June 14, 2012 By Sareena Irshad

Quran & the Death of Male Authors

x610I think there would not be so much disagreement if I say that knowledge production in a society is built on its world view. In a racist society, the race which shows domineering or hegemonic tendency would promote, encourage and circulate knowledge within the race and foreclose the same for the race which the domineering race regards as its anti-thesis. India after the invasion of Aryans is a case in point. The law books of Manu, who prescribed law for Aryans, had/has it that the ears of Shudra, the lowered class, should they hear the sanctified religious texts, fit only for receiving the molten lead.

Though there are no textbooks-even in extreme patriarchal society-that subject a woman’s ears to such a pitiable condition, people regard knowledge as the prerogative of males. This is because the society in which such prerogatives are established does have a common world view which downgrades a woman to passivity. This world view is parochial rather than being universal. However, patriarchy has been established as universal social condition. But, in course of time, owing to several factors, including the spread and growth of modernity, certain geographical regions can be called more woman friendly than others. Access to education and change of attitude to woman’s exposure to knowledge are the two major factors that would make the patriarchal system more flexible. However, according to a majority of feminists, these changes are merely superficial in that access of woman to education is by extension the access to education produced and packaged by the males. The content does not change as such. Instead of women being creative, she becomes by far the best consumer.

The above paragraph is a summary of the feminist perspective of knowledge, learning and education. I don’t subscribe to all points that a feminist epistemology poses, especially because feminism as such is not a neutral theoretical category. It originated in the modernist phase of continental philosophy and continued with vigour in the post modern phase. Feminism has shared all political and interventionist assumptions in the western philosophy and sought a universalistic solution to the problems of women irrespective of cultural and geographical categories and contexts. But it’s only an arrogant, male-chauvinist and  misogynist mind that can be indifferent to, and not read, the arguments posed by the feminist scholars. The arguments are all at least contestable, even if they are not subscribable. The theoretical assumptions detailed in the above paragraph have been the premise on which Islamic feminism has been premised. At the risk of simplifying, we can define Islamic feminism as a movement or theoretical assumption which is a reaction against the male-centred perception in Muslim societies of women as subjects foreclosed or second-rated vis-a-vis the mainstream culture which is dominated by men. As for Muslim feminists, the world view of mainstream Muslim culture is radically different from the world view of the Quran and the Prophet, which was egalitarian in outlook and assumptions.

Mideast Israel PalestiniansThe two works that announce the epistemology of Islamic feminism on the one hand and analyse the world view of Muslim societies on the other are Amina Wadud’s Quran and Women: Reading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Asma Barlas’ Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Quran. Both the works are relevant on two other counts as well. First, these works are the first attempts by women towards the woman-centred hermeneutics of the Quran. Second, the subhead of the two works has the word ‘reading.’ Reading had for much too long been regarded as a passive activity as it had been nothing other than receiving what someone else has written. Roland Barthes announced the death of author and the emergence of reader whose only power is to combine pre-existing texts in new way.  Thus reading becomes for Barthes “not a parasitical act, the reactive complement of a writing,” but rather a “form of work”

The purpose of Amina Wadud’s book is to ‘make a ‘reading’ of the Qur’an from within the  female experience and without the stereotypes which have been the framework for many of the male interpretations. ‘ (Wadud: 3). She build her thesis on the premise that ‘The Qur’an does not attempt to annihilate the differences between men and women or to erase the significance of functional  gender distinctions which help every society to run smoothly and  fulfil its needs. In fact, compatible mutually supportive functional  relationships between men and women can be seen as part of the  goal of the Qur’an with regard to society (Wadud: 8) However, the Qur’an  does not propose or support a singular role or single definition of a  set of roles, exclusively, for each gender across every culture.  Her methodology is what later Professor Fazlur Rahman devised for interpreting the Quran. She says: ‘I attempt to use the method of Qur’anic interpretation proposed by Fazlur Rahman. He suggests that all Qur’anic passages,  revealed as they were in a specific time in history and within certain general and particular circumstances, were given expression relative to those circumstances. However, the message is not limited to that time or those circumstances historically. A reader must understand the implications of the Qur’anic expressions during the time in which they were expressed in order to determine their proper meaning. That meaning gives the intention of the rulings or principles in the particular verse’ (Wadud: 4)

Wadud’s book can be read as blueprint for woman-centred hermaneutics. Her is a look into the way Muslims read the Quran, interpret  the text(read the interpretations of the famed exegets) and form a weltanschauung  which has been up against woman. Asma Barlas’  Believing Women in Islam looked closely into some critical issues Muslim women face and read them in the light of the Quran (that too in the same way Fazlur Rahman suggested). I will produce here an extract from the book which is a class example of Rahman’s double movement theory. In the extract she discusses the issue of veiling and how the practice contravenes the egalitarian assumptions of the Quran:

Essentially, there are two sets of Āyāt on the basis of which conservatives legitimize a generalized model of veiling for all Muslim women:

O Prophet! Tell
Thy wives and daughters,
And the believing women,
That they should cast
Their [jilbāb] over
Their persons (when abroad):
That is most convenient,
That they should be known
(As such) and not molested . . .
Truly, if the Hypocrites,
And those in whose hearts is a disease . . .
Desist not, We shall certainly
Stir thee up against them.
The Qur’ān (33:59–60)
Say to the believing men
That they should lower
Their gaze and guard
Their modesty: that will make
For greater purity for them:
. . . . . . . . . .
And say to the believing women
That they should lower
Their gaze and guard
Their modesty; that they
Should not display their
Beauty and ornaments except
What (must ordinarily) appear
Thereof; that they should
Draw their [khumūr] over
Their bosoms and not display
Their beauty except to . . .

The Qur’ān (24:30–31)

Conservatives read these Āyāt as giving Muslim males the right to force women to don everything from the hijāb (a head veil that leaves the face un- covered) to the burqa (a head-to-toe shroud that hides even the feet; some models even mandate wearing gloves so as to hide the hands). They justify such forms of veiling on the grounds that women’s bodies are pudendal, hence sexually corrupting to those who see them; it thus is necessary to shield Muslim men from viewing women’s bodies by concealing them. This claim draws on classical exegesis, in which, however, such a view of women’s  bodies developed only gradually. Whereas al-Tabari (d. 923 CE) held that both women and men could show those parts of the body that were not pudendal, al-Baydawi (d. 1285 C.E.) ruled that the entire body of a free  woman was pudendal, the gaze itself being a ‘‘messenger of fornication.’’ By the seventeenth century, al-Khafafi had decreed ‘‘even face and hands’’ pudendal (in Stowasser 1984, 27).

In time, such claims led not only to forms of veiling that involved covering the head, face, hands, and feet, but also to  domestic segregation. While none of the ideas espoused by these exegetes about female bodies derives from the Qur’ān’s teachings the fact that conservatives continue to cling to them demonstrates their tendency to sacralize works by early Muslim commentators and to universalize  what in the Qur’ān can be shown to be specific. Thus, I believe there are  two models of the notion of the veil—one specific, and the other general—in the Qur’ān, and the first set of Āyāt suggests the specific model and the second, the general.

However, not only do conservatives not distinguish between the two sets of Āyāt and thus between the two forms of ‘‘veiling,’’ but by generalizing and dehistoricizing the first set of Āyāt, they also subvert their openly stated intent and purpose.  In this context, it is important to note, first, that both sets of Āyāt are addressed only to the Prophet; that is, they are not a universal mandate for all Muslim men to force women to comply with them. As I argue in later chapters, not only can one not force moral praxis upon a person—as the  Qur’ān (22:256) says, ‘‘Let there be no compulsion in religion’’—but no one, not even the Prophet, was given the right to force compliance upon his wives with any of the Qur’ān’s injunctions. Second, and more to the point, the form, purpose, and content of the idea of ‘‘the veil’’ in these two Āyāt is not the same, and it also is completely different from the one suggested by conservatives. To begin with, the Qur’ān uses the words jilbāb (cloak) and khumūr (shawl), both of which, in ordinary usage, cover the bosom ( juyūb) and neck, not the face, head, hands, or feet. The Qur’ān does not mandate such a form of veiling in any Āyāt. Women prayed unveiled in mosques until the third/ninth century and they perform the Haj, the holiest ritual in Islam, with faces uncovered. Even more significantly, the purpose of the covering in these two sets of Āyāt is different. In the first set, the jilbāb is meant not to hide free Muslim women from Muslim men but to render them visible, hence recognizable, by Jāhilī men, as a way to protect the women. This form of ‘‘recognition/protection’’ took its meaning from the social structure of a slave-owning society in which sexual abuse, especially of slaves, was rampant. While odious, such practices were not specific to the Arabs, nor were they aberrant. As Judith Antonelli (1995) notes, in ancient societies women in the public arena were considered to be prosttitutes; in such societies, therefore, the law of the veil distinguished ‘‘which women were under male protection and which were fair game’’ (Lerner in Ahmed 1992, 15). In mandating the jilbāb, then, the Qur’ān explicitly connects it to a slave-owning society in which sexual abuse by non-Muslim men was normative, and its purpose was to distinguish free, believing women from slaves, who were presumed by Jāhilī men to be nonbelievers and thus fair game. Only in a slave-owning Jāhilī society, then, does the jilbāb signify sexual nonavailability, and only then if Jāhilī men were willing to invest it with such a meaning. Consequently, even though worn by Muslim women, the jilbāb served as a marker of Jāhilī male sexual promiscuity and abuse at a time when women had no legal recourse against such abuse and had to rely on themselves for their own protection.’

There are points in these discourses with which one can disagree. Veil has not only the symbol of seclusion; the issue of freedom of expression is built into it especially in the context of the ban imposed by the French government. But these readings bring to us the pleasure of reading the Quran as a text being meaningful to all time and all contexts.

Some critics take these interpretations as academic exercises which don’t existence beyond the air conditioned classrooms. There is some truth in these critics. In many parts of the world, women are not even the consumers of knowledge and an argument for her critical reading of the text which is part of her faith would be far from being realistic. Contextually, there seems to be many goals through which a interpretative community of Muslim women can emerge. First, there should be an increasing access of women to formal education and, simultaneously, to the traditional madrassa education. Secondly, the theories and models above discussed should be translated into pedagogy. Thirdly, as there has not yet been a detailed interpretation and commentary of the Quran, there is a space vacant which a creative reading and analysis of the holy text can only fill.

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