Gender Hierarchy in the Qur'ān: Medieval Interpretations, Modern Responses

Publication Year



Karen A. Bauer, Ph.D. 2008.

“This book explores how medieval and modern Muslim religious scholars ('ulamā') interpret gender roles in Qur'ānic verses on legal testimony, marriage, and human creation. Citing these verses, medieval scholars developed increasingly complex laws and interpretations upholding a male-dominated gender hierarchy; aspects of their interpretations influence religious norms and state laws in Muslim-majority countries today, yet other aspects have been discarded entirely. Karen Bauer traces the evolution of their interpretations, showing how they have been adopted, adapted, rejected, or replaced over time, by comparing the Qur'ān with a wide range of Qur'ānic commentaries and interviews with prominent religious scholars from Iran and Syria. At times, tradition is modified in unexpected ways: learned women argue against gender equality, or Grand Ayatollahs reject sayings of the Prophet, citing science instead. This innovative and engaging study highlights the effects of social and intellectual contexts on the formation of tradition, and on modern responses to it.”

 Reviews and Endorsements

“This book is a must-read for anyone trying to understand how and why gender hierarchy became intrinsic to Muslim religious tradition and the challenge that the idea of equality presents to the tradition. Karen Bauer takes us on an exciting journey through the medieval and contemporary exegesis of the Qurʾānic verses on which gender hierarchy is based. In a rich discussion, she not only reveals the influence of unspoken assumptions and the socio-political context - norms and practices - but also points us to the shift toward gender egalitarianism that is emerging today.” —Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Professorial Associate, Centre for Islamic and Middle Eastern Law and founding member of Musawah: For Justice and Equality in the Muslim Family

“Karen Bauer’s rigorous and perceptive study will prove valuable to those interested not only in gender relations but also in exegetical principles. Through the examination of both classical and modern perspectives and by enhancing textual studies with interviews of learned men and women, Gender Hierarchy in the Qurʾān vividly illuminates the processes of scriptural interpretation as they have been impacted by social and political factors through the ages. This book’s provocative insights will serve to stimulate future studies of Muslim exegetical practice as well as gender roles in Islam.” —Andrew Rippin, University of Victoria, Canada

“Rather than casting traditional tafsīr aside categorically as the product of a misogynistic reading of the Qurʾān, this work takes a serious look at the variety of positions espoused regarding women and their rights in the history of Qurʾānic exegesis, endeavoring to understand them in their context, with attention to the history of the various genres in which interpretation of the Qurʾān is embedded as well as to the intellectual commitments of the authors. It examines a wide variety of commentators, covering various legal and theological schools and ranging from medieval to contemporary times, which allows the author to identify and highlight historical trends, particularly major shifts that occurred with the advent of the modern period. The result is an edifying and engaging study that avoids the curt dismissals, dogmatic high-handedness, and constructive theologies of other works on the topic.” —Devin Stewart, Emory University, Atlanta


1. Women's testimony and the gender hierarchy
2. Modern readings of women's testimony
3. From a single soul: women and men in creation
4. Contemporary reinterpretations of the creation narrative
5. Who does the housework? The ethics and etiquette of marriage
6. The marital hierarchy today

Cambridge University Press
New York
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