Divine Words, Female Voices

Muslima Explorations in Comparative Feminist Theology

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Jerusha Tanner Lamptey
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , October
     2018.
     312 pages.
     $74.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781090653378.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Jerusha Tanner Lamptey’s second book, Divine Words, Female Voices: Muslima Explorations in Comparative Feminist Theology, asserts theological authority for Muslim women by advancing a comparative feminist theological method for Islamic theological reflection. Muslim women, according to Lamptey, have been left to drink from “poisoned wells” to find spiritual nourishment (1). These wells are tainted both by patriarchal and androcentric norms dominating the Islamic tradition, and by the contributions of Western feminism that try to promote egalitarianism and equality in Islam while simultaneously perpetuating negative, essentializing stereotypes about Islam and Muslim women (2).

Lamptey’s book seeks to remedy the fraught relationship between Islam, egalitarianism, and feminism by engaging these topics with a new methodological approach: comparative feminist theology (22). Lamptey argues that placing Christian feminist theology into conversation with Muslim women interpreters of the Islamic tradition has the potential to disrupt entrenched, patriarchal norms in Islam and construct new avenues of justice-oriented, intersectional feminist engagement (18). Each chapter of the book broadly engages the theme of two “Divine Words” in Christianity and Islam: Jesus and the Qur’an. By centering her reflections on these two words, Lamptey’s chapters attend to broader theological categories including divine revelation, hermeneutics, theological anthropology, and religious ritual as they relate to pressing issues of interpretation and authority for Muslim women (19).

As a comparative method, Lamptey’s project is informed by well-established models of comparative theology. Citing Frank Clooney, Lamptey defines comparative theology as a “double process,” where the theologian ventures out into another tradition to learn from it “on its own terms,” then returns to her home tradition with new questions and insights to inform theological reflection (29). As an act of faith, Lamptey identifies her work as “Muslima,” highlighting her own position as a female Muslim and her effort to promote egalitarianism and justice within Islam (21). Further, Lamptey’s engagement with feminist theology is a welcome addition to comparative theology, as it encourages comparison for the sake of transformative change and fostering lines of solidarity, rather than simply revealing continuities and discontinuities in various traditions.

To see Lamptey’s comparative method in action, consider her fourth chapter, titled “Claiming Texts: Hermeneutical Approaches to Ahadith and the Bible.” Here Lamptey demonstrates a double process of listening and learning, placing Christian feminist biblical exegetes into conversation with Muslim women’s engagement with ahadith—collected sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Lamptey argues that there has been insufficient attention given to the study of ahadith among Islamic feminists and Muslim women interpreters (86). Muslim women interpreters rarely engage ahadith because many of them emphasize male exemplars and have been compiled and interpreted almost exclusively by men (85). Because of the overwhelming androcentric framing of the ahadith, Muslim women interpreting ahadith have relied on selective engagement, emphasizing the “non-Islamic” impositions of androcentric norms on ahadith from biblical and non-Islamic sources (87).

However, Lamptey contends that blaming non-Islamic sources for androcentric norms is a form of “horizontal violence” inflicted onto the non-Islamic other (112). Inflicting this kind of violence is antithetical to her project of comparative feminist theology. Seeking to “purify” Islam from “non-Islamic” others not only fails to recognize the theologically sanctioned religious diversity of the Qur’an (26), but also fails to take responsibility for the persistence of nonegalitarian readings of ahadith within Islam itself.

Lamptey’s critique of the horizontal violence inflicted on non-Islamic others is the result of her careful, deep engagement with Christian feminist biblical interpretation. Lamptey analyzes the work of Musa Dube, a Motswana exegete, who engages the biblical text through a postcolonial framework. Dube challenges interpreters to be constantly aware of imperialist readings of the text in order to disrupt and deconstruct them (98). Dube’s postcolonial approach serves as a constructive challenge to Lamptey, who recognizes traces of imperialistic othering in the tendency to distance Islam from misogynistic texts by blaming non-Islamic others (113). Lamptey ends her comparative analysis of Christian feminist biblical interpretation and Muslim women’s engagement of ahadith with a practical proposal: she suggests that diverse communities of women, Christian and Muslim, specialist and non-specialist, form reading groups where they can read and engage ahadith with one another. Communal practices of reading across religious lines is one concrete way to advance lines of feminist solidarity, and can upend patriarchal and imperialist tendencies in interpretive traditions (117).

One of the great strengths of Lamptey’s book is her ability to critically and constructively engage both Christian and Muslim traditions for the purposes of advancing the work of justice and transformation. Forming solidarity across religious lines, for Lamptey, means explicitly engaging marginalized, “untraditional” voices. Lamptey’s bibliography is impressive, drawing from a rich legacy of contemporary, largely English-language based Muslim and Christian women scholars and interpreters. Moving forward, it would be exciting to see scholars develop and expand Lamptey’s constructive proposals into contexts beyond English-language based networks, especially given that the center of gravity for both Christianity and Islam rests largely outside English-speaking, western regions of the globe.

For both Christian and Muslim communities, Lamptey’s book serves as a challenge to center Muslim women’s authority and interpretive perspectives. If Lamptey identifies a tendency among Muslim women interpreters toward horizontal violence, the same must be said of Christian feminist theologians. In Aysha Hidayatullah’s book, Feminist Edges of the Qur’an (Oxford, 2014), she highlights the tendency among Christian feminist theologians to dominate the field of inquiry in feminist theology and to caricature their Muslim interlocutors, failing to take Muslim female scholars seriously as theologians (57-59). Given Christian feminist theologians’ failure to do justice toward their Muslim sisters, those who hope to extend the work of feminist interreligious engagement would do well to learn from Lamptey’s theological acuity.  

By centering marginalized, untraditional voices in the process of theological reflection, Lamptey models an approach to theological inquiry that responsibly and faithfully develops theological insights across religious lines to sustain the ongoing work of justice and transformation. In so doing, Lamptey provides fresh springs from which to find theological nourishment, a welcome antidote to the ambivalence that so often dominates academic discourses about Islam and feminism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kathryn Heidelberger is a doctoral student in comparative theology and ethics at Boston University.

Date of Review: 
May 27, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jerusha Tanner Lamptey (Jerusha Tanner Rhodes) is Assistant Professor of Islam and Interreligious Engagement and the Director of the Islam, Social Justice, and Interreligious Engagement Program (ISJIE) at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Comments

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.