The Department of Communications and Development were able to sit with Dr Karen Bauer and Professor Feras Hamza to discuss their recently released Women, Households, and the Hereafter in the Qur’an: A Patronage of Piety. This book examines the Qurʾanic corpus to uncover the social context of 7th-century Arabia to understand the text’s egalitarian moral message. Watch highlights from the discussion here and subscribe to the IIS YouTube channel to watch the full discussion, coming soon.

Gender egalitarianism in the Qur’an

Dr Karen Bauer: We might assume from a modern perspective that there can be no fairness or justice without social egalitarianism. And yet, if we look around ourselves, we know that our societies are anything but egalitarian. You know, try buying a property in London, for instance. We do not actually live in egalitarian societies, even today. However, it can be easy to mistake what the Qur’an takes for granted, which is that seventh century Arabia is inegalitarian, for a promotion of inequality in society. And that’s not at all what is going on. What’s going on in that text is not promoting inequality in the world. It’s promoting equality and salvation for the next life. And its recognition that there is inequality in the world.

Prof Feras Hamza: I think there is a tendency in contemporary thinking: for some reason, inegalitarianism, the lack of equality for all, somehow excuses individuals perhaps from being morally responsible. As though, that if only we were all equal, we could then be better moral beings. And I think the Qur’an says: well actually, the individual has free will and they have agency, even if they don’t think they have agency. Even if they’re in the most destitute of socioeconomic situations, there’s always that moral agency of choosing the good, thinking of the good option, and so on. And I think that’s an important point: we perhaps are more inclined to think of the importance of egalitarianism because then it makes us equal to be empowered to then think about morality and ethics and law and everything else in that kind of categorized way. And I think the Qur’an is different from that.

Households in the context of the Qur’an

Dr Karen Bauer: Of course, the Qur’an, it presumes a certain social structure. It presumes male-headed households and it presumes a social structure of patronage by which there would be a pater familias in a house (a male head of household) who would be patron for poor and disenfranchised people in the society. So, women become a prime example of vulnerable people who are cared for within those social structures of households.

Feras Hamza: And I think, just to build on that, once the Qur’an establishes its ambition to recalibrate the role of the patron or the head of the household as a role of looking after vulnerable individuals, not just the women, but of course everybody else in the household. I think the really subtle move that is not appreciated that the Qur’an makes is that once it speaks to those heads of household, the elites of the time can say: your duty is one of care, because what’s involved in that care is potentially a mutual or reciprocal benefit, which is that of doing pious acts and gaining in piety which then has a reward in the hereafter. Then that becomes a paradigm for anybody. And so, then anybody can become a patron of piety. And that’s the effect of the subtitle of our book: “A Patronage of Piety”.

Adding to our understanding of women in the Qur’an

Dr Karen Bauer: What we realized through our last book is that you cannot trust the interpretive tradition or the juridical tradition to give you the truth of what’s actually happening in the Qur’anic text because those texts of commentary and of jurisprudence, through time, were produced in their own societies. And the Qur'an predates all of that and it has its own perspective that is not adequately represented at all, I would say, in the tradition of jurisprudence and exegesis (tafsir).

Prof Feras Hamza: So, in that sense, I don’t think the jurisprudents read the Qur’an historically at all. You know, that’s a really interesting point because you think -- they would provide occasions for revelation, they would explain things through the tafsir works. But in that real sense, nobody ever did any history about the Qur’an, you know, when they were constructing tafsir and jurisprudence of a different conception of what the Qur’an meant. I think they took it as a purely theological, ahistorical text, in some sense. And that’s been a problem for jurisprudence.

Bauer: The problem is that once people hear – and I know this because I’ve spoken to a lot of people now – once people hear “male heads of households”, what they think is that the Qur’an is fully endorsing modern Muslim conservatism. Or they think that modern modern Muslim conservatism is some kind of accurate reflection of the Qur’anic worldview. And what we are saying is that is not actually the case.

Hamza: And so, when we speak about male-headed households, we don’t want at all to be misunderstood as somehow promoting Muslim conservatism. That would be a radical misunderstanding of our book. And so, if you only understand from those social structures a replication of those social structures, then you’ve misunderstood the Qur’anic point: which is a radical transformation of those social structures into structures of piety. And piety is not gender specific.

Women, Households, and the Hereafter in the Qur'an: A Patronage of Piety

Based on a new historical-critical study of all the Qur’an’s verses on women, this book compellingly shows that the Qur'an offered a moral transformation of the major social structures in its milieu: households, patronage, and kinship.

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