"Combine Independent Judgement and Rationalism!"

Dr Zahia Salem Jouirou, from Tunisia, is the author of a number of published works including Popular Islam and The New Live Burial: Essays on Casuistry and the Jurisprudence of Women. She is the mother of Dujla and Furat, who both study at the university where she teaches.

In conversation with Reem Abbas

A scholar of Islam and a lecturer of Islamic Studies at the University of Tunis, you publish books and important writings in academic journals. How did you become who you are? 

I was born in a small village in Tunisia and my aim was to succeed at school and be independent. I owe a lot to my late parents who challenged the conservative environment I grew up in and encouraged me to continue my studies. I was the first girl in my village to leave alone for the capital to continue learning, and despite the social pressure my father experienced, he continued to support me. For me, this was a debt I have been careful to repay all my life through hard work.  My success contributed to the change in local mentality and the denigrating perception of girls. It allowed the girls in my village to obtain permission for continuing their studies outside the village. 

      Intellectually, I am indebted to the Tunisian Islamic school of thought which combines independent judgement with rationalism. Here I learned that free rational thought is needed to contemporise our religion to our times and demands without divorcing our cultural identities, balancing between modernism and heritage. Here I also learned that the essence of Islam, both as doctrine and law, is always forward-looking. Unfortunately, Muslims have abandoned reasoning, causing a rift between Islam and the current knowledge, systems and laws. 

     At University, I met my professor Abdel Magid Al Sharfi, who later provided the framework for my academic research. He played a big role in building my knowledge about Islamic thought. A Muslim man who respects women, he is also the supervisor for most of the work women researchers carry out at my university. I specialised in the Maliki jurisprudence, learning how it was formed and what its particular components are, until I came to know the details of the details. 

You chose a complex field of work which is dominated by men, and you master it brilliantly. What personal experiences made you decide to focus on Islamic studies? 

Ever since I was a child I have looked at the women in my family, seeking ways to help them. I asked myself: can Islam be unfair to women? As my awareness increased, I began to see that the unfairness lies in a mix of customs and traditions, and the abuse of religion and its functions. It is a mentality dominated  on the one hand by close-mindedness and fundamentalism, and on the other by political practice driven by material and ideological interests. Such use of religion nearly obliterates its spiritual aspect and basic role in offering meaning to believers. 

     It has turned religion into a tool by which worldly conflict over power and influence is managed - persistently taking a violent path, which results in Islam being perceived as an extremist religion and characterising Muslims as terrorists. Many of the regimes in Arab countries and the Muslim world continue to use Islam as an excuse for their autocratic power, to legitimise rule devoid of any popular legitimacy. 

Is free rational thinking the way forward today? 

These factors convinced me that the development of the Muslim world is a project in dire need of revision – especially the matter of engaging with religion politically and socially. The project also needs to change religion from a tool that legitimises political autocracy and social injustice, especially against women, to a tool for liberating minds and conscience, and for reforming the problematic status quo. This was the original position of religion: a divine message sent to liberate humanity from all forms of worldly domination and injustice, making faith a force for liberation and progress. 

What difficulties do you deal with as a scholar working on interpretations of the hadith and the Maliki school of thought? 

Firstly, there are epistemological problems caused by the need to engage modern knowledge in comprehending religion and its functions; in reading its history and people’s expression of it as opposed to what traditional knowledge imposes. The pressures that force many people to hold on to the past as if it was the ultimate and final word, considers any other approach to be a corruption of our forefathers’ orthodoxy and their way of understanding and engaging Islam. 

      In my view, Islam’s capacity to keep pace with the times is conditional upon Muslims’ ability to understand and practice their religion in line with new knowledge and progressively growing awareness. Religion stagnates if the understanding and exegesis produced by its forefathers is elevated to a sanctity almost equivalent to the religion itself.  

      As another problem, close-mindedness and extremism in understanding Islam, and the unreasonable adherence to old methods and ideas, lead to enmity and condemnation of differing opinions to the point of considering them apostate. The ease with which a person with differing opinions about Islam can be deemed an apostate is a real problem facing researchers, including myself. 

You yourself were accused of apostasy. 

I wrote Popular Islam to show that we don’t all express Islam in the same way. Scholars expressed and practiced Islam in one way, and lay people express and practice the religion in different ways. It was an academic objective study, for which I studied the Awlia’a, Sufis. I was forbidden from publishing in Tunisia and had to publish in Beirut; it was also banned from Tunisia for a long time. The book led to me being considered an apostate, which caused me to question the discrepancy between my aspirations of convincing people of the pluralism of religion and the accusations thrown at me. It made me more persistent in practising my faith in accordance with my convictions and the way I want to live. I don’t have a need to prove my faith to anyone. 

With academic excellence you became an expert in the Maliki school of thought. What have you discovered on your journey into a religion presented from a patriarchal perspective? 

I made discoveries related to Islamic jurisprudence in general, and some related the jurisprudence and laws about women. We know from the jurisprudential system that the sources of Islamic legislation are the Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet (sunna), followed by consensus (ijma), the reasoning by analogy (precedent), and other sources. I understood that the Qur’an is the main source and that all the other sources are a burden on the Qur’an and do not carry the same weight. My studies made me see though, that in reality the Qur’an is only used in very few cases by the legislators, while the other sources have been  placed in a more powerful position than the Holy Book. As an example, we find that rulings based on consensus, or custom, and tradition, occur more frequently than those based on the Qur’an. Unpacking this, the whole structure crumbled. It led me to differentiate between knowledge based on faith where the Qur’an comes first, and knowledge based on procedures, where the Qur’an comes last. 

Your colleagues say “Don’t pass judgement when the king is in town”, in reverence for your work. It is a reference to Malik (king), the founder of the Maliki school of thought, who came from Madina (town) in current Saudi Arabia. Tell us about your findings in Islamic legislation. 

Islamic legislation became my central field of interest. I discovered that current Islamic legislation is based on a very small and narrow nucleus of rulings that are of a truly “Muslim” origin. In fact, the majority of legislations – be it at the level of supplementary rules, or at the level of tools, methodology, and deduction of legislating – are historical and of human origin. This means that they were created by human beings whose judgement was influenced by the historical context and societal needs of their times. However, the jurists took extra care to make these human rulings look like divine, Islamic commandments so that they would be adopted more easily and practiced in societies whose conscience was mostly of religious nature. As time passed, these varied rulings were amalgamated into a single whole, sanctified, and their human historical origins forgotten. 

        Another notion I reached was that modern day Muslims had no issues revising all the economic, criminal, and even State-governing laws inherited from the Sultanate. They also did not have any issues adopting laws from various jurisdictions, including ones from the West, to reorganise the State. However, when it came to Family Law, the legislation was left encased in the barbed wire of conservatism and close-mindedness. We should then inquire about the causes of this phenomenon, from a feminist perspective. 

        I was always surprised by the image of women constructed in Islamic ideology, and I attempted to understand it as one  belonging to specific historical conditions. However, it is hard to see how this portrayal can be made today; women have left the private sphere for the public one, they work and contribute to the family’s wealth. Nevertheless, the image spread by political Islam diminishes women and is used to persecute them. So how can we come up with a portrayal of women in harmony with their reality? This motivated me to review jurisprudence concerning women and to be able to prove this discrepancy. 

Is there "Islamic Feminism" and what is your critique of it? Is Islam compatible with feminism? 

Islamic feminism is real. Interestingly, it has “masculine” origins. This might sound like an oxymoron, but it was men who first defended women’s rights in the Muslim world, and they did so in the name of Islam. Not just in the case of Tunisia, they were men and feminists in the precise meaning of the term. The reason for this, in my opinion, was their context by which women were excluded from the public sphere and deprived of education. Therefore their awareness was lagging behind that of the educated intellectual male elite. Among these, there were men who saw the correlation between a developed society and liberating women from exclusion and marginalisation they were subject to for a very long time. So they believed that the liberation of the Muslim mind from the closure imposed on it in the name of religion, goes hand in hand with liberating women from the inferiority imposed by patriarchy disguised as religion. 

         The Tunisian reformer Taher Haddad represents this stance well. In his book Our Women in the Sharia Law and Society, he attempts to rebuild Sharia law based on values representing the aims of legislation: freedom, justice, equality, dignity – which go together with his respect for women as human beings. 

     After this initial phase, women slowly started to build their own future. Many women’s associations, organisations, and feminist movements were established. Among these was the Islamic feminist movement, which uses Islam as the referential pivot point for its liberation project. Using new interpretations of Islam’s sources and legislation, the movement attempts to reclaim the liberating spirit of Islam, and to achieve harmony between the reality of women’s lives and Muslim values.  

That leads to a secular State. What do you think about secularism? 

As much as I believe in the historical inevitability of the secular State, necessitated by both the constant striving of nations for justice, freedom, and equality, and our continuing suffering from the tyranny cloaked in religion, I do have my own vision of secularism. It takes into consideration the special character of Islam as an inherently liberating religion and the particular character of Islamic historical experience. Therefore, my view of secularism is one at peace with religion. It is able to optimise the benefits of religious values, the power of belief, and its social functions, which hold members of a society together. It is also a secularism that respects individual rights and freedoms, especially in countries with religious diversity, where the secular State guarantees the rights of all its people based on citizenship, not on religious affiliation. 

When people condemn secularism to be a foreign ideology, which examples do you name for secularism being an integral part of the history of Islam? 

In the 6th century, Arwa from Kerwan in current Tunisia, rejected polygamy and told her father that she would never be part of a polygamous marriage. The Islamic Caliph Abu Jafar Al Mansur, who was fleeing the Amouyan in Bagdad and came to stay in the home of Arwa’s family, fell in love with her and asked her father for her hand in marriage. Arwa’s father told the Caliph he could only marry his daughter under the condition of her being his only wife. Taking a concubine would also be impossible. If the Caliph broke the contract, Arwa had the right to divorce herself from the marriage. This arrangement was not something new. Apparently many Kerwan people had practiced it between 724-743. It was called the Dowry of Kerwan. 

          Arwa married the Caliph and he remained true to his commitment until the day she died. This being part of both the Tunisian and the Islamic heritage, it was not unusual practice in Tunisia to choose to marry based on the Dowry of Kerwan. Eventually in 1956 when Tunisia gained its independence, the State adopted and codified the terms of the Kerwan Dowry and polygamy has been banned in Tunisia to the present day.  

What are gains made by Tunisian women after the Arab Spring? Are those gains in danger? 

It is a known fact that women in Tunisia have achieved more than the rest of their sisters in the Muslim world in general, and that they did so more than 60 years ago. These gains were guaranteed by the Code of Personal Status issued on the 13th of August 1956 – when Tunisia became independent. They were guaranteed prior to the Tunisian Constitution being published, and then again in the Constitution itself which stipulates the equality of all citizens. Whereas these gains were threatened to some extent after the Arab Spring when the Islamist Ennahda Party ascended to power, women achieved a very quick victory and imposed their gains in the new constitution through the re-affirmation of the principle of legal equality. Women also played a big role in neutralising the threat by removing Ennahda from power through the ballot box, in what is considered the most democratic experience in the Arab world. One of these gains was the quota in the election law, which states that all parties participating in an election must provide candidate lists with equal numbers of men and women. All this was achieved because of organised women’s work, through many organisations with electoral weight on the one hand, and coordination between these organisations and civil society on the other. 

Do you have a message to our female readers? 

From my studies and personal experience I can say, God is true and just. He does not approve of injustice against anyone He created. Your pursuit for justice and equality is in line with the Divine Will and with the sublime aim of the message of Islam, and derives from the liberating spirit which is intrinsic to this message. 

From Women in Islam Issue 2 (2015)