Two weeks ago, I had the honour to host a webinar for Musawah titled ‘A Feminist Quest for Qur’anic Justice, Beauty and Spiritual Care,’ featuring Asma Lamrabet, Omaima Abou-Bakr and Mulki Al-Sharmani.
As we embark on the last 10 holy days of Ramadan, let’s reflect on some of the insights shared during this illuminating conversation and open our hearts to the unexpected beauties of the Qur’an that heighten our awareness of God, the most merciful of the merciful ones.
Allah says in Surah 47, verse 24: أَفَلَا يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْآنَ أَمْ عَلَىٰ قُلُوبٍ أَقْفَالُهَا * “Then do they not reflect upon the Qur’an, or are there locks upon [their] hearts?” This verse, and many others, gives us the keys to unlock our hearts and to reflect upon God’s words. To unearth the ethical meanings of these ayat, these divine signs, we need to seek knowledge, be it in the sacred texts, in the universe, and in ourselves. Allah says in Surat 41, verse 53 سَنُرِيهِمْ آيَاتِنَا فِي الْآفَاقِ وَفِي أَنفُسِهِمْ * “We will show them Our signs in the horizons and within themselves.”
These last 10 days of Ramadan, we remember the revelation of the first Qur’anic verses. This was an event that profoundly shattered and shook the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and led him to seek refuge in the arms of his wife Khadija, asking her to cover him (zammilini). His reaction reminds us of human vulnerability against the weight, depth, and vastness of the divine word.
Nonetheless, over the centuries, our human arrogance has led us to believe that the Qur’an was crystal clear and its interpretation a sign-posted route. For many of us, reading the Qur’an has become a routine. We repeat the verses, like some divine lyrics, carried away without self-reflection, asleep at the wheel. For others, and, in particular, those who are marginalised in our Muslim communities, the experience of engaging with the dominant interpretations of the Qur’anic verses is discomforting and creates many doubts and frustration. Indeed, how can we spiritually connect with the holy text when it’s altered by the filter of privileged human lenses, and predominantly male lenses at that? Yet, why do you need to use lenses other than yours to ponder over God’s signs? Allah says in Surah 55, verses 1-4, الرَّحْمَنُ* عَلَّمَ الْقُرْآنَ* خَلَقَ الْإِنْسَانَ* عَلَّمَهُ الْبَيَانَ“ The Merciful, taught the Qur’an, created humans, and taught them discernment.”
In his book, “The Search for Beauty”, Khaled Abou El Fadl takes us on an intimate journey between the believer, the reader, and the presence of the Divine in the Qur’an:
What Khaled Abou El Fadl describes, with great passion and poetry, is the process of tadabbur, deep reflection and engagement with the Qur’anic text. For our webinar speakers, it is a right and duty to seek that direct experience with the Qur’an. This is especially so for women who need to bring that quest for justice, beauty, and egalitarianism to the heart of their interpretive effort.
Asma Lamrabet, Mulki Al Sharmani, and Omaima Abou Bakr are taking part in Musawah’s new knowledge building research initiative on egalitarian ethics and jurisprudence of Muslim marriages. As part of this initiative, they are developing a new, holistic, ethically oriented reading of the Qur’anic verses related to marriage.
Their interpretive journey starts from a faith-based position, one that believes that the Qur’an is divine, meaningful, and relevant to us. This long-winded quest for knowledge is in fact an amanah (trust) with which God has entrusted all believers. It’s also a multidimensional intellectual quest that is critically engaging with the Islamic interpretive tradition (tafsir), challenging its patriarchal assumptions and reconnecting with the ethical worldview of the Qur’an. Finally, this effort is part of a larger quest alongside other Muslim scholars and activists where we engage with several genres of the Muslim interpretive tradition such as the Sunnah, usul-al-fiqh, fiqh, Sufism, socio-historical and legal Islamic studies, and the lived realities of Muslims from different life trajectories and contexts.
In critically engaging with the exegetical tradition, the speakers denoted the lack of a consistent, comprehensive, ethical outlook on the Quran that would govern the interpretations of all surahs and verses. There is not enough emphasis in the tafsir literature on what is the divine intent and edification behind each of the verses. They also deplored the fact that most of the exegetes failed in connecting their interpretations to the Qur’anic ontological equality of all human beings. This is part of a larger Islamic feminist critique that is reclaiming the revolutionary power of the Qur’anic verses that call for equality and justice for all.
In addressing these gaps, Mulki, Omaima, and Asma are developing a new holistic reading that seeks to uncover the ethical worldview of the Qur’an and its significance for shaping norms on Muslim marriages. This new methodology aims to apply holistically a thematic, linguistic, intra-textual, historical, and ethically oriented reading to the Qur’anic verses. To give a taste of their work-in-progress, Asma provided one example of how this methodology can be applied to the first verse of Surah An-Nisa. With an ethically oriented reading of this verse, the ontological equality between all human beings, encapsulated in the concept of “naf al wahida,” becomes the heart of the message.
The Qur’an holds different names that reflect its multiple dimensions. The Qur’an is, for example, called nur (light), huda (guidance), tanzil (sent down, with movement) and dhikr (reminder); a text that is both a source of guidance, of healing, but also calling for reflection and conversation.
Through the Qur’an, God speaks directly to us. The Qur’an cultivates a sense of intimacy and reciprocity between the believers and God. It acknowledges our human weakness, vulnerability, fear, and anxiety. In a way, Allah tells us that it’s okay to feel pain, to have doubts and fears. But at the same time, God gives us the path for healing, one that seeks refuge in the remembrance of the presence of the divine. Omaima Abou Bakr offered a beautiful reflection on the verse 94:1 * أَلَمْ نَشْرَحْ لَكَ صَدْرَكَ * “Did We not expand for you, [O Muhammad], your breast?”. When you are depressed, anxious, afraid, you feel constricted in your chest you may seek that kind of expansion that eases and lifts your hardship.
This year we are experiencing a very special Ramadhan. The global health crisis is reminding us of how fragile life can be while at the same time making us increasingly aware of the existing structural inequalities and injustices. For the speakers, this crisis is itself an ayah, a sign that one needs to ponder over. It’s a divine reminder that challenges our human arrogance towards nature and pushes us to reflect on the many abuses we’ve been inflicting on our ecosystems. The Qur’an warns us against breaking the harmony of the creation, between nature and all living beings. In Surah 26, verse 152, Allah calls this a fassad (corruption):”Who cause corruption in the land and do not amend.”
How do we lean towards this ethical behaviour that lives in harmony with nature, with the earth and the universe? We must start by acknowledging and celebrating the diversity of this nature, a diversity that is reflected in humankind. The Qur’an affirms both that we are coming from one single origin (we created you from one soul) and that we have different paths (we created you peoples and tribes).
In these difficult times, it’s important to remind ourselves of the Qur’an’s reform trajectory, focusing on those who are oppressed. We are constantly reminded of our blind spots, عَبَسَ وَتَوَلَّىٰ* you frowned and turned away* (81:1), and reassured that God is listening to us, that God is with the rebelling voices of the oppressed, قَدْ سَمِعَ اللَّهُ قَوْلَ الَّتِي تُجَادِلُكَ * “God has indeed heard the utterance of she who argues with you …” (58:1)
This webinar, through the interventions of the speakers and the questions raised by the participants, opened several ethical and political questions for Muslims. It pushed us to reflect on the extent to which we are blinded by our privileges and unreceptive to the oppressed and marginalised groups among us, and hence unreceptive to the Qur’anic ethical injunction to stand for justice. Finally, our relationship and engagement with the Qur’an is one that needs constant nurturing, leads to endless discoveries, unearths challenging questions and deep self-reflection, and reminds us of our collective responsibility to preserve harmony and justice on earth.
~ Sarah Marsso, Musawah’s Knowledge Building Coordinator
For full access to this conversation on Qur’anic justice, beauty and spiritual care, you may watch the recording of the webinar HERE.
If you are interested in accessing some of the resources mentioned during the webinar, please find below some useful links:
PODCAST: Reading the Qur’an for Ourselves: A Feminist Journey (2019) https://www.musawah.org/blog/reading-the-quran-for-ourselves-a-feminist-journey/
‘Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition’? https://www.musawah.org/knowledge-building/qiwamah-wilayah/
amina wadud: ‘ Islam Beyond Patriarchy Through Gender Inclusive Qur’anic Analysis’ in Wanted: Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family” ( 2009, edited by Zainah Anwar and published by Sisters in Islam): http://arabic.musawah.org/sites/default/files/Wanted-AW-EN.pdf
Omaima and Mulki’s work on the divorce in the Qur’an, and the contribution of many other women scholars to both Sunni and Shi’i Islamic Interpretive, link to edited volume coming out in August 2020 titled Islamic Interpretive Tradition and Gender Justice: Processes of Canonization, Subversion and Change edited by Nevin Reda and Yasmin Amin: https://www.amazon.com/Islamic-Interpretive-Tradition-Gender-Justice/dp/0228001625
Omaima’s edited volume on Feminism and Islamic Perspectives New Horizons of Knowledge and Reform (2013, English and Arabic Publications). Includes studies by the Egyptian Amany Saleh, and other women scholars (Arabic and English publications). http://www.wmf.org.eg/en/publication/feminist-and-islamic-perspectives-new-horizons-of-knowledge-and-reform/
Asma Lamrabet: Women and Men in the Qur’an: https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783319787404
Nevin Reda: Interview on the Qur’an, its structure, al-Baqhara, and 4:34: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2t3dGOcnYA&feature=youtu.be
Asma Barlas: “Does the Qur’an Support Gender Equality, or, Do I have the Autonomy to Answer this Question?” in Marjo Buitelaar and Monique Bernards (eds.), Islam and Autonomy, (Leuven, the Netherlands: Peeters, 2013).
On Fatema Mernissi, read Musawah’s tribute Honouring A Fierce Feminist Foremother: http://arabic.musawah.org/sites/default/files/MusawahVision20EN.pdf
Abou El Fadl, Khaled. 2005. The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books. Rowman & Littlefield: pp. 14.
Shadaab Rahemtulla: Qur’an of the Oppressed: Liberation Theology and Gender Justice in Islam (2017, Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs). Interview: https://newbooksnetwork.com/shadaab-rahemtullah-quran-of-the-oppressed-liberation-theology-and-gender-justice-in-islam-oxford-up-2017/?fbclid=IwAR39EBhVFxU8s6M4bJY7UC0iSikoIn1U-8mK9CQuGLlYc5VB730Mi1LrGeo
On Surah An-Nisa 4:34:
Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition’ https://www.musawah.org/knowledge-building/qiwamah-wilayah/
Zainah Anwar and Ziba Mir-Hosseini in Decoding the “DNA of Patriarchy” in Muslim family laws (2012): https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/5050/decoding-dna-of-patriarchy-in-muslim-family-laws/
Kecia Ali on 4:34: https://www.brandeis.edu/projects/fse/muslim/diff-verse.html
There is a synthesis of Musawah’s unpacking of the patriarchal interpretation of 4:34 in our publication Musawah Vision for the Family: https://www.musawah.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/MusawahVisionFortheFamily_En.pdf
Sisters in Islam in Malaysia has a booklet: Are Muslim Men Allowed to Beat Their Wives? https://www.sistersinislam.org.my/files/downloads/are_muslim_men_allow_to_beat_their_wives_v12-1.pdf
You Can’t Beat A Woman | Ivy Nallammah Josiah | TEDxUMSKK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Tc6pSuUTN0