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“Feminist Edges of the Qur’an”: A Summary Outline

Aysha Hidayatullah’s Feminist Edges of the Qur’an is a compelling read. It engages sincerely and deeply with the increasingly-significant field of feminist Qur’an scholarship. Heavily grounded in both the classical Islamic exegetical tradition and modern feminist theory, Dr. Hidayatullah does an excellent job in laying out her arguments. The prose is engaging and the book is generally well-organized. At its core, the work is a radical critique of not only of various aspects of modernist/feminist exegesis of the Qur’an, but also a critique of how modern Muslims have approached the Qur’an in general. It is nothing less than a systematic deconstruction of Muslim feminist approaches to the Qur’an over the past three decades. The book does not shy away from asking the tough questions nor from questioning many of the fundamental assumptions that have guided feminist Qur’an scholarship. However, a close and careful reading of the book will show that Dr. Hidayatullah’s  intent is not to denigrate, but rather to genuinely spark an important and serious conversation about the current state of feminist tafsir. Although she heavily criticizes many of leading Muslim feminists on several fundamental methodological points, she also praises them as pioneers of a new and important field of Qur’anic scholarship. Admittedly, I felt that, due to my lack of expertise on the subject, I had very little to offer in engaging closely with the book. Therefore, I have opted to provide, in this not-so-short summary review, a basic outline of the major arguments in Feminist Edges. I do so in the hope that those far more theoretically-grounded and eloquent than myself may be encouraged to purchase the book and engage closely with the ideas it presents and provide a constructive critique that will enable us to better understand the place of such a critique within the broader field of modern Qur’anic studies.  There is absolutely no way that I could do justice to every argument and thought presented within the work, so I have highlighted those issues which I found to be the most significant and provocative. 

Summary Outline

As Hidayatullah states from the outset, her primary goal is to critically respond to proponents and practitioners of feminist exegesis of the Qur’an. Her intent is to shed important light on feminist exegesis as a sub-field of tafsir in its own right, while critically assessing the methodology and conclusions of this school of thought. She explains that the works of feminist tafsir with which she engages “share the aim of advocating the full personhood and moral agency of Muslim women within the parameters of the Qur’an, which they all treat as the divine word of God, and to which they attribute the principle of the equality of all human beings, male and female” (p. 4). It should be noted here that Hidayatullah is very cautious with her terminology, and does a good job in keeping the reader informed regarding the logic of her deployment of certain terms. The scholars with whose work she engages are Asma Barlas, Amina Wadud, Riffat Hassan, Azizah al-Hibri, Kecia Ali, and—more briefly—Sa’diyya Shaikh. With the exception of the latter, these are all US-based scholars and, thus, the work limits itself to an investigation and critique of feminist exegesis in the late 20th/early 21st-century United States.

The book is divided into three main sections: 1) a historical investigation which seeks to contextualize feminist exegesis within the broader historical tradition of tafsir, with a particular focus on modernist approaches to the Qur’an. This section also provides an important discussion of the development of feminist tafsir in light of its engagement with Christian and Jewish feminist theologies; 2) by far the most substantial section of the book, this is nothing less than an impressive and complete reconstruction of many of the arguments, interpretative techniques, and approaches of feminist tafsir, drawn especially from the works of Wadud and Barlas; 3)  this section problematizes the various assumptions inherent in feminist tafsir and is a thorough critique of the methodologies and conclusions of the works of Wadud, Hassan, al-Hibri and Barlas. This is where Hidayatullah presents her self-described “radical critique” of feminist exegesis by arguing that the feminist interpretative endeavor has reached a point of irresolvable contradiction by making claims about the Qur’an that are not fully supported by the text (and, as she argues, may even be contrary to the text). Importantly, it is in this section that Hidayatullah engages closely with the feminist exegetes’ conceptions of sexual difference and indicates why this particular point (i.e. discussions and interrogation of the categories of gender and sexuality) needs to be addressed clearly and carefully if feminist exegesis is to have any viable and relevant future.

The book most certainly raises far more questions than it attempts to answer, and ends by forcing the reader to consider the possibility that the most serious question that Muslim feminists need to confront pertains to the nature of revelation and the nature of the Qur’anic text itself. It is only by a close engagement with this question, argues Hidayatullah, that feminist tafsir will be able to move forward. In light of her serious and thorough critique of feminist exegesis of the Qur’an, many readers may find themselves completely dissatisfied with Hidayatullah not providing comprehensive solutions to the many problems that she raises throughout her book. Some may even accuse the book of defeatism and succumbing to the critics/opponents of feminist exegesis. However, in the larger scheme of things, whether or not one agrees with her critiques or her conclusions, her book is in many ways an important contribution to the conversation about modernist approaches to the Qur’an, and feminist tafsir in particular. It deserves to be taken seriously.

The Rise of Feminist Tafsir: A Brief Overview

Hidayatullah emphasizes from the outset of her work that feminist tafsir can and should be considered a branch of modernist approaches to the Qur’an, which have been especially influenced by the works of Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988) and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (d. 2010). This sets it apart from traditionalist approaches to the Qur’an, which the author does a good job laying out in some detail. For Hidayatullah, it is the primacy that has been placed on rationalism and the emphasis that each individual Muslim is able to grasp the meaning of scripture that sets modernist exegesis apart from more traditional modes of Qur’anic tafsir. She also highlights how, like many modernists, feminist exegetes of the Qur’an can be characterized by a strongly skeptical attitude towards hadith (which has historically played a crucial role in traditional exegesis). More significantly, Hidayatullah explains that modernist exegesis places a strong emphasis on the historical contextualization of the Qur’an (more on this below) and attributes the difficulties in understanding the Qur’an or reconciling its meaning with modernity to human limitations rather than to the text itself. To summarize, Hidayatullah seeks to represent feminist tafsir as grounding itself within the classical exegetical tradition, while drawing heavily upon modernist critiques and approaches, particularly the emphasis on historical contextualization of the text. The feminist exegetical endeavor is therefore always conscious about the need to establish its “authenticity” by 1) employing the tools of ijtihad (independent reasoning) and tafsir and 2) grounding calls to gender equality by near-exclusive reference to the Qur’anic text itself (p. 39).

Hidayatullah engages closely with feminist theory and provides various important critiques of the term “feminist.” In highlighting the general avoidance of the use of term “feminist” by many of the exegetes, Hidayatullah explains that she has found that the most significant factor in their not doing so is an attempt to appeal to Muslim communities who may view a reading of scripture stemming from feminism to be “inauthentic.” In other words, these exegetes have sought to demonstrate that their understanding of feminism is informed by the Qur’anic text rather than their particular reading of the Qur’an as having been derived from a set of a priori assumptions which stem from feminist theory. As such, argues Hidayatullah, this has required many of these exegetes to distance themselves on some level from feminist discourse and terminology. Nevertheless, Hidayatullah opts to use the term “feminist” to describe this school of Qur’anic exegesis throughout her work, since “what holds [the works] together crucially is their shared use of dynamic epistemological tools to challenge the abuse of male power in the interpretation of the Qur’an” (p. 45). In discussing the development of feminist tafsir, Hidayatullah integrates a useful and informative discussion of Jewish and Christian feminist theologies, emphasizing in particular how the Muslim feminist approach to the Qur’an diverges from the latter.  For Hidayatullah, feminist tafsir is set apart from Jewish and Christian feminist approaches to scripture due to the fact that Muslim feminist exegetes have consistently proceeded from the fundamental assumption that the Qur’anic text is the immutable word of God.

Historical Contextualization Method

Hidayatullah breaks down feminist exegesis into three broad methodological approaches: 1) historical contextualization method; 2) intra-textual method; and 3) tawhidic paradigm. According to Hidayatullah, the historical contextualization method involves “researching the occasion of a verse’s revelation; distinguishing between descriptive and prescriptive verses of the Qur’an (i.e. differentiating between verses that describe the practices of the seventh-century Arabian audience to which it was directly addressed and verses that prescribe practice to all audiences); distinguishing between universal and particular verses (i.e. differentiating between verses that apply only to specific situations and those that apply to human beings generally); and identifying historical situations that shaped the context of revelation in seventy-century Arabia and subsequent exegesis of the Qur’an” (pp. 65–66). Quoting Barlas, Hidayatullah attempts to show that for feminist exegetes reading the Qur’an historically  “does not limit its meaning to the context of revelation; rather, reading the Qur’an historically allows the Qur’an to be read in light of changing historical circumstances, thus making it relevant and applicable universally. In other words, to read the Qur’an in historical context is to uphold its universality” (p. 66). She shows how this particular perspective is the consequence of a distinctly modernist reading of the classical asbab al-nuzul (“occasions of revelation”) literature.

For feminist exegetes, argues Hidayatullah, the primary problem in tafsir has stemmed from a fundamental confusion regarding whether a specific verse (or set of verses) are descriptive or prescriptive: “Wadud argues that though the immediate context of the Qur’an was a patriarchal and sexist society, the Qur’an does not impose the characteristics of such a society upon future readers. The Qur’an may refer to situations that are degrading to women, but that does not mean that it is prescribing those circumstances for its readers” (pp. 70–71). Looking at how Wadud, Barlas, and al-Hibri have approached certain verses, Hidayatullah explores how feminist exegesis has deployed the historical contextualization method in order to make sense of various “problematic pronouncements” within the Qur’an, especially those which seem to be advocating patriarchy or putting forth a vision that essentially contradicts the emphasis on male-female equality that Muslim feminists advocate. The emphasis on distinguishing between prescriptive vs. descriptive lies at the core of the historical contextualization method as it allows feminist exegetes to clarify that seemingly patriarchal verses in the Qur’an were actually merely describing a seventh-century Arabian situation, rather than emphasizing that such a reality was divinely prescribed. Even in cases where it appears that certain behaviors or actions are prescribed, feminist exegesis argues that these must be understood as culturally-specific to the immediate revelatory context of seventh-century Arabia, rather than as universally-prescribed ideals. Thus, the historicizing of the Qur’anic revelation is of central importance for feminist exegetes. For both Wadud and Barlas, a failure to do so would be to universalize interpretations which were the product of sexist and culturally-specific contexts.

Another major strategy that feminist exegetes have utilized to “undo” patriarchal readings of the Qur’an is the emphasis on the “patriarchal” and “culturally-specific” context of the classical Qur’anic exegetes, virtually all of whom were male. It is thus the role of modern feminist exegetes to “rescue” the “true, essential meaning” of the Qur’an from this problematic tradition. Hidayatullah is heavily critical of this perspective, as will be shown below, but more importantly she is troubled by what she calls the inconsistent and problematic usage of hadith/sunna by feminist exegetes and their lack of a sound historical methodology. She shows that many feminist exegetes are inconsistently selective regarding their approach to hadith, with many choosing to deploy those traditions that align with their ideological perspective while rejecting those traditions that they perceive to be problematic. Hidayatullah is very critical of this fact: “The uneven use and scrutiny of the hadith demonstrates a methodological inconsistency across the collective body of feminist tafsir works. This inconsistency presents major challenges to the success of historical readings of the Qur’an because the information necessary to supply the historical context of the verses reread by the exegetes largely derives directly or indirectly from the hadith, even when the exegetes do not trace the historical contexts they identify back to particular reports. The successful use of the feminist method of historical contextualization will require that scholars of feminist tafsir more carefully clarify their positions on the hadith tradition as a whole, in part by treating the hadith more systematically in all their readings of the Qur’an rather than referencing the hadith in select cases when it is convenient to support or defend their interpretations” (pp. 85–86).

Intratextual Method

The second approach identified by Hidayatullah—the intratextual method—is essentially an attempt by feminist exegetes to read the Qur’an as a holistic text, based on the assumption that the overriding principle of the text is equality/egalitarianism and opposition to patriarchy. Approaching the Qur’an as a unified text in this way, argue feminist exegetes, allows Muslims to understand specific, problematic verses in light of the larger “spirit” of the text rather than in a piecemeal, decontextualized way. As Hidayatullah explains: “The importance of this interpretative maneuver—of establishing the equality of the sexes as an overarching, guiding principle of the Qur’an as a whole—cannot be overstated in its value to the Muslim feminist project. It is this understanding of the Qur’an’s egalitarian ethic that allows the exegetes to argue that in order to be valid according to the Qur’an’s own principles, any interpretive statement about women in the Qur’an must cohere with its core principles concerning the equality of men and women; by the same token, any interpretive statement that does not cohere with these core principles is invalid” (pp. 93–94). Thus, according to Hidayatullah, feminist exegetes absolutely reject any interpretations of the Qur’an that devalue or denigrate women as invalid based on the fact that they contradict the “spirit” or “essence” of the Qur’an. In other words, every interpretation of verses pertaining to women must be read through the lens of this foundational premise that the Qur’an advocates absolute functional and ontological equality of men and women. Muslim feminist exegetes argue that to deny this is to deny the very essence of the Qur’an.

The intratextual method also advocates an idea that Hidayatullah terms “gradualism,” meaning that the Qur’an exhibits an overall progression towards advocating justice and equality for all human beings. As Wadud (quoted by Hidayatullah) argues: “The Qur’an establishes a radical movement towards continual reforms in gender relations,” and that in cases where it may appear that the Qur’an does not take a firm stance against sexism and patriarchy its laxity may be understood as resulting from a gradual approach toward social change (p. 96). It is this gradualism which characterizes many of the Qur’an’s pronouncements on social issues according to feminist exegetes, who use the case of the eventual abolishment of slavery (in the 19th century!) as an example to demonstrate that, even if it takes many generations, the Qur’anic ethos of equity, justice and human dignity will eventually lead to reform even if the Qur’anic text itself does not expressly prohibit slavery. This example of slavery is deployed to show that, by the same token, although the Qur’an does not explicitly discuss radical gender reform, this can be derived from the underlying intent and “spirit” of the text, which most certainly aligns with this feminist project. In other words, feminist exegetes derive their understanding of gender justice and equality not from direct Qur’anic statements but from “observing the Qur’anic trajectory of justice towards humankind, human dignity, equal rights before the law and before God, mutual responsibility, and equitable relations between humans” (p. 97). Riffat Hassan argues that “the Qur’an advocates justice for women as part of its general impetus toward justice for all human beings, since as a whole the Qur’an is profoundly concerned with freeing human beings—woman as well as men—from the bondage of traditionalism, authoritarianism (religious, political, economic, or any other), tribalism, sexism, racism, slavery or anything else that prohibits or inhibits human beings from actualizing the Qur’anic vision of human destiny” (p. 97). Thus, according to Hidayatullah, it is this assumption that the spirit of the Qur’an is fundamentally one of social reform and gradualism towards an elimination of patriarchy, inequality and injustice that forms the basis for much of feminist exegesis of the text and heavily informs its interrogation of various verses which deal with women. It is interesting to note, as Hidayatullah does, that feminist exegetes of the Qur’an have not drawn heavily on the literature about naskh (abrogation of verses) to make their arguments; rather they have emphasized arguments about the Qur’an’s essential message (as they understand it) and its gradualist trajectory.

According to Hidayatullah, the trajectory argument serves four major functions in feminist tafsir: 1) it reinforces the notion that the interpretation of each of the Qur’an’s verses must cohere with the whole Qur’an’s overall progression toward greater social justice; 2) it provides an explanation for the appearance in the Qur’an of certain verses that may negatively impact women or limit their agency, and the exegetes need not “discard” these verses for the Qur’an to be just to women; 3) the problematic meanings drawn from these verses are explained by the error of the reader who reads them in isolation instead of in view of the larger progression of the whole Qur’an. Thus, the problem lies with the interpreter and not with the verses themselves; and 4) it serves as a justification for the exegetes to depart from literal readings of the text that are problematic for women (p. 99). The remainder of the chapter is then devoted to showing how feminist exegetes have applied these interpretative parameters to specific verses (notably 4:34).

Tawhidic Paradigm

This final method of feminist exegesis identified by Hidayatullah is the so-called “tawhidic paradigm,” which basically argues that designating men as the superiors of women or attributing maleness to God constitute acts of shirk (polytheism). Moreover, this paradigm argues that, because the Qur’an is God’s revelation in human language, its text cannot perfectly express God and thus cannot be equated with God. These two major assertions then guide feminist exegesis of the Qur’anic text. The idea behind the tawhidic paradigm, explains Hidayatullah, is that to construct hierarchies between human beings is to assume a role that belongs exclusively to God. According to this perspective, such an act amounts to putting oneself in the position of God and assuming God’s authority; thus it is an act of shirk. As Azizah al-Hibri asserts: “Since God is the highest conceptual aspect of all, then no person can be greater than another person, especially for mere reasons of gender, race, class, nationality etc. The tawhidic paradigm then acts as a basic theoretical principle for removing gender asymmetry, which is a kind of satanic logic or shirk, positing priority or superiority to men. Instead, women and men must occupy a relationship of horizontal reciprocity, maintaining the highest place for God in His/Her/Its uniqueness” (p. 113). Al-Hibri also asserts that “patriarchal interpretations [are] unacceptable to the extent that they are based on Satanic logic and conflict with tawhid [the Oneness of God]” (p. 113). The tawhidic paradigm therefore encompasses both a rejection of hierarchy as well as a condemnation of traditional exegesis which, feminist exegetes have argued, have as their goal the reification of such hierarchical relationships, with men being placed in authority over women in such a way that competes with God’s Absolute Sovereignty.

In exploring feminist exegetes’ notions of the nature of the Qur’anic text itself, Hidayatullah emphasizes the strong criticism that this school of thought has for authoritarian interpretations which presume to “lock” the meaning of the text into a specific interpretation and making it equivalent with God’s will or knowledge. The Qur’an, according to feminist exegetes must remain open to continual, dynamic interpretation since the human capacity to grasp the text is limited and only God knows the true meaning of the text. To suggest that human knowledge is capable of rising to the level of God’s own knowledge is thus a form of shirk as well. More significantly, Hidayatullah demonstrates that several Qur’anic exegetes (focusing especially on Barlas and Wadud) emphasize that since the Qur’an is a form of revelation structured by human language (which is limited), it cannot truly and fully encompass all divine meaning.

Among the inadequacies of language identified by these feminist exegetes are its “androcentric tendencies” and its inability to express concepts that transcend gender. As Wadud explains: “it is difficult to disentangle meaning from the patriarchal hegemony imprinted on the language of construction” (p. 120). Due to this particular understanding of language, feminist exegetes have argued quite forcefully that the Qur’an is merely an expression (‘ibara) of God’s speech, its created form. Therefore, the Qur’an is largely a symbolic indicator of God’s guidance, rather than a totalistic and comprehensive encapsulation of it. In other words, the divine message and the Qur’an are not identical; the latter is merely a partial representation of the former. This position, as Hidayatullah alludes, represents a major break of feminist exegesis from classical Sunni theology, which posits that the Qur’an is the “eternal, uncreated word of God.” Hidayatullah asserts that the feminist exegetes have in fact adopted the classical Mu’tazilite position on the nature of the Qur’anic text, since the latter group had also contended that the Qur’an was created in time. Hidayatullah explains that “by using the tawhidic paradigm to establish that the Qur’an does not perfectly encompass all divine meaning, the exegetes are able to fault human language, rather than God’s message or the Qur’an, for pronouncements in the text that resist feminist interpretation. The Qur’an remains sacred and inviolable, whereas human language is culpable for deficiencies and errors in communication” (p. 122).

Critiques of Feminist Interpretation

Having reconstructed and described the various modes of feminist exegesis in considerable detail, Hidayatullah then moves on to deconstructing and systematically critiquing their arguments, while interjecting her own particular perspective into the discussion.

Hidayatullah takes serious issue with the underlying assumption of feminist exegetes that the Qur’an promotes both functional and ontological gender equality. She argues that these exegetes have not adequately taken account of the various places in the Qur’an where there is an emphasis on both sexual difference, as well as sexual differentiation. Hidayatullah’s main contention is that there is very little within the Qur’anic text that would support the notion put forth by the feminist exegetes that the Qur’an has, at its core, the promotion of absolute equality between men and women (in fact, she argues, that there is strong textual evidence in the Qur’an suggesting a fundamental inequality). More problematically for Hidayatullah is how feminist exegetes have “generally ignored theoretical issues around gender essentialisms, binaries, and social construction” (p. 129). She claims that “in neglecting an examination of gender, they do not deconstruct the process by which the male subject has been universalized in the first place and the kinds of masculinity and femininity (and their relational formations) that persistently inform the verses of the Qur’an they are responding to; rather, they seem to take them for granted” (p. 129). For any feminist exegesis to adequately address the issue of “gender justice,” Hidayatullah strongly argues that such a critical assessment and investigation of gender is imperative. Otherwise, our author argues, the discourse will remain vague and ineffective. Hidayatullah suggests that rather than being a problem specific to feminist exegetes of the Qur’an, this is a broader issue that has been inherited from unresolved debates on equality and difference in liberal approaches to feminism.

Another major critique that Hidayatullah puts forth is her questioning the legitimacy of feminist exegetes’ unquestioned imposition of values such as contemporaneous 21st-century conceptions of equality, as well as a very modern understanding of male-female relations, on a text that was revealed in the seventh century. She argues that one cannot treat equality as if it was a timeless, ahistorical idea. For Hidayatullah, the emphasis on equality is the product of modernity and derives from particular assumptions about the nature of society, which barely existed in the seventh century. It is thus illogical to impose this criterion with such rigidity upon the Qur’anic text. She suggests, as Kecia Ali has done, that feminist exegetes should explore the possible differences between contemporary conceptions of male-female equality and understandings of men and women in the Qur’an rather than demanding equality as a “self-evident, ahistorical measure of justice from one’s readings of the Qur’an.”

Hidayatullah also critiques feminist exegetes for not acknowledging the limitations of their argument which faults human language and interpretation, and not the Qur’an itself, for patriarchal readings of the text. She argues that many feminist exegetes are proceeding from the a priori assumption that the Qur’an is fundamentally anti-patriarchal and conforms to their notions of gender justice.  Hidayatullah critiques this point quite thoroughly and points to verses in the Qur’an which militate against notions of female agency and male-female equality (in particular Q. 2:223 and 4:34).  She argues that the best that many feminist exegetes have been able to produce with regard to these verses are apologetic readings or interpretations that distort the text. She asserts that, in the case of these two aforementioned verses, the Qur’an itself “must be held responsible for its sexist and harmful readings” (p. 137). Hidayatullah asserts, for example, that the mere existence of the term daraba in 4:34 “contravenes any interpretive possibility for ruling out the meaning of “to strike”; there is no act of interpretation that may eradicate this possibility” (p. 138).

So how should feminists go about interpreting the Qur’an in a manner consistent with their values and in a way that is neither apologetic nor distortive of the text? Here, Hidayatullah follows the lead of Kecia Ali in suggesting that exegetes should take “interpretive responsibility,” meaning that they should be conscious of their interpretive choices and acknowledge that they are in fact choices, rather than claiming that a particular interpretation is self-evident.  It is imperative for Hidayatullah that feminist exegetes are aware of their own intervention in reading the Qur’an. It is important for the exegete to always disclose (or at least be aware) of their own personal, doctrinal and social assumptions which informs their approach to the Qur’anic text. A failure to do so, she argues, would constitute a form of textual authoritarianism since it would deny others the right to similarly interpret the Qur’an. By arguing so strongly that they are recovering the “true meaning” of the Qur’an or “rescuing” the essentially anti-patriarchal message of the Qur’an from sexist exegetes, Hidayatullah argues that feminist tafsir risks falling into the same category of textual authoritarianism that it accuses traditional tafsir as belonging to. According to Hidayatullah, this textual authoritarianism that characterizes feminist exegesis derives from the unquestioned premise that the “essence” of the Qur’an is fundamentally in favor of gender justice, and therefore it needs to be “recovered” or “reclaimed” by an interpretive process. The problem of textual authoritarianism can only be resolved, argues Hidayatullah, if exegetes take interpretive responsibility on one hand, and seek a new understanding of the nature of the Qur’anic text on the other.

At the core of Hidayatullah’s critique of feminist exegesis is her proclamation that “feminist exegetical conceptions of gender equality are historically specific to us and thus perhaps not in the end fully reconcilable with the Qur’anic text” (p. 147). She argues that it is a methodological rigidity within feminist exegesis that has prevented it from questioning and critically reassessing its fundamental premise that the notion of equality derives from the Qur’anic text itself. One of the problems this produces is, as mentioned above, textual authoritarianism. Another is essentializing the Qur’anic text itself and making normative statements about it. Hidayatullah stresses that feminist exegetes have argued themselves into a corner by making it appear that either the Qur’an must be absolutely and unfailingly egalitarian and can never oppress women, or else the struggle for gender equality within Islam is defeated. The answer to this interpretative dead-end (as far as Hidayatullah is concerned) is the notion of taking interpretive responsibility. It is essential that feminist readers of the Qur’an to not merely assert, but “defend and support the claim [that the Qur’an promotes equality] while taking responsibility for prioritizing our contemporary sensibilities in the course of our interpretations” (p. 149). Apologia and textual manipulation cannot and should not be the primary means through which feminist exegetes affirm their position. Her critical reassessment of feminist exegesis in this regard is worth quoting at length:

“It is my position that feminist interpretations may very well be inappropriate to the Qur’an and subvert the exegetical tradition—not because feminism is necessarily or categorically mistaken, immoral, foreign or sullied in some other way—but because in placing feminist demands on the Qur’an, we have projected a historically specific (and at the same time theoretically unclear) sense of ‘gender justice’ onto the text without fully considering how our demands might, in fact, be anachronistic and incommensurate with Qur’anic statements…

…When scholars of feminist tafsir have come across portions of the Qur’anic text that have not easily yielded meanings in line with contemporary notions of gender equality, we often forget that our notions of equality are guided by historical values of our own that we bring to the text; we have perhaps become blind to the historicity of our feminist viewpoints in encountering those instances when the Qur’an does not easily conform to our understanding of gender egalitarianism. As a consequence, we have developed interpretive techniques and complex interpretive maneuvers to try to prove that, in spite of what the text appears to mean, the Qur’an somehow coheres with our notion of gender egalitarianism. This strategy is inadequate and at times disingenuous, as it obfuscates the inclinations of the Qur’an that may be irreparably non-egalitarian from our contemporary perspective. To put it bluntly, on some level our critics are correct: we have sometimes tried to make the Qur’an mean what we want it to mean, manipulating the text in our desire to derive textual support for our notions of justice.

I propose that scholars of feminist tafsir openly admit that it is our particular contemporary ideas about equality and justice that prompt us to see a dissonance between evidence for male-female mutuality and evidence for male-female hierarchy in the Qur’an—to admit that readings of the Qur’an that do not observe a dissonance between them or are unconcerned by them altogether are not necessarily defective readings of the Qur’an…The dissonance that registers with us between Qur’anic statements on mutuality and hierarchy is produced through our contemporary point of view; it is we who perceive their coexistence as contradictory, and it is we as feminist readers who desire to resolve the contradiction we observe. It is important to consider the possibility that in the Qur’an’s revelatory context, however, the coexistence of mutuality and hierarchy verses may not have necessarily produced a dissonance. Thus, it is not true that only sexist interpreters have read their desires and specific views of (in)justice into the text; scholars of feminist tafsir have also at times been guilty of a similar imposition of their views. What feminist tafsir might treat as an ‘ecumenical’ definition of justice and injustice often turns out to be a very particular view of justice informed by contemporary feminist sensibilities.  Therefore, it is high time to own up to the historical particularity of our claims to feminist justice –as well as to what this means for our relationship with the Qur’anic text. In view of the historical particularity of our feminist values, my position is that while the Qur’an takes remarkable steps toward equality as defined by our contemporary standards, it is still problematic enough by those standards so that the Qur’an perhaps cannot in the end be fully reconciled with our understanding of sexual equality and justice” (pp. 150–152).

The remainder of the book is devoted to the development of these specific ideas and a detailed critique of three modes of feminist exegesis discussed above. Whatever one may think of these ideas put forth by Hidayatullah, it is nevertheless clear that they should be taken seriously and engaged with. It is critical that Muslim feminists attempt to provide adequate answers to these questions and critiques. Hidayatullah’s book, aside from being an important exposition and demonstration of the dynamics of feminist exegesis, is also an important contribution to our understanding of the underpinnings of modernist readings of the Qur’an in general. It provides students and scholars with important insights into the challenges and pitfalls faced by those who have chosen to approach the Qur’an as both academics and believing Muslims, and emphasizes the importance of methodological consistency and a sound approach to Qur’anic hermeneutics. I look forward to all the informed engagements with this work.

To purchase the book:



  1. joymanifest says:

    I haven’t read the whole of it yet, but hope to bi tawfeeq billah SWT! But thank you for posting this and the effort into it. Allah bless you!

  2. […] Aysha Hidayatullah’s book “Feminist Edges of the Qur’an”: a summary outline […]

  3. Hyde says:

    Yes excellent review. It is not so much that it’s feminism that we should be focused on but that there is an equal academic response.
    Of course it is obvious of it would have been a man who wrote this book.

    Is there a review or critique of Scott Kugals book ?

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