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“Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’ān
Book Review
Amena Raja

Book Name:      Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’ān

Author:             Asma Barlas

Publisher:         Sama

Year:                2004


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.1 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.   

Chapter Summaries

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 Islam2, 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 society3 – 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.4 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 text itself.5 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.6

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”.7 A pluralism of meanings exists, which, while not implying that the Qur’ān has variants, had led to the need for exegesis or tafsīr.8 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.9 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,10 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”,11 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.12 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.13

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.14

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.15 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.16 Thus, “the sole function of difference in the Qur’ān is to differentiate between belief and unbelief;”17 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”18 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.19 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.


1. Asma Barlas, “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’ān (Sama: Karachi, 2004), xi.

2. Barlas, “Believing Women” in Islam, 2.

3. Fatima Raja. Review of “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an, by Asma Barlas in Books Etc, Vol. I, No. 16, July 30-August 12 2004, 4.

4. Barlas, “Believing Women” in Islam, 6. Various practices such as wife beating are thus mentioned within the Qur’ān, however Barlas feels it is important to realize that these are by nature restrictions on such acts rather than licenses.

5. Ibid., 8.

6. Through an analysis of the concepts of tawhīd, zulm and incomparability, she holds that men cannot become intermediaries between god and women (tawhīd); God does not condone oppression of women (thus the Qur’ān does not teach zulm towards women) and finally, as God is incomparable, it follows that expressions such as “he” cannot be used to refer to God. The signifier used by her is Rabb. 

7. Barlas, “Believing Women” in Islam, 35.

8. Ibid., 38. Other causes also played an important role in causing the need for exegesis, such as the opacity of various verses, and the political and social needs of the day (as in governance of a diverse community)

9. Ibid., 45.

10. Barlas, “Believing Women” in Islam, 58. Barlas interprets these ayāt to refer to specific circumstances such as setting apart the believing woman from the society of unbelievers. Similarly, the verses only make reference to the covering of the bosom; however, this over time has come to relate to the entire body of the female. 

11. Ibid., 66.

12. Ibid., 76-79 Restrictions are placed not on the content of the canon, but on the “authoritative” principles used to interpret it. This with the closure of ijtihād ensures minimal liberty in interpretation as well as in establishing different paradigms. Meanings are accumulated over time as the process of readings looks backwards. Subsequently, it becomes nearly impossible to recover the Qur’ān’s egalitarian nature.

13. Ibid., 84.

14. Barlas, “Believing Women” in Islam 114.

15. Ibid., 134 e.g. It is [God] Who has produced you from a single person (6:98) and [have We not] created You in pairs? (78:8): all of which imply an equality that undermines the notion of hierarchy on the basis of sex/gender.

16. Ibid., 140.

17. Ibid., 146.

18. Barlas, “Believing Women” in Islam, 183.

19. Ibid., 185. In a discussion of 4:34 regarding the issue of wife beating and guardianship. For a detailed discussion, see page 185.

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