Feminism, gender equality and the Qur’an

August 10, 2011 by Dr. Ahmad Farouk Musa

There have been numerous tafsirs throughout the ages, but few stressed on the gender equity issues as propounded by the Qur’an. Many exegetes failed to distance themselves from the misogynist views prevalent in their society while endeavoring to interpret God’s words. Their exegeses are so deeply embedded in the minds of the Muslims nowadays and considered to be the ultimate truth that any other forms of interpretation are considered non-conformist or worse, heretical.

It has to be understood that all the previous exegetes approached the Qur’an with their reason, explaining the purport of each Qur’anic statement in the light of their knowledge of the Arabic language and the traditions of the Prophet apart from the knowledge they acquired historically and culturally.

Hence naturally there will exist differences among the exegetes in understanding certain verses as those of their predecessors. Such differences should not be viewed with contempt but in actual fact proved the relativity inherent in all human reasoning. Such differences of opinions are the basis of all progress in human thinking and the most potent factor in man’s acquisition of knowledge.

The Origin of Adam and Eve

It is not preposterous to assume that the belief of men’s superiority over women stems from the notion that Eve was created from Adam’s rib, hence she is considered as a lesser being. Women are considered derivative creatures that can never be equal to men.

In the opening of Surah an-Nisa (Women) that was aptly named as such due to many of its passages deal with the rights of women, the Qur’an says:

O Mankind! Be conscious of your Sustainer, who has created you out of one living entity (nafs), and out of it (minha) created its mate (zawjaha), 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 of you! [4:1]

Many classical commentators chose the meaning attributable to the term nafs as “human being” and assume that it refers here to Adam. However Asad differed and brought forward the interpretation by Muhammad Abduh that gives preference to the meaning “humankind” inasmuch as this term stresses the common origin and brotherhood of the human race, without unwarrantably tying it to the Biblical account of the creation of Adam and Eve.

Hence according to Asad, the term “nafs”, in this context is interpreted as “a living entity”, actually follows the same reasoning.

As regards the expression zawjaha (its mate), it is to be noted that with reference to animate beings, it signifies a woman’s mate (husband) as well as a man’s mate (wife).  The literal translation of “minha” as “out of it” clearly alludes, in conformity with the text, to the biological fact that both sexes have originated from “one living entity”.

Woman Responsible for Man’s Fall from Grace?

The story of Adam’s fall from grace has always been attributed to his weakness in facing the temptation of Eve. It has been solidly ingrained in the mind of Muslims that Eve plays the role of a tempter, a deceiver and a seducer of Adam.

Without going into detail of all the verses related to this particular incident – which can be found in 2:35-36, 7:19-25 and 20:115-124 – the Qur’an has never placed the blame on Eve. The act of disobedience is a collective act rather than individual.

Were-Adam-and-Eve-the-First-Humans-02What is more interesting is how Muhammad Asad explained the entire episode for us to understand the moral behind the story.

Said He: “Down with you [from this state of blessedness and innocence]…” [7:24]

Muhammad Asad pointed out that the parallel account of this parable of the Fall as in 2:35-36, the dual form of address (Adam and Eve) changes at this stage into the plural, making it clear that the story of Adam and Eve is, in reality, an allegory of human destiny.

In his earlier state of innocence man was unaware of the existence of evil and, therefore, of the ever-present necessity of making a choice between the many possibilities of action and behavior. In other words, he lived, like any other animals, in the light of his instincts alone.

Inasmuch, however, as this innocence was only a condition of his existence and not a virtue, it gave to his life a static quality and thus precluded him from moral and intellectual development.

The growth of his consciousness – symbolized by the willful act of disobedience to God’s command – changed all this. It transformed him from a purely instinctive being into a fully-fledged human entity, as we know it. A human being capable of discerning between right and wrong and thus of choosing his way of life.

In the deeper sense, the allegory of the Fall does not describe a retrogressive happening but, rather, a new stage of human development: an opening of doors to moral consideration.

By forbidding him to “approach this tree”, God made it possible for man to act wrongly – and, therefore, to act rightly as well. And so man became endowed with that moral free will which will distinguish him from all other sentient beings.

Men as Protectors of Women

Verse 34 from Surah an-Nisa’ is the verse that is being used incessantly to thwart any attempt to discuss any issues regarding women’s equality with men in the Islamic ummah.

Men shall take full care of women (ar rijalu qawwamuna ‘ala-nnisa’) with the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly on the former than on the latter… [4:34]

The key word in the verse is qawwam which has been translated as “protectors and maintainers (of women)”, in charge (of women), having pre-eminence (over women) and “sovereign or masters (over women)”.

However Muhammad Asad maintains that the expression qawwam is an intensive form of qa’im denoting one who is responsible for or takes care of a thing or a person. The grammatical form qawwam is more comprehensive than qa’im, and combines the concepts of physical maintenance and protection as well as of moral responsibility.

The fact that men are qawwam does not mean that women cannot or should not provide for themselves. It is simply that in view of the heavy burden that women shoulder in childbearing and rearing, they should not be obligated to provide means of living as well.

Wife Beating

One of the more controversial issues in Islam is the so-called injunction in the Qur’an to beat disobedient wives. The verse often quoted is a continuation of verse 34 of Surah an-Nisa’:

And for those women whose ill-will you have reason to fear, admonish them [first]; then leave them alone in bed; then beat them; and if thereupon they pay you heed, do not seek to harm them. Behold, God is indeed most high, great!

There has been a great misconception regarding the verse mentioned in taking the superficial and literal understanding of it.

Shadow_Violence_zps588b6877First of all, one must not neglect the Qur’anic exhortation that the relationship between the husband and wife is based on mutual kindness and love.
And among His wonders is this: He creates for you mates out of your own kind, so that you might incline towards them, and He engenders love and tenderness [mawaddah wa rahmah] between you: in this, behold, there are messages indeed for people who think! [30:21]

It is also imperative for husbands to treat their wives with affection and kindness and not to overlook their positive aspects.
And consort with your wives in a goodly manner; for if you dislike them, it may well be that you dislike something which God might yet make a source of abundant good. [4:19]

How then could someone conveniently forget all these verses to have mutual respect and love and then erroneously claimed to have a divine right to beat his wife?

Muhammad Asad in his commentary quoted an authentic Tradition from the Prophet himself intensely detested the idea of beating one’s wife, and said on more than one occasion, “Could any of you beat his wife as he would beat a slave, and then lie with her in the evening?” (Bukhari and Muslim).

According to another Tradition, he forbade the beating of any woman with the words, “Never beat God’s handmaidens” (Abu Dawud, Nasa’i, Ibn Majah, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Ibn Hibban and Hakim, on the authority of  Iyas ibn ‘Abd Allah; Ibn Hibban on the authority of ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abbas; and Bayhaqi on the authority of Umm Kulthum).

The Prophet had stipulated in his sermon on the occasion of the Farewell Pilgrimage, shortly before his death, that beating should be resorted to only if the wife “has become guilty, in an obvious manner, of immoral conduct”, and that it should be done “in such a way as not to cause pain (ghayr mubarrih).

Authentic Traditions to this effect are found in Muslim, Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud, Nasa’i and Ibn Majah.

Some of the greatest Muslim scholars (e.g. ash-Shafi’i) are of the opinion that it is just barely permissible, and should preferably be avoided. They justify this opinion by the Prophet’s personal feelings with regard to this problem.

It may not be a remarkable digression to quote Prof Tariq Ramadan in What I Believe in stating the fact that he does not represent all Muslims but belongs to the reformist trend, and the reformists understanding differs acutely from the literalists interpretation of such a verse. While the literalists justify striking women in the name of the Qur’an, the reformists read this verse in light of the global message and contextualized the verse and Prophetic Traditions as well as taking their chronology into account. In light of those interpretations and considering the example set by the Prophet, who never struck a woman, it can be concluded that domestic violence contradicts Islamic teachings and that such behavior must be strongly condemned.


Obviously this writing will not be complete without mentioning the most heated debate on the issue of polygamy. Literalists have always proclaimed that polygamy is a God-given right to them. To question polygamy is tantamount to questioning God’s decree.

It is not strange to read a report recently regarding a fatwa issued by an advisor of Islamic Council of Johor that Muslim women who are against polygamy have committed a grave sin and should repent for it is an act of apostasy. One is left to wonder then what is the verdict for Muslim men who are against polygamy? Or was he making a presumption that all Muslim men are supportive of his bigoted idea?

According to Asad, as regards to the permission to marry more than one wife (up to the maximum of four), it is so restricted by the condition. “If you have reason to fear that you might not be able to treat them with equal fairness, then (marry only) one” [4:3] meaning to say that such plural marriages are possible only in quite exceptional cases and under exceptional circumstances.

Asad view is in consonant with Imam Muhammad Abduh who declared that polygamy is impermissible except in cases of extreme necessity (al-darurat al-quswa).  And ‘adl (just) is the most important condition regulating it.

It must be understood that the verse concerning restriction of marriage to four women was when the society has no limit to the number of wives one might have. Based on this Abduh claimed that someone who is really intelligent would realize that monogamy is the ideal choice for it is in accordance with fitrah(innate disposition).

It is also by fitrah, that every woman must be honored. Therefore, monogamy is the basic law of marriage. And polygamy should be prohibited on the basis of public interest (al-maslahah al-mursalah).
Abduh’s legal opinion on polygamy was closely linked to his opinion on the position of women in Islam. He believed that nothing entitled Islam to be considered a modern world religion more than the high honor it accords to women.

In all essential aspects, women are on an equal basis and worth with men.  In making this point, ‘Abduh quoted the following verse:
I shall not lose sight of the labor of any of you who labors [in My way], be it man or woman: each of you is an issue of one another…[3:195].

He interpreted this verse to mean that men and women are equal to one another before God. A similar rendition is made by Muhammad Asad in his commentary of the verse.

Equality in the Eyes of God

While the Qur’an made it clear that men and women are equal in the eyes of God, Muslims in the 21st century are still being burdened by interpretations made according to the patriarchal understanding of the words of God. Asad meanwhile has managed to present the meaning of the verses without any evidence of gender bias. He is a true representative of Islam’s humanistic and rationalist trend.

Our discussion on issues relating to feminism is not meant to be exhaustive since there are so many areas to be covered under this topic. We hope that this writing will stimulate the interest for further research into this area and that there will be a special place for The Message of the Qur’an to be among the multitude of exegeses available to us.

[A new and improved edition of Muhammad Asad’s celebrated work, The Message of the Qur’an, published by Islamic Book Trust, is now available locally at major bookshops, or at this website.]

(This article was also published in Harakah Daily.)