Gender and Muslim Constructions of Exegetical Authority

A Rereading of the Classical Genre of Qur'an Commentary

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Aisha Geissinger
Islamic History and Civilization
  • Boston, MA: 
    , June
     319 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Aisha Geissinger’s Gender and Muslim Constructions of Exegetical Authority: A Rereading of the Classical Genre of Qur'an Commentary is a useful addition to existing literature on women and Islamic studies. It supplements the canon developed by Amina Wadud, Fatima Mernissi, and Leila Ahmed, among others. But whereas these writers make contributions in the areas of feminist reinterpretation of scripture and Muslim women’s history, Geissinger augments the canon in terms of tafsir, or Qur’anic exegesis, and its gendered aspects. Geissinger is not interested in reinterpretation, nor is she invested in clarifying history. Instead, in this work Geissinger is concerned with how exegetes from the formative and medieval periods interpreted the Qur’an, what they saw as historically and theologically accurate, and most importantly, how their hermeneutical methods and decisions were specifically gendered.

Geissinger addresses these questions by looking at how interpretive authority is (re)constructed and negotiated in Qur’anic exegesis and how such processes of (re)construction and negotiation are never independent of (re)constructions and negotiations of gender. Working from the premise propagated by Judith Butler and other gender theorists that gender is neither static nor innate but instead in need of constant repetition and revision, Geissinger embarks on her study of classical tafsir in order to show the ways gender is worked out through texts and how it is forged within the very processes of interpreting scripture. On the flip side, Geissinger also looks at how these gendered processes of interpretation shape the nature of tafsir. She asks, “What does the lens of gender elucidate about tafsir and the evolution of the genre of tafsir?”

Looking at exegetical works from the second/eighth, third/ninth, and fourth/tenth centuries, Geissinger demonstrates that rather than being absent, exegetical materials attributed to women do indeed appear within tafsir. However, this literary presence does not mean such female figures were granted interpretive authority. Instead, such citations are more often in service to the construction of interpretive authority as emblematically masculine. For instance, Qur’anic exegesis was often spiritually and/or temporally distanced from women by male exegetes—either by exegetes elevating the Qur’an in its sanctity above other texts through its proverbial distance from female bodies (157), or by limiting women’s contributions to exegetical material solely to female Companions of the Prophet, or even less frequently, Successors of the Prophet (105), and thus locating women’s contributions only in the past.

A particular strength of this work is in how Geissinger demonstrates the paradoxical role that female figures occupy within tafsir from the periods she examines. While women sometimes function as vehicles for negotiating interpretive questions, interpretive authority is nonetheless forged as quintessentially masculine (64). Female figures often served as instruments in exegetical debates concerning hermeneutical approaches such that certain approaches were rejected through the literary rejection of certain female figures. In other words, interpretive authority was often constructed vis-à-vis the female weakness of rejected hermeneutical approaches (113-14). For example, as Geissinger highlights in chapter 4, reliance on or rejection of Aisha in third-/ninth- and fourth-/tenth-century tafsiroften amounted to an embrace or rejection of hadith as a methodology. Moreover, citing traditions attributed to Aisha helped to establish an exegete’s strategy as Sunni or proto-Sunni, Geissinger explains, as we can see with the tafsir chapter in the Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī (178). 

Perhaps the strongest example of the paradoxical role inhabited by female figures in Qur’anic exegesis can be seen in chapter 5, in which Geissinger explores the literary function of the abode of the wives in medieval tafsir. The abode of the wives was used in these works as an ideal space, an imagined space where exegetical issues and debates could be negotiated and resolved, often on the backs of the women who occupied this space in real life. The abode of the wives is also a paradoxical space. It is the prototypical exemplar of gendered seclusion and thus of proper social boundaries. It is the guarantee of piety. Yet in order to serve this function in tafsir, this ideal space is also textually exposed and hyper-visible to the (male) exegetical gaze. 

Geissinger shows that such exegetical choices in tafsir from the formative and medieval periods were often the result of exegetes serving the needs of their contemporary politics and social imaginations. In other words, exegetes not only engaged in negotiations and (re)constructions of gender, but they also negotiated and (re)constructed images of the sacred past in order to bolster images of a proper present, of proper social relations and communal boundaries they hoped to encourage in their own time. This was particularly important for exegetes who felt the need for tafsir to speak to their imperial contexts, in which what they saw as the proper way of life was coming in contact with religious Others from newly conquered lands. In such cases, women’s bodies were deployed as exemplars for proper social order, not only within the Muslim community, but more importantly, for purposes of drawing boundaries between the Muslim community and these new religious Others (128).

The gendered decisions employed within tafsir from these periods were part of the context in which elite male exegetes were also constructing and negotiating an exegetical gaze. How exegetes from the formative and medieval era constructed gender informed how they understood and negotiated interpretive authority (63). Each chapter of this book catalogs not just the exegetical materials attributed to women and the extent to which interpretive authority was granted to women, but also how such interpretive authority was gendered (male) and how the construction of (gendered) notions of interpretive authority shaped tafsir as a genre (275-76). Geissinger shows that while women were by no means granted full interpretive authority by elite male exegetes of this time, to say that they were excluded from tafsir is an oversimplification that elides the complex and often circuitous ways that women have influence over the development of institutionalized forms of religion.

It is this nuance that makes this book worthwhile for anyone interested in women’s studies in Islam. Not only does Geissinger show the ways that gender is constructed and negotiated through processes of exegesis, but she also shows how gender in turn shaped the evolution of tafsir, what labor gendered texts performed on the development of tafsir as a genre. It is this conversation between gender and tafsir, this bringing gender to bear on the study of classical Qur’anic commentary, that gives this book its broad appeal.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kirsten Boles is Adjunct Professor of Religion at the University of Redlands and a doctoral student in Women's Studies in Religion at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Aisha Geissinger is an Assistant Professor at Carleton University (Canada). Geissinger’s research is located at the intersection of the study of the Qurʾān and its exegesis, the Ḥadīth literature, and gender.



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