In Gender Hierarchy in the Qur’an, Karen Bauer explores the issue of hierarchy between men and women through the lenses of four “difficult” verses in the Qur’an. Her approach is three-tiered: she considers the verses’ meanings within the quranic text, how the verses are understood in the exegetical tradition of tafsīr literature, and how contemporary religious scholars—ʿulamāʾ—in Syria and Iran interpret and explain these verses. Bauer describes the connection between these different areas succinctly in the introduction of the book: “In this book, the gender hierarchy becomes the lens through which to explore the Qur’an and its interpretation, the links between medieval and modern interpretations, and the effect of social and intellectual context on the production of religious knowledge” (5). As such, Bauer explores the relationships between sacred text, multiple realms of its interpretation, and the ways in which that text and its interpretations become embedded in Islamic traditions. The book is at once about gender hierarchy as well as the methods, assumptions, and broader meanings of interpretations (both exegetical as well as those modes of interpretation that exceed a tradition’s genre of formal exegesis) of a religious text.
As Bauer notes, the Qur’an contains many verses that—either explicitly or implicitly—affirm the equality of men and women (and all humans) before God, be it in terms of the potential rewards for good deeds or in an individual’s capacity to do good or bad (4). The four verses under consideration in Gender Hierarchy in the Qur’an, however, are a bit different in that they are about the relationships between men and women in the world. Bauer argues that this type of verse does indicate a hierarchy (4). The subject matter of these verses includes “the creation of the first humans” (Q. 4:1), hierarchy within marriage (including obedience and punishment, Q. 2:228 and 4:34), and the value of men’s versus women’s testimony (Q. 2:282).(4) When introducing the third topic, Bauer notes that this verse—Q. 2:282—is particularly of interest in that the interpretive tradition largely becomes about debating women’s mental abilities in explaining, justifying, or contesting how the verse might be understood and enacted.
The book is then structured into three main sections, each revolving around one of the three main topics: testimony, creation, and marriage. Each of those sections is then divided in half, with a chapter on medieval interpretations of the verse(s) in question, focusing on reception in the ḥadīth as well as tafsīr literatures. The second chapter in each part focuses on modern reinterpretations of the relevant verse(s). The theme of diversity of interpretations of the verses carries through all sections, but it is in the chapters focusing on the modern context where the book innovates the most. First, these chapters reveal the combined methodological approach, as Bauer brings the textual tradition into conversation with data from interviews with religious scholars in Syria and Iran. Second, and relatedly, the interdisciplinary method allows Bauer to situate the interpretations of the verses within multiple fields of knowledge. In Islamic Studies specifically, but perhaps also for religious studies more generally, the interpretation of religious texts is most commonly seen as belonging to a textual tradition. But here, she shows that this is not always the case. Indeed, the interviews reveal that there are interpretations and methods that reside outside of the textual sphere. Through examining the issue of gender hierarchy as it becomes situated across Islamic traditions both textual and non, Bauer is able to make a claim about the exegetical tradition of tafsīr as well—namely, that as a genre it has certain limitations, and that in order to consider how a quranic verse might be understood most fully, one must look beyond the boundaries of the tafsīr literature.
The book is a particularly useful tool for producing cross-disciplinary and sub-disciplinary conversation in that its implications are far-reaching. In the simplest possible terms, Bauer asks a thematically-focused question about the Qur’an, and she answers this question in a completely new way (new to scholarship on the Qur’an, that is), by embedding the words of the text into Islamic tradition in multiple ways. In asking about gender hierarchy in the Qur’an, she of course considers the discursive contents of the text. But she also traces the life of each verse through the medieval exegetical tradition. Here, Bauer does not shy from the diversity of views in this area.
Gender Hierarchy in the Qur’an is particularly provocative in its potential to open up new avenues for further conversation and research, building on any one or more of its main themes, and I am pleased to present here three such examples.
Dr. Omar Anchassi considers the way in which Bauer’s work situates exegesis within Islam as a lived tradition, highlighting a divide between textual and anthropological studies that is far too deep in Islamic Studies. He particularly highlights the ways in which Gender Hierarchy in the Qur’an has been helpful in the classroom environment, as well, particularly in discussing with students the boundaries between confessional commitments and socio-cultural contexts.
In her response, Dr. Johanna Pink returns to the textual tradition, particularly the relevance of Bauer’s work for the study of tafsīr. As Pink points out, the subfield of tafsīr studies is a relatively new one, and still lacking in a “master narrative.” To this end, Pink considers the ways in which Bauer’s work classifies and contextualizes the diversity of voices and approaches in the Islamic exegetical tradition. For Pink, the issue of gender and gender hierarchy is useful only in so far as it provides a point of focus for making connections across Islamic intellectual histories as evidenced in tafsīr.
And finally, Prof. Ruth Roded begins expanding outward in one possible direction, considering the issue of gender hierarchy in relation to a quranic verse not included in Bauer’s work, and placing it into the social and political context of the ʿAbbāsid caliphate. In this way, through her response Roded demonstrates that other verses that may reflect the theme of gender hierarchy in the Qur’an might be used to further explore the issue. But even more broadly, through situating the verses in the ʿAbbāsid context, Roded also picks up on the theme of asking questions about how quranic interpretation may be embedded in different historical milieux.