4 years agoProf. Asma Barlas
KCCRC: When did you understand
the problem of injustice against women in Muslim Community, and decided to work
on the gender equality and social justice in Islam?
Prof. Barlas: I was born and grew up in Pakistan and, only gradually, did I
come to understand that what I took to be “Islam” was, in fact, a particular
interpretation and practice of it. Lots of people who’re born Muslim have
little knowledge of Muslim religious and intellectual history and fewer still
are aware of the discipline of scriptural hermeneutics; that is, the theory,
philosophy, and methodology of interpreting sacred texts.
For instance, I grew up thinking there was only one way to read the Qur’an
without stopping to consider such issues as the multiplicity of language, the
relationship between method and meaning, or even the fact that interpretations
of the Qur’an are the work of a handful of Muslim men that have become sort of
frozen in time. It was these realizations and, more importantly, the fact that
I was always moved by the profound nature of most of the Qur’an’s teachings,
that eventually led me to write “Believing Women” in Islam (University of Texas
KCCRC: Like Amina Wadud, Your
work ("Believing Women" in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal
Interpretations of the Qur'an) also is an attempt to create a feminine
interpretation of Quran. Why have not the impartial or feminine interpretations
been until this era? Have the men been the only barrier? If not, have the role
of women themselves also been important in this regard?
Prof. Barlas: Actually, my work differs quite a bit from that of Amina Wadud’s,
as well as of my other peers, notably, Azizah al-Hibri and Riffat Hassan. For
instance, when al-Hibri, Wadud and I speak of patriarchy in relation to the
Qur’ān, we are saying fundamentally different things. Thus, al-Hibri (1982)
does not inquire into the nature of the relationship between the Qur’an and
patriarchy and when she speaks of Islam and patriarchy, she doesn’t define what
she means by patriarchy itself. Nor does Wadud (1999) who maintains that the
Qur’an is “neutral” to social and marital patriarchy. My own view, of course,
is that patriarchy constitutes a form of shirk (a derogation of God’s
sovereignty), a view Wadud has borrowed in her later work. Also, unlike her, I
do not take my own gender and experiences as a woman as my framework for
interpreting the Qur’ān.
And, while I agree with Hassan (1999) that, in Islam, sexual equality is
ontological, I find the evidence for this not only in the Qur’ān’s creation narrative,
as she does, but also in how it treats sex and gender. Lastly, unlike all these
scholars, I read the Qur’an in light of theological and hermeneutical criteria
the text itself proposes.
I can’t see how my interpretation would be labeled “feminine” or—for that
matter—feminist, since I have explained why I don’t read the Qur’an as a
feminist text or as a feminist myself.
And, of course, men are not the only barrier to reading the Qur’an in
egalitarian ways. Women are, too, especially secular feminists. I have recently
examined the claims some of these secular feminists and other secular scholars
make in an essay, “Secular and Feminist Critiques of the Qur’an” which was
published in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion (Fall, 2016). Among
the authors whose work I critique are Ebrahim Moosa, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Kecia
Ali, Raja Rhouni, and Aysha Hidayatullah.
KCCRC: What is your methodology to interpret the Quran? And what is your
critique on the traditional methodologies of Quran that have been until now?
Prof. Barlas: Let me first clarify that, at stake for me in how the Qur’an is
read are not simply women’s rights but also Muslim conceptions of God. For
instance, when Muslims think and speak of God in masculinist terms and as
favoring men, it is not just that men feel empowered, it is also that this way
of thinking and speaking about God violates what the Qur’an tells us about God.
Thus, when we look to the Qur’an, we find a transcendent God who is beyond our
understanding but also an immanent God who is closer to us than our jugular
veins, a God who does not beget, is not begotten, and is incomparable, since
“there is none like unto God” (112:4). This is why the Qur’an even tells us not
to use comparisons (similitude) for God. Put simply, just because the Qur’an
refers linguistically to God as “He” does not mean God is male. Also note that
the Qur’an forbids us from calling God father, an image of God that lies at the
core of patriarchal religions. This is partly why I argue that the Qur’an is not
a patriarchal text.
Then, too, among the Qur’an’s fundamental teachings is that God created men and
women from the same self (nafs), made them vice-regents on earth (khalifa),
charged them to be each other’s guides (awliya), and will judge each nafs by
the measure of her own endeavors in the end. The God of the Qur’an also does
not transgress against the rights of another, forbids compulsion in religion,
and is loving, patient, and subtle but also severe in reckoning. Yet mercy and
forgiveness precede God’s wrath. This, at a minimum, is the Creator that
Muslims are called on by Quran to worship, and this is the primary reason why I
read this Creator’s word as being liberating for women. This is also why I read
the text in light of such foundational teachings.
Additionally, I read the Qur’an in light of my understanding of patriarchy,
which I define as a mode of institutionalized male authority whose ideological
impetus derives from representing God as male in its religious iterations and
from using biological (sexual) differences between men and women to posit
gender inequalities in its secular. It is in light of this definition that I
call the Qur’an’s episteme antipatriarchal. This is because not only does the
Qur’an not patriarchalize God but it also does not teach that sexual
differences make women and men unequal. To the contrary, it emphasizes their
ontological equality, similarity, and equivalence. None of the so-called
anti-women or “hierarchy verses” proclaims otherwise. The handful of references
Muslims adduce on behalf of the idea that the Qur’an mandates sexual
hierarchies— for example, God made men women’s guardians (which is how they
translate qiwamah), gave them a “degree” above women, and allowed them to
strike a wife—are open to different interpretations. Besides, we can read such
verses historically, as speaking to the social and sexual realities of
As may be apparent to you, this is not the “traditional” way of reading the
Qur’an. Rather, the “traditional” way has been to read it in a linear and
atomistic manner without regard to whether the meanings derived from or
attributed to the Qur’an undermine its own theological claims about God. Fazlur
Rahman, Mustansir Mir, and Wadud have all offered extensive critiques of such
methods of Qur’an interpretation.
KCCRC: While some of the women say, they cannot accept any priority of men
under any name, i.e. by any interpretation of the word “Qawwamun”. How do you
interpret the verse of “Qawwamiyat” (“Al-rijal qawwamun ala al-nisa…”, An-Nisa,
Prof. Barlas: I believe I have already answered this question above but, more
specifically, I would say that just because men are women’s qawwamun does not
make them rulers or guardians over women, much less their masters. To be charged
to take care of your family is not an invitation to abuse and oppression women.
After all, the Qur’an says women and men are each other’s guides and guardians
(awliya) who both have the obligation to ‘enjoin the right and forbid the
wrong.’ How could women be men’s wali/ awliya if God had made men superior to
women and appointed them rulers or guardians or masters over women. Such a
claim just beggars the imagination!
As for the so-called “beating verse” in An-Nisa, I would encourage your readers
to look at the work Muhammad Waqas has done on it (Wife-Beating in Islam? The
Qur’an Strikes Back), disputing our conventional interpretations.
KCCRC: How is the relationship between your justice project and the political
power? Is there any possibility in the Islamic countries to perform this social
justice system that you follow it? Does it need some preconditions like
existence of a secular democratic government instead of religious one or
Prof. Barlas: I am a deep believer in the idea that there can be no freedom of
any sort—religious, intellectual, personal, civic—in societies that are
authoritarian and despotic and ruled by a cabal of men who are prone to using
Islam as a state ideology to justify their own power and to underwrite
patriarchy. This is why, without widespread political and economic change in
Muslim societies, we cannot have the kind of religious freedom the Qur’an seems
to envisage when it asks us to adhere to the “best” within its teachings.
To me, the idea of a “best” suggests that there is more than one way to
interpret the Qur’an, that we are not obliged to pick the worst reading, and
that we must have the freedom to debate as to what constitutes better and worse
interpretations. These are all rights the Qur’an itself has given Muslims but
nowhere in the world today are Muslims actually allowed to enjoy these rights.
In fact, most Muslims are brought up to believe that such ‘rights’ are not even
Asma Barlas (born 1950), is a Pakistani-American professor in the Politics department of Ithaca College, New York (USA). Her specialties include Islam, Qur'anic hermeneutics, Muslim women's rights, colonialism and decolonial thought. Her academic works are among references for religion and gender studies courses in several universities. Her most well-known book is "Believing Women" in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an (University of Texas, 2002; 2018) in which she proposes a theological and hermeneutical approach to the scripture that allows Muslims to read it on behalf of rights and equality.