Little Room for the Imagination?
The European far Right has continuously framed the Qur'an as a book that explicitly condones the “beating” of women. Exemplary is the following notorious assertion by the Dutch politician Geert Wilders a few years ago:
“The heart of the problem is fascist Islam, the sick ideology of Allah and Mohammed as written in the Islamic Mein Kampf: the Qur'an. The text leaves little room for imagination. In various sura, Muslims are asked to suppress, or persecute, or kill Jews, Christians, heretics, and nonbelievers; to beat and rape women and to violently build a worldwide Islamic state. There are enough sura which incite Muslims to kill and destroy. Prohibit that miserable book, just as Mein Kampf is forbidden!”
What happens to this stance, though, if the holy text is read through the lens of three Muslim feminist works, i.e. Amina Wadud's The Qur'an and Women, Asma Barlas' Believing Women in Islam, and (the empowerment organization) ZIF's Ein einziges Wort und seine große Wirkung? This article will describe and compare their re-readings of verse 4:34, a Qur'anic passage which allegedly justifies physical violence against women.
Regaining the Egalitarian Voice of Islam
The common goal of the three exegetical works is to contest readings of the Qur'an that “justify abuse and degradation of women” (Barlas, Believing Women 3). To regain both the “stubbornly egalitarian” voice of Islam (Barlas, Believing Women 2) in order to “challenge male privilege that has been read into the Qur'an” (Barlas, “Women's Readings” 260) and to reclaim a “maximum participation of each member of society” (Wadud, Qur'an and Woman 103), the critique of patriarchal exegetical traditions constitutes a central part of their methods and re-readings. Three major criticisms stand out.
First criticism: the primacy of patriarchal exegesis. According to ZIF, “the extreme control of woman, control in the sense of their sexual behavior, can not be derived from the Qur'an” (“Ein einziges Wort” 68), but from “external texts and external visions contradicting the Qur'an” (“Ein einziges Wort” 66). Along the same lines, Barlas regrets the “slippage between the Qur'an and its tasfir” (Believing Women 10). She considers the latter to be problematic based on both its “inconsistency and size” (Believing Women 41) and its reliance on the faulty, androcentric Sunnah and Haddith (Barlas, Believing Women 62). The result, according to Barlas, is the hurtful confusion between Islam and patriarchy (Believing Women 9).
The three exegetes warn to equate the potential “voicelessness” of women on the social plane “with voicelessness in the text itself”, as Wadud writes (Quran and Women 2). They unanimously plead to de-emphasize the importance of tasfir and to return to the “basic texts of Islam”, instead of “tirelessly quoting theological and judicial exegesis” (ZIF, “Ein einziges Wort” 69). To all of them, this means going back to the Qur'an as the primary “arbiter” because it is the “most effective tool for the liberation of Muslim women” (Qur'an and Women 3). Barlas even claims that the Qur'an is not only a liberating book for women, but also “an anti-patriarchal text” due to its inherent critique of the conservative rule of the “fathers” (Believing Women 127).
Second critique: gendered translations of the Qur'an. With their “focus on languaging” (Wadud, Qur'an and Women XII), the exegetes raise awareness of the challenge of various “meanings and implications of individual words or word-groups” (Wadud, Qur'an and Women 97). They are all very much alert of the difficulties “to fix the Qur'an's meanings in Arabic” and to find “equivalents for original words” in the translation process (Barlas, Believing Women 36-37) due to, amongst others, the “trilateral root” of the Arabic lexicon and the absence of an “Arabic neuter” (Wadud, Qur'an and Women XIV; 6). What predominantly occupies the exegetes in their investigations are the “grammatical language analyses” of “keywords with multiple meanings” (ZIF, “Ein einziges Wort” 4), as they express the “androcentric nature” of the translations in question (Barlas, Believing Women 105).
The word daraba is a point in case. ZIF in particular highlights the subjective trait of Qur'an translations by juxtaposing and contrasting translations of this key word – whose translated meanings range from “flogging” in 1773, via “beating (lightly)” in 1989, to “punishing” in 1998 (ZIF, “Ein einziges” Wort 33). Similar juxtapositions and critiques can be found in Barlas' (e.g. Believing Women 185;195) and Wadud's work (e.g. Qur'an and Women 71).
Third critique: “atomistic” readings of the Qur'an (Stowasser, “Gender Issues” 39-40). “Linear-atomistic” reading methods (Believing Women 8) just can not capture the complexities of the holy book, according to Barlas. Amina Wadud critiques this “atomistic methodology” extensively too (Wadud, Qur'an and Women 2), which she dismisses as a counterproductive method of “applying meanings to one verse at a time, with occasional references to various verses elsewhere” (Qur'an and Women XII).
In contrast to this “one-dimensional, dogmatic interpretative method”, which “mostly just passes on the patriarchal way of reading” (“Islamische Frauenforschung & -förderung”), the exegetes favor both a thematic and a holistic reading. Their thematic focus on gender is based on the conviction that the Qur'anic verses have a “relational meaning” (Wadud, Qur'an and Women 10; 20), which can not be uncovered if the text is read in a “piecemeal way” (Barlas, Believing Women 16; 168). Moreover, reading the Qur'an as a whole, with an “an eye on the total corpus” (ZIF) and in the light of its overall “Weltanschauung” (Wadud, Qur'an and Women 10), concurs to great extent with the intention of the text itself, according to all, as textual holism is based on the overruling Qur'anic principle of tawhid (Wadud, “Warum es im Islam auf Frauen ankommt”; ZIF, “Ein einziges Wort” 15), or the principle of Allah's unity and unique nature (Balras, Believing Women 13; 177).
An exemplary, essential Qur'anic concept deriving from tawhid is taqwa, or the primacy of piety as a marker of difference between people (Wadud, Qur'an and Women 36-37). By filtering out the key principles of the Qur'an, the exegetes try to determine the general spirit, the world view, and vision of the book (Wadud, Qur'an and Women 81). To the exegetes, these principles also mirror how the Qur'an's wants to be read. Due to the book's “auto-hermeneutics”, as Barlas states (Believing Women 205), it is “its own best interpreter” (Believing Women 18).