THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN brings to the forefront critical issues regarding the identity of the American Muslim community, the position of women in the mosque and the authority to interpret religious texts. This essay specifically addresses the question of Quranic interpretation, which is at the heart of any juristic interpretation. Some of the questions brought forth in the documentary are ones that have been debated among scholars throughout Islamic history. Other questions, however, are a product of the unique circumstances that face the Muslim American community in the twenty-first century. This essay explores the following: Who possesses the authority to interpret the Qur’an? What are the limits of Quranic interpretation? If the Qur’an is universal, then how do its interpretations continue to be relevant for every age and society? When there is a multiplicity of interpretations, how do we determine which interpretation best reflects God’s intention?
Muslims regard the Qur’an as the last divine Speech revealed by God. Unlike previous books sent by God, the Qur’an was not revealed to any specific group of people, culture or religion. It came with a message that is universal and to an audience that comprises all of humanity. The Qur’an does not only address those who believe in it as God’s Word, but also addresses those who disbelieve in it. By addressing Christians and Jews as “People of the Book,” the Qur’an recognizes that there are other religious communities that have previously received divine guidance. Muslims’ identification of Christians and Jews is hinged upon their recognition of the divine truth that was sent to their messengers.
A consistent feature of Quranic interpretation throughout the last fifteen hundred years of Islamic history has been its multiplicity of interpretations. Even the Companions of the Prophet (pbuh), who learned Islam directly from the Prophet, who received divine guidance, understood the Qur’an in different ways. Scholars have made no attempt to limit or restrict the number of interpretations that could exist. Every human being will bring his/her own background to his/her reading of the Qur’an. Muslim or non-Muslim, poor or rich, male or female, child or adult, black or white, every human being will read the Qur’an based upon his or her beliefs, education, conditioning, culture and a variety of other factors. Further, as a message that addresses all of humanity, the Quran allows room for a myriad of readings, as long as they do not conflict the Qur’an’s main principles. It is therefore impossible to impose a single authoritative reading upon the Qur’an without violating the Qur’an’s own description of itself as universal and for all people.
Despite the interpretative pluralism that exists, why have some interpretations of the Qur’an gained greater acceptability or recognition by the community of Muslim believers? If every human being is free to understand the Qur’an as he/she wishes, then what conditions govern the interpretive process so that it does not become an arbitrary and subjective process?
First, an important distinction needs to be made between private or personal interpretations of the Quran and scholarly interpretations of the Quran that become part of the scholarly interpretive or exegetical discourse. While human beings will naturally bring their own understanding to their reading of any text, this does not give them the authority to impose their understanding of the Quran upon the entire Muslim community. Moreover, it does not give them the authority to render their personal interpretation as equal to or just as valid as those interpretations that are governed by standard hermeneutical principles — principles that have characterized the exegetical tradition of the Quran from the onset of Islamic history until the current century. It is one thing for an individual to understand any particular verse of the Quran in a certain way and it is an entirely different matter for an individual to engage the interpretive scholarly discourse, deduce a specific interpretation according to established hermeneutics, put forth this interpretation as one possibility among many, and expect it to be considered with any merit or seriousness by the scholarly community. The difference between the former and the latter boils down to the qualifications of the specific interpreter and the interpretive process he/she follows.
Second, the interpretive process is governed by important principles, on the basis of which the Qur’an then rejects or accepts a single interpretation. Any interpretation that contradicts the main Quranic principles will be rejected. These principles, among others, are:
1) There is a consensus among the scholars throughout the history of the Ummah that interpreting the Qur’an through the Qur’an is the most accepted method of interpretation. This requires a comprehensive reading of the Qur’an in every meaning. The Qur’an criticizes a reading that is decontextualized and selective. As Asma Barlas writes in Believing Women in Islam, the Qur’an emphasizes reading it holistically, hence intratextually, which also emerges from its praise for those who say: We believe in the book; the whole of it is from our Lord” (Quran 3:7).
2) Interpreting the Qur’an through its ultimate objectives. As Taha J. Alwani notes, these objectives are 1) Tawhid or man’s belief in the oneness of God; 2) Purification of man’s soul; and 3) Imran, or the development of human civilization.
3) Understanding the grammatical, syntactical and etymological nuances of the Arabic language. God revealed the Qur’an in the Arabic language for a reason, a reason that is perhaps beyond the grasp of human understanding. As God says in verse 12:2, “We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an, in order that ye may learn wisdom.” This does not mean the Qur’an privileges Arabic-speaking peoples or that it exclusively addresses the Arabic-speaking tribes that existed at the time. Simply, God chose this language to be the tongue of the Qur’an to fulfill His divine plan for humanity.
The Qur’an’s divine language is different than the human language of Arabic. In early Islamic history, Muslims understood that Arabic as a divine language is different than Arabic as a human language. The human language is usually restricted and influenced by the culture, the customs and the regional history and traditions of the Arabs. The language of the Qur’an, on the other hand, is a divine language and not subject to the regional, cultural and historical influences which inevitably impose themselves upon the evolution of human languages. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the most prominent scholars of the Arabic language, who are regarded as founders of the major linguistic sciences, were not Arabs. They established those linguistic sciences based upon the Quranic language, which is divine in its terminology and meaning. There is a complete consensus that a mastery of the Arabic sciences (grammar, lexicology, poetry, etc.) is a necessary requirement for interpreters of the Qur’an — those interpreters who are engaging the scholarly discourse and putting forth their interpretations as one possibility among many others.
Third, the Qur’an, as divine Speech, is the final arbitrator of all interpretations. The Qur’an itself hands down the final verdict on any single interpretation. For Muslims, God’s promise to protect the Quran means that it is immune and unsusceptible to interpretations that violate its essence or explicit meanings. As clear guidance with an unambiguous message, the Quran — through its words — ultimately stands as evidence of interpretations that best reflect its true meaning. The Quran becomes the criterion by which an interpretation is then accepted or rejected. As God says in verse 13:17, “…This way does God set forth the parable of truth and falsehood: for, as far as the scum is concerned, it passes away as [does all] dross; but that which is of benefit to man abides on earth. In this way does God set forth the parables.”
Finally, when it comes to changing an aspect of an established Islamic ritual or arriving at a new interpretation that changes an aspect of an obligatory ritual, such interpretations are governed by strict conditions. When it comes to reinterpreting the conditions in which prayer is to be performed, one must take into consideration: 1) Quranic verses that ordain how, when or where prayer is to be performed, 2) Prophetic sayings or practices that establish how, when or where prayer is to be performed, 3) the objective of prayer based on textual evidence, 4) the historical practice of the first community of believers, and 5) scholarly interpretations.
Prayer is the cornerstone of Islam. Every movement connected to the ritual prayer, the salat, reflects its objectives. As in all the other acts of devotion, salat is not an end in itself. It is about reviving one’s connection to God, reminding one of his/her purpose in life and his/her ultimate destination and instilling peace and tranquility in one’s soul. The specificities of prayer have been explicitly prescribed in the Qur’an and Prophetic tradition. The steps one must take to prepare one’s self for prayer, the purity of the place where one prays, the condition of the clothes one wears for prayer, etc. have all been described by our beloved Prophet (pbuh) — the source of divine guidance. It is not up to any human being to change any aspect of divinely prescribed rituals. It is these divine prescriptions that give Islam its unique identity.
Zainab Alwani received her Ph.D. in Islamic Sciences from the International Islamic University in Malaysia. She is currently the Program Director and an Adjunct Professor of Arabic Language Studies at Northern Virginia Community College. She also teaches Arabic Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and is a professor at a number of consortium institutions including Wesley Theological Seminary, the Washington National Cathedral and Cordoba University.
She is an Executive Member of the Fiqh Council of North America and serves as a board member for both KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights and FAITH: Foundation for Appropriate and Immediate Temporary Help, a community-based organization in Herndon, Virginia.
Dr. Alwani has published many scholarly articles, most notably “Al Ghazali and His Methodology,” “Aisha’s ‘Istidrakat’ Commentaries” and “Methodological Premises: Reclaiming a Lost Legacy.” She is also co-author of several books, including Change From Within: Diverse Perspectives on Domestic Violence in Muslim Communities, What Islam Says about Domestic Violence and Perspectives: Arabic Language and Culture in Film.
Some Reflection on PBS’s The Mosque in Morgantown
by Jamal Badawi
This documentary depicts, mainly, an internal debate within some mosques/Islamic centers in North America concerning the role of Muslim women in their own community centers, including a fair space for worship and other activities, and also their meaningful involvement in the management and leadership of their centers. There are certainly some legitimate concerns and grievances that need to be addressed. For one, I have been speaking and writing about such concerns and issues from the late 1960s on.
But can these grievances be addressed best through fresher interpretation of Islam’s primary sources or through external imported paradigms? Are some of the diverse cultural practices of Muslims inconsistent with normative Islamic teachings? If so, how can we disconnect between normative Islam and anti-Islamic teachings and practices, cultural or otherwise, such as the alleged connection between Islam and indiscriminate violence or “oppression” of women? Or are the problems of violence and women’s oppression rooted in normative Islam itself and as such, it is Islam which requires fundamental re-formation and major deep-rooted changes? Can desired and often legitimate change be effected only through radical revolutionary means and overbearing imposition that may defeat its very objectives? Can failure on that level contribute to a more ambitious goal of “changing the world”?
At the heart of these classical/modern questions is the vital issue of who understands and interprets Islam and how. From one perspective, every Muslim is entitled to understand the broad message of Islam through its universally accepted primary sources, namely the Qur’an and authentic Hadeeth of the Prophet of Islam [peace be upon him]. After all, such revelatory sources are not the monopoly of any individual, institution or generation. Rather, they address believers, and in many instances humanity at large, on these core issues of faith in a direct and unimpeded way. No “rocket science” is needed to understand what the Qur’an teaches about the oneness of God (Allah in Arabic), God’s immutable moral guidance such as “The Golden Rule,” human trusteeship [or stewardship] on earth or human’s accountability for his/her deeds
Does that apply as well to making challenging juridical interpretations of Islamic Law? Is a student who successfully completed “Law 101” qualified enough to give a verdict in a highly controversial constitutional law issue or sit on the Supreme Court? On such level of complexity, we tend to show respect for specialization and require minimum qualifications. A serious question here is this: should that minimum competence be disregarded when it comes to juridical interpretations of Islamic Law.?
Of course, any person is free to agree or disagree with any or all qualified juridical interpretations, to choose one over the other or even reject faith altogether. But is it legitimate, without minimum qualifications and sound juridical reasoning, to make claims about what “Islam says or does not say” based on one’s own whim and to pressure others into accepting his/her “made-to-order” Islam?
Even when qualified jurists interpret primary sources, however similar or different their conclusion may be, they are bound by certain rules and methodologies. In this essay, I have chosen only a few key rules and applied them to a specific, but representative allegation that is made in this documentary (and in other media as well): that it is “explicitly written” in the Qur’an [5:51] that Muslims should not befriend Jews and Christians, with the conclusion that the Qur’an can not be God’s verbatim revelation. There are multiple errors in this common allegation, all rooted in violation of proper universal methodology of interpretation including the following:
1. Dependence on erroneous translations of the Qur’an such as rendering the original Qur’anic Arabic term (Awliyaa’) in 5:51 into “friends.” Awliyaa’ means, among others: overlords, guardians, protectors or allies. A related error is to understand the terms “Jews” and “Christians” as inclusive of all Jews and Christians for all time to come, rather than to only a group of them who engaged in hostilities as explained above and as will be further confirmed in point 4 below.
2. Disregarding the historical and textual contexts of the verse(s). For example, the prohibition of alliance (not friendship) with “Jews and Christians” in 5:51 applies only to those who were mocking at the Muslim faith [5:60-61] and who are “racing each other in sin and aggression” [5:65]. Other verses like 5:51, if studied carefully and contextually, disprove the claimed sweeping generalizations commonly attached to them as stated in the documentary. The same generalization error applies to verses in the Qur’an that sanction Muslims’ right to defend themselves in response to aggression and severe oppression [e.g., 2:190-194 and 9:5]. More detailed analysis of many such battlefield-related verses can be found in my paper “Muslim and Non-Muslim Relations” on IslamOnline.net.
3. Careless and highly opinionated interpretations by those who are not grounded enough in the process of juridical interpretations. Review of traditional interpretations or initiating new ones by a qualified scholar(s) in response to modernity is encouraged through Islam’s internal mechanism of Ijtihaad and its methodology. Any new Ijtihad is subject to scholarly debate as no single authority has the right to impose one uniform interpretation to the exclusion of other legitimate ones. However, such interpretations must be rooted in the primary sources of Islam, consistent with their texts and in line with the supreme objectives of Shari`ah; safeguarding faith, life, mind, family, human dignity, justice and property rights. Neither tampering with the essential and stable aspects of the Law nor elevating a debatable opinion to a permanent edict is in line with serious scholarship. Many Muslim scholars hold the view that friendship with peacefully co-existing peoples of other faith communities is not forbidden.
4. Disregarding other verses in the Qur’an which contradict the “no friendship” claim. A Muslim male who is lawfully married to a Jewish or Christian wife [as sanctioned in 5:5] is required to love her as a wife irrespective of her religion [as in 30:21]. Surely, normative marital relationship is more intimate than “friendship.” More general and profound are verses 8 and 9 in Chapter 60, where it is clearly stated that those (non-Muslim) who refrain from fighting Muslims or drive them out of their homes are entitled to be treated in kindness respect and justice. A detailed analysis of these key but least quoted verses is found in the article cited above. Similar misunderstanding of some verses dealing with women issues can be found at www.jannah.org.
In conclusion, there are considerable problems with the selective and “cut-and-paste” approach to the scriptures, Muslim and otherwise. Avoiding such flaws is the first step in dealing objectively, truthfully and wisely with the many problems facing Muslims everywhere, and maybe others as well.
Dr. Jamal Badawi is Professor Emeritus at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, where he served as Professor of both Management and Religious Studies. During its May 2008 Convocation, Saint Mary’s University granted him an Honorary Doctorate of Civil law in recognition of his promotion of “ a better understanding of Islam” and contribution “to civil society around the world.”
Dr. Badawi completed his undergraduate studies in Cairo, Egypt and his Masters and Ph.D. degrees at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. He is the author of several works on Islam, including books, chapters in books and articles. He is a member of The Islamic Juridical (Fiqh) Council of North America, The European Council of Fatwa and Research and the International Union of Muslim Scholars. He has been serving as a volunteer Imam of the local Muslim community in the Halifax Regional Municipality since 1970.
The Global Islamic Feminist Movement
by Yvonne Haddad
The liberation of Muslim women has for several centuries been on the agenda of Western governments and Christian missionaries. It has been utilized as justification for military campaigns ranging from the nineteenth century Barbary Wars in North Africa to the recent war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. This Western agenda has produced a backlash unleashed by traditionalists and Islamists against Muslim women engaged in liberalizing traditions and customs pertaining to gender relations in Muslim societies. They are accused of being complicit in Western efforts to undermine Islam. Meanwhile, advocacy for women’s rights is increasingly being built into Islam itself, as evidenced by a growing international feminist movement spiritually and intellectually rooted in the faith.
The liberalization of laws governing women’s lives in the Muslim world has been the project of a select group of both Muslim men and women for over a century. Their efforts have increased opportunities in education and employment for women. They have brought about changes in legislation regarding personal status laws that affect the lives of Muslim women in such areas as divorce, polygamy and the legal age for marriage. The greatest changes have been implemented in the two secularist states of Turkey and Tunisia. Their crowning achievement is the election of several Muslim women as head of state: Tansu Ciller in Turkey, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Khalida Zia and Shaikh Hasina in Bangladesh and Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia.
Islamic feminism is the latest phase in the struggle for women’s liberation in the Muslim world. While some have dismissed the term as an oxymoron, it has become the identity of choice for some Muslim scholars and activists both in the United States and overseas. It was coined in the 1990s, in the milieu of the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, whose slogan was “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights.” The conference challenged traditionalists and Islamists who saw a necessity to defend Islamic societies against what they perceived as the renewed Western agenda to undermine Islamic societies after the collapse of the Soviet Empire by promoting such “abominations” as premarital sex, abortion and the gay lifestyle.
Islamic feminism has been applied to the work of a group of scholars in the American academy who seek to address the role of women from within the heritage of Islam. They include Amina Wadud, Riffat Hasan, Amira Sonbol, Asma Barlas and Nimat Hafez Barzangi. They also include the first woman to translate the Qur’an into English, Laleh Bakhtiar. Their efforts fall in contrast to the activism and advocacy of other Muslim women who seek change through recourse to secular ideas as well as those who attack the faith as misogynist at its core. Asra Nomani and Irshad Manji are seen by some as representatives of the former category, Ayan Hirsi Ali and Wafa Sultan as examples of the latter. Instead, the Islamic feminists have sought to reconcile the religion with feminism. They do not question the validity of the Qur’anic text as eternally valid guidance for all humanity, but have reservations about the patriarchal interpretations characteristic of traditional societies.
Their discourse requires a re-examination of the Qur’anic text, which had been the private domain of male scholars. They have scoured the narratives of the life of the Prophet Muhammad for parallels to be promoted as models of liberation. They have challenged Islamic jurisprudence derived from patriarchal readings of the Qur’an, examining legal precedents and court decisions in order to reconstruct history. Some have focused on reinterpreting Qur’anic verses used by traditional scholars to formulate laws that discriminate against women, especially in a marriage context. Their revised interpretations affirm the grounding of women’s rights in the immutable Qur’an, rendering it a divine mandate for humanity, impervious to misogynist attacks. They have dubbed their efforts a “gender jihad.”
These efforts have resulted in the emergence of an attractive feminist lifestyle that is both modern and Islamically validated. It is an alternative to a secular liberal feminism criticized as succumbing to the changing whims and values of a West that has declared war on Islamic cultural values — and an alternative to the constraining dogmatic adherence of Muslims to traditionalism. These feminists believe that Islam as a dynamic and inherently flexible faith calls its believers to reinterpret its teachings to address changing times. They affirm that the Qur’an is the pioneering text; unlike other scriptures it promotes women’s rights. They resolutely refute all allegations that its text defines an Islamic society that favors a patriarchal system privileging men over women.
In the process they have developed a Qur’anically grounded platform of liberation based on a select number of verses. They affirm that the Qur’an clearly states that man and woman were created from one soul. Thus the Qur’an does not sanction the submission of one gender to the other. Others have grounded their feminism in the core teaching of the Qur’an about divine justice and compassion that are the essential characteristics of God and thus incumbent on human beings. God’s justice would not tolerate unjust (and unequal) treatment of women. For others, equality is the essential core of the Islamic faith; it is the essence of tawhid, the oneness of God and the oneness of the umma, the worldwide community of Muslims. Still others ground the equality in the concept of khilafa, God’s commission to humans — both male and female — to be his agents on earth, to nurture creation, to construct a civilization and to bring forth a just society.
While the scholars are producing theological and exegetical reflections on various verses of the Qur’an in order to bolster their claims, globalization and the revolution in communications has made it possible to create activist Islamic feminist networks that collaborate on various projects. These include national organizations such as Sisters in Islam (SIS) in Malaysia and BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights in Nigeria, both of which came into existence in response to the re-Islamization policies of the 1990s that increased segregation in society. Their goal is to provide counterarguments to impede policies that could roll back liberalized legislation that benefited women.
Globalization has also fostered transnational organizations. Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) has focused its energies on the project of reforming the laws of Muslim states in order to make them accord with the “spirit of the Qur’an.” In a London conference they sponsored in 2002 on “Warning Signs of Fundamentalisms,” they discussed the growing tide of religious fundamentalism among Christians, Hindus, Jews and Muslims that were eroding the rights and freedoms of women. They were alarmed that “the Vatican, Syria and Iran have voted consistently on the same side of international forums. They noted that collaboration with other individuals and organizations who share their concerns, whether religious or secular, has proven helpful to their cause. They count among their recent achievements the promulgation of the Moroccan Civil Code, the new draft of the Family Code in Indonesia, and the divorce laws in Egypt.
Several International Islamic Feminist Conferences organized by the Junta Islamica Catalana of Barcelona have brought the various groups together. During their first meeting, participants reaffirmed a Muslim woman’s right to freely access the mosque. These conferences bring together various theoreticians and activists to reflect and strategize; they also energize and spur them on to work to restore what they believe to be the original intent of the message of Islam.
In the post-9/11 environment, ordinary Muslim women have found themselves propelled into the limelight as the representatives of Islam. A growing number of professional women began wearing the hijab (headscarf) and attending mosque functions. Some mosques organized study groups to reflect on Islam in the modern world and how it can be presented to fellow Americans. Several Islamic organizations issued guidelines to their constituents to engage women in their activities. See for example the Islamic Society of North America’s “Women Friendly Mosques and Community Centers: Working Together to Reclaim Our Heritage.” This increased engagement on the grassroots level has built on the advances of the Islamic feminist movement and undoubtedly will inspire further work in years to come.
Yvonne Haddad, Ph.D., is Professor of the History of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Professor Haddad’s fields of expertise include twentieth-century Islam; intellectual, social and political history in the Arab world; and Islam in North America and the West. She is the co-author of Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today.
Tags: Amina Wadud, Amira Sonbol, Asma Barlas, Asra Nomani, Ayan Hirsi Ali, gender and Islam, Interpreting the Quran, Irshad Manji, Islamic Society of North America, Laleh Bakhtiar, Nimat Hafez Barzangi, Riffat Hasan, Wafa Sultan