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  • Feminist Edges of Muslim Feminist Readings of Qurʾanic Verses
  • YaSiin Rahmaan (bio)

Muslim feminist readings of Qurʾanic verses, by Riffat Hassan, amina wadud, Asma Barlas, Azizah al-Hibri, and others have provided important insights and alternative readings for many Muslims who seek gender equitable understandings of the Qurʾan and Islam. However, their limited modernist methodology and framework in effect instrumentalizes the central Muslim text albeit for the justifiable purpose of countering the misogynist and oppressive uses to which the text had been and is being subjected. Moreover their vision of divine justice and compassion, which does not extend to as many sentient [End Page 142] beings as possible and especially not to persons of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations, seriously limits a reader’s expectations as to the purview of divine justice. The doubts their limited methodology and vision have generated has led some Muslim feminists like Aysha Hidayatullah and Kecia Ali to ask whether it is realistic to expect the Qurʾan to deliver a thoroughly feminist justice or to guide women seekers to the Divine. The imprecision and overgeneralization evident in American Muslim feminist scholarship on the Qurʾan maybe attributed to an environment not conducive to deep reflection and meticulous scholarship, given the increasingly Islamophobic gaze of the non-Muslim majority, which also drives an interest in any title including the word Qurʾan or Islam in it and provides a desperately needed space for Muslim feminist readings of the Qurʾan.

The conclusion that the Qurʾan is an incurably patriarchal text that cannot be expected to deliver gender justice is premature and based on a superficial and limited engagement with it. What is presented as feminist edges of the Qurʾan ought more appropriately be termed the feminist edges of the feminist readings of Qurʾanic verses. Moreover, any fear that feminist critical readings may never gain acceptance and authority among Muslims is unwarranted, given that Muslim readers of the publications by the aforementioned generation of American feminists identify with a variety of gender identities. Muslim feminist scholars whose life’s work is the Qurʾan, who have its text memorized, who have the critical language and philological abilities, who spend most of the day, most days with the text, who embrace and embody the text in prayer and fasting and who are not shy of asking “the unspeakable” questions, of giving due consideration to all serious studies of the Qurʾan, secular and theological, textual and literary, historical and critical—their readings will have authority and a permanent place in the Muslim tradition of Qurʾanic studies, which respects serious scholarship. While I expect my colleagues in this roundtable to address more specific issues raised in Barlas’s article, I shall devote the rest of this piece to pointing out the contours of a vision, practice, and methodologies that Muslim feminist readings of the Qurʾan might grow into.

The Qurʾan continues to hold out the possibility of a living and transformative relationship with the Divine, mediated and facilitated by an audition, a recitation (Qurʾan), and a writing (Kitab) that is echoed in and inscribed over one’s entire existence and that breaks open the shell of the heart to usher a person of faith into realms of cascading peace—one of the innumerable manifestations of divine compassion. This, the source of the Qurʾan’s sacred authority, is what sustains a life devoted to its study. A few verses, even one verse, recited and heard hundreds of thousands of times, might become the key to this transformative experience. The fact that such an experience is entirely subjective does not distract from its absolute centrality in the life of persons of faith, including those who strive for gender-equitable readings of the Qurʾan. Disciplines for seeking [End Page 143] such a transformative relationship with the Divine through the mediation of the Qurʾan are available to persons of all gender identities and sexual orientations throughout Muslim cultures.

Compassion is the core of the Divine and of the Qurʾan, and justice is the minimum degree of compassion, therefore, compassion must be the primary interpretive strategy of faith...