The Qur’an Is Blatantly Anti-Patriarchal

This entire post adds commentary to Asma Barlas’ book “Believing Women in Islam”: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an. I highly recommend it.

Your God
Who created you from a single person
Created, of similar nature,
its mate and from them twain
scattered like seeds
countless men and women;–
Reverence God,
through Whom ye demand
your mutual rights
And reverence the wombs that bore you,
for God ever watches over you. (Qur’an 4:1)

The work of Muslim feminists is revivalism rather than reform, because the Qur’an itself is not only egalitarian but decidedly anti-patriarchal, as is Islam as it was practiced by our Prophet, who was in many ways a feminist. Since the Qur’an was revealed to a patriarchy and has been interpreted mostly by adherents of patriarchy since its revelation, it is the readings of the Qur’an and the interpretations by patriarchal Muslims that appear to be oppressive–not the Qur’an itself, whose teachings are neither framed by nor concerned with patriarchy, as proven by its strongly egalitarian essence and emphasis of equality, and in fact are entirely independent of–and even opposed to–patriarchy.

patriarchy: a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is traced through the male line

This, of course, is a dictionary definition–a rather simplistic one without mention the ramifications we know all to well. This is the most basic denotative explanation of the establishment of patriarchy, and it is even this that the Qur’an rejects. In fact, the Qur’an itself describes patriarchy as a danger to monotheism

They take their priests and their anchorites
to be their lords in derogation of God,
and (they take as their Lord) Christ the son of Mary;
yet they were commanded to worship but One God (Qur’an 9:31)

and as an obstruction from Truth.

And thus it is: whenever We sent
a Warner before thee to any people.
The wealthy ones among them
said: “We found our fathers
following a certain religion, and we will
certainly follow
in their footsteps.”
The Warner said: “What!
Even if I brought you better guidance than that
which ye found your fathers following?”
They said: “For us, we deny that ye prophets are sent
on a mission at all.” So We exacted
retribution from them: now see what was the end
of those who rejected Truth.” (Qur’an 43:23–25)

There are several verses like this in the Qur’an; this one summarizes them all beautifully: “whenever We sent” –Indeed! It was true for all the Prophets, particularly for Abraham for Moses and for Muhammad (P), that whenever the Message was delivered those who rejected it did so with the names of their fathers, in the name of patriarchal relations! The tradition of patriarchy prevented them from believing and accepting Truth.

It is extraordinarily intriguing, and no coincidence, that precisely when a society becomes too patriarchal a Revelation is sent from God.

And it is the association of God (shirk–God forgive us)–with masculinity and with patriarchy and with the image of the father and fatherly rights–that is the antithesis of Faith and that for all of history has been the means of resistance to the Divine Truth.

The Qur’an asserts that our Prophet is not a father to us:

Muhammad is not the father
of any of your men,
but (he is) the Messenger of God,
and the Seal of the Prophets:
and God has full knowledge of all things. (Qur’an 33:40)

This verse is not only referring to the Prophet’s adopted son but rejecting the idea that he is the symbolic father of his community. And yet we are allowed to view the wives of the Prophet as the Mothers of Believers,

The Prophet is closer to the believers
than their selves, and
his wives are (as) their mothers. (Qur’an 33:6)

And the word ummah itself, carries umm–which means mother.

I am by no means suggesting that Islam is matriarchal: it is, if anything, egalitarian, but it is no surprise that such a strong inclination to respecting the rights and powers of women is present in the Qur’an to balance the intense patriarchy that existed in the society into which it was revealed, of that it was meant to correct, and by which it continues to be interpreted. Verse 4:1 (cited at the beginning) asserts in the most straightforward manner that the rights of women were given to us by God and are mutual to those of men.

There are verses in the Qur’an that in passing denounce female deities, for God is neither male nor female, and during the time the Qur’an was revealed there were people worshipping female deities–so the specification had purpose. But these are casual references, and nothing like the continuous, repetitive nature of the verses that denounce patriarchy as a system.

Patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an are not only misleading but corrupt, and for those who are trusted with power in their communities and purposely mislead people, the Qur’an has scathing words:

O ye who believe! there are indeed many
among the priests and anchorites,
who in Falsehood devour the substance of men
and hinder (them) from the way of God.
And there are those who bury gold and silver
and spend it not in the way of God.
announce unto them a most grievous penalty– (Qur’an 9:34)

Islam never assigned a clergy. Anyone who claims to be an intermediary between God and the Believers does not have sound judgment (3:78). The power of God displaces the power of fathers, and as patriarchy and following fathers has led people to reject God, patriarchy in itself conflicts with monotheism.

28 thoughts on “The Qur’an Is Blatantly Anti-Patriarchal

  1. Isn’t it? The Qur’an was revealed as poetic oracle and delivered through spoken word–in its written form, I believe this is a closer translation than prose; I prefer translators who translate it in this form. Actually, this is the one I grew up learning from, and it’s always been much clearer to take apart and analyze.


  2. The most significant part of the post according to me is, ‘rights of women were given to us by God’ and are not a favor bestowed upon us by the men in our society. So many men I know think they are doing a huuge favor in granting a woman her rights, as if she didn’t actually deserve them, but he was being generous on his part. Every person needs to learn to understand the Quran on his/her own; only then will the so called ‘intermediaries’ become extinct and people and follow Islam in the sense it was intended to be.


  3. Very interesting Nahida! Thanks for this post.

    The part I liked best is “There are several verses like this in the Qur’an; this one summarizes them all beautifully: “whenever We sent” –Indeed! It was true for all the Prophets, particularly for Abraham for Moses and for Muhammad, that whenever the Message was delivered those who rejected it did so with the names of their fathers, in the name of patriarchal relations! The tradition of patriarchy prevented them from believing and accepting Truth.”

    That is a beautiful thought. I see Torah as deeply patriarchal, but I should also add that I don’t think it is an altered text. The dead sea scrolls and other historical documents show that Torah has not changed much so I don’t know if Moses and his people were *not* patriarchal. I also see Abraham as a patriarchal figure (not in a negative way but as a matter-of-fact way), indeed he is called the patriarch of monotheism. Certainly one can argue that he didn’t bear a child with his wife’s slave or abandon him and his mother on his own accord and that this was ordered to him by God. But if someone did that today wouldn’t we call that patriarchal? This makes me wonder about how we use labels – is ‘patriarchy’ the correct label to use for a time and people who didn’t know or appreciate the meaning of the word/concept? For example, there were (what we call today) matriarchal tribes in Arabia in the Prophet’s time and one can argue that Khadeejah was a matriarch too, but I have never read anywhere in Quran or hadith that such tribes or women were wrong and should be scorned. They were accepted as very normal.

    I really liked the part from your post that I have quoted above. Thank you for this post.

    Just wanted to ask you how do you see, not words, but themes in the Quran like – polygamy, concubinage, share in inheritance and spousal discipline etc (which I mentioned on Facebook)? Some call Islam patriarchal because of these themes in the Quran and the religion. However, I argue in my dissertation that it is unfair to use a label for Islam and/or Quran that was not understood in the 7th Century – anywhere in the world. Do you think I am making sense or is my argument faulty?


    1. Using patriarchal as a label? I don’t know if it’s unfair to use the label; if we can’t use “patriarchal” to describe it I wonder if we can use “feminist” or “egalitarian” to describe the past or past events or Islam itself either. However, I do agree that we can’t apply modern standards of these in our perceptions of them; the themes in the Qur’an (which I read differently anyway; here is an example) are to be understood by their measures, not by our modern standards, and in understanding that we do see it’s not so much patriarchal but even progressive for its time. It’a also unfair because these themes were extracted after centuries of male/patriarchal exegesis: to say that Islam or the Qur’an itself are patriarchal is only to view these interpretations as unbiased and say that men define religion.

      As for Abraham: I think its purely patriarchy itself that views his actions this way. He was also commanded by God to sacrifice his son. And amazingly enough, he told his son this and collected his consent, which shows a very clear acknowledgment that Abraham does not have the right of life or death over his son like the fathers before him have had rule over their children. The will of Abraham as the father is displaced by the will of God, and the trial becomes between Ismael’s consent and God. Abraham could not sacrifice his son without his son’s permission–it was the consent of the son to be sacrificed in the name of God (individual morality) and not the will of his father to dispose of his son however he wishes that contributed to the passing of the trial.


      1. “if we can’t use “patriarchal” to describe it I wonder if we can use “feminist” or “egalitarian” to describe the past or past events or Islam itself either.”

        That is a good point. I remember when I called the Prophet a feminist once someone argued that feminism didn’t exist back in those days and so he couldn’t have been a feminist :) Yet from his actions I feel that many times he did act like one. I think it is very difficult to understand another time and place without using our knowledge from today or terminology that we are used to which is why I’m not sure if my argument makes sense.

        “I think its purely patriarchy itself that views his actions this way.”

        I’m not sure about that. This is where I, as a Muslim, find it difficult to rationalise my thoughts and feelings.

        Thanks Nahida!


  4. Flint

    An odd theological question for you.

    If the Qu’ran was revealed to a patriarchal society for a patriarchal audience, will it still be as relevant if society ceases to be patriarchal? When I say relevant I mean will the context be relevant anymore. For example, many people believe that when artificial wombs are developed it will be very difficult to use reproduction as a means to control the bodies of women. I’m not explaining this very well right now, but it’s likely if we were marsupials this kind of body policing would never have developed in the first place. While I’m sure patriarchy could survive such a blow it wouldn’t be the same again, and after a few thousand years even that programming might no longer be culturally powerful.

    Whether or not you think artificial wombs will lead to female liberation, things change. Egalitarian societies were more widespread before agriculture and were probably the norm for “prehistoric” humans. In a few thousand years this could change again. The space age could lead to largely isolated colonies of humans free to develop along different cultural paths regardless of the religions present there. In any of these circumstances, what happens to the message of the Qu’ran in a matriarchal or egalitarian society?


    1. Do you mean context or content? o.O Context will always be relevant in understanding anything. =P

      I think either will still be relevant, mostly because it harbors so many levels of meaning, and especially if we use the family unit as a basis for estimating how much remains relevant: I’ve seen marriages that are egalitarian but the Qur’an still has just as much relevance and I would think this would be reflected in larger societal changes. While the Qur’an was revealed to a patriarchal society for a patriarchal audience and its purpose was at least partly to make drastic changes in the way they lived, I wouldn’t claim that this was its *sole* purpose–just something to keep in mind in order to come closer to understanding it. And, most importantly, change can’t just happen–it must be sustained. And that’s why it’ll continue to be relevant then.


  5. almostclever

    ” is ‘patriarchy’ the correct label to use for a time and people who didn’t know or appreciate the meaning of the word/concept?”

    Is ‘racist’ the correct term or label to use to describe a people who were slave owners in America who didn’t know or appreciate the meaning of the word/concept?

    Why wouldn’t we use a modern label to depict an obvious historical fact? Unless, that is – we would say slave owners weren’t racist because they were a product of their time and didn’t know any better?


    1. The problem I see is that we are judging a religion and its scriptures according to our standards when we use terms from modern times that have negative connotations. Hamza Yusuf once argued in a lecture that people didn’t celebrate childhood in 7th Century Arabia and there was absolutely no concept of childhood as we know today back in that time. Hence, he said, it was neither wrong nor shocking that the Prophet married a child or allowed 15 year old boys to fight in wars. He argued that therefore the negative labels that modern critics of Islam attach to Prophet are wrong because the concept of not cohabiting with a child is a modern construct. It is a “historical fact” but his argument was is it fair to judge this historical fact through modern tools?

      I think it is more difficult when we take two groups of people who did similar things and attach a label to one while justifying the actions of another.


  6. Pingback: The Qur’an Is Blatantly Anti-Patriarchal (via the fatal feminist) | AntiDogmaSpray

  7. I just wanted to say I find your posts on the inherent egalitarian-ness of Islam as revealed by the Prophet to be very, very interesting, and intellectually engaging. I’ve found myself several times referring people uttering Islamophobic speech to posts you’ve made, as a way of pointing out that their simplistic and prejudiced views on Islam are quite clearly factually wrong. I admire your knowledge and your writing skills very much.


  8. I read this before, but didn’t get a chance to comment. Thanks so much for writing this! I heartily agree that the Prophet (peace be upon him) was a feminist, which is evident in the way he fought against sexist oppression, classism, racism, and other forms of oppression.


  9. Pingback: Global Feminist Link Love: September 19-25

  10. Pingback: Aisha, Imperial Feminism & the U.S Empire – Part One | Ink of the Scholars

  11. Pingback: Aisha, Imperial Feminism & the U.S Empire – Part One – Hakeem Muhammad

  12. Pingback: Epistemic Sexism & The Aisha of the Orientalist Imagination – Hakeem Muhammad

  13. Pingback: Ray Rice’s Violence? Blame the Muslims! – Hakeem Muhammad

  14. Pingback: To begin | Not the rib but the revolution

  15. Pingback: Week Five – Historical Approach | interpretingreligionblogs

  16. I find it interesting that you are mentioning 3:78, right after you misinterpret the historical context of 9:34. Open up your Quran and read 9:28.

    “O you who have believed, indeed the polytheists are unclean, so let them not approach al-Masjid al-haram after this, their [final] year. And if you fear privation, Allah will enrich you from His bounty if He wills. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Wise.” Quran 9:28

    “Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Messenger have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.” (Qur’an 9:29)

    The context is made clearer by Ibn Kathir (The Battles of the Prophet pg. 183

    “Allah, Most High, ordered the believers to prohibit the disbelievers from entering or coming near the sacred Mosque. On that, Quraish thought that this would reduce their profits from trade. Therefore, Allah, Most High, compensated them and ordered them to fight the people of the Book until they embrace Islam or pay the Jizyah.” He then mentions how Muhammad was given 9:29 as a revelation.

    Verse 9:34 is in context of Muhammad damning the Christian clergy for being leaders of a false religion – not for being males, but for being unbelievers as the whole chapter 9 makes clear.

    43:23-25 are also in context of unbelievers who refuse to convert to Islam. The point is that they don’t want to switch because they want to follow the same religion their fathers did.

    But where does it say that it’s because their fathers order them? Do you really believe that people who reject Islam do it because of third dads won’t let them? I’m assuming that you believe that people wouldn’t value their own (non-Islamic) religion – because they truly believe in it, or some other reason. You’re arguing that the verse is anti-patriarchal because it includes the word “father”. Yet, the word is not even referenced as the problem for them not converting to, as you put it, “the truth”.

    Allah does say that Muhammad is not the believer’s father, but he says that his wives are the mothers of Muslims – not you or any other women. This is power being given on basis of favoritism, not on gender.

    4:1 mentions mutual rights, but it does not mean that women have all the rights men have – it means that both share specific rights outlined in the texts. It is clear that a woman should cover herself (24:31), but a man shouldn’t; and there are many more gender specific commands in the Quran and Hadith. So it is clear that women and men don’t share all the same rights.



Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s