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Prophetic Paradigms: Abraham and Muhammad

Abraham emerges as a central prophetic figure in Barlas’ exegesis, exemplifying the Qur’an’s emphasis on God’s rule over father’s rule. Abraham’s break with his father is narrated in the following verses:

And mention in the Book: Abraham. He was a truthful one, a prophet. When he said to his father, ‘O my father! Why do you worship that which neither hears nor sees, and is of no avail to you in anyway? O my father! A knowledge has come to me that has not come to you. So follow me that I may guide you to a right path. O my father! Do not worship Satan. Indeed, Satan is disobedient to the all-Beneficent. O my father!

I am afraid that a punishment from the all-Beneficent will befall you, and you will become Satan’s accomplice.’ He said, ‘Abraham! Are you renouncing my gods? If you do not desist, I shall stone you. So go away from me for a while.’ He said, ‘Peace be on you! I shall plead with my Sustainer to forgive you. Indeed, he is gracious to me. I dissociate myself from you and whatever you invoke besides God. I will supplicate to my Sustainer. Hopefully, I will not be disappointed in supplicating to my Sustainer.’ (Q. 19:41-8)

This seminal passage, comments Barlas, demonstrates that the Qur’an, by subverting the authority of Abraham’s father, is at odds with the structuring of traditional patriarchies, which rest on the indisputable sovereignty of fathers.123 Moreover, she hastens to clarify, these verses do not simply substitute the authority of disbelieving fathers with believing ones, but rather firmly establish the supremacy of God’s rule, as evidenced further by the fact that while Abraham’s prophetic descendants are praised in the text, neither he nor they are valorized as fathers.[1] In sum, the very person who is routinely referred to, even celebrated, as the Great Patriarch—a label that the Qur’an never uses—himself engaged in an acutely anti-patriarchal act: splitting with his own father. Even Esack, an outspoken advocate of gender justice, falls into the trap of paternalizing this prophet:

Abraham, mentioned sixty-nine times in the Qur’an, emerges as the common father of the people of the book with the Muslim community also being the children of this great patriarch.[2]

On the contrary, Barlas writes, the Qur’an employs gender-neutral language when describing Abraham: specifically, it uses the term imam (Q. 2:124),[3] referring to one who acts as a leader and spiritual guide of the people. It is important to note here that while imam is grammatically masculine (the feminine form would be imama) the term is, conceptually speaking, gender-neutral. This is clearly not the case with the word ‘father’—such as when Abraham states in the above passage: ‘O my father’ (ya abati)—which is both grammatically and conceptually masculine. While Barlas only discusses Abraham as imam, the text uses a number of titles to describe this prophetic figure, all of which are, significantly, gender-neutral. On various occasions, for example, Abraham is referred to, even by himself, as a hanif (Q. 3:67; 6:79; 16:120), denoting one who has abandoned everything in order to commit him or herself to God:[4] a devout monotheist. In addition to hanif, Abraham is venerated as khalilullah, or the friend of God (Q. 4:125).[5]

Just as Abraham is denied symbolic fatherhood, so is Muhammad, who is, in fact, denied not only symbolic but actual fatherhood (understood both as having a father and in the patriarchal sense of fathering sons). This scriptural silence—that is, the absence of portrayals of the Prophet in distinctly paternalistic terms—speaks volumes for Barlas, affirming the Qur’an’s opposition to father-rule, to the consecration of fathers as earthly surrogates of God.[6] Q. 33:40— ‘Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but he is the Apostle of God and the Seal of the Prophets’—is the most important passage that she draws upon in this respect. While Barlas acknowledges that the specific historical circumstances of this verse suggest that it sought to clarify Muhammad’s relationship to Zayd b. Haritha, his adopted son,[7] she argues that, on a deeper reading, this verse undercuts patriarchal representations of the Prophet as a symbolic father of the faithful.[8] Yet exegetes have continued to paternalize the prophet, reading fatherhood into this passage despite its categorical disavowal of Muhammad as any type of father figure. For example, the renowned English translator and commentator of the Qur’an, Muhammad Asad (d. 1992), asserts that this passage confirms the Prophet’s status as ‘the spiritual father of the whole community’, as opposed to a physical one, thereby refuting claims of lineal descent as a sign of righteousness.[9] Asad falls into this trap yet again when translating Q. 33:6. His translation reads: ‘The Prophet has a higher claim on the believers than [they have on] their own selves, [seeing that he is as a father to them] [sic] and his wives are their mothers.’133 Asad is a useful barometer for gauging established, scholarly understandings of scripture, as he anchors his explanatory notes in the inherited exegetical tradition. His parenthetical addition—‘[seeing that he is as a father to them]’—is thus not putting forth his own original exposition, but rather echoing the opinions of earlier commentators, in particular Abu al-Qasim al-Zamakhshari (d. 1144) and Isma‘il ibn Kathir (d. 1373).[10] But Muhammad, adds Barlas, is not only denied symbolic fatherhood, but also, as history has shown, actual fatherhood:

Given that the Prophet is not sacralised as father, is it also a mere coincidence that he loses his father, Abdullah, in his own infancy, and all his sons in theirs; that only his daughters survive, at a time and in a place when people view girls as a curse?[11]

Her discussion on how such aspects of Muhammad’s life are at variance with traditional patriarchy is an illustrative example of how she incorporates the sira (prophetic biography) into her thinking, using historical accounts to complement her Qur’anic reading. Indeed, the Prophet’s personal lifestyle, Barlas observes, was surprisingly gender egalitarian—especially given the machismo of his times—partaking in household chores, such as preparing his own meals, and never physically or verbally abusing his wives.[12]

  • [1] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 113.
  • [2] Esack, The Qur’an: A User’s Guide, 153.
  • [3] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 114-15. The term imam—literally, one whostands in front—has taken on very different meanings in Sunni and Shi‘a Islam. In theformer, it refers to a prayer leader or, more generally, used as a title of respect whenaddressing an Islamic scholar, while in the latter it can refer either to a prayer leader,to an Islamic scholar or (in the specific case of Twelver Shi‘a Islam) to one of thetwelve divinely-appointed Imams, starting with Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-lawof Prophet Muhammad, and ending with Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi, who remainsin occultation.
  • [4] Siddiqui, 75.
  • [5] It is precisely because of this epithet that the Palestinian city of Hebron,wherein Abraham lived, is referred to in Arabic as Khalil.
  • [6] Barlas, ‘The Qur’an and Hermeneutics’, 30.
  • [7] Zayd was a child-slave purchased by Muhammad, who set him free andadopted him as his own son. Zayd would later marry Zaynab bint Jahsh. Theirmarriage, however, was a rocky one, eventually leading to divorce. The Prophetmarried Zaynab shortly afterwards. He became deeply worried, however, aboutwhat people might say. Q. 33:40 essentially underscored Muhammad’s adoption ofZayd, clarifying that the same marriage restrictions that apply to blood relatives donot hold for adopted/legal ones, as marriage to the former spouse of one’s biologicalchild is forbidden. See Asad, The Message of the Qur’an, 725.
  • [8] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 121.
  • [9] Asad, The Message of the Qur’an, 726. 133 Ibid, 718.
  • [10] Ibid. 2 Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 121.
  • [11] 136 Ibid, 125.
  • [12] 137 Hidayatullah, 213. While Hidayatullah uses the term feminist, I place feminist
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