Interpreting the Quran

The Quran as the Final Arbiter of Diverse Interpretations

by Zainab Alwani

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.

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Interpreting the Quran

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:

Asra Nomani on Literalism

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

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

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.

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Feminism and Islam

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.

Amina Wadud, right, leads a Friday
prayer service on March 18, 2005

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.

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Response to The Mosque in Morgantown

by Salam Al-Marayati

Thank you for sharing the documentary, THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN. The show was not about that mosque but about Asra Nomani, a journalist. It was about Asra Nomani’s quest for peace and justice among Muslims. After viewing it, I am left with the sense that Asra Nomani’s quest is more within herself and not with her community. She needs to conclude what an American Muslim identity means for her.

MPAC’s Edina Lekovic on social change

Her platform for moderate thinking is deficient since it is only comprised of marching in front of and protesting in mosques. Her mission for reform is better served by working with the men and women in the mosques who share the aspiration for reform in the Muslim community. The desire to pray in a mixed gathering, similar to mixed prayers in Mecca, is understandable from a visceral standpoint but not acceptable from the standpoint of one who wants to lead a reform movement. As Edina Lekovic stated in the documentary, the issue of access to mosques, leadership within the Muslim community, and other social issues facing Muslim women are keys to effective reform.

For me, an American Muslim identity means that I am free to practice Islam the way I understand it and what makes sense to me based on the Quran and the authenticated non-controversial tradition of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). “Let there be no coercion in matters of faith” as the Quran mandates in Surah 2, verse 256. If I see or sense compulsion, I have the right to challenge the authority, even and especially the authority of the mosque if they claim that they are speaking the voice of God. Challenging authority is a great American and Islamic tradition. The schools of thought and jurisprudence we find in classical Islamic law today was the product of those who challenged authority of their time and place. There is one mistake Ms. Nomani makes, however. That is, she confuses authority with the mainstream. If one works for reform, then alienating the people who want reform results in bad feelings and chaos. By imposing her approach on others who share her views, Ms. Nomani is undercutting her own objective and isolating herself to become a lonely voice. I empathize with her pain and suffering from her personal trials and tribulations in dealing with challenges facing Muslim women today.

Asra on Literalism

Ms. Nomani points to certain translations of the Quran but fails to see that those translations are either inaccurate or incomplete in understanding the full context of what the verses are based on or what they are trying to promote. One needs to understand that translations of the Quran are just that, translations and are not always taken as the absolute Quranic reference. The translation that calls for disassociating Jews and Christians as “friends,” for example, is not accepted in mainstream Muslim thinking. That translation is misleading since the Quran also allows marriage to Christians and Jews. It is inconceivable for Muslims to marry people but not act friendly to them. Hence, the translation of “awli’aa” is not friends but actually protectors, which alludes to a particular historical point of Muslims who were under siege and the Quran is admonishing them to maintain solidarity in their defense. The verse is dealing with a specific incident, and unless the incident repeats itself, our takeaway from it is to not allow division among Muslims. Otherwise, the following verse is our orientation toward Christians and Jews:

Verily, those who have attained to faith [in this divine write], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians — all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds — shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve. (2:62)

The verse that deals with “beating” has always been placed under the difficult verses to understand. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) never struck any person. Some have proposed that the verb “dharaba” has other meanings. I’ll let scholars determine the roots and meanings of the word, but my faith in Islam and my commitment to follow the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) tells me to not tolerate domestic violence nor its justification by extremists in their exploitation of this verse (you may refer to our book, In Pursuit of Justice: The Jurisprudence of Human Rights in Islam).

I also believe that Asra Nomani is quick to call people extremists, similar to those extremists who are quick to label people “infidels” as a practice of what is called “takfir,” i.e. declaring someone a non-believer. Judgmentalism is bad from both the moderate and the militant perspective. However, judgmentalism is worse when it comes from moderates than when it comes from militants because we expect this behavior from militants. Speaking out against injustice is a must, as long as we are clear on what that injustice is. Conservatism and extremism are two different issues. Synagogues that don’t allow women to even enter the main area of the temple or touch the Torah are not extremist synagogues. And Asra does not know whether the people who killed Daniel Pearl pray or not. Based on FBI sting cases of bomb plots, for example, some are drug dealers if not drug addicts, and some are thugs if not petty criminals.

I agree with Asra Nomani that many, including Muslims, do not understand what actually happened at the time of the Prophet in terms of mixed gatherings. I would only ask her to continue searching for the answers and not allow people to use the name of the Prophet or Islam as a license for excluding women in the public affairs of society.

But alas, her work with the community is at an impasse, and she has decided to take a position in Washington, DC, at a non-profit journalism organization. If she produces better journalism, then good for all of us. The work for reform at the community level, however, continues with or without Asra Nomani.


Salam Al-Marayati is Executive Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a public service agency working for the civil rights of American Muslims, for the integration of Islam into American pluralism, and for a positive, constructive relationship between American Muslims and their representatives. He is a well-known speaker and has written extensively on Islam, human rights, democracy, Middle East politics, the Balkan Crisis and the Transcaucus conflict. He has also been deeply involved in interfaith activities. He served as co-chair of the Interfaith Coalition to Heal Los Angeles, which formed as a result of the Los Angeles uprising in the Summer of 1992. Salam works as an advisor to political, civic and academic institutions seeking to understand the role of Islam and Muslims in America and throughout the world.

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Interpreting the Quran

Mixed Up in Morgantown: Reclaiming Islamic Diversity

by Sumbul Ali-Karamali

I was deeply impressed to see how painstakingly, as well as how defiantly of our soundbytes-and-snark culture, THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN endeavored to explore the various viewpoints germane to its featured conflict.  For me as an American Muslim woman, the film highlighted both what I myself find most beautiful about my religion and what I am most uncomfortable with about the way it is being practiced in my country.

Watching the film, I found it unsurprising that, in a mosque where so many people from different countries converged to worship, different interpretations and cultures would clash.  A similar situation might arise in a church comprised of Evangelicals, Unitarians, and Catholics, both progressive and conservative, originating from over 30 different countries, all attempting to decree the correct form of worship at the church.  Any similar situation would pose challenges.

However, in the Muslim case at least, diversity of opinion is built into the very structure of the religious law.  Over five hundred schools of Islamic law once flourished in various areas of Islamic civilization, and disagreement between them was acceptable.  Even now, the remaining four main Sunni schools and one main Shi’i school accept each other as valid, whether or not they agree.   Muslims have never had a single authority, like the Pope, to lay down what Islamic law is or isn’t.  Numerous historical examples illustrate long theological debates waged over decades and distance (including those regarding women’s places in society), considering a wealth of factors, including geography, culture, hardship, and context.  These debates were preserved in the historical record even by those jurists who did not agree with them, because they recognized that Islam allowed for various interpretations, freedom of thought, and critical thinking.

How is such diversity possible, if there is only one Qur’an and only one Sunnah (words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad)?  The Qur’an contains both general principles and specific injunctions, and it allows room for interpretation.  Muslims are allowed to ask questions: Is a verse metaphorical or literal?  Was it revealed in response to a particular historical situation?  If the Qur’an mentions a particular practice, does that mean that every other practice is disallowed?  What is the historical, circumstantial, and textual context in which the verse was revealed?  What was the “reason for revelation,” a factor that formed an integral part of the development of Islamic law and understanding?  On all these points jurists could disagree and still be consistent with the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

This was why Islam flowered.  Muslims were not afraid to engage their tradition and respect the opinions and writings of even those with whom they vehemently disagreed.  Muslims were secure enough in their tradition that they could read other juristic interpretations of the Qur’anic text and debate them rather than close off their minds with cries of “No!  That’s haram because I don’t agree with it!”

Asra on Literalism

Yet, the trend I see in the mosques — though not in the general population of American Muslims — is dogmatism.  This is highlighted in the film not only in the way the religious conservatives relegate women to the back door, but also in the way that Asra Nomani aggressively forces her views into the mosque.  The women condemning Nomani claim that it is “God’s law” that they are following — but what is God’s law?  If the religious scholars through the centuries debated the specifics of God’s law when it came to (among other things) women, then who are these modern women to say that their own personal view is God’s law?  Similarly, when Nomani isolates Qur’anic verses from their 7th century historical context and attributes to them the roots of Daniel Pearl’s murder, she engages in the same kind of one-dimensional, thoughtless rhetoric as her opponents.  She is right to want to discuss the status of women in the mosque and in Islam.  She is right to read the Qur’an.  But there is a huge spectrum between religious conservatives (even misogynistic ones) and Daniel Pearl’s murderers; to connect them by calling them all extremists is counterproductive to dialogue.

It is this type of unawareness of diverse valid opinions that is currently causing conflict and isolation within the American Muslim community, most of whose members do not attend mosques.  To illustrate: suppose an Islamic jurist somewhere issues a fatwa (a reasoned legal opinion by a recognized religious jurist), and then suppose imams all over the United States start proclaiming this fatwa as shari’a (“the way of God”).  A fatwa is not binding or enforceable.  Contradictory fatwas may be just as Islamic.  So where are the other possible fatwas on the same issue?  Where is the debate? For an imam to choose one view as “shari’a” and exclude other, equally valid Islamic views, would be presuming he knows God’s will and other scholars do not.  And if I, as a Muslim, disagree with that fatwa but am told that it absolutely amounts to shari’a, might I not be completely disillusioned by what I am told is my religion?

Why then, for example, are some imams dictating that women must pray in separate rooms?  Not all Islamic jurists would agree.  At the Ka’ba itself, men and women pray in the same room. Isn’t it time Muslims again allowed intellectual debates to flourish in a civil manner in mosques and meeting places?  Each group in the film had trouble listening to its opponents.  Each side insulted the other by saying, “I’ll pray for you,” as if they were doomed otherwise.

Throughout history, when Muslim shaikhs conducted religious classes, some required women to sit in the back, some in the front, and some on the side.  All forms were acceptable; one could choose which to attend.  Today, if we Muslims cannot practice together or reconcile varying interpretations in the same mosque, then perhaps we need to form separate mosques to accommodate our different interpretations.  But whatever we decide, we must dispense with dogmatism and reclaim our Islamic heritage of respect, dialogue, and diversity of interpretation.


Sumbul Ali-Karamali has a graduate degree in Islamic Law and is the author of The Muslim Next Door: the Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing (White Cloud Press, Sept. 2008). Please visit her website at

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Interpreting the Quran

The Quran and Wife Beating

by Laleh Bakhtiar

As a follower of “the middle community” of Islam (Quran 2:143), I thought the film THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN gave a fair and just picture of what many mosques across America are facing today.  That is, a narrow, exclusive agenda that coerces those who follow the faith to adhere to their one imported view of Islam with rarely an opportunity for dialogue or discussion.  Not only is this the case with those who attend the mosques, but also in regard to the interpretation of the Quran.

While the debate over whether the Quranic Word of God is eternal or created has continued on and off since the 8th century CE, Muslims throughout the centuries have agreed that it is only the Arabic of the Quran that is considered to be the unchanged Word of God.  The English, or any other translation, is only an interpretation to help non-Arabic speakers develop an understanding of the meaning.  If there are verses that one cannot accept on face value, one has to study the Arabic and critique interpretations from the view of the Arabic and not a translation.

Yusuf Estes on Quran 4:34

This brings me to the translation I did entitled The Sublime Quran.  I could not accept that 4:34 allowed husbands to beat their wives (or “give them a crack,” as Yusuf Estes said in the film, “with a yardstick”!).

In the Introduction to the Sublime Quran I give irrefutable arguments from the Quran itself as to why the word idrib has been misinterpreted when it is said to mean “beat them (f),” that is, husbands being commanded to beat wives when the wives are nushuz (the meaning of which I discuss below).  Islam prides itself on promoting marriage and discouraging divorce.  When we reflect on the misinterpretation of 4:34 along with 2:231, we see in that in 2:231 husbands who divorce their wives, must do so honorably.  They cannot harm or commit aggression against their wives.  The conclusion: a Muslim woman who is to be divorced cannot be harmed but a Muslim woman who wants to stay married, does so under the threat of being beaten!!!  Does this promote marriage and discourage divorce?  No.  It creates a contradiction that is not in the Quran but is man made.

In addition, three other words are used in the Quran to mean “to strike” or “to beat” a person.  Therefore, the word idrib does not necessarily mean “to beat, strike, harm, crack or spank.”  One has to look at other meanings that the word may have rather than deciding on a meaning that goes against the legal and moral principles of the Quran.

We Muslims are proud to say that the Prophet never beat anyone, much less his wives.  What we forget is that the word idrib is a command in the Quran, an imperative form of the verb. Therefore, the Prophet did not obey the command of God if the word means “to beat” when some of his wives did exhibit “nushuz” behavior.  However, he did carry out the command of God and did not beat anyone as well.  When there were issues between husband and wife, he “went away.”  It is interesting that the word idrib also means “to go away.”  Therefore, by interpreting the verse to say: “Husbands who fear resistance on the part of their wives, first admonish them, then abandon their sleeping places then go away from them (f) (or leave them (f)),” we follow the behavior of the Prophet as well as the fairest of sayings of the Quran as Muslims are asked to do.  (Sublime Quran 39:17-18)

Jurists say that the word “nushuz” in 4:34 (that I translate as “resistance”) actually means women who disobey their husbands.  What they fail to point out is that in 4:128, the Quran uses the exact same word in regard to husbands.  It says: “Women who fear resistance (nushuz) on the part of their husbands. . .!!!”  If someone wants to interpret nushuz in 4:34 as referring to “disobedient wives” or “wives of ill-conduct” then 4:128 referring to husbands has to be “disobedient husbands” or “husbands of ill-conduct.”

Finally, in 16:126 of the Quran, one is commanded to chastise with the same chastisement that person has been given.  If Muslim husbands persist in beating their wives, they will leave themselves open to being given the same treatment as that which they handed out according to the Quran.  The Prophet knew this and did not want his community to go in this direction so he understood the word idrib to mean: “to go away,” let the anger subside and then return to a consultation with one’s wife.

The misinterpretation of idrib in 4:34 has denied women at least two rights given to them in the Quran.  The first is in 2:231 where a wife who is to be divorced cannot be harmed.  The second right that she is denied is in 24:6-9 where if a husband accuses his wife of anything and he is the only witness, she has a right to defend herself from any kind of chastisement by swearing an oath four times that her husband is the one who lies and a fifth oath that the anger of God be upon her if her husband has been among the ones who are sincere.  In a domestic situation, husbands, acting as judge and jury because of the misinterpretation of 4:34, beat their wives before the wife has an opportunity to take advantage of the right she has been given in 24:6-9 to defend herself.

The issue of 4:34 is just one of the issues faced by the Muslim community. It should be noted that many Muslim men agree that this verse has been misinterpreted.  The tragedy for the Muslim world is that there are also many Muslim women who believe that women should be beaten!!!  Therefore this is not a gender issue, but a human rights issue and as long as our mosques in the United States are run by extremists, there will be continue to be confrontation, not only between Muslim men and women, but between Muslim extremists and those of “the middle community” as well.  It is excellent, fair and unbiased films like THE MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN that will bring conversations out into the open.  Let us hope that those of us who engage in conversation are able to do so with love and respect for those with views opposing our own view.


Laleh Bakhtiar has a BA in History from Chatham College, Pittsburgh, PA; an MA in Philosophy; an MA in Counseling Psychology; a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology; and is also a Nationally Certified Counselor and Licensed Professional Psychotherapist in the State of Illinois. She is co-author of A Sense of Unity: The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture (University of Chicago Press) and author of SUFI Expressions of the Mystic Quest (Thames and Hudson), three volumes of God’s Will Be Done on Moral Healing and some 15 other books on various aspects of Islam. Through her works on psychology she has become the leading authority on the Sufi origins of the Enneagram. She has also translated over 30 books on Islam and the Islamic movement into English. She is the first American woman to translate the Quran.

She has traveled around the world three times giving lectures on topics on the right of Muslim women. She is an expert in the psychology of spiritual chivalry (futuwwa, javanmardi). She directs her work towards Muslim women and youth who, once they learn of this model of spiritual chivalry become more positive oriented towards their faith and family. She is presently Director of the Institute of Traditional Psychology and In-House Scholar at Kazi Publications. She taught Islam at the University of Chicago. She has a computer based training program on the internet at

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