Controversy endures over interpretation of the Quran from a gender perspective

In Arab countries, women scholars are less popular due to the historical prevalence of men as religious authorities.
Sunday 11/02/2018
Maria Dakake, associate professor of religious studies at George Mason University in Virginia, speaks at  the conference on “Gender in the Quran” at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.  (LAU)
Different perspective. Maria Dakake, associate professor of religious studies at George Mason University in Virginia, speaks at the conference on “Gender in the Quran” at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. (LAU)

BEIRUT - The status of women in the Quran has always been controversial. Many scholars considered that the Quran clearly stated that men and women were not equal but others have tried to progressively interpret Quranic verses to refute that theory.

Maria Dakake, an associate professor of religious studies at George Mason University in Virginia, has researched Islamic intellectual history, with a particular interest in the development of the interpretation of women-related Quranic verses, especially among female scholars in the West.

In the 1990s, she said, there was an increase in the number of female scholars in Muslim communities who tried to reshape the understanding of gender in Islam. These included Pakistani-American theologian Riffat Hassan, African-American Amina Wadud and Lebanese-American philosopher Azizah al-Hibri.

“The approach they took was to go back to the Quran itself and use it as a main source to find true messages of gender equality,” said Dakake at a conference on “Gender in the Quran.” It was organised by the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World at the Lebanese American University in Beirut (LAU).

“They published interesting interpretations [that confirm gender equality in the Quran] such as general widespread concern for issues of justice, fairness and kindness, in addition to statements of gender equality from a spiritual and moral point of view that highlight the quality of men and women respectively.”

Women scholars, such as Hassan and Wadud, based their interpretations of Quranic verses on the idea of justice to invoke the bigger principles, taking into consideration that Quranic verses are ambiguous, controversial and mainly open-ended.

To refute the theory that the Quran explicitly states that women are to be on a subordinate level, Dakake cited Hibri’s interpretation of the most controversial verses.

“Hibri confirms that, from a bigger logical context, these verses especially the verse stating that ‘men are the upholders and maintainers of women’ come from a financial perspective, following the section that regulates the division of inheritance. In her opinion, the Quran allows men to inherit more than women on condition that they spend on their women. If they don’t, all their privileges fall,” Dakake said.

Muslim cleric Sheikh Mohamad Kojok, a researcher in education, anthropology and religious studies at the Lebanese University and doctoral student in jurisprudence and fundamentals at Qom Hawza in Iran, contends that controversial verses in the Quran can’t be understood if read in a superficial way.

“[Controversial verses] are linked to many others that explicitly confirm equality between men and women in their existential identity and public responsibilities; however the Quran differentiates between men and women taking into consideration their natural characteristics,” Kojok said.

“The equality [in the Quran] resides in the fact that women should obtain their full rights to reach God and serve God’s creation and the fact that men should obtain their full rights for the same reasons,” he said.

Interpreting the Quran from a gender perspective in Western countries has been mainly initiated by Muslim women who wanted to question traditional interpretations to confirm that equality is preserved by the Quran without abandoning their faith and religious traditions.

“Women scholars argue that the Quran does not necessarily support patriarchy, it only reflects the society at the times when it was written. For example, the Quran gives many reasons to abolish slavery. Why don’t we think of patriarchy the same way?” said Dakake.

In Arab countries, due to the strong patriarchal system still in place, women scholars have less influence and are less popular due to the historic prevalence of men as religious authorities and references.

“Interpreting the Quran is available to men and women equally,” said Kojok. “Since the ’90s [in the Arab World], a new group of interpreters from both genders has been trying to establish a modern interpretation of Quran verses. However, this group based their interpretation on humane experience instead of divine revelation, and this had practical results that introduced principles that are uncommon to Muslim audience.”

In recent years, Muslim extremist groups misused the Quran to justify violence, especially against women, despite the opposition of most Muslim scholars, who promote Islam as a religion of peace.

“The use of religious texts to suppress women and insult them is against the sharia itself,” Kojok said. “This has been incited by the political reintroduction of the takfiri fanaticism to Islam. To counter these practices, we should work to limit the influence of these groups and raise awareness in Muslim communities about the important role of women in the society.”