Women in the Qur’an: An Emancipatory Reading by Asma Lamrabet professes to “demand a rereading of the Qur’an by women,” and is self-described as “a radical reinterpretation of the Islamic tradition based on scripture.” With such descriptions, I was understandably concerned that this would be yet another book aiming to further the progressive liberal agenda of doing away with traditional Islamic scholarship and attempting to present entirely new interpretations of the Divine Verses. Originally written in French, the book was translated into English and features a preface that discusses its academic quality and purpose, as well as acknowledging some of its weaknesses.
Although Lamrabet is not what one would consider a classically trained Islamic scholar or teacher (she is a pathologist by profession), she introduces her work by explaining what motivated her to undertake such a project. She notes the ways in which Muslim women have been labeled, used, and spoken over by both Western liberal secularists, and the so-called ‘Islamists’ of the conservative Muslim population. Lamrabet seeks to present a different view: a women-centric understanding of the way the Quran speaks of, and to, female believers.
Emphasizing that this work is not driven by the idea that one must work outside the religious framework, Lamrabet repeatedly states that the view being put forward is that of Muslim women who strongly believe in and practice Islam, without disregarding fourteen centuries of classical Islamic scholarship. Indeed, she makes a point of referencing well-known scholars such as Ibn Kathîr, Ibn Taymiyyah, Al-Qurṭubi and others when supporting her arguments, in addition to referring to more contemporary writers and thinkers.
Women in the Qur’an is divided into two parts, which in turn are subdivided according to the relevant topics. Part One: “When the Qur’an Speaks of Women” takes the time to look at almost every woman mentioned in the Quran – from Hawwâ’ to Bilqîs to Maryam, and to everyone in between. The only other women spoken of in the Quran, whom Lamrabet does not discuss in detail, are the wives of prophets Lûṭ and Nûḥ – although she does pause to make an observation regarding how they are presented as unique examples of spousal and spiritual betrayal.
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Lamrabet’s analysis of the stories of women in the Quran is thoughtful and refreshing, presenting both their personalities and their role as spiritual guides for all believers. Indeed, though the book’s focus is on a women-centric understanding of women’s stories, she does an excellent job highlighting the Divine Wisdom in holding these women as relevant to, and examples for, men as well as women.
Without falling into the camp of those who undermine male Qur’anic figures –Amina Wadud notoriously referred to Ibrahim as a ‘deadbeat dad’– nor of those who dismiss the women of the Quran as being merely wives or mothers, Lamrabet remains true to past Islamic scholarship while drawing our attention to the many facets of femininity showcased in the Qur’n.
“…The Qur’an never ceases to underline the other dimensions of the feminine personality through the different representations of women cited in the text,” she writes, underscoring the dichotomy between widespread Muslim cultural attitudes and the strength and nuances of the Divine Words.
Personal accountability, politics, motherhood, spiritual strength, personal crises, succumbing to physical desire… each theme is given due attention in the stories of Ḥawwâ’, Balqîs, Sârah and Hajar, Zulaykha, and others. Lamrabet draws upon classical works of tafsîr to bolster her reflections, referring to contemporary writers as well to share unique observations regarding each woman and how their lives are relevant to us today, spiritually and socially.
She also presents us with examples of how past (male) scholars, as well as people today, have unfortunately twisted those stories or taken certain statements out of context to push an interpretation or an idea that is almost completely contrary to what the Quran itself is emphasizing. The accusations against Ḥawwâ’ as being responsible for ‘tempting’ Adam into disobeying Allah’s Command; the sneering dismissal of Balqîs as being half-animal or half-jinn; the warning against “women’s plots” in Sûrat Yûsuf… alas, these sentiments are found in the various works of male exegetes, and even more unfortunately, remain alive and well amongst many Muslims today.
Nonetheless, Lamrabet strikes an excellent balance by quoting classical scholarship honestly, without projecting any extreme anger or resentment against the almost entirely male body of mufassirîn.
Part Two: When the Qur’an Speaks to Women, is perhaps even more thought-provoking than Part One. Whereas the first half of the book encourages us to reflect on the women spoken of in the Quran, building a more personal relationship between ourselves and the figures presented to us, Part Two takes a sharper look at the way women are addressed by the Quran… and how those âyât (and related aḥâdith) have been distorted to present a very different picture of women and women’s issues than was taught by RasûlAllah ﷺ.
Lamrabet tackles oft-evoked challenges – why does the Quran use masculine language and terminology so much of the time? Does the Quran ever discuss women’s social and political participation? Why is the testimony of a woman considered only half that of a man’s? Why do women inherit less than men?
It is here that Lamrabet’s approach really shines. She reminds readers of the historical background and context that the Quran was revealed in, and ensures that the asbâb al-nuzûl (occasions of revelation) are known before discussing the verses in question. She points out that women today are not the only ones to have similar questions, and relates to us the stories of Umm Salamah, Nusaybah bint Kaᶜb, and Asmâ’ bint ʿUmays – all of them Companions of the Messenger of Allah, all of whom spoke to him directly to express their concerns regarding the Quran’s language regarding women.
By providing these examples, Lamrabet reassures readers that to question and seek a better understanding of Islamic texts is not some new, deviant phenomenon, but rather a continuation of our historical Islamic legacy of women who were neither afraid to speak up nor castigated for their critical thinking skills.
Part Two goes on to discuss other important verses related to women and how they signified revolutionary changes that Islam brought to the previously Jâhili (ignorant) society. For example, Sûrat Al-Mujâdilah’s recognition of women’s right to express their personal, private grievances — and their right to seek redress — was something almost unheard of in pre-Islamic Arabia, and even today is rarely recognized among Muslims.
Later on, speaking of how Islam’s revolution for women was sadly aborted swiftly after RasûlAllah’s death, Lamrabet makes the sorrowful observation that nowadays, reform in the Muslim world with regards to women’s rights is a result of secular feminist endeavors – whereas the so-called “Islamist” factions in those countries seek to uphold Jâhili mentalities which the Quran itself opposed over 1400 years ago. Further, the juristic principle of sadd al-dharâ’iᶜ (blocking ways to ḥarâm) has been used by numerous Muslim authorities to restrict women’s rights. As Shaykha Aysha Wazwaz astutely noted, it is the abuse of the Islamic legal principle of sadd al- dharâ’iᶜ that in fact results in greater dharâ’iᶜ (means to ḥarâm) affecting Muslims, especially Muslim women.
However, the most notable and fascinating discussion in “When the Qur’an Speaks to Women” is that of how the Quran addresses the significant and imperative political role of Muslim women in undertaking hijra (emigration) and the bayᶜa (pledging allegiance). Evoking the stories of Asmâ’ bint Abi Bakr, Umm Sharîk, Nusaybah bint Kaᶜb, and others, Lamrabet speaks in detail of just how revolutionary it was for the Quran to acknowledge, uphold, and praise women’s political contributions and engagement within Muslim society. To see the issue of bayᶜa and hijra spoken of from such a women-centric perspective is so novel that it takes a few moments for the powerful implications of the topic to sink in. What should be obvious to us is, unfortunately, not so obvious to those of us who have been so conditioned to view Islamic political matters as being unrelated and irrelevant to women. If nothing else, the chapter on women’s political engagement alone is worth taking this book seriously.
Towards the end, the author does touch briefly upon polygamy, the oft-quoted verse in Sûrat Al-Nisâ’ which speaks of ‘striking’ women, as well as upon testimony and inheritance. It is heartening that she is honest and says that these topics are beyond the scope of her work, and though she speaks on them briefly, requests the reader to seek more information elsewhere.
Out of the entire book, there were only three points of contention I had: the romanticism surrounding Zulaykhah –wherein rather than viewing her behavior as being equivalent to sexual assault or harassment in today’s terminology– is presented as tragic love; certain statements regarding qawâma (the male position of responsibility/ authority), its relation to tawhîd, and the role of finances in determining who is or is not a qawwâm; and the argument that polygamy is automatically a source of injustice and therefore to be heavily discouraged, if not prohibited outright.
As a whole, Women in the Qur’an is an excellent book. It is an in-depth, detailed and thoughtful discussion of the Quran, the Sunnah, and the Sîrah’s stories of women and their issues of concern. It is by no means an overly complex and difficult to understand academic work; rather, it is straightforward, provides sources for reference, and provides a great deal of material for those seeking to understand a woman’s perspective on Qur’anic stories and verses which have either been ignored entirely or turned into sources of controversy.
As a non-academic who is wary of the abundance of overly-progressive works on the topic of women and the Quran, I am overall impressed (despite my stated reservations) with Asma Lamrabet’s approach. I recommend this book to anyone who seeks a fresh perspective on a subject that is already extensively written about by others who often do little other than regurgitate the same information in tired cliches.
- Women in the Qur’an: An Emancipatory Reading, Asma Lamrabet, & Myriam François-Cerrah, 2015, Kube Publishing Ltd.