By Ziauddin Sardar
April 22, 2008
The pre-Islamic Arabs were into binge drinking. Wines were made in most households and drinking was seen as a sign of high culture - drunkenness was valued as a sign of wealth and eminence. Gambling came a close second to drinking.
A popular method of gambling involved a jumble of arrows which was used for drawing lots. Each arrow defined a share, from naught to three or four. The person who drew naught had to buy a camel, which was slaughtered, and the meat distributed according to the shares drawn by each participant.
Like drinking, gambling too was seen as a source of pride and honour. Given that tribal Arabs valued pride and honour above all, it is not surprising that excessive gambling and drinking were among their favourite pastimes. Both habits were largely responsible for their perpetual tribal feuds.
The Qur'an sought to transform Arab society and most of this passage (al-Baqura 219-242) is devoted to elements of social transformation.
Verse 219 is the first time the Qur'an mentions drinking and gambling, and, it is worth noting that it acknowledges that there is "some profit" in both. But the social costs (pdf) are greater: for a society to prosper and progress, drinking and gambling must be abandoned. The injunction forbidding these practices comes later, in 5:90, a verse which asks Muslims to shun them in order to be "successful".
But it is not just wine that is to be avoided: all variety of intoxicants, from liquor to drugs, hard or soft, that affect the mind and hence the ability to make balanced judgments are included. Gambling comprises all games of chance - including the national lottery. Both, we learn in 5:91, cause "enmity and hatred to spring in your mind" and, as such, thwart the development of genuine prosperity and wellbeing.
The total transformation of the Arab society after the emergence of Islam, I think, was in significant part due to this prohibition.
A particular consequence of unending fighting and warfare in Arab society was that many children were left orphans. So the Qur'an moves immediately to the care of orphans who must be looked after in a manner that is "for their good". Orphans should not be treated as a separate class, as they usually had been, but as equals: "your brethren". They should not be left to live on the charity of others but should be an integral part of families that take them in.
We then move on to marriage and divorce, another important area for social transformation. The pre-Islamic Arabs had a number of rather strange marriage customs. Men married frequently, taking as many wives as they liked, and would dispose of their children if they could not provide for them.
Divorce was easy and frequent, and having set aside a wife a man might then remarry her. The Qur'an tells them not to make a habit of this; marrying a woman twice is enough. There was another prevailing practice: men would swear oaths to abstain from sex with their wives, thus leaving them in limbo - they would neither be divorced and free to remarry nor treated as proper wives. Some women could pass their entire lives in such bondage. The Qur'an tells these men that after four months of abstention they should consider themselves divorced - or re-establish conjugal relations (verses 224-227). There was also a tradition of provisional divorce - when it came to marriage and divorce the pre-Islamic Arabs were definitely an odd lot! Here, a women would be divorced for a short period and then taken back. The Qur'an tells these men to make up their mind, "either keep or release them in a fair manner."
As we have noted so often before, the Qur'an deals with the conditions of the society to which it was revealed. In our reading we have to take account of the practices and attitudes it was seeking to change. And as to the nature and means of that transformation, it tells us that we need to look for the moral and ethical principles that can be applied to any society at any time in history. This is another way of saying we need to identify the values with which to interrogate our own experiences, ideas and prejudices.
The principles underlying the changes the Qur'an introduces all work to establish balance and bring about greater justice and equity in human behaviour. We can summarise these as:
• Husbands and wives have the same rights: "And women have rights similar to those against them in a just manner" (228).
• Divorce is not necessarily a bad thing, but it should be an amicable affair, and women have an absolute right to divorce - without giving any reasons: "There shall be no sin upon them for what the wife may give up in order to free herself" (229).
• To ascertain a possible pregnancy, and hence the parentage of the child, divorced women should wait before taking a new partner: "Divorced women must wait for three monthly periods before remarrying" (228).
• Divorced women are entitled to alimony: "Divorced women shall have such maintenance as is considered fair" (241).
• Widowed women should have arrangement made for their welfare by their husbands: "If you die and leave widows, make a bequest for them" (240)
• Mothers should breastfeed their children for two years (233).
All these reforms were introduced in a society where the majority of women had no free will, and as we see in verse 221, they are expressed as the responsibilities of both men and women. This is a characteristic feature of the Qur'an, which in later verses often uses similar constructions in detailing the obligations of the "believing men" and "believing women".
With regard to slavery, I would consider the opinion of the classical commentators, who regard the reference to "slave" or "bond" person, depending on the translation, in the sense of the name Abdullah, which literally means "slave of God". Just like the marriage practices mentioned above, the institution of slavery existed in Arabia and the Qur'an had a clear, balanced, transformative position on that subject, as on every other injustice.
In verse 221 the Qur'an is concerned, as it is throughout this passage, with transformations that will set justice and equity as the foundation of a new system in which the family is the basic building block of society. It is suggesting that people who share a spiritual commitment and hence a common attitude to life are the most likely to produce partnerships that further its vision for society.