North Africa, West Asia

Do men have the exclusive right to interpret the Qur’an?

In the millennium and a half since Islam’s advent, only men, and only Arab, or Arabic-speaking men, have interpreted its religious texts, at least publicly.

Asma Barlas
25 February 2019

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Debate between Asma Barlas and Tariq Ramadan organised by the Avicenna Society of Rotterdam. Courtesy of the author.

Several years ago, Muslim students of the Avicenna Society of Rotterdam organized a debate between Tariq Ramadan and myself about the status of Muslims in the West. In speaking about the discrimination and violence Muslim women have suffered in the name of Islam, I pointed out that the Qur’an actually affirms their equality with men. It does so by teaching that God created both from the same self (nafs), made them viceregents (khalifa) on earth and appointed them one another’s guides and guardians (awliya) with the mutual obligation to enjoin the right and forbid the wrong. Yet, there is no trace of these verses in dominant interpretations of the Qur’an or in Muslim law. Instead, both law and exegesis foreground a handful of verses/lines (less than six out of more than 6,000 verses) that they take as advocating male supremacy over women.’

My larger point was to question why Muslims invest only men with the authority to interpret the Qur’an and why they are averse to interpreting it differently than they do. I have read it as an egalitarian and anti-patriarchal text in Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an. At the end of the debate, several women in the audience asked Ramadan what he thought about women’s readings of the Qur’an. Women, he eventually said, had to achieve a certain mastery in order to be able to comment on it knowledgeably. All these years later, I can still recall the incensed face of a young woman in hijab who was repeatedly pushing him to clarify just how many more centuries he felt women had to wait before men would regard them as being knowledgeable. He didn’t say.

The truth is that the Qur’an doesn’t authorize only men or a scholarly community to interpret it and nor is there an ordained clergy or church in Islam. Nor does the Qur’an say it came only for the literate. To the contrary it says it is meant also for the “unlettered” Bedouins in the deserts of Arabia. In a remarkably post-Reformation vein, it insists that believers should have a direct relationship with God and should rely on our own reason and intelligence to decipher its verses (ayat, or “signs” of God).

Yet, in the millennium and a half since Islam’s advent, only men, and only Arab, or Arabic-speaking men, have interpreted its religious texts, at least publicly. Even among liberal and progressive Muslims today, men remain the locus of authority as Ramadan’s comment made very clear. Arguably, on this score, Muslims may be no different from Jews and Christians and adherents of other faiths whose religious texts were also revealed or authored in patriarchies. Patriarchy, a form of institutionalized male supremacy, is older than Islam and its history is rather sordid when it comes to women’s welfare. It is this overlapping trajectory of religion and patriarchy that has prompted some feminists to dub Islam a religious patriarchy and to declare that patriarchy has “God on its side” (Kate Millett, Sexual Politics; 1970)

I don’t doubt that when religious traditions represent and misrepresent God as male, they empower men. But, what if a Scripture refutes the idea that God is a male or, indeed, comparable to any created being? What if—as the Qur’an asserts—God is beyond the “highest evolved thought” of human beings, utterly unique, utterly unlike anything that exists? Would such an unsexed/ ungendered God have an investment in propping up the authority of human males? Why on earth?

Given such descriptions of God in the Qur’an, I can’t understand why Muslims treat God as a male. True, the Qur’an calls God “He” but we can see this as a function of Arabic, the language in which it was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in seventh century Arabia. The Qur’an itself states that it is in Arabic because God wished to address the Arabs in their own language. And, while most Muslims have come to view Arabic itself as a sacred language, the Qur’an doesn’t intimate that it is.

The reason such seemingly esoteric issues are important to a discussion of women’s rights is because, if God is not a male, there is no reason for men to claim a special affinity with God as a way to then exercise totalizing authority over women. In fact, positing such an affinity and claiming this kind of authority borders on shirk, a derogation of divine sovereignty. The argument is simple enough: in Islam, we have an absolute God whose oneness and sovereignty are indivisible, meaning no one can participate in or partake of God’s encompassing dominion over everyone and everything. Yet, in many Muslim societies men posture as “earthly gods” over women, all in the name of following Islam.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to men interpreting the Qur’an. Far from it. My own understanding of it has been shaped solely by men’s interpretations and translations. The most compelling to me is by Muhammad Asad, who was born a Jew in Austria-Hungary at the turn of the twentieth century and converted to Islam when he was twenty-six. Another favoured translation is by the noted Shi’a scholar, Abdullah Yusuf Ali. I also don’t think, like many feminists do, that we need communities of women readers to generate liberatory interpretations of texts. Hundreds of years of women’s following in men’s footsteps, voluntarily or not, should dispel this illusion.

Having said this, though, I believe that the questions women and men bring into our reading of sacred texts are likely to differ. Women, who have a stake in challenging the deification of men, could very well ask whether the Qur’an endorses patriarchy, which is what I do at the start of my own reading. And, I define patriarchy as both rule by the father/husband and as a politics of sexual differentiation that privileges men because they are male. To my surprise—and relief—I find that the Qur’an doesn’t endorse either mode of patriarchy and, to the contrary, criticizes the mindless rush to follow the “ways of the fathers” who were (are) devoid of knowledge.

In the years since the debate with Ramadan, I’ve shared my reading with many young Muslims who are looking to encounter the divine. To them, what matters isn’t whether someone has the authority to interpret the Qur’an or not but what they have to say about it. At such times I’m reminded that, when we treat the Qur’an as simply a manifesto for claiming rights or for meting out punishments, we forget that, before anything else, it is a way for us to know the Creator we are called on to worship.

Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an by Asma Barlas is published by Saqi Books, February 2019


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