This entire post adds commentary to Asma Barlas’ book “Believing Women in Islam”: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an. I highly recommend it.
Who created you from a single person
Created, of similar nature,
its mate and from them twain
scattered like seeds
countless men and women;–
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
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.