Interpretation of Quran, Gender and Social justice in Islam

6 years ago

Prof. 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 Press, 2002).

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 seventh-century Arabs.

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, 34)?

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 religion-dominated government?

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 Islamic!

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. 

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