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Blogging the Qur'an by Ziauddin Sardar- Part 31: That Was Then, This Is Now: Part 1



By Ziauddin Sardar

May 26, 2008

During the time of the Prophet Muhammad, Arabia was an illiterate society; reading and writing were not the norm. In this passage, the Qur'an continues the theme of social transformation with the emphasis now on a cultural shift from an oral society to a literate one. The theme of usury, concerned with the ethics of lending and borrowing of money, naturally leads us, in the longest verse in the Qur'an (verse 282), to the subject of contracts.

Once again the objective is to enshrine the principles of justice and equity through mechanisms that promote fair dealing, honesty and harmony while addressing questions of the imbalance of power between participants in business deals.

We have to notice not merely the detail but the consistency of the underlying principles that order the diverse aspects of human activity mentioned in the Qur'an. The believers are advised to write down any business arrangements they contract, rather than simply rely on memory as was normally the case in 7th-century Arabia. Those who could not read or write are urged to use the services of a professional scribe. On the whole, writing is emphasised as a more exact and clear way of keeping records: it is "more equitable in God's eyes, more reliable as testimony, and more likely to prevent doubts arising between you".

It is interesting to note that it is not the lender but the borrower who is asked to dictate the contract: "let the debtor dictate". I think this is to balance the power equation between the lender and the borrower. The lender does not make a unilateral contract, writing down whatever he wishes, but the borrower writes down what he thinks he has agreed in the contract. But the borrower is urged to be honest and "fear God".

It is possible a borrower may not be in a position to dictate the contract himself or to be able to negotiate the contract justly. The word translated by Yusuf Ali as "mentally deficient" has no such meaning - political correctness notwithstanding, it is a sign of our changing attitudes, and our awareness of the connection between language and equality, that no one would nowadays use such a term. The allusion here is to someone who is too young or too old and hence may find the transaction or terms of contract difficult to understand. These people need the help of a guardian, who must also be honest and fair in writing up the contract. In the period when these verses were revealed, such people would most likely have been orphans who would have to rely on their guardians to ensure their property and other inheritance rights were properly protected.

However, just writing down the contract is not good enough. The contract has to be witnessed. And here we come to one of the most controversial passages in the Qur'an.

The Qur'an suggests that witnesses should be "two men", or failing that "one man and two women". But these are not just any witnesses; they come from "those you approve as witnesses". So those who act as witnesses have to satisfy the parties engaged in transaction, and these parties themselves reflect the norms and values of the society from which they come.

Much has been made of this section of verse 282, and Madeleine is right to raise the point again. It has often been understood to mean "two women equal one man". On the basis of this interpretation, classical as well as modern commentators have argued that women lack common sense, they are less reliable, and indeed somewhat inferior to men.

Those who take such a position often justify their claim by citing dubious, and often fabricated, Hadith or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad - sayings which are in stark contrast with the overwhelming body of evidence in the biographies of the prophet which show the recipient of God's revelation as a man who treated his wives and other women with the utmost respect.

For certain, let us say more pious and puritanical, segments of Muslim societies, including traditional scholars and thinkers, women are simply feeble-minded, irrational and timid. Some other Muslim groups even invoke science to justify their claims about inferiority of women.

It is safe to say that misogyny rules among certain groups of Muslims. While this is an inversion of the meaning we find in the Qur'an, and thus a serious perversion of Islam, it is not a flaw exclusive to Muslim society. The nonsense talked by some so-called Muslim scholars exactly corresponds to the language used for centuries in western society to justify the lesser status of women.

And in the west women had none of the social and property rights conferred explicitly by the Qur'an. In western society a woman was the chattel of her father until marriage, and on marriage, of her husband. We would do well to remember how recently the change has occurred in western society. We would do even better to consider the complete illogic of Muslim scholars who on the one hand like nothing better than to remind Muslims of this most basic difference as proof of the superiority of Islam, while on the other hand denying women the opportunity to exercise the status and rights with which they have been endowed.

The obvious point to note is that this verse categorically does not say that women lack common sense, or are feeble-minded or inferior in any way. The issue of two women witnesses relates specifically to commercial transactions. And we have to consider the context in which such transactions would occur in the patriarchal society of 7th-century Arabia. Furthermore, it must be clear, from the context of the principle the Qur'an is putting forward, that this is not a statement on the status of women. The emphasis in this verse is on justice, where the debtors, guardians, and even the scribes are all urged to act justly. How, then, can than the Qur'an proceed to make an unjust statement that accords half of humanity second-class status?

In this verse the context is not just important - it is all there is! We have already seen that women in Arabian society did not have a great deal of freedom to choose and did not play an important part in public life. Of course, there were exceptions, the most notable being Khadijah, the first wife of the prophet, who persuaded him to go on a business trip on her behalf - a prelude to their romance and eventual marriage. But on the whole they were not involved in financial transactions and lacked experience in this regard.

Moreover, women tended to stay in their own domain and did not go out to bazaars and markets, mosques and courts, as often and commonly as men. So, the very least we can say is that this advice relates to a specific society in a particular period. The second woman is there to support the first, and help her out if needed: to "remind her". The two encourage each other to come forward to do their public duty, that is, to be active participants in creating a more just and equitable society.

And if one of the female witnesses is coerced, manipulated or otherwise forced to change her testimony by some unscrupulous male, not an unlikely event in the kind of society we are dealing with, two could support each other and stand firm.






The Art of the Practical


By Madeleine Bunting

May 26, 2008

This is the Qur'an at its most pragmatic. These kinds of verses always take me by surprise. It is something about the solicitude with which God - as Muslims believe -involves himself in the detail of human life.


I suppose I'm used to the rather abstract principles of the New Testament. So this exactness as to the number of witnesses, the writing down of the debt: I marvel at the ambition of this book to help human beings to live.

But - and of course there is I'm afraid a but - why is there this reference to women forgetting so that you need two women rather than one? I can imagine some answers - that forgetting could be quite a useful trick in a pre-Islamic society where women had such low status, and that ensuring there were two women was a way of protecting them from being bullied. But I will be keen to hear how Zia deals with this.


URL of Part 30:,-justice-in-trade--part-2/d/12973