Olfa Youssef discusses her book "Bewilderment of a Muslim Woman"
Interview by Jamel Arfaoui for Magharebia in Tunis – 30/05/08
Olfa Youssef is a Tunisian researcher known for her critical approach to Islamic thought, deconstructing human preconceptions about the religion and its holy texts. Youssef spoke with Magharebia recently about her latest book, "Bewilderment of a Muslim Woman", in which she confronts what she contends is the contemporary misuse of Qur'anic interpretation for political interests and her belief that ijtihad should be encouraged.
Magharebia: Your latest book carries a fairly provocative title, "Bewilderment of a Muslim Woman". In your opinion, what is the "bewilderment" of the Muslim woman today?
Olfa Youssef: The bewilderment of the Muslim woman expressed by the book is essentially my own. However, it undoubtedly intersects with the bewilderment of other Muslim men and women. This bewilderment stems from the huge difference between what is in the Qur'an and in the sunnah in terms of openness and the possibility for multiple interpretations on the one hand, and the parochial readings provided to us by jurisprudents' interpretations which claim to be final and therefore close the door of ijtihad. It even falsifies the content of the Quran [to] benefit individual, sectarian or political interests.
It is the bewilderment of the honest Muslim today caused by the horrible image presented by some people about an Islam that ignores the essence of religion, which is love, tolerance, peace and absolute good in the philosophical sense of the word. Instead, they present the image of a horrific, appalling Islam in which the Muslim man turns into a ferocious monster, enslaved by his own instincts, who is easily distracted by a woman's hair or a part of her wrist and forgets about the duties of his religion and life. Under this version of Islam, the woman is turned into nothing but a sensual body that is good for nothing but its sexual value. Under this Islam, the "other" who is different in religion, opinion or ideology is turned into an enemy and a target for terrorism.
The Islam presented by some sheikhs today has nothing to do with the ethics of the Prophet (PBUH), who is our role model, or to the essence of our Holy Book, the Qur'an.
The followers of so and so ideology, or of so and so sheikh, have now become the judges who decide who are Muslim and who are not. Takfir of other people has spread among the people. They forgot that the Prophet (PBUH) confirmed that the accusation of takfir was more dangerous than killing – and killing is one of the gravest sins.
Magharebia: You're questioning a number of uncontested matters in the Qur'an. You would like to review the issues of inheritance, marriage, and a wife's obedience to her husband, as well as sex life in Muslim society. Don't you think that this is a risky venture?
Olfa Youssef: The matters you mentioned in your question were not mentioned in the Qur'an. Rather, they were brought up by the interpretations of Qur'an jurisprudents. The difference between the two things is essential, and my book proves and illustrates it. I'm not calling for a reconsideration of the existing rules. Rather, I'm calling for a reconsideration of their legitimacy.
I firmly believe that it is the state which makes legislation. Therefore, we find that a lot of laws in Muslim countries are different from each other, although all these countries claim that they depend on the same rules of law, which is the Qur'an and sunnah and the other rules of jurisprudence.
It is about time we understood that all laws are man-made…although the source of the law is one – the Qur'an. [Although] we believe in the sanctity of the Qur'an, its interpretation is human and relative. [This interpretation] can't be sacred, and the proof is that there have been multiple interpretations, such as Ibn Abbass, Tabari, and current schools.
If we agree on the relativism of interpretations, then my book aims to show the holes existing in the interpretations of old jurisprudents regarding inheritance and marriage in particular. I don't think that humans' criticism of other humans involves any transgression against the divine texts. Many men in history differed amongst themselves and criticised each other's interpretations. Why, then, should we stop thinking and practicing ijtihad today?
Magharebia: Are you accusing Muslim countries of applying legislation that don't espouse gender equality?
Olfa Youssef: The book doesn't accuse Islamic law, but it proves a certain reality, which is: if there is gender inequality in legislation, its source, then, is not the Qur'an or sunnah. Rather, it is the result of readings by jurisprudents [coloured by] their historical affiliations and even self-interest.
These affiliations, interests and calculations were unjust, not only to women, but to many men as well. The chapter on inheritance shows that some relatives and orphans were denied a right to inheritance, although it was proven in the Qur'an itself. It was even referred to by some old jurists known for their fairness. However, their opinions were ignored.
Is it conceivable that the Prophet himself allowed a woman to divorce her husband although she had nothing against him, whether regarding money or morals, provided that she returned to him [what] he had given her, while today, we find legislation like that in Egypt approving the khule' (divorce at the wife's request) only after debates and arguments?
Do those people consider themselves to be more religious than the Prophet himself? Or is the desire to oppress women stronger in them than their observance of the teachings of the Qur'an and sunnah?
Magharebia: What did you mean when you said that some TV channels come across as if they were the path to heaven?
Olfa Youssef: Some people who have no way to access religion other than through the people who speak on these TV channels think that they have the absolute truth. The strange thing is that most of those viewers haven't read the old muffassereen (expounders of the Qur'an), jurisprudents and religious scholars, and know nothing about their differences, opinions and backgrounds. When you listen to [the television preachers], you feel that they have guaranteed themselves a place in heaven, and that God has asked them to give the people the recipe to enter it.
Magharebia: The Tunisian capital recently hosted a symposium on how to present a positive image of Islam in the West. Does the picture look that dark? Do you think a mistaken interpretation of jihad is responsible for getting us to that situation?
Olfa Youssef: There is no doubt that the picture is dark. What does it mean when a child blows himself up under the pretext of jihad? Where is our fear of killing innocent people and of killing the soul which God has forbidden, except for the requirements of justice? Where are we from a prophet known for his mercy and for his good treatment of the idolater prisoners of war, even though they fought against him? What then about civilians in a house, restaurant or a market who may have different opinions, faiths or sects? Does this give us the right to kill them and to commit suicide as well?
I support the defence of one's homeland if usurped, and I'm for self-defence in the case of aggression. But what do you think of someone who is attacked by Zeid, and then goes out and kills Amr? Let our children and youth fear God and let us present the shining image of Islam to them.
Magharebia: Tell us about the project of establishing a joint committee with Moroccan researcher Rachid Ben Zein to find a new approach to interpreting the Qur'an.
Olfa Youssef: I fully respect Rachid Ben Zeid and other new thinkers in Islam because they don't deny other opinions and they don't accuse anyone of kufr. My view is that all approaches to interpreting the Qur'an are new. It's wrong to think that some modern thinkers want to change the Qur'an. The Qur'an is sacred, and we all – as Muslims – believe in its contents. However, its readings are different. Ali bin Abi Taleb himself said centuries ago that the Qur'an "is capable of different interpretations". I find that some opinions of Tabari, Zamakhshari or Ibn Ashour have a depth of knowledge and intellectual modernity that is not understood by most of our young people today, who take their religion from Qaradawi or Amr Khaled.
Interpretation of the Qur'an is not restricted to certain people. Neither I nor others would allow people who have certain political interests to deny us a God-given right, which is the right to ijtihad. If they want to discuss our opinions, we welcome the discussion and the difference. If they find a mistake in our linguistic reading or in any of our methodological references, we welcome anyone who can correct what can be corrected.
But if they want to deny us the right to interpretation, to confiscate our ideas and to claim that only they are established in this science, my colleagues and I would strongly oppose them, whatever the price. This is because we are the nation of "Iqraa", not the nation of "follow the ignorant".
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