Rebellious Wives, Neglectful Husbands
Controversies in Modern Qur'anic Commentaries
- ISBN: 9780197553305
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: May 2022
Hadia Mubarak's Rebellious Wives, Neglectful Husbands: Controversies in Modern Qur’anic Commentaries, presents a substantive and critical analysis of tafsir studies- a scholarly genre of Qur'anic interpretation-, that draws on pre-modern and modern scholars concerned with women and gender in Islam.
The book explores the intellectual history, development, aims, methods and construction of interpretive authority of the genre as well as the way it frames women's issues, while emphasizing that textual polysemy is an inherent feature of the Islamic exegetical tradition (5). Mubarak challenges the assumption that Tafsir studies is “consistently and monolithically patriarchal,” “decidedly misogynistic,” and lack "women's perspectives" (4).
Thereafter, the book examines the intersection of modernity and Sunni exegesis in greater detail. More specifically, three Sunni Qur'anic commentaries (Muhammad Abdu and Rashid Rida’s Tafsir al-Manar, Sayyid Qutb’s Fi Zilal al-Quran, and Ibn Ashur’s Al- Tahrir wa'l-Tanwir), all written in the 20th century, are explored thoroughly, with Mubarak paying particular attention to four intellectual orientations in modern Arab history: Islamic modernism, reformism-Salafism, Islamism and neo-traditionalism (20). The book then compares these modern interpretations with seven pre-modern commentaries from the 9th to 14th centuries, focusing on some specific Qur'anic verses on neglectful husbands (4:128), rebellious wives (4:34), polygyny (4:3), and marital hierarchy (2:228). For the past two decades, these verses have been at the center of heated debates on gender justice and Islam.
Interestingly, Mubarak argues that colonialists, Christian missionaries and Western feminists viewed Islam as the fatal obstacle to women's liberation, and then explores how indigenous Muslim responses to these forces influenced modern exegetical interpretations of the Qur'an. Importantly, she outlines this issue with reference to three broad debates: (1) to what extent do pre-modern and modern exegetes conform to egalitarian interpretations and depart from patriarchal assumptions?; (2) what are the external texts that shape exegetes' engagement with Quran?; and (3) how does the interpretive method of Qur’anic exegesis reshape new Sunni tafsirs in suggesting new meanings, rejecting previous ones, and modifying existing ones (3, 4)?
The book is divided into seven chapters. The first three chapters provide a detailed exposition of the intellectual trajectories of the four Qur'anic commentators as well as their distinct encounters with modernity against the backdrop of socio-political changes in Egypt and Tunisia. It situates them within the four intellectual orientations of modern Islamic thought which are linked with three Qur'anic commentaries. As the author stated, a question of how we use these classifications and labels is significant rather than a question of whether of using it or not. Mubarak argues that there is a logistical efficiency achieved by categorization, which offers an organizational structure by which we can group together similar ideas and thinkers from diverse regions and find out the significant patterns among them. By highlighting individual aspects over the ideological, acknowledging the intersectionality of their identities and placing them within a broader social context, this typification emerges (23).
The author contends that Ibn Ashur's exegesis is void of polemical tone, which was adopted by his modern counterparts. What makes him distinct is his employment of classical methods of philological and legal reasoning to yield new insights into the Qur'an (70, 71). For instance, Ibn Ashur critiques Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’s depiction of the marital dower (mahr) as an exchange for sexual rights over the wife. He endorses the idea that marriage contracts are not quantified, unlike financial transactions, and so the dower can only be understood as a gift (66). By untangling these nuanced arguments, Mubarak follows Talal Asad’s conception of tradition, which is discursive in a way that aims for the reconstruction of the inherited past. Mubarak’s most surprising insight in the third chapter is that using innovative methods does not offer new interpretations of Qur'anic verses. Even modern commentaries that challenge patriarchal assumptions in some cases nevertheless support misogynistic notions about women in other instances (72). For the author, the higher level of subjectivity present in commentaries demonstrates that those writing the commentaries existed in dialectical relationship with the society they aimed to address.
Chapters 4 to 7 address contested Qur'anic verses on gender issues. The fourth chapter, “Sexually Neglectful Husbands,” examines conflicting interpretations of the Qur'anic verse 4:128 which compares men's nushuz (sexual abandonment or disinterest) with women's nushuz. In this regard, Ibn Ashur varies from Rida, Abduh and Qutub. His interpretation of khul' (a procedure by which a woman initiates a divorce by returning the marriage dower) as a women's way out of a dysfunctional marriage serves as a corrective to his predecessors' perceived flaws. He defines nushuz (hatred of each other) for both men and women, rather than seeing things from the perspective of men only.
In light of the Quranic verse 4:34, concerning rebellious wives, the fifth chapter attempts to unravel the meanings of three critical terms: qawwamun (protectors/supporters), nashizath (rebellious) and wa'dribuhunna (hit them). Distinct from the polemical responses from others, Ibn Ashur refutes the ontological superiority of man/husband and proposes qiwama (authority) as men's functional role. Husband’s do not have the right to discipline their wives, which is reserved for the legal authorities. Chapters 6 and 7 explore diverse interpretive approaches to polygyny (Q. 4:3) and legal procedures following a man's pronouncement of divorce (Q. 2:228), respectively. With respect to polygyny, Muslim scholars find it to be a better alternative than monogamy in specific contexts, but the institution is limited and subject to conditions. In sum, the author concludes that critical engagement with the Qur’anic exegetical tradition is needed, highlighting new epistemic channels through which the Qur’an's broader ethical perspectives can be explored.
Mubarak's study is a welcome contribution to the emerging academic literature on the Quran and gender. Particularly, for any scholar or student interested in Islamic studies, the book will be a valuable resource for comprehending the Qur’anic exegetical tradition with great nuance and intricacy. Inspired by Barbara Stowasser's work on women and gender, the author insists on two central themes: that hermeneutics has a vital role in the sustainability of Islamic knowledge, and the boundaries of the Tafsir genre continue to be malleable in both the pre-modern or modern period.
Mohammed Salih is a PhD candidate at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU, India.Mohammed SalihDate Of Review:April 30, 2022