The equality and intrinsic dignity of all human beings are central principles in Islam. These ideals should effectually result in the liberation of the oppressed. However, empowerment can only be attained through a deep understanding of Islam from its sources, the Qur’ān and the sunna of Prophet Muhammad.

Engaging in hermeneutics, i.e., the theory and methodology of interpretation, and even, as Fatima Mernissi encourages, “becoming specialists” is central to all projects of Muslim liberation, male and female. Although misogynistic readings of the Qur’ān that promote sexual inequality are prevalent, there is nothing inherently Islamic about them either. In fact, such readings are un-Islamic because they go against the overarching worldview and nature of Islam, which is profoundly egalitarian. The need to engage in interpretations that are in harmony with the historic Islamic tradition cannot be overemphasized. 

In seeking to understand a text, one should look at the text itself and consider how it instructs the reader to analyze it. As Muhammad Abdel Haleem writes, “the Qur’ān explains itself.” Abdel Haleem asserts that context and internal relationships are two criteria of crucial importance in understanding discourse. Asma Barlas’s hermeneutical work is a rich example of these principles. Barlas, Amina Wadud, Fatima Mernissi and other important women scholars of Islam have used the principles that the Qur’ān suggests for its own interpretation, that is looking to the Qur’ān in order to answer the question of whether men and women are other than co-equals. 

Pursuing a female-inclusive reading of the sacred book of Islam, Amina Wadud found that in Islam women are “primordially, cosmologically, eschatologically, spiritually and morally full human beings, equal to all who accept…Islam as a dīn [religion or faith].” 

Similarly, Asma Barlas insists that the Qur’ān is egalitarian and antipatriarchal. The liberating voice of Islam has been silenced by the overwhelming abundance of loud male voices that have historically performed Qur’ānic exegetical work (critical explanation).

The Qur’ān has been interpreted almost entirely by men and their understanding has been necessarily influenced by their own needs and experiences.

The Qur’ān has been interpreted almost entirely by men and their understanding has been necessarily influenced by their own needs and experiences. However, this does not mean that it is destined forever to be interpreted in this manner. The Qur’ān evolves with the passage of time and with the evolution of humanity. As Barlas explains, and in agreement with many other scholars, the Qur’ān “is a unified document gradually unfolding itself.” The Qur’ān will continue to reveal new meanings as we continue to engage in its interpretation by following its own rules. An issue that has thwarted the development of varied exegetical work is the excessive priority that existing works of tafsir (explanation) are given.

In order to arrive at a liberating understanding of Islam, it is necessary to follow the central injunctions of the text, for instance, the mandate for human beings to think and use their intellect in all aspects of life, including when approaching revelation itself.

In order to arrive at a liberating understanding of Islam, it is necessary to follow the central injunctions of the text, for instance, the mandate for human beings to think and use their intellect in all aspects of life, including when approaching revelation itself.

The Qur’ān does not promote, and in fact strongly warns against, blindly following past interpretations.

The Qur’ān does not promote, and in fact strongly warns against, blindly following past interpretations. This would essentially entail worshipping human beings rather than God, constituting shirk (idolatry, polytheism, and the association of God with other deities), the gravest transgression in Islam: “If you follow the greater majority on earth, they would lead you astray. They follow nothing but the conjectures of others and mislead those who follow them. Your Lord knows best who stray from the path of Truth; He knows best who are the rightly guided” (6:117-18). It is thus clear that no Muslim is exempted from the responsibility of thinking for herself and reaching her own conclusions. 

The Quran

The Quran

The significance of the mandate to think independently is evidenced by the fact that after the word Allah, the second most common set of words mentioned in the Qur’ān “deals with a cluster concerned with knowing, reasoning, intellect, pondering, reflecting, meditating upon, and thinking.” Reason is the sine qua non of Islam, beginning with an individual’s exercise of thought and free will to submit to the Will of God for “there is no compulsion in [the acceptance of] the religion” (Qur’ān 2:256). Indeed, thinking for oneself (and hence, exerting effort to interpret revelation anew) is required by the Qur’ān. The Qur’ān could not exist without the presumption and emphasis on the use of a human being’s intellectual faculties in every aspect of life, including in deciding whether or not to accept the message of the Qur’ān. Islam is an encompassing way of life adopted by human beings who, using their free will and intellect, submit to the Will of God. Compulsion has no place in this matter and would in fact render the “submission” invalid. 

It is clear, then, that “following the greater majority” has in fact been leading us astray and that there is no justification for continuing to rely on such prejudiced understandings.

There are over seven-hundred-and-fifty instructions in the Qur’ān to believers telling them to use their intellectual faculties. If we combine these commands with the foundational tenet of Islam that “there is no God but God,” and the emphasis the Qur’ān places on self-responsibility for one’s actions and their consequences, we cannot miss the logically ensuing conclusion that we are required to use our own judgment rather than rely on past interpretations that blatantly contradict our present understanding of the verses and holistic spirit of the Qur’ān. It is clear, then, that “following the greater majority” has in fact been leading us astray and that there is no justification for continuing to rely on such prejudiced understandings. 

The discussion of self-responsibility is based on a human being’s inherent moral agency. The Qur’ān states in clear language that nobody can bear the burdens of another (35:18) and that, on the day of judgment, each individual will stand alone and is solely accountable for her actions. The Qur’ān teaches that “both women and men have the same capacity for moral agency, choice and individuality.” It holds men and women to the same standards of behavior and judges them by the same standards. It appoints both of them as “each other’s guides and protectors,” which indicates that they are both equally “capable of attaining moral individuality and both have the same guardianship over one another.”

The oppression of women is a global phenomenon as the history of western (and many other) civilizations demonstrates. Women all over the world suffer from different varieties of this malaise that wears different costumes, including the Islamic one. In agreement with Asma Barlas, I argue, as developed above, that Islam not only is NOT patriarchal, but it is actually a profoundly liberating way of life. To claim that Islam is misogynistic is the result of conflating the Qur’ān with its exegesis, or the Signified with the Signifier. That is, the confusion of God’s speech with its necessary interpretation by human beings, often, very biased human beings.


  1. Cited in Barlas, Asma. “Uncrossed Bridges: Islam, Feminism and Secular Democracy.” Philosophy and Social Criticism 39(4-5) 417–425, 2013.
  2. Abdel Haleem, Muhammad. Understanding the Qur’an: Themes and Style. London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011, p. 161.
  3. Wadud, Amina. Qur’ān and Woman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. x.
  4.  Barlas, Asma. “Believing Women” in Islam. Karachi: Sama Editorial, 2004, p. 8.
  5. Safi, Omar. Memories of Muhammad. New York: HarperOne, 2009, p. 77
  6. Some examples are found in 3:190-191 (extolling us to think deeply); 39:9 (stating that those who have understanding can grasp Allah’s message); 39:29 (instructing us to reflect upon the Quran’s verses); 2:164 (stating the message in the Quran is for people who use their reason); 16:69 (stating the Quran is a sign for people who think); 30:8 (warning us against failing to think deeply); 22:46 (instructing us to use our intellect); 7:176 (inviting us to reflect); 7:184 (warning us against failing to reflect); 59:21 (stating the Quran’s parables are for humans to reflect); 74:54-55 (instructing mindfulness); 2:269 (stating the Quran’s message can only be grasped by those of understanding and that wisdom is a “benefit overflowing” granted by God to whom He wills); 20:114 (telling us to pray for God to increase our knowledge).
  7. To describe Islam merely as a religion is inaccurate because the word dīn cannot be properly translated as such. The “religionization” of Islam is exceedingly problematic. Although “every word is a prejudice,” as Nietzsche recognized, it is impossible to avoid the prisons of language, even more so in translation. Avoiding the violence of language would effectively result in being unable to write. Nietzsche saw language as problematic because “every word becomes a concept” having “to fit countless more or less similar cases . . . which are never equal and thus together unequal.” Cited in Hallaq, Wael. Sharī’a: Theory, Practice, Transformations. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009., p. 1.
  8.  See Qur’ān 3:30 and 17:36 regarding the accountability each soul has for her choices and actions.
  9.  Barlas, Asma. “Believing Women” in Islam, p. 140.
  10.  Ibid.