By Asghar Ali Engineer
UNTIL yesterday, a woman was considered a man’s property after marriage and gratification with her was considered his absolute right.
She could not deny her husband this right, whether she wanted to or not. In the early 1980s I was sent a query about this issue. I went through all available traditional Islamic literature and found nothing addressing this problem.
I also studied literature on women’s movements in various countries and found that no such concept exists in Western laws too. But then I came across a judgment of a British court which addressed the question of a husband forcing himself on an unwilling wife.
This set me thinking and compelled me to study the Quran from this angle. As we all know most of the Quranic verses were revealed over a period of 23 years and were in response to some or the other problem which arose in the Prophet’s (PBUH) life. It seems that no such problem arose as women in those days also considered it their duty to surrender quietly to their husbands’ demands. For the same reason Hadith literature was also silent on this question.
But mere silence does not mean approval. The Quran is also silent about punishment for drinking. Does it mean drinking is allowed? Not at all. The punishment for drinking was prescribed through analogical reasoning. Also, the Prophet was strongly in favour of Ijtihad based on Quranic values and the values of Sunnah. It is also important to note that it would amount to injuring the basic spirit of the Quran to assign fixed meanings to its verses.
If the Quran is a book of eternal guidance, especially in new situations arising from time to time, one must have the freedom to rethink the meanings of its verses in novel situations.
Also, what is more important to note is that the Quran was not meant for guidance of one or two generations of Arabs but was meant to guide entire humanity for all times to come. Although it is true that the Quran addresses some specific problems of immediate relevance to the Arabs of the time, the Holy Book is much more than that. It gives certain eternal moral and ethical values and a transcendent vision going much beyond the time it was revealed in. Only persons of great vision could capture this spirit of the Quran.
Again it was for this reason that its verses — ever dynamic and pregnant with meaning — were interpreted in different ways. Also, if we confine the Quran to Arab culture, customs and traditions, it will lose much of its relevance for the coming ages.
What the Quran prescribed by way of women’s rights was revolutionary enough. It gave to women what no woman could have imagined at the time. Yet there were severe constraints at that time and extremely low consciousness among women themselves in that era. Now times are changing fast and women’s consciousness is not what it was when the Ulema of the time were formulating Sharia laws. The whole approach to the divine text has to change in keeping with the transcendent vision of our own times. This requires not only the study of the Quran in great depth but more than that focus on its real vision. In the past the Ulema, in keeping with the spirit of their own times, considered woman, above anything else, a reproductive agent and also a means for the gratification of men’s desires. Sadly even verses on polygamy and possession of slave girls were interpreted in this light and even contemporary Ulema talk of polygamy as necessary because women go through menstrual cycles and pregnancy. Nothing could be more absurd than this.
Even a cursory study of the Quran makes it clear that a woman is as much a spiritual entity with dignity of her own as a man. The Holy Book repeatedly advises men to treat women in all matters, including marriage, divorce and even weaning of children, with utmost sensitivity, compassion and mercy. The Prophet gave women the greatest respect both in the roles of mother and wife.
It was for this reason that when women asked the Prophet about their status, Verse 33:35 was revealed, which gave women the most exalted spiritual status. How can they then be treated as mere objects of sexual desire as most of our Ulema reduce them to?
Desire is not the end but a means of perpetuating the human species and women have a more exalted status in this respect as they fulfill the reproductive function. But for them the human species would be extinct. Men thus cannot treat women as an object of sexual desire but a most noble means of perpetuating the human race.
Thus any attempt to force women to merely fulfill men’s lust would be un-Quranic in spirit and against her dignity. Love and tenderness are most fundamental where relations between man and wife are concerned. It is these feelings according to the Quran which create a strong marital bond. If there is no love and tenderness, such a marriage cannot be successful.
Asghar Ali Engineer is an Islamic scholar who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.