Book Review: Olfa Youssef’s The Perplexity of a Muslim Woman: Over Inheritance, Marriage, and Homosexuality

The Perplexity of a Muslim Woman: Over Inheritance, Marriage, and Homosexuality
Olfa Youssef
Translated from the Arabic by Lamia Benyoussef
Lexington Books, 2017. 156 pages. $80
A shorter version of this review is published in the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences

Olfa Youssef’s The Perplexity of a Muslim Woman: Over Inheritance, Marriage, and Homosexuality—translated by Lamia Benyoussef from the Arabic ayratu Muslima—addresses some of the practical and conceptual inconsistences in traditional, male-centric historical interpretations of inheritance, marriage, and homosexuality. Youssef devotes a chapter to each of these topics and discusses in depth relevant questions, assumptions, and sub-themes in each chapter. A brief Introduction introduces common claims that the book responds to, claims that are treated as truths but which Youssef states have nothing truthful about them (21).  She emphasizes that her intention is not to proclaim a final truth, for only God knows the true meaning of the Qur’an, but to merely point out the various inconsistences—the philosophical perplexities—that historical, traditional interpretations of these topics have raised. The underlying argument is that while the Qur’an repeatedly claims that “none knows its interpretation but God” (3:7), male scholars have feigned knowledge of the divine to the detriment of women as well as lesbian and gay individuals.


the book cover

The book begins with a preface by Lamia Benyoussef, describing the origins of the translation project, offering an intellectual biography of Olfa Youssef, and discussing the (mainly negative) reception of Youssef and her ideas across North Africa. The preface also situates Youssef’s scholarship between the post-colonial milieu of North Africa and patriarchal interpretations and practices of Islam that privilege men. Benyoussef explains that the objective of the translation is to disrupt the trend of male scholarship in which Muslim women are always the object but rarely the subject of discourse. Recognizing the political role of a translation such as this, Benyoussef hopes that through the translation of Youssef’s work, she places Muslim women as agents of change, contributing to the religious and other discourses that take place often about them rather than with them. Consistently, Youssef points out that accepting the “literal interpretations of religious scholars” and turning these men “into the official spokesmen” of God is a form of worship of said scholars. She is challenging what have historically been proclaimed as the true interpretations of God’s word, describing her objective as “[throwing] a stone there where thought is stagnant and human readings have been turned into sacred givens which are indisputable and non-debatable” (22).

Chapter One, “Perplexity in Inheritance” challenges the claim of “the Muslim world” that its judicial system is founded on laws explicitly drawn from the Qur’an. Surveying all relevant sub-topics of inheritance, including the question of those entitled to inheritance, whether the male indeed receive twice the share of the female, grandparents’ and grandchildren’s inheritance, disinheritance, and agnatic inheritance, among other issues. Youssef reviews the Qur’anic verses on inheritance and investigates in detail “truths” that are attributed to the Qur’an, importantly noting when exegetes themselves disagree on the correct interpretations of a given verse (e.g., while Abu Bakr al-Razi allows inheritance for blood relatives, such as paternal aunts, maternal uncles, and the sons of daughters, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi and others argued that there was no share for blood relatives (27)). Significantly, while the Qur’an remains silent on much with regards to inheritance, this did not prevent exegetes and other scholars “from interpreting law for those over whom the text was silent” (28). Not only this, a more remarkable point is that while the Qur’an explicitly ascribes a portion of the inheritance to blood kindred relatives, some commentators claimed that consensus does not afford inheritance for kinsfolk.

That the consensus frequently trumps the Qur’an is a consistent point that Youssef makes throughout the book. In Chapter Two, on marriage, Youssef addresses many marriage-related issues: mahr (the dower), wifely obedience, mut‘a (“marriage of pleasure”), anal intercourse, child marriage, polygamy, waiting period, and masturbation. Youssef argues that the Qur’an does not stipulate mahr as a requirement for a valid marriage and that instead the sidaq or mahr is merely a form of donation to the bride by the groom.  She convincingly notes that the verses on sidaq, which simply permit giving the wife a dower, are similar to those that permit other things without requiring them, such as verse 5:10, which states that the meat of the female donkey is permitted; or verse 2:187, which permits, rather than require, sexual contact between a couple during fasting.  The reason the dower was set as a requirement, Youssef points out, was that the scholars viewed the marriage contract like a sale contract in which the dower was the price or reward for the woman giving away her “goods” to the husband (52).

In her discussion on child marriage, Youssef states that the Qur’an accommodates the marriage of pre-pubescents because such a practice was a historical reality, citing Q. 65:4, which speaks of the divorce of women “who have not menstruated yet” (wallātī lam yaḥiḍna). Youssef does not address the interpretations of those scholars, feminists or non-feminists, who posit that the phrase in fact means women who have never menstruated and do not menstruate. Nonetheless, if the phrase does refer to pre-pubescent wives, the author questions why scholars still support child marriage while opposing slavery, when the Qur’an recognizes both.

The final chapter, on homosexuality, surveys sexual duality (masculinity and femininity inherent in all individuals), female and male homosexuality (liwāt and siḥāq, respectively) and the punishment for both, Lot’s wife, and the Qur’anic references to ghilmān (young men purportedly available to men in heaven for sexual services). It questions the Qur’an’s silence on female homosexuality (she argues that fāḥisha in Q. 4:15 is not a reference to homosexuality but to a general word for a repulsive, abhorrent action). Youssef suggests that the silence on siḥāq may be because siḥāq does not lie within the phallic order and “does not threaten the established social order built on patrilineal lineage” (106). Her interpretation of the verses about Lot’s people is rather groundbreaking: Youssef argues that in these verses, the statement “Do you lust after men of all people and leave your wives [azwāj] which God created for you?” in fact follow the linguistic rules of coordinating conjunctions (e.g., 26:165-166) or conditional clauses (e.g., 7:80-81). That is, “the condemnation of lusting after men is linked to the condemnation of leaving [their] spouses” (113). The Qur’an’s concern here, then, is that Lot’s people lust after other men at the exclusion of their wives. To support her linguistic reading, Youssef references another verse where this linguistic rule applies is 2:44 (“You command people to be righteous and yourself, you forget and you are reciting the Book”).

Significantly, Youssef boldly reminds her readers, and in fact the male scholars whose interpretations she challenges and interrogates, that to uncritically accept and follow the views of past scholars is a form of idolatry that the Qur’an vehemently stands against (128). She consistently shows that the male scholars of Islam who are perceived as representatives of the Islamic tradition (e.g., Tabari, Ibn Arabi, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, and others) willfully read their own ideas, assumptions, and preferences—indeed their own dominance—into the Qur’an to accommodate patriarchal notions of gender. Youssef asserts that accepting the interpretations of religious scholars and turning them “into the official spokesmen” of God is a form of worship of these men. She challenges what have historically been proclaimed as the true interpretations of God’s word, describing her objective as “[throwing] a stone there where thought is stagnant and human readings have been turned into sacred givens which are indisputable and non-debatable” (22).

Implicitly, the book raises an important issue regarding the dialogue, or rather its lack therefore, between Muslim feminist academics in the West and those in North Africa and the rest of the Arabic-speaking world. Indeed, without this translation of Youssef’s Arabic work, few would have had access to her scholarship and ideas, and even fewer would have heard about her.

The book offers three insightful points for discussion that are worth iterating here briefly. The first is the question of the divide, or what appears to be a divide, between Muslim feminist scholarship produced in English and that produced in Arabic. This has implications for Youssef’s study. She does not acknowledge or cite any of the vast Islamic feminist scholarship that takes up the issues covered in the book. Had she been able to access the Muslim feminist scholarship on these topics in English, her discussion particularly on marriage and homosexuality would have been richer. For instance, in Chapter Two, Youssef claims that “religious scholars do not view the absence of sexual pleasure as one of the reasons to ask for divorce” (54). Yet, other scholars (e.g., Fatima Mernissi) shows that several legal schools grant women the right to divorce on grounds of sexual dissatisfaction. Similarly, in her discussion on marriage and the historical link between marriage and slavery, Youssef’s insights would be enriched by a discussion of Kecia Ali, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, and other feminist thinkers who have written extensively in English on the topics of gender, marriage, and fiqh. Given that the audiences, languages, and contexts in which North African and Western Muslim feminists write in, Olfa Youssef’s lack of citation of Muslim feminists writing in English is a statement, a testament to the problem of the lack of dialogue between the two groups.

While Youssef does not have access to the scholarship produced in English presumably because of language gaps, it is unclear why she does not cite Fatima Mernissi, who deals with similar issues (e.g., marriage and inheritance) and whose scholarship exists in the languages Youssef is fluent in,  French and Arabic.

The second point is the critical assessment of exegetical and legal scholarship versus explicit verses in the Qur’an. That is, there is a problematic, often hypocritical, discrepancy between the Qur’anic text and its interpretations, a discrepancy that serves male fantasies and vision and reinforces male-dominance. This point has been addressed by Muslim feminist scholars (e.g., Ziba Mir-Hosseini) extensively—but in English.

Benyoussef’s translation is an immense service to several disciplines and fields, foremost among them Islamic Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies. This introduction to Olfa Youssef and her scholarship breaks the trend of a sort of scholarship on and about Muslim that caricatures Muslim women in particular, portraying them as victims of their historical, textual traditions. Youssef’s contributions to the discourse on Islam and gender also challenges the view that Muslim women’s critiques of their male-dominated religious tradition are inspired by Islamophobic or orientalist attitudes towards their faith. Instead, Youssef asserts herself as a part of the discourse, of the tradition, reclaiming her access to the Qur’anic text and its interpretations and a right to critically evaluate particularly those parts of her tradition and history that adversely impact significant populations of the Muslim world. Finally, the translation helps to push language boundaries in Islamic feminist scholarship by making accessible the works of Tunisian Muslim feminist Olfa Yousef to the rest of the world.

1 thought on “Book Review: Olfa Youssef’s The Perplexity of a Muslim Woman: Over Inheritance, Marriage, and Homosexuality

  1. Pingback: the homophobic activism of (muslim/other) academics need to end asap. | Freedom from the Forbidden

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