Women in the Qur’an: An Emancipatory Reading
Translated from the French by Myriam Francois-Cerrah
Sqaure View, 2016. 172 pages. $19.95
A shorter version of this review is published in the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences.
Asma Lamrabet’s Women in the Qur’an: An Emancipatory Reading sufficiently fulfills its promise to offer an emancipatory approach to the Qur’an. It argues for a re-reading of the entire Islamic tradition, not the Qur’an alone, in a gender egalitarian way that embraces women’s full humanity. Despite some of its weak arguments, its overall point of women’s liberation through the Qur’an and through stories of the Prophet and its argument that the Qur’an is in fact anti-patriarchal are often well-made.
The book contains an Introduction and two sections. The Introduction offers a vision between “a very rigid conservative Islamic approach” and “a Western, Islamophobic and ethnocentric approach” (p. 1). Unlike the visions espoused by these two approaches, both of which deem the Muslim woman voiceless, Lamrabet’s method empowers Muslim women through a reclamation of their original status as promised by the Qur’an.
Part One, “When the Qur’an Speaks of Women,” offers alternative readings of Qur’anic narratives that involve women, such as Balkis (the Queen of Sheba), Zulaykha (the king’s wife in the story of Yusef), the Pharaoh’s wife, Maryam, Sarah, and Hagar. It also centers on those women whose stories the tradition neglects, such as Moses’ mother and Shu‘ayb’s daughter. This section illustrates the impact of a story that is about a woman and is actually centered on her. One of the most fascinating discussions here is about Balkis. In her survey of the male scholarly tradition’s views on Balkis, Lamrabet reveals that it was so unimaginable for the scholars to view a woman as a queen and as revered by the Qur’an that they questioned her human origins and her status. Hasan al-Basri in particular derided the men of Balkis’s kingdom for “allowing themselves to be governed by” an iljatu, a derogatory term that means “donkey” or “disbeliever” (p. 33). Other scholars concluded that she must have been of jinn ancestry. For Lamrabet, this attitude diminishes Balkis’s humanity and through it, the commentators could “rest assured” that they need not “take her as an example if she is really only half human!” (33).
Part Two, “When the Qur’an Speaks to Women,” challenges the claim that the language of the Qur’an is masculine. What remains denied, however, is that in all verses on gender, sex, and marriage, the Qur’an speaks directly to men about women. Lamrabet implies that this is because the patriarchal context in which the Qur’an was revealed did not allow for women to be directly addressed; however, this argument is not convincing. Yet, she acknowledges that this was the case because she discusses in detail the women who complained that the Qur’an does not address them (e.g., Umm Salamah, Asma bint Umays, and Umm ‘Umarah al-Ansariyyah), although she argues that the issue was resolved with the revelation of Q.33:35 in response. This verse, however, addresses women the way that others do—not directly speaking to them, as the Qur’an often does with men (e.g., Q. 2:221, Q. 2:223, Q. 4:34).
Still, God’s response to women’s concerns and grievances, as in the examples of Umm Salama and Khawla bint Tha‘laba (p. 132), speaks to the Qur’an’s anti-patriarchal voice. Khawla is honored in the Qur’an in verses 58:1-2, revealed to prohibit husbands from exploiting their wives through the customary practice of zihar. This approach to women’s realities, Lamrabet notes, is in direct contradiction to how Muslim women are expected to behave today, not exposing their problems and internal conflicts (p. 133). That Khawla confided her pain not to other women but to God’s messenger is a powerful testament to the Qur’an’s support for women’s right to freedom of expression, Lamrabet argues. By devoting verses to Khawla’s concern, the Qur’an endorses her moral courage to protest oppression. Lamrabet asks, “How many women without broken hearts, bruised by daily humiliation of this same type [the type Khawla was subjected to], stay quiet and lock themselves in profound silence, simply because they have not found a sympathetic ear?”
Another example of women’s determination is the story of Barira, who was formerly enslaved. Upon her freedom, the Prophet gave her the option to divorce or stay married to her husband. Barira opted to divorce her husband, whom she did not love. Despite the Prophet’s suggestion that she stay married to him because her husband loved her, Barira insisted otherwise.
Yet, these accounts hardly receive any attention in classical literature, Lamrabet laments. When they are mentioned, it is only to “illustrate other events and not with the specific objective of highlighting this veritable approach of feminine liberation” (p. 134). The Qur’anic vision of women is “in total opposition” to the infantilizing image of women that is propagated by any given Muslim culture.
Lamrabet continues her discussion by addressing four issues that are commonly invoked to demonstrate Islam’s misogyny: polygyny, inheritance, testimony, and permission to men to hit their wives. For polygyny, Lamrabet offers a context-based approach that emphasizes that polygyny was merely intended as a temporary solution to a social problem, that the Qur’an “sought to respect the social order in place” while also modifying it through new principles, such as limiting one’s wives to four (p. 142). The Qur’an promotes a monogamous union by restricting multiple spouses to four, and it discourages polygamy by on the one hand requiring equal treatment of all wives but on the other, reminding men that they can never be just to multiple wives no matter their intentions. However, in an attempt to show that the prophetic model, too, discouraged polygamy, Lamrabet unconvincingly asks, “did the Prophet not express his strong disapproval of polygamy when he learned that ‘Ali, husband to his daughter Fatima Zahra, wished to marry a second wife?” (p. 144) Since the Prophet himself had even more than the number of wives the Qur’an “limits” other Muslim men to, this is not a convincing argument.
In her discussion on testimony in the Qur’an, Lamrabet argues that the verse on testimony (Q. 2:282) that is often criticized for treating women unequally is actually about attestation, not testimony. The difference between the two terms is that while a testimony occurs in front of a judge who decides upon the veracity of the claims; attestation refers to a case between two people in a case of financial debt (p.145). She states that scholars have historically agreed that this verse has no legislative remit. She argues that in the historical context in which the verse was revealed, where the management of commercial affairs was strictly a man’s sphere, this verse actually advocates women’s presences and participation in such spaces. Two convincing examples, one from the Qur’an and one from Islamic history, support Lamrabet’s reading of the verse as not anti-woman: She invokes the example of Shifa bint Abdallah, the financial controller of Medinan market in Umar’s caliphate, to show that women’s role as experts in finances was recognized; she references Q. 24:6-8, where “the testimony of a woman is absolutely equal to that of a man”—although in this verse, the wife’s testimony in fact overshadows the husband’s. Moreover, she adds, in the transmission of hadith, which is also a form of testimony, women’s and men’s testimony is treated equally.
For inheritance, Lamrabet again calls for a context-based meaning of the inheritance verses, which is that in seventh-century Arabia, women were not expected to inherit anything as well as the idea that men carry the burden of financial providers for their families while women do not. More importantly, she notes that the presumed unequal distribution refers only to the inheritance of sisters and brothers, not of all women and men. In fact, there are cases where a man inherits and the woman does not, and where the woman inherits and the man does not, or one inherits more than the other regardless of gender but due to their closeness of kinship to the deceased (p. 150). Her justifications are not always convincing, however: explaining why husbands receive a higher portion because of their role as financial providers, she writes that it is “to give men a sense of responsibility because women might find themselves unable to manage the economic needs of the family due to pregnancy or other personal reasons” (p. 150). Any references to women’s pregnancy as explanatory of their roles and rights are always interiguing, given that the default position of women is not one of pregnancy. What does one make of rules that are created and justified with exceptions assumed as the norm? Unlike most other scholars speaking on inheritance, who seldom recognize lived realities that require women to work, Lamrabet does address reality and condemns the “blind application” of Islamic principles that do not work in all context and do not account for the intended consequences and meanings of the principles.
The author’s approach to Q.4:34, which purportedly allows a man to hit his wife, is also unconvincing. It relies on the assumption that pre-Islamic Arab men mistreated their women to such an extent that Q.4:34’s permission to discipline their wives “through a gradual process” is in fact just for women. The reason that the Prophet was corrected when he instructed a woman to hit her husband in retaliation because he had hit her, Lamrabet explains, is that the men complained to the Prophet that their wives would all rebel against them. That is, a woman’s self-defense would lead to a social revolt, and to prevent this, men’s right as the disciplinarians in the marriage was honored and protected. She claims that “scholars have unanimously concluded a sort of formal consensus advocating the prohibition of all violence against women” (p. 157). Unless “violence” does not include hitting women, this is an incorrect claim, as a historical exegetical study of Q.4:34 shows (e.g., Ayesha Chaudry’s Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition). However, Lamrabet argues that the most controversial term in Q.4:34, dharaba, does not mean “to hit” in this context. She points out this term appears multiple times in the Qur’an, where its meanings include “to cover,” “to go away from,” “to strike,” and “to accompany.” She rightly questions the scholars’ choice to interpret it as “to beat” in this verse when several other meanings would have worked both contextually and in light of the Qur’an’s overall message of compassion in marriage.
In the “Conclusion,” Lamrabet discusses the aborted revolution led by Muslim women after the advent of Islam. While women were initially speaking up, attaining visibility, claiming authority, and condemning the patriarchy of their time, their efforts and stories are later buried in Islamic history. Through various processes, these women’s concerns and contributions were subverted as was the spirit of liberation that Islam brought, and misogynistic interpretations of the Qur’an are normalized.
An interesting addendum to the book, a “Publishers End Notes,” offers explanations—rather mansplanations—for some of Lamrabet’s ideas. It is unclear which points the publisher is responding to. E.g., Point F states, “No source is provided for this claim.” In other points, such as E., the erroneous claim that “in the Islamic tradition, women have never been regarded as inferior creatures.” There is a plethora of scholarship that shows that many major scholars did in fact view women as inferior, often supported by the questionable hadith in Sahih Bukhari regarding women’s intellectual and spiritual deficiency due to menstruation and unequal treatment in testimony. What is even more unacceptable on the publishers’ part is that Lamrabet actually provides many examples of historical Muslim scholars’ discussing women’s inferiority to women (e.g., p. 15, p.25). While a few of the notes in this section may be legitimate, most intend to “correct” Lamrabet’s assertions and dismiss her arguments, making comments such as “this may be based on her experience” and “the author’s discomfort appears to be based on a misunderstanding of the verses.” Since the publishers’ lack of research on Islam and women is obvious, their claims that they could not find any support for Lamrabet’s statements are unreliable.
Despite its valuable contribution to the study of Islam, Women in the Qur’an: An Emancipatory Reading is not without flaws, of which the most important I want to note is the lack of citation of women’s scholarship. Ironically, while challenging the patriarchy of denying women’s contributions to Islam, Lamrabet herself hardly cites Muslim women throughout her book, although she frequently cites men, both past and contemporary. It is also not that the author is unfamiliar with the works of Muslim women scholars. She writes, “today many intellectual Muslim women, living in Muslim societies but also in the West, through their academic research, social and theological, and particularly in the name of their faith, are questioning a significant amount of prejudice on this topic” (p. 5). Yet, they are not named, engaged, or cited. Some of the women whose works the book should have engaged are Fatima Sadiqi, Olfa Youssef, Mounira Charrad, and Fatima Mernissi, among many others who have written extensively in Arabic and/or French and/or English on issues that Lamrabet highlights. Since not all of her citations are in Arabic or French, (e.g, Aziza al-Hibri’s “Muslim Women’s Rights in a Global Village: Challenges and Opportunities” is cited in English), one wonders why more female scholarship on women in the Qur’an is not engaged at all. It is also unhelpful that the bibliography includes only nine sources, titled “Arabic sources” but listing one French source by Riffat Hassan; the footnotes include many more. Further, the translator, Myriam Francois-Cerrah, uses the term “mankind” for humanity and “man” for “humans” or “people,” ironically especially in discussions of the Qur’an’s inclusive message to humanity (p. 32). A final limitation of the book is that it relies heavily on anti-pre-Islamic Arab tropes to make certain points. Like much other scholarship on women and Islam, the book offers a simplistic and reductive portrayal of pre-Islamic Arab women’s rights, which were purportedly non-existent but which improved dramatically with the advent of Islam.
Suitable for various audiences, the book is a conversation with practicing Muslims—who can appreciate its faith-based approach, the many references to God’s involvement in human life (e.g., in the story of Maryam). Lamrabet’s ability to reach such an audience is commendable because most feminist books are academic and are rarely accessible to non-academic audiences. It offers an empowering approach to the Qur’an for especially those who have struggled to accept as true dominant, conventional ideas about women. Mainstream Muslim scholars and preachers of Islam can also benefit from the non-traditional, non-orthodox interpretations of women-centered verses of the Qur’an that have historically privileged male perspectives and interests.