Hidayatullah breaks down feminist exegesis into three broad methodological approaches: 1) historical contextualization method; 2) intra-textual method; and 3) tawhidic paradigm. According to Hidayatullah, the historical contextualization method involves “researching the occasion of a verse’s revelation; distinguishing between descriptive and prescriptive verses of the Qur’an (i.e. differentiating between verses that describe the practices of the seventh-century Arabian audience to which it was directly addressed and verses that prescribe practice to all audiences); distinguishing between universal and particular verses (i.e. differentiating between verses that apply only to specific situations and those that apply to human beings generally); and identifying historical situations that shaped the context of revelation in seventy-century Arabia and subsequent exegesis of the Qur’an” (pp. 65–66). Quoting Barlas, Hidayatullah attempts to show that for feminist exegetes reading the Qur’an historically “does not limit its meaning to the context of revelation; rather, reading the Qur’an historically allows the Qur’an to be read in light of changing historical circumstances, thus making it relevant and applicable universally. In other words, to read the Qur’an in historical context is to uphold its universality” (p. 66). She shows how this particular perspective is the consequence of a distinctly modernist reading of the classical asbab al-nuzul (“occasions of revelation”) literature.
For feminist exegetes, argues Hidayatullah, the primary problem intafsir has stemmed from a fundamental confusion regarding whether a specific verse (or set of verses) are descriptive or prescriptive: “Wadud argues that though the immediate context of the Qur’an was a patriarchal and sexist society, the Qur’an does not impose the characteristics of such a society upon future readers. The Qur’an may refer to situations that are degrading to women, but that does not mean that it is prescribing those circumstances for its readers” (pp. 70–71). Looking at how Wadud, Barlas, and al-Hibri have approached certain verses, Hidayatullah explores how feminist exegesis has deployed the historical contextualization method in order to make sense of various “problematic pronouncements” within the Qur’an, especially those which seem to be advocating patriarchy or putting forth a vision that essentially contradicts the emphasis on male-female equality that Muslim feminists advocate. The emphasis on distinguishing between prescriptive vs. descriptive lies at the core of the historical contextualization method as it allows feminist exegetes to clarify that seemingly patriarchal verses in the Qur’an were actually merely describing a seventh-century Arabian situation, rather than emphasizing that such a reality was divinely prescribed. Even in cases where it appears that certain behaviors or actions are prescribed, feminist exegesis that these must be understood as culturally-specific to the immediate revelatory context of seventh-century Arabia, rather than as universally-prescribed ideals. Thus, the historicizing of the Qur’anic revelation is of central importance for feminist exegetes. For both Wadud and Barlas, a failure to do so would be to universalize interpretations which were the product of sexist and culturally-specific contexts.
Another major strategy that feminist exegetes have utilized to “undo” patriarchal readings of the Qur’an is the emphasis on the “patriarchal” and “culturally-specific” context of the classical Qur’anic exegetes, virtually all of whom were male. It is thus the role of modern feminist exegetes to “rescue” the “true, essential meaning” of the Qur’an from this problematic tradition. Hidayatullah is heavily critical of this perspective, as will be shown below, but more importantly she is troubled by what she calls the inconsistent and problematic usage ofhadith/sunna by feminist exegetes and their lack of a sound historical methodology. She shows that many feminist exegetes are inconsistently selective regarding their approach to hadith, with many choosing to deploy those traditions that align with their ideological perspective while rejecting those traditions that they perceive to be problematic. Hidayatullah is very critical of this fact: “The uneven use and scrutiny of the hadith demonstrates a methodological inconsistency across the collective body of feminist tafsir works. This inconsistency presents major challenges to the success of historical readings of the Qur’an because the information necessary to supply the historical context of the verses reread by the exegetes largely derives directly or indirectly from the hadith, even when the exegetes do not trace the historical contexts they identify back to particular reports. The successful use of the feminist method of historical contextualization will require that scholars of feminist tafsir more carefully clarify their positions on the hadith tradition as a whole, in part by treating the hadith more systematically in all their readings of the Qur’an rather than referencing the hadith in select cases when it is convenient to support or defend their interpretations” (pp. 85–86).