Leena El-Ali is the founder and managing member of Bona Smarts LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based international development consultancy. A former London-based investment banker for over a decade, she also works to bring sustainable and impact-sensitive approaches to international aid and investment. Diwan interviewed El-Ali in late November to discuss her new book, No Truth Without Beauty: God, the Qur’an, and Women’s Rights, which she has just published with Palgrave Macmillan. It is part of the Sustainable Development Series cobranded by the United Nations, Springer Nature, and Palgrave Macmillan. She has made the e-book accessible for free, while hard copies can be bought at subsidized prices. A link to the e-book will be inserted here this coming weekend once the book is out.
Michael Young: What was the main purpose in writing your book?
Leena El-Ali: After more than fifteen years working on a variety of community, national, and cross-border conflicts throughout South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa, it became clear to me that there were many misperceptions about what the Qur’an says about many issues. Those myths and beliefs can often prevent people from embracing or participating in seemingly beneficial solutions or reforms. Regular people, both men and women, are often held back by guilt, specifically the fear of doing the wrong thing from a religious perspective. And quite often such concerns include whether and how women can be involved in their communities and societal initiatives and institutions at large.
So, the idea was to consolidate and synthesize the wonderful work of so many extraordinary scholars on the subject of women and the Qur’an, rather than leave the information diffuse and relatively difficult to build upon. In the process, just to be clear and transparent, I had some new insights which I highlight as such in the book, so as not to conflate them with previously-published views by such scholars. I also decided to cover all the issues on which women are treated differently from men and that are usually attributed to the Qur’an or Islam as such—seventeen topics in all. These include the subordination of wives to husbands, the right to divorce, political and religious leadership, inheritance rights, legal testimony, domestic violence, and much more. The book is intended to serve as a comprehensive, user-friendly reference for anyone seeking answers.
MY: In your book you make a distinction between the Islamic and the Qur’anic that is essential for your approach. Can you explain the importance of this distinction?
LEA: In essence, Qur’anic refers to what is written in the Qur’an whereas Islamic refers to how the faith has evolved over time and place. Qur’anic verses were divinely communicated to the Prophet Mohammed, according to Muslim belief, over the course of the 23 years of his mission. The verses were written down on parchments as they were being revealed, and two years after the Prophet’s death the first caliph, Abu Bakr, had them gathered into a single volume. This volume became the basis, 21 years after the Prophet’s passing, for the standardized form of the Qur’an we have today.
But what we call “Islamic” resides in the cumulative folds of Muslim history over the course of no less than fourteen centuries, with all of the ebbs and flows, customs and trends, brilliance and shortcomings of a wide variety of circumstances, cultures, and challenges. What has happened is that we have gotten lost in the unfolding of history, in a sense, so that an issue that has been labeled “Islamic” by the powers that be at any time, anywhere, is often taken as the bona fide source of its own legitimacy, as its own nonnegotiable starting point. This has proven to be far from a benign phenomenon on a vast array of topics in many communities, and indeed for many individuals, not only as relating to women’s issues. In sum, we must examine everything that is labeled “Islamic” in light of the Qur’an and see how it holds up before accepting that label.
MY: What did your research into hadiths, or reports on the sayings and actions of the Prophet Mohammed, allow you to conclude about the role of women in the Qur’an?
LEA: This was the most surprising aspect of this journey for me on several fronts. On the one hand, the hadith reports of the Prophet Mohammed’s actions as relating to women show him to have been exceptionally emancipated and egalitarian not only for his time and place, but even by today’s standards when we compare with what goes on in many Muslim societies. He gave life to the written word of the Qur’an at every turn, as indeed was his mission. If we line up all of the verses that refer to women’s issues, we would notice that there is a persistent current of what in the United States is referred to as “affirmative action” that revolves around the recognition, protection, inclusion, and promotion of women.
The hadith reports moreover tell us that some of these verses that advocate for women’s rights were revealed in response to the activism of the women themselves at the time. This included their mobilization to demand the right to inheritance, to challenge unfair divorce customs, and even to question why the Qur’an addressed people in the masculine plural (for example the plural “you” in Arabic is masculine, as in many other languages), thereby throwing doubt on whether it was including them in its message at all!
On the other hand, the hadith reports of the Prophet’s sayings as relating to women turned out to be more of a mixed bag. Not all of these appear consistent with the message of the Qur’an or with the Prophet’s own actions. While there are only about a half-dozen sayings denigrating women that are designated as “reliably transmitted,” these have come to dominate the discourse despite the volume of evidence in support of women’s spiritual and societal equality. On a side note, I should mention that the hadiths were compiled 200–300 years after the Prophet’s passing, and that these compilations also contain sayings and commentaries by others.
MY: How would you characterize the rights of women today in many Muslim communities?
LEA: Muslim societies have gone from being ahead of the pack by centuries, if not by over a millennium on some issues—think divorce rights, property ownership and inheritance rights, and even civil or interfaith marriage—to being left behind in an ironically pre-Islamic time warp on many other issues. Most egregiously, rather than take ownership of our own choices, we blame that which we claim to love the most—our God. Disappointing.
MY: Following on from the last question, there is a widespread perception in the West that Islam denigrates women, and you acknowledge that many Muslim communities treat women as “second-rate beings.” Yet you also make the point that the Qur’an takes a very different view. Can you elaborate?
LEA: It’s important to begin by asking the right question, which to my mind is: What does the Qur’an tell us is God’s purpose in creating human beings and placing them on earth? It’s to be His representatives, and we’re even given a job description: To spread kindness and eschew the morally distasteful, to worship God and give in charity, to obey God and His messenger, and to work on the content of our hearts. The Qur’an moreover tells its readers that “believing men and believing women are each other’s protectors.” It could hardly be simpler or clearer: To prevent women from full engagement in the world or deprive them of their free will is, quite simply, to dis-obey the Qur’anic God.
MY: You’ve made your book open access to all. Why do so?
LEA: I wrote this book as a bridge between scholarly works on women’s issues and the average reader of whatever background who may not have the time, inclination, or ability to read these works directly. This is reflected in the book’s language and presentation, but it must necessarily also be reflected in its availability to anyone, anywhere. I hope to bring joy to people’s hearts and would hate to think that the cost or logistics might get in the way.