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Lesson Plan: "Women and the Qur'an: Feminist Interpretations of the Qur'an"

Kiki Kennedy-Day
Independent Scholar

Course: Introduction to Islamic Studies
Syllabus Section: Women in Islam

Women and the Qur'an

Introduction

The status of women in the Islamic world has been a contested subject for several years, taking on a particular urgency with the formation of a new government in Iraq, the question of the veil in France, and girls' education in Afghanistan. Women's status derives from the Qur'an, so how the Qur'an represents women and the Qur'anic commentators' interpretations of those representations become of primary importance. The Qur'an is often used as the foundation of culture in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Therefore rulers think they have the authority to limit women's rights in Muslim societies. On the contrary, with a few arguable exceptions the Qur'an is a remarkably balanced document treating men and women as equally valuable in the Creator's scheme. The clear majority of the Qur'anic text speaks to men and women as equals, as human beings created by God to follow his laws and to be responsible for their own salvation. One purpose of studying the Qur'an from the perspective of women is to strip away the accretions, such as commentaries, that have attached themselves to the text. Then it may be possible to understand more clearly what part of Islamic culture reflects the Qur'an's view of women and what part is cultural baggage coming from a patriarchal society that prejudiced the Islamic view of women.

The contested verses, which are taken to endorse wife-beating or men's generalized superiority over women or a woman's untrustworthiness as a witness in court, are few in number. Most apply to a small group in a specific era and situation. As one looks at the context it becomes more difficult to interpret them as applying to all women. For example, when we consider the "degree verse" (S. 2. 282), which states that men have a degree (darajah) over women, we first notice the context of this verse: It is part of a continuation of the discussion about women being divorced, their waiting period, and the fact that both men and women have rights. The meaning becomes limited to the interpretation that men have an economic advantage, and therefore women waiting out the 'iddah must be supported financially. Such a reading is much more restrictive than saying "[all] men have a degree over women." The field is narrowed down from all women being a degree below all men to referring to the class of divorcing women—for a limited time period (during the 'iddah). From this point of view, the verse does not take a position on the legitimacy of a woman's serving as a judge in a law court or governing a country as prime minister.

In its function as the word of God, the Qur'an is eternal, but in its earthly appearance as the sacred book of Islam and a guide for Muslims it is necessary to interpret the Qur'an for it to be used. The Qur'an is not a law book in the sense that state civil codes are law books. It does not list conditions for finding a crime has been committed or give specific punishments. In this lesson plan we will examine how the Qur'an's description of Creation relates to women's status in the Muslim world, how popular and scholarly accretions to the Qur'an have impacted women's status, and who should interpret the Qur'an.


I. Creation in the Qur'an

Amina Wadud directs particular attention to S. 4: 1 in her analysis of human creation as found in the Qur'an. There are several accounts of creation, each with a slightly different emphasis. In this account, the verse focuses on individual creation, in a metaphorical way: "Mankind, fear your Lord, who created you of a single soul, and from it created its mate" (Arberry) and "People, be mindful of your Lord, who created you from a single soul, and from it created its mate" (S. 4.1) (Haleem).

Although the Qur'anic story is often understood as the creation of Adam and Eve, this narrative gives it a more abstract view. The interesting point here is what God created. The Arabic word is nafs, which has many meanings: self, soul, spirit, the vital principle.1 The word is feminine grammatically but not in meaning. God then created the mate, the spouse (zawj) of the nafs. The emphasis appears to be on God's creating a pair: He created an entity and a mate for it. Unlike the other creation stories, it does not specifically say man (or Adam) was created first. As Wadud points out in her notes, if Adam is created first, this gives the male an ontological priority. By abstracting the creation process, we no longer know which sex was created first. The importance of creation is that it is God's act, it reflects the power of God. Since much of the human male's prestige over women in Islam is culturally derived from the Qur'an, the Qur'an's position on women signifies rank in various ways. (There are places in the Qur'an where women are specifically given less than men, such as in inheritance, S. 4: 11-12.)

In the Qur'an there is no mention of Eve's creation from Adam's rib nor of Eve as the original temptress of Adam. The last two traditions came into Islam through the isra'iliyyat, Biblical traditions that have become attached to Islam.


Questions for Discussion

  • How important do you think the Qur'anic creation stories are as the foundation for beliefs about the status of men and women?
  • What aspect of women's status in the Qur'an do you think most influences their position in today's world? The fact that they inherit half as much as men (in the same relationship to the deceased); that they cannot be considered prophets generally; that men can divorce women by pronouncing a verbal formula; or that a woman's testimony is considered as half a man's in court?
  • Why was the rib story and other stories from the Biblical tradition taken into Islam?

II. Concepts of Women's Rights

Discussions about interpreting women's rights based on the Qur'an are sometimes in favor of women's rights, sometimes neutral to women's rights (not mentioned), and sometimes limiting of women's rights. Considering the date of revelation, the seventh century A.D., human rights was obviously not a topic of conversation; what we are doing is anachronistically casting our viewpoints back on an earlier psychology. As an example of treating women equally, we first see that the ayah is addressed to believing men and women (S. 33.35). In Arabic, the masculine, al-muslimin, is used to refer to people of unknown gender as well as to men, while al-muslimat is used to refer specifically to women. And the verse in the ayah is exceptional for using al-muslimat along with al-muslimin to address specifically the women along with the men, so the women are addressed specifically as believers and their duties listed with those of men—for example, to be devout and modest and to fast. The verse ends with the assertion that for both men and women who remember God, a great reward has been prepared.

In literary terms, the surah of Maryam is constructed as a series of prophets, all of whom did God's work, some in problematic times. Of the series, all are acknowledged prophets except Maryam (the mother of Jesus), for whom the surah is named. The first prophet named is Zachariah; the Qur'an commands listeners to "mention" Zachariah. When he is given news of a son to be born, he objects that he is old and he is given a sign. His son John is described, ending with a prayer for peace on him (John) the day he is born, the day he dies, and the day he will be raised from the dead.

In the same way, listeners are told to "Mention Maryam in the Book." Maryam will receive a son, and her son will be a sign, paralleling the story of Zachariah. It ends with the same formula for peace on Jesus the day he is born, the day he dies, and the day he will be raised from the dead. Just as Zachariah protests he cannot have a son, since he is old, Maryam protests that she cannot have a son, since she is pure and untouched by any man. Generally the commentators appear to have ignored these strong parallels. The next prophet is Abraham. It says to mention Abraham in the Book; then, after him, the order is given to mention Moses in the Book. The linguistic parallelism of Maryam with a series of prophets is remarkable.

According to Ibn Hazm of Cordoba (eleventh century), Maryam is a prophet because she is without sin, God communicated with her through an angel, and Jesus was the "sign" of her prophethood. In the tradition, she is a "perfect woman"; perfection has long been seen as a proof of prophethood. God's proof miracle given to a prophet is called mu'jiza; a miracle given to a saint is karama. Maryam received ripe dates and rushing water for sustenance by divine intervention when she was giving birth to Jesus. Commentators disagree as to which type of miracle this was. She is the only woman referred to by name in the Qur'an; she is the only one with a surah named after her. Most of the commentaries do not depict her as a prophet, because she was a woman.

Among other powerful women referred to in the Qur'an is the Queen of Sheba, later known as Bilqis (S.27. 20-44). Stowasser points out in her book that Muslim exegetes were mostly unable to deal with the idea of a strong female ruler.2 In both these women, male commentators neglect the opportunity to appreciate fully strong exemplars for women: Maryam as a female prophet and the Queen of Sheba as a respected, legitimately established ruler of a kingdom.

On the question of women's driving automobiles, there is no mention of their riding camels, leaving the issue neutral. Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and the imams derive the principle theologically, but it is not addressed in the Qur'an. Neither does the Qur'an specifically demand that women cover their faces, only that they dress modestly.

The limitations on women's rights we find in the Qur'an include: a woman's testimony in court as half the value of a man's (S. 2. 282), designated lower inheritance rights (S. 4. 11), the degree verse (mentioned earlier), polygamy (S. 4.3), and the questionable "beating verse" (S. 4. 34). The question of a woman's testimony in court is variously interpreted as being worth half a man's or not allowed (in Saudi Arabia) or equal to a man's. Those who hold the last opinion consider the Qur'anic verse to be applicable only to the time and place it was revealed, in what might be considered a time-sensitive revelation. Traditionalists, like strict American Constitutionalists, believe that the Qur'an must apply to all times and all places as it is written. Polygamy allows up to four wives in Islam, but only with equal treatment: "If you fear that you cannot be equitable [to them], then marry only one" (S. 4. 3). Some scholars say this implicitly forbids polygamy, for no one can treat more than one person the same in terms of love and affection. The general interpretation of commentators has been that the equal treatment refers to financial support and that all wives must be supported equally, because no one is capable of equal affection.

The "beating" verse (S. 4. 34) has continued to be seen as the most problematic, because it allegedly permits men to hit disobedient wives. Daraba, the verb used here, is most commonly translated as "to strike"; but in recent years interpretation has become tortuous as some scholars seek another meaning. The problem is exacerbated by the Prophet's good example: Muhammad was known never to hit a servant, much less a wife, so this verse also appears to conflict with the lived prophetic tradition (sunnah).

But among the things not said, and among the worst implications, is the idea that God is masculine. Although the Qur'an does not give God a gender, God is referred to with the masculine pronoun huwa, since all subjects in Arabic must be either formally masculine or grammatically feminine. Asma Barlas points out that men have been too willing to claim a resemblance on this basis, despite the verse that says, "There is nothing like God". Although many commentators have worked on the implicit assumption that God and human men are both masculine, Barlas is notable for explicitly pointing out and refuting this assumption.


Questions for Discussion

(Before discussing this issue it would be helpful if students read the encyclopedia entries Mary and Women in Islamic Law and also Maribel Fierro's chapter "Women as Prophets in Islam" in Writing the Feminine: Women in Arab sources, pp. 183-198. The full citation is given in the bibliography at the end of this lesson plan.)

  • There are many prophets in Islam (S. 10. 47). What would it mean for Muslim women and for Islam if Mary is considered a prophet?
  • What is the significance of a verse specifically addressed to "believing women" (S. 33.35)?

III. Who Should Interpret the Qur'an?

A longstanding issue is the question of who is entitled to interpret the Qur'an. Although Islam does not have a central authority, in some ways the interpretation of "orthodoxy" in Islam has remained consistently within preset limits. In medieval times specific regimes for the training of scholars and commentators ensured a certain uniformity in interpretation, particularly because the commentators were male. In the late nineteenth century, one of the earliest theorists to revisit this interpretation was the Egyptian jurist Muhammad Abduh, who viewed the Qur'an as pronouncing two kinds of laws: those that related to the duties to God (the ibadat) and those relating to duties to other human beings (the mu'amalat). Laws relating to God were unchangeable, but those relating to human interactions changed with the time and place.

In more recent times, feminist scholars, such as Amina Wadud, Khaled Abou El-Fadl, and Asma Barlas, have been challenging received wisdom. Their major strategies have included considering the holistic message of the Qur'an rather than the meaning of any one specific verse; returning to the exact words of the book, stripping away accretions of interpretation; and dividing the Qur'an into time-related sections and eternal sections. Thus, regardless of how the "beating" verse (S. 4. 34) has been interpreted in the past, they insist that God does not intend for anyone to beat anyone else, particularly not in her own household. They may say such verses came at a socially less developed time and that, while Muhammad wanted to see society change, it was only possible to change slowly. For example, although slavery is nowhere forbidden in the Qur'an, it is not considered a good. In the Qur'an, people are encouraged to manumit slaves for many reasons. A failed oath can be relieved by freeing a slave, and likewise the steep path to God includes freeing slaves. A slave wife or concubine who gives birth to a child recognized by her master as his child is entitled to her freedom, in various situations. As is the case with the proscriptions about women in a changed environment, how are such admonitions to be interpreted?

In "Woman half-the-Man, the crisis of male epistemology in Islamic jurisprudence," Abdulaziz Sachedina points out that in the Prophet's day 'A'isha and other leading Muslim women would frequently answer questions from other women with definitive information about topics such as women's purity. Often a woman who asked Muhammad questions about ritual purity was referred to another woman. Sachedina makes us realize how far the pattern has shifted now, in that women do not answer such questions for other women. Furthermore, he mentions that in some countries scholars are on the verge of banning women's voices in the public arena as too seductive. He analyzes the problem as caused by the madrasa-educated male scholars who rule based on the condition of women as objects rather than including women in consultations about matters that affect them.

One of the early proponents of feminist interpretations is the Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi, who looked at the rational for women's veiling (in the hadith) and asked why men weren't required to control themselves, rather than forcing women to cover completely to hide their alleged seductiveness. Why is the onus on women in Islamic society? Mernissi has a long and detailed analysis of the origination of sitr, the screen or curtain that separates women from men in the home, in this case the Prophet's home. The story, as Mernissi tells it, is as much about guests with poor manners who don't know when to go home from a wedding banquet as it is about female modesty. Those who have read early Islamic history will see that the Prophet appeared to make many moves in the direction of gender equality, and after his death, particularly under the authority of 'Umar ibn al-Khattab, the pendulum swung in the other direction. According to Mernissi, 'Umar was directly responsible for the veiling and seclusion of Muhammad's wives after they were insulted in the streets. She asks why the men were not rebuked for their behavior, rather than forcing the women out of sight. In 'Umar's success at isolating women because they are the cause of sexual temptation, Mernissi sees the failure of Muhammad's vision of an Islamic society that is based on community and internal self-discipline before God rather than on external barriers.

The question of women's status in Islam is not just an academic matter, as Abdulaziz Sachedina stresses. The final question is: Will men get a higher reward in heaven than women, just because they're men? On another level, the question is whether women's souls are in essence any different from men's. On this level it appears that men and women are promised the same reward. Many feminist scholars, such as Asma Barlas, argue that the civil-society patriarchy was extended illegitimately—or perhaps unthinkingly—into religion and that the impingement on women's rights must be rectified. For the religiously minded to assign women a lower place in the Afterlife is worse than assigning them a lower status in this world. In a sense the double inheritance of a male compared to a female counterpart can be viewed as entirely a social effect of seventh-century Arabia. Likewise, in a society without resources for an individual, polygamy was a process to incorporate females, whether widowed, orphaned, or impoverished, into a household.

The verse that requires husbands to treat co-wives equally is usually interpreted by men to mean financially—if it were taken to mean "emotionally equal," it would legislate against multiple wives.

Interpretation by an individual often depends on the (English) translation. Translations originating in Saudi Arabia tend to be very traditional and lopsided. The most important factor in considering translations is that the Arabic frequently has multiple meanings and much room for variation. Translations tend to solidify and limit meaning to the obvious one given in the target language. Translations of the Qur'an from Saudi Arabia in particular tend to be definite, frequently leading to interpretations that favor misogyny.


Questions for Discussion

  • Why does our belief about the destiny of humans in the next world demand that we define persons and the whether their attributes are necessary? Is the gender of the soul an essential part of the person?
  • Organize debates around the various issues involved. Assign a panel of students to each side of the question (such as hijab, polygamy, inheritance, and women as prophets). Each student prepares a lawyerlike argument for her position, using materials studied in class and available online. This will allow the students to become familiar with the full range of arguments on a topic.

Notes

1E. W. Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon, Cambridge, England, Islamic Texts Society, 1984, v. 2, p. 2827.

2Stowasser, Women in the Qur'an, p. 65.

Further Reading

  • Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993.
  • Barlas, Asma. Believing Women in Islam, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.
  • Fierro, Maribel. "Women as Prophets in Islam" in Writing the Feminine: Women in Arab Sources, ed. by R. Deguilhem and M. Marin, London: I. B. Tauris, 2002, pp. 183-198.
  • Hassan, Riffat. "Is Islam a Help or a Hindrance to Women's Development?" in Islam in the Era of Globalization, ed. by Johan H. Meuleman, London: Routledge, 2002, pp. 189-210.
  • Mackey, Robert. "Saudis Debate Ban on Women Drivers" http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/saudis-debate-ban-on-women-drivers/ (accessed 01/06/2010)
  • Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam, trans. by Mary Jo Lakeland, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, c. 1991.
  • Mubarak, H. "Breaking the interpretive monopoly: A reexamination of 4.34" in Hawwa (Leiden: Brill), v. 2, no. 3: 261-289, 2004.
  • Sachedina, Abdulaziz. "Woman half-the-Man, the crisis of male epistemology in Islamic jurisprudence" in Intellectual Traditions in Islam, ed. by F. Daftary, London New York: I. B. Tauris, 2000.
  • Stowasser, Barbara. Women in the Qur'an, Traditions and Interpretation, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Wadud, Amina. The Qur'an and Woman, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999 (First pub. 1992, Kuala Lumpur: Malaysia: Penerbit FajarBakati Sdn. Bhd.).

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