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  • Female Personalities in the Qur͗an and Sunna: Examining the Major Sources of Imami Shi͑i Islam by Rawand Osman
  • Asma Sayeed
Female Personalities in the Qur͗an and Sunna: Examining the Major Sources of Imami Shi͑i Islam, by Rawand Osman, 2015. (Routledge Persian and Shi͑i Studies.) New York: Routledge, x + 200 pp., £90.00, $145.00. isbn: 978-0-415-83938-9 (hbk).

Rawand Osman’s Female Personalities in the Qur͗an and Sunna engages anew with the portrayal of women in the Muslim scriptural tradition. With a focus on Shi͑i sources, Osman’s contribution elaborates on a line of inquiry taken up by scholars such as Barbara Stowasser in Women in the Qur͗an, Traditions, and Interpretation (1996). Namely, how does our understanding of Muslim views on women change when we disaggregate the Qur͗an from exegesis and the hadith? While Osman does not engage with the range of sources that Stowasser did nor does she attempt to historicize the exegetical material, she does extend the purview to include a consideration of Khadījah, the first wife of Prophet Muḥammad, Fāṭimah, his daughter, and Zaynab, his grand-daughter, whose legacies are central to Shi͑i articulations of women’s roles. Osman’s analysis rests on four hermeneutical principles drawn from traditional Islamic exegesis. First, the Qur͗an can be used to interpret itself. That is, verses should be read contextually in terms of the broader message of the Qur͗an as well as other related verses. Second, the sunna (recorded Prophetic practices) provides context for the Qur͗an; third, hadith (which in the Shi͑i context refers to reports attributed to the Prophet and the Imams) can be used to interpret the Qur͗an; and fourth, hadith (especially doubtful ones) are to be judged against the Qur͗an and sunna. These principles are applied in successive chapters to individual women mentioned in the Qur͗an. The sections dealing with women of the Prophet’s family who are not mentioned in the Qur͗an draw primarily on Shi͑i hadith literature to explicate their roles in early Islamic history.

The organization of the work is generally chronological. The first chapter, ‘Women in creation’, deals with the circumstances of Eve’s [End Page 100] creation and its implications for the ontological and the ethical status of women. Osman uses the first verse of Surat al-Nisā͗ to frame her discussion of broader issues such as ‘the creation of human duality in the Qur͗an and exegesis’, interpretations of the creation of humankind from one soul, and the symbolism of the wombs (arḥām) as mentioned in this verse. After a syntactical and grammatical analysis of key parts of the first verse, Osman presents selections from exegetical and tradition literature and engages with the question of whether Eve was created from Adam’s rib and the consequences of such a creation for the status of women. Her presentation of the discourse on the main topics of the verse and related exegetical literature reviews share much of the same ground as earlier treatments of the issue (including that of Wadud in Qur͗an and Women (1992)). However, the analysis of the phrase ‘wa ittaqū Allāh alladhī tasā͗alun bihī wa al-arḥām’ (‘and fear/show reverence to God by whom you demand of one another and the wombs’) sheds new light on this abstruse and yet significant concept. The structure of this phrase leaves open the possibility that ‘wombs’ are to be shown fear/reverence as God is to be shown fear/reverence. This phrase is critical for her analysis of the place of the feminine in Islamic ideology about creation because ‘arḥām’ is an Arabic feminine term which signifies not only the literal womb, which shelters and nurtures each individual before his/her birth, but is also as a metaphor for the bonds of kinship and familial compassion. The reading of the verse which elevates wombs to a position where they are to be feared and/or revered therefore bears special significance for feminist discourse in the Muslim tradition. Osman cites a tradition from Ja͑far al-Ṣadiq (d. 765), the...