I just listened to an NPR podcast touting a new book by journalist Carla Power, entitled, If Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran. Power’s NPR discussion—and apparently her book—riveted upon the writings and musings of Mohammad Akram Nadwi.
Power alluded to Nadwi’s interest in Muslim women scholars dating back to the advent of Islam, and indeed I was able to locate and read the Preface and Introduction to Nadvi’s 2007 study, “al-Muadhaddithat: the women scholars in Islam.” The book focuses on the contributions of Muslim women to “hadith” scholarship, i.e., the study of the putative “traditions “of Islam’s prophet Muhammad, his earliest adepts, and the nascent Muslim community. But Power’s dubbing of Nadwi as somehow an “accidental feminist” during her NPR interview is a risible claim that does not withstand the barest scrutiny of Nadwi’s own pellucid words in the Preface to his 2007 study.
Below are some pathognomonic sample extracts that are self-explanatory and reveal Nadwi’s apologetic Sharia supremacism, vis-à-vis the traditionalist Islamic view of women: they are to remain hijabed by decree of Allah; avoid to all practical extent, the taboo “mixing” of the sexes which promotes “forbidden relationships”; and not to “invade” the “grounds of men,” thereby waging a successful “campaign” that might “win rights from men for women.”
Preface, p. xiii: “The exasperation with Islamic ways for showing no consistent tendency to fade out, combined with the ancient aversion to Islam—it predates the modern European languages in which it is expressed—is the principal reason for the virulence of some feminist critique of it. Muslims, understandably, want their religion defended from that”(Note: This p. [xiii] also extols Ibn Qayim al-Jawziyyah [d. 1350] and Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 1328), the Hanbali jurists associated with many centuries of retrograde, traditionalist Muslim “revival” movements)
Preface, p. xvi: “It will become clear from the first three chapters of this book that there is no period when men have certain privileges to speak or think or act, and then women find a way to ‘invade’ the men’s ground. Rather, the women and men both know, from the outset of Islam, what their duties are…There is no evidence of any campaign, overt or covert, to win rights from men for women.”
Preface, p. xviii: [Women and men scholars of hadith operated] “within the well-known Islamic conventions of hijab and avoiding, to the extent practicable, such mixing of men and women as can lead to forbidden relationships. As Muslims understand it, hijab is commanded by Allah as law-giver, as a social expression and marking of the gender differences commanded by Him as creator. The practice of hijab is thus not dependent upon having reasons for it but upon its being His command.” (Further rationale for hijab can be found on p. xix)
In essence, Carla Power is championing the arguments of faux Muslim women “modernist” theorists debunked by Iranian historian Reza Afshari (in his seminal essay, “Egalitarian Islam and Misogynist Islamic Tradition: A Critique of the Feminist Reinterpretation of Islamic History and Heritage,” Critique, Spring 1994; reproduced here). Power, like her Muslim predecessors, as Afshari described so appositely in 1994, appears determined, “to empty Islam of its real historical content,” and endow her invented Islam “with new interpretative frontiers in search of an innate truth beyond the confines of Sharia-bound traditions.” However, Power’s uniquely clumsy revisionism seems to trip, right out of the gate, over the Sharia-supremacist formulations of her own “modernist” exemplar, Nadwi. Regardless, Power’s hapless “search” epitomizes the modern intellectual crisis of Western cultural relativism Afshari diagnosed two decades ago:
It seems to me that the search for a modernist reinterpretation of a pre-modern, paradigm is more a symptom of an intellectual crisis than a positive contribution to resolution of the crisis. It may, deceptively, seem easier and more expedient to achieve modernity and secularism by trying to locate Islamic cultural foundations for them rather than to build further on present practical norms and habits which have been permeated by a secular praxis and to bring them into a closer harmony with the universal ethos of the contemporary world.