Qur'an, patriarchy, and Islamic feminism

An old university essay by 'xslavearcx' on the question of different readings of the Qur'an in regards to gender issues.

Submitted by xslavearcx on July 26, 2012

A fairly typical opinion one encounters on gender within Muslim societies is that such societies are highly gendered and that such gender differences reflect vast power disparities between women and men. This standpoint assumes that matters are improved elsewhere particularly in the west. Such a perspective often fails to note that power and wealth disparities exist between men and women throughout the world. Further, sexual division of labor has been a part of the human fabric since hunter gather times. Given this universality of differing gender roles in human society our starting premise is that Muslim societies, like all societies in the world, are gendered. With this in mind, there will follow an examination as to whether the Qur'an, Islam’s central scripture, has a significant input into shaping the discourses surrounding gender roles or if it endorses a gendered view of the world.

This essay will argue that whilst it can be conceded that the Qur'an says little regarding gender roles, the fact that it promotes a particular form of family structure ensures an outcome of gender differentiation with a corresponding power disparity in favor of men. This sets the basis for further elaborations of sexual differentiation in Muslim society. This essay will challenge Barlas contention that the Qur'an an anti-patriarchal text by demonstrating that the logic she uses in favor of a holistic reading of the Qur'an necessitates the inclusion of its patriarchal model of family. This discussion will focus mainly on the views put forward by Asma Barlas and Leilah Ahmed, however, in the unfolding of its argument it shall also consult the writings of Abdel-Wahhab Boudibah, Albert Hourani, and Sachiko Murata. This discussion will be limited to discussing the Qur'an itself and the classical period wherein most of the discourse surrounding Islam and gender became settled. Whilst much elaboration has followed this period, space dictates that this discussion is beyond the scope of this paper.

It is often overstated the percentage of verses the Qur'an dedicates to legal matters, nevertheless, a significant portion of these legal verses concerns the regulation of family. How a family is organized has important implications for gender roles and thus may do so for power relations. Ahmed argues that Islam replaced a multiplicity of ways of organizing reproduction encompassing uxorilocal, matrilineal, patrilineal within preislamic Arabia towards an exclusive patrilineal mode of reproduction[1]. Whilst Ahmed notes that matrilineal models of family structure need not correlate with a progressive society that values womens freedom, the limitation towards this particular model had profound implications for the sexual autonomy of women[2]. For example, Ahmed argues, it was possible within some tribes in the preislamic context for a woman to initiate divorce by turning her tents face in the opposite direction as a signal, whereas, the Qur'anic conception of divorce renders it is possible for men to initiate divorce unilaterally without a corresponding right for women[3].

Ahmed traces these changes to economic developments that we taking place in Arabian society that led to formation of a merchant class. This class commanded greater concentrations of wealth than was hitherto possible in this setting. This led to a corresponding pressure to move away from a tribal mode of organizing production and reproduction towards an individualized format that would divide inheritances to merchants children rather than an entire tribe. Thus, Muhammad's revelation, in this context sets in stone this transformation, rendering other forms of marriage as beyond the pale with corresponding impacts on women's autonomy. Indeed, Ahmed states this could explain why the crime of adultery in the Qur'an is so difficult to prove as it requires the testimony of four witnesses. Zina, according to this conception, refers to the outlawing of other public models of marriage[4].

Nevertheless, Ahmed argues that within the Qur'anic text there is a tension between its ethical vision that is uncompromisingly egalitarian, and its practice aspect that cements such familial structures. Thus, to base an Islam upon this aspect reflects an 'interpretive decision.[5] We shall now turn to a discussion regarding the relationship between knowledge construction and power.

Barlas argues that classical commentaries of the Qur’an became imbued with the status of the Qur’an itself. One of the main reasons why such a process was to take place is due to the intertexual nature of reading a text. Intertexuality refers to the transposition of one sign system to another. The very nature of reading a text anew requires using conceptual pre-understanding from other texts to engage with its conceptual schema[6]. Thus, Barlas observes that as the Muslim civilization grew gaining converts from other religions, other sign systems were seamlessly integrated into the understanding of the Qur'an. For example, the Qur’an does not say anything about Adam’s spouse being the means whereby humanity experiences a fall from grace. It does not in fact have a concept of a fall from grace in the first place, nor does it have a name for Adams spouse. However, through the absorption of peoples from the Judeo-Christian context traditions we witness ahadith using the name Eve, the creation of her from a rib, and her part in the fall, etc. From the interpolation of this discourse, Stowasser states, arose the Muslim denials of “female rationality and female moral responsibility”[7]. Such presumptions regarding womens abilities denies the legitimacy of women to be a part of the interpretive community.

Out of this multiplicity of sources with differing sign systems arose a situation of conflict between norms. Barlas argues that instead of the Qur'an being treated as the criterion of truth within these conflicting sources, ahadith (reporting of the praxis of the Prophet) became the criterion to understand the Qur’an. Shaffi, the classical jurist ruled in favor of the ahadith on the basis of consensus (ijma), that the views of the community would be right in regard of its creation of the ahadith canon[8]. Thus the Qur’an could only be understood through the lens of ahadith reducing its status vis a vis it. The classical commentaries were based upon using ahadith as the means of understanding the Qur'an. The imbuing of the classical commentaries with the Qur'an rendered the views of commentators with divine significance with all the shortcomings of the era. Ultimately, it is due to these ‘dozen or so scholars’ views becoming canonized and imbued with divine significance that we can locate misogyny attaching itself to Qur'anic discourse[9].

Extra-textual forces, such as the development of the state ensured a particular closed discourse perpetuating notions of hierarchy with implications for women. She argues that the ulama class, who were exclusively men, developed in tandem with the development of the Abbasid state and were maintained by the state through endowments. Their interpretations, therefore, became inevitably tied up to ideas of preservation of the status-quo. Additionally, the Abbasid state used coercive power on occasion to punish scholars who had opinions which did not suit the interests of the state. Further, due to the nature of Islamic civilizations rapid expansion, it was in the interests of the state to manufacture a consensus to ensure cohesion of the ummah. Thus, ijma was prioritized over critical reasoning (ijtihad) to arrive at readings that supported a hierarchical society[10]. This consensus, Barlas argues, was projected onto the past of the Muslim community by the same scholarly class who manufactured history. This meant that the oppressive practices within the Abbasid culture were read back into the Muslim community and ahadith hiding the level of participation women had within society. More importantly, this history became sacralized where purported proximity to the Prophet meant being in line with divine will. Thus, criticisms of ahadith, classical commentaries, etc are often resisted on the grounds that they are criticisms of revelation itself.

Barlas posits an alternative methodology by advocating a return to the primacy of the Qur'an. In particular, she focuses upon the Divine disclosure to arrive at principles to guide interpretations. She argues that the Qur'anic emphasis upon the incomparability of God ensures that God cannot be seen in a gendered manner. Another important attribute in the divine disclosure is God's sovereignty. The Qur'an, she argues, replaces the notion of the sovereignty of the father with the sovereignty of God through its arguments against Arabs justifying their wrong beliefs and practices by virtue of them being derived from their fathers. She notes also within the Divine disclosure that God is defined as just, and would never bring any injustice upon anyone. Indeed, the Qur'an in verse 30:09 states that “it was not God who wronged them, but they wronged their own souls”[11]. Consequently, injustice in Islamic discourse cannot, by definition, arise out of revelation but must instead be attributable to humanity. The Divine disclosure thus reveals three constituent attacks upon patriarchy: the sense of shared identity between men and God's gender; the replacement of sovereignty of the father with Gods; and the justice of God.

Barlas uses a historical approach to assess the divine purpose, what she calls the authorial intent discourse, behind Qur'anic verses. Whilst revelation is eternal, it is revealed within temporal time and space. Barlas follows scholars such as Taha who have argued that a distinction ought to be made between the universal principles revealed in the Qur'an and specific historical postulates. Indeed, this correlates with Ahmed's observation that whilst the Qur'an instituted veiling for Muhammad's wives to demarcate space for the Prophets family aside from the community, it was not practiced by the rest of the women in the community[12]. Taha's approach to gain such universal verses is to prioritize verses revealed in the Meccean stage of revelation whilst disregarding Medinan verses, which he regarded as specific commands to the community[13]. Barlas instead looks to reveal the underlying principle behind the verse, by analyzing it within the context of the situation it was revealed in, an approach which yields some very interesting results. For example verse 33:59-60 is utilized by conservatives as the Qur'anic basis for all forms of covering ranging from hijab (headscarves) to burqas[14]. It states:

O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft- Forgiving, Most Merciful[15]

However, by situating the verse within the context of the nascent Muslim community, which was living in the midst of the preislamic Arabian society, (jahiliyah) reveals that it was a recommendation to protect women within that particular cultural milieu. Not veiling in the jahiliyah context, Barlas argues, meant sexual availability, and thus veiling was a means women could employ to desist harassment by non-Muslim men[16]. This was not, therefore, a verse regarding modesty, this was a verse regarding self protection in a preislamic pre-state context. One can thus, extract the principles underlying its revelation, that women should not suffer sexual harassment, and arrive at the conclusion that under a modern state, which affords protection to women from harassment, means that the specifics of that verse does not apply. Barlas castigates the misogynist slant that conservatives bring to this verse through shifting the emphasis of condemnation away from the jahiliyah society towards Muslim women. Ironically, Barlas notes, that through harassing women that do not conform to what conservatives regard as Islamic reflects a jahiliyah ethical standard rather than a Muslim one[17].

At this stage, it seems justified to embrace Barlas's notion that the Qur'an is a radically anti patriarchal text. However, there are some weaknesses in her approach. Firstly, it does not adequately explain the form of marriage that Islam mandates between men and women which accords freedoms to men such as unilateral divorce, polygyny that it does not likewise pose to women. Barlas also engages in what journalist Asra Nomani describes as “the 4:34 dance[18]”, a procedure that involves much twisting and turning to give a suitable explanation for the infamous wife beating verse. As translated by Yusuf Ali it states:

“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah 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 Allah 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 Allah is Most High, great (above you all)[19]”.

In discussing this verse, Barlas notes that it can refer to a variety of things. For example, another translation of the verse can mean that Allah is not divesting more power to men but is just recognizing a contingent situation wherein more wealth in the world is upon men. This interpretation seems to be a weak one given that the Qur'an also institutes double the inheritance for males than women. Given that she castigates the classical commentators for taking a “linear verse by verse approach” as opposed to a holistic approach to identify overall themes appears disingenuous in this context. With regards to beating specifically, she notes is that there is a plethora of words that the translation of “nufush” could refer to rather than just beat[20]. For example, it could refer to a symbolic hitting of a piece of grass to denote a specific stage in a marital dispute. Nevertheless, regardless of how benevolently one translates this verse, it is structurally paternalistic, delineating a programme of steps a husband can take to “correct” his errant wife. Such a paternalistic standpoint necessitates differing roles with corresponding power differentials.

A significant disagreement appears to take place between Ahmed and Barlas with regards to interpreting early Islamic history. Barlas discusses the level of participation women had in the early Muslim community as evidence of it having an egalitarian stance towards women. Ahmed suggests that such participation was as a result of preislamic society. This notion seems to have credibility when one considers Muhammad's first wife Khadijah who was a wealthy business woman. The evidence therefore does not seem to support the notion of the institution of Islam via Qur'anic revelation as an anti patriarchal divine intervention into Arabia.

Whilst Barlas notes that conservative Muslim scholars epistemology reflects the transposition of the intertexual signs onto understanding the divine purpose, the same criticism can be leveled at Barlas. Firstly, by referring to the divine disclosure whereby God is just and would not commit harm on people, and thus, gender relations as they stand in the Muslim world are not mandated by God, rests upon a notion of justice that may not reflect an Islamic conception of justice. For example, Hourani states that there was a multitude of debates in the Muslim community regarding what constitutes justice, ranging from justice being an objective standard knowable through human reason, through to justice being simply what God says is justice[21]. Barlas logic only makes sense if it is in reference to a sense of objective justice known through reason that is able to bring forth a standard to critique the seemingly arbitrary justice of God's will as articulated by the conservative scholarly class. This standard of critique seems to rest upon a feminist idea of justice. Nevertheless, if such a standard of justice is knowable through reason does this not just undermine the need for revelation?

It seems therefore, that Barlas switches conservatives misogynist presumptions with feminist presumptions onto the Qur'an. Thus, it appears that both may be off the mark in regards to what constitutes an authentically Qur'anic perspective on gender roles. Perhaps it is impossible to arrive at an authentic Qur'anic perspective on gender roles. The Qur'an is a fairly short document which requires elaboration to make it meaningful for day to day practice in differing contexts. It therefore requires interpretation built upon principles that are within the text. Boudibah shows one central principal within the Qur'an is that everything in creation is double and it is through a dialectical relationship that such principles fulfill the divine purpose. Transposed onto the human sphere, marriage is conceived as a means for the human beings to live in line within this schema wherein through procreation one is participating in a process of creation with the Divine[22]. Thus, the hierarchical relationship as promoted within marriage in the Qur'an is humanity fulfilling its telos[23]. Murata expands upon this thesis noting that what she calls the sapiential tradition such as the sufis reflected deeply upon the divine disclosure and saw the universe as conforming to principals similar to Taoist and Confucian notions of yin and yang. They provided the elaborations of the principals of the Qur'anic telos whilst the ulama provided the specific commands arising out of such world view.[24] Gender roles can be explained within this cosmological standard, and seemingly misogynist ahadith can be explained as spiritual metaphors regarding the cosmos. This would seem to provide a Qur'anic basis to the gendered nature of Muslim societies.

In conclusion, it appears that the notion that the Qur'an is solely responsible for the gendered nature of Muslim society is unjustified. Barlas demonstrates how misogynist discourses where fused into shaping readings of the Qur'an. Nevertheless, whilst the Qur'an does not say much in specifics regarding gender roles, it does institute a format of marriage that embeds economic power to men, grants men more sexual autonomy, whilst at the same time presents a message of spiritual equality of genders before God. This tension between the egalitarian position and its model of family explains the diversity of views that abounds regarding what constitutes correct Qur'anic gender roles. The nature of the Qur'an being a short document requires elaborations, who makes these elaborations and what presumptions they hold determines the direction as to what gender roles are possible for women and men. Whilst Barlas demonstrated a very convincing anti patriarchal strain within the Qur'an, it is difficult to imagine as to how one can read the Qur'an holistically without acknowledging that within the family, hierarchy appears to be part of the Divine purpose. A hierarchical relationship between genders will always have implications for gender roles.


Ahmed, L, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical roots of a modern debate, Yale University Press, 1992

, Saqi Books, 1975Boudibah, A,

, University of Texas Press, 2003Barlas, A,

, 1980Hourani, A,

, New York University Press, 1992Murata, S,

Washington Post, 2006Nomani, A,

, http://www.islam101.com/quran/yusufAli/Yusuf Ali,

[1] Ahmed pp 41-43

[2] Ibid p 43

[3] Ibid p 45

[4] Ibid p 45

[5] Ibid p 65

[6] Barlas p 38

[7] Ibid p 40

[8] Ibid p 46

[9] Ibid p 60

[10] Ibid p 64

[11] Ibid p 52

[12] Ahmed p 51

[13] Barlas pp 60-61

[14] Ibid p 62

[15] Yusuf Ali Qur'an, http://www.islam101.com/quran/yusufAli/

[16] Ibid p 62

[17] Ibid p 63

[18]Washington Post, 2006 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/20/AR2006102001261_pf.html Nomani, A,

[19] Yusuf Ali Qur'an http://www.islam101.com/quran/yusufAli/

[20] Barlas pp 185-186

[21] Hourani pp 82-83

[22] Boudibah pp 1-5

[23] Ibid p 5

[24] Murata pp1-19