Symposium Introduction

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.



Gender Hierarchy and Tafsir

Mapping the Contours of the Debate

In his commentary on Q. 27:23, “I found a woman [the Queen of Sheba] ruling over them, granted great bounties and possessed of a wondrous throne,” the Qāḍī Ibn al-`Arabī (d. 543/1148) recounts the juristic disagreement on women serving as judges. In a brief aside, he addresses a report in which the Caliph `Umar is said to have appointed a woman to serve as a market inspector. “It is not properly transmitted,” he observes, adding that one should “disregard it; it is a subtle plot / devilish insinuation of the heretics [min dasā’is/wasāwis al-mubtadi`a].”1 The stridency of his tone is noteworthy, and can be contrasted, instructively, with an opinion common among Muslim feminists today that Bilqīs is a paragon of (legitimately female) leadership.2 Not unremarkably, this Qur’ānic figure has come to serve as both a symbol and a site of contestation for Muslim discussions of gender.3

In her monograph, Karen Bauer devotes much attention to mapping the contours of debate in the Tafsīr tradition on questions that similarly relate to women’s position in religious life; namely the validity and weight of their court-testimony (Q. 2:282), how they figure in aetiological narratives of creation (Q. 4:1), and their place in notions of marital hierarchy (Q. 2:228 and 4:34). Helpfully, alongside her survey of the textual heritage, Bauer draws on fieldwork conducted in Iran and Syria to illustrate the diversity of views entertained by modern `ulamā’. Her study raises a number of much broader questions relevant to the study of Islam’s premodern normative traditions (not least of which Fiqh, on which I currently work) and their reception in the modern period. In what follows, I hope to address some of these issues.

In studies of “the Islamic Tradition,” the temptation to ignore Islam as a lived religion has often proved overwhelming. Bauer avoids this oversight by devoting adequate space to modern discussions of the meaning of the Qur’ān. Though her focus is on an admittedly small group of religious professionals, the `ulamā’, her dataset allows for the creation of a typology (conservative, neo-traditionalist and reformist, pp. 6, 67) that implies a considerable diversity of opinion. Other authors have opted for different categories, and no consensus is likely to form on which categories are more desirable than others.4

It is self-evident to this author that one gleans insights from interpersonal interaction that one cannot receive from published texts; in important respects, though textual interpretation is no doubt a complex process, the relationship of text to reader is unidirectional. That is, one cannot make demands or register protest or express dissatisfaction or pleasure with a text as one can with a living interlocutor. The importance of the interpersonal dynamic is evident from Bauer’s interactions with her interviewees; she is seen to embody a Western perspective (17); interlocutors express solicitude (her absence from her husband) and, on other occasions, frustration (“these English!”) with her opinions (251). Moreover, she has the opportunity to press her interviewees on points where their answers are less than satisfactory—when they produce “fishy statistics” to buttress their arguments, for example (221).

The study of Islam as lived religion is important not only because it alerts one in vital ways to the operation and dynamics of religious authority (one interviewee initially refers Bauer to authoritative commentators in lieu of a meeting, p. 245), but because a textual corpus can only capture and retain so much of the tradition it represents. Persons, like texts, invoke past authority in all sorts of ways, but persons are less radically circumscribed in their agency than the written word. This is not to deny the scholarly legitimacy of studies that are solely historical; increasingly, research on Islamic Law has come to take into account the evidence of court documents, travelogues, diaries and other such genres of text which considerably complicate the picture provided to us by handbooks of Furū`.5 Even in the purely textual domain, it pays to look elsewhere. Bauer demonstrates her belonging to this recent trend by citing marriage papyri (175–77); these complement her nuancing of the textual tradition. Her interviews also point to the impressive durability and continued appeal of tradition.

Bauer’s characterisation of the Tafsīr literature as stratigraphic (12, 61) is an immensely useful way to view any aspect of Islam’s learned heritage, and has broad applications. I have used it in my teaching to call students’ attention to the inertia of the disciplines of Tafsīr and Furū`, their highly self-referential, accretive and intertextual natures, as well as the ways in which authors can manifest originality within the constraints of either genre (such as Ṭabarī’s controversial reading of Q. 4:34). The image of layers of rock massed atop one another is striking and has tremendous appeal in the classroom. Bauer’s periodisation of the history of Tafsīr (with Tha`labī representing a turning point, signalling the increasing integration of genres, pp. 54–55) is also instructive, and she is rightly hesitant to posit definitive explanations for diachronic change in commentaries on the relevant verses. Is such development a function of social change? Or does it reflect altered priorities on the part of commentators? These are important questions, and answering them imposes serious challenges on the intellectual historian. Since I have also taught in confessional environments, outside of secular academe, this was a site of especial anxiety in the classroom. Young seminarians struggled to understand the boundaries between normative religious commitments and sociocultural context; what sorts of changes to the legal tradition are acceptable, and how ought they to be mediated by the religiously learned class, if at all?

Arguably the point on which Bauer provides most food for thought is in her discussion of the construction of tradition. In her survey of premodern Tafsīr as well as her fieldwork, she demonstrates how commentators appeal to and dissent from authority. She does not overly theorise this notion (23–26)—it is not clear that such theorisation is always helpful—though the nature of tradition as a conversation extended across time (etc.) is readily present throughout the book, which makes it very user friendly, especially in a classroom context. A related point relates to Bauer’s demonstration that appeals to authority not infrequently entail suppression and misappropriation, and are always-already selective (e.g., 221). This emerges most clearly in interviews. It is difficult to avoid the impression that discussion always takes place against a backdrop of Western hegemony; with a few exceptions, even the staunchest of conservatives have largely abandoned the rhetoric of male supremacy (pp. 15, 284), opting for gender equity and the discourse of complementariness instead. Conservatives are highly engaged in the business of retooling the tradition they express their fidelity to, providing new explanations to justify inherited norms.6 Bauer does complicate this by suggesting that the diffusion of historically Euro-American values is not a passive or even process. She notes that Darwinian evolution is largely discredited in the Muslim-majority world (notwithstanding the immense prestige of science, p. 280), while gender equality has proved far more attractive.

In my teaching, I have tried to make students aware of these dynamics of religious change, and to urge them to think historically. Instead of taking the value of gender equality for granted, I have asked them to imagine what it might look like to outsiders, where its appeal might rest and whether equality is a telos to which all complex societies inevitably progress. Though no clear answers have emerged from such conversations, it has been wonderful to use Bauer’s book as a point of departure. Her work has also allowed me to explore broader issues of textual interpretation in the classroom. Bauer posits that while texts may not be self-explicating, they can only serve as finite sources of meaning and are not infinitely plastic. She agrees with her interviewees in believing that texts bear meanings (11, 108). I feel that it is right to hold that texts are not utterly at the mercy of interpretive communities, while adding that this still allows for considerable latitude of interpretation. The fact that Q. 4:34 expresses its command to “strike” disobedient wives in the imperative (wa aḍribuhunn)—a meaning typically disregarded by commentators—is significant.

Plurality is a structuring principle of Bauer’s survey. Her attention to non-Sunnī perspectives is especially welcome; her support of the notion that modernity has engendered a certain allergy to polyvalence (14–15) has also proved increasingly popular, as discussed (in 2011) by Thomas Bauer (no relation) and more recently by the late Shahab Ahmed.7 Since Karen Bauer is dealing with the specifics of a textual genre rather than invoking “ambiguity” in cavalier fashion, as is arguably the case in The Culture of Ambiguity, she avoids the pitfalls of this approach. In talking through competing interpretations of Q. 4:1, for example, she illustrates the full spectrum of views, including the quasi-gnostic reading according to which the Adam-Eve relationship manifests the relationship of the rational to the animal soul (101). Her suggestion that a straightforward (i.e., philological) reading of the verse does not necessarily undermine the notion of Eve’s derivative creation from Adam (108)—the gendered nature of nafs notwithstanding—is a useful point of entry to the larger debate about the function of Tafsīr and whether (as Saleh puts it) theology trumps philology.

Finally, Bauer’s work calls our attention to the importance of considerations of genre and audience. These questions have implications across the field of Islamic Studies; grammar no longer features as heavily as it once did in Qur’ān commentaries, she argues, because these texts are composed with a much broader readership in mind (e.g., 41). What effects have mass literacy had on the structure and style of scholarly texts—and what impact have similarly modern developments had on appeals to religious authority? Though print technology and the subsequent digitisation of texts have clearly lead to an unprecedented availability of the premodern textual heritage (13)—somewhat undermining Shahab Ahmed’s claim of a radically reduced revelatory “Con-Text”—this has not always straightforwardly challenged the authority of the learned class. Readings of the Qur’ān not grounded in technical forms of expertise seem to have less traction among Muslims, in Bauer’s account. Whether interpretive communities less bound to historical readings of verses such as Q. 4:1 and 4:34 will be mainstreamed remains to be seen. As Michael Cook observes, tradition does not determine interpretive outcomes, but it does constrain them:

What is possible to do . . . is generally limited by what it is possible to legitimise. What you can hope to legitimise, however, depends on what courses of action you can plausibly range under existing normative principles.8

  1. Abū Bakr b. al-`Arabī, Aḥkām al-Qur’ān, Muḥammad `Abd al-Qādir `Aṭā ed. (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-`Ilmiyya, 2003), 3:482. The variant wording owes to a discrepancy in the manuscript tradition.

  2. See, e.g., Na’eem Jeenah, “Bilqis: A Qur’ānic Model for Leadership,” Journal of Semitic Studies 13.1 (2004) 47–58.

  3. The classic treatment of the premodern heritage remains Jacob Lassner’s Demonizing the Queen of Sheba: Boundaries of Gender and Culture in Postbiblical Judaism and Classical Islam (London: University of Chicago Press, 1993). For a useful summary, including brief comments on the modern period, see the late Barbara Freya Stowasser’s Women in the Qur’an, Traditions, and Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 62–66. Axel Havemann’s EI3 entry “Bilqīs” makes no reference to Muslim feminist appropriations of this figure.

  4. E.g., Jonathan Brown adopts the fourfold typology Islamic Modernist, Salafi Modernist, Salafi Traditionalist, Late Sunni Traditionalist (these may reflect his focus on modern attitudes to Ḥadīth literature). See Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009), 243.

  5. For examples of this recent trend, see Yossef Rapoport, Marriage, Money and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); more recently, Ahmed Fekry Ibrahim, Child Custody in Islamic Law: Theory and Practice in Egypt since the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

  6. This recalls Sadeghi’s argument that, while the “received law” of the schools ensures that legal doctrine remains highly stable until the modern period, justifications of those rulings are highly fluid. See The Logic of Law Making in Islam: Women and Prayer in the Legal Tradition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), e.g., 165.

  7. Thomas Bauer, Die Kultur Der Ambiguität: Eine andere Geschichte des Islams (Berlin: Verlag der Weltreligionen, 2011); Shahab Ahmed, What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), esp. 520–37.

  8. Citing Skinner, Ancient Religions, Modern Politics: The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), xv.

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    Karen Bauer


    Response to Omar Anchassi

    First of all, I would like to thank Lauren Osborne for bringing these scholars together to talk about my book. It is a great honor to have such perceptive comments on my work and I feel that this has opened up new and productive avenues of conversation about the nature of Qur’anic interpretation and its history, gender and women’s history, and what constitutes “tradition.”

    Omar Anchassi brings up several important points about not only my book, but about the wider study of the texts in history. I was struck in particular by his remarks on the nature and limits of textual study. Every author must have a readership, a certain core audience for whom their work is intended. The need for an audience must have been particularly acute in an age when books were extremely expensive to make and copy, when paper was both from recycled materials and was itself recycled after use, and when well-stocked libraries only had fragments of many works. The survival of a work depended on many factors, but having a core audience was certainly one of them; and thus the audience shapes the content in crucial ways. Yet, as Anchassi rightly points out, for a modern reader this process is not immediate or direct as in the case of a conversation: “one cannot make demands or register protest or express dissatisfaction or pleasure with the text as one can with a living interlocutor.” Even when such interactions exist, with students writing their teachers’ works, the mechanism of the writing and any conversational element is usually erased from the final product, particularly in medieval commentaries. Thus it is common to read, for instance, “Abū Jaʿfar said,” but quite uncommon, or even unheard-of to read any debate that might have surrounded the teacher’s statement.

    Anchassi also notes that the textual tradition is limited by its prescriptive nature. As he says, scholars are increasingly searching beyond of normative genres and into documentary and other sources: “Even in the purely textual domain, it pays to look elsewhere.” He points to the changing methods in legal studies, and the recognition that what is written in works of fiqh is not necessarily what was practiced on the ground.

    What surprised me when I began working with the genre of tafsīr is that interpretations within this genre have often been often considered by modern scholars to be the authoritative view of the meaning of the Qur’an; yet when one reads the introductions to these works, or more importantly when one compares a medieval tafsīr with a sermon by the same author, it seems that the authors of tafsīr were writing mainly (or only) for literate scholars who could understand arcane grammatical points. In short, these texts were not ever meant to explain the meaning of the Qur’an in every way, to every audience. They were not meant to evoke feelings of spiritual transcendence in their audience. Nor were these texts meant to encourage belief or action. Thus tafsīr is fundamentally different from the Qur’an itself, which could be said to have precisely the goals of spiritual transcendence, belief, and action. Tafsīr works were meant, in my estimation, as a distinctly scholarly approach to meaning: the grammar, the variant readings, the basic legal ramifications, in some cases philosophical approaches, and so forth. They miss out on many other aspects of the text’s meaning and many aspects of the Muslim experience of the text, and they were never meant to convey those other meanings; yet some within today’s scholarly community understand them precisely as elucidating “meaning,” with the idea of meaning circumscribed to what these texts provide.

    While these texts are limited to certain types of meaning, and their audience is circumscribed, it would be wrong to say that they have had no influence. For if a text is shaped by its presumptive audience, so too is the audience meant to be shaped by the text (hence the normative label). For me, the question thus remains: what does it mean to study Islam as a lived tradition? Some aspects of “lived tradition” may consist in bringing in modern perspectives, as I have done in my book; but another aspect is certainly in understanding the perceptions of medieval readers, and the contours of their lives, and how the interpretations in these texts may or may not have filtered down to affect lived realities, particularly for women.

    I will end by saying that I am delighted to hear that Anchassi has used my book to open discussions of tradition with his students, both from within a faith-based context and in the university setting. Because of the modern relevance of the questions that I addressed in the book, I hoped that it would be useful both for students and for my scholarly peers. In this case, at least, an author has the satisfaction of knowing that her work is reaching its audience.



New Perspectives on the History of Tafsīr

Karen Bauer’s book is entitled Gender Hierarchy in the Qurʾān, which is, from the perspective of a specialist in Qurʾānic exegesis, or tafsīr, somewhat misleading. One might expect it to mainly contribute to our understanding of Qurʾānic gender norms or Muslim discourses on gender roles. However, I prefer to read it as an attempt to make sense of the history of Qurʾānic interpretation, and a rather inspiring and thought-provoking one. Of course, from a publisher’s point of view, “gender hierarchy in the Qurʾān” might appear likely to attract a wider readership than a book dealing with shifts in interpretive paradigms employed by Muslim scholars; but the latter aspect is what makes Karen Bauer’s book particularly exciting to me. For her, “gender hierarchy becomes the lens through which to explore the Qurʾān and its interpretation” (5). In the rather young field of tafsīr studies that is as yet lacking a master narrative, Karen Bauer’s book is one of those fundamental contributions that will enable us to draw a grand picture; and it is her take on the evolution of tafsīr that I will focus on, rather than her findings concerning Islamic scholars’ views on gender relations.

What is it that makes this book such a remarkable step towards gaining a better understanding of the history of tafsīr? It is by far not the first book that employs a diachronic perspective; monographs as early as Jane Smith’s An Historical and Semantic Study of the Term “Islām” as Seen in a Sequence of Qur’ān Commentaries (1975) and Jane McAuliffe’s Qur’anic Christians (1991) have done that. However, these authors, hampered at the time by the unavailability of substantial research on tafsīr both as a literary genre and a historical discipline of scholarship, were unable to look beyond individual exegetes’ contributions and see the larger picture, especially with respect to the pre-twentieth-century period. Where they described substantial shifts in method, style and content, this was largely explained by a rupture between the premodern and the modern period that they described as occurring around the late nineteenth century. They substantiated this narrative of a rupture by selecting for their analysis Qurʾānic commentaries from the modern period such as Rashīd Riḍā’s (1865–1935) Tafsīr al-Manār and Sayyid Quṭb’s (1906–1966) Fī Ẓilāl al-Qurʾān, which are certainly influential and original, but also atypical in many ways, starting with the fact that their authors were not trained as religious scholars.

Karen Bauer, on the other hand, focuses not on the innovations made from outside the ranks of religious scholars (ʿulamāʾ), but on the exegetical production of the ʿulamāʾ both in the pre-modern and the modern period, which enables her to gain a far clearer perspective on continuities as well as changes. She looks at the works of these ʿulamāʾ not only as carriers of a particular worldview but also as belonging to a specific genre, that of tafsīr, that has its own language, methods, structure, and authorities. The rules of that genre create boundaries that scholars typically adhere to in order to gain recognition of their status as ʿulamāʾ and to guarantee the inclusion of their works into the canon of tafsīr (McAuliffe 2003). Pre-modern and modern ʿulamāʾ alike wrote works of tafsīr in order to prove their scholarly credentials and their familiarity with the tradition. It is for this reason that Karen Bauer rightly concludes that “the genre of tafsīr in the modern period is one that is both conservative and circumscribed. Modern works of tafsīr do not represent the whole range of modern interpretations of the Qurʾan” (15).

Karen Bauer seeks to demarcate the boundaries of the genre of tafsīr by looking beyond them. She has interviewed contemporary ʿulamāʾ in order to identify their position on some of the gender issues that are raised by Qurʾānic verses and discussed in certain ways in Qurʾānic commentaries. This is a novel type of analysis that compares the attitudes expressed in scholarly works bound by genre restrictions with attitudes expressed in interviews. It throws the boundaries of traditional tafsīr into sharp relief and shows us the extent to which the rules of the genre restrict the individual exegete. It also calls into question the conventional academic perspective on Qurʾānic exegesis with its narrow focus on Qurʾānic commentaries. Karen Bauer’s book should encourage us to show more interest in other types and genres of exegesis, not limited to the field of revisionist hermeneutics; for example, the field of pedagogical tafsīr is woefully understudied.

The original and novel perspective on the rules that circumscribe the genre of tafsīr is thus one of the great assets of Karen Bauer’s book. The other one is its rigorous historical approach: the attempt to contribute to a “stratigraphy” of tafsīr (12) more complex and nuanced than the conventional narrative of a uniform pre-modern period, followed by a rupture, followed by the modern period. Her description of the evolution of tafsīr is not one of ruptures but of shifts, and those shifts occurred at all times. For example, Karen Bauer outlines how, in the course of several centuries during the “middle period” (ca. 11th to 15th century CE), traditions attributed to the prophet gained authority at the expense of exegetes from the first two centuries of Islam. Starting in the late nineteenth century, another important shift in authority occurred when scientific or pseudoscientific arguments became more and more prominent. None of those sources of authority was entirely new, however, nor did they completely obliterate earlier ones (cf. 24)—at least not in the ethico-legal discourse on gender relations. We might gain a different impression when looking at theological, rhetorical,or philosophical problems raised in the Qurʾān where we would be likely to find that certain pre-modern discourses and arguments have not only lost currency, but have become close to incomprehensible to Muslim scholars educated in the twentieth century. It would be intriguing to conduct this kind of research and compare the results to Karen Bauer’s findings.

Another fascinating observation that Karen Bauer makes concerns regional shifts in tafsīr production throughout the pre-modern period, which she connects to patterns in preferred legal school and especially to the predominance of Shāfiʿī positions. She cautiously suggests that in the classical period, upon which the later production of glosses and supracommentaries as well as the teaching activity at madrasas was based, tafsīr might have been a Nīshapūrī and Shāfiʿī endeavor, which had profound consequences on the subsequent centuries of tafsīr writing (276–80).

On a more general level, the book encourages us to think more deeply about the relationship between the Qurʾānic text, the genre of tafsīr and the individual exegete’s worldview. Students of tafsīr are often frustrated by the fact that few exegetes directly express their personal preferences and ideas. However, Karen Bauer shows that exegetes—just like any other writer—cannot fail to be influenced by their deeply ingrained notions of “normalcy” and of right and wrong. These notions might, in extreme cases, induce them to “interpret away” the plain sense meaning of the Qurʾānic text (26–27). Thus, Karen Bauer could find a distinct shift in descriptions of women’s vis-à-vis men’s worth. Throughout the pre-modern period, a growing number of traditions on women’s inherent deficiency appears whereas in the twentieth century, a language of inherent equality on the level of human dignity has taken root. On the other hand, the case of women’s testimony shows that there is no corresponding shift in perception and worldview where women’s legal equality is concerned.

One field in which unconscious notions of “normalcy” are particularly persistent is that of masculinity. Everywhere in the world and throughout history, manhood has been treated as the norm and womanhood as a deviation in an intellectual world that was monopolised by men. For the field of Muslim religious scholarship, this still largely seems to be the case. Karen Bauer shows how this leads to a notion of masculinity that is inseparably tied to authority; manhood is “epitomised in the person of the just ruler” (285). She raises the question whether an increasing number of female exegetes might change this; so far, however, female religious scholars—as opposed to “Islamic feminists”—have predominantly decided to adhere to the same genre restrictions and intellectual paradigms as their male counterparts in an effort to gain recognition as scholars.

Karen Bauer has thus not only produced an impressive range of important insights but also opened up exciting new venues of research concerning both the history and the present state of the field of tafsīr. Hopefully, despite it’s gender-centric title, the book will receive the attention it deserves as one of the most important recent contributions to the study of the history of Qurʾānic exegesis.


Works Cited

McAuliffe, Jane Dammen. 1991. Qur’anic Christians: An Analysis of Classical and Modern Exegesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2003. “The Genre Boundaries of Qur’ānic Commentary.” In With Reverence for the Word: Medieval Scriptural Exegesis in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe et al., 445–61. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Jane I. 1975. An Historical and Semantic Study of the Term “Islām” as Seen in a Sequence of Qur’ān Commentaries. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press.

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    Karen Bauer


    Response to Johanna Pink

    As Johanna Pink points out, my main contribution in this book is probably not to the field of gender studies (although uncovering this type of normative discourse is also fundamental to understanding social and legal norms which affected and affect women’s lives), but rather to the field of the history of Qur’anic interpretation (tafsīr). Indeed, understanding the history of Qur’anic exegesis was what motivated much of this study. It was why I undertook a number of comparisons with non-tafsīr works such as works of fiqh, why I studied documentary evidence where I could, and why I incorporated interviews in order to go beyond the written transmission of tafsīr.

    And yet this book is only a starting point for the history of this genre: many questions that I raised in the book, and some that I did not, remain open. I have shown that tafsīr is affected by taken-for-granted norms in society. But to what extent did tafsīr actually affect the society in which it was being written? Or was/is it a genre of norms being put forth by the scholarly class, which have little or no effect on ordinary believers? I have posited in my book that tafsīr was, for centuries, a venture that was largely regional and controlled mostly by the Shāfiʿī school. But did the Shāfiʿī norms and networks shape the genre, or should one rather speak of Khūrasānī norms and networks? What are the implications of this regional and legal influence? Were certain legal schools associated with certain branches of knowledge (as the Ḥanbalīs were with ḥadīth)?

    Some of these questions might be productively explored through the study of gender, and even, indeed, by going further into the questions that I explored in the book. The study of gender brings up areas in which legal norms overlap with social norms; the issues raised in this book are fundamental to ordinary Muslims’ personal lives. Whether a man considers a wife’s disagreement to be disobedience, whether he chastises her for this, and what sort of chastisement goes too far, can be studied from court records, which give some idea of whether the norms advocated in works of tafsīr are widely practiced. Furthermore, court records probably differ in different places, so it may be possible to study regional variations in these norms. I thus consider gender issues to be one of the central axes on which we can study such fundamental questions about Qur’anic exegesis.

    However, often a focus on gender relegates this work to a space outside of the mainstream of the field of Qur’an studies, tafsīr studies, or other types of historical study. Gender studies becomes a closed loop, with gender scholars talking to each other and very few outside of that loop taking any notice at all. To me, that is very limiting for the field of the Qur’an and the field of gender studies both. Gender is one of the key areas in which reform in Qur’anic interpretation is happening at a rapid rate, and where it is possible to test notions of conservatism, reform, the cultural effect on interpretation, and the relationship between tafsīr and popular understanding. These days, it is also possible to test whether tafsīr written by or for women differs from that written by men (and for male scholars). If women’s interpretation does not differ, or is circumscribed to women, as is the case in many recent works by women, it is possible to hypothesise why that is the case. In short, gender questions should be at the forefront of our thinking about the very nature of Qur’anic interpretation, an essential part of the study of the Qur’an.



Societal Mores Influence Interpretation of the Quran

I argue that the two factors which carried the greatest weight in determining interpretation are exegetes’ personal opinion and the mores of their societies. (Bauer 2008, 1)


Works of Qur’anic interpretation are rooted in particular times. The present always shapes the interpretation of the past. (Bauer 2015, 19)


Karen Bauer’s Gender Hierarchy in the Qur’an: Medieval Interpretations, Modern Responses (2015) highlights the influence of social milieux on exegetes’ interpretations of Quranic verses dealing with gender hierarchy. This approach may also be applied to the “hijab verse” and the seclusion of wives in their houses. By comparing the meaning of the Quran and the social milieu that it implies to the content and context of the earliest exegetes the construct of Islamic gender norms may be elucidated.

The earliest exegesis of the Quran were composed in the political, economic and social milieux of the golden age of the Abbasid Empire, during the ninth and tenth centuries CE, some two hundred years after the death of Muhammad. As a result, gender norms in the Quran were interpreted through the lens of Abbasid Baghdad urban society where the earliest exegetes lived.

The political, economic and social milieu in which the Quran was composed is subject to debate, and the oldest existing copy of the full text is from the ninth century CE, but the content of the Quran seems to be from an earlier, simpler time. A reference to the Prophet’s home divided by a curtain, min wara’ hijab (33 Al-Ahzab: 54), for example, attests to a rather modest dwelling.

By contrast, Abbasid Baghdad during the ninth and tenth centuries, was the center of a politically and economically powerful empire whose society was far different from that described in the Quran. The influx of wealth and the increase of the slave population gave upper- and upper-middle-class women the economic opportunity to stay at home and the need to signify their unique social status (Stern 1939, 126). It has been suggested that the deterioration of morals after the death of Muhammad led to a need to protect modest women (Stern 1939, 126, citing F. Buhl 1930). Unlike the former Arab warriors, Abbasid men were civilians who aimed for careers in the administration (Bray 2004, 139, 140). Baghdad society was also influenced by other cultures with whom they came into contact: Byzantine, Sassanid, Babylonian Jews (Stern 1939, 126; Beaucamp 1998; Daryaee 2009; Neusner 1999).

The “hijab verse” in the Quran orders the believers that when they are in the Prophet’s house they should approach his wives from behind a curtain. Hijab refers to a separation, “anything that veils, conceals, hides, covers, or protects” (Lane 1863, II 516). In time, this verse was believed to refer to the harim “a term applied to those parts of the household to which access is forbidden, and hence more particularly the women’s quarters,” known as a gynaceum in ancient Greece and Rome (Harim EI2). This practice trickled down from the palaces of the rulers and wealthier classes to the middle classes.

Abbasid texts refer to the caliphs’ women, a group of people under his control, but not a spatial location within the house (El Cheikh 2005; Kennedy 2005, 163–64). It is only from the mid-ninth or early tenth century that a separate, enclosed women’s quarter has been described (Kennedy 2005, 161–62).

The phrase “min wara’ hijab” has been interpreted by the earliest classical exegetes who lived in Baghdad at the height of the Abbasid Empire. Muqatil b. Sulayman (d. 767) composed the earliest extant reliably dated interpretation of the Quran (Bauer 2015, 41, 111). His close reading of the hijab verse deals with the circumstances of revelation of the different parts and also links it to other verses. One incident connected to the hijab phrase occurred in the house of Umm Salameh and the Prophet when the guests remained a long time talking and the Prophet did not want to tell them to leave. Then Allah ordered the hijab for his wives. As has been pointed out, this interpretation refers to the etiquette that the believers should obey when they visit the Prophet and his wives, so as not to bother them (Sherif 1987 based on Tabari). Here Muqatil refers to a revelation concerning Aisha about tayammum dry ablution (5 Al-Mai’da: 6). Aisha is connected to purification—required if one has relieved oneself or has been in contact with women—when she was “on a journey” with the Prophet and lost her necklace (Muqatil; see Bukhari).

Another incident concerning the revelation of the hijab refers to Zaynab bint Jahsh and links it to the continuation of the verse that states that requesting something from women from behind a screen “makes for greater purity for your hearts and for theirs,” purity from doubt or suspicion. Further, Talha b. Ubaydallah related that Muhammad deterred them from visiting his female cousins of the Tamim tribe, that is, Aisha bint Abi Bakr. He thought in his heart that after Muhammad’s death he would marry her. And then the rest of the verse revealed that it was forbidden to marry the Prophet’s widows after him. The imposition of the hijab on the wives of the Prophet is referred to by Muqatil again in his interpretation of other verses (see below).

In addition to the issue of “min wara’ hijab” separating women in the home, another verse deals with the question of women remaining in the house. Quran 33 (al-Ahzab): 33 tells the wives of the Prophet that they are unique and should stay in their houses, or stay quietly in their houses (Pickthall, Ali translations).

In Abbasid times of the ninth and tenth centuries, women left their homes to attend the shari’a courts, but a small number did not leave the house to appear in this very public and crowded space. These upper-class women either sent someone to represent them or were attended by agents of the court in their home (Tillier 2009). Thus, seclusion of women was a sign of social status and was only possible for wealthy women, not for all Muslim women.

Muqatil defines “stay in your houses” simply as “do not come out of the hijab.” This is followed by the phrase “and make not a dazzling display like that of the former Times of Ignorance.” Here he defines “a dazzling display—tabarruj—as . In Muqatil’s interpretation of this phrase, the hijab, previously a curtain, has been associated with clothing and immodesty with flaunting jewellery.

Muqatil links the phrase “stay in your houses” to the hijab twice in adjacent Quranic phrases.

O Consorts of the Prophet! Ye are not like any of the (other) women: if ye do fear (God), be not too complacent of speech, lest one in whose heart is a disease should be moved with desire: but speak ye a speech (that is) just.

His interpretation is that improper speech of the Prophet’s wives can cause immorality so they are commanded to guard their speech with men, and the hijab was imposed on them. This is the reverse of the hijab verse where it is the male companions of the Prophet who are warned against improper behaviour. Linking the command to proper speech to the imposition of the hijab is repeated after mention of the Time of Ignorance.1

In sum, Muqatil seems to link separation of the prestigious wives of the Prophet in the house to their seclusion in the house, as well as guarding their speech, and covering the ornaments they wear on their bosoms. If these ordinances applied to the upper strata of Abbasid Baghdad society then they would refer to the highly esteemed wives of Muhammad.

The extensive interpretations by the influential exegete Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d. 310/923) of the phrases “min wara’ hijab” and “stay in your houses” provide more and clearer information as well as alternate readings of these Quranic phrases, but do not change the basic meanings, with one notable exception. Tabari, noted for variant readings (Bauer 43), explained that the word qarna in the phrase “qarna fi buyutikuna” should be vocalized as qirna meaning “have dignity and serenity” in your homes rather than “stay quietly in your houses” (Sharif 1987). This reading may merely be part of Tabari’s scholarly wide net, but it also may be a product of the fact that the gynaceum had not been adopted among Baghdad’s upper class in his time. Later scholars did not accept his evaluation of the text.

Women’s seclusion was, however, addressed at this time in the context of wives’ obedience referred to in Quran 4:3. Muqatil interpreted obedience as the duty to have sex with her husband (Bauer 2015, 180). Kecia Ali emphasizes that legists held that obedience meant the wife’s availability for sex (tamkin) or the right to restrict her mobility (2010, 65, 71, 75; based on al-Shafiʿī d. 820 and Khassaf d. 874). A ruling that wives should not leave the house without their husbands’ permission evolved from here.

In conclusion, the earliest exegetes of the Quran read the verses in light of the social mores of their time.


Works Cited

Ali, Kecia. 2010. Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Bauer, Karen. 2008. “Room for Interpretation: Quranic Exegesis and Gender.” Phd diss., Princeton University.

Beaucamp, Joelle. 1998. “Les femmes et l’espace public à Byzance: Le cas des tribunaux.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 52: 129–45.

Bray, Julia. 2004. “Men, Women and Slaves in Abbasid Society.” In Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West 300–900, edited by Leslie Brubaker and Julia M. H. Smith, 121–46. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

al-Bukhari, Muhammad b. Isma’il. 1973–1976. The Translation of the Meaning of Sahih al-Bukhari: Arabic-English. Al-Medina: Islamic University.

El Cheikh, Nadia Maria. 2005. “Revisiting the Abbasid Harem.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 1: 1–19.

Daryaee, Touraj. 2009. The Rise and Fall of an Empire. London: Tauris.

“Harim.” 1960–2007. In Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., edited by P. Bearman et al.

Kennedy, Hugh. 2005. The Court of the Caliph: When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World. London: Orion.

Lane, E. W. 1863. Arabic-English Lexicon. London: Williams and Norgate.

Neusner, Jacob. 1999. The History of the Jews in Babylonia: Later Sasanian Times. Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock.

Sherif, Mostafa Hashem. 1987. “What Is Hijab?” Muslim World 77: 151–63.

Stern, Gertrude. 1939. Marriage in Early Islam. London: Royal Asiatic Society.

Tillier, Mathieu. 2009. “Women before the Qadi under the Abbasids.” Islamic Law and Society 16: 280–301.

  1. 53 (Najm): 50 definition of the Time of Ignorance. And that it is He Who destroyed the (powerful) ancient ’Ad (people).

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    Karen Bauer


    Response to Ruth Roded

    In this piece, Ruth Roded has taken one of the findings of my thesis and book, which is that social mores influence Qur’anic interpretation, and used it to illustrate a point that the exegetes’ understanding of “wa-qarna fī buyūtikunna (and remain in your dwellings)” (Q. 33.33) is based on social mores of the society in which the interpreters lived. In the Qur’an, the phrase is addressed to the Prophet’s wives, but later interpreters used it as a proof for rulings that wives should not leave their houses without their husbands’ permission.

    In her essay, Ruth Roded speaks of the social class of the women who are the subjects of this scholarly writing. Social class is a neglected aspect of the study of tafsīr: we must also pay attention to the social class of the scholars writing within this genre. The scholars were of a literate social class, and they were presumably writing for their own class. We may note that in al-Qurṭubī’s interpretation of Q. 4:34, he recommends not beating a nobly born woman but says it is fine to beat a slave. This presumes not only that his audience might be marrying nobly born women, but also that they have enough wealth to own slaves.

    I enjoyed the way that Roded drew on the plethora of historical accounts which show that seclusion was a signal of social status for nobly born or higher-status women in the ʿAbbāsid milieu. She notes that even the earliest reliably datable interpreter, Muqātil, died in the ʿAbbāsid era, which started seventeen years before his death. Thus, in order to understand the way that the social milieu affected the interpreters who shaped the tafsīr tradition, we should be doing much more to understand the ʿAbbāsid milieu. Yet even with today’s historical knowledge, it is hard to know how women themselves perceived these practices. Furthermore, in the absence of concrete historical sources, it is difficult to know when such practices began, and whether the Qur’anic verses, as well, referred to a practice of seclusion that indicated a higher social status. In short, though Abbasid interpretations reflected their own social milieu, they might not be entirely incorrect about the meaning of the Qur’an to its original audience. Whether that holds true for today is another story.