Every now and again, there comes a book that completely leaves you changed for the better. Believing Women in Islam by Dr. Asma Barlas (affiliate Book Depository link added for quick access) has been a book that has changed my life, and one that I’ll be thinking of and talking about for decades to come. As a Muslim woman, living in the 21st century, this book has opened up my mind to the possibilities of viewing and interacting with the Quran without hesitation or fear.
For a long time now, there has been a fear – that many people can relate to – inculcated within us when it comes to reading sacred texts such as the Quran, Bible or the Testament. This fear of raising questions usually is shunned when we’re quite young, and so when we grow older we just take it for the way things are, that often leads many to become disinterested or distanced from the Divine word of God.
For me religion has been a struggle ever since I was a teenager. I don’t say faith, because despite the lemons life threw at me, somehow that never wavered, even if my faith did feel low at times. Religion on the other hand, has been something that I was too afraid to delve into, to question, to analyze, to critique(?) even.
“Masculinizing God is the first step in positing a hierarchy in which males situate themselves beneath God and above women, implying that there is a symbolic (and sometimes literal) continuum between God’s Rule over humans and male rule over women.”
But if there is has been one positive outcome of reading Believing Women in Islam by Dr. Asma Barlas, it has been that I’m no longer afraid, and my idea of the Divine word has been changed. This book seeks to find an egalitarian and liberatory reading of the Quran for women living in a highly saturated patriarchal society.
In a society, where religion has always been used as a tool to subjugate women, even if you try to object or protest, you can be silenced simply by saying “it is what the religion says”, even when what they’re quoting is lacking context, logic, or quite literally an important part of a verse. Using Quran in piecemeal bites has been a common practice among South Asia communities to silence women, or justifying wrong actions.
What Believing Women in Islam establishes is the complete opposite, where Dr. Barlas quite literally argues that in order to understand the Quran we have to read it – not recite it – from front to back, wholly, without breaking it into pieces, and the message it holds. And while Arabic isn’t the first language of many Muslims, we become our own worst enemies by just reciting it and believing what a “person of knowledge” is saying as the actual word of God.
But reading Believing Women in Islam is no easy task.
It has to be the most difficult book that I’ve ever read, academically dense, with vocabulary that makes me question my own grip on English. However, it is worth it, it truly is.
I read this book over 2 months in an online bookclub hosted by Dr. Sofia Rehman (@sofia_reading on Instagram) and I would’ve been lost or unmotivated to finish it had it not been for the bookclub.
Joined by more than 60 people from around the world, we read and discussed each chapter of Believing Women in Islam, that taught us about how contextually dense the Quran is as it was revealed to 7th century Arabs despite it not taking away anything of its universality. How the creation story that we’re taught is heavily imbibed with the Biblical and Jewish account of Adam and Eve, the “fall” and more.
“However, my argument assumes that there is a relationship between God and God’s word; thus, my ‘theological solution’ to unjust interpretations is to be more scrupulous in aligning our readings of God’s word with our conceptions of God so as to avoid attributing injustice to God.”
Similarly, Hazrat Ibrahim (Abraham) sacrifice that involved his son which didn’t go through, was contingent on the Son’s (Hazrat Ismail aka Ishmael) consent which goes to show how our consent and choice as children has to be heard, despite many parents using religion as a tool to get their way with kids.
Believing Women in Islam, also discusses the political aspect of utilizing the Quran in the previous centuries to establish stability and rule over regions by different rulers, and how the Shariah and tafsir has been made in a patriarchal society. While you may see I’m using the word “patriarchy” a lot, this shouldn’t be confused with misandry, as the aim of the book is to find a liberatory reading for both genders.
One misconception many people have is to assume that patriarchy only affects women – it doesn’t. men, women, children, all are affected by it, and while one gender has benefitted immensely with perks afforded by using “man” as a normative for many aspects of our life, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t downsides to it as well.
Similarly, what Dr. Barlas writes in Believing Women in Islam, may sound uncomfortable, heretical or even sacrilegious for many readers. But throughout the book she urges us all to keep in mind God’s self disclosure, His Tawhid, His Oneness, and to use it as a litmus test for anything preached about religion. When we accept and understand that God is One, God is Just, God doesn’t promote violence or zulm on anyone, than her arguments not only make sense, but they sound simplistically profound.
If anything, after reading Believing Women in Islam, my desire to read the Quran with translation, and engage with it epistemologically, theologically, and spiritually has only been further strengthened and renewed. Reading this book hasn’t weakened my faith or love for the Prophet PBUH, if anything it has shown me a new horizon – that actually isn’t new and has been emphasized by the Quran countless times to use our faculties to understand the Message of Allah, and find the best meaning from it.
While Belieiving Women in Islam, does touch upon a few controversial topics like the Ayat 4:34, Hijab and the Veil, father rule, and more, I did wish she would touch upon more ayats and topics. Nevertheless, Believing Women in Islam left me with the realization that despite the Quran being near to me, waiting to be opened and understanding its message I still don’t engage with it, and sit in frustration when I see the Quran being used to cage and further oppress women, wrongfully.
I can’t wait to read more books by Dr. Asma Barlas, if she comes out with them, and to read more works by female theologians like The Sublime Quran by Laaleh Bakhtiar, The veil and the Male Elite by Fatema Mernissi, Quran and Women by Amina Wadud and more.
A few days ago, I took part in an online meeting where we got to hear Dr. Asma Barlas speak live and answer our questions, the lovely host: Sofia, uploaded the entire conversation on YouTube, so if you’re interested in knowing more about the book and hear it from the author herself, then click here.
May Allah guide us all to find the right path and the right faculties to understand His Message, and may we never stray for what He commands. Ameen.
Onto the basics:
- Rating: 5.0/5.0
- Favourite Quote: “… my objective in writing this book was to recover the scriptural basis of sexual equality in Islam and thereby to defend Islam against the claim, made by both Muslim conservatives and feminists, that it is a religious patriarchy that professes models of hierarchical relationships and sexual inequality”
- Reading Level: extremely academically dense. This is not an easy read at all.
- Should You Read It: If you’re interested in reading the Quran and understanding the egalitarian message, then definitely. This is a very articulate and well researched book.
- Would I Read It Again: Of course!!
Till next time,