Eve of the Qurʾan, Eve of the Bible


A review of Imagining the Primal Woman: Islamic Selves of Eve, by Catherine Bronson.

Imagining the Primal Woman explores the disjuncture between the Eve of the Qurʾān and the Eve portrayed by the earliest Muslim exegetes; at the same time, Bronson argues that the Eve in the Qurʾān is distinct from the Eve of the Bible, which serves to discredit early Orientalist notions that the Qurʾān merely ‘borrowed’ from Biblical stories and characters. There are several differences between the Biblical Eve and the Eve of the Qurʾān. In the Bible, Eve is mentioned by name and Adam speaks to her. In the Qurʾān, she is never mentioned by name, although she is referred to several times as Adam’s wife or spouse. In the Bible, Eve is created from one of Adam’s ribs. Creation in the Qur’an is from a single soul, and from it, its mate (Q 4:1, 7:189, 39:6); there is no mention of the exact method or manner of creation. In the Bible, Eve is tempted and is responsible for the couple’s fall from the Garden of Eden, while in Qurʾān 2:36 and 7:20-22 the dual pronoun is used to describe events in the Garden including the tempting, the eating, and the expulsion. These differences lead Bronson to conclude that Eve’s portrayal in the Qurʾān is more ‘evenhanded’ than her portrayal in the Bible. However, the creation and expulsion story as told by the earliest Muslim interpreters bears more resemblance to the Biblical Eve than the Qurʾānic Eve.  For the early interpreters, Eve is created from a rib and she is the cause of the couple’s downfall. In order to excavate the sources of the Eve of the Qurʾān and the Eve of Islamic exegesis, Bronson examines ancient Near Eastern and Late Antique Eve-tropes in a variety of sources.

In chapter one, Bronson describes ancient Near Eastern sources for the Eve narrative. She begins the chapter by arguing for the Qurʾān as intertext, a concept that is well established in Qurʾānic Studies, but has not yet made a noticeable impact on work in Gender Studies in Islam. She finds evidence for the Eve tropes of being associated with a rib, being a temptress, and being associated with a serpent. Even Eve’s name could be derived from an ancient formula in which a goddess is referred to as ‘x of all the y.’ The derivation of Ḥawwāʾs name as ‘mother of all living’ therefore seems to be an ancient trope, either from the Akkadian goddess Mani (‘mistress of all the gods’) or the Hurrian goddess Hebat (‘the mother of all living’). Bronson makes a convincing case for seeing Eve as a Jewish, then Christian and Islamic manifestation of an ancient Near Eastern trope.

The second chapter speaks of the Eve of the Qurʾān. Bronson describes the different ‘Eve clusters’ in the Qur’an, showing how her story is told in different sūras. Following Neuwirth’s methods, and Nödelke’s chronology of the Qurʾān, Bronson asserts that the story of Eve unfolded through time, and that reading it chronologically reveals otherwise ‘inscrutable’ aspects of the text, such as the small differences between the versions of the story. She also analyses the different names for the devil, Iblīs and al-shayṭān. The use of different names is ‘governed by temporality’; they ‘correspond to different moments along a narrative continuum’ (p. 95). Though scholars in gender studies have proposed that the Qurʾān be read in context, it is rare to find one who uses current trends in Qurʾānic studies; this chapter is a welcome contribution to the debate on how to read and understand the Qurʾān.

Chapter three, ‘Formative Exegesis on Eve: Paraphrastic and Narrative,’ analyses early Muslim exegetes’ treatment of Eve, and shows that they added elements to her story that were not present in the Qurʾān. Bronson focuses on the creation from a rib, and on the notion of woman as being the temptress associated with the serpent. Her main sources are early works of exegesis, but she also looks into early histories and other works. Departures from, and elaborations on, the Qurʾānic narrative are well documented. She focuses particularly on the figure of Wahb b. Munabbih as a source for Eve-interpretations.

The final chapter, ‘Those Who Came Before You (alladhīna min qablikum): Exegetical Encounters in Late Antiquity,’ examines the possible immediate sources for the interpreters’ Eve. Here Bronson delves into the Biblical accounts of Eve’s temptation and fall, some pseudoepigraphical and apocryphal accounts, and even pre-Islamic Arabic poetry. One poem by the Arab Christian poet ʿAdī b. Zayd (d. ca. 600) includes many of the Biblical/Islamic exegetical themes of Ḥawwāʾ as temptress and seductress. It also includes elements not seen in the Bible but seen in Islamic exegesis, such as the serpent resembling a beautiful she-camel before incurring God’s curse and being relegated to slithering on the ground. These varied sources account for some of the images of Eve that would have been taken for granted by the interpreters, though they are not present in the Qurʾān.

One of the strengths of this dissertation is that Bronson has delved deeply into the secondary literature of other traditions, particularly Biblical scholarship, which is rare for scholars of gender in Islam. As her dissertation shows, we in Islamic studies have much to learn from the specialties of those working outside of our direct field, but in related and interconnected fields. Bronson’s dissertation bridges the gap between new trends in the study of the Qurʾān and early Islam, and new trends in gender studies in Islam; she fills an important lacuna in terms of both subject matter and method.

Karen Bauer
Research Associate
The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London

Primary Sources

The Qurʾān
The Hebrew Bible
Tafsīr works including those of Muqātil b. Sulaymān, Hūd b. Muḥakkam al-Ḥawwārī, ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Ṣanʿānī, and al-Ṭabarī
The pre-Islamic poetry of ʿAdī b. Zayd

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2012. 256 pp. Primary Advisor: Wadad Kadi.


Image: Painting depicting Adam and Eve from Abu Sa’id ‘Ubayd Allah Ibn Bakhitshu, Manafi’ al-Hayawan (Maragha, Iran, 1294/1299) (Ernst J. Grube, Islamisk Kunst, 1966). Wikimedia Commons.

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