Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an

Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an

by Asma Barlas

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Does Islam call for the oppression of women? Non-Muslims point to the subjugation of women that occurs in many Muslim countries, especially those that claim to be "Islamic," while many Muslims read the Qur'an in ways that seem to justify sexual oppression, inequality, and patriarchy. Taking a wholly different view, Asma Barlas develops a believer's reading of the… See more details below


Does Islam call for the oppression of women? Non-Muslims point to the subjugation of women that occurs in many Muslim countries, especially those that claim to be "Islamic," while many Muslims read the Qur'an in ways that seem to justify sexual oppression, inequality, and patriarchy. Taking a wholly different view, Asma Barlas develops a believer's reading of the Qur'an that demonstrates the radically egalitarian and antipatriarchal nature of its teachings. Beginning with a historical analysis of religious authority and knowledge, Barlas shows how Muslims came to read inequality and patriarchy into the Qur'an to justify existing religious and social structures and demonstrates that the patriarchal meanings ascribed to the Qur'an are a function of who has read it, how, and in what contexts. She goes on to reread the Qur'an's position on a variety of issues in order to argue that its teachings do not support patriarchy. To the contrary, Barlas convincingly asserts that the Qur'an affirms the complete equality of the sexes, thereby offering an opportunity to theorize radical sexual equality from within the framework of its teachings. This new view takes readers into the heart of Islamic teachings on women, gender, and patriarchy, allowing them to understand Islam through its most sacred scripture, rather than through Muslim cultural practices or Western media stereotypes.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Barlas, associate professor and chair of politics at Ithaca College, offers a comprehensive revisionist treatment of how the Qur'an actually views women as equal and even superior to men. Persuaded that Islam is a religion of egalitarianism, Barlas is equally clear that misogyny and patriarchy have seeped into Islamic practice through "traditions": the sunna, or the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam; the hadiths, or sayings attributed to Muhammad; and the shariah, or law derived from the Qur'an. Barlas argues that a military-scholarly complex manipulated the Qur'an to establish these traditions in a successful effort to preserve the position of the military rulers and clerics of early Islamic history with women's status being the victim. Some flawed traditions, along with mistranslations, ingrained patriarchy into Qur'anic interpretation, in spite of obvious Qur'anic injunctions to the contrary. Barlas's thesis is irresistible: the Qur'an itself has a very positive view of women whereas patriarchal culture caused the various interpreters of the Qur'an to read their own biases into the text to justify the oppression of women. Barlas quotes from a smorgasbord of Islamic scholars, resulting at times in a choppy read that drowns out her own more appealing voice. The opening chapter is bogged down in such quoting, and also in excessive worrying over her critics on either side of the debate. Despite these flaws, this book is loaded with interesting facts about Islam that may even surprise Muslims. (July) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Interim director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity at Ithaca College, Barlas analyzes both the Qur'anic text itself and its relationship to other Muslim texts and to cultural context. She argues that the language of the Qur'an, with its emphasis on divine unity, justness, and incomparability, rejects "the patriarchal imagery of God-the-Father and the prophets-as-fathers" and in fact counters "the history of rule by fathers." She further argues that the Qur'an refuses to espouse a view of sex/gender differentiation, recognizing equal spousal rights for both sexes and mutuality in marital relations. The Qur'an even links "the reverence humans owe to God and the reverence they owe to their others" and "is the only Scripture to address the rights of girls" to paternal love and "the problem of fathers' abuse of daughters." Prevalent Qur'anic misreadings, she concludes, can be traced to the sunna (or traditions), the hadiths (or sayings) of the Prophet, and the shariah (or law), which were developed by an early military-scholarly complex. This challenging book complements Amina Wadud's Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective; both are important for academic and larger public libraries. Carolyn M. Craft, Longwood Univ., Farmville, VA

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"Believing Women" in Islam

Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an

By Asma Barlas

University of Texas Press

Copyright © 2002 University of Texas Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-292-70903-X

The Qur'an and Muslim Women Reading Patriarchy, Reading Liberation

It was not God who wronged them, but they wronged their own souls.

The Qur'an (30:9)

This work reflects my ongoing engagement with two questions that have both theoretical significance and real-life consequences for Muslims, especially women: First, does Islam's Scripture, the Qur'an, teach or condone sexual inequality or oppression? Is it, as critics allege, a patriarchal and even sexist and misogynistic text? Intimately related to that question is the second: Does the Qur'an permit and encourage liberation for women?

When I ask whether the Qur'an is a patriarchal or misogynistic text, I am asking whether it represents God as Father/male or teaches that God has a special relationship with males or that males embody divine attributes and that women are by nature weak, unclean, or sinful. Further, does it teach that rule by the father/husband is divinely ordained and an earthly continuation of God's Rule, as religious and traditional patriarchies claim?

Alternatively, does the Qur'an advocate gender differentiation, dualisms, or inequality on the basis of sexual (biological) differences between women and men? In other words, does it privilege men over women in their biological capacity as males, ortreat man as the Self (normative) and woman as the Other, or view women and men as binary opposites, as modern patriarchal theories of sexual differentiation and inequality do?

When I ask whether we can read the Qur'an for liberation, I am asking whether its teachings about God as well as about human creation, ontology, sexuality, and marital relationships challenge sexual inequality and patriarchy. Alternatively, do the teachings of the Qur'an allow us to theorize the equality, sameness, similarity, or equivalence, as the context demands, of women and men?

It is obvious that much is at stake for Muslims in how we answer these questions, especially in view of the increasing levels of violence against women in many states from Afghanistan to Algeria today. What is less obvious—given the widespread tendency to blame Islam for oppressing Muslims rather than blaming Muslims for misreading Islam—is the possibility that we can answer the first set of questions—is the Qur'an a patriarchal or misogynistic text—in the negative, while we answer the second—can the Qur'an be a source for women's liberation—in the affirmative. Using an interpretive methodology, or hermeneutics, derived from the Qur'an, as well as two definitions of patriarchy (as a tradition of father-rule, and as a politics of gender inequality based in theories of sexual differentiation), I hope to show not only that the Qur'an's epistemology is inherently antipatriarchal but that it also allows us to theorize the radical equality of the sexes.

This book, then, is as much a critique of sexual/textual oppression in Muslim societies as it is a concerted attempt to recover what Leila Ahmed (1992) calls the "stubbornly egalitarian" voice of Islam and to locate it as a legitimate countervoice to the authoritarian voice of Islam about which we hear so much these days, especially in the Western media. If, as Ahmed says, these "fundamentally different Islams" arise in different readings, then it is imperative to challenge the authoritarian and patriarchal readings of Islam that are profoundly affecting the lives and future of Muslim women.

This is not to say, however, that sexual inequality and discrimination are a function merely of misogynistic readings of Islam, or that one can explain the status of Muslim women "solely in terms of the Qur'an and/or other Islamic sources all too often taken out of context" (El-Sohl and Mabro 1994, 1). As many recent studies reveal, women's status and roles in Muslim societies, as well as patriarchal structures and gender relationships, are a function of multiple factors, most of which have nothing to do with religion. The history of Western civilization should tell us that there is nothing innately Islamic about misogyny, inequality, or patriarchy. And yet, all three often are justified by Muslim states and clerics in the name of Islam. This recourse to sacred knowledge—or, more accurately, knowledge that claims to derive from religion—to justify sexual oppression, and the resulting mis-association of the sacred with misogyny, motivates my own engagement with Qur'anic hermeneutics and, I believe, renders such an engagement imperative, even unavoidable, to all projects of Muslim women's (and men's) liberation.

Even though a Qur'anic hermeneutics cannot by itself put an end to patriarchal, authoritarian, and undemocratic regimes and practices, it nonetheless remains crucial for various reasons. First, hermeneutic and existential questions are ineluctably connected. As the concept of sexual/ textual oppression suggests, there is a relationship between what we read texts to be saying and how we think about and treat real women. This insight, though associated with feminists because of their work on reading and representation, is at the core of revelation albeit in the form of the reverse premise: that there is a relationship between reading (sacred texts) and liberation. If this were not the case, there would be little point in God's communicating with us in order to reform us. Accordingly, if we wish to ensure Muslim women their rights, we not only need to contest readings of the Qur'an that justify the abuse and degradation of women, we also need to establish the legitimacy of liberatory readings. Even if such readings do not succeed in effecting a radical change in Muslim societies, it is safe to say that no meaningful change can occur in these societies that does not derive its legitimacy from the Qur'an's teachings, a lesson secular Muslims everywhere are having to learn to their own detriment.

However, even though Muslim women directly experience the consequences of oppressive misreadings of religious texts, few question their legitimacy and fewer still have explored the liberatory aspects of the Qur'an's teachings. Yet, without doing so, they cannot contest the association, falsely constructed by misreading Scripture, between the sacred and sexual oppression. This association serves as the strongest argument for inequality and discrimination among Muslims since many people either have not read the Qur'an or accept its patriarchal exegesis unquestioningly. However, as numerous scholars have pointed out, inequality and discrimination derive not from the teachings of the Qur'an but from the secondary religious texts, the Tafsir (Qur'anic exegesis) and the Ahadith (s. hadith) (narratives purportedly detailing the life and praxis of the Prophet Muhammad). As such, by

returning to a fresh and immediate interpretation of the Holy Book, and by taking a new and critical look at the Hadiths—in other words, by engaging in creative ijtihad—modern Islamic authority could very well reform and renew the position of Islam on the issue of the status of women. (Stowasser 1984, 38)

A reinterpretation of the Scripture is particularly important because the Qur'an's teachings provide Muslims with role models for both women and men. Since different readings of the Qur'an (and of other texts) can yield what are for women "fundamentally different Islams," it becomes crucial for them "to reinvestigate the normative religious texts" and even to become specialists in the sacred text, as Fatima Mernissi (1986) urges.

Finally, as theorists argue in other contexts, there is "no practice without a theory," and Muslims have yet to derive a theory of equality from the Qur'an. This is partly because, as Fazlur Rahman (1982, 2) points out, Muslims have yet to resolve "basic questions of method and hermeneutics." Every new reading of the Qur'an, by helping to resolve these basic questions of hermeneutics, can also help to generate such a theory. That is why critiquing the methods by which Muslims produce religious meaning and rereading the Qur'an for liberation are crucial for ensuring sexual equality.

In attempting to do both here, I concentrate on recovering the liberating and egalitarian voice of Islam that is rarely heard today but which we are most in need of hearing. In the rest of the chapter, I explain my arguments regarding the reading of the Qur'an; how Muslims read sexual inequality and patriarchy into it; how we can read the Qur'an for liberation; my epistemology and methodology; and, finally, the plan of this book.

I. Reading the Qur'an

Those who read Islam as a misogynistic and "uncompromising and overtly paternalistic" religion (Hussain 1994, 118) point both to the Qur'an's alleged advocacy of sexual inequality and to the long history of discrimination against women in most Muslim societies. My purpose here is not to deny that the Qur'an can be read in patriarchal modes (as privileging males), that oppressive practices in many Muslim societies often stem from an uncritical adherence to what are assumed to be Islamic norms and strictures, or that the images of "the woman" in the Muslim unconscious are indeed misogynistic. Nor do I deny that "the enveloping maleness" of Muslim religious text engenders grave problems for women, as does the legalization of sexual inequality by classical Muslim law, the Shari'ah. Rather, I argue that descriptions of Islam as a religious patriarchy that allegedly has "God on its side" confuse the Qur'an with a specific reading of it, ignoring that all texts, including the Qur'an, can be read in multiple modes, including egalitarian ones. Moreover, patriarchal readings of Islam collapse the Qur'an with its exegesis (Divine Discourse with "its earthly realization"); God with the languages used to speak about God (the Signified with the signifier); and normative Islam with historical Islam. Thus, Islam and Muslims are confused on the one hand, and texts, cultures, and histories are collapsed on the other. My purpose is both to critique the methods by which Muslims generate patriarchal readings of the Qur'an and to recover the egalitarian aspects of Qur'anic epistemology. I do this on the basis of two claims, whose substantiation provides the subject matter of the two parts of this book.

My first and relatively simple claim is that, insofar as all texts are polysemic, they are open to variant readings. We cannot therefore look to a text alone to explain why people have read it in a particular mode or why they tend to favor one reading of it over another. This is especially true of a sacred text like the Qur'an which "has been ripped from its historical, linguistic, literary, and psychological contexts and then been continually recontextualized in various cultures and according to the ideological needs of various actors" (Arkoun 1994, 5). We need, therefore, to examine who has read the Qur'an historically, how they have read it—that is, how they have chosen to define the epistemology and methodology of meaning, hence certain ways of knowing (the realm of hermeneutics)—and the extratextual contexts in which they have read it. In particular, we need to examine the roles of Muslim interpretive communities and states (the realm of sexual politics) in shaping religious knowledge and authority in ways that enabled patriarchal readings of the Qur'an. I address these issues, which impinge on the power and politics of reading itself, in Part I of the book.

If emphasizing the Qur'an's textual polysemy allows me to argue against interpretive reductionism, however, it merely reiterates modern definitions of the text and also a well-known historical fact; it says nothing specific about the Qur'an itself. And I do want to make a more specific, if also more controversial, claim (in dialogue with recent Muslim and feminist scholarship) which is that the Qur'an is egalitarian and antipatriarchal. This, of course, is a harder claim to establish for at least two reasons. First, while there is no universally shared definition of sexual equality, there is a pervasive (and oftentimes perverse) tendency to view differences as evidence of inequality. In light of this view, the Qur'an's different treatment of women and men with respect to certain issues (marriage, divorce, giving of evidence, etc.) is seen as manifest proof of its anti-equality stance and its patriarchal nature. However, I argue against this view on the grounds both that (as many feminists themselves now admit) treating women and men differently does not always amount to treating them unequally, nor does treating them identically necessarily mean treating them equally. Second, as my reading will show, the Qur'an's different treatment of women and men is not based in claims about either sexual difference or sameness that theories of sexual inequality and oppression make.

Another difficulty with claiming that the Qur'an is egalitarian and anti-patriarchal is that some of its teachings, especially those dealing with polygyny and "wife beating," suggest otherwise, as does the fact that the Qur'an recognizes men as the locus of power and authority in actually existing patriarchies. However, recognizing the existence of a patriarchy, or addressing one, is not the same as advocating it. Moreover, the Qur'an's provisions about polygyny, "wife beating," and so forth—which have been open to serious misinterpretation—were in the nature of restrictions, not a license. However, we can only address these types of issues if, in addition to questioning the textual strategies Muslims have used to read the Qur'an, we also keep in mind the historical context of its revelation in a seventh-century (Arab) tribal patriarchy (much like the Taliban in Afghanistan today). Contextualizing the Qur'an's teachings (i.e., explaining them with reference to the immediate audience and social conditions to which they were addressed), shows that, far from being oppressive, they were profoundly egalitarian; it depends on how we position the Qur'an and also ourselves vis-à-vis it historically.

If this line of reasoning suggests that the meanings we derive from, or ascribe to, the Qur'an are unfixable, or are fixable only in the context of a given historical period or hermeneutic method, it does not mean that we can never know the Qur'an's meanings or intent, or that all the meanings we derive from it are equally legitimate. Nor does it mean that the Qur'an is not universal in its scope, or that its teachings were egalitarian only by the standards of a seventh-century society and are irredeemably oppressive by ours. On the contrary, I will contest each of these propositions on the basis both of a hermeneutic argument and by reading (in Part II) the Qur'an's teachings on a wide range of issues, extending from the nature of Divine Self-Disclosure (how God defines God), to the Qur'an's view of prophets, parents, spouses, human creation, moral agency, sex/gender, and sexuality. My reading draws on hermeneutic principles suggested by the Qur'an for its own interpretation, as well as on a comprehensive definition of patriarchy; it also is based in conceptual distinctions that Muslims who read the Qur'an as a patriarchal text usually fail to make. Prior to specifying my own approach, however, I would like to discuss how Muslims and their critics read patriarchy, inequality, and even misogyny into the Qur'an.


Excerpted from "Believing Women" in Islam by Asma Barlas. Copyright © 2002 by University of Texas Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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John L. Esposito
This is an original and, at times, groundbreaking piece of scholarship.

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