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[CIS 2.

2 (2006) 129–142] Comparative Islamic Studies (print) ISSN 1740-7125

doi: 10.558/CISv2i2.129 Comparative Islamic Studies (online) ISSN 1743-1638

“Traditional” Exegeses of Q 4:34

Princeton University

On the whole, pre-modern scholars understand Q 4:34, Men are qawwāmūn

over women, with what God has given the one more than the other, and with
what they spend of their wealth, to legislate men’s authority over women in
marriage. But verse 4:34 has never had a uniform interpretation, even in the
pre-modern period. This paper explores variations in the content and methods
of pre-modern and modern interpretations of Q 4:34, and attempts to under-
stand the sources for, and meaning of, certain interpretations, particularly
focusing on the interpretation of women’s deficient rationality [nāqiÑ al-‘aql],
taken from a hadith [saying] on the authority of the Prophet. Ultimately, I
argue that neither the sources of exegesis, nor its meaning, can be attributed
simply to early interpretations or the seemingly straightforward meanings of
ahadith. Rather, exegetes in every age appropriate and reinterpret their heri-
tage, giving these sources new meanings.


On the whole, pre-modern scholars understand Q 4:34, Men are qawwāmūn1

over women, with what God has given the one more than the other, and with
what they spend of their wealth, to legislate men’s authority over women in
marriage. But Q 4:34 has never had a uniform interpretation, even in the pre-
modern period. This paper explores variations in the content and methods of
pre-modern and modern interpretations of Q 4:34, and attempts to understand
the sources for, and meaning of, certain interpretations. Ultimately, neither the
sources of exegesis, nor its meaning, can be attributed simply to early interpre-
tations or the seemingly straightforward meanings of ahadith [sayings attrib-
uted to the Prophet]. Rather, exegetes in every age appropriate and reinterpret
their heritage.
This paper begins by exploring some of the variations in the content and
methods of pre-modern interpretation, focusing on the ways in which content
and method developed through time in the genre of the Qur’an commentary
[tafsīr al-Qur’ān]. It is important to see certain developments in the content of
exegesis as connected to developments in methods of interpretation. But it is
also necessary to attempt to understand accurately the content of these interpre-
tations: knowing that there was development in methods interpreting does not

© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2008, Unit 6, The Village, 101 Amies Street, London SW11 2JW.
130 Karen Bauer

really help the reader today to understand what the exegetes actually meant.
Thus, after exploring the ways in which method affects content in the first
section of the paper, the second section examines what the exegetes may have
meant by saying that women were deficient in rationality, a common claim in
pre-modern texts which is especially jarring to many modern readers. Rather
than offering up a straightforward reading of the term “rationality,” this section
shows that its pre-modern definition was contested.
Some pre-modern interpretations disappear in the modern age, but some,
such as the saying that women are deficient in rationality, are retained. Whole-
sale preservation of pre-modern interpretations seems to indicate that modern
interpretations are stagnant, or that they simply copy from the pre-modern heri-
tage. Yet such use of tradition may be more complex than it appears. Drawing
on fieldwork conducted in Syria, the third section of this paper explores differ-
ences in how pre-modern and modern exegetes use the term “rational defi-
ciency,” showing that when pre-modern interpretations appear in modern
works, they take on modern meanings. Modern exegetes’ selective quoting and
reinterpretation of the pre-modern tradition enables them to confirm modern
notions and values. Thus, pre-modern and modern exegetes have a common
method of selectively drawing on sources and precedent: they work with their
heritage in order to forge interpretations that, on the one hand, preserve conti-
nuity with the past, and on the other, are relevant to their particular milieu. But
just as there was not a single uniform view of this verse in the pre-modern
interpretations, nor is there in the modern interpretations. Exploring clerics’
differences and similarities can reveal the influences of their milieu on the
production of interpretation.

Development in Pre-modern Interpretations

This section consists of a brief overview of some of the ways in which inter-
pretations of Q 4:34 developed in the pre-modern period. There were signifi-
cant changes in the interpretations’ content over time. One way of explaining
such changes would be to say that later exegetes had different ideas of women’s
natures and their roles than early exegetes did. But I argue that such a radical
change in attitudes between early and later exegetes is unlikely. Instead, some
of the developments in the content of exegesis can be attributed to exegetes’
changing methods. Because their ideas of the proper methods of interpreting
the verse changed through time, so did the substance of their interpretations.
The earliest exegeses of 4:34 tend to explain the meanings of the verse, with-
out explaining its logic further than quoting its “occasion of revelation” (the
description of when the verse was revealed). Thus, a typical early exegesis,
such as that of ‘Alī b. Abī $al­a (d. 143/760) says that men are women’s
commanders [‘umarā’] and that women must obey in those matters that God

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“Traditional” Exegeses of Q 4:34 131

has legislated. What concerns Ibn Abī $al­a are the practical implications of
the verse: men’s and women’s roles and specific actions. The woman’s
obedience seems to be limited to her behavior towards her husband’s family,
and to respecting his property:
God said that men are qawwāmūn over women, meaning commanders
[‘umarā’]. It is necessary for women to obey men in matters where God has
commanded their obedience. And obedience is that women must treat their
husband’s family well, and preserve his property.2
Ibn Abī Tal­a focuses on the practical applications of this verse: men are
women’s commanders, and women owe men obedience, which is well-defined.
This approach is typical of the earliest exegeses, which tend to describe specific
rules associated with this verse, and to explain how it applies to daily life.
Although this and other early works are fragmentary, it is still important to note
that neither women’s obedience, nor men’s command, is unlimited. No expla-
nation is provided as to why the verse says what it does. This particular inter-
pretation can be found in several early exegeses, including those of the Shī‘ī al-
Qummī (d. 308/920); and the Sunnī al-$abarī (d. 311/923).
The next part of 4:34 reads: with what God has given some more than others.
Al-$abarī explains this part of the verse by saying:
Meaning, with what God has made men superior to their wives: men give
[their wives] their dowries, and spend on them from their property, and
provide them with provisions. That is the superiority [tafŸīl] given by God
Almighty to men over women, and because of that they became their
maintainers [qawwām], executors of the command over them concerning
those matters that God gave to them to command.3
Like ‘Alī b. Abī $al­a, al-$abarī specifically limits men’s authority: men are
the executors of command in certain matters legislated by God. In al-$abarī’s
exegesis, men’s advantage is defined as their monetary support of their wives,
because of which women must obey them in certain matters. He focuses on
actual rules, and does not explain why men have been given a monetary or legal
In the generation or two of exegetes after al-$abarī, there is a methodological
shift in the way tafsīr is written. In these slightly later exegeses, explaining the
reasons behind a verse becomes important to the exegetical enterprise. This
leads to a dramatic change in the types of interpretations given of this verse:
they now consist of explanations of why men and women occupy their respec-
tive roles. The exegesis of Abū ’l-Layth al-Samarqandī, who died 60 years after
al-$abarī, in 370/985, provides a good example of this new way of writing
God gave men the right of being in charge of women, because men have
more rationality than women do. It is said that men have strength in their

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132 Karen Bauer

souls and natures that women don’t have, because the nature of man is
dominated by heat and dryness, and in that there is strength and power, and
the nature of woman is dominated by moisture and coldness, and in that is
softness and weakness, and God gave men the right of being in charge of
women because of that.4
Whereas al-$abarī focuses on specific applications of male authority, such as
giving women the dowry, and supporting them financially, Abū ’l-Layth al-
Samarqandī cites mental and physical explanations for men’s authority: men
are more rational than women, and men’s natures are hot and dry, and thus full
of strength and power, whereas women’s are moist and cold, in other words
weak and soft. Only one of Abū ’l-Layth’s explanations was destined to endure.
First asserted by the ancient Greeks, the notion that women have moist, cold
natures did not gain much currency in classical Islamic exegeses.5 On the other
hand, the statement of women’s deficient rationality [nāqiÑāt al-‘aql]—only
rarely cited in Abū ’l-Layth’s time, and not cited by al-$abarī at all—eventu-
ally becomes extremely widespread.
Exegetes after Abū al-Layth’s generation almost invariably mention women’s
deficient rationality to explain why men are superior to them and thus have
been put in authority over them. For example, the Mālikī jurist Ibn al-‘Arabī,
who died in 543/1148, speaks of God having made men superior in two ways,
mentally and religiously:
The meaning [of the verse] is that the guardianship of woman was given to
men, because men possess two types of superiority [over women].
The first: perfection in rationality [kamāl al-‘aql] and discernment [tamyīz].
The second: perfection in religion and religious duties, in undertaking the
jihad, the commanding of right and forbidding of wrong in general [‘alā al-
‘umūm], and also other matters.
This is what the Prophet clarified when he said: “I haven’t seen people
more deficient in reason and religion, who can go straight to the hearts of
upright men, than you women.”6
Ibn al-‘Arabī’s citation of the mental and religious differences between men
and women is no accident: he explains that these interpretations have their basis
in a prophetic saying [hadith] appearing in the Sa­ī­ collection of al-Bukhārī.
This hadith declares that though women are deficient in rationality [nāqiÑāt al-
‘aql] and in religion, they are still able to “go straight to the hearts of upright
men.” (This hadith is referred to hereafter as the “rational deficiency hadith.”)
These exegeses exemplify three wider trends in interpretations of 4:34. The
first two trends have to do with the nature of the development of exegesis:
certain early exegeses are left out of later works, and later exegesis develops in
ways that could not be predicted by reading early exegeses. ‘Alī b. Abī $al­a’s
exegesis, that women’s obedience consists of good manners towards the hus-
band’s family, resurfaces only infrequently after al-$abarī’s citation; when it

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“Traditional” Exegeses of Q 4:34 133

does come up it sits amid a list of wives’ other, often stricter, duties, such as the
duty to remain inside the house. By the modern age, the interpretation had been
relegated to the dustbin of history. Modern exegetes usually do not cite it. It
seems that although al-$abarī’s compendium was a major source for later
authors, their choice of what to include in their own works is affected by con-
tent: it could be that Ibn Abī $al­a’s exegesis limiting the scope of husbands’
control no longer rang true to later generations.
The second interpretive trend is that, although certain attitudes may have
been shared between early and later exegetes, the content of exegesis develops
in a way that is unpredictable given the early texts alone. For example, early
assertions of husbands’ authority do not predict later assertions that women are
less rational than men. Together, these two trends indicate that it is problematic
to attribute a causal relationship between the earliest and later exegeses, as is
done when authors speak of early exegesis as the basis for what comes after.
The third trend illustrated by the examples above has to do with content. The
earliest exegetes seem to be “fair” towards women, by limiting their obedience
and not commenting on the reasons for men’s position of authority, while later
ones seem to have suddenly and concurrently decided that men are inherently
better than women, thereby justifying men’s authority. But such a radical
transformation in attitudes is doubtful: it is more likely that the attitude towards
women’s deficiencies was shared by most pre-modern exegetes, only it was not
mentioned in the earlier works. The evidence demonstrates that at some point
after al-$abarī, the methodological shift described above, from a focus on
application to a focus on explanation, can account for the prevalence of inter-
pretations in later works which refer to women’s deficiencies as an explanation
for women’s roles. This is not to say that there was no variation in exegetes’
opinions: as I showed above, the exegeses which limited men’s authority seem
actually to disappear in later ages, indicating that exegetes’ ideas may have
been growing more restrictive through time. Yet not all developments should
be understood to indicate a radical change in the prevailing view of women’s
status or roles. In some cases, changes in content are due to changes in method,
and the exegetes’ decision to include different types of proof, such as ahadith
on the authority of the Prophet.

What Do These Interpretations Really Mean?

But understanding that exegetes’ methods and interpretations change through

time still leaves the real question unanswered: what did the exegetes mean by
their explanations? Were these explanations, which seem misogynistic to many
readers today, intended to be statements of the anti-woman attitudes of the pre-
modern exegetes?

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134 Karen Bauer

I will briefly explore these questions through exegetes’ citation of the rational
deficiency hadith in their explanations of 4:34. To many modern ears, the state-
ment that women are deficient in rationality sounds misogynistic, but it could
be that the pre-modern exegetes had a different view. Unfortunately, they do
not offer many explanations of the meaning of this hadith, and thus the question
of what they really meant remains largely unanswered. I therefore argue that,
rather than simply dismissing them as misogynistic, interpreting these pre-
modern texts requires further research into what the exegetes may have meant
by their seemingly straightforward words.
The nature of rationality was intensely debated in the pre-modern period.
However, that debate does not seem to be applicable to the sort of rationality
discussed by these exegetes. In his work Adab al-dunyā wa’l-dīn, the exegete,
philosopher, and jurist Abū ’l-Óasan al-Māwardī (d. 450/1058) describes his
view that rationality is an “understanding of necessary things,”7 which is gained
by apprehension of the world in two ways: the sensory faculties, and the
understanding of certain a priori knowledge, such as knowing that two is more
than one, and that a thing cannot be both itself and its opposite.8 This type of
knowledge, he says, enables discernment of right from wrong, good from
bad—it provides a moral compass to guide one through the world.9 As he
defines it, rationality is a human quality, not one possessed by men alone. Yet
al-Māwardī claims that women are rationally deficient in his work of exege-
sis.10 It is difficult to reconcile these views, and it can only be done if we accept
that there is one type of rationality which distinguishes humans from animals,
and another (which remains undefined) in which women are deficient.
Another way to understand women’s deficient rationality is to explore books
of law to see how this quality plays out in jurists’ discussions of women’s abil-
ity to perform the functions of judge and muftī.11 According to one school of
law, the Óanafīs, women could be judges, and according to all schools of law,
women could give valid opinions on the law: they could be muftīyas.12 Moham-
med Fadel has used this fact to argue that pre-modern jurists did not attribute a
“general intellectual inferiority” to women.13 But it seems that many pre-
modern scholars did believe women to be rationally deficient. Jurists of schools
other than the Óanafī school use women’s deficient rationality to justify their
rulings against women judging, without accounting for the fact that women can
be muftīyas.14 In the juridical texts that I have reviewed on women judging,
most Óanafī authors do not say that women are deficient in rationality.15 This
seems to make sense because the Óanafīs allow women to be judges. However,
authors of works of exegesis who adhere to the Óanafī school of law often say
that women are deficient in rationality, thereby explaining why men have been
put in authority.16 While women’s deficient rationality is not usually the only
rationale adduced by jurists and exegetes to explain why women should not be

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“Traditional” Exegeses of Q 4:34 135

in a position of authority over men, it is often a prominent part of such

In the formulation of many non-Óanafī jurists, rationality is a quality neces-
sary for positions of authority, such as that of judge; because a muftī’s opinions
are non-binding, the post of muftī does not entail the authority that judging
does. Thus, according to them, women can be muftīs, but not judges. Yet this
explanation does not remove the prima facie contradiction: if the position of
judging requires rationality that women do not have, the position of muftī
should also—for a muftī forms legal opinions using independent reasoning,
whereas a judge enacts those legal opinions in the settling of disputes; the post
of muftī requires a higher order of mental reasoning than that of a judge.17
Although this subject needs more research, it is clear is that a simple reading
of the term “rationality” according to the modern conception of that word
probably does not encompass what the pre-modern exegetes meant by it. On
the whole, the exegetes thought that men possessed qualities that women did
not. It is another question as to whether this makes them misogynistic in the
sense of woman-hating.

Variation in Modern Interpretations of Q 4:34

If the pre-modern definition of rationality is hardly transparent, today’s defini-

tion, at least as used by the clerics to explain this verse, is not straightforward
either. Indeed, it seems that many modern exegetes who quote the rational
deficiency hadith would concurrently see themselves as actively upholding
women’s rights. Clerics in Syria today seem initially to be divided into two
groups—conservative and reformist—stances which seem to be apparent from
their attitudes towards women and towards the pre-modern traditional past. For
instance, several recent articles in English have introduced a general American
audience to a Syrian cleric named Mu­ammad al-Óabash, a tweed-suit-wearing
Islamic reformer; he is portrayed in the New York Times as a much-needed
voice of change and moderation in the Middle East.18 His liberal attitude
towards women is notable among his reformist tendencies: he and his associ-
ates speak of women as men’s “equal partners.”19 Al-Óabash’s intellectual
opposite is turban-and-cloak-clad Sa‘īd Ramadan al-BūÓī. True to his conserva-
tive image, al-BūÓī quotes pre-modern sources, and seems to hold medieval
views towards women, whom he says are rationally deficient;20 his traditional
dress and attitudes show his adherence to a traditional past. A well-known
paradigm is at work here, apparent in both the popular press and in scholarly
articles: the reformist looks and seems Western and “modern” in his views; the
conservative emerges from and hearkens back to a presumably homogenous
and unchanged pre-modern tradition. But when it comes to clerics’ attitudes
towards the rational deficiency hadith and towards women’s roles, this

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136 Karen Bauer

paradigm is not entirely accurate. Instead, conservatives take modern re-inter-

pretations of pre-modern views, and reformists do not reject all pre-modern
interpretations, but rather seek to work with the pre-modern heritage.21
The rational deficiency hadith is often quoted in modern sources to illustrate
the differences between women and men; it is the subject of a lively debate
between the conservative al-BūÓī and the reformist al-Óabash. Modern clerics’
responses to this hadith are indicative of the many ways in which they respond
to the pre-modern heritage, especially when that heritage seems to counteract
directly the evidence of the modern world that women and men perform
equally well in intellectual settings such as the university.
In his book on women, in which he discusses Q 4:34, al-BūÓī upholds the
validity of the hadith. He explains that when the Prophet told women that they
were deficient in rationality and religion, he was simply joking around with
them, the way that you joke with good friends. Yet the joke has a serious side:
its true meaning is that women’s rational sense may become overwhelmed by
their strong emotions, whereas men are able to maintain a cool head under
pressure.22 This is one of the modern conservative explanations of natural dif-
ferences between the sexes which are, as far as my research showed, almost
universally accepted among Syrian clerics today: women are more emotional
than men, and are naturally suited to certain tasks. Clerics whom I interviewed
did not assert that women cannot think or reason, but rather offered various
explanations for the ways in which women differ from men. Rātib Al-Nabulsī,
a prominent television preacher on Syrian TV, told me that men have a type of
understanding that women lack [idrāk]; yet he admits that women do just as
well as men in university classes and he does not consider these two facts a
contradiction.23 Others say that the difference has to do with decision making;
still others say that women’s and men’s minds are the same, other than women’s
overpowering emotions, which would sway them, for instance, if they felt sorry
for a witness in court.24 Some clerics also point out that women can be expert
witnesses in court—another example of how women’s intellects are sound—
but that they should not be allowed to be witnesses in a case of murder, when
the horror of the event would cause their emotions to overwhelm their rational
minds. Several conservative clerics said that women could and should give
advice to their husbands. One asserted that when a husband disregards his
wife’s sound advice, he goes against the spirit of the law which places him in
charge of her: although she must abide by his decision, he is morally and
legally in the wrong for not following her guidance.
These varied conservative interpretations of women’s deficient rationality are
heavily colored by modern ways of thinking and the realities of modern life,
taking into account the reality of both sexes’ access to university education and
work.25 They serve to justify a slightly modified version of the most widespread
pre-modern understanding of men’s role. The necessity for men financially to

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“Traditional” Exegeses of Q 4:34 137

maintain women is shared between pre-modern and modern texts, but, rather
than saying that men are women’s “commanders,” many modern authors will
say that men are in charge of the household, or that they have the final say in
disputes. Conservatives grapple with pre-modern texts and give these texts
modern interpretations. But the modern interpretations still serve to support the
“traditional” balance of power in the household: men’s status in the house as
final decision makers, in charge, or leaders is justified by their innate natures
differing from women’s in important ways, some of which were expressed by
the Prophet in the rational deficiency hadith.
Clerics who describe themselves as reformists, like Mu­ammad al-Óabash,
take pains to explain the importance of women’s roles in the public sector, as
members of the government, judges, and in the workplace more generally. And
al-Óabash claims in his book on women that the rational deficiency hadith is
invalid—it could not have been said by the Prophet, because it simply doesn’t
make sense. The Prophet consulted women, and took their advice; how could
he have thought that their intellects were in any way deficient?
On the face of it, the differences between the reformist and the conservative
clerics seem to reside in their attitudes towards tradition: al-BūÓī seems to
accept wholesale the pre-modern past, as embodied by the women’s deficiency
hadith, whereas al-Óabash challenges the pre-modern past even down to this
widely accepted authenticated hadith. Indeed, in terms of their spoken intent,
these two clerics place themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum when deal-
ing with the pre-modern past; and their attitudes to tradition seem to be directly
correlated to their attitudes towards women: either medieval-minded, or mod-
ern. However, their actual responses to the pre-modern heritage are not divided
on such even lines, and neither is there an absolute divide between conserva-
tives and reformists in terms of women’s roles. Although women’s participation
in the public sphere is a platform for reformist action, women’s rights within
the household are not the subject of much overt disputation between reformists
and conservatives.26
I have shown how the conservatives refit pre-modern arguments to fit with
modern sensibilities: but what is the reformist attitude towards the pre-modern
heritage? Although he rejects an authenticated hadith, Mu­ammad al-Óabash
does not reject the pre-modern heritage outright. It is true that some of his
opinions seem to have little relation to traditional discourses: most prominently
he advocates a doctrine of “universal salvation,” which states that other relig-
ions may offer valid paths to God.27 But other opinions of his have precedent,
and where that is the case, he advocates drawing on pre-modern sources
selectively in order to support his views. For example, in order to support the
doctrine that women have been prophets in Islam, he quotes pre-modern inter-
pretations. The process of quoting from opinions that have been rejected by
generations of subsequent scholars is a part of al-Óabash’s vision of renewing

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138 Karen Bauer

Islam. And some initiatives of his are directly supported by the majority
opinion in pre-modern sources. This is the case with his recent initiative to
recognize women as muftiyas, which he is pursuing along with Syrian Grand
Mufti A­mad Óassoun.
Yet, while the importance of women’s public role is emphasized by reformist
clerics, challenging women’s roles at home does not seem to be the source of
much activism. In fact, the majority interpretation of qawwāmūn as meaning
that men are in charge of the household and have the final say in disputes seems
to be shared between conservatives and reformists. In order to gain a clearer
insight into this branch of the Syrian reformist attitude towards women’s
household roles, I had extensive discussions on this topic with Mu­ammad al-
Óabash’s sister Hudā al-Óabash, who teaches women’s lessons at the Zahra
mosque where Mu­ammad preaches. She explained to me that, although there
should be consultation between the spouses, in the case of a real dispute the
husband’s word will prevail.28 Incidentally, her own husband is very supportive
of her role as a women’s mosque leader, and of all that that entails, including
her international travel while he remains at home.29 But whatever the egalitar-
ian nature of their personal relationship, the fact remains that in the rhetorical
realm she grants him the authority over final decision making, while expecting
him financially to support the household. They thus enact what they consider to
be the proper balance in the household. His right to the final say, plus his
financial maintenance, means that he is qawwām over her.
Although there are actual and important differences of opinion between the
clerics mentioned in this article, labeling them as “reformist” or “conservative,”
especially on the basis of their public advocacy for women’s issues, is more
problematic than it first appears. This is especially true in a society in which the
broad cultural understanding of women’s household roles may be shared even
across confessional lines. Furthermore, the public stances of Syrian reformist
and conservative clerics are influenced by a complex web of issues, including
response to the West, ties with the government, the changing conditions of
modern life (in which women work, travel, and attend university), their own
cultural milieu, and their quest for followers and support.


In both the pre-modern and the modern periods, the specific discourse on
women opens the door to the wider question of how sources are used and
appropriated in each age, by clerics of different schools of law and ideological
affiliations. While it may be tempting to view appropriation as a solely modern
phenomenon, it is, in fact, a method employed by both pre-modern and modern
scholars. Determining the sources for interpretation is not a simple matter of

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“Traditional” Exegeses of Q 4:34 139

examining the heritage and deriving an inevitable outcome; development,

change, and reinterpretation are important parts of the process from age to age.
Appropriation and reinterpretation does not necessarily mean assigning one
fixed meaning to a part of the heritage. Rather, as in the case of the citation of
women’s deficient rationality, certain aspects of the heritage may be rejected by
some clerics, and appropriated in numerous ways by others. The pre-modern
and modern variation in possible interpretations of the term “rationality” makes
it a particularly important locus of discussion. Through such loci of conflict it is
possible to see that, although exegetes of all ages share certain traits, their
methods and content may differ considerably. Yet, while modern conservative
interpretations are not homogenous representations of a homogenous past,
neither are reformist interpretations complete rejections of that past. Rather, in
each case, as in the pre-modern sources themselves, certain aspects of the heri-
tage form a part of the current discourse. The similarities between interpreta-
tions indicate common religious and cultural understandings, and the nuanced
variations between them counter the notion of one specific “orthodox” view.


1. This term is difficult to translate; it can mean either being a supporter of, or in
charge of, or both.
2. ‘Alī ibn Abī Talha, Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-karīm (reconstructed from later sources);
ed. Rashid ‘Abd al-Mun‘aim (Cairo: Maktabat al-Sunna, 1991).
3. Ibn Jarīr al-Tabarī, Jāmi‘ al-bayān ‘ān tā’wīl āy al-Qur’ān, vol. 8, ed. Shākir and
Shākir (1950), 290.
4. Abū ’l-Layth al-Samarqandī, Ba­r al-‘ulūm (tafsīr al-Samarqandī), vol. 1, ed.
Al-Shaykh ‘Alī Mu­ammad Mas‘ūd et al. (Beirut: Dār al-Kutūb al-‘Ilmīya,
1993), 351.
5. Scientific explanations based on physical evidence have often been used in
exegeses of this verse—this seems to be the earliest such explanation.
6. Abū Bakr Ibn al-‘Arabī, A­kām al-Qur’ān, vol. 1, ed. Mu­ammad Bajāwī
(Cairo: Īsā al-Bābī, 1967), 416.
7. Abū ’l-Hasan al-Māwardī, Adab al-dunyā wa’l-dīn, vol. 1, ed. ‘Abdallāh A­mad
Abū Zayna (Cairo: Matba‘ Dār al-Sha‘b, n.d.), 22.
8. Al-Māwardī, Adab al-dunyā wa’l-dīn, 23.
9. Al-Māwardī, Adab al-dunyā wa’l-dīn, 23–24.
10. Al-Māwardī, al-Nukāt wa’l-‘uyūn, tafsīr al-Māwardī, vol. 1, ed. Sa‘īd b. ‘Abd
al-MaqÑūr b. ‘abd al-Ra­īm (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-‘Ilmīya, 1992), 480.
11. In this discussion, I am not attempting to ascertain the cause of these laws; rather
I am analyzing women’s deficient rationality as it is used to justify the laws in
post-formative jurisprudence. A strong case can be made that the cause of the
laws is entirely different from the rationales used to justify them. See Behnam

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140 Karen Bauer

Sadeghi, “The Structure of Reasoning in Post-formative Jurisprudence (Case

Studies in Hanafī Laws on Women and Prayer)” (Ph.D. diss., Princeton
University, 2006).
12. A muftī is someone who is entitled to give non-binding legal opinions, as
opposed to a judge, whose legal opinions are binding. Most schools of law,
including the Shāfi‘ī school to which al-Māwardī belongs, do not allow women
to be judges, but allow them to be muftīs. In his A­kām al-qādī, al-Māwardī says
that judges can and should consult muftīs, including women, before issuing their
opinions. But he also repeats his assertion that women should not hold the post
of judge because of their deficient rationality.
13. Mohammad Fadel, “Two Women, One Man: Knowledge, Power, and Gender in
Medieval Sunni Legal Thought,” IJMES 29, no. 2 (1997): 194.
14. For instance, the Óanbalī Ibn Abī al-Qāsim explains the situation thus: “A judge
presides over gatherings of disputants and of men, and for this far sightedness,
perfection of intellect, and sagacity are necessary. Women are deficient in
rationality [‘aql] and are short sighted, [thus] they are not qualified to preside
over gatherings of men.” Ibn Abī al-Qāsim, al-Wādi­ fī shar­ MukhtaÑar al-
Khiraqī, vol. 5 (Beirut: Dār al-Khidr, 2000), 201. Although, as Fadel points out,
some jurists do say that women are a source of temptation, and thus must not
leave their houses to judge, some of these jurists also say that women are
deficient in rationality.
15. With the exception of al-Sirakhsī in his Kitāb al-mabÑūÓ (Cairo: al-Óajj
Mu­ammad Effendī Sāsī al-Maghribī, n.d.), 109–10.
16. For example, al-JaÑÑāÑ, the author of an A­kām al-Qur’ān, or work of the legal
rulings associated with certain verses, says that women are rationally deficient in
his exegesis of 4:34 (Abū Bakr Ahmad b. ‘Alī al-Jassās, A­kām al-Qur’ān, vol.
2, ed. ‘Abd al-Ra­mān Mu­ammad [Cairo: al-MaÓba‘a al-Bahīya, 1928], 229).
Works of law and works of exegesis have different aims, but the distinction
between them can be blurred in works in the genre of a­kām al-Qur’ān, which
describe the legal rulings associated with each Qur’anic verse. Al-JaÑÑāÑ can thus
be considered both an exegete and a jurist.
17. In an article forthcoming in JAOS, I discuss why rationally deficient women
were allowed to be muftīyas and judges in pre-modern Islamic law.
18. Nicholas Blanford, “Syrian Reformer Rankles Islamists,” Christian Science
Monitor, January 15, 2005; Michael Slackman, “Syria imposing stronger curbs
on opposition,” New York Times, April 6, 2006; Paul Heck, “Religious Renewal
in Syria: The Case of Muhammad al-Habash”, Journal of Islam and Muslim–
Christian Relations 15, no. 4 (2004): 185–207.
19. For instance, al-Habash’s niece Enas al-Kaldi is quoted as expressing such views
in a recent New York Times article by Katherine Zoepf, “Islamic Revival in Syria
is Led by Women,” New York Times, August 29, 2006.
20. See his book, Women Between The Tyranny of the Western System and the
Mercy of Islamic Law (Damascus: Dar al-Fikr, 2003).

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“Traditional” Exegeses of Q 4:34 141

21. Al-Óabash’s attitude towards tradition is well documented by Heck, “Religious

Renewal in Syria: The Case of Muhammad al-Habash.”
22. Al-BūÓī, Women Between the Tyranny of the Western System and the Mercy of
Islamic law, 253–59.
23. Interview, September 20, 2004.
24. For instance, the Lebanese Shi‘i Fadlallah holds this opinion.
25. Much has been written about modern appropriation of pre-modern discourses. A
discussion particularly germane to the topic of this article is in Kecia Ali’s
“Progressive Muslims and Islamic Jurisprudence: The Necessity for Critical
Engagement with Marriage and Divorce Law,” in Progressive Muslims, ed.
Omid Safi (Oxford: Oneworld, 2003), 163–89.
26. It should be noted that there are a few exceptions to this statement, and all
statements below, about reformists. The diversity of reformist views in Syria is a
topic that I hope to explore in future work.
27. This doctrine, and Mu­ammad al-Óabash’s doctrine of renewal, is particularly
well described by Heck in his “Religious Renewal in Syria: The Case of
Muhammad al-Habash.”
28. Interviews with Huda al-Óabash, September and October, 2004.
29. Interview, December 2006, and personal observation.


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Engagement with Marriage and Divorce Law.” In Progressive Muslims, ed. Omid Safi,
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15, 2005.
Fadel, Mohammad. “Two Women, One Man.” IJMES 29, no. 2 (1997): 185–204.
Heck, Paul. “Religious Renewal in Syria: The Case of Muhammad al-Habash.” Journal of
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142 Karen Bauer

Al-Samarqandī, Abū ’l-Layth. Ba­r al-‘ulūm (tafsīr al-Samarqandī), vol. 1, ed. Al-Shaykh
‘Alī Mu­ammad Mas‘ūd et al. Beirut: Dār al-Kutūb al-‘Ilmīya, 1993.
Sadeghi, Behnam. The Structure of Reasoning in Post-formative Jurisprudence (Case Studies
in Óanafī Law on Women and Prayer). Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 2006.
Al-Sirakhsī. Kitāb al-mabÑūÓ. Cairo: al-Óajj Mu­ammad Effendī Sāsī al-Maghribī, n.d.
Slackman, Michael. “Syria Imposing Stronger Curbs on Opposition.” New York Times, April
6, 2006.
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Zoepf, Katherine. “Islamic Revival in Syria is Led by Women.” New York Times, August 29,

© Equinox Publishing Ltd 2008.

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