Aysha Hidayatullah’s Feminist Edges of the Quran is a wonderful book that aims to critique the various aspects of modern feministic exegesis of the Quran. She critically assesses the methodology of Muslim feminist approaches through a systematic deconstruction of Tafsir and the Quran over the past three decades. Religion is practiced in many different ways, whether you are Christian, Jewish, or Muslim; no one sect of a religion holds value in the same tradition, therefore, Hidayatullah’s approach was narrowed to US feministic exegesis.
This book is divided into three sections, the first being a historical investigation of Tafsir and the way in which it intertwines with a modern approach to reading the Quran. The second section is about the reconstruction of feministic methodology to studying religion. The third section is where Hidayatullah describes her critique of feminist exegesis by arguing against feminists who make claims about the Quran that are not supported by the text and sometimes even contradicted by it. The three methods that Hidayatullah uses in her practice of the feminist approach is a historical contextualization method, an intra-textual method, as well as through a tawhidic paradigm.
Starting with the historical contextualization method, one must “research the occasion of a verse’s revelation; distinguishing between descriptive and prescriptive verses of the Quran (i.e. differentiating between verses that apply only to specific situations and those that apply to human beings generally; and identifying historical situations that shaped the context of revelation in seventh-century Arabia and subsequent exegesis of the Quran”. In other words, it is important to read the Quran in its historical context in order to understand why a given verse permits or forbids specific actions. The way in which Hidayatullah and other feminist exegesis practice the use of this method is by distinguishing between verses that promote patriarchal norms. Verses that contradict the equity between males and females are looked at with skepticism. The idea here is that, there are verses in the Quran that reflect the norms and practices of 70th century Arabia. This method is one I try to use when reading through the Quran to figure out where my choices lie. Although, I find this to be one of the best methods used for feministic Islamic thought there is a tough crowd to persuade to contextualize the Quran this way. Through my experience in furthering conversations in Islamic thought through historical contextualization, I tend to see people throw out rational and stick to the traditional more literalist approach to understanding the Quran. The way in which Hidayatullah distinguishing between verses is by categorizing readings between “patriarchal” and “culturally specific” verses. It is no lie that the majority of Qur’anic exegetes were male, and therefore prescribe a patriarchal interpretation of verses the succumb to the culturally specific era of 70th century Arabia. This is why modern feminist exegetes are so important, it is up to modern feministic Muslims and maybe even modern feministic scholars in general (despite their religion) to find the true meaning of Qur’anic verses from the traditionalist interpretations. I am still uncertain whether it is better to have insiders of Islam to be the sole people involved in this modernist process or if it would be valued to have some outsider perspectives as well. I believe there is value in having more than one perspective to aid in the process, but I believe it is the role of insiders to judge whether this new interpretation should be universalized or not, because they know better what is more consistent with the faith than outsiders do. Hidayatullah is critical of the historical perspective, due to the inconsistent and problematic use of hadith and Sunna by feminist exegetes, at which I agree with this criticism. I am uncertain if I am one of those who fail to practice this historical perspective well due to my lack of knowledge of the Quran and our traditions as well as due to my desire to pick and choose verses that align with my ideals. For example, I have been very interested in the Islamic marriages, more specifically the reasons why Muslim men are allowed to marry women from the Abrahamic Traditions, but a Muslim woman does not have the same leisure. Although I do believe this practice has its own time and place, what if this is merely something I am projecting onto the Quran with no real understanding of the subject? Women should be allowed to marry whomever they desire as long as they can still teach their children of the values and practices of Islam, but how do I know if this interpretation is flawed? “The successful use of the feminist method of historical contextualization will require that scholars of feminist Tafsir more carefully clarify their positions on the Hadith traditions as a whole, in part by treating the Hadith more systematically in all their readings of the Quran rather than referencing the Hadith in select cases when it is convenient to support or defend their interpretations”.
Moving on to the next method that Hidayatullah uses in her book is the intra-textual method. This method is the core principle and theme of Quran which can become an interpretive tool of reading the Qur’anic text. This is approach is an attempt to read the Quran as a holistic text in which the major theme we see is that the text is ideas of equality that opposes patriarchy. Hidayatullah writes that “it is in this understanding of the Quran’s egalitarian ethic that allow the exegetes to argue that in order to be valid according to the Quran’s own principles, any interpretive statement about women in the Quran must cohere with its core principles concerning equality of men and women…”. This method allows Muslims to understand the Quran in a larger scheme of equality than the process of knit picking certain verses or hadiths and historicizing them. Therefore, Muslim women exegetes deny any verse that devalues women as it does not coincide with the overarching theme of the Quran that men and women are reared as equals in the eyes of God. Hidayatullah also talks about the term “gradualism,” which ultimately states that the Quran is constantly progressing towards justice and equality for all human beings. I wonder if this I wonder if this is truly the case for all humans. If it is, shouldn’t there be another understanding of gay rights in the community as well? Maybe, we will see this human rights approach start incorporating more people as time moves on. This is probably not the case though, as we know that the Quran does prohibit homosexual actions, as we see in the story of Lut. Outside of the gay agenda, we do see feminist scholars writing about how “the Quran establishes radical movement towards continual reforms in gender relations”. Again, the entire point of this section is that feminist exegetes retain their understandings of gender by understanding the trajectory of human rights, justice, and human dignity before the law and before God, in other words there is a mutual responsibility of equitable relations between humans that we must follow. Although I understand the importance of understanding human dignity and human rights before the law, as the system is usually corrupt, I did not understand why she wrote before God as well. Isn’t the entire point of this section that the Quran, therefore God’s words is meant to prescribe gender equality notions? Why must we understand human dignity before God if God prescribes this notion? Maybe this is because, even if you do not believe in God or religion, human dignity, respect, justice, and human rights should be common in all.
The last method I will be discussing is the Tawhidic Paradigm which argues that by establishing that men are superior to women or attributing male characteristics to God is an act of polytheism. In addition, this paradigm states that due to the Quran being God’s revelation in human terminology, it cannot truly express God and thus cannot really be equated with God. Therefore, Hidayatullah argues that to establish hierarchies between humans is to assume God’s role. In other words, to take a role that is meant to be asserted by God is an act of polytheism (shrik). This is shown in the book when Azzizah al-Hibri states that
“Since God is the highest conceptual aspect of all, then no person can be greater than another person, especially for mere reasons of gender, race, class, nationality, etc. The tawhidic paradigm then acts as a basic theoretical principle for removing gender asymmetry, which is kind of satanic logic or shrik, positing priority or superiority to men. Instead, women and men must occupy a relationship of horizontal reciprocity, maintaining the highest place for God in his/her/its uniqueness”
I think this method is a great way to put people back in their place, but I do not know whether this method would work on its own to establish gender rights. I guess, this method is one that must be used in addition to intra-textual or historicizing methodology.
Hidayatullah emphasizes that feminist Tafsir should be considered a branch of modern exegesis, which she points out is different to traditional modes of Qur’anic Tafsir. It is important to know the different methodologies that feminist exegetes use when interpreting the Quran. I will be using these methods as ways to further my understanding of the Quran and ways to establish that women and men are equal and the rights that men have that women do not is merely a form of sexism that was practiced in 70th century Arabia and must be abolished today in order to move forward as God intended us to do.