Bint al Shaṭi', a female scholar who refused to be called a feminist

Aisha Abd al-Rahman was her real name. Bint al Shaṭi' was her nom de plume, which meant daughter of the riverbank. This pen name metaphorically refers to her hometown which gave birth to many famous scholars: Damietta Governorate, near the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

She grew up in an environment that did not allow women to go to school. Bint al Shaṭi' finished school with the courage of her mother despite her father's opposition. Arabic literature was a field she devoted to obtaining a doctorate in 1950.

As a professor of Arabic language and literature, she taught in Egypt and Morocco for fifty years. Her pedagogy fascinated many people. She taught literature using the fluency of the Quran as well as classical Arabic writers. Bint al Shaṭi' used the Quran when teaching linguistics and grammar.

What made her famous, and became the subject of discussion, was the literary works that she produced both in the form of books and writings scattered in the Egyptian media, especially Al-Ahram. This was where she used to defend women's rights.

The King Faisal Prize she won in 1994 in the category of Arabic language and literature affirmed her identity that was recognized throughout the Arab world: a woman who was loved by many. I was impressed to see a YouTube footage when Bint al Shaṭi' gave a speech with confidence while receiving the award in front of the men's forum in Riyadh.

Her novels and writings explore the biographies and roles of women since the early Islamic period and during the Islamic Golden Age. This is what many readers remember in the Muslim world.

However, it is difficult to mention Bint al Shaṭi' in the scope of feminism, something that was still sensitive in her time. Some said she was a feminist who wore a veil even though she herself held that Muslim women were not represented by the veil. She did not describe herself as a feminist even though she was a writer with a feminist theme and defender of women's rights.

Bint al Shaṭi' used traditional philological tools in reading the Quran and Islamic texts. This traditional philology, as in phenomenology, allows the meaning of the Quran to speak to itself in its historical context.

All modern prejudices and theories do not necessarily have to make the meaning of the Quran in accordance with modern tastes. Because she understood word for word and the context of a verse, she had no appetite to surrender the expertise of the Quran to those who were not experts.

In an article given by a friend of mine in England about the controversy of Bint al Shaṭi' and Egyptian intellectual Mustafa Mahmoud who interpreted the Quran with science in the 1980s, Bint al Shaṭi' distinguished between understanding and interpretation.

Understanding the scriptures, said Bint al Shaṭi', was open to anyone, including scientists. But interpretation required experts and profound linguistic knowledge about the literary style and grammatical structure of the Quran. Scientists, she said, might reflect on their own interpretations but not to create sensations.

Her defense of philology and traditional interpretation of the Quran has led many scholars to label Bint al Shaṭi' as an antimodernist. Other accusations, such as those of the great writers have, are numerous. One of them was that she was accused by a group of Arab feminists as a woman who strengthened patriarchy because her teacher at Cairo University, Amin el-Khouli, married her as his second wife. Bint al Shaṭi' was judged not trying to reinterpret traditional understanding in the scriptures, namely the concept of the guardianship of men over women.

But Bint al Shaṭi' proved the concept of women's agency in Islam, especially in terms of seeking and producing knowledge, was independent of the protection or guardianship of men. Here, like most pro-feminist interpretations among traditional Muslims, Bint al Shaṭi' seems to prefer the concept to refer to domestic matters.

An intellectual mirror for Muslim feminists

Bint al Shaṭi's expertise in the study of the Quran must not be underestimated by Muslim feminists. The inductive method she used, and the intellectual influence of her husband who guided her during college, made an impression in her serious books about the study of the Quran.

Today's Muslim feminists need to master the integral ability to understand the Quran, coupled with the tools of modern science, to rival the scholarship of Bint al Shaṭi'. The English saying goes, diamond cut diamond. Only a diamond is capable of breaking another diamond.

In addition to being a Quranic reviewer, novelist, and writer in the media, Bint al Shaṭi' was also an accomplished editor. In the Arab world, we know a few great women who edited classic texts. Aside from Bint al Shaṭi', there is also Wadad Kadi from the University of Chicago.

When Bint al Shaṭi' edited a classic Arabic literary work by his favorite writer Al-Ma'arri, Resalat Al-Ghufran (The Epistle of Forgiveness), she broke Arabic prose which was difficult to understand and gave many erroneous notes. She used the technique of tracing the authenticity of hadith as a basis for verifying and determining the authenticity of literary quotes. This work was dedicated wholeheartedly to Amin el-Khouli who, said Bint al Shaṭi' in her book, "taught me how to read."

Her persistence in traditional Islamic philology and science brought the daughter of the riverbank into an obedient figure to the government. Hassan Hanafi once called Bint al Shaṭi' as part of faculty members who were close to the authorities. Her closeness was very obvious, especially when the Egyptian government criticized Israeli Zionism and the Egyptian Left.

The rest is, Bint al Shaṭi' enjoyed her intellectual days in various Arab countries at a time when male Muslim intellectuals dominated the public more. Diamond is a diamond.