Patriarchy can be defined as a system of male domination and male superiority, affecting all spheres of life. It is a system that is violent, that oppresses and which can be said has started wars. One of the examples of its violence I will write about here however, is how it is responsible for understanding the Qur’an as a patriarchal, and as such, violent text.
From prophet Ibrahim to prophet Muhammed, all lived in periods and contexts where the society was built on the tradition “of the fathers”. Not only did this mean the superiority of father-rule, it also meant that the tradition, and with that the customs surrounding worship and spiritual practise, “of the fathers” were sacred. Moreover, the superiority of men was such that female born babies were unwanted to the extent that they were at times buried, as women were considered having less or no importance in society. When the prophets came with the message to leave this tradition of their father and forefathers in order to follow and commit to One God, this message was not only one of monotheism, but also radical and subversive, intending to break with tradition, a total departure from the norm to make people’s lives better. But how, you may ask? How did this message of subverting the existing society intent to create a better one?
Let us go back to the Qur’an, and as such take Meccan society at the time of prophet Muhammed as an example. With the Kaaba at the centre of their city, pre-Islamic Mecca, just as today, would once a year be flooded with pilgrims coming from the whole wider region. By connecting this religious practise to trade, the ruling Meccan tribes, the Quraysh, found the key to economical power and dominance. As such, again just like today, pre-Islamic Mecca could be defined as a highly capitalist society, exploiting every aspect of the pilgrimage, from basic access, to sacrifices, to water consumption. And, as a natural consequence of capitalism, pre-Islamic Mecca was a highly unequal and unjust society. The message of prophet Muhammed then, talking about the One God, was not considered as much a threat due to its monotheism. In fact, monotheism was far from foreign to the region, considering that the society included Jews, Christians, and those that were called hanifs, a group of people believing in one God. Even the Quraysh were not as polytheistic as Muslims today like to claim, believing in one upper god called Al-Lah, but believing in the need of its three ‘daughters’ as intermediaries. Rather then, the message of the Qur’an was intensely resisted from the onset as it provided a serious threat to the existing system of power and dominance.
The call of the Qur’an to leave the tradition of the fathers, and replace the idea of blood ties and tribal loyalty with a new, transcending idea of a worldwide community of believers, meant a direct attack to Mecca’s patriarchal society, that depended on this structure for its very economic profit. To say that one does not need intermediaries in connecting and communicating with God means no need for institutions and systems in place that in return for payment offer you an opportunity to connect with the Divine. To call for fair trade and fair pricing means an end to monopolies and economically exploiting the yearly pilgrimage. The call to “stand up for justice, even if it is against yourself, or your parents, or your kin…” [Qur’an 4:135] means justice and each and everyone’s responsibility to seek justice stands above family ties and transcends any other loyalty, and consequently a call to stand up against Mecca’s unjust society, something the Meccans surely were aware of. Moreover, the Qur’an condemned existing violent practises of the time, such as the killing of female babies, called for the freeing of slaves, and called for an end to political and economical injustice. In short, the Qur’anic message aimed at a radical and social-economic reform, and to create a new and equal society where all people would be connected through the sharing of believes and commitment to justice.
Fast forward 1400 years later, and we see little back from this reformative and revolutionary message. Patriarchy is everywhere and today’s Meccan society is still ‘keeper of the keys’ and exploiting the yearly pilgrimage, allowing us to argue that the very reason that caused for the Qur’an to be revealed, still exists today. What then, went wrong? Whilst this is no historical piece and we are not able to go back in time, one of the explanations can be found in the history of textual interpretation, and the hadith. While, as shown by various scholars such as Asma Barlas, Amina Wadud, Farid Esack and Fazlur Rahman, the Qur’an clearly contains a anti-patriarchal message, it was nonetheless read and interpreted, not only in a patriarchal society, but also only by men. While during the time of prophet Muhammed women had prominent roles in rituals and knowledge production, after the prophet’s passing, women, still seen as inferior to men, were left out and completely marginalized. It meant that women were not allowed to participate in defining how to understand and apply the Qur’an, resulting unavoidably in an understanding that does not consider the existence or reality of women and women’s lives. To elaborate, one’s individual life, experience and reality shapes one’s understanding of the world around you, what you see, hear and read. Based on one’s reality and experience as a male, you will have a different understanding reading the text than a female will have, and no human being is able to transcend their gender and their gendered experience in this world. Moreover, the established methodology of tafsir meant a shift from focussing on the Qur’an, to focussing on the hadith. And while, islamically, the Qur’an is claimed to be the word of God, the hadith is not. The hadith is fallible yet is often the source picked to back up patriarchal and misogynistic claims, speaks about countless aspects of life and rules that do not even feature in the Qur’an, and is able to ‘shut down’ everything the Qur’an opened up.
Finally then, what can we do to reverse this violent history, and reclaim this message for us as women? God blessed all human beings with brains and intelligence, and gave us the ability to think, reason and reflect. What is stopping us from returning to the text, and giving authority to our own understanding of it? Because to accept the authority of men or any other group and to resign ourselves to misreadings of Islam not only makes us complicit in the continued abuse of Islam and the abuse of women in the name of Islam, but it also means we lose without even having put up a fight. Moreover, to take the Qur’an and read directly ourselves, without listening to how others tell us we should interpret this text, is actually following the very first Revelation to the unlettered prophet Muhammed, “Iqra’!” or, “Read!”.