We have made it a Qur’an in Arabic, that ye may be able to understand. (Al Quran, 43:3)
Nothing exists except through language. -Gadamer in Truth and Method
Islamic tradition, in many ways, can be described as a tradition of literature and one way to legitimately analyze the above question is to ask whether the core Islamic texts, i.e., Quran and Hadith are necessarily patriarchical . Although it is true that Quran was originally revealed in a primarily patriarchical society and, at least in Islamic tradition’s formative and post-formative periods, interpreted mostly by the subjects of patriarchies, its text equally allows more coherent, less subjective and unauthoritarian interpretations to contest the popular traditionalist (or orthodox) interpretations with a visible patriarchical bent .
A direct import of these orthodox interpretations is that the core texts of Islamic tradition are explicitly sexist in favor of men and advocate a society in which women are essentially subjected to men. Interestingly, these interpretations have ontological as well as hermeneutical basis: ontological, because women are created after/ from men and thus their purpose of creation merely reduces to service provision to a superior creation and hermeneutical, because literal, authoritative and patriarchical readings of the text dictate so.
These patriarchical and to some extent misogynist interpretations of scripture have far reaching implications for the society because they not only serve to demean the status of majority (or at least half) of the Muslim population, thereby subjecting them to the other half, but also render scripture as a misogynist text purporting women as a creation which is essentially unclean, deficient in intellect and created primarily ‘for‘ men. In fact, these readings are authoritatively used to an extent that serving husbands, for instance, is popularly preached as an essential article of a wife’s faith. Indeed, more crass and popularly sold interpretations boastfully build upon vivid details to create a kind of pietism in men where women merely fit as a serving commodity and must not be ‘used more than physically necessary‘ because the real pleasure is coming their way in heavens . But till that time, being an inherent distraction for man’s sexual urges, they should be confined to houses and should be covered from head to toe if they come out.
It is interesting that same interpretations, if objected to, quickly rely upon socio-historical narratives – which are also rooted well in the scripture but generally reduced to secondary narratives in terms of employing them in the popular social discourse – that Islam liberated women from the pre-Islamic traditions and raised their status in a society where daughters were considered a disgrace and female infanticide was a norm.
In my view, the first step towards unreading these oppressively authoritarian and patriarchical interpretations of the scripture is to characterize the hermeneutical tendencies of these predominantly sexist readings. There are various dimensions of this characterization and at least two different broad layers at which critique can be carried out to articulate some right questions: 1) a complete disregard of the so-called hermeneutical gap between various stages of development of Islamic tradition and 2) an almost ambiguous notion of authority, which presumes a monolithic and anachronistic view of interpretive tradition as well as Islamic societies in which that tradition was developed, thereby aiding authoritarian (mis)use of the scripture.
It is perhaps a trite observation that any form of scriptural interpretation is aimed at deciphering the will of God. In Islamic theological tradition, this will, after the demise of Prophet, is essentially embodied in the form of text. It is important to note this peculiarity of character because no human being after the Prophet can explicitly claim absolute knowledge of God’s will. Prophet too, as obvious from the explicit pointers in Quran , only possessed that knowledge due to his exceptional status as a messenger of God, thereby giving this possession a kind of metaphysically intuitive miraculous character, not discernible through ordinary human intellect.
This observation, however, must not be misconstrued to understand that I am in anyway implying delimitation of Prophet’s authority and diminishing his interpretive role . In fact, being the direct recipient of revelation and its carrier, Prophet’s will (that is Sunnah) is only the second most important source of Islamic law after Quran; however, this will is also contained in textual reports , which are preserved, transmitted and defended by generations of Muslims. The peculiar textual nature of this will is evident by the fact that Muslims have proudly developed exceptionally scientific methods to criticize these textual (and once oral) reports for validity of the content as well as authenticity of transmission. Deciphering God’s will, therefore, since the formative periods of Islam is essentially an interpretive enterprise; and any claim regarding absolute and exhaustive knowledge of that will would not only be fallacious but can be seen as effectively claiming the interpretive character of none other than Prophet himself.
Many modern semantic theories generally characterize texts through three dimensional models which, in one way or the other, incorporate roles of author, reader and the text itself in the hermeneutical or interpretive undertakings. Moreover, these three components are always interrelated as texts are understood to be bound by contexts and contain words with multiple communities of meanings which are used by readers (as they access texts) to decipher the original intent (or will) of the author. Jorge Gracia, a contemporary expert on texts, defines them  as
Groups of entities, used as signs, that are selected, arranged and intended by an author in a certain context to convey some specific meanings to an audience.
This is indeed a conservatively concise definition (not involving artifacts and other art forms) but enough to convey the complexities that surround a text for our present purpose. Moreover, this definition explicitly implies that all texts (and Divine ones are no exception) allow variant readings by nature, as all the audience are bound to disagree regarding the original intent of the author to some extent, thus goes the famous cliche that no two persons ever read the same book.
Admittedly, this definition is rather more fluidly structured than the conventional concept of Nass  in Islamic tradition, which is more stringently structured and symmetrically deterministic to cater for Quranic claim of divinity, transcendence and immutability; rightly so, because of the peculiar character of the author here – who is Himself believed to be Divine and Transcendent – which necessitates a faith-based assumption that He must have chosen and structured each word and phrase carefully enough to convey His full intent in best possible manner. Yet, these are still words and to paraphrase a saying attributed to Ali Ibn Abi Talib- one of the most knowledgeable and equipped exegetes in whole Islamic tradition – Quran is but ink and paper and ultimately it is a human enterprise which makes sense of it. In other words, it is reasonable to contend that language is an imperfect medium, and the faith-based assumption that God uses that medium perfectly does not reduces the inherent ambiguities and complexities of the medium itself.
Therefore, any interpretive indulgence remaining within the conventional dictates of language, thereby not relying on some esoteric knowledge inaccessible by the whole linguistic community or employing an orphic or quasi-orphic semiotic and semantic framework, has to be respected as a reasonable interpretation of scripture and a well intended exercise to decipher God’s will, albeit allowing disagreement and criticism by adherents of other readings. ______________________________________
- It is important to note that I am not mentioning the sources of Islamic law but the core texts; the former implies sources other than Quran and Sunnah, with Sunnah being defined in various ways and other sources being selected and weighed according to methodological dictates of a particular juridic tradition or an individual jurisconsult. I employ the terminology of text as it is more in line with the present framework of inquiry.
- I hate to simplistically employ complex (and often confusing) terminologies like traditional or orthodox but unfortunately the present discourse in predominantly patriarchical Muslim societies like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia demands that; primarily, because adherents to these patriarchical readings of scripture themselves choose to employ these cliches and love to associate with these dualities.
- An example is recently circulated video lecture by a Pakistanic scholar on connubial pleasures in heaven. The lecture is in Urdu titled Jannat Ki Hoor and can be accessed here.
- See for instance, verse 41:6 or 6:50.
- My views on the question of Prophetic authority can be accessed here and here.
- To contend that Sunnah is only contained in textual reports (i.e., Hadith) is rather another oversimplification, but one which is the popularly held orthodox stance; in reality, there are classical as well as modernist schools and individuals who also/ or only believed in some form of perpetually transmitted practice as Sunnah, which obviously is supported by textual reports too.
- Jorge Gracia, Texts: Ontological Status, Identity, Author, Audience.
- Nass is a term used in Islamic jurisprudence to generally mean a clear legal injunction; however, there are other specific legal connotations too, for instance, declaring a legal injunction as Nass may entail that there is not an iota of doubt that the said injunction can be authentically traced back to the originator, which may be God or the Prophet.