Divine Words, Female Voices: Mary and Muhammad
A discussion with the author
Divine Words, Female Voices: Muslima Explorations in Comparative Feminist Theology (published 2018) offers a distinctive and detailed response to calls for Islamic feminist theology, a Muslima theology. Muslima theology was introduced in Dr Jerusha Rhodes’ (formerly Lamptey) 2014 book, Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism, in application to questions surrounding religious diversity. Her latest book, Divine Words, Female Voices: Muslima Explorations in Comparative Feminist Theology, is distinctive in its use and expansion of methods of comparative theology and deep engagement with Christian and Muslim sources.
The Christian-Muslim Studies Network has published Part 1 of this discussion with Dr Rhodes previously. Part 2 offers further insight into Dr Rhodes’ comparative theological work along key figures within Islam and Christianity, more practical advice, and her hopes for comparative theology in the future.
Christian-Muslim Studies Network: While Mary is a common figure in Christian-Muslim comparative work, Divine Words, Female Voices instead highlights a comparison between the Virgin Mary and the Prophet Muhammad, as pure vessels of God’s divine words. The book suggests that the prophet Muhammad can become a ‘beautiful feminist exemplar’ (page 154) in part because a prophet is always sent by God to de-stabilize or alter a problematic status quo. Could you offer any examples – especially for women, but also for men – for those seeking to emulate Muhammad’s prophethood in this liberative way?
Jerusha Rhodes: The comparison of Christian views of Virgin Mary and Muslim views of Prophet Muhammad is one such meaningful comparison. As I argue in detail in the book, this is a theologically sound and practically effective comparison. Why? Because diverse Christian conversations about the ontology, characteristics, and roles of Virgin Mary have striking moments of overlap with diverse Muslim conversations about the ontology, characteristics, and roles of Prophet Muhammad. Moreover, this comparative conversation takes us straight into questions of gender and gendered normativity in these two figures. What does it mean for Mary to be female? What does it mean for Prophet Muhammad to be male?
I ultimately argue that Prophet Muhammad can be a beautiful feminist exemplar especially in his contextual destabilization. Building upon the work of Ayesha Chaudhry, Prophet Muhammad is both of his context and also not completely of that context. There are some who argue that the Sunna is completely liberative according to contemporary notions of equality and human freedom. Others argue that our standards of what is good and free should accord to past notions, meaning those of Prophet Muhammad’s time.
What I argue is that it is his both/and-ness in relation to his own context that is a central feature. So, the example—for all people—is found in his prophetic practice of perfecting. ‘Prophetic’ meaning that which is rooted in one context but points beyond it to other possibilities. ‘Perfecting’ meaning an ongoing mode of activity that works toward increased liberation and equality. It is verb and not just an adjective (perfect). Prophet Muhammad, as a male exemplar relevant to feminist concerns, was in his context and society, aware of that context, and yet also more than that context. In addition, he was aware of his privilege and used that to push toward the liberation of others.
CMSN: The final chapter of the book, ‘Ritual Prayer, Tradition, and Community’, offers a discussion about women-led prayer in the context of debates surrounding tradition, change, and authority. While you acknowledge limitations of some concrete transformative efforts in this area, you also insist that you find cause for optimism in calls for change and discussion within communities. For the Muslima reader searching for ideas about how to begin conversations and spark transformation, could you offer any details or examples where you see hope emerging?
JR: I think there is optimism. The main source of this optimism for myself, as I write about it, is Muslim communities that are committed to cultivating healthy communities, communities of inclusion, communities promoting justice, and communities that recognize the power and transformative potential of ritual prayer. This book is focused on US Muslim communities, and my experience in such communities is that there is a growing embrace of the importance of representation and intra-Muslim diversity. I also see hope in the emergence of third spaces, whether women’s mosques, inclusive mosques, etc., where people are no longer waiting for larger institutions to validate their need for community and ritual. And, of course, many large communities, mosques, and Muslim organizations are directly addressing women’s inclusion in leadership and space, even if not entertaining ritual leadership. All of these examples seem hopeful to me.
As I discuss in the book, I do think it would be helpful if some discussions of this topic were more deeply grounded in historical realities of women’s presence in the mosque and more understanding of what actually occurs in ritual practice. Both of these may open up new possibilities, possibilities that do not necessarily have legal precedence but do have robust religious and ethical authority.
CMSN: The recent election of the first Muslim Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib offers a concrete example of Muslim women in the United States making their voices to be heard in public service, and receiving a great detail of support from their communities in doing so. Their election has also inspired a level of Christian-Muslim engagement as well. Do you see any other, practical opportunities for Muslim women to raise their voices opening in parallel with these events?
JR: Their elections have resulted in more Muslim voices in the public square. And US Muslims seem to be embracing the representation that comes along with this. While you mention a level of Christian-Muslim engagement (and this is accurate), I also think their election and experiences since then also underline interreligious tensions and a general lack of understanding. For example, there is fairly little understanding of Islam, and the facile and violent presentation of an Omar as a terrorist demonstrates that Islamophobia is alive and (un)well. All of this does, though, serve to reemphasize the importance of diverse, Muslim women being involved in public conversations, whether in media, politics, education, law, civil rights, religious communities, et cetera. And in reality many Muslim women are doing just this (and have been doing just this for decades!). They are raising their voices. Their voices, though, are not always heard or respected.
So, the work continues, the work of claiming authority within the US and within Muslim communities, the work of promoting diverse perspectives and narratives, and the work of creating strategic and meaningful (and thus resilient) solidarity with individuals in other traditions who may have similar concerns and experiences.
CMSN: As the title suggests, the book’s comparative focus within Islam and Christianity is on the Quran and Jesus Christ, as parallel ‘divine words’. What do you hope to see in future scholarship, either in Christian-Muslim interreligious or Islamic feminist engagement?
JR: Oh, there are so many possible things! One thing that I would hope to see in Christian-Muslim scholarship is more projects that utilize the methods of comparative theology and comparative feminist theology. These methods can help identify and explore nuanced comparisons, and thereby lead to new theological insights that are not always evident in typical comparisons, such as text to text, human to human. With Islamic feminist and Muslima engagements in particular, I look forward to constructive contributions that grapple deeply with tradition and with today. This is what I try to do in this book. And I look forward to learning from and with others.