US Imperialism

Peak Oil


WSF In India







Gujarat Pogrom






Join Mailing List

Submit Articles

Contact Us


Islam And Sexual Equality

By Asghar Ali Engineer

14 January, 2004

The 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 Will.

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 circumstances.

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 changed.

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 some discussion.

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 the wife.

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 words.

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 far today.

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.






More Articles
By Engineer