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The Infinite Justice of the One God

Justice is a key aspect of divine self-disclosure. Like all the commentators studied in this book, Barlas is deeply committed to the belief in a compassionate and just Creator, observing that the Qur’an persistently negates any association of zulm (oppression) with God.[1] As the Japanese Islamic scholar Toshihiko Izutsu has noted, Qur’anic descriptions of God, which present this deity’s ‘essentially ethical nature’, are brought together in the scriptural trope of Divine Names, referring to God as the Benevolent (al-Rahman), the Merciful (al-Rahim), and the Forgiving (al-Ghaffar), among others.[2] Reading the text for the best meanings must centre on recovering justice, then, because its author is utterly just.[3] Moreover, Barlas argues, the justice of God establishes the fundamental equality of men and women, as such a deity would never favour a specific sex. Citing Q. 33:35—the Believing Women verse, which was quoted earlier when discussing the Umm Salama paradigm—she argues that ‘moral praxis’ is the sole basis on which humankind will be judged, and that women and men are endowed equally with the ability to attain taqwa, or ‘God- consciousness’.[4] Barlas thus echoes Wadud who, as we saw in the last chapter, drew upon taqwa as an organizing hermeneutical principle when arguing for the equality of the sexes (Q. 49:13).[5] But if God is inherently just, continues Barlas, then this has lasting implications in terms of how we approach scripture, for if ‘God never does zulm to anyone, then God’s speech (the Qur’an) also cannot teach zulm against anyone.’[6] Conversely, reading oppression into the text associates oppression with its divine author, who is expressly described as just. Indeed, this constitutes one of the great contradictions of Islamic history, she laments, for at the same time as Muslims have believed in the justice of God they have continued to read patriarchy into this deity’s living words.[7]

It is here, in discussing Barlas’ liberating theology, that we arrive at the single most important paradigm in her Islamic thinking: tawhid, the absolute unity of God. Monotheism, she comments, is a central theme running through the Qur’anic text, which states clearly and unequivocally that ‘Your God is One God’ (Q. 16:22), even dedicating an entire chapter to this belief.96 Surat al-Tawhid, or the Chapter of Unity (Q. 112) is one of the shortest and most straightforward chapters in the text. It reads: ‘Say: “He is God, the One. God is the Eternal. He neither gave birth, nor was He given birth, and there is none comparable to Him.”’ And it is this aspect of divine selfdisclosure that functions as the principal, hermeneutical key in Barlas’ anti-patriarchal exegesis. For tawhid reflects the indivisibility of God’s sovereignty, and therefore any human attempts to partake in this sovereignty undermines Islamic monotheism.[8] In terms of gender relations, she continues, this means that patriarchy—as a system that upholds male privilege, giving men sovereignty over women and setting up men as intermediaries between women and God—is at odds with divine sovereignty, with tawhid, and thus must be dismantled on Qur’anic grounds.[9] In her theological exposition of the gendered implications of tawhid, Barlas shares common ground with Wadud. To be sure, these two exegetes differ (albeit slightly) in how they reinterpret Islamic monotheism. Though Wadud also emphasizes the sovereignty, the transcendence of God, thereby prob- lematizing male portrayals of God as having masculine qualities,[10] she makes a second hermeneutical move. In addition to expounding on the unity of God, Wadud, echoing the writings of Shari‘ati,[11] reflects upon the unity of humanity, arguing that the Oneness of God must necessarily translate into the Oneness of humankind, undivided by ‘race, class, gender, religious tradition, national origin, sexual orientation or other arbitrary, voluntary, and involuntary aspects of human distinction.’101 While Barlas may well support this interpretation, it is not one that explicitly figures in her hermeneutic; her primary interest with regard to tawhid is the indivisibility of God and the gendered ramifications of this sovereignty. That tawhid plays such a prominent role in both Wadud’s and Barlas’ thinking is significant, reflecting the centrality of this theological paradigm in women’s gender egalitarian readings of the Qur’an. In fact, monotheism is so crucial to Islamic critiques of patriarchy that Muslim women focussing on other textual traditions have also reinterpreted this foundational belief. The Lebanese American legal scholar Azizah al-Hibri is a compelling case in point. Writing in the context of the shari‘a, she argues that tawhid is ‘the core principle of Islamic jurisprudence’, establishing the supremacy of God and, by extension, ‘the fundamental metaphysical sameness of all humans as creatures of God.’102 In order for legal rulings to comply conceptually with tawhid, therefore, they must treat men and women as fully equal human beings.

Against Patriarchy Our Father who art in Heaven

If God is One, if no other being can partake in divine sovereignty, then God is unparalleled, unmatched, unique. And it is this unrepre- sentability of God—the inability to compare this deity with humans, to portray the divine in anthropomorphic terms—that constitutes the third hermeneutical key, alongside divine justice and unity, with which Barlas rereads scripture.[12] Indeed, as the Qur’anic scholar Abdur Rashid Siddiqui has noted, while Allah literally means the God (al-ilah) it also suggests the state of being hidden from vision, of lying beyond the boundaries of human comprehension (Q. 6:103; 42:11), forever perplexing and bewildering the believers.[13] Yet despite the Qur’an’s description of God as being unrepresentable, Barlas bemoans, Muslims have drawn parallels between God and men, implying that God shares a special affinity with men, that God is, in effect, male. For example, the medieval Persian scholar Abu Ali Fadl al-Tabrisi (d. 1153) commanded wives to bow down to their husbands, claiming that God’s dominion over humankind entailed men’s dominion over women, while the South Asian scholar Ashraf Ali Thanawi (d. 1943) compared a wife’s ingratitude to her husband with ungratefulness to God.[14] As the post-Christian feminist theologian Mary Daly has argued, the conceptualization of God as male, as exhibiting masculine characteristics, plays a seminal role in legitimizing such unholy equations, for if ‘God is male, then the male is God.’[15] But the Qur’an, interjects Barlas, squarely rejects representations of God as male and, specifically, as Father—a theological staple of traditional patriarchies. Once again, she turns to the Chapter of Unity (Surat al-Tawhid): ‘Say: “He is God, the One. God is the Eternal. He neither gave birth, and nor was He given birth, and there is none comparable to Him.”’ Not only does this Qur’anic chapter, Barlas comments, clearly establish God’s unrepresentability (‘there is none comparable to Him’), but it also defies portrayals of God as Father (‘He neither gave birth’) or Son (‘nor was He given birth’).[16] In fact, she continues, the Qur’an launched a scathing criticism of the Jews and Christians of seventh-century Arabia for portraying God as a father figure:[17]

The Jews say, ‘Ezra is the son of God,’ and the Christians say, ‘Christ is the son of God.’ These are sayings that they utter with their mouths, following assertions made by unbelievers in earlier times. May God assail them! How perverted are their minds![18] (Q. 9:30)

While the text vigorously disassociates God from being Father, there remains the thorny question of why the text continuously refers to God with the male pronoun ‘He’ (huwa)? Does this not reflect a glaring contradiction in the text? Barlas tackles this question by drawing upon historical criticism, highlighting the societal context in which the Qur’an was revealed. In particular, she points out that there is no neuter in Arabic grammar and that even inanimate objects are classified as being either masculine or feminine.[19] This is a linguistic feature distinct to the Arabic language, then, and cannot be used to engender God, especially in light of the Qur'an's wider emphasis on divine unrepresentability.

But just as portraying God as paternalistic is problematic so, too, is the reverse representation: reclaiming God as a motherly figure. In the face of patriarchal projections of God the Father, feminists have sought to recover past theologies wherein God exhibits feminine qualities, as exemplified by the Mother-God or Goddess. The historian Leila Ahmed, for instance, has written that the ancient cultures of the Middle East prior to the Christian era, such as in Mesopotamia and Egypt, venerated goddesses, concluding that the ‘decline in women's status was followed eventually by the decline of goddesses and the rise of supremacy of gods.’111 Barlas takes issue with Ahmed’s linkage of goddess worship with gender egalitarianism, countering that the public presence of goddesses and priestesses is not necessarily reflective of an equitable distribution of gendered power on the ground.[20] She gives the example of the people of ancient Greece, who ‘in spite of strong female goddesses in their pantheon, believed that women were just lesser men who lacked the ability to reason. On this basis, they excluded women from public and political life and the rights extended to men.’[21]

Ahmed’s historical account, then, is representative of a broader, essentialist tendency amongst feminists to romanticize the goddess cult as inherently empowering for women. And insofar as the Qur’an is concerned, adds Barlas, not only is there no scriptural basis for God being a motherly or female figure—as has been seen, this is a deity that is beyond gender classification, literally or metaphorically—but the Qur’an also explicitly rejects ascriptions of either sons or daughters to God (Q. 6:100).[22] The text, therefore, rules out the possibility of this deity exhibiting any anthropomorphic qualities. As the Islamic scholars Kecia Ali and Oliver Leaman have noted, the Qur’an’s denial of God as having daughters is in large part due to the existing, religious milieu in which the text was revealed, as goddesses—in particular Lat, ‘Uzza and Manat, considered to be God’s daughters (Q. 53:19-23)[23]—were a part of pre-Islamic Arabian theology.[24]

  • [1] any Qur’anic citations when making this claim, there are a number of verses thatexplicitly deny God’s association with oppression, such as Q. 4:40, 11:117 and 40:17.
  • [2] Izutsu, 17.
  • [3] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 16.
  • [4] Barlas, ‘The Qur’an and Hermeneutics’, 25-6.
  • [5] Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 36-7.
  • [6] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 14.
  • [7] Ibid, 204. 96 Ibid, 95.
  • [8] Ibid, 13.
  • [9] Ibid, 13-14. 3 Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 81.
  • [10] 100 Shari‘ati, 3. 101 Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 28.
  • [11] 102 Al-Hibri, ‘An Introduction to Muslim Women’s Rights’, 51-2.
  • [12] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 14-15.
  • [13] Siddiqui, 16-17. 3 Barlas, ‘The Qur’an and Hermeneutics’, 22.
  • [14] 106 Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), 19. The masculinization of God is an especiallyproblematic practice in mainstream Christianity, given that the Old and New Testaments explicitly describe God as a father figure. See, among others: Isaiah 64:8; Psalms
  • [15] 89:26-7; Matthew 5:14-16; and Luke 23:34.
  • [16] Barlas, ‘The Qur’an and Hermeneutics’, 27. 2 Ibid.
  • [17] 109 Indeed, the underlying theme in the Qur’an’s discourse on Christianity andJesus in particular is the denial that this prophet had any filial relationship to God,which is precisely why Jesus is routinely referred to as ‘Jesus son of Mary’ (‘isa ibn
  • [18] maryam). See, for instance, Q. 4:171.
  • [19] Ibid, 35. 111 Ahmed, 12.
  • [20] Asma Barlas, ‘Texts, Sex, and States: A Critique of North African Discourses onIslam’, in The Arab-African and Islamic Worlds: Interdisciplinary Studies, eds. KevinLacey and Ralph Coury (New York: Peter Lang, 2000), 108-9.
  • [21] Barlas, Islam, Muslims, and the US, 120.
  • [22] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 98.
  • [23] It is important to note that the statement within this passage, ‘Are you to havemales and He females? That, then, will be an unfair division’, is meant to be ironic,given the great shame that the pre-Islamic Arabs associated with the birth of daughters, leading them to bury their daughters alive—a practice that the Qur’an roundlycondemns (Q. 16:58-9). See Asad, The Message of the Qur’an, 926-7.
  • [24] Ali and Leaman, 43. 117 Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 120.
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