Woman's Identity and the Qur'an: A New Reading
reviewed by Qadir Abdus-Sabur - 2006
Title: Woman's Identity and the Qur'an: A New Reading
Author(s): Nimat Hafez Barazangi
Publisher: University Press of Florida, Gainesville
ISBN: 0813027853, Pages: 173, Year: 2004
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Challenged by the demands of academic objectivity and feminist philosophical influences, Nimat Hafez Barazangi calls the readers attention to what she sees as a serious problem among Muslim women scholars. She argues that although they are influencing positive change in the perception of women of the Islamic faith, unfortunately their arguments are based on traditional interpretations of the Quran articulated by men. This observation is the underpinning of her thesis: Since Muslim women do not participate in a new reading of Quran, the primary source of Islam (p. 1), (i.e. their personal internalization of its principles and applications to life experiences), they are perceived as dependent member[s] of the Muslim social structure (p. 8) rather than active participants in the defining role of Islam in the intellectual fiber of society. Using this as her point of departure she identifies the objective and purpose of the present work.
Her main objective is to develop a theory and a practice of educating Muslim women outside the patriarchal discourse that views women as the passive depositor of culture (p. x). In her view women should actively participate in Quranic discourse. She writes that the purpose of the book is to generate the dynamic interrelation of the pedagogy, the epistemology, and the ontology of the Quran with those who have consciously chosen its worldview and attempt to live that worldview (p. 3). It is her hope that an awareness of the educational methods employed by the Quran along with a mastery of knowledge contained therein in relationship to individual existence, women would be better able to guide their lives as defined in a Quranic worldview.
Barazangi develops her argument very effectively. She reasons that since women have not been permitted to participate in the interpretation of the Quran because traditional analysis has favored men in the role of articulating Islamic norms, women are placed in a role supporting their men (husbands, fathers, brothers). They are viewed as passive depositors of culture (p. x). This hegemonic supportive role limits womens desires to study the Quran for themselves and apply their newly acquired knowledge to social issues in their own voices. She goes on to explain that historically these interpretations have been viewed on par with Quranic injunctions. By accepting the authority of traditional text interpretation as being as binding as the Quran, the basic tenet of the affirmation of Gods sovereignty La ilah illa Allah, has lost its true meaning (p. 4); allegedly mens commentary possesses divine-like qualities.
She cites several issues that justify, at least in the minds of men, traditional practices of the subjugation of women. Perhaps the strongest of these is her interpretation of the Quran itself and the perception of the creation of man (Adam) and the subsequent creation of woman (Eva) from Adams rib. Throughout the book Barazangi translates Surah 4 Verse 1 as O humankind (Yayuha al-nas), be conscientious of [or in equilibrium with] (ittaqu) your Guardian God (Allah), who created you of a single [personal] entity (nafs wahidah). Created, of the same entity, its [grammatical feminine gender] mate (zawjaha), and from them scattered abroad many men and women, and be of equilibrium with Allah by whom you are accountable to one another, and the wombs (al-arham); surely Allah ever watches over you (p . 43). She argues that this verse established men and women as equals intellectually in terms of their potential for spiritual development. In her view women have been denied access to Quranic intellectual interpretation partially because this verse has been mis-represented to them by men. She rejects mens interpretation as Eve being made from Adams rib because the above verse uses the feminine word for Arabic words meaning a single entity (p. 47); that is, since God created humanity from a female entity how could men have been created first? Using this, other verses of the Quran and the work of well known Muslim scholars, Barazangi argues quite convincingly that women have indeed been limited in their ability to participate actively in intellectual learning and interpretation of Quranic principles and their relationship to contemporary issues. Barazangi sees this as a problem and asks the question: Who has the authority to read and interpret Quranic text? (p. 5).
Germane to her analysis of the implications of the rights of men to interpret the Quran rather than women are the issues of individual morality and Taqwa. As women involve themselves in a thorough study of the Quran, a process she refers to as Islamic Higher Learning (p. 87) occurs. Women will be able to establish themselves as individual moral creatures based upon their own understandings. Unfortunately, in her view, the morality of women today is defined in relationship to their close proximity to the men in their lives. Taqwa for her is the balance of individual moral choice and social action (p. 68) and Islamic education should reflect this balance with natural laws and within the Quranic guidelines (p. 66). This condition can only be achieved when an individual has come into a proper knowledge of Quranic injunctions for themselves and have identified ways in which these injunctions can be infused into the social fiber of their lives. This situation can never occur if women are restricted from active learning of the Quran.
Barazangi offers a three-part solution. First, women should be involved in the interpretation of the Quran and its interpretation in the discussion of human rights in their own voices. Secondly, women should learn to identify with the Quran by studying its content from their own perspective. Through the Self-Learning of Islam (S-LI) process that she describes as a framework for a comprehensive curriculum serving as the foundation of and the means to self-identity (p. 87), women could initiate long-term changes in how they are perceived. Finally, the superimposition of Western secular systems of education and Western feminists perspectives will not effectively change the status of Muslim women. Muslim women need to identify with the spiritual and intellectual Quranic worldview. She argues that women have not only that right, but reading the Quran and gaining an understanding of its meaning is one of their responsibilities as Muslims. She suggests a way to re-read (re-interpret the Quran) when she says, A pedagogical reading of the Quran involves a process of making the learner aware of and able to theorize on Quranic principles and to distinguish these principles from a knowledge of the Quran rules in order to facilitate interpretations and the conditions for their application (p. 2).
Barazangi has done a commendable job of articulating a major concern in contemporary Muslim lifethe traditional role of women vs. their active participation in an ever-changing global community. She draws a parallel between the struggle of Muslim women and the hurdles faced by the womens suffrage movement in America (p. 4). One simply has to read Maxine Greens (1988) analysis of the wall faced by women in American society to understand the basis of her assertion. Womans Identity and the Quran is a good read, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Islamic education in general and in the struggle of Muslim women in particular.
Green, M. (1988). Reaching from private to public: The work of women. In The dialectic of freedom (pp. 57-86). New York: Teachers College Press.