Women, over the years, have been able to assert themselves and win back some of their rights from a world that had been overly dominated, since time immemorial, by men’s priorities. In a patriarchal society, men have defined gender roles in the belief that women are inherently weak and must have a subordinate status for the sake of a family’s sanctity and a society’s prosperity.
Muslim societies in particular are associated with the subjugation of women that is said to be inspired by the very scripture they believe should drive each and every aspect of their lives. However, the interesting thing is that the interpretation of the scripture, in this case the Quran for Muslims, is almost always a domain exclusively reserved for Muslim male scholars.
I often wondered how women would interpret this scripture, especially those verses relating to women’s role and status in a society. And then I came across this book, “No Truth without Beauty – God, the Qur’an, and Women’s Rights” by Leena El-Ali that shed light on a woman believer’s perspective about the Quranic position on gender with convincing arguments and credible evidence.
Leena El-Ali, a Lebanese origin Muslim raised and educated in Lebanon and Britain and currently living in the United States, with a background in economics, development, human rights and conflict resolution, provides in this book an interesting, alternative and feminist interpretation of the verses from the Quran relating to women’ rights and status.
From that perspective, Islam turns out to be a most progressive, liberal and just religion that established a high level of equality, fair play, justice, respect and dignity for both genders, and indeed for the whole of humanity. The message I get from it is that women are equal to men in all respects, and are as capable as men, if not more, of doing anything that men can do. They have even more patience, perseverance and courage than men in some cases given the mistreatment and disadvantages they have suffered historically.
Leena El-Ali, a Lebanese origin Muslim raised and educated in Lebanon and Britain and currently living in the United States, with a background in economics, development, human rights and conflict resolution, provides in this book an interesting, alternative and feminist interpretation of the Quranic verses related to women’s rights and status.
She covers all the important and contentious issues that are said to have kept Muslim societies frozen in history, unable to keep pace with an ever-evolving world. These include the issue of the subordination of wives to husbands, the beating of wives, polygamy, the right to divorce, the right to leadership, inheritance rights, veiling, the segregation of gender, women as legal witnesses, and much more.
She challenges the traditional interpretation of these verses that have shaped Muslim societies in the past and continue to do so today. Khaled Abou El Fadl, one of the foremost scholars of Islam today and Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA writes in his forward of the book, “Leena El-Ali insightfully notes that the Qur’an instituted an affirmative action methodology that revolved around the promotion, protection, and inclusion of women. But as Leena El-Ali recognises, the male-dominated interpretive tradition of Islam has often frustrated and defeated the Qur’an’s affirmative action and made the divine will largely unresponsive and unsympathetic to women’s agency and autonomy”.
The major problem arises from missing the particular context of any verse or injunction. Leena El-Ali thinks that “context” should not simply mean the historical context of a particular verse or even how it relates to the verses immediately before and after it. We must consider the Quranic whole on any given topic, and try to see things in the totality of the Quranic message in order to understand a specific verse. We are too focused on zooming in, as she points out, when a comprehensive understanding requires us to zoom out to try to see the big picture. She uses the expression, “can’t see the woods for the trees” to drive her point home.
A second challenge comes from the over emphasis of Muslim scholars and jurists, when interpreting the Quran, on establishing laws to govern daily life in society. She points out that only about 5% of the Qur’an actually relates to regulations or legal rulings. A larger part of it covers two major themes: good conduct in one’s personal, social and familial life, and specific commentary on a past or present event unfolding during the Prophet’s life.
Yet another challenge to understanding the meaning and spirit of a Quranic injunction comes from varying accounts of the hadith literature, which took over two centuries to take shape, with its moreover different degrees of authenticity according to the hadith compilers themselves. She explains that “the scholars/jurists did not shy away from openly using weak hadith to justify establishing a certain law if in their own minds they were doing so for the greater good, in so far as they believed that prevailing custom carried an inherent legitimacy, or ‘lawfulness’, in their societies.”
She carefully constructs her arguments in the book, which is divided into 5 parts. The first part is a landscape tour of hadith development and methodology, while the remaining four parts address 17 different topics that relate specifically to women, each in a chapter that serves as a “standalone and useful reference on its topic, where all the relevant verses and associated myths, historical contexts, intra-textual contexts and other relevant information on that particular topic can be found.”
I don’t claim to have the credentials to make a final judgment on her interpretations of the verses, but I did feel intrigued enough to read the book and consider the possibility of an alternative view about a topic so confusing and contentious to many modern sensibilities. It goes without saying, though, that no progress is possible without acknowledging and giving equal rights and opportunities to women in every sphere of life.
I would recommend that this book be widely discussed at all forums – educational, social and communal – in Muslim majority countries as well as in the Western world, so we continue learning and correcting our perceptions and behavior regarding gender and what the Quran has to say about it.