Asma Barlas on misinterpretations of Islam

On Thursday, Oct. 9 the Political Awareness Committee (PAC) hosted speaker Asma Barlas, Professor of Politics at Ithaca College. Barlas gave a speech entitled “Muslim Women’s Rights and Islamic Feminisms.” She used much of her speech to dispel common misconceptions of Muslims. Abdul Wake ’19, PAC coordinator, introduced Barlas.

“Today we are very, very excited to welcome Professor Asma Barlas,” Wake said. “She joined the Politics department [at Ithaca College] in 1991, and served as the founding director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity for twelve years.”

Barlas began her career when recruited to Pakistan’s Foreign Service in 1976, but she was fired only six years later for speaking out against General Zia-ul-Haq, who had seized power from Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a military coup. She then became an assistant editor of an opposition newspaper, the Muslim, before moving to the United States after receiving political asylum.

“I think you already know the title of my talk … and on the face of it, the title seems to suggest it’s going to be a pretty straightforward conversation about Muslim women’s rights,” Barlas said. “But actually nothing about this conversation is straightforward at all.”

Unlike many speakers that come to campus, Barlas wanted her speech to be more like a conversation and encouraged people to ask questions at any time.

“I have found it difficult as an observant Muslim in the United States to speak about Islam,” Barlas said. “And I think part of the reason, especially for people of your generation, is you only know my religion through the lenses of 9/11, 2001.”

Barlas explained that these beliefs were nothing new and have been around since medieval times.

“The earliest depiction of prophet amongst Christians was the antichrist,” Barlas said. “By the time Luther came on the scene, the real antichrist, he said, was the Catholic church, and the Pope. Mohammed is just an antichrist. So the prophet was downgraded to an antichrist.”

Nowadays, Barlas explained, the most common depiction of Mohammed is as a terrorist.

“These are very old, pervasive historical narratives about Islam that the West has chosen to tell itself over the course of a millennium and a half,” Barlas said.

Barlas then asked for students to provide common stereotypes of Islam that they have heard. The first mentioned was that it is oppressive to women. Another was that the Quran is the only scripture used by Muslims, when in reality there are other texts commonly interpreted as being part of the Quran. Barlas herself asked if anyone had heard that Muslims stone adulterers to death.

“Stoning is not mentioned in the Quran … actually it’s from the Hebrew Bible,” Barlas said.

This was a common theme of Barlas’s talk. Many of the things westerners associate with being part of Islam and written in the Quran are actually from texts that are not included in the actual Quran, but other texts that over the years have been interpreted as canonical. Jihad was mentioned as an example of this misinterpretation. As Barlas explained, within classical Islamic law, Jihad cannot be declared by just anyone, they must have the authority to do so. It cannot be declared against non-combatants or involve the killing of women and children.

“None of the stuff you see these days – often described as terrorism – actually fits into that model of Jihad,” Barlas said.