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Introduction

Over the past two centuries the slogan ‘reform and renewal’ (islah wa tajdid) has swept through Islamic intellectual circles, as Muslims have sought to reinterpret their faith afresh in light of modernity. Insofar as Islamic texts are concerned, the majority of literature on contemporary Islamic reform has focussed on the shari‘a (the inherited legal tradition).[1] Indeed, the law has dominated discussions of Islam in general. Less attention has been given to reformism based on the Qur’an,[2] despite the significance of this scripture both in terms of Muslim theology, in which it is understood as being the Word of God (kalam Allah), and of the current state of Islamic thought. Far from being a marginal text, the Qur’an has emerged as a rich resource for theological reflection and sociopolitical action. Specifically, it has become a source of empowerment, speaking to structures of oppression. This book offers a comprehensive survey and analysis of the commentaries of four Muslim intellectuals who have turned to scripture as a liberating text to confront an array of problems, from patriarchy, racism and empire to poverty and interreligious communal violence.[3] In particular, I explore the exegeses of the South African Farid Esack (b. 1956), the Indian Asghar Ali Engineer (1939-2013), the African American Amina Wadud (b. 1952) and the Pakistani American Asma Barlas (b. 1950),[4] supplemented by in-depth interviews with each of them.

The following question frames the study: How have these exegetes been able to expound this seventh-century Arabian text in a socially liberating way, addressing their own realities of oppression and thus contexts (as diverse as twentieth-century and twenty-first-century South Africa, India and America) that are worlds removed from that of the text’s immediate audience? For a believing Muslim, the divinity of the Qur’an as the Word of God may well suffice as an answer, for the Word is meant for all times and places. The following passage, depicting an exchange between a knowledge seeker and a major Islamic scholar in the eighth century, captures this deep-seated conviction:

A man asked Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq, ‘Why does the Qur’an, despite the

coming of new and passing of old generations, only increase in its freshness?’ The Imam replied, ‘Because God did not make it for one specific time or people, so it is new in every age, fresh for every people, until the Day of Judgement.’[5]

Hence the ability, the power of the Word to speak to the pressing problems of the present, however disparate that present may be, however differently societal relations may be understood and practiced politically, economically, sexually and ethnically, is taken as a given, intuitive. To be sure, my grievance with this answer—that the Qur’an is meant for all times and places—is not its faith-based epistemology. I myself am a believing Muslim and also approach the Qur’an as the Word of God, a concept that will be unpacked shortly. Rather, my grievance with this answer is that it lacks an analytical dimension, and I do not view faith and critical reflection as mutually exclusive categories.

Through my analysis of the works of Esack, Engineer, Wadud and Barlas, I argue that their interpretations of the Qur’an are able to confront oppression in the present time due to three principal reasons. Firstly, the substantive content of the text itself, that is, its accent on social justice and descriptions ofGod as a compassionate and just deity. Secondly, their critique of existing reading practices, which (according to them) pose obstacles in arriving at an egalitarian and inclusive understanding of the text. Thirdly, their adoption of new reading practices that enable them to arrive at precisely such an understanding, thereby making the text directly relevant to their own contexts of oppression. These reading practices include:

  • Praxis-based reflection, entailing a dialectic between, on the one hand, the lived experience of marginalization and the ensuing struggle against it and, on the other hand, scriptural exegesis.
  • • Historical criticism, unearthing not only the specific circumstances but also the broader social, cultural, gendered, political and economic milieu in which the text was revealed.
  • • This is textual holism, treating the Qur’an as a unified, indivisible whole and thus understanding a given verse or passage through the prism of the rest of the text, such as in terms of its underlying themes and principles.

Careful literary analysis, discerning what exactly the text itself states and, just as importantly, what it does not: its silences.

In sum, I argue that the methods with which the Qur’anic text is approached, conceptualized and expounded are as consequential as its substantive letter.

In addition to their manifest social relevance, the readings of these exegetes are significant, as I discuss in the concluding chapter. They shed critical insight into the character of ‘thematic exegesis’ (tafsir mawdu‘i) of the Qur’an, which was (and continues to be) largely interpreted through a sequential, verse-by-verse format (tafsir musalsal), beginning from the first verse of the opening chapter and proceeding, in a linear manner, to the last verse of the closing chapter. Specifically, I argue that their interpretations offer three insights into thematic exegesis of the Qur’an. Firstly, the desire to partake in a direct engagement with scripture and, therefore, one that is unmediated by the inherited exegetical tradition. Secondly, the foregrounding of the reader’s subject position in the thematic interpretive process, which suggests a hermeneutical linkage between thematic reflection and ‘contextual theology’ (a discipline that consciously uses one’s context as the point of departure for theological reflection). Thirdly, the seminal role that modern print culture has played in shaping the formats of Qur’anic commentary, massifying both the producers and consumers of religious knowledge.[6]

  • [1] See, among others: Abbas Amanat and Frank Griffel eds., Shari‘a: Islamic Law inthe Contemporary Context (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009); Abdullahi an-Na‘im, Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of the Shari‘a (Cambridge,MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); Khaled Abou El Fadl, Speaking in God’s Name:Islamic Law, Authority and Women (Oxford: Oneworld, 2001); Tariq Ramadan, To Bea European Muslim: A Study of Islamic Sources in the European Context (Markfield,Leicestershire: The Islamic Foundation, 1999); and Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Islam andGender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran (London: I.B. Tauris, 2000).
  • [2] For surveys of contemporary Muslim engagement with the Qur’an, see: PartThree—‘Contemporary Readings’—in Jane D. McAuliffe ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Quran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); RotraudWielandt, ‘Exegesis of the Qur’an: Early Modern and Contemporary’, in Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, ed. Jane D. McAuliffe (Georgetown University, Washington, DC),consulted online on 8 May 2012; and Suha Taji-Farouki ed., Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur’an (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  • [3] For existing studies on liberationist and women’s gender egalitarian Qur’anicexegesis—the vast majority of attention focussing on the latter—see, among others:Asma Barlas, ‘Amina Wadud’s Hermeneutics of the Qur’an: Women RereadingSacred Texts’, in Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur’an, ed. Suha Taji-Farouki(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); Aysha A. Hidayatullah, Feminist Edges of theQur’an (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Juliane Hammer, ‘Identity, Authority, and Activism: American Muslim Women Approach the Qur’an’, The MuslimWorld 98 (2008): 443-64; Nimat Hafez Barazangi, Women’s Identity and the Qur’an:A New Reading (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004); Chapter Seven—‘ “Ifyou have touched women”: Female Bodies and Male Agency in the Qur’an’—inKecia Ali, Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, andJurisprudence (Oxford: Oneworld, 2006); and Chapter Four—‘The Qur’an and theHermeneutics of Liberation’—which examines Esack’s and Wadud’s readings, inMassimo Campanini, The Qur’an: Modern Muslim Interpretations (London: Routle-dge, 2011).
  • [4] While, strictly speaking, this book focuses on Qur’anic commentary, as opposedto a study of scripture itself, over the course of my research I have had to refer to theQur’an as much as to the writings of these exegetes. As no single translation candefinitively represent the original text, in this study I have drawn on three Englishtranslations, supplemented by my own knowledge of Arabic, to arrive at, at least whatI believe to be, the most accurate and faithful rendering of the text. Specifically, I haveconsulted the works of the Sunni scholar Ahmed Ali, Al-Qur’an: A ContemporaryTranslation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993); the Shi‘a scholar Ali QuliQara’i, The Qur’an, with a Phrase-by-Phrase Translation (London: Islamic College forAdvanced Studies, 2004); and the Sunni scholar Muhammad Asad, The Message of theQur’an (Bristol: The Book Foundation, 2003).
  • [5] Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Tarikh Baghdad [A History of Baghdad] (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, n.d.), 6:115.
  • [6] In this book, I will use the term hermeneutics in two distinct senses: the first asthe way in which a text is interpreted and the second as the study of the strategies andproblems of interpretation.
 
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