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The Role of Experience in Thematic Interpretation

Liberationist and women’s gender egalitarian readings of the Qur’an also reflect the increasingly important role of experience in interpretation, as the reader consciously foregrounds her/his subject position. In the commentaries of Esack, Engineer, Wadud, and Barlas, there is nothing random about their choice of themes; rather, that choice is directly contingent on the struggles facing these exegetes in their everyday lives. Sexism is an obvious example. Wadud’s and Barlas’ hermeneutical focus on woman and patriarchy, respectively, is clearly related to their own experiences of oppression and marginalization as Muslim women, and it is from this subject position that they expound the text. Their identity is a central component of their readings. While Engineer is not as explicit about his subject position and its role in shaping his liber- ationist exegesis, he was initially drawn to questions of social justice because of his own formative experiences growing up in an oppressive context. Ruling with impunity, the religious head of the Dawudi Bohras exploited the community, for example, by imposing heavy taxes on its members in order to consolidate his family’s financial standing.[1] As already described, this eventually led to a widespread rebellion against his authority, in which Engineer played an integral part.[2] Esack, however, is the most explicit commentator when it comes to highlighting his own subject position, to showing the critical connections between his lived realities and choice of themes in interpretation. Consider the very format of his Commentary. The first two chapters are not even devoted to the Qur’an—the text comes later—but to the history of South Africa and the South African Muslim community, and to providing an overview of Esack’s own life, especially as an early victim of apartheid and an active participant in the struggle against it.[3] These chapters demonstrate vividly that his interest in topics like social liberation, religious pluralism and gender justice is not mere interest, but intimately tied to his own lived experiences. He recalls, for instance, that as a child growing up in the ghettos of the Cape Flats, he was constantly touched by the humanity of his Christian neighbours, instilling in him ‘a deep awareness of the intrinsic worth of the religious other.’[4] This awareness was reaffirmed during the struggle against apartheid, in which interreligious solidarity was a prominent feature.[5] Furthermore, the roots of Esack’s commitment to gender justice, and to a comprehensive justice in general, lie in the suffering of his mother. As he recounts painfully, his father abandoned his mother when Esack was only three weeks old, leaving her to support six children.[6] As a result, she was forced to work from dawn till dusk as an underpaid factory worker, eventually succumbing to her circumstances.[7]

This hermeneutical move of using experience as a point of departure for scriptural reflection is largely due to recent developments in the understanding of the interpretive task. In classical Islamic thought, the quest for knowledge was viewed as an objective undertaking. As discussed in Chapter 2, this understanding was exemplified by the age-old scholarly distinction between al-tafsir bi’l-ma’thur (commentary based on transmitted texts, referring to the inherited, exegetical tradition and hadith literature) and al-tafsir bi’l-ra’y (commentary based on opinion), the former treated as an authentic and legitimate mode of interpretation and the latter frowned upon as fanciful conjecture, unless firmly rooted in the exegetical tradition.31 Traditional Christianity, too, approached interpretation as ‘a kind of objective science of faith’, delineating two principal sources of theological reflection (loci theologici)—biblical scripture and the intellectual tradition—and both of which were understood as fixed and unchanging.32 The late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, witnessed significant advances in the understanding of the hermeneutical task, particularly in the field of biblical studies, calling into question the assumed neutrality of the exegete. The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (d. 2002), for example, pointed out that the reader cannot occupy some sort of pristine, stable, and objective vantage point, as if questions of instability lie solely in the text and in its past interpretations, for all readers exist within the flux of history and, therefore, read the Bible through the limitations of their own contextual horizons.[8] This critical insight—that all interpretation is inescapably subjective, contextual—has now become mainstream in the field of hermeneutics.[9] As the Christian theologian Stephen Bevans eloquently puts it:

There is no such thing as ‘theology’; there is only contextual theology; feminist theology; black theology, liberation theology, Filipino theology, Asian-American theology, African theology, and so forth. Doing theology contextually is not an option.[10]

To be sure, there is a crucial difference between the epistemological acknowledgement that ‘theology is contextual’—that is, that all interpreters are informed by their contextual baggage, such as their socioeconomic, racial, and gendered background—and ‘contextual theology’, which explicitly centres that contextual baggage in the act of interpretation.[11] By foregrounding their own contextual realities, liberationist and female gender egalitarian interpreters of the Qur’an are located squarely within this second category.

It is precisely its emphasis on a specific topic (or set of related topics) that makes thematic commentary a far more effective, exeget- ical vehicle through which interpreters can centre their own contexts than traditional verse-by-verse commentary. For while in a sequential mode of interpretation the exegete must respond to one verse after another, and is thus restricted to the content of successive passages, in a thematic format the exegete can be more pro-active, starting ‘from the application of his [sic] own questions to the text’.[12] This is not to imply that the exegete did not have a say in classical, sequential exegesis, as there was always an interpretive choice in terms of what aspect of a particular Qur’anic passage to reflect upon, like its grammatical composition, legal ramifications, and theological underpinnings, and the exegete’s own interests would often determine the approach taken.[13] Nor is this to suggest that all thematic commentary is an explicit exercise in contextual theology. (I use the word explicit here because all exegesis is, of course, inescapably contextual.) In fact, a significant number of thematic commentaries continue to subscribe to acutely objectivist notions, such as ‘scientific exegesis’ (tafsir ‘ilmi)— an apologetic body of thematic commentary that seeks to prove the compatibility of the Qur’an and natural science.[14] Rather, my argument is that thematic commentary has become an increasingly popular form of scriptural reflection because it complements a contextual theological approach, acting as a powerful medium through which the exegete can reflect on her/his own context, give this context thematic expression and then use these themes as an analytical framework to engage the text.

But because contextual theology remains on the margins of Qur’anic exegesis, liberationist and female gender egalitarian exe- getes, as has been seen throughout this book, have had to evoke Islamic paradigms in order to legitimize their overtly contextualist readings. As discussed in the previous chapter, Barlas describes her exegesis as an ‘auto-hermeneutic’,[15] or a form of interpretation that uncovers the ways in which scripture calls for its own interpretation. In her commentary, Barlas drew great inspiration from the Prophet’s wife Umm Salama, whose critique of the androcentric nature of the Qur’an (which was still in the process of being revealed) resulted in the revelation of Q. 33:35, explicitly mentioning women in a parallel fashion alongside men. That God responded favourably to, rather than ignored or castigated, Umm Salama’s criticism represented, for Barlas, a moment in ‘divine pedagogy’, for just as Umm Salama reflected upon her own subject position as a woman when engaging the text so, too, should all Muslims (women and men) raise new questions when reading the Qur’an, drawing upon their own intellect, concerns, and needs.[16] Though Barlas reflects on the Qur’an’s autohermeneutics more extensively than the other commentators in this book, in certain ways they all make autohermeneutical claims. When accenting the role of praxis in exegesis, and thus the importance of the reader’s realities, Esack also appeals to the roots, arguing that this mode of reading was how the first Muslims engaged the Qur’an. The text was not revealed at a single moment, he points out, but rather came down gradually over an extended period of twenty-three years—what Esack refers to as ‘progressive revelation’—addressing specific situations, problems, and difficulties that emerged in the burgeoning Muslim community.[17] The Qur’an, then, not only spoke to their context, but its language was continuously reshaped by it. Chapter 4 discussed how Wadud saw her own acutely layered experience of oppression—that is, being a woman, Black and poor, as well as a single mother—in Hagar, who becomes a key paradigm in Wadud’s writings. Specifically, she discerned in Hagar, a Black slave abandoned in the desert and forced to find water for her child, the plight and suffering of the ‘homeless, single parent.’[18] While Engineer is silent on the contextual dimensions of the Qur’an’s autohermeneutics, he still references the text to legitimize his own interpretive methodology. For example, Engineer locates his praxis-based approach within scripture, pointing to Q. 4:95, which elevates the mujahid (or one who partakes in struggle) over those who sit at home.[19]

  • [1] Engineer, On Developing Theology of Peace in Islam, 171-2.
  • [2] Engineer Interview, 2010.
  • [3] See ‘Introduction: In Humble Submission to the Almighty God’ and‘Chapter One: The Context: Muslims in the Cape’, in Esack, Qur’an, Liberation, andPluralism, 1-48.
  • [4] Ibid, 3. 2 Ibid, 8. 3 Ibid, 1-2. 4 Ibid, 2.
  • [5] 31 McAuliffe, ‘The Tasks and Traditions of Interpretation’, 189-90.
  • [6] 32 Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis
  • [7] Books, 2008), 3-4.
  • [8] David Jasper, A Short Introduction to Hermeneutics (Louisville, Kentucky:Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 108.
  • [9] This development in exegesis is a long and complex story, one that lies outsidethe scope of this chapter. I would like to highlight here, however, that twentieth-century understandings of the task of interpretation that unsettled the stability, thesupposed neutrality of the interpreter were not so much a response to classicalscholarship as to deeply objectivist practices of biblical reading that became mainstream in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Greatly influenced by the Enlightenment and its emphasis on reason and scientific enquiry, interpreters approachedthe Bible increasingly as a historical object of study—a text no different from anyother—drawing on tools like historical criticism and literary analysis to uncover itsreal meaning, to discover the real Jesus. For pioneering examples of this approach, seeDavid Friedrich Strauss (d. 1874), The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, 3 vols., trans.George Elliot (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) and Ernest Renan(d. 1892), The Life of Jesus (London: Watts, 1935). On the emergence of hermeneuticsas a discipline, see Anthony C. Thiselton, Hermeneutics: An Introduction (GrandRapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2009) and Jasper.
  • [10] Bevans, 3.
  • [11] Angie Pears, Doing Contextual Theology (London: Routledge, 2010), 1.
  • [12] Wielandt.
  • [13] McAuliffe, ‘The Tasks and Traditions of Interpretation’, 183.
  • [14] Stefan Wild, ‘Political Interpretation of the Qur’an’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an, ed. Jane D. McAuliffe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2006), 281.
  • [15] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 205.
  • [16] Barlas, ‘Holding Fast by the Best in the Precepts’, 21.
  • [17] Esack, Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism, 54.
  • [18] Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 143.
  • [19] Engineer, Islam and Liberation Theology, 6.
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