Re-Interpreting the Qur’an from a Female Perspective

Sarah Swick, Minaret of Freedom Institute, www.minaret.org

For the last part of my blog series on a “Women in Islam” conference I attended, I’d like to highlight another response to how we should understand the Qur’an today. One of the last panels of the conference featured a discussion on re-reading the Qur’an from a female perspective. One particularly interesting member of the panel was Dr. Asma Barlas, author of Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an. As the title of her book suggests, Dr. Barlas argues that patriarchy is not inherent in the Qur’an but rather has been read into it throughout the centuries of patriarchal dominance of Muslim societies.

Dr. Barlas began her argument by reminding the audience that a God who rejects sex and gender as criteria for judgment cannot then teach the oppression of women. Moreover, following other academics, Dr. Barlas reminded us that nowhere in the Qur’an does it say that women were created from men. After building her foundation that the principles of the Qur’an do not treat women unequally, she then highlighted a few verses that have traditionally been used to oppress women. She insists that these verses should be reinterpreted so as not to contradict the principles of the Qur’an.

For example, she highlighted the word “daraja” in Verse 2:228 about divorce:

Divorced women shall wait concerning themselves for three monthly periods. Nor is it lawful for them to hide what God Hath created in their wombs, if they have faith in God and the Last Day. And their husbands have the better right to take them back in that period, if they wish for reconciliation. And women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable; but men have a degree (of advantage) over them. And God is Exalted in Power, Wise (2:228)

In this case, daraja translated as ‘degree’ has been used to reinforce a patriarchal system in Muslim society by expanding the ‘degree’ which men have over women to all areas of family, social, economic and political life. Dr. Barlas insists on limiting this ‘degree’ to the context of this verse about divorce. Moreover, she says that this ‘degree’ men have is in terms of the right to rescind or revoke a divorce he initiated. This is supported by the preceding phrase, “And their husbands have the better right to take them back in that period, if they wish for reconciliation.”

Another example that Dr. Barlas highlighted was verse 4:34 of the Qur’an:

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what God would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For God is Most High, great (above you all). (4:34)

Dr. Barlas spoke about two problems in the translation and interpretation of this verse. The first was “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women,” which has been used by some men to claim authority and/or supremacy over women. Dr. Barlas insists that here the Arabic word used “qawwamoona” should be limited to the context of the verse which highlights men’s obligations financially towards women. She reminded us of other verses of the Qur’an such as 9:71, which states: “The Believers, men and women, are protectors one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and obey God and His Messenger. On them will God pour His mercy: for God is Exalted in power, Wise.

Also in response to verse 4:34 above, which commonly is interpreted to allow men to ‘beat’ their wives, Dr. Barlas asked why it was that Muslims would choose the ‘worst’ meaning of the word ‘darraba.’ She cited another meaning of ‘darraba’ which means ‘to separate’ as an alternative understanding.

Two other interesting points that Dr. Barlas spoke briefly about were:

1/ She denied that the accusation that women always receive half of the inheritance of men. Citing Dr. Amina Wadud’s work, she said that the Qur’an gives other examples in which women receive equal inheritance.

2/ In response to restrictions on female testimony, Dr. Barlas cited the counter example in Islamic law that a husband’s testimony alone is not enough to prove adultery, whereas the wife can deny it without a witness and her word is the last!

Overall, I found Dr. Barlas’ approach refreshing and engaging. As a student of language and culture, I’ve realized how much of what we understand about a text is formed by the social context within which the text is being read and interpreted. If a man in a highly patriarchal society, reads a text he will most likely understand and interpret the text within that social framework. However, that does NOT mean that it is the ONLY understanding or interpretation of that text. In the West, which is growing less patriarchal by the day (I hope), I agree with Dr. Barlas that it is finally time to unread patriarchy from the Qur’an.

4 Responses to “Re-Interpreting the Qur’an from a Female Perspective”

  1. Amir Shah says:

    We have a new website that we’re creating to allow people to collaborate on creating new translations of the Qur’an. A “female perspective” would be a perfect candidate for our new site (http://www.communityquran.com). Our beta version today does not have the commenting or user-generated translations capability but we do have the capability to add other complete translations right now if you’re interested. Contact us and let us know if you’d like to work with us or sponsor some of the work we’re doing. Thanks.

  2. Imran Shah says:

    Assalam-u-alakum,

    We are creating a website, where people can add their own interpretation to the Qur’an, and I beleive that this might be a great place for Women to get their views accross.

    http://communityquran.com
    http://blog.communityquran.com/

  3. Asma'a says:

    Assalamu Alaikum

    Reply to a quote by Dr. Asma Barlas, author of Believing Women in Islam: “Dr. Barlas reminded us that nowhere in the Qur’an does it say that women were created from men” “O mankind! Be dutiful to your Lord, Who created you from a single person (Adam), and from him (Adam) He created his wife Hawaa’ (Eve), and from them both He created many men and woman; and fear Allah through Whom you demand (your mutual rights) and (do not cut the relations of) the womb (kinship). Srely Allah is Ever an All-Watcher over you……Evidences/Proof… Noble Qur’an Surah 4-An Nisa Ayat 1.

  4. Sarah says:

    Thank you very much for your comment. It is always a blessing when we have the opportunity to expand our understanding of the Holy Qur’an. In reference to your comment, I have investigated more closely ayat 4:1 in response to the issue of whether women were created from men, or as many believe Eve (Hawaa’) was created from Adam. Below I have copied a part of the ayat, as quoted in the previous comment, which we will study:

    “Who created you from a single person (Adam), and from him (Adam) He created his wife Hawaa’ (Eve),”

    First, it should be noted that in the translation that used in the above quote, “Hawaa'” should appear in brackets as it does in Khan’s translation, which signifies that “Hawaa'” does not actually appear in the ayat (in Arabic).

    The next step is then looking at the Arabic itself, specifically where it allegedly says “And from him (Adam) He created his wife Hawaa'”. The Arabic reads (transliterated) “wa khala minha zawjaha”. “Wa khala” translates” He (God) created.”

    “Minha” translates as “from her” and “zawjaha” translates as “her mate.” Therefore, literally the phrase translates as “He (God) created from her her mate.”

    Now, I’m not suggesting here that man was created from woman (although that seems a more accurate literal translation from above). However, we know that “her” is referring to “nafs” or “soul” which is feminine. Therefore, a more accurate, non-literal translation would be “And from it, it’s mate.”

    Zawj is masculine, not feminine, (although, as with all Arabic masculine words it may INCLUDE the feminine) and thus, to translate this phrase as “from him, his wife” is reading into the text.

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