Women and Islam
This chapter of the Quran is named “”Women”” for the many references throughout the chapter to women and rules for which they, and men, must follow in their daily lives. Once Muslims had migrated to Medina, they established their Muslim community with the Prophet Muhammad as their leader. Soon thereafter a set of rules and laws were needed to establish standard procedures for everyday life. This teaching was revealed after the Battle of Uhud between the Muslims and the Quraysh idolaters. The 176 verses of teachings in this chapter did just that by including laws for this emerging community about women, marriage, inheritance, international relations, commerce, finance, and property rights. While the Prophet Muhammad and his followers were accepting of this way of life, many aspects would be either outdated in today’s world or misrepresented by the view of Islam projected in the news. As Aisha Stacey suggested in her journal Human Rights in Islam, “”It is also important to realize that not all Muslims understand and follow their religion as culture often dictates action.”” Many Muslim factions are no longer orthodox and stray from the word of God towards modern societal norms. The purpose of this essay is to provide a study of the teachings specifically regarding women in this surah.
To begin this chapter, we are reminded that God created man from a single soul and from that He created its mate, a woman who all people derive from. Yusuf Ali reminds us that the translation of nafs to “”soul”” may not be the only meaning, as the word also could mean “”self””, “”person””, or “”living person””. Fortunately, through these possible word changes the meaning of the verse does not change significantly. Seyyed Nasr mentions that it is commonly understood that the “”single soul”” refers to Adam and “”its mate”” to Eve. The verse ends with “”surely God ever watches over you””, which can be taken to mean that God is the reason we exist, and He is watching to ensure we recognize our responsibility as technical “”brothers and sisters”” to all people as we all came from the same soul. Men and women alike are to be kind and just with one another.
Another conclusion to draw from the first verse would be that women were created for man. With many verses in this surah relating to women in the fashion of what men can do with women, it is an easy thought to have. Around verse three we are told that a man can have anywhere from one to four wives, if he can treat them equally. Much later in the surah, it is revealed “”You will not be able to be equitable between your wives, be you so eager.”” This is quite contradictory and may be a reason as to why many Muslim men today choose monogamy, only one wife, which would appease both verses. Choosing monogamy may also be favorable because of the requirement in having a dowry to gift your new wife. Many Muslim men struggle to save up one sufficient dowry, let alone two, three, or four.
Inheritance, regarding women, was a rather new and profound teaching as women were not entitled to inheritance in the pre-Islamic state. The surah mentions inheritance rights around the twelfth verse and once again at the end of the surah. The following verses give an insight into some of the potential scenarios surrounding inheritance:
God charges you, concerning your children: to the male the like of the portion of two females, and they be women above two, then for them two-thirds of what he leaves, but if she be one then to her half; and to his parents to each one of the two the sixth of what he leaves, if he has children; but if he has no children, and his
heirs are his parents, a third to his mother, or, if he has brothers, to his mother a sixth, after any bequest he may bequeath, or any debt…
While this can be rather confusing the first read through, these verses and the later ones in this surah can provide clarity for those who know their specific familial situation and want to determine who is entitled to what portion. An interesting find in these verses is that a wife gets a portion equal to her husband, but sons and daughters are not given equal portions. Ali makes the comment that, “”generally, but not always, the male takes a share double that of a female in his own category.”” This seems quite skewed but Nasr helps to further explain, “”this discrepancy was justified by the fact that men were ideally the sole providers for their families.”” I think that was an accurate judgment for the period; however, as things have become more modern, it may no longer be fair. Men and women worldwide have gained a more equal status, and through these dealings they should receive amounts based on their relationships with the deceased rather than their assumed relationship or responsibilities.
Another male-favoring verse in this surah, is where it is revealed that “”men are the managers of the affairs of women for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another, and for that they have extended their property. Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for God’s guarding.”” This verse clearly states that a man’s place is at the head of the household, and he holds the authority in the relationship or marriage. Nasr explains that the meaning of “”manager”” in this sense is that “”men are entitled to expect certain kinds of behavior on the part of their wives and that they have the right and duty to supervise, educate, and discipline them or to command or prohibit them.”” A relationship or marriage should be about mutuality, as mentioned in several other verses in the Quran. Have a male head of house with so much power over his spouse is a very outdated theme and is probably upheld only by the most orthodox of Muslims. Ali used the word “”protectors”” instead of Arberry’s “”managers”” to replace the Arabic term qawwam meaning “”one who stands firm in another’s business, protects his interests, and looks after his affairs.”” While the word change does not necessarily change the meaning of the text, it presents itself more favorably to women who are being protected instead of managed. The ending of the verse about righteous women being obedient is commonly meant in the sense of spiritually or righteously per Nasr. This provides clarity to an otherwise seemingly troublesome verse for the women of Islam. A requirement to be obedient to your husband would violate earlier and later teachings about the mutuality of the relationship. Ali provides a more thorough explanation that a woman being obedient means she is protective of her husband’s reputation and property and her own virtue. This sounds more appealing and reasonable than the literal translation of being obedient -to comply to orders and requests.
The set of verses in the surah I found to be the most troubling revealed that if a woman commits an indecent act and witnesses confirm the act, it can detain them in their houses until they die, or God appoints them to another path. Per Ali, an indecent act here refers to adultery of fornication. This is rather absurd since men and women can repent and make amends if they are caught in an indecent act together. While this is not without punishment, it seems rather unfair that a woman can get off easier if caught alongside a man rather than by herself; the act is the same. As the verse continues with, “”God shall turn only towards those who do evil in ignorance, then shortly repent”” it takes a nicer, lighter turn. This is a powerful teaching that lets Muslims know God is forgiving to those who make mistakes and are willing to repent and make things right. Purposefully doing wrong and asking for repentance would have moot point as God has punishments for the wrongdoers and He is All-wise.
On the upside for Islamic women, who were not on an equal status with men, there is a verse about the unlawfulness of marrying or inheriting a woman without their permission, “”O believers, it is not lawful for you to inherit women against their will.”” Women are allowed a veto right to any marriage and are often assigned someone outside of their immediate family to help them make these decisions and stand by them. This is a very forward-thinking teaching, but it allows women a choice in their future and holds men to a higher standard. If you are not allowed to just marry any woman you can afford with your dowry and you must win them over, then it may result in a more favorable matching.
The term “”inheriting”” when relating to marriage comes across as quite odd; however, it was a necessary usage due to it being a pre-Islamic tradition. It was great progress to rid inheriting of a woman that a man could either marry himself or pawn her off to another while also keeping her dowry. I agree with Nasr’s commentary, “”This verse … clearly establishes that women are subjects and not objects of inheritance – inheritors themselves, rather part of what is inherited.”” The only scenario where this is not the case is when a woman commits a flagrant indecency, more specifically adultery per most historians. Some argue that this may also apply to women who have behaved with “”extreme discord and animosity”” towards her husband. Either way, it does not come across as fair treatment but was still overall a large advancement for women from the pre-Islamic traditions.
A quite interesting verse to come about shortly after the last one reveals another change from the pre-Islamic traditions:
Forbidden to you are your mothers and daughters, your sisters, your aunts paternal and maternal, your brother’s daughters, your sister’s daughters, your mothers who have given suck to you, your suckling sisters, your wives’ mothers, your stepdaughters who are in your care being born of your wives you have been in to – but if you have not yet been in them it is not fault in you – and the spouses of your sons who are of your loins, and that you should take to you two sisters together, unless it be a thing of the past
Ali helps to explain that this verse was written on the assumption that man is the one to propose marriage. If a woman were to propose the words would change over to father and brother. Ali continues to point out that technically in a proposal for marriage there has to be a husband, so the verse can always be read from the husband’s view. It does seem quite redundant to have to list the vast number options as forbidden, but it protects women and sets standards for Muslim men to abide by. One interesting part of this section of text is the reference to the mothers who have given you suck. Nasr goes into detail in his commentary about the significance of milk-mothers and milk-siblings. Sharing the breast of a woman, your mother or not, with another person gives you the legal status similar to blood relation. Those people would become your family, and thus non-marriable. The verse has a nicely wrapped up ending with “”God is All-knowing, All-wise”” to clear up anyone from trying to find loopholes and thinking they could get it passed Him.
The following verses discussing a man’s ability to marry handmaids or slave women if he does not have the status to marry a freewoman are a bit bothersome:
Any one of you who has not the affluence to be able to marry believing freewomen in wedlock, let him take believing handmaids that your right hands own; God knows very well your faith; the one of you is as the other. So marry them, with their people’s leave, and give them their wages honorably as women in wedlock, not as in license or taking lovers.
This passage tells Muslims that having an insufficient dowry that leads to slaves being the only option for marriage is still okay. If the person you are marrying is a believer, non-idolater, and they along with their master agree to the marriage. It is important to note that one can marry a slave of another but not their own slave. Given the typical wage of a slave, it should be much easier to come up with that amount versus an actual dowry. One odd consequence for these slave women, is that once they are married, they are newly liable to certain punishments. This includes punishment for indecency, in the form of sexual misconduct, should the incident arise. On the bright side, the punishment would only be half that of a free woman – that is, for example 50 lashes instead of 100. Nasr makes the argument that this may be due to their greater vulnerability because of their lower social status. I agree that their lowered status probably lead to a lack of knowledge combined with lower social skills, which makes the lessened punishment more reasonable. If God truly is all forgiving, He may be even more so with whom have more ignorance just due to their status.
The major teachings in this surah have led me to conclude that the Quran is written towards men and in the fashion that men would be the ones to read this text, not necessarily women. It shows how they are to follow God’s divine law and women are given considerable consideration and recognition in the text when comparing to the pre-Islamic state for women. While some of the commands of women in Islam seem to be a bit outdated in today’s westernized modern world, that I come from knowing, I can understand that significance of the teachings. Women have been granted veto rights on marriage, protection from marriage to immediate family members, gifts of dowries, and rights to inheritances. Although, this does not necessarily make up for the imbalanced punishments placed upon women or men being the managers of women’s affairs. Some may say the first part of this surah covers the fair and equitable laws and guidelines that have been laid out for men and women to follow in marriage and family. I agree with that argument and I think that is what the teaching is about, but I come from a much lighter and love-based religious text that makes it hard to find the positives in this text. God takes an interesting approach in revealing his teachings through more of a “”this is what you are allowed, and this is the punishment for breaking My divine law”” process. Using scare or fear tactics is a powerful way to ensure people follow your ruling; however, it may not be the most appropriate when teaching the requirements for marriage and women in society.