Review/Discussion—Women in the Qur’an by Asma Lamrabet and translated by Myriam Francois-Cerrah

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In her effort to deconstruct a patriarchal reading of the Qur’an, Asma Lamrabet offers up a new reading, but one that is neither evidence-based nor convincing.  

This book was frustrating for me. I really wanted to like it; I was hoping it would be able to offer newer, more progressive views on gender to replace older, problematic ones. While Lamrabet does offer many new interpretations, they are unsubstantiated, and for a Muslim, an interpretation is only as valuable as its evidence. 

Women in the Qur’an is made up of two parts:

  1. ”When the Qur’an Speaks of Women,” which retells the stories of specific women in the Qur’an (like Balkis, Umm Musa, and Maryam) and
  2. “When the Qur’an Speaks to Women,” which examines Allah’s interactions with women in the time of the Prophet (s) through the text of the Qur’an.

Lamrabet believes that 

instead of remaining faithful to the objectives of the Divine message, we have rather remained faithful to the human interpretations and readings which, voluntarily or not, have contributed to the rise of this culture of demeaning women which continues to plague our Muslim societies. 

The first issue I have with this book is that Lamrabet spends considerable time mentioning strange and disagreeable interpretations, but fails to support her own interpretations.

For example, in the story of Balkis, she mentions derisively that “other scholars go further and even suggest this poor queen has jinn ancestry!” I agree with her that this conjecture is an odd move on the part of “other scholars,” but it doesn’t bring us any closer to an “emancipatory reading.” 

As one proof of the idea (which she attributes to Imam ‘Abdu) that the “nafs wahida” (the one soul we were all created from) in the creation story could refer to either Adam or Eve, she cites the fact that nafs is a feminine word. The grammatical gender of  a word doesn’t have anything to do with actual gender. Masculine and feminine linguistic genders could just as well be called A and B. I can’t get behind that kind of evidence.

This next issue is a personal preference, but this book is written in a melodramatic tone that made reading with a straight face difficult. Here is an example of her syrupy sweet writing: Lamrabet calls Hajar’s statement “So certainly God will not abandon us”: “a response laden with meaning, with serenity and emotion.” And another example: “Abraham never complained but Sarah, through that specifically feminine perception, painfully felt, in the depths of her heart, the disavowed desire of her husband to have a child.”   

The frequently odd word choice is another issue that I don’t know whether to chalk up to the translation or the original text. For example, the events of Prophet Musa’s life are referred to as “escapades,” and his meeting with the girls by the well is “infamous.” 

In the same section, Lamrabet digresses into a discussion of whether the old man in the story is the Prophet Shu’ayb or not. Frankly, I don’t care, and these irrelevant asides occupy space that could have been better used. 

In the section on Maryam, Lamrabet tries to make the argument that the rizq that Maryam has is knowledge rather than out-of-season fruit. I cannot understand why Lamrabet would pursue this tack. While Maryam obviously had knowledge—she was the only woman allowed to devote herself to worship in the temple—the fruit is something miraculous. The presence of summer fruits in the winter and the opposite is something supernatural that indicates Allah’s pleasure with her actions. How could the knowledge interpretation (which is obvious without any mention of it) possibly be more empowering than the fruit interpretation (which is a sign of divine consent and approval)?!

At the heart of my dislike of this book is a trust issue. I find it hard to trust Lamrabet because we never see her grappling with an issue. She always seems to be able to fit everything into neat little boxes. The fact that we never see her struggling to work out an issue or expressing her doubt makes me nervous about her methods even before I can disagree with her thinking.

And finally, the issue that had me narrowing my eyes and scribbling furiously in the margins—Lamrabet tries to find convincing evidence that male and female figures from Qur’anic stories married after the end of the story as we know it. Now, I’m all for women finding love, but I think this desperate desire for a happily-ever-after based on romance detracts from Lamrabet’s feminist message. She writes: “The story states that Solomon and Balkis married, though nothing can confirm this fact. Nonetheless, we would like to believe it!” And I’ve written (in the margin): “Seriously?” She also waxes poetic about Musa’s romance with one of the sisters at the well, and she speculates about a romance between Yusuf and Zulaykha after the story as we know it ends.   

Just because I didn’t find the “emancipatory reading” I was promised doesn’t mean that there weren’t plenty of enlightening moments for me. Here are some of the parts that I loved:

  • On confusing the emotional predispositions and the intellectual capacities of women, she says: “Yet there is a big difference between saying that women have a greater inclination towards sensitivity and affectivity – which in no way represents a weakness – and suggesting they are somehow handicapped by this!”
  • She cites Balkis as “an example of political management for all, men and women.”
  • Her commentary on the origin of the sa’ee is a nice reminder: “After the advent of Islam, the Qur’an renewed the story of Hagar, and God wanted through the prescription of this ritual of the seven back and forth runs between the two mountains of Safa and Marwa, to remind us that it was her Hagar, whom we remember.” I’ve heard this story a million times, but I hadn’t considered the implications of the fact that one of the pillars of hajj lies in the literal footsteps of a specific woman in history.
  • This. “To be demanding of one’s self but extremely indulgent with others is one of the fundamental qualities of the believer.” 
  • She derives a beautiful point about the respect and honor given to Maryam based on word choice in the Qur’an. “Maryam is certainly a ‘sign’ for the universe and it is worth emphasizing here the importance of this term in the Qur’an, in which it is always used to describe the marvels of Divine creation.”
  • Also, this point about the name used to refer to Jesus in the Qur’an: “This is how the story of this Prophet beloved of God continues in the Qur’an, under this name ‘Isa ibn Maryam, as if to remind us of her, incessantly, inevitably, even through her son and by her son  . . . In order that we never forget that this great Prophet was first and foremost the son of Maryam.”
  • Lamrabet applies a familiar story to a useful contemporary situation when she discusses Umm Salama’s having said “Why are we women not mentioned in the Qur’an as men are?” Lamrabet says: “Could we imagine such a scenario in our contemporary Muslim societies without their being an outcry of protests or worse, an inflamed indictment? Yes today, when the mere fact of debating religious matters is looked down on and where questioning even Islamic interpretations is considered sacrilegious.” Her point is that Umm Salama and other women who asked that question weren’t demanding revelation; they were questioning what they saw as the status quo. And if that sort of questioning deserved a divine response, how can we criticize similar questioning today?
  • In her discussion of Sumayya, the first martyr of Islam, Lamrabet makes an excellent point about the biological differences between men and women: “Sumayya refused to renege her Islam in order to save her life, affirming under torture her commitment until the end, until the spear of Abu Jahl ensured her silence. Physical endurance, a central criterion in the differences between men and women, sometimes loses all its value in front of examples such as this one, namely that of a psychological endurance which far outweighs the greatest physical capabilities.”

Here is Lamrabet’s thesis restated (in reference to the laws of inheritance) toward the end the of the book:

If the Qur’anic principle itself is immutable, since, as we have seen, it advocates first and foremost justice and equality, the economic and social parameters have changed and this requires a re-reading of certain questions arising out of inheritance, in light of the new context in which we find ourselves.

But I wonder how much “re-reading” a sacred text can withstand before enough of its interpretative sense is contrary to its literal sense and it becomes irrelevant? That’s what I will continue to think about as I search for evidence-based progressive interpretations. In the meantime, I recommend this article.

Have you found a book that presents a balanced view of women in Islam? Let me know in the comments below. 

Thank you to Kube Publishing for providing a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. You can see more information about this book on their website here.

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