Saying No to (the Literal Letter of) the Text

But unlike Engineer, Wadud’s liberationist exegesis is not an apologetic one, acknowledging certain problems with the literal wordings of the text. As discussed in the previous chapter, Engineer simplistic- ally portrays the Qur’an as a ‘charter of rights for women’,146 upholding complete gender parity. Indeed, he even goes so far as to claim that the Qur’an is ‘the first revealed book that accords equal rights to women.’147 While Wadud interprets the text through the eyes of justice, she is wary of falling into this apologetic trap. Her reading of Q. 4:34—the first part of which was discussed in the preceding section—is an illustrative example of her refusal to explain away overtly problematic passages. The entire verse reads:

Men are the guardians of women, because of the advantage God has granted some of them over others and by virtue of their spending out of their wealth.

So righteous women are obedient,[1] safeguarding what is unseen of what God has enjoined them to guard. As for those wives whose misconduct you fear, (first) advise them, and (if ineffective) keep away from them in the bed, and (as a last resort) beat them. Then if they obey you, do not seek any course (of action) against them. Indeed, God is all-Exalted, all-Great.

In line with her hermeneutical emphasis on historical contextualiza- tion, Wadud argues that this verse, referring to beating as a last resort, ought to be understood as a ‘severe restriction’ on violence against women, as the biographies of the Companions and the pre-existing custom of female infanticide—a practice severely condemned in the Qur’an—suggest that violence against women was widespread in seventh-century Arabia.[2] This reading draws upon Wadud’s belief in ‘Qur’anic trajectories’, or the idea that the text set into motion a ‘radical momentum towards continual reforms in gender relations’, challenging patriarchy to the extent that it could within the restricted circumstances of seventh-century Arabian society.[3] If this line of trajectory is faithfully followed, then, a restriction of an oppressive act in that time could cogently be read as a prohibition of that very act in our time. But despite forwarding this initial argument in Qur’an and Woman—that violence against women is presented as a last resort— Wadud retains deep reservations about this verse:

There is no getting around this one, even though I have tried through different methods for two decades. I simply do not and cannot condone permission for a man to ‘scourge’ or apply any kind of strike to a woman... This leads me to clarify how I have finally come to say ‘no’ outright to the literal implementation of this passage.[4]

In other words, just as approaches to the family have dramatically changed since the time of the first Muslims so, too, have our understandings of social justice and sexual ethics, especially in terms of acknowledging the evils of domestic abuse.[5] Wadud’s exegesis is thus closer to that of Esack who, as was shown in the second chapter, is critical of apologia, pointing out that men are the primary audience of the Qur’an.[6] Wadud also acknowledges the text’s androcentrism. For instance, referring to Q. 2:223—‘Your women are a tillage (harth) for you, so come to your tillage whenever you like’—she concedes that the Qur’an speaks to male desire, affirming the sexuality of men while treating women’s sexuality as passive.[7] Paralleling Esack’s emphasis on the egalitarian spirit of the Qur’an over its literal wording,[8] Wadud grapples with passages like Q. 4:34 by prioritizing the text’s principles over its particulars, arguing that a literal reading of this verse violates wider Qur’anic commitments to ‘justice’ and ‘human dignity’—the understandings of which have radically changed since late antiquity.[9] In so doing, she is able to say ‘no’ to the contextually bound letter of the Qur’an while, at the same time, upholding its underlying spirit.

  • [1] Since my specific interest here is in Wadud’s treatment of the last part ofQ. 4:34, I have provided a discussion of how she and Barlas approach women’sobedience in Q. 4:34 in the next chapter.
  • [2] Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 76.
  • [3] Wadud, ‘Qur’an, Gender and Interpretive Possibilities’, 334.
  • [4] Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 200.
  • [5] Ibid, 203. For an exhaustive study of the interpretive history of Q. 4:34,encompassing both the classical and contemporary periods, see Ayesha S. Chaudry,Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition: Ethics, Law and the Muslim Discourse onGender (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  • [6] Esack, ‘Islam and Gender Justice’, 195.
  • [7] Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 193.
  • [8] Esack, ‘Islam and Gender Justice’, 203.
  • [9] Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 203. 157 Abugideiri, 89.
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