Asma Barlas: On Women, Equality and the Qur'an

Asma Barlas moves between worlds; she’s a ‘cultural hybrid’. Born and raised in Pakistan, English was her first language and she received a western education. She now lives in the US, where she has been granted political asylum.

One of the first women to work in Pakistan’s foreign service, she was dismissed by the country’s military leader after he heard she had criticised him (her former husband’s family gave him her diary, in which she called him ‘a buffoon’); a year later she had to leave the country ‘for reasons of personal safety’.

A Muslim passionately critical of interpretations of the Qur’an that discriminate against women, she cheerfully acknowledges her debt to feminist thinking, but pointedly declines to call herself a feminist.

‘Long before I learned about feminism, I had begun to glimpse a message of sexual equality in the Qur’an,’ she wrote in the New Statesman.

Asma Barlas: ‘You cannot be an advocate for Muslim women when you think the Qur’an is oppressive.’

Asma Barlas: ‘You cannot be an advocate for Muslim women when you think the Qur’an is oppressive.’

Equality and the Qur’an

‘The Qur’an’s message of equality resonated in the teaching that women and men who have been created from a single self and are each other’s guides have the mutual obligation to enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong.’

She says that to read the Qur’an in her youth was to be caught in a ‘seemingly irresolvable and agonising’ dilemma of how to reconcile this message with the verses that are read by many Muslims as saying that men are better than women, their guardians; that they have the right to ‘unfettered polygamy’ and to beat their wives.

‘It has taken the better part of my life to resolve this dilemma,’ she says.

Barlas believes the problem with the Qur’an is not the text itself, which she accepts as ‘the speech of God’, but how humans interpret it. She notes that interpretations of the Qur’an have changed throughout history, gradually becoming more hostile to women.

Hadith: human and therefore fallible

Many of the more controversial aspects of Islam as practiced with regard to women have their roots in hadith (tradition) rather than the Qur’an itself. For example, the stipulation that women be veiled is not mentioned anywhere in the Qur’an except with specific reference to Muhammad’s wives. And stoning to death is not a punishment in the Qur’an for any crime, though it is part of shari’a law in Pakistan, where, for instance, a blind domestic servant was given the sentence after being raped.

While Barlas is committed to following the text of the Qur’an, she feels very differently about hadith, which are compiled by humans and therefore fallible. ‘For a believer, the Qur’an is a divine discourse and the hadith are not … Many people who are using the hadith are unhappy with the egalitarianism of the Qur’an. Whatever the Qur’an opens up, the hadith can shut down.’

‘It is better to marry only one’

Barlas calls for reason and context to be applied when interpreting the Qur’an, too. She points out that the Qur’an allows polygamy only in reference to female orphans and then only if specific conditions are fulfilled (including that the man treat all his wives equally, which is allowed to be nearly impossible). The Qur’anic verse on the subject ends by saying ‘it is better to only marry one’. At the time the Qur’an was written, it was common for men to have many wives; the Qur’an restricted the number of wives to four, under proscribed conditions.

‘I think most Muslims who are marrying four wives are actually acting very unQur’anic,’ says Barlas. ‘Which part of the Qur’anic injunction on marriage do they not understand when it says marriage should not be for lust? Do not tell me these men are accumulating those wives just out of piety!’

Women have to be left to themselves'

‘It is the right of every Muslim to read and interpret the Qur’an for themselves,’ she says.

On the other hand, she is sceptical about criticisms of the Qur’an that come from outside the faith, including former Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Ali, an outspoken critic of Islam, became a member of the Dutch parliament to fight for the rights of Muslim women; she has written two controversial books and made a film that transposed Qur’anic verses on the bodies of naked women.

‘Ayaan Hirsi Ali is saying that the Qu’ran itself authorises men to abuse their wives sexually,’ says Barlas. ‘In my opinion, you cannot be an advocate for Muslim women when you think the Qur’an is oppressive.’

Barlas is hopeful that there will be change, but believes this change needs to come from within. Looking at the material situation of women in different societies, their concerns are very different.

‘Women have to be left to themselves to define what the problems are and to find solutions, which are culturally specific and make sense in their societies.’

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