How to Read the Qur’an: Hermeneutical Strategies

According to Barlas, the task of interpretation is open to all. Indeed, the Qur’an mandates each and every Muslim, irrespective of gender affiliation or scholarly expertise, to read and reflect upon its words. For just as Muhammad—an unlettered prophet—was commanded to ‘Read!’ (Q. 96:1-5) so, too, are all believers ‘equal inheritors of his legacy of reading.’[1] Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Islamic scholars are men, such stark gender asymmetry in religious learning has no scriptural basis, as the Qur’an does not ascribe to males ‘any sort of epistemic privilege’.[2] In fact, Barlas adds, the text launches a scathing critique of religious officials who, blinded by greed, have misled their people (Q. 9:31, 9:34).[3] Muslims, therefore, have to rely upon their own ‘aql (insight and intelligence), rather than on a sanctified class of interpreters, in making sense of the Qur’an. Mastery of classical Arabic, moreover, is unnecessary to qualify a believer to interpret scripture. Though the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic, she argues, this language is not endowed with any type of sacred status, for God’s choice of Arabic was a purely practical one, seeking to communicate clearly to the seventh-century Arabs by using their own tongue.[4] It is worthwhile noting here that Barlas herself does not know Arabic—which is unsurprising given her educational background in politics, journalism, and English literature—and developed her understanding of the Qur’an through the study of English translations, particularly those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Muhammad

Dawud, and Muhammad Asad.[5] In her Qur’anic commentary, she relies almost entirely upon Ali’s translation. So translations, notwithstanding their inability to capture the complexity, the richness of the Word in its totality, are a completely legitimate means with which to engage scripture. For not only does the Qur’an not sanctify Arabic, but it never suggests that it is ‘the only language in which we can understand revelation’.[6] In fact, to claim that the translated Qur’an is not really the Qur’an is theologically unsound, Barlas maintains, because this claim links the ontological status of God’s Speech with humankind—specifically, with the socially constructed language of Arabic—rather than with God.[7] Barlas, as the Islamic scholar Juliane Hammer has observed, thus stands apart from Wadud, for although Wadud also rejects the sacredness of Arabic, she is schooled in classical Arabic and draws upon these linguistic skills extensively when interpreting the text.[8] Barlas’ lack of knowledge in Arabic also distinguishes her from Esack and Engineer, who received training in classical Arabic.

If the task of interpretation is the vocation of all Muslims, how exactly ought the Qur’an to be read? A hermeneutical commitment to scriptural unity—or reading the text in a thoroughly holistic manner—is a major interpretive strategy that Barlas employs. Paralleling Wadud, she argues that the Qur’an cannot be approached (as it often is) in a selective, piecemeal fashion but rather, treating the text as an interconnected and organic whole, must be read intratex- tually.[9] That is, any passage within the text ought to be approached as just that—a passage within the text—and, thus, must be interpreted in light of this wider text. An underlying problem with mainstream interpretations of scripture, Barlas writes, is that they fixate on a few scattered verses, even words, especially when making claims of male superiority over women.[10] As discussed in the previous chapter, this was a key criticism that Rahman levelled against traditional exegesis, which provided a verse-by-verse, cover-to-cover commentary. Such ‘atomistic’ readings, Rahman argued, rendered the interpreter blind to the text’s larger worldview.47 And it is precisely this worldview that enables the exegete to discern the Qur’an’s general principles from its particulars,48 the former applicable to all times and places and the latter historically bound. Furthermore, Barlas locates this reading strategy within scripture itself, which castigates those who ‘have made the Qur’an into shreds’ (Q. 15:91)—a charge, incidentally, also made against the ancient Israelites, who reduced their scripture ‘into separate sheets for show’, hiding the bulk of its contents (Q. 6:91)— while praising those who proclaim: ‘We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord’ (Q. 3:7).49 But the Qur’an is not the only source that she cites in making a case for holistic readings. At various places in her exegesis Barlas points to the hermeneutical writings of the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (d. 2005).50 According to Ricoeur, a text is by its very nature interconnected, exhibiting a worldview greater than the sum of its constituent parts:

a text has to be construed because it is not a mere sequence of sentences, all on equal footing and separately understandable. A text is a whole, a totality... This intention [of the text] is something other than the sum of the individual meanings of the individual sentences. A text is more than a linear succession of sentences. It is a cumulative, holistic process.51

By utilizing the interpretive insights of Ricoeur, Barlas’ approach to the Qur’an reflects a broader trend in contemporary Islamic thought, particularly within European and North American universities, wherein Muslim intellectuals have drawn increasingly upon modern theories of hermeneutics and literary criticism.52 262-3. Here, Barlas gives the example of Q. 4:34, which will be quoted and discussed at length later in the chapter.

  • 47 Rahman, Islam and Modernity, 2-3. The exact word that Rahman uses is Weltanschauung, or a comprehensive view of the world and humankind’s relationship to it.
  • 48 Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 60.
  • 49 Barlas, ‘The Qur’an and Hermeneutics’, 24.
  • 50 Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 18, 35, 169.
  • 51 Paul Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation, ed. and trans. John B. Thompson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 211-12.
  • 52 Taji-Farouki, 14.

In addition to intratextuality, she unpacks the Qur’an’s extratex- tuality, or the place of the text in history. Scripture needs to be contextualized. Historical criticism—what Barlas calls reading behind the text—is a necessary interpretive strategy in any liberating commentary because although the Qur’an speaks to all times and places, it was revealed in a specific historical setting and, consequently, its language was shaped by this inescapable context. Reading behind the text, then, entails making ‘visible the historical contexts in which it was revealed and interpreted as a way of explaining its patriarchal exegesis.’[11] Like textual holism, the hermeneutical task of discerning timeless principles from historically bound particulars lies at the heart of her historical criticism.[12] Here, again, Barlas’ commentary bears remarkable resemblance to Rahman’s. As we have already discussed in this book, historical criticism was an integral component of Rahman’s double movement theory. For in order to extract ‘general moral-social objectives’ from the classical context, he argued, Muslims must undertake an exhaustive study of seventh- century Arabian society, including its culture, religion, politics, and economics.[13] Echoing Wadud,[14] Barlas laments that it is precisely the failure to use historical criticism as a tool of interpretation that Muslims, rather than historicizing the particular, have, instead, universalized the particular.[15] This problematic practice is, in large part, due to the tendency to idealize the world of the first Muslims. Indeed, this formative period, particularly the reign of the first four caliphs (r. 632-61)—referred to as the Rightly-Guided Caliphs (al-Khulafa’ al-Rashidun)—has been sacralized in mainstream Muslim memory as a ‘golden, paradigmatic age’,[16] and thus one that is to be emulated by later generations of believers. This canonization of the classical period, and, by extension, the commentaries that were composed in this time, constitutes a curious paradox for Barlas, as it ‘serves to draw

Muslims close to what is distant from us in real time and to distance us from that which, in real time, is close to us.’[17]

As this astute observation suggests, for Barlas the most important aspect of the Qur’an’s extratextuality is not a distant past but rather the immediate present. Like all the commentators considered in this book, her abiding interest is in the contemporary world, the lived reality of the interpreter. Reading behind the text, then, is necessary but insufficient for interpretation, as it must be paralleled by a concomitant commitment to ‘read in front of the text:’ that is, to recontextualize the Qur’an’s teachings in the here and now.[18] Yet again, we see Barlas’ deep intellectual debts to Rahman, and whom she explicitly cites,[19] for while the first move in Rahman’s double movement theory entailed a historical reading, the second sought to apply the Qur’an’s teachings to the present—a complex process that required a comprehensive study of the contemporary context.[20] Drawing upon an earlier insight of Wadud,[21] Barlas writes that in order ‘for divine disclosure to speak to us, we must also continue asking questions of it.’[22] Scripture, therefore, becomes meaningful only insofar as it can respond effectively to the needs of its reader. But since needs are not timeless but defined, and continuously redefined, by time and space, new readers rooted in new contexts must necessarily bring new questions to the text. To put it another way: so long as Muslims fail to raise such pertinent questions, the text will fail to answer them. Barlas’ emphasis on reading ‘in front’ of the Qur’an is arguably the most subversive strategy in her exegetical toolbox, as it holds the greatest potential to fundamentally alter received understandings of Islam. As she puts it:

The Qur’an tells us that everything will perish but the face of God (28:88, 55:26-7). Hence that is the only unchangeable in Islamic thought and practice—all else is changeable and will pass, whether we will it to or not. This certainty should free us from a ‘fear of freedom’ and allow us to embrace a universe of unthought possibilities.[23]

In addition to opening up infinite hermeneutical horizons, reading in light of the present is also unsettling because it makes visible the politics of interpretation, showing that a dominant reading is deemed authentic, even natural, not because it represents Truth, but rather because its exegesis has been tailored to the needs of a privileged few, thereby answering certain questions and not others.

It is on this issue of asking new questions of the text that the first key paradigm emerges in Barlas’ exegesis: namely, that of Umm Salama (d. 680), a wife of Prophet Muhammad. As discussed in the introductory chapter, the Qur’an was not revealed at one go, but came down in stages over a period of twenty-three years (c. 610-32), addressing various issues and problems that arose within the burgeoning Muslim community. Reflecting on the Qur’an, which was still in the process of being revealed, Umm Salama confronted her husband, stating: ‘O Prophet of God, I see that God mentions men but omits women.’[24] It was at this point that the following verse—Q. 33:35—was revealed:

Surely, men and women who have submitted themselves to God, men and women who are believers, men and women who are obedient, men and women who are true to their word, men and women who are patient in adversity, men and women who are modest, men and women who give charity, men and women who observe fasting, men and women who guard their private parts, and men and women who remember God unceasingly, for them God has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.

It is difficult to overstate the centrality of this verse in Barlas’ hermeneutic. Indeed, the very title of her Commentary—‘Believing Women’ in Islam—is a tribute to this profound passage. That God responded to, rather than ignored, Umm Salama’s grievances with the text represents, for Barlas, a crucial moment in ‘divine pedagogy’, demonstrating to subsequent generations of Muslims the necessity of questioning, of interrogating the Qur’an as a mode of reading.[25] Approaching the text in such an engaged manner is especially important for women because they have been historically denied the right to ask questions, reflecting their own experiences and subjectivities, and, as a result, the Qur’an ‘appears to remain silent’ on gender issues.[26] But just as scripture spoke to the anxiety of Umm Salama 1,400 years ago so, too, will it speak to the needs of believing women today. That Umm Salama had the space to interrogate the Qur’an so bluntly, moreover, suggests that while Islamic knowledge production has become a male-dominated enterprise, this was not always the case. As the historian Leila Ahmed has shown, in the Prophet’s time women participated actively in religious and political life, openly voicing their opinions with the expectation of being heard.[27] The frankness of Umm Salama, therefore, was not the exception but the norm.

Though Barlas is alone, among the four exegetes examined in this book, in focussing on Umm Salama and her spirit of enquiry as a hermeneutical model of reading the Qur’an, this paradigm shares similarities with Esack’s and Wadud’s approaches. As discussed in Chapter2, Esack underscored the dialectical nature of Qur’anic revelation—or what he referred to as the ‘principle of progressive revelation’—reflecting a deity who ‘manifests His will in terms of the circumstances of His people, who speaks to them in terms of their reality and whose word is shaped by those realities.’[28] While Esack did not make explicit reference to Umm Salama when discussing this principle, her critical reflection on the Qur’an is perhaps the most eloquent example of such revelatory dialectics. Barlas’ usage of Umm Salama as paradigm also shares parallels with Wadud’s hermeneutic, which, as discussed earlier, drew deep inspiration from Hagar, who embodied, for Wadud, the plight of the abandoned single mother.71 Central to women’s gender egalitarian readings of the Qur’an, then, has been the rediscovery, the reclaiming of earlier believing women, whether in the time of Muhammad or the preceding prophets, as models of faith.

At the same time as Barlas calls for interpreting the Qur’an in the here and now, highlighting the multitude of meanings that can emerge from such a contextual reading, she cautions that not all readings are equally legitimate. Citing Q. 7:145 and 39:18—the latter adorning the front-cover of her Commentary—she points out that the Qur’an itself acknowledges that not all interpretations may be appropriate, instructing the faithful to seek out ‘the best’ meanings.[29] The verses read:

And We wrote down on the Tablets admonitions and clear explanations of all things for Moses, and We said, ‘Hold fast to them, and bid your people to hold on to what is best [ahsaniha] in them.’ (Q. 7:145)

Those who listen to the Word and follow the best [ahsanahu] in it, they are the ones whom God has guided, and it is they who possess intellect. (Q. 39:18)

When making a case for a particular hermeneutical strategy, whether it is textual unity, interpretation for the present, or arriving at the best meanings, Barlas thus consistently positions herself within the text, foregrounding the scriptural basis of her approach. As such, her exegesis seeks to unearth (to use her own wording) the Qur’an’s ‘auto-hermeneutics’,[30] or the ways in which the text calls for its own interpretation. We will revisit this reading strategy in the concluding chapter of this book. While she argues that the task of the engaged commentator is to arrive at the best meanings, it is important to note that she, unlike Wadud, does not subscribe to notions of objectivity. In fact, as discussed in the previous chapter, this was a critique that Barlas levelled against Wadud, who problematically distinguished between exegesis and reading, claiming that the former was an objective undertaking based on scientific methods while the latter was subjective, conditioned by the biases of the reader.[31] Because all textual engagement is inescapably subjective, writes Barlas, it is up to the reader to decide which interpretation is the most suitable—‘the best’—given her/his specific circumstances.[29] It is this project of discernment, of figuring out which understandings of Islam can speak forcefully to the world today—and only today; the realities of the future may be radically different—that she refers to as ijtihad,[33] traditionally defined as a legal convention in the shari‘a, wherein the jurist exercises independent judgement. Though Barlas derives this hermeneutical strategy from scripture, it is worthwhile noting that she has also been influenced by Ricoeur who, as discussed, shaped her stance on textual unity. According to Ricoeur, a ‘text is a limited field of constructions’ and, thus, while all texts are open to interpretation, some interpretations are ‘more probable’ than others.77 Readings, then, need to be compared in order to determine which are the most persuasive. And it is social justice, argues Barlas, that ought to act as the chief criterion in evaluating competing interpretations. The best readings are those that work towards securing justice for God’s creation.[34] But how does she substantiate, scripturally, her positioning of social justice as the framework, the point of departure for arriving at the best meanings? It is here that the chapter moves to the next section, which unpacks the theology of justice that lies at the core of her commentary.

  • [1] Asma Barlas, ‘The Qur’an and Hermeneutics: Reading the Qur’an’s Oppositionto Patriarchy’, Journal ofQur’anic Studies 3 (2001): 33.
  • [2] Barlas, Islam, Muslims, and the US, 130.
  • [3] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 121. Barlas comments that while these versesexplicitly refer to Christian and Jewish priests, there is a larger lesson to be learnthere—specifically, the historic nexus between priesthood and corruption—suggestingthat it is precisely for this reason that the Qur’an refused to sanction a priestly class.
  • [4] Ibid, 17.
  • [5] Barlas Interview, 2009. See Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary, 2nd US edition (New York: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, 1988);N.J. Dawood, The Koran, 7th revised edition (London: Penguin Books, 2000); andAsad, The Message of the Qur’an.
  • [6] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 17.
  • [7] Asma Barlas, ‘Still Quarrelling over the Qur’an: Five Interventions’, InternationalInstitute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) Review 20 (Autumn 2007): 32.
  • [8] Hammer, 452.
  • [9] Barlas, ‘Amina Wadud’s Hermeneutics of the Qur’an’, 109.
  • [10] Asma Barlas, ‘Women’s Readings of the Qur’an’, in The Cambridge Companionto the Qur’an, ed. Jane D. McAuliffe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006),
  • [11] Barlas, ‘Women’s Readings of the Qur’an’, 268.
  • [12] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 60.
  • [13] Rahman, Islam and Modernity, 6.
  • [14] Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, xii-xiii.
  • [15] Asma Barlas, ‘“Holding Fast by the Best in the Precepts”: the Qur’an andMethod’, in New Directions in Islamic Thought: Exploring Reform and Traditioneds. Kari Vogt etal. (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008), 18.
  • [16] Asma Afsaruddin, The First Muslims: History and Memory (Oxford: Oneworld,2008), 54.
  • [17] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 24. 2 Ibid, 23.
  • [18] 61 Ibid. 4 Rahman, Islam and Modernity, 7.
  • [19] 63 Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, xx-xxi.
  • [20] 64 Barlas, ‘Women’s Readings of the Qur’an’, 256.
  • [21] 65 Barlas, ‘Holding Fast by the Best in the Precepts’, 22. Barlas’ usage of the phrase‘fear of freedom’ is taken from the Brazilian educational theorist, Paulo Freire (d.
  • [22] 1997). See Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos
  • [23] (London: Penguin Books, 1996).
  • [24] Esack, The Qur’an: A User’s Guide, 53.
  • [25] Barlas, ‘Holding Fast by the Best in the Precepts’, 21. Barlas credits her husband,Ulises Ali Mejias, with this specific phrasing.
  • [26] Ibid. 2 Ahmed, 72.
  • [27] 70 Esack, Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism, 60.
  • [28] 71 Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 144.
  • [29] Barlas, ‘Holding Fast by the Best in the Precepts’, 20.
  • [30] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 205.
  • [31] Barlas, ‘Amina Wadud’s Hermeneutics of the Qur’an’, 118.
  • [32] Barlas, ‘Holding Fast by the Best in the Precepts’, 20.
  • [33] Barlas, ‘Reviving Islamic Universalism’, 251.
  • [34] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 16.
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