New Age Islam
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Books and Documents ( 21 Nov 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Quranic Basis of Sexual Equality in Islam by Freeing the Quran from the Patriarchal Nature of Its Classical and Some Modern Exegesis


Author:  A. Barlas

Believing Women in Islam – Un-reading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an,

University of Texas Press, Austin, 2002,

254pp, index, illustrations, glossary, bibliography





By Dr. Adis Duderija, New Age Islam

Visiting Senior Lecturer, Gender Department, University Malaya

A. Barlas’ book under review is in many ways a fascinating and incisive scholarly writing which purports to restore what the author views as the Qur’anic basis of sexual equality in Islam by freeing the Qur’an from the patriarchal nature of its classical and some modern exegesis (or as Barlas would argue eisegesis). She does so systematically on both historical and hermeneutical grounds.

On historical grounds (discussed in Part One, chapters two and three of the book), Barlas argues that the strong association between patriarchy evident in the most classical commentaries of the Qur’anic exegesis and the Qur’an itself (in the eyes of those who find the Qur’an to be a patriarchal text) is a result of the manner in which Muslim history has unfolded. This process was “central in determining and defining religious epistemology and methodology, thus also to how Muslims came to read the Qur’an”(p. 203) in a patriarchal mode. Barlas argues that the most crucial aspect of this process was the classical legal theory methodology of making the Qur’an depended on and dislodging its hermeneutical privilege vis-à-vis its own exegesis by that of the concept of Sunnah which was later conceptually conflated with the canonical ahadith body of literature. This, in turn, resulted in restricting the scope of the Qur’an’s ‘authentic’ or authoritative exegesis as well as its epistemological, methodological and hermeneutic sources and techniques. Consequently, a certain type of inter-textual dynamics came into place which made the Qur’an and its interpretation heavily dependent upon the so-called four sources hierarchical theory of Shafi’ whose epistemologically, methodologically and epistemologically anchoring precept were the authentic ahadith with, as far as the status of women is concerned, largely legally/hermeneutically inconsequential variances between different schools of thought (Mazahib). Methodologically, classical Qur’anic commentary proceeded in two broad ways: either in accordance with the Mazhab-based method (that of the majority) which, rather than interpreting the Qur’an directly on the basis of a systematic analysis which could yield some kind of a Qur’anic Weltanschauung embodied in certain hermeneutically-privileged, ethico-moral and theological principles, focused primarily on authenticating and integrating commentator’s own views within that of the school’s method whose founding fathers were considered part of the sacred past, thus supremely authoritative. As such, the method was in essence conservative and stifled, if not obstructed, the surfacing of novel interpretations. The other method (a minority, but one that historically and periodically re-occurs and challenges that of the majority) partially overlapping with the madhhab-based, that of Ahl-hadith, was to interpret the Qur’an literally, piecemeal and largely de-contextually through the hadith body of literature whose epistemological roots stood on very shaky grounds and whose method of authenticity suffered considerable methodological weaknesses, even by the standards of some more rationally oriented pre-modern schools of thought. Both of these methods employed reason and reason-based hermeneutical principles only exegetically, thus derivatively, but not critically or philosophically.

Hadith literature and, by extension, hadith-based or tainted Qur’an exegesis contain strong misogynist elements and are thus, according to Barlas, the main culprit based on the above-mentioned classical legal theory methods, as to why the Qur’an was interpreted in a patriarchal manner. This is not the entire story, however. Barlas argues further that extra-textual sources, meaning primarily the political state, were also responsible for ensuring that the patriarchal readings of the Qur’an quashed any egalitarian readings that might have emerged. In this context she asserts that “[T]he conservatism of Muslim tradition, method, and memory, I have suggested, can be ascribed to a specific configuration of political and sexual power that privileged the state over civil society, men over women, conservatism over egalitarianism, and some religious texts and methodologies over others” (p.87).

Contrary to the views expressed by some feminist Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, or (Neo)-Orientalists, who consider the Qur’an as irredeemably patriarchal and claim that the only avenue of Muslim women emancipation can come by means of epistemological rapture with the pre-modern Islamic tradition, Barlas develops a systematic and very sound hermeneutic of reading the Qur’an for liberation to argue that the Qur’an can be:

1. Read in sexually egalitarian manner (in the sense that ‘the Qur’an considers sex as irrelevant to moral agency’) and

2. Moreover, that it is anti-patriarchal in nature.

To demonstrate this, Barlas first develops a comprehensive definition of patriarchy \as “a continuum at one end of which are misrepresentations of God as Father, and of fathers as rulers over wives and children, and at the other hand, the notion of sexual differentiation that is used to privilege males while otherizing women”(p. 204).

Barlas puts in place a number of perceptive theological and methodological precepts in order to demonstrate that the Qur’an is anti-patriarchal. Central to this is a theological argument/postulate derived from the Qur’an which Barlas terms ‘God’s self-disclosure’ that encompasses principles of Divine Unity, Justice and Incomparability/ Unrepresentativeness as the hermeneutically-privileged site from which to read the Qur’an’s anti-patriarchal nature. Here, Barlas links ontology with hermeneutics to argue that Qur’anic God as manifest in God’s self-disclosure does not advocate any of the patriarchal dimensions as found in her definition. Moreover, on this account, Barlas argues that the Qur’an can be seen as anti-patriarchal because it insists on God’s sovereignty. In this context, she maintains that “not only does Islamic monotheism, properly understood, serve to liberate women from the tyranny of male rule, but, by privileging the rights of God, it dislocates rule by the father as well as theories of male sovereignty, which are at the roots of women’s oppression”(p.205).

A methodological principles employed by Barlas to read the Qur’an for ‘liberation’ is the subscription to the polysemic nature of the Qur’anic text, which she uses to argue that the Qur’an may be read in a number of different contextually legitimate ways, including patriarchal as well as liberatory modes. Barlas also utilizes the intra-Qur’anic hermeneutical principle of reading for best meanings and textual holism to argue that the Qur’an cannot advocate Zulm (injustice) against women. as in the case of patriarchy. Another methodological principle she employs can be described as ‘comprehensive textualisation’, or a historical approach to Qur’anic interpretation. Faced by the conundrum of the Qur’an’s own potential responsibility for its misreading, in the postscript, Barlas develops a theory of textual responsibility underpinned by the above-mentioned methodological and theological principles to argue that the Qur’an both anticipated its misreading and formulated a ‘hermeneutic’ for its own proper reading (for best meaning and textual holism) and as such cannot be held responsible for the abuses of its signs. The onus, argues Barlas, is on the reader. Here, she is in concert with the view of scholars, such as El-Fadl, who assert that the Qur’an presupposes a level of morality on behalf of its readers/audiences as evident from the Qur’an’s usage of moral vocabulary such as al- ma’aruf (commonly understood to be morally good) and al-munkar (commonly know to be morally reprehensible). If this is the case, then the field of hermeneutics ought to take into consideration the dynamics behind the processes of how ‘acceptable’ standards and norms of ethics and morality are formed at both individual and communal/societal levels. Here, obviously, the role of educational institutions, families, significant others, (civil) societies and culture becomes very important.

Now to some criticisms

Barlas’ above-mentioned historical description of why the Qur’an was read in patriarchal modes, although grounded in a large body of scholarly work of the highest calibre, is completely founded on the premise of the Islamic tradition being based on a written discourse or texts. As such, it misses an important dimension: that of orality and its function in religious discourses, and how orality shaped Islamic disciplines such as tafsir, law, and legal theory. Orality is just mentioned in reference to the distinction between the Qur’an as oral discourse based on divine revelation, and that as text (Mushaf) by primarily drawing on work of Professor Arkoun. However, this distinction is not developed further or employed to argue for the importance of orality in Islamic tradition including hermeneutics, tafsir and/or legal theory.

This, of course, has important implications with respect to one of Barlas’ main objectives, namely to explain why the Qur’an was read in patriarchal modes. Why this is so, I shall attempt to explain below.

Professor Souaiaia argues that legal and exegetical traditions are embedded in the broader framework of an oral religious discourse which operates at an emotional-faith level that permeates through, and forms a foundation for, all other religious sciences, including exegesis and law.

Professor Souaiaia has also convincingly demonstrated that the development, formation and transmission of Islamic tradition was completely oral during the first three to four centuries of Islamic thought, and that it had a very important function in how the primary sources of the Islamic Weltanschuung, namely the Qur’an and Sunnah, were conceptualized and interpreted as well as in the development of early Islamic disciplines such as exegesis, theology, law and legal theory, all of which were orally-based. Moreover, Islamic law that emerged from tafsir and Kalam was accretive-ascriptive in nature, meaning that it grew as result of an interplay between the oral discourse rooted in the authoritative interpretation based on consensus of Companions and the actual Qur’ano-Sunnahic indicants based on changing times and circumstances. Thus, the basis for Islamic law was the legal, oral reasoning and the practice of the early Caliphs (giving rise to a notion of ‘authoritative, privileged parlance’, to use Professor Souaiaia’s terminology) rather than a close linguistic and syntactical analysis of the legal proofs found in the Qur’an or the hadith literature. It is this feature of Islamic law based on the consensus of early Companions (which itself was based on heterogeneous legal precedents, thus giving rise to a diversity of methods) that was responsible for the conservative nature of the classical method. Any later consensus, according to traditional usul-ul-fiqh, is unable to overturn that of the earlier one and merely attempted to retrojectively justify and integrate itself into existing schools’ legal hermeneutic. Drawing on the work of Wheeler, Barlas notes this important attribute of Islamic law by referring to it as the practice of ‘accumulating meaning’, but fails to appreciate the accretive nature of discourse-making and its hermeneutical-privileging rooted in authoritative oral discourse by placing it squarely within the written discourse dynamic. Additionally, Barlas’ attempt to explain the stagnation of Islamic thought and the absence of novel interpretation as based on F. Rahman’s Ijma’-Ijtihad reversal dynamic is skewed because it is referenced in relation to the ‘four sources theory’ advocated by Shafi’ and, as such, in relation to a completely text-based discourse. ‘Ijtihadic principles’, to borrow Souaiaia’s phrase, such as Ijtihad, ‘Ijma, istiqra, istihsan, qiyas, and istihsab have, in the post-formative period, been developed primarily as oral methodological tools for retrospective justification of legal opinions espoused by early authorities (in accordance with the above-mentioned accretive-ascriptive nature of Islamic law) which either were not explicitly rooted in the Qur’an and Sunnah or even contradicted them rather than as means for engendering novel interpretations. As such, they were, in essence, extensions of the overall principle of privileging orality and authoritative parlance with respect to the interpretation of primary sources in Semitic religious traditions.

How is this important to Barlas’ project? If the Qur’an and Sunnah in classical jurisprudence /legal theory were interpreted in accordance with the accretive-ascriptive nature of Islamic law, yielding patriarchal interpretations, then an argument can be put forward, as Barlas does, that they are not necessarily derived from the direct reading of Qur’an and Sunnah, indeed that they often contradicted either their spirit or the letter as in the case of polygamy and inheritance verses as Prof. Souaiaia found. Alternative readings that are more egalitarian (and in accordance with the grammatical and syntactical rules of the Arabic language) as such become a possibility, which Professor Souaiaia has also demonstrated. However, the challenge resides in overcoming the legal and hermeneutical potency of orality and authoritative, hermeneutically privileged parlance in religious discourses. In other words, the question of authority in interpretation becomes paramount. Barlas, in a way, acknowledges this in the postscript by admitting that, based on her gender and educational background, her new Qur’anic hermeneutic, even if it is more faithful to the Qur’an then the classical ones, will not be recognized as such by many a ‘conservative’ Muslim.

Another criticism that I need to level at Barlas’ study is its discussion of the Sunnah –hadith dynamic. Although, unlike many other studies, Barlas does make some important distinctions between the two concepts and between Sunnah of the Prophet and the Sunnah of the Medinian community (which I elsewhere termed ‘Sunnah ‘amaliyyah’), her concept of Sunnah is epistemologically and methodologically dependent upon the hadith body of literature and conceptually divorced from the Qur’an. This has important implications insofar as it identifies misogynist elements of hadith with the Sunnah which, in turn, based on the widely accepted classical legal theory maxim, discussed by Barlas in length, of the Qur’an’s hermeneutical dependency on Sunnah, infects Qur’anic tafsir with misogynist and patriarchal elements. As I have argued elsewhere, in early Islamic thought spanning the first two to three centuries, the Qur’an and Sunnah were conceptualized as existing in a hermeneutically and conceptually symbiotic relationship (as two sides of the same coin) and were interpreted in accordance with the accretive-ascriptive nature of Islamic law as explained above. Furthermore, the Sunnah was conceptualized, formulated and transmitted epistemologically and methodologically independent of hadith, often acting as a methodological filter or criterion for assessing the authenticity and epistemological and methodological validity of hadith. This conceptualization of the nature and the scope of the Sunnah that is completely independent of hadith and its hermeneutical /conceptual relationship vis-à-vis the Qur’an and hadith, alongside other hermeneutical and methodological principles, can be effectively employed to both argue against the misogynist and patriarchal nature of the Qur’an and Sunnah and to disassociate them from the mantle of patriarchal exegesis that has enwrapped them for so long.

Lastly, the study under review does not discuss the question of the nature of value in the Qur’an and its ethico-legal philosophy. This is a significant omission because any hermeneutic needs to, at least partially, be anchored in certain values or principles (for an example of a new Qur’anic hermeneutic anchored in, and hermeneutically privileging, certain values or principles see A. Saeed’s Interpreting the Qur’an- A Contemporary Approach, 2006, Routledge). In the case of book under review, Barlas take recourse to the concept of God’s justice as being one important facet of God’s self-disclosure . However, the question of the nature of God’s justice and whether, from the Qur’anic perspective, it is to be understood in ethically objectivist or voluntarist terms is not addressed. Barlas just laments in the post-script (p.204) that Muslims, despite the Qur’an’s emphasis on justice and its condemnation of Zulm (injustice), have read the Qur’an in a way that has done Zulm unto women. This discussion of the nature of ethical values in the Qur’anic discourse, as I argued elsewhere, has important implications in relation to the question of the status of women in Islam (See‘believer’-and-‘muslim-woman’-concepts--author-adis-duderija-explains-his-book-for-new-age-islam-readers/d/6556

The criticism notwithstanding, “Believing Women” is a very courageous and engaging book that is an essential reading for those interested in Islam, Islamic hermeneutics, women and gender studies, and contemporary Islamic thought.

Note: this book can be downloaded for free here: