Women and Gender in the Qur'an

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Celene Ibrahim
  • Oxford: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     2020.
     232 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190063818.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Celene Ibrahim’s Women and Gender in the Qurʾan is a welcome and significant contribution to the growing scholarship on women and gender in Qurʾanic studies. Ibrahim’s work recovers the feminine perspective from the margins of extant exegetical discourses and centers the feminine subject in her analysis of the Qurʾan’s narratives, thereby offering a corrective to the general dearth of female voices and perspectives in the genre of exegetical literature. Ibrahim situates her work within the growing field of “Muslima theology” (Ibrahim 10), a conceptual framework that accentuates and builds upon the scholarly endeavors of female scholars who critically and constructively engage the Islamic tradition and its sources from their positionality as both Muslim and female, seeking to affirm female scholarly authority (Jerusha Tanner Lamptey, “Toward a Muslima Theology: Theological, Constructive, and Comparative Possibilities,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 33.1 [2017], 27–44). Approaching the Qurʾan as “a self-proclaimed scripture and literary work” (Ibrahim 7-8), Ibrahim takes on the mantle of a female exegete—“the tentative mufassira”—and provides an unprecedented analysis of the entire range of female subjects in the Qurʾan, spanning from the first primal mother to the heavenly ḥūrīs (“ethereal” companions or maidens)  (41). By uncovering a spectrum of female personalities, voices, and perspectives, Ibrahim’s work disrupts the notion of an “essentialized” female figure in the Qurʾan.

Moreover, Ibrahim’s book undermines suggestions that the Qurʾan prescribes fixed gender roles by illustrating that its male and female figures occupy interchangeable spaces in the world of power dynamics. Through the complex entanglements of social relationships and human choices, the Qurʾan depicts men and women as equally capable of wielding authority or being dispossessed of authority, being oppressive or oppressed, or malicious or good-willed, as Ibrahim illustrates in her analysis of Joseph and the viceroy’s wife, Queen Sheba and Solomon, Moses and his foster mother Āsiya, among many other figures. She writes, “We cannot identify a single archetypal female figure in the Qurʾan; rather, the female figures of the Qurʾan are decidedly heterogeneous, falling on a spectrum between pious and impious, insightful and ignorant, assertive and timid, old and young, famous and obscure. If there is one common element to these disparate figures, it is that the Qurʾan depicts them with the agency and responsibility to shape their destinies, for better or worse” (146). Rather than portray a quintessential gendered being, Women and Gender in the Qurʾan affirms the argument made by previous female exegetes that moral choice, not gender, is the primary marker of distinction in the Qurʾanic ethos of divine judgment (amina wadud, Qurʾan and Woman, Oxford University Press, 1999, 36-37; Barlas, Believing Women, University of Texas Press, 2002, 140).

The contribution of Ibrahim’s work to the field of Qurʾanic studies, however, is not limited to the uniquely feminine perspective she brings to the Qurʾan’s most significant narratives but extends to her skillful ability to articulate the deeper connections between the Qurʾan’s form and meaning. In doing so, Ibrahim situates herself within the linguistic, philological approach to Qurʾanic interpretation, an approach that is at the very heart of the Qurʾanic tafsīr tradition. Moving beyond the narratives, Ibrahim shifts the readers’ attention to the Qurʾan’s syntax, diction, structure, and rhetoric. It is her masterful interplay between the Qurʾan’s form and meaning that makes this work a timeless contribution to the field (Hadia Mubarak, “Emotive Energy and Pleasure: Centering Female Figures in Qurʾanic Narratives,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 37.2 [Fall 2021]).

Through her bird’s eye-view of the Qurʾan’s narratives, Ibrahim draws the reader’s attention to symbolic and rhetorical parallels in the Qurʾan. For example, in chapter 3, “Women Speakers and Interlocutors,” Ibrahim juxtaposes the leadership role of the ant, who speaks to her ant colony to warn them of Solomon’s encroaching army, with the leadership role of Queen Sheba, who desires to protect her own community from warfare and subjugation. Ibrahim notes that the ant’s speech, as captured by chapter 27 of the Qurʾan, Surat al-Naml (the Chapter of the Ant), “triggers a shift in consciousness” within Solomon, who thanks God for God’s bounties upon hearing the ant’s directives to her colony (96). Ibrahim notes that Solomon’s shift of consciousness “foreshadows the shift of consciousness experienced by the Queen of Sheba, whose military perspective shifts to a theological outlook” (96).

By prioritizing a scriptural approach to Qurʾanic interpretation, Ibrahim appears to deliberately circumvent the Qurʾan’s pluralistic tafsīr tradition in her assessment of the Qurʾan’s female figures. Nonetheless, her analysis, in some respects, reflects a limited engagement with secondary sources, such as ḥadīth (prophetic traditions), and asbāb al-nuzūl (occasions for revelation), and sīra (prophetic history). Ibrahim’s chapter 4, “Women Exemplars for an Emerging Polity,” for example, considers the relationship between the Qurʾan’s revelation and the emerging Muslim polity in seventh-century Arabia, as she “trace(s) the path of women figures in sacred history along the arc of the Qurʾanic revelatory sequence” (127-8). Ibrahim’s diachronic approach, however, necessitates her reliance on exegetical and historical sources, primarily the genres of sīra and asbāb al-nuzūl, to assess the relative chronology of the Qurʾan’s narratives in relation to events that transpire in early Muslim history. While it remains unclear which primary sources she relies upon to make this assessment, Ibrahim’s bibliography includes a reference to al-Sīra al-Nabawiyya by ʿAbd al-Malik Ibn Hishām (d. 218/833).

In other parts of the book, Ibrahim’s analysis also depends upon exegetical evidence regarding the Qurʾan’s revelatory context. For example, in chapter 1, “Female Sex and Sexuality,” Ibrahim contrasts two female figures’ responses to accusations of adultery, the viceroy’s wife, who attempts to seduce Joseph, and the Prophet’s youngest wife, ʿĀʾisha bt. Abi Bakr (d. 58/678), who is wrongfully accused of adultery. In contrast to the guile of the viceroy’s wife, Ibrahim notes that “ʿĀʾisha acts with discretion when she finds herself alone with an unrelated young man, is accused of infidelity by her people, and the Qurʾan itself testifies to her innocence” (34–35). Ibrahim’s observations about the converse behavior of these two female figures rely on extra-Qurʾanic narratives about ʿĀʾisha’s story since Q. 24:11–25 only alludes to this event without directly mentioning such details.

While acknowledging the contributions of her work to feminist Qurʾanic exegesis, Ibrahim identifies her book as a “female-centric” exegesis, reflecting a concern that the feminist modifier could “cloud its reception for some readers” (10). In this regard, Ibrahim appears to follow in the footsteps of two significant Muslim exegetes, amina wadud and Asma Barlas, who, similarly, eschewed the feminist label in their earliest works of Qurʾanic interpretation (wadud, Qurʾan and Woman, xviii; Barlas, Believing Women, xii). In the preface to her book, Barlas notes a concern that the label “Western feminist” would be weaponized to undermine her work within Muslim circles. The fact that this concern remains real and relevant nearly two decades later for Ibrahim illustrates a significant point: despite the growing scholarship on Islamic feminism and the accomplishments of Islamic feminists in championing change, the polemical force of the term remains a reality with which Muslima theologians must contend.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hadia Mubarak is assistant professor in the Philosophy & Religion Department at Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Date of Review: 
June 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Celene Ibrahim is a faculty member in the Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Groton School. She has written extensively on themes related to women and gender in Muslim intellectual history and is a public voice on issues of religious pluralism. Ibrahim holds a PhD in Arabic and Islamic civilizations from Brandeis University, a master's of divinity from Harvard University, and a bachelor's degree with highest honors from Princeton University.

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