Men, Men, Everywhere by Kecia Ali

dissertation, Advising, feminism and religion

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?

Two books about Blackamerican Muslim thought and identity that do not mention Amina Wadud, the African-American Muslim thinker who has had the most significant global impact?

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.

Categories: Academy, General, Islam, Sexism

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48 replies

  1. And to think that I thought we were living in a post-feminist era, where women’s contributions, feminist and otherwise, were read, taught, and cited, as a matter of course!


    • Would that it were so! Perhaps there are some fields where things are better. ________________________________________


        • Yes – I assumed so (it’s hard to tell tone in type sometimes). But I also wonder, sincerely, if there might be fields where things are a bit better. It is my non-scientific view (i.e., I didn’t count anything) that scholars writing about American Islam generally do a bit better when it comes to discussing women and acknowledging women’s scholarship. I don’t know what the situation is like for work on medieval Christianity or contemporary Hinduism, etc. ________________________________________


  2. I’d been debating adding a sentence to my chapter on early pious and Sufi women for the Cambridge Companion to Sufism about how much contemporary scholarship on Sufism resembles the early biographical material which disappears women from the sources. Despite access to nearly 300 extant biographical notices of such early women, contemporary male academics writing broad histories of Sufism continue to reiterate the classical narrative that women are marginal to its history and transmission. Yeah, I’m going to add that sentence.


    • Laury, the sentence is a great idea. I love, too, your use of the word “disappear” as a transitive verb usually used to refer to the practice of dictatorial regimes in Latin America – e.g., in Argentina’s dirty war – of abducting dissidents, who would never be heard from again. It is a violent and ugly practice, and your comment brings out by association the hermeneutical violence of passing over women, continually, so that their existence is denied.



    • To give credit where it’s due, my colleague Asma Sayeed has a new book out on women Hadith transmitters from the beginning through the Ottoman period. Also, much more modestly, my Classical Arabic Biography (2000) has a section on Bishr al-Hafi’s sisters. (The book could be better, but do wish people would read that section!)


      • Michael, nice to “meet” you. I have been anxiously awaiting Asma’s book, but my point was less about scholarship on women (and by women) than the way women are too often overlooked in more general texts, especially by male authors. Your work on Bishr’s sisters is a good example of integrating women, yet, as you point out, that section of the text is too-seldom cited.


  3. I’m editing a book about Islam by a man who was born in Los Angeles and moved with his family home to Pakistan when he was 13 years old. I’m going to send him a link to your excellent blog.


  4. Do any of these more conservative and traditionalist scholars cite “their gals” i.e. Aich Abd al-Rahman (Bint al-Shati), Zainab al-Ghazali, Fawkiyah Sherbini, Kariman Hamzah, Farida Zumrrud, Nusayba al-Ghalabzori, Rashida Nasser, Khadija Min al-Aqil, Mariam Mint Hin, Faimetou Mint Abd al-Fattah? (I got these names from Saleck Mohamed Val’s essay, “Beyond the Crooked Rib”, also in issue No. 8 of Critical Muslim).

    In other words, is the problem just no women scholars period OR ignoring the feminist/progressive women scholars?

    Also, I very much enjoyed your essay. Nice when math proves intuitive feelings!

    Will your next project be on the proportion of Muslim women speakers to men speakers on the North American lecture circuit? My feeling is that it is about 6:1.


    • Zaynab al-Ghazali shows up in that infamous endnote in the third author’s work (p. 345). That’s it as far as I recall.

      The problem is both of the things you mention: the omission of women on the ground, scholars and activists, who would constitute the subjects of analysis, and the women scholars – particularly but not exclusively Muslim – who have written secondary literature about the phenomena under study.

      As for the lecture circuit, I leave that analysis to someone else – perhaps you might do that math? There is a counter-example, the Shaykha Fest organized by Shaykha Reima Yosif: I participated last year and what struck me most was the diversity of training and perspectives of the women scholars she brought together. ________________________________________


  5. Wow, I can surely relate to grinding the teeth about the subtractions and blindness to women writers. It really is everywhere!! I have a webpage called Women Authors on the Tao Te Ching, because they rarely get cited. Tao is the Chinese version of the ancient old-world mother goddess, but if it weren’t for Ellen M. Chen, you’d never know it.


  6. The Disappearance is so blantedly blank prevalent that it really boils me. I went to a three day retreat at a Buddhist monastery. I asked one of the monks what women Buddhists were prominent in their theology. His answer? Well, there was Buddha’s mother. That’s it, said I, after centuries of study and work? ( I was clearly distressed. ) And in compiling my coterie of lesbian poets for my website, I was blessed to find one outstanding religious lesbian poet: Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. But otherwise they have simply Disappeared. My gut tells me there are more, but I ‘ll be fedozzled if I can find them. Maybe some day in the Great Unveiling of Women all these wonderful women from history will materialize before us, stepping out of grey mists. And in the meantime, we plug away, one book (or website) at a time.


  7. The situation is horrific in all areas of Christian theology, especially my own medieval field. There is great popular fascination with “medieval women mystics” but they are not classed as theologians–even the highly sophisticated, literate, massively productive ones like Hildegard of Bingen and my specialty, the women of Helfta. Their writing and thought is primarily confined to special women’s classes and books and they are either completely omitted or given tiny token treatment in standard textbooks, anthologies, well as optional add ons in comprehensive exams, doctoral courses, etc. Several years ago I gave a job talk demonstrating Gertrud of Helfta’s eloquent Latin and sophisticated textual work with scripture, liturgical sources, and earlier writers like Augustine and Bernard as well as comparing her to Hildegard. I lost the job to a junior man from my doctoral program and when the chair called he went on and on about how much they loved us both, wished they had two jobs, etc., but in the end “he does, ya know, *regular* medieval theology [obscure early Dominicans and Franciscans], and we already have a spirituality person”!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Well women, this is what it is with men. The constant and never ending erasure of half the human race. Tell you what, straight women, find out about lesbian communities in your worlds. We have our own spaces, we focus 100% on women, and men are not a part of what we do in life. We simply don’t add men into our worlds, we spend all our time making women our priority. Stop writing about men, just stop it already. Men can write about men, men can rule islam of buddhism or some other male dominated god-ism, but women should reject completely and utterly the world of men, the rapists on a bad day, the erasers on a good day. Women will you just stop it! 40 years of this and you are still simpering away hoping the masters will change. Well THEY NEVER WILL. So write about women, pray with women, find women’s spirits…. just walk out on those men, stop cooking for them, stop citing them in your books, stop giving birth to yet more boys… radical… 40 years and you still haven’t learned about what is really out there. I get so fed up with the male pleasing male begging expectations. These men don’t give a damn about you, they could care less about women in their academic books. Women should care about women, but a lot of you still fawn. I don’t get it straight women, what is it about these idiots that you still pander or get shocked over, this is who they are!!!!


  9. As I mentioned to you by email, I loved the article for Critical Muslims BECAUSE we are using the simultaneity of quantitative evidence and qualitative lived realities of Muslim women as a strategy for reform, intellectual, spiritual and political.

    I just wanted to add here how I am continually honored by your specific reference to my scholarly contributions.

    Thanks for doing the”math” on my works as well, because at least I like to think I practice what I preach, but being inclusive is often tainted by our conditioned responses. So, for example, while Turtle Women here seems to think we can resolve the problem of being ignored by likewise simply ignoring men, some of us feel the world will probably continue to be constructed with women and men, of diverse sexual orientations, and that the way forward is not down to the same low level we critique, but up to the higher level of a compassionate embrace of all humankind.

    I’m glad you pointed out that I did so, at least in my references! So now let me keep towards that balanced embrace in life.

    Thanks for what you do…


  10. Kecia, I didn’t call you an idiot, I called those male scholars of islam idiots… not just to pick on muslim men, but to point out that male theologians write about men, and do no use the last 40 years of feminist thealogy in their indexes. So I did not call you an idiot. I think you might be naieve to expect any change in this area… 40 years is a long time for male academics to remain this way. I do think straight women collaborate way too much with men, and lesbians get frustrated because women could simply stop. What if women stopped going to the churches and mosques, what if women concentrated on women’s communities? This is a serious question.

    Men don’t give a damn about the freedom of women. Count the indexes and quanify this data, but you know without counting that they don’t give a damn about women, and they are laughing at us behind our backs, because they know that straight women are going to keep begging, keep focusing on them — Males in academentia. Sure I am blunt, but honestly are you all just living on planet hopeful? Do you actually believe these male academics are ever going to change? You know these religions are made up male fantasies don’t you? So read my words carefully, and then you can engage with women who don’t go along with this hopeless project. You are NOT an idiot, the males are idiots, let’s get this ahem “straight.”


    • Turtle Woman, I used to love the world of weekday masses in various local churches in my city. I quit because I didn’t agree with Church teaching. But I miss those anonymous visits a lot really, just enjoying the smell of incense and all the kitsch, and when I saw the mass was about to begin, I’d leave quietly. Do we have to align every action with our politics?


  11. It is often easy to misdiagnose a problem because it is easier to handle simplicity than nuance and complexity. But this leads to incorrect solutions…..nevertheless, these are some simple reflections………

    In the Islamic context—the “problem” may be abuse of privilege….and this “abuse of privilege” can happen in both gendered and gender neutral spaces. Privilege is part of human social structure and is necessary/helpful at times—for example, the convenient and reserved parking space for the handicapped is a helpful privilege. Sometimes privilege is inherited, forcefully taken, or voluntarily given. In these circumstances the concept of privilege must be balanced by responsibility.—That is, those who are in a position of privilege have the responsibility to use it for good (benefit of those marginalized) and restrain from harm/abuse (to further empower themselves or a group of elites)

    In some cases, ignorance plays a part in the abuse of privilege—that is, people do things “because that is how we’ve always done them”—without critical re-evaluation. That is why those who are being effected by the abuse of privileged must raise awareness in order that the situation is highlighted and possible corrections/solutions can begin.

    In this context, the story of Prophet Abraham (pbuh) and the sacrifice is interesting…Here is a person who “speaks with God” and yet he consults with his son, asks his opinion! The youth who are generally marginalized—becomes instead a participator.

    Though it may take courage and effort, (diverse) people must be participators in order to balance privilege and restrict its abuse…………….. and perhaps in this way we can all begin to walk towards the way of a compassionate embrace of all humankind.


    • You’re right, privilege is key. One issue, which I address in the CM essay, has to do with perspective: who gets to decide when something is an abuse of privilege rather than the natural order of things? These epistemological issues (how do we know things?) are fundamental to the problem and the solutions. ________________________________________


      • It is indeed an interesting question……who decides the natural order of things?—My opinion is that each “generation”(using the term loosely) must struggle with these issues and decide for themselves—that is, while the works and wisdom of previous generations is an important building block—to accept it simply as “received tradition/wisdom” alone would be a mistake because each generation must struggle with its own unique circumstances. This struggle is an essential tool for life learning (knowledge and spirituality) and should not be abdicated. Perhaps that is why the pursuit of knowledge is such an important aspect of Islam……

        As each generation strives to find solutions to the relevant issues of their time—what is important to hand down to the next generation isn’t the solution itself—rather the tools (principles) by which they can find their own solutions……?……..


        • Yes, on both the “generations” and the methodological principles, though principles themselves can be part of the problem, depending on how they are conceptualized and implemented. And there is an additional question: at any given time (and place), whose voices are heard in establishing a “generational” decision?



  12. I do understand that your focus was on the mention of Muslim women in these academic books and in the academia in general, but i cannot help but wonder what about the book: al-Muhaddithat: the women scholars in Islam?
    Also while women may not have such influence in the academic world, there seems to be a lot of active women on the ground, e.g. everywhere i go in London these days I see huge posters with the title ‘Come and listen to the most influential Muslim woman in the world’ namely Ustadha Yasmin Mogahed.
    Also in terms of grassroots organizations I could name many founded and organized by Muslim women who produce many articles on the internet, these women seem to be very active to get their voice heard,but from what I know they are mostly of them ‘mainstream orthodox’ if I can define it in this way, rather than progressive (does this matter?). I do wonder where it would be more relevant to count and where. From my point of view, there has been so many books published in the social sciences talking about ‘women’ but often the women featuring in these books remain within an anonymous amorphous mass of unknown ‘folk’ individuals, it would be important to have a study that looks at the scholarly contribution of women on the ground as educators and producers/reproducers of knowledge.


    • Yes! I agree with you that there are women scholars, activists, teachers, and producers of knowledge whose contributions have been the subject of study in al-Muhaddithat, which is an important resource, but also in academic books and journal articles and issues about Muslim women and authority, some of which focus on progressive women and others of which treat those you call “mainstream orthodox.” My point was not that there aren’t women doing these things OR that there isn’t scholarship on them (though more is always welcome, particularly historical scholarship) but rather that when “Muslim scholars” or “Muslim authorities” or “Muslim reformers” etc. are talked about, women are marginalized – only brought in when we talk about “Muslim women reformers” etc. There are some scholars who incorporate women in a matter-of-fact way into their narratives and analyses (I mentioned Curtis, above, but Asma Afsaruddin is also exemplary in this regard), but they are the exception rather than the rule, at least for now.



  13. Hello Kecia. I think It’s time to enhance the promotion- consciouslly- of he work and voices of women in religion, especially those who are exploring the F word in religion in different areas like activism, academia and ritual-spirituality . If we let that eveyone “fight for herself” we will always have our voices missing, because this invisibilization is not random nor isolated phenomena and affect women in muldimensional ways related not only to gender but with financial support to make research and the access to instances of sharing-knowledge and work with peers. Regards


    • Vanessa, I think you’re absolutely right that “invisibilization” of women’s voices is a major problem. We need a multi-pronged approach to promotion of women’s scholarly and activist (and scholarly-activist) work. F&R is a good place to begin. I am interested in the sorts of things Mexican women are doing. Where is your community doing things those of us in the US can emulate?



      • In the small collective I am part of, formed by women of faith that are not part of academia, we are meeting regularly for two things regarding the study of religion and intersections with gender: With muslim women, to study and discuss the quran from woman’s perspective. With women of other religions, we meet in interfaith dialogue: Last year, for example, we had a very interesting workshop about the figures of Eva, Mary and Hagar.

        Progress are being done even when is not easy and we face some barriers: Still religion is seen as a masculine area where women see themselves as intruders. Churches or institutional religion don’t support these kind of activities, of course, so we self-manage to attend conferences and meeting. Most of the material regarding Feminism and Religion is in english or not available in bookstores. For example, there is a great work of Mexican Feminist Sylvia Marcos on Body, Gender and Religion in Latin América that even the most important University of my country doesn’t have in shelf.

        However, this year we had the great surprise that one of our members started recently to preach in her church, a protestant one of “Pentecostal” denomination, one of the most conservative. She is given a time to adress all the crowd and teach the bible. She told me last sunday that she “put unapologetically the feminist spice there”. I personally hope my eyes can see her in charge of a community

        And this is how we move forward despite obstacles. We are women of faith.


  14. Vanessa, this is a powerful example of organizing outside the boundaries of formal spaces. Both academia and the church (or mosque) routinely, and sometimes explicitly, denigrate contributions of those deemed marginal: activists, in the first case, women in the second. And yet your example of the woman preaching in her Pentecostal congregation is a wonderful illustration that breaches happen, and can be transformative. Next time the Spice Girls perform, let’s have “Unapologetic Feminist Spice” with them.


  15. If I’m writing a text, I would go to reliable sources. I would hesitate using feminist as a source because many feminist stats are false or exaggerated (i.e. wage gap, educational gap, 1 in 4 college girls are raped, etc… )
    Although many feminist ‘stats’ has been very useful in getting federal and stat funding, it won’t hold up in scientific reports where facts are important.


    • Reid, I have no interest in providing a full list of “reliable sources” for, just to take the first thing on your list, the wage gap. I think the bigger point at issue here is the presumption that feminists do not provide facts while purportedly “objective” (often, anti-feminist) sources are “reliable.” I do agree that people should think critically about the things presented to them as facts and, as always, consider the source. Everyone has an agenda.


    • “Many feminist exagerate” is so sexist… How many? where? Who? Do they exagerate because “women are too emotional and tend to exagerate all” or maybe “they can be trusted because women tend to say lies”?


  16. Kecia,
    I made a similar count of the women mentioned in Said’s Orientalism and found a very, very few, only 10 compared to 440 men. I note that in my Reading Orientalism, p. 155.

    Dan Varisco


  17. Dear Kecia, we haven’t yet had the pleasure to meet, so I’m going to introduce myself briefly. My name is Maria-Magdalena Fuchs, I’m a 6th-year PhD student at Princeton’s Department of Religion and I work on Muslim South Asia. My advisor is Muhammad Qasim Zaman. Now you might already guess why I’m writing … I’ve read your article and agree with the general issues you raised, but I think your argument doesn’t take some broader points into account. I particularly find your passing reference to Qasim Zaman’s book as an example for the deliberate omission and exclusion of female scholarship in the field disturbing. While it might point to a lack in this particular publication, I think it does not do justice to him and his scholarship in general.

    First, he has co-authored a book with Roxanne Euben, Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought (2009), which you might have seen. How many co-authored volumes written by a male and female author do you find in our field? That is already an exception by itself. Further, the Radical Age book you’ve linked to in your article mostly focuses on Islamic intellectual thought in South Asia. Sadly, there isn’t much female scholarship out there on this particular topic. Much of the female scholarship that does exist focuses on topics such as literature, social history, or political history, for example. There is definitely a dearth of women working on the intellectual history of South Asian Islam. That might partially account for the lack of references, but of course also points to a more deep-seated problem about the role of women in our field and the topics they chose to research (or are maybe encouraged or discouraged to engage with by their advisors/peers/etc).

    Second, in his teaching, Qasim Zaman always assigns work by female authors and specifically points out their contribution to the field. For example, in his graduate seminar on Religious Authority in Modern Islam which he regularly teaches, he assigns work by Patricia Crone, Sherine Hamdy, Sana Haroon, Saba Mahmood, and the above-mentioned Roxanne Euben.

    Third, and most importantly, speaking from my own personal experience, I can say that Qasim Zaman is one of the most supportive and encouraging advisors you will ever meet in the academy. Last year, he won the Princeton Graduate Mentoring Award that recognizes four outstanding mentors and advisors from across the university each year. It’s a high honor and a very rare one to be given. Before him, only one other professor from his department has ever won it in the history of Princeton University. The campaign for his nomination was mainly driven by his female undergraduate and graduate students. It were the women who wrote letters of nomination, rallied other students for support and pushed very hard for him to get the recognition he deserves. The reason for this overwhelming enthusiasm, is that we, as women and female scholars, can always go to him with any problem of any kind, regardless of how far-fetched it might seem. His door is always open, and we can count on him to be there whenever we need it. He unconditionally supports female students and their work, provides a space for them to share ideas, voice criticism, develop their arguments and grow as scholars and thinkers. We can also rely on his support in times of personal troubles, when the sheer pressure and anxiety of grad school seems overwhelming. He cares for his students’ personal well-being, too, and is unfailingly warm-hearted and kind in his social conduct, especially when dealing with women who face hardship because of a male-dominated environment. I have never, not even once, seen him giving less recognition to a female student, or take her or her work less seriously than that of a man. The opposite is true, he pays particular attention to providing women with a space to grow. The fact that my own subfield (Islam) in the Religion Department has only admitted female grad students in the past five years speaks for itself. Qasim Zaman is a bastion of support for women in a hostile sea of male patriarchy, and in my view, one of the reasons why it’s worth doing a PhD at Princeton. You will be hard pressed to recognize this from the one book you’ve cited, but this is what actually characterizes him as a scholar and as a person.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Maria, Although a student in Near Eastern Studies and not Religion, I must point out several issues with Prof. Qasim Zaman, precisely due to the merits you rightly mention. Namely, his bias against men. When you acknowledge that the department has admitted only women as graduate students in the past five years, that itself is telling, Was there truly no single male applicant worthy of being admitted on merit? Male graduate students in Near Eastern Studies have had a very hard time with Prof. Zaman who. while being exactly as approachable to women as you describe, is extremely off-putting with most men, especially men of color. White and European men, such as Simon, are however very well received. This extreme preference for women in the Islam subfield of the Religion department led them to hire Tehseen Thaver this year as an Assistant Prof. despite her very slim publications record despite being out from a PhD program for 5 or more years. It may the first time that a UNC Chapel Hill PhD, not known for it’s rigor, has found a place in the better programs of religion. In any case, perhaps Kecia’s approach and comments may be taken in a sense of an extreme corrective to an extreme problem. But the sooner, we can all reach a state of balance the better, so that all persons of all genders, backgrounds, outlooks can feel comfortable and truly have a voice in academia. Best wishes.



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