Sexual Ethics and Islam

10 Questions for Kecia Ali on:

Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence
(OneWorld Publications, 2006).

RD: What inspired you to write this book? What sparked your interest?

There wasn’t a particular moment when I thought, hey, I’ll write a book about sexual ethics. In fact, at the time I was working on a book about ninth-century jurisprudence. I had done early versions of some of the essays for the Web site of the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis. But the cumulative impact of a series of intense conversations about subjects like intermarriage, divorce rights, and Qur’anic interpretation at conferences, lectures, brunches, and the hallways at my mosque made me realize that I needed to say something on the subject. I found myself repeatedly frustrated, increasingly exasperated, and eventually angry with the apologetic drivel that passes for learned discourse on some of these subjects.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

These are hard questions. And they’re important. Don’t be satisfied with sloppy answers, no matter how seemingly authoritative the source.

Anything you had to leave out?

There’s very little about polygamy and virtually nothing about women’s dress or headcovering in the book, by design. But I had originally intended to say substantially more about the issue of consent, how tricky it is to define what makes consent meaningful in a world of inequality. The penultimate draft included an exploration of the adequacy of competing notions of consent. It was naïve and problematic and I wasn’t prepared to fix it so I left it out.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

The biggest misconception is that there is One True Islamic View on everything.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

Several different audiences jump to mind. The most important was young Muslims concerned with “women and Islam” who are dissatisfied with the standard ways of approaching these issues. Another important audience was my colleagues at the intersection of Islamic Studies and Women’s Studies. But I hope it gets a broader audience among Muslims. These questions are too important to leave them to the specialists. And I would like it if Jamal Badawi read the book and takes it into account when he next revises his writings on “gender equity in Islam.”

Are you hoping just to inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

I’m hoping to spark discussion and debate. I would like to think that those who disagree with me will at least believe my work merits the compliment of rational opposition.

What alternate title would you give the book?

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Islam. No, really, I would have accepted any title that didn’t have “veil” in it.

How do you feel about the cover?

I was very lucky that Saudi-born artist Hend al-Mansour consented to use of images from her calligraphic painting of passages from the Qur’an, specifically from the part of Surat Yusuf that tells the story of the attempted seduction of the Prophet Joseph by his master’s wife. Fedwa Malti-Douglas called that story the literary foundation for misogyny in the Islamic tradition, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. My point in using the painting for the cover—apart from the fact that it’s visually compelling —is that a Muslim sexual ethics must come to terms with inherited texts but has a great deal of both interpretive freedom and responsibility in doing so.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written?

Am I allowed to say Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? Seriously, there are too many to list. Muhammad Qasim Zaman, The Ulama in Contemporary Islam, because it’s brilliant and thorough, historically grounded and theoretically informed. Almost anything Khaled Abou El Fadl has written, because he builds arguments with such precision. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, for the obvious reasons. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters—not for the theology, which I (not surprisingly) have difficulties with, but for the way he turns a wacky premise into a consistently insightful piece of prose. Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris, because she is a master of the personal essay, and because for those who love to read books, it’s wonderful to write about them. I could go on indefinitely.

What’s your next book?

Remember that book about the ninth century? I’m finishing up Marriage, Gender, and Ownership in Early Islamic Jurisprudence, which explores the conceptual frameworks used by Muslim legal authorities to discuss marriage, divorce, and spousal rights. I’m also working on a biography of Al-Shafi’i, an important early Muslim legal thinker.


Image courtesy Hend al-Mansour.