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An Exegesis for the Present (and who has the authority to do it)

Making Islam relevant to the contemporary world is a prime objective of Wadud’s scholarship. As she put it in her pioneering work, Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (1999):

despite fourteen centuries of existence, the Qur’an must be kept alive. Otherwise, it will suffer the fate of other ‘dead texts’ and defeat its stated purpose: to guide humankind—unconstrained by time and place.39

But how exactly can the Qur’an become alive, escaping the fate of other ‘dead texts’ and addressing the complex realities of the present? In answering this pressing, hermeneutical question, Wadud draws upon Rahman’s double movement theory. As discussed earlier in this book, Rahman’s proposed methodology of interpreting the Qur’an consisted of two movements. The first movement entailed an indepth study of the immediate setting of revelation in seventh-century Arabia, examining how the Qur’an spoke to this specific context. Broader ethical principles would then be ‘distilled’ from this classical setting.[1] While the first movement focussed primarily on the past, moving from the particular to the universal, the second movement concerned itself with the present, applying these timeless principles to a radically different set of historical circumstances. And just as an indepth examination of the classical context was necessary to arrive at wider Qur’anic principles, the contemporary context, too, required careful study in order to translate faithfully these universal principles (back) into concrete realities.[2] Like Esack and Engineer, Wadud’s exegesis is thus marked by a deep desire to move beyond the literal letter of the text, seeking to uncover its underlying spirit, as embodied in such principles as ‘justice, equity, harmony, moral responsibility, spiritual awareness, and development.’[3] Furthermore, she notes, this scholarly project of discerning the socio-moral objectives of the Qur’an can be facilitated further by a linguistic study of the text, exploring its grammatical composition.[4] This commitment to interpreting the faith through the prism of the present, then, enables Islam to transform from a static religion, bound to the historical constraints of seventh-century Arabia and one that is to be blindly imitated, into a ‘dynamic process’,44 wherein the Qur’an’s wider, ethical principles must be continuously understood and re-understood by each people, as they apply these principles in light of their own lived experiences and contextual realities.

Wadud’s adoption of the double movement theory is problematic, however, in terms of religious authority. To be sure, she is critical of interpretive hierarchy, calling for a ‘shared privilege’ in which Qur’anic exegesis is a truly gender inclusive enterprise, welcoming the insights and experiences of both women and men.[5] Indeed, the very fact that Wadud is a female commentator puts her at odds with clerical Islam, as the ‘ulama have historically been, and continue to be, men.[6] In a 2012 keynote address—entitled ‘The Authority of Experience’—at a conference on Muslim women and sacred authority at Boston University, she fleshed out her ideas on what is authoritative.[7] Challenging the traditionalist assumption that authority is based on the accumulated knowledge of Islamic texts alone (‘received knowledge’), Wadud calls for a broader understanding of knowledge that, in turn, will lead to new understandings of authority derived from this knowledge.[8] Specifically, women’s lived experiences—as ‘represented by the ones who have the experiences, namely women’—ought to be considered an authoritative form of knowledge, and therefore Islamic scholars (including not only men but also women who have begun to reinterpret the faith) must consult specialists in women’s issues, such as social workers and psychologists.[9] Essentially, what is needed is a cooperative relationship between Muslim thinkers and ‘lay’ Muslims,[10] for in order to command authority, knowledge of Islamic texts is necessary but insufficient. Wadud’s critique of religious authority, moreover, is not confined to gender. According to her, every Muslim has the right to interpret the texts and, in so doing, to partake in defining Islam—an egalitarian interpretive practice that will only be possible when Muslims come to respect and value the inherent ability of each believer to make a contribution to Islamic thought.[11]

Yet Wadud’s otherwise inclusive discourse towards religious authority is at variance with her adoption of the double movement theory as a mode of Qur’anic exegesis. In order to get a sense of the elitism of this interpretive method, it is worthwhile providing here Rahman’s own description. Referring to the first movement, which centres on the classical period, he writes:

one must understand the import or meaning of a given statement by studying the historical situation or problem to which it [the Qur’an] was the answer. Of course, before coming to the study of specific texts in light of specific situations, a general study of the macrosituation in terms of society, religion, customs, and institutions, indeed, of life as a whole in Arabia on the eve of Islam and particularly in and around Mecca—not excluding the Perso-Byzantine Wars—will have to be made.[12]

Clearly, such a scholarly undertaking is one in which very few Muslims can participate. Furthermore, while the second movement is relatively more inclusive, entailing a comprehensive study of contemporary circumstances and thus requiring Muslim expertise in all fields of knowledge—recalling Wadud’s emphasis on specialists in women’s issues—this movement, too, is hierarchal. The discourse of the Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, who has also espoused the double movement theory, is a compelling case in point. Inspired by Rahman’s method, Ramadan—as noted in the second chapter—has differentiated between two types of scholars who need to work together in order to see the second movement through: namely, ‘text scholars’ (‘ulama an-nusus), or specialists in Islamic sciences like jurisprudence, and ‘context scholars’ (‘ulama al-waqO, or experts in contemporary fields of knowledge, such as the natural sciences.53 Upon making this distinction, however, Ramadan hastily qualifies that ‘the fundamentals of belief (‘aqidah) and worship (‘ibadat) obviously remain the prerogative of the fuqaha’,’54 or Islamic jurists. The problem with the second movement, then, is that it is not only classist, excluding poor, non-skilled Muslim labourers who do not boast expertise in a specific field,[13] but, even in terms of those who are skilled, it is squarely functional: Muslims who are not religious scholars are welcomed to contribute vis-a-vis their expertise in their respective professions, whether that be in social work, economics, or healthcare, but not as believers who could actually make a lasting, theological contribution to Islamic thought. The elitism of the double movement theory, therefore, stands in contrast to the radical inclusivity of liberation theology, in which religious authority and interpretive insight is derived not from acquired knowledge but rather through everyday experiences of marginalization and suffering, making ‘theologians out of all God’s people’.[14]

Let me further illustrate my critique of Rahman’s double movement theory by discussing a rather different approach to women’s authority and Qur’anic exegesis. In an illuminating article—‘A Tafsir of Praxis: Gender, Marital Violence, and Resistance in a South African Community’ (2007)—the Islamic scholar Sa‘diyya Shaikh conducts in-depth interviews with eight battered Muslim women in Cape Town to discern how they have ethically wrestled with the Qur’an in light of their own experiences of physical abuse by their (ex)husbands. That is, how do ordinary Muslim women ‘engage, interpret, contest, and redefine dominant understandings of Islam’[15] through realities of pain and suffering—an experiential hermeneutic that Shaikh terms an ‘embodied tafsir or a ‘tafsir through praxis’.[16] Her research demonstrates that, despite being untrained in the Qur’an or interpretative methods, these women challenged patriarchal understandings of Islam, foregrounding their deep-seated belief that God is a just deity and, therefore, cannot condone domestic violence.59 The just nature of God, in turn, requires that human relationships be just, and transgressors will be held accountable to God.60 In other words, theological arguments drawn from experience—as opposed to textual arguments drawn from experience, which still require some degree of scholarly immersion—shaped these women’s understanding of Qur’anic ethics. My purpose in highlighting this study is not to suggest that textual scholarship is not important. It is extremely important, and Shaikh herself has written extensively on gender and premodern Islamic texts, especially the mystical tradition.[17] Rather, I point to this article because it takes as authoritative not only the experiences of the oppressed, of how they endure and resist injustices on a daily basis, but also the profound religious insights that emerge from these experiences and which do not require knowledge of religious texts.

  • [1] Rahman, Islam and Modernity, 6. 2 Ibid, 7.
  • [2] 42 Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 3. 4 Ibid.
  • [3] 44 Wadud, ‘Alternative Qur’anic Interpretation and the Status of Muslim
  • [4] Women’, 10.
  • [5] Amina Wadud, ‘Towards a Qur’anic Hermeneutics of Social Justice: Race, Classand Gender’, Journal of Law and Religion 12 (1995-6): 49.
  • [6] To be precise, this gender imbalance is most acute in the fields of jurisprudenceand exegesis. However, in other spheres, in particular Sufism, women have madehistorical inroads, even acquiring influential and lasting leadership roles. The following text by the Persian Sufi scholar Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami (d. 1021), forexample, provides biographical sketches of eighty women in the classical period whobecame leading teachers and guides in the Islamic mystical tradition: Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami, Early Pious Women: Dhikr an-niswa al-muta‘abbidat as-sufiyyat,edited and translated from the Riyadh manuscript with introduction and notes byRkia E. Cornell (Louisville, Kentucky: Fons Vitae, 1999).
  • [7] Amina Wadud, ‘The Authority of Experience’ (keynote address at the conference ‘Muslim Women and the Challenge of Authority’, Boston University, Boston, 31March 2012). I am grateful to Wadud for sharing a copy of the speech with me.
  • [8] Ibid. 5 Ibid.
  • [9] 50 Amina Wadud, ‘Beyond Interpretation’, in The Place of Tolerance in Islam,
  • [10] Khaled Abou El Fadl with Joshua Cohen and Ian Lague eds. (Boston: Beacon Press,2002), 59-60.
  • [11] Wadud, Interview 2009. 2 Rahman, Islam and Modernity, 6.
  • [12] 53 Ramadan, Radical Reform, 121. 54 Ibid.
  • [13] It should be noted that Wadud has a more nuanced approach to expertise thanRamadan, as she includes ‘activists’ alongside professionals like psychologists. SeeWadud, ‘The Authority of Experience’.
  • [14] Rowland, 11. My italics.
  • [15] Sa‘diyya Shaikh, ‘A Tafsir of Praxis: Gender, Marital Violence, and Resistance ina South African Community’, in Violence Against Women in Contemporary WorldReligions: Roots and Cures, eds. Daniel Maguire and Sa‘diyya Shaikh (Cleveland, OH:Pilgrim Press, 2007), 70.
  • [16] Ibid, 75. 59 Ibid, 79. 60 Ibid.
  • [17] See Sa‘diyya Shaikh, ‘Exegetical Violence: Nushuz in Qur’anic Gender Ideology’,Journal for Islamic Studies 17 (1997): 49-73; ‘In Search of al-Insan: Sufism, IslamicLaw, and Gender’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77:4 (2009): 781-822;‘Knowledge, Women and Gender in the Hadith: A Feminist Approach’, Islam andChristian-Muslim Relations 15 (2004): 99-108; and Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn‘Arabi, Gender, and Sexuality (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).
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