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Twin Fundamentalisms

Feminism is also problematic because of the secularism that underpins it. Barlas has had a bitter, first-hand experience of feminism’s antagonism towards religion. In our interview, she recounted the following incident:

Now lately when I went back to Pakistan on a post-doc in 1999, the women I met who are feminists and who are involved in the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) and Shirkat Gah, you know, so many NGOs. Most of them don’t want to touch Islam with a 10-foot pole. When I made a presentation on my work, one of the women in the audience said very loudly, she just got up and said: Yeh to perhi likhi mawlani hai [Urdu]. “This is an educated female mulla,” is what she told me. You’re no better than a female educated mulla because, you know, to speak about the Qur’an is already to be an obscurantist in the eyes of the liberated, feminist women in Pakistan.[1]

Her grievances, therefore, are not just with White feminists, but also Muslim feminists. In order to differentiate between Muslim women who utilize a religious framework to fight against patriarchy and Muslim women who rely upon a secular language of universal human rights, gender activists have suggested the terms ‘Islamic feminism’ to describe the former and ‘Muslim feminism’ to refer to the latter.[2] However, given that leading intellectuals like Wadud and Barlas do not identify as feminists, this classification system is misleading. As we have seen, Wadud also takes issue with the secularity of feminism, which is precisely why she opts for the phrasing ‘profaith, pro-feminist’.[3] In fact, Barlas observes insightfully, secular feminist portrayals of Islam—that it is a monolith, that it can only be interpreted in one way—are strikingly similar to those of Muslim conservatives, thereby reifying oppressive understandings of Islam.260 In so doing, secular feminists have made it more difficult for Muslim women to secure their rights in the name of Islam. Feminism reflects a wider problem within secularism. For ‘secular fundamentalists’, writes Barlas, ‘suffer from an absence of doubt about their own positions, to which they adhere uncritically, while advocating critical engagements with religion.’[4] For example, she notes that despite secularist portrayals of religion as being inherently violent, secularism has been equally, if not more, guilty of bloodshed, pointing to the two world wars, fascism, and the Nazi holocaust.[5] Indeed, secularism as a discourse needs to construct a fundamentalist, religious Other in order to justify its own ‘civilizing project’.[6] Secular modernity and religious fundamentalism, therefore, are inextricably linked. In her criticism of secularism, Barlas stands in contrast to Engineer. As we saw in Chapter 3, Engineer idealizes secularism, upholding it as a neutral language to counter communal violence between Hindus and Muslims.[7] He thus overlooks the crucial question of who gets to define the secular, which in the Indian context has historically been, and continues to be, the prerogative of Hindus.

This is not to imply, of course, that religions are bastions of pluralism. In fact, most Muslims are convinced that Islam exercises a monopoly over truth, constituting the path towards God. Challenging this chauvinistic claim, Barlas argues that the Qur’an acknowledges the universality of revelation, as God sent prophets to every nation.[8] Islam, then, is a continuation of a long historical chain of divine disclosure. Paralleling Engineer, she points to Q. 5:48 in particular, which celebrates religious diversity:[9]

We have sent down to you the Book with the truth, confirming what was before it of the Book and as a guardian over it. So judge between them by what God has sent down, and do not follow their desires against the truth that has come to you. For each community among you We have appointed a law and a way of life, and had God wished He would have made you one community, but He wished to test you by that which He gave you. So take the lead in all good works. To God shall be the return of you all, whereat He will inform you about that which

you used to differ.

So not only does the Qur’an acknowledge the legitimacy of other faith traditions, at least monotheistic ones (the people of the above mentioned ‘Book’), but it also states that the presence of diverse religions is actually a part of the divine plan, for ‘had God wished He would have made you one community.’ In addition to embracing the validity of other religions, Barlas appreciates that they, too, are subject to interpretation. If Islam can be read in multiple modes, so can other faith traditions. She observes, for instance, that Christianity has historically been interpreted in drastically different ways, contrasting the tyranny of the Inquisition and the genocide of indigenous South America, justified in the name of Christ, to the radical liberation theologies that emerged in the mid-twentieth century.[10] Her discourse on religious pluralism, moreover, is a compelling example of how she is willing to use extra-Qur’anic texts when these texts work to affirm ‘the best’ meanings of scripture. Specifically, she refers to the medieval Sufi scholar ibn ‘Arabi and his meditations on the unity of God[11]—a theological concept that, as discussed earlier, Barlas reflects upon extensively. According to ibn ‘Arabi, all revealed religions, irrespective of their divergent forms, are, in essence, one.[12] To put it another way: while followers of different faiths have embarked upon paths that may or may not overlap, they are all ultimately united by their shared destination: God.[13]

The brunt of Barlas’ writings on religious pluralism, however, centres on the importance of fostering genuine inclusivism within the Muslim community. Pointing to Q. 2:256—‘There is no compulsion in religion’—Barlas argues that no Muslim has the right to force any type of moral conduct upon a fellow Muslim.[14] By reading Q. 2:256 through the lens of intrareligious relations, Barlas, like Wadud,[15] departs from common understandings of this verse, which have restricted its meaning to interreligious relations: namely, as prohibiting forced conversion to Islam.[16] Indeed, writes Barlas, in order for a Muslim’s submission to God to be meaningful, to carry any ‘moral weight’ it has to be voluntary.[17] It is precisely for this reason that she (re)defines Islam, which literally means submission, as ‘willed submission to God.’[18] Earlier on we saw Barlas, when exploring the Qur’an’s opposition to patriarchy, expound on Abraham’s relationship with his father. Here, in making a case for the voluntary basis of faith, she returns to Abraham, but this time examines his role as father, in particular his response to God’s command to sacrifice his child. The story is narrated below:

When he [Abraham’s son] was old enough to go about with him, he said, ‘O my son! I see in a dream that I am sacrificing you. Consider, then, what is your view? (fa-undhur madha tara).’ He said, ‘Father! Do whatever you have been commanded. If God wishes, you will find me to be amongst the patient ones.’ So when they had both submitted to God’s will, and he had laid him down on his forehead, We called out to him,

‘O Abraham! You have fulfilled the vision! Thus do We reward the virtuous! That was a manifest test.’ Then we ransomed him [Abrahams’ son] with a great sacrifice, and left for him [Abraham] a good name in posterity. Peace be on Abraham! Thus do we reward the virtuous. Indeed, he was one of our faithful servants.[19] (Q. 37:102-111)

Barlas comments that this passage not only demonstrates that the Qur’an undermines the rule of fathers—Abraham cannot simply do as he pleases with his son, first seeking his opinion and consent (‘Consider, then, what is your view?’)—but it also illustrates vividly the voluntary nature of faith.[20] For in order for the sacrifice to be meaningful, his son had to be willing to go along with it. Abraham’s request for his son’s perspective thus cannot be read as a perfunctory, insignificant exercise. Rather, it was a genuine act of consultation and mutual interpretation.[21] Barlas’ discourse on pluralism within the Muslim community, moreover, is yet another example of her willingness to use extra-scriptural sources. While she cites ibn ‘Arabi when discussing interreligious pluralism, she draws upon the insights of the medieval theologian al-Ghazali when calling for intrareligious plur- alism.[22] Al-Ghazali lived in a time when Muslim theologians were constantly attacking one another, hurling accusations of heresy while positing their own theological positions as authentic. But no school of thought, interjected al-Ghazali, can claim a monopoly over truth, for all theologies are interpretations that are historically conditioned and, thus, cannot be conflated with divine revelation.[23] This was a profound insight, particularly for someone writing in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and, as has been seen throughout this book, one that is echoed today by Qur’anic readers of justice.

  • [1] Barlas Interview, 2009. The Women’s Action Forum (WAF) is a feministorganization in Pakistan. Founded in 1981 in Karachi, the group has establishedchapters in cities throughout the country. WAF espouses a comprehensive approachto women’s rights. Its activities include awareness raising about pressing women’sissues like domestic abuse; political lobbying against sexist legislation; and providing ageneral forum wherein different women and women’s groups can network. ShirkatGah—an Urdu term meaning ‘a place of participation’—is a Pakistani women’sorganization that was established in 1975. It seeks to empower women by makingthem full and equal members of society. Among the organization’s many activities arelobbying for more gender-egalitarian legislation and policies; the provision of legalassistance and counselling to women in crisis situations; and the production anddissemination of educational literature on sexual oppression.
  • [2] Ali and Leaman, 37-8 . 3 Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 79-80.
  • [3] 260 Barlas, ‘Texts, Sex, and States’, 112.
  • [4] Barlas, Re-Understanding Islam, 25 . 2 Ibid, 18.
  • [5] 263 Barlas, Islam, Muslims, and the US, 112.
  • [6] 264 Engineer, ‘Secularism and its Problems in India’.
  • [7] 265 Barlas, ‘Reviving Islamic Universalism’, 246. Although she does not provide any
  • [8] Qur’anic citations to substantiate this specific argument, there are two verses thatsupport this idea that revelation was sent down to multiple peoples: Q. 35:24 claimsthat divine messengers have been sent to all nations without exception, while Q. 40:78clarifies that the Qur’an only discusses a select number of prophets, leaving out others.The text, therefore, makes no claim of providing a comprehensive listing of theprophets.
  • [9] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 145-6. She incorrectly cites this verse asQ. 5:51.
  • [10] Ibid, xi. 2 Barlas, ‘Reviving Islamic Universalism’, 248-9.
  • [11] 269 Ibid, 249.
  • [12] 270 Ibid. Barlas is referring here to ibn ‘Arabi’s notion of wahdat al-wujud (the
  • [13] unity of existence).
  • [14] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 55.
  • [15] Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 81-2.
  • [16] Asad, The Message of the Qur’an, 69-70.
  • [17] Barlas, Islam, Muslims, and the US, 136.
  • [18] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 235.
  • [19] It is interesting to note that the passage does not specify the name of the child.However, the next verse goes on to state ‘And We gave him the good news of the birthof Isaac, a prophet, one of the righteous’ (Q. 37:112), thereby suggesting that Ishmaelwas the older son and the one referred to in Abraham’s sacrifice. This is in line withmainstream Muslim understandings of the story. There is a point of disagreement,therefore, between the Qur’anic and biblical accounts, as the latter explicitly positsIsaac as Abraham’s only son at the time and the one who was to be sacrificed(Gen. 22:1-3).
  • [20] Barlas, ‘The Qur’an and Hermeneutics’, 29.
  • [21] Asma Barlas, ‘Abraham’s Sacrifice in the Qur’an: Beyond the Body’, in Conference Proceedings: Religion and the Body (Turku, Finland: Donner Institute forResearch in the History of Religion, Abo Akademie University, 2011), 4-11.
  • [22] Barlas, ‘Reviving Islamic Universalism’, 247-8. When discussing al-Ghazali,Barlas consults the work of the Islamic scholar Sherman A. Jackson, On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam: Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s Faysal al-TafriqaBayna al-Islam wa al-Zandaqa [‘The Decisive Criterion for Distinguishing betweenIslam and Masked Infidelity’], trans., annotated and introduced by ShermanA. Jackson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
  • [23] Barlas, ‘Reviving Islamic Universalism’, 246-7.
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