Book Name: Believing
Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’ān
Author: Asma Barlas
In her book Believing Women in Islam: Unreading
Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’ān, Barlas presents an intriguing
examination of the place women occupy in the Islamic discourse. Contemporary
Islam – both in terms of exegesis and praxis – takes on an overtly
misogynistic tone that has in the present era translated itself into a variety
of practices ranging from female genital mutilation and honour killings to
more subtle yet equally problematic forms of control over the sexuality and
freedom of the female, such as the imposition of the purdah. It is thus that
the overriding objective of Barlas in Believing Women in Islam becomes the
need to seek a reinterpretation of the Qur’ān in order to answer the
fundamental question; is this – the absolute word of the Divine for a believer
– an intrinsically patriarchal text? Do biological differences translate into
the gender differentiation and inequality, or can the Qur’ān be interpreted as
an egalitarian text?
Barlas thus presents a challenge to the various
oppressive interpretations of the Qur’ān, while also presenting a reading by
means of which Muslim women can reach for equality while remaining within the
teachings of the Qur’ān.
The foundation of her work remains the idea of the possibility of multiple
readings of the text, which must not be confused with the text itself. A look
at the content of her book illustrates the path her argument takes.
In chapter one – an introductory chapter to the rest of
the book – Barlas fleshes out the various issues and themes she aims to
analyze in her book.
Mainstream Islamic thought has manifested a gradual
shift away from what Leila Ahmed terms the “stubbornly egalitarian” nature of
with a monopoly of interpretation of the legal discourse in Islam vested in
Muslim clerics. This circumvents the possibility of reinterpretation;
alternatives to the common interpretation of the word of God are viewed as
aberrations, thus acting to stifle new voices in Islam. Barlas turns to the
necessity of reinterpretation or ijtihād of the status of women in Islam. The
basis for this reasoning lies in the fact that the Qur’ān can be read in
several modes; the current patriarchal mode is determined by a specific
reading of Islam – arising through the “ingrained biases” of its interpreters
which act to perpetuate the modes of “father rule” in society
– rather than being the only reading possible. Thus there exists a
fundamental flaw in the epistemology of reading Islam.
The foundation for her methodology lies in the
assumption that all texts are polysemic and thus open to re-contextualization.
The difficulty in establishing an un-patriarchal reading of the Qur’ān lies in
the mistake of taking sexual differences as the grounds for inequality;
especially with the “proof” of such being manifested in Qur’ānic differentials
in the treatment according to sex.
Various portions of the Qur’ān have also been taken out and read in a
“linear-atomistic” method that ignores the context – textual and historic – of
the verses in question, and furthermore, has been explicitly condemned in the
Keeping this in mind, she sets out a system of Qur’ānic hermeneutics based on
Divine Self Disclosure aimed at establishing the intrinsically egalitarian
spirit of the Qur’ān.
The next chapter moves on to a discussion of the texts
in Islam, the Qur’ān, A%hadīth, tafsīr, before moving on to examine the
relationship between the texts themselves, time, and the method utilized to
understand the primary text i.e. the Qur’ān. For the first, she emphasizes the
fact that a “key hypothesis of hermeneutical philosophy is that interpretation
is an open process that no single vision can conclude”.
A pluralism of meanings exists, which, while not implying that the Qur’ān has
variants, had led to the need for exegesis or tafsīr.
The fundamental problem here arose with the tafsīr being confused with the
Qur’ān itself, thus vesting it with epistemological certitude. She gives the
example of Tabarī introducing his commentaries with “God says”, which
increased the confusion of one with the other.
In the case of A%hadīth as well, various problems arise, with misogynistic
A%hadīth presenting women as “evil”, despite the fact that many of these were
introduced into the official corpus some time after its closure. Thus, a
distinction must be made between the Qur’ān and the other texts (i.e. A%hādīth
and tafsīr) that have been given greater certitude than the Qur’ān itself.
Barlas also goes on to examine the way in which specific verse, such as those
relating to veiling are generalized,
while the historical context in which they were revealed is ignored.
Chapter three explores the relationships between texts,
as well as the role other extra-textual factors (Sunnah, state, and sharī‘ah)
play; the basic aim of this chapter being an effort to explain how the Qur’ān
came to be read in a restrictive manner thus obstructing liberating
re-readings. In terms of Sunnah for example we see the adoption of the maxim
“the Qur’ān does not rule on Sunnah”,
which undermines the idea of self sufficiency of the Qur’ān. To illustrate
this, we see the sharī‘ah being based on the Qur’ān as interpreted through the
Sunnah, and with the closing of ijtihād, the privileging of ijmā‘. Barlas
moves on to discuss orthodoxy in Islam as resulting from the way in which
interpretive communities and state promulgated their hegemonies.
She also examines the nexus between the Abbasid State and the scholars, where
the unity of the community was an overriding state interest leading not only
to the elevation of ijmā‘, but also the doctoring of the historical corpus.
In part two of the book, Barlas focuses on specific
issues regarding women and their status in Islam. Chapter four examines the
notion of patriarchy in the Qur’ān through an analysis of the representations
of God and Prophets, asserting that the Qur’ān does not advocate father rule,
rather, it actively opposes it. To illustrate, we see her use the concept of
Divine Unity, tawhid (the un-representability and incomparability of God) to
establish that God cannot be referred to as male as this anthropomorphizes the
Divine; doing so defines the male as Self and woman as other. She also draws
from Qur’ānic references to prophethood. Thus Abraham’s rejection of the
religion of his fathers, and his status as imam not patriarch again signifies
a rejection of the system of father rule.
The fifth chapter turns to analyze gender/sex
constructs in the Qur’ān, in an effort to elucidate how, while recognizing
biological differences across gender, the Qur’ān does not create a binary
opposition between the two (making the female unclean/inferior/0ther as
opposed to the male). Significant to her discussion is the idea of the
ontological sameness of both men and women, based on an examination of the
implications of various Qur’ānic verse.
Equality may be inferred from the fact that both sexes are judged on the same
standards of behaviour with no distinctions being made between their sexual
natures, and are appointed as guardians for each other.
Thus, “the sole function of difference in the Qur’ān is to differentiate
between belief and unbelief;”
hierarchy may only be moral and not based on any other constructs of
difference. She also goes on to discuss the notion of women as sexual property
as derived from the verse describing women as harth (tilth/property), which
she feels has been misinterpreted to signify ownership of women rather than
the nurturing off through an atomistic reading.
Deriving from the preceding analysis, Barlas moves on
to discuss family and marriage in the Qur’ān in chapter six. The Qur’ān is
shown to repudiate the notion of father/husband control over the female,
especially when examined in terms of the socio-political milieu to which it
(the Qur’ān) was revealed. The relationship of parent with child is not that
of ruler/subject; rather, children (male or female) have freedom to reject the
authority of the parents (mothers are however privileged over fathers). In
terms of the relationship between husband and wife, she reiterates the notion
of “ontic equality”
and proceeds to discuss various pertinent issues regarding the status of women
in marriage. Regarding wife beating, she holds the relevant verse to be a
restriction on the practice – a last resort – rather than a license to do so.
Similarly, other issues are brought up, such as polygyny, divorce and
adultery, which too can be seen to privilege the female to some extent in
terms of the rights accorded to her.
Finally, in the postscript of the book she recaps the
main arguments utilized to reach her re-reading of the Qur’ān, and reiterates
her hope that such readings will come to replace the prevalent misogynistic
readings of the Qur’ān.