Conference targets end to violence

Participants at international meeting to reassess women's place in religious affairs discuss role in interpretation of the Quran.

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KUALA LUMPUR // Members of a new female shura council that was launched this weekend publicly committed themselves yesterday to a "Jihad Against Violence". The pledge took place during the Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, a five-day conference in the Malaysian capital that ends tomorrow.

"This is to tell the world once and for all that Muslim women are against violence and that we're waging jihad against violence," said Daisy Khan, a conference organiser and executive director of the New York-based American Society for Muslim Advancement. The 15 members of the council pledged to ask their families and friends to work against all forms of violence. The commitment followed the announcement of the shura council, an unprecedented move to create a body of female scholars devoted to reframing discourse within Islam from a female perspective.

Although the council will not be issuing fatwas from its inception, it has begun developing a curriculum to train the next generation of female muftis, organisers said. One of the council members is Afra Jalabi, an academic from Canada who is about to publish her research on reinterpreting the longest sura in the Quran "in a holistic way", as opposed to the conventional verse-by-verse interpretation that has been the norm for centuries.

"Nothing in Islam prevents a woman reaching the highest spiritual point with God," she said. Female Islamic scholars reiterate that they are simply reinterpreting the original text. Islamic teachings, they argue, are the result of patriarchal interpretations that have dominated discourse to the exclusion of women for at least 1,000 years. Earlier records show that women were involved in the development of Islamic jurisprudence and Quranic interpretation, the scholars assert.

Dr Amina Wadud, an American and a trailblazer in this field, is the daughter of a Methodist minister. She converted to Islam and has become a prominent scholar of Islamic studies. Dr Wadud gave a sobering example of how she said Islam has been interpreted from a narrow and patriarchal, at times even elitist, perspective. She had been studying tafsir, the Islamic tradition of Quranic interpretation, which is guided by a number of approved texts, all written by men.

Interpretations that fall outside the conventional view are quickly dismissed and would not be used by sanctioned muftis as, for example, a basis for fatwas. "When we got to a point where he [her instructor] said, 'This means a slave owner can do whatever he wants with his female slaves', I challenged him on that," she said, "because there's text that says a slave owner cannot violate the purity of a female slave."

Early in her career, Dr Wadud decided that it was time for a woman to offer an interpretation of Islam and devoted her doctoral thesis to that objective. Among her publications is her dissertation book offering an alternative tafsir to the conventional, patriarchal one that has at times inspired outrage among other Muslims. She is also the first woman on record to lead men and women together in prayer at a public place.

She did so in New York City in 2005, in spite of the refusal of all the city's mosques to host the landmark event, and despite bomb threats against the art gallery that had originally agreed to host the prayer. She finally held it in a nondenominational space belonging to New York City's Cathedral of St John the Divine.