In this revised edition of her classic and groundbreaking work, Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an
(University of Texas Press, 2019), Asma Barlas
demonstrates how a Muslim believer can fully adopt an antipatriarchal reading of the Qur’anic text while maintaining belief in its Divine Providence. The intervention she makes is thus as useful to those studying the Quran (and scriptural interpretation more broadly) in the western academy as it is to Muslims searching for renewed ways to interpret their Divine Scripture in a more egalitarian spirit.
Barlas cogently argues that just as patriarchy is read into the text, it can also be unread, and provides a methodology by which this can be done. In the process, she critiques both those within her tradition who hold to fixed patriarchal or authoritarian readings of scripture and those outside of her tradition who believe that her efforts are futile. Barlas’s hermeneutic privileges the text without being strictly textualist. That is to say, she is conscious of—and likewise calls her readers to be attuned to—the role played by power in the construction of interpretive knowledge. For example, she argues that even if the Qur’an is emphatic and explicit in affirming that God is genderless, this has not prevented a masculinization and an anthropomorphization of God through certain (male-dominated) theological and spiritual discourses and language.
In our interview, we take a journey through the three parts of her book: (1) Texts, Contexts, and Religious Meaning (2) God, the Prophets, and Fathers and (3) Unreading and Rereading Patriarchy. With deep moral clarity, Asma Barlas aims to recover what Leila Ahmad (1992) has called the ‘stubbornly egalitarian’ voice of Islam by illuminating the polysemic voice of the Qur’an. We additionally discuss the two new chapters in this revised edition of the book: “Abraham’s Sacrifice in the Qur’an: Beyond the Body” which elaborates on the Qur’anic rejection of representations of fathers as surrogates of a divine patriarch; and “Secular/Feminism and the Qur’an” where she engages with—and responds to—her secular and feminist interlocutors/critics on the subject of Qur’anic interpretation. This book is a passionate clarion call to dig deeper into how we receive, understand, and interpret scripture regardless of our faith commitments.
Asad Dandia is a graduate student of Islamic Studies at Columbia University.