By Ziauddin Sardar
April 23, 2008
There are three verses in this passage (al-Baqura 219-242) that have generated some controversy. Let me say something about each.
First, the question of menstruation (verse 222) Here we are faced with a problem of translation, in particular Yusuf Ali's translation, which describes menstruation as "pollution". Indeed, Ali's translation of most verses in this passage is problematic; his footnotes to this passage are particularly misogynist. Pickthall suggests it is an "illness" which does not take us very far either.
Asad describes menstruation as a "vulnerable condition". But I think Abdel Haleem brings out the best meaning: "Say, menstruation is a painful condition. Do not approach them until they are cleansed; when they are cleansed you may approach them as God has ordained."
What the verse is trying to point out is that sex during menstruation can be painful for some women and it is thus best avoided. But if one were to read the word "cleansed" in a pejorative rather than literal sense, then it probably has a great deal more to do with one's cultural background than anything else. The reading offered by Abdel Haleem is borne out by other references elsewhere in the Qur'an - for example menstruating women for the duration of their period along with pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers are not required to fast during Ramadan.
It is also worth noting that women in the time of the prophet, far from regarding menstruation as something which prejudiced them in terms of religion, took an active interest in how their religion recognised the totality of their biological nature. They questioned the prophet constantly about these matters.
It is undoubtedly the case that male readings of the Qur'an have predominated in history. But, thankfully, in recent times women's readings have re-emerged and what characterises these readings is their confidence and security. Feminist scholars, like Asma Barlas, emphasise that there is no suggestion here that menstruation has any ontological implications for the status of women. Recognition is given and provision made for the biological nature of women, but as the entire body of the Qur'an makes clear, that does not interfere or detract from their responsibility to be active agents engaged in implementing the values and ethos of the Qur'an in their individual lives and the life of society as a whole.
Second, the issue of men being "a degree" above women. The subject being discussed in verse 228, where this passage occurs, concerns a woman waiting three months after a provisional divorce - during which she may or may not be found to be pregnant. The Qur'an suggests that "their husbands would do better to take them back during this period". Both husband and wife have the right to annul the marriage, but, as Asad notes, "since it is the husband who is responsible for the maintenance of the family, the first option to rescind a provisional divorce rests with him".
The verse is simply making a statement of the fact about the social conditions of the time. However, it can be read another way: the husband has an edge because he can remarry, since he is not going to give birth, without waiting for three months - a fact of biology.
Either way, this is not an ontological statement about the status of men and women. It is a very specific reference to the role of men in divorce in the Arabia of the prophet. There is a huge difference between reading something in context and taking one reference out of its specific context and universalising its implications. I would be the first to acknowledge that is exactly what far too many Muslims have done, to the detriment of women and Muslim society as a whole. The only antidote to such misogynistic nonsense is to read the Qur'an as a whole - and as we shall have cause to discuss in more detail later, the idea of men being a degree above women is consistently contradicted by the totality of the book.
Third, the simile that presents wives as "fields" or, as Yusuf Ali translates, "tilth" (verse 223). I take the simile to mean that women, like "mother earth", are good at nurturing humanity: they not only endure hardship during childbirth but also breastfeed and nourish their children, keep the family together, and are the repository of some of the most humane of society's values. Just like the earth, they bear fruit, cultivate civilisation, and need to be approached with love, attention, and respect. But apparently "go into your fields whichever way you like" has another connotation altogether. Abdel Haleem provides a hint with a rather bizarre footnote: "when the Muslims immigrated to Medina, they heard from the Jews that a child born from a woman approached from behind would have a squint". So, the suggestion is that the Qur'an provides the Muslims with assurance that this is not so!
The classical commentators have discussed the issue of "approaching from behind" in some detail. Al-Tabari, for example, furnishes us with many opinions, concluding with his own that anal sex is forbidden as vaginal sex is the only way to conceive. The classical commentators also provide us with an explanation as to why this verse was revealed. A woman of Meccan origin asked the prophet, through one of his wives: was "sex from behind acceptable?" The question arose, apparently, because this practice was quite common among the Quraysh in Mecca but unknown to (the original) folks in Medina. She seems to have got a positive answer!
However, I don't think it is as clear cut as this. When it comes to marriage the Qur'an emphasises the equality of both partners. And that equality continues when it comes to sex: the desires of both partners have to be taken in consideration. And I certainly don't find any problem with literalism throughout this passage. If we are prepared to think beyond the historical and cultural blinkers and not impose our own hang-ups on the words of the Qur'an, a healthy, mutual and balanced sexual life becomes the part and parcel of the good life, and why would one want to argue with that?