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A Hermeneutical Irony

This reference to prophetic biography is also revealing, however, because it indicates that Barlas’ engagement with extra-Qur’anic Islamic texts is markedly selective, anecdotal. Like Esack, Engineer, and Wadud, when she draws upon other texts she does so in an unsystematic and utilitarian fashion, the ultimate criterion for judging the validity, the worth of these texts merely being whether their substantive content can supplement (her own reading of) the Qur’an. As the Islamic scholar Aysha Hidayatullah, referring to ‘feminist’ exegetes’ inconsistent treatment of the hadith, observes:

In some cases, the exegetes are inclined to cite certain Hadith reports positively without scrutinizing their historical authenticity when they support the just treatment of women, and they use them to buttress their interpretations of the Qur’an. In other cases, they argue for the inauthenticity of Hadith reports that demean women, rejecting those reports and maintaining that the Qur’an must be prioritized over them.[1]

Thus, there is little interest in, or even appreciation for, the integrity of extra-Qur’anic sources as complex, discursive traditions in their own right, and with rich legacies of interpretive engagement. Barlas’ usage of the historic example of Umm Salama, in particular Umm Salama’s questioning of the Qur’an as a hermeneutical model with which to seek new answers from the text, is another compelling case in point. For the Occasions of Revelation (asbab al-nuzul) literature, which catalogue the contexts in which Qur’anic verses were revealed, is part and parcel of the wider hadith corpus, and therefore is of doubtful authenticity. If we cannot be certain that Umm Salama questioned the text—this account may be fabricated—why is her enquiry so crucial to Barlas’ commentary, elevated to the level of a hermeneutical paradigm? Given Barlas’ criticism of the hadith as a genre, her emphasis on Umm Salama betrays a lack of internal consistency in her exegesis. In other words, at the same time as Barlas calls for a holistic reading of scripture, employing sophisticated reading strategies and accenting the text’s underlying principles, she herself, ironically, partakes in an atomistic hermeneutic of picking-and-choosing when it comes to other Islamic texts and traditions. The same critique can be levelled against Esack’s, Engineer’s, and Wadud’s commentaries.

  • [1] in quotation marks here because, as shown in the preceding chapter and later on in
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