Asma Barlas. "Believing Women" in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. xvi + 254 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-292-70904-1; $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-292-70903-4.
Reviewed by Kirsten V. Walles (Department of History, University of Texas at Austin)
Published on H-Gender-MidEast (January, 2003)
Lifting the Veil of Habit
Lifting the Veil of Habit
The book "Believing Women" in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an is a fascinating analysis of the woman's position in Muslim society. However the basic premise of Asma Barlas's theories could be applied and used by scholars of many disciplines including religion, gender, and history. The fight for equality in a patriarchal setting, the foundations of knowledge accepted as truth today, and other overarching themes are dissected and illumined by Barlas's search to find the true will of God for women as stated in the Qur'an. Are women to remain hidden, oppressed, and veiled, or does the Qur'an establish their equality?
As an historian, I read this book with the intention of being able to assign this to students who have a cursory or minimal knowledge of Islam and the role of women in Muslim society. It is evident after reading the first few pages that Barlas, who is a professor of politics and a practicing Muslim, wrote the book with Muslim and non-Muslim readers in mind (p. xii). Tables and a glossary are provided to help non-Muslims understand Islamic transmission processes and Arabic terminology.
"Believing Women" in Islam is a study of Muslim women's roles in society as determined by most current interpreters/readers of the Qur'an. In contrast, Asma Barlas feels the Qur'an clearly establishes equality between men and women. In working to prove this point, she hopes to answer two questions. "First, does Islam's Scripture, the Qur'an, teach or condone sexual inequality or oppression?" Second, "Does the Qur'an permit and encourage liberation for women" (p. 1)? In the end, Barlas succinctly answers both questions by guiding the reader step-by-step through the historical foundations of Islam and the Qur'an. She also focuses on some specific Scripture (veiling, divorce, and the rights of fathers and mothers) to illustrate her position of female equality/liberation. Below, I discuss aspects of her book in depth.
Asma Barlas uses four versions of the Qur'an for analysis and interpretation in her book: Abdullah Yusuf Ali's translation, as well as those by Muhammad Asad, A. J. Arberry, and M. M. Pickthall. The need for the variety of translations becomes apparent when Barlas discusses specific verses (Ayat) in the latter half of her book. The subtle (and not so subtle) discrepancies between translations are some of the most convincing aspects of her work, clearly illustrating her position that customs and cultures affect transmission of the Qur'an's message. This point is demonstrated with her four translations of the Qur'an (2:228) pertaining to divorce. The difference in translation of one word, darajah, determines if the husband has a "degree" or "kindness" over women (pp. 195-196).
Part 1 of the book analyzes the primary texts (Qur'an, Tafsir, Ahadith) and main secondary sources (the Sunnah, Shari'ah, and the state) utilized by Muslims. Barlas delves into the historical foundations of these sources and analyzes the methodologies, which led to the transformation of these texts such that they conformed to the cultures of the time. For readers who are non-Muslim or who are unfamiliar with the basic sources of the religion, Barlas provides detailed explanations of Arabic terms (both in the text and in the glossary at the end of the book) and the theoretical purpose for each text. For example, the Qur'an is defined as "the Truth ... a unifying framework for Muslims ... and the source of classical Muslim law (Shari'ah)" (p. 32). Barlas also states that the Qur'an is "inimitable, inviolate, inerrant, incontrovertible" which is why the Qur'an can be established as Divine speech (p. 33). "It is the interpretive process (by humans), both imprecise and incomplete, that is open to critique and historicization, not revelation itself" (p. 34). Humans, on the other hand, have none of the above-mentioned qualities, and thus Barlas establishes the foundation for answering her questions.
To further illustrate the translation process, Barlas discusses other texts used by Muslims in conjunction with the Qur'an. Additional texts used by Muslims, and written after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, have become venerated as equally sacred as the Qur'an or give precedence over it. Barlas claims that the Ahadith (tales of communication, which customarily refer to a narrative of the Prophet's life and practices [Sunnah]) is a primary example of this (p. 42). Barlas explains that some Ahadith, primarily misogynistic ones, became incorporated into the Official Corpus nearly a hundred years after its closure (p. 45). Also, absorption of Muslim texts by the state to conform to the times as well as the various cultures accepting Islam, have changed the interpretation or translations of the texts. Thus she cites Von Gurnebaum saying, "The very pluralism of tradition worked against women's interests as ideas and customs of the earlier civilization penetrated more deeply into Shari'ah by being formulated as hadith" (p. 45). Key to this is the generalizing of specific scripture, especially those pertaining to women, which are covered in Part 2.
Part 2 explores some of the more specific issues pertaining to women and the various interpretations applied to them. Next, Barlas offers her own reading of the text to offer plausible examples in support of her two main questions. Barlas begins with the issue of patriarchy. She asserts that the Qur'an does not elevate males over females, or endow fathers with right/rule. Likewise she determines that God does not proclaim to have a gender, noting that God is incomparable. Therefore God cannot be correctly interpreted by using the word He/Him, which is why the Qur'an uses terms not associated with either gender, Allah and Rabb (p. 105). To emphasize her point that God did not allow fathers/males right/rule, Barlas presents the story of Abraham, who is told to reject both his father's gods and authority (p. 111). "Abraham's break with his father is embedded in a larger discourse that seeks to uncover the tensions that have existed historically between God's Rule and fathers' rule" (p. 111).
The core of Barlas's argument lies in her discussion of texts pertaining to the two sexes/genders. She states that the Qur'an does not define men and women as two "binary oppositions," men as the Subject and women as the Other (p. 132), but as "two complete differences" (p. 129). She illustrates this by examining the Creation story in the Qur'an. "The theme that women and men commenced from a single Self and constitute a pair is integral to Qur'anic epistemology" (p. 134).
This is also evident in the discussion of the veil. Barlas notes that the Qur'an's distinction of the gaze and the body pertains to both men and women. "Thus, many commentators of old, who took this Ayah to mean that the gaze was the messenger of fornication, sought to mitigate it not as the Qur'an does by counseling modesty for both men and women, but by segregating and veiling women in order to protect men's sexual virtue.... The Qur'an however, rules out both male and female scopic activity. Moreover, its injunction to cast down one's eyes establishes that people must, in fact, be free to look upon one another publicly" (p.158).
Barlas clearly lights a path in the Qur'an that allows Muslim women to break free of many patriarchal readings previously established. However, she acknowledges that precedent, established since the time of the Abbasids, is difficult if not impossible to change. Her hope is that her work will facilitate discussion among Muslims. "We cannot reinterpret Islam without rereading the Qur'an, and many Muslims do in fact recognize the urgency of such an exercise given its abuses at the hands of many Muslim clerics and states to oppress women" (p. 210). The only question that is left to answer is, if we are to reread to obtain knowledge and to truly understand history, then who determines what is truth? Her work may not change the role of women in Islam during her lifetime, but her work definitely encourages scholars to lift the veil and start talking.
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Kirsten V. Walles. Review of Barlas, Asma, "Believing Women" in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an.
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