Muslim feminist calls for ending Islam’s ‘ideological stalemate’

Muslim feminist calls for ending Islam’s ‘ideological stalemate’

By Khalid Hasan

Washington: A literalist interpretation of the Quran that has gained ascendancy in much of the Islamic world has resulted in the violation of the holy book’s overriding normative principles, such as delivery of justice to all, argues a young Muslim feminist progressive.

According to Farzana Hassan-Shahid, a Muslim writer based in Toronto, an “ideological stalemate” has been reached in the Muslim world. She believes that a “blatant contradiction” has emerged between the contextual injunctions of the Quran and its normative principles of justice and benevolence. “Needless to say, this has happened due to social conditions that are drastically different from those prevalent in seventh century Arabia. The Quran’s contextual verses primarily sought to regulate conditions already in existence then. While these were effective in establishing social justice at that time, the same injunctions expressed as literalist applications in the form of laws such as the Qanooon-Shahadat Ordinance, or the Hadood and Blasphemy laws have created gross imbalances and injustices in contemporary Muslim societies.”

Writing in Islam Today, an online discussion forum, Ms Hassan-Shahid maintains that such literalist interpretations of the Quran have ended up violating the normative Quranic principles of egalitarianism, pluralism and respect for human life. “Unfortunately, such literalist applications continue to enjoy ascendancy in the Muslim world and the Quran’s primary objective of delivering justice to all has been sacrificed at their altar. Where, for example is the Quran’s normative principle of justice being upheld when rape victims are barred from testifying in Hadood cases? Are the Qanoon Shahadat Ordinance and the Zina Ordinance consistent with Islam’s holistic approach to solving societal problems? Quite the contrary, such applications of the sacred texts have created an environment of hostility, a gross inequity in gender relations and an antipathy towards religious minorities - conditions that are completely antithetical to the spirit of the Quran. This begs the question: if indeed a conflict has arisen between normative and contextual Islam creating the above cited inequities, which of the two should be upheld?” she asks.

Ms Hassan-Shahid points out that reformists have sought to explain certain legislative injunctions of the Quran as time-specific regulations with exclusive applicability in the context of seventh century Arabian society. This would automatically reduce their scope and applicability in any other society or era which may be vastly different form seventh century social structures. “Injunctions pertaining to polygamy, minority rights, apostasy, women’s testimony, and gender relations would fall under this category of time-specific societal regulations. Modernists believe that although such legislative measures were perhaps necessary to regulate early Islamic society, it is largely the principles behind the specific injunctions that are universal and eternal, not the specific applications. These universal principles, they assert can be expressed in a number of ways suited to the changing demands of evolving Islamic communities,” she argues.

Because of this unresolved problem, there is today an “ideological impasse” in the Muslim world for which there seems to be no end in sight. This impasse is further strengthened by both sides resorting to platitudes which tend to be oblivious to the real issues. “Regardless of whether Muslims acknowledge the contradiction between Islam’s normative principles and its literalist interpretations, the effort to bring about much needed social reform in Muslim countries must continue,” she suggests. An earnest review of the Qanoon-Shahadat Ordinance, Zina Ordinance, Blasphemy Laws, or any other discriminatory laws is urgently required, she argues, in order to eradicate the “oppression of the weak” that is so prevalent in Muslim countries such as Pakistan. “Nothing short of repealing these unjust laws will suffice, if Muslims are to practise and uphold the Quran’s overriding, normative principles, both in their personal lives as well as at the societal level,” she adds.

Originally published in the Daily Times at and reprinted with permission of the author.