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  • Secular and Feminist Critiques of the Qurʾan: Anti-Hermeneutics as Liberation?
  • Asma Barlas (bio)

Some years ago, I reviewed the work of four Muslim women who had interpreted Islam’s scripture in a radical break with the Muslim juristic and exegetical tradition.1 This 1,400-year-old tradition is normatively patriarchal and also projects an ideology of male supremacy onto the Qurʾan because it gives men certain rights vis-à-vis women, especially in their roles as husbands. Although there are less than six such instances in some six thousand verses, they form the basis of both law and scriptural exegesis. In contrast to this heavy-handed focus on the so-called anti-women verses—some of which are no more than single words and lines—Azizah al-Hibri, Riffat Hassan, amina wadud, and I had sought to recuperate teachings that affirm the ontological and moral/ethical equality of women and men. Our intent was to show that the Qurʾan’s position on women cannot be delimited to the “anti-women” verses, which we had also reread as a way to illustrate that meaning is contingent on our own interpretive methods and choices. Thus, my peers had explored a range of connotations of words that exegetes take as having just one, like daraba, which they render “beat/strike.” The verse in which it occurs is then read as allowing wife beating even though the root of the word, d-r-b, has more than a dozen meanings, including to “go away/separate.” To us, the latter seemed more congruent with the Qurʾan’s emphasis on mutual love and contentment in marriage. In addition, some of us had interpreted the verses with reference to the contexts in which they were revealed. Thus, I had read them as having been responses on the Qurʾan’s part to its first audience, a [End Page 111] seventh-century tribal Arab patriarchy. However, since that patriarchy had vanished long ago, together with its attendant institutions of concubinage and slavery, I had argued that its modes of male authority could not be binding. Instead, I had reasoned that the Qurʾan’s foundational teachings about the nature of God as well as about human creation and moral agency should provide the framework for Muslim religious praxis. Finally, wadud and I had made two points about the Qurʾan and patriarchy. She had argued that it “remains neutral” toward patriarchy,2 whereas I held that its rejections of the patriarchal imaginary of God as father/male, and the fact that it makes no mention of sex or gender inequalities, signal an antipatriarchal episteme. I also objected to imputing a sexual bias to the Qurʾan on the grounds that it is the speech of a just God who is beyond sex/gender, hence also beyond sexual partisanship.3

To our readings, Margot Badran came to give the name “Islamic feminism,” which she defined as an approach that “derives its understanding and mandate from the Qurʾan, [and] seeks rights and justice for women and for men.”4 While this was an accurate description of our project, it ignored that wadud and I had openly resisted the name5 and also papered over some of our theological and methodological differences. The label, however, has stuck, which means I find it hard to respond to critiques of my own work without also speaking on behalf of “Islamic feminism” since the two are now inextricably linked. The irony of this situation is compounded by the fact that the criticisms I had anticipated from so-called traditionalist Muslims have come, instead, from liberal, secular, and feminist.6 More surprising still, they have offered the kinds of rebuttals traditionalists might have by reinscribing the Qurʾan as an incurably patriarchal text that no amount of “textual manipulation” can rescue.7 Some feminists dispute not only “the project of egalitarian interpretations” of the Qurʾan as such but also our “commitment to equality.”8 In their hands, Islamic feminism then becomes a straw woman on which they cut their academic teeth but without taking it seriously. Not only are such critics disinterested in a liberatory hermeneutics of...


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pp. 111-121
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