Monday, March 11, 2013
  IWD Khutbah, What the Qur'an says about women, Part 1

For 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 gender. 

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)
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Progressive Muslim, feminist, mom, writer, mystic, lover of the universe and Doug Schmidt, cellist, theologian and imam.

What I'm reading now

Cane River
An interesting exploration of the gradual whiting of a family through slavery to modern days.

To see an archive of all the books I've read (well the ones I've read and review since I started the blog) with comments, please click here

Causes Worth Supporting

This is just a short list -- a few of my favorites.

English Language Islamic Fiction. We need more of it. Lots more.
Pay a Teacher's Salary in Afghanistan. The Hunger site actually has a lot of worthwhile programs. You can find them all here .
Muslims for Progressive Values. My organization. We can always use donations, of time or money!
Human Rights Campaign for the glbt community
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
The ACLU I'm a card carrying member. Hope you'll become one too. The organization that has done the most, as far as I can tell, to pull the countries progressive side together.
Network of Spiritual Progressives. Working to reclaim religion and morality for the religious left.

Blogs Worth Reading

Wanda Campbell also known as Nochipa A very gifted poet and a gentle, compassionate soul. Nochipa and I are on the same page on sooooo many things
Writeous Sister Aminah Hernandez, she's got some excellent latino pieces and always has good writing info on her blog.
Sister Scorpion aka Leila Montour - Leila is a fount of energy, quirky humor, and bad attitude. She's also a talented poet.
Muhajabah Very interesting commentary here. I don't always agree with her, but her pieces are always thought-provoking.
Georgie Dowdell Georgie is a great writer and a good friend.
Louise Marley Another great writer. I think Louise is one of the best sf writers exploring faith themes.
Ink in My Coffee Devon Ellington (who has numerous aliases) who is also the editor of Circadian Poems. A truly inspiring woman with a seemingly endless supply of energy.
Ethnically Incorrect With a name like that, isn't a given I'm going to enjoy this writer?
Freedom from the Mundane Colin Galbraith, another excellent writer, from Scotland.
The Scruffy Dog Review This is a new e-zine with an ecclectic mix of fiction, poetry, and non-fic, some really enjoyable pieces here.
Ramblings of a Suburban Soccer Mom Lara, another gentle soul, very thoughtful.
Circadian Poems A journal of poetry, new stuff up all the time.
Ye Olde Inkwell Michelle writes romance and is one of my writing buddies.
Muhammad Michael Knight The original punk Muslim writer. Like him or love him, Mike is always coming up with the unexpected.

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