Gender and Muslim Constructions of Exegetical Authority: A Rereading of the Classical Genre of Qur’an Commentary

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 Gender And Muslim Constructions Of Exegetical Authority
  • Book Author:
Aisha Geissinger
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Introduction: The Classical Genre of Quran Commentary, Exegetical Authority, and Gender

Is it possible to chart a history of the pre-modern genre of Quran commentary without considering gender? Or, if one were to attempt to do so, would any- thing fundamental be omitted?

A number of Quran commentaries from the formative1 and medieval periods incorporate several different types of exegetical materials attributed to a few female figures from the first century AH/seventh century CE: āthār, ḥadīths, legal opinions and variant readings, as well as lines of poetry.

Writing over a century ago, Theodor Nöldeke drew attention to the fact that the name of ʿĀʾisha bt. Abī Bakr (d. 58/678) appears with noteworthy frequency in the chains of transmission (isnāds) of ḥadīths found in some of the Quran com- mentaries to which he had access.2 More recently, Claude Gilliot reiterates this observation of Nöldeke’s.3

But what is the place and significance of such exegetical materials within the history of the genre of pre-modern Quran commentary?

This study examines the attribution of exegetical materials to female figures during the formative and early medieval periods, and what this phenomenon indicates about the hermeneutical bases upon which the genre of Quran com- mentary authored by medieval Sunnīs (and largely, Ashʿarīs) came to be built.

As will be demonstrated, concepts that are central to pre-modern quranic exegesis (tafsīr)—as a process and as a textual genre—are gendered. That is, ways of conceptualizing gender that were widespread during the formative and early medieval periods underpin the historical processes that constructed quranic exegesis as a sacred undertaking, which therefore must be carried out in certain ways, by those who possess the requisite authority.

Historical debates as to which hermeneutical approaches to the Quran are appropriate, what ways of doing tafsīr are methodologically inferior or unacceptable, as well as what interpretive authority is and who can exercise it were carried out using gendered language and categories.

Moreover, a number of proto-Sunnī and Sunnī Quran commentators from the formative and early medieval periods utilize gendered figures and evoca- tions of gendered spaces (such as the abode of the wives of the prophet) in order to negotiate complex exegetical issues involving social hierarchies, as well as communal and sectarian boundaries.

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Gender was far from being a mar- ginal concern for pre-modern exegetes; rather, it is central to their visions of a divinely-mandated social order. Therefore, an analysis of how gender func- tions in their works is in fact an examination of the very foundations of their worldviews.

Valuing the Gecko? Several Key Methodological Questions

The incorporation of exegetical materials attributed to female figures into Quran commentaries is a fascinating historical and literary phenomenon that has received little sustained analytical interest from historical-critical schol- ars to date.4 An important reason for this is the considerable methodological challenges involved in attempting to determine the significance of materials of this type within the overall genre of medieval Quran commentary.

 These challenges stem from several sources: (1) the many unsolved historical ques- tions about the historicity of the ḥadīth literature, (2) the nature of the genre of medieval Quran commentary itself, as well as the present state of the field of Tafsīr Studies, and (3) the current lack of agreement among historians regard- ing the relevance of gender for the study of pre-modern Muslim intellectual history.

At this point, I would like to discuss each of these issues in turn, utiliz- ing the following ḥadīth as a point of departure. A version of this ḥadīth is discussed by Norman Calder in his seminal article on the classical genre of Quran commentary.5

 For reasons that will become apparent, it provides a particularly apt illustration of several facets of the methodological challenges under discussion here: Saʿīd—Ayyūb—Nāfiʿ—Umm Sayāba al-Anṣāriyya—ʿĀʾisha, (who related) that the Messenger of God told her that when Abraham was thrown into the fire, all of the animals tried to extinguish it, with the exception of the gecko. It blew on (the fire), so the Messenger of God ordered that (geckos) be killed.6

This ḥadīth is quoted in the Tafsīr Yayā b. Sallām, at the conclusion of its commentary on Q 21:69—“But We said, ‘Fire, be cool and safe for Abraham.’ ”7 Abraham’s people are incensed that he has broken all but one of the statues of their deities, and decide to burn him alive, but divine intervention ensures that he is unharmed (Q 21:51–70).

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The isnād of this ḥadīth (henceforth, “the gecko tradition”) as it is found in the Tafsīr Yayā b. Sallām immediately presents the audience/reader with a question: While most of the names it contains are those of well-known transmitters— Saʿīd b. al-Musayyab (d. 94/713), Ayyūb al-Sakhtiyānī (d. 131/713), Nāfiʿ the mawla of Ibn ʿUmar (d. 117/735), and ʿĀʾisha bt. Abī Bakr8—who is Umm Sayāba?

 A search through the standard biographical works on the Companions9 as well as of later ḥadīth transmitters yields no biographical notice for a woman known by this kunya.10 However, the Sunan Ibn Māja contains a similar ḥadīth that Sāʾiba, the mawlāt (client) of al-Fākih b. al-Mughīra is said to have related from ʿĀʾisha.11

 “Umm Sayāba” may be a transmitter’s or copyist’s mistake, a result of confusion with the female Companion Umm Sharīk, who is widely credited with having transmitted ḥadīths recounting that the prophet instructed that geckos be killed,12 or it might be an attempt at isnād “correction.”

While there is some debate in classical biographical works about Umm Sharīk’s name and precise identity, she does have a somewhat well-developed persona,13 at least in comparison to the mawlāt of al-Fākih b. al-Mughīra, who is an elusive fig- ure at best. It is possible that this mawlāt—Sāʾiba, or possibly Munādiyya, or Ṣādiqa, or even Sādiyya14—was a historical person, albeit so obscure that she was remembered for little more than transmitting this one ḥadīth.

 However, it could also be theorized that Sāʾiba receives an entry in al-Mizzī’s Tahdhīb al-kamāl15 due to the presence of this name in the isnād of this ḥadīth, which led him to presume that a person of that name had existed.

The historical questions posed by the isnād are only multiplied when the body (matn) of the gecko tradition is examined. A number of variant versions of this ḥadīth have come down to us, including one recounting that ʿĀʾisha stated that while the prophet spoke disparagingly about geckos, she did not hear him say that they should be killed.16 Moreover, a search for this ḥadīth in other Quran commentaries under Q 21:69 reveals that the two assertions it makes are separately attributed to different Successors in the Quran com- mentaries of al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923) and al-Thaʿlabī (d. 427/1035).

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Thus al-Ṭabarī recounts that the Successor Qatāda (d. 117/735) said that the only creature that blew on the fire was the gecko, while another Successor, al-Zuhrī (d. 124/742) reported that therefore, Muḥammad had instructed that geckos should be killed.17

This raises some obvious questions about the provenance, “original” form and transmission history of this ḥadīth. As is well known, Joseph Schacht con- cludes that legal traditions with less complete isnāds are likely to be older than ḥadīths with isnāds extending all the way back to Muḥammad that address the same topics, because the latter were retrojected to the prophet in order that they might function as effective proof-texts in legal debates.18

The ongoing debates about the authenticity of isnāds, and whether any ḥadīths can be dated with confidence to the first/seventh century, as well as about the historical reliability or otherwise of classical biographical dictionar- ies are too well known to require detailed discussion here.19 A great deal of effort has been expended by historical-critical scholars on questions of origins and authenticity.

In the process, some scholars have attempted to evaluate sev- eral well known ḥadīths attributed to early Muslim women—most often, to ʿĀʾisha bt. Abī Bakr—that often are quoted in Quran commentaries. The find- ings of these scholars range from skepticism to cautious optimism.20

In my view, the work of scholars such as Harald Motzki allows for the work- ing assumption that some of the traditions discussed in this study could con- ceivably be dated as far back as the first/seventh century.21 Nonetheless, this study will not attempt to date individual traditions. As Uri Rubin perceptively points out, there is no way to know if a given ḥadīth does in fact go back to the person to whom it is attributed, even if the process of attribution began in his or her lifetime.22

 Nor will this study utilize the ḥadīths or other exegetical materials ascribed to female figures in order to attempt to reconstruct early Muslim women’s interpretations of or responses to the Quran. In my view, it due to the myriad historical problems involved…

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