GADIJA AHJUM concludes that the The Women’s Khutbah Book is ‘an important scholarly book…written in a reader-friendly format and addresses realities and transformations occurring not only globally, but also within our local Muslim communities’.
Shaikh, S & Seedat, F (2023) The Women’s Khutbah Book: Contemporary Sermons on Spirituality and Justice from Around the World. Johannesburg: Wits University Press. ISBN 0300244169, 9780300244168
THIS insightful and ground-breaking book will undoubtedly unsettle and disrupt deeply entrenched assumptions regarding the ‘place’ of Muslim women in society, more specifically their religious authority, and it all starts with the title, which boldly lays claim to a practice traditionally associated with men.
The authors, Sa’diyya Shaikh, Associate Professor in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Cape Town and author of Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn ‘Arabi, Gender, and Sexuality, and Fatima Seedat, Associate Professor and Head of the Department of African Feminist Studies at the University of Cape Town, anticipate varying degrees of discomfort from readers, stating that the book is ‘an intentionally disruptive engagement with the khutbah genre’ (p.5).
The Women’s Khutbah Book, based on a global shift toward more gender-inclusive and representative ideas of religious authority, collates women-produced khutbahs, presenting a foundational text in which women’s voices and religious authority are shown to be integral to (religious) knowledge production. This constitutes the first aim of this book, namely creating an emerging archive embedded within the experiences of women. This unique approach, whereby life journeys play a central role in their interpretation and understanding of the Qur’an, is conceptualised through Shaikh’s ‘tafsir of praxis’ (p.4). Drawing from feminist approaches, this idea is further developed and theorised as a ‘tafsir of possibility’ (p.4). As the second aim of this book, the authors suggest that cultivating gendered inclusivity within knowledge production facilitates a ‘tafsir of possibility’. The very existence of the book serves as the third aim – namely to serve as a source towards advancing egalitarian khutbah practices.
The three objectives of the book are methodically developed over four chapters. In doing so, the authors draw from the Qur’an and Prophetic examples to investigate gendered Muslim practice. In Chapter One, ‘From the Musallah to the Minbar,’ women’s presence within mosque spaces is traced from being a musallee (an ordinary congregant praying in the general prayer area) to being a khatiba (the one who occupies the minbar and has religious authority). In line with Islamic feminist scholarship, Shaikh and Seedat engage the patriarchal history of the tradition, uncover instances of gender inclusivity and demonstrate how these are ‘more foundational to the spiritual, ethical core of Islam’ (p. 7). Four key conceptual moments identified as women’s mosque presence are traced from Prophetic times till the present.
Chapter Two, entitled ‘A Tafsir of Experience: Spirituality, Embodiment, and Knowledge’, forms the heart of this book. Covering almost two hundred pages, khutbahs produced by women from various backgrounds (locally and internationally) are presented alongside their biographical essays. These shed light on the khatiba’s context and personal trajectory. In line with the objectives of this book, this chapter illustrates how integral the personal is to knowledge production, especially given that these women now claim religious authority by occupying the minbar. The chapter very aptly opens with a khutbah which heralded a watershed moment: Professor Amina Wadud’s khutbah at the Claremont Main Road Mosque in 1994. This moment, which affirmed a woman as a khatiba and all that this signified, sparked a massive public outcry which extended beyond South African borders. Reading her biographical essay after reading her khutbah provides significant insights into her lived reality and experiences as a Muslim woman, as well as adding layers of meaning to the topic chosen for her khutbah. This is also true for the twenty-four khutbahs that follow. These are arranged according to four themes, namely: Feminist Ontologies: Rahma and ‘Adl, Subjectivity and Consciousness: Ihsan, Sociality and Difference: Maslahah, Resisting Injustice: Ummah and Ubuntu and Marriage: Mawaddah and Mithaq. The themes encompass being a believer, becoming a believer, and coexisting (as) believers. The khutbahs are thought-provoking reading, with topics ranging from our existence to self-actualisation, gender-based violence, and interfaith marriages.
Chapter three seeks to conceptualise a Tafsir of possibility by first identifying the theological concerns raised in the khutbahs and then using these to develop and present three Qur’anic models. They suggest that ‘the khatibas in this book are following in the lineage of our Qur’anic ancestors, namely, our Hajars, our Khawlahs and our Maryams – models that inspire and enable different trajectories of personhood to blossom’ (p. 207). The authors argue that, in our pursuit of justice and goodness, these Qur’anic archetypes and the Prophetic legacy open up new, albeit sometimes uncomfortable, possibilities. It is up to us to be receptive to what is Divine.
The fourth and final chapter is a step-by-step guide to writing khutbahs, with two templates developed through discussions with khatibas. The third is derived from the traditional Khutbah-al-Hajah, a format which is frequently used to commence Friday Khutbahs. (p. 213).
The authors’ goal is for the khutbahs in this book to provide a source of feminist Muslim theology as part of a larger Muslim discourse. Shaikh and Seedat go where no one has gone before with their meticulous and nuanced analyses, unapologetically recognising women’s religious authority despite being conditioned (via patriarchal constructions) to consider themselves ‘deficient’ in this regard. The khutbah is both a form of resistance and an act of opening up new possibilities. It is beyond the scope of this book review to delve into the numerous issues raised in the khutbahs presented, many of which may be considered contentious and controversial. Conversations, while uncomfortable for some, are required in order to address and engage the relevant issues raised.
Finally, in an ideal world, the ‘value’ of knowledge produced should not be determined by the knowledge producer’s race, class, or gender. However, by providing glimpses into the khatibas’ lived experiences, this book demonstrates how influential these categories are; how they shape and inform how people navigate, inhabit, and approach the world, as well as the knowledge they produce.
Finally, while The Women’s Khutbah Book is an important scholarly book, it is written in a reader-friendly format and addresses realities and transformations occurring not only globally, but also within our local Muslim communities. Many people will be excited by these changes, while others may feel unsettled. Nonetheless, if you fall into the latter category, this reviewer suggests that you sit through your discomfort. But read the book. We all should.
- Ahjum has a Master’s degree in Social Science and her research and writing focuses broadly on Islam in South Africa. She is currently the presenter of Community Pulse on Radio 786.
This article was first published in the May 12, 2023 print edition of Muslim Views.