Beyond patriarchal readings of Islam: a holistic and critical re-reading of the Qur’an.

This article was published in Oasis 30. Read the table of contents

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Nayla Tabbara, L’Islam pensé par une femme, Bayard, Montrouge 2018


Over the last few decades, the Arab-Muslim world has witnessed a proliferation of works and analyses trying to shed new light on gender issues in Islam and taking a reinterpretation of the Qur’an and the Muslim tradition as their starting point. This is not the case—or at least, not totally—with Nayla Tabbara’s L’Islam pensé par une femme (“A Woman’s Interpretation of Islam”). The work’s main focus is not limited to the role and rights of women in Islam. Rather, the Lebanese Muslim theologian has attempted to view religion and the Qur’an from a female perspective: a vantage point that is generally excluded from the traditional formulation of the religion’s principles.


In Tabbara’s work, feminine and masculine become symbols of culturally determined characteristics—respectively, those of receptiveness and openness on the one hand, and of effectiveness and a propensity for change on the other. Exclusion of the feminine from Qur’anic interpretation and the prevalence of a patriarchal reading have led, according to the author, to the representation of a religion based on strength and power and dominated by an authoritarian God appearing only in the masculine; a supremacist, legalistic Islam that has marginalised women and forgotten the values of inclusion and mercy that are predominant in the Qur’an.  


The book was born of an extended conversation with Marie Malzac, a journalist at La Croix, who transcribed the answers the Muslim theologian gave her during the course of several interviews and e-mail exchanges. The non-academic treatment of complex subjects and the references to personal experiences make it particularly accessible and captivating for non-specialists as well. The result is a work that offers a clear and useful overview of the Islamic faith’s foundations and the complexity of the different currents running through it, whilst giving particular space to ongoing changes at an exegetic and social level: “Developments differ from one country to another but there is a growing awakening” (p. 113).


Everything is constantly accompanied by quotations from the Qur’an and the hadith. To those who see the Qur’an as a detailed manual of instructions for life, Tabbara offers a counter-vision of the Text as divine word that enters into relationship with humanity and its context. Her interpretative methodology takes its inspiration from the historico-critical analysis used in Biblical studies, on the one hand, and the holistic approach adopted by Muslim feminists, on the other: “We cannot understand the Qur’an without considering it in its entirety and referring to its context” (p. 57). As regards use of the hadith, the author recommends “caution” (p. 63) because the texts were written at least one century after Muhammad’s death and could have been influenced by a particular historical context. The author has adopted the criterion of accepting “what is in line with the Qur’an and Islam’s basic values and rejecting what is not in line with these” (p. 64).   


Tabbara additionally attributes a pedagogical function to the Qur’an, which has as its goal the “deconstruction of human conceptions of God” (p. 24), religion and relationships with others. In this context, the author also tackles the question of God’s gender, airing the possibility of talking about God in the feminine, contrary to the Muslim tradition’s consolidated practice. Indeed, according to the Lebanese theologian, one consequence of the masculine vision of God has been the preference in Islamic history for divine attributes culturally concerning the male universe, such as those of power and domination, as opposed to the more feminine ones concerning mercy, love and goodness, which are far more numerous. It is through his names—Tabbara reminds us—that the believer can know God, as they indicate the values on which Islam is based.


In contrast to a legalistic and identity-related Islam symbolising a “spiritual immaturity,” (p. 45) the author proposes the image of a values-based Islam where the interior veil is more important than the exterior one. Thus, if it is generally the five pillars that play a prominent role in the definition of Islam, Nayla Tabbara states that this approach is reductive and loses sight of the religion’s essence. Instead, the Lebanese theologian identifies three fundamental aspects of the Qur’anic religion: the relationship with God (or spirituality), the importance of constant reflection and, lastly, commitment to others. Indeed, there can be no true faith without a relationship with God. Or without doubt, for that matter; otherwise, “it would not be a journey in faith but, rather, a position on identity that takes refuge in intransigence, if not downright extremism” (p. 42). In the same way and as the Qur’an reminds us, if religion is relationship with the sole God, it is empty if it lacks relations with others and attention for the marginalised. In Tabbara’s words, human beings are invited to go beyond themselves and their interior poverty by seeking to develop the best version of themselves.


After explaining the religion’s foundations and the principles guiding her approach to Qur’anic interpretation, the theologian goes into specific issues. She gives priority to the thorniest ones, which include the role of women in Islam and the Islamic forms of feminism, dialogue with other religions, how Islam relates to fragility and the relationship between Islam and politics. In all these cases, she shows how a patriarchal interpretation has led to the formulation of a religion that excludes women, diversity and fragility and one that is politically instrumentalised. Her linguistic and historical analysis of the sacred text and her summary of recent interpretational trends allow the reader to look at each one of these subjects from a new angle, whilst demonstrating how the exclusivist and legalistic approaches that assert the need for an Islamic state are nowhere to be found in the Qur’an.


A special place is reserved to relations with non-Muslims and the theology of dialogue. This is a subject that recurs throughout the book and one to which the author dedicates a whole chapter. This comes as no surprise if one considers her commitment to dialogue both at the academic level and within the Adyan (“Religions”) foundation that she has co-established. It is one of the book’s most personal chapters: in it she recounts the strong spiritual communion she perceives during moments of shared prayer or participation in Christian masses. It was precisely the intensity of her feelings during those moments that convinced her that God wanted her to put herself “at the service of communion between Christians and Muslims, as well as with the believers from other religions” (p. 138). Thus “the other” becomes a “word of God” for Tabbara (p. 74): a grace that, in its diversity, can allow every human being to advance in his/her spiritual journey.


The analysis proposed by the author does not glide over the most problematic issues— such as the fact that Muhammad had several wives and waged wars or the existence of contradictory or violent verses in the Qur’an. Instead, Tabbara analyses them in the light of their historical context, a linguistic textual analysis and the idea of a Qur’anic pedagogy. What emerges is the image of a liberating Islam that makes room for an interior conscience and spurs believers to mercy, compassion and respect for diversity. Indeed, God’s message “liberates intelligence, pushing male and female believers courageously to rethink the issues raised by this religion in the light of their century and context” (p. 44). It is an interpretation of religion that is centred on the importance of rights and sees equality as a pillar because all people have equal dignity in the eyes of God. Nayla Tabbara’s is a perspective that does not claim to be absolute or exhaustive but it calls to constant reflection and self-improvement, for one’s own good and the good of the community.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


To cite this article

Printed version:
Viviana Schiavo, “An Invitation to Discover the Feminine in God”, Oasis, year XV, n. 30, December 2019, pp. 130-133.

Online version:
Viviana Schiavo, “An Invitation to Discover the Feminine in God”, Oasis [online], published on 30th November 2020, URL: /en/an-invitation-to-discover-the-feminine-in-god