Feminist Edges of the Qur’an
by aysha a. hidayatullah
oxford, 288 pages, $24.95
odern developments in the study of the Qur’an began in Western academia in the mid-late twentieth century with scholars like Fazlur Rahman. Leading thinkers in this field such as Riffat Hassan, Azizah al-Hibri, Amina Wadud, and Asma Barlas have followed, offering feminist interpretations that I, and many others, find persuasive.
Critiques of these interpretations have come from the right and the left: from conservative Muslim scholars who believe that feminism does not acknowledge the authority of established exegetical tradition and subverts gender roles that they consider intrinsic to Islam; and from feminist critics of Islamic tradition who consider reverence for the Qur’an as a source of egalitarian teaching to be misplaced. For them, the challenge this work poses to entrenched gender hierarchies in Muslim societies does not go far enough.
Few criticisms of these authors have come from those who share their views on the authority of the Qur’an and their goal of promoting gender equality. Aysha Hidayatullah’s Feminist Edges of the Qur’an is written by an ardent student of feminist Qur’an exegesis who remains committed to the field but who has become increasingly critical of its methods and ambivalent about its conclusions. Marshaling critiques of these methods from other scholars and adding her own, she concludes that egalitarian Qur’an exegesis has reached the “edge” of the Qur’an—that is, the limit of how far the Qur’an can be interpreted to support gender equality. She argues that the field cannot progress until it takes the bold step of moving beyond this “edge.” We need reverence for the Qur’an and the moral guidance it provides but also an awareness of where it is at odds with contemporary views of gender equality.
idayatullah begins by situating gender-egalitarian exegesis within the tradition of qur’anic commentary. Its practitioners frequently seek intellectual and religious legitimacy by claiming to use traditional methods. Hidayatullah demonstrates, however, that the field relies on modern trends in qur’anic interpretation, including skepticism about the authority of classical exegetes; a desire to “return to the text” in a way that frees it from layers of “ossified” tradition; and an attempt to take historical context into account.
The modern impulse to “return to the text” cuts across various religious perspectives. It is an important element of both reformist and fundamentalist Islamic movements. However, the increasing concern with understanding the Qur’an’s historical context and the desire to distinguish universal qur’anic principles from mere reflections of seventh-century social practices are hallmarks of rationalist and reformist approaches. One sees them in many twentieth- and twenty-first-century writers, from Muhammad Abduh to Fazlur Rahman to Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd.
Hidayatullah critiques several of the common methodological elements she has identified as foundational to feminist exegesis. Feminists place qur’anic verses in their historical contexts so as to separate contingent social practices from universal moral principles. They emphasize the Qur’an’s concern with justice and equity, raising it to a standard by which verses on gender relations should be interpreted. They find in the Qur’an a “gradualist” strategy, whereby certain social practices (such as slavery or patriarchy) are not banned outright but delimited or discouraged with a view to their eventual elimination; this allows society to move without unnecessary upheaval toward higher realizations of the qur’anic principle of justice. Finally, they underscore the “tawhidic paradigm,” which deems the setting up of any authority alongside God—including the patriarchal authority of men over women—a violation of the oneness of God and his unique sovereignty.
hile acknowledging the insights of feminist exegetes, Hidayatullah nonetheless criticizes their inconsistent (and opportunistic) attempts to explain away verses that are irreconcilable with contemporary notions regarding gender equality. She notes that their effort to discern “universal” principles from the “historically contingent” practices mentioned in the Qur’an is a deeply subjective enterprise. Reading the Qur’an “holistically” and “intertextually” ultimately means privileging qur’anic verses that establish the mutuality of the genders and dismissing the hierarchical implications of others.
In doing so, Hidayatullah notes, these authors neglect to consider that earlier exegetes may not have seen gender hierarchies and patriarchal norms as inconsistent with the Qur’an’s overall emphasis on justice and mercy. She remarks that “both men and women might have seen patriarchal norms as fitting and even comforting, nurturing, and supportive of what they agreed was women’s more passive nature; they may have seen honor and protection in those norms.” Feminist exegetes, she argues, often lack a fundamental self-awareness of the anachronistic assumptions about gender relations that they impose on the text.
he author further dismisses “gradualism” because it cannot explain why certain social practices like female infanticide were outlawed immediately while others, such as slavery, were allowed to decline gradually. She is also critical of the argument that patriarchy should be equated with idolatry (or shirk) because it sets up male authority alongside divine authority. She points out that this argument is built on the erroneous assumption that any human authority is necessarily an affront to God’s sovereignty.
Hidayatullah counters that human authority in Islamic tradition is clearly understood not as a rival to God’s sovereignty but rather as a trust bestowed by God—a concept also invoked in a well-known prophetic tradition discussing a husband’s relationship to his wife. She finds, in addition, theoretical flaws in the work of feminist exegetes, including an under-theorized concept of “gender” (which, she argues, feminists often use to mean simply “women”).
Perhaps her most controversial critique of feminist exegesis concerns its dogmatic insistence that the Qur’an offers a clear and incontrovertible message of gender equality and that arguments for gender equality can be based directly and exclusively on qur’anic teaching. This leads feminists to make prescriptive, normative, and absolutist claims for their gender-egalitarian interpretation of the Qur’an’s message. Considering it the only acceptable interpretation of the text’s (divine) authorial intent, they repeat the error of the very scholars they criticize for claiming an authority to “speak for God.”
Moreover, their insistence that gender equality is clearly established in the Qur’an leads them to neglect the importance of human intellectual and moral discernment. They are far too unselfconscious about the extent to which their own conclusions are rooted in their certitude about the moral imperative of gender equality and justice. Hidayatullah shares their belief in the necessity of gender justice but is compelled to recognize that her convictions lie, at least in part, in her own, twenty-first-century moral judgment rather than clearly and unambiguously in the Qur’an itself.
idayatullah confronts the real possibility that “the Qur’an does not support gender equality the way we understand it” today. She has accurately discerned the impasse or “edge” that the field has reached, but her suggestion about the way forward is less clear and decisive. Given her assertion that we have followed the Qur’an as far as it can take us toward the goal of establishing gender equality, and given her awareness of its own irreducible ambivalence on the issue, Hidayatullah concludes that we have no choice but to use our own moral judgment to guide ourselves beyond Qur’an’s textual pronouncements. She makes a plea for embracing the “radical uncertainty” into which this realization must lead, and for approaching it not with fear but with hope. Her prose is deeply personal and inspired.
That said, the reader cannot help feeling that she has left unresolved the theological issue of what these assertions ultimately mean for the religious authority of the Qur’an. In not identifying a specific way forward, Hidayatullah reflects her desire to avoid what she sees (rightly, I think) as the error of those who do not recognize the extent to which its meaning is mediated by the moral sensibilities of its readers and listeners. Yet her final embrace of “radical uncertainty” falls short. What does it mean for believing Muslims to identify and confront their own moral conflicts with the sacred text?
A more affirmative path forward is already suggested in the critiques that Hidayatullah has made throughout her book. First, one needs to approach such situations with an awareness that the moral conflict one feels about a particular qur’anic verse or its classical interpretation may be a real but not necessarily absolute conflict. It may indicate a moral shortcoming not on the part of the Qur’an but on the part of its traditional interpreters. The conflict may be rooted in one’s own particular historical circumstances—circumstances that one is nonetheless obligated to consider when making moral judgments.
Second, it is important to be humble and charitable enough to consider the possibility that the social assumptions that informed the views of classical interpreters (including partriarchal ones) may have made genuine moral sense, not only to the men but to the women living in these contexts, even if some of these assumptions seem objectionable to us today. As Hidayatullah suggests, we need to acknowledge that moral judgment is, on the one hand, intrinsic to our nature, and, on the other, shaped by the particularities of the world in which we live.
For example, if today we are outraged by patriarchal gender norms and see them as artificial and oppressive constructs that circumscribe the lives and opportunities of women (and men), our medieval counterparts might be similarly outraged by a world divided by national borders and identities. They might see the division of the world through rigidly controlled national borders as an artificial and oppressive construct that unjustly circumscribes the lives and opportunities of those born into underprivileged or war-torn countries and that prevents them from seeking refuge in areas with greater security and prosperity—something that seems to have happened more freely in medieval contexts. Yet those living in the modern world typically assume that the division of the world into nation-states with regulated borders is both normative and unchangeable—even as they are forced to acknowledge the inhumanity and injustice to which these nationalist constructs can sometimes lead.
Finally, one needs to take seriously the qur’anic suggestion (articulated in multiple ways) that human beings are endowed with moral intelligence that operates independently of scriptural revelation but ideally in conjunction with it. The Qur’an refers to itself as composed not of commands but of signs (ayat). Signs are never independent of their audience and always require the interpretation and engagement of those who encounter them. Often we find that even in those verses where specific social practices or rulings are issued, the language seems purposefully open-ended, allowing multiple interpretations and indicating thereby that we must engage our own moral reasoning in deciding how this guidance applies to our specific circumstances—as individuals and as communities.
his, it seems to me, is what Hidayatullah is ultimately suggesting at the end of her book. I would not call this a position of “radical uncertainty,” but of “radical responsibility.” This view recognizes that, despite their imperfections, human beings are compelled to make moral judgments that cannot simply be delegated to the literal words of a scriptural text or to someone else’s interpretation thereof. The error lies either in abdicating one’s own moral intelligence in favor of an unthinking obedience to a particular historical reading of scripture or in arguing that one’s own moral judgment is absolute and therefore necessarily and unambiguously articulated in the scriptural text. In short, the error lies in presuming to speak for God.
Maria Massi Dakake is associate professor of religious studies at George Mason University.