Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Alejandra Diaz: Muslim Feminism

For decades, Muslim women have questioned the treatment of women in Muslim societies. A fight for larger equality between both sexes has prompted many renown scholars to not only fight for equality in the secular domain but also religious one. On March 18, 2005, Amina Wadud famously led a mixed congregation in a Friday prayer aid protests and controversy.[i] While to some this may be a very radical example of feminist actions in Islam, I believe this is a good starting point to viewing the tension many seem to see between Islam and feminism. Most of the western world has and continues to wrongly believe that Islam represses women. President George W Bush has previously justified US involvement in the Middle east as the US bringing liberation to Muslim women. More recently The French government has personally violated a Muslim women’s option to veil themselves, denying them the fundamental right to practicing their religion freely. But perhaps more disappoint, this action reveals a deep and terrible mentality of islamophobia, that ignores the diversity within Islam and demonizes it. In this paper I will be focusing on a group referred to by scholars as Muslim feminists and their own form of feminism derived from messages of gender equality and social justice presented by the Quran.  Most importantly I wish to explain how, fundamentally, a feminist reading of the Qur’an not only benefits women but everyone.

Islam is not against feminism. To state so would not only ignore the agency of Muslim women, but also the Qur’an’s promotion of social betterment, justice and development of interhuman relations. Just like with other social movements and Muslims schools of thought, Muslim feminist have presented and implemented a variety of approaches to the topic of women’s rights. Despite the differences, on can generally divide these feminists into two groups: secular and religious feminists. Secular feminists, as the term suggest, are approaching the issue from non-religious, “international human rights” standpoint.[ii] In contrast, Karam defines Muslim feminists as, “individuals who ‘use Islamic sources, like the Qur’an and the Sunna (the Prophets’ actions and sayings), but their aim is to show that the discourse of quality between men and women is valid, within Islam.” These individuals frame their approach with the following concepts: (1) God does not inherently discriminated against any one or anyone of His creations, (2) Qur’an can offer various interpretations. The misogynistic ideas and policies, some claim to be prompted by the Qur’an are due to selective and decontextualized readings of the text. Based on these principles, Muslim Feminists argue that any argument by ultra conservative groups or others which present feminist ideas as western notions, is invalid.

Muslim Feminists’ reading of the Quran resembles the approached used by the Non-essentialist schools of thought. Non-essentialist exegetes argue that the Qur’an, as understood and interpreted by early Muslims, is shaped by the social political context of the eight century Arabian Peninsula. Fazlur Rahman, whose ideas correlate with that of the non-essentialists provides insightful explanations to the importance of context. Of the Qur’an, he states, “The Qur’an’s goal of an ethical, egalitarian social order is announced with a severe denunciation of the economic disequilibrium and social inequalities prevalent in contemporary commercial Meccan society.”[iii] Meaning, the ideas or laws found in the Qur’an should be understood as appropriate to a specific social context. Rahman further states, “just as those generations met their own situation adequately by freely interpreting the Qur’an and Sunnah of the Prophet-by emphasizing the ideal and the principles and re-embodying them in a fresh texture of their own contemporary history-we must perform the same feat for our own contemporary history.”[iv] Therefore, one cannot read and impose every idea presented in the Qur’an literally, because it may no longer serve the needs of contemporary society. Instead, one must recontextualize the ideas presented in the Qur’an, and adapt them to fit our current needs.

Using ideas and methods resembling those outlined by Rahman, Muslim feminists aim to   identify misogynistic interpretations and provided new visions of quality and women’s rights based on recontextualized readings of the Qur’an. In this process, Muslim Feminist have pointed out how selective previous exegetes have been in their interpretation of the Qur’an. Many verses on women have been selectively edited through omition of not only the context in which they were revealed but also portions of the verses themselves. Perhaps the one of the more quintessential example of process is the following verse: If you fear that you will not be fair with the orphans so too with marriage. Marry whoever pleases you among the women- two, three or four; but if you fear that you will not be fair to them all, then one only, or else what you own of slaves. This would be closer to impartiality.”[v] Traditional, this verse has been used to justify the having multiple wives.[vi] Muslim Feminist argue that this justification is based a very selective reading of the verse, which ignores the social context that informs it. The Qur’an is a text preoccupied with the issues of humanity. At the time the it was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, war was a common aspect of life and means from which people made a living.[vii] Many died in wars, destroying families and living women and children vulnerable. The Qur’an recognized this issue and many verses throughout the Qur’an provide framework to ensure they are treated properly – outlining their rights and protecting their property from the greed of others.[viii] This verse belongs to that history and context. Here, the Qur’an intends to protect orphaned girls by reintroducing them to the family unit through marriage. Marriage, in this case, fulfills the role now played by orphanages. Therefore, polygamy, as stipulated in the Qur’an, is no longer applicable to our society.

The very selective reading of this verse and others in the Qur’an is not only due to the way exegetes have previously selective picked apart verses of the Qur’an to suit their views, it was also extended to the way the text’s grammar itself was, and in some cases, continues to be interpreted. Asma Barlas, professor of politics at Ithaca College, lists many of the methods that have used by male exegesis to distort the messages of the Qur’an. She states, “Methodologically, such readings tend to decontextualize the Qur’an’s teachings by rendering words, phrases, and ayat in isolation from one another and without attention to language, grammar, and syntax, and/or by generalizing specific Qur’anic injunctions”[ix] We have already seen the manner in which Verse 4:3 has been read to justify polygamy, but this interpretation of  does not selectively ignore context provided by neighboring sentences or verses but any contradicting verse from Qur’an as a whole. In their previous interpretation, exegetes have ignored this verse found later in the same Sura. It states, “You will not be able to act equitably with your women, even if you apply yourself to do so.”[x] Even without the social political context that informs verse 4:3, the Qur’an provides an argument against multiple wives. Part of the stipulations given for polygamy were fair and equal treatment of all wives, a stipulation the Qur’an itself admits one can never fulfill.  Thus, negating any possible justification for polygamy.

Muslim Feminists’ fight is not only centered on challenging and rectifying misinterpretation that lead to practices or laws that hurt women but also toxic patriarchal notions, such as an inherent superiority of men. Many Muslim Feminists agree with arguments made by Barlas, and recognize that some of this toxic culture, has its roots from a misreading of the language of the Quran. This is especially true for verses that treat men and women differently or outline men’s responsibilities to their families and wives, thus, creating and feeding into misconceptions of male superiority.[xi] Some Muslim men consider these differences in roles as evidence that men are superior to women, emphasizing the guardianship and protector qualities of male roles and associating them to duties and qualities of God.[xii]  This has wrongly led to misperceptions of God as male. Against this argument Barlas states, “However, if – as the Qur’an teaches – God is beyond sex/gender, not only is there no reason to masculinize God, but there is also no reason to assume that God has any particular relationship to, or affinity with, males.”[xiii] Barlas further states, “Restrictive and patriarchal readings of the Qur’an also arise from a conceptual error which consists in assuming that because it [Qur’an] treats women and men differently that it treats them unequally.”[xiv]  Furthermore, to believe that men are superior to women, is to ignore and reject the other instances in which the Qur’an states or alludes to their quality. The Quran states, “Whoso does good whether male or female, and is a believer, shall enter Paradise and they shall not be wronged a whit.”[xv]  As stated in the verse, both men and women will be rewarded for their good work. This statement gains more weight in the argument of women’s rights when see through the ecological system presented by the Qur’an. The Qur’an states everyone has the agency of free will. Thus, one is responsible for their actions and on the Day of Judgement will be held accountable for all the wrong they have done, whether good or bad.  In this context, this verse highlights a woman’s agency. She, just like a man, has the power to have an impact in our word and God recognizes his potential.

Therefore, instead of framing the relationship between men and women as that of superior and inferior beings, the Qur’an encourages us to see how they complement each other.  The Qur’an states, “They [women] are clothing for you [men] and you are clothing for them.” [xvi] Men and women are meant to support each other based on their strengths and weakness. One can find resonance of this idea in the Prophet’s last sermon. In it he states:

O People, it is true that you have certain rights with regard to your women, but they also have rights over you. Remember that you have taken them as your wives only under Allah’s trust and with His permission. If they abide by your right, then to them belongs the right to be fed and clothed in kindness. Do treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers.[xvii]

The Prophet’s message especially resonates with some Muslim Feminists. They agree with the prophet’s message of collaboration. They argue that men and women have different abilities and that their responsibilities, expectations and rights should be tailored to fit their different capacities. Contrary to ideas of international feminism, they argue that true equality between men and women may cause burdens for women. Ultimately leading to the exchanging of one burden for others. Instead, they argue one should recognize and celebrate these differences, knowing that although the Qur’an may treat women and men differently, it does not mean men are superior.[xviii]

The Muslim Feminist movement, as mentioned previously, has been meet with backlash from more traditional groups. In their eyes, Muslin feminists are fighting against the traditions and heritage of Islam. In response Muslim feminist have turned to the Qur’an for justification of their protests. The Qur’an is a text concerned with and for social justice. Various Suras provide messages and suggestions for the implementation of social justice. Furthermore, it urges one to fight for equality – presenting it as an integral part of being Muslim.[xix] The Qur’an states, “O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just. And if you distort [your testimony] or refuse [to give it], then indeed Allah is ever, with what you do, acquainted.[xx] Your family, and traditions are not reason enough to justify inaction against injustice, nor one cannot or should not deny the rights of others. To do so, would be to break the principles delivered by God. The ideas presented in this verse are further supported by Imam Ali, the fourth Caliph of Islam, who stated, “Justice is the essence of the people’s welfare as well as the adherence to the Divine path.” In this context, Muslim Feminists are fulfilling their role as Muslims. Muslim Feminist also site this mentality when explaining the purpose and religious influences in their struggle. An activist from Rahima, a Muslim women’s rights non-governmental organization active in Indonesia, states, “we use alternative verses and interpretations with the conviction that God does not discriminate against women or impact one group negatively. God gives goodness to all people, including women. Actually, there is no problem with the texts, but just with people who misuse them.”[xxi]

This understanding of God, as framed by the activist, is not only important in understanding how Muslim feminists fight for equality but also why religion plays such an integral part to their identity as feminists. Muslim feminist, unlike international feminists, do not see a conflict between their religion and ideology.  especially While all of this is important in better the conditions of women, one most also see beyond this. In her essay, Pious and Critical: Muslim Activists and the Question of Agency, Rachel Rinaldo points outs, that Muslim feminists, like other religious feminist, have “challenged assumptions that feminism is necessarily secular, and that religion is inherently patriarchal.”[xxii] Furthermore, the actions and messages of Muslim feminists’ are important for their universality. Their belief in God’s treatment of people accepts the diversity of people and encourages interhuman relations through advocacy for the respect of others. This notion is also echoed by their methodology which relies on methods that highlight the ways in which the Qur’an’s message had been distorted over time. Thus, by default, highlight the ways in which not only Muslim women but also many other groups have been hurt. In this sense one must consider Muslim feminists’ struggles as a key struggle for rights and respect for all.

Muslim Feminist are important figures of social change. By relying on the Qur’an, they not only highlight the relevance of women’s rights in Islam but also the importance of social justice in the religion itself. Furthermore, the use of methods applied by non-essentialist like Fazlur Rahman, to reinter the Qur’an help highlight not only the way Muslim women have been hurt by misinterpretations of the Qur’an, but also other groups, such as non-Muslims. In this way, Muslim Feminists have extended the benefits of their struggle to that of others. In the context of today’s society, their approach is especially compelling. It gives Muslim women agency in a world in which tensions are high and many western powers present unreasonable hate, bias and disrespect for many groups including Muslims. They approach and reading of the Qur’an can perhaps shed light into Islam and contradict hateful stereotypes that demonize Islam especially in regards to way western power’s perceived Islamic countries’ treatment of Muslim women.

[i] Meena Sharify-Funk, and Munira Kassam Haddad. “Where Do Women ‘stand’ in Islam? Negotiating Contemporary Muslim Prayer Leadership in North America.” Feminist Review, no. 102 (2012): 41-61., 42.

[ii] Ibid, 50.

[iii] Fazlur Rahman, Major themes of the Quran (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 25.

[iv] RAHMAN, FAZLUR. “SOCIAL CHANGE AND EARLY SUNNAH.” Islamic Studies 2, no. 2 (1963): 205-16., 207.

[v] Quran 4:3

[vi] M. Jafar Mahallati, Lecture (course on Introduction to The Qur’an, Oberlin College, Oberlin, April 24, 2018)

[vii] Paul Wheatley, The Places Where Men Pray Together: Cities in Islamic Lands, Seventh to Tenth Centuries (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 10.

[viii] Fazlur Rahman, Major themes of the Quran, 31.

[ix] Asma Barlas, and أسماء بارلاس. “The Qur’an and Hermeneutics: Reading the Qur’an’s Opposition to Patriarchy / فهم النص القرآني: قراءة في رفض القرآن لمبدأ ما يسمى بالأبوية” في معناها الذکوري.”.” Journal of Qur’anic Studies 3, no. 2 (2001): 15-38., 16.

[x] Quran 4:129

[xi] Asma Barlas, and أسماء بارلاس. “The Qur’an and Hermeneutics: Reading the Qur’an’s Opposition to Patriarchy, 16.

[xii] Ibid, 16.

[xiii] Ibid, 23.

[xiv] Ibid, 20.

[xv] Quran 4:124.

[xvi] Quran 2:187.

[xvii] The Last Sermon of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH),

[xviii] Asma Barlas, and أسماء بارلاس. “The Qur’an and Hermeneutics: Reading the Qur’an’s Opposition to Patriarchy, 20.

[xix] M. Jafar Mahallati, Lecture (course on Introduction to The Qur’an, Oberlin College, Oberlin, April 26, 2018).

[xx] Quran 4:135.

[xxi] Rachel Rinaldo, “PIOUS AND CRITICAL: Muslim Women Activists and the Question of Agency.” Gender and Society 28, no. 6 (2014): 824-46., 835.

[xxii] Ibid, 830.

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