Nicholas Vachon: The Techniques of Islamic Feminism

The alleged misogynistic character of the Qur’an and Islam has been a frequent source of controversy in Muslim nations and in the west. In America and Europe, those opposed to Muslim immigration and refuges claim that Islam is incompatible with western values of gender equality, ignoring the fact that true equality between men and women does not exist in either Islamic or Western societies. Much like in Christianity and Judaism, Islamic scholars have examined the Qur’an in search of pro-equality messages. There are two primary means through which Qur’anic exegetes attempt to read support for feminism into the Qur’an. The first is language based, revolving around making an argument making an argument concerning the definitions or intent of the Qur’an. The second is through focusing on the importance of the context of the Qur’an. These scholars point to the socio-political concerns of the early Muslim community as the reason for the Quran’s misogynistic content.

The most significant challenge to claims of Qur’anic feminism come from within the text, in verse 4:34, where it is written that:

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given one the more than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in absence what God would have them guard. As to those women whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them, refuse to share their beds, beat them; but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means: for God is Most High 1

Such a verse seems to be a bullet to the heart of any claims that the Qur’an supports equality between man and woman. The text clearly permits a man to beat his spouse. Despite this, Qur’anic scholars, using language and context-based arguments, have suggested several alternative interpretations of the Qur’an that diminish the verse’s misogyny.

The first revolves around different interpretations of the actual language of the Qur’an. Rachel Scott notes that the phrase “beat them” may have been misread. She writes that, “some interpreters have subjected the term daraba, which has most often been translated as “to beat,” to further semantic analysis. In a recent translation of the Qur’an, Laleh Bakhtiar has translated daraba as “go away from.” Thus, it is argued, idribubunna, as it appears in the verse, does not mean “hit them” but “leave them.””2 By attacking the definitions of problematic phrases Qur’anic exegetes hope to provide religious support for feminist causes. Amina Wadud, on the subject of the use of male and female pronouns in the Qur’an, states that “A divine text must overcome the natural restrictions of the language of human communication.”3 The implication of this is that God had to communicate his message to Muhammad with the constraints of the Arabic language. Why God had to adhere to syntax and couldn’t devise a less ambiguous solution remains unaddressed.

The second way that feminist exegetes address misogyny in the Qur’an is through arguments concerning the historical context of the Qur’an. Wadud uses “the method of Qur’anic interpretation proposed by Fazlur Rahman. He suggests that all Qur’anic passages, revealed as they were in a specific time in history and within certain general and particular circumstances, were given expression relative to those circumstances.”4 This is generally the position that context-focused scholars rely upon. Rachel M. Scott, writing on the practice of Qur’anic contextualization reiterates the argument of Fazlur Rahman: ““The Qur’an is the divine response, through the Prophet’s mind, to the moral-social situation of the Prophet’s Arabia.” Thus, one should extract general principles and long-range objectives from the specifics of the Qur’an and from that, general principles can be extracted.”5 When applied to the question of whether or not men should be permitted to beat their wives, this suggests a highly pragmatic deity, who, upon seeing the deeply engrained tradition in pre-Islamic society of spousal violence, decided that any prohibition of this practice would lead to the revelations of Muhammad failing. However, why did God choose to draw the line at beating women? What of all the other behaviors forbidden by the Qur’an? I must say that I find the contextual argument somewhat lacking in this regard.

However, it is important to address the fact that Islam is far from the only religion that contains misogynistic teachings. The Old Testament is shot through with misogyny, and the New Testament does not fare much better under a feminist critique. In the New Testament it is written that “the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the savior of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.”6 This verse too designates women as subservient to men in a similar fashion to the Qur’anic verse 4:34.

Despite the misogynistic content of Christian and Jewish religious texts, adherents to both religions have made significant process towards the equitable treatment of women, although much work clearly remains to be done. However, I would argue that this progress was made independent of religion, and often in opposition to it. It seems more the job of culture and ethics to establish the equitable treatment of all people. This is because it is possible to interpret religious texts in a massive variety of ways. As we have seen the very meanings of words can be challenged, totally altering the meaning of the text. Context based arguments transform the task of exegesis from a theological task to an historical one. Ultimately, people tend to first consider their own beliefs and then attempt to find justification for them, rather than first considering the world and then forming their beliefs. I must say that I do not think religious texts are any exception to this behavior.


  1. Qur’an, 4:34
  2. Rachel Scott, A Contextual Approach to Women’s Rights in the Qur’an: Readings of 4:34, 63
  3. Amina Wadud-Muhsin, Quran and Woman, 131
  4. Amina Wadud-Muhsin, Quran and Woman, 129
  5. Rachel M. Scott,A Contextual Approach to Women’s Rights in the Qur’an: Readings of 4:34, 64
  6. The New Testament, 5:23-24