“Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an (Review)

Book cover for "'Believing Women' in Islam" by Asma Barlas.Title: “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an

Author: Asma Barlas

Publication Year: 2002

Pages: 272

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Purchased from Chapters

From the cover:

Does Islam call for the oppression of women? Non-Muslims point to the subjugation of women that occurs in many Muslim countries, especially those that claim to be “Islamic,” while many Muslims read the Qur’an in ways that seem to justify sexual oppression, inequality, and patriarchy. Taking a wholly different view, Asma Barlas develops a believer’s reading of the Qur’an that demonstrates the radically egalitarian and antipatriarchal nature of its teachings.

Beginning with a historical analysis of religious authority and knowledge, Barlas shows how Muslims came to read inequality and patriarchy into the Qur’an to justify existing religious and social structures and demonstrates that the patriarchal meanings ascribed to the Qur’an are a function of who has read it, how, and in what contexts. She goes on to reread the Qur’an’s position on a variety of issues in order to argue that its teachings do not support patriarchy. To the contrary, Barlas convincingly asserts that the Qur’an affirms the complete equality of the sexes, thereby offering an opportunity to theorize radical sexual equality from within the framework of its teachings. This new view takes readers into the heart of Islamic teachings on women, gender, and patriarchy, allowing them to understand Islam through its most sacred scripture, rather than through Muslim cultural practices or Western media stereotypes.

This book has taken me longer to read than expected, and I’m finding it really hard to decide how to write about it.

Barlas approaches this book as an academic thesis, giving a lot of historical background and really differentiating between the texts (Qur’an, hadith, Sunnah), exegesis, and language/translation issues. Believing Women really goes into depth to explain how Muslims – and non-Muslims – have interpreted the Qur’an and other religious sources in ways that are descriminatory towards women, and then goes on to explain exactly why these interpretations are incorrect and against the overall purpose of Islam.

Most of the book, as the title suggests, is about unreading the typically patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an. Barlas looks at the other texts – hadith, Sunnah, and scholarly exegesis – primarily in terms of how they have affected interpretations of the Qur’an, especially in terms of the problems with elevating these sources to the same “level” as the Qur’an itself.

In terms of its general readability, though, Believing Women leaves a lot to be desired. I think this is largely due to the material that Barlas is covering, rather than to her writing itself – it’s just hard to make serious scholarly analysis into something that most readers would find easy to read and understand without really having to struggle for it. If you’re really interested in Qur’anic scholarship or interpretation – particularly in terms of feminist discourse and critical examination of sacred texts – then this might be the book for you, since it does a very good job of dissecting the issues. If you’re looking for something more accessible, though, then this probably isn’t for you.


4 thoughts on ““Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an (Review)”

  1. I think I won’t read this one, but it’s such an important issue. I think the role and treatment of women in Islam is one of the hugest issues for non-Muslim women as well; they see the religion as all-oppressive because that’s what the media portrays. The Muslim women I know in the Middle East rule the roost, so to speak!

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