Kariman Hamzah: Giving us a Woman’s Interpretation of the Qur’an

Kariman Hamzah: Giving us a Woman’s Interpretation of the Qur’an December 31, 2008

In this past week’s Friday links, Fatemeh mentioned that Al-Azhar University had for the first time approved a tafsir (interpretation) of the Qur’an written by a woman, Kariman Hamzah. The BBC story on this event left a lot to be desired. The first thing that was seriously wrong was the headline “Egypt clerics back woman’s Koran”. The headline is so deceptive and wrong. Hamzah did not produce her own version of the Qur’an. Another thing wrong with the headline is that it took Hamzah out of the picture. There is no mention of her in the headline. In fact, she is not mentioned until half way through the story. It’s as if the only thing is important is “woman” and “Koran”.

The summary beneath the headline was also misleading. “The highest authority of Sunni Islam, al-Azhar University in Cairo, says it has approved the first interpretation of the Koran by a woman.” Maybe Hamzah’s interpretation was the first interpretation by a woman that Al-Azhar approved but it is not the first interpretation done by a woman. To say that Hamzah’s interpretation is the first interpretation of the Qur’an by a woman discounts all of the interpretations that have been done by women. It also makes Muslim women seem stagnant by constantly hailing things done by Muslim women without acknowledging that some of these actions have already been taken by Muslim women.

What was most troubling about the BBC’s story however was how Hamzah’s tafsir was painted. Hamzah’s tafsir isn’t gender focused. In fact, her interpretation is geared towards youth using what Hamzah described as “a simple language and writing style.” However, the BBC puts a totally different slant on it. “Liberal Muslim women have been critical of established interpretations, saying they are patriarchal.” The first issue I have with this statement is the use of the term “liberal”. I find it incredibly annoying when the media portrays Muslims as “liberal”, “conservative”, “moderate”, etc., instead of just Muslim. Even if we use the term “liberal”, it is not just “liberal” Muslim women who are critical of patriarchal interpretations. More importantly, however, is that the statement has nothing to do with the actual story. Hamzah’s tafsir isn’t an exegesis about women or gender, nor did she claim it to be. So why did the BBC find it important to put this in the story? Not everything that Muslim women do has to be explicitly related to gender or fighting women’s oppression. It is frustrating that the BBC put Hamzah into a role that she didn’t even seek.

Despite BBC’s reporting, Hazmah’s accomplishment is something to be heralded. As the Daily News Egypt pointed out, Hamzah forged her way into a male dominated profession. She was part of a wave of accomplishments for Egyptian women this year including the election of the first woman mayor and the arrival of the first woman marriage registrar. There’s plenty to celebrate about Kariman Hamzah’s acheievement without putting an unnecessary and misleading slant on her accomplishment.

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