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Reading for Justice: A Different Approach

Barlas reflects extensively on the nature of the divine, and it is this critical reflection that forms the epistemological groundwork for her liberating hermeneutic. The commentaries of Wadud and Barlas tend to be lumped together, the latter often portrayed as simply rehashing the insights of the former. However, as I will demonstrate in the following sections, they are involved in substantively different (though complementary) exegetical projects. The preceding chapter showed that Wadud focuses on the subject of woman in Muslim scripture, thematically exploring topics like the Creation Story, the Events of the Garden, the Day of Judgement, and the Hereafter, as well as explicitly gendered issues such as divorce, polygamy, and male authority. Barlas, on the other hand, is more interested in the concept of patriarchy and, specifically, its relationship to the Qur’an. And herein lies her original, lasting contribution to women’s gender egalitarian readings of the Qur’an, as these readings have failed to expound, in a systematic and detailed fashion, what they mean by the term patriarchy and, therefore, have not been able to appreciate fully the Qur’an’s stances on this complex system of male privilege.79

77 Ricoeur, 213. 79 Ibid.

Indeed, in Qur’an and Woman Wadud devotes a two-page subsection to patriarchy, discussing the patriarchal backdrop in which the text was revealed and noting that this historical context inevitably shaped its language.[1] Elsewhere, she briefly describes patriarchy as not simply being ‘an affirmation of men and men’s experiences’, but also being ‘a hegemonic presumption of male superiority’,[2] as well as a culture of ‘persistently privileging one way of doing things, one way of being and one way of knowing.’[3]

Before we begin to unpack Barlas’ treatment of patriarchy and its relationship to the Qur’an, two points of clarification need to be made. Firstly, while she clearly believes in the significance of the Qur’an, and by extension textual reinterpretation, as a factor in bettering Muslim women’s lives, she acknowledges that patriarchy in Muslim societies cannot be reduced to the religious alone, and thus other contextual realities that may have nothing to do with religion, such as political economy, culture, and the state, also play a role in sustaining this oppressive system.[4] Secondly, she is explicit that, by interrogating patriarchy in light of the Qur’an, she is not trying to unearth a theory of gender equality in the Qur’an, since such theories are intellectual products of the modern period and cannot be read into a premodern text.[5]

In her exegesis, Barlas puts forth two principal arguments: namely, that the Qur’an is at odds with both ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ forms of patriarchy. She defines traditional patriarchy—its modern manifestation will be discussed shortly—as follows:

When I ask whether the Qur’an is a patriarchal or misogynistic text,

I am asking whether it represents God as Father/male or teaches that God has a special relationship with males or that males embody divine attributes and that women are by nature weak, unclean or sinful. Further, does it teach that rule by the father/husband is divinely ordained and an earthly continuation of God’s Rule, as religious and traditional patriarchies claim?[6]

Theology, or how one conceptualizes God, therefore plays a pivotal role in Barlas’ anti-patriarchal exegesis. There is an unbreakable bond between the divine and divine speech, between the theological and the textual. And it is precisely because ‘our understanding of God’s word cannot be independent of our understanding of God’, she concludes, that ‘we must seek the hermeneutic keys for reading the Qur’an in the nature of divine self-disclosure.’[7] That is, how does God describe God’s self? It is only after the exegete has addressed this crucial question that s/he can then begin to interpret scripture, for a sound reading of the Qur’an must commence with a sound, theological conception of its author.[8] Here, in her emphasis on the intimate, inseparable connection between author and authored, Barlas clearly departs from Ricoeur. For a text, according to Ricoeur, is wholly independent of its author and takes on a life of its own,[9] an irreversible rupture that transpires at the very moment of the text’s composition. As we shall see, this linking of the theological (God) and the textual (God’s Word) has a lasting payoff for Barlas’ hermeneutic, enabling her to expound the text in light of a liberating theology.

  • [1] Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 80-1.
  • [2] Wadud, ‘What’s Interpretation Got To Do With It’’ 92.
  • [3] Wadud, ‘Islam beyond Patriarchy through Gender Inclusive Analysis’, 101.
  • [4] Asma Barlas, ‘Muslim Women and Sexual Oppression: Reading Liberation fromthe Qur’an’, Macalester International 10 (Spring 2001): 118.
  • [5] Asma Barlas, ‘Does the Qur’an support gender equality? Or, do I have theautonomy to answer this question?’, in Negotiating Autonomy and Authority inMuslim Contexts, eds. Monique Bernards and Marjo Buitelaar (Leuven, Belgium:Peeters, 2013), 3.
  • [6] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 1.
  • [7] Barlas, ‘Holding Fast by the Best in the Precepts’, 19.
  • [8] Barlas, ‘Women’s Readings of the Qur’an’, 261. 4 Ricoeur, 211.
  • [9] 89 Barlas, ‘Holding Fast by the Best in the Precepts’, 19. While Barlas does not provide
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