By Shaykh Dr. Ḥasan al-Shāfi‘ī | Translated and introduced by Sohaib Saeed Al-Azhari
This series, presented in three parts, is abridged from a paper entitled “The Movement for Feminist Interpretation of the Qur’an and Religion and its Threat to the Arabic Language and Tradition” by Shaykh Ḥasan Maḥmūd ‘Abd al-Laṭīf al-Shāfi‘ī, one of the senior scholars of Al-Azhar. A link to the full translation will be provided with Part 3 in shā’ Allah (God willing).
The author is a leading authority on Islamic theology, philosophy and spirituality and has published at least 19 books including translations and critical editions. In addition to studies in his native Egypt, he received a doctorate from the University of London in 1977. Among his many academic appointments, he served as president of the International Islamic University in Islamabad from 1994-2004; he has also taught in Sudan and Saudi Arabia. He is an active member of numerous bodies including the Arabic Language Academy in Cairo.
The Significance of This Paper
This paper addresses a trend that has left the ivory towers of academia and begun to penetrate the psyche of modern Muslims in different parts of the world. Some of the figures mentioned are still active today and receiving media attention. It is not a detailed critique, but it is distinguished from some other writings by its focus on the roots of the problem, namely the question of interpretation rather than specific conclusions. As an example, the female-led Jumu‘ah (Friday) prayers of Dr. Amina Wadud have drawn detailed and extensive juristic (fiqhī) criticism, while there is less concern over her approach to the fundamentals. The paper is also significant due to its author being an internationally renowned authority in the traditional sciences of Islam, based at Al-Azhar with its proud history and contemporary role in promoting Islamic moderation and authenticity.
Whom it Addresses
As mentioned, the paper is not so much a refutation as it is an attempt to draw the attention of Islamic scholars to the issue. Therefore, far from silencing the feminist authors mentioned, it calls for constructive engagement with their ideas and taking the opportunity to build a hermeneutic theory that is harmonious with Islamic thought and tradition. It is also relevant to ordinary Muslims who ought to be aware of the controversial nature of the ideas underpinning the feminist interpretative enterprise, as they might look positively on it given that women’s rights are genuinely a core Islamic concern. Indeed, some mainstream Muslim groups and individuals have fallen into the trap of promoting these thinkers in their quest for a “new Islamic theology.”
What it Says and Doesn’t Say
The paper examines the background of Western hermeneutics (interpretation methodology) and discusses several examples of how this has been applied to the Qur’an, particularly by feminist thinkers. It touches on some of the flaws in these authors’ qualifications for the task, as well as their dangerous assumptions and problematic conclusions. It calls for making full use of the accumulated experience of centuries of rigorous Islamic scholarship, together with the best of modern methods. Therefore it is not a rejection of modernity, or the West, or feminism, per se. I believe that it calls for a critical engagement with the concepts, and for scholars to take on the task of responding to misconceptions and carving a constructive path to progress. And Allah knows best.
This paper aims to draw attention in the academic sphere to a cultural and intellectual movement that has become widespread in the contemporary Islamic world. This movement seeks to take the Western methodology of “hermeneutics” and apply it to the Noble Qur’an and Islamic religious texts in general, with complete indifference to the principles of Qur’anic exegesis and rules of interpretation established in our Arabic-Islamic heritage, as well as the related Prophetic clarification contained in the authenticated Sunnah [tradition and practice of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him)]. Indeed, this indifference extends to the events of history and the entire accumulated experience of Islamic civilisation, based on a prior assumption and judgement that the Islamic tradition–in theory and practice–has been patriarchal and chauvinistic against women. Therefore, according to this view, the time has come to break intellectually from this tradition and re-establish the interpretation of the Qur’an and the religion based on this assumption, and in the light of Western Christian hermeneutics.
In recent times, since the second half of the last century, this movement has been championed by a number of academics educated in Western institutions, and almost entirely lacking in rigorous, authentic learning and training in the fields of Islamic culture and religious sciences. Most of them reside in the West, where they studied and occupied research and teaching positions, particularly in Britain and the United States. However, a few live in the Muslim world after having received their education in Western universities. They promote the same direction of thought while engaging in this interpretative work; it is an active movement on the level of culture and research, but does not yet represent a general trend. It is possible for this movement to achieve results and effect change on Muslim societies in terms of their connection with their heritage, but not to the desired extent of a complete break with tradition. The effect would merely be to weaken these societies’ interaction with their cultural tradition, thereby possibly stunting their progress towards a sound awakening that would restore them to the path of history.
First: The origins of “hermeneutics” and its stages of development until its present form.
Second: The effect of these hermeneutics upon some of our men and women, and their attempts to apply them to the Arabic-Islamic tradition with acute subjectivity and bias. In addition, they display complete conformity to results of a cultural experiment that took place in a foreign environment, without any critical spirit or concern to adapt the process such as to accord with the nature of our heritage, language and civilisation.
Third: The linguistic, intellectual and methodological requirements of an “Islamic hermeneutics”–if this expression is appropriate–that suits our civilisation, our Arabic language and our distinct historical experience. In my view, we are in no need of this terminology, but I am employing it for the purposes of comparison. What we mean is: the scientific principles of interpreting Arabic religious texts, as they developed and took shape in the context of our culture and religious sciences, alongside their counterparts in contemporary knowledge and thought.
Western Hermeneutics: A History
Before discussing this phenomenon, which is key to the study–in that it is the basis from which feminist interpretation of Islamic texts was born–I wish to affirm clearly that interaction and exchange between cultures, particularly between the contemporary Arab culture and others such as the Western culture, is both praiseworthy and desirable. Indeed, in the present circumstances, it is almost inevitable.
- This is because proper exchange flows from the nature of this Arabic-Islamic culture that believes in the unity of humanity and its common origins, and that the diversity of nations calls for mutual interaction and connection, not conflict and contempt. These are constructive principles worthy of being taken as a basis for interaction and exchange on the human level.
- Indeed, the Islamic civilisation practised and benefited from such interactions, without hesitation and free of prejudice, during its most prosperous times. At the outset of this experiment, Abū Ya‘qūb al-Kindī stated: “We should be very grateful to whoever brings a small or great measure of truth, as they have made us party to the fruits of their thought and thus facilitated our goals. We ought not to be shy about appreciating truth and adopting it from wherever it comes, even from distant peoples or nations differing from us, because nothing is a higher consideration for the truth-seeker than truth itself.” Some centuries into the flowering of the experiment, Abū al-Walīd Ibn Rushd (Averroes) wrote: “In this project of ours, we must make use of the statements of our predecessors, whether they shared with us in religion or not; by the latter, I mean those who explored these questions before Islam. We should turn to their books and consult their opinions; whatever is correct, we accept, and whatever is mistaken, we point that out.”
- As for this engagement being both necessary and a reality: the Information Revolution of the past few decades, with its constant stream of information via the various communication networks, makes an introverted approach impossible in today’s world. Yet the question remains: does the phenomenon we are analysing match that spirit expressed by Al-Kindī and Ibn Rushd, or does it take another route? The answer may become clear with the following brief historical account.
What is meant by hermeneutics is the rules of interpretation and understanding of religious texts; it is an old term from Christian theology, the sense of which widened and narrowed in response to developments in religious and philosophical thought and biblical studies in the Western context. The broadest definition has it as “understanding and interpreting the forms of human existence”, thus encompassing all the humanities and social sciences.
The consideration of text began with the ancient Greeks, for whom the allegorical aspect was most prominent. Then hermeneutics reached the Jews, who strove to devise rules of interpretation. There emerged among them literalists–like the Sadducees and Karaites–yet the allegorical exegesis remained dominant; then the Rabbis worked to develop a path between the two ways. The Egyptian School played a significant role early on, as did the Andalusian School during the Islamic era. Just as Philo brought interpretation closer to Greek philosophy, Mūsā b. Maymūn (Maimonedes) did the same for Islamic philosophy and Kalām theology.
Then hermeneutics proceeded to the Christian Church, where the allegorical method dominated again. However, the Fathers laid down some bases to understand and interpret the Bible, which came to be known as Augustine’s rules: (1) Exegesis by received teachings, or by related texts if possible: for such cannot contradict each other; (2) Metaphorical interpretation according to rules and relationships that point to significations beyond the literal meaning; (3) Exegesis using linguistic rules to determine the meanings of words and structures; and (4) Exegesis according to historical circumstances and events accompanying the text. These rules represented a positive step in refining and structuring the process of interpretation to a certain extent; however, the allegorical method still retained its upper hand due to the influence of Gnosis on early interpretations of the New Testament. Like the Jews, and as with any religion, three groups emerged among them: (a) textual literalists; (b) allegorists and mystics; and (c) moderate centrists.
The Church treated the Bible as its property and considered its interpretation to be the Church’s exclusive right; in order to minimise disagreements, this authority was subsequently limited to the Pope alone. Along with other factors, this resulted in protest movements, including new scepticism, erupting around the middle of the 15th Century. Thus new interpretations emerged, free from the authority of the Catholic Church, even if they had not broken free from the same hermeneutics. The successive attempts of Martin Luther and John Calvin sought to further develop the discipline of interpretation, or to turn hermeneutics into a structured technique rather than a loose process without boundaries and limits.
Then came the Modern Era when intellects were set free from their reins, and thinkers went to great lengths in subjecting the Bible to historical criticism and free linguistic analysis, throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries. Enlightenment philosophy had a great impact and heavily shook belief in the sanctity of the scripture and its contents. It was helped in this by the Greek heritage revival movement, along with Cartesian Rationalism and Humanism with its call to subject religious scripture to the same standards of critique as other ancient texts. The result was the emergence of various forms of Deism, and rebellion against not only the Church but religion as a whole, during the 18th and 19th Centuries.
In the 19th and 20th Centuries, hermeneutics developed at the hands of the philosophers, notably Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, Schleiermacher, Dilthey and Heidegger, who made a manifest impact on generalising hermeneutical theory to other fields of philosophy and the humanities; thus it is said that hermeneutics was founded by the theologians and developed by the philosophers. If the spirit of liberation dominated all Western thinkers at the time, some of them went to the excesses of atheism and scepticism concerning anything religious or sacred.
Thus, modern hermeneutics was born in the midst of rationalist, Enlightenment and humanist philosophies. From the preceding outline, we see how hermeneutics developed in Western thought, and how it progressed from the time of the Greeks until the present day in response to genuine factors within that context: most significantly, the requirements of interpreting the Bible and the complications stemming, on the one hand, from the nature of the subject and the challenges of comprehension; and on the other hand, from the stances of Church and power.
Nobody can claim that we must follow the same programme in differing contexts and circumstances simply for the sake of imitation, and to develop hermeneutics as they did before us. Rather, the process of authentication and criticism began with the very start of the Islamic era, in an open environment with scientific techniques, as non-Muslim specialists testify. Therefore, if there must be imitation, let it be within the scope of our culture and using resources and aspects from our scientific experience. Let it proceed with objectivity and structure, and work to minimise the negative aspects which any human effort necessarily contains.
The most active part of this movement is a group of female writers who were raised and received their education in the West and continue to work within those institutions. A few returned to their original homelands to participate in the movement’s activities. In addition, some writers in various parts of the Muslim world have contributed in one way or another to this type of academic work. It is important to acknowledge that there are differences between the respective discourses and outputs from the various members of this movement, which bases its statements upon re-readings of religious texts and deriving new interpretations in the light of hermeneutical methodology.
Some of these female researchers are relatively moderate and: (a) accept the Qur’anic text while seeking to interpret it in the way mentioned; (b) reject anything from the Sunnah which they consider antithetical to women’s rights; and (c) affirm their affiliation to Islam. However, there are also some who have gone to the extremes of rejecting all prophetic hadiths, and even questioning the authenticity and divine origin of certain verses of the Qur’an. These people call for a neo-Islam or a new Islamic theology via subjecting the texts of Qur’an and Sunnah–and the entire contents of Islamic tradition–to historical and academic critique along the lines of what occurred in the West.
Therefore, the examples I shall present are not all the same in the ideas they promote, their extent of involvement in hermeneutical interpretation, or the cultural background against which this interpretation or analysis arises.
Still to come:
Part II: Feminist Interpreters of the Qur’an: Examples
– Discussing Riffat Hassan, Amina Wadud, Fatema Mernissi and Leila Ahmed, plus the hermeneutics of Fazlur Rahman Malik, Mohammed Arkoun and ‘Abd al-Hādī ‘Abd al-Raḥmān.
Part III: Towards an Arabic Hermeneutic