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THE STUDY

Comparative textual analysis is my prime methodology. The writings ofEsack, Engineer, Wadud, and Barlas are readily accessible, appearing as book-length monographs, as individual chapters in edited volumes and as articles in both academic and non-academic journals. As such, when I refer to a respective intellectual’s ‘commentary,’ a term that I use interchangeably with ‘exegesis’ and ‘interpretation’, I am referring not to a physical book but to her/his Qur’anic discourse, which encompasses all of these media. However, at various points in this book, particularly in the concluding chapter, I will refer to their principal monographs on the Qur’an: namely, Esack’s Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity Against Oppression (1997); Wadud’s Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (1999); and Barlas’ ‘Believing Women’ in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an (2002).[1] Engineer is the only exegete who has not produced a singlevolume text devoted solely to his Qur’anic commentary. Rather, his hermeneutic is spread throughout a number of books and articles. Therefore, while I will use ‘commentary’ to denote their Qur’anic discourses, I will use ‘Commentary’—that is, with an upper-case ‘C’— to refer to their main exegetical monographs. In addition to engaging in a close reading of their publications, I have undertaken in-depth- interviews with these exegetes. I organized these semi-structured interviews into three sections—biography, interpretive methodology, and discourses on justice—in order to mirror the layout of the chapters, which will be discussed shortly. To clarify, I have privileged these intellectuals’ publications. The intended function of the interviews was to play a supplementary role to their written works, such as elucidating and fleshing out vague aspects of their arguments and filling in gaps, particularly in terms of biographical and historical context.

Why have I picked these exegetes in particular? There were two fundamental criteria for the selection of the cases: firstly, that the intellectual’s principal interests are social justice and liberation, as opposed to Islamic reform in general, and, secondly, that s/he focuses on expounding the Qur’an, as opposed to other Islamic texts and traditions. Since my aim is not to write a panoramic account of all Muslim intellectuals who could be examined within this dual frame, I have focussed on the best-known intellectuals: namely, the two leading Qur’anic liberation theologians (Esack and Engineer) and the two leading gender-egalitarian interpreters of the Qur’an (Wadud and Barlas). Collectively, their scholarship provides ample material to address my research question and evidence my argument. That being said, a few words are in order as to why the British-Pakistani intellectual Shabbir Akhtar (b. 1960) is not included in this comparison. While he has written on both liberation theology and the Qur’an, I am not convinced that he fits well into this comparative study because his acutely philosophical writings (drawing on his disciplinary background in the philosophy of religion) are less grounded than the aforementioned exegetes’, all of whom focus and reflect on concrete categories, on lived realities of marginalization, such as sexism, poverty and racism. In contrast, Akhtar’s main interests lie in broader and much more abstract debates about secular humanism, Western modernity and the relationship between Islam and politics.[2]

The book is comprised of four core chapters, each devoted to a specific exegete. Chapter 2 will focus on Esack; Chapter 3 on Engineer; Chapter 4 on Wadud; and Chapter 5 on Barlas. The first part of each chapter will provide some contextual background on the exegete in question, such as key biographical information and a brief historical survey of the country from which s/he hails. The second part of each chapter will address issues of interpretive method:

How exactly ought the Qur’an to be read? Who has the authority to expound the text? What are the problems with existing modes of interpretation? Why precisely does scripture, as opposed to other Islamic texts, assume a central place in her/his Islamic discourse? In turn, what role do extra-Qur’anic sources like the hadith and the shari’a play in the exegetical enterprise? What are the principal hermeneutical strategies for the reinterpretation of the text?

In the third section of each chapter, I will explore how the interpreter approaches liberation and its relationship to Islam: What does the Qur’an have to say about socioeconomic justice, gender equity and/or religious pluralism? How does one stand against oppression? That is, what modes of resistance are sanctioned by the text? What is the scope of the exegete’s discourse on liberation? Does it extend to other struggles and, if so, how are the linkages made?

These questions, which will function more as general guidelines than steadfast rules, have been conceptualized broadly to allow for the specificities of the intellectuals’ societal contexts to come through. Because of their different subject positions, these exegetes emphasize certain struggles over others. As women, Wadud and Barlas foreground the struggle for gender equality. Meanwhile, questions of religious pluralism play a more central role in Esack’s hermeneutic, as he resisted alongside non-Muslim activists in the anti-apartheid struggle. This is not to suggest that gender justice is not an important part of Esack’s thinking—it certainly is—but rather that one’s priorities are determined by context. Throughout the book, I will think comparatively, contrasting and drawing connections between these thinkers. The Conclusion, as discussed earlier, will reflect on the significance of their works in terms of the thematic exegesis of the Qur’an. Finally, for the convenience of the reader I have provided a select glossary of terms, located at the end of the book.

  • [1] Farid Esack, Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity Against Oppression (Oxford: Oneworld, 1997); Amina Wadud,Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1999); Asma Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam: UnreadingPatriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002).
  • [2] See: Shabbir Akhtar, A Faith for All Seasons (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1990); Islamas Political Religion: The Future of an Imperial Faith (Abingdon, UK: Routledge,2011); The Final Imperative: An Islamic Theology of Liberation (London: Bellew,1991); and The Qur’an and the Secular Mind: A Philosophy of Islam (Abingdon,UK: Routledge, 2007).
 
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