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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 7 Aug 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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What Do Men Owe to Women? Islam and Gender Justice: Beyond Simplistic Apologia


By Farid Esack

I saw a woman hanging from her hair [and] her brain was boiling because she had not covered her hair. I saw a woman who had been hanged from her tongue and hell’s water was being poured into her throat because she had annoyed her husband. I saw a woman in a furnace of fire, hanging from her feet because she had left home without her husband’s permission … -- Saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad

1. Reflecting on the Topic

The question is only seemingly simple. I shall deal with a number of complexities presented by the title itself before proceeding to the question. While these questions may be of mere academic interest to the post-modernist scholar, they are of far greater ethical concern to a scholar who locates him or herself within a discourse of liberation theology as the present writer does. It is often not our theological positions on the mainstream other – gendered, racial or religious - but towards “the least” (as in “what you do to the least of my brothers…”) which reflects the integrity of our theology, depth of commitment to justice and breadth of our vision. Any form of theology which seeks to place justice, and compassion at its core would ultimately have to respond to all manifestation of injustice – be this towards the transgendered other or to the exploited non-human other, the earth and our co-inhabitants.

First, which men and which women are we referring to? Where are they located? Is there an “essential man” who owes something to an “essential woman”? In confining the question to an essential man or woman, is there not a possibility of perpetuating that very stereotyping at the heart of gender injustice? Spelman has cogently argued that failing to address the heterogeneity of women results in underwriting cultural and racial hierarchies (1990:133-59). One of the implications of this is that our responses to the question, while recognizing the universality of gender justice must also be culture specific. Ultimately, for those committed to the transformation of society alongside others within one’s community it is not our ideas that are the most important but the efficacy of their implementation in Muslim society.

  Second, who asks the question and who will be present when I venture a response?

While I may want to offer an honest answer to my gendered other, I do not live in a socio-political vacuum and may be afraid of having my honesty exploited by the religious and political other? In matters which evoke such deep emotions and touches one’s sense of being such as race, religion, sexuality and gender, the truth is either the option of those unfettered by any sense of community, the reckless or of those who are truly at one with themselves and with the Transcendent.

A putative Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him), probably originating in the Torah, reflects the dilemma of the Muslim male in a world perceived as hostile. This Hadith tells of the time when the patriarch Abraham was in a strange land accompanied by his wife. Afraid that he would be killed so that Namrud, the King, may marry his wife on account of her beauty, he introduces her as his sister. Namrud then goes off with her and is later subjected to divine wrath for marrying another man’s wife. Abraham, in having to cope with the perceived threats from the external other, seems willing to sacrifice the dignity of the internal other. Thus gender issues get sacrificed in the face of the supposedly more significant issues such as global marginalization of Muslims, the occupation of Kashmir and the oppression of Palestinians.

Given the seeming willingness – only seeming, for the voices of the women are generally silent/silenced – we have an added dilemma; that of the willingness of many Muslim women to go along with their own marginalization, to embrace the veil as a symbol of their own fortress against the threatening gendered other.

  So, whom am I writing for? I write for myself. I want greater clarity about how and why it is possible for me to be a Muslim with a passionate commitment to both the Qur’an and gender justice. I know that as I write, others will read. I hope that in my conversation with myself that they, however they may or may not want to define themselves, will get some insight into the struggles of a Muslim male trying to be faithful to different, sometimes seemingly conflictual, voices within his spiritual / theological self. I also hope to encourage my brothers and sisters to be a bit more daring in their pursuit of truth and to indicate that interrogating one’s faith is, in fact, a condition of a living faith.

  I am aware of the tensions between the political or the strategic; “How do we present our message to our people in ways that are least distasteful?” I, however, fear that this question is often presented in order to prevent the questioner him or herself from pushing limits and crossing boundaries; a cushion from the blows of relentless critical scrutiny.

Third, to whom is the debt owed?

The question supposes that the debt is owed by men and to women and that the world is neatly divided up into men and women.

While the struggle for gender equality is about justice and human rights for women, it cannot be regarded as a women's struggle any more than the battle against anti-Semitism is a Jewish struggle, or that of non-racialism, a struggle belonging to Blacks. While violence against women may physically and legally be a woman's problem, morally and religiously it is very much that of men. In the words of Maryam Rajavi, “in a society where women are second-class citizens, deprived of their genuine rights how can any man claim to be free and not suspect his own humanity? [...] Are men not in bondage too?” (1996, 31) While I, as a male, may therefore owe women many debts, the debt is essentially to myself. I owe it to my own humanity to be free and, therefore, I must work for gender justice.

Difficult as it is to come to terms with, the Muslim theologian has to at least recognize - without necessarily affirming - the complexity of gendered and sexual otherness and the notion that the only certainty about these is uncertainty. The fact that this otherness is not based on choice but on each person’s unique nature raises profound questions about a) the depth of our commitment to “the least”, i.e., the utterly marginalized, b) the nature of the God in which we profess faith and c) the nature of nature and its implications for the well-established Islamic theological notion that Islam is din al-Fitrah, the religion of nature or of humankind’s natural state.

Fourth, who is the respondent to the question?

I am a Muslim male, the youngest of six sons and one daughter – the latter’s “illegitimate” existence discovered more than ten years after the death of my mother -, the son of a mother who died in her early fifties as quite literally a victim of apartheid, patriarchy, and capitalism and of a father who abandoned his family when I was three weeks old. As a young South African student of Islamic theology in Pakistan with bitter memories as a victim of apartheid, I saw the remarkable similarities between the oppression of blacks in South Africa and of women in Muslim society. Later in my years as a Muslim liberation theologian cum activist in the struggle against apartheid, I deepened my awareness of the relationship between the struggle of women for gender justice and that of all oppressed South Africans for national liberation.

I thus approach the question with all the gifts and baggage that come with the above, however briefly presented.

  I shall not attempt to deal with the question in all its complexities. To begin with, I do not have the courage to do so. Furthermore, as a socially engaged theologian I extend the maxim attributed to the Ali ibn Abi Talib, a cousin of Muhammad, to “address people at the level of their comprehension.” I thus focus on the possible while never losing sight of the necessarily unthinkable – the equality of all people and the freedom of all people to respond to the voices of their own consciences, what the Quakers call “that of God in everyone”. In answering the question, I shall thus confine myself to what I, as a male Muslim liberation theologian, believe I men owe to most Muslim women. In doing so, I shall attempt to provide a response that is sufficiently inclusive to embrace all manifestations of debt to the other.

2. Gender Equality in Contemporary Islam: Between Text and Context: An Overview.

The issue of gender equality in contemporary Islam, more specifically, the position of women has been extensively dealt with in Muslim scholarship. This ranges from the explicitly misogynist confessional (Ragie, 1995) to the more gentle and apologetic (Iqbal 1989, Siddiqi, 1988 et al) to the serious scholarly which implicitly or explicitly argue the case for gender justice (Ahmad 1984, al-Sa’dawi 1980, Mernissi 1975, Wadud-Muhsin, Yamani, 1996, et al)

Numerous women from Muslim backgrounds consciously avoid any attempt to locate their ideas in a re-thought Islam. In a reversal of fundamentalism with its “Islam is the answer” these thinkers and/or activists often engage in an identical essentialising of religion with their “Islam is the problem”. Both move from the rather dubious assumption that religion is a disemboweled entity that emerged from beyond time and space and, having landed in the middle of nowhere, can be just as easily transplanted on to another piece of time and space.

Many others concerned with gender justice are confessional Muslims desperate to live in fidelity to both the basis of Islamic thought and practice (the Qur’an and the Sunnah - Muhammad’s prophetic precedent) and their commitment to their own liberation from gender oppression. Much of what has emerged from the latter group though, is apologetic and unwilling to address fundamental questions of the essentially patriarchal nature of the Qur’an’s text and essential audience and, indeed of the Qur’anic portrayal of the Transcendent.

Fazl ur Rahman (d. 1988), one of the great modernist Muslim thinkers, reflects this kind of apologia in translation of and reflections on a Qur’anic text widely discussed in any discourse on gender equality in Islam. He renders Q. 2.228 as follows: “And for women there are rights [over against men] commensurate with the duties they owe, but men are one degree higher”. He furthermore argues that “it is certain that, in general, the Qur’an envisages division of labour and a difference in function […].

The question is whether the verse quoted is one of inherent inequality. We are told that men are in charge of women because God has given some humans excellence over others and because men have the liability of expenditure [on women]. This shows that men have a functional not an inherent superiority over women for they are charged with earning money and spending it on women. […] If a woman becomes economically sufficient, say by inheritance or by earning wealth, and contributes to the household expenditure, the male superiority would be that extent reduced, since as a human [italics in original] he has no superiority over his wife. Religiously speaking, men and women have absolute parity “Whoever does good deeds, whether male or female, while being believers, they shall enter paradise (4:128, 40:40, 16:97).

A more literal translation is given further below. Looking at his reflections though, a number of questions remain unanswered. If the excellence is as a result of God’s grace and not economic activity then how does a shift in patterns of income alter that excellence? Is spending a criterion of excellence? If it is, then what about the economic value of the labour which women bring to the relationship where the husband is the key breadwinner? Is male expenditure over women purely a question of liability and/or social responsibility or is it more a manifestation of power? (The phenomenon of frustration aggression by unemployed or low salaried husbands married to employed or high salaried wives is not an unknown one). Why should financial expenditure by any two partners in a relationship necessarily impact on the question of equality as Rahman seems to imply when he says “if a woman […] contributes to the household expenditure the male superiority would be to that extent reduced”? What does it mean for women who are marginalized and oppressed in all spheres of the daily existence to have “absolute parity” “religiously speaking”?

The Qur’an and the Sunnah are pivotal to Muslim theological thinking and legal practice. However, problematic one may find these in regard to issues of gender justice; they have to be negotiated for as long as one locates oneself within this community or views this community as one’s essential audience.

In the context of seventh-century Arabia, the personal example of Muhammad, also regarded as a source of law in Islam, was exemplary in encouraging a sense of gender justice and compassion towards all victims of oppression, including women. “The best of you is he who behaves best with his wives” “Listen treat women well!”. “I hold the rights of two weak types of persons sacred; the right of an orphan and that of a wife.” Similarly, the Qur’an contains a number of exhortations which potentially have the same effect. “And women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable (Q. 2:118)” “Believers, men and women, are protectors, one of another: they enjoin what is just and forbid what is evil (Q. 9:71).

Despite these, both the Islamic theological cum-legal tradition as well as Muslim cultural life is deeply rooted in various forms of gender injustice ranging from explicit misogyny to paternalism under the guise of kindness. In part this reflects on the ambiguity of and limitations to the text itself – both that of the Qur’an and Sunnah – , the pliability of all texts as contested terrain and of the resilient nature of patriarchy among the audience of these texts – the Muslims.

Many Muslims acknowledge the reality of gender oppression in Muslim society but hasten to attribute this to the inadequacies of that society or the inability/refusal of Muslims to live alongside the dictates of Islam. (Wadud-Muhsin, 1992:94-104; Hassan, 1996:25-27, 89-103) While common, the notion of Islam and gender as distinct from Muslims and gender is an untenable one. There are also limits to which one can pursue the distinction between the text and its interpretation. Meaning, as Richard Martin says, cannot avoid “the interpretation of meaning" (Martin 1982, 363) because exegesis is not an interpretation but rather an extension of the symbol and must itself be interpreted; even if these exegetical additions belong to the phase of redaction, they are not quite exterior to the text, but belong to its productivity (Martin 1982, 369)

Whatever else Islam, as any other religion, may be, it is also that which is interpreted, lived out, aspired towards, ignored, and debated about among ordinary individuals and communities. It is thus equally valid to examine the socio-political context of Muslims as a determinant of responses to the question of what men owe to women.

No Muslim state can escape factoring the Shari’ah in any matter pertaining to gender. The myth of an essentialist ahistorical Islam and Shari’ah is, however, evidenced by the fact that each of these societies and their numerous sub-strata have arrived at a range of different positions and diverse practices, all of them seemingly legitimated by or rooted in the Shari’ah. This is reflected in the varying positions of Muslim states towards the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and in the diversity of Muslim Personal Law (MPL) systems in these countries. Responses to CEDAW ranged from the outright Saudi Arabian refusal to sign it, to Egypt arguing that article 16 dealing with the equality of men and women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations should be implemented without prejudice to the Shari’ah provisions in this regard, to the then Democratic Republic of Yemen merely stating that it would not be bound by the article “relating to the settlement of disputes which may arise concerning the application or interpretation of the Convention” (UN, 1985g, 7).

The wide array of interpretations and application of MPL in Muslim countries, the way these were influenced by the socio-political struggles against colonialism and modernity as well as the interminable attempts to reconcile MPL with their constitutional requirements of gender equality are detailed in Hijab (1989, 9-37).

Given the centrality of women in the maintenance of the family as an institution and as the essential transmitters of cultural and religious traditions, traditional Muslim societies have a very genuine fear that, “if women allow their key role in the family to be overtaken by other roles, then the whole social system will fall apart” (ibid. 13). The traditional social system is, of course, already besieged under a host of socio-economic and political forces which is loosely described as “the west”. “The West” and its putative hegemonic designs are for most Muslims but an extension of the Crusades and later, colonialism. The insistence on retaining tradition, including the traditional role of women thus becomes an important aspect of the struggle for dignity and survival. Using the example of Algeria, Nadia Hijab explains that a major aim of the revolution against the French occupation for both men and women had been to restore the Algerian way of the life which the occupier had sought to fragment. In order to preserve their cultural identity from the French onslaught on their language and traditions, the Algerians had clung even more closely to Islam and Islam based traditions. (ibid. 27)

  Much of the dominant discourse on gender equality or inequality in the Muslim majority countries is thus intrinsically connected to questions of national identity and cultural loyalty. In the words of Leila Ahmed, the Middle Eastern feminist is really “caught between two opposing loyalties” (her sexual identity and her religio-cultural identity] “forced almost to choose between betrayal and betrayal.” (1984, 122) Fatima Mernissi has also detailed the psychological impact of colonialist intervention in Muslim identity and how this has resulted in the transformation of the Shari’ah into a symbol of Muslim identity and the Ummah’s integrity. “Modern changes were identified as the enemy’s subtle tools for carrying out the destruction of Islam” (1975, xix)

Given the undeniable historicity of the question of gender equality in Islam and Muslim society, there is equal validity for those who come from contexts free from the socio-political and cultural factors that impact on traditional Muslims majority societies to have their own approaches to the question informed by their own experiences. In other words, I am as free to have a post-apartheid South African Muslim appreciation of gender as what the post-colonialist Algerian or Moroccan Muslim is entitled to.

3. The Debt to Women

Finally, what is it then that I owe to women?

In brief, two responsibilities: First, to call for forgiveness and, second, to centre liberation, justice and compassion in my theology and in my pastoral praxis

3.1 The Call for Forgiveness.

Each adherent of a religious tradition is simultaneously a shaper of that tradition and while one cannot assume personal responsibility for all the crimes or achievements of that tradition, there is nevertheless a sense in which each adherent shares in the shame or glory. In Islam, as in most all other world religions, males are the key managers and interpreters of the sacred. As a male Muslim theologian committed to gender justice I thus have two reasons to ask for forgiveness. First as part of privileged gender that has consistently denied the full humanity of the gendered other even as I was being nurtured and sustained by it. Secondly, for my own role in – even if only by identification – in a theological tradition which fosters and sustains images of women and practices by men that denies women their full worth as human beings created by God and as carriers of the spirit of God. This call for forgiveness is what the totality of Islamic traditions have done, failed to do and for our inability and/or unwillingness to effectively challenge and eliminate the misogynist traits within our tradition.

3.2 The Centring of Liberation, Justice and Compassion

This centring of liberation, justice and compassion in one’s theology is more subversive of orthodoxy than what may appear the case from a superficial perusal. Every single dogma is subject to interrogation by the standards of gender justice and compassion and every text is read through these lenses. Every text that does not withstand this scrutiny may be subject to a host of hermeneutical devices ranging from contextualization and re-interpretation to abrogation in order to arrive at an interpretation that serves the ends of justice.

Does this not constitute violence towards the text? First, none of these devices are unknown to the world of traditional Islam; the only difference is the starkness with which they are spelt out and the definitiveness of the criteria employed. Second, if a choice has to be made between violence towards the text and textual legitimization of violence against real people then I would be comfortable to plead guilty to charges of violence against the text.

What does the centring of gender justice and compassion say about the centrality of God for isn’t theology essentially about God? Yes, it is about God, but my theology is about a God that is essentially just and compassionate.

4 The Qur’an as Legitimation for Gender Injustice

In general, one discerns a strong egalitarian trend whenever the Qur’an deals with the ethico-religious responsibilities and recompense of the believers and a discriminatory trend when it deals with the social and legal obligations of women.  With regard to both of these aspects though, there are two further trends: a) General statements are also made which both affirm and deny gender equality and b) when specific injunctions are made, then they are generally discriminatory towards women.

The following texts affirm the notion of equality in ethico religious responsibilities and recompense:

Muslim men and women, believing men and women, obedient men and obedient women […] for them God had prepared forgiveness and a handsome reward” (Q. 23:35)

  And whosoever does good deeds, whether male or female and he [or she] they shall enter the garden and shall not be dealt with unjustly

In the following four verses, frequently invoked by Muslims committed to some form of gender equality, we see how equality in a generalized manner is only seemingly affirmed. My own brief comment on the limited usefulness of invoking them for gender equality follows each verse:

1) They (women) have rights similar to those against them (Q. 2:228)

Here we note that ‘similar’ is left undefined and, as conservatives correctly argue, is not synonymous with ‘equal’.

2) To men a share of what their parents and kinsmen leave and to women a share of what parents and relatives leave (Q. 4.7)

“A share” is left undefined and, when another verse elsewhere does define it then it becomes clear that it is an unclear share.

3) “To the adulteress and the adulterer, whip each one of them a hundred lashes […]” (Q.24.2)

The fact of the inequality in the burden of proof in adultery is ignored. Pregnancy in the case of an unmarried woman is automatic proof of extra-marital relations while naming the male partner in the absence of witnesses to the act is tantamount to slander.

4) “Say to the faithful men that they should cast down their eyes and guard their modesty;

that is pure for them. And say to the faithful women that they cast down their eyes and guard their modesty.” (Q. 24:30-31)

The succeeding verses, usually unmentioned in apologetic works, add an array of further specific injunctions regarding the social behaviour of women.  While one may argue that men are not absolved from these, women are the ones singled out.

In social and legal matters, it is very difficult to avoid the impression that the Qur’an provides a set of injunctions and exhortations where women, in general, are infantalised “to be protected, and economically provided for by men, but admonished and punished if they are disobedient” (Karmi, 1996, 79).  The following are a few examples of this. a) Men marry their spouses while women are “given in marriage” by their fathers or eldest brother though they may have a say in the choice of a partner). b) The groom purchases her sexual favours though she may have a choice in the amount. Here we also observe the implicit notion of a one sided duty to fulfill the sexual needs of her husband. c) In the matter of divorce, the right of males is automatic while that of females is to be negotiated, contracted, and decided upon by male judges. d) The male may take up to four spouses though he may be compelled to treat them with equity and the first wife may leave him if the marriage contract proscribes him from taking additional wives. e) Muslim men may marry women from among the people of the Book but Muslim women may not. (Q. 2:220)

Q. 4:34 briefly referred to earlier, is a text which most starkly represent the strand in Qur’anic morality which seemingly sanctions discrimination, and according to most interpretations, also violence against women and marital rape. Reflections on this text, I believe, will bring to the fore the tensions between text and context and the difficulties presented to the progressive theologian who seeks to centre justice for the marginalized in his or her hermeneutic.

Men are Quawwamun (the Protectors and maintainers) of / over (‘ala) women, because God has Faddala (preferred) some of them over others,

and because they support them from their means.

Therefore the Salihat (righteous) women are Quanitat (devoutly obedient), and guard in their husbands' absence what God would have them guard.

As to those women on whose part you fear Nushuz (ill-conduct \ disobedience)

Admonish them, refuse to share their beds and beat them

But if they return again to obedience seek not means against them for God is the most high, Great above you.

 In trying to understand any text one has to address a number of key issues: Who is the author? What is the nature of the text? What was the particular personal and general social context that first witnessed or gave birth to the text and its reception? Who subsequently interpreted it and thus contributed to the text by their own mediation? What were the tools used in unlocking its meaning and how effective were these tools? I will attempt to briefly look at some of these questions and their implications for a gender just re-thinking of the meaning of the aforementioned text

4.1 Who Is The Author?

Muslims believe that the author of the Qur’an is God who is Eternal, the utterly beyond who exists outside history. This transcendent is neither male nor female although the Qur’an employs the masculine form of the personal pronoun (Huwa) when referring to God and the analogy of God as a patriarchal ruler is regularly invoked in Hadith literature. The limits which this Qur’ānically rooted patriarchal portrayal of the Transcendent places on the development of a truly feminist theology becomes obvious in our consideration of the following question.

4.2 What Is The Nature Of The Text?

For Muslims the 'eternal and uncreated Qur'an' is the ipsissima verba of God. It is God speaking, not merely to Muhammad in seventh century Arabia, but for all eternity and to all humankind. It represents, as Cantwell Smith says, "the eternal breaking through time; the knowable disclosed; the transcendent entering history and remaining here, available to mortals to handle and to appropriate; the divine become apparent" (Cantwell Smith 1980, 490). Ibn Manzur (d. 1312), the author of Lisan al-Arab, reflects the view of the overwhelming majority of Muslim scholars when he defines the Qur'an as "the inimitable revelation, the Speech of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel (existing today) literally and orally in the exact wording of the purest Arabic" (n.d. 3:42).

When the question of the genesis of a text is regarded as equally unthinkable as that of God then the problem which such seemingly gender unjust messages as those contained in the verses under discussion is obvious. First, there is no possibility of developing any notion of God as “She” and all its implications for a feminist theology for this would be tantamount to spurning the Qur’anic “He”. Second, there is no way that one can ascribe ‘discriminatory’ texts to a mysoginist Paul, or a well-meaning but time-bound David. Third, if this All Powerful Creator explicitly states that men are Quawwamun over women because of what He had bestowed upon them then what right does the creation have to demand equality as inherent and inalienable? (Cf. Proezesky 1989).

4.3 Who Is The Essential Audience Of The Text ?

The Qur’an’s essential audience is males. While there are numerous exhortations to kindness and justice towards men and even texts explicitly affirming the complementarity of women, the latter are essentially subjects being dealt with - however kindly - rather than being directly addressed. Women addressed directly are exceptions to the nearly all-pervading rule. Thus, in the text above, while the first verse may give the impressive of the addressees being both male and female the second verse makes it clear that this is not the case. While the text is about women, it is addressed to men. The following are but a few randomly selected further such examples:

“If any of you have not the means to marry wed free believing women they may wed believing girls from among those whom your right hand possess.” (Q 4:25)

“If a wife bears cruelty or desertion on her husband’s part, there is no blame on them if they arrange an amicable settlement between themselves. Even though man’s souls are swayed by greed. But, if you do good and practice self-restraint, God is well acquainted with all you do.” (Q. 4:128)

“O you who have attained unto faith, when you marry believing women [… ]” Q. 33:49

This does not only hold for texts dealing with gender matters but applies to the text as a whole. e.g., “O you who have attained unto faith! Kill not game while you are in a state of purity for the pilgrimage […] (Q. 5:95).

The problem of the essential audience of the Qur’an ought to present a significant problem for scholars committed to gender justice despite the scant attention, or even absence of any attention which it receives in such writings.  How can one be content with a Transcendent who speaks about you and rarely to you? What does it say about His relationship to you and about where you fit into His scheme of things. How would a girl respond to a parent who in general addresses her brother, advising and cajoling him into kindness towards her rarely to her directly and never asks her to rise up to defend her rights?  Is the end product not necessarily one of perpetually divinely sanctioned minority status?

  In some ways this issue is partially addressed by the following question.

4.4 What Is The Context Of The Text?

In reflecting on the usefulness and / or limitations of the text in sustaining or defending a gender just position one has to consider a number of different albeit interrelated issues. These include the impulse of scripture as a whole; the broader historical context wherein that scripture was first revealed, heard and interpreted, the place of that text within the rest of the scripture as well as the immediate event, which occasioned its revelation.

The Qur’an, wherever else it may have emerged from, as a whole has a context wherein it was revealed as has every specific verse or set of verses. In the words of Kenneth Cragg “the eternal cannot enter time without a time when it enters. Revelation to history cannot occur outside it. A Prophet cannot arise except in a generation and a native land, directives from heaven cannot impinge upon an earthly vacuum (Cragg 1971, 112).

4.4.1 The historical context wherein the scripture was first revealed, heard and interpreted

The Qur’an was revealed in sixth century Arabia at a time of enormous socio-anthropological flux in the region in general, and more specifically, Hijaz. While Arabian society had a number of distinct matriarchal features, these were now giving way to a wholly patriarchal system” (Karmi, 1996:77)

 Muslims generally hold that this was a period when women were regarded as not only socially inferior but “as slaves and cattle” (Siddiqi, 1972:16)  It was a time when women “basically inherited nothing but were themselves inherited. They were a part of their husband’s property, to be owned to by his heirs or other men of his tribe” (Rajavi, 1996:25). It was a mark of dishonour for any man to have a daughter and many preferred to bury their female children alive rather than face social opprobrium. In the words of the Qur’an:

When news is brought to one of them of a female child, his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief. With shame does he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he received. Shall he retain her in contempt or bury her in the dust? Ah what evil choice they decide on! (Q. 16:58-59).

And again:

And when [on the Day of Resurrection] the female infant is asked for what sin she was slain (Q.91:8-9)

4.4.2. The Place of This Text within the Larger Text.

This text is not regarded as having any legal significance and must be viewed within a broader scriptural context that facilitates a gentler attitude towards women and the promise of greater legal standing than hitherto enjoyed in Arabian society. In pre-Islamic society payments were made to the father or nearest male relative for a wife to be in a direct “sale”. The Qur’an altered this and the women instead of being the object of a contract became a legal contracting party with the sole entitlement to the dowry in lieu of the right of sexual union. In the practice of divorce the Qur’an abolished the practice whereby a husband could summarily discard his wife and introduced a waiting period to work through possible ways of reconciliation before divorce and separation was effected. During this period the wife was entitled to financial support from her husband. In the question of inheritance the Qur’an modified pre-Islamic rules which in general excluded females and minor children. “The [modified Qur’anic] provision […] qualifies the system of exclusive inheritance by male agnate relatives and in particular recognizes the capacity of women relatives to succeed” (Coulsen, 1978, 16).

4.4.3 The Immediate Occasion of Revelation.

Most of the classical exegetes believe that this text was occasioned by the Prophet’s response to an incident of marital violence. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi believes that it relates to Sa'd ibn Rabi, a prominent Ansari who slapped his wife Bint Muhammad ibn Salma. She left her husband and went to the Prophet, showing him the visible marks of the physical abuse on her face. The Prophet, al-Razi, says condoned her departure from her husband and advised her against returning, and to be patient. He is also reported to have said “he would see” (suggesting that he anticipates revelation for further guidance). This text was seemingly revealed in response to this anticipation to which the Prophet is reported to have said: "We [i.e., himself] wanted something and God wanted something else and what God wants is best"

Both Ibn Jarir al-Tabari and Al-Zamkhshari believe that verse was revealed about someone called Habibah bint Zayd who allegedly disclosed some confidential matters about her husband to others for which she was slapped. The Prophet, according to al-Zamakhshari, permitted the woman and her father to demand compensation from her husband. Tabari adds that an additional verse was occasioned by this verse: "Do not hurry with the Qur'an before revelation has come to you". In other words, the Prophet should not pre-suppose God’s will.

It is evident from the above that, whatever else the Qur’anic text may be or wherever else it may have originated from, for people it is essentially an historical document revealed in a particular time and place and often dealing with particular events in the lives of specific individuals. It is only when one embraces this as a given that it becomes possible to make sense of the seemingly contradictory Qur’anic texts dealing with a host of different issues including gender justice.

5. Who Are The Interpreters Of The Text?

Most contemporary gender sensitive Muslim scholars rarely fail to point out that the domain of exegesis, as with virtually all of Islamic religious scholarship, is an entirely male affair. With the exception of Zainab bint Shab, few women have made a mark in exegesis and the only relatively progressive comprehensive exegetical work is that of Muhammad Asad. His Message of the Qur’an, though, despite its extensive footnotes, is not nearly as elaborate as those of the standard works of Tafsir. Exegesis is, of course, not confined to work exclusively devoted to this and several liberal scholars such as Engineer and Hassan have dealt with the Qur’anic texts dealing with women. While the views of some of these scholars are dealt with when the meaning of the text are discussed, it should be noted that their limitations regarding the Arabic language have been a significant damper to the more gentle veneer which they have attempted to put on the text under discussion.

These scholars have also consistently called for greater female participation in exegetical activity in order that women may re-read the text through the eyes of the female experience of marginalization. This will undoubtedly be a significant contribution to the overall process of women’s empowerment. Its value, however, will be limited if it does not embrace the fundamental question of the historicity of the text and the concomitant implications of the marginalization of women in the very intended audience of the text.

6. Reading and Meaning: For Who & What?

There is considerable diversity among exegetes regarding the interpretation of this text and the views of several of these have been dealt with extensively by Shaikh. The text deals with three interrelated notions: The Qiwamah of men over women, the righteous women (by implication subservient) and the disobedient (by implication “unrighteous”) woman. The following may be said to be the most salient features of their interpretation:

6.1 Qiwamah

There are slightly nuances in the positions of classical exegetes. For Tabari, the Qiwamah of men is rooted on the notion of preference that God has given to men in relation to women and is based on specific material circumstances such as men providing the dowries (Mehr), financially supporting and maintaining their wives out of the wealth they earn. Zamakhshari presents the Qiwamah of men as a distinct location and duty of men as rulers over women, corresponding to the relationship of that between a monarch and a subject. He supports this view supported by arguments of putatively essential differences in the natures of men and women and does not cater for any distinction between biological differences and socially constructed ones. “The multi-dimensional and multi-causal perceived and effective differences between men and women are indiscriminately clustered together as a natural given. What are in fact skills or culturally determined roles are constructed as "facts", "truth" and inherent properties of maleness.” (Shaikh) Razi argues that Qiwamah is related to God-given preference and is fundamentally concerned with economics and "it is as though there is no intrinsic preference given to men" He then proceeds to list a number of areas where men enjoy superiority over women including larger brains and greater physical prowess.

The limitation to much of the liberal Muslim discourse is also manifested in the clear distinction which Shaikh draws between the views of Tabari and those of Zamakhshari as well as her sharp critique of Razi who, upon closer scrutiny, merely brought about greater clarity between the not dissimilar views of Zamakhshari and Tabari. Shaikh makes much of the “distinction” between Tabari’s views and that of Zamakhshari. Tabari, she argues, is “a particularly interesting construction of the authority of men over women which is contingent on a socio-economic phenomenon rather than some inherent quality of man or woman per se [and…] conspicuous in its purely economic interpretation of this gendered relationship.”

The text specifically states that this preference, however it is premised – economical social, biological or ontological - is based on Bima Faddalallah (what Allah had bestowed), something that Tabari does not ignore. In different ways the classical exegetes have argued a) that men are superior b) that this superiority is both functional and essential to their maleness and c) that while it is not intrinsic to their beings, it is nonetheless a gift from God. Liberal Muslim scholars such Abu’l-Kalam Azad, Muhammad Asad, Amina Wadud-Muhsin and Riffat Hassan have emphasized the caring and social responsibility dimensions to Qiwamah and suggest that this verse is, in the first instance, a statement of the social facts as it existed in 6th century Arabia.

In the context of this text, there is no real difference in social terms between gender relationships whether this putative superiority is intrinsic to their biological beings, gifts of physical prowess or adequate financial resources. God had decided to bestow it on men in a seemingly generalized (“Men are Quawwamun over women”) despite the fact that only some men have been given grace above some other (ba’duhum ‘ala ba’d) – the second ‘other’ is unspecified and gender neutral.

Rather than suggesting that the text is liberating because it implies that the Qiwamah is tied to an economic relationship that may change with time, the text ought to present two additional problems. The first is the idea that a specific gender can acquire advantage as a group over another by virtue of some of its members possessing enjoying some grace or virtue (even if only economical). The second is the notion that wealth – and therefore also poverty - comes from God and that changes in the economic relationships between men and women may, in fact, be in violation of God’s will for humankind.

  6.2 As-Salihat wa-‘l-Qanitat: The Righteous and Obedient Women

There is agreement that the general meaning of the term “Salihat” (lit. “righteous”) as the upholders of the precepts of religion in a general sense is also applicable to this verse. While liberal readers insist that the second characteristic, “Quanitat” (lit. “the obedient”) refers to obedience to God, (Engineer 1994, 2)  most of the traditional interpreters have viewed this as obedience to the wishes of the husband and suggest that the obedience to one’s husband is, in fact, an extension - even a condition, of righteousness. In the words of Shaikh, “it is a relationship of obedience of female to male and thus condones marital hierarchy at a religious level. The idea of sacralised male authority and marital hierarchy becomes fore grounded in the relationship between female-believer and God […].”

The general tone of the verse though, as well as the following more specific requirement of the righteous/obedient/subservient wife make it fairly obvious that the traditional exegetes are nearer to the truth in their fusion of duty to God and to husband: The righteous wives are those who "guard in their husbands’ absence what God would have them guard."

Descriptions of “what God would have them guard include one or more of the following: a) the wife's sexuality b) her husband's wealth, c) her husband’s house from impropriety and d) the husband’s secrets.  Sexual fidelity is thus portrayed as a combined duty to husband and God and while fidelity may also be a duty of the husband, the wife is singled out and her sexuality is joined to the husband’s property. In the process she and her sexuality are further objectified and notions of women as owned commodities underlined.

6.3 Al-Nashizat: The Disobedient Women

Having elaborated on the righteous and obedient wife, the text proceeds to dealing with the way the disobedient wife has to be dealt with.

  As to those women on whose part you fear Nushuz (disloyalty \ill- conduct\ rebellion disobedience), admonish them, refuse to share their beds, and beat them. But if they return again to obedience seek not means against them for God is the Most High, Great above you.

The Qur’an actually has a word for female disobedience, “Nushuz”. Ghazali explains that the word n-sh-z means “that which tries to elevate itself above the ground and defines Nushuz as “confronting the husband in act or word”. Ibn Manzur, the most reputable classic Arabic’s lexicographer defines nushuz in the following manner: “To protrude, to project, a hillock, in the fourth form - to lift up”. He describes Nushuz in the marital relationship as “one detests and dislike the other” and says that, in the case of the women this occurs when she elevates herself above her husband, that she disobeys him, angers him and withdraws from him.

Classical exegetes have confined their interpretation of n-sh-z to women. Tabari, for example, defines it as “when the woman rises above her husband or removes herself out of his bed, disagrees with him regarding her obedience and is confrontational to her husband”. Razi cites Idris al-Shafi as defining Nushuz as “that which is disruptive in the wives behavior at either the verbal or practical level.”

Several liberal scholars such as Asad and Parvez have aged against the mono-gendered nature of Nushuz and have suggested that the remedial and/punitive measure to be taken are equally applicable to the man and that in both cases the implementing agent is the state. While Asad says that Nushuz includes “mental cruelty” with reference towards the husband [as well as] ill-treatment in the physical sense towards his wife” he nevertheless acknowledges that this verse refers to “a wife’s ‘ill-will’ [which] implies a deliberate, persistent breach of her marital obligations.” (1980, 109) Whatever the desire of liberal scholars, from the text it is evident that it is the male’s recourse to attaining his will that is the subject matter of this text.

Three steps are suggested / prescribed for dealing with the Nashizah: “[a] Admonish them, [b], refuse to share their beds and [c] beat them.  While there has been much discussion on the first two suggestions/prescriptions I wish to focus on the last one.

The overwhelming majority of exegetes - liberal and traditional - accept the translation of d-r-b as physical chastisement and restrict the debate to advisability or otherwise, intensity, form and implementing agency without questioning the legitimacy of physical chastisement itself. The way in which these issues are addressed seem to suggest that, despite the inevitability of rendering d-r-b as ‘beating’, that scholars of all persuasions were cognizant of its essentially detestable nature as a means of resolving marital conflict desperate to find ways of limiting its negativity. One can, in fact, argue that given the many limitations which these scholars placed on the enactment of this bit of advice that had they had recourse to any linguistic device to render d-r-b as anything but ‘beating’ that they would have found a way to do so.

Before dealing with the seeds for a gender-just approach to the Qur’an which goes beyond liberal apologetics a few comments about this text and its interpretation:

a) The Qur’an does sanction violence against women. However it does so as a last resort to subjugate the wife within a culture of violence against women where this was often the first resort.

b) The immediate context for the occasioning of this verse is still a problematic one; The Prophet had seemingly defended the right of women to be free from physical abuse and God had seemingly condoned it.

c) In the text we find a reflection of what Shaikh describes as “a three-tiered spiritual hierarchy” (She adds “in interpretations [of this text]”. The truth is that this hierarchy is evident in the text itself). “Allah occupies the pinnacle of this hierarchy, man comes next as primary believer addressed in the Tafsir, (who even in terms of the language which addresses men directly as "you") and then the bottom echelon are occupied by women, who are seen in relationship to men and then in relationship to God. In terms of the language of the Tafsir women are referred to as "they", the third party, the other.”

d) While this verse legitimizes violence against women, in classical and contemporary societies where violence against women is the norm it does appear be placing limitations on the abuser. Here Shaik draws attention to the reminder at the end of the text that “God is above you” and argues that this was “actually an attempt to instill accountability, to reduce the sense of power that men enjoyed both psychologically and practically, to deflate their god-complexes in relation to women.”

It is evident from the above that any privileging of the text over gender justice is a rather problematic knot for those committed to gender justice. The confessional rhetoric of gender sensitive scholars that the Qur’an is a magna carta of gender justice or that “the Qur’an has been more than fair to women” (Engineer, 1994, 1) for does not withstand the scrutiny of critical scholarship. There is a need to firmly locate the text in its socio-historical environmental environment, to consciously depart from the letter of the text and to focus on its core values as seen through the lenses of the marginalized.

7. The Seeds for Gender Justice

Despite my own critique of the recourse that many liberal and modernist gender sensitive scholars have had to apologetic approaches to the Qur’an in general and, more specifically, to those texts affirming gender inequality, I identify with and invoke many of the seeds for gender justice which they have articulated for so long.

I believe that while the Qur’an is far from the human rights or gender equality document that Muslim apologists make it out to be, that it, nevertheless, contains sufficient seeds for those committed to human rights and gender justice to live in fidelity to its underlying ethos. The following four approaches need to cultivated by gender activists for both our intellectual and theological integrity (in the sense of “wholeness”) as well as for advancing the cause of gender equality: a) to God, b) to humankind, c) to the text and revelation and, d) to interpretation.

  7.1 Approaches to God.

The Qur’an affirms the centrality of God in a believer’s life and not the law which is the contextual means of achieving the pleasure of God. This affirmation is both explicit in the text, the meaning of the word Shari’ah and implicit in the attention being given to God in the Qur’an rather than to the law. Here I want to address three aspects to the nature of God and relate them to the quest for gender justice: Tawhid (divine unity), Rububiyat (lordship) and Subhaniyyat (Transcendence).

7.1.1 Tawhid (Divine Unity)

Tawhid is usually understood to refer to God's absolute unicity. However, a number of scholars are increasingly reflecting on the implications of that unicity for humankind in particular and for creation in general. For those committed to progressive values it has also come to mean a principle of holism that permeates all of creation and a struggle to repair the wholeness of creation destroyed by racism, environmental mismanagement, economic exploitation and sexism. A belief in the unity of God can only become meaningful if we display a concern for the way in which manifestations of it are being damaged.

Sexism and the discrimination against women fly in the face of the holism of Tawhid which is in direct contrast to the misogynist worldview where man replaces God for a woman and where a male-female relationship is expected to mirror that between males and God. There is thus no place for putative sayings of the Prophet such as “if prostration were permitted for any of God’s creation then women would have been ordered to prostrate to their husbands.”

7.1.2 Subhaniyyat (Transcendence)

While we acknowledge that the entire creation is a reflection of Allah's presence and nature we also believe that He is beyond whatever is ascribed to Him. Allah is above that community which, perhaps necessarily, limits Him by their preconceptions and socio-religio-political horizons. Ultimately, He is even above Islam. Hassan Askari has pointed out how this principle of Allah's Transcendence prevents the implicit tendencies in religious traditions from absolutising themselves and claiming total equation between what they believe ('say') about Allah and Allah Himself.

This God is Akbar – the eternally greater than, the eternally transcendent. In the words of the Qur’an, “God is free from they ascribe unto him” For our present purposes this has two implications: God is greater than the law and to elevate the law to the level of the divine and the immutable is in fact to associate others with God, the antithesis of tawhid. Secondly, God is greater than any gender construction or the inescapably human device of language. Patriarchal portrayals of God are thus also a negation of God’s subhaniyyat.

This means that every expression of the law – including Muslim Personal Law - must be subject to the requirements of justice and compassion. Because the law, wherever it may originate from, is always approached and interpreted by historical human beings, it must be interpreted in terms of the ever approximating and developing notions of justice and compassion.

7.1.3 Rububiyyat

This God is Rabb Al-Nas, the Rabb of humankind. Rabb is “that being who brings into life and nurtures until perfection.” This Rabb is just, compassionate and gracious and prescribed mercy upon Himself. (Q. 2:243; 10:60; 12:38; 13:6) While this Rabb does prescribe some laws which are very few in relation to the contents of the Qur’an, He is not a lawyer. On the contrary, we get the impression of a Being who is essentially concerned with taking society from a given point and wants to take them further along the path of self-actualization and recognition of His all-pervading presence. The law, dynamic even in the limited period of revelation, is there to serve as a means (Shir’ah) to reach Him in their lifetimes.

7.2 Approaches to Humankind

The Qur’an places humankind in a “world of Tawhid where God, people and nature display meaningful and purposeful harmony” (Shari’ati 1980, 86). According to the Qur’an, the spirit of God covers all of humankind and gives them a permanent sanctity (E.g., 15:29; 17:22,70, 21:91) Despite the regular reminders of the inevitable return to God, the spiritualizing of human existence, which regards earthly life as incidental, is unfounded in the Qur’anic view of humankind. The human body, being a carrier of a person’s inner core and of the spirit of God, is viewed as sacred and physical concerns are, therefore, not viewed as incidental to the Qur’an.

In the context of gender relations two inviolable elements are of specific concern: the intrinsic dignity (Karamah) of all people – including women and that of justice (`Adalah). Both concepts are firmly rooted in the Qur’an while the law is a means to facilitate their actualization. When the law fails to do this then it must be re-interpreted, amended or abandoned in order to fulfill this objective for people as the repositories of God’s spirit preceded the law.

I acknowledge that both of these concepts are not uncontested – indeed, many Muslim misogynists often seek refuge in the concept of the dignity for women as means to support an ideology that regards women as minors who have to be eternally protected from themselves and from the naturally predatory behaviour of males. I, however, use these terms within a broader context of progressive values where people make – and have the freedom to do so - informed decisions about their lives and bodies based on the availability of knowledge and options. In some ways this severely limits much of what has been written above for the vast majority of women live in conditions of abject poverty, ill health, illiteracy and political repression. In these conditions a benign male guardianship behind Chadar aur Char Diwari (the cloak and four walls) may even be the preferred option of many women rather than the gender equality amidst starvation. This only serves to underline the interconnectedness of the quest for dignity and justice. There is no gender justice without access to the economic resources and political freedom that enables it.

The point, however, that I seek to make here is that humankind, rather than a canon or a set of laws are the repositories of the spirit of God. How we seek to actualize this truth for women will vary from one society to another.

7.3 Approaches To The Text And Revelation

The socio-historical and linguistic milieu of the Qur’anic revelation is reflected in the contents, style, objectives and language of the Qur'an. This contextuality is also evident from the distinction made between the Meccan and Medinan verses  and from the way its supposedly miraculous nature is located in the 'purity of its Arabic', its 'eloquence' and its 'unique rhetorical style'.

The Qur'an is not unique in the relationship between the revelatory process, language and contents, on the one hand, and the community which received it, on the other; revelation is always a commentary on a particular society. Muslims, like others, believe that a reality, which transcends history, has communicated with them. This communication, supposed or real, took place within history and was conditioned by it. Even a casual perusal of the Qur'an will indicate that, notwithstanding its claim to be "a guide for humankind" (Q. 2:175) revealed by "the Sustainer of the universe" (Q. 1:1), it is generally addressed to the people of the Hijaz who lived during the period of its revelation.

The picture which the Qur'an portrays of the Transcendent is one of God actively engaged in the affairs of this world and of humankind. One of the ways in which this constant concern for all of creation is shown is the sending of Prophets as instruments of His progressive revelation. Translating this divine concern and intervention into concrete moral and legal guidelines requires understanding the contexts of these interventions. The principle of Tadrij, whereby injunctions are understood to have been revealed gradually, best reflects the creative interaction between the will of God, realities on the ground and needs of the community being spoken to. The Qur'an, despite its inner coherence, was never formulated as a connected whole, but was revealed in response to the demands of concrete situations.

It is understandable that gender activists who continue to locate themselves within the religious community of Muslims (as distinct from the faith community of Islam) find it difficult to confront the inherent difficulties which notions of an ahistorical text presents. However those who place gender justice at the core of their concerns – rather than scripture - cannot but be cognizant of the severe limitations which such notions place on them.

7.4 Approaches to Interpretation

The principle of progressive revelation reflects the notion of the presence of a Divine Entity who manifests His will in terms of the circumstances of His people, who speak to them in terms of their reality and whose word is shaped by those realities. This word of God thus remains alive because its universality is recognized in the middle of an ongoing struggle to re-discover meaning in it. The challenge for every generation of believers is to discover their own moment of revelation, their own intermission in revelation, their own frustrations with God, joy with His consoling grace, and their own being guided by the principle of progressive revelation.

The meaning assigned to a text by any exegete cannot exist independently of his/her personality and environment. There is therefore no plausible reason why any particular generation should be the intellectual hostages of another for even the classical exegetes did not consider themselves irrevocably tied to the work of their previous generation. Interpreters are people who carry the inescapable baggage and conviviality of the human condition. Indeed, each and every generation of Muslims since the time of Muhammad, carrying its peculiar synthesis of the human condition, has produced its own commentaries of the Qur'an (and various kinds of interpretations with every generation). The present generation of Muslims, like the many preceding ones, faces the option of reproducing meaning intended for earlier generations or of critically and selectively appropriating traditional understandings to re-interpret the Qur'an as a part of the task of reconstructing society.

The inevitable active participation of the interpreter in producing meaning actually implies that receiving a text and extracting meaning from it do not exist on their own. Reception and interpretation and, therefore meaning, are thus always partial. Every interpreter enters the process of interpretation with some pre-understanding of the questions addressed by the text - even of its silences - and brings with him or her certain conceptions as presuppositions of his or her exegesis. Meaning, wherever else it may be located, is also in the remarkable structure of understanding itself.  "There is no innocent interpretation, no innocent interpreter, no innocent text" (Tracy 1987, 79).


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