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Published in the 16-30 Apr 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition


Gender justice and interpretation of the Qur'an

By VA Mohamad Ashrof

The Milli Gazette Online 

Muslims today number over a billion people and live in every continent in varying political, social, and cultural conditions. It is therefore reasonable to assume that Muslim women will have different types of concerns depending on where they live and in what conditions. At the same time, however, it is painfully clear that in spite of the diversity of Muslim cultures, women have to endure similar forms of sexual inequality and discrimination. These range from cultural mores and psychological attitudes that disregard bigotry or violence towards women, to laws that refuse to recognize them as legal and moral agents on a par with men, to the restriction or denial of political-economic rights and resources. What is more, discrimination, and even oppression, is often justified by recourse to sacred knowledge or, more accurately, knowledge claiming to derive from religion.

Some feminists argue that the problem lies in the nature of religion itself, especially in the worship of God as against goddesses. They make this claim on the grounds that societies that worshipped goddess cults were egalitarian. Truthfully, however, such societies were also misogynistic and men, not women, were the real locus of power in them. Consider the ancient Greeks who, in spite of strong female goddesses in their pantheon, believed that women were just lesser men who lacked the ability to reason. On this basis, they excluded women from public and political life. Unfortunately, sexual discrimination, inequality and oppression have been, and remain, universal although they do take different forms in different societies. Therefore, the problem does not lie with religion, but with how we choose to interpret it. Every religion is open to both oppressive and liberatory, reactionary or progressive interpretations; therefore if only repressive readings become predominant in a given society, we need to question why. 

According to many Muslim theologians, women have the right to education, to religious instruction, to honor and respect, to the vote, and to employment. They claim that there are, however, restrictions sanctioned by the religious law for the welfare and stability of society as a whole. To them a woman can be neither a supreme political leader nor a judge; she must strive her best to limit her arena, and her natural and sacred task is to keep the household smoothly functioning and to raise and instruct her children to be good Muslims. Consequently, they continue, men, for their part, must shoulder the burden of providing for the family in material ways. However, as the process of modernization spreads around the world, Muslim women have asked various unpopular questions. The result has been the construction of various feminist traditions within Islam. Muslim feminists derive their mandate not from the Qur'an but from the conviction that Islam is a patriarchal and misogynist religion that "professes models of hierarchical relationships and sexual inequality and puts a sacred stamp onto female subservience."1 Muslim feminists almost universally consider Islam oppressive because they view God "Himself" as being misogynistic. This is mainly because Muslim feminists consistently confuse the Qur'an with its patriarchal misreading. 

If people constantly are confronted with only one type of reading of sacred texts or any other subject, they find it hard to imagine alternatives. It would be hypocritical to deny that the Qur'an and other Islamic sources offer possibilities of alternative interpretation. Historically, Islamic civilization has displayed a remarkable ability to recognize possibilities of tolerance, and to act upon these possibilities. Islamic civilization produced a moral and humanistic tradition that preserved Greek philosophy, and generated much science, art, and socially benevolent thought. Unfortunately, however, modern puritans are scattering and wasting this inspiring moral tradition. They are increasingly shutting off the possibilities for a tolerant interpretation of the Islamic tradition. The Qur'an (13:11) teaches that God only changes the condition of those who endeavor to change their own condition, just as it teaches that moral individuality and agency lie in using intelligence (aql) and knowledge ('ilm), to understand and practice religion (20:114, 7:171). Armed with this certainty, we should be unafraid of any challenges; but the burden is upon the human beings to make the right decisions.

Needless to say the Muslim world is far from emerging from patriarchal values and the traditional ulama are immersed neck-deep into these values. Any deviation from them is denounced as unpardonable heresy. As in other monotheistic religions, the classical fiqh texts ignored gender equality as it was presented in the Qur'an and introduced interpretations in line with the prevalent patriarchal social order. Thus, one can find several logical contradictions in the classical fiqh texts since they reflect two dissenting voices: an egalitarian voice inspired by the revelation (wahy), and a patriarchal voice incorporating the social order and social, cultural and political pragmatisms of the time and place where Islam was trying to ensure its survival

There is a "striking difference between what can be safely inferred from the Qur'an itself and what has frequently been read into it."2 Religious texts don't interpret themselves, people do and people don't read and interpret texts in an epistemological or methodological vacuum. They always bring their own knowledge and biases into the interpretive process. We should therefore be able to question both the meanings generated from the Qur'an as well as the methods used to generate those meanings instead of treating the method itself as sacred and indisputable. Ultimately, the Qur'an, or any other holy text, speaks through its reader. 

As the final and ultimate Divine Text, the Qur'an must always address itself to changing social realities. Therefore, a static vision of Islam will fail to reflect the mercy (rahmah) of God. Now, that is the sort of Islam that is unfortunately so deep-rooted in most of our societies. Many Muslims are so obsessed with the finer points of fiqh, about the details of rituals, about washing and veiling, as if this is what Islam is all about, that they forget that the oppression of women is itself a gross affront to God's mercy. Progressive Muslims have long argued that it is not the religion but patriarchal interpretation and implementation of the Qur'an that have kept women oppressed. For them, the way to reform is the reexamination and reinterpretation of religious texts. Qur'anic verses have been used to limit women's public and private roles, even to justify violence toward Muslim women, even though their original meaning and context defy such interpretations. Shari'ah, from which Islamic law can be distilled, is aimed at establishing a just society. But how can Islam be credible as a force for social justice, how can it proclaim itself as egalitarian, when Islamic law has come to enshrine gender injustice, which explicitly denies women real and tangible equality. How do we explain this seeming contradiction? Is this a reflection of divine will? Or could it be that masculinist ideology with its own interpretive tilt has become institutionalized into the very heart of Islam and has found ways to subvert divine will, with its core message of justice, equality and compassion?

It is clear that cultural practices run deep and mould individuals and societies. One cannot really understand the impact Islam had on the Arabs without first understanding their pre-Islamic customs. The Qur'an is in the language of those receiving the message, both literally in Arabic, and figuratively, in the cultural "language" that one behaves through. That may account for the reason why some may argue that certain sexist attitudes are encouraged in the Qur'an; yet in a deeper, more complete reading, one that considers and respects the historical context, it encourages a liberating equality of women. In religious patriarchies, the ideological source of women's oppression are misogynistic and patriarchal interpretations of sacred texts which allege that God has established men as rulers over women. In secular patriarchies knowledge of disciplines like biology and psychology have been used to argue that men and women are not just biologically different, but also unequal. A close look at the Qur'anic text reveals that all these beliefs about women being half of men are not Islamic. These are a result of Arab traditions prevalent at the time of the advent of Islam. Because interpreting the text has remained an exclusively male domain, it is highly likely that early Islam interpreters saw all these questions in the light of an Arab culture, which was tilted heavily against women. We need to recognize that the problem lies not in Divine speech but in our failure to read it in a just and ethical manner. The crisis today is not of Islam, rather, it is a crisis of Muslims who have thwarted Islam's democratic promise and its inherently just and egalitarian worldview. Since the problem is of our own making, we must also be the ones to unmake it. Muslims must realize that women's experiences are part of what it means to be human. 

The Qur'an states: "O you who believe, stand firmly for justice, as witnesses for God, even if it means testifying against yourselves, or your parents, or you kin, and whether it is against the rich or poor, for God prevails upon all. Follow not the lusts of your hearts, lest you swerve, and if you distort justice or decline to do justice, verily God knows what you do" (5:8). The idea that Muslims must stand up for justice even against their own self-interests is predicated on the notion that human beings are capable of achieving a high level of moral agency. As agents, Muslims are expected to achieve a level of moral conscientiousness, which they will bring to their relationship with God and man. 

Empowering women to participate in the structural development of government, as well as in implications and applications on social roles, means women's full rights in terms of policy and development, and women's full rights to self determine their role in the family and the society at large. On the practical level this means that women must also be empowered to participate in all levels of Muslim governance and culture. We should not advocate exclusivist movements; to the contrary, enlightened women and men need to work together towards shared ends. For an enlightened understanding of the text of the Qur'an, we have to learn to read it in such a way as to be able to recover its radically egalitarian message. In order to bring about a change in the status of women, we need to bring about a change in men's attitudes towards women as well as tradition and religion. We have to realize that asking new questions and questioning accepted interpretations is part of our evolving knowledge of Islam. 

1. Fatima Mernissi, Women's Rebellion and Islamic Memory, Zed Books: London, 1996, pp.13f.
2. Neal Robinson, Discovering the Qur'an, SCM Press: London, 1996, p. 29

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