Humanizing the Sacred

Sisters in Islam and the Struggle for Gender Justice in Malaysia

Azza Basarudin

  • Published: December 2015
  • Subject Listing: Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; Anthropology
  • Bibliographic information: 352 pp., 20 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: Not available in Asia
  • Series: Decolonizing Feminisms
  • Contents

In recent years, global attention has focused on how women in communities of Muslims are revitalizing Islam by linking interpretation of religious ideas to the protection of rights and freedoms. Humanizing the Sacred demonstrates how Sunni women activists in Malaysia are fracturing institutionalized Islamic authority by generating new understandings of rights and redefining the moral obligations of their community. Based on ethnographic research of Sisters in Islam (SIS), a nongovernmental organization of professional women promoting justice and equality, Basarudin examines SIS members' involvement in the production and transmission of Islamic knowledge to reformulate legal codes and reconceptualize gender discourses. By weaving together women's lived realities, feminist interpretations of Islamic texts, and Malaysian cultural politics, this book illuminates how a localized struggle of claiming rights takes shape within a transnational landscape. It provides a vital understanding of how women "live" Islam through the integration of piety and reason and the implications of women's political activism for the transformation of Islamic tradition itself.
Azza Basarudin is a research scholar at the Center for the Study of Women at the University of California Los Angeles.

"A very well written and engaging account of the Sisters in Islam, an exceedingly important Muslim feminist organization based in Malaysia that has had a significant impact, through its writing and activism, in Southeast Asia and far beyond."
-Michael Peletz, author of Islamic Modern: Religious Courts and Cultural Politics in Malaysia

"Sisters in Islam is a pioneer in the field of contemporary Muslim women's activism. Azza Basarudin's thoughtful interviews and meticulously detailed histories about the lives of its members reveal the diverse ways Muslim women arrive at the point of activism. Humanizing the Sacred is an extremely important and timely book."
-Elora Shehabuddin, author of Reshaping the Holy: Democracy, Development, and Muslim Women in Bangladesh

"Humanizing the Sacred offers an innovative, nuanced cartography of the intellectual activism of Malay Muslim women reclaiming Islam and refashioning ethical selves in a remarkable act of balancing religious specificities and universal rights. The labor of reinterpreting classic Islamic doctrine, coupled with policy and activist work on issues of gender justice anchored in these very reinterpretations characterizes the truly unique and groundbreaking work of Sisters in Islam. An elegant, theoretically sophisticated ethnography that is a must-read for scholars in interdisciplinary feminist studies, religious studies, and anthropology."
-Chandra Talpade Mohanty, author of Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity

"Humanizing the Sacred offers a compelling account of Sisters in Islam, a groundbreaking collective of Muslim women activists and scholars struggling against religious authoritarianism. Neither naively celebratory nor harshly critical, Azza Basarudin offers a thorough and impassioned account of the group's struggle toward the development of a feminist interpretive community grounded in Islam, with influence in local, national, and transnational spheres."
-Kecia Ali, author of Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur'an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence

Note on Malay Names, Honorific Titles, and Terminology
List of Abbreviations

Introduction Faith, Self, and Community
1. Islam, the State, and Gender The Malaysian Experiment
2. The Politics of the Sacred Returning to the Fundamentals of Islam
3. In the Path of the Faithful Activism for Social and Legal Reforms
4. Who Speaks for Islam? Religious Authority and Contested Justice
5. Negotiating Lives, Crafting Selves Narratives of Belonging
6. The Local in the Transnational Gender Justice and Feminist Solidarities


"A diverse range of insightful analyses supported by feminist ideas, interviews, and histories. The book provides a solid critique of patriarchal discourses dominating Muslim identity politics in Malaysia."
-a da Dedeo lu, Religion and Gender