The seventeen contentious issues in the relationship between Islam and women.

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

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:03:19


Asma Lamrabet, Islam et femmes. Les questions qui fâchent, En toutes lettres, Casablanca 2017


Born in Rabat and a physician by profession, Asma Lamrabet has for years been promoting a reformist reading of Islam primarily in the context of gender relations. This approach distinguishes her as much from secular feminism, for which equality of men and women passes through the weakening of religion and the secularization of society, as from Islamic traditionalism, which conceives of the relations between the sexes in terms of complementarity rather than equality.


Her latest book, Islam et femmes, summarizes her long journey both in reflection and as an activist, highlighting seventeen problematic issues—ranging from man’s original superiority to the taboo regarding the female body—around which a discriminatory reading of Islam has crystallized. How sensitive the topics tackled in the book are is evidenced by the very life of this lady doctor dedicated to the religious sciences. Indeed, for seven years Lamrabet was director of the Centre for Studies and Research on Women’s Issues at the Muhammadan League of Ulama in Rabat, an institution that has the purpose of spreading a correct knowledge of the religion. She had to resign in 2018, however, because of her nonconformist position regarding the inheritance regime envisaged by traditional Islamic jurisprudence.


Lamrabet’s argument is that it is not the Qur’an in itself that penalizes Muslim women but rather the interpretations there of that have become established during the course of Islam’s history. These would have distorted the sacred text’s original spirit by forcing its letter or unjustifiably ignoring it in favour of other sources.


The question of polygamy, for example, belongs to the first case in point: it is true that the Qur’an allows men to marry up to four wives but it binds this possibility to a rigorously egalitarian treatment of said wives (Qur. 4:2-3), something that, at the same time, it decrees to be impossible (Qur. 4:129). Elaborating on this commonplace of reformist thinking, Lamrabet concludes that the divine intention contained in the text is monogamy, whereas the jurists and theologians “have interpreted the verses regarding polygamy as a sort of blank cheque permitting several partners, entering such concession on the register of sexual advantages accorded to men” (p. 65).


The problem of the legal value attributed to women’s testimony falls into the same category, being equal to half that of men’s testimony, according to the Qur’an. The letter of the sacred text would seem clear on this point: “And call in to witness two witnesses, men; or if the two be not men, then one man and two women, such witnesses as you approve of […]” (Qur. 2:282). Except that the verse must be interpreted in the light of the specific situation to which it refers, states Lamrabet, and that is the contracting of a debt. Its purpose would not be, therefore, to establish a form of discrimination between men and women but, rather, “to institute a code of conduct for the honouring of contractual clauses” (p. 113), the practical modalities of which are tied to the context of every era and cannot have an a-temporal normative value.


The penalty for adultery belongs to the second category, namely, the extra-Qur’anic origin of some rules. The Qur’an establishes that once adultery has been ascertained on the basis of a quadruple testimony, it is to be punished with one hundred lashes, regardless of whether the guilty party is male or female. However, the punishment of stoning has become established in the jurisprudence, having been drawn from certain hadiths that, in confirming the Jewish law, would have repealed the Qur’an’s provisions. Summarizing the results of her review, Lamrabet observes that out of the seventeen issues examined, only six (male guardianship, polygamy, the violent correction of women, the veil, inheritance and the value of female testimony) result from an inadequate exegesis of a corresponding number of Qur’anic verses, which have become “the frame of reference for patriarchal readings” (p. 189). All the other themes (original female inferiority, stoning, woman’s intrinsically seductive nature, the legal guardian obligation, submission to men, the ban on marrying non-Muslim men etc.) derive from extra-Qur’anic traditions or materials.


The author’s list is actually incomplete. For example, it comes as a surprise that, in her treatment of male superiority, Lamrabet does not discuss the verse according to which “[…] men have a degree above [women]” (2:228).  Leaving these omissions to one side, the problems highlighted by the author all point to the task of re-reading the traditional exegesis and jurisprudence critically: a topic tackled in the book’s “Conclusions.” Like other feminists, Lamrabet asserts the need for a new paradigm centred on a holistic reading of the sacred text that can place “the theme of the relationship between man and woman within the vision and global cohesion of its message” (p. 198).


The heart of the Qur’an would not so much be the legal regulation of socio-religious life as a body of universal humanist ethics founded on equality and justice. It is in the light of the latter, in addition to human rights, that one should read the verses that are more closely tied to the patriarchal social context in which Islam was born and against which Muhammad took a polemical stand. And the same perspective ought to be adopted in order to establish the right relationship between the Qur’an and the Sunna, subordinating the latter’s validity to its consistency with the spirit of the former.


This approach offers a possible way out of the problems Lamrabet so precisely identifies but it does not resolve a fundamental issue concerning the status itself of revelation and for this reason preceding any and every work of exegesis. If the Qur’an, in its entirety, is the literal recording of God’s eternal word, to what extent and according to what criteria is it possible to distinguish between its contingent elements and its universal, supra-temporal message? This is a question that Lamrabet does not ask but one that remains inescapable in any attempt at reform.


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:
Michele Brignone, “Criticizing Tradition in the Qur’an’s Name”, Oasis, year XV, n. 30, December 2019, pp. 137-139.

Online version:
Michele Brignone, “Criticizing Tradition in the Qur’an’s Name”, Oasis [online], published on 30th November 2020, URL: /en/criticizing-tradition-in-the-qurans-name