Divine Words, Female Voices

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 is excited to share this discussion with Dr Rhodes about Islamic feminism, Muslim women’s voices, and comparative theology generally.

Christian-Muslim Studies Network: You described some of the difficulties of engaging in Islamic feminism in terms of a ‘poisoned well’ due to the perceived opposition of Islam and feminism in the views of much of the Western World. In enacting this project, do you find more motivation from Western liberal language, such as human rights and equality, or from your religious inspirations?

Jerusha Rhodes: Yes, the image of the poisoned well—introduced by Azizah al-Hibri—serves to illuminate a variety of tensions surrounding Islamic feminisms. Importantly, these tensions are promoted from outside of Muslim communities, but also in contemporary discourse from within Muslim communities. Islam and feminism are presented as antithetical.

My point in invoking this image is to argue that Islamic feminists, Muslima theologians, and other scholars doing work that seeks egalitarianism and justice should be hyper-aware of these discourses. However, hyper-aware does not equate to embracing these discourses. In fact, the whole project of Divine Words, Female Voices could be seen a rejection of this idea. Not a simplistic rejection, but a rejection premised upon deep familiarity with diverse formulations of feminism and diverse interpretations of the Islamic tradition.

Therefore, my response to the question of whether I am motivated by ‘Western liberal language’ or more by ‘religious inspirations’ would be to say that I challenge the way this question itself is formulated. Who says that human rights are the prevue of ‘Western, liberal’ discourse? Who says that religious inspiration is a separate category? Who, in the complex reality of the world, can concretely distinguish between these two caricatures? I am not invested in doing so. I bring my complex background to this contextual theological project. I am less interested in sorting out motivations, and more interested in crafting methods and constructive interpretations that are rooted in tradition and responsive to reality on-the-ground. 

CMSN: The book notes that feminist interreligious study has often been limited by the reality that most theologians and scholars lack a deep knowledge about the other’s tradition, whether Muslim or Christian. Could you describe some of your own preparation for engaging so deeply in not only the Islamic, but also the Christian tradition?

JR: Yes, this is a major concern of the book and of my work. Comparisons will be superficial if knowledge of other traditions and perspectives is superficial. That may seem obvious, and yet it is interesting to see how many times such comparisons are made in theological interpretations and texts. Moreover, comparisons can be more than simply superficial. They can be jabs that utilize the religious ‘other’ as a trope to bolster one’s own position. This is especially concerning with feminist and liberatory theologies that ostensibly aim to be aware of power dynamics and hierarchies.

My preparation for doing this work comes from studying Islamic religious sciences in both a seminary context at the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences and in Master’s and PhD programs at Georgetown University. In the program at Georgetown, students enter with an existing tradition specialization (mine was Islam) and then also focus on a second tradition. My second tradition, and the focus of the bulk of my coursework at Georgetown, was Christianity, specifically Catholicism.

It is important to point out, though, that it is not simply the study of Christianity that serves this project. It is the reason for that study, meaning, the rationale for engaging other traditions at all. What is the value? Is there something to be learned? Is it more than polemics and apologetics? As I write about in my first book, I come to this work with a theological view that we have profound things to learn across and amidst religious diversity if we take the time to listen, learn, and appreciate difference as much as commonality.

CMSN: What counsel would you give to a Muslim or Christian woman looking to engage with interreligious feminist theology, whether academically or at the grassroots level?

JR:  The counsel I would give is that people seeking to do this work should be well aware of the tensions that swirl around interreligious feminist theology and even dialogue. As I have responded in other questions, be aware, but do not embrace these tensions as the only possible reality. For example, the ‘story’ that says feminism and Islam are antithetical to each other does not fully account for the rich array of diverse expressions of feminism within Islam nor in other traditions. It demonstrates a lack of knowledge, for example, of womanism, mujerista theology, and decolonial exegesis.

So, the first bit of advice is to be aware of the tensions. The second is to learn about other people and traditions directly and on their own terms. This can be academic study or on-the-ground collaboration. And my third bit of advice would be to use deep, nuanced knowledge to make meaningful comparisons and connections. Whether these are theological or practical, comparisons and connections based in knowledge and reciprocal accountability lead to true insights and solidarity.