By Ziauddin Sardar
April 21, 2008
This long passage (al-Baqura 219-242) deals with a number of seemingly disconnected topics of different moment. Once again, I suggest, we need to think across the disjunctions to find a link. Submitting ourselves to the effort of thinking and questioning is, as I have argued consistently, the essence of reading, and the necessary requirement for understanding.
As we are faced with a passage that focuses on what has become a vexed issue in Muslim society, there is one other essential we need to consider. We all come to reading with our own ideas and experiences and all the assumptions, prejudices and predilections that entails. Too often we read through the prism of our assumptions. This leads us to confirm the ideas with which we began. My emphasis in discussing how to approach the Qur'an is precisely the opposite.
Submitting ourselves to the Qur'an should mean testing and interrogating all our ideas and experiences afresh. Instead of going along with what we think we know we need to become aware of the assumptions and prejudices we hold and how they stand up to the most open-minded examination of what the Qur'an is saying.
Madeleine is not alone in approaching these verses from the perspective of what we know of Sharia, Islamic law, and how it has been interpreted and practised by Muslims in history. The question we should be asking is whether that is the only way these verses can be read.
Do the patriarchal and often misogynist attitudes of Muslims in history actually match up to what the Qur'an says or have we interpreted the Qur'an to suit the predilections and attitudes already in existence in society? Pure and impure, normal and abnormal, all are concepts endowed with considerable cultural and time-bound elements. Reading the Qur'an is about seeing beyond these as far as our intelligence and diligence will permit.
The verses move from drinking and gambling to the treatment of orphans, suitable marriage partners, questions of divorce, making oaths and matters of inheritance - quite a range. But I would argue the first topic - drinking and gambling - gives a powerful clue to the consistent theme.
The key, I suggest, is intoxication, those things which stir the passions and yet also by their very nature can cloud judgment. Questions of marriage and divorce, like all the other topics here, bring human passions into play; an oath, for example, can be uttered in the heat of the moment. In each instance, we are guided to the need to make clear-headed, sober judgments, the kind that lead to justice and equity for all concerned.
This is why, then, the Qur'an moves from soaring expressions of spiritual verities to details of mundane human behaviour. A full appreciation of our relationship to God is, as the Qur'an has been saying from the very beginning, found in how we act upon and live out our consciousness of God in every aspect of our daily life: worshipping not only through prayer but also through action. To live with consciousness of God requires finding the right balance in all our activities, not being intoxicated with our own interests or passions and potential but being ever mindful of the need for clear and sober judgment. In this way we can apply the moral and ethical guidance of the Qur'an as far as we are able, even in the smallest parts of our lives.
Are These Verses Sexist?
By Madeleine Bunting
April 21, 2008
I marvel at these verses. There is such an attention to the practical details of human life and how to organise it. This is religion at its most prosaic, verging on a kind of legal guide on divorce than spiritual truths. It's one of the fascinating things about the Qur'an that it switches from the metaphysical to the most mundane of details relating to maintenance arrangements.
Having said that, the verses also included several points which alarmed me. I noticed the reference to slavery in verse 221 and was reminded of Rosalinda's comments on slavery. I was left uncomfortable with the way that a book which is the direct word of God for all time accommodates without the bat of an eyelid the idea of slavery. To my mind, such references make the Qur'an such a historically defined text which may have been inspired by God but surely cannot be literally word for word true for all time.
Just as problematic for me was the patriarchalism of these verses. Menstruation is regarded as unclean and dirty. Wives are likened to fields and men are encouraged "to go into your fields whichever way you like." Fields are inert, passive - they lie there waiting for men's activity. And women are being compared with fields as possessions - "your" fields.
The sexism continues with husbands being explicitly given a "degree (of right) over" their wives but wives do not have a comparable right over their husbands.
I know that there are comparable verses in the Bible, but that is precisely why I find the Christian fundamentalist position that the text is the infallible word of God so problematic. They are ancient texts loaded with the significance and meanings of their histories and thus can never be taken literally. The history of Christianity has been profoundly patriarchal and in many respects still is today - that process of reinterpretation is painfully continuing.
On a more positive note, I found the first verse of this section - verse 219 - symptomatic of a remarkable kind of wisdom. Referring to intoxicants and gambling, the Qur'an acknowledges there is "some benefit" in them, but concludes that the sin outweighs the benefits.
I like that kind of pragmatic realism. It seems much more honest than descrying such activities as completely abhorrent; it acknowledges that there are benefits but warns that the dangers outweigh them - a measured response which seems uncannily accurate as we struggle with our current problems with binge drinking and rising alcoholism.