Women and scripture. The feminist exegis in Islam

By Marisa Iannuccimuslim-women-students

Reconstructing the relationship between women and Sacred Scriptures is a complex task, and requires a deep survey in the texts and history of religious societies.

Introducing the subject, I would like to recall a theme suggested by Maria Luisa Boccia in Ravenna in a conference on Muslim feminism[1]. Boccia said that all cultures, all traditions, all human thinking do not belong to ourselves, to us (women) as women, because human history has not considered women able to think. They was not a thinking being but rather a thought one, a product of the mind. Women have often mediated and spread a mindset, a culture that was not their own, which have not any feminine connotation. It was men’s thought, because men were the only ones deserving this sphere of the human being. Unfortunately, religious thinking did not make an exception.

Concerning this argument, I would also mention Carla Lonzi. She wrote that every man is born with a tradition of leading men behind him, a tradition of respected and influential people they can use as their models; women, instead, have to struggle and to face many problems attempting to find these figures, provided that there are any. We could find some examples in the Scriptures and in the religious history, but we could find it barely and after great efforts, because they were usually undervalued and then forgotten.  Significant figures, women of great importance often are not taken into consideration as they deserved.

It is important to recognize the fact that religions have been abused for a long time, and still today, in many situations, they are manipulated by the power  to control both men and women. Religions have been for a long time and still today are a powerful and effective tool of oppression and restriction, especially over women, in the hands of a power that is, globally, still masculine.

Nonetheless, increasingly voices from different religious traditions, are suggesting a new interpretation of religion and its Scriptures highlighting how its universal message of equality has been repressed by the prevailing patriarchal system, which in the past excluded almost totally women from the sphere of knowledge. Concerning the Muslim, these voices are part of an heterogeneous  and unorganized movement we can call Muslim feminism, whose members have been active all over the world since the 90’s of the latest century. Muslim feminism’s hermeneutic, moves towards three main directions:

  • Deconstructing folk myths and common traditions that are not sustained by the text of Koran, for example those about the description of Creation and of the events in the Garden of Eden, which comes from a biblical inspiration, and have been used to support the thesis of the superiority of men.
  • Highlighting the Koranic verses that unequivocally state the equality of men and women, trying to reconstruct the social status of women in the early community and in the sources of Islam, which was very far from the following prevalent interpretations.
  • Demolishing the classical explanation of the Koranic verses that are usually commented in order to justify male domination.

Regarding the first point, it could be useful to give some examples to clarify the status of women in the texts and in the Muslim communities at the time of the Prophet Muhammad, and to explain how powerful could be the revolution represented by the Revelation  in the context of the Arabic society of the seventh century. A repressed revolution, because nowadays, and we can easily see it, the status of women is an increasingly problem in many Muslim-majority countries. The Koranic Revelation and the preaching of Muhammad spoke of rights and equal dignity for all the human beings in the context of a society, the Arabic society of the seventh century, where equality was not a popular concept.

“And wish not for the things in which Allah has made some of you to excel others. For men there is reward for what they have earned, (and likewise) for women there is reward for what they have earned, and ask Allah of His Bounty. Surely, Allah is Ever All-Knower of everything.”

(Koran, IV:32)

Not only the subordination of women, but also the practice of  enslavement of both men and women was part of the system. Although it was not abolished by a specific prohibition, it is evident in the Koranic message the attempt to make slavery void and the aim to redirect human conduct towards its gradual elimination. It belongs to the Sunnah the following Hadith:

“All human beings are equal, as equal are the teeth of a comb. There is no claim of merit from an Arab on a non-Arab, from a white man on a black man, from a man on a woman. Only those who fear God will be favourite to Him.”

The Koran explicitly banned many habits that reproduced the misogynist nature of Arab tribes, one example is that of girl infanticide. The practice of killing female babies burying them alive, very common at that time, is mentioned and condemned in the Koran:

“And when the news of (the birth of) a female (child) is brought to any of them, his face becomes dark, and he is filled with inward grief! He hides himself from the people because of the evil of that whereof he has been informed. Shall he keep her with dishonour or bury her in the earth ? Certainly, evil is their decision.”

( Koran XVI:58-59)

The Koranic text is a dialogue between God and the Prophet Muhammad, who received the Revelation, and so a dialogue between God and the whole humanity. In this dialogue God refers to both men and women, they were equals as they are both believers and equally responsible for their actions and their decisions:

“Verily, the Muslims (those who submit to Allah in Islam) men and women, the believers men and women (who believe in Islamic Monotheism), the men and the women who are obedient (to Allah), the men and women who are truthful (in their speech and deeds), the men and the women who are patient (in performing all the duties which Allah has ordered and in abstaining from all that Allah has forbidden), the men and the women who are humble (before their Lord Allah),(….) Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and a great reward.” 

( Koran XXXIII:35)

Women who embraced the religion preached by Muhammad were immediately aware of this change. In this regard, I would like to quote an episode narrated by Tirmidhi. It talks about a woman from Timshit who was seating in her house while being combed by her handmaid. She heard the voice of the Prophet calling people to give a speech and immediately she pulled the girl away, hurrying up to get out and listen to him.

The maid was surprised and told her:”Where are you going? The Prophet Muhammad has called the men.” She replied:”No, you are wrong. He called the people, and I am part of the people.”

Islam history is full of female characters that give us a strong image of the Muslim women at the time of the Prophet Muhammad. This period, often idealized in Muslim imaginary, is celebrated for various aspects but rarely we focus on the emancipation of women that the new order was carrying on.

Today I would like to make two examples that can help to explain how the interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures has been stretched by men. The first is about the story of Creation, and the difference between  how it is reported  in the Koran and how it has developed in the traditional Islamic thought.

In the Koranic text we cannot find any connection to the image of the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib. Despite that, it is surprising to see to what extent it has influenced the various commentaries of the Book. Consequently, it has been deeply assimilated by the Muslim culture under the obvious influence of the stories from the Judeo Christian tradition ( the so-called Israliyat).

In the Koran, many verses show a concept that is very different from the one today is prevailing among Muslim popular beliefs. First of all we have to take in account a fundamental verse, that of Surah An-Nisa’ (woman):

O mankind! Be dutiful to your Lord, Who created you from a single person (Nafsun Wahida), and from him  He created his wife (Zawjuha), and from them both He created many men and women….”

( Koran IV:1)

The term “Nafs”, which in Arabic is feminine, includes a set of concepts that can be translated as person, individual, soul, essence, matter, spirit, or breath of life. “Zawj”, instead, means a relative, one of the two terms of a couple, a companion. Even if it is masculine, its use is allowed for both men and women.

Nevertheless, the majority of ‘Ulema use to identify the man, Adam, with the term Nafs, and Eve, his bride, with the term Zawj. This interpretation has reinforced the classical representation, hierarchical and anthropomorphic, of the origins of human creation.

There is no Koranic statement asserting that Adam was a man in the first creation, and even less stating that Eve was created from one of his ribs. Some Muslim scholars, ancient and contemporary, raised the issue and rejected this kind of interpretation that, in their opinion, was largely influenced by the previous scriptures.

The third approach we are going to introduce is the deconstruction of the sexist interpretations of some Koranic verses. Let’s consider the first part of verse 34 of Surah An-Nisa:

“Men are the protectors and maintainers [Qawwamun] of women, because Allah has made one of them to excel the other, and because they spend (to support them) from their means.”

The translation by M.Badran, one of the first theorist of Muslim feminism, is the following:

“Men are responsible [Qawwamun] for women, because Allah has given more to the first then to the second, and because they sustain women with their means.”

The biological differences between men and women ensure that in some specific situations they assume different roles and contingent functions. Only women can give birth and nurse, and then, in this particular circumstance, the husband is enjoined by the Koran to provide material support, as prescribed in the verse quoted. This is one of the case in which the feminist exegetes recall the need to make a distinction between contingent and universal.

Many Muslim feminist have argued that the term Qawwamun conveys the notion of “to provide for”  and that it has been used in a prescriptive way to indicate the fact that men imperatively ought to provide for women in the context of pregnancy and nursing. It does not mean that women cannot provide for themselves in that circumstance. The term Qawwamun is not a statement of the natural superiority of males over females and of men’s absolute authority, as some interpreters said.

The important consequence of this reasoning is that if man does not provide for the maintenance of woman, or if she chooses to do that on her own, the man’s Qawwama decades. According to the classical conception of Qawwama, woman have the right” to be maintained” for the reason that if she is a mother, she already has to take charge of the childbirth, of the breastfeeding and of the child care. The feminist exegetes, reinforcing their interpretation, focus also on other verses talking about mutual responsibility:

“The believers, men and women, are Auliya’ (helpers, supporters, friends, protectors) of one another…” (Koran IX:71)

“ And they (women) have rights (over their husbands as regards living expenses, etc.) similar (to those of their husbands) over them (as regards obedience and respect, etc.) to what is reasonable….” (Koran II:228)

The good habits ( Ma’ruf), quoted in many other verses, recall the relationship between culture and its development, in which even the concepts of rights and duties in the family context are subjected to changes, whose reflections can be seen, indeed, in the habits and in the culture.

To go deeper inside the feminist hermeneutics, we have to recall the last part of verse 34. Here the term “Idribuhunna” has been interpreted by the classical exegesis with the meaning “to beat” and still today we find it translated with this meaning in many languages, including Italian.

“ …the righteous women are devoutly obedient (to Allah and to their husbands), and guard in the husband’s absence what Allah orders them to guard (e.g. their chastity, their husband’s property, etc.). As to those women on whose part you see ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly, if it is useful), but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance). Surely, Allah is Ever Most High, Most Great.”                    ( Koran II:34)

The Arabic root of the verb “Daraba” lends itself to various interpretations, and we find it in the Koran several times with many different and even contradictory meanings as to cover, to walk, to accompany, to leave, to change.

The English version of Koran by L.Bakhtiar – an American feminist Muslim- translates “Daraba” with the term “go away”, and so with the idea of getting away instead of the more common – even in many English versions- meanings of  hitting and beating, or even scourging, whipping, lashing.

According to Bakhtiar this version is more congruent to the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad in which, she says, is not reported any episode of Him recommending that women should be beaten or in which is reported that He has committed such an action or has approved something like that. It is reported, instead, that He has never beaten anyone, least of all a woman of His family. In case of conflict He used to get away from His family for short periods, and He always and constantly has encouraged the Muslim to behave towards women.

“ Which one of you would be able to beat his wife as a camel, and then, in the evening, to lie with her?” ( Hadith)

In some other He clearly has forbidden:

Never beat the handmaids of Allah.”

The possible different interpretations should have to be made taking account of the whole Book and of the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad regarding the topic and the verses that we are considering. In this regard, it is essential to reflect on the reliability of the hermeneutic approach to the Koran and on the competence of those who are involved in the translation of the Book. The effort to comment the Koran under a new prospective, equalitarian and respectful of the rights of both man and woman, is essential to change the sexist and chauvinist mentality that have spread all over the Muslim countries and seeks its legitimacy into religion. It is a social and cultural necessity that involves consequences going beyond the academic commitment.

This work, however, should not stretch the text anymore; if it is true that a translation is necessarily a form of interpretation, it would be better to be aware of the rules and methods of the Koranic sciences that guide us through the complexity of the Koran and the exegetical tradition. Moreover, it is important to remember that the exegesis, such as the translation, can be properly done  only from the original Arabic text, and so a deep knowledge of the “clear” Arabic language used in the Book is a “condicio sine qua non” to understand and comment its meaning. This kind of approach should help to avoid those arbitrary distortions of the text designed to make sure that the Book says what we want to say, at least in another language. The Koran admonish us about this kind of risk:

“…Then do you believe in a part of the Scripture and reject the rest?…”  ( Koran II:85)

This article was edited for Confronti Magazine

Quote as: Marisa Iannucci, Women and writing. The feminist exegesis in Islam, in: Minareti e Dialogo, Confronti Dossier November 2014.

[1] The International conference “ Muslim feminism. A meeting with the Gender Jihad “ organised by Life Onlus and Femminile Maschile Plurale on 3-4 april 2013 in Ravenna. The acts are collected in the book of the same name edited by Fernandel ,2014 and  e.book@women , 2014







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