REVIEW OF: Barlas, A. (2009). Does the Qur’an Support Gender Equality? Or, do I have the autonomy to answer this question?. Autonomy and Islam. Leuven, the Netherlands: Peeters.
Religious inclinations are a deeply personal matter, yet the extent to which they permeate human life differs between societies. Among these, no religion directs the life of its followers to such a powerful extent as Islam does. With specific reference to gender relations, Islam often takes center stage when it comes to the treatment of women, with the Quran rightly or wrongly being cited as a defense for female inequality, misogyny and male patriarchy. Here, Barlas (2006) offers fresh insight and a unique perspective into the matter. Basically, the author argues that in and of itself, the Quran does not in fact support gender inequality. Rather, the gender inequality prevalent in Islamic societies is a construct of partial reading of the Quran in a manner that contorts the teachings to support the views of patriarchy. By and large, the author makes irrefutable arguments.
From the very beginning, the author undertakes the immense and seemingly impossible task of convincing that the Quran does not support gender inequality. In the first place, the author agrees that while Islam has been synonymous with gender inequality, the Quran does not offer a theory of sexual equality. This in itself is a strong introduction that immediately piques the interest of the reader. The argument is well-founded, as it is emphasizes that theories of gender equality are relatively new. In essence, this is not to say that gender has not always been an important part of human interaction. Instead, human beings have for generations co-existed under regulations that were the product of customs handed to them for generations. However, it is only in the recent past with the advent of modern civilizations that the alienating nature of the customary interactions made it so important to develop scholarly discourse for gender interactions.
For the most part, the author’s arguments in the support of this central view are so well-developed that they make a compelling case. The first of these is in the difference between sacred and religious knowledge, sacred knowledge being the Quran itself; as the author describes it as ‘perfect, timeless and unchanging’. On the other hand, religious knowledge refers to the manner in which the teachings in the Quran are interpreted. This is an important distinction, and the author does well to introduce it early on in the paper. This is because at first glance, the two concepts seem one and the same. In reality, however, they could not be more different, and this is the core reason for the perpetuation of the Quran as a promoter of gender inequality. While the written word is universal, the manner in which different people perceive it is not. As a matter of fact, Taves (2011) presents a supporting view that different interpretations of religious literature arrive at vastly different and contradictory meanings that may be different from the original word. That Islamic society perpetuates gender inequality cannot, therefore, be blamed on the Quran but on the subjective nature of its interpreters who seek to promote patriarchy. The author does a thorough job in making this distinction, making it easy to appreciate the rest of her assertions in the article.
Further, the author goes on to develop the theme of religious misinterpretation as the main culprit in gender inequality by asserting that the interpreters have more often than not been men. The structure of religious authority in Islam has allowed the Quran to be interpreted by a few male scholars. Here, the view by Stopler (2008) suggests that Muslim leadership is mostly in the hands of men. Therefore, the author places an intriguing thought in the minds of readers. If the Quran is interpreted by men, then it is only a natural consequence that they will interpret it in manner that is subjective and panders to their interests, resulting in the patriarchy that is inherent in Islamic society. As such, the article puts forward, convincingly, that gender inequality is the result of the who and the how of interpretation and not in the word itself.
Considering all this emphasis on interpretation, it would seem crucial for the author to provide the kind of religious interpretation that she suggests would not promote patriarchy. Once again, this is done at great length. According to the author, the main problem lies in the fact that the Quran is not interpreted by itself, but by the hadith. Given that the hadith is a historical, man-made, written religious word, and that gender inequality is a historical consistency, it is no surprise that the hadiths are bound to reflect the kind of writing that glorifies men as superior beings. This is an enlightening concept, as most persons do not stop to consider the differential make-up of these two Islamic religious works. Putting them together under the same umbrella is not only a paradox due to their divine versus man-made nature, it also helps to divulge blame for patriarchy on the more well-known of the two works. This way, the author demonstrates the fallacious nature that underlies Quranic characterization of patriarchy.
As such, in order to solve this dilemma, the author suggests for the Quran to be interpreted by way of the Quran, asserting that the Quran itself gives guidelines for its own interpretation. In the first place, the Quran affirms for reading in its totality, and condemns partial or selective reading as one pleases. Second, it also forbids the changing of words from their right times and places. Furthermore, it encourages interpretation in terms of the best meaning. Here, the author manages to point out clear guidelines that demonstrate that the Quran can be used as means to bring gender equality, as it was rightly meant to do, rather than become a tool for the self-serving interests of the majority of the population to use as a scapegoat. Therefore, the article strongly presents that the Quran is clear in matters of interpretation. By reading it wholly, and using these teachings to come up with a message that is inclusive an all-encompassing for all aspects of humanity, for that is what ‘best meaning’ entails, it is possible for the Quran to be used to perform the purpose for which it was meant.
Moreover, the author presents an argument that is at the center of all religion, and the cornerstone for the misguided extrapolation of patriarchy as if it were really present in the Quran. This is the very nature of God, as human beings tend to characterize God as male. The author argues that God is ‘uncreated and unpresentable’, and therefore not male, and further that only God is the sovereign ruler over the people. Accordingly, the author manages a major problem that is at the heart of Islamic patriarchy. This concept is in agreement with Stopler (2008) who suggests that Islam, like most religions, characterizes God as a male construct, and this forms the basis of patriarchy by extension of the same shared divine superiority. In this manner, the author demonstrates that the Quran is in fact, anti-patriarchal as it denotes sovereignty only to God and no other human entity. This part of the article is probably the most important and the most well-presented, as it attacks the problem of religious-backed gender inequality right at its heart. The male person derives their perceived superiority through an extension of shared divine gender superiority and sovereignty. Given that the author demonstrates that this shared power is non-existent strictly from a divine point of view, the article could not make it any clearer that the Quran is anti-patriarchal.
In addition, the author shows that the so-called inequality issues in the Quran are vastly misinterpreted from a linguistic and conceptual point of view. The author breaks down the concept of wife-beating which originates from a word that means, among other things ‘to separate’, with no notion of how it came to be interpreted as beating. Indeed, Bakhtiar (2011) undertakes a critical English examination of the word to show that men misinterpreted it to allow them to beat their wives, creating a contradiction that is not inherent in the Quran. To any rational person, it would seem obvious that certain persons, in this case male entities with a misogynistic agenda, chose to perpetrate a view of the teaching that is narrow at best and misleading at worst. By taking advantage of linguistic conceptions of the word, they arrived at a meaning that is contradictory and played on it to advance the vile practice of wife-beating, all the while using this misinterpretation to blame the Quran. The author therefore shows that the Quran is clear in its promotion of liberality between spouses, and not the opposite.
In the same vein, the author makes a cogent argument that verses within the Quran that were meant for the protection of women have been turned around to be a proclamation of a lower status. This has to do with polygyny, originally meant to protect female orphans but has been stretched out to allow man to marry up to four wives as they see fit. In essence, this part of the Quran was meant to ensure that female orphans had some sort of social support structure (Ali, 2015). It was not, and was never meant to be, a proclamation that women were at the disposal men to marry as they saw fit. It was also not express permission to take the number of women of one’s pleasing, as the Quran indeed states that it is better to marry one wife. In this manner, the author soundly shows that this part of the Quran was not only misinterpreted to fulfill the needs of men, it became a source of male authority that was not the true intention in the writing of that verse. This flies in the face of all that is known as polygyny in Islamic society, as the marrying of up to four wives is a phenomenon so deeply rooted that few dare question its purpose as it is supposedly written in the Quran. The uprooting of this myth is an important strength of the article.
Equally, the author effectively proves that the Quran sees women as being different, not unequal to men. Not only does it not designate gender roles according to biology, it also directly addresses women in a manner that does not make them seem less equal to men. This part of the article is important as biology and gender, though not the same, derive heavily from each other. With this in mind, the author assures that the Quran only recognizes biology, not gender constructs of the same. This effectively brings down the supposed affirmation in the Quran of gender roles and places according to biology, making that impression false and misguided. Having agreed that gender assignation of roles and power does not originate from biology, at least according to the Quran, the author then tackles the fact that the Quran teaches sexual equality as men and women were created from a single self. No matter how one decides to examine the author’s argument, it remains credible that nowhere in the Quran are men prioritized as superior because of their gender.
However, the author makes a glaring mistake by stating that the recognition of patriarchy in the Quran is not the same as the promotion of patriarchy. This is a contradictory argument for the reason that they amount to the same thing. Yes, the Quran does not expressly grant privilege to men in its direct words. However, it does as much by recognizing that men are the locus of authority. Indeed, Asad (2009) states that religious reading is guided as much by what is not said as it is by what is no said. By this logic, the Quran does quite a bit of both in the way of promoting patriarchy.
The recognition of men as the locus of authority, and that coming from a divine work that is, as the author puts it ‘perfect, timeless and unchanging’, is an equivocation that men are at the top of the chain. After all, authority belongs to the powerful ones, and this power has been recognized by a divine teaching no less. This leaves women, by default, to follow suit. This is compounded by the fact that the Quran more often than not addresses men. In itself, this is an alienation that is synonymous with the cultural and political exclusion that plagues women in Islamic societies, with issues being discussed with men in mind. Therefore, one cannot for all intents and purposes argue that the Quran does not have a place in the promotion of patriarchy. For the most part, this argument holds water. However, if one decides to dissect the logic of it and arrive at a point where it is male authority that is recognized and male entities addressed, then one derives the concept of the Quran as having a role in the development of misogyny. To downplay it as the author does is a fault.
Still, the author raises issue that are relevant not only for the discussion of gender in the Islamic context, but also in the interaction with the non-Muslim community. That patriarchy is thought to be a God-given gift is the common working assumption in many Islamic societies, and the author effectively challenges that this assumption is null. Men are not superior because they are male because God is not male. They are also not superior because the Quran does not define gender-superior roles. These are concepts that are bound to meet with disagreement as they go against the popular ignorance of those who purport to be enlightened interpreters of the word. However, they are important as they offer a much-needed all-rounded view of the Quran in relation to gender equality. They therefore form an important point of discussion for Muslims, as well as non-Muslims who use these misinterpretations to chastise Islam for its treatment of women.
The Quran is often cited as the backing argument for the promotion of patriarchy and misogyny. However, the Quran is only misinterpreted to seem so, as unwavering sacred knowledge is not the same as subjective religious knowledge. The divine gender sovereignty that supposedly gives men their superiority is non-existent in the Quran, and gender inequality cannot be thought of as originating from here. The author makes strong arguments in this regard, and successfully meets the challenge of convincing readers to turn away from the misguided notions they have heard and embrace the Quran as it is: anti-patriarchal.
Asad, T. (2009). Genealogies of religion: Discipline and reasons of power in Christianity and Islam. JHU Press.
Bakhtiar, L. (2011). The sublime Quran: The misinterpretation of Chapter 4 Verse 34. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 18(4), 431-439.
Barlas, A. (2009). Does the Qur’an Support Gender Equality? Or, do I have the autonomy to a nswer this q uestion?. Autonomy and Islam. Leuven, the Netherlands: Peeters.
Stopler, G. (2008). Rank usurpation of power-The role of patriarchal religion and culture in the subordination of women. Duke J. Gender L. & Pol’y, 15, 365.
Taves, A. (2011). Religious experience reconsidered: A building-block approach to the study of religion and other special things. Princeton University Press.
Related: Women In Islam Research Paper