A Revolutionary Woman Exegete: Bint al-Sh??i?’s Literary Approach to Quranic Exegesis

By Mohammad Salama
Submitted to Session P4828 (Restoring History, Recording History: From Bint al-Shati' to Samar Yazbek, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
What we call adab is located in a constellation of historical shifts from the era of the pre-Islamic qa??da until now. The emergence and codification of Arabic belles lettres has also resulted in the formation of aesthetic and philological principles that at once elevated adab and distinguished it from non-literary forms of human expression while belittling it in comparison to i?j?z al-Qur’?n. In this paper, I argue that the aesthetics of adab which eventually resulted in the formation of a host tradition of al-naqd al-adab?, have in modern times created a boomerang effect that brought the tools of literary criticism back to the benefits of Quranic exegesis, rescuing it from the persistence of rigid and inflexible ideologies. This new approach of modern Arabic literary criticism, which was boldly ventured by Taha Husayn in Pre-Islamic Poetry, begins with alienating itself from what it studies, namely becoming the reverse of dogmatism and nationalism in an era infested with both. In this spirit of desacralizing both traditionalism and fanaticism, al-naqd al-adab? prepared the reader to look at sacred tradition both scientifically and historically, that is with a disinterestedness that could only proceed from a methodical linguistic and aesthetic assessment. Regardless of whether this disinterestedness from the text was ever achieved or not in modern Quranic tafsir, the Mujaddid?n, the mid-twentieth century school pioneered by Am?n al-Kh?l?, Mu?ammad A?mad Khalafall?h and ??isha ?Abd al-Ra?m?n (Bint al-Sh??i?), has managed to establish an adab-inspired and dogma-free literary approach to exegesis. In particular, Bint al-Sh??i?’s work, al-Tafsir al-Bay?ni lil-Qur??n al-Kar?m [Rhetorical Explication of the Glorious Qur??n] (1962-1968) offers a philological and rhetorical examination of the Qur??n’s Meccan chapters in a revolutionary scholastic approach that sums up the efforts of her school quite effectively. I aim to show how Bint al-Sh??i?’s critical insights and adoption of a literary approach, arguably the first scholastic exegesis ever attempted by a woman, reinvigorate the synergies between adab and the Qur??n.