Critical Interpretation or Apologetic Argument?

Barlas’ exegesis of Q. 4:34 betrays the limits of her radical hermeneutic, for despite her otherwise critical rereading, she idealizes the text. By idealize I mean that she seeks to completely reconcile contemporary understandings of gender justice with a text that emerged in late antiquity, and thus within a society that had a markedly different conception of gender relations. As shown in Chapter 2, a central grievance that Esack has with the Qur’an is its androcen- trism,201 addressing men, who become the subject of divine discourse, thereby reducing women to objects that are acted on. Going back to our discussion on Q. 4:34, irrespective of whether idribuhunna is interpreted as ‘[physically] beat them’, ‘[symbolically] beat them’, that is, spell out a lesson for them, or ‘confine them’, men remain the text’s audience and women passive objects in the third person—an absent ‘them’—who are to be checked, rebuked, disciplined. Wadud also

Women’s Rights in the Global Village: Challenges and Opportunities’, Journal of Law and Religion 15:1/2 (2000-1): 64-5.

  • 198 Asad, The Message of the Qur’an, 789.
  • 199 Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 188. 200 Ibid, 188-9.
  • 201 Esack, ‘Islam and Gender Justice’, 195.

takes issue with this problematic aspect of the Qur’an and highlights its androcentric discourse on sexuality, as illustrated in Q. 2:223— ‘Your women are a tillage (harth) for you, so come to your tillage whenever you like’—portraying male sexuality as assertive and dominant, female sexuality as acquiescent and submissive.[1] This verse clearly conflicts with Barlas’ claim that the text does not differentiate between male and female sexualities.[2] And yet she dismisses any critiques of androcentrism. Since the text was revealed in a context wherein men held power, she rebuts, it had to speak in terms of this reality, clarifying that to ‘deal with a historical contingency is not to advocate it as a timeless norm.’[3] But her own research reveals that the Qur’an provocatively pushed the boundaries of its own context, speaking of women and men in egalitarian terms and even speaking to women directly, as exemplified by Umm Salama’s verse (Q. 33:35). In other words, when it comes to matters of faith, good deeds, and divine recompense, the Qur’an explicitly addresses both sexes. But if the Qur’an is willing to use such gender-inclusive language with regard to belief, why does it speak solely to men when discussing sexuality? For instance, the text’s discourse on marriage—a partnership that is public, unlike sexual intercourse, which is private and confined to the home—is acutely androcentric, portraying men as ‘marrying’ and women as being ‘married’ (Q. 2:221).[4] Even the so-called polygamy verse is inescapably male-focussed. Although women’s gender egalitarian readings have cogently demonstrated that the sanctioning of polygamy presumes a historical crisis wherein female orphans were being exploited, and thus is not an open license for having multiple wives, men remain the audience of these verses and it is up to them to elect, to initiate marriage: ‘If you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphans, then marry women that you like: two, three, or four’ (4:3).[5] Hence, when it comes to sexuality, of which marriage is part and parcel, the Qur’an does make social statements about male and female bodies, politicizing their different biologies.

The roots of Barlas’ apologia can be found in her essentialization of the Qur’an, that is, approaching it as a text that is innately liberating and thus can only be liberating. As the Islamic scholar Kecia Ali has observed, Barlas’ anti-patriarchal interpretation refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the need to wrestle with divergent Qur’anic readings, in particular patriarchal ones, which are too readily reduced to ‘misreadings’.[6] Indeed, while Barlas states at the beginning of her Commentary that her intention is ‘not to deny that the Qur’an can be read in patriarchal modes’,[7] she ends up making precisely this argument a few pages later, insisting that an ‘exegesis that reads oppression, inequality and patriarchy into the Qur’an should be seen as a misreading, a failure in reading, since it attributes to god zulm [oppression] against women.’[8] In her essentialist approach to scripture, Barlas shares common ground with Engineer. As was seen in Chapter 3, Engineer presents the Qur’an as an ancient ‘charter of rights for women’, championing complete gender equality.[9] He even goes so far as to claim that there is not a single verse that can be used to support the oppressive status quo.[10] In other words, when the status quo does draw upon the Qur’an for Islamic legitimacy, it is merely manipulating the text’s real meaning, which is an invariably liberating one. Though both Barlas and Engineer resort to apologetics, it is important to appreciate the very different ways in which these two exegetes essentialize the text, as Barlas does so in a far more sophisticated manner. Not all essentialist arguments are the same; some are articulated more rigorously than others. Whereas Engineer reads scripture in a selective and inconsistent fashion, Barlas commences her exegesis with a theological reflection—making God’s justice, unity and unrepresentability her hermeneutical points of departure—and then forwards textual interpretations in light of this liberating theology. For ‘basing our readings of the Qur’an on a theologically sound view of God opens up infinite, and infinitely liberating, ways of encountering scripture.’212 The problem with this approach, however, is that it serves to undermine the letter, the substance, the specificity of the text, allowing the reader to explain away anything that contradicts her/his view of a just deity.

  • [1] Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 193. Q. 2:187 is another example of the text’sandrocentric approach to sexuality, speaking to husbands and permitting them toenter their wives during the nights of fasting.
  • [2] Barlas, ‘Women’s Readings of the Qur’an’, 264.
  • [3] Barlas, Re-Understanding Islam, 25.
  • [4] Ali and Leaman, 42.
  • [5] I am grateful to Christopher Rowland for alerting me to the androcentricnature of this passage.
  • [6] Ali, Sexual Ethics and Islam, 132.
  • [7] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 4. 3 Ibid, 14.
  • [8] 210 Engineer, Islam and Liberation Theology, 33.
  • [9] 211 Engineer, On Developing Theology of Peace in Islam, v.
  • [10] 212 Barlas, ‘Holding Fast by the Best in the Precepts’, 20.
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