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A feminist reading of the Koran


Malala Yousafzai in hospital bed with a teddyIt'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 (pictured) 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 the ground.

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 their war.'

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 men.

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 women are 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 Koran. 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 Koran 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 Koran 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 Koran commands, 'Read. Read in the name of your lord'?

Ruby HamadRuby Hamad is a Sydney writer and associate editor of progressive feminist website The Scavenger. She blogs and tweets


Topic tags: Ruby Hamad, Muslim women, feminism, Islam, Malala Yousafzai, Taliban



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Existing comments

It would be good for Muslim women to hear Islamic leaders condemn this shooting as unislamic. Have there been public condemnations by any Muslim leaders? I know there is no 'one' authority but if a group of Muslim leaders condemned it publicly in the global media as a unified voice, this would announce that such killings and beatings are not islamic and hence not permitted.

Skye | 22 October 2012  

Thanks Ruby. I have lived and worked in North Africa and the Middle East, and it has been greatly worrying to see the apparent resurgence of fundamentalism in Islam. The trouble with scriptures of any kind is that they can be made to mean whatever you want them to mean. The Bible, for instance, is still being used to justify some appalling attitudes and behaviours. One of the problems for Muslims is the fact, as you mention, that they must model their lives on the life of Mohammed. Unfortunately, at the time Mohammed lived, polygamy was the norm, and the Prophet was no exception. And, of course, girls could (and still can) be married at a very early age. Mohammed's youngest wife, Aisha, was only nine when she was married. So, no matter how reasonable Mohammed might have been about women, he was a prisoner of his time, as we all are. In Australia in 2012, a nine-year-old bride would be considered to be a victim of pedophilia. The vast majority of the Muslim people I have worked with are gentle, delightful people. As far as I know I never met or worked with an 'extremist'. But I did work with people who were trying to come to grips with some of the issues you mention. There is, however, a powerful minority whose principal weapon is fear. How do you fight fear with nothing more potent than reasonableness?

Kate Ahearne | 22 October 2012  

Hi Skye, Several Muslim leaders in Pakistan have already condemned the shootings. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia/2012/10/201210127446942327.html Hi Kate, Yes, I agree, in many ways Mohammed was ahead of his time, whilst in others, he was a man of his time. The issue of his polygamy is a thorny one. It is worth noting that his first marriage was monogamous until his wife died when he was in his fifties (she was about 15 years older than him). His other marriages were largely politically motivated to seal alliances with tribal leaders and promote the spread of Islam. He also married former slave girls and freed them. Aisha is a particularly problematic issue. Recently scholars are disputing her age. It is thought her youth may have been exaggerated by later Muslim leaders in order to stress her virginity (she was the only one of Mohammed's wives to be a virgin when they married, which again gives an indication that female 'purity' was not a big issue with him). But of course, it was so long ago, it is impossible to discover the whole truth.

Ruby Hamad | 22 October 2012  

The condemnation of acts by leading Imam's and koran scholars - such as beheading, the surgical removal of perfectly good hands ( for theft etc), stoning and whipping is frequent. Ignorance can only be removed by education and the destruction of poverty. The answers dear Brutus, lie in ourselves so long as First world countries promote the arms race and spend so much on undeclared wars as they jostle for power and trade. 'Imagine' as in the Beatles song, a world where moneys spent on space exploration: that huge 'cyclotron' that emits small 'black holes': and arms were redirected into sustainable environments: purified water: sanitation and health care: in the poverty-struck parts of the world. We have the means: the science: and the expressed but ineffective will of the people. When will we ever learn? Prayer nis effective but not enough.

Dr Karl H Cameron-Jackson | 22 October 2012  

Ruby, I condemn all the barbarous acts that you condemn. However, I am puzled by your claim that Mohammed was against wife-beating. It says in the Quran 4.34 "Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for God's guarding. And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them." If the Quran is the immutable word of Allah, how can anyone argue for a reinterpreation of this, a verse that plainly allows men to assault their wives? How can you reconcile what you wrote about Mohammed condemning wife-beating with this verse from the Quran?

John Ryan | 22 October 2012  

Look, the whole problem stems from the fact that the Taliban think basing their morality on the arbitrary edicts of a capricious god contained in an ancient book of myths is a reasonable thing to do. It is not. For you to argue for a different morality based upon the same ridiculous methodology makes your argument no more valid than theirs. Morality should be determined using our evolved reason and empathy.

MarkNS | 22 October 2012  

JOHN RYAN are you really claiming that every word in Christian scripture was meant to be taken literally? Have you not heard of symbolism, or respecting different verses of scripture within the context they were written? I haven't noticed many Christians gouging their own eyes out lately, have you? Matthew 5:29 "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell."

AURELIUS | 22 October 2012  

Also the Qur'an says: in (4.34Dawwod) Men have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the other. In the Qur'an (2.282) it says: And call to witness, from among your men, two witnesses. And if two men be not (at hand) then a man and two women of such as ye approve as witnesses, so that if one erreth (through forgetfulness) the other will remember. "So one male witness is equal to two women witnesses. It is important to learn what Islam stands for."

Ron Cini | 22 October 2012  

AURELIUS, it does not matter how either you or I choose to interpret scripture. It matters how Muslims approach their scriptures. If you are not aware of it, the Quran is seen as the word of Allah verbatim. It holds true for all times, places and people. Interpretation itself is hence somewhat problematic. Ruby said that Mohammed was against wife-beating. I presented her with a passage from the Quran that directs husbands to beat their wives. I have respectfully asked for a response. If the sacred texts of a religion teach violence, you are likely to have its followers living violently. If the religion teaches peace, etc.

John Ryan | 23 October 2012  

Just a response to Dr Karl H Cameron-Jackson; there is a huge difference between money spent on space exploration and into the moments directly after the universe came into being, and money spent on weapons and war. One is about gaining knowledge, and the other is about destruction. That is exactly what this extremely brave young woman is defending; our right to knowledge, regardless of gender. There is a continuum between the fight for basic education and the highest pursuit of knowledge about the universe. To get back to the major issue, if I had to define wicked, I'd simply point to the person who shot this girl.

Penelope | 23 October 2012  

It is interesting that this article has not drawn a single comment from any recognised, knowledgeable, moderate, mainstream member of the Muslim community in this country. Several of them have contributed articles to Eureka Street in the past. I am sure all of them would condemn the cowardly shooting of Malala Yousufzai by the Pakistani Taliban and its totally disingenuous justification of that act. Using this atrocity as an intellectual peg to call for a "feminist reading of the Koran" may seem a step too far as I suspect many Muslims may be unsure or suspicious of where Ruby Hamad is coming from. That would be the same with Catholics who read calls for a feminist critique of Catholicism. They would surely ask exactly what sort of feminism is involved. Is this feminism from within the religion or is it from outside? Is Ruby Hamad a Fatema Mernissi or is she an Ayaan Hirsi Ali? Having read Ruby's blog and knowing a little about Islam, both from study and residence abroad, I am not fully sure myself. I know Ruby is a cultural Muslim and interested in the religion but no more. By the way I found the women's comments on this article by far the most insightful.

Edward F | 23 October 2012  

Hmm. I can't accept that Mohammed is an advocate for gender quality when it is open acknowledged that he married Aisha when she was 6 years old and consummated the marriage when the was 9years old! How could a nine year old give informed consent to marriage? The Hadiths and Islamic Sharia Law are used to justify child marriage in countries such as Saudi Arabia.

Catherine | 23 October 2012  

I tried to answer your question yesterday but the comment hasn't shown up. That verse has been the source of much debate over the years. In a nutshell, the word 'daraba' has many different meanings, one of which is 'to strike at.' Hence the interpretation that 'allows' wife beating. However, it can also mean (amongst other things) 'to set a clear example' and even 'to have intercourse with.' So depending on how you choose to interpret it, that verse can either call for a man to hit his wife, set an example for her, or seduce her.

Ruby Hamad | 23 October 2012  


Please see my comments regarding Aisha in a previous post above.

Ruby Hamad | 23 October 2012  

Thanks, Ruby. I'll take interpretations 2 and 3 of the verb, not always necessarily in that order!

John Ryan | 23 October 2012  

Interesting the Pakistani Taliban have threatened the life of another teenage girl from Swat, Hinna Khan, who is also an advocate of women's education. She and her family have fled to Islamabad. I think there is no doubt that they are targeting secular and women's education.

Edward F | 25 October 2012  

I am sorry to disappoint, Ruby but in the context of the verse, "daraba" can only mean "beat".

Amal | 25 October 2012  

Amal, please expand on this. I have never seen a Koran online with a translation other than 'beat'. What do you base your claim on?

John Ryan | 25 October 2012  

Excuse me people: Please re-read the headline to this article - a "feminist" reading of the Koran. SO obviously women/feminists would not interpret the word as "beat". There are many aspects of Christian writings and traditions that should also be challenged and changed by feminist critique - which from my perspective as a male, means a just/balanced/accurate/more objective and spirited critique - getting closer to the truth.

AURELIUS | 26 October 2012  

Quranic exegesis is a notoriously difficult subject, John Ryan. As a confessed non-expert, these two references, the first from the site Islam Tomorrow:
http://www.islamtomorrow.com/articles/women_treatment.htm and the second from True Islam : http://www.quran-islam.org/articles/beating_women_(P1179).html

may help.

I believe it is Islamic Tradition Muhammad never beat any of his wives.

Edward F | 26 October 2012  

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has written passionately and objectively on the commitment that culture embedded versions of islam have to violence, both physical and mental. The lesson for Australia is that we should not shy from being critical of error and cultural mores that violate human rights. It is our duty not to defend multiculturalism, but to recognise and respond to error, be this in the warped outcry of fundamentalists or in the cultural practices that enslave the mind or the body.

I strongly urge readers to read Ayaan Hirsi Ali's two core works, Infidel and Nomad. Both belong in the list of works on refugee experiences that are a must read.

joe remenyi | 26 October 2012  

John Ryan. From the Arabic-English dictionary Al-Mawrid Al-Waseet, edition 4 1998, page 463, "daraba" is a verb meaning, to beat, strike, hit, to knock. Also, "daraba mathalan" is an expression that means to set an example.

Amal | 28 October 2012  

Amal, thank you. I do not read Arabic script. Unless Ruby Hamad can come back with a citation from some other reputable dictionary, I think that you have won the arugment.

John Ryan | 29 October 2012  

AMAL and JOHN, There are countless websites one can visit that discuss the meaning and context of Daraba. Here are a few. I recommend you read them if you are interested. If one chooses to interpret the verb as 'beat' then that is up to them. But it is incorrect and dishonest to claim that their preferred interpretation is the only one. This first link explains that Daraba, even in the Koran itself is used in at least 15 different ways. http://www.quran-islam.org/articles/beating_women_%28P1179%29.html http://www.webislam.com/articles/70551-on_the_unlawfulness_of_wife_beating.html http://www.islamtomorrow.com/articles/women_treatment.htm

Ruby Hamad | 30 October 2012  

How very fortunate we are to be able to have this discussion. Literalists of any faith would dismiss this as 'intellectualism'! Please keep up this discussion Ruby, Australians need to enquire into issues, such as male headship, so we can move on out of this medieval mindset. And.....what about the lives of the silent women who are beaten? This is not just an intellectual problem - it is unacceptable surely to Aussies.

Jennifer Raper | 30 October 2012  

Interesting that two of the three web references you gave were ones I had already cited, Ruby. The web is very good like that: anyone, even a non-expert, can retrieve much valuable information. The problem these days is not so much information retrieval but its use. Given the fact that the Quran is in Classical Arabic it is incredibly difficult to understand. A whole discipline of tafsir (commentary on the Quran) has grown up, similar to Biblical scholarship, to assist Muslims to understand it. One of the most comprehensive tafsir websites, with appropriate links, is: http://www.altafsir.com/. I think the problem for most readers of this thread, unless they have some knowledge of Islam, is that, reading a translation, even a good one such as A J Arberry's; Yusuf Ali's or Muhammad Asad's with a commentary, is that they might find it hard to feel at home or at ease in the cultural context of Islam and find it quite alien; incomprehensible and even threatening as it is in many ways similar to Christianity but also very different. Many Westerners need a good introduction to Islam. I found the late Hammudah Abd-Al-Ati's "Islam in Focus", which I came across in my travels in Indonesia in the 1970s, immensely useful there. It was written by a genuine Islamic scholar, trained in both Egypt and the West, who spent much of his adult life in North America. Something like this, or a good course, led by someone knowledgeable of both worlds, would seem essential. There are some Muslim scholars in Australia, such as Professor Abdullah Saeed of Melbourne University and his predecessor, Dr Abdul Khaliq Kazi, who have similar knowledge and experience who do sometimes speak publicly and write. I think Muslims in Australia and the West also need to read about and try to understand Christianity. There is often great ignorance there. It would be a real tragedy if the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism; Christianity and Islam continue to bicker and fight amongst themselves. You and Amal have provided a necessary educative experience for at least some readers of this thread who do wish to understand.

Edward F | 30 October 2012  

Ruby, thank you for providing the links. As for the first link, the author is trying to explain verse 4:34 to non-Arabic readers. While exploring the different meanings that derive from the use of the verb “daraba”, it is important to mention that in order to obtain a variation, the word “daraba” should be part of a phrase, otherwise it means “beat” or “strike”. It also cannot mean “strike out”, in that case it would be “daraba baiidan”. Therefore, in the context of verse 4:34, “daraba” means “beat” simple and clear. As for the second link, I agree with the need of finding an appropriate interpretation or “fatwa” to the verse in the context of the modern world, but this does not change its correct translation and I am quoting the text in the link “but those wives from whom you fear arrogance - first advise them; then if they persist, forsake them in bed; and finally, strike them". And finally the third link, I disagree with the following translation “Regarding the woman who is guilty of lewd, or indecent behavior, admonish her (if she continues in this indecency then), stop sharing her bed (if she still continues doing this lewd behavior, then), [set forth for her the clear meaning of either straighten up or else we are finished” This is my translation: “Regarding the women you fear would be unfaithful, talk to them, then stop sharing their beds, then beat them”

Amal | 31 October 2012  

Found it to be the missing piece in the puzzle,the sort of article that ought to be in the Age or other big dailies,instead of some of the likely ill-informed, shallow and biased stuff that gets priority now. At the back of my mind is Edward Said. The stuff that gets peddled through media and press is akin to the medieval stuff from rival views mentioned in history, where Christians drink blood or Jews eat babies, or more recently the "perils of communism". It defeats the idea of finding out about a suite of ideas from those brought up with it, the insiders view that will explain most intimately the basis, motives and aims of that theology or ideology (including secularism). It's better to find out different takes rather than a single view, particularly when the view offered is likely prejudged through mediation by other, often unconscious, factors. Just closing, I notice the first post wondering if Islamic clerics had condemned the attack. Apparently a group of Islamic clerics in Pakistan did just that, which just goes to prove that, as with Christianity and Judaism, there are conflicts of interpretation between moderates and fundamentalists.

paul walter | 06 November 2012  

Understanding Islam is not about textual criticism, nor relating this to particular themes, but about comprehending the big picture. The canvas is so vast and the perspective, at once seemingly familiar and alarmingly different, difficult to accustom oneself to. I think we have a long way to go.

Edward F | 08 November 2012  

For those who want 'daraba' to mean "to have intercourse with" instead of "to beat" - only an idiot would think verse 4:34 means to admonish them and banish them to beds apart, then have intercourse with them. How is one to have sex with a wife that is beds apart? Why make excuses? 2,000 years ago the rabbis realized that the death penalty for adultery, disrespecting parents, stealing, etc. was too savage and changed the law. Times changed and the Jews changed with it. Muslims must do likewise. Admit that the verse means beat the shit out of your wife and just say, "The Quran is wrong. Times have changed, do not beat your wife." Do not leave it up to interpretation, doing so has led to the deaths of millions of Muslim women.

Bernie from Planck's Constant | 28 February 2013  

Great article Ruby. Thank you.

Helen Bergen | 30 May 2013  

Quran Reading - Quran Reading online at home and Read Quran with tajweed. Quran Study Online classes for kids, muslims from online quran tutor. http://myquranlesson.com/courses.php

Quran Reading | 05 June 2013  

Great writing Ruby, keep up the good work. I esp. liked your comments on jihadis. Unfortunately all great original insights into the human condition seem to become, eventually, distorted, even among retrograde sections of Buddhism.

Alan Lucas | 09 January 2014  

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