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The Primacy of the Word

Just as for the other exegetes studied in this book, the Qur’an stands at the centre of Barlas’ Islamic discourse. Because the Qur’an reflects the actual speech of God, it is, according to Barlas, ‘inimitable, inviolate, inerrant, and incontrovertible.’[1] It is this text, therefore, that ought to act as the authoritative point of departure for all Islamic thought and practice. As she phrased it in our interview:

I think the Qur’an is the starting point and the ending point. Just like the Names of God: God is the First and God is the Last. So if the Qur’an is God’s Word, then it is the First and it is the Last. It has to provide the framework, the yardstick, the touchstone in terms of which we formulate law or norms or anything else.[2]

In her emphasis on the Qur’an as the ‘framework’ and ‘yardstick’ for (re)understanding Islam, Barlas echoes the text’s own self-description. Al-Furqan—literally, the Criterion or the Distinguisher—is one of the many names that the Qur’an uses to refer to itself (Q. 25:1), underscoring its express purpose as a book of guidance that will allow the believers to discern right from wrong, truth from falsehood.[3] Like Wadud,[4] Barlas criticizes the common practice of conflating the Qur’an with its historical exegesis,[5] which elevates human—or, to be more precise, male—interpretation with scripture. So while the Qur’an, as the Word, is ‘incontrovertible’, its earthly exposition is not.[6] In fact, she observes, the Qur’an makes a critical distinction between itself and its interpretation, warning those ‘who write the Book with their own hands and say: “This is from God”’ (Q. 2:79).20 To be sure, this verse is usually understood as addressing the Ahl al- Kitab (literally, the People of the Book, referring to earlier monotheistic communities, including Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians), who, as the verse goes on to state, would forge scripture in order to ‘sell it for a small profit’. But on a conceptual level, comments Barlas, this verse can be read as a severe criticism of those who collapse divine discourse with its fallible, human exposition.21 Furthermore, the equation of human interpretation with the Word has deeply problematic theological implications, as it entails, to use her own words, ‘erasing the distinction between God and humans.’[7] To conflate the texts, then, is also to conflate the authors of the texts— that is, to elevate humans to the level of God—thus impinging upon divine sovereignty.

Barlas is largely dismissive of the hadith literature, criticizing the elevation of prophetic practice alongside the Qur’an. As already discussed, in mainstream Islam the sunna is approached as being on a par with the Qur’an, as being a form of divine inspiration.[8] Barlas has deep-seated grievances with this understanding of the sunna not only because of the unique status of the Qur’an as the direct Word of God, but also due to the questionable reliability of the hadith, which began to be collected over a century after the Prophet’s death.[9] Like Esack, Engineer, and Wadud, Barlas is therefore highly sceptical about the authenticity of this body of knowledge. Moreover, she charges the hadith with misogyny, portraying women as being ethically and spiritually lacking; intellectually deficient; and constituting the majority of the inhabitants of Hell, as punishment for being ungrateful to their husbands.[10] Citing Q. 3:79, Barlas argues that the Qur’an squarely positions the authority of God’s Word over those of the prophets.[11] The passage reads:

It does not behove any human that God should give him the Book, judgement and prophecy, and then he should say to the people, ‘Be my servants instead of God’s.’ Rather (he would say): ‘Be a godly people, because of your teaching of the Book and because of your studying it.’

This verse is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it states clearly that God stands at the core of the Muslim faith and not God’s messengers, themselves being devout servants commissioned with the solemn task of prophecy. Secondly, and by extension, it is God’s words that take centre-stage, with the prophets calling on their people to become

‘godly’ by teaching and studying ‘the Book’, or God’s speech rather than their own. That being said, it is important to note that while Barlas takes issue with the hadith literature, her critique is not a categorical one. For the problem is not with the hadith per se, but rather with the selective privileging and mass circulation of a handful of reports that are blatantly anti-women. Indeed, she notes that there are only six misogynistic reports that are deemed reliable (sahih) and, conversely, that there are markedly egalitarian sayings ‘that emphasize women’s full humanity; counsel husbands to deal kindly and justly with their wives; confirm the right of women to acquire knowledge; elevate mothers over fathers... and record that the Prophet accepted the evidence of one woman over that of a man.’[12] The underlying problem with the hadith literature, then, is not only that it is used to interpret the Qur’an rather than the other way around— that is, using the Qur’an as the definitive criterion by which to read and evaluate (reported) prophetic discourse[13]—but also that those reports that do uphold gender justice remain unknown to most Muslims.

Her treatment of the legal tradition is less nuanced, however. In the preceding chapter it was shown that Wadud, in the spirit of pragmatism, has become increasingly inclined towards engaging the shari‘a, arguing that Islamic law needs to be reinterpreted in the present time and in accordance with Qur’anic values.[14] Barlas seems to have moved in the opposite direction. While her Commentary—Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an (2002)—called for the necessity to rethink Islamic juristic principles in light of the Qur’an’s teachings,[15] she has since become disenchanted with the prospects of reforming the shari‘a. When I interviewed Barlas in 2009, she articulated her changed platform in sharp and unambiguous terms:

But clearly as it [the shari‘a] exists: no, there’s no point in salvaging it. What’s the point of salvaging something that is not just patriarchal but downright misogynistic and un-Qur’anic? What’s the point? I don’t understand.[16]

I then raised the question of pragmatism, pointing out that several Islamic gender activists, acknowledging the legitimacy that the shari‘a wields amongst mainstream Muslims, have called for a critical engagement with it on strategic grounds. To this she replied:

I don’t know what to say to that. I understand the importance of pragmatism, but for me things are not always about strategy. They are about principle. And principles and strategies may or may not always cohere.[17]

The legal tradition, therefore, is simply too sexist and unjust to sustain any serious, systematic attempts at reform. In addition to legalizing gender inequality, she laments, the shari‘a fails to differentiate between premarital sex, adultery, and rape, taking pregnancy as evidence of voluntary extramarital relations.[18] This has resulted in raped women being doubly wronged, first by the rapist and then by the court, as the shari‘a prescribes stoning to death for adultery—a capital punishment that, she notes, has no basis in scripture.[19] While Barlas’ grievances with the shari‘a are well founded, she ultimately fails to distinguish between the theory of Islamic law and its practice. In many cases the latter has little to no relationship with the former. For example, the Maliki school of law is the only school that takes pregnancy in an unmarried woman as proof of voluntary extramarital relations, while the other schools find pregnancy to be insufficient as evidence.[20] It is important to note here that Barlas’ criticism of the shari‘a should not be read as a sweeping dismissal of the entire intellectual tradition, which is often reduced to its legal expression. As we shall see later on in this chapter, when discussing religious pluralism she draws upon the writings of two towering figures in medieval Islamic theology and mysticism: the Persian theologian Abu

Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) and the Andalusian Sufi Muhyiddin ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240), respectively.[21]

  • [1] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 33. 2 Barlas Interview, 2009.
  • [2] 16 Siddiqui, 63. As Siddiqui goes on to note, the term furqan is also used in the
  • [3] Qur’an to describe the Old and New Testaments (Q. 2:53, 21:48), suggesting that it isthe function of revelation, irrespective of the specific scripture in question, to act as astandard of ethical conduct for the faithful.
  • [4] Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, xxi-xxii.
  • [5] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 38-9.
  • [6] Ibid, 33. 20 Ibid, 17. 21 Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid, 79.
  • [8] Von Denffer, 18-19. This conflation of the authority of the sunna with theQur’an (discussed in Chapter 3 on Engineer) has deep roots in Islamic history, goingback to the classical period. The jurist Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi‘i (d. 820) isgenerally credited as being the principal architect behind this approach to the sunna.
  • [9] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 42.
  • [10] Ibid, 45. Barlas does not provide any citations (hadith collection and chapter) orauthenticity rankings when mentioning these reports, indicating her lack of systematic treatment of the hadith literature and extra-Qur’anic sources in general—anaspect of her writings that will be discussed later in this chapter.
  • [11] Ibid, 123.
  • [12] Ibid, 46. Here, Barlas draws upon the scholarship of the Moroccan scholarFatima Mernissi. For an important reappraisal of the Prophet’s legacy through thelens of gender justice, see Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite. While Barlas consultsMernissi’s work—and thus secondary literature on the hadith—she does not makeany direct references to the hadith corpus itself. She fails to specify and cite which ‘sixmisogynistic ahadith’ (plural of hadith) are considered reliable or, for that matter,which gender-egalitarian reports are being alluded to in the quoted passage above.
  • [13] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 123.
  • [14] Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 205.
  • [15] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 75.
  • [16] Barlas Interview, 2009. 2 Ibid.
  • [17] 33 Asma Barlas, Islam, Muslims, and the US: Essays on Religion and Politics (New
  • [18] Delhi: Global Media Publications, 2004), 78-9.
  • [19] Ibid.
  • [20] Ali, Sexual Ethics and Islam, 63. For a wider discussion of zina (illicit sexualrelations) in the legal tradition, see Chapter Four: ‘Prohibited Acts and ForbiddenPartners: Illicit Sex in Islamic Jurisprudence.’
  • [21] Asma Barlas, ‘Reviving Islamic Universalism: East/s, West/s, and Coexistence’,in Contemporary Islam: Dynamic, not Static, eds. Abdul Aziz Said, Mohammad Abu-Nimr, and Meena Sharify-Funk (London: Routledge, 2006), 247-8.
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