islamic law · muslim women · review · women's rights

Review: Quran and Woman

Tariq Ramadan once said, “We are in dire need of a constructive critical reassessment of the Islamic discourse and understanding on women.”

Crucial to this was “a new perspective that… will read the sacred texts with fresh eyes (including those of female scholars).”

Enter 1- Dr. Amina Wadud the American Muslim scholar and controversial author of “Quran and Woman: Rereading the sacred text from a woman’s perspective. ”

Her book is revolutionary precisely because it’s not revolutionary. She is no wishy washy “progressive” but a true scholar and woman of faith.

I liked her combination of Arabic and Islamic scholarship and understanding of western postulates of thinking- which gives her a deep and critical self-awareness of her positioning.

Her analysis of jurisprudence is combined by an eye that understands its position as a fragile reader and can deconstruct the relationship between text, reading and reader as perpetually in flux.

She is not intimidated by the status quo which presents itself as “neutral” but rightly sees it laden with it’s own biases and constructions which it erroneously marks as “true” and definitive.

Below is a reworking of an earlier paper which presents a review of her work and deconstructs the implications of feminist interpretations of Quranic legal scholarship for law and justice.

“Quran and Woman: Rereading the sacred text from a woman’s perspective.”

This review will aim to examine the intersection of feminist narratives within the context of the study of Islamic theology and in particular in the field of Quranic studies. The Quran is the holy book within the Islamic faith and a source of inspiration for millions of believers. It is not only a source of spiritual guidance but also increasingly a text that is used for social and legal understandings. Therefore the way in which Quranic knowledge is disseminated and interpreted- is a highly contested arena with significant implications for law and justice.

One may ask why spend so much time of contesting centuries old religious texts and arguments? What purpose does it serve in the modern era within a secular framework? Firstly even from a purely utilitarian point of view- Quranic precedents form the backdrop of the legal systems of over 52 nation states in the world today. Its very existence as source of knowledge which has significant implications for society makes it a field of study worthy of investigation. Secondly from the position of women within the Islamic framework, Quranic studies is more than an obscure intellectual exercise but becomes a task of huge gravity- a way of engaging and understanding their position within one of the most deeply personal aspects of human existence- religion- from a pro-faith perspective.

Quran and Woman is by its own admission, the first ever attempt to make “female inclusive reading of the Quran” within the post modern framework. This review will not examine the book’s theological arguments- but the implications of Dr. Wadud’s contribution within the field of study of Islamic law based on her status as not only as woman within what is known as the ummah or Islamic community of believers, but also as a black woman and an American Muslim convert.

This adds to the function of deconstruction as bringing with it- a chorus of different voices outside the traditional canon. As Dr. Wadud notes, the very task of attempting such an undertaking is a revolution in thought: “I was quite naïve about how significant it would be pursue a female inclusive reading of the Quran. I was also unaware of how to develop such a reading ”. This task, as Dr. Wadud notes, of exclusively examining the notion of woman in the Qu’ran “turned out to be nearly unprecedented throughout fourteen centuries of Islamic thought ”

An analysis of the impact of Dr. Wadud’s work would not be complete without an analysis of her situational position as a black American Muslim woman. This is due to the focus on power within deconstruction arguments on justice, and opening up of the traditionally disenfranchised voice. This airing of voices outside of the “canon” has in fact been lauded as an exemplary feature of deconstruction. Dr. Wadud’s position as an African American, but who has succeeded in using arguments of Islam’s egalitarian element to infiltrate its knowledge hierarchies and become an authoritative reader of text is particular significant in the deconstruction argument. Dr. Wadud herself is not unaware of the irony of their position, stating her objective in her work that seeks to “contributes and seeks to expand an intellectual legacy that is more than fourteen hundred years old…Qur’an and Women contributes its own voice to global pluralist discourse ”

Ironically it is Dr. Wadud’s position as an “outside insider” that allows her to make her most radical propositions, however this has not met without some resistance, as she notes: “As an African American who was embraced by Islam over a quarter of a century ago…I was unprepared for the schisms that have arisen between me and members of the Muslim community. ” This experience reaffirms the alignment of deconstruction with the marginalized. The ability of one woman to undertake the role of questioning the dominant narratives that have read and interpreted the voice of the Quran and women for centuries – a black American Muslim convert in the west who by her own admission is a “believer” and within the knowledge bases of Islamic framework- is revolutionary.

The upward mobility of such women like Dr. Wadud, and her positioning with the Islamic faith system makes her a powerful player for change. As Dr. Wadud notes:

“The two names most consistently hurled at me are “Western” and “feminist”. “Western” could mean that I can only be who I am: a daughter of the West, born and raised American of African descent. It is reduced however to mean anti-Islam. “Feminist” is used in a similar reductionist manner. No reference is ever made to the definition of feminism as the radical notion that women are human beings. ”

Dr. Wadud’s “radical notion that women are human beings” and her focus on hermeneutic and interpretative methodologies mirror aspects of feminist legal methods. As Dr. Wadud notes: “As a woman, of African origin, and an American convert to Islam I was not supposed to seek beyond what others had handed down to me. I am not chastised as a heretic …but I do find that disagreement with status quo is treated as though it were disagreement with Islam. Dr. Wadud work’s can thus be seen as contributing to the field of feminist research methods that work to “uncover aspects of society, especially ideologies, that maintain the status quo by restricting or limiting different groups’ access to the means of gaining knowledge .”

In this way feminist research methods contribute to the post-modern deconstruction discourse by seeking to question the “meta-theoretical questions about the possible nature and status of theorizing itself. ” In this way Dr. Wadud argues that her contribution to the scholarship of Qur’an studies can be seen as part of the larger project of “post modernist critique when the very foundations of knowledge are challenged to move beyond certain value laden tendencies”, and such a method can be used as part of a larger discourse by feminists who have constructed a valuable critique “to build the notion of the normative human form from the experiences and perspectives of the male person. ”

Dr. Wadud recognizes the impact of her work, within the context that inspired it: “although Qur’an and women assumes the basis of knowledge to be the one established in the Qur’an, it contributes to the post colonial, post modern field of lslamic studies by its focus on gender as a category of thought- not just a subject for discourse”

Furthermore Dr. Wadud’s work exhibits the characteristics of feminist legal methods by highlighting questions which traditional legal methods ignore, namely, asking the woman question, feminist practical reasoning and consciousness-raising.

Her main thesis in the preface raises the point: “Are the women the same as men; different or distinct from; alike and unequal to; or unlike and equal to? Each of these questions rests on a single rhetorical flaw- that women must be measured against men- that inadvertently reinforces the erroneous notion that men are the standard bearers, which, by extension means that only men are fully human. ”

Dr. Wadud’s assertion highlights feminist legal methods focus on the idea that it is not women that have been ignored by the law, but rather that their position in the law has been framed by a male “refractive lens” that observes and quantifies them, rather than through women’s experiences and definitions .

As Dr. Wadud states the act of reading, is one of writing. When women’s reading voice is muted and women’s destinies are written by those other than themselves, the natural consequence of this will be a negation.

In this way, Dr. Wadud argues an exercise in the “female exclusive reading” of the Qu’ran becomes necessary as a balancing counterpoint to the “the underlying presumptions that the male person is the normative human being ” which restricts women from full consideration in the constructions of ethical- spiritual and social-political postulates in Islamic thought. ”

It is this assumption of male neutrality, that unfairly pits feminist legal methods as the external “other”, the separate, different and unnatural. However such readings becomes necessary, as Dr. Wadud notes “because women were nearly completely excluded from the foundational discourse …they are often relegated to the role of subject without agency. ” This can have huge implications for real-world politics, considering the justification of Islamic legal precedents in the modern world.

In this context, the inclusion of female-friendly eye within readings of Qur’anic legal theory can be seen as more important than ever. As Dr. Wadud notes: “The more research I did into the Qu’ran unfettered be centuries of historical and androcentric reading and Arabo-Islamic cultural predilections, the more affirmed I was that in Islam a female person was intended to be primordially cosmologically, eschatologically, spiritually and morally a full human being.”

Although many would criticize her task as a complete post-modern experiment- reading what wants to be read, this ignores the fact that as Dr. Wadud notes, the way in which text has been viewed has been predominantly articulated on the basis of “male experiences and through the male psyche. ” In this way “visions that respond to the male-center of being would have been considered in greatest detail, over and above any differences, inherent or contrived, in the female center of experience. ”

In this way a “female inclusive reading” becomes even more necessary to the extent to which women are seen as distinct from men and combat their circumpscription as a subject of discourse, comment, critique and definition.

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