem is a graduate in Anthropology and Sociology from Lahore University of Management Sciences and is currently pursuing her A’limiyyah degree. Her interests include Muslim intellectual history, Islamic Sciences as well as Western philosophical thought.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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