By Alayna Ahmad
10 November, 2014
‘Islam is often perceived today as a religion which subordinates, oppresses, and discriminates women.’ Riffat Hassan writes this passage under the heading of Muslim Women and Post-Patriarchal Islam, attempting to liberate Islam from the misconceptions that have surrounded it in Islamic societies, particularly among men. The author was born and brought up in South Asia where there is a strong patriarchal system. Women are seen as inferior to men and unfortunately do not have the knowledge of Islamic theology to counteract this mentality. This perception of women has been deeply rooted in the centuries of interpretations of Islam through a cultural lens predominantly controlled by men.
Pre-Islamic Arab culture inherited influences from Judeo-Christian traditions. These included the conviction that women were responsible for the downfall of mankind with the expulsion of Adam and Eve (named Hawa in Arabic) from the Garden of Eden. Furthermore, there was strong emphasis on God’s chief creation, man, because the woman was created from his rib and for his pleasure only. These beliefs, however, have no legitimacy within the Qur’an. So, one may ask, why have women in Islam throughout the centuries been assigned second-class status?
First, the idea that Hawa was created from Adam’s rib is found in a number of prophetic traditions (Hadiths) collected and ‘authenticated’ centuries after the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) time by renowned scholar Al-Bukhari, who died in 870 AD. His collections have today become the most trusted, especially by Sunni Muslims. The Hadiths that say Hawa was created from Adam’s rib contradict the Qur’an, in which man and woman are created equal. There is no passage in the Qur’an that says man was created on Earth first. In fact, it sometimes refers to the first creation with the words ‘Nafs In Wahidatin’ (from a single cell), which is grammatically feminine.
Interestingly, there is no mention of the name ‘Hawa’ in the Qur’an; it always uses the word ‘Zauj’, which means ‘mate’ in English. ‘Zauj’ is a masculine noun that is used in reference to animals, fruit and plants. So it is hardly surprising that the original Hebrew Adam was not a single man and that the word itself seemed to be referring to humanity at large through its connection with the word for ‘soil’. The term ‘Adam’ is mentioned 25 times in the Qur’an and is usually referring to more than one human being.
Second, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Eve listened to Satan and came to be seen as the temptress who seduced Adam into eating the forbidden fruit. This led to their expulsion from Eden. Women, in the larger cultural context, have been blamed for the fall. But in the Bible, both sexes are equally guilty for disobeying God. The Qur’an also holds both Adam and Hawa equally responsible. For example, Qur’an 7:19-25 mentions both Adam and Hawa being led astray by the devil. Moreover, it confirms that Adam had forgotten the pledge he had made with God by allowing himself to be seduced. Despite this evident guilt in Adam, the Judeo-Christian attitude to women has filtered into Islamic culture.
There is no ‘fall’ in the Qur’an, and therefore the Qur’an expects all of mankind to act on moral grounds when making choices. It warns against the Devil’s influence which will lead mankind astray. Following a moral path will inevitably lead to paradise. Unlike in the Genesis, the Qur’an only alludes to partial or full nakedness of Adam and his mate. Whereas in the Bible this nakedness leads to sexual behaviour, the Qur’an does not associate sexuality with sin, unless outside marriage. Despite references in the Qur’an and Genesis that partial or full nakedness led both Adam and Hawa into sexual activity, it is solely women, not men, who are today viewed as objects of sexuality.
Women have been exploited in many religious traditions over the centuries. But the Qur’an teaches justice, equality and peace. Only through a proper religious education will women be liberated rather than suppressed. The falsifying traditions, in particular those which demean women, have damaged true Islamic teachings. Islam, which actually liberates women, has now become a reason to act exactly in the opposite.
Eventually, one can hope, a harmonious equilibrium between the sexes will emerge. But this will happen only if Muslim women wake up to realise that men and their societies are stealing their God-given rights.