A Qur’anic Discourse
As it is for Esack and Engineer, the Qur’an is the primary textual source in Wadud’s Islamic writings. Surprisingly, the person who would become renowned for her work on the Qur’an only came across the text several months after her conversion to Islam, when she acquired a copy in March 1973. Once she began to read the Qur’an, however, she became instantly drawn to the book, describing her deep, spiritual attachment to it as a ‘love affair’. Because of its undisputed status among Muslims as the Word of God, writes Wadud, the Qur’an is the most authoritative source in Islam.19 Moreover, a critical distinction needs to be made between the Qur’anic text and its exegesis—a difference that is often glossed over by Muslims. For while the Qur’an reflects ‘the articulation of the divine will’, exegesis is a thoroughly human exercise limited to the contextual baggage of the exegete, reflecting assumptions and worldviews rooted in time, place, gender, race, and class, among other factors. While Wadud hermeneutically foregrounds the Qur’an, it is important to note that she does not approach the text as the only articulation of the divine will. Citing Q. 31:27, she observes that the Qur’an itself acknowledges that God cannot be reduced to a text, as if a single scripture could exhaust the infinite possibilities of divine disclosure. The verse reads:
If all the trees on the Earth were pens and the seas were ink, with seven more seas added to it, the words of God would never be exhausted, for truly God is All-Mighty, All-Wise.
Indeed, the Qur’an’s very revelation in the Arabic language, Wadud points out, is testament to the contextually conditioned nature of the text, as it addresses a specific historical community. The Qur’an even professes its own rootedness in a particular setting, stating that it was revealed in ‘plain Arabic’ (Q. 26:195), thereby underscoring its intention of communicating to the seventh-century Arabs in their own tongue. In other words, at precisely the same time that the Qur’an, as the living Word of God, is a transcendent text, or one that can speak to multiple contexts, to generations of Muslims in different times and places, it is also a historical text, and therefore cannot possibly encapsulate all of God’s speech. And the crucial source that stands next to the Qur’an, further articulating the divine will to the believer, is one’s context: that is, one’s own reality and lived experience. As Wadud put it in our interview:
we’re locking Allah into a time capsule, and by that imprisonment we are making Allah obsolete. I really don’t think that Allah is limited to the Qur’an. I think there is some self-disclosure in the Qur’an that Allah does self-disclose, but not in isolation to the rest of the reality that Allah has given us. Our own bodies, our environment, we have so many ayat [literally, signs] and if we don’t have the ability to put them together then we are going to actually destroy the gift that the Qur’an
is to us.
In her emphasis on understanding the divine will through both the word and the world, encountering God through these twin revelations, Wadud’s hermeneutic parallels that of liberation theology, which approaches lived experience, in particular the experience of oppression, as a text that is to be read alongside scripture. I use the word ‘parallel’ here because, while Esack explicitly draws upon the hermeneutics of liberation theology when emphasizing the significance of one’s context, Wadud does not situate herself within this literature, thus arriving at her understanding independently.
The hadith literature is the second most important textual source in her Islamic discourse. While she underscores the Qur’an’s unique place in Islamic theology as the Word of God, she clarifies that her interest in scripture is also a disciplinary one, reflecting her choice to specialize in the study of the Qur’an. Her hermeneutical emphasis on the Qur’an, then, should not be read as a categorical dismissal of other Islamic texts. In fact, Wadud considers the sunna to be one of ‘the two primary sources’ of Islam, alongside the Qur’an. That being said, the sunna is not on a par with the Qur’an, for the value of the sunna (and, by extension, the hadith literature) lies in its ability to capture and flesh out wider Qur’anic principles. Indeed, she describes the sunna as the ‘living embodiment’ of the Qur’an, thereby connecting the two and conferring legitimacy on the former vis-a-vis the latter. Wadud does not hesitate to include hadith reports that uphold Qur’anic values like compassion and justice. For instance, when discussing gender relations in the household, she cites the prophetic saying ‘The best of you is he who is best to his family’, and, whilst calling for a culture of egalitarianism and reciprocity amongst Muslims, refers to the following report: ‘One of you does not believe until he/she loves for the other what is loved for oneself.’ But just like Esack and Engineer, Wadud is sceptical of the veracity of the hadith literature, even those reports that are considered sahih (authentic).30 And it is precisely because of the disputed authenticity of the hadith that she is able to engage this corpus in a highly selective manner, drawing inspiration from those reports that affirm Qur’anic values while not feeling bound by problematic reports that violate such principles.31 For example, a significant number of misogyn- istic hadith reports, Wadud noted during our interview, can be traced back to one individual: namely, the companion Abu Hurayra (d. 681).32 This raises the larger, hermeneutical question, then, as to whether such reports are a genuine reflection of the Prophet himself or of the people who surrounded him. This is an especially salient question given that Abu Hurayra, as the Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi has pointed out, fulfilled the rather unlikely task of recounting roughly 5,300 prophetic reports—far more than any other hadith narrator—whilst being in the company of the Prophet for only three years.33
Unlike the Qur’an and the hadith literature, Wadud does not consider the shari‘a to be a primary source of the faith. A major problem that she has with the inherited, intellectual tradition, of which the shari‘a is part and parcel, is that it has overshadowed the Qur’an, with Muslims equating these later, human-made texts with the Word of God.34 As shall be shown in the next chapter on Barlas, this conflation of the texts is a key critique that gender egalitarian female exegetes have levelled against traditional Islamic thought. Furthermore, Wadud continues, because men have almost single-handedly produced the shari‘a, women have been reduced to mere, material objects. For instance, in Pakistan’s rape laws, which are based on the shari‘a, the crime is actually treated as an act of theft, as rape is understood as stealing another man’s private property—that is, access to the sexual organs of his wife—rather than a brutal act of violence against the woman.35 Yet despite Wadud’s deep-seated grievances with the shari‘a, #13 in Yahya ibn Sharaf al-Nawawi, The Complete Forty Hadith of Imam al-Nawawi, translated by Abdassamad Clarke (London: Ta-Ha Publishers, 2009), 66.
she argues that it is still necessary to engage this body of literature. When I asked her why she did not simply dismiss secondary source traditions like the shari‘a altogether, she replied:
I engage them because religion is a human construct and the Islamic religion consists of all the sources that we have legitimated as representing what it means to be Muslim: Qur’an, sunna, hadith, fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence]. And I engage shari‘a because within the history of our tradition we have developed it, codified it, lived by it, and now we are being slapped in the face by people who think we can sort of like slap it back onto the modern nation-state. So I engage it as part of the reality of the history of Muslims. Islam is nothing if not lived by people and those people would be Muslims.
Wadud’s engagement with the shari‘a, then, is a thoroughly pragmatic one. Because the legal tradition has been an important part of Muslim history and continues to exercise considerable influence on the lives of Muslims today, especially women, Islamic reformists have no choice but to tackle the shari‘a. There are two principal tasks, moreover, within this reformist project: firstly, to rewrite an essentially medieval tradition in the light of lived realities, thereby creating a system of law that is applicable to the present time (fiqh al-waqi‘a); and, secondly, to ground this new judicial system firmly on broader Qur’anic principles of social justice and moral conduct. This is a dual critique of Islamic law that, as we have seen in the previous chapter, is shared by Engineer. In other words, for Wadud the underlying ‘ethical foundation’ of the shari‘a needs to be forcefully foregrounded and, if women’s rights are to be taken seriously, gender, as a category of thought, has to be integrated within Islamic ethical theory.38