Sofia Rehman is a PhD student in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science at the University of Leeds. Sofia is a member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life whose research engages with the Prophetic tradition in Islam, focussing particularly on female voices within the tradition and the implications of their resurrection on the very epistemological understandings of the faith.
Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?
My research journey took the long route to arrive at where I am today. I originally graduated from King’s College, London having studied Business Management. Unfortunately, I knew by my second year that I wasn’t going to pursue it beyond graduation, but took the opportunity to enroll in Arabic language modules, because I knew I wanted to better understand Islam, my faith that I had taken an increasingly keen interest in since my late teens, and Arabic being the language of the Qur’an seemed the best place to start. Upon graduation, I travelled to Syria to study Arabic further. It was there in a Damascene bookshop that I came across the 14thCentury Islamic text, al-Ijāba li-Īrādi mā Istadrakathu ʿĀ’ishaʿala al Ṣahāba – The Corrective: ʿĀ’isha’s Rectification of the Companions by the Muslim Scholar Imam Badr al-Dīn al-Zarkashī, that has become the central text for my PhD research. At the time my Arabic was still in need of more study, but even then I was enthralled by this book comprised of a selection of statements made by ʿĀ’isha bint Abu Bakr, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad, whereby she was mostly correcting, corroborating, or outright refuting statements of her almost invariably male peers.
Over the next few years my desire to further study Islam and Arabic, took me to various teachers and seminaries around the world; from Syria, to Wales, to Turkey. I also got married, started a family, qualified as a Psychotherapist and volunteered as a Doula for the NHS in this time. I like to stay busy! 4 years ago, when my youngest child started school full-time, I returned to full-time education too and completed an MA in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Leeds, before securing a PRHS scholarship to go onto pursuing my PhD.
Doing my PhD at the University of Leeds under the supervision of Professor Rachel Muers and Dr Tajul Islam has been an awesome experience. They have been great supervisors, enthusiastic and supportive all the way. I have been very fortunate to have their supervision and guidance.
Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?
As a Muslim woman who is actively committed to a deeper understanding of Islam, I have always been committed to studying Islam generally, and the issue of women and Islam more specifically, especially as I spent my years as an undergraduate also teaching Muslim women in a local mosque and in high schools, which made me the confidante of many of these women and young adults. I realised there was much to be done to reset the gender imbalance that had gripped the community and was harming a number of our women, whilst they also bore the burden of being othered and ostracised for their faith from outside the community. However, interest and ambition can get us nowhere on their own, without access, opportunities, encouragement, and building of skills and these were mainly provided by the unwavering support of my husband, Dr Mustapha Sheikh, who always ensured that each of these were always available to me. He was the first one to introduce to me the works of the scholars amina wadud, and Fatima Mernissi. These women’s scholarship opened up a whole new world of opportunity in fathoming women’s position vis-à-vis Islam, and sparked more questions which my research has gone in pursuit of. And of course, there are women in my life who are my inspiration; my mother who emulates strength and resilience, my Khaalas(maternal aunts) who likewise embody grace and intelligence, and my daughters for whom I want so many more opportunities and possibilities.
What are you currently, or about to start, working on?
Being in the third year of my PhD, all energy and intention is focused on that and getting it completed soon! My thesis has been a true labour of love that has taken me on unexpected diversions, and welcome new terrain. I had known that I wanted to produce a translation of the text with an analysis of the traditional process of authentication of Prophetic statements (hadith) and an expansion of the criteria used to achieve this; to encompass and scrutinize those higher up in the chains of narration. I also knew I wanted to consider the implications of re-centering the statements of ʿĀ’isha bint Abu Bakr on not only how Prophetic statements have been understood, but also the implications of these statements on corollary disciplines like the development of Islamic jurisprudence and exegesis of the Quran. What I had not predicted was that the thesis would lead to an analysis of the process and conceptualisation of the canonical process of Prophetic statements in Islam, and further to that, developing a methodology for translating Prophetic statements that are gender conscious, particularly given that Arabic is a gendered language in a way that English is not.
In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?
A great deal of the motivation behind my work was to correct an epistemic injustice that was the silencing of the female voice of ʿĀ’isha bint Abu Bakr, at the very epicenter of knowledge formation and creation in Islam. By resurrecting her voice and reconstructing her methodology in approaching Prophetic statements and the Qur’an, it is my hope that Muslim women’s participation in religious life; their agency and authority would be inspired once more and given a new lease of life with a fresh perspective on this established role model for Muslim women, on how they too can move forward with confidence and challenge patriarchal norms, with a legitimacy provided to them from within their own religious tradition and history. I had the opportunity to see the potential this work has in empowering Muslim women, when I secured funding as an Impact fellow in 2017 and used this to run a series of workshops with the Muslim Women’s Council in Bradford. More can be read about this experience on the CRPL blog.