Until recently it was monopoly of man to understand and interpret scripture and make laws according to their own understanding and man's understanding was very much colored by patriarchal culture. Now it has been well-established fact that patriarchy has played very important role in understanding of scriptures. What was considered as 'divine' was also as much male-oriented. It appeared as if God spoke through man only and women were, at best secondary in divine scheme of things.
Also, man was subject and women object of divine knowledge. Man legislated through divine ordinances and women were required to follow the laws. They could not even understand, let alone intervene, nor could they mediate in any situation. And they served God only through man. Father and then husband had to be obeyed almost as God had to be obeyed. In Islamic tradition this is well represented through a hadith which says Prophet (PBUH) said that had sajda (prostration) been allowed for human being I would have ordered women to perform sajda before their husbands.
Thus a woman was required to follow and obey man either as father or husband or even as elder brother. The right to be marriage wali (marriage guardian) was invested in elder or younger brother if father or grandfather or uncle did not exist. Thus in shari'ah marriage could not be solemnized without a man guardian. Woman was always like to err and hence needed male guidance.
Patriarchy was so strong an influence that even Qur'an, whose primary project appears to accord equal status to women, failed to achieve this objective in society. We have shown elsewhere (Islam and Modern Age, January 2007) that in Qur'an entire discourse on women is right based and for men duty based and yet Muslim society completely reversed this and again entire discourse on women became duty based and that of men right based. That was the power of patriarchy. Though the Prophet (PBUH) even in his farewell address remembered women and exhorted his followers to treat women kindly.
He said in his farewell address regarding women as reported by Ibn Ishaq, "O people! It is true that you have certain rights with regard to your women but they also have rights over you. (emphasis supplied). Remember that you have taken them as your wives only under Allah's trust and with His permission. If they abide by your right then to them belongs the right to be fed and clothed in kindness. Do treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers. And it is your right that they do not make friends with anyone of whom you do not approve, as well as never to be unchaste." (emphasis supplied)
The words in italics show that they were by any standard revolutionary when they were uttered (more than 14 hundred years ago). The Prophet (PBUH) was extremely supportive of women's rights, their equality with men and their dignity as human being. What was the urgency for the Prophet (PBUH) to exhort men for women's rights in the farewell address? Because he knew women are ill-treated by men in the society and even Qur'anic exhortation is ignored and hence he reinforced Qur'anic exhortation for women's rights through his farewell address. He mentions about women's likely unchaste behaviour for historical reasons. In Arabia before Islam it was not very uncommon to have extra-marital relations. Marital bonds were not strong among many tribes, especially outside Mecca and Islam laid great stress on chastity of women and strongly condemned extra marital relations and hence Prophet also emphasized that. It was in no way derogatory to women.
Now in contemporary world situation with regard to women is fast changing. Women are now not only well educated but also are becoming increasingly independent economically. They are not satisfied with traditional interpretation of Qur'an. Not only the Muslim women but also women from other faith traditions want to revisit their respective scriptures and reinterpret them from their perspective. All universities have also started women studies departments.
There are those women who are secular and reject role of religion in their lives but there are also women (majority of whom) want to abide by injunctions of their faith but are not at all satisfied by conventional understanding of their scriptures. This is much more so as far as Muslim women are concerned. They are convinced of truth and divinity of Qur'an and want to understand it from their viewpoint.
But important question is whether they need to be expert of Arabic language for understanding Qur'an? Some 'Ulama would insist yes, anyone who wants to interpret Qur'an must have mastery over Arabic language. Not only that they also must have thorough knowledge of hadith literature. They should also know, according to them, good knowledge of how those words used by the Qur'an, were used in jahiliyyah (pre-Islamic) period. These are, according to the 'Ulama, essential condition for understanding of the Qur'an.
The tribe of 'Ulama know very well that generally Muslims do not fulfill these conditions and hence they would not dare understand Qur'an by themselves and will ever depend on them and Qur'anic understanding will remain their monopoly for ever. It was for this reason that 'Ulama condemned anyone who translated Qur'an in any non-Arabic language.
Even great authority on Qur'an like Shah Waliyullah in 18th century was reprimanded and punished for translating Qur'an in Persian. But one must note that this is not Qur'anic position. Qur'an itself says it has been reveled in simple language so that people can understand it easily. Let us not forget that Qur'an was addressed to mostly illiterate people of Arab. It is well known fact that Arabs were never proud of learning but of knowledge of their lineage. They rather under-rated high degree of learning. In Islamic history even learning of Islam, theology, philosophy, philology etc. was enriched by non-Arabs. Arabs hardly ever, took keen interest in higher learning. It is for this reason Qur'an maintained that it has been revealed so that it could be understood easily (yessarnal Qur'an) so that even an illiterate Arab can understand it. This was when Islam was confined to Arabia. But new problems arose when Islam spread fast among non-Arab peoples.
One reason why non-Arabs took such keen interest in acquiring higher learning in Islamic fiqh, theology and philosophy was because it was only in this area that they could excel Arabs, not in the field of Arabness. After all in early history of Islam Arabs were the ruling class and despite repeated exhortation against it in Qur'an and hadith, Arabs remained very proud of their ethnicity and they continued to look down upon non-Arabs as inferior.
The non-Arbas did not want to depend on Arabs for understanding of Qur'an and they began to especialize in the knowledge and philology of Arabic language and thus it became highly specialized field of learning. Today non-Arab Muslims far exceed Arab Muslims and for them understanding Qur'an remains very serious enterprise. Of late Qur'an began to be translated into various languages and now is available in all the world languages.
It also needs to be noted here that there is no concept of priesthood in Islam, much less any church authorized to interpret Qur'an and issue binding injunctions. And women were never debarred from understanding and interpreting Qur'an. In fact throughout history of Islam there have been prominent Qur'anic authorities as well as authorities on hadith among women. In fact according to recent research at Islamic Centre at Oxford University, there were more than 38,000 muhaddithin (narrators of hadith) among Muslim women and their biographies have been published in eight volumes.
Thus women always took keen interest and developed appreciable learning in Qur'anic studies. But these women mostly accepted well-known male authorities as their model of learning and rarely developed an independent and autonomous understanding of Qur'an from women's perspective. Their excellence in learning was derived, more often than not, on male authorities.
But all those women who want to draw inspiration from Qur'an are not expert in Arabic language and specially in classical Arabic. Even many Arab women whose mother tongue is Arabic, speak dialects and are not well versed in classical Qur'anic Arabic. What should they do? If they go to already well-established authorities, they are all traditional authorities and do not admit of any new understanding of the Qur'anic text.
What should these non-Arab women or those Arab women not well versed in Classical Qur'anic Arabic do? Should their understanding remain subjugated to traditional understanding? In that case not only that they will not be able to achieve their liberation from male-orientation of Qur'anic interpretation, but also would not be inspired by Qur'anic injunctions which they aspire to.
The only alternative is that they should understand Qur'an in translation in their mother tongue and try to make sense of Qur'an from feminist perspective in their own language. understanding of the Qur'an reading it in their own language. One can be a good Qur'anic scholar by studying Qur'an in her/his own language, provided his study of Qur'an is thorough. I know people who do not know a word of Arabic and are yet able to quote appropriate verses of Qur'an on subjects of their interest.
Now the question is 1) of authenticity of translation and 2) viewpoint of translator. Both are important questions. As for authenticity of translation is concerned, there are some very authentic translations are available, especially in English and also in other languages. However, second question that of viewpoint is more crucial when it comes to feminist perspective.
It is not easy to find translations, which have been done in inclusive manner and with feminist perspective. Most of the translations have been done from male viewpoint and that is considered quite natural also. It is only after mid-twentieth century that some women scholars began to study and write on Qur'an from their own perspective. Some among them have been Riffat Hassan, Amina Wadud from America, Ziba Mir-Hosseini from U.K., Asghar Ali Engineer from India and others.
They have written extensively on Qur'an and women's rights but none of them have translated Qur'an from feminist point of view. This has been done now by Laleh Bakhtiar of Iranian origin living in USA. Her translation is inclusive (of both the sexes) and has translated verses pertaining to women in a very gender sensitive manner. Her translation of verse 4:34, for example, is quite interesting.
She translates it as under:
Men are supporters (qawwam) of wives because God has given some of them an advantage over others (faddalna b'adahum 'ala ba'din) and because they spend of their wealth. So ones (f)* who are in accord with morality are the ones (f) who are morally obligated, the ones (f) who guard the unseen of what God has kept safe. But those (f) whose resistance (nushuz) you fear, then admonish them (f), and abandon them (f) in their sleeping place then go away (from them (wadribuhunna) (f) then go away from them (f); and if they (f) obey you, surely look not for any way against them (f)."
Here there are few key words like qawwam, nushuz and wadribuhunna. Those who translate from male point of view translate qawwam as manager and some have even translated it as authority during earlier periods. Laleh Bakhtiar translates it very differently as 'supporters'. This translation is sensitive to female sensibilities. Actually it is also in keeping with meaning of the word qawwam which also means to maintain, to support financially.
Another crucial word is nushuz which generally means to rise against, to rebel. If we go by Prophet's farewell address after his last hajj (as reported by Ibn Ishaq) nushuz can also resisting husbands authority.
Thus if wife refuses to abide by husband's wishes or resists his wishes then he should persuade her and if not persuaded isolate her in sleeping place and even then if she persists in her resistance 'go away from her' i.e. leave her. Generally the word wadribuhunna has been translated as 'chastise her' which is offensive to modern female sensibilities.
Of course some people point out that actually nushuz means sexual misconduct quoting Prophet's (PBUH) last sermon and then maintain that chastisement is for sexual misconduct and hence justified as often husbands' would kill their spouse for such behaviour in Asian and African countries. But the Prophet (PBUH) is only advising chastisement (without injury) which is far more humane and sensitive to woman's feelings.
One Turkish scholar has rendered wadribuhunna as 'strike away' them i.e. divorce them if they persist in their nushuz (resistance, rebellion or misconduct). One more argument against chastisement is verse (2: 229) where it is said "keep them (wives) in good fellowship". If one has to keep them in good fellowship where is the question of beating them or chastising. And keeping wives in good fellowship recurs in the Qur'an number of times.
Of course one argument in favour of 'chastisement' could be the historical view of Qur'anic text. In seventh century Arabia one could, the argument goes, hardly expect otherwise. In those days wife beating was socially quite acceptable and Qur'an prescribed it only in extreme case of sexual misconduct (provided we mean by nushuz as sexual misconduct) and that too with advice not to injure them. More kindness to women could not be expected in seventh century Arabia.
But the counter argument could be when Qur'an accorded equal status to women (see 2:228 and 4:32) in seventh century which was equally unthinkable in 7th century Arabia, it could also prohibit wife beating which is quite undignified behaviour towards her. Well there could be arguments and counter arguments and much will depend on ones viewpoint whether it is feminist or not.
And today there are women experts who study Qur'an from feminist point of view and translate Qur'an in that perspective. Thus for those women who translate Qur'an into other languages expert knowledge of Arabic is highly necessary. But every woman who wants to know what Qur'an has to say about their rights, need not be expert in Arabic language. They can certainly select a translation which is more sensitive to their needs.
But there can be no two opinions about studying Qur'an on the part of those women who want to know their Qur'anic rights, whether they study Qur'an in Arabic language or in any other language.
Even those women whose mother tongue is Arabic, face a severe problem as far as 'Ulama are concerned. They maintain, as against Qur'an, that it is not easy to understand Qur'an even if one knows Arabic and they need to study tafsir (commentary and explanation) of Qur'anic text in order to understand it. But Qur'an itself maintains, as pointed out above that it has been made easy to understand as it has been revealed for common people and for their guidance. Also, there are two types of verses in Qur'an what are called muhkamat and mutashabihat i.e. those verses which are quite clear and understandable and those which are ambiguous and capable of more than one meaning. Only those who aim at mischief refer to mutashabihat.
All verses pertaining to women fall in the category of muhkamat and hence can be understood directly with no intervention by 'ulama. Moreover 'ulama themselves differ widely from each other in understanding those verses. Even there are unending controversies about which hadith should be used to understand a verse and which hadith is not relevant.
In view of these controversies why a common person with knowledge of Arabic should not try to understand the divine intention by studying Qur'an. Also, the benefit would be new perspectives could be developed in understanding the Qur'an in today's context and in today's milieu. Did 'ulama not tried to understand Qur'an in the light of their own experiences and in their own cultural milieu in early Islamic period? Is that understanding binding on us forever?
So far Qur'an was understood and commented upon only by men as women were not so highly educated in those days due to number of restrictions imposed on them during medieval ages. By then women had lost all rights and privileges accorded them by Qur'an and Prophet (PBUH). They are now retrieving that situation and more and more women are going for higher studies, women studies and divine sciences.
These women today are in much better position to understand Qur'anic text and from their own sensitivities. The real merit of divine text like the Qur'an is that it can be understood and interpreted in multiple ways and one can choose best possible ways. And women too have every right to understand these verses in best possible ways as they can keeping their sensibilities in mind.
Qur'an was revealed to create a new society, society based on values like justice, compassion, truth and love, not simply on tradition. However, social traditions asserted again and values were subordinated to traditions. Qur'an itself was sought to be understood in the light of traditions rather than values. Values like justice, love and compassion went in favour of weaker sections of society and women certainly belonged to that weaker section.
Hence if Qur'anic values were given priority over tradition, women would have enjoyed best possible status in the society. Since men, so far in authority, did not permit women to enjoy Qur'anic status, today time has come when women can choose to bring these Qur'anic values to fore and assert these values in their understanding of the Qur'an. It is their right and no one can take this right away from them.