All-Male Nonsense by Kecia Ali

Kecia Ali Bio pic officeA brilliant site has been making the rounds of social media: I became aware of it just in time to suggest a post: an all-male symposium at Cambridge Muslim College on the future of the madrasa. The original article, since removed, touted its diverse participants, but as someone observed, clearly they only meant diverse styles of facial hair. The organizer apparently chose “to exclude women despite having had the matter brought to his attention” in the planning stages by male participants. (As of this writing, the college still has an all-male homepage.)

Right around the same time, I learned of an Australian Muslim conference taking a slightly different route, advertising an event with thirteen male speakers and three female ones. Not an ideal ratio, but certainly better than many events. What is troubling is the way men and women appear on the poster. Each man has a picture along with his name. The women are literally faceless, represented by identical balloon figures. While the men appear in color or grayscale photographs, the women are stark black and white, clearly inhuman caricatures. (Other similar events give slightly different lists with only one woman;  she appears with different line drawings, one in profile and one “full face” – except, still, faceless.)

Mercy Missions Twins of Faith poster blue for boys pink for girls Continue reading “All-Male Nonsense by Kecia Ali”

ISIS and Authority by Kecia Ali

Kecia Ali Bio pic officeLast week, Graeme Wood caused quite a stir with his article “What ISIS Really Wants.” It focused on the apocalyptic religious vision of the group and contended that ISIS was, as a scholar quoted in the article put it, “smack in the middle of the medieval tradition,” including on the things most shock and repulse observers, such as slavery.

Though Wood grants that most Muslims do not support ISIS, and acknowledges in passing the role of interpretation in formulating its doctrines, the overall impression conveyed by the article was that Muslims who deny that ISIS is a fair representation of Islam are either apologists or simply do not really know anything about Islam. Others have offered rebuttals of many of the points in the article, and Bernard Haykel, the scholar quoted, has offered a more nuanced articulation of his views. More than one commentator has pointed out that by treating ISIS as a legitimate representative of the Islamic tradition, seriously religious and dedicated to the texts “shared by all Sunni Muslims,” it fosters an unholy convergence of interests between extremist Muslims and Islamophobes. Continue reading “ISIS and Authority by Kecia Ali”

So You’re Going to the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting by Kecia Ali

Kecia Ali Bio pic officeTen thousand people descend on San Diego this weekend for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature joint Annual Meeting. We will present papers, interview and be interviewed, shop for books, and network busily. Many will feel overwhelmed, lost, and/or hungry – convention center food somehow always manages to be lousy and expensive.

I have attended nearly every AAR Annual Meeting since 1999. I have presented papers, spoken on panels, responded to sessions, led tables at pre-conference workshops, and presided at business meetings. I have served on program unit steering committees and chaired a Section. I have gone to editorial board breakfasts and AAR committee meetings.  I have had coffee with editors with whom I’ve gone on to publish books. I have served as a mentor at the Women’s Mentoring Lunch. Though I never used the Employment Center as a job candidate, I have put in cubicle time as part of two search committees.

In other words, I know something about the Annual Meeting. Continue reading “So You’re Going to the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting by Kecia Ali”

Random Email Blues #2 by Kecia Ali

dissertation, Advising, feminism and religionI read your guideline[s] on “Writing a successful conference paper proposal”. I intend to submit a paper for a conference, for the first time, so I am a bit afraid and hesitant. Actually, I have many ideas[;] still I feel that I cannot really focus on a clear argument. Can you advise me please on how to organize my argument? Honestly, I feel that I am not fully grasping the whole idea of a paper. Should I come up with something new or just review books that have more or less the same approach to a particular theme? I really cannot fathom the essence and the main idea of a paper. I am sorry for any disturbance, but I thought that you may accept to help me. If it is possible to send you my attempt and the ideas that I have in mind for the conference, I will be really grateful.

I received this email several months ago from a North African doctoral student whom I had never met, working on a topic (literature) distant from my own areas of expertise (law).

On the surface, her request seems ridiculous, on a par with students who ask about rules clearly stated in the syllabus. The guidelines to which she refers state clearly that the point of a conference paper is to present “something new.” It suggests ways to narrow down “a clear argument” and a “main idea.” And whether she knows it or not, she is asking for a major investment of time and energy. A two paragraph email is not going to help her understand “the whole idea of a paper” if it is not yet obvious from her studies or reading. From a time-management perspective, devoting a good chunk of time to reviewing a stranger’s disorganized ideas, in a field far removed from my own, is neither efficient nor professionally savvy.

Yet it is more complicated than that. Although I ultimately did not provide any substantial assistance, I was tempted to help, despite my unsuitability in terms of specialization and my awareness that female academics are prone to spend disproportionate time on service activities, making us less likely to advance professionally. Continue reading “Random Email Blues #2 by Kecia Ali”

Whose Sharia Is It? by Kecia Ali

dissertation, Advising, feminism and religionIt has been a lousy month for Islamic law.

First, there was the kidnapping and threatened sale of Nigerian girls by Boko Haram, which claimed religious acceptability for their acts. As Muslim theologian Jerusha Lamptey opined, this is not my sharia.

Then, the Sultan of Brunei’s horrific new penal code came into effect. Unlike the Nigerian girls, where a social media campaign garnered White House attention, the Brunei law gained visibility because the Sultan–who is dictating law that his track record suggests he does not observe–indirectly owns the famous Beverly Hills Hotel. Hollywood figures have objected to the rules, due to come into effect next year, which would punish proven male-male anal sex with death. (As far as I know, the code does not prescribe any particular punishment for lesbian acts, though the rhetoric has become that the new law prescribes “stoning gays and lesbians.”)

Claims like that of the Sultan or Boko Haram that “Islam” demands implementation of “sharia” ignore the complex reality in which there is not now nor has there ever been a uniform set of identifiable rules that Muslim scholars have agreed on much less that governments in Muslim majority countries have implemented over the centuries. As I wrote elsewhere, so-called sharia laws on the books in Brunei, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Morocco are not directly revealed by God. They are human products with human histories negotiated in human contexts. The pretense that these laws are straightforward implementations of God’s will not only serves to justify these otherwise unjustifiable rules but also feeds the demonization and dehumanization of Muslims. Though happening on two continents and perpetrated by two quite distinct sorts of actors – a multibillionaire monarch enmeshed in global capitalism and a militant anti-Western, anti-government insurgency – the Nigerian kidnapping and the Brunei law became exhibits A and B for the vilification of sharia. Continue reading “Whose Sharia Is It? by Kecia Ali”

Making Our Way – Updating the Guide for Women in Religion by Kecia Ali

dissertation, Advising, feminism and religion

Mary E. Hunt, Monique Moultrie, and I are updating the Guide for Women in Religion. The original version was edited by Mary with an impressive cast of contributors and first published ten years ago. Organized with entries from “A” (AAR) to “Z” (Zeitgeist), it was the successor to the 1992 Guide to the Perplexing, which billed itself as a “survival manual” and was team-written by a group that includes several now-legendary figures in the field, then junior folks trying to find their way in the sometimes hostile, often bewildering landscape of academic religious studies, particularly at the AAR and SBL.

With each iteration of the Guide, some important things have changed. (Others have not, but that’s another blog.)

One thing that has changed for the better:  There are now plenty of women in senior positions, women who have attained the rank of full professor (and retired as emerita), or direct major organizations, who are recognized as leaders in their scholarly fields. Women’s studies in religion has gained prominence as a serious subfield, and gender as a crucial category (or factor, or variable, or consideration, or analytic lens) appears in a great deal of scholarship and not a few job ads. Continue reading “Making Our Way – Updating the Guide for Women in Religion by Kecia Ali”

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? Continue reading “Men, Men, Everywhere by Kecia Ali”

Religion is Good Counsel by Kecia Ali

dissertation, Advising, feminism and religion

Last week I received an email out of the blue about a book I published seven years ago.

The greeting was polite. The body of the email managed to be simultaneously critical and vague. The writer began by noting that human beings are accountable “for what we say and do” and that the prophet Muhammad taught that those who start something good are rewarded for the good they do themselves and for those who follow in their footsteps; those who do something sinful are liable for their own sin and the sins of those who follow their guidance. The implication was that my book could lead people astray and I would be responsible for their bad deeds.

She had several concerns. In her view “some points in the book” were offensive to religion; she singled out the chapter on homosexuality. Further, “some questions … were inappropriately directed toward Allah.” The tone of my writing makes it seem as though “I am “attacking [my] religion or [am] not proud of it” – which, she believes, does not reflect my actual feelings.  Even if my inner sentiments are correct, she believes I am mistaken in my judgment about certain basic religious doctrines: though I “look to these issues as [an] American Muslim and [consider] how Islam could apply in U.S.A … in all religions there are basics that cannot be changed.” In her view, my book crossed the line. Finally, she felt that I was not clear “about how Islam respects women.” She signed her email “sincerely.” I believed her. Continue reading “Religion is Good Counsel by Kecia Ali”

Third Time’s the Charm by Kecia Ali

dissertation, Advising, feminism and religionIn the space of a week, three obtuse remarks by non-Muslim men about Muslim women ticked me off.

First was a letter to the editor by Rabbi Howard Berman, published in the Boston Globe on April 21. The title (“Women’s Strides set Judaism apart”) was telling. According to Berman, strict religious hierarchy means that only in (his branch of) Judaism have women’s rights and roles advanced. Mormons and Catholics have no shot – never mind that Mormon women had recently raised the issue of women’s priesthood, or that lay and religious women among Catholics have long been fighting the good fight, sometimes with male allies. He then contradicts himself on the role of official hierarchy: Islam, where there is less centralization than in American or world Judaism, also gives women no chance of gaining authority.

I fumed and mentally composed a pithy refutation, which I never actually wrote. Continue reading “Third Time’s the Charm by Kecia Ali”

Milestones and Musings by Kecia Ali

dissertation, Advising, feminism and religionMy first doctoral student defended his dissertation this week. It was a milestone for him and for me. Colleagues – those who participated in the defense and those present when we emerged from our conclave – congratulated us both. One said, only somewhat jokingly, “Congratulations, mom.” I knew exactly what she meant.

This defense, out of sync with the usual spate of May and August completions, overlapped with admissions season and the tail end of next fall’s hiring. I’ve been immersed in applications from potential MA and PhD students. And just this week I’ve fielded emails and calls from three former students (other programs, other primary advisors) now interviewing, more and less successfully, for faculty jobs.  Continue reading “Milestones and Musings by Kecia Ali”

There’s Something about Mary by Kecia Ali

Scholarly life – like life in general – requires balancing one’s own priorities with involvement in others’ project and plans. Say yes too frequently and you’ll never get anything written; say no too often and you miss the excitement give and take generates. A recent conversation at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting reminded me how enriching encounters in service to someone else’s agenda can be. I sat down with a scholar in another field working on a book for non-Muslims about how North American Muslims read and understand the Qur’an. We spent an hour talking about passages from Surat Al Imran (the third chapter of the Qur’an) that discuss Mary’s mother, Mary, Zacharias, John (“the Baptist”), and Jesus.

We had set up this meeting well in advance, but I suspect our talk would have been far less interesting had I not been primed by a panel I’d attended that morning, where one presenter spoke about the fluidity of Qur’anic descriptions of God’s participation in the creation of humanity and another read the story of Cain and Abel against the grain. The night before, I had also read a colleague’s work in progress on methodologies of feminist Qur’an interpretation so that she and I could discuss it that evening. Continue reading “There’s Something about Mary by Kecia Ali”

Muslim Masculinities: Men Have Gender Too by Kecia Ali

Twenty years ago, when I was an undergraduate, another student in a history seminar casually referred to women as “people of gender.” He was not being ironic. At the time, I felt amused and superior and frustrated: not only did he not get it but he really didn’t get it. Two decades later, my amusement has taken on a rueful tinge: despite the formulaic acknowledgment that masculinity and femininity are reciprocally constructed, “gender” scholarship in my field, Islamic Studies, has focused almost exclusively on women.

That is, until recently. Scholars, especially anthropologists, have begun serious work on Muslim masculinities; increasingly, those of us more historically and textually inclined are joining the party. My own first forays into these waters treated the equivocal masculinity of enslaved males as part of a larger project on marriage in early Muslim law. In my current project on views of Muhammad, the question of masculinity emerges much more centrally, and in strikingly different ways in works by feminists and neo-traditionalists (who lay claim to reproducing the “authentic” tradition even as they are thoroughly modern in many ways). Continue reading “Muslim Masculinities: Men Have Gender Too by Kecia Ali”

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