Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

On the many Exegesis of the Qur’an

On the many Exegesis of the Qur’an

Despite being the direct word of God, the Qur’an has continued to be interpreted by human scholars across a wide range of factors. Some believe the text should be understood by the prophet Muhammad’s own action, while yet others herald the tradition set over the last 1300 years. In modern times, a number of movements including reformist, feminist, non-essentialists and even utopian viewpoints of the Qur’an have garnered attention. Each moral foundation offers its own insights into the pages of the Qur’an, and here I will be examining their viewpoints in relation to the stance of men’s marriage relations to women.

The Fundamentalist viewpoint follows what was said directly by the Qur’an itself. “Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth”.[i] Fundamentalists claim that the word of God and prophetic Hadith are both clearly stated, and therefore should be preserved in law directly. Similarly, the Traditionalists follow clearly the Qur’an and hadith, but with the added history of the Islamic tradition over the years. Reason here combines with the Qur’an. In understanding the sura, Traditionalists explain men’s dominance over women as a reasonable response, as they historically held jobs (while women did not) and should therefore provide maintenance for their wives. This could be though of similarly to how a boss pays their staff for work, but while the boss has the money, they are naturally in charge.

A more modern approach is that of the inclusive reformists. Mohammad Shahrur’s argument of a modern reformist approach situates the Qur’an “within the larger framework of human knowledge in general… within the context of modern philosophy and linguistics.”[ii] The reformist approach expands upon the traditional readings of the Qur’an while still preserving the essential moralities. As such, the implementation of marriage relations acts as a theory of limits, following ambiguously (but with clear min/max limits) the control a man has over his wife, relative to their wealth and who earned it.[iii] These limits should be constructed carefully relative to the issue at hand, where reason combines actively with modern cultural reform.

Another idealistic form following closely with the inclusive reformists are the utopian reformists. Mahmoud Mohammad Taha claims for a society to reach the utopian ideals of the Qur’an, they must become a good society, or rather a society hinging upon an Islam of freedom: “one that is based on three equalities: economic equality… political equality or democracy… and social equality”.[iv] In such a utopian world, Taha clearly suggests a marriage where both parties not only make the same economically but are also treated equally under law. With the utopian reformist viewpoint may not be quite accessible in our current era, it will be something to strive towards in the future and its creation of idealistic laws. Three possible societies exist within this framework, where the lowest level of society in an Islam of enforcement. People are forced by the government to stay faithful to the teachings of the Qur’an. Situated above this is an Islam of law, where justice and government combine together. This route is the most common in the modern world, however it would still be subordinate to the Islamic utopian ideal of freedom.[v]

Stepping apart from the exact words of the Qur’an entirely, scholars have begun to suggest a Non-Essentialist viewpoint of the Qur’an. In simple terms, such a viewpoint identifies the moral underlying of the Qur’an while relaxing the Qur’an’s statements as something which can change relative to the location and time of government. In this viewpoint, equal marriages would be more acceptable in geographies and cultures where social equality has already been established. The Non-Essentialist viewpoint considers the universal norm in relation to whatever moral issue is presented. In cultures where the rights of Islamic individuals are high, so too are their corresponding duties.[vi] Unfortunately, this can also work in the reverse, where low capacity societies could continue to oppress women and justify this through their culture.

Finally, there is the feminist viewing of the Qur’an. Here, scholars like Wadud have begun to shift the traditionally male-dominated interpretations of the Qur’an to offer a more balanced approach towards the sacred text. Specifically, Wadud explores how “the perception of women influences the interpretations of the Qur’an’s position on women”.[vii] Wadud attempts to use her own perspective of Islam as viewed through her own eyes and compares it to men’s tendency of ascribing their perspectives onto the other gender. In combatting the Qur’an’s statements on marriage, Wadud may establish men’s title as the maintainer to a form of moral guidance, protecting and supporting women but not as a position superior to them. This can be seen too in the many times men and women’s pronouns are repeated equally within suras.[viii] Such a moment, Wadud suggests, is God’s way of equalizing the two genders. There is still a discussion on whether or not the two genders should be conceptualized as distinct entities, with their own strengths and weaknesses, or rather parallel genders that exist with an mirrored and balanced capacity with one another.[ix]

Ultimately, it may be necessary to adopt a conglomerate of the many exegetical perspectives when attempting to fully understand the Qur’an. A modernist viewpoint, after all, seems to require a recognition of every side of the situation. Certainly, western civilization has begun to normalize more traditionally liberal viewpoints such as that of the feminist. I personally would like to see Islamic nations strive towards the utopian Islam of freedom, but only time will tell if that reformist movement gains a traction within the modern world.



Christmann, Andreas, R. Gleave, and Colin Imber. Studies in Islamic Law: A Festschrift for Colin Imber. Oxford: Published by Oxford University Press on Behalf of the University of Manchester, 2007.

Khālidī, Ṭarīf Al-. The Qur’an. New York: Viking, 2008.


Kurzman, Charles. Liberal Islam a Sourcebook. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011.


Malhatti, M. Jafar. Powerpoint Week 10 B – 12. 2018.


Rahman, Fazlur. Major themes of the Qur-an. Minneapolis, MN: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1999.


Wadud, Amina. Quran and Women. S.l.: Penerbit Fajar Bakti Sdn. Bhd., 1993.




[i] Qur’an, Sura 4:34.

[ii] Andreas Christmann, R. Gleave, and Colin Imber, Studies in Islamic Law: A Festschrift for Colin Imber (Oxford: Published by Oxford University Press on Behalf of the University of Manchester, 2007). Page 267.

[iii] Powerpoint, week 10 B.

[iv] Charles Kurzman, Liberal Islam a Sourcebook (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011). Page 280.

[v] Powerpoint, week 12 A.

[vi] Powerpoint, Week 12 A.

[vii] Amina Wadud, Quran and Women (S.l.: Penerbit Fajar Bakti Sdn. Bhd., 1993). Page 127.

[viii] Powerpoint, week 11 A.

[ix] Powerpoint, week 11 A.



I have adhered to the honor code on this assignment: Sam Agnoli

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