Quran and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Womans Perspective by Amina WadudIslam is misogynist--a common claim by those who criticize it. Most often such critics are non-Muslims who have never picked up a Quran and have no intention of ever doing so. Their concern for womens rights often disappears too, once the discussion has left Islam.
So what might someone who is not only Muslim, but also female, have to say about it? The answer is not the unqualified opposite, as Im sure the typical Islamaphobe would assume. Female Muslims are well aware of the sexism that exists in their communities, and the justifications made for it on religious grounds. Amina Wadud makes that clear in this book, but more importantly she challenges the idea that this situation is unique to Islam. There are feminists who also identify as Christian, so it should come as no surprise that there are Muslim feminists.
Waduds perspective is as interesting to note as her writing--she is an American convert from Christianity to Islam. She has spent years studying the Quran not only as an academic scholar, but from a deeply personal place as a woman and a member of the Islamic faith. Her life itself challenges the stereotype of the submissive, passive female Muslim whose religion binds her while simultaneously excluding her.
Quran and Woman is short, but bold. It proposes an exegesis of the Quran that is quite different from the conservative, patriarchal version many male Muslims and non-Muslims presume is the only acceptable one. Instead, she argues that Quran is a progressive text that can, and should be interpreted with greater gender equality. She is not the first, or only voice to make this proposal from the female Muslim world, but she does it succinctly. This passage sums up her aims quite well:
I do not hold such (anti-women) views, nor do I find support for them in the Quran. It is interesting to note that even those Muslim authors who issue these interpretations accept that the Quran aims to establish social justice. However, it is obvious that their interpretation of social justice does not extend fully to women. It is like Thomas Jefferson and the writers of the American Constitution saying that All men are created equal without intending in the least to include equality between black men and white men.
This is not unlike the Christian apologetic that the Bible does not condone slavery simply by mentioning it. It does, however, leave room for the eventual dismantling of slavery on religious grounds--once interpreted that way. Her mention of the Constitution is significant. Many historians have noted that while it originally did not forbid slavery, it never mentions it by name, which was important in the eventual triumph of abolition. Abolitionists were as adamant in their belief that the Constitution and its ideals were incompatible with slavery as slavers held the opposite. In a way, this is the secular version of the same idea: interpretation matters.
In Islam this is called ijtihad, the personal investigation of the Quran and the conclusions one draws from it. While most Islamic scholars follow a school of thought, they are expected to also form individual judgements. Wadud does the same, and backs up her reasoning with ayat (verses) and careful examination of Arabic translation, along with the context in which they were written. Again, this is not unlike what many Christian writers do for a variety of theological issues.
In the process, she outlines some common misconceptions about the Quran, and what it does and does not say. For example, the whole 72 virgins matter. Like the pithy Christian saying God helps those who help themselves, this is not found anywhere in the Quran. The verse it is associated with simply says that in Paradise the faithful will have houris, which means something like lovely or faithful companions. Its not even a gendered term in Arabic; houris can be male or female, and no number is given as to how many each believer will have (she even notes that it can be interpreted singularly). The whole notion of 72 virgins came much later as an interpretation by a male scholar who did his own ijtihad and concluded something different.
This leads into another point Wadud makes: much of what people assume Islam is was codified long after the Quran was written. This codification took place in societies that were still patriarchal and often unfriendly toward women; people in powerful positions, like say, male religious leaders, would have every reason to interpret the Quran in the same way.
Not that Wadud is under any illusions about the patriarchal background of Muhammads time. She notes that Quranic verses regarding divorce are inexcusably unfair to women. At the same time, she argues that it doesnt have to be that way--religions and the societies they influence can, and do change. The idea that there is only one interpretation of Islam and it has to be anti-female is as ridiculous as the idea that Christianity must be pro-slavery:
The Quran is not a manual of directives which only commands the individual reader to perform certain actions or fulfill particular characteristics. By citing concrete events, it makes conceptual ideas tangible. The female and male characters are particularly important to demonstrate certain ideas about guidance. The characters and events in the Quran should always be examined in light of this overall goal.
In other words, a sacred text is not meant to freeze social standards and roles for all time. It is best viewed as a guide or pathway--apt since the word ayah for verse means signpost. The spirit of a text is just as important as the specifics. Wadud explains that spirit, too, in Arabic is genderless. Allah gave all people nafs--a soul, and this soul is equal before him whether male or female. He instead looks to the individuals taqwa, or piety, as evidence of their faith, not their gender.
Wadud believes the verses that outline these principles are the ones that Allah meant to act as universal, timeless truths. Ones that speak about women getting less inheritance money, or having less testimonial weight in court were tied to a more specific time and place, reflective of the realities of human society then in force. The goal was to eventually transcend these hindrances to a more equal, just world. Such a change never occurs overnight--it is a process that never ends.
The continued change which the Quran put into motion was not meant to stop when the revelation was completed. Muhammads vision, whether one thinks it good or bad, was meant to take the nomadic Arab culture from a place of violence and instability to one with greater emphasis on justice and community. It occurs to me that Islam, unlike Christianity or most other world religions, was compressed into a very short time span in its origin. Muhammad was one man who wrote (or dictated rather) a single book over the course of about 20 years. The Bible was written by many authors, some Jewish and others Christian, over the course of thousands. Would this not affect the character of such a text, both in content as well as future use? Wadud essentially argues this in her belief that the Quran is a progressive document aware of temporal limitation while pushing divinely expansive, inclusive ideals. The doctrine of abrogation in Islam reflects this; the idea that seemingly incompatible verses reveal Allahs acknowledgment that humanity was not ready at certain times for the entirety of his commands. This is similar to the Buddhist idea of skillful means--that the Buddha taught people based on how well he thought they could handle the teachings. He met his disciples were they were in their journey rather than just expecting them to get on his level immediately.
If nothing else, this book dashes the popular idea that Islam is somehow hopelessly different from all other faiths--too misogynist, too violent, too extreme, etc., with no room to ever admit for anything positive. Its complicated and has problems to be sure, but what religion doesnt? What of anything in this life that involves humans doesnt? These problems can be overcome, because they are human problems, and they are not written in stone. The solution is not to demonize all members of a given religion, or look to its eradication, both of which are not really solutions and ultimately end up creating more problems than they solve. Waduds greatest point is one of hope. Hope that people within religious traditions can change their own and their faiths destinies for the better, using that faiths texts and traditions itself in new ways:
With regard to social justice, it becomes necessary to challenge patriarchy--not for matriarchy, but for an efficient co-operative and egalitarian system which allows and encourages the maximum participation of each member of society. This system would truly respect each gender in its contributions, and all tasks that are contributed. This would allow for the growth and expansion of the individual and consequently for society at large. As such, women would have full access to economic, intellectual, and political participation, and men would value and therefore participate fully in home and child care for a more balanced and fair society.
Amina Wadud Islam, Feminism and Human Rights
Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective
The research for Qur'an and Woman started as early as At that time. I was also unaware of how to develop such a reading. Although interest in the question of woman in Islam was not unique, attempting to pursue an answer to that question exclusively by examining the notion of woman in the Qur'an turned out to be nearly unprecedented throughout fourteen centuries of Islamic thought. However, in these times of post- modernist critique when the very foundations of knowledge are challenged to move beyond certain value laden tendencies, such a method can be viewed as part of a larger area of discourse by feminists who have constructed a valuable critique of the tendency in many disciplines to build the notion of the normative human from the experiences and perspectives of the male person. One objective behind my research was to establish a definitive criteria for evaluating the extent to which the position of women in Muslim cultures accurately portrays the intention of Islam for women in society. It was easy to designate the Qur'an as the ultimate criteria available within the Islamic intellectual legacy, as well as its most authoritative reference point, because it enjoys an overwhelming consensus among Muslims--however variously understood--as the word of Allah, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad for the purpose of guidance to all humanity.