A Reappraisal of the Position of Women in Islam

The supremacy of men over women in Islam is often substantiated by citing Sura 4.34 in the Koran. An academic institute in Germany has just published a new study on the Sura. Susan Javad interviews the editor

The Qur'an (photo: AP)
Luise Becker: "We would like to see an end to traditional, conservative ways of thinking and a return to the open-mindedness that prevailed in the early days of Islam"

​​Luise Becker, how did you and the Center for Islamic Women's Studies (ZIF) in Cologne arrive at the idea of compiling a work on Sura 4.34?

Luise Becker: For one thing, the verse in Sura 4, which goes under the heading "Women," is regarded as a bone of contention per se in terms of relations between the sexes in Islam. No other text offers at first glance such a misogynous definition of prescribed relations between men and women. But, as I say, at first glance, and in its translated version.

The impulse for our work came from the fact that this topic has been vehemently discussed in the German and Western European context and also because this text poses a great difficulty for Muslim women, especially those who lack the foundation to interpret and critically approach the verse. In addition, this text is still used by men to underpin their supposed God-given privileged status. Sura 4.34: "Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more than the other […]. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them, refuse to share their beds, and beat them!"Our work, however, also aims to provide a signal to German society by demonstrating how texts can be approached in Islam. The Islamic religious tradition of dialectics (kalam) has long offered tools to "crack open" texts. Exegetic and hermeneutic work within Islam is nothing new, yet this has been largely forgotten.

Our work, therefore, should not be understood as any sort of final answer. As subjective beings, there is no way we can provide definitive answers.

Do you then see yourselves in the tradition of Islamic scholarship or rather in an anti-traditional role? And how do you assess dogmatism in Islamic teachings?

Becker: I think that this is one of the greatest problems in Islam. An absolute standpoint is very often taken according to the motto "this has already been stated by such-and-such a scholar centuries ago." With all respect, this easily leads to opinions gaining acceptance as "God-given" laws. In contrast, we regard our position as being in accordance with the approach of early Islamic scholars, who tended to hold the view that "my opinion dies with me."

Such a path, followed by Abu Hanifa, for example, is actually quite an enlightened one. Yet, all this is apparently forgotten or ignored as a result of special interests. This is why our work includes the commentaries of past scholars as well as contemporary academics, and also points out the contradictions to the original text with respect to relations between the sexes as prescribed by the Koran.

We would like to see an end to traditional, conservative ways of thinking and a return to the open-mindedness that prevailed in the early days of Islam. At that time, ijtihad (independent interpretation) and ra'y (personal judgment) were practiced and there was room for alternative opinions and pragmatic solutions, without those expressing varying viewpoints having to fear charges of apostasy or heresy.

How do you then deal with Verse 4.34?

Becker: The first exegesis of this verse was actually provided by the Prophet himself. He said, "Do not beat women. Those who hit women are amongst the worst of creatures." Supported by the prophetic example, the word "hit" could be interpreted within the given context to mean "hit out upon or adopt another path." In this case, it doesn't refer to the emotional domestic conflict, but rather distances itself from this context. Curiously, this prophetic course of conduct is not considered.

The actual problem, however, is whether one takes the context into account when interpreting the Koran and whether one is prepared to say that even the word of God has, quite naturally, been conveyed within a specific context and that herein lies the binding and timeless essence of the Koran with respect to justice between the sexes. Should one cite texts that state the equality of the sexes alongside those, such as the above quoted verse, with no context, thereby generalizing the historical example for all times?

This would probably leave readers extremely perplexed and unable to see the equality advocated by the Koran. Fortunately, the apparent contradictions have been extensively explored and also debated among Muslims. This is a fundamental debate that has to take place in the Islamic world.

What reaction have you so far received from Muslims to the publication?

Becker: Most of the response has come from non-Muslim circles. I tend to regard the meager response from Muslims as being rather typical. The topic evidently involves still too many risks for Muslims. A Muslim man came to me and said, "What you have written is certainly interesting, but it is unfortunately once again directed against us men." When I then told him that a well-known contemporary male scholar had come to very similar conclusions, he changed his position and was at once prepared to engage in a detailed discussion on the topic.

This is a great problem, as such work done by women is not taken seriously enough. And it is women who are affected. This also indicates how men fundamentally think about women. Of course, this phenomenon is not just specific to Islam. Whenever a man expresses the same opinion as a woman on a topic, people are prepared to listen to the man.

Yet, we have also experienced positive to euphoric responses from Muslim women. Even some men have responded positively, rarely in writing, however, but more often in telephone calls or personal conversations. This once again shows how men fear making a public admission of such views.

Does the ZIF enjoy contacts with other Muslim groups following similar approaches?

Becker: Unfortunately, there is still no sufficiently established network for cooperation in Europe or even worldwide. But it is emerging. Previously, it has been mainly individuals, such as Fatima Mernissi, Amina Wadud, and Rifaat Hassan, who were noted for such work. We would like to establish contacts with women and groups that use the Koran as the basis for their work and do not only regard Islam as a significant cornerstone of culture. To date, we are the only group in Germany using this approach to interpret the Koran.

Susan Javad

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Literature: ZIF (Ed.): Ein einziges Wort und seine große Wirkung. Eine hermeneutische Betrachtungsweise zum Qur'an, Sure 4 Vers 34, mit Blick auf das Geschlechterverhältnis im Koran. (A single word and its great effect. A hermeneutic approach to Qur'an, Sura 4 Verse 34, with respect to relations between the sexes in the Koran.)


Center for Islamic Women
Discovering the Female Koran
In the Research and Support Center for Islamic Women in Cologne (ZIF) a woman-centered Islamic theology is being drafted. Mona Naggar reports

Lily Zakiyah Munir
The Koran's Spirit of Gender Equality
Lily Zakiyah Munir, Head of the "Center for Pesantren and Democracy Studies", Indonesia, argues that it is not the Koran, but social convention of patriarchal cultures that women in Islamic countries are deprived of equal social status.

Luthfi Assyaukanie
Amina Wadud's Breakthrough
The controversy continues to rage over Amina Wadud, a woman Muslim scholar, who recently led Friday prayer services in New York. Her case is ultimately not about gender and prayer, but about religious tolerance, says Luthfi Assyaukanie

Interview Margot Badran
"Islamic Feminism Is a Universal Discourse"
Margot Badran is an expert in Islam and feminism. In this interview, she talks about the influence of patriarchy on Islam and on how Islamic feminist ideas draw on the Qur'an and how they find their way into religious teachings