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EWIC Reviews- Sharkey Vol. 1

Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures

Reviewed by: Heather J. Sharkey, Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, Department of Near Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. 

Review of Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures: Vol. 1: Methodologies, Paradigms and Sources.
Published by: International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 29, No. 3 (2005).


The Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures is a mammoth work that surveys major issues and themes in the study of women and gender in the Islamic world. When complete, it will include six volumes and will draw on contributions from an international team of over a thousand researchers, whose specializations vary by discipline, region, and period of study.

The first volume of this series, Methodologies, Paradigms, and Sources, is an impressive scholarly compendium. It is organized in three sections. The first contains thematic articles assessing the state of scholarship on women in particular periods, regions, and genres and providing short specialized bibliographies. (For example, there are entries on the literatures of the Crusades and Andalusia, and on Mughal India, the late Ottoman empire, and twentieth-century Eastern Europe.) The second section surveys the scholarship on women through disciplinary lenses, assessing fields as diverse as anthropology, law, and linguistics. The articles in this section also provide short specialized bibliographies. The third section consists of a much larger and more general bibliography (supplemented by author and subject indexes) listing books and articles about women in the Islamic world that have appeared in European languages since 1993.

The volume solidly covers the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia and also includes North America and Western Europe. Several countries (”for example, Egypt, Morocco, and Afghanistan) ”have separate chapters of their own or are treated in small regional clusters (e.g., Malaysia and Singapore). By contrast, there are only two chapters surveying all of sub-Saharan Africa (in the pre- and post-eighteenth-century periods). Given the importance of Islamic culture to the African continent and the diversity of Muslim experiences therein, the coverage of the sub-Saharan region is meager relative to the rest of the essays.

Readers will find few direct references to Christian missions except in the articles by Julia Clancy-Smith (surveying Western colonialism in the Islamic world) and Linda Benson (examining the history of eastern Turkestan in the past two centuries) and in the bibliography of section 3. Those interested in missionary studies in the Islamic world or in the history of Christian-Muslim relations stand to benefit from the book nonetheless. Its synthesis and presentation of scholarship is at once wide-ranging and detailed, while its clear language makes it accessible to specialists and to the proverbial "lay readers."

In her introduction to the volume and to the larger encyclopedia project, the general editor, Suad Joseph (a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Davis), suggests that the series will fill a large gap in the reference literature of Islamic studies, especially considering that scholarship on women and gender has burgeoned in the past generation. She suggests, too, that the series has a role to play in the current political climate, when the specter of Islamic terrorism and of U.S. intervention in the Middle East looms so large in global imaginations. The first volume, she writes, "comes at a time when there.. . is incessant stereotyping of Muslims, and ongoing conflation of Muslims with Arabs and of Islam with the Middle East, a time when the political stakes in relation to Islamic cultures have risen globally, heightened by misrepresentation and misunderstanding." Since women are so often made to be "the œlitmus test of what constitutes modernity," she observes, women often serve as symbolic vehicles of cultural struggles and debates (pp. xlviii-xlix). She hopes that this encyclopedia will present a treatment of women in the Islamic world that is at once rigorous in its scholarship and sympathetic in its approach a work, in other words, that will be somehow conducive to cross-cultural understanding and mutual respect.

Like most books published by Brill, a Dutch academic press with Islamic studies as one of its special emphases, this volume is too expensive for most individual bookbuyers. It nevertheless belongs in serious research libraries, where it will function as a valuable reference tool and guide to further study.

-Heather I. Sharkey

Heather J. Sharkey is Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies in the Department of Near eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.


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