The Patriarchal Characterization of Islam

The Patriarchal Characterization of Islam
Posted on June 23, 2016 | Yasser Harrak | Written on June 23, 2016
Letter type:

Islam is often characterized (in the West) as being patriarchal and oppressive to women. Muslim feminist Asma Barlas disagrees with this characterization stating that non-religious factors can indeed account for patriarchy.

The interpretive approach used by Asma Barlas to examine whether or not Islam - the religion - is patriarchal is amazing. Although this approach is known with other Muslim feminists like Fatema Mernissi (from Morocco), the uniqueness of Barlas stands with the notion of using hermeneutic keys in the interpretation the Qur’an to understand the divine ontology. Depending directly on verses from the Qur'an is questionable because no one interprets the Quran from his/her own mind. Muslims go to Tafsirs (exegesis) books to find the meanings of the Qur'anic verses. However, Barlas legitimately questioned this norm and Islamically legitimized her hermeneutics that she describes as:  "...the doctrine of God’s Unity (Tawhīd ), stipulates that there is a perfect congruence between God (Divine Ontology) and God’s Speech (Divine Discourse). This means that Muslims should seek the hermeneutic keys for interpreting the Qur’ān in the nature of Divine Ontology or, more appropriately, in the nature of Divine Self-Disclosure, since our knowledge of one is contingent on our understanding of the other. That is where I locate my own hermeneutics" (Barlas 2002, 13).

 It is worthy to note that by seeking to Islamize her methodology, Barlas seeks to convince a broader Muslim audience. The tradition of father-rule and the politics of gender inequality based in theories of sexual differentiation , according to her, are the  most important factors accounting for patriarchy (Barlas 2002, 3). Such factors are key to answer the question if the Quran is misogynistic and patriarchal.  Barlas noted that an other factor would be the absence of a universally shared definition of sexual equality that often leads to the belief that difference in treatment means necessarily inequality in that treatment.  She added :"the Qur’ān’s different treatment of women and men is not based on claims about their sexual difference or sameness " (Barlas 2002, 5).

Barlas used a powerful argument, although somehow a Shiite one in nature (given the notion  Justice of God -'adl- is a pillar of Islam in Shiism only), that the premise in understanding  the Qur'an should be based on justice vis-à-vis injustice (Zulm). Having liberated the key to a liberatory interpretation and contextualization of the Qur'an, the issue of  patriarchal and misogynic interpretations of the Qur'an becomes a societal issue rather than an issue of the religion. The more patriarchal Muslim societies are, the more tendency there will be towards the old readings; and the more open societies are, the more tendency there will be towards liberatory readings. It is so true that Muslim feminists and reformists appear to be predominantly from countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, if compared with countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan ( with the exception of the diaspora originating from these countries).

Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an remains one of the best academic works offering a reasonable explanation of why the  patriarchal characterization of Islam is false.



Barlas, Asma. 2002.  Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an. In Believing Women in Islam : The Qur’an and Muslim Women: Reading Patriarchy, Reading Liberation . University of Texas Press

About The Author

Yasser Harrak's picture

Alma mater: American Public University (MA, Grad Cert), Concordia University (BA). 


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