Family is both the most rewarding and most challenging set of relationships ever. 

Many people in this country are coming off a long, long weekend of family meals, shopping trips, and time spent together.  More people travel this Thanksgiving weekend than on any other weekend in the year.  As I drove up Interstate 75 in southern Georgia headed home from Florida I saw one license plate after another from places as far away as Wisconsin, Illinois, even Wyoming.  Maybe one last family trip to the beach before the winter.  Maybe a visit to Grandma who got smart and retired in Tampa.

Family time is filled with laughter, reminiscence, and thoughtful conversation.  Unfortunately there are always tears, regrets, impatience, hurtful remarks, and competition right there too. 

The next three surahs are all loosely connected by a common theme of domestic dispute. 

In surah 64, believers are reminded:

Even among your spouses and your children you will have enemies–beware of them–but if you overlook their offences, forgive them, pardon them, then God is all forgiving, all-merciful. (64:14)

More important than what transpires among family members–some of who are bound not to like each other–is what a believer does next.  The right response is to take the high ground and overlook their offences.  Choose not to harbor grudges.  Forgive.   A very good principle. 

Surah 65 is intensely domestic, as even the title reveals — “Divorce.”  Contrary to traditional Christianity where divorce is still frowned-upon by many of the more conservative types, Islam seems to acknowledge divorce as a fact of life and has made concessions right from the beginning for how to go about it virtuously.  If divorce must happen, the man must give it a three-month waiting period (65:1, 4).  This appears to be connected both to possible pregnancy but also the possibility that God might change their hearts (65:1).  The grounds for divorce must be corroborated by two just witnesses (65:2) and the man must take care of the woman financially (65:6-7).  Above all, both parties must treat each other honorably (65:2) and not make life difficult for the other (65:6-7).   

Finally, surah 66 takes up the issue of gossip and lack of trust in family conversations.  On some occasion, Muhammad discussed a matter with one of his wives in secret (66:3).  As the leader of the Muslim people, we can assume this was not just some simple pillow-talk, but rather something sensitive.   What exactly was said is not stated and isn’t really the point.  This wife revealed these confidences to one of the Prophet’s other wives, and God made this known to Muhammad.  Now, both are called to “repent” (66:4), one for her broken trust and the other for encouraging it presumably.  Now they must choose what kind of wives they will be: virtuous like Pharaoh’s wife and Mary, or disbelieving like the wives of Noah and Lot (66:9-12). 

At a time when gossip is commonplace and trust is constantly eroded, this too is a good message.

Neither Jesus nor Paul — the two biggest characters in the New Testament — had wives.  Thus, the topic of Muhammad’s wives taken up in the later part of this surah is something I have never thought about.

Had Jesus or Paul been married those would have been some special women.  Those women, though, would also have had the ability to get them off track if their focus had been less spiritual than their husbands.  And it would have been very important that those women conduct themselves with the highly level of decorum and that other men treat them with the utmost of respect.  The faults of the wife reflect on the reputation of the husband.  Considering this, I see why this topic is taken up in the way it is here.

Much has been written about the wives of Muhammad, unfortunately much of it unnecessarily derogatory and mean-spirited (so for that reason I am not going to include a lot of links here; they are out there if you feel the need to look for them).  Yes, Muhammad had multiple wives, eleven or thirteen depending on your source, at one point many at once.  That was the cultural norm, remember.  Muhammad’s wives were as follows:

  1. Khadijah bint Khuwaylid
  2. Sawda bint Zamʿa
  3. Aisha bint Abi Bakr
  4. Hafsa bint Umar
  5. Zaynab bint Khuzayma
  6. Hind bint Abi Umayya
  7. Zaynab bint Jahsh
  8. Juwayriya bint al-Harith
  9. Ramlah bint Abi Sufyan
  10. Rayhana bint Zayd
  11. Safiyya bint Huyayy
  12. Maymuna bint al-Harith
  13. Maria al-Qibtiyya

Khadijah

Khadijah was the wife of Muhammad’s youth.  She was his first wife and during her lifetime he was a one-woman man, unusual in that time.  Theirs must have been a strong love.  It is generally thought that they had a noble, upstanding relationship.  She was 15 years his senior, and originally was Muhammad’s wealthy employer.

After Khadijah’s death, Islam was now growing and developing as a religion.  Several campaigns of war had left many war-widows and families in which male-leadership was lacking.  Poverty was a real possibility for many early Muslim families.  This context has to be remembered when we consider that Muhammad then took on several women as wives.  It seems many if not all of these later marriages were driven more by compassion than desire.  Zaynab, the subject of 33:37 and the abandoned wife of Muhammad’s adopted son Zayd, was certainly one of these.

Muhammad’s wives worked closely with the Muslim poor.  They became known as spiritual “mothers” to the people, hence a life of luxury and ease was not congruous with their calling (33:28).  These women were not to be like any other woman (33:32).  They were held to higher moral standards (33:30).  Therefore, they were also due extra honor as well, especially by men who would have to take every effort to respect their purity (33:53).  This is also which the wearing of “screens,” or the hijab, and long cloaks was required by the wives of the Prophet (33:53, 59).  Muhammad was allowed conjugal relations with each of his wives (33:51), though the degree to which he took advantage of this is unknown.

The Grave of Muhammad's Wives

There is controversy about Muhammad’s third wife, Aisha.  She was nine years old when she was married off to Muhammad by her father, Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s closest friend.  Muhammad was fifty at the time.  Some Muslim scholars question the veracity of her age; they say she was more like 13 or 14, standard marrying age at that time.  By all accounts she was beautiful and smart.  Did they have sexual relations?  It seems so.  Did she object to the marriage?  That’s a minefield.  It does not seem that she did, at least to the degree that a nine-year-old girl could have at that time.  They were married for a decade before Muhammad passed away and then she went on to aid greatly in the advance of Islam and the collection of revelations that would become the written Qur’an. This does not seem like the behavior of a woman forced into marriage and abused by the lecherous desires of a dirty old man, as some depictions describe the marriage.  Well, these are the facts sans inflammatory rhetoric.

Two verses?  Yeah, but these are doozies!  I can’t quite slide past these:

Husbands should take good care of their wives, with [the bounties] God has given to some more than others and with what they spend out of their own money.  Righteous wives are devout and guard what God would have them guard in their husbands’ absence.  If you fear high-handedness from your wives, remind them [of the teachings of God], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them.  If they obey you, you have no right to act against them: God is most high and great.  If you [believers] fear that couple may break up, appoint one arbiter from his family and one from hers.  Then, if the couple want to put things right, God will bring about a reconciliation between them: He is all knowing, all aware. (4:34-35)

Stop!  Did I read that correctly?  “Hit them?”  If your wife gets a superiority complex and gets too big for her britches, slap her around?  The older translations (Dawood, Pickthall, Arberry) all say “beat them.”  Ali softens it by adding a word: “beat them [lightly].”  Submission by abuse?  Really? 

First observation: somehow “take good care of your wives” and “hit them” go together in the flow of these verses.  It is going to be hard to reconcile those two to my mind, but here goes the argument.

The husband is given care of the wife as a “guardian.”  He is responsible for her welfare physically, financially, emotionally, and spiritually.  He is to take great measures against anything that threatens her well-being, including her own arrogance.  If a man fears that his wife is being “high-handed” (nushuz; Pickthall: “ill-will and nasty conduct;” Ali: “disloyalty and ill conduct”) and therefore the integrity of the marriage and the wife’s heart are in jeopardy, he is allowed to take action to correct her and get her back to a place that will bless her once again.  Notice that nushuz is something a man can do to his wife as well (4:128), so we are not talking about a wife who refuses to be submissive, as a Muslim man is not expected to be submissive to his wife and therefore could not be guilty of this.  We are talking about a spouse who callously, disrespectfully treats the other with meanness and spite.  Both men and women can do this.  Marriages, families, virtue and the very fabric of good society are at risk from such behavior that goes unchecked. 

We should note that both the husband and the wife have the right to divorce if one fears ill-will or irreconcilable differences with the other.  Theoretically, this is not a situation where a woman is trapped with a domineering husband (though in reality it is not always that simple, is it?)  This is a couple working out the wrinkles in a marriage they wish to preserve.   

According to this passage, if a wife should choose to conduct herself in such a hateful manner, a man is to deal with her using four steps that ascend in severity.  The hope is that as few steps as possible are necessary. 

  1. Admonish her with stern words.
  2. Separate himself for her sexually so that she feels the deprivation of companionship and rights her ways.
  3. Hit her in such a way that she “wakes up” and assumes her expected role as loving spouse.  Traditions about Muhammad (hadiths) say the Prophet said these beatings could not cause bruising, injury or serious hurt.  One commentator likened this to a single, open-handed slap intended only to bring the wife back to her senses, the kind that “shakes the woman out of her mood and she falls on his shoulders, with both happier than before” (Ahmad Shafaat). 
  4. If none of these work, the couple is to sit down with a trusted member of each extended family and try to work out their differences. 

Do all Muslims understand the admonition to “hit them” in the way described here?  No.  Do all Christians understand the Bible the same way?  Some Muslim men could not imagine laying a finger on their wives.  But are there some Muslim men who use this passage as permission to repeatedly batter their wives out of anger and a desire for control?  Yes.  Just as there are some Christian men who use Ephesians 5:22-24 to do the same.  Still, the verse is there.

So, after understanding this passage in context, what do you think?

  • What would we do if we lived in a world where there are many more women than men and to remain childless is considered a disgrace?  What if the reason for the scarcity of men were due to war?
  • What should a man do if he is married to a woman who has reproductive complications and cannot get pregnant, especially if the stigma of not producing children were great?
  • If you lived in an agrarian culture where children amounted to workers, would it be advantageous to have many children even if they came from several different women?
  • Maybe the best way to take care of a widow is to bring her into your home as another wife?
  • What if a wife is okay with the idea of sharing a husband because of the benefits she receives from marriage?
  • If you are capable of meaningful, respectful, financially responsible relationships with several different women in separate towns, is that so bad?
  • What if a man has a sexual appetite a single woman cannot satisfy?

In our modern American society these questions seem irrelevant, morally clear, or even reprehensible.  We don’t have many war widows.  The male to female ratio in America is roughly equal.  We have medical options and adoptions to help the barren.  We see children as an option and bend over backward to make sure childless couples don’t feel excluded.  Child labor is illegal.  A resourceful woman doesn’t need a man to take care of her financially anymore.  We would not look kindly on a woman who reduces marriage to “benefits.”  Men who carry on with many different women across the country at the same time?  Well, you saw what happened to Tiger Woods’ popularity.  We would compare men who claim they aren’t made for monogamy to dogs.

But the Qur’an wasn’t written in 21st century America, was it?

For that matter, nor was the Hebrew Bible, starring such notable polygamists as Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon.

Today’s section runs against the grain of our modern sensibilities and plays into another anti-Muslim stereotype: Islam as rationale for sexual exploitation of women.  Today we come to clear permission for polygamy.

We need to remember the context.  This surah started with an appeal to let justice guide one’s ethics (4:9).  Today the surah turns to what is just in marriage.  Marriage is the appropriate avenue to fulfill one’s sexual appetite; it is unjust to turn a woman into an object for “fornication” (4:24).  Both partners must agree to the marriage (4:24).  A man should refrain from marrying women from within his family (4:23).  Women taken as a wife should be given a fair bride-price (4:24).  Earlier we saw that a man could take up to four wives (4:3).  Most of all, a wife is to be treated with respect as one blessed with great goodness from God (4:19) and one who completes the missing part of a man (4:1).

So, how can polygamy actually be an arrangement that promotes justice?  The surah was written shortly after the devastating Battle of Uhud in which many Muslim men were killed.  A widow could not expect to have much of a life in their patriarchal world.  Children needed fathers.  Family names needed to be carried on.  The Muslim people — God’s messengers in the world — needed to grow exponentially.  Allowing men to take on up to four wives, always with mutual consent, actually created situations for life, provision, and perpetuity.  Their’s was also a culture that valued sexual purity, that is sexuality expressed within the confines of marriage.  Is it not better for a man inclined towards other women — especially if driven towards other women because of the frigidity or barrenness of a wife — to be able to find satisfaction for his desires within these newly defined parameters for marriage?  Is it not better for the original wife to be kept on with the new wife or wives instead of be sent away in divorce?

Well, at least that is how the argument goes.  Understood in context, the Qur’anic permission of polygamy is not as offensive as it may seem at first.  An unchecked desire for sex need not be seen as the main driving force behind God’s permission (though, notice it is not an advocacy) for polygamy.

Still, it does not seem as sacred as one man, one woman for life.

Today we start a new surah, Al-Nisa’ or “Women” in English, so named because of the many mentions of women and how men should treat women in particular (stay tuned, it may not be what you are expecting!)

The surah starts out sounding a whole lot like Leviticus.  This is legal code, especially related to family relationships and one’s financial responsibilities to those in one’s care.

As I read today’s section, I was quite struck by how enlightened these instructions all sounded.  This is not the medieval, oppressive system of laws set up to solely benefit men that Islamic law is sometimes made out to be.  I know modern-day Islamic or sharia law comes as much from the legal rulings and traditions (hadiths) that developed after the Qur’an as from the Qur’an itself, so maybe things change in significant ways after the time this was written.  I will have to do more research about this soon, or maybe you can help us understand how Muslim law developed.  Still, I am impressed with the level of compassion in this section.

I find ayah 9 to be a key to interpreting what we read today:

Let them be mindful of God and speak out for justice.

So, specifically how would a thirst for justice shape our relationships? 

  • Husbands and wives would see themselves as parts of a single soul, necessary for each other (4:1).  More on this provocative thought another day.  This doesn’t sound like patriarchal servitude.
  • Guardians would take care of fatherless children (“orphan” doesn’t necessarily also mean motherless in the ancient world) in their care, being sure to handle their finances fairly (4:2, 6, 10).
  • A man would only commit to marital relationships with the number of women he can treat fairly (4:3).  Yes, polygamy was allowed by the Qur’an.  More on this to come, for sure. 
  • A husband would not exploit his wife financially, living off of her money or keeping her enslaved to him financially (4:4).
  • People would treat the intellectally disabled with respect, caring for them materially, if need be (4:5).
  • Executors would dispense the estate of deceased parents fairly irregardless to the gender of the recipients (4:7).
  • People would not just worry about the future of their own kids (4:9).  That one preaches still today!
  • Parents would provide for the future of all of their children without bias, though they acknowledge that sons will have greater financial needs in the future because of their role in society (4:11).
  • People would always pay off debts with inheritance money before buying anything else (4:11-12). 
  • For the sake of society as a whole, parents would not allow sons or daughters guilty of homosexuality (see commentator Abdullah Muhammad Ali on this interpretation) to run wild.  However, they would allow room for repentance (4:15-16).  So it seems the honor killing we are seeing in parts of the Muslim world would not be congruous with this instruction, at least this single ayah.
  • A man would never take a woman as his wife against her will (4:19).
  • A husband would treat his wife fairly and kindly, always looking for the best God has placed in her (4:19).  WOW! 

This all seems very high-handed and honorable.  There is a great amount of respect and concern for others, especially anyone who is disadvantaged.  These will be some interesting points to hang onto as we go forward in this study.

With today’s reading it looks like I have walked out of the jihad maelstrom and into the furnace of Islamic treatment of women.  Great! 

I would imagine that the visual many Americans get in their head of a Muslim woman is of a heavily veiled female of meek demeanor and few words.  Maybe she walks a few paces behind him, and that they have a marriage partnership is laughable.  She has a place in society: domestic and sexual, little more.  And should she dare to misbehave, we hate to think what will happen to her.  Don’t Muslims still stone women sometimes? 

Is there anything to these conceptions?  They wouldn’t be in our consciousness if they didn’t sometimes come true, but is this the norm?  No doubt, the status of women is going to be a recurring theme this year as we work our way through the Qur’an.  The fourth surah is even entitled “Women.”  The majority of today’s reading pertains to marriage, divorce and how gender impacts both of these.  

To say that men and women are treated with the same status in this passage would certainly be incorrect.  But there is a strong thread throughout all of this section (which reads a lot like a legal section of Leviticus) that both parties are to treat the other respectfully in matters of sexuality, divorce and remarriage.  A man was certainly not free to just brush off a woman as unwanted chattel.  The following points stand out here:

  1. Men are to restrain their sexual advances when a woman is menstruating, not simply because she was thought to be “unclean,” but because “menstruation is a painful condition” and the man ought to be compassionate, not only concerned with his own desires. (2:222)
  2. Commentator Abdullah Yusuf Ali highlights the dignity that is given to women by virtue of the simile in 2:223 comparing the wife to a farmer’s field.  No good farmer who wants to use the same land for some time exploits his field; he treats it respectfully so that it is as fruitful as possible.  So too should a husband treat his wife. 
  3. Ali also claims that the background to the four-month waiting period in 2:226 is the practice ancient pagan Arabs had of depriving their wives of conjugal fulfillment but not divorcing them, keeping them from remarrying.  That the Qur’an demands a man make a decision what he will do with his wife within four months of the end of romance seems to actually be driven by a desire to give freedom to women.
  4. This passage does indicate that men have more rights than women, likely due to their superior economic capabilities at that time, but 2:228 does acknowledge the wife retains rights consummate to her status as a woman. 
  5. If divorce is inevitable, the Qur’an provides economic protection to the woman by telling the man not to take back anything of worth he had given the wife.  (2:229)
  6. A time of four months and ten days must pass before a widow can remarry.  Part of the reason for the specified amount of time is so that a pregnancy caused by the deceased husband would be obvious, but part too seems to be a way to avoid an opportunistic wedding committed when the widow was emotionally vulnerable.  (2:234-35)  

So from this passage alone, I am not seeing the typical depiction of oppression.  I see a great amount of respect given to both parties, and a sensitivity to the vulnerability inherent in being a woman in the seventh century AD.  I am wondering at this point if some of the negative behavior we have seen regarding Islamic women doesn’t actually have more to do with the native cultures of the men involved, not their religion. 

What are your impressions?