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Woman's Identity and the Qur'an: A New Reading


reviewed by Qadir Abdus-Sabur - 2006

coverTitle: 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 reader’s 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 Qur’an articulated by men. This observation is the underpinning of her thesis: Since Muslim women do not participate in a new reading of Qur’an, 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 Qur’anic 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’anic worldview.


Barazangi develops her argument very effectively. She reasons that since women have not been permitted to participate in the interpretation of the Qur’an 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 women’s desires to study the Qur’an 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 Qur’anic injunctions.  By accepting the authority of traditional text interpretation as being as binding as the Qur’an, the basic tenet of the affirmation of God’s sovereignty “La ‘ilah ‘illa Allah,” has lost its true meaning (p. 4); allegedly men’s 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 Qur’an itself and the perception of the creation of man (Adam) and the subsequent creation of woman (Eva) from Adam’s rib. Throughout the book Barazangi translates Surah 4 Verse 1 as “O’ humankind (Ya’yuha 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 Qur’anic intellectual interpretation partially because this verse has been mis-represented to them by men. She rejects men’s interpretation as Eve being made from Adam’s 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’anic 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 Qur’anic text?” (p. 5).


Germane to her analysis of the implications of the rights of men to interpret the Qur’an rather than women are the issues of individual morality and Taqwa. As women involve themselves in a thorough study of the Qur’an, 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 Qur’anic guidelines” (p. 66). This condition can only be achieved when an individual has come into a proper knowledge of Qur’anic 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 Qur’an.


Barazangi offers a three-part solution. First, women should be involved in the interpretation of the Qur’an and its interpretation in the discussion of human rights in their own voices. Secondly, women should learn to identify with the Qur’an 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 Qur’anic worldview. She argues that women have not only that right, but reading the Qur’an and gaining an understanding of its meaning is one of their responsibilities as Muslims. She suggests a way to re-read (re-interpret the Qur’an) when she says, “A pedagogical reading of the Qur’an involves a process of making the learner aware of and able to theorize on Qur’anic principles and to distinguish these principles from a knowledge of the Qur’an 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 life—the 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 women’s suffrage movement in America (p. 4). One simply has to read Maxine Green’s (1988) analysis of the “wall” faced by women in American society to understand the basis of her assertion. Woman’s Identity and the Qur’an 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.


Reference


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.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 76-79
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11950, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 3:04:19 PM

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About the Author
  • Qadir Abdus-Sabur
    Virginia Commonwealth University
    E-mail Author
    QADIR ABDUS-SABUR is an Adjunct Professor of Educational Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and co-founder of Muslim Teacherís College in Virginia. His research interest, Muslim education in America, has been coupled with extensive participation in the Islamic School movement. He has been actively involved in this effort for the past thirty years serving in positions such as Principal of Clara Muhammad School in Richmond, Virginia; Director of Clara Muhammad Boarding School in Randolph, Virginia; Chairman of the Council of Islamic Schools in North America; member of the American Society of Muslims Board of Education; and Director of Islamic Studies Curriculum Project for the International Curricula Organization. His most recent publication is Developing Muslim School Curricula published by Muslim Teacherís College.
 
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