Gender Studies

“Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an

Asma Barlas, Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2002. 254 pages.

Does the Qur’an permit the oppression of women? Can women pursue equality and remain within the framework of its teachings? In this original and thought-provoking work, Barlas attempts to address these controversial questions. In the preface, Barlas asks whether the Qur’an is a patriarchal text, and acknowledges that while this question might not be meaningful from the perspective of the Qur’anic text itself, Muslim women today are confronted with frankly patriarchal exegeses. In order to open up a discursive space for her reading, Barlas asserts that various readings of the Qur’an should not be confused with the text itself, and that since Islam has no clergy, women can reclaim the right to interpret the Qur’an. Contrary to both conservative and progressive Muslims, she argues that the Qur'an challenges inequality and oppression.

Chapter 1, “The Qur’an and Muslim Women: Reading Patriarchy, Reading Liberation,” which is subdivided into five sections, introduces the main lines of argument, defines key terms, explains her methodology, and outlines the book’s plan. Barlas defines a patriarchal or misogynistic text as one depicting God as Father/male, teaching that God has a special relationship to males, that maleness symbolizes divine attributes (while females are looked upon as deficient), or presenting the role of husband/father as a manifestation of God’s rule. By contrast, a text promoting liberation would “allow us to theorize equality, sameness, similarity or equivalence, as the context demands, of women and men.” In addition, its teachings about human creation, ontology, sexuality, and marriage would challenge inequality and patriarchy. The questions of why Muslims read the Qur'an as teaching inequality and how a liberatory Qur’anic hermeneutics can be developed are introduced.

The remainder of the book is divided into two parts. Part One contains chapter 2, “Texts and Textualities: The Qur’an, Tafsir, and Ahadith,” and chapter 3, “Intertextualities, Extratextual Contexts: The Sunnah, Shari‘ah, and the State.” Chapter 2 discusses the relationship between particular methods of interpretation and specific readings of the Qur’an, and various ways of conceptualizing the relationships among texts, method, and time. Chapter 3 considers how definitions of knowledge and the canon, as well as the state, law, and tradition, shaped Qur’anic exegesis and placed limits on how the Qur’an might be legitimately interpreted.

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