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Women and the interpretation of Islamic sources

By Heba Raouf Ezzat

Can a feminist reinterpretation of Islamic sources be set in the context of Islamic theology? In other words: Can there be a feminist interpretation of Quran and Sunna? Was there one in the past, and if not…can we initiate one in the future? 

These questions have appeared on the agenda of women’s debates in the Muslim world in the past two decades…stressing the “feminist” as different…currently absent and …urgently needed. 

Introductory issues 

1- Women’s contribution to Islamic sciences dates back to early Islam, and has not seized through the centuries, with interruptions here and there in history due to different reasons in each case. This history of women’s involvement in ‘Ilm and Fiqh was recorded by male scholars themselves in books of history of Islamic sciences. The issue is not initiated by contemporary Western feminism but has its roots in our culture. This is important to clarify that the liberating potential of Islam is inherent in Islam itself and its history and is not a result of forces outside the culture and civilisation of Islam or a result of the contact with the West in the colonial era. The issue is not necessarily “feminist” and other terminology can –and sometimes should- be used instead of the confusion and the enforcement of the concept “feminist” on the Islamic concepts and their semantic field as a key concept.

2- The text dealt with in Christianity (the Bible) differs substantially from the Book (Quran) in Islam regarding the status of the text , its origin , its legacy , and its position in the religion. While Jesus is the logos of the Christian faith , Muhammad is not the logos in Islam, but the revelation…the Book…the Quran. This gives the text - as well the Sunna that put it into action - a centrality in the process of jurisprudence and legislation that is quite unique. This raises the question whether one can talk about an international cross-cultural and cross religious, unified or common agenda for women in this matter.

3-While in the back of mind of the Western discourse of the matter is only related to the text , in Islam the interpretation can not be completed without the a complex interaction with the Sunna , a thorough understanding and critical reading of the fiqh , and a continuous process of Ijtihad and Tajdid to place the divine and absolute within the relative and present. The knowledge of related Islamic disciplines and methodologies is a must, along with a profound updated knowledge of the social and political contexts. Not only average Muslims are required to study carefully the Islamic sciences, but Islamic scholars are also required to know the realities of life - a strict condition of Fatwa and Ijtihad that is known to everyone.

4-Contemporary Muslim women have been involved in studying and teaching the Islamic sources, and Islamic Universities have distinguished women scholars…the most prominent Bint Al-Shati -the professor of Tafsir in Egypt and Morocco who died recently, as well as many female professors at Al-Azhar and in all Islamic Universities. It has been neglected in recent writings that started giving attention to the role of women within the Islamic movements in transmitting and studying the Islamic sources that they, too, contributed to the knowledge and Ijtihad. Ann Sophie Roald (In K.Ask & M.Tjomsland 1998 ) for example studied Bint Al-Shati, yet forgot Zainab A-Ghazali - the leading Egyptian Muslim activist of the Muslim Brotherhood - who published an interpretation of the Quran 1994. Though published by the famous Dar Al Shorouk publishers, and forwarded by a praise by a (male) professor of Tafsir at Al-Azhar University, Karam did not even refer to that volume when studying Ghazali’s “feminist” ideas. (A.Karam , 1998) Women’s reading and interpretation of the Islamic sources is then an ongoing process in the Islamic as well as Islamist circles. 

5-Taking the awareness about women’s problems and the unjust treatment of women in Islamic societies with different Islamic pretexts as the criteria according to which one classifies writings as “feminist” or not (sometimes regardless of the sex/gender of the author], one can find indeed that male scholars have been more outspoken and “revolutionary” than women scholars. Hence insisting on “feminist” as description for the reading or interpretation, places feminism as a frame of reference and a basically secular paradigm to be the point of reference. Within the Islamic circle adjectives such as : “fair” , “just", “methodologically correct” and “nearer to the general aims of Islam (Maqasid)” are more accurate.

Methodological reflections

Established Islamic methodology to approach the Islamic sources has been challenged lately by secularist writings, either generally as a whole, or focusing mainly on the issue of women. In this respecr Fatima Mernissi (Morocco) can be considered to be the most sophisticated one. Her work discusses –among other things- the compatibility of some narrators of the Hadith and their hostile position towards women that affected their integrity and credibility, deconstructing by that some crucial Hadith on women that were narrated in Al-Bukhari and accepted as authentic Hadith. (Merrnissi,1996) .

Her work was attacked by many Islamic scholars, not because of its feminist nature but because it challenges the established, widely accepted, methodology. Others such as Nawal Saadawi (Egypt) or Farida Banani (Morocco) are more general in their arguments. These writings state that Ijtihad is needed to initiate new ideas and perspective that are more compatible with the modern notions of human rights, while at the same time accepting and advocating intellectually Western notions and concepts on “gender” and “patriarchy” without much revision or criticism.

A researcher with a secular paradigm when dealing with the Islamic sources rejects established Islamic sciences’ methodology and usually bases his/her analysis on approaches that deal with “texts” regardless of the origin of these texts - revealed or human. Any contribution will always be classified as a secular critique to the transcendental and will hence be rejected and refuted by the mainstream Islamic schools of thought and jurisprudence - even if insightful and worth discussing.

The political situation and polarization is dominant in a lot of discussion spaces. The arguments of secularisits are not read and understood by Islamic scholars, while any effort or new Ijtihad on the Islamic side is usually accused of being for propagandist, not serious, for political purposes and temporary. Especially in the issues of women the political is very much linked with the methodology, the selection of topics and the way these are addressed from both sides according to the hot issues on the political agenda. The lack of a real intellectual environment for dialogue blocks change on the grass root level for the best of the majority of women.

A second point is that attempts to bridge the gap between social sciences and Islamic sciences have been going on in many academic circles in the Muslim world. Disciplines like economy were given more attention than other disciplines such as political science and sociology.

It is very important to realize that any reform in women issues by combining a contemporary reading of the sources with a knowledge of social sciences requires Ijtihad on both sides. Till now only attempts to reform the reading of the text have been in process, while the Ijtihad on the social sciences level has been almost non-existant. A simple example for that is the attempt to seek new fatwas allowing women to participate in politics by voting as well as become political representatives. Little has been done to introduce a new political theory that would revise the centrality of the state major actor, or revise the whole issue of ploitical representation and its problems. 

Democracy , as people have to be constantly reminded, can take many forms, not necessarily representative democracy, and not necessarily in a party system. Authoritarianism or totalitarianism are not the only option to the former statement, but a vriety of forms for political governance that are definetly NOT the simple non-sophisticated talk about an “Islamic State” that is always more of a State than it is …Islamic. The Ijtihad has to be on all tracks, otherwise one will end up defending just and equal women participation in a political system that is not just nor fair or equal itself –structurally speaking .

Discussing the issue of women and politics one finds different approaches. Following you will find two different ones. The first is called here the selective anti-Sunna method as it is based on the selection of the source (reference), denying and refusing the whole of Sunna and Hadith. It is short and brief as it saves itself the path of Ijtihad and argumentation. 

The selective anti-Sunna Method 

“Can a woman take the leadership role? Is it prohibited? The answer will be different if you look at the Quran, or if you look at the the Hadiths, that most of them were written about 200 years after the Prophet's death. When God tells us a story in he Quran, He does not do so just for entertaining us, but to teach us a lesson. 

"We narrate to you the most accurate history through the revelation of this Quran. Before this, you were totally unaware." 12:3. "In their history, there is a lesson for those who possess intelligence......" 12:111. 

The role of an important woman in the history of the old world, as much as Muslims are concerned, is shown in the story of Belquees, the Queen of Sheba. See 27:22-44. God mentioned her history in the Quran to let us know that a woman in a ruling position is not offensive as far as God is concerned. She represented a democratic ruler who consulted with her people before making important decisions, See 27:29. She visited Solomon, talked to him , made decisions for herself and her people, not hiding behind walls, or shying behind another man. After witnessing what God gave Solomon, she became a submitter (Muslim), while still the Queen of Sheba. "She was told, "Go inside the palace." When she saw its interior, she thought it was a pool of water, and she (pulled up her dress) exposing her legs. He said, "This interior is now paved with crystal." She said, 'My Lord, I have wronged my soul. I now submit with Solomon to God, Lord of the universe".

Here we witness one of the first Muslim women in charge of a nation, ruling them as a queen of Sheba. Can we learn a lesson from the Quran? we should. The lesson is that, God in the Quran never put restrictions on a woman in a ruling position. Contrary to what the traditional Muslim scholars and Hadiths teach, a woman in a leading political position is not against God's system or against the Quran. It might be against the chauvinistic views of the men who wrote the corrupted history of Hadiths. 

What did the books of man, the Hadith books ,teach about women in leadership positions? Completely the opposite, and then they claim that Hadiths do not contradict the Quran.. Of course the reason is that, the Prophet Muhammed would have never contradicted the Quran, but those who invented these stories about him did. 

In one of the most famous Hadiths that is often raised in the face of any Muslim woman seeking higher education or higher position in her career is one by a man called Abu Bakra who narrated a Hadith reported in Bukhary that states that any community ruled by a woman will never succeed. The fallacy of this Hadith is not only proven in history but in the fact that Abu Bakra himself was reported in the Muslim history books to be punished publicly for bearing false witness. Despite this known story of his bearing false witness, Bukhary did not remove his Hadith from among his collected Hadiths according to the rules that Bukhary himself claimed to follow. Such a bearer of false witness should never be allowed or accepted as a witness ever, according to the Quran (24:4). 

The tajdid method 

Access to political positions is dealt with in the dominant feminist discource as a gain that women should target for power and influence. “Power” is also the reason why Islamists deny them that right so they would have no authority over the supposedly wiser males. It is usually forgotten that political positions are not gains to be sought but rather responsibilities to be carried. They necessitate specific competence which, according to Ibn Taymiyya, is based on two factors: strength and integrity. Strength is dependent on the nature of the jurisdiction. Strength in judgments is based on the knowledge about the Qur’an and the Hadith and the ability to implement them. Personal integrity all depends on the fear of God. 

It is also neglected that whoever takes that power is obliged to abide by the laws of the Shari’a - be that person a man or a woman. Their decisions concerning the public law and the codes of ethics should be issued through the mechanisms of Shura. They are obeyed in as far as they do; otherwise, there is no obedience to those who disobey God and “Obedience is conditioned by the virtues” and “If the ruler judges unfairly or in contradiction to the established rules, his judement is rejected.” Reading literature on the topic reveals that the disagreement arises in Fiqh from the different readings and interpretation of the Islamic sources that we can discuss as following:

Scholars disagree on the possible meaning of the verse, which goes, “Men are in charge (qawwamun) of women, because of what God has graced some of them over the others and because they spend of their property (for the support of women).” (IV:34). Some interpretations argue that being “in charge” is exclusive for men since they possess superior attributes over women with respect to the management of affairs, the physical and psychological strengths, etc. To them, this makes it unfeasible that a woman takes over any public jurisdiction that can make her “in charge” or even let her share such responsibility. In their view, the text states explicitly that responsibility is given to men. 

It is also argued that even if the responsibility stated in the above-mentioned verse is meant to be in the specific family context, the argument is still valid, since a woman is necessarily then incompetent in managing wider public affairs.

Other scholars maintain that the relationship between men and women in general is based on equality and that the Qur’an here only refers to the family in a regulative manner not to the human nature or the competence of women in general. This does not indicate that women are less competent, but rather suggests the more appropriate party who can be replaced by the other if necessary in cases of the absence of the father due to any reason. 

Views are at variance concerning the Prophet’s Hadith narrated by al-Bukhari in the authority of Abu Bakra who said, “When the Prophet was informed that in Persia, the daughter of the King (Kisra) succeeded to the throne, he said, ‘No success is destined for a folk whose ruler is a woman’.” Some literature debate that this includes all women in all public jurisdiction. The statement is seperated from its context and taken as a divine rule. Other opinions see that, in general, this is exclusive to the caliphate -the highest position in an Islamic political system.

Some contemporary scholars deny the authenticity of the hadith altogether, describing it as “fake”, maintaining that it is at best a “Hadith Ahad” - a Hadith narrated by a sole narrator-, a case which excludes it as a source of Sharia’ in serious matters of legislation and constitution. The first party have done no attempt to interpret the above-mentioned Hadith in the light of the other relevant Qur’anic verses (the simple next step in interpretation that is usually forgotten here!), or the other Prophetic tradition on the issue. The second group basically adhered to the same approach except that they made it specific and have not associated it with competence but with certain positions. 

The following remarks can be given about the Hadith discussed: 

-It has to be interpreted in the light of the other Hadiths on Persia and King Kisra. It was reported in the context of a narration reported by Ibn Hajar al-’Asqalani quoted in Sahih al-Bukari. It was reported that Kisra tore off the message sent to him by the Prophet and that the Prophet accursed him. Then the Kisra’s son first killed him and then his brothers and the killer was ultimately poisoned himself. Therefore, Poran prohibited. Otherwise, how can women manage to perform their religious obligations without necessarily mixing with men? Alleged resulting

“Fitna” cannot thus be taken as an argument since the legitimate rulings are established on the Qur’an and the Sunna.

To sum up, public jurisdiand political porequire special competence in both men and women , They remain at the end the full occupation of a minority of people and among them some women are definetly eligible. Arguments to the esatblished rules of interpretation. It is my conclusion that only few women can practically manage both the responsibilities of family and jurisdiction at a time. If they have the compatibility or can gain it they have full choice –even a responsibility- to participate on these political levels in a Muslim society.


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