By Shaykh Dr. Ḥasan al-Shāfi‘ī | Translated and introduced by Sohaib Saeed Al-Azhari
Riffat Hassan was born in the 1940s to a Shi‘ite family in Pakistan; her grandfather was a poet and playwright and the family was known for its creativity and patronage of music and dance. She now holds American nationality and teaches Religious Studies at Louisville University. Her earlier studies were at a Christian missionary school in Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan. Then she went to Durham University in England to receive an Honours degree in English and Philosophy in 1964, then a doctorate in 1968 on the philosophy of Iqbal, maintaining excellence throughout her studies. Before outlining some of her theories as expressed in a number of articles on “feminist theology” (she uses “theology” in its broad Christian sense, not limited to belief; rather, it means all religious thought concerning women), as well as in her three books about Muhammad Iqbal, it may be appropriate to give an account of an influential Pakistani intellectual who preceded her.
Fazlur Rahman Malik
Fazlur Rahman Malik (1919-1988) prepared the ground for Dr. Riffat and those she influenced, even if unwittingly. He received his training from Toshihiko Izutsu at McGill University in Canada, and was perhaps the first to apply the hermeneutical method to the Qur’an. He challenged the traditional definition of the Qur’an in its conception as recited revelation from Archangel to Prophet (peace be upon them). He claimed that there was a subjective aspect to the revelation on the part of its recipient, and that this aspect was what Muslim academic research had thus far failed to appreciate. He was considered a leading authority in Islamic and Qur’anic studies in the West, despite his criticism of many Orientalists.
As for Riffat Hassan: she proceeds from a prior assumption of the low regard for women in traditional Islamic thought, and attempts to explain the Qur’an using hermeneutics from a purely feminist perspective. Thus she attempts to uncover its rulings related to women and restore the Islamic perception of women based on the primary source of the religion, using free thought and removing from the Qur’anic text the effects of aḥādīth (Prophetic statements), which she criticises and eventually rejects on the basis of their conflict with the right of women to absolute equality with men. For example, she refutes the ḥadīth of the “curved rib”, considering this idea to have been taken by Muslims from the Torah rather than the Qur’an. In her feminist theology, she virtually abstains from prophetic ahadith, even though many exhort to proper treatment of women and urge respect for them.
Riffat Hassan has claimed that:
- Religious thought and narrations in the three revealed religions assume that God’s primary creation was man, in that woman came from his rib;
- that woman was created not only from him, but for him; and
- that she is responsible for the descent from Paradise.
It appears that – despite her numerous qualifications in Christian theology – Dr. Hassan is unaware of a fact known to any beginner in Islamic studies: the fact that these three beliefs are foreign to Islam. She exerts great effort at numerous junctures, such as with her strained interpretations of the opening verse of Sūrat al-Nisā’ and her conclusion that “Adam” does not refer to a particular human being, but to the human race. As for the “spouse” (zawj), she claims that as a masculine word it does not refer to the woman. Therefore, there is no primacy in the creation of either gender, and the two origins of the human race are equal.
She continues this painstaking effort – in vain, as the problem is itself fabricated with respect to the Islamic texts – to conclude that the aḥādīth are falsely attributed to a Prophet known to be fair towards women and to recognise their rights. All of this reveals an extremely shallow acquaintance with the Arabic language, and obvious weakness in knowledge of Islamic sciences and religious facts, particularly in the sciences of ḥadīth, tafsīr and uṣūl al-fiqh.
Amina Wadud embraced Islam in 1972, and has long worked hard on feminist interpretation of Islamic texts, based on a complete belief in the absolute equality between men and women. She stayed for a year in Cairo during the 1970s, after receiving her first degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She then completed an MA in Near Eastern Studies and a doctorate in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Michigan in 1988. She worked as assistant professor at the International Islamic University Malaysia from 1989-1992, then professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University until 2008.
Dr. Wadud carries out her activities through her position as a successful university lecturer, and she has received a number of prizes. Her first book, entitled Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, has been translated into many languages. She follows Riffat Hassan’s approach in focusing upon the Qur’an and prophetic narrations, interpreting them from a feminist hermeneutical perspective, whereas other female activists within this movement focus on history and subjecting the entire Islamic enterprise to critique. Also, despite her extreme conception of gender equality, she affirms her commitment to Islam according to the understanding she embraces.
In the aforementioned book, Wadud highlights her dependence upon the Qur’an alone, such that if the Sunnah contradicts her understanding of the former, she rejects the latter. In what she calls her “progressive” understanding of the Qur’an, she rejects its divorce laws and approval of polygyny, considering both to be examples of a mistaken, regressive understanding of Islam and the Qur’an. She calls for a cultural break from these backward interpretations, while referring in her discussions only to one work of tafsīr, namely the Kashshāf of Al-Zamakhsharī, without explaining the reason for her choice.
Wadud’s level of Arabic seems, despite her qualifications, to be comparable to that of Riffat Hassan. She calls for interpreting the Qur’an in a variety of cultural contexts and environments, rather than being restricted to one. Like Dr. Hassan, she re-visits the question of creation and the “zawj” in order to establish complete equality between the two origins of the human race – as well as discussing the concepts of afḍaliyya (preference), qiwāma (guardianship) and nushūz (marital discord) – ignoring, in the process, the requirements of Qur’anic context and linguistic signification.
Dr. Mernissi had a traditional upbringing in Morocco, and studied political science at Mohammed V University and the Sorbonne before travelling to America and attaining a doctorate in sociology from Brandeis University in 1974. Upon her return, she began to lecture in sociology at the Mohammed V University of Rabat and is nowadays a research scholar acclaimed in Western circles in the field of Qur’anic and Islamic studies. In 2003, she was granted an award for her contribution to feminist literature. She has numerous published studies concerning the ḥijāb, Islam and democracy, certain aspects of Islamic history, women and Islam, and other topics.
Before summarising her opinions and contributions to the feminist interpretative movement, I wish to mention two well-known names in the field of hermeneutics in the North African environment. The first is the late Mohammed Arkoun, who went further than Fazlur Rahman in his efforts to “deconstruct” the verses of the Qur’an in search of the “real Qur’an” whose text had, he claimed, become mixed with myths which ought to be separated from it. He called for the light of investigation to be directed at the project of compiling the Qur’an – which was flawed in his opinion – putting aside the supposed historical sanctity and authenticity of its text, so that the original text could be purified of the mythical contents contained in the Muṣḥaf in the hands of the Muslims.
These are the boldest claims to surface against the mutawātir (indisputably narrated) text of the Qur’an throughout the centuries, across the regions of the Muslim world and among all strata of society – scholars and laymen, old and young, women and men – but they were echoed subtly by another Moroccan writer, ‘Abd al-Hādī ‘Abd al-Raḥmān, particularly in his book Sulṭat al-Naṣṣ (“The Authority of Text”).
In his introduction, Professor ‘Abd al-Raḥmān speaks about “historicism” concerning the event of Islam’s emergence, and its content and use. He attempts to specify a methodology to study the Qur’an and other texts based on a break from traditional methodologies, which ought to be replaced by a method of deconstruction and reconstruction, with the standards used to critique the Greek tradition. Responding to an analysis by Mohammed Abed al-Jabri of the famous hadith concerning innovations (“Kullu muḥdathatin bid‘a..”.), he suggests that “bid‘a” is genitive, as is “ḍalāla” in the next phrase. As for the statement “every misguidance is in the Fire”, he claims that this is the predicate – or, in his novel phraseology, the “result”. We must ask what analytical method this is, and what novel grammar this researcher is applying .
‘Abd al-Raḥmān calls people to consider the psychological aspect of the Qur’an – given that the Qur’an is in a human language – and to remove the aura of sanctity from it and employ every methodology “whether linguistic, psychological, historical or dialectical”. He applies the method of “reasons of revelation” to Sūrat al-Nisā’, deconstructing and interpreting, concluding with nothing but doubts cast upon the text, and the charge of wrongdoing against women either by its contents, or via its application by the Prophet ﷺ (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him).
It was in this environment that Dr. Fatema Mernissi’s views developed. Her books presented her bold opinions based on a feminist worldview and using thematic and historical analysis: not only on religious texts, but indeed on the entire Islamic historical experience. In The Veil and the Male Elite, she explores prophetic aḥādīth concerning women in terms of their matn (text) and isnād (chain), with critique based upon the assumption that traditional research is unable to reach the proper position on women and must be corrected. She believes that politics has affected religious texts, particularly aḥādīth, which she discusses under the title: “Sacred Text as a Political Weapon” – this being behind their negative attitude towards females. In the second part, she discusses the first three years of the Madīnan state from a historical angle to prove that the rulings applied to women there, including segregation and ḥijāb, were temporary measures limited to a particular historical context. In the final chapter, she concludes that the oppression faced by the Muslim woman is not due to Islam, the Qur’an or the Sunnah, but rather to the society and male interests.
In Beyond the Veil, she does the same sort of historical analysis, attaching great significance to political considerations and discussing the various hadiths about women. She claims that the narration of Al-Bukhārī from Abū Bakra (ra) concerning female leadership – when news reached the Prophet ﷺ of the Persians appointing a woman as their leader – was nothing more than a weapon in the political stance taken by its narrator, justifying his seclusion from the strife. She accuses the same Companion over the narration of Al-Ḥasan’s (ra) conciliation between the warring parties, accusing him of having a memory that shifts for the sake of convenience: a crude form of ridicule. No less crude are her comments about Abū Hurayra (ra), whose allegedly misogynistic attitude was due to his displeasure at being so nicknamed rather than as “Abū Hirr” (a masculine word). It is by such “academic” standards that aḥādīth are rejected or accepted in the feminist interpretative movement.
Even if Mernissi’s explanation of the historical circumstances behind the “temporary” obligation of ḥijāb in Madīna is accepted, what is she to do – after critiquing the Sunnah – with Qur’anic verses like Al-Ahzab 33:53? The response is the same: historical context, specifically the military threat in the year 5 AH and the burden of many visitors coming to the Prophet’s ﷺ home – all of which brought about the ruling which is comparable in her eyes to the Original Sin in Christianity. Consequently, Mernissi states that the ruling was temporary in nature, in response to a situation that ceased to exist: this is historicism as applied to Qur’anic texts and their meanings and spheres of application.
She also discusses the inheritance rulings in terms of their historical connections, also in a manner not free from ridicule. Her analysis of numerous Qur’anic verses is in terms of cause (historical circumstances) and effect (the revelation), in language that expresses grievances or criticisms against the Companions and the Prophet ﷺ himself concerning any revelation sent down against what Dr. Mernissi considers to be the interests of women.
If the prolific Mernissi was something of a pioneer in this type of historical critique, then Dr. Leila Ahmed has taken on her mantle. She received all her university education from the UK’s Cambridge University and became a professor at the Harvard Divinity School.
She has published a number of books: some about women and others on academic, professional and personal interests, but her primary work is Women and Gender in Islam. In it, she uses a historical method to present the origins of the contemporary struggle between these three elements, as well as detailing the position of woman from the early days of Islam up to its major eras. Then she outlines feminist discourse in the modern period in various Muslim regions including Egypt, and its relation to issues of ḥijāb, divorce, polygyny and so on. She concurs almost completely with Mernissi’s opinions and the evidences she presents, but with a comparative style and attention to cultural influences. As for the “curved rib”, she sees in it the influence of Byzantine culture. She also contrasts African conservatism with Egyptian libertarianism with respect to women. She attacks the term “Jāhiliyya” for its negative effect, while stating that Islam restricted the Arab woman’s sexual freedom. She makes a distinction between – on the one hand – the technical or juristic understanding of prophetic directives, which transforms them into lasting rulings of permission and prohibition, and – on the other – an ethical interpretation that focuses on values and addresses the conscience. She considers the former to be the most serious error into which Islamic orthodoxy has fallen.
Turning to the Qur’an, Dr. Ahmed challenges the Muslims’ belief in the authenticity of its text established by tawātur (successive multiple narration), opining that what is in people’s hands today is different from what was revealed upon the Prophet ﷺ.
I do not know what is behind this enthusiasm, by which she – as an educated Muslim woman – challenges the dearly held beliefs of every Muslim.
In the third and final part:
Towards an Arabic Hermeneutics