Friday, January 30, 2015

The Qur'an Surah 4: Women

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn.  I will also include some original Arabic text, because it is very beautiful.

The fourth surah of the Qur'an comes from the later period of the prophet's life, when he was leader over a growing number of believers in Medina.  Thus, the surah is less concerned with stories and theology (like the earlier Meccan surahs), and is more concerned with practical laws and rules regarding property, inheritance, gender roles, family, and marriage.  The surah also reflects the very real tensions and conflicts (both internal and external) that Muhammad and his community faced in those early years of Islam.

The surah begins with a lovely explanation of the origins of men and women: "People, be mindful of your Lord, who created you from a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them spread countless men and women, far and wide."  From this, one could derive the idea of the "soul mate"--the other half of one's soul that so many people spend their lives looking for--an idea that persists today.

From this lovely beginning, a reader might get the impression that there was gender equality among the early Muslim community; however, the reality was more complex.  Seventh century Arabia was a patriarchal, male-dominated culture, and unfortunately this surah reflects this reality.  Like the patriarchs and kings of the Old Testament, Muslim men are permitted to marry multiple wives, though all wives must be treated equally.  Men are also allowed to strike their wives: "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."  This abuse is tempered by further instructions of kindness: "Husbands should take good care of their wives," and elsewhere, "it is not lawful for you to inherit women against their will, nor should you treat your wives harshly."  The picture of husband-wife relations that emerges is not one of equality, but is also more complex than modern stereotypes suggest.

This gender inequality is also evident in inheritance laws: "Concerning your children, God commands that a son should have the equivalent share of two daughters."  The inheritance laws are quite complex.  As I read them, I thought it would be interesting to compare the inheritance laws of the Qur'an with those of the Old Testament.  I believe they are quite similar.

Like the Torah, this surah gives basic laws forbidding theft, murder, incest, and other sins.  Believers are encouraged to "believe and do good deeds" and also to stand up against oppression, and fight against oppressors: "Why should you not fight in God's cause and for those oppressed men, women, and children who cry out, 'Lord, rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors!  By your grace, give us a protector and give us a helper!'?"  Throughout the surah, believers are told to uphold justice for children, orphans, and the oppressed: "Let them be mindful of God and speak out for justice."

The surah also reflects conflicts with Jews and Christians, while also maintaining the shared heritage of these faiths: "We have sent revelation to you [Muhammad] as he did to Noah and the prophets after him, to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, to Jesus, Job, Aaron, and Solomon--to David He gave the book of Psalms."  Unlike later Christians, the prophet maintains that the Jews did not kill Jesus.  Also, near the end, the surah argues against the Christian doctrine of the trinity, affirming instead pure monotheism: "So believe in God and His messengers and do not speak of a 'Trinity'--stop [this], that is better for you--God is only one God."

Calligraphy by Everittee Barbee


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