The Modern Reformist Movement in Islam goes back to the closing decades of the nineteenth century with its epicenters spanning the major capitals of the Ottoman Empire and beyond it, the Saharan and riverine nodes in Africa and the Indo-Persian and Malay worlds in Asia, altogether constituting one extended vibrant field of magnetic resonance. Heir to a proud heritage of empire and culture, and once the crown of world communities because of its ethical foundations, the ummah, now saw itself dethroned and ousted as it heaved its way through the labor pains of a new age of uncertainties and false starts. While, at about the same period, Europe had reached its pinnacle of power and glory, exerting strong gravitational pulls throughout much of the globe, whether through outright military, political, and economic domination or, more subtly and detrimentally, through the seductive appeal of its model of civilization, the Muslim ummah had languished in its own weaknesses and complacencies and was caught unprepared for the challenges of the modern age. Vital reformist currents slowly emerged as the natural defenses of a threatened immune system would, mixed reactions and responses to the traumatic dislocations experienced by the community in the course of an uneven civilizational encounter with the modern West.
From the outset, Modern Reform bore the triple imprint of its turn of the century conception: it was community centered, it was rooted in religion, and the woman question figured prominently in its theoretical discourses and practical policy agendas. Notwithstanding the strong secular currents that were reshaping Muslim societies against alternative exogenous models of the good society, the course the incipient reform debates took through the changing political, social, and cultural settings in which they evolved, served to crystallize this triple imprint. To account for this resilience calls for a basic familiarity with the formative and constitutive roots of identity in the Muslim world, and its relationship to the faith.
A brief foray into origins and ontologies may shed some light on the distinctive character of Reform in Islam, and account for the integrality of the equivalent of a 'woman question' in its annals. I will do so by first looking at the historical background, and then relating to the textual referents. The purpose is to point out the links between faith and community, and to identify the centrality of the family to the cohesiveness of an Islamic social structure and the cogency of the world-affirming project of Islam. We need to explain why and how women have been integral to the realization of this project... and to examine the scope and limits for an emancipatory momentum within its confines.
Islam calls on believers, men and women, to build their lives in this world on the basis of a God-consciousness that takes for its means and measure their total wellbeing and felicity in this world and the next. The premise for doing so as articulated in the creedal profession and witness, the shahada, is to renounce all alternative allegiances (and egoisms) as ephemeral and unworthy distractions and deceptions, forms of polytheism or shirk, in favor of an exclusive and untainted devotion to God, conceived as creator, sustainer, sovereign, judge, and ultimate return. [‘His is the dominion of the Heavens and the Earth,’ ‘His is the Command’ and ‘Verily, unto Him is your return..’ ] . The test of this devotion is to subscribe to The Way, the via vitalis, or the shari'ah. Conventionally, shari’ah has been rendered as the Law but, to believers, it is more appropriately apprehended as the formal manifestation of the guidance which has been revealed for their benefit by an all-compassionate and all-knowing God through his chosen prophets, and as such it is primarily ethical and categorically binding. It is the interpretation of the shari’ah though through a rational body of opinion calling on systematic and methodological exertion of the intellectual faculties down the generations [ijtihad] which provides the material for legality and the site for legitimate change in changing times. This is an important distinction to keep in mind when considering the course and prospects of reform in Islam and to which we will briefly refer below. It explains why and how the site of contestation is often assumed in the prevailing order of legality, not in its source, just as the focus for reform is in the prevailing patterns of behavior and habits of the heart, or thought and traditions, and not in the text or the tenets of the faith.
Equally significant is the medium through which this divine guidance embodied in the shari’ah has been revealed. It is an article of faith that Muhammad, the Messenger of God, sealed the cycle of prophethood with an eternal Message, the Quran, that would carry humanity through its final phases to an ultimate judgement and Return. Its unique cosmic function endowed the apostleship of the final Messenger with a paradigmatic status that would thenceforth condition the dialectics of Muslim history (as world history). To understand the dynamics of Reform movements in Islam and the importance of their sociogenic components, exemplified at their most mundane and from the immediate perspective at hand in a politics of gender, calls for a brief elaboration on the meaning of the founding moment of the prophet's community.
Historically, the new faith was addressed to the entire community, with a broad appeal to the underprivileged and marginal classes of society starting with Mecca, the birth place of the Prophet - and home to the first site consecrated to the worship of God, the Ka’ba, and fanning out to neighboring clans and localities. It addressed groups, as well as individuals, signifying a call to each and all, next of kin and the stranger in the fold. Women were notably singled for this call from the very outset, in their individual, as well as in their generic capacity, as individuals with a will and conscience of their own, as gendered beings and as members of the group addressed. They were among the earliest converts to the faith, and among the first to sacrifice and be persecuted in the cause (the first martyr was a woman) and significantly, they participated in all the formative community experiences, including specifically the acquisition and transmission of knowledge, which was the source of identity and power in the new community, as well as in the public activities, that launched Islam as a full-fledged order in world history. This role was to a large extent prompted and inspired by the precepts and injunctions of the new faith which served to selectively reinforce those elements in the social environment of seventh century Arabia compatible with its ontological and ethical principles. [More on this below]
It was this legacy of women’s individual and communal involvement and activism at the inception of Islam that, with the mixed accretions of civilization and time, was subsequently overlaid and diluted, even distorted and subverted, but never effectively extinguished. The basic precepts and teachings of the Prophet, the example of his household and early companions, which included women sahabiyat, together with the fundamental injunctions of the Qur’an, continued to inspire and impassion, their authority unrivaled through the generations, but this did not prevent their manipulation, misinterpretation, and misappropriation. The challenge for modern reform movements was to retrieve this legacy of practice and precept, and to appropriate it in the context of changed conditions.
[ Address the conceptual/ through Qur’an: Highlight the challenge of ijtihad and its conditions/ examples/ sites/ Distinguish between the praxiological and the intellectual in the process of change. While reinterpretation and ijtihad are fundaments, the impetus and the effective trends are largely prompted by on ground activism as well. Reopen question of Islam as ‘orthodoxy’ vs. ‘orthopraxis’… and the particularity of the event of the tanzil in bridging the divide/]
Overview of Reform Movements in Islam
The impetus to reform lies in a pervasive and acute perception of decadence, dissolution, or some form of disjunction in the community and the catalyst to this awareness can be internal or external as in an imminent threat to its security or a challenge to the foundations of its identity and cohesion. The dynamics of reform in Islam fall into a general pattern, which is duly reflected in modern movements. Basically, two patterns of reform emerged, one instigated from the top down hailing back to the shortlived but resounding example of Omar Ibn Abdel Aziz (....), and the other, was societal: spawned by the ulama, the religious leaders of the community, the best elements of which have traditionally maintained their distance from the rulers, and were temperamentally and socially more disposed to identify with the ruled. Fourteenth century Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328 A.D.) reformist, mujtahid, mujadid, and mujahid, is possibly the most notable example in this pattern. The ulama have traditionally been the conscience of the community, its natural representatives, who were in a position to articulate its interests and speak up for its members’ rights, on the assumption that in Islam the interests of the community were identified with those of the faith, and its rights with a generalized conception of the Right, the Just, and the True. This assumption was further reinforced by the privileging of the ulama in Islam as heirs to the prophets, and the understanding that reform /islah, was a shared legacy of the elect, thereby lending reform a cosmic regenerative function, and potentially vesting every reforming movement with stripes of the prophetic.
This is simply another attestation to the intrinsic social dimension that is the hallmark of all reformist initiatives in Islam, an observation that can only be properly grasped against a re-examination of a deep generic affinity between Islam and Reform which cannot be developed here. The seeds of all genuine reform movements are experienced as gradations of the realization of the Islamic moment in time, comprising among other elements like return and restoration, instances of resistance, revival, and renewal, respectively, jihad, ihya, and tajdid. Even the second-hand and secondary concepts of renaissance (nahda) and enlightenment (tanwir) that are part of the modernist secular vernacular in the contemporary Muslim world lend themselves to assimilation and appropriation within the broader tajdidi idiom. The historical prototypes of Islamic reform which were replicated in different centers of the Muslim polity all proceeded within a basic continuity with the tradition. The threats to the community were always assimilable and assimilated within the tradition, and even in critical moments of breakdown in its formal structures / and the disintegration of its polity, the syntax of reform was conducted in an idiom that was culturally familiar to the community.
With modern reform movements, there is a break in this continuity. The challenge is to the very character of the reformist tradition, as well as to the identity and structures of the community. This rupture is the sequel to the turn taken in the encounter with the modern West which culminates in a protracted colonial moment subjugating the greater part of the Muslim community. The consequences of this rupture unfold throughout the nineteenth century. The basic locii for the initiatives to launch, direct or control change remain formally the same, and conventional patterns are maintained as the series of organizational reform bills, the tanzimat, of the late Ottoman period indicate. So does the responsibility for overseeing the legitimacy of the state edicts continue to rest with the ulama of the empire. Only now the situation is complicated with the ambivalent status of the ulama, as one circle amidst a growing body of increasingly pulverized and fragmented elites claiming a tutelary privilege over the emerging political communities, and with contested cultural horizons/ worldviews anticipating the imminent structural changes in society. Discontinuities were implicit as the forces of westernization extended to the reshaping of mass culture and change in Muslim societies becoming for the first time inspired by an exogenous model. It was in this incongruous setting that the stirrings of an Islamic revival would recur foreshadowing in its wake a radicalization of reformist currents.
To note, we may remark on the comprehensive nature of two mutually exclusive civilizational projects initially poised for collision: a secular modernity, and an Islamic revival. Both are totalistic outlooks claiming the world in all its complexity and diversity for a legitimate domain of action and value. The one rooted in transcendence may have an edge over the other in its claim on an additional dimension to a world that escapes the preview and grasp of its secular rival. The immediacy and compelling power of the latter, its sheer immanence, that are its strength simultaneously betoken its limitations, if not on grounds of a flawed morality, then certainly through an impending evanescence. At the outset this juxtaposition transposed to a modernizing Muslim community spelled an inevitable confrontation between two worlds and two mutually repugnant projects contesting the same civilizational space – and threatening fractured identities. Nowhere was this trajectory initially more pronounced than in the different approaches to the woman question which was destined to become the centerpiece of the social question and the acid test of the modernizing potential and direction of the reformist agenda. Islamic reform movements adopted this question only to find themselves challenged from both the left and right of the political spectrum. It would take the better part of the century to discover that in reality the presumed distance between the center and the peripheries , Islamic modernism on the one hand and on the other hand, the competing views of the status and role of the modern Muslim woman, was not as daunting as might have originally been anticipated.
This discovery was in part fostered by women’s own efforts and increased visibility in the public sphere, and in part by sea changes on the ground which reinforced the gender affirmative trends. The proliferation of variations of an ‘Islamic feminism’ throughout the Muslim world, suggesting the convergence of the unthinkable – a feminism rooted in Islam, provides the most eloquent witness to these changes. In the new reforming orientations, Islamic modernism is no longer confined to attempts to adapt to modernity, but modernity itself is now open to revision and redefinition. Just as women are reclaiming their will as active agents of change, the objectives and direction of change are becoming part of the reforming discourse, a legitimate space for appropriating and reconstituting in terms of Islamic values and sensibilities.
Contrary to turn of the century reformism, the present fin de siecle promises a more confident and transgressive stance on issues of social and cultural change postulated on the need to reconstruct the future in the syntax of authenticity. A new generation of neo-normatives, comprising competent and committed women, may prove through their flexibility and openness to the world, capable of defending the tradition more effectively than its self-appointed trustees, the cultural conservationists, or the salafis of different stripes. In this sense, the rift between those fending for a cultural conservatism and those defending the modernizing status quo was being bridged by an emerging generation combining social radicalism with a religious tenacity: ie. a loyalty and deference to the fundaments of the faith. On another plane, however, there were indications of an internal polarization within the ranks of Islamists, as the ‘paleo-salafis’ represented by the Wahhabi puritans and their likes (eg. jama’ati elements in South Asian Islam, Afghani Talibans, brotherhood and their offshoots throughout the Arab world) were entrenched in their inherited cultural attitudes for which they sought a literal and literalist justification in Islamic sources. The battleground thus came to be increasingly waged on the text, underlining thereby the realities and constraints of societies and identities that owed the greater part of their living traditions to a prophetic legacy.
In this context, no degree of authority, scholarly acclaim, or popular confidence could safeguard a reformist initiative that overstepped prevailing opinion and cultured sinecures in a contested ground. One has only to recall the bigoted reaction to the oft reiterated and outspoken opinions of the late Azhar scholar and eminent authority, Sheikh Muhammad el Ghazzali (d.1995) who was unsparing in his ascerbic criticism of the hallowed attitudes and of what he saw as a stifling legacy of misconceived legist rulings and religious exegeses, especially in women related issues. The congenital inferiority inflicted on women relegating them together with children and the mentally afflicted to the status of minors before the law, and barring them from exercising their God given rights to dispose of the wealth and property to which they are entitled, is just one instance of the flagrant violations of qur’anic ethical precepts, counterposing fiqh to shari’ah. His scathing critique of the dead hand of such offensive and misconstrued constructs recalls the earlier clarion calls of reformers like Abduh and his followers at the turn of the century, and serves as a timely reminder of the critical and constructive potential coming from within a much neglected and often maligned strand within the tradition. The difference is that this potential is carried by angry voices that are louder and more insistent and significantly more capable of deconstructing the tradition from within it. The fate of reforming movements depends on appropriating the authority of the recuperated text to the benefit of change, and building on sound and tested elements within the tradition can well provide a sane and solid ground to that end.
The imperative of applying a systematic and sustained effort to recapture the dynamic spirit believed to inhere in the revealed text and to have animated the formative years of the community is conditional on a critical deconstruction of the legacy to separate the wheat from the chaff and free it of outdated and deviant cultural accretions. In this sense, a specifically Islamic form of gender activism has been a logical by product of a more radical reformism, as much as an incentive to it. Muslim feminists may find their natural allies in unsuspected quarters.
Conversely, as the indigenous voices of reform became increasingly conversant with the idioms of modernity, the wedge with the liberal secularists on the left of the spectrum is conceivably narrowed. Islamic Reform currents were increasingly demonstrating a willingness to appropriate modernity on their own terms and to the benefit of the self-realization of the community along lines of a modern authenticity. Reconstituting the elements of an Islamic civic project beyond projecting the ‘past into the future’ may still be beyond the grasp of mainstream Islamic movements, but there is a steadily growing grassroots movement reflected in scattered initiatives, theoretical and praxiological, that is dedicated to making this vision a reality. At the heart of these initiatives are efforts to articulate new subjectivities (individual identity) as well as new definitions of community in an attempted articulation of an evasive ideal of the khair ummah*. Some of these attempts are confined to recasting traditional roles and images of womanhood in a modern idiom, and in doing so serve to bridge the gap between intrusive and endogeneous values.
Others however are engaged in varying projects ranging from critically reinterpreting elements of the tradition (eg. Abu Shaqqa’s compendium on women in the sunnah; or Alalwani on women in the fiqh and usul; or Qaradawi’s compendium on legal opinions –fatawi ) to partial or comprehensive reconstructions and syntheses on the planes of epistemology and methodology. Some of these efforts may be more controversial than others, falling on the fringes of the tradition (Mahmoud Taha, Shahrour) others are closer to the center, some more conspicuous than others (Turabi, Ghannoushi), and most of a more incremental and potentially of more enduring effect. Women as scholars and activists are increasingly engaged in these efforts, with substantive contributions coming from the academy. There is in short no lack of enterprising individuals whose work and ideas resonate with enlightened departures coming from within the ranks of authoritative and knowledgeable sources, the ulama. While some of the elements involved in these initiatives are independent, or have opted for independence in their public stances, others are activists directly affiliated to political movements. Here, a cautious generalization may be ventured. In principle, the less politicized these elements, or the less vulnerable to public/ peer censure, the more open and critically creative they are likely to be, and the deeper, more pervasive and more enduring their likely sociocultural influences. They act unencumbered by the restrictions and the inertia of their affiliates.
The reverse is true, as the experience of some of the initially more open and liberal Islamic reformist currents in Southeast Asia has shown. There, the tendency to a greater social conservatism, most conspicuously transposed to the field of gender issues, and the reliance on a more literalist and rigid variant of fiqhi proscriptions grew in consequence and in proportion to the infiltration of the reforming parties in the field by salafi, Muslim Brotherhood elements. Wherever the age-old ambivalent relationship between the two circles of indigenous power, the jurists and the rulers, in this case, the politicians - is evoked, it usually works to the disadvantage of Reform. Ironically, this equally applies to the interventions by the modernizing state on behalf of secular reforms, which in the long run undermine rather than consolidate any prospective ‘gains’.
Perhaps this is not so paradoxical after all, bearing in mind that power often leads by coercion rather than either conviction or example. This deleterious political ingredient had become a truism, ever since the Ummayyad Caliph, Mu’awyia (d.658?) first made advances to the astute Imam Malik, one of the founders of the four canonical sunni schools of law, who resisted the pressure to conform to his own peril. The issue at stake then was ostensibly a legal opinion qualifying divorce stratagems which, through analogical rulings, was deemed to have its implications for the loyalty pledged to the ruler. In reality, it was an issue touching on questions of agency, morality, and responsibility, namely, the freedom to choose and to act freely on that choice, whether in matters domestic or of public provenance. In a unitary tawhidic axiology where the value-system is integrated round a core ontology from which it flows, the same measure applies irrespective of differentiated spheres. In the Muslim experience, the personal has thus always been intimately bound to the political, just as politics and the law have from the outset been integrally linked to the faith of the community and to its moral bearings. The politicization of the legal however, was of another order, and the disguise of the political passions and interests in the garb of contested legalities, then as now was more often a source of derailing the Islamic civic and civilizing potential.
On another plane of inquiry, the erstwhile ambivalence to secular reformist currents (evident in such circles as Mohamed Abduh’s in Egypt or the Aligargh movement in India) that may have conflated attitudes, and obscured differences, seem to have been relegated to a deeper level, to be experienced by the end of the century across the board as a fissure in the conscience and consciousness of the community. The result is a polarization of worldviews that mirrors its counterpart globally in the politics of the new world order and that echoed in the lobbies and lobbying attending the Fourth Women’s International Conference in Summer 1995 in Beijing. In this contestation, there is no doubt about which of the two visions retains the loyalty of core-communities and appeals to Muslim grassroots. The secular voices of change however retain a precarious edge. Despite their relatively privileged position in terms of their proximity to the centers of power, locally and globally, and in terms of their knowledge competences, they remain increasingly marginalized. They have yet to offer to the community a convincing positive alternative to the status quo they protest, and to what an Islamic platform of critique and construction can offer. On the other hand, in so far as they continue to prod Islamist reformers out of their complacency and provide the stimulus and provocation to the ongoing processes of mobilization and defense in the Muslim social body, they play an instrumental role. Without that defiant fringe to keep the pressure on reformist currents to periodically monitor their civic pulse, the prospects would have been dimmer for a greater ethical stringency to bring the course of the contemporary Islamic movement more in line with the liberationist thrust of the primary and primal sources of the faith.
However, it is important to remember that the reforming impulse is embedded in a text as much as in a context. To say that the reforming currents in Islam vary and cannot be reduced to any one movement, is to affirm the authority of the text, not its wielders. Various Islamist movements may fall within the more general reformist currents but none can claim a monopoly on reform in Islam, nor can reformism be reduced to any or all of its claimants. Just as Islam transcends its range of historical proximations at any given moment, so too, with the potential for reform in Islam . The lessons of a century of reformist departures in the umma, across a range of change and a variety of political regimes, may have proved beyond doubt that while the social and the cultural in the Muslim world are embedded in the political, the initiative for reform and its prospects lie deep within the community, both preceding and superseding the fluctuations and arbitrariness of the political. While the concrete nature reform assumes and its implementation may depend on the particular context, its very idea and its premises remain the function of agency, morality, and responsibility as these may be interpreted by each generation from basically the same founding texts in the Quran and the authenticated traditions of the prophet. These texts retain their binding authority on the community and continue to effectively inform and prescribe the range of activity for its members, women and men, as well as to infuse and enthuse the content and direction of reform strategies whether these are subsumed under women’s questions, or Muslim gender activism, or variants of a ‘family feminism.’
The implications of current trends of reform cannot be confined to the discourse in the field, but should be seen in the light of ongoing reconstruction on the ground. Changing social structures and practices, beginning with the education and the family and the local economy networks and extending to the political and legal representations of the community can no longer be seen in isolation of their Islamic component. If at the turn of the century these were largely assumed as secular incursions, and by mid-century they had become the site of active contestation between secularizing and ‘religious’ currents, by century’s end the pattern was one of a growing assertiveness in which women are increasingly drawn as Muslims with legitimate voices entitled to articulate their interests, gendered and otherwise, as part of the ummah. While official bodies of ulama (like the Azhar), and major Islamist movements and organizations may continue to appropriate the authority to speak for women, or on their behalf, more and more Muslim women who actively identify with their faith and command the requisite organizational and intellectual skills are both resolved to speak for themselves and able to do so.
These are no longer the traditional women who don the veil and opt for seclusion out of deference to threadbare customs and expedience. Rather, this is a new generation among whom are those who may have chosen to veil against countervailing forces and pressures in order to reaffirm a presence and mobility hitherto undreamed of, and to do so on terms and conditions of their own choice. This century’s end generation, unlike its forerunners at century’s rise, was born to modern and modernizing societies where diluted Islamic ideals were part of a receding horizon against which the competing images of a New Woman were held up by the nationalist secular elites. It has the double task of standing up to both the old conventions and the new as it strives to rediscover and reinterpret Islamic sources and to reconstruct recovered identities and alternative civilities (to those imposed by a globalizing modernity.)
In this process women actively participate as responsible moral agents in a radical, broad spectrum reform as they contribute to ongoing attempts at redefining public space and relocating social boundaries. This no doubt entails a renegotiation of notions of legality in Muslim society touching on familiar benchmarks of piecemeal reformist initiatives like personal status and family legislation, the last remaining strongholds of formal Muslim legalism in many modernist constitutions. The stakes in the critical reconstructionist currents at century’s end however far exceed the tinkering propensities implicit in the hairsplitting legalities of an earlier generation and extend to an ontological and epistemological core that resonates throughout the Muslim equivalent of the public square. The radical character of this transformation draws on its potential rupture with a legacy and a mindset etched in the mimesis [taqlidi] mould, irrespective of the object of emulation, whether it is the Muslim legacy or the Western example. It is this thrust which makes the reformist turn of the century currents with their salafi and modernist/ secular wings relatively outdated and innocuous gropings. The fact is that the more recent initiatives to question the tradition are more concerned with self-interrogation and re-examining the sources of the tradition in new and more radical ways, beyond the apologetics of an earlier era. This, too, may be an eloquent and practical testimony to the reforming potential coming from within the parameters of an Islamic worldview. From this perspective, little is it realized that women’s growing visibility in Muslim societies is more than part of a global and globalizing pattern backed by international institutions and policy agendas; in the circumstances, it is as much an authentic reflection of the growing awareness of the meaning of the early model of community in Islam, and of attempts to rediscover its implications under modern conditions...
[A realistic and rounded assessment of the nature and prospects of modern reform in Islam calls for situated and situating as well as for constructionist perspectives. The idea is to root 20th century reform in an intrinsic ontology and epistemology and to postulate a generic authenticity of certain strains of 'feminisms' and 'gender activism'.]
What are some of the essentials of the reformist movements? For the purpose at hand, these may be briefly summed up in the following. Reform movements target the individual in society, as well as the group, and/ or the structures and practices in society. As such these movements aim at reforming thought, attitudes, and conduct. In addition to the spiritual component, there is a moral, an intellectual, a social, a cultural, and a political dimension to reform movements in Islam. The frame of reference for these movements is provided by a revealed text, the Quran, and in its precepts as embodied in the traditions of the prophet and the example of the founding community. Movements of reform are prompted by a pervasive perception of decadence, and decline, or corruption and dissolution in the community and the catalyst to such a perception/ condition can be internal or external. The initiative to reform can come from above, prompted by the political leadership, or from within the group, usually, with the ulama, or the religious leadership in society identifying with the rank and file. To the extent that modern reform movements fall within this general pattern, they maintain a continuity with the tradition.
Conversely, We may approach the subject by pointing out what reformist movements in Islam are characteristically not: They do not target the text, nor do they question the authenticity of the prophetic traditions and the example of the founding community. What constitutes the object of legitimate questioning are the various interpretations of these sources and the authority of the various interpreters on any disputed issue. To do otherwise would put them outside the pale of Islam and condemn their efforts to the futility which has attended the century long initiatives of a modernizing (westernizing) elite and an even more suspect modern and/or post-colonial state apparatus. Notwithstanding the disruptions wrought on by a colonial interlude and its legacies, and irrespective of the deep schisms characteristic of contemporary/ post-traditional Muslim culture, it is still possible to speak of an implicit consensus in Muslim society today with the onus lying in the community at large, and not in any specific segment of it. This consensus is best conceived in terms of a circumference with its center unwavering in its deference to the primary sources of Islam (the qur’an and the sunna), though the degree to which such deference is extended to intermediary sources (the pious forebears, the earlier generations, al salaf al saleh) is negotiable.
Between the center and the circumference is a modular radius variegated and open to variable possibilities. Gender activists and family feminists identifying with an Islamic option among both women and men operate in this space. At any given moment, the circumference is determined by the historical context, and the range of variation will always remain a potentially open and expansive field in a living and dynamic community. While the identity of that community is maintained through its moorings to a steady center, its freedom and mobility are assured it in the latitude and depth contingent on a shifting radius. Needless to add, the circle of this consensus is not a closed one, it opens on the transcendent (the revealed knowledge at the center) at the same time as it encompasses the temporal to which it relates ( the acquired knowledge at the circumference).
In effect, the centrality of the text to Muslim societies privileges a community of learning and discourse and theoretically assures a latitude of interpretation, a range of rational and reasoned opinion that can deal with the new questions that arise with the challenges of modernizing societies caught at the crossroads of globalizing currents. This however postulates a conceptual breakthrough, beyond the mid-century intimations on the reconstruction of Islamic thought (Muhammad Iqbal, Malik Bennabi), so as to foreground a wide array of methodologically sound and systematic intellectual initiatives that can pave the way to reactivating the mechanisms of community consensus. By century’s end this is where the pivotal forces converge for rethinking Islam from within. In this field there is ample scope for an effective and creative women’s scholarship that can feed into such processes, especially as more women graduate from classical shari’ah studies. Of even greater portent, is a perceptible qualitative change overtaking the conventional and modern curricula in a vanguard Islamic academy that, through a revitalised integrative momentum, promises to precipitate the anticipated conceptual breakthrough.
The test of a radical reformism in mainstream Islamic circles is contingent not only on the much flaunted challenge to ‘reopening the gates of ijtihad’, that intrinsic mechanism that assures the tradition its dynamism and renewability, but even more, it is the modalities of ijtihad that are at stake. That shi’i Islam retains a tradition of canonizing its authorities, and that women are included in this process as attested to by a recent anointing to their ranks of a woman scholar as a mujtahidah, is emblematic. It points the majoritarian Islam of community and consensus to the areas it needs to recover and from which it has defaulted by regression, as well as to those areas it should seek to conquer afresh. Beyond this platform for authoritative interpretative engagement at the discursive level, and the redrawing of the boundaries of authority it entails, there are the dynamics of an authenticating and an authentic praxis that refers itself to the ways of the Prophet and the community he founded as well as to the innumerable de facto initiatives and models of action adapted to and appropriatively adopting the imperatives of changing times.