This will almost certainly be the last post of this blog.  I pledged last Christmas to read the Qur’an closely in a year, discovering for myself as much as the book could teach me about Islam.  I was tired of hearing what others had to say about Islam, others who often were uninformed and loaded with an agenda that was anything but charitable to people different from themselves.  Also, I had been teaching a sizable unit in my 12th grade religion class on world religions for a few years but had not read the sacred texts of the religions I was discussing, and I thought it was time to rectify that.  Cultural events in America as a whole, in Tennessee, and even in Memphis caused me to see more and more of an anti-immigrant and specifically anti-Muslim sentiment, and it was time to see if there was anything to the fears I was hearing.

Now, just a few weeks past a year, I come to the end of the Qur’an, and therefore this blog.  It has been a good project.  Tough at times.  Several things happened personally (like a tree falling on my house!) and I found even just finding a half-hour to read and blog was impossible some days.  I am very glad I did this.  I believe I am a much better informed citizen of the world.  I also found that I have gained a greater appreciation for my own religion, Christianity; sometimes seeing what you have in contrast does that.  And who knows, maybe I have started a friendship or two.  At least one of you who reads this blog and is a Muslim has migrated over to my new year-long project, reading through the Christian New Testament again (see kingdomnewtestament.wordpress.com if you are interested).

A few times throughout the year as my Christian friends discovered this project, they asked what I have learned.  I would mention a few things, but really I have 180+ posts of realizations.  Still, it might be helpful for me to mention a few items that really stand out to me here as we wind this project up:

Muslims are people too:  This one seems like such a given that it shouldn’t need to be said, but it does.  If we would just take the time to actually get to know and talk with people who are different from us, we would find there is less difference than we think and so much room for kindness.  No, we are not all the same in our beliefs.  Yes, there are mutually exclusive ideas in various religions.  But the real point here is that Muslims are humans, not just a religion or a set of beliefs.  Muslims tuck their little daughters and sons into bed at night too.  They struggle with how to honor God in all they do; “struggle” is what the name of the religion means.  They fret about having enough to pay the bills, but not so much that money becomes an idol or “partner” with God.  They passionately desire the best for the world, they just define this slightly differently than others.  I am convinced though the solution is not to vilify or caricature all Muslims as terrorists.  Nothing will be gained from grabbing our kids close when Muslims walk by or develop a political platform that makes tax-paying, law-abiding, freedom-loving American Muslims feel marginalized in our society.  Get to know a Muslim and see what happens.

Keep reading:  Maybe my biggest realization came about halfway through the year when Muslims began to find and comment on this blog.  What I discovered is that if I really wanted to understand Islam, reading the Qur’an is only the beginning.  In fact, I am wondering now if I have read more of the Qur’an than some Muslims I have talked to this year (not the clearly learned Muslims who were kind enough to take a lot of time to educate me about their religion).  I was mistaken when I thought the Qur’an would unlock a thorough understanding of Islam.  I would say now that if one really wants to understand this esteemed religion one would be best served by reading the Hadith, the traditions and sayings of Muhammad that have been collected since his death.  Then pick up the Sunnah, the code for living in this world as a Muslim.  But that is far more reading and study than I am willing to commit to a religion other than my own.

Culture plays a bigger role in modern Islam than a text:  This is my hunch, though I am sure more learned people than I would say the same thing.  I have been struck by how American Muslims respond differently to my queries than Asian Muslims.  I noticed that the 1400 year old Qur’an approaches topics differently than commentators did a 100 years ago and that the translator and commentator of my translation from the 21st century had an even different take.  Time shapes thinking too.  I have noticed that empowered male Muslims speak differently about their religion than do women who are speaking out now about their religion.  And what about subjugated women who fear speaking out at all?  There is no surprise here; texts are infinitely interpretable.  We play a part in determining what a text means and an even bigger role in how a text is lived.  It would be nice to believe the Qur’an (or Bible) just means what it says, but there is logically and observably more to the equation than that.  I suspect 9/11 was driven by politics and cultural ideology more than religion.  I was struck by how few truly offensive passages I came to in the Qur’an.  I think the ugliness non-Muslims so often associate with Islam has more to do with what happens when a text gets into the hands of a cleric or charismatic leader with political or ideological aspirations, not what Allah meant in the Qur’an (if you believe the Qur’an is the words of Allah).

No, they are not out to get us:  Unfortunately, the common perception of Muslims in America is that Muslims want to kill non-Muslims.  There are few months when a student does not say as much, but we can dismiss this as adolescence.  But where are they getting this view?  Parents?  Television depictions?  Talk-show hosts?  Political candidates?  Religious leaders?  Sadly, some of all of the above.  Of course, my attention was most drawn to those passages that dealt with violence.  Maybe my greatest observation here is truly how few of these passages there are, especially in the more so Meccan last half of the Qur’an.  Then, I was reminded that, just like the Bible, these passages have to be taken in context.  All of them pertained to issues in 7th century Arabia, mainly involving aggressive pagans and a few cases of attacking Christians or Jews.  Generally, I do believe it is right to depict the condoning of violence in the Qur’an as self-defense.  I have no doubt, however, that even in the time of Muhammad this ideal degraded into more than self-defense; dealing with violence with more violence will do that.

Yet, some of them are:  It would be naive and irresponsible to ignore the fact that there are Muslims today who cite their religion as grounds for their violent attacks on non-Muslims, Christians and Jews especially.  Yes, there do seem to be some Muslims who do believe America is the “Great Satan,” though I still think we ought to ask why?  As I see it this goes back to the very same violent texts mentioned above.  As long as you have ayahs like these in the Qur’an — “Fighting has been ordained for you” (2:216) and “Kill them wherever you encounter them” (2:191) — you will have people who come along, regardless of context, and make these texts support their murderous agendas.  Is the Qur’an a violent book?  I don’t think so.  Can it be?  Absolutely!  Again, I think this has more to do with politics and ideology than religion.

Women get a mixed bag:  Is Islam inherently a misogynistic religion that subjugates women?  Like my observations about violence above, it depends on who you are talking to.  Are there passages that can be taken as demeaning to women?  Yes (4:34-35).  But there are also passages that are very protective of women, especially in cases of divorce.  Does polygamy have to be seen as demeaning to women?  No, but it can easily turn into that.  Are hijabs and burqahs prisons into which women are locked?  If you have a forceful husband who is used to getting his way and maybe has a jealous streak, sure they can be.  But they can also be incredibly empowering when they are the way a woman says she will control who can gaze upon her beauty and potentially turn her into a sexual object.  Again, I think the answer here has less to do with religion and more with personality, culture, and situations.  I suspect an American, Canadian, or British Muslim woman experiences a very different life than a young Muslim woman in parts of Iran, Afghanistan or India.

Islam gets so much so right:  In part it is because Islam is still eastern and tied to honor societies in contrast to western Christianity that seems to be driven more so by success, progress, and love, but I am struck by the respect accorded Allah in the Qur’an and in Muslim society.  This is a stark contrast to popular American Christianity-lite where “Jesus is my homeboy” or where we think the first thing we will do in Heaven is give God a hug.  The expectations placed on a worshiper of Allah are clear and high: be truly committed, no turning back, give it all or don’t bother.  The choices in life are simple and clear: Paradise or Hellfire.  Two paths to choose from, which one will it be?  Along that line, one’s eternal destiny is constantly before one as they read their Qur’an.  I would hazard to guess that Judgment and the afterlife are mentioned in at least 90% of the surahs.  People have a responsibility to care about and care for the weak and needy of our society.  Religion is intended to be embodied in flesh.  We do religion; it is lived.  Think about the five pillars of Islam: statement of belief, prayer, fasting, alms, and pilgrimage.  All of these pillars which “hold up” the religion are actions one does.  One doesn’t just believe Islam.  One does it.  I find much of this admirable.

Still, there is something missing — Jesus:  Unapologetically, I acknowledge that I am understanding Islam in contrast to my Christianity.  So many times this year I felt like Islam came close to the high ideals of Christianity, but then fell short, in large part because of how Jesus is viewed in each religion.  Let there be no doubt, Islam has a high view of Jesus.  He is a great prophet.  The honor he is given in this life and the next are great.  But he is no god in Islam; that would be blasphemous.  So what is missing when Jesus is not God?  Allah just does not come off as being as personal or immanent a god as the God of the Bible is.  Christians can say they are seeing God when they look at Jesus.  Christians believe Jesus reveals the heart and actions of God.  Christians can say their God has given them a flesh-and-blood example of how to live life, Jesus.  Furthermore, when Jesus leaves the earth after his resurrection he sends the Holy Spirit, who Christians believe is the very presence of God.  This Holy Spirit lives inside Christians, making us holy and guiding us through life.  Christians believe a part of their God lives inside of them.  I see none of this in the Qur’an.  Allah did not even speak to Muhammad himself.  Maybe the biggest nut I have tried to crack this year is the difference between Islamic and Christian views on grace.  Does Islam speak of grace and mercy?  Almost every surah starts by calling Allah the “Lord and Giver of Mercy.”  Do humans deserve to be saved from Hell, according to Islam?  No.  Is there any human who can be perfect enough to be deemed righteous in Allah’s eyes?  No.  Are there countless numbers of blessings that come to humans everyday because of Allah’s grace that we simply do not deserve?  Yes.  It is certainly appropriate to speak of grace in Islam.  But it is a fundamentally different kind than what you find in Christianity.  Muslims must live their whole life hoping for grace, while Christians know at their baptism that they have already received that grace because of the cross of Christ.  Muslims spend a life living in such a way as to be worthy of grace with a hope of salvation in the end.  Christians spend a life living in gratitude for a gracious salvation already given, knowing they never can do enough to be worthy of it.  No Christian would want their deeds weighed on a scale at the end of life, because we know we can’t be good enough and we also know God considers any sin to be too much.  As much as I have tried to understand both what I have read in the Qur’an and what the Muslims on this blog have share with me, I simply can’t get past the feeling that Muslims are trying to earn something.  Lastly, with the minimization of Jesus, there is a loss of his reordering of love, power, and success.  The first shall be last.  You gain your life by laying it down.  Blessed are you when you are persecuted.  Turn the cheek.  Repay good for evil.  Overcome evil with good.  Jesus saw life entirely different from conventional men.  No surprise there, he is God and was visiting our world from the world that is to come.  He was inviting us to help bring this new kind of life into this world and hasten the new creation.  This especially meant that we would see love, power, and success differently.  I am afraid that as I read the Qur’an I just heard much of the same ole story humans have always told: my side is better than yours so become like us and avoid the unpleasantness that comes to our enemies who fail to exercise self-control and pull themselves up by their own boot-straps.  This is still one big self-improvement project, though Allah is both more involved and real than Karma or Fate.  Yes, he gives a book to help, so read it and know it and follow it well.  It seems Jesus offers the world something you can’t find anywhere else.  Of course, I do not mean to be offensive in this last observation.

My final point is an obvious one: I am not a Muslim, nor a particularly well-informed scholar of Islam either.  These are the thoughts of an honest seeker of truth after a year of earnest reading and thought.  I am sure I am biased (who is not?).  I am sure I don’t understand things completely (watch the comments on this one for rebuttals).  However, let it not be said that I did not try to understand Islam for myself.  But also don’t let this blog be your last word on this prodigious religion.

Peace, shalom, salam.

All of us have seen them.  Veiled women.  The calling card of Islam.

Well, that’s not exactly true.  Almost every religion has women within it that chose to wear a head covering of some sort.  Read 1 Corinthians 7 and it is clear that was even an accepted practice in the early church.

Still, in our world where women seem to be wearing less and less, a woman who would choose to cover up her body or even her face is a bit out of the ordinary.

Maybe that’s the point.

In fact, as we come to today’s reading we find that this is exactly the point.

Tell believing women that they should lower their eyes, guard their private parts, and not display their charms beyond what [it is acceptable] to reveal; they should draw their coverings over their necklines and not reveal their charms except to their husbands, their fathers, . . . [etc.] . . . such men who attend them who have no such desire. (24:31)

First, some definitions.  There are two main head coverings in Islam with different names used in different places.  First, the hijab is a veil that covers the head, and then is loosely draped around the neck.  The face is fully visible.  This is the covering most common in western countries.  Non-Muslim women will sometimes don the hijab when in predominantly Islamic countries out of respect for that culture.

Second, the niqab is a veil that not only covers the head and neck but also the face.  Some have an uncovered slit that exposes only the eyes, while others have a modest lace screen in this area so sight is possible but so that the appearance of the woman’s eyes is still obscured.  It is the niqab that has become so controversial in western countries, even having been outlawed in France recently because of the fear that it obscures the identity of the wearer so much so that national security is at risk.

The hijab is usually worn with any outfit deemed to be modest.  The niqab is usually paired with a black or blue cloak known as a burqah that extends almost to the ground and generally obscures the figure of the woman as well.

Many non-Muslims view the veil as a symbol of subjugation and oppression.  No doubt that may be the case in some situations, especially where women are forced to dress in this manner.  Some Muslim women who reject the veil object that the veil places upon the woman the responsibility to curb the male propensity toward lust; really this is a problem inside the man so he should deal with it and not make the woman a slave to his inappropriate passions.

In the West, though, the Muslim culture is such that the decision to wear the veil is given to the girl or woman.  It is a sign of acceptance of Islam and a code of modesty and submission to Allah, not a symbol of slavery.  As a former student of mine who began wearing a hijab when she left high school and began attending a respected Midwestern college said, the veil can be seen as a symbol of empowerment.  The woman now has control over who seems all of her beauty.  She is not a physical object out there in the world to be leered at and lusted over by every man with weak morals.  Her beauty is hers and her future husband’s.

That is precisely the spirit of the passage we come to today.  Modesty in dress — whether a veil or loose-fitting clothes or something else entirely — is becoming of godly women.  All of us are creatures of desire (24:31b), especially men it seems, so be mindful of this in how one dresses and carries oneself (which is probably what the “stamping of the feet” part is all about at the end of ayah 31, a plea to be looked at).

A Christian man and theologian that I know and respect, well versed in the world’s religions, asked this question recently to Christians about dress.  Why are we trying to dress more and more like the fashion models of Paris or Milan?  Why must our children sport the fashion of Justice for Girls or Aeropostale?  If Style magazine says this is the new “must-have,” why do we run like lemmings to buy it?  Should there be something distinctive about the dress of a person of God?  Maybe the full burqah or even a hijab is too much, but could it be that Islam has something to teach us here?

Do you see a bit of a difference?

Surah 16 pivots on verse 89.  Up to this point the focus has been upon unbelievers and why they should believe.  Nature has been appealed to often as a reason to believe (the bee for which this surah receives its name is in today’s section).  Then Allah addresses the Prophet Muhammad directly and says he is the witness and guide that has been sent forth to his people, just as Allah has sent prophets to all people everywhere throughout time.  From this point forward the focus of the surah will be on believers. 

I found one passage especially intriguing, although largely unrelated to the main point.  I think I would read this passage with a bit of a sarcastic tone, particularly at the end.

They assign daughters to God–may He be exalted!–and the [sons] they desire to themselves.  When one of them is given news of the birth of a baby girl, his face darkens and he is filled with gloom.  In his shame he hides himself away from his people because of the bad news he has been given.  Should he keep her and suffer contempt or bury her in the dust? How ill they judge!  Those who do not believe in the Hereafter should have the contemptible image, and God should have the highest one: He is the Mighty, the One to Decide. . . . They attribute to God what they themselves dislike while their own tongues utter the lie that the best belongs to them.  Without doubt it is the Fire that belongs to them: they will be given priority there! (16:57-60, 62)

By way of explanation: Abdel Haleem says in his translation of the Quran that some pagan Arabs believed that angels were the “daughters” of God, the implication being that God gives birth to daughters, but not sons.  The ironic part of this belief is that the average Arab father would loath the news that his wife was pregnant with a daughter.  Sons were desired for war, business, and agriculture; a daughter was only a liability in each of these situations.  It would appear from ayah 59 that some pagan Arabs even practiced female infanticide.  A father who could only produce girls and no desired sons was a disgrace, a lesser than his friends. 

The pagan belief system, therefore, is an immensely offensive one. They believe something of God — he is a father who only gives birth to daughters — that they themselves would find shameful if true of them.  The best should be thought of God, not themselves.  One more reason their pagan beliefs are corrupt. 

These pagans want to be best, first, given priority?  Sure!  In punishment.

Islam is often depicted in the West as anti-woman.  Up to this point there have only been a few passages in the first part of the Qur’an that depict women negatively or that seem to advocate harsh treatment of wives.  It has seemed thus far that the anti-female claim is unfounded, and I am certainly not one to jump on a bandwagon.  But this passage certainly does put women in quite a negative light.  The negatives aren’t just the basic facts of the seduction scene involving Potiphar’s wife; those are in the Bible too.  The sexism comes out most in what is added to the story in the Qur’an.

Every woman in this surah is pictured as “treacherous” or, at least, lecherous.  The main woman of the surah is the unnamed wife of the unnamed “Egyptian governor” that buys Joseph the slave and makes him a servant in his household.  Christians know him as Potiphar and his wife.  Potiphar leaves the house one day with the highest of instructions to his wife for how Joseph is to be treated (12:21).  She is to treat him well and view him as an adopted son.  However, her subsequent behavior is anything but motherly.  This main female character behaves quite unbecomingly, first through seduction and then through force (“she bolted the doors,” 12:23).  When Potiphar arrives back at the house to find a shirtless Joseph headed for the door and his wife with Joseph’s shirt in her hand and a guilty look on her face, it is the woman who is quickly declared a sinner, not Joseph (which is certainly correct in the situation).  Then Potiphar delivers this scathing, globalized assessment of all women, not simply his wife:

This is another instance of women’s treachery: your treachery is truly great. (12:28)

In one sentence all women are labeled “treacherous,” that is, deceitful, untrustworthy, and faithless.

It would be easy to say this is just a single female character and an unfortunate globalization of the female gender, then along comes other women in the town (12:30).  These other women are introduced as “malicious gossips” and then, true to form, they together declare Potiphar’s wife to be a sex-crazed seductress consumed by passion (12:30).  So the victim of their barbs throws a feast for these women and ends the event by parading Joseph before them, which causes all of the women there to lust for his unmatched beauty.  In a truly ridiculous detail added seemingly for dramatic effect, when Joseph first walks into the room the women who had been cutting fruit with their knives are so intoxicated by Joseph’s beauty that they distractedly cut their hands instead of the fruit they were holding (imagine the iconic scene we have all seem in TV of a distracted waiter pouring water into a glass to the point where it overflows onto the customer because a beautiful woman has walked into the restaurant).  Thus, its not just Potiphar’s wife who is so base.  Joseph’s physical perfection makes them think he is a god or an angel (12:31).  So now have they fallen into idolatry?

Two more times in this section the behavior of the women — the only women in this surah — is called “treachery” (12:33-34).  In case we didn’t get the point, women fade from the surah with one more character assessment:

The governor’s wife said, “Now the truth is out: it was I who tried to seduce him — he is an honest man.”  [Joseph said, “This was] for my master to know that I did not betray him behind his back: God does not guide the mischief of the treacherous.” (12:51-52)

Notice that the ugliest characterizations of women come in the details that have been added to the biblical story in the Qur’an.  The implication of these Qur’anic additions seems to be that all women — not simply Potiphar’s wife — possess an irrational, unseemly passion.  Women are uncontrolled and sexually aggressive in a very depraved manner.  Here we have a righteous young man being used by God to advance His will but women are attempting to derail his holy mission.

This is an unfortunate development, in my opinion.  Or maybe I am reading it wrong?

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?

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?