Elegantly written and intelligently argued, this is an exceptional book in which the title, for once, does not promise too much. Barazangi, a research fellow at Cornell University, is a scholar to watch with a mind to admire. In a field littered with the strident, the clumsy, the redundant, the intellectually dishonest, and the overtly partisan, she skirts all those traps with grace and shows a way to move forward the grid-locked discussion over core Islamic values—especially but not only those concerning women.
She asks two basic questions at the heart of her endeavor: "Who has the authority to read and interpret the Qur'anic text, and how is it to be done?"
This is a bold book, though its most revolutionary positions are argued with such persuasive subtlety and such a lack of confrontational zeal that their impact is not immediately evident. For example, using instances from the Prophet's personal life, Barazangi persuasively argues the fallibility of Muhammad and the necessity of separating his divine prophecy from his error-prone and flawed human self. (A fact he himself constantly reiterated during his lifetime, though to little avail in the face of loyal followers who were determined to venerate him blindly.) She demonstrates the ways in which the original Islamic community violated its own principles—anathema to Islamists to whom that community represents a perfect ideal.
Powerfully, Barazangi shows that Muslim women from the first moment forward were obliged—in clear violation of the Qur'anic message—to accept the authority, not of the text or its contained divine word, but of male interlocutors. "It was assumed that she could follow the interpretations of her male members of the household and other male elites, and continue with her task without seeing the light of the Qur'an in her own consciousness, or the light of the world with her own eyes." For the latter, hijab serves as an expressive metaphor on several levels. It represents the separation of women from the "light of the world" and the external definition of the individual woman's moral conduct. There is probably no more incendiary revolutionary sentence than her conclusion, that "autonomous morality cancels the assumption of the proxy morality of women." Unfortunately, in this book at least, Barazangi refrains from the logical next step, namely of arguing for the autonomous morality of the Muslim believer in general, vis-à-vis his patriarchal elders, his tribe, his local traditions, etc.
The strength of Barazangi's impressive work is also its most regrettable aspect: it is a sophisticated argument written in academic English and published by a university press. Her authoritative and solidly grounded case needs to be heard by the broader young Muslim public in the region, not by readers like me.