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Critical Readings: Devotional Reflections in the Pursuit of Quranic Understanding in Contemporary Pakistan

Loan, Nadia

This dissertation is a study of contemporary forms of Quranic learning among women in urban Pakistan. Over the last two decades, Quran study programs which promise an in-depth and personal knowledge of the text, have become immensely popular among educated women from all backgrounds in urban centers of Pakistan. Placing an emphasis on developing skills for reading and understanding the Quran, such programs of study have adopted an approach to textual engagement that departs significantly from previously dominant modes of recitation and memorization of the Quran in everyday practices of ritual devotion. Drawing upon ethnographic fieldwork conducted among women participants of Quranic study, this dissertation investigates these sites of learning to highlight the competencies, logics and modes of argumentation that are encouraged and cultivated among women readers of the Quran. It locates the shift from Quranic recitation to reading within a genealogy of the modernist exegetical tradition popularized by Syed Abul Ala Maududi in the mid-twentieth century in South Asia which made the `ordinary' reader its main focus rather than the scholarly world of the Ulama. It foregrounds this as the condition under which a popular hermeneutics of the Quran emerges in contemporary Pakistan and demonstrates how privileging a modality which illuminates the Quran's `true' meaning steers conceptions about the text and its role in defining ethical action for women readers. This study analyzes how contemporary practices of Quranic hermeneutics by `ordinary' women rely on the ethical cultivation of interpretive agency which is generated simultaneously by notions of the autonomous self and a normative understanding of Quranic injunctions. Through an analysis of women's experiences of reading, it shows that Quranic study in these sites occurs at the nexus of competing modalities of textual engagement in which women combine religious and secular capacities, skills and sensibilities for reflection on the Quran's meaning. It highlights the ways in which seemingly contradictory modes of reflection--one which is critical and another which is governed by devotional affect--are productively reconfigured together for discerning the ethical import of Quranic injunctions and their insertion into the idioms governing everyday life. This dissertation argues that such a mode of appreciation produces a unique register for reflecting on the Quran's pedagogical potential, thus imbuing the desire for `reading as understanding' with the promise of personal and collective social transformation. It also unravels assumptions about the discreteness of the spheres governed by religiosity and secularity in a post-colonial context and enables for a consideration of the ways in which the intersection between the two have been productive of new modalities of womanhood, sociality, and politics.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Anthropology
Thesis Advisors
Messick, Brinkley M.
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 2, 2014
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