Islam, akin to Christianity, remains one of the largest religions in the world, with an enormous number of followers well over one billion. This means a variety of views, interpretations of religious scripture, values, and perspectives on one’s role in society—especially gender roles.
Shaykh Uthman Khan, Academic Dean of Critical Loyalty, an online university, recently took the time to sit down (virtually) with me to answer some questions about gender roles in Islam. Khan is an academic and Muslim.
When I asked about effective means of communication in documented Islamic history and gender roles, Khan noted, “You should listen with the intention to understand and not with the intention to reply.” If someone wants to take on a new perspective, then dialogue becomes foundational, with the intent of the conversation to listen and understand the other person’s point of view.”
When it comes to some Islamic theology and some Islamic scholars, Khan noted that even if from the same religion, the disagreements in theology can make a scholar not want to associate with another: “I still don’t associate with you because we’re not from the same group.”
“A grouping that we’ve done within ourselves, different groups that we’ve created. It’s a big problem,” Khan explained. “The only way to overcome that is to come to a common understanding or a common ground.”
I have friends who are Christians and Jews. When I’m talking to them, I don’t talk theology with them.
“Religion aside,” he continued, “I have friends who are Christians and Jews. When I’m talking to them, I don’t talk theology with them. The theological conversation eventually starts trickling in if I need to talk theology, but we’ll talk about something that we both agree on.”
Finding that common ground within the faith, with disagreeing interpretations and perspectives of the faith, can be a tool applied to a broader context as well. For example, before a discussion on gender roles in the modern period, there must be the common ground as a foundation first.
Then the dialogue can move forward into the appropriateness of certain gender roles, for men and women. He notes this as a phenomenon extending beyond the intrafaith dialogue of the Muslim community, saying, “Muslims, I find, have segregated themselves a lot from others, from everyone else that’s not a Muslim. So, it’s like, ‘I’m a Muslim and you’re a non-Muslim.’”
He noted that this segregated approach is promoted in Islam and hasn’t found this to be the case in other religions. The dichotomy becomes Muslim vs. non-Muslim. But finding that common ground can be a good start to have the important conversations on gender, at which point he spoke about a mutual friend, Shireen Qudosi.
What do you call Shireen Qudosi? So, it happens to her all the time…She is called a slur, which is, ‘I consider you a kafir.’ Kafir means a non-Muslim.
She is a Muslim but doesn’t wear a hijab, for instance. “What do you call Shireen Qudosi? So, it happens to her all the time,” Khan described, “She is called a slur, which is, ‘I consider you a kafir.’ Kafir means a non-Muslim.” The reason for the epithet is because she is not wearing the hijab.
Shaykh Khan stated the same happens to him. He becomes considered, by some, a kafir or a non-Muslim because of disagreements on Islam, while both people identify as devout Muslims. Khan stated that this is a big impediment to the development of pluralism. It is a “big problem”.
He shared the following story from seminary. There was a dialogue course, which is a course where discussion and dialogue are encouraged. As an exercise, the people came from outside and put sticky notes on the wall. The notes had different identities on them: religion, age, education, and so on, in the myriad self-identifications of people.
“Believe it or not, 99 percent of the Muslims went and stood by the religion part,” he said in a surprised tone. Religion becomes a primary way that Muslims identify themselves—more than education, age, or other descriptors. He talked about explicit and implicit rules within Islam surrounding the community of Muslims.
He stated, “There are these rules there, but people are forgetting that Islam and ethics create a barrier in between because ethics are universal. You can be ethical and not be a Muslim, right?”
What defines you and makes you a Muslim is these few things that you’re doing, this belief that you have, believe in one god, in the prophet Muhammad, that’s what makes you a Muslim. Then your rituals will add on to that, then your ethics are universal.
“What defines you and makes you a Muslim is these few things that you’re doing, this belief that you have, believe in one god, in the prophet Muhammad, that’s what makes you a Muslim. Then your rituals will add on to that, then your ethics are universal.”
Ethics will bring people together because ethics are universal, in his opinion, where the discussion on beliefs—those that comprise Islam—can then become part of the discussion. But if the religion becomes translated into ethics, then the ethics becomes subjective, so people have to worry about how do they urinate, how do they dress, how do they eat, and so on. Those failing to meet those subjective ethics become non-Muslim or the outsiders.
That is where ethics must be primary, according to Khan, in order for the discussion to take place. Finding one more common ground with ethics because his religion is his dealing with God, and ethics is his dealing with everyone.
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