cultures and more with the doctrinal system of Islam, for, in my opinion, it, too, has to share a part of the blame for the failure of the equalitarian and/or egalitarian teaching of Islam to realize itself in Muslim life and living. There are a number of verses of the Qur'an which intended, certainly seemed, to provide the basis of the cognitive, psychological, moral/ethical, and existential states of mind and psyche, on the one hand, and the creation and persistence of social, political, economic, and cultural institutions of society, on the other hand, that in unison, doctrinally, systematically, and effectively, maintained the Muslim ways of life and living and social orders, based on the sexual, gender, and functional inequality of men and women.
At any rate, these verses of the Qur'an were so understood, interpreted, and constructed, and their teaching incorporated in fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence, and the codifications of the Shariah, or Islamic law, and implemented in real life that, in sum and substance, not equality in any sense of the word, but the inequality of men and women became the stock tradition and the general rule of Muslim life and living, and the transcendental organizational principle of the Islamic social order. Consequently, not only inequality of the sexes, but also the inequality of the sexualties of men and women, became the accompaniment and the outcome of this centuries old trend in the intellectual, cultural, and social history of Islamic civilization. Although all sectors, sections, and segments of Muslim society have been a party to this, in my opinion the guiltiest party has been the Ulama (religious scholars), Fuqaha (Shariah jurists), and Imams (Islamic clergy), i.e., professional prayer leaders and Khatibs, or the givers of the Friday Khutaba, or the sermon, because it is they who acted as the professional interpreters of Islam. In collaborating opportunistically with the holders of political power—the Khalifas (caliphs), sultans (kings), and military rulers of Islam---they not only devalued and denied equality and dignity to Muslim women but also the social and cultural evolution of the religious, social, political, and cultural life of the ummah, i.e., the Muslim community as a whole.
This alliance of organized religion and its professional representatives with the Islamic State and the holders of political power effectively held back the progress of the whole Muslim society. It also turned Islam into a political religion in ways that were neither good for Islam nor for the Muslim state, and definitely not in the best interest of the Muslim masses. Taqlid, or the unthinking, virtually blind, imitation or following of the religious pronouncements of past imams, religious scholars, and jurists and the categorical rejection of fresh thinking and conceptual breakthroughs or any sort of innovation in Muslim life and living and the reorganization of the social, political, and economic institutions became their sole public theology, with disastrous results for Muslim society and the fortunes of Muslims in the modern world. Under the influence of the ulama, fuqaha, and imams, religion, state, rulers, military, feudal lords, merchants, and masses were all turned into the internal enemies of the social, political, economic, cultural, intellectual, religious, moral, and civilizational progress of Muslim society and culture. The inequality of the sexes in Muslim society had consequences not only for Muslim women, but also for Muslims as a people, as an ummah, or a community, and as nations and states. In the end, both Islam and the Muslim society were/are the losers for it. The present day social stagnation; economic underdevelopment; scientific, technological, and industrial backwardness; political despotism; military weakness; cultural incompetence; and psychological demoralization of Muslims are all directly traceable and attributable to the frustration, obstruction, and holding back of the evolution and progress of society under the dead weight of what organized religion in alliance with the state imposed upon society under the guardianship of orthodox, traditionalist, and fundamentalist religion. Especially in denying women opportunities for personal growth and development and to play a social role in society and a measure of equality with men, the orthodoxy denied the whole society to evolve and grow. Inequality, inequity, and oppression in the home translated themselves into inequality, inequity, and oppression in society at large. As the husband and father denied freedom and dignity to wives and children, so the ruler and his ministers denied freedom and dignity to citizens and subjects. What is called Zulm in Islam, meaning injustice, inequity, oppression, and more, became the most outstanding feature of Muslim society in history. Justice simply meant carrying out the punishments of the Shariah without any real concern for social, economic, and political justice. Our main concern is with the situation that resulted from the doctrinal and sociological genderization in Islam and the Muslim family and society. Let us look at some of the verses of the Qur'an that were/are responsible for the inequality of and inequity between men and women in Islam and the holding back of the progress of women in Muslim societies and cultures.
There are many verses of the Qur'an, that constitute some of the muhkamat, or commands, that clearly and straightforwardly state doctrines which provide a doctrinal basis for the psychologically, socially, culturally, and civilizationally constructed inequality of the male and female in Muslim life and living. Indeed, nothing is more evident in all of Islamic history than such inequality of men and women. The sexual and gender inequality, with the inferior statuses, rights, and role of Muslim women in contemporary Muslim societies and cultures, derive directly from the doctrines of inequality of man and woman in the Qur'an, Sunnah, and Islamic Tradition and history.
Among the inequality verses of the Qur'an,
the most decisive verse that supports male-female inequality, I think,
is the following:
In his influential book,
of Women in Islam,17 Justice Aftab Hussain, retired
Chief Justice of the Federal Shariat Court of the Islamic Republic
of Pakistan, the highest Shariah, or Islamic law, court, in the
country, explains the meaning of Qawwam, from which is derived the
word Qawwamuuna, as follows:
In his The Meaning of the Glorious Koran: An Explanatory Translation (New York: The New American Library, Twelfth Printing, n.d.), Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall translates the qawwamuuna as "Men are incharge of women" (p. 83) without any further explanation. (By the way, Pickthall was an English Christian who converted to Islam early in the twentieth century.)
Muhammad Asad writes:
Hitherto, in the Muslim society, the authentic voices have been those of men only. Only in the twentieth century have Muslim women begun to speak. The meanings, interpretations, and ideas about the qawwama, or the rule of men over women, were determined and given currency in Muslim society by Muslim men. As would be expected, they always upheld the superiority, even supremacy, of men as the summum bonum of the message and intent of the Qur'an. Often non-Muslim translators, interpreters, and commentators of the Qur'an provided similar meanings, interpretations, and implications for gender relations of the same word, too. Male sexism in Western society was different in degrees only, but it was always there as well. At any rate, it is only fair that we should familiarize ourselves with what meaning, interpretations, and implications for gender relations Muslim women see today in the words "men are qawwamuun over women" in verse 4:34 in the Qur'an. I will take note of what such distinguished women as Dr. Amina Wadud-Muhsin, Dr. Aziza al-Hibri, Dr. Shaheen Sardar Ali, Dr. Rifat Hasan, and Dr. Ghada Karmi have to say about the status of women in Islam.
Amina Wadud-Muhsin writes about verse 4:34:
"This is classically viewed as the single most important verse with regard
to the relationship between men and women: ‘men are qawwamuna ‘ala women."22
She goes on to say:
Let me first show that the interpretation is unwarranted. To start wit, nowhere in the passage is there a reference to the male’s physical or intellectual superiority. Secondly, since men are ‘qawwamun’ over women in matters where God gave some [italics in the original] of the men more than some of the women, and in what the men spend of their money, then clearly men as a class are not ‘qawwamun’ over women as a class.
I shall now show that (ii),
the traditional interpretation, is inconsistent with other Islamic teachings.
Elsewhere in the Qur'an we have the following passage (verse): ‘The believers,
men and women, are "awliya," one of another’ (ix, verse 71).
Al-Hibri goes on to say:
Al-Hibri quotes, no doubt
approvingly, a statement by Nazirah Zein Ed-Din, a Lebanese (Muslim or
Christian, al-Hibri does not say) in a 1928 writing of hers, as a commentary
on the Islamic teaching on man-woman statuses, as given below (all italics
It is indeed difficult to explain this double retreat from the initial egalitarian message. Not only does the inequality between the sexes seem to be re-established, in addition this is justified by the access of men to wealth from which women are excluded, Verse 4:34 even sanctifies the right of men to strike their wives in case of nushuz—that is---rebellion against male authority.32
It (verse 4:34) does not mean that women are incapable of handling their own affairs, controlling themselves or being leaders, whether among women, men and women or even of nations as has been assumed. Rather it intends to establish a responsibility of men for the protection and maintenance of women in a restricted social context. Biologically only women can bear the future generations of Muslims. The Qur'an creates a harmonious balance in society by establishing a functional responsibility for males to facilitate this biological function of females. This verse does not organize an inherent superiority of men; rather it stipulates a functional relationship between women and men, which represents their ideal mutual responsibility in the social order.
ii) Are all men superior to all women?
The Qur'an does not say that ‘all men are superior to or better than all women.’ Nor even that Allah prefers all men to all women. Advantages [of each] are explicitly specified in the Qur'an. The most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the one with the most taqwa [meaning piety and God-consciousness] (49:13). Maududi speaks for many of his co-orthodox religionists when he says, as translated by Zafar Ishaq Ansari in his Towards Understanding the Qur'an (Vol. II, English Version of Tafhimul al-Qur'an, Delhi: Markazi Maktaba Islami, 1989), when he says: "God has endowed one of the sexes (i.e., the male sex) with certain qualities which He has not endowed the other sex with, at least not to an equal extent. Thus it is the male who is qualified to function as head of the family. The female has been so constituted that she should live under his care and protection" (p. 35). As we know, orthodoxy also disqualifies women from the roles and leadership positions, including the head of the state and/or government in particular, and in the religious, social, political, economic, cultural, and scientific fields.
iii) Must a wife obey her husband?
We must take a closer look at the presumption that women must obey men—or at least wives must obey husbands. The Qur'an does not order women to obey their husbands. The Qur'an says that good women are qanitat. The Qur'an uses this word with good men (3:17, 33:35) and with non-humans (39:9). Qanitat does not refer to the obedience of one human to another—no matter what gender. It refers to the spirit of humility before Allah.
iv) Does man have a right to beat a woman if she disobeys him?
The Qur'an’s discussion
of Nushuz is not restricted to this verse. It is used for women (4:34)
and men (4:128). So "nushuz" cannot mean ‘a woman’s disobedience
to her husband.’…The Qur'an uses the word daraba (which incidentally is
first defined in Lisan-al-arab as being a single blow) which means that
the Qur'an is attempting to restrict the extent of the use of violence.
Here we have a limitation defined, not a recommendation.33
Rifat Hasan footnotes the permission in the Qur'an by restricting the use of violence to "a single blow" by the husband against the wife with the explanation: "Another such restriction of an existing pre-established practice is the verse on polygamy which restricts the permissible number of wives from unlimited to a maximum of four."34
Lastly, Rifat Hasan makes
what I would regard a crucial point. Apparently, she thinks that
verse 9:71, which I have quoted above as an equality verse in the Qura'n,
renders verse 4:34, which I have called above the most decisive inequality
verse in the Qur'an, ineffective, or at least less decisive, though not
abrogated. This is my, not her, preface to what she has to say in
the following statement of hers, in which she actually interfaces or confronts
verse 4:34 with verse 9:71 of the Qur'an. In her own words:
There is obviously much in verse 4:34 that can easily be regarded as being objectionable and which raises questions, such as why, because men are physically stronger, they should have the right to control women and their affairs; what about the woman who works and earns her own living and does not require her husband to support and maintain her; and why only the wives who obey their husband unquestionably should be regarded as good, righteous, and/or virtuous women? But definitely the objection to the permission to the husband to beat a disobedient wife into submission and obedience is more or most conspicuous to the modern reader of the verse.
That beating of wives has been a universal phenomenon since times immemorial is undoubted. Hence even the Europeans and Americans who convert to Islam—and Muslims can, indeed, show off these converts from Christianity and Judaism as prized trophies: such names as those of Titus Burckhardt, Ahmad von Denffer, Muhammad Asad (formerly Leopold Weiss), Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, Martin Lings, Roger du Pasquier, T.B. Irving, Paul Garaudy, and, of course, Murad Wilfried Hofmann, whom I am quoting below, come readily to mind—usually take hardly any critical view of some of the obvious provisions in the doctrinal system of Islam that do violence to the human dignity of women. These cultured Europeans and Americans, who choose to embrace Islam, too, seek to justify such institutions of Islam as polygamy, divorce by repudiation, patriarchy, subordination of wives, unfreedom of women, and/or the beating of wives. But, then, perhaps, I say perhaps because I do not mean to question anyone’s motives for conversion to Islam, these might be precisely some of those things that might attract an European or American Jew or Christian to Islam, possibly on account of the nostalgia of the modern and, even more so, of the postmodern man, for a way of life in which women, certainly the wives, existed to serve and wait on men and understood their place in the scheme of things.
Be that as it may, twentieth century Europeans and Americans usually try to soften the harshness of the permission in the Qur'an to beat a disobedient wife to force her to return to obedience, in which opinion they follow the recommendation of the Prophet Muhammad and other Muslim sages that the beating should be only symbolic and as light as it can be and, then too, in the interest of holding the family together for everyone’s sake. The justification of beating ultimately is that it is better to give the wife a beating than a divorce. Quoted below are two present day rationalizations of the permission of beating the wife in case of nushuz, or disobedience, by a learned German and an Austrian-American. The former is Murad Wilfried Hofmann, a
convert from Catholicism to Islam, who was
Ambassador to Algeria (1987-90) and Ambassador to Morocco (1990-94).
Hofmann presents Islam as an alternative to Western Christianity, Judaism,
and Secularism, he writes in behalf of the permission in the Qur'an to
beat the wife in case of nushuz, or disobedience, as follows:
The Islamic tradition agrees that this rule is designed to save a marriage in trouble, thereby forestalling the danger of immediate irreparable divorce in anger. After all, according to another famous saying of the Prophet, divorce is the most detestable of all actions allowed by God. With this in mind, there is general agreement among Muslims from the earliest times that ‘beating’ may only take the form of a gesture—such as symbolic slap with a fan or a towel—definitely without the intent to inflict physical injury. Any other reaction would be counter productive—destroying, rather than preserving the threatened bond of marriage. The Prophet personally rejected any corporeal punishment of his wives.36
Muhammad Asad, an Austrian
Jew who converted to Islam, and produced one of the most highly admired
translations of the Qur'an in the English language with learned commentaries,
takes much the same view of the matter. In the following commentary
of his on the permission to beat the wife, granted in verse 4:34 in the
Qur'an, Asad writes:
In the Islamic tradition women have been compared and likened to children. As a teacher may beat his student in order to make him learn and do his homework, so a husband, who, too, is his wife’s teacher in religion, morals, and conduct, may beat her in order to correct her and make her become a more surrendering Muslim wife. After all, Islam is a religion of obedience, submission, and surrender to God, the Prophet, and those in authority, to whom wives and children must submit. And in the family it is the man of the house that is in authority. The wife owes him unquestioning obedience, because he is her husband, and children because he is their father. The beating which he can administer to the wife (or wives) and children under his own authority he can himself be administered under the authority of the caliph, king, or the government of his country. Actually, the ethos of the Muslim society is that of corporeal punishment in the form of flogging, cutting off limbs, beheading, stoning, etc., depending on the crime. There has not existed in Islam the concept of incarceration or imprisonment. According to the orthodox, traditionalists, and fundamentalists therefore, beating wives and children fits right into the ethics and the ethos, and the legal system and the punitive philosophy of Islam. It is not a question of justice, certainly not justice as fairness, as such.
The Qur'an, however, lays down different remedies as cure for the nushuz of the male and female spouses. Once again, the nushuz of the wife is her disobedience to the husband and of the husband his indifference to his wife. His options are the verbal counseling of and/or admonition to the wife, then denying her sexual gratification, and, finally, beating her into submission and obedience to him. The wife’s only option is to plead with her husband and invoke his generosity, as befits one in a position of superiority. There certainly is no symmetry of rights or empowerment between the two. The disparity between the options open to the spouses is drastic. The Qur'an clearly upholds the superior status of the husband. Of course, beating the wife therefore has a context within the logic of corporeal punishment in the Qur'an, though it seems quite offensive to our modern-day sensibilities. But what sets me thinking is the second step, which requires denying/depriving a wife, including a disobedient wife, of sexual gratification, such denial beyond a reasonable period of time—not to exceed four months---becomes cruel and unusual punishment and is, therefore, forbidden in the Islamic Tradition. If she still refuses to submit and obey, the beating of the wife can begin. But even during the permitted period of abstaining from sexual intercourse with a wife guilty of nushuz, there is a question to ponder whether it is the wife who is punished more or the husband on account of the discontinuation of sexual relations between the two. In other words, while phase two of disciplining lasts, who is missing out more on sexual gratification: the wife or the husband? I cannot imagine that any husband would wait for long before he starts beating the disobedient wife to bring her back to submission and obedience, even more so back to servicing him sexually. Perhaps, the presumption implicit in commanding the husband to deprive the disobedient wife of sexual gratification and thereby to make her to regret her disobedience and beg forgiveness for it and promise to submit to and obey her husband in future, is because she cannot go on for weeks, certainly not months, without sexual gratification. But what about the husband? Can he go on for weeks, months, without sexual gratification? Maybe, maybe not! But he does not have to go without it, not in the Islamic scheme of things. The presumption is, has to be, must have been, that he has two, three, or four wives and, if he is a man of means, a few concubines and/or slave girls, on the side. So, he has sexual partners to spare. If so, he does not have to go without sexual gratification, while he is trying to discipline his disobedient wife by depriving her of sexual gratification. There is, of course, the frightful possibility; too, that the disobedient wife might turn out to be so stubborn that even beating her might not avail. Then what?
My overall reaction to the
different interpretations of verse 4:34 is that, expectedly, men interpreters
derive from it some sort of superiority, even supremacy, of men over women
and a justification for the former exercising authority over and control
of women. Women, who in the twentieth century have begun to read
and interpret the Qur'an for themselves in more or less degree, question
this interpretation, and well they should. I am amazed that it took
Muslim women fourteen centuries to start interpreting the Qur'an for themselves.
But women seem to me to be, as would be expected, ever so hesitant and
tentative in their interpretations. They are certainly faced with
a cruel choice between their loyalty to the venerable Islamic tradition
and their yearning for equality with men. This poses a consequential
question for formulating and conducting a struggle for sexual and/or gender
equality in the Muslim society. I am sure this is what Shaheen Sardar
Ali, whom I cited above, must have had in mind when she wrote:
That verse 4:34 of the Qur'an is problematic is the least we can say about it. But it is there, and it is there forever. Muslims have somehow to come to grips with it and what it says. By the Qur'an’s own witness, there is nothing allegorical or metaphorical about it either. It is one of those verses that lay down clearly the commands to be obeyed in Muslim life and living. How can Muslims do so in the modern and postmodern world in which we live today? One way is to interpret the injunction of 4:34 of the Qur'an, as to men’s guardianship of women, as did Prophet Muhammad. In Sahih Bukhari, a collection of Hadith very highly regarded as an authentic one, the Prophet is reported to have said as follows:
For us today, the suggestion of Dr. Rifat Hasan as to the status of verse 4:34 provides a possible resolution. Because she says that verse 9:71, which clearly supports equality, was revealed later than verse 4:34, which clearly demands inequality, hence we can rightfully take our guidance as to genderization and relations between men and women, husband and wife mainly, in Islam in our time from the later than the earlier verse. I find her suggestion perfectly acceptable.
Though in a number of its verses the Qur'an sanctions and provides for the spiritual, perhaps even for the moral, equality of men and women, in its social conceptualizations and cultural constructions of men and women, the Qur'an is predominantly, indeed all too authoritatively, patriarchical and hierarchical between the sexes and clearly introduces and lays down inequalities between the male and female that calculatedly, systematically, and effectively make men and women in Islam unequal in their social (familial), economic, political, psychological, and cultural lives. In these respects the two are simply not equal in Islam. The Qur'an constructs men and women, not only differently because they are biologically different and differentiated, but it makes biology the destiny of each, particularly of women. While Islam is remarkably free of the prejudicial preconceptions in other respects, it does impart a superstition, perception, belief, and/or conviction to its followers that the male is socially, politically, economically, and psychologically superior to the female. Certainly, orthodox, traditionalist, and fundamentalist Islams do so. This it does in the senses indicated in the following tabulation.
The Comparative Cultural Constructions of Men
in Orthodox, Traditionalist, and Fundamentalist Islam
Men are constructed as
Women are constructed as being:
A degree above women A degree below men
Qualified and fit to be religious leaders (imams) Unqualified and unfit to be religious leaders
Qualified to be moral guides and guardians Unqualified to be moral guides and guardians
Active in family and society (world outside) Passive in family and society
Dominant and domineering Subordinate and submissive
Independent, in control, in charge of women Dependent, controlled, under the charge of men
Free, self-directed, self-responsible, self-determined Unfree, other-directed, responsible to and
determined by men,
Supporters, keepers, protectors of women Supported, kept, and protected by men
Political rulers, leaders, and governors Political subjects, ruled, and governed by men
Bread winners, workers, businessmen, industrialists Domestic, rearers of children, homemakers
Intellectuals, scholars, scientists, researchers, writers Dedicated to home and hearth, sex providers,
care providers, nurturers
Rational, reasonable, capable of greater spirituality Irrational, emotional, incapable of spirituality
Morally independent Easily led into immorality
Islam, I think, provides perspectives of both equality as well as inequality of men and women. In this respect, there is, indeed, a tension between certain verses, such as 2:223, 2:228 and 4:34 of the Qur'an, on the one hand, and certain other verses, such as 9:71 and 33:35 of the Qur'an, on the other. The former set of verses lays the basis of social and economic inequality of men and women and the latter of their moral and spiritual equality. My considered opinion is that it is the message and intent of the equalitarian verses of the Qur'an that ought to be taken as the more beneficent, compassionate, and judicious paradigmatic basis and determiner of Muslim life and living in the twenty-first century of the Common Era upon us. Judged by the standards of civilization and civility, in our time, for instance, verse 33:35 provides a better guide for genderization, sexuality, and marriage in contemporary in Islam and Muslim societies than verse 4:34, that is, if human equality is the goal of the message of Islam, and, I am convinced, it is. I, for one, have no hesitation in saying that if Muslims cannot handle sexual and gender equality conceptually, morally, ethically, psychologically, socially, politically, culturally, and economically today and/or in the foreseeable future, then they have little of universal value to offer to the human race.