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Fathers: Earthly Surrogates of God?

Not only does the Qur’an avoid portraying God as a heavenly patriarch but also, in its treatment of parenthood, refuses to privilege fathers over mothers. According to the Qur’an, Barlas points out, the main reason behind the Arabs’ rejection of Muhammad’s prophecy was their practice of blindly following in the footsteps of their fathers:117

When they are told, ‘Follow what God has sent down,’ they say, ‘We will rather follow what we have found our fathers (aba’ana) following.’ What, even if their fathers (aba’uhum) neither applied any reason nor were guided? (Q. 2:170)

While the obvious critique can be made here that Barlas’ gendered reading of this verse treats the term aba’ana (our fathers) literally, rather than using its wider, conceptual meaning (our forefathers or our ancestors), her argument that this passage challenges patriarchal conventions remains persuasive. For unquestioning obedience—on the part of both men and women—to established norms, to existing configurations of power, is a core aspect of patriarchal practice. Indeed, the Arabs equated what was normative (ethical) with whatever they found their forefathers doing, while the Qur’an introduced, as Izutsu aptly phrases it, ‘a new morality entirely based on the absolute Will of God.’[1] Furthermore, Barlas argues, the text’s condemnation of the misogynistic tradition of female infanticide, or the pre-Islamic Arabian custom of burying newborn daughters alive (Q. 16:58-9; 81:8-9), undercuts father-right in traditional patriarchies: that is, the base assumption that the father exercises ownership over his children, who function as his personal property, permitting him to do whatever he wants with them.[2] But the text, Barlas observes, not only refuses to ascribe to fathers ‘any real or symbolic privileges that it does not accord mothers’,[3] but it actually elevates mothers over fathers. For instance, while the Qur’an states the importance of showing kindness and respect to one’s parents, it singles out mothers in particular, expressing empathy for the pains of pregnancy and childbirth that the mother alone has to endure:[4]

We have enjoined the human being concerning his parents. His mother carried him through weakness upon weakness, and his weaning takes two years. Give thanks to Me and to your parents. To Me is the return. But if they urge you to ascribe to Me as partner that of which you have no knowledge, then do not obey them. Keep their company honourably in this world and follow the way of him who turns to Me penitently.

Then to Me will be your return, whereat I will inform you concerning what you used to do. (Q. 31:14-15)

As this passage shows, however, at the same time as children owe their parents respect, it is God’s authority that constitutes the final word, trumping all other forms of allegiance. What differentiates one’s relationship with God from that of one’s parents, writes Barlas, is that the former is to be worshipped, and thus owed obedience, while the latter deserve courtesy, compassion, mercy (Q. 17:23-4).122 The rebellion of Prophet Abraham against his polytheist father, which we will examine below, is perhaps the most compelling example of a Qur’anic story that draws out both teachings.

  • [1] Izutsu, 45-6. 2 Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 180-1.
  • [2] 120 Barlas, ‘The Qur’an and Hermeneutics’, 31.
  • [3] 121 Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 175. The Qur’an’s sensitivity to the diffi
  • [4] culties of childbearing is best captured in Jesus’ birth, in which God, through a divinemessenger, comforts Mary (Q. 19:22-6).
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