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Between Exegesis and Essentialism

Though Engineer’s and Esack’s hermeneutics are similar in terms of their ordering of the Islamic texts, there is a crucial difference, as the feminist legal scholar Kecia Ali has pointed out, in their Qur’anic commentaries. Focussing on gender relations, Ali argues that Engineer’s interpretation is an apologetic one, selectively sifting through various Qur’anic texts and singling out passages that support gender justice while overlooking those that suggest otherwise.[1] Citing Q. 2:228, for example, Engineer concludes that the Qur’an upholds the full equality of women and men:

The real intention of the Qur’an—that of sexual equality—comes through several verses. Those verses need to be reemphasized... The rights of the wives (with regard to their husbands) are equal to (husbands’) rights with regard to them... [sic](2:228) is quite definitive in this respect. It hardly needs any comment.[2]

A far more complicated picture emerges, however, when one actually looks up this verse:

The divorced women shall undergo, without remarrying, a waiting- period of three monthly courses: for it is not lawful for them to conceal what God may have created in their wombs, if they believe in God and the Last Day. And during this period their husbands are fully entitled to take them back, if they desire reconciliation. The wives have rights similar to the obligations upon them, in accordance with honorable norms, and men have a degree (daraja) over them. And God is AllMighty, All-Wise.

Engineer’s reference to Q. 2:228 thus really refers, as Ali shows, to (a skewed reading of) a particular passage within the passage, dealing with rights and responsibilities, while conveniently omitting the final and overtly problematic section stating men’s ‘degree’ (daraja) over women.[1] This verse can, of course, be contextualized and women’s gender egalitarian readings, as we shall see shortly, have argued that the ‘degree’ refers to men’s advantage in divorce proceedings—the main subject of Q. 2:228—rather than making a broader, ontological claim about male superiority. Yet Engineer does not even attempt here to grapple with this part of the verse, ignoring it altogether.

Indeed, the underlying problem in Engineer’s exegesis is that he presents the Qur’an as a human rights document espousing absolute gender parity. At one point he proclaims—‘Muhammad announced through the Qur’an a charter of rights for women’[4]—while at another he insists that the ‘Qur’an is the first revealed book that accords equal rights to women.’[5] As Chapter 2 has shown, Esack’s hermeneutical treatment of gender justice is more nuanced. Though Esack, like Engineer, approaches the text as an engaged reader who is in solidarity with women and their struggles against patriarchy, Esack argues that regardless of how the text may be reinterpreted, the Qur’an in certain ways remains an androcentric document, or one that addresses male audiences, while women ‘are essentially subjects being dealt with—however kindly—rather than being directly addressed.’[6] This is not to imply that the Qur’an is completely male-centred, for it explicitly affirms the individual accountability of all people irrespective of gender, promising salvation for both believing men and believing women (Q. 33:35; 49:13).[7] That being said, the text ascribes greater moral agency to men in the spheres of sex and marriage.[8] The difference between Esack’s and Engineer’s readings, then, is that whereas the former is willing to acknowledge, to wrestle with problematic passages, the latter simply refuses to do so, either explaining away or wholly ignoring those passages that do not fit into a liberating discourse.

The apologetics of Engineer’s gendered reading reflect a deeper tendency in his exegesis to essentialize the Qur’an and, by extension, Islam. Despite acknowledging the subjectivity of the reader and the hermeneutical impossibility of interpreting the text in a contextual vacuum, he persists in claiming that there are no Qur’anic passages that can be used to support the status quo.[9] There is only one way to read scripture, and that is a liberating reading. This essentializing of the Qur’an, in turn, leads Engineer to essentialize the Muslim faith as a whole. With regard to religious pluralism, for example, he maintains that Islam ‘does not even indirectly hint at coercion, let alone violence, when it comes to any religious or spiritual matter.’[10] Islam can thus only be a progressive force for social justice, and interpretations that suggest otherwise are not really Islamic. His essentialism, moreover, comes packaged with crude triumphalism, proclaiming that Islam was ‘the first systematic attempt to bring a just society into existence in the history of mankind.’[11] This tendency to essen- tialize Islam stands in marked contrast, again, to Esack’s liberating exegesis. As discussed in the previous chapter, a key critique that Esack levelled against liberal Muslims in post-9/11 America was their claim over Islamic authenticity, declaring that Islam can only be peaceful and that militant interpretations of Islam, such as that of Osama Bin Laden, are outside the fold of the faith.41

  • [1] Ali, Sexual Ethics and Islam, 123-4.
  • [2] Asghar Ali Engineer, ‘Islam, Women, and Gender Justice’, in What Men OweWomen: Men’s Voices from World Religions, eds. John C. Raines and DanielC. Maguire (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2001), 124.
  • [3] Ali, Sexual Ethics and Islam, 123-4.
  • [4] Engineer, Islam and Liberation Theology, 33.
  • [5] Engineer, Islam: Misgivings and History, 98.
  • [6] Esack, ‘Islam and Gender Justice’, 195.
  • [7] In the following chapters it will be seen that these verses play a key role inwomen’s gender egalitarian readings.
  • [8] Ali, Sexual Ethics and Islam, 131.
  • [9] Engineer, On Developing Theology of Peace in Islam, v. 2 Ibid, 95.
  • [10] 40 Engineer, Islam: Misgivings and History, 39.
  • [11] 41 Esack, ‘In Search of Progressive Islam Beyond 9/11’, 83.
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