New Age Islam
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Books and Documents ( 20 Aug 2017, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Of Context and Semantics

By Musab Khalid

August 20, 2017

Title – Quran and Woman: Rereading the sacred texts from a woman’s perspective

Author – Amina Wadud

 As a general rule, I shy away from taking book recommendations, mostly owing to the fact that my existing to-read list has an irksome quality of expanding in a ridiculous manner, and books on theology often stop short of even making it to the shortlist. However, there were several distinct reasons that made this book sound like an interesting read.

First and foremost was the personality of the author herself, her bold stance against the status quo embroiling her in several controversies, most notably for challenging the existing patriarchal structures by leading a congregational prayer which comprised a mixed-gender audience, and most notoriously for calling the Prophet Abraham a ‘dead-beat-dad’[1]. Second was the subject itself, a subject alien compared to the familiar tropes and regular tirades that we’re so accustomed to listening, be it our cliché-ridden Friday sermons, or the oft-repeated droning in our familial gatherings. And it was a refreshing take on it as well, especially considering the recent and doubtfully prominent rise of progressive Muslims, with the millennial generation accepting more of alternate worldviews. The third and last reason was a bit more personal. My reading list was recommending any book banned in the country I reside, and considering I live in a Muslim majority country, it was predictable that the government would feel threatened by a book which was not perfectly aligning with their version of Islam.

The first impression I had was a disappointing one, as it looked no different than those books wherein they keep extrapolating the Quranic verses till they have literally wrenched out the meaning they wanted for their particular argument (Of course, the degree of extrapolation would differ according to the meaning they wanted), and most of the introductory chapters do seem like that. It is when you hit the middle of the book that that you realize the author wanted to leave no stone unturned to establish the prerequisites for her arguments, more so that no refutation would be possible on those grounds later.

The author begins by describing the existing methods that the Quran is critiqued in, and proceeds to define the process she would be using in her analysis. She neither conforms to the more traditionalistic method of exegesis, which stems from certain objectives in mind, and which have been the exclusive domain of men, thereby either neglecting the female experiences or looking at them through a male perspective. Nor does she side with the second category, which uses the handicap of women in Muslim societies to oppose the Quranic text.

Instead, a hermeneutical method is adopted, which considers the local context in which it was written, the grammatical composition, order of revelation, and the language.

The book is structured in the following manner: The duality of creation and the origins of humankind are discussed to establish the fact that no distinction between man and woman in creation is made in the sacred text. Following that, some light is thrown on the mentions of the female sex in the Quran as an individual and the distinction between all living creatures being based on Taqwa. Before addressing the controversial verses which often form the crux of feminist debates, the equality of women is further established in the context of the hereafter and the recompense for their services. The last section regarding the roles and rights of women is perhaps the most interesting one.

The verses brought into the limelight during debates concerning the superiority of the male sex over its counterpart are addressed in detail in this section. The issues regarding the rank (Darajah) is first analyzed within the context of the verses that had the same word, but were chronologically issued before the disputed verses. This analysis establishes the ranking of the individual or a group over the basis of deeds or a specific endowment by God. It also brings to light the point that even though the Quran states the primary characteristics of both the sexes, it never actually appoints roles, rather encouraging different individual contexts to determine the functional distinction between its members. The traditional interpretation of that verse (regarding the Darajah) is often at odds with all the preceding and succeeding values established by the text, which is why it needs to be first restricted to the subject at hand, and with the proper linguistic analysis, that interpretation loses its remaining credibility as well.

Even the cause behind required number of witnesses is attributed to the existing patriarchal structure of that situation, wherein a woman would be easily coerced or forced by a male member and another woman and the inclusion of another woman would be a support towards her, therefore not only signifying the individual worth, but also calling for a united support against the other witnesses.

In a similar manner, the arguments regarding the preferential status, as well as the response to the disruption of marital harmony are subject to a scrutiny, and in turn presented with an alternate, more acceptable interpretation. However, in one specific case, it raises another critical question in its place. Since the stance of religious apologists on the verse regarding the striking is that it was to be taken as a restriction on the existing practices, in this case the excessive violence towards women, the restriction itself serves to condemn the violence as an evil practice. The establishment of that theory begs the question as to why then, wasn’t the practice abolished in its entirety? Would it be deemed impractical to do so because of its sheer impossibility? The ruling regarding the prohibition of alcohol nullifies that particular argument. Then again, arguments on religious scriptures often end in such paradoxes.

At least Ms. Wadud accepts the fact that in matters of gender, 7th century Arabia was far from ideal and even the Quranic reforms, the ones revealed during the Madinan period, of which most were introduced for benefitting the females, were never fully implemented.

Perhaps the best thing about this book is that it re-evaluates certain rulings according to the current local context, as it establishes again and again the fact that the Quran had given a generic view of the females’ position, in accordance with the context of that region and time period, and in no way had it assigned those characteristics as the sole functions of women for the rest of time, which implies the need to look after the particular reason behind the ruling, and which, notwithstanding, calls for adapting the rulings in the spirit of its original reasoning.

The very fact that it takes a woman to write a hundred-page analysis of the Quran to reiterate her equal worth in the society, a truth that is self-evident in its own regard, reinforces the sheer magnitude of the patriarchal hegemony that is prevalent in the Muslim communities, and it is already conspicuous in the reactions that the book received.

The landscape of Islamic rhetoric is slowly changing, and with the emerging coverage of Queer Muslims to the liberal and feminist populace, the very foundations of traditionalist values are being questioned. It would be highly remiss of me to not recommend this book, which created the benchmark in Islamic feminist literature.