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A contemporary Muslim thinker – ahead of her time

9th Apr 2021
A contemporary Muslim thinker – ahead of her time

(Photo courtesy of Sonia Shah-Kazemi’s family.)

Nourin ‘Sonia’ Shah-Kazemi (1964–2021)

Nourin Shah-Kazemi, popularly known as Sonia, passed away at home in Kent, aged 56, in the early hours of the morning on February 24 after a short but intense battle with cancer.

Sonia represented a new breed of Muslim thinkers, born in the diaspora, but ready to take on issues as Muslims struggled to find a new and more credible identity for themselves in the Western world as they went through the process of rapid acculturation. Educated at Haberdasher’s Aske’s School for Girls in Elstree, Sonia went to Warwick University where she studied Philosophy, Literature and the Classics, but after one year she ended up reading Law at Birmingham City University, following which she was called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in London.

Sonia’s family’s diasporic journey predisposed her to make an important contribution to cross-cultural insights. The first child of a newly married couple who left Lahore, Pakistan, to pursue post-graduate studies in medicine in the UK, Sonia recalled visiting Makkah aged five and remembered the intensely powerful experience at the Holy Sanctuary. A studious and empathetic child, she credited her parents and friends at senior school for instilling in her a consciousness about the global south. It was at Birmingham City University that Sonia became interested in women’s rights and the rights of newly arrived immigrants into Britain. Her pupillage in Law was with two sets of chambers that specialised in the rights of the most marginalised in society.

Sonia augmented her legal studies with work with NGOs involved in women’s rights and human rights. In a working trip to Jerusalem in her twenties, she experienced a very powerful spiritual awakening and this galvanised within a profound and ever-deepening sense of the sacred for the rest of her personal and professional life.

It was in the field of mediation where Sonia made her greatest contribution as a budding scholar as early as 2000 by critiquing the processual method proposed by the leading cultural anthropologist and conflict theorist, P.H. Gulliver, in his influential 1979 work Disputes and Negotiations: A Cross Cultural Perspective. In a pivotal article entitled ‘Cross-Cultural Mediation: A Critical Review of the Dynamics of Culture in Family Disputes’, published in the International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family (2000, vol. 14), Sonia made the point very forcefully that while mediation was being extolled as a means of facilitating smooth management of disputes in the family breakdown, what had been neglected was the question of how an individual’s particular cultural identity comprises a prism through which disputes and their resolution are viewed.

Sonia made the point that it is precisely within the parameters of the marital relationship that individuals are motivated to practise their normative ethics, and, in this article, she sought to analyse those dynamics and the way they influence the process of mediation. Sonia did this by closely examining the model expounded by Gulliver, highlighting that an appraisal of cultural dynamics was a fundamental prerequisite to an understanding of the process of family mediation. At a time when cultural understanding in family mediation was still in its very early stages, Sonia’s pioneering work in this field broke new ground and was far ahead of its time.

Apart from her scholarly work, Sonia also practised as a trainer of mediators working for the National Family Mediation, one of the leading training organisations in the UK for training family mediators. “Sonia’s work,” according to Marian Roberts, a former Director at the National Family Mediation and a former Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics, “affirmed the core aspiration of respect [inherent in the mediation process] with an emphasis on the essential significance of the cultural and normative context that shapes the mediation process… The impact of Sonia’s commitment to the values of respect and fairness that underpin the practice of family mediation is as powerful and relevant now as ever.”

Sonia’s second major contribution as a scholar in this field was with her Nuffield Foundation-funded study entitled ‘Untying the Knot – Muslim Women, Divorce and the Shariah’. In this, she analysed some 287 case files of women who had contacted the Muslim Law (Shariah) Council UK between 1985 and 1995.

The study included interviews with a number of women and two Muslim women’s organisations, and Sonia came up with several significant findings and recommendations which even today are at the heart of the issues facing Muslim informal justice in the United Kingdom. In articulating the voices of Muslim women and their quest for justice within the shariah, Sonia’s report elevated the debate to a much higher standard than the mutually demonising level to which the debate descended in the Ontario Sharia Debate of 2004-2005 and the UK in 2008.

It was then that the Archbishop of Canterbury mentioned the shariah as a point of reference in resolving disputes informally in his speech at the Middle Temple Inn, which became so controversial. Sonia’s study showed, inter alia, that the women who were interviewed “did not complain about shariah as such, nor that they felt compelled to abide by its rulings: rather, it is the ignorance of this inalienable dimension of their lives that compounded the trauma of marriage breakdown for them.”

All the women interviewed for the study, and many women mentioned in the case files wanted to know more about their rights within shariah. Several women suggested that some kind of ‘premarital Islamic counselling’ should be made available and that women should act as a point of first contact and support for women who call on the shariah councils — acting as “intake” workers who provide initial information about the organisation and its procedures.

The study also showed that women preferred the coexistence of shariah alongside civil law rather than seeing encumbrances placed in shariah’s operation, “but not at the cost of lawyers and the judiciary remaining ignorant of the different needs of the Muslims of the UK”. The report also showed that the state of the law regarding the recognition of Muslim marriages conducted outside the UK was confusing to many women, and also, inexcusably, to some of their legal advisors. Other critical findings including costs involved in women trying to retrieve their mahr (dower), the repairing of relationships with their premarital families so that they could receive family support and emotional help, and the need for more timely marriage guidance and counselling both during the time that their marriage was breaking down and after. Many of these issues are pertinent today some 20 years after Sonia wrote her report in 2000.

Sonia recently authored a thought-provoking review of the 2018 book Understanding Sharia – Islamic law in a Globalised World (of which I must admit I was the co-author and declare my self-interest). In a nine-page review with 57 references, Sonia showed with consummate skill how egregious Islamophobic tropes have bedevilled the debate on this important topic, which is so critical in today’s globally interconnected world. She compliments the authors for not shying away from current controversies regarding Muslim women, such as female testimony, veiling and dress-codes, female genital mutilation and the criminal codes concerning sexuality, but then she highlights women’s oppression as a global phenomenon referring to it as “not only a minefield but a very real, complex and dangerous battleground for the security of half of humanity.” Sonia’s methodical arguments, clearly articulated, reflected a brilliant legal mind and a voice of understanding and compassion dealing with a subject that is so complex and difficult to unravel at the best of times.

Sadly, Sonia’s career and the promise of greater scholarship were cut short by ill health and though she was not engaged in any study in the last two years of her life, she did express the wish to write a book on the life of the daughter of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Hazrat Fatima, whom she saw as the paragon of virtue, saintly piety, and social justice. No doubt, such a work would have contributed significantly to a better understanding of Islam’s spiritual and humanistic heritage. With Sonia’s penchant for enhancing women’s rights and her sense of social justice, I have no doubt whatsoever that she would have been the ideal person to write such a book on one of Islam’s most illustrious personalities who constituted such a moral beacon in its founding period and who has inspired billions since.

Even during her incipient illness, Sonia would make the trek to the new Aga Khan Centre in London to take part in a weekly discussion group set up by some staff of the Institute of Ismaili Studies to study and argue over some pages by Rumi. Although Sonia’s main field of study had not been Islam or mysticism, all agreed that her contributions to the discussion of Rumi were the most valuable, the most insightful and the most sensitive both on the content and the language of the text. Sonia leaves behind her husband Reza and two younger brothers as well as a host of friends who will always remember her as a courageous champion for social justice, always ready to talk truth to power — something she could do with a deep spiritual focus, armed with a strong intellect, underpinned by impeccable moral rectitude, and informed social reflection. Certainly, Sonia was a lion-hearted individual with a brilliant intellect who will be sorely missed by many.

Mohamed M Keshavjee,
Barrister at Law and author of Islam, Sharia and Alternative Dispute Resolution — Methods of Legal Redress for the Muslim Community.

2 Responses to “A contemporary Muslim thinker – ahead of her time”

Mr Akhtar RizviApril 9, 2021

I wish to express my deep condolences to the grieving husband Reza Kazemi.

Reply

Dr Fatima HusainMay 8, 2021

To Reza Shah-Kazemi, my family and I send our sincere condolences for the loss of his wonderful wife. Sadly we never had an opportunity to meet though we always intended to.
I am deeply impressed by her faith and knowledge and grateful that she has left a legacy of her work. Her work on Hazrat Fatima (a.s.) would have been powerful. May Allah grant her jannah.

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