Women and Gender in Islam

In This Review

Women and Gender in Islam

By Leila Ahmed
Yale University Press, 1992
296 pp. $32.50

Among the volumes now being published about Islam, this book stands out as particularly original, insightful and sensitive. Concentrating on one of the nearly taboo topics of Islam, its treatment of women, the author examines the patrilineal traditions in the Middle East that preceded Islam and discusses objectively the ways in which Islam both improved and curtailed the freedoms of women in its earliest days. Much of the blame for the most constrictive interpretations of Islam is placed on the Abbasid dynasty, which ruled from the mid-eighth century onward and interpreted Islam in a legalistic and rigid manner designed to serve state interests, thereby sacrificing much of the ethical, normative thrust of the religion as practiced in the days of Mohammed. As Islam spread, the author maintains, it incorporated many of the misogynist practices of the surrounding environment. Ahmed's narrative covers the efforts of Muslim feminists earlier this century to assert themselves, and concludes with an impressive assessment of the current cultural malaise in much of the Middle East. The text is at times a bit heavy on discourse analysis, but even this nod toward academic fashion is more often enlightening than not. In short, a highly original and important book.

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