Against Patriarchy. The Reading ofAsma Barlas


This chapter is devoted to the Qur’anic exegesis of the Pakistani American intellectual Asma Barlas. The first section will explore her interpretive methodology. Like Esack, Engineer, and Wadud, she privileges the Qur’an over other Islamic texts, such as the hadith and the shari‘a. Barlas reads scripture in multiple ways, and this section will systematically outline the hermeneutical strategies that she employs. In so doing, I will show a key similarity between Barlas’ and Wadud’s methodologies: namely, their usage of historical criticism and textual holism as liberating modes of reading. I will then unpack Barlas’ exegesis. Like Wadud, she seeks to demonstrate how the Qur’an can be interpreted to further the struggle for gender justice. However, while the works of these exegetes tend to be conflated, as if they are simply doing the same thing, I argue that they are actually engaged in substantively different projects, for whereas Wadud undertakes a study of woman in the Qur’an, Barlas interrogates the relationship between the text and patriarchy. That is, while the former explores the Qur’an’s representations of women, from the Creation Story to the Hereafter, the latter makes a case for the antipatriarchal basis of Muslim scripture, claiming that it is at variance with both ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ understandings of patriarchy. Tawhid, the unity of God, is the most important theological paradigm that Barlas draws upon in this exegetical endeavour. That Wadud, as seen in the preceding chapter, also expounds the social and political implications of Islamic monotheism is significant, reflecting the centrality of this paradigm in women’s gender egalitarian readings of the Qur’an. But unlike Wadud (and Esack), Barlas at times delves into apologetics, trying to fully reconcile a seventh-century text with contemporary understandings of gender justice. Like Engineer, she essentializes the Qur’anic text, portraying it as being inherently lib- eratory, thereby rendering patriarchal readings as ‘misreadings’. The final part of this chapter will show that Barlas, in a markedly similar fashion to all the commentators considered in this book, has a holistic stance towards justice, reflecting not only on gender but also on class and empire, race and religious pluralism. This comprehensive approach to liberation, I argue, stems from her engagement in ‘double critique’, or her commitment to speak truth to power in both Muslim and non-Muslim Western contexts. This chapter will first set the stage for discussion by providing a brief history of Pakistan (where Barlas was born and spent the first three decades of her life) as well as a biographical sketch of this exegete.

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