Gender Hierarchy in the Qur'an

Medieval Interpretations, Modern Responses

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Karen Bauer
Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , September
     324 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Karen Bauer’s Gender Hierarchy in the Qur’ān: Medieval Interpretations, Modern Responses presents a significant contribution to the fields of Qur’anic and Islamic Studies, and the existing literature in those fields on issues of gender hierarchy in the Qur’an as well as in the Islamic tradition more broadly. This work harnesses an impressive breadth of sources, including a wide range of commentaries and other “traditional” textual sources along with modern works and interviews with religious scholars. In addition, it avoids particularly well the potential pitfall of assuming modern understandings of notions of equality, hierarchy, and justice—which could lead particularly to reading classical sources through a modern lens rather than considering them within their own more immediate contexts—and takes a rigorous approach in uncovering the understandings of these conceptual categories within classical and modern contexts.

The book is organized into three large sections, each focusing on a verse or verses related to a theme in the Qur’an: testimony (Q. 2:282), creation (Q. 4:1), and marriage (Q. 2:228 and 4:34). Each of these larger sections consists of two chapters, one wherein Bauer considers the verse as understood within medieval commentaries—and other textual points of reference as appropriate, such as parallel biblical traditions in the case of Q. 4:1—and one that considers the lives of the verses through the perspectives of modern scholars. Through close examination of the lives of these verses in classical commentaries, modern commentaries, and the words of modern scholars (representing a wide variety of points of view), Bauer uses the theme of gender hierarchy as the lens through which she examines the dynamic history of Qur’anic interpretation, and the broader production of religious knowledge as related to the Qur’an and other foundational sources in the Islamic tradition.

As Bauer notes in the introduction, this research began with the question of whether modern feminist notions of gender egalitarianism were present in any of the medieval interpretations of gender hierarchy, as revealed in classical Islamic sources (9). As she points out on many occasions, however, in order to consider the issues of gender hierarchy via interpretation of the verses in question in this work, one quickly runs up against questions of generic conventions—most specifically, the limitations of the traditional genre of Qur’anic commentary, tafsīr al-qur’ān, in considering the possible range of interpretations of a particular Qur’anic verse. While the work as a whole makes an argument about the issue of gender hierarchy within the Qur’an and its interpretation, it also makes a broader claim about “the way that generic conventions shape a discourse” (10). This point about the limitations of the genre of tafsīr leads directly into Bauer’s methodological approach in the work. As she maintains, works of tafsīr do not necessarily contain the whole interpretive life of Qur’anic verses. For example, in considering interpretation of Q. 4:34 in the classical period, Bauer expands her textual investigation to include marriage contracts (175-178) and books of sermons (196-198), thereby revealing a field of esoteric interpretations of the verse that would otherwise be overlooked through a reading of tafsīr alone (197-198). And in investigating modern interpretations of the verses in question, Bauer includes not only works of traditional scholars outside of the tafsīr genre, but interviews those scholars, and other religious authorities as well. Bauer notes that she completed her interviews on trips to Syria in 2004 and 2005, and to Iran in 2011, and at times she mentions later follow-ups with subjects over email. This combined methodological approach, wherein textual analysis is supplemented with interviews, yields the significant result of not only demonstrating the ways in which the genre of tafsīr may be seen as limited, but also provides a much richer perspective on the dynamic development of tradition and the role of Qur’anic interpretation—outside of the tafsīr genre—in both the medieval and modern periods.

In considering both medieval and modern interpretations of the Qur’anic verses in question, Bauer seeks to situate each interpretation as thoroughly as possible into the author’s intellectual context. The interpreters considered in the work present a diverse body of perspectives, ranging of course, across history but also doctrinal diversity—including a range of legal and doctrinal perspectives including both Sunnī and Shī`ī—and diversity of interpretive stances ranging from what Bauer terms “conservative” to “reformist.” For explanation of what is meant by “conservative” and “reformist” in this work, see pages 7-8 and 18-19. In short, Bauer employs these as alternatives to the problematic—in her view, with which I would agree—use of “traditionalist” and “modernist,” whereby the most conservative points of view are assumed to have the most authentic claim to tradition. In considering a rich field of interpretive perspectives in this way, Bauer is able to highlight the dynamic and often non-linear way in which Qur’anic interpretation develops, which she describes as an underlying “diachronic element” to her work (11).

Although the work is impressive in its critical appraisal of the sources and interrogating of assumptions, it is perhaps most innovative in terms of the methodological approach, the implications underpinning such an approach, and as Bauer notes on numerous occasions, the consequences for understanding the genre of tafsīr. In sum, Gender Hierarchy in the Qur’ān is an intriguing and significant work in a number of ways. While it is most directly of interest to the specialist of the Qur’an and those in the fields of Qur’anic and Islamic Studies, it may be of interest to specialists in Religious Studies, especially those with interests in gender hierarchy and/or the intersection of lived tradition, scriptural foundations, and scriptural interpretation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lauren Osborne is assistant professor of religion at Whitman College.

Date of Review: 
April 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Karen Bauer is a Research Associate in Qur'ānic Studies at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. Her publications include articles on the Qur'ān, the genre of tafsīr and gender, as well as an edited volume entitled Aims, Methods and Contexts of Qur'anic Exegesis (2nd/8th–9th/15th Centuries) (2014).




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