Gender Hierarchy in the Qur’ān: Medieval Interpretations, Modern Responses

  • Book Title:
 Gender Hierarchy In The Quran
  • Book Author:
Karen Bauer
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The Book explains how medieval and modern Muslim religious scholars (‘ulamā’) interpret gender roles in Qur’ānic verses on legal testimony, marriage, and human creation. Citing these verses, medieval scholars developed increasingly complex laws and interpretations upholding a male-dominated gender hierarchy; aspects of their interpretations influence religious norms and state laws in Muslim-majority countries today, yet other aspects have been discarded entirely.

Karen Bauer traces the evolution of their interpretations, showing how they have been adopted, adapted, rejected, or replaced over time, by comparing the Qur’ān with a wide range of Qur’ānic commentaries and interviews with prominent religious scholars from Iran and Syria.

 At times, tradition is modified in unexpected ways: learned women argue against gender equality, or Grand Ayatollahs reject sayings of the Prophet, citing science instead. This innovative and engaging study highlights the effects of social and intellectual contexts on the formation of tradition, and on modern responses to it.


In his interpretation of the punishment for recalcitrant wives, the exegete, jurist, and historian  Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari(d. 310/923) came up with a novel solution for an exegetical problem. The problem, as al-Tabari« saw it, was that the Qurʾān seemed to go against men’s legal rights in marriage. The punishment for recalcitrant wives outlined in Q. 4:34 is that the husband should admonish them, shun them in the beds, and beat them.

And if they obey you, seek not a way against them. From this portion of the verse, it is clear that husbands have recourse to three steps, and that each step is predicated on the wife’s continued disobedience. What bothers al-Tabari« is the middle step, which I have translated as shun them in the beds. For him, a wife’s disobedience consisted of her refusal to have sex with her husband, so shunning this recalcitrant wife in bed is hardly a punishment at all; in fact, such a wife wants precisely to be left alone. This did not sit well with al-Tabari«, who, incidentally, never married.

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He reasoned that the earliest exegetical authorities must have missed the point in their interpretations of the verse’s words, particularly wa’hjurÅ«hunna, which I have translated above as ‘shun them’.1 Al-Tabari«

referred to the ‘speech of the ʿArabs’, by whom he means the Bedouins, to interpret the Qur’ān from a perspective that is closer to its original milieu than al-Ṭabarī’s own milieu of urban Baghdad.

The first of the three meanings of this word in Arabic, he says, is that ‘a man avoids speaking to another man, which means he repudiates and rejects him’.2 The second meaning is the ‘profusion of words through repetition, in the manner of a scoffer’.3 The third possible meaning is one that had not been suggested by any earlier exegete.

It is ‘tying up a camel, i.e., its owner ties it up with the hijār, which is a rope (ḥabl) attached to its loins and ankles’.4 For al-Ṭabarī, only the third solution fits the bill. After cautioning husbands that they should never do this to an obedient wife, al-Ṭabarī advises: ‘If they refuse to repent of their disobedience, then imprison them,5 tying them to their beds, meaning in their rooms, or chambers, in which they sleep, and in which their husbands lie with them’.6

Sa‘diyya Shaikh, a modern feminist interpreter, is outraged by al-Ṭabarī’s interpretation. She points out that it ‘epitomises oppressive and abusive gender relations’.7 For her, this interpretation embodies every-thing that is wrong with the medieval tradition, and against which she, a modern Muslim woman, must struggle to gain equality. But modern feminists are not the only ones to express their dismay at al-Ṭabarī’s suggestion that husbands should tie their wives up to force them to obey.

 Although al-Ṭabarī was a well-respected scholar, in this instance his own scholarly community treated him with scorn: ‘this is a deviant interpret-ation, and it is doubly so considering God’s words in the beds, because there are no ropes (ribāt)̣ in bed’,8 says al-Ṭūsī (d. 459/1066), an Imāmī Shīʿī exegete.

According to the Shāfiʿī al-Māwardī (d. 450/1058), the narrative that al-Ṭabarī used to support his view contains ‘no proof of his interpretation rather than another’.9 The most involved rebuttal comes from the Mālikī jurist and exegete Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 543/1148).

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He is astonished, and addresses al-Ṭabarī personally through the two centuries that separate them: ‘What a mistake, from someone who is so learned in the Qur’ān and the behaviour of the Prophet (sunna)! I am indeed amazed at you, [al-TÌ£abarÄ«], at the boldness with which you have treated the Qur’ān and sunna in this interpretation!’10 These scholars do not question al-TÌ£abarī’s sources or methods; Ibn al-Ê¿ArabÄ« replicates his method of picking and choosing among hÌ£adÄ«ths, performing linguistic analysis, and rejecting some early views in favour of others. To find the true meaning of the verse, Ibn al-Ê¿ArabÄ« reinterprets the reports of early authorities, obscuring their differences in order to find the one ‘correct view’, while chastising al-TÌ£abarÄ« for having missed it: ‘And it is indeed strange that, with all of al-TÌ£abarī’s deep studies into the science [of the Qurʾān] and into the language of the Arabs, he has strayed so far from the true interpretation! And how he deviates from the correct view!’11 Since Ibn al-Ê¿ArabÄ« does not object to al-TÌ£abarī’s method as such, it must be that the substance of his interpretation shows his incorrect use of that method. He has obtained an unacceptable result.

For these medieval interpreters, hierarchies in society and family life were natural and fair; all of al-Ṭabarī’s medieval critics defend the gender hierarchy and assert that men should have the right to punish their disobedient wives. But even though they accept the premise, they some-times struggle with the boundaries of a just hierarchy. They do not describe a husband’s control as unbounded, unconditional, or absolute. Al-Ṭabarī’s proposition for correcting a disobedient wife overstepped the mark: he went beyond the meaning and intention of the verse.

The responses cited here highlight much that is important in the genre of Qurʾānic interpretation (tafsīr): the early exegetical authorities, in theory, trump later interpreters like al-Ṭabarī, but in turn, their views can be reinterpreted; there is room for many conflicting views, but not every view is tolerated; respected works by respected scholars are read across the boundaries of legal schools; and the correct interpretation is bounded by common practice, common understanding, and ideas of right and wrong. Medieval interpretations of the gender hierarchy shed light on what these scholars considered to be good, just, and correct in their societies.

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