IWD Khutbah, What the Qur'an says about women, Part 1
International Women’s Day I gave a khutbah at the MPV-Columbus Unity Mosque,
exploring what the Qur’an has to say about women. The next few blog posts will
explore some of these ideas, looking first at verses that promote a vision of
gender equality, and then at some of the verses that have been used to justify
many of the deplorable and oppressive conditions Muslim women live under – rampant
domestic violence, coerced and under-age marriages and sexual harassment on the
street and in the home, exclusion from education, careers, and politics,
restrictions concerning dress and travel, even legal jeopardy for reporting
rape. Sadly, the Qur’an has been used to justify many of these oppressive
conditions. Fortunately, the Qur’an can also be used to challenge them.
There are many verses in the Qur’an which directly
and indirectly express the fundamental equality of all humankind, starting with
the creation story. The first verse of the chapter entitled Women says:
“O MANKIND! Be conscious of your
Sustainer, who has created you out of one living entity, and out of her created
her mate, and out of the two spread abroad a multitude of men and women. And remain conscious of God, in whose name
you demand [your rights] from one another, and of these ties of kinship.
Verily, God is ever watchful over you! 4:1
This passage describes both the creation of mankind and our fundamental
natures, that of being paired. The word for mate, “zauj” is an interesting word
because it means both one half of the pair, and the pair as a unity. Even more
interesting, the word “zauja” – denoting “wife” -- was in use across much of
the Arab world, as it still is today, but the word zauja never appears in the Qur’an.
Zauj is used for both halves of the pair, at times denoting the wife and a
times denoting the husband. What emerges is a picture of two beings united
without regard for gender; they are identical halves of the whole, bonded
together and equals and interdependent in every way. (More on this later!) This
is the mold on which humankind is created.
Unfortunately, this passage is often read and
translated with reference to and in the context of the Biblical creation story
which talks about Eve being made from Adam’s rib as his helper. The order of
creation, the description of Eve as a helpmate, and the fact that Adam is made
whole cloth by Allah, while Eve is made from a part of him is used to justify a
hierarchy between the two, with Adam firmly the leader and Eve the subservient.
With this scenario and its assumptions in mind, commentators have often inherited
the gender bias evident in the Bible and its interpretations. Translators have universally
altered the pronouns, saying, “created you from one soul and made from him his
mate,” or “made from it its mate.”
In the Qur’an the language is quite the opposite…
the first entity, this “nafsin wahidatin,” is feminine, and her mate, her “zauj,” is
masculine. Thus the passage says that
God created a female being and made her masculine mate from her, and from the
two spread a multitude of men and women. This cannot possibly have been by
accident. If God had wanted to use a masculine word, He could well have said,
we created Adam, we created a man, we created a male. Thus we have to assume those
word choices were deliberate. Muslims,
however, have been reluctant to explore the implications.
Now, in Arabic a masculine or feminine word does not
necessarily denote the gender of the object – all nouns are gendered – the sun
is feminine, as is the moon, but we wouldn’t say they are women. So it may be
that these things – the orginal nafs and its mate are like the sun and the
moon, neither male nor female, and it only their offspring that took on the
qualities of maleness and femaleness.
So what emerges is a picture is of two entities,
paired, mated, from whom mankind -- men and women -- sprang. There is no
hierarchy or supremacy of one over the other in the verse; they are a pair,
mates of like nature; nor does the verse predicate any hierarchy between the
men and women who sprang from these two, rather they are posited as having
mutual rights that they demand of one another, and ties of kinship that bind
them together. Most particularly, it does not say, from them we spread abroad a
multitude of men and women so that one may be the breadwinner and the other the
housewife, so that one can be the leader and the other the broodmother. Rather,
they are kin and they have rights over one another… without distinction by
We see this equality affirmed in other verses which
talk about the pairing of humankind.
30:21 And among His Signs is this, that He created for
you mates from among yourselves, that ye may dwell in tranquility with them,
and He has put love and mercy between your (hearts): verily in that are Signs
for those who reflect!
Why do we have mates? So one can cook and clean and
bear the children of the other? So that one can lead the household and earn
money? No, so we can dwell with them in tranquility, in love and tenderness and
mercy toward one another. Again, the word zauj is used to indicate both halves
of the pair as well as the pair itself – which has profound implications not
only for heterosexual but especially for glbt relationships because what is
important in the relationship is not the gender of the two participants, but
rather it’s about how the two halves relate to each other – with love and
mercy… with mutual respect. Not domination or obedience.
Similarly we read: “49:13 O
mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female and have made you nations and
tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of
Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware..”
This is another verse, that people often quote, in
this case referencing it for racial equality, but it also affirms gender
equality. Men and women, of all ethnicities, all races – all human beings are
equal in the site of God, differentiated only their piety. It does not say we
should lord over one another, or seek to dominate one another, but to know one
another, learn from one another.
(Part II tomorrow)