Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Asma Barlas & Believing Women in Islam

Asma Barlas is one of the most prominent "Islamic feminists" today. I just began reading her book "Believing Women in Islam" and so far it is amazing! I wanted to quote the following:

"I read the Qur'an as a "believing woman", to borrow the term from the Qur'an itself.  This means that I do not question its ontological status as Divine Speech or the claim that God speaks, both of which Muslims hold to be true.

"I do, however, question the legitimacy of its patriarchal readings, and I do this on the basis of a distinction in Muslim theology between what God says and what we understand God to be saying. In the latter context, I am especially interested in querying the claim, implicit in confusing the Qur'an with its patriarchal exegesis, that only males, and conservative males at that, know what God really means. It is this claim that I believe underwrites sexual oppression in Muslim societies and therefore needs to be contested."

Do you think that a general belief exists among Muslims that only men can know what God means? Do you believe this?

If not, then why have so few women interpreters existed?

Do you think people often confuse the Qur'an itself with it's tafsir/interpretation?


Anonymous said...

(I am especially interested in querying the claim, implicit in confusing the Qur'an with its patriarchal exegesis, that only males, and conservative males at that, know what God really means).

Which is SUCH a completly stupid claim with no basis whatsoever!

The Quran says that only the "people of intellect" will be able to understand its meanings perfectly.. and last time I checked "people" does NOT = "men"!

Anonymous said...

(the Qur'an itself with it's tafsir/interpretation?)

VERY often, unfourtantly.

The is the final and eternal word of God, therefore muslims must be able to re-discover it and re-interpretation it through all ages (which they still do, thankfully).

LK said...

I never got the impression that Islam thinks only men can understand the Qur'an. Seems far from that. But I suppose the view could be carried over since its often an idea in Judaism and Christianity; that women cannot understand the books as well as men.

Now I think societies have interpreted the Qur'an in such a way to favor men at times. But I don't think the Qur'an itself favors men in any way. And there are most likely less women scholars simply because there tends to be less women scholars in every subject. I don't think that is specific to Islam either.

Her book does sound interesting

Ikram Kurdi said...

I believe that the Quran is not a rule book designed to ensure perfect justice on Earth.

The Quran is as good and fair as its beholder (this is what Imam Ali bin Abi Talib says too).

The Quran is guidance for al-Muttaqoon (as the book's very beginning says), people who have a desire to obey Allah.

As for the rest, they can use it to justify about anything.

I think that instead of contesting other people's interpretations of the Quran, we have to work to show what the Quran is: A guidebook for those who want to do good.

The Quran, for example, says that an orphan's guardian should give the orphan their inherited money if they see that they are mature enough. A guardian who wishes to keep the orphan's money for himself or herself can simply say the orphan is not mature enough to be given the money.

The Quran is full of such 'holes', simply because it is a book for people who are ALREADY good inside.

It is not like one of the thousands of pointless law books who want to make perfect justice happen. A society is as just as it wants to be.

coolred38 said...

The Quran is often read and broken down with the thought that God favors man and thus is speaking on behalf and too man much so that the women of the prophets time complained that God never spoke to them...and thus a few token ayats directed specifically to women came down to pacify them...but generally speaking...God is viewed as being a Him..a He...His etc...humans are those that liken God to man...and thus either purposely (or conditionally) think of God as a Man...and then everything God goes on about is meant for man and to his benefit...women are considered secondary.

Thats patriarchy...and I read her book and understand exactly what shes talking about and agree 100%.

coolred38 said...

Not to mention...Muslims (and Christians and Jews for the most part) prefer to see God as a Superior Man...and not as a Superior Being...makes a difference.

Anonymous said...

"If not, then why have so few women interpreters existed?"

Do you mean scholars or strictly interpreters of the Qur'an? I don't believe it has anything to do with the Qur'an itself, but it is the culture that was picked up as Islam spread far and wide.

Bahlool said...

Its as it was said earlier, a holy book that people with intellect and knowledge can interpret it fully. We have too many who have neither and give their view and tafsir of this great book.
I think you are sometimes too obsessed with the gender issue when it comes to religion. I as shia muslim have my knowledge from men and women. Zeinab, grand daughter of the prophet, taught me to cry for hussain and kerbala. Fatima gave us the book of Fatima (some people have accused shias of this book beeing our quran,which is rong)

We have learned a lot from those women relatives of the holy prophet, which have taught us immensly. But do not forget that it was beduins and kings that took over, those were brought up in the desert where women didnt havce knowledge, they turned the clock back.
If you have the right knowledge, then interpretation shoudlnt be a matter of male or female, but i think our problem is that more male then female study and seek knowledge, its mostly casue we do not accept or let our females to go on with their education..

Anonymous said...

Hey hun, good questions.

I just wanted to say that I think men have been interpreting the Quran/religion for so long, and seeing with their own eyes that it has been men who lead in these ways, that possibly they are merely holding up what they see as normal.

Unfortunately this has undertones of sexism because they believe they are the true authority because they have been the majority authority. Not because us women are dumb, but because we have been muted due to all of religions interpretation historically leaving women out.

But, this doesn't mean that we weren't there, it just means we were interpreted out....

For example, some progressive biblical scholars have uncovered new information that is completely re-interpreting who Mary Magdalen was in the bible and in regards to Jesus. Before she was thought of as a whore. New studies have uncovered that there was a woman who was a whore that visited jesus and touched his feet, running her hair over him. Mary Magdalen came in to the room soon after the Whore, yet because in the bible it is stated that she entered the room just after this whore left, scholars interpreted it as Mary being a whore. They have now discovered this to be true. She is also the reason for the "7 deadly sins" interpretations, yet now they are rediscovering and uncovering who Mary Magdalen was from a non-sexist multi-gendered scholars point of view!

Wow, for me this was a big deal. What can we learn from this in regards to how our scholars and men in general have interpreted the Quran and Hadith throughout history?

I have always thought if there were female scholars in our history we would have had so much more knowledge of the women who were such a huge influence in Islam, and yet their voices have been silenced through male interpretation.

I think the general belief among Muslims is that women aren't as qualified.. I mean, that is why we call God "Him" right? Even though we are taught that God is not of human form and cannot be labeled one thing, we aren't all saying "Her" or even mixing out labels. I only think this matters in the fact that it makes me wonder how much this labeling of God as "Him" somehow raises men above women as closer to God, or more knowing...

Candice said...

"Do you think people often confuse the Qur'an itself with its tafsir/interpretation?"

YES. I think it so very often does. And that is such a major problem in Islam... Islam is perfect, but the interpretations are not necessarily perfect. The Qur'an can be understood in so many ways. I think it was a good point made by Ikram Kurdi that it's for people who desire to obey Allah and for people who are already good. The Qur'an is only well interpreted by someone wanting to do good.

Anonymous said...

I think you'll find this very interesting:

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Anonymous 1: you're right, the Qur'an does not specify that only men can interpret it; yet many Muslims seem to assume this.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Anonymous 2: re-interpretation should definitely happen all the time, yet it doesn't. Many people today prefer to interpret Islam rigidly, keeping 7th C Arabia in mind instead of modern contexts.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

LK: there are definitely fewer female scholars in every field. However at the time of the Prophet, women were much more involved, compared to now. So I wonder how and why that happened.

And I totally agree that the Qur'an does not favour men. Interpretations of it, however, usually do.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Ikram: interesting comment! I never thought about it that way, but you are right. Good people will see the Qur'an for what it is, whereas bad people will probably use it to justify anything and everything.

"As for the rest, they can use it to justify about anything."

So true!

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Coolred: should we then say the Qur'an itself is consolidating patriarchy, or that interpretations of it are doing so?
It appears to me that the Qur'an actually challenged a lot of patriarchal notions.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Aynur: I mean specifically interpreters. There are many female scholars of Islam, but very few tafsirs (if any) done by women.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Bahlool: "I think you are sometimes too obsessed with the gender issue when it comes to religion."

I don't think I'm "obsessed". It is something that interests me because I'm a woman and a Muslim, and I know many Muslim women who feel the same.

Maybe as a Sunni it is different - Sunnis are more orthodox, and we don't have the same emphasis on females as you do in Shi'a Islam, maybe? This is despite having many female role models. Shi'as are also more open to re-interpretations and ijtihad than Sunnis, from my own experience, which of course helps with the gender issue.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Sarah Elizabeth: wow, thanks for the Magdalene story! That is so interesting!

I think you're right - we have so many female figures in Islam yet we don't hear as much about them as we should. Also, an interpretation always includes subjectivity, and gender forms part of this subjectivity.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Candice: I agree. And I think people need to differentiate more between the Qur'an and its interpretations. Even the hadith are not sacred in the way the Qur'an as, so we have to be more careful when approaching them than the Qur'an itself.

cairo, lusaka, amsterdam said...

Anonymous: thanks for the link! I have read that book and found it amazing! Amina Wadud is great.

Sara said...

I don't know...I genuinely think that if you read the Quran with enough clarity or with the mindset of searching for clarity, it would speak to you!

Jasmine said...

Interpretations say more about the interpreter than it does about the thing being interpreted. This struck me some time ago when I went camping with a friend. We did not know that we were not allowed to collect firewood to make a fire and we did do anyway.

The attendant came and told us off, saying that usually it's an on-the-spot £50 fine. He was quite upset with us and told us that wood fires are very common and we could burn the whole place down and kill everyone. He also said that if we put it out straight away and stopped burning wood, he'd let us off. We agreed, apologised and he walked away.

In the minutes of silence that followed - I sat there thinking "wow, that was really nice of him to let us off like that when we could have killed everyone, that was actually really kind". Just then, my friend said: "what a prick! hasn't he got anything better to do then ruin people's fun?"

Right there and then I learned that everything we experience: from people, to films, to books and scripture is open to interpretation: and for that reason the only "clean" interpretation is one given by someone who spends their time in self improvement and cleansing the self of their own issues - because if a person has even one issue inside - it will project onto what they are looking at.

And I will now go so far as to say that the people who interpret the Quran to benefit themselves sexually, have sex issues. The people who interpret it to the abuse of women have woman-hate or sexual identity and preference issues, those who interpret the Quran to wage war already want to wage war and those who interpret it for peace already seek peace in their own hearts.

So - and apologies for the super long comment - yes. The Quran is interpreted to reflect the issues and desires of the person who is doing the interpreting.

Anonymous said...

Jasmine, excellent response, there is no better answer than that! You completely nailed it.