Saturday, October 6, 2012

Reading the Quran: Women

Another thing that strikes me, hard, as I move through my reading, is the consistent perspective of the first few suras.  The Quran was written to be read and received by men.

This is not something that the Bible lacks.   There is a great deal of gendered language in the Torah, Prophets, and Writings.  There is a significant amount of gendered language in the Gospels and Epistles, as well as some strong tensions between the perspectives of different authors.

But my encounter with the suras, and particularly the sura entitled An Nisa, or "Women," is of a deeply different character.   The foundational assumption, comprehensible from context, is that both the speaker and the hearer are male.

It's a man, speaking to men, about women.

And unlike storytelling, which may come from one perspective but remain accessible, and ethical teaching, which may be from a gendered perspective but be easily universalized, the form of direct address/lawgiving/exhortation that I've encountered so far in my reading lends itself rather less well to reinterpretation.   Even the gendered stories told by Jesus are intentionally metaphorical speech, which speak not directly about kings and stewards and Samaritans, but about deeper things to which the stories are only a signpost.

Women in the Quran, as I have so far encountered them, are at best like children.  They are to be cared for, yes.  Protected?   Sure.  What is commended is treating women with kindness and fairness. (An-Nisa 19)  These are unquestionably good things, and they resonate with other Quranic teachings that I have encountered.   But the assumption, both explicit and implicit, is that women are not equal, and the teachings are not directed at them.

At worst?  Well, An-Nisa 34 commends beating women to insure compliance.  This particularly awkward one varies depending on the translation, with only the liberal/heretical Ahmadiyya text interpreting it so that that 1) this clearly only has to do with infidelity and 2) it is only metaphorical and that no believer should physically strike another believer.   That a female Muslim scholar did the final edit that version may have had some influence over that approach.

The other translations make it more clear this is about obedience, and vary about the non-metaphorical whuppin', with some saying "strike them," others "scourge them," and others just plain ol' give 'em a beating.  A significant minority suggest that one should be sure not to hit them too hard, which, you know, makes it better.   This'll hurt me more than it hurts you, I suppose.

There is no question that there is a fair amount of hitty-punchy-punishy language in the Bible, even as it pertains to marital and familial relationships.   And both Torah and the later Epistles written not by Paul but by his disciples in his name establish this same sort of gender dynamic.

 It is also fair to say that this approach to male-female relationships is entirely comprehensible given the historical and cultural context.  This is true in the same way that the degradation of the radically egalitarian gender ethic of Jesus and Paul can be understood as a result of the incursion of Greco-Roman cultural norms into the later Pastoral and deutero-Pauline letters.

But in Christianity, there is a clear tension in the text, with some texts defending subordination, and others explicitly calling for that cultural norm to be replaced as the Reign of God presses into our reality.

Where the Quran has so far dealt with women explicitly, I have not seen that tension.  It does not defy or challenge that context in any way that I can discern so far.  Men are stronger.  Men should be in control.   That may change as I read, but as of yet, it has not.

It is also irresolvably alien to the ethic of both primal and moderate Christianity, not to mention that of the secular West.   It is, however, not alien at all to the Christian right, or to Christianity as it manifests itself in areas of the world that have still-extant biases against women.

Even with all of this, from the broader principles of hospitality, justice, and mercy that have so far been articulated in the suras I've read, I think it would be entirely possible to construct an egalitarian Muslim ethic towards women.   That would require certain portions of Quran to be less authoritative in our current context than others, in the same way that certain portions of the Bible no longer govern the lives of progressive/moderate Jews and Christians.  It would require interpretation and redefinition from the self-evidently highest principles articulated in Quran, rather than simply taking each verse individually.

For fundamentalism, this is not possible.  I simply can't see how that would work.  But that does not mean it is impossible.  Just harder, like constructing a Christian egalitarian ethic using only First and Second Timothy and Titus.

It is clearly the case in Muslim households I have encountered, and among many Muslim scholars.  It is also clearly in evidence in the actual day-to-day lives of more moderate Muslim communities.

So.  Onward I read.


  1. Once again nuance is lost in translation.....

    see verse 1 of Surah 4
    1 O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women. Be careful of your duty toward Allah in Whom ye claim (your rights) of one another, and toward the wombs (that bare you). Lo! Allah hath been a watcher over you.

    right here in the very beginning---both men and women are addressed and it says they are both inherently equal---created from "a single soul" ---the Arabic word for soul is Nafs and this is a grammatical feminine---though soul does not have Gender. (God also does not have Gender)

    1400 years ago, the Quran granted rights to women to conduct bussiness, own property and assets in their own name, to inherit and conduct their financial affairs independently. Also to divorce, to have a marriage contract, to be full participants in the home and in society. (The Prophets wives fully participated in their community)

    However, it is also true that "equality" has a different meaning in Islam than it does in western secular/feminist discourse......

    Equality in the West is about equal treatment---men and women treated equally....the Quran has a different idea. The Quran says men and women are inherently equal (neither is inferior/superior to the other) but biologically different. God has given the biological responsibility of pregnancy/birth/breastfeeding to women---therefore, to balance this extra responsibility---men are required to provide physical and financial protection to women.(and in order that they may fulfill this responsibility, they are stronger) This way the dichotomy between inherent equality and apparent inequality is balanced out.

    This concept of equality plays out in other areas as well---for example---From the Quranic perspective---ALL human beings are inherently equal---Yet some have more wealth than others----thus, those to whom God has given the blessing of wealth---have a greater responsibility of sharing that wealth with those to whom God has provided less. (and they will be held accountable for this at judgement day).........

  2. @ Anonymous: Perhaps. I think it is perfectly possible to find the case for equality in the Quran. I had no difficulty perceiving it.

    The challenge lies not in the language, but in the interface between any language and the soul that is reading it. The Quran clearly teaches honorable behavior towards women...and yet there will be those who hear it...even in the Arabic...and take passages out of context as warrant to subjugate and abuse. This happens with the Book, as well, and is hardly the fault of Islam.

    What is also interesting in your response is the degree to which it harmonizes what is known as the "complementarian" position in Christian gender ethics. That is the assumption that women inherently fulfill one role by God's design, and men another. This stands in tension with the "egalitarian" position, which notes that if economic, social, and religious authority all inhere in one gender, then asserting equality is dissonant with actual and apparent inequality.

  3. I got busy and could not continue...

    In Islam--women are economically, socially and religiously independent...I already explained that women have a right to dispose of their monetary and non-monetary assets as they will---for example---in Saudi Arabia today---women have financial institutions and advisors that cater to their needs alone....women have also been leaders such as the women leaders of Bangladesh and Pakistan and historically as well---women have been leaders in their communities and nations---also---religiously, Islam does not have priests---we have scholars and this field has always been open to women....The West focuses on women being "oppressed" but since colonization---both men and women have been oppressed in the middle east.....

    wife-beating verse---this may be difficult to believe---but instances of verses interpreted in this fashion were meant to discourage/deter the particular practice---by restricting it---In this instance it was domestic abuse---and Sharia complements this sentiment by giving women the right to divorce in case of abuse.....

    Today the verse is interpreted differently---as many women scholars have pointed out---the word "daraba" understood as strike makes more sense in the overall verse if understood as "separate"---which is also another meaning of this word.

    Protection---today this idea of "protection" is abused by some Muslim societies into restricting freedoms for women---this is an incorrect understanding of the spirit of the Quran---and it is upto muslim women to seek its correction.....