Qur'an of the Oppressed

Liberation Theology and Gender Justice in Islam

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Shadaab Rahemtulla
Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Shadaab Rahemtulla’s lucid and well-documented Qur’an of the Oppressed analyses the hermeneutical strategies employed by four modern, university-educated Muslim intellectuals—writing in English—to interpret the Qur’an, a seventh-century text, as a liberating text confronting the reality of oppression today. After an introduction primarily on methodology, a chapter is devoted to each of the four exegetes: “the South African Farid Esack (b. 1956), the Indian Asghar Ali Engineer (1939-2013), the African American Amina Wadud (b. 1952) and the Pakistani American Asma Barlas (b. 1950)” (2). These chapters offer a brief contextual background for each exegete, discuss their interpretive method, and end with a detailed exposition of their approach to the Qur’an in terms of liberation from racial, class, and gender injustice. Rahemtulla supplements his close reading of these works with information from in-depth interviews he conducted with each scholar. The conclusion then considers these works as part of the contemporary unfolding genre of thematic commentary on the Qur’an.

Rahemtulla uncovers a wide range of overlap or similarities between the works of these scholars, but also significant differences. They all argue for the primacy of the Qur’an over other Islamic sources such as hadiths and for viewing all readers—not just scholars—capable of directly engaging the scriptural text without the usual mediation of the accumulated exegetical tradition. The scholars emphasize the centrality of justice in the Qur’an and how the Qur’an engages its readers in the subjectivity of their present lived experiences, especially experiences of marginalization. Their expositions approach the Qur’an as an integrated whole as well as with an awareness that it emerged in a distant historical context very different from the contemporary world. And all four scholars see the Qur’an as presenting religious diversity as God-given.

Of the four scholars, Esack most explicitly fits a liberation theology model in his use of the paradigm of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt to privilege the perspective of the poor and oppressed. Engineer, likewise, privileges the downtrodden but by using the paradigm of the events at Karbala in which Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Husayn stood up to the despotic caliph Yazid. Wadud and Barlas focus more specifically on gender justice; both using the conceptual paradigm of tawhid—the absolute unity and uniqueness of God—to show how the Qur’an delegitimizes distinctions of worth based upon gender, and dissociates God and the prophets from patriarchal roles. While Engineer and Barlas tend to idealize the Qur’anic text, ignoring or interpreting away problematic passages, such as the infamous wife beating verse (Qur’an 4:34), Esack and Wadud recognize, and reject, Qur’anic texts with androcentric tendencies.

Rahemtulla is largely supportive and appreciative of the work of these scholars, but does not hold back from critique. He urges the development of a distinctly Muslim interpretive approach that gets out from under the shadow of implicitly Christian-centric notions of reading scripture for liberation—such as Esack’s reliance on the Exodus—favoring the tawhid paradigm of Wadud and Barlas. Similarly, Rahemtulla criticizes Engineer for his insistence on secularism, which in India is implicitly Hindu-normative. Wadud is critiqued for accommodating unequal economic distribution, and Rahemtulla faults all of them for their unsystematic and opportunistic use of occasional hadith citations, in contrast to their holistic approach to the Qur’an.

The pioneering work on Qur’anic interpretation of the Pakistani scholar Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988) looms large in the background of all four exegetes; namely the “double-movement” from analysis of the historical context of the first appearance of the text, extracting from it general or universal principles, to the application of those principles, to the new historical situation of the reader’s present—although this approach is also criticized for being elitist given its scholarly demands. Also cited is the ground-breaking work on gender by Riffat Hassan, Leila Ahmed, and Fatima Mernissi.

Qur’an of the Oppressed is based on Rahemtulla’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Oxford in 2013, as evidenced by the repetitive summaries in both the introductions and conclusions of his chapters. The actual engagement with the Qur’an is rather minimal in the first chapter on Esack but increases exponentially with subsequent chapters. Perhaps the biggest surprise—and disappointment—was the concluding chapter with its rather prosaic consideration of the contributions of these four scholars to the genre of thematic commentary on the Qur’an. It is not that there were no valuable insights in the conclusion—the investigation of how print culture ”massified” the production and consumption of religious knowledge in the Muslim world, for instance, is fascinating—but for a volume entitled Qur’an of the Oppressed, and dedicated to Malcolm X, this reader expected something more like a synthesis of the methods and perspectives of the four exegetes culminating in a clarion call for liberative readings of scripture for justice.

Nonetheless, this book is a useful exposition and analysis of an important strand of Qur’anic exegesis produced by modern Muslim scholars. It is graced with a comprehensive index, a useful glossary, a list of Qur’anic citations, and an excellent bibliography of primary and secondary sources. Rahemtulla is to be thanked for providing a compelling analysis, within a specific tradition, of the wider task of interpreting an ancient religious text so that it speaks to the present with a liberating timbre and power without falling into apologetics or idealistic essentialism. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Franz Volker Greifenhagen is professor of religious studies at Luther College in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shadaab Rahemtulla is lecturer in inter-faith studies and world religions at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. He received his doctorate in contemporary Islamic thought at the University of Oxford and was previously an assistant professor at the University of Jordan's School of International Studies.


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