Dr. Jonathan AC Brown Boycotts Male-Only Panels: A Response

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

This article was co-authored by The Muslim Theist and Mr. Bilal Muhammad

Recently, Dr. Jonathan Brown, an associate professor at Georgetown University and popular Muslim intellectual, announced that he would no longer participate in any Muslim program or conference where the organizers have not made “exhaustive, good faith efforts to include women” on panels and among speakers.

We must acknowledge Dr. Brown’s contributions and willingness to tackle difficult questions. He has addressed issues that are especially challenging in today’s liberal milieu – from the age of ʿĀʾisha, to the infamous wife-beating verse, to the “spread by the sword” thesis. Given some of his traditionalist stances, a simplistic analysis of Dr. Brown would not be in good faith. Additionally, he was nuanced in his demand – he did not condemn “manels” outright, and he clarified that female speakers should be in line with the ideological leanings of organizers. He made aware that some seemingly “valid calls” for events to include women are really just subversive efforts by ideologues to “include participants whose views are marginal, heretical or outside the bounds of Islam altogether.”

Dr. Brown justifies his position by saying that “practicing, committed and qualified Muslim woman scholars (sic)” feel “excluded and alienated”, and thus something must be done. Others may argue that including women on panels would be a good feature of Islamic daʾwa, and thus a bidʾa ḥasana.

This issue raises a few concerns that need discussion.

Why isn’t fiqh foregrounded in these discussions? There is an implied assumption that male panels are purely the result of archaic cultural norms that are obsolete today. But this denies any jurisprudential basis for the practice. A mature conversation is needed on why Muslim leadership has been predominantly male – a practice which finds precedent in the tradition. The scholars have had nuanced discussions on the ʿawra of women. Some scholars have ruled that Muslim women should not give speeches to non-mahram men except in cases of necessity; or from behind a screen. There are also traditional stipulations on female recitation of the Quran and tasbeeḥ (a primary feature in most Islamic speeches) and speaking with an alluring voice (a common trope in rhetoric and elocution). These practices are not purely the consequence of culture, but rather they are a practical way to abide by Islamic principles. If one did proper ijtihad and came to different conclusions, that would be one thing; but to boycott organizations for taking well-established positions is troubling.

Most Islamic conferences consist of the same international speakers, who are recycled year in and year out. If this issue is simply a question of how excluded qualified female scholars feel, then what about the majority of male scholars, most of whom don’t get invited to these panels either? Because conferences tend to be big-budget events with various expenses, organizers typically look to invite the crème de la crème – speakers with popularity or merit. It is for this reason that the same one hundred (or fewer) speakers end up speaking at said conferences worldwide. Just as this is being framed as a male-female issue, it can be framed as a famous-obscure issue, or a qualified-underqualified issue: the vast majority of male scholars also being excluded. Is this “free market” of speakers at private conferences to be changed by fiat?

How far are we willing to take this? It goes without saying that, in the name of equity and inclusion, we could further factionalize our panels by race, economic class, and other identity markers. All this does however is reduce the invitation process to the filling of quotas. Organizations then are validated for their tokenization rather than for their scholarly merit. While Jonathan Brown claimed in a comment that he was not demanding a quota, a demand for a proportional gender representation, to the degree possible, is a quota by definition.

As a professor, Jonathan Brown has spoken on panels with non-Muslims. Would he deny sitting on all-male Muslim panels, but accept sitting on intersex non-Muslim panels? While he sees the lack of female representation as a problem in the Muslim community, wouldn’t the potential espousal of kufr be a bigger problem that deserves his boycott? Feminism has become a sort of religion, and its ritual priorities sometimes override those of Islam. While the Quran prioritizes knowledge, feminism prioritizes female empowerment; and so boycotting “manels” may end up prioritizing power over knowledge, which is fundamentally unethical. He has chosen to not give his knowledge to Muslims willing to learn until a set of conditions extraneous to Islamic or personal requirements is met.

Not only is this principle not found in Islamic theology, but it is found in an ideology that regularly finds itself in opposition to Islam. This is why so many traditional Muslims are so uncomfortable with this rhetoric. It gives currency to a value system that demonstrably has a negative affect on people’s faith; and its logical implications could easily lead someone to apostasy.

Rather than taking a principled stance on this issue, Dr. Brown could have made public his list of qualified female scholars, and suggest these people to organizers on an individual basis, adding what he thinks they will specifically bring to the table. A lot of these female speakers simply aren’t well-known. People who are more well-known end up getting invited more, creating a positive feedback loop. Why not take a more friendly, grassroots approach, instead of strong-arming organizers to capitulate to his demands, under the threat of retraction? This is intolerance in the name of tolerance.

Why is it that Dr. Brown will go through a series of mental gymnastics to justify the value of someone like Amina Wadud, but has no problem boycotting an all-male panel? Dr. Brown has offered supportive nuance to figures like Wadud and has gone out of his way to find peripheral rulings that allow women to lead prayers. Brown argues on page 190 of his book Misquoting Muhammad, “Indeed, the Qur’an is silent on the question of woman-led prayer, and the only Hadith cited directly in classical and modern discussions … has never been upheld as reliable at all …. Much of the verbiage on the prohibition of woman-led prayer in classical works of Shariah law consists of derivative arguments.  Each leaves ample openings for objection” (Brown, p. 190). Ironically, Brown proposes on the next page that women can lead prayers from behind a screen, if it is feared that her body would affect the concentration of the congregants.

Brown has gone so far as to say that Wadud’s works were insightful despite her statement on Prophet Abraham being a “deadbeat dad.” So when it comes to feminist figures who have clearly lost the plot we are told to look at the positive value of those figures while their negatives are minimalized, but all-male panels are apparently so egregious and damaging that the same courtesy cannot be extended to them? This is especially troubling given that most of the Islamic scholarly tradition consists of so-called all-male panels.

The issue here is Brown’s operational logic – in the name of female empowerment, he is willing to espouse a black-and-white position on male panels, yet he is receptive (or even supportive) of fringe figures and positions.

We all agree that Muslim women should have role models in the community. But a role model is someone that works within the Islamic ethical framework. In a time of heedlessness, we should be wary of what practices we introduce into our community. While the practices themselves may seem harmless, they may be rooted in presuppositions that are anathematic to Islamic ethics.

Lastly, we would like to reiterate the value that Dr. Brown continues to give to the Muslim community. His forthcoming work on slavery in Islam looks promising and inshaAllah will provide many Muslims with answers to very difficult questions. The intent of this article has not been to attack Dr. Brown personally, but rather to stand in defense of traditional perspectives on these issues.

May Allah protect and guide us.

Post Script: Prior to the publication of this article, one of the authors of this piece reached out to Dr. Brown via email  in an attempt to address our concerns privately. Dr. Brown was courteous in the exchange, but did not think we would reach a consensus.