About the Book
This book sets out to examine the gendered expressions of Shia Muslim faith. How do contemporary women construct and experience their religious lives? How does gender impact Shia piety? In this intriguing study, the author critically analyses the world of women's religious expression, helping us to better understand not only the ritual lives of Shia women, but Muslim faith and practice in general.
The author argues that most research and writing on Shia Islam reflects male expressions and beliefs. Men have dominated the formation of knowledge within the Shia religious hierarchy, as well as the study of Shia Islam within the fields of Religious studies and Islamic studies. In contrast, the author takes women's lives and beliefs as her starting point, and uncovers powerful female expressions which dynamically shape Shia Muslim religious life.
Diane D 'souza helps us discover a vibrant women-centred narrative underpinning Shia faith. Whether by Bringing to life female personalities which profoundly shaped religious history, illuminating the dynamic female leadership within today's religious rituals, or uncovering the fascinating development of a women-only shrine, this book provides a richer, more complete understanding of Shia Islam.
About the Author
Diane D'Souza is a scholar of Islamic and Gender studies, and a specialist in conflict transformation and peace building. She is a scholar in residence at Suffolk University's center for women's Health and Human Rights in Boston.
I first encountered the religion of Islam in 1985 when I moved to Hyderabad along with my Indian husband and six month old son. As an American, I was fortunate to leave my county before the age of rampant Muslim stereotyping, for it allowed me to encounter people and their religious beliefs without the burden of preconceived notions. My husband's job at the Henry Martyn Institute (HMI), which works to improve Christian-Muslim relation and expand inter-religious dialogue, brought me into contact with Muslims in a city known for its vibrant Islamic culture and heritage. Initially, what I learned about people's faith came from personal encounters in this bustling metropolis where the call to prayer melodiously punctuates the noise of the city. Gradually, I got to know the fruit sellers and shop-owners, neighbors and teachers, housewives and domestic workers who made up this place I now called home. Whether it was Rizwana, the burqa-clad women with a dimpled smile who was my son 's first teacher; or Hasan, who stood behind the counter in a starched cotton tunic selling biscuits at the local bakery; or Mr. Taqi, the head librarian at HMI all were gracious and welcoming.
My new life richly blossomed over the twenty years I lived in Hyderabad. An abiding interest in psychology and gender gradually led me to academic study, teaching and writing about Muslim women's lives. As I accompanied my husband on research trips to local religious sites, I met with Muslims from across the socio-economic spe3ctrum to talk about everyday life, faith and belief, and our sense of community in this multi-religious city. During these visits my young children and I spent a good deal of time in female company as was the custom, especially in conservative circles. Being white and a visible 'foreigner ', however, I tended to have more latitude than many women and was often invited into the formal sitting room where male visitors were received. This gave me access to traditionally male spaces as well as to the bedrooms, kitche3ns and living areas that make up the female domain.
As my interest in Muslim communities grew, I increasingly drew upon published writings to further my interest in Islam's foundations, precepts, history and practices. Although this information was useful, I sometimes found formal representations of Islam to be unsatisfying. For example, I was fascinated by the exuberant local observances surrounding Shab-e-Barat, the Night of Mercy. On this occasion, the devout remember those who have dies, affirm that life and death are in God's hands, and pray for forgiveness from sins. Muslim neighborhoods are lit up and hum with activity long into the night, as many adherents take part in rituals of personal and communal piety (D 'Souza, 2004). In stunning contrast to the popularity of this event, scholarly sources such as the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic world barely give mention to it. Even specialist encyclopedias confine it to the margins of Muslim experience. As Nancy and Richard Tapper (1987: 90) remarked in their study of Tarkish festivals to honour Prophet Muhammad 's birthday, the implication that these religious behaviours are peripheral to people is extremely misleading.
As my research continued, I grew more and more frustrated by the pejorative ways in which women's spiritual lives were overlooked or devalued in the writings of May male religious leaders and Islamic studies scholars. This was particularly true when women's rituals or activities fell outside the five established pillars of Islamic practice: daily prayer, fasting during Ramzan, pilgrimage to Mecca, tithing, and affirming the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad. Although I was women doing all these things, I saw them faithfully doing much more: showing daily generosity to the poor through gifts of food and clothing, praying for people's needs and for the intercession of powerful spiritual figures, engaging in rituals or local pilgrimages which were deeply layered with meaning. The gap observed between what women saw as important to their religious lives and what male scholars and religious leaders defined as central, motivated me to conduct research which would accurately and respectfully portray female devotional lives. I chose an empirical process rather than a historical one to give women a chance to define religious perceptions and experiences for themselves. As I placed my research within the boader context of the study of religions, I quickly learned that my frustrations with the scholarly portrayal of Muslim women was not unique, but part of a larger dysfunction within Religious Studies, a point which I will discuss more fully in the next section.
My purpose in writing this book is to examine gendered expressions of Shia faith. My main interest is to understand how Ithna Ashari Shia women construct and experience their religious lives. I have chosen this female emphasis because most Shia studies implicitly reflect male expressions and beliefs, and analysis of how gender impacts Shia piety has been very limited. There are three main questions I seek to answer: How do pious Shia women nurture and sustain their religious lives? How do their experiences and beliefs overlap with or remain distinct from those of men? Can we disce3rn gender-based roles and what do they tell us about Shia faith? I am also interested in applying my findings to further our understanding of two traditional scholarly dichotomies: the gendered divide between public and private, and the splitting of religious practice into normative and popular expressions.
There are several ways I could have conducted this research. An obvious choice would have been to look at how women figure in Shia Islam. That is, what has been said or implied about women in core teachings and central stories of the faith. One challenge to this approach is that women generally have not been who frame what is 'core ' or 'central '. With few exceptions, it is men who have held the power to name what is normative. This is visible today in the almost complete male dominance of the formal, hierarchical structures of religious knowledge within the Shia community, and male preeminence in the academic study of Shia Islam within the fields of Religious studies and Islamic studies. My choice, then, has been to look at contemporary religious expressions in order to deduce what is central or key from female points of view. I then use these findings to expand and clarify our current notions about Shia Islam.
The main sources of information in this inquiry are the explanations and experiences of Shia women from one of India's largest Shia communities. It is thus primarily and empirical or ethnographic study which focuses on ritual in Hyderabad. I also make use of textual material historical accounts, hagiographic sources, popular poetry, sermons and religious studies texts to analyze how gender impacts our understanding of Shia faith and practice.
In the course of my research, I repeatedly had to explain to women the reasons for my interest in their devotion al lives. On the whole, people were very supportive and extremely gracious to me, although occasionally a woman expressed confusion or suspicion about my intent. I usually explained my work by describing the lack of useful books or materials to help outsiders like myself understand the faith and practices of Shia particularly from women's points of view. This explanation was helpful for women who had some exposure to systems of formal education, but proved to be incomprehensible to women for whom books held limited meaning. Once, for example, an older woman saw me writing up detailed field notes at a popular shrine, and sat down to ask about the person with whom I was corresponding. Even after I explained that I was writing a book to help others understand the stories and personalities which are precious to Shia believers, she remained puzzled about my aim and purpose. On another occasion, an elderly ritual leader demanded to know why I kept coming back to spend time writing at the shrine. Although several weeks earlier we had talked about my research and the reasons for it, on this occasion She brushed aside my words with angry suspicion: What more did I need to know? I had already heard everything, so why was I still hanging around?
Part of the explanation for the suspicion I infrequently encountered is rooted in the minority position of Shias within the larger Muslim community. A tremendous amount of persecution has taken place during the roughly fourteen centuries of Shia existence. At one point in history the situation became so dire that leaders propounded a concept of assimilation or taqiyah, encouraging Shias to conceal their identity when it came to choosing between affirming one's religious belief and protecting one's life or livelihood. Shias in Hyderabad have their own history of persecution, the low point being three hundred years ago in the wake of an invasion by Sunni Mughal rulers from north India. Although Shia the situation seems to be somewhat more complex. For example, a political leader in Hyderabad's old city told me that Shia families still sometimes face discrimination when trying to rent homes in Sunni localities. As most Shias are aware of these historic and practical challenges, it is not surprising to encounter people's occasional suspicion of outsiders as an expression of concern for the safety of their community.
In general, women gave me the benefit of the doubt, trusting, my intentions and seeming to perceive me as a person who wanted to learn more about what they see as the true religious path. When women asked about my religious affiliation, I openly admitted to my Christian background, which most accepted with equanimity. A good number seemed to expect that as I learned about Shia truths, I would eventually come to embrace their beliefs. This may have been part of the reason some women chose to answer my questions and explain their spiritual lives to me.
Sometimes women made comments about my participation in different rituals, pointing out to others how I joined in reciting lamentation choruses or performing the rhythmic chest beating or matam. This was done with considerable appreciation and pride at least when I overheard the remarks, as I was no doubt meant to. The women seemed to feel that my participation clearly demonstrated a love and respect for the venerated family of the prophet. That I, as an outsider, chose to be part of devotional activities was further testimony to the inherent greatness of these holy personages. I did my best to conform to what I understood the women expected of me. I did this out of respect for the beliefs of the community that opened itself to me, out of respect for the sanctity of certain moments, places and actions, and to ensure continued acceptance by the community. For example, when a woman invited me to a ritual mourning gathering which she was hosting in her home, I would arrive at the appointed time wearing the appropriate clothing (most commonly a black tunic, pants and modest shawl). Leaving my footw2ear at the door, I would be greeted by my hosts. If the family had a shrine or small collection of sacred icons, someone would usually take me there so that I could pay my respects, which we did silently. While waiting for the event to begin, I often took advantage of opportunities to talk with acquaintances and other participants. Once the ritual started I would sit cross-legged on the floor along with my hosts and other women participants; listen to poetry, preaching and prayers; and respond with the appropriate verses and rhythmic slapping of the chest, as was expected. Afterwards I usually stayed for more interaction and often food or drink.
Here, in this introduction, I provide an orientation to the theoretical framework of my study, looking at the impact of gender on the study of religion and giving an overview of the studies of ritual and of Shia Islam. I also offer a brief overview of my research methodology, the women I studied, and the focus and limitations of the work as a whole.
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