Can passages of the Quran be cherry-picked — to embrace what is appealing and to skirt around what is not ? That is the question
In his article on how religions evolve (‘Let’s talk to the Book’, IE, July 15), Ramesh Venkataraman makes the interesting proposition that the ongoing debate on triple talaq in the country signals the welcome stirring of the reform process in Indian Islam. In parting, he should perhaps have urged Indian Muslims to speed up a bit. For in their slow march forward Indian Muslims are way behind their co-religionists elsewhere who have been asking tough questions of their Book, making bold demands of their faith and its followers. Not surprisingly, Muslims committed to universal human rights, gender justice, non-discrimination between citizens on grounds of religion etc face difficulties with many a Quranic verse.
On gender justice, a good example is the oft-quoted verse 4:34 (Venkataraman quotes it partially): “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly).”
Venkataraman quotes the philosopher Anthony Appiah as saying that the reform of Christianity 500 years ago was greatly facilitated by the fact that on encountering morally ambiguous, contradictory or problematic passages, ordinary Christians who started reading the Bible for themselves decided on “which passages to read into and which to read past.” Simply stated, the reformists chose to “cherry-pick” from among the passages of the Bible, embracing what was appealing, skirting around what seemed appalling.
But how do you “read past” any verse of the Quran if as a believing Muslim for you it is an absolute article of faith that the Quran is the Word of Allah revealed to Prophet Mohammed through the Archangel Gabriel? For a believing Muslim who agrees that any meaningful reform in Islam today must necessarily address the issue of equality between the sexes, there is no way to skirt around 4:34. You simply have to engage with it. But then, how do you reconcile your faith in an Allah who endorses male superiority and recommends wife-beating with your fidelity to the principle of gender justice?
To get around this thorny issue some current-day Muslims resort to a linguistic device, claiming that the Arabic word “darab” in the verse has meanings other than “beating”. The fact, however, is that the overwhelming majority of exegetes, the liberal ones included, accept the translation of “darab”( d-r-b) as physical chastisement. The only dispute is over issues such as at when it’s OK to beat and the permissible intensity of the beating (according to some a feather or a flower are the only permissible weapons). The late Moroccan Islamic scholar, Fatima Mernissi, notes that the immediate context of the revelation of verse 4:34 was a woman’s complaint to the Prophet that her husband had slapped her. The revelation then had necessarily to address the issue of wife-beating.
While this issue remains a knotty one, in recent years several women (and men) scholars of Islam — Mernissi, Amina Wadud, Riffat Hassan, Asma Barlas among others — have credibly argued that the Quran is a gender-sensitive document. For them, it is the exegetes with patriarchal mindsets who are responsible for having read patriarchy into the Quran. For example, in her book, Believing women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Quran, Asma Barlas argues: “The Quran recognises men as the locus of power and authority in actually existing patriarchies. However, recognising the existence of patriarchy, or addressing one, is not the same as advocating it”.
Interestingly, while many Muslim women scholars and activists see Allah as being entirely on their side in their “gender jihad” against the patriarchs of Islam (ulama), South Africa’s Farid Esack, a male educated in a Pakistani madrasa, a believing, practising Muslim, an Imam to boot, has an interesting point to make. Esack agrees that the Quran does contain “sufficient seeds for those committed to human rights and gender justice to live in fidelity to its underlying ethos”. But he argues that the liberal Muslim claim that “the Quran is a Magna Carta of gender justice does not withstand the scrutiny of critical scholarship”. In a paper titled, “What Do Men Owe to Women? Islam & Gender Justice: Beyond Simplistic Apologia”, Esack labels several renowned “liberal” Islamic scholars as “Islam’s apologists”.
To drive his point home, Esack quotes the late Anglican Bishop Kenneth Cragg who observed: “The eternal cannot enter time without a time when it enters. Revelation to history cannot occur outside it. A prophet cannot arise except in a generation and a native land, directives from heaven cannot impinge upon an earthly vacuum.” In other words, constrained by the time and place of revelation — seventh century Arabia — the Quran could not possibly be a Magna Carta of gender justice, speaking the language of the 21st century. (Even today, 15 centuries later, gender injustice plagues the world cutting across communities, countries and cultures).
Mernissi says the same thing differently: “If men had need of God, God also had need of men”. In her book, Women and Islam, she points out that the gender question almost precipitated a civil war within the very first generation of Muslims. “Faced with the difficult choice — equality between the sexes or the survival of Islam — the genius of Mohammed and the greatness of his God shows in the fact that at least at the beginning of the seventh century the question was posed and the community was pushed to reflect on it”. She blames the later exegetes for not pushing the envelope.
Esack who has issues not only with verse 4:34 but with others too pertaining to gender has no hesitation saying: “If a choice has to be made between violence towards the text and textual legitimisation of violence against real people (women) then I would be comfortable to plead guilty to charges of violence against the text”. Esack has no difficulty in quarrelling with the Book for “my theology is about a God that is essentially just and compassionate”.
Notwithstanding the differences between the different strands within Islam — traditional, liberal, progressive, extremist — one thing has remained a constant among most believing Muslims: The belief that the Quran is the Word of Allah.
But now enters a British Muslim, Hassan Radwan. In an article recently published by the online portal New Age Islam, he makes an altogether radical prescription for salvaging Islam from “the hardline literalists undermining the soul of a loving, universal creed”. According to him, “Liberal and progressive interpretations depend mostly on nuanced readings of the Quran and Sunna, or forcing new meanings out of them. But by playing the extremists’ game of interpreting the texts, we allow them a semblance of legitimacy. We also give them the opportunity to come back with theological workarounds”.
So, what is to be done? Radwan’s answer: “We Muslims need to take the bold step of challenging the very idea that the Quran and Sunna are infallible.” But how can the Quran, the word of God, be fallible? Simple. “The Quran is not the speech of God”, he maintains, quoting several modern-day Muslim scholars as also quite a few from the early period of Islam in support.
According to Radwan, once Muslims accept that the Quran is not the Word of God, they can “unashamedly cherry-pick” from among the Quranic verses, accepting the good ones and rejecting the bad. Like the Christian reformists did 500 years ago?