Author Archive

Re-Interpreting the Qur’an from a Female Perspective

Monday, April 9th, 2007

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.

News and Analysis (04/05/07)

Thursday, April 5th, 2007

“In a country plagued by years of corrupt and sluggish governance, Bangladesh has come up with a novel innovation to curb the disease. Private groups have stepped in to take charge of the national tuberculosis treatment program.”

Sarkozy’s idea of state-funded mosques in France will only drive ‘underground mosques’ more underground:

New Amnesty International report describes increasingly harsh treatment of detainees at Guantanamo

Unless it follows a successful education campaign that FGM is not part of Muslim or Christian teachings, the government ban will lead to unintended health consequences for girls, such as a decrease in the likelihood of receiving medical treatment and leading to more ‘underground’ methods

News and Analysis (03/29/07)

Thursday, March 29th, 2007

Bismark’s dictum “There are two things you don’t want to see being made—sausage and legislation” demonstrated  (No wonder Allah banned pork!)

In a show of independence, Saudi King calls US presence in Iraq “illegitimate foreign occupation”

Military tribunals: “It’s a rush to injustice.”

Facing discrimination in France, man refuses to rely on the State and uses open border to find work in other European countries:

Instability and closed borders lead many to flee towards their deaths:

Palestinians insist on their right to return and right to their property:

How Should We Understand the Place of the Qur’an Today?

Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

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

In addition to the hijab issue discussed in my previous blog, another constant theme during the recent “Women in Islam” conference I attended in Germany was the role or place of the Qur’an in our lives. There were two perspectives presented at the conference: one position that emphasizes what they see as the original intention of the Qur’an, and the second approach being re-reading the Qur’an.

Nahed Selim, author of Take the Koran Away from the Men, largely represented the first position at the conference. Ms. Selim who is an Egyptian-Dutch journalist believes that by empowering women, we can empower Islam. Ms. Selim argued that in order to empower women we need another concept of religion- one that is uniquely an ethical concept that lets go of literal texts.

Ms. Selim criticized the work of Dr. Aminah Wadud and Dr. Asma Barlas, among other, which seeks to re-interpret or re-read the Qur’an. Ms. Selim criticized these female theologians for trying to protect the Qur’an from criticisms of modernity; rather Ms. Selim says it is up to God to protect the Qur’an. Therefore, she believes we should look at the original intent of the Qur’ain, which she argued was the improvement of the lives of women. According to her, we should then maintain this intent, even if it means omitting or ignoring certain verses in the Qur’an. Here, she cited the abolishment of slavery as evidence that this approach has been used before and should also be applied to issues pertaining to women..

Moreover, when pressured by a questioner in the audience, Ms. Selim admitted that it was important to re-interpret the texts, but, according to her, even from a female perspective the Qur’an discriminates against women.

While I agree with Ms. Selim that we need to remember the intention and overarching principles of the Qur’an, such as justice, I find her approach problematic. The Qur’an is universal in time and place. If we come across a verse, which doesn’t fit our lifestyle, we should not simply ignore that verse and throw it out. Rather we need to critically examine both our understanding of the verse and our lifestyle.

This leads us to the second approach presented at the conference: re-interpreting the Qur’an, which I will discuss in the next and final part of this blog series.

The Plague of the Hijab Issue

Tuesday, March 27th, 2007

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

I was recently invited to represent the Minaret of Freedom Institute at an international conference in Cologne, Germany sponsored by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (Foundation). The topic of the conference was “Women in Islam: Between Oppression and (self-) Empowerment.”

The Conference brought together Muslim and non-Muslim women[1] from around the World to discuss ways to improve the status of Muslim women.. The credentials and passion of the women assembled impressed me, however I was distressed by the constant confrontations over the “hijab”[2], both by women pro and con hijab (headscarf). It seemed we could not get beyond the issue and lost valuable time in which we could have spent more time discussing the more vital issues, such as divorce, forced marriage, domestic violence, and discrimination. However, these heated, if not repetitive, debates about the hijab allowed me to come to a personal ‘revelation’: women, themselves, are largely to blame for the constant attention paid to a piece of cloth, inhibiting real progress on the vital issues mentioned above.

On the ‘con’ side, I was disappointed in the close-minded discourse presented. For example, a respected Moroccan female academic even went so far as to say, “I do not believe a woman can be free if she wears the scarf.” I don’t believe that we can determine someone’s freedom simply on the basis of their clothing. Moreover, a representative of the Forum Progressive Muslims of Switzerland argued at the conference that female teachers should not be allowed to wear the scarf, as in her view, such women are not good role models for children. Again, I would argue that one cannot judge someone’s morality by their clothing, moreover I would insist that ‘judging of morality’ is not an exercise for humans, rather it should be left to the Divine.

Similarly, problematic is the discourse on the ‘pro’ hijab side. At the conference, and even more generally in the Muslim community, there is a feeling that a woman not wearing the scarf is somehow ‘less Muslim’ or ‘not-as-good of a Muslim’ as one who does wear it. This judging of piety on the basis of clothing is also very problematic in my mind, and, again, should be left to the Divine.

Morality and piety are personal and internal to the mind and heart. As the cliché goes “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” I also implore Muslims not to judge a woman by her cover (or lack thereof)! For me, this all comes down to individual and personal liberty. In deciding which interpretation of the Qur’an to follow, I believe that, in addition to using intellect and reason, we should remember to listen to our hearts as Allah guides our hearts.[3] So, for example, Dr. Asma Barlas (who was a speaker on that panel) and I may disagree about what the Qur’an says about the hijab. My intellect and heart tells me something different than how she understands it, but that does not mean I am any more right or more ‘guided’ than she or vice-versa. I believe that it is only with such an approach, which stresses the personal liberty and responsibility to reflect on the Qur’an, that we can be healed by the plague of the hijab issue and move on to greater illnesses in our ummah.

As part of a three part series on this conference, the next of my blog comments will be on “How we should understand the role of the Qur’an in our lives today?”


[1] There were also a few men in attendance.

[2] The scarf that covers the head and not the face.

[3] “No kind of calamity can occur, except by the leave of God. and if any one believes in God, (God) guides his heart (aright): for God knows all things.” Qur’an, 64:11 (Yusuf Ali translation).

News and Analysis (3/24-25/07)

Sunday, March 25th, 2007

Why do some youth leave Islam? Prof. Jeffrey Lang implores Muslims to confront issues of racism, treatment of women, the cultural divide, and “problems with traditional theology:”

Free elections mark Mauritania’s transition to a free society:

New Egyptian ‘reforms’ are “the greatest setback to freedom in Egypt in a quarter-century”

Recipient of NSL Letter speaks out, anonymously : “I resent being conscripted as a secret informer for the government and being made to mislead those who are close to me…”

But who will really be punished by sanctions: the government or the people?

More crackdowns in Pakistan ahead of planned protests:

Article explores alternative interpretations of Quranic verse 4:34, which some claim permits a husband to ‘beat’ his wife:

News and Analysis (03/22/07)

Thursday, March 22nd, 2007

Muslims fight back against grand jury abuse:

Rather than simply relying on poor State services, African American Muslim communities are leading the way in providing needed social services:

In the name of the ‘Palestinian Cause,’ some Palestinians will once again be forced from their homes:

German judge imposes her misinterpretation of the Qur’an in denying a Muslim woman’s request for a State divorce:

Op-ed examines the unraveling of Musharraf’s regime in Pakistan:

Foreign intervention seems to have failed to bring peace to Somalia as fighting again erupts in Mogadishu:

News and Analysis (03/01/07)

Thursday, March 1st, 2007

In the chaos of Iraq, uncovering the truth is difficult, while believing the worst is easy:

Israeli police prevent interfaith news conference criticizing Jerusalem excavations:

“Instead of stonewalling investigations into its and other governments’ illegal renditions activities, the United States should support its allies’ efforts to bring perpetrators to justice”

Despite falsified transcript summaries, Judge refuses to release more classified materials:

Rights groups decry Moscow’s newly appointed leader of Chechnya as being “responsible for kidnappings and abductions of many innocent people whose bodies are being found with torture signs on their bodies, or not found at all.”

New Jordanian restrictions on Iraqi refugees increase the hardship of those trying to escape violence:

News and Analysis (02/22/07)

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

Security forces ‘abduct’ human rights activist from Pakistani jail hours before his scheduled release:

Charity, sponsored by businessmen, to set up a call center to boost Palestinian economy:

A new French Revolution?  The rise of suburban, immigrant interest in politics threatens the elite status quo in France:

Iraqi women have become victims of violence: Committed by US troops…

And committed by Iraqi troops… who are they to trust?

If in public places: why do you need ‘spies’?

A lesson in getting along: University and Muslim students find a compromise to prayers at school events:

News and Analysis (2/15/07)

Thursday, February 15th, 2007

Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) speaks out about the future of US troops in Iraq: “the argument has been reduced to this: If we leave now Iraq will be left in a mess – implying the implausible that if we stay it won’t be a mess.”

U.S. to take 7,000 Iraqi refugees: what will happen to the other 2 million?

Problems in U.S. evidence on Iran’s support of ‘terrorist’ groups in Iraq:

Iran accuses U.S. of supporting ‘terrorist’ group in Iran:

Palestinian PM resigns and is asked to form a new government of national unity

Gun ban has Baghdad residents worried:

Heated Sunni-Shi’a ‘dialogue’ on Al Jazeera

Political motivation behind renewed offensive against the Muslim Brotherhood