On Interpreting the Qur’an and Subjectivity

As someone who has studied Arabic for a couple of years, compelled primarily by a desire to understand the Qur’an, and who remembers the frustration of not being able to understand it (and is aware of it still, because I have not mastered the language) I’m heartbroken when religious people—particularly women—dismiss their own interpretations on the basis that they are not familiar with the language, essentially surrendering the task to patriarchal scholars. Throughout Islamic history there have been an incredible number of female scholars, and it’s no accident that the numbers have dwindled to nothing as soon as self-appointed male gatekeepers were established. For women, acquiring an Islamic education has been deliberately made exceptionally difficult: most classes are segregated by sex, and to travel to other countries and enroll in Islamic schools the schools often require that the women are accompanied by a guardian. (Never mind that after the Prophet’s death women—the Prophet’s own wives—continued to live as they pleased without a “guardian.”) To exacerbate matters, a woman with egalitarian inclinations and interpretations will not be rewarded the respect of a scholar—indeed, if she disagrees, she will be stripped of integrity regardless of how strong and sound her arguments were (see: Amina Wadud) on the presumption that she cannot be impartial if she harbors a particular interest in a specific demographic, in this instance, women.

Male scholars will deny that their own misogynist interpretations are the product of any bias, which I find to be the height of utmost arrogance. Those in “grayer” gradations of misogyny (who, for example, prevent women from leading prayers but agree that domestic violence has incorrectly been made permissible by a misinterpreted verse) refuse to acknowledge the stark reality that if they admit these scholars are induced by bias, so are they themselves subject to the same biases–we can not accept “gradations”; misogyny is all the same. And we value ourselves as human beings far too much to allow it.

Patriarchy has infected Quranic interpretation to intolerable degrees. Most Muslims will be fast to point out that in Islam, God is neither male nor female, yet continue to masculinize God linguistically, and not innocently. If God is indeed not male, as Muslims claim, how do so many scholars justify using that basis to replicate a divine order on Earth in which the father rules—the patriarchy? Several scholars, including Tabrisi, who ordered women to bow before their husbands, drew parallels between God’s rule over men to men’s rule over women through attributing maleness to God and thus committing shirk. Husbands have been positioned higher than fathers, rendering ingratitude toward husbands as ingratitude toward God (Ashraf Ali Thanawi). Yet every Muslim would vigorously assert that God is neither male nor female while simultaneously insisting patriarchy is a recreation of Divine Order. Thus the premise is still present, if unspoken and violently denied. If they indeed reject the premise, they must admit they have failed to apply to the legal and social spheres the true order dictated in the moral sphere.

And the symptoms of these failures are evident everywhere. The word idribuhunna in verse 4:34, which is infamously translated as “to beat” thus authorizing men to beat their wives, is a derivative of daraba, which means “to leave” or “to go away” and which the Qur’an uses 17 different ways in different verses. The fact is that male scholars have chosen the worst meaning, blatantly violating the Qur’anic demand to follow the best:

Those who listen to the Word
and follow the best meaning in it;
those are the ones whom God has guided,
and those are the ones endued
with understanding. (Qur’an 39:18)

This was not observed, and that proves interpreting the Qur’an has less to do with accuracy or language and everything to do with sexual politics. And preventing women from interpreting the Qur’an, by instituting the prerequisite that they must know Arabic, and then making it impossible to pursue that education, is a deliberate attempt to keep women out of the self-appointed Ulema, so that we may be adequately policed by men.

If scholars, who know the Arabic language efficiently, arrive at incorrect conclusions, and continue to insist that “alternative” readings are not legitimate, they are not only denying that the Prophet’s companions differed extensively in their understandings of Quranic verses, but they are trapping themselves when it is revealed and widely accepted (as verse 4:34 is now beginning to be accepted) that for centuries they have been misinterpreting this verse, and that a long line of male scholars who deny women the practicality required to seek an education are reading their own male privilege and debauchery into the Qur’an—and deliberately so. If this were not true, the Qur’an would not differentiate between worse and better meanings in it, or acknowledge that some will interpret better than others according to their own morals and sense of impartiality. It is easy to insist that the Ummah will not agree on error while suppressing half the Ummah.

Male scholars must admit that they are politically motivated, culturally situated, economically invested, and sexually oppressive. They’re subject to the same biases as the rest of us mere mortals, who live in the context of culture and history. And if not, they will be forced to admit it as the truth comes to light and their lies unravel.

And these lies will unravel. The Qur’an has promised it. (17:81: Falsehood by its nature is bound to perish.) But when men are proven wrong, they exclaim that they had been correct in asserting that the Qur’an was not sexist all along (and thus we never needed feminism!) scrambling to cover how this betrays they were aware that their own interpretations were misogynist (if they suddenly are relieved by the soundness of egalitarian interpretation and acknowledge it as valid) and to deny women any due credit. As I wrote to Chally, “From the Muslim community one of the most common responses is that Islam does not ‘need’ feminist exegesis, because the Qur’an itself liberates women on its own. This is an age-old patriarchal strategy: men who are sexist bigots are unwilling to credit women with any hard-earned, rightful entitlement when we have secured our God-given rights. They will claim instead that (fine!) women deserve these rights, but not because of feminism, but instead because of the institutions created by men. While Islam is from God, men exploit the perception that religion is a patriarchal institution to pull the credit back toward themselves when women are victorious, allowing them to state that it is not feminist exegesis that liberated women but that it was their own patriarchal process by which sound exegesis is validated.” And other feminists, succumbing to the suggestion that religion is inherently patriarchal, aggravate the process of reclamation for religious feminists.

Misogynist readings of the Qur’an are invalid at such a fundamental level that it is astounding they’ve survived. Verse 6:82 reads,

It is those who believe
and confuse not their belief with zulm,
for them (only) there is security
and they are the guided. (Qur’an 6:82)

Divine justice maintains that zulm (wrong, or encroaching on rights) is never committed. If God is impartial and never unjustifiably encroaches on the rights of any being, God is therefore not misogynist, then it follows that the word of God cannot be misogynist. If one arrives at a misogynist interpretation, it is by virtue incorrect.

Yet scholars have insisted that not only are these injustices divinely founded—which entirely contradicts every verse of the Qur’an—they deliberately seek unjust interpretations. In Yusuf Ali’s translation of the Qur’an, a line in verse 4:43 that reads that men are the qawwamun ‘ala (financial maintainers and protectors of justice) of women, the meaning of the word is modified when translated via the rest of the verse referencing physical strength as the degree to which men are advantaged–when in fact qawwamun ‘ala is strictly to accommodate the socially constructed financial disadvantage of most women compared to most men; thus by alluding to physical strength Yusuf Ali makes a biological claim to justify men’s responsibilities toward women, and entirely alters the message of the Qur’an.

These examples—idribuhunna, qawwamun–are just some of the corrections that are reviving the Qur’an’s original message, and it’s only the beginning of what men have come to misconstrue over time. Consider this hadith,

“Woman has been created from a rib and in no way will be straight for you; so if you enjoy her you will do so while crookedness remains in her; but if you try to straighten her you will break her; breaking her being divorcing her.” (Sahih Muslim)

As we already know the Qur’an says nothing about woman being created from man’s rib, and in fact states that men and women were created from a single nafs (feminine)—but even with this aberration of a claim (that woman was created from man’s rib), the hadith retains some truthfulness and warns not to “straighten” her for you (addressing men). Indeed, it insists a man should divorce his wife before he attempts to ever change or “break” her!

But a variation of this hadith does not fully maintain this egalitarian message:

“I command you to treat women kindly. Woman has been created from a rib (the rib is crooked), and the most crooked part of the rib is the upper region. If you try to make it straight you will break it, and if you leave it as it is, it will remain curved. So treat women kindly.” (Al-Bukhari 7:189)

The “for you” (straight according to your own standards, not hers) acknowledging subjectivity is lost, and we are left with (objective) straightness and crookedness. Absurdly, the hadith points out that “the most crooked part of the rib is the upper region” as though faulting women’s heads. Though the message is still “treat them kindly” extreme differences in nature have been forged, and women are described as fragile (to easily break) and crooked, all contrary to this verse in the Qur’an which emphasizes similarities in nature,

Your God
Who created you from a single Self (Nafs)
Created, of similar nature,
its mate (zauj) and from them twain
scattered like seeds
countless men and women;–
Reverence God,
through Whom ye demand
your mutual rights. (Qur’an 4:1)

Men’s biases and their political interests, and the manner in which words can be manipulated to reflect the agenda of the interpreter, are evident in these countless variations, and thus to be truly intellectually honest, as I stated before, male scholars must admit that they are politically motivated, culturally situated, economically invested, and sexually oppressive. They must admit that they have deliberately erected a system in which women are barred from becoming educated, which is directly against the Qur’an, and they have created a monopoly on interpretation. The Qur’an does not say only men can interpret it. It does not say only scholars can interpret it. And, in fact, most believers—including the Prophet himself—were not literate. The Qur’an is the Word of God, not the language of God.

Therefore to translate the Qur’an, one must understand Arabic, but interpreting the Qur’an, with a good translation, intera- and extratextually, does not require literacy. And the one who is most literate, as demonstrated, is not guaranteed to be correct, and is even destructive, privileging anti-women interpretations of centuries, twisted by the bias he fearfully and defensively projects onto feminists in the interests of perserving his power.

14 thoughts on “On Interpreting the Qur’an and Subjectivity

  1. Salâm Nahida:o)

    Excellent post. There are some details I couldn’t help notice, among others your thoughts on God as a “male.” Truth be told, you probably have a much better insight in how that is being expressed in the tradition of keeping men superior to women, but still. In your example on how women should “bow” for their husbands (or men in general) you don’t make it clear how that is expressed. Is it expressed in argumentations stating that since God is expressed by using male forms, then this show that women are subject to men, or is the example “merely” expressed in forms like “since man is subject to God, so is woman subject to man”?

    I can’t help to feel too, that you’re generalizing a little too much, but since I don’t know how widespread this issue is within the whole tradition, I cannot react to it (more than already done).

    Anyway, as I wrote, excellent and very interesting post. I did take myself the liberty to share it on my Facebook:o)

    All the best



    1. WaSalaam Shmuel,

      Thank you! The scholar in question argued that because men bow to God, women should thus bow to men because men are a degree superior and thus closer (taken from his interpretation of verse 4:34); he was attributing maleness to God while simultaneously asserting that God is neither male nor female and is beyond gender.


  2. encyclocrat

    Greetings, is it not slightly disconcerting that in your post that sweeping generalizations are made against male scholars a whole?

    The community is a relatively large one and there is no monolithic bloc that holds to these values that you state are sexist consistently.

    That is not to say there is not misogyny within the nebulous community of which you speak of, that however exists within all communities however.

    Thank you for time.


    1. Mmm, no. It is not disconcerting.

      I’ve mentioned gradations of sexism. That was generous. I don’t care if it exists in all communities–is this an excuse?–I don’t want it in mine, within those who are expected to be the most educated of all people. This is a systematic issue. If anyone is offended by this article (rather than recognizing it foremost as a systematic issue) he needs to check his male privilege. If he is offended, it’s likely I’m speaking of him. How much clearer does misogyny need to be before it’s urgent enough that I don’t have to tiptoe?


    2. Fatima

      sweeping generalizations are made against male scholars a whole? The community is a relatively large one and there is no monolithic bloc that holds to these values that you state are sexist consistently.

      Really? How many of them think women can lead mixed congregations?


      1. encyclocrat


        I do not know how many scholars believe that for I have never seen an in depth study on that research. Do you have any sort of statistical data pertaining to the issue from which to make an accurate assessment?

        Thank you for your time.


  3. Great post, Nahida =) It annoys me that people are more focused on the fact if an article is “balanced” enough than on actually doing something to change the injustice!


  4. Susan

    Salaam Nahida.
    A long time lurker but just wanted to say that was an amazing post. In fact, your entire blog is amazing, I feel so inspired. Not a Muslim myself, I do read the Quran and read a Surah tonight actually, after reading this. Bless.


  5. Ibtisam

    Once again, you’ve managed to say exactly what I feel but have been unable to articulate as well as you did. Thank you! I’ll so be sharing this with my students ;)


  6. Pingback: More on converts and hijab in the ’80′s « A Sober Second Look

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