I recently published an essay in the British quarterly Critical Muslim. In it, I chose books on Muslim thought and reform by three prominent, well-regarded male scholars and I counted mentions of individual women in their indexes, their texts, or both. I didn’t have to count very high. I looked at how often they cited – or didn’t cite – books by women in their notes and bibliographies. And then I wailed and gnashed my teeth.
I didn’t really. But I wanted to.
A study of modern Muslim intellectuals with a chapter on women, law, and society, that names only three women, none of them Muslim as far as I can tell, in an index which names 240 individuals?
A book about Muslim reform that names only four Muslim women, all from Muhammad’s seventh-century community, and all but one from his household, in the main body of the work? Which segregates every book by a Muslim woman into one lengthy endnote, and says nothing about them or their authors anywhere else?
I took a lot of deep breaths while writing the essay. And editing it. And reading the proofs.
These are perhaps extreme examples. Different books might yield slightly less skewed ratios of men to women in the index (for one author above, 187:8 and 137:4). But the very fact that respected university presses published these books in the last decade suggests that something is very wrong. No editor thought to suggest revisions? No reader report offered a critique?
It is not that there aren’t other models. Edward Curtis’s Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam doesn’t announce “women” or “gender” on the cover but simply proceeds on the radical assumption that stories of Muslims include stories of Muslim women.
Books by women about women (and other topics) do not tend to neglect men in the same proportions some men neglect women subjects and authors. Juliane Hammer’s American Muslim Women – a book explicitly about women and female authority – lists 140 individuals in her index, a third of them (47) male; Wadud’s Inside the Gender Jihad is likewise balanced (31 men, 40 women).
Admittedly, there are some fields of inquiry where knowledge about female figures is scanty and where not much of the secondary literature to date has been written by women. (If I counted index entries for my biography of a ninth century Muslim legal scholar, I doubt I would be pleased with the result.) But modern Islam is emphatically not such a field, which makes the blatant omission of women and women’s scholarship the more disturbing.
Kecia Ali is an Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University where she teaches a range of classes related to Islam. She writes on early Islamic law, women, ethics, and biography. Her books include Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence (2006), Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (2010), and Imam Shafi’i: Scholar and Saint (2011). She lives in the Boston area with her family.