Islamic tradition, change, and feminism : the gendered non-negotiable
This study investigates the ways in which American Sunni Muslims approach questions of gender, change, and the Islamic tradition. My primary research question is, what do lay American Muslims understand to be the criteria for changing historical positions of scholarly consensus? Relying on an ethnographic study I conducted in Central Texas between May and December 2016, I survey opinions on issues that have undergone changes and those that are perceived as resistant to change. I highlight three major points: first, while the Muslim scholarly community renders non-negotiable the explicitly gendered issues in this study—female-led prayer, women’s marriage to non-Muslims, and female inheritance laws—my respondents generally perceive them as negotiable because of their own lived experiences with the consensus on these issues. Second, my discussants are largely open to changing the pre-modern doctrines but imply that this change may occur only when a group of all-male scholars agree that a new consensus is necessary. I argue that what drives Muslims to support changing historical positions on which consensus has been established is the personal impact that the historical position has on their current lives: if an established position of consensus affects them negatively, they support changing it. Otherwise, they either view it as irrelevant to their lives and therefore do not have an opinion on it, or they oppose changing it. In other words, their lived experiences with doctrinal Islam guide their attitudes towards change. Third, the relationship between lay Muslims and those whom they consider authoritative shows that the two groups rely on each other in complex ways: lay Muslims do not unconditionally rely on Muslim scholars for the “correct” interpretations of Islam but critically evaluate the interpretations given to them in order to make sense of them themselves.