An Androcentric Discipline? The Gender Troubles of Qur’anic Exegesis – by Ali Altaf Mian

Ali Altaf Mian on Karen Bauer’s Gender Hierarchy in the Qur’an

Karen Bauer, Gender Hierarchy in the Qur’an: Medieval Interpretations, Modern Responses, Cambridge University Press, 2015, 324pp., $99
Karen Bauer, Gender Hierarchy in the Qur’an: Medieval Interpretations, Modern Responses, Cambridge University Press, 2015, 324pp., $99
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Gender is a widely debated topic in contemporary Islam. Many Muslims, and some non-Muslims as well, find mixed messages about gender equality in the Qur’an. On the one hand, the Muslim holy book deploys the prose of gender equality. Consider, for example, the following verses:

For men and women who have surrendered,
For believing men and believing women,
For obedient men and obedient women,
For truthful men and truthful women,
For patient men and patient women,
For humble men and humble women,
For men and women who give in charity,
For men who fast and women who fast,
For men and women who guard their private parts,
And for men and women who remember God profusely —
For them God has prepared forgiveness and a mighty reward (Qur’an 33:35).

And the believers, the men and the women, are protectors of one another; they bid what is right; and forbid what is wrong; they perform the prayer, and pay the alms, and they obey God and God’s messenger. Those — upon them God will have mercy; God is All-mighty, All-wise” (Qur’an 9:71).

The first verse is explicit in placing men and women side by side, opening various avenues of piety to members of both sexes. Women and men are described as embodying the same moral qualities. Some Muslims use this verse to argue that the Qur’an authorizes “spiritual equality” between the sexes. The second verse identifies caring protection to be the ideal relationship between men and women. It posits women and men as friendly helpers of each other in actualizing the common good, the inspiration for which they derive from their performance of liturgical and devotional acts.

On the other hand, prescriptions of gender inequality, and even marital violence, surface in the same scripture. The following few verses illustrate this tendency:

And call in to testimony two witnesses, men; or if the two be not men, then one man and two women — such witnesses as you approve of — that if one of the two women errs, the other will remind her; and let the witnesses not refuse, whenever they are summoned” (Qur’an 2:282).

Men are the managers of the affairs of women, for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another, and for that they have expended of their property. Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for God’s guarding. And those you fear may be rebellious, admonish them; banish them to their chambers; and beat them. If they then obey you, look not for any way against them; God is All-high, All-great” (Qur’an 4:34).

Here, the first verse clearly privileges men’s word over women’s word in commercial matters (as the passage stems from a longer discussion of commercial contracts). The verse alludes to alleged forgetfulness on the part of women as the justification for the inequality between men’s and women’s testimonies. The second verse — the recipient of wide-ranging popular and scholarly attention — is notoriously challenging: how could a God of justice prescribe violent measures to resolve marital discord?

For many modern readers, the above juxtaposition of Qur’anic verses makes visible an apparent contradiction characterizing the book’s teaching on social and domestic relations between the sexes. The textual presence of both equality and inequality — or egalitarianism and hierarchy — makes the Qur’an a versatile textual reservoir, open to use or abuse by feminist and androcentric readers alike.

The Qur’an authorizes “two distinct voices” or “two competing understandings of gender,” argues historian Leila Ahmed. According to her, the contradiction between the above two sets of verses reflects a broader tension in the discursive formation of early Islam: the substantial discrepancy between this discourse’s “pragmatic regulations for society” and its “ethical vision.” In terms of gender relations, then, the Qur’anic text authorizes both equality and inequality — it condones justice and oppression. But this tension was not always discernible to Muslims, especially those who constructed the classical exegetical edifice around the Qur’anic text. Most exegetes interpreted the Qur’an in a way that promoted a social hierarchy between the sexes. In so doing, they inadvertently privileged the text’s social-control mechanisms over its ethical and spiritual message of equality.

Masculine privilege continues to characterize many facets of contemporary Islam, especially Muslim interpretations of the Qur’an. But androcentrism does not go unchecked in modernity. Many present-day Muslims struggle for gender equality, grounding this ideal in Qur’anic teaching. The struggle has become especially salient in our current age, when “human rights,” “dignity,” and “equality” circulate as global values. In this context, Muslim feminists have been at the forefront of asserting the Qur’an’s social justice teaching, which they claim ought not to be restricted to the spiritual domain of private devotion but extended to the pragmatic domain of public life.

In their engagement with the textual edifice of Islam, Muslim feminist scholars have privileged the Qur’an over other sources. With the right reading method, many of them argue, the sacred text’s androcentric teachings can be circumscribed, giving way to the transformation of its spiritual equality into social equality. The year 1992 saw the publication of two leading works in the field of Muslim women’s studies, namely, Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate and Amina Wadud’s Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective. These texts ushered in a new epoch for Muslim and non-Muslim scholars and students of Islamic history, Qur’anic exegesis, and gender in Muslim thought and practice. Ahmed taught us the value of understanding gender inequality as an effect of certain historical processes. She showed how rulers and scholars alike invoked textual references for justifying certain social arrangements that thrived because of gender segregation and the subjugation of women to the private sphere. Wadud taught us how to read the Qur’an as gendered persons and how to seek gender justice in God’s words. She instructed us in methods for reclaiming the Qur’an’s spiritual values. She identified the text’s eternal principles that she argued Muslims ought to embrace but also delineated certain time-bounded prescriptions that Muslims ought to abandon.

Numerous other Muslim feminists have added their valuable voices to a discourse Aysha Hidayatuallah characterizes as “feminist Qur’anic interpretation.” The authors of this discourse model a new way to write Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir), departing significantly from the conclusions of classical and modern conservative exegetes. Hidayatullah’s recent monograph, Feminist Edges of the Qur’an, provides a critical overview of this nascent body of work, summarizing its key ideological commitments and liberating methods but also asking compelling questions about its limitations. This new mode of interpretation, inspired at once by feminist politics and Qur’anic principles, assumes a complicated relationship with traditional, and especially traditionalist, bodies of Muslim scholars and Islamic scholarship. This mode of interpretation, Hidayatullah proposes, operates at the “edge” of tradition: it inhabits “a place of animated change” and enacts both “the avowal and disavowal of tradition.” In other words, feminist Qur’anic exegetes consult the centuries-old tradition of Muslim moral theology and ethics, but they rarely agree with and uphold traditionalist positions, because these positions bear the mark of male privilege, and sometimes even the imprint of misogyny.

While feminist Qur’anic interpretation answers the pressing political call of gender justice, it is crucial to integrate gender as an analytical category within Qur’anic studies writ large, and particularly within the history of tafsir as a genre of Muslim theological scholarship. This is precisely the daunting task taken up by Karen Bauer in Gender Hierarchy in the Qur’an: Medieval Interpretations, Modern Responses.

Bauer’s book offers compelling answers to Muslim feminists who ponder why androcentric readings of the Qur’an come deeply entrenched within their Muslim communities, but Bauer also uses gender as a case study to intervene in a number of ongoing conversations within Islamic Studies, ranging from the structure and exercise of religious authority in Islam to the history of the genre of Qur’anic exegesis. The monograph is exceptional in numerous ways. First, it studies both medieval and contemporary Qur’anic exegetes. Second, Bauer is attuned to the inner workings of the genre of tafsir. In this way, the book takes tafsir on its own terms, enabling us to appreciate how various ways of reading into the Qur’an reflected exegetes’ social and political conditions but also their grounding in certain methodological protocols, legal positions, and modes of reasoning. Third, Bauer deploys multiple methodologies: historical analysis, close reading, and ethnography. Finally, Bauer attends to both Sunni and Shi‘i authors and interviewees. Put together, these various features deliver a rich account of tafsir. This account also furnishes readers with the historical back-story of the production and reproduction of androcentric readings of certain Qur’anic passages. For example, if some modern readers are suspicious that male privilege is trafficked into tafsir vis-à-vis hadith citations, then Bauer’s findings show when, where, how, and why hadith was incorporated into the genre of tafsir.

The historical trajectory of tafsir is complex and nonlinear. While the gender hierarchy between the sexes often seemed natural for pre-modern exegetes, it must be noted that at times even pre-modern exegetes were concerned about certain unfair gender norms and expectations, and that even in their worlds the authority of husbands over wives was not “unbounded, unconditional, or absolute.” Meanwhile, modern exegetes confront and wrestle with egalitarianism, sometimes embracing and sometimes rejecting it, but some of them also have ways of affirming inequality between genders. Whereas medieval exegetes were fond of citing Greek philosophy and Galenic medicine to justify the gender hierarchy, some modern exegetes turn to nineteenth-century psychology and twentieth-century popular science to justify the same hierarchy. In effect, there is both continuity and change: medieval and contemporary exegetes read hierarchy into many gender-related verses but use different discourses and modes of reasoning for justifying their views. But this diversity of perspective and practice becomes complicated when we move from issue to issue and from verse to verse. Here, Bauer’s book is extremely instructive, for she identifies ways in which factors such as genre constraints and exegetical method play important roles in determining the limits of continuity and change within tafsir.

Readers will appreciate Bauer’s sustained attention to the differences between pre-modern and modern Islam by means of case studies of particular Qur’anic verses: testimony (Qur’an 2:282), creation (Qur’an 4:1), and marriage (Qur’an 4:34 and Qur’an 2:228). These issues structure the book’s three sections; each section consists of two chapters, the first on medieval sources and the second on modern ones. In terms of each issue, we see various changes characterizing the shift from pre-modern to modern Islam. Bauer uses different categories as she analyzes diachronic shifts within tafsir. The pre-modern era covers three historical configurations with reference to exegesis of the testimony verse: the early sources, classical tafsir, and late medieval tafsir. When discussing creation, Bauer uses a more discursive rubric to divide the pre-modern period into five classes of exegetes: early interpreters, Sunni traditionalists, Fatimid Isma‘ilis, Imami Shi‘is, and philosophically inclined exegetes. On the infamous verse regarding marital discord, Qur’an 4:34, Bauer finds it more compelling to present an anatomy of this verse, first taking apart its various issues — from “the duty of mutual kindness” to “the consequences of the wife’s disobedience” — and then scrutinizing the various pre-modern exegetical positions on these issues. The chapters on modern sources take us to a domain of distinction primarily based upon the following classification of Muslim discursive actors: conservatives, reformists, and neo-traditionalists.

Two additional examples of continuity and change between medieval and modern tafsir deserve mention: the polemics of hadith and the politics of domesticity. Does hadith really explain divine intent? This is a widely debated issue between conservative and reformist scholars in contemporary Islam. To take an example, modern conservative scholars uphold the classical view of creation (privileging Adam over Eve) due to their unflinching commitment to the authority of the hadith. Modern reformist scholars (and even some conservative Shi‘i scholars), however, take a more critical stance on hadith, taking into account recent scientific findings alongside traditional accounts of creation. Does God really determine who does the housework? This is also a contentious topic of debate in modern exegesis. Family matters are political matters, and this is why many exegetes are protective of traditional domestic arrangements. The idea of domestic husbands and breadwinning wives troubles their image of the family. Here, the specter of the West—the living ghost of modernity—haunts contemporary conservative Muslim thought and practice. As Bauer says, “a [conservative] defence of the status of women in the family and society is a synecdoche for the defence of traditional Eastern cultural values against Western incursion.” Almost all conservative and neo-traditionalist scholars, and even some reformist ones, see absolute spousal equality as threatening the entire edifice of Muslim society. This example, along with others Bauer examines, sheds light on the changing ways of thinking over the course of the history of exegesis.

Bauer’s attention to the inner dynamics of tafsir is especially telling of how knowledge of God’s word, and what God says about gender relations, is often configured within disciplinary constraints. The reader observes three key characteristics of tafsir: inclusivity, polyvalence, and reverence for the interpretations of earlier authorities. Tafsir has traditionally incorporated other specialized discourses, such as Arabic grammar and hadith, with much ease. While the genre is home to multiple interpretations, it does have filtering mechanisms. The earlier exegetical authorities enjoyed a citational privilege often unavailable to later authorities. At times, certain unattributed views coming down from earlier generations were passed on in tafsir texts as “taken-for-granted truths.” In short, tafsir is neither a static discourse nor a monolithic discipline.

Tafsir underwent a major shift around the eleventh century (the fifth century of the Hijra calendar), one that marks the difference between the early and the medieval works. “Long narratives on the Prophet’s authority [took] precedence” over all other bodies of knowledge. Hadith had permeated tafsir. How so? Over time tafsir had become a textual conduit for the elaboration of an exegete’s legal school, wherein exegetes cited authoritative hadiths in order to substantiate a legal position. Moreover, tafsir as a genre of medieval Islamic studies was largely a central Asian discursive enterprise pursued most prominently by jurists-turned-exegetes belonging to the Shafi‘i school (we can call them “the hadith zealots”). Exegetes increasingly started excising “unsound” hadiths from Qur’anic commentaries, replacing them with “sound” or “reliable” hadiths. A case in point is the exegete al-Baghawi (died 1122), who based his commentary on that of Al-Tha‘labi (died 1035), but “omitted the unsound hadiths.” While hadith predominated, many medieval exegetes incorporated philosophical theology and mystical musings into the genre.

A different set of genre conventions characterizes modern tafsir. Modern exegetes often look for a single, overarching argument. Unlike their medieval counterparts, tafsir works written over the last two hundred years rarely serve as encyclopedias of earlier interpretations. In this regard, modern tafsir is “both conservative and circumscribed.” These works often demonstrate an author’s familiarity with the classical tradition. Moreover, modern tafsir is much more attuned to social and political realities: Muslim modernists grounded their reformist theologies in the Qur’an and interpreted the sacred text in light of modern challenges. This context explains the attention commanded by women’s rights in contemporary Muslim commentary. Consider this example: “In [Muhammad] ‘Abduh’s tafsir, references to the ‘West’ and Western liberal ideals such as equality took the form of a conversation that he reported between himself and a Western visitor to the mosque, who was amazed to find women there. ‘Abduh in turn used this incident to warn his fellow Muslims to treat women with respect.”

Gender Hierarchy in the Qur’an analyzes both Sunni and Shi‘i sources, especially from modern Syria and modern Iran, respectively. While conservative Sunnis and Shi‘is hardly differ on their positions vis-à-vis testimony, creation, and marriage, they certainly model varying modes of reasoning and consult distinct textual canons. For example, modern exegetes belonging to the two sides differ on their approach to hadith: “While Sunni interpreters were likely to preserve hadiths by explaining, justifying, or reinterpreting them, Shi‘is were more likely to dismiss hadiths irrespective of whether they had been transmitted from Sunni or Shi‘i authorities. Shi‘i interpreters on the whole accepted the use of human reason (‘aql) as a means of critiquing hadiths and deriving the law.” Bauer’s attention to medieval Shi‘i sources is especially resourceful, for she makes available some fascinating Fatimid Isma‘ili and Imami Shi‘i views, especially with reference to creation, which are largely missing from modern feminist Qur’anic hermeneutics.

Gender Hierarchy in the Qur’an offers readers the opportunity to reflect on several methodological questions, especially within Muslim women’s studies and Qur’anic studies. Do source criticism and textual analysis suffice for unfurling the complexity of a discursive tradition? What does tafsir look like as a social practice? Are there discrepancies between what we encounter in traditional texts and traditionalist persons? By enabling us to ask these questions, Bauer’s monograph enhances the field of Qur’anic studies, blending deft historical analysis and close readings of texts with illustrative ethnography. Readers encounter living representatives of the pre-modern tradition in their everyday environs in Syria and Iran. Bauer’s interviewees from these contexts include some noteworthy clerical authorities of contemporary Islam. Excerpts and accounts of these interviews are woven into Bauer’s analysis of modern exegesis of Qur’an 2:282, 4:1, 4:34, and 2:228. The interviews effectively show that tafsir transcends medieval books, and also happens between human beings in offices, in lectures halls, on the radio, on television, and online.

Bauer illustrates the value of taking gender as an analytical lens to examine the sexual/textual politics of the Islamic discursive tradition. In this monograph, gender operates as a case study that reveals the changing and unchanging elements of tafsir. It makes sense to deploy gender in this way, for “today the Qur’an’s verses on women have become an axis of reformist-conservative debate over the place of traditional social, political, and legal structures in the modern world.” In a sense, gender takes us to the heart of the matter: Muslims inhabit modernity as gendered folk, and some as queer folk. But this is precisely where gender as an analytical category runs into its limitations. Bauer’s analyses rarely connect gender to sexuality, but this foreclosure opens a fascinating question for future research. The book also identifies other vistas for further enquiry, including analyzing the form and function of the gender hierarchy in modern tafsir sources in non-Arabic (and non-Persian) Islamicate languages, and in contemporary contexts other than Iran and Syria.

Gender Hierarchy in the Qur’an documents how exegetes’ views on women’s testimony, the creation story, and marriage and domesticity have been, and continue to be, conditioned within complex discursive and diachronic frameworks. Androcentric, and sometimes misogynist, readings of the Qur’an are symptoms of broader disciplinary and social contexts. Bauer emphatically stresses the importance of context. Simply put, context always mediates exegesis.

Does attention to context help us understand the Qur’anic contradiction between equality and inequality? An important lesson I have learned from reading Gender Hierarchy in the Qur’an, as well as from conversations with its author during the process of writing this review, is that contradictions themselves are historically contingent. The same Qur’anic verses that appear to be contradictory from modern perspectives were mutually compatible according to the medieval perspectives. Exegetes leave traces of their broader world — its values, its norms, its undergirding assumptions about reality and other “big” questions — in their tafsir works. As Bauer says, “Social conventions can and do shape exegetes’ notion of right and wrong … There is always interplay between the words of the Qur’an and the social and intellectual contexts of interpretation.”

*I would like to thank Dr. Karen Bauer for entertaining my questions and discussing her book with me. The Qur’anic passages in this piece are modified versions of the translations of A.J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted.