What is the origin of androcentrism or patriarchal readings in the genre of Qurʾanic exegesis? In my textual analysis of medieval and modern commentaries, I seek to identify the ways in which patriarchal readings emerge and become entrenched in this genre.
Is androcentrism a function of exegetes’ methods, conclusions, or worldviews or are they inherent to the Qurʾanic text? Some scholars, such as Kecia Ali, Aysha Hidayatullah, and Ebrahim Moosa, argue that androcentrism, to some extent, is inherent to the Qurʾanic text itself. Other scholars, such as Ayesha Chaudhry, believe that androcentric readings of the Qurʾan stem from medieval exegetes’ patriarchal cosmology. Scholars such as Asma Barlas and amina wadud have argued that androcentrism or patriarchy is a function of the way male exegetes have read or failed to read the Qurʾan.
By closely engaging with the tafsīr tradition, I find that patriarchal interpretations gained currency in Qurʾanic exegesis not because of exegetes’ “linear-atomistic methodology,” as some scholars have argued, but due to the “genealogical nature” of the discipline of tafsīr. Exegetes established their authority in this tradition by demonstrating a deep familiarity with its discursive history. This genealogical nature of tafsīr —in which a commentator displayed mastery by engaging with previous authorities— inadvertently perpetuated patriarchal arguments in the genre. Yet the passing down of exegetical opinions throughout the centuries reflected neither repetition nor endorsement, but a scholar’s flexing of intellectual muscle.
By recognizing how patriarchy seeped its way into the tradition, contemporary scholars can begin the difficult work of identifying and untangling patriarchal threads without discarding the entire tradition.
Far from being monolithic, it is my contention that the exegetical tradition has been marked by diversity in both methodology and interpretation. Rather than view the exegetical tradition as static, monolithic and replicating itself, my findings reveal a pluralistic and evolving tradition that obtains its authority through recourse to established methods, shared language, and sources, and a deep familiarity with its discursive and scholarly history. At times, medieval and modern commentators successfully challenge the dominant interpretation of a verse while still gaining a wide level of reception for their commentaries among segments of the Muslim community. This acceptance, I argue, is primarily a function of how “interpretive authority” is constructed in the Muslim tradition.
Exegetes gain interpretive authority for new interpretations by grounding their opinions in recognized methodological precedents, not by repeating the same conclusions, as some scholars have argued. While their unique interpretations may not “radically subvert” exegetical assumptions about men and women, they certainly push back against some patriarchal interpretations that have dominated the genre, thus, creating new sites of engagement for Muslims who refuse to concede tradition and egalitarianism/feminism as mutually exclusive pursuits.
- From my recent AAR conference paper, "Engaging the Tafsir Tradition: Springboard into an Endless Ocean," 11/19/23