In This Article Women and Tafsir

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Reference Works
  • Women and Religious Authority in the Premodern Era
  • The Islamic Revival and the Emergence of Islamic Feminism: 1970s–1980s
  • Scholarly Examinations of Feminist Tafsir

Islamic Studies Women and Tafsir
by
Margherita Picchi
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0249

Introduction

The Arabic word tafsir (literally meaning “to clarify,” “to explain”) most commonly refers to the process of interpreting the Qurʾan, and to the vast literary genre of Qurʾanic exegesis (see the Oxford Bibliographies in Islamic Studies article “Tafsir”). Throughout the premodern era, written Qurʾanic tafsir production was an endeavor and a privilege reserved to major Muslim theologians and jurists—in other words, it was largely a male prerogative. Although the female Companions of Muhammad had a relevant role in the transmission of Traditions of the Prophet (hadith), a fundamental tool for Qurʾanic exegesis, women’s participation in the production of religious knowledge dramatically decreased during the classical era of Islam, although the extent of this marginalization is still debated among scholars (see Women and Religious Authority in the Premodern Era). This marginalization, and more generally the patriarchal context in which classical Qurʾanic commentaries were written, prompted Muslim scholars to understand the Qurʾan as sanctioning a hierarchical view of gender relations in which men are superior to women and hold authority over them. Tafsir by women made its appearance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the first feminist wave emerged in Muslim contexts. Activists in women’s rights movements—secular as well as religiously oriented—started using religious arguments to promote their claims; however, these women did not have access to formal religious training and mostly relied on arguments elaborated by modernist (male) scholars, rarely producing systematic rereadings of religious texts themselves—with a few remarkable exceptions (see Emergence of Women’s Tafsir: 19th and Early 20th Centuries). An identifiable field of gender-egalitarian Qurʾanic interpretation started emerging in the last quarter of the 20th century, and became visible in the 1990s in various locations across the globe. This phenomenon has generally been defined with the label “Islamic feminism,” although this term is highly contested and even explicitly rejected by some activists and scholars (see Feminist Tafsir and Scholarly Examinations of Feminist Tafsir). “Islamic feminism” emerged in the context of—and in explicit reaction to—the rise of Salafism and political Islam at a global level, and the affirmation of Islamic regimes in Sudan and Iran (see Islamic Revival and the Emergence of Islamic Feminism: 1970s–1980s). It is worth noting that women have also been active participants in Salafist and Islamist organizations, in some cases producing autonomous readings of the Qurʾan that offer a perspective of complementary, rather than egalitarian, gender roles. (see Islamic Revival and Women’s Tafsir). For those interested in the study of women in Islamic contexts in a broader sense, see the Oxford Bibliographies in Islamic Studies article “Women and Islam.”

General Overviews

The field of tafsir by women is located at the intersection of women’s studies and Qurʾanic studies, and scholars have approached it from a wide range of perspectives and backgrounds. There are many valid introductory texts that incorporate a gender perspective in the study of Qurʾanic exegesis, and others that offer an effective survey of the new field of gender-egalitarian Qurʾanic interpretation. Awde 2000 represents a basic source to orient the reader regarding references to women and gender relations in the sacred texts of Islam, while Bauer 2015 is an excellent, yet highly specialized, survey of classical and modern commentaries. Cooke 2001 is one of the earliest accounts of the emergence of the Islamic feminist trend; Badran 2009 is a now classic introduction to the field of Islamic feminism. Hidayatullah 2014 provides an exceptional overview of Islamic feminist production in the United States, while the articles included in Kynsilehto 2008 effectively capture the debate over the term “Islamic feminism” and its conceptualization. Several articles by and about feminist interpreters of the Qurʾan have been published in the journal Hawwa, published by Brill since 2003, while the fifth volume of the Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures (Suad, et al. 2003–2007) includes several entries on women in classical and modern tafsir.

  • Awde, Nicholas. Women in Islam: An Anthology from the Qurʾān and Ḥadīths. Richmond, UK: Curzon, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    A thorough anthology of references to women-related issues in the Qurʾan and the two major hadith collections (Bukhari’s and Muslim’s), offered to the reader without analysis or comments.

  • Badran, Margot. Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergences. Oxford: Oneworld, 2009.

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    A collection of essays on Islamic and secular feminism in Muslim contexts. Part 1 focuses on the history of Egyptian feminism from the late 19th century to the end of the 20th century. Part 2 explores the emergence of Islamic feminism on a global level.

  • Bauer, Karen. Gender Hierarchy in the Qurʾān: Medieval Interpretations, Modern Responses. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139649759E-mail Citation »

    A rich analysis of classical and modern tafsir literature, which aims to highlight how interpretations of texts concerning gender differences in testimony, the story of creation, and marriage-related issues have developed over time, reflecting the exegetes’ cultural, social, and political context.

  • Cooke, Miriam. Women Claim Islam: Creating Islamic Feminism through Literature. New York and London: Routledge, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    An early account of women exploring the intersection between feminism and Islam through literature during the 20th century. Chapters 3 and 4 are devoted, respectively, to the work of Assia Djebar and Fatima Mernissi, and to the figure of the Egyptian Islamist intellectual and activist Zaynab al-Ghazali.

  • Hawwa: Journal of Women in the Middle East and the Islamic World. 2003–.

    E-mail Citation »

    Interdisciplinary journal, published three times a year, focused on women and gender in the Middle East and Islamic cultures. Volume 2, issue 3 (2004) is of special interest for its focus on women and tafsir.

  • Hidayatullah, Aysha. Feminist Edges of the Qurʾan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199359561.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    A comprehensive overview of contemporary anti-patriarchal exegesis, produced by scholars located or active in the United States, such as Riffat Hassan, Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas, Azizah al-Hibri, Saʿdiyya Shaikh, and Kecia Ali, from the perspective of a scholar who identifies herself as both a religious Muslim and a feminist.

  • Kynsilehto, Anytta, ed. Islamic Feminism: Current Perspectives. Occasional Paper. 96. Tampere, Finland: Tampere Peace Research Institute, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    Collection of articles on tafsir by women, covering a wide range of topics—such as the debate concerning the conception of “Islamic feminism”; its development in different contexts such as Morocco, Turkey, France, Germany, and Italy; and methodological issues.

  • Suad, Joseph, Afsaneh Najmabadi, and Jane Smith, eds. Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures. 6 vols. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003–2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    A six-volume encyclopedia dedicated to the study of Muslim women from different historic periods and contexts. Volume 5 contains entries on early tafsir (pp. 266–268), modern Qurʾanic interpretation in various languages (pp. 249–265), and representations of gender in the Qurʾan (pp. 529–532).

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