Islam And Sexual
By Asghar Ali
14 January, 2004
question of sexual equality is very important parameter of modernity
along with democracy and human rights. Whatever be the status of women
in the Qur'an, status of women in Muslim societies is far from satisfactory.
Be it in India, Pakistan, Bangla Desh or any other Muslim country in
West or South East Asia like Malaysia and Indonesia. In all these countries
the problem of women's status has acquired critical proportions. Many
women's organisations have sprung up in these countries and are struggling
for their rights. The problem is acquiring more and more serious proportions
as modern education is spreading among middle class women.
Earlier the orthodox
in the community were strongly opposed to education for women. Even
today in rural areas and smaller towns education for girl child is frowned
upon. Nevertheless in bigger towns and among growing middle classes
it is no more possible to stop women from acquiring education and hence
proportion of educated women is increasing and with increased percentage
of education among women awareness for their rights is also increasing.
They increasingly demand equal status with men. Some women tend to become
indifferent to religion and even consider religion as serious obstacle
in their right to equality.
The orthodox among
Muslims too, on their part, show stiff resistance to any change and
want to maintain status quo. They of course quote from the Qur'an and
hadith and also from opinions expressed by the Islamic jurists, to prove
their case. This further strengthens impression among these women that
Islam is not going to help them and they begin to reject it.
However, there are
also women who are determined to use religion in their favour and for
fighting their battle against the male understanding of the divine scripture.
They believe in women reading and understanding the Qur'an. Thus there
are various women's organisations doing this exercise and re-interpreting
the Qur'an. It is a better sign and I believe, a more healthy sign.
Women have as much right to understand and interpret the Qur'an from
their perspective. Even most orthodox among the Muslims would agree
that women have also right to interpret the Qur'an.
Sexual Equality And The Qur'an
The important question is whether the Qur'an accords equality to women
or gives women an inferior position. According to conservative view,
women have an inferior position and the 'ulama quote the Qur'anic verses
in their support as well as ahadith and opinion of the fuqaha' (Islamic
jurists) in their favour. But this also raises an important question,
which we must deal with.
Would sexual inequality
prevalent in the past in the Muslim societies be binding on the modern
generations too? Or to ask the same question in reverse i.e. can we
be justified in projecting our modern values in the past? Should we
expect that past generations follow our norms of sexual equality? Obviously,
this would be an unfair position and so it would be equally unfair to
expect that we blindly imitate the past generations and their opinion
leaders. We have to evolve our own norms and values. But many of us
do not accept changes in norms and values and consider it against Divine
One also has to
throw some light on the question of legal philosophy in Islam. The Islamic
law is considered of divine origin and hence immutable. The time is
not supposed to have any influence and external changes either have
to be rejected or so moulded as to be acceptable to the immutable divine
law. However, there have been an alternate point of view too inherited
from past. Imam Shatibi of 14th Century Spain whose theory of Islamic
law takes into account what he calls maqasid al-Shari'ah (i.e. purposes
of Shari'ah) and masalih of umma (i.e. good of the community).
According to this
alternate view it is maqasid (purposes) for which law has been framed,
matters that law per se and keeping in view the maqasid changes can
be affected to achieve these purposes and the good or welfare of the
community should always be kept in view. One cannot sacrifice the purpose
or the welfare of the community for the sake of law. Thus this alternate
theory is more dynamic and change-oriented. But it was a minority view
in the Islamic world.
But today there
is more acceptability to this viewpoint. In fact Shari'ah was never
meant to be static as it is assumed by many of us today. Shari'ah law
was most dynamic and reflected needs of the time. The different jurists
living in different places and in different circumstances adopted different
views and they differed from each other on many issues. The eighteenth
Century Islamic thinker from Indian subcontinent Shah Waliyullah also
argues in his magnum opus Hujjat Allah al-Balighah that the Shari'ah
is devised in keeping with the nature of the people and needs of the
time. He devotes entire chapter of his book to develop this argument.
He even gives an example of how ahkam (legal injunctions) change with
The example given
by him is quite interesting and pertains to law of inheritance. When
the Prophet (PBUH) migrated from Mecca to Madina, his blood relations
were left behind and so he established what is called muwakhat (mutual
brotherhood) and the Qur'anic verse about inheritance was revealed.
However, when those left behind in Mecca came back and joined their
families and Islam flourished the verse, making inheritance a right
of close blood relatives was revealed, cancelling the earlier one. Thus
with the change of circumstances the hukm (religious injunction) also
Thus Shah Waliyullah
had this insight that Shar'i ahkam reflect social situations as far
as mu'amalat (inter-personal and social) issues are concerned. The great
Imams after whom Shari'ah schools are known are also categorised according
to their social role. Thus Imam Malik was conservative and has been
called as imam al-muhafizin (imam of those who wanted to preserve as
much as he could). Imam Abu Hanifa, on the other hand, was more liberal
and open and has been referred to as imam al-mujaddidin (the leader
of modernists) and Imam Shafi'i was moderate and has been called imam
al-wast wa i'tidal (i.e. leader of moderates). Imam Hanbal who was much
more rigid has been described as imam al-mutashaddidin (i.e. leader
of those who take extreme positions). In Saudi Arabia it is Imam Hanbal
who is followed generally. This categorisation also shows that there
were significant differences among the Islamic jurists and some among
them were open and liberal and some quite rigid and unyielding.
Changing social situations did influence thinking of eminent jurists
like Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Shafi'i.
The situation today
has changed greatly and re-thinking on many issues like man-woman relations
is highly necessary. Even the Qur'an, as pointed out by Shah Waliyullah
and other Islamic 'ulama, did respond to social situations and some
verses revealed earlier were cancelled later with the changing situations.
The debate about nasikh (verse which cancelled) and mansukh (verse which
was cancelled) rages even today. It is important chapter of the Qur'anic
'ulum (i.e. Qur'anic sciences).
Thus on man-woman
relations also we find different verses which are selectively quoted
by anti-equality and pro-equality of sexes. These verses were revealed
in response to different situations and hence differing stances in these
verses. Some verses make certain contextual concessions in favour of
man and some lay down norms for long time to come. The Qur'an, it is
important to note, does not confine to given situation or status quo
(though has to make certain concessions to it) but basically wants to
transcend the given situation. The most important characteristic of
the Qur'an is its transcendence and anti status quo spirit.
Before the Qur'anic
revelation woman's situation was far from satisfactory. She was not
only unequal but subordinate to man in every respect though between
Mecca and Madina there were significant differences also. Meccan society
was highly patriarchal in ethos and Madinese society was perhaps matriarchal
in distant past and its traces survived until rise of Islam.
Without this social
background we cannot appreciate the changes Qur'an effected in Arab
women's life at the time. However, the Arab men were not easily reconciled
to these significant changes in women's status. We will throw some light
on the kinds of debates, which took place on man-woman question at the
time. Islamic revolution had brought lot of awareness among women of
the time as modern democratic society has brought so much awareness
among Muslim women today.
There are two significant
verses in the Qur'an which reflect debate on men-women relationship
in Madanese Islam. In Meccan verses we do not find these debates, as
Muslims were too weak to think of these issues there. It was only in
Madina that when Muslims began to acquire dominant position that these
gender issues came to the fore. Women were far more aware of their rights
after becoming Muslims and they posed questions to the Prophet (PBUH)
about their status in response to which these verses were revealed.
Of these verses
the two significant verses are 4:34 and 33:35. Both these verses make
statements on men-women relations, which appear to be quite different.
The modern scholars are keenly debating these verses. While 4:34 is
often quoted by the orthodox to prove their point, there is controversy
about 33:35 about its real status on sexual equality. Again the orthodox
'ulama maintain that it is all about spiritual equality. Is it? It needs
First the verse
4:34 which is frequently quoted for Qur'anic position on sexual equality.
The verse is translated as under by Maulana Mohammad Ali of Lahore:
"Men are maintainers of women, with what Allah has made some of
them to excel others and with what they spend out of their wealth. So
the good women are obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded.
And (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and
leave them alone in the beds and chastise them. So if they obey you,
seek not a way against them.."
The same verse is
translated by Muhammad Asad as follows: "Men shall take full care
of women with the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly on
the former than on the latter, and with what they may spend out of their
possessions. And the righteous women are the truly devout ones, who
guard the intimacy which God has (ordained to be) guarded. And for those
women whose ill will you have reason to fear, admonish them (first);
then leave them alone in bed; and then beat them; and if thereupon they
pay you heed, do not seek to harm them."
However, Ahmed Ali
in his Al-Quran differs from both Maulana Mohammaed Ali and Muhammad
Asad in translating the word 'wa'dribuhunna. Mulana Mohammad Ali and
Muhammad Asad translate it as 'admonish then' and 'beat them' respectively.
But Ahmed Ali translates it as 'go to bed with them' and cites Raghb's
Mufridat fi Gharib al-Qu'an, Lisan al-Arab, and Zamakhshari. 'Daraba
'ala', according to Raghib is said for he camel mounting over she camel
and thus Ahmed Ali translates it as 'going to bed' rather than beating
Thus we see there
are significant differences in translation of this controversial verse.
There are few key words in this verse 'qawwam', 'qanitat', 'nushuz'
and 'wa'dribuhunna'. The understanding of the verse very much depends
on understanding these words properly. 'Qawwam' traditionally has been
translated as 'ruler', 'authority over women' etc. However, modernists
and women rights activists are challenging this meaning. Maulana Mohammad
Ali translates it as 'maintainer', Mohammad Asad as 'to take full care
of' and Ahmed Ali as 'guardians'.
Thus 'qawwam' should
not mean ruler or an authority but one who takes care of or maintains
wife or acts as guardian. It is thus not a statement of superiority
of man over woman but an economic function. And it should also be noted
that woman can also perform this function (and she does in our times)
and hence she can also be 'qawwam' as per the Qur'an. Thus this verse
cannot be understood properly unless we properly understand these key
Another key word
is 'qanitat' which is generally translated as 'obedient' and implying
thereby 'obedient to ones husband. But that is also problematic. 'Qanitat'
means 'devoted to' or 'obedient to God' and not to husband. Then another
important word is 'nushuz' which literally means 'rebellion' which has
been rendered as 'ill will' by Muhammad Asad and Maulana Mohammad Ali
as 'desertion' by wife and Ahmed Ali as being 'averse' towards husband.
However, 'nushuz' as such applies to both husband as well as wife. The
modern legal term for it is 'mental cruelty' and with respect to husband
it also means 'ill-treatment' of wife in physical sense and we find
mention of ill treatment of wife by husband (nushuz) in verse 4:128.
Thus it clearly shows nushuz is applied to both husband as well as wife.
And another key word 'wa'dribuhunna' has already been explained. The
word daraba has several meanings in Arabic language and here, as pointed
out by Raghib himself could mean sexual intercourse
with wife rather than beating or chastising the wife. Thus Ahmed Ali
comes much closer to the meaning of the verse.
It is important
to note that the Prophet (PBUH) has also strongly disapproved of beating
ones wife. We find a hadith in authentic collections, which is as follows:
"Could any of you beat your wife as he would a slave, and then
lie with her in the evening?" And according to hadith in Abu Da'ud,
Nasa'I, Ibn Majah, Ahmad bin Hanbal and others "Never beat God's
handmaidens" i.e. he forbade to beat any woman.
In fact the above
verse under discussion was revealed in response to a situation which
has been described by Zamakhshari in his Kasshaf. This verse shows that
there was practice of wife beating specially among the Arabs of Meccan
origin. According to Zamakhshari Habiba bint Zaid complained to the
Messenger of Allah that her husband Sa'd bin Rabi' slapped her. The
Prophet told her to 'retaliate'. But this caused serious problem among
men as they would not accept retaliation from their wives and hence
they complained to the prophet and then this verse (4:34) was revealed.
However, it caused
stir among women of Madina. They were disturbed and approached the Prophet
and wanted to know their real status vis-a-vis men and then the verse
33:35 was revealed. The verse is quite important one as regards women's
status and is translated by Maulana Muhammad Ali as under: "Surely
the men who submit and women who submit, and the believing men and the
believing women, and the obeying men and the obeying women, and the
truthful men and the truthful women, and the patient men and the patient
women, and the humble men and the humble women, and the charitable men
and the charitable women, and the fasting men and the fasting women,
and the men who guard their chastity and the women who guard, and the
men who remember Allah and women who remember - Allah has prepared for
them forgiveness and mighty reward."
This verse is an
important statement of equality of men and women. It mentions ten times
men and women being equal in all respects and their reward will also
be equal. It is not merely in spiritual terms as some would like to
believe as the verse mentions being truthful, guarding ones chastity
and being humble and patient too. Thus men are no superiors to women
in any respect, spiritual or material. This statement is being made
when even Greek philosophers were discussing whether women have soul
or not. The Qur'an, on the other hand declares that men and women both
will be forgiven and would be given great reward in equal measure. There
are other verses in the Qur'an which declare equality of men and women.
The verse, 2:228 for example, is one among them. This verse says, ".in
accordance with justice, the rights of the wives (with regard to their
husbands) are equal to (the husbands') rights with regard to them, although
men have precedence over them."
Maulana Abul Kalam
Azad, commenting on this verse says that the Qur'an through these four
words (lahunna mithlul ladhi 'alayhinna) has made revolutionary declaration
of equality of men and women. According to him these four words have
given women all that was their right but they had never got them. These
four words lifted women from the dust of deprivation and humility and
made her sit on the throne of dignity and equality.
He also explains
the words "and the men are a degree above women" by saying
that they were earning and feeding them (the verse 4:35) and the Maulana,
it is interesting to note also clarifies that men do not get any distinction
by birth over women. If women earn and run the family women would also
have this distinction of being a degree above men. Thus the statement
of Qur'an "men are a degree above (women) is functional and not
biological, in any way.
The meaning of the
scripture reveals itself differently in different cultures and social
conditions. Our jurists and the 'ulama could not have understood the
meaning in their social and economic environment which we can understand
today. Thus the interpretation of the Qur'an should not be static leading
to freezing of Qur'an's meaning in one particular age. While we should
not fault the interpretations of eminent jurists and 'ulama of earlier
periods, we should not surrender our own right to understand and interpret
the Qur'an under our own circumstances.
Thus our struggle
is against the status quoist approach to the Qur'an and it is our duty
to develop a new hermeneutics of the Qur'an which takes into account
the economic and social needs and functions of our own times. Women
are playing very vital role in our society and have even become economic
leaders and managers. Thus the old hermeneutics cannot take us very
When women were
so aware of their rights in the time of the Prophet and were active
on religious and social fronts, how can they remain passive today and
accept the role assigned them by the orthodox 'ulama who refuse to take
into account the new socio-economic dynamics? It has always been a human
endeavour to understand divine intentions as sincerely as they can.
If our forefathers did it we can also do it today with same sincerity
but different understanding mediated by our socio-economic needs.