Reviving Islamic female scholarship after centuries of erasure

Apr 4, 2017

 

Like other holy scriptures, the Quran has been studied and read, commented on, and interpreted mostly by men. There was a tradition of female scholarship early in Islam, but later, it was men at the helm of breaking down the verses, and deciding how they’re applicable to everyday life.

Today, there’s a revival of that female scholarship right here in the U.S.

 

The office of Islamic scholar Dr. Amina Wadud is full of books on Islamic history and theology. She’s an African American convert to Islam who grew up the daughter of a Methodist minister. But she was curious, and so she started experimenting. 

 

 

At age 14, she went away for high school and had the opportunity to live with families of different faiths: Unitarian Universalist, Catholic and Jewish. In college, she became interested in Eastern religions and became a Buddhist. And then one day, she was given a copy of the Quran. 

 

"I fell in love, and I decided I wanted to remove all the impediments between me and this book,” Wadud says. “I started studying Arabic, which I did for 10 years, including living first in Libya and then in Egypt.” 

Amina Wadud’s hands hover over the computer on which she does her work.
Credit Tom Levy

She converted to Islam and went onto get two Master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in Arabic and Islamic Studies. But while studying she realized all the books she was reading were either written or notated by men. There weren’t even women in the footnotes, she says. 

 

Wadud says it surprised her because the holy book itself showed great sensitivity towards women. For example, when Mary, the mother of Jesus, is ready to give birth and goes into labor, Wadud says the Quran “is completely focused on her. It does not ignore her cry out.”  

 

This is the translated text from the Quran: 

 

“And the birth pangs surprised her at the trunk of a date palm tree. She said, O would that I had died before this and I had been one who is forgotten, a forgotten thing!

 

“So he cried out to her from beneath her: Feel not remorse! Surely your Lord made under you a brook. And shake towards you the trunk of the date palm tree. It will cause ripe fresh dates to fall on you. So eat and drink and your eyes will be refreshed.”

 

Wadud was fascinated by this sensitivity of the Quran to a woman in labor. But she couldn’t find anything like it in the scholarship about the Quran. 

 

“There’s so much out there, but nothing that comes from women,” she says. 

 

Interpreting and translating with a female lens

 

 

In 1999, Wadud published her Ph.D. dissertation as a book: a commentary on the Quran called “Quran and Woman.” In it, she explores a woman’s place in the holy book, from worship and spirituality to gender equality and marital guidelines. She critically analyzes controversial issues from the text.

Wadud holds a copy of her book, “Qur’an and Woman.” The calligraphy on the cover was copied from Quaranic texts about women.
Credit Tom Levy

For example, she says that according to the Quran, polygamy shouldn’t be as common as it is today. And, contrary to popular belief, she says the text allows women to hold important positions like that of president, or an Imam. Her belief is that images of Muslim women as oppressed and voiceless come from a misreading of scripture. 

 

“Since all the interpretations until the 20th century were done by men, it means that we are relying solely on men,” Wadud says. “Men are not the only human beings — women are human beings, too.”

 

Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar is an Iranian-American scholar of Islamic texts and Arabic language. She says Islamic theology didn’t always exclude female perspectives: in the early days of the religion, there was a lot of female scholarship. 

 

Bakhtiar says Muhammad and his companions valued their wives’ opinions and held them in high regard. 

 

“These were really wonderful people — loving, caring towards their women,” she says.

 

Bakhtiar says after the Prophet died in the year 632, Islamic thought flourished for a century. But later, the Islamic Empire spread around the world, and Caliphates — whose main concern was to stay in power — had more control. Muslims slowly started losing an original cornerstone of Islamic discourse, which is known as furqan.

 

“In the West, it's called critical thinking, but we call it furqan,” Bakhtiar says.  “Discernment.”

 

The result of this erosion of critical thinking, Bhaktiar says, is that today much of Islamic thought has become puritanical, “...a literal understanding, and a complete disregard and denial that we ever had an Islamic intellectual tradition.”

 

In her dozens of translations of classical Islamic works, Bakhtiar says she’s made sure to do that critical thinking, while also being careful to translate accurately. It took her seven years to complete her translation of the Quran, called “The Sublime Quran.” She says a lot of the available translations were clunky in English or had too many confusing footnotes. She wanted to make the holy book accessible to the average, modern American. 

 

Controversial verses

 

Some of Bakhtiar’s translations, particularly those that address women’s lives, are clear departures from previous English versions of the Quran. For instance, there’s a verse from Chapter 4 that has so far had been translated to say that “men are in charge of women,” or that “men are the protectors or maintainers of women.” 

 

Bakhtiar’s translation says: “Men are the supporters of women.” She says qawwamun, the Arabic verb that means “in charge” or “to maintain” actually meant to provide support, particularly financial support, in the context of the verse.

 

She also caused a stir with her translation of a particularly controversial verse: Quran 4:34. For centuries, it has been interpreted by most scholars to say that a rebellious wife could be hit by her husband as punishment. The verb used in the original Arabic is daraba, which is commonly translated today as “strike” or “beat.” Other translations have said “beat them lightly” or  “scourge them.” None of these seemed accurate, or even Islamic, to Dr. Bakhtiar. 

 

“I spent six months researching this one verse, because I couldn't believe that the God that I love, and the Prophet that I love, would have allowed anyone to beat women,” Bakhtiar says.  

 

Laleh Bakhtiar in her office.
Credit Hana Baba

Her translation abandoned the whole premise of corporal punishment. She translated the verb daraba to mean “to go away from.” Meaning if a couple is in conflict, the Quran says for them to separate for a time. 

 

Bakhtiar based her interpretation on three things. 

 

One: She says the spirit of Islam is nonviolent and the Prophet himself never laid a hand on any of his wives. 

 

Two: She says the verb dharaba has 12 different meanings in Arabic, one of which is “to leave, to go away.” She says that men have been choosing the translation that best fits a patriarchal system.

 

Three: She used furqan, or the Islamic critical thinking method. She went back through the Quran until she came to verse 2:231. It said that husbands who want to divorce their wives must do so honorably and cannot harm them. 

 

“I said to myself, a Muslim woman who's going to be divorced cannot be harmed, but a Muslim woman who wants to remain married does so under the threat of being beaten?” Bakhtiar says it didn’t make sense. 

 

“This is the woman I love, the mother of my children. Why would I be allowed to hit her when I can't if I want to divorce her?” she asked.

 

Criticism and movement-building

 

Dr. Laleh Bahktiar’s book “The Sublime Quran” received high praise from some Muslims, especially younger, English-speaking Americans. But not everyone welcomed it. Some criticized the translation; others said she was changing the words of God. Some brought up the fact that she isn’t a native Arabic speaker, others noted her growing up not Muslim, but Catholic with her American mother who raised her. Criticism came from across the Islamic world, including from high-ranking female scholars. 

 

Other American Muslim women leaders have also faced pushback, like Dr. Amina Wadud, author of “Quran and Woman.” When Wadud led a mixed gender prayer service in 2005, protesters called her blasphemous. It was the first time on record that men and women had prayed in a mixed setting, led by a woman Imam. 

 

Still, a movement is growing, and Wadud says she’s proud of her role in it.  

 

“As a woman, and having done the work that I had done, it was an important contribution to what we now call Islamic Feminism,” Wadud says. 

 

At first she struggled with the term “feminist” because of its secular origins. But now, it’s growing on her. To her, Islamic Feminism is a feminism that  grounds its arguments for equality and women’s rights in the teachings of Islam. Today, Wadud works with women in the United States and in Muslim countries who, she says, have grown disenchanted with the version of Islam they’re surrounded by.

 

“I began to meet with some women locally who were very dissatisfied with the disparity between what they believed in their heart was their Islam, what they were seeing happening in their culture, and in their laws, with regard to the place of women,” says Wadud.

 

 

She says that for her, the conversation boils down to one Islamic principle nobody can argue with: justice.

Amina Wadud.
Credit Tom Levy

“If everybody is, from 14 centuries-plus of Islam, saying that Islam is about justice, then you have to go to the women and say, ‘Are you experiencing justice?’ You also have to measure the justice in their lives. Maternal mortality rates, levels of education, access to resources, and access to  education,” Wadud says.

 

Despite the obstacles, she says she feels incredibly blessed. 

 

“I came to this journey with no idea of the impact,” she says. “Now I can't deny the impact. And sometimes it can be overwhelming, because I'm still just a little farm girl from Maryland who's really interested in God.”

 

She stays grounded by going back to the first verse revealed in the Quran: the command to read.

 

“Our legacy in Islam is we just keep learning, we just keep studying, we just keep thinking about, talking about, writing about, debating over, constructing and reconstructing ideas about the sacred,” Wadud says. 

“Islam is no longer fixed, it is no longer the purview only of men with beards. It belongs to everyone. It becomes a very dynamic process, which in my mind, never ends.”