A Woman, Rethinking Islamic Jurisprudence

File photo of Sediqeh Vasmaqi. (Sharq Parsi/The Majalla) File photo of Sediqeh Vasmaqi. (Sharq Parsi/The Majalla)

File photo of Sediqeh Vasmaqi. (Sharq Parsi/The Majalla)

Sediqeh Vasmaqi is a woman of many talents. Perhaps best known for her stint as a Tehran City Councilor during the presidency of reformist Mohammad Khatami, she is also a student of Islam who earned her PhD in Islamic jurisprudence in the 1980s. She has taught and written about about interpreting the Qur’an and hadith ever since.

In fact, her opinions of much mainstream Islamic scholarship, especially as it pertains to women, are so revisionist that many consider her brave merely for having expressed them while she was still in Iran.

Even though she now resides in Sweden, Vasmaqi explained why she feels that women have been the victim of what she terms “incorrect” interpretations of Islamic scripture and traditions, as well as her opinion of what the future holds for the Islamic Republic.

The Majalla: You have challenged many Islamic instructions, particularly those about women. In your book, Woman, Jurisprudence and Islam, you openly reject the views of jurists and present different readings of Islamic teachings. For instance, you say Muslim women face no obligation about hijab and enjoy equal share in inheritance. You also reject stoning as an Islamic verdict. How did you reach these conclusions?

Sediqeh Vasmaqi: Throughout my years studying [Islamic] jurisprudence, my mind was occupied with the theologians’ interpretations of Qur’anic verses and Islamic hadith. Their arguments failed to convince me, and the problem became more serious when I started teaching in a university. I had to explain to my students why a woman was not qualified to be a judge in a court, or why a woman’s testimony in court was not as valid as a man’s, or why a woman’s blood money was half what a man’s was. I had the same problem with other religious issues, too. For instance, I could not find any sufficient explanation for why stoning is an Islamic punishment.

The fact is that the reasons and arguments presented by the jurists were inadequate. Through my research, I concluded that the fundamental principles of Islamic jurisprudence were fraught with serious problems, and that they must be reconsidered. The fundamental principles—both theoretical and linguistic—upon which this jurisprudence stands is disputable, and there are many questionable interpretations of Qur’anic verses. I have studied these principles and verses and reached conclusions that are totally different from those of other theologians.

Q: Could you give us some examples of this to clarify?

For instance, I am critical of the theologians’ argument that anything attributed to the Prophet is a religious obligation for Muslims. I believe that this interpretation lacks any reasonable or strong religious standing. Many of the traditions and customs of the first Muslims have been adopted into Islamic rulings, but these traditions were also customary among Arabs before Islam was revealed and were not specific to Muslims. For example, Jews and polytheists did not recognize the testimony of women; most tribes in Hijaz—including Jews, polytheists and Muslims—gave men twice the inheritance women received.

Those who converted to Islam were still following those traditions, and the Prophet did not object to them. But it would be wrong to conclude that the Prophet approved all these traditions and that every Muslim in every period of history is obliged to follow them. We can’t claim that these traditions have become religious commandments with such arguments.

On other issues such as stoning, I think that the arguments presented by theologians are even less solid.

Q: Do you see stoning as an un-Islamic verdict?

I believe that stoning is an un-Islamic verdict and against Qur’anic law. I have detailed my arguments on my rejection of the theologians’ views [on stoning] in my books and articles. A religious instruction must come directly from God. In many cases, things that have been pronounced religious obligations are based on weak evidence. That is unacceptable. For example, the Qur’an gives other punishments for adultery and sodomy. It never recommends stoning as a punishment [for those offenses]. Theologians have suggested stoning based on historical events and unacceptable arguments. To that effect, theologians have preferred undocumented stories to Qur’anic verses. There are many such issues, which need to be discussed in books and articles.

Q: You believe that wearing hijab is not an obligation for women, but many Islamic scholars cite Islamic verses showing it is. How can there be two contradictory interpretations of the same verse?

With hijab, you won’t reach the conclusion many theologians have reached simply by referring to Qur’anic verses and hadith. Islamic jurists have often included their personal and cultural views, as well as their fanaticism, when discussing the issue of the veil for women. The Qur’anic verses never say clearly that women are obligated to cover their hair, and the stories about the lives of the first Muslim women do not say anything about an obligation for women to fully cover their hair and bodies. There is no evidence that any Muslim woman was punished during the Prophet’s lifetime for not covering herself adequately. Even after the Prophet’s death, his disciples, who were promoting Islam in several different countries, never recommended any specific “Islamic” cover-up for women.

What is clear is that the Qur’an and the Prophet of Islam ask people to dress decently. The point is that the Islamic scholars’ interpretations of the Qur’anic verses about the veil are their personal views, and those views contradict historical evidence. A religious instruction must be based on solid evidence and documented well enough that it cannot be challenged. We cannot attribute our personal interpretations to God. We must be convinced that He has instructed something. Even the jurists’ interpretation of some Arabic words is not certain.

Q: So what is the position of hijab in the Qur’an? Is it a religious or a customary practice?

Muslim women customarily cover their hair, and I respect that. My argument is that covering one’s hair is not an Islamic obligation, and, therefore, should not be imposed on women. I would never say that covering your hair voluntarily is bad. I want to reiterate here that there are no strong religious arguments showing that women must cover their hair and that women who refuse to do so should be subject to punishment. Punishing and insulting women for refusing to cover their hair is cruel and un-Islamic.

Q: How are your views received in Iranian society? Did you feel free to state your opinions? Was your departure from Iran and resettlement in Sweden related to this?

I tried my best to express my opinions, and I got positive feedback from women, intellectuals, and even from people in the Qur’anic schools. But there were also many threats [made against me], as well as restrictions imposed on me by the official religious and security organs.

But I have not left Iran for good. I went to Germany for academic work and then came to Sweden, but I will return to Iran soon.

Q: In the past few years, quite a few Qur’anic schools have been opened in Iran that aim to help women join the clergy. Do you think that having women in the centers of religious scholarship could help restore their rights?

The presence of women in Qur’anic schools, studying religion, does not mean that they will enter the clergy. The clergy is dominated by men and unjustifiably claims to be the sole administrator of religion. Throughout history, they have fabricated customs and seized power, and this has had a negative impact on the lives and beliefs of ordinary people. Women and their rights have been regularly threatened by this establishment.

I do believe that women should have religious knowledge and that they should defend their own rights with self-confidence, and not let their rights be trampled on by people who use religion. Women seriously need that.

The clergy has grown into a legislative body, and it claims that its pronouncements are divine. People have accepted this, and in doing so they have empowered the establishment. Women have been deeply harmed by the decisions of the clergy, and they are still deprived of their human rights because of that institution. Islamic societies will finally resolve this only when men and, more specifically, women are convinced that the clergy is not the administrator of religion. Educating women in religious schools alone will not secure their rights.

I believe that the Islamic world must redefine Shari’a and minimize its role in society. I do not think [civil] penal and civil codes should be the domain of Shari’a law. Lawmaking must be done by people, because the law must conform with the conditions in society. I think that in the future, Muslim men and women will understand that [human] laws attributed to Shari’a are not religious instructions. A change of that magnitude in the views of Muslims would have a significant effect on everyday life. Since women have been subjected to injustice far more than men, and because they have had so many restrictions imposed on them under the guise of “Shari’a,” women are more motivated to take this step.

Q: Do you think that the Iranian people’s opinion of Islam has changed since the Shi’a clergy began ruling the country just over three decades ago?

Thirty-four years ago, the Iranian people could only imagine being ruled by a religious establishment using Islamic jurisprudence. Today, they have thirty-four years of experience of it. They feel the results of this rule in the name of Islam and Shari’a in many different aspects of their lives. Certainly, this experience has affected everybody’s opinions, including intellectuals, traditionalists, and both supporters and opponents of Islam.

I can’t see anything positive in the track record of the Shari’a-based establishment over the past thirty-four years. Many people—especially the younger generation—have become pessimistic about Islam due to this poor performance by the Islamic regime.

Anyway, our country had to experience this. Until the revolution, even intellectuals considered a religious establishment as a rival to autocratic monarchies. Many people who trusted in Islam and the clergy believed that a religious regime was the only way out of autocracy and injustice. Today, the performance of the [Islamic] jurisprudence-based establishment over the past thirty-four years has made many people, including intellectuals, change their minds. New interpretations of and opinions about Islam have been formed out of this experience, and they will have a significant long-term impact on the culture of Iran.

Q: Do you think that we must wait for a different interpretation of Islam and a different status for Islam in Iranian society in the future?

I think there is a growing view that Islam is an individual and moral religion that must be separated from power, and I think this will be the dominant opinion of Islam [in the future]. Such an opinion would separate Islam from lawmaking and legislating.

Even before the revolution, many of our civil laws were based on Islamic jurisprudence. I think that in the future, the bulk of these laws will change. This new attitude requires that [civil] penal and civil codes are appropriate to the conditions of the society [that they govern], and this means that legislating will be a job for [civilian legal] experts.

This interview was originally conducted in Persian.

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