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Religion and Society

A Woman Amongst the Sheikhs: the Qur’anic exegesis of Bint al-Shātiʼ

A woman reads the Quran [Aisylu Ahmadieva - Shutterstock].

‘Ā’isha ‘Abd al- Rahmān was the first female Muslim to make a name for herself in the field of Qur’anic studies. Whilst she remained tied to traditional positions regarding women’s issues, she made a fundamental contribution to the history of women in the Arab-Islamic world.

This article was published in Oasis 30. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2021-03-29 11:06:48

‘Āʼisha ‘Abd al-Rahmān, known by the pen name of Bint al-Shātiʼ, “daughter of the shore,” was the first Muslim woman to emerge in the field of Qur’anic studies. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to make her a pioneer of feminism. The question of gender relations is marginal in her theological production, while her vision of the status of women remained bound to traditional positions. Nevertheless, there is no denying her fundamental contribution to the history of women, in Egypt and in the Muslim world more in general.

 

The first Muslim woman to have asserted her authority in the field of Qur’anic studies, a field of knowledge which for many centuries had remained an exclusively male dominion, was the Egyptian ‘Āʼisha ‘Abd al-Rahmān (1913-1998), better known by her pen name Bint al-Shātiʼ, “the daughter of the shore.”

 

Born into a family of small landowners in the rural area of Damietta, a coastal city situated on the Nile delta, ‘Abd al-Rahmān was privately educated at first. However, she soon displayed a lively intelligence that was ill-suited to the limits imposed by home schooling. Thanks to the intervention of her mother and a great-grandfather who had received an education at the prestigious university of al-Azhar, the young ‘Āʼisha managed to overcome the resistance of her father, who had refused at length to enrol her in a public school, to go on to successfully complete her education to the highest level. The choice to publish her first articles under a pseudonym, a frequent choice among many women at the time, aimed to protect her family’s reputation from possible accusations of immorality and to thus avoid angering her father; at the same time, the author’s chosen name was an evident homage to her rural and coastal roots.

 

After obtaining a PhD in Arabic literature in 1950, ‘Abd al-Rahmān chose to pursue an academic career, obtaining a professorship in Arabic language and literature at the University of ‘Ayn Shams in Cairo (1962-1970), and thereafter in Qur’anic exegesis (tafsīr) at the Qarawiyyn University in Fes, Morocco.

 

During her long career, ‘Abd al-Rahmān wrote tens of books and hundreds of articles, most of which were devoted to the Qur’an. Her publications also include numerous poems, stories, novels, an autobiography, two treatises on the agrarian question and various works of literary criticism. The most famous of her theological texts is without doubt The Rhetorical Explanation of the Holy Quran (Tafsīr al-bayānī li-l-Qur’ān al-karīm, 1962–1968), an exegetic work in two volumes centred on the last 14 suras of the Qur’an, the first ever published by a woman.

 

The Qur’an as a Work of Art

 

The exegetic methodology of ‘Abd al-Rahmān was directly inspired by the theoretical indications drafted by her mentor and later husband, Amīn al-Khūlī (1895–1966), one of the figures behind what became known as the “literary commentary” of the Qur’an. According to the exegetic perspective that he proposed, the Qur’an was to be considered a work of art which should be read through the lens of literary criticism. It was a methodology, however, that was considered revolutionary and even dangerous by the traditional religious establishment, who accused its advocates of jeopardizing the dogma of the inimitability of the Qur’an and the very holiness of the divine word.

 

These accusations were strongly rejected by ‘Abd al-Rahmān, whose writings asserted on several occasions that the inimitable perfection of the Qur’anic discourses could be seen in every single grammatical construction, word or preposition included in the holy text. Far from laying doubt on the perfection of the Qur’anic text, in her line of thought, a linguistic and literary analysis was instead useful to cast full light on it and reveal it in all its splendour.

 

Nothing in the Qur’an can be defined as superfluous, to the extent that Bint al-Shāti’ considered the very concept of synonym to be improper when applied to the holy text. The method she proposed and used to understand the real meaning of a Qur’anic term was inductive, based on searching for cross references through a transversal reading of the text. The first step in all of her exegetic work was therefore to collect all the verses that included the term in question, to then compare them with the passages in the Qur’an containing words derived from the same three-consonant root. By way of this comparison, in theory at least, it was possible to deduce the true meaning of every term contained in the Qur’an and therefore understand the “true” message transmitted to humans by God. Nevertheless, for ‘Abd al-Rahmān, no single interpreter could grasp the deep sense of the entire Qur’an alone: a correct exegesis could only be the result of a collective effort.

 

Though being to some extent revolutionary, the exegetic methodology used by Bint al-Shātiʼ was nevertheless rooted in the classical principle according to which the Qur’an is its own best interpreter. According to this perspective, exegetes should avoid, as far as possible, making use of different tools or sources from the Qur’an during their linguistic and literary analysis, as this practice would pollute the purity of the holy text and the clarity of the divine message.

 

‘Abd al-Rahmān primarily condemned the use of the so-called isrā’īliyyāt (the sources of Jewish-Christian tradition) but her criticism also extended to other fields of knowledge, such as grammatical studies based on pre-Islamic poetry. Bint al-Shātiʼ also invited much caution when using the classical science of asbāb al-nuzūl (“the causes of the revelation”), maintaining that the circumstances in which a particular verse was revealed had no causal influence on the contents of the text. She also strongly disapproved of the so-called scientific tafsīr, a type of Qur’anic commentary which became widespread in the nineteenth century whose goal was to detect in the Qur’an anticipations of scientific questions unknown at the time of the Revelation.

 

Owing to her complex relationship with the premodern exegetic tradition and the new hermeneutic methodologies proposed by Amīn al-Khūlī, the opus of Bint al-Shātiʼ received a whole host of definitions, from “modernist” to “antimodernist,” through “neotraditionalist” and “moderately conservative.” There is no doubt that the theories and methods she used are strongly rooted in traditional exegetic science; at the same time, her work presents important elements of innovation.

 

As mentioned earlier, the conception of the Qur’an as a “linguistic text possessing exceptional eloquence” that could be rightfully subjected to a literary comment was in itself innovative, as was the rejection of the atomistic approach to the text typical of traditional commentaries in favour of a thematic interpretation resulting from a transversal reading. In the same way, the at times ferocious criticism that ‘Abd al-Rahmān levelled against the traditional commentaries was not very canonical at all, as she denounced their “lack of method” and accused them of being influenced by the exegetes’ personal opinions rather than the rigour of their research. Besides, her clear rejection of all historical contextualization of the holy text, as well as the idea that the Qur’an had just one “true” meaning, implied an epistemological rigidity shared not only by the traditional commentaries but also by modern radicalism.

 

A Conservative Vision of Gender Relations

 

This complex relationship between modernity and tradition can also be found in the attitude shown by Bint al-Shātiʼ towards the question of women’s rights and gender relations in an Islamic society. In the relatively large amount of popular and academic literature that has examined her work, ‘Āʼisha ‘Abd al-Rahmān has often been indicated as a forerunner of modern “Islamic feminism,” an all-encompassing (but still controversial) definition made to cover various knowledge production and activism projects aimed at promoting gender equality through an Islamic language. It is nevertheless relevant to note how Bint al-Shātiʼ did not centre her exegetic investigation around the “female question” or gender relations in Islam at all. These issues indeed occupy a totally marginal position in her theological writings, although they do find more room in her literary writings, in itself a rather interesting disparity.

 

In the few texts in which she directly tackled the question from a theological point of view, ‘Abd al-Rahmān explicitly rejected the idea of equality between the sexes, instead preferring complementarity. She openly derided the supporters of absolute equalitarianism:

 

There are still women among us, wrongfully thought to be modern, who see equality from this backward angle and demand the elimination of all distinctions between men and women. They want the woman to be accountable for her manners and behavior only if the man is. These women have even demanded the omission of the grammar suffix that determines feminine gender in Arabic language. And here we cannot help but wonder whether this right of equality allows a woman to be a polygamist! Also, maybe among those females who are demanding the omission of the feminine gender suffix, there are some complaining of carrying alone the burden of pregnancy, childbearing, and breastfeeding.[i]

 

The Qur’anic revelation, Bint al-Shātiʼ claimed, had already given women total freedom. Nevertheless, this had to be understood in terms of the free will granted to all human beings, not as a libertarian rejection of any type of moral obligation or social restriction. As a human being, every woman is fully responsible for her own actions and destiny, and no one—not even her father, brother or husband—can arrogate this responsibility to himself in her stead.

 

All human beings, whatever their gender, have the inalienable right to obtain an education and to excel, if they are able, in all fields of knowledge: the reclusion and ignorance imposed by “harem society” upon women is a crime against religion itself. Nevertheless, as we have seen, for Bint al-Shātiʼ claiming that the natural differences between genders did not exist was to be considered as much an aberration as the mentality that reigned during the epoch of the harem:

 

Equality remains strictly ruled by the logic of instincts and the law of nature that knows not absolute equality between one man and another, one woman and another, let alone one sex and another.[ii]

 

In upholding this theory, albeit superficially, ‘Abd al-Rahmān made use of her exegetic methodology, going in search of passages from the Qur’an where the concept of equality appears (musāwā). Her conclusion was that in the holy text, this term and its derivatives were never used with reference to sex or gender, but other questions, and in general in a negative sense: believers and non-believers are not equal (e.g. Qur. 59:20), nor, among believers, is there equality between those who choose to fight the jihad and those who instead “sit at home” (Qur. 4:95) or “those who know and those who do not know” (Qur. 39:9). Masculinity and femininity are not defined in terms of equality, but complementarity.

 

Therefore, as she had it, it was good that women, or at least those of them with “the right instincts”, willingly accept the “degree” (daraja) of preference over them that God had attributed to men (Qur. 2:228). This difference was not to be considered a humiliation, since the Qur’an had placed degrees of preference among its Prophets too. Besides, she traced male privilege to a purely contractual dimension; the degree of preference granted by God to men is not automatic, linked to simple biology, but depends on men’s assumption of their economic and moral responsibilities towards the family (Qur. 4:34). Should men abdicate their duties, they would lose all privilege granted to them.

 

This “conservative” vision of gender relations is also found in the work Wives of the Prophet, a collection of biographies of the wives of Muhammad published by ‘Abd al-Rahmān in 1963. On reading this text, it is striking how Bint al-Shāti’ almost completely neglected the social and political role performed by these women in the early Muslim community, to concentrate solely on their domestic lives. Of their lives, she above all highlighted the negative aspects: readers are offered a biographical picture centred around the rivalries, jealousies and flaws of the Prophet’s various wives.

 

Emblematic of this is the figure of ‘Āʼisha, the youngest of them, and, according to tradition, Mohammad’s favourite. In the biography dedicated to her by namesake ‘Abd al-Rahmān, the narration breaks off at the Prophet’s death, when the young widow was just 18 years old and her leading role within the Muslim community had only just begun. Her intelligence and position as the Prophet’s favourite wife gave her a fundamental role in the transmission of traditions attributed by Muhammad (hadīth), but ‘Āʼisha did not hesitate to state her opinion on the questions of politics or inheritance either. After the assassination of the third caliph, ‘Uthmān, and the election of ‘Alī, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, as his successor, ‘Āʼisha refused to recognize his authority.

 

She found support among some allies and the dispute resulted in a battle, in which ‘Āʼisha herself took part, albeit hidden by a canopy on the back of a tawny-coloured camel—such an importance presence that the clash would be remembered as the “Battle of the Camel.” In the biography dedicated to her by Bint al-Shātiʼ, however, there is no reference to the important religious and political role that she had in the early Muslim community; the author reserves her interest only for anecdotes on her married life.

 

A reflection on the political role played by ‘Āʼisha after Muhammad’s death is nevertheless found in another work by Bint al-Shātiʼ, a biography dedicated to sayyida Zaynab, niece of Muhammad and daughter of ‘Alī (Al-sayyida Zaynab, batalat Karbalā, “Lady Zaynab, heroine of Karbala”, 1966). In Muslim history, the figure of Zaynab is remembered above all for the courage she showed in mourning after she powerlessly watched the massacre of her brother Husayn and his troops in the Battle of Karbala, the event that marked the rise of the Umayyad caliphate and the schism between Sunnis and Shi‘as. In the introduction to this biography, ‘Abd al-Rahmān compared sayyida Zaynab’s power of endurance and her tragic figure with ‘Āʼisha’s political initiative—a comparison wholly to the latter’s disadvantage.

 

‘Abd al-Rahmān openly condemned the interference of ‘Āʼisha in political matters, maintaining, moreover, that her opposition to ‘Alī was dictated by petty personal reasons rather than a real interest in public life. What moved her was resentment towards ‘Alī, who advised the Prophet to repudiate her after some had cast doubt on her marital loyalty, and jealousy towards ‘Alī’s wife, Fātima, the daughter of Khadīja, the first, adored wife of Mohammad, who had borne the children that ‘Āʼisha never had.

 

On the basis of her analysis of the figure of ‘Āʼisha and the other wives of the Prophet, some women scholars have accused ‘Abd al-Rahmān of absorbing the misogynous assumption that women are incapable of competently performing a political role, have scarce rationality and the tendency to let themselves be guided in all contexts by their passions and emotions. According to historian Ruth Roded, for example,

 

The popularity of Bint al-Shati’s stories of the women in the Prophet’s life in the Arab world has an unfortunate outcome. The descriptions of women’s vices fit in with stereotypes and conventions that are all too prevalent in this society. The fact that these negative images of women are portrayed by a woman, and an Islamic scholar as well, provides added legitimacy to their validity.[iii]

 

Neither Feminist Nor Reactionary

 

It would definitely appear inappropriate in the least to define ‘Abd al-Rahmān a feminist author; besides, she explicitly rejected this definition. Nevertheless, that she made a fundamental contribution to the history of women, in Egypt as in the Muslim world more in general, remains undeniable. It is a contribution that must be read not so much in her theoretical reflections on the issue of women, as in terms of the example she personally provided. ‘Āʼisha ‘Abd al-Rahmān was in many aspects a pioneer: born in the tumultuous years of the colonial occupation, she was part of a generation of women who had to fight hard to obtain an education and participate actively in the public life of their country; and the success she obtained was without precedent in the history of Egypt. Bint al-Shātiʼ achieved something that would not have been thinkable a few decades before: a woman who had made a name for herself in religious studies, publishing the commentary on the Qur’an that her master had not managed to produce himself.

 

Her success did not arrive without some scandal. On occasion of a lecture she was to deliver at the University of al-Azhar, in 1959, the first ever held by a woman, a sheikh stopped her before she stepped up onto the stage, asking her to move aside and not introduce a dangerous innovation (bid‘a) to a venerable university. Bint al-Shātiʼ refused and took her place, before an audience of over 6,000 people; again, she was approached by another sheikh, who gave her a shawl and ordered her to cover her hair. She refused a second time, pronouncing a passionate speech in which she accused the scholars of al-Azhar of having misunderstood the Islamic veil (hijāb); even though her head was unveiled, her clothing was modest and perfectly appropriate for the place and the public.

 

Despite not being a supporter of gender equality, Bint al-Shātiʼ did not hesitate to defend women’s rights in the issues closest to her heart, above all in the socio-economic sphere. For example, when in 1961 she was called by Nasser’s government to take part in the committee that would draw up the new National Action Charter, ‘Abd al-Rahmān did not hesitate to criticize the agricultural reform, which considered properties owned by women as an extension of those of their husbands and sons. In a television debate, before a large public, she asserted that Islam had acknowledged women economic independence and insisted that the law should consider them fully autonomous subjects.

 

Therefore, it would be wrong to simply write off Bint al-Shātiʼ as a reactionary figure, in the same way as it would be to arbitrarily label her a feminist, a description which she never saw as fitting. In order to better understand what may seem a contradiction in terms, it can be useful to refer to the critique of feminist theory offered by anthropologist Saba Mahmood in the now classic Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. In this essay, centred on female activism in the mosques of Cairo, Mahmood proposed a radical reinterpretation of the concept of agency.[iv] Feminist theory has—according to Mahmood—sought to impose a normative vision of freedom and agency in the sense of resistance to power, according to a binary logic that tends to classify every action and behaviour in terms of submission to or subversion of that power. This binary logic proves totally inadequate to assess life courses, action and thought developed in different contexts to Euroamerican ones:

 

If the ability to effect change in the world and in oneself is historically and culturally specific […] then the meaning and sense of agency cannot be fixed in advance, but must emerge through an analysis of the particular concepts that enable specific modes of being, responsibility, and effectivity.[v]

 

‘Abd al-Rahmān may appear a contradictory figure to Western eyes; but the apparent contradiction in her discourse reflects all the ambiguities of the historical context she was living in regarding the matter of women’s emancipation. As I have been able to argue elsewhere, under Nasser’s governance, women remained subject to a “dual” cultural and legislative discourse that defined them as equal citizens to men in the public sphere but at the same time ratified their subordination to the will of their protectors—men—in the private and family realm.[vi]

 

Bint al-Shātiʼ was in a certain sense the exemplary embodiment of this dual discourse; having straddled two worlds throughout her lifetime, she kept strong roots in the rural and traditional context where she grew up and at the same time grasped the opportunities offered to her by a rapidly changing nation. This “hybrid” socio-cultural status and her relative political prudence meant that neither feminists nor Islamists considered her a sufficiently radical author, even though it may have been these very characteristics that enabled her to reach the height of success and earn the almost unconditional support of those in power. Indeed, she received medals for merit from all the presidents who governed Egypt over her lifetime: Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. However one might wish to judge her position on gender issues, the importance of Bint al-Shātiʼ in the history of contemporary Islamic thought remains unquestionable, as does her influence over successive generations of women who, in ever greater numbers, have claimed the right to take part in a religious discourse which has excluded them for all too long.

 

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

 

To cite this article


Printed version:
Margherita Picchi, “A Woman Amongst the Sheikhs: the Qur’anic exegesis of Bint al-Shātiʼ”, Oasis, year XV, n. 30, December 2019, pp. 79-88.


Online version:
Margherita Picchi, “A Woman Amongst the Sheikhs: the Qur’anic exegesis of Bint al-Shātiʼ”, Oasis [online], published on 30th November 2020, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/woman-amongst-sheikhs-quranic-exegesis-bint-al-shati


[i] Aisha Abdul Rahman, “The Islamic Concept of Women’s Liberation”, al-raida, no. 125 (2009), pp. 37–43, here p. 40.
[ii] Ibidem.
[iii] Ruth Roded, “Bint al-Shati’s ‘Wives of the Prophet’: Feminist or Feminine?,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 33, no. 1 (2006), pp. 51–66, here p. 66.
[iv] Here the term agency is meant as a “freedom to act” in a positive sense, not as a simple absence of imposed restrictions but the assertive possibility of acting in the world.
[v] Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton-Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005, pp. 14–15.
[vi] Margherita Picchi, “Genere, modernità e politiche sociali nell’Egitto di Nasser,” Storia del pensiero politico, no. 1 (2018), pp. 43–62.