On Class and Race

An analysis of politics is meaningless without paying attention to questions of class. As Barlas puts it: ‘to study political institutions qua institutions—that is, without analyzing the class matrices in which they are embedded—is to neglect a vital dimension of politics.’[1] In fact, her first book, titled Democracy, Nationalism, and Communalism: The Colonial Legacy in South Asia (1995), is a Marxist—to be more precise: a Gramscian—study of the development of British, Hindu, and Muslim sociopolitical institutions in colonial India.[2] Gender, too, cannot be divorced from class. Barlas’ approach to gender issues in light of socioeconomic realities can be seen in her critical analysis on the impact of globalization in general, and of new information technologies in particular, on the lives of Muslim women. Sidestepping the conventional line of argument that modernity will necessarily exert a positive influence on Muslim women, she not only points out that such technologies must be accompanied by ‘a fundamental epistemic shift in how Muslims interpret and practice Islam’,[3] but also questions how applicable such technologies are to the majority of humankind, since the widening gap between the rich and the poor makes it unlikely that most people will even have access to such technologies.[4]

Given Barlas’ Marxist background and her emphasis on socioeconomic deprivation, it is curious that markedly liberal terms like individualism and individuality surface at various points in her exegesis. Accenting the Qur’an’s discourse on the genderless basis of ‘moral praxis’—that God does not differentiate between women and men, judging them solely on their deeds—she argues that this is an example of scriptural support for ‘individuality’ and, borrowing a phrase used by the Qur’anic scholar Barbara Stowasser, ‘ethical indi- vidualism’.[5] And as individuals, concludes Barlas, Muslims are ‘free moral agents’.[6] This connection between individuality and autonomy is best summed up in the following passage, which Barlas approvingly quotes from the French-Algerian Muslim intellectual Mohammad Arkoun (d. 2010). A Qur’anic reading based on individuality, Arkoun claims:

[creates] an infinite space for the promotion of the individual beyond the constraints of fathers and brothers, clans and tribes, riches and tributes; the individual becomes an autonomous and free agent, enjoying a liberty guaranteed by obedience and love lived within the community.247

This stress on the individual is understandable, for a key grievance that Barlas has with the politics of authority in contemporary Islam is that whenever individual interpretations do not line up with established, communal ones—that is, those of the umma (the global Muslim community)—the former is subordinated to the latter, thereby confusing ‘communal norms with Qur’anic norms’.248 The representation of the individual in the above passage as ‘an autonomous and free agent’ is problematic, however, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it subscribes to the fiction of the self-fulfilling subject, to the agent who is in complete control of her/his destiny, thereby ignoring the social circumstances that confine, indeed define, agency, of which moral agency is part and parcel. Secondly, the Qur’an conceives of righteousness in acutely communal terms: that is, to one’s ethical relations with the wider human family (Q. 2:177; 90:8-17; 107:1-7). In other words, it is the community—not the individual—that is the centrepiece of moral agency. As Barlas herself notes, the text ‘defines moral personality in terms not only of ‘ibadah [worship], but also in terms of responsibilities to the ummah, and that the two are connected and


In addition to global politics and economic inequality, race figures prominently in Barlas’ thinking. While she undoubtedly experienced racism as a Muslim living in the USA, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, her critiques focus on her disorienting experience as a Coloured Muslim woman in feminist circles dominated by White women and largely blind to racial politics.[8] This insensitivity is most evident in feminist representations of the veil, which is invariably portrayed as a symbol of women’s oppression. Although, as we have seen, Barlas critiques the mainstream Muslim practice of veiling, arguing that it has no scriptural basis, she also criticizes feminists, for whom ‘the exposed/naked body is represented as the free/liberated body, leading many to see clothed bodies as unfree/imprisoned bodies.’[9] Her discourse on the headscarf, therefore, is a compelling example of her commitment to engage in double critique, challenging the privilege of both Muslim men and non-Muslim White women. In her deep-seated grievances with feminism, Barlas shares common ground with Black feminists, who have foregrounded the racial and class dimensions of women’s suffering.[10] In so doing, Black women, as well as women of colour from the global South, have had a lasting impact on feminism as a field, which has shifted to a more comprehensive approach to oppression, incorporating questions of race and sexuality, class and empire.[11] Yet despite these important transformations in feminism, Barlas refuses to identify as feminist. She explains her position as follows:

I am troubled by the extent to which feminism as a discourse has foreclosed the possibility of theorizing sexual equality from within alternative paradigms. An obvious sign of this is the fact that one can’t avoid being called a feminist any time one speaks of liberation

or equality, no matter what sort of language one speaks in____In a sense,

then, it is the very inclusivity of feminism—its attempt as a meta and master narrative, to subsume and annihilate all conversations about equality—that I found both imperializing and reductive.[12]

That is, feminism has attained hegemony over anti-patriarchal thought, making it difficult even to think of non-sexist languages and practices outside of its totalizing framework—a dynamic not so different from Marxism’s hegemony over anti-capitalist critique. As we saw in the last chapter, Wadud also refused to identify as a feminist, using the qualified label ‘pro-faith, pro-feminist’.[13] While Barlas acknowledges her intellectual debts to feminism as a liberating mode of thinking—indeed, her thesis that the Qur’an is at odds with modern patriarchy and its politicization of women’s biology has clearly been informed by feminist theory—she chooses to self-identify in distinctly Qur’anic terms, referring to herself as a ‘believing woman’.[14]

  • [1] Barlas, Democracy, Nationalism, and Communalism, 203.
  • [2] Ibid, ix. This work grew out of her doctoral dissertation at the University ofDenver, Colorado.
  • [3] Barlas, ‘Globalizing Equality’, 91. 2 Ibid, 93.
  • [4] 245 Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 130. 4 Ibid, 118-19.
  • [5] 247 Mohammad Arkoun, as cited in Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 119.
  • [6] 248 Barlas, ‘Still Quarrelling over the Qur’an’, 33.
  • [7] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 148.
  • [8] Asma Barlas, ‘Engaging Islamic Feminism: Provincializing Feminism as aMaster Narrative’. In Islamic Feminism: Current Perspectives, ed. Anitta Kynsilehto(Tampere, Finland: Tampere Peace Research Institute, 2008), 17.
  • [9] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 160.
  • [10] bell hooks, ‘Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression’, in Feminisms,eds. Sandra Kemp and Judith Squires (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 23.
  • [11] For examples, see Butler; Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press,2003); and Zillah Eisenstein, Against Empire: Feminisms, Racism, and the West(London: Zed Books, 2004).
  • [12] Barlas, ‘Engaging Islamic Feminism’, 21-2.
  • [13] Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 79.
  • [14] Barlas, ‘Engaging Islamic Feminism’, 16. This Qur’anic term refers to UmmSalama’s verse (Q. 33:35).
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