Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Ashley George: Tides of Change in Islamic Exegeses

Like all other religions, Islam has several school of ethics as well as exegeses, theories meant to determine interpretation of the Qur’anic text and how to implement these values into society. Exegeses held by different countries can be seen based on the laws they establish in their Shari’a. The different groups of exegeses we have seen can be separated into four different camps: fundamentalism, traditionalism, utopianism and feminist readings. Each of these are championed by different well-known Islamic scholars around the world, some in Egypt, some in Sudan and others around the Asian continent and within the Muslim diaspora. Through their differences and similarities, we can see how each of these exegeses have lead to massive movements in the Muslim world challenging Muslims to critic the way they and society views Islamic scripture and how this text should be implemented into law and society.

Perhaps the most visible exegeses we see around the world today are fundamentalist and traditionalist exegeses. Though the name is derived from the world “fundamental,” the fundamentalist exegesis is anything but fundamental values of Islam. Fundamentalist ideologies and propaganda are often used as a means of instilling fear or terror on a population of people, and they can be used by terror groups like ISIS or implemented into Shari’a like the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia. This is not to say that all fundamentalist thought is inherently terroristic, it is just unfortunately commonly used by those aiming to spread mass terror and panic. Sayyid Qutb was a well known proponent of fundamentalist Islam and he, as well as Hassan al-Banna, made huge strides in bringing this ideology to the mainstream in Egypt through the Muslim Brotherhood.[1] This form of Islam tends to be rather strict and relies heavily upon order and regulations, as al-Banna was known for his rejection of singing, dancing and other forms of “unnecessary” social engagement that he saw as un-Islamic. This is the strictest exegesis in the Muslim world, but in recent times it has become increasingly under fire by women, youth and liberal thinkers.

In terms of traditionalism, this is the idea that reformed notions of Islam are blasphemous and should not be accepted. Hossein Nasr is a renowned scholar who supports this theory and he advocates for using tradition as the only source of law and order, and any modern day invention or idea should not be acknowledged as a part of original Islam. The Iranian professor is known for his value of reason and science as vital to Islam and tradition as the foundation of Islam, the “Sacred Collective Mind.”[2] Critics of this ideology like Faezeh Azimzadeh cite this reading of the Qur’an as problematic because they say it is rooted in the notion that men have physical, mental and financial superiority that women do not.[3]

The more recent and liberal-minded exegeses that are hotly debated today include feminist and gender neutral readings of the Qur’an. Scholars like Amina Wadud think that we need to read the Qur’an through the voice and perspective of a woman, to combat all of the gender bias and sexism that we have accumulated over so much of our civilization. Others like Asma Barlas think that we should reject gender altogether, not using gender to sway our interpretation of God’s words, to get a clear and unbiased picture. Figures like Amina and Asma are game changing thinkers in their field, considering that they are outspoken women leading the movement of feminism and liberal thought in Qur’anic scholarship. Amina herself has been making history, as she became the first woman to facilitate prayer in a room of mixed men and women, praying together side by side which is almost entirely forbidden in Muslim communities around the world.[4]

On a different note, there are also scholars who take neither of these positions, but rather they opt for a system centered on equality and social justice. This involves taking elements from feminist reform movements but framing it in a utopian light to stress that it is the exegesis of utmost justice and peace for all humankind. Mahmoud Mohamed Taha is perhaps the greatest spokesman for this school of thought, and he tragically paid the ultimate price for his vocalization and persistence of his activism. He advocated for equality between people regardless of gender, citing Shari’a’s exclusion of women as citizens to the same extent as men as being particularly disturbing to him.[5] He could not bring himself to accept this, so he spoke out on injustices he saw and gathered a humble following.

To sum all of these ideas up, we can see two clear differences between many of these exegeses: some of them value tradition and conservatism above all and others are more focused on social justice and equality among all groups of people. Fundamentalism and traditionalism put tradition and the past first whereas utopianism and the ideologies of feminist scholars see equality and individual rights are the most vital points of activism. We can never know the exact way we were meant to interpret the divine text for certain, but we can certainly see that as our societies develop and change over time, we are leaning more and more towards these notions of social justice and the need for equality above all else. Wadud and Taha would probably view this more positively than Nasr or Qutb, but regardless of what ideology one associates with, important dialogue is happening and change is coming.


[1] “A Lesson in Hate”

[2] Mahallati, 5-3-18

[3] Mahallati, 4-24-18

[4] “Woman Leads Muslim Prayer Service in New York”

[5] “The Moderate Martyr”


Works cited:

Elliott, Andrea. “Woman Leads Muslim Prayer Service in New York.” The New York Times. March 19, 2005. Accessed May 15, 2018.

Packer, George. “The Moderate Martyr.” The New Yorker. July 06, 2017. Accessed May 15, 2018.

Von Drehle, David. “A Lesson In Hate.” February 01, 2006. Accessed May 15, 2018.

Mahallati, Jafar. Class lecture, April 24, 2018.

Mahallati, Jafar. Class lecture, May 3, 2018.

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