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Asra Nomani’s Qur’an Problem

November 27, 2010

I believe that both conservative and progressive Muslims share a similarly reductive view of the Qur’an as patriarchal: both of them.

~ Asma Barlas

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Social change in Muslim communities can be a tough sell for would-be reformers. With differences in language, age, gender, ethnicity and class adding barriers to persuasion, religious knowledge is the great equalizer. As in other spiritual circles, one of the keys to shaping opinion and building consensus among Muslims is the ability to speak with spiritual confidence and authority. Nothing communicates this better than the ability to quote from scripture.

Author and journalist Asra Nomani has become well known as an advocate for Muslim women, and not surprisingly, the Qur’an is a core concern for her. But instead of bolstering her arguments for change, her treatment of the scripture is undermining her credibility as a Muslim voice.

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Nomani rose to prominence as a champion of Muslim women’s rights, both in print and the real world. Facing skepticism from conservative Muslims, she has often emphasized that her work is not in conflict with Islamic scripture, but inspired by it.

In 2004 she published an article for Time called “Shaking Up Islam in America“, in which she states:

Those of us pushing for reforms are not seeking to change Islam. We are questioning defective doctrine from an intellectual and theological position, using the Koran, the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad and ijtihad, or critical reasoning, as ideological weapons in the war over how Muslim communities define themselves.

In a 2005 Washington Post article, she argues:

But we are not anti-sharia (Islamic law) or anti-Islam. We use the fundamentals of Islamic thinking — the Koran, the Sunnah, or traditions and sayings of the prophet Muhammad, and ijtihad , or independent reasoning — to challenge the ways in which Islam has been distorted by sharia rulings issued mostly by ultraconservative men.

The same message is repeated in a 2007 article penned by Nomani in Sojourners magazine:

From Tamil Nadu to Toledo, Ohio, women scholars, activists, and community leaders—and the men who support them—are challenging traditional interpretations of Islamic law by going back to the four cornerstones of the law: the Quran (the holy book of Islam), the Sunnah (the traditions and sayings of the prophet), ijma’ (consensus of scholars), and qiyas (analogical deductions from the three).

Despite these claims, Nomani has presented the scripture as a problem in the overwhelming majority of her work. The suggestion that it must be tempered, limited or altered in order to accommodate modern ideas of women’s rights has become a running theme in her commentary.

Her main thesis is not, in fact, that the Qu’ran “has been distorted by sharia rulings issued mostly by ultraconservative men”, but rather that it contains inherently barbaric and misogynistic verses which Muslims are reading too “literally”.

In her recent appearance on The Diane Rehm Show (at the 36 minute mark), Nomani speaks of “the threat that our world faces when an ideology that practices a literal interpretation of the Qur’an, you know, basically wreaks havoc in our world.”

This echoes comments she made in a 2005 PBS online forum:

… But Osama bin Laden read the Quran in its original Arabic — as would have all of the hijackers of 9/11 — but they still read into it a mandate that allowed them to kill innocent civilians. Like all texts, literal reading of the Quran allows for the kind of disturbing readings that you are having.

Note the inconsistency: in one sentence Nomani says (of the Qur’an) that terrorists actively “read into it a mandate that allowed them to kill innocent civilians” [emphasis mine], but in the next breath she blames this on a “literal reading”. It is possible that Nomani is using “literal” to mean something other than what the word “literally” means. This would be nothing of consequence were it not for the fact that she uses this word over and over and over again in the same way.

Consider these excerpts from her 2009 article about Maj. Nidal Hasan, “Inside the Gunman’s Mosque“:

But a closer look behind the doors of the mosque and inside the conversations between the engineer and the doctor reveal a more complex picture of a young first-generation American Muslim man living a life of dissonance between his identity as an American and his ideology as a Muslim who had accepted a literal, rigid interpretation of Islam, …

“So many times I talked with him,” said Akhter, a community leader who is sort of like a mosque gadfly, challenging congregants to reject literal, rigid interpretations of Islam.

The story of Hasan at his local mosque is a cautionary tale to all Muslim communities about the consequences when we fail to win the war of ideas in the Muslim world with moderate interpretation of Islam over rigid, literal interpretations.

That politics of making another Muslim illegitimate is a strategy typically used today by literal, rigid interpreters of Islam to discredit other Muslims, …

To argue for jihad as holy war is to accept strict adherence to verses such as this one (2: 216), translated in the Noble Quran as: “Jihad (holy fighting in Allah’s cause) is ordained for you (Muslims) though you dislike it.” That translation is published by the government of Saudi Arabia.

Another time, the engineer and the doctor debated the question of whether a thief’s hand should be cut off, a punishment laid out in a literal read of the Quran (5: 38).

Hasan’s strict adherence to literal readings of the Quran betrays his leanings to extremist Islam.

Those excerpts were all from just one article; other examples abound.

Asra Nomani, Qur'an in hand.

In an NPR discussion about the man behind the 2009 shooting at Ft. Hood, Nomani remarks:

And he would have a very clear acceptance and embracing of puritanical, literal interpretation of Islam that said that jihad was a holy war, that said that you should cut the hands of thieves, that sanctions polygamy, all of the spectrum of interpretation that goes along with a very literal interpretation of the Quran and Islam.

During a 2007 interview with C-Span’s “Q & A” program, she argues:

And I don’t think it’s much unlike in the Christian and Jewish faiths where, if you have a literal reading of text, you’re most likely going to be more conservative in an orthodox kind of way.  So, in our Quran, we have several really red flag issues.

One is, what’s your relationship with Jews and Christians? Are you going to believe this literal reading of the Quran that says you should not be friends with the Christians and Jews? Or are you going to believe that that was a historical moment when there was feuding going on between the tribes in Medina and Mecca, and that that’s not for all time?

When asked about her activism in a 2009 interview with Religion News Service, she explains:

Women are the canaries in the coalmine as an indicator of the type of Islam people practice; it’s an indicator of how you interpret the rest of your faith—are you going to have a literal read on the rest of these verses that justify domestic violence and suicide bombings? My fight is for an Islam that is not literal and not puritanical.

In a 2004 New York Times Op-Ed, Nomani says:

These men rally around strict interpretation of the Koran and Sunnah, which last week entailed a sermon that criticized women working outside the home and called women who have lost their chastity worthless.

In a 2009 (televised) debate (over whether Muslim women should have the right to marry outside of the faith), she remarks:

There is a side that is arguing for a literal interpretation of the Koran.  Every religion has had this battle.  Are we going to have a metaphorical, an historical interpretation of the Koran, or are we going to have very literal interpretations that say: ‘If you do this and only this, then you are a Muslim and you are acceptable’? This issue that we’re talking about tonight has wide ramifications.  How are we going to look at Surat Al Nisa’a 4:34 – the literal reading of which says that you can beat a wife lightly, if you add the parenthetical phrase; or that you should not – the other verse that says – you should not be a friend with the Jew and the Christian.

In her 2009 article “The New Fight to Ban the Veil“, Nomani speaks of a “frightening brand of Islam”, saying:

It preaches a literal translation of the Koran that becomes troublesome when applied to problematic verses—which are used by militants to sanction domestic violence, intolerance, and even suicide bombings.

Appearing on a 2010 NPR program titled “Help Young Muslims Resist ‘Jihad Cool’“, she opines:

You know, I think what you’re speaking about is the struggle inside of our community, where there are literal verses inside of the Koran that could be read to sanction domestic abuse, you know, that could be used to sanction lack of tolerance towards Jews and Christians, even suicide bombings, just like all of the faiths, right?

Whatever intentions Nomani may have, the subtext of her message is clear: the Qur’an (or sections of it) is “strictly” and “literally” misogynistic and violent, sanctioning everything from domestic abuse to suicide bombing. Because she writes this way, many of her articles are useful to people with anti-Muslim agendas. Robert Spencer, for example, posted Nomani’s 2004 New York Times Op-Ed (quoted above) on his Jihad Watch website, interrupting the text to point out Nomani’s wording:

Note that these hardliners rely on a “strict interpretation of the Koran and Sunnah” and use the Prophet Muhammad to justify their hatred.

Words matter. According to Nomani’s words, the Qur’an and Islam, when taken literally, “allow for” domestic abuse, extremism and terrorism. It is strange that a Muslim advocating for Muslim women would write and speak in such a way – especially when communicating to a non-Muslim audience, a good share of whom already hold heavily Islamophobic sentiments (just see the comments below her posts in The Daily Beast).

Regardless of what she personally believes, Nomani’s writing makes her appear ambivalent about her own religion. This ambivalence is most evident when she discusses domestic violence.

In her 2009 article “The Saudi Bitch Slap“, Nomani discusses comments made by a Saudi judge about the permissibility of slapping women for certain “offences”. She writes:

To me, the issue of religiously mandated violence against women is part of a continuum of literalist interpretation of the Quran that includes banning women from driving, segregating women, allowing forced marriages of underage girls, and, ultimately, sanctioning intolerance and targeted violence against civilians of the kind perpetuated by al Qaeda.

She continues:

In this case, the debate over the right of Muslim men to “bitch slap” their wives underscores a literal read of verse 4:34 of the Quran, which states, according to a direct translation, that it’s OK to “beat (lightly)” a disobedient wife as an option of third resort after admonishing her and then turning away from her in bed. Trying to reconcile this literal read with the 21st century has led to something I call “the 4:34 dance,” where imams from Saudi Arabia to Texas have extolled the virtues of various degrees of abuse, from wet noodles to yardsticks.

Nomani here disregards the scholarship of two very influential female scholars – women with whom she has worked and whose books appear on the “resources” page of her website: Asma Barlas and Amina Wadud. On the basis of textual analysis and a wider study of the Qur’an, both Wadud and Barlas have concluded that the “literal” meaning of 4:34 is far from the so-called “direct translation” Nomani provides.

Firstly, Nomani’s phrase “a disobedient wife” might be misleading.

According to Amina Wadud, the word nushuz in 4:34 (often interpreted as “disobedience”) has a much different meaning than simply disobeying a husband:

… it should first be noted that the word nushuz likewise is used with both males (4:128) and females (4:34), although it has been de­fined differently for each. When applied to the wife, the term is usually defined as ‘disobedience to the husband’. With the use of ta’a that follows. Others have said this verse indicates that the wife must obey the husband.

However, since the Qur’an uses nushuz for both the male and the female, it cannot mean ‘disobedience to the husband’. Sayyid Qutb explains it as a state of disorder between the married couple.

In her book Believing Women in Islam, Asma Barlas discusses another Arabic term used in verse 4:34: qanitat (often interpreted as “wifely obedience”):

As Wadud (1999, 70) and Siddique (1990) point out, the Qur’an uses the word qanitat (which most Muslims interpret as wifely obedience) in other contexts to refer to human behavior towards God; we cannot, therefore, assume that it refers to the wife’s conduct alone. Indeed, as Wadud (77) points out, the Qur’an “never orders a woman to obey her husband. It never states that obedience to their husbands is a characteristic of the ‘better women’”; nor does it make it “a prerequisite for women to enter the community of Islam.” The Qur’an did not force even the wives of the Prophet to obey him, nor did he force obedience on them; nor, indeed, did he deal with marital discord by abusing or beating them. Similarly, while exegetes translate nushuz as disloyalty and ill-conduct on the wife’s part, in the Qur’an it refers to a general state of marital disorder, as Wadud notes.

Another term from verse 4:34 – a form of the Arabic root daraba – is rendered by Nomani as “to beat (lightly)”. This interpretation has also had its validity questioned by many scholars, including Nomani’s mentors – something you would never have known by reading her work.

In Sexual Ethics & Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence, Kecia Ali notes:

The three measures given in Surah 4, verse 34 to be taken in cases where men fear female nushuz are “admonish them, and abandon them in bed, and strike them.” The verb daraba, “to strike,” is commonly translated in this context as “hit,” “beat,” or “scourge,” though two recent translations have rendered the word as “spank.” The verb appears numerous times in the Qur’an with other meanings, leading some to question why it must be understood as striking in this context. One translator has proposed that daraba in this context does not mean strike, but rather “separate” or even “have sex with” (a metaphorical meaning attributed to the same Arabic root).

In her 2006 talk “The Pleasure of our Text: Re-reading the Qur’an,” Asma Barlas explains:

For instance, the so-called “wife-beating” verse begins to unravel once we realize that the word that is translated as “to beat” derives from the root daraba that has several different meanings, including “to separate” and “to ignore.” What sorts of hermeneutic and political choices went into rendering daraba as beating?

Amina Wadud

Hermeneutic challenges like this have been undertaken by a wide variety of scholars – both men and women – in traditional and non-traditional settings. It is hard to understand why Nomani so glaringly omits their contributions without even a cursory mention. This is even more troubling considering that Nomani has explicitly named Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas and Kecia Ali as important contributors to her vision of Islam:

Dr. Amina Wadud, the woman who lead the prayer in New York and Asma Barlas, another professor. They both have done these great readings of the Koran. … Kecia Ali, she’s done really important work on sexuality issues in Islam.

In the interview quoted from above, she adds:

There’s a lot of really great work out there by great scholars of the day who are doing their piece of the pie. Now is the time to bring the pie together so that everybody can share it.

Sadly, this is one of Nomani’s greatest shortcomings as a Muslim voice: she consistently neglects progressive Muslim scholarship while going out of her way to illustrate ‘bad’ interpretations of Islam in vivid detail. This lopsided presentation problematizes Islam while providing no satisfactory Islamic solution to the problems at hand. Considering the wider political context of her writing and the fact that her audience is mostly non-Muslim, this is completely inexcusable to many in the Muslim community. One particular exchange from a few years ago exemplifies the problem.

In a 2006 appearance on The Washington Post‘s “Outlook” program, Nomani is asked very specifically about verse 4:34 and the interpretation of the word daraba:

In your article, you argue for a non-literalist interpretation for Sura An-Nisa. How can it now be interpreted to avoid the misogyny that it breeds when it contains, quite specifically, the word ‘beat’ (in Ali and Pickhall’s translation). Is there a way to argue, as Fazlur Rahman does, that the essence of the Qu’ran is what matters and that we must read it in a way that lets us extract universal principles? If so, how could we understand the essence of this Sura?

In reply, she makes no mention of challenges to the “literal” translation of verse 4:34 that have been put forth by scholars like Barlas, Wadud or Ali. Instead, she accepts the patriarchal reading, calling it outdated:

The Koran also talks about slavery and slaves, but the Muslim world didn’t continue that practice (except perhaps in the underbelly of society). We have allowed for contextual understanding of many verses of the Koran, including the literal readings that tell us to slay the the “pagans” and never befriend Jews and Christians. If we allow ourselves, we understand that those words were written at a specific political time of tribal and political rivalry. As I wrote in the article, 4:34 was progressive for the 7th century. Let’s continue that progressive spirit to the 21st century and say “zero tolerance” to any physical discipline of a woman, gentle or not. And I think that is in fact the spirit of what the scholar Fazlur Rahman encouraged us to do. I believe the essence of the sura was to improve the condition for women in the 7th century to a standard that men of that time could accept. We have now risen to a higher standard.

Similar problems appear in a 2006 article called “Clothes Aren’t the Issue.” Here are some excerpts from the piece:

Finally, he may “beat” her, though it must be without “hurting, breaking a bone, leaving blue or black marks on the body and avoiding hitting the face, at any cost.”

Such appalling recommendations, drawn from the book “Woman in the Shade of Islam” by Saudi scholar Abdul Rahman al-Sheha, are inspired by as authoritative a source as any Muslim could hope to find: a literal reading of the 34th verse of the fourth chapter of the Koran, An-Nisa, or Women.

However, the kidnapping and killing of my friend and colleague Daniel Pearl in 2002 forced me to confront the link between literalist interpretations of the Koran that sanction violence in the world and those that sanction violence against women. For critics of Islam, 4:34 is the smoking gun that proves that Islam is misogynistic and intrinsically violent. Read literally, it is as troubling as Koranic verses such as At-Tauba (“The Repentance”) 9:5, which states that Muslims should “slay the pagans wherever ye find them” or Al-Mâ’idah (“The Table Spread with Food”) 5:51, which reads, “Take not the Jews and Christians as friends.”

In the entire article – written exclusively about verse 4:34 in the Qur’an – Nomani never once challenges the idea that “beat them” is the real (“literal”) translation; the closest she comes is in one sentence, where she casually mentions that:

An Iranian American scholar recently published a new 4:34 translation stating that the “beating” step means “go to bed with them (when they are willing).”

But even this sentence is weak and noncommittal. Nomani simply says that a scholar published a translation “stating that” 4:34 may be translated differently; she never asserts this herself. Nomani tacitly accepts the “literal” meaning as “beat them.” Elsewhere in the article she writes:

Yet even these small advances, if we can call them such, face an uphill battle against the Saudi oil money propagating literalist interpretations of the Koran here in the United States and worldwide.

And:

He soon moved to the subject of disobedient wives, and his recommendations mirrored the literal reading of 4:34.

Amazingly, nowhere in the entire piece does Nomani discuss the Arabic root of the word translated as “beat them” (daraba) or explain that it has a multitude of meanings – something her intellectual forbears have devoted much of their careers to.

Not surprisingly, again we see Nomani’s work being seized on by Islamophobes. The web page for “Wife Beating In Islam” on the Answering Islam website cites “Clothes Aren’t the Issue” as evidence of Islam’s supposed inherent misogyny, commenting:

This article is by a Muslim women, Asra Q. Nomani, who is keenly aware of the extent of Muslim spousal abuse in the West. She challenges Muslims who teach wife beating. Sadly she has not yet admitted to herself that her prophet, Muhammad, who institutionalized wife beating in Islam. Nevertheless, she understands the command’s cruelty. [sic]

During a 2009 radio appearance on NPR (“How Does Your Community Handle Domestic Abuse“), Nomani again takes it for granted that the “literal” meaning of verse 4:34 is “beat them”:

And sadly, in our mosques, we are still grappling with trouble over this interpretation of a chapter and verse in our Quran that, literally read, will say that a man has a right to lightly beat his wife.

In a few places Nomani has softly hinted that she may dispute what people claim the aforementioned verses “literally” say. In a 2009 interview posted on the website Qantara.de, she says:

… This justifies violence against women and suicide attacks with an allegedly literal interpretation of the Koran and suggests that a Muslim should not make friends with Jews and Christians if at all possible.

Also, in a 2005 interview with a Pakistani news magazine she says:

I have sat in congregations where men who are supposedly knowledgeable about Islam spew hate toward women, Jews, Christians, the west and  any Muslims who don’t agree with them. I have prayed behind imams who preach that the Quran  permits men to beat their wives. Our definition about “knowledge” has become very skewed in our Muslim world, and I stand strong as a woman who is very firmly grounded in the most essential teachings of our religion for peace, love, and tolerance.

If Nomani does or ever did believe that patriarchal readings of the Qur’an were not truly “literal”, she has never articulated this in any meaningful way.

_____________________________________________

Because of her repeated statements about “literal” Qur’an interpretations being dangerous and her general failure to present alternative readings, many of Nomani’s readers understand her message to be that the holy book of Islam is inherently (“literally”, “strictly”) violent and anti-woman. As a result, she is often seen as someone wanting not only to change the way Muslims practice Islam, but also to revise parts of Islamic scripture itself. This delights some non-Muslims but appalls Muslims and raises doubts about Nomani’s real intentions. It also makes her susceptible to the charge that she is trying to “change the religion” – a toxic accusation in the Muslim community. By her own account, though, Nomani endorses precisely such a view of the Qur’an.

In a 2009 interview with Beliefnet, she was asked about the idea of “cherry-picking” Qur’anic verses:

Do you think we can cherry pick within religion? Follow the verses that work for us, and ignore the ones that seem intolerant?

She replies:

I don’t have a problem with that. I think so often this concept of cherry-picking is associated with negativity. Catholicism has gone through it — ‘Cafeteria Catholic’ they call it where you just go through the buffet line and pick what you like. Religion is identified by how people practice it. Even the Wahhabis cherry pick. Because if you really believe that you can’t have innovation in religion (which is what Wahhabis believe), they still allow for what’s convenient for them.

Just through the practice of being a human being you cherry-pick your way through life. I just reject that assumption that that’s disparaging. Every day of our lives is filled with choices. I think we have to stop chasing this idea of this universal practice of the religion that is divinely mandated and required, because we set that up as the bar. And then it’s intimidating. It silences critics. It silences questioning. It is used by the ideologues as a way of making people feel inferior.

Nomani here sets forth two basic options for the practicing Muslim: a) accept an “intimidating” “universal practice of the religion” that “silences questioning”, or b) “cherry-pick” verses from the scripture and ignore others.

This is unfortunate because women like Asma Barlas and Amina Wadud have worked tirelessly to drive home the point that Muslim women don’t need to be confined to such a choice: they should interpret the Qur’an for themselves and take refuge in it as a source of power against patriarchy. Nomani fails to promote such a vision of Islam, instead taking it for granted that the Qur’an has sections which are “literally” misogynistic/violent/unacceptable and suggesting that a progressive Muslim’s only viable option is to dismiss parts of their scripture. For the great majority of Muslim women, this is proposition is neither appealing nor empowering. In fact, it plays into the hands of conservatives who often guilt-trip critics by arguing that the Qur’an “literally” says X, and anyone refusing to accept it is ignoring the word of God and being a bad Muslim. Responding by asserting that some verses are simply incompatible with modern life is a guaranteed way to lose all leverage and credibility, instantly.

Nomani’s strongest statements about the Qur’an appear in a very recent article she published for The Daily Beast, called “Get Over the Qur’an Burning“. Here are excerpts from the piece:

I believe the Qurans are being burnt because we, as Muslims, haven’t dealt sincerely and intellectually with very serious issues that certain Quranic passages raise, particularly in the West. These include verses—when literally read—that say that disobedient wives can be beaten “lightly,” that Muslims can’t be friends with the Jews and the Christians, and that it’s OK to kill converts from Islam.*

We, as Muslims, need to tear a few pages out of the Quran—symbolically, at least, by rejecting literal adherence to certain problematic verses.

Look at one literal reading of the 34th verse of the fourth chapter of the Quran, An-Nisa, or Women. “[A]nd (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them,” reads one widely accepted translation. Based on a literal reading, Saudi scholar Abdul Rahman al-Sheha concludes that when dealing with a “disobedient wife,” a Muslim man has a number of options.

… this verse may have been progressive for the seventh century when women were supposedly beaten indiscriminately, but it isn’t compatible with the modern day, if read literally.

The kidnapping and killing of my friend and colleague Daniel Pearl in 2002 forced me to confront the link between literalist interpretations of the Quran and their role in sanctioning violence in the world. … These are verses such as … 9:5, which states that Muslims should “slay the pagans wherever ye find them” or … 5:51, which reads, “Take not the Jews and Christians as friends.”

We need to reject literal reads of the Quran and recognize that these verses were communicated during specific moments of war, and they aren’t edicts for all time. We, as Muslims, must reject the notion that we read these words literally. To many, that would be an act of blasphemy. But, until we do, the literal words of the Quran will be used to rally hate against the faith. It’s really just these particular verses that need to go up in smoke.

[* there is no verse in the Qur’an which prescribes death for apostasy.]

Even in light of Nomani’s previous statements about the Qur’an, this article is surprising for its inflammatory suggestions that certain verses “need to go up in smoke”, and that Muslims “need to tear a few pages out of the Qur’an” (symbolically, “at least”).

The problem, as Nomani frames it, is that Muslims follow the Qur’an too closely and take it too seriously. An easy conclusion to make from that assertion would be that the Qur’an is not itself “perfect” and therefore not fully of divine origin.  A review of her “Mosque in Morgantown” documentary by the Investigative Project on Terrorism, for example, simply assumes this is her opinion:

It is difficult to gauge how many others share her discomfort with mosque leaders who treat the Quran as the literal, unalterable word of God.

Treating the Qur’an as the “literal, unalterable word of God”, of course, is a basic tenet of Islam (there is a wide difference between altering and reinterpreting). Nomani’s apparent disagreement with this raises major red flags for many Muslims. She was asked about this in the 2009 Beliefnet interview quoted above:

Some Muslims argue that a lot trouble stem from a literalist interpretation of the Qur’an. And in the Bible or the Torah there are also verses that can be viewed as intolerant. There are verses that seem to contradict each other. Should we read these verses literally or interpretively?

She responds:

There are many people who say that the Qur’an is the word of God, and you have to take it literally. I don’t accept that conclusion. I believe that we do have to use these principals of ijtihad (independent interpretation) to practice the faith in a way that is compatible with our modern day society and common sense.

This is ultimately where my conflict with my mosque became clear: What I kept hearing from the pulpit was a literal interpretation that was problematic on many levels, from how they thought we should relate to the West, to Jews and Christians, and to women. It was an expressed a violence against other people. That’s when you just have to say, no, that’s not acceptable. [sic]

Nomani’s first statement appears ambiguous, but her position is much clearer in light of a comment she posted beneath her “Get Over the Qur’an Burning”  article in The Daily Beast:

What I’m trying to say, then, is that when you think “Muslims consider the Koran to be dictation from the Almighty…” know that there are Muslims who don’t. There are Muslims who see the Quran as the revealed text of a man, the prophet Muhammad.

_____________________________________________

Asra Nomani, like anyone else, is entitled to her own opinions. But as a Muslim public figure seeking to effect change among other Muslims, her claims that the Qur’an should be “cherry-picked”, that certain verses in it should “go up in smoke” and that it is not even the word of God are simply disastrous. Not only is this a PR catastrophe of the first order, but it also betrays the legacy of the pioneering women Nomani bills as her inspirations.

*         *        *

I am always disheartened to hear progressive Muslims claim, (dis)ingenuously, it seems to me, that ‘‘Islamism is Islamism,’’ … To accept the authority of any group and then to resign oneself to its misreadings of Islam not only makes one complicit in the continued abuse of Islam and the abuse of women in the name of Islam, but it also means losing the battle over meaning without even fighting it …

~ Asma Barlas

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Backing away from “problematic” verses and casting them aside as unchallengeable is the antithesis of “Islamic feminism”. It is the polar opposite of everything people like Asma Barlas stand and fight for.

As long as she avoids real engagement with the Qur’an, Asra Nomani’s arguments will have little practical value for Muslim women. Worse yet, because she portrays the Qur’an as a problem, many non-Muslims see her work as confirming their suspicions that Islam is violent and misogynistic at its core.

Her failure to challenge patriarchal readings of the Qur’an is not only a disservice to the women she speaks on behalf of, but this neglect is a disservice to Nomani herself because it seriously undermines her credibility.

Asra Nomani has taken a very confrontational approach in her mosque activism, but she hasn’t confronted violent and patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an with the same fierceness. If she truly wants to embody the spirit of ijtihad, she needs to make the Qur’an her vehicle rather than her obstacle.

In the video below, Dr. Asma Barlas shares her views on the Qur’an and women’s rights. Tellingly, her critique of Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali applies equally to Asra Nomani.

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