BOOK REVIEW: Muslim women caught between conservatism and liberalism?

26th Aug 2016
BOOK REVIEW: Muslim women caught between conservatism and liberalism?

Women in the Qur’an: An Emancipatory Reading. By Asma Lamrabet. Distributed by Kube Publishing.  Pp177. PB. 2016. Leicester. £9.99.

During my undergraduate days at university, I remember attending many talks and lectures on the topic of ‘Women and Islam’ delivered by prominent Muslim scholars – from home and abroad – and more often than not the speaker would be a male rather than a female scholar (perhaps this review should also have been written by a Muslim woman?). That never really made sense because, in my experience, the majority of Muslim women are more committed to Islam and equally learned in their faith than most Muslim men.

In fact, that has always been the case throughout Islamic history although it is equally true that the lives, contribution and achievements of Muslim women have not always been recorded and preserved, often compounded by their wish to contribute from behind the scenes, without seeking any form of publicity or self-promotion. Yes, their humility and humbleness has actually held them back from claiming their rightful place in Islamic thought, culture and history!

As Muslim women held back, others sadly filled the gap by misappropriating the question of their status in their families and societies. Accordingly, as the author of the book under review argues, two extreme interpretations emerged, namely ‘a very rigid conservative Islamic approach and a Western, Islamophobic and ethnocentric approach. The two conceptions are of course at odds, but they share the same stumbling block: a dead-end. It is virtually impossible to conceive of even the hint of a debate to clarify certain points, given how blinded partisans from each perspective are by their respective certainties.’ (p1)

A medical doctor by training and equally steeped in traditional Islamic thought and scholarship, the author of this slim but enlightening volume seeks to move beyond the ideological interpretations and sectarian partisanship of the two aforementioned approaches by engaging directly with the Qur’an, the Divine Writ, informed by a sound understanding of fifteen centuries of Islamic thought and scholarship.

Divided into two parts, an introduction, contextual chapter, and conclusion, the author first covers the role assigned to women in Islam and does so through the Qur’anic lens. Titled ‘When the Qur’an speaks of Women’, in this part of the book, the author explores the role of prominent women mentioned in the Qur’an including Queen of Sheba (Bilkis); Sarah and Hagar (the wives of Prophet Abraham); Zulaykha, the wife of Potiphar; the mother and wife of Prophet Moses; the daughter of Prophet Shu’ayb and, of course, Mary, the mother of Prophet Jesus (peace be upon them all).

According to the author, the Qur’an projects these women and men both as moral paragons and ‘sometimes models of vicissitude to recognize in order to know to avoid… At times idealized characters, but never dehumanized, whom God cites all through His message not with the objective of distracting us but in order for us to extract a teaching, a route, and path to follow… Each woman and each man cited in the Qur’an have a singular history, a particular spiritual struggle, a different path, which distinguishes them from our own, if we know how to read them, if we know how to interpret them, how to translate them into the language of daily life.’ (p21)

The second part of the book is titled ‘When the Qur’an speaks to Women’. Here the author engages with a wide range of topics including the question of language of the Qur’an and whether it is masculine or gender-neutral, the role of Muslim women in early Islam through the Qur’anic revelation, as well as God’s direct intervention in favour of women in family disputes and communal controversies (see, for example, the author’s interpretation of Khawlah bint Tha’laba’s complaint against her husband and revelation of Surah al-Mujadilah, pp131-139).

To her credit, the author does not shy away from tackling other controversial issues like polygamy, female testimony, inheritance and a husband’s right to reprimand his wife, and does so based on her understanding and interpretation of the Qur’an, authentic Prophetic norms and classical Islamic sources.

In the conclusion, the author argues that the Qur’an has always encouraged Muslim women to ‘speak for themselves’ but tribal attitudes, patriarchal practices and political oppression often undermined their God-given rights and responsibilities as assigned to them by the Qur’an. Early Muslim women collaborated ‘side by side with men from the new community, these women spoke up, demanding their rights, participating in all the political action undertaken at the time, they invested themselves materially, physically and morally for the cause of Islam. This is certainly a women’s revolution in the heart of the Arabian Desert, where the Qur’anic revelation and the teachings of the Prophet of Islam called on men and women to compete in piety and good deeds.’ (p160)

This book is an invaluable work, ably translated from the original French by Myriam Francois-Cerrah, and it deserves to be on bookshelves at homes, mosques, Islamic seminaries and libraries in this country and beyond. Highly recommended reading.

Muhammad Khan,

Author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and is currently completing a book on The Muslim Heritage of the West

(Kube Publishing, forthcoming).

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