A Feminist Reading of the Qur'an
It's hard to imagine any
scenario in which shooting a 14-year-old child is justified. And yet, the
Taliban attempts just this by insisting its
attack on Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai is
ordained by Islam.
Yousafzai first attracted the
group's ire for her insistence on the right of girls to be educated. At
the age of 11, she gained international recognition for her BBC blog, in
which she documented Taliban atrocities as they burned girls schools to
Following Yousafzai's shooting
earlier this month, the Taliban released a
statement claiming, 'We did not attack her for raising voice for
education. We targeted her for opposing mujahideen (holy warriors) and
And so, the Taliban continues to
paint Islam as an inherently violent religion.
Muslims are required to model
their lives on that of the Prophet Mohammed. Consequently, it is easy to
assume the roots of radical Islam can be traced back to the Prophet
himself, hence the numerous Western depictions of Mohammed as an
intolerant, murderous tyrant. Such depictions have no basis in history.
Mohammed was trying not just to
introduce a new faith, but to transform Arabian society. He blamed much of
Arabia's ills on the concept of jahaliyyah. Referred to as the 'Time
of Ignorance' by Muslims to denote pre-Islamic times, jahaliyyah, according
to historian Karen Armstrong, is better translated as 'irascibility',
an 'acute sensitivity to honour and prestige; arrogance, excess, and ... a
chronic tendency to violence and retaliation'.
In establishing an inclusive
Muslim community (ummah), Mohammed sought to overcome the tribal ethos
that had led to customs such as lethal retaliation for perceived
transgressions, honour crimes and blood feuds, and whose patriarchal
nature bred violence against women including wife beating, forced
marriages and female infanticide, all of which Mohammed condemned.
Indeed women had such low
standing it is not surprising that, after hearing Mohammed declare women's
rights to inherit property and determine who and when they marry, women
were among his earliest converts. For this, Mohammed was ridiculed for
mixing with the 'weak'.
In his final sermon to the ummah
near Mount Arafat, an ailing Mohammed seemed to wonder how his legacy
would be fulfilled. 'O people, have I faithfully delivered my message to
you?' he cried.
Sadly, it is jahaliyyah that one
sees in much of the Muslim world today. It is in Pakistan's ludicrous
blasphemy laws, and it rears its ugly head every time fanatical
preachers whip young men into a frenzy demanding they 'defend'
the Prophet's honour whenever the West is accused of insulting him.
But mostly, it can be seen in
the way Muslim women's rights are being increasingly eroded. Mohammed
accepted the taunts from other men (some of them Muslim converts) for what
they thought was his too lenient treatment of women. In his day, as in
ours, the advancement of women was seen as a rebuke to the supremacy of
The Taliban's claim that they
did not target Malala for her stance on education rings hollow considering
their history. Another of their targets, Sakena Yacoobi, founder of the
Afghan Institute of Learning (AIF) has been surreptitiously educating
girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan since the 1990s. 'Every day there is a
death threat', Yacoobi tells journalists Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl
WuDunn in Half the Sky, a remarkable book that documents
human rights abuses against women and girls around the globe, and
describes how women are fighting back.
For fundamentalists who view
women only as wives and mothers, education is a threat because educated
more likely to delay marriage and pregnancy, and to have fewer
children. With increased financial independence, they are also less likely
to accept their inferior role in society.
Education, as Yacoobi
discovered, also leads to a fresh understanding of the Qur'an. As well as
advising women on their legal rights in civil and Islamic law, Yacoobi
encourages women to show to their husbands verses in the Qur'an that call
for respect for women. Often, both men and women are shocked to learn that
such verses exist.
These verses prompt calls
for a feminist interpretation of the Qur'an that rejects gender
segregation and its inherent bias against women. Mohammed's vision of
gender equality was so far ahead of its time it was completely
misunderstood, and for centuries, women have accepted the fallacy that
they are inferior to men.
Muslim women are the key to a
Muslim renaissance and it is women like Yousafzai and Yacoobi who are the
inheritors of Mohammed's legacy. Hostility to education has no basis in
Mohammed's vision. How can it when the first verse in the Qur'an commands,
'Read. Read in the name of your lord'?
First published in Eureka Street,
Oct 22 2012