“But whoso does good works, whether male or female, and is a believer, such shall enter Heaven, and shall not be wronged even as much as the little hollow in the back of a date-stone.” (Al Qur’an 4:125)
Written by Dr. Lutf ur Rehman. Nashville, USA
With the advent of modern education and inclusion of women in the workforce over the last two centuries, the patriarchal nature of societies is also in a state of flux. Over the course of human history, men have dominated the role of leadership in these societies. Even today a great majority of human population lives in this arrangement. It worked well when physical strength was an asset. Most of the work was done manually and fighting in the army required physical strength. Men had a great advantage over women in this area. Therefore the societies were aligned to suit their interests. Women were assigned to a subservient role and were mostly confined to home and domestic work. Over the course of human history this role of women – rearing children and caring for the home and her husband – became their normal function in the society. They were not included in the affairs of men and were considered inferior in many ways. Men literally owned their women like livestock and property. Women had no rights – their fate was decided by the word and wishes of their men. They were not given education, had no say in their marriage, could not own property, and required permission of their men folk to do anything in their lives. Any woman who would not follow such norms in the society was punished and sometimes even killed by her own father, brother or husband, and it was considered honorable for men to do so. Political and religious systems were often used to perpetuate such oppression of women.
Christian Arab writer, Norma Khouri noted, honor killings originate from the belief that a woman’s chastity is the property of her family, a cultural norm that comes “from our ancient tribal days, from the Hammurabi and Assyrian tribes of 1200 B.C.”[i] Matthew A. Goldstein, J.D. (Arizona), has also noted that honor killings were encouraged in ancient Rome, where male family members who did not take actions against the female adulterers in their family were “actively persecuted.”[ii] The Roman law of ‘pater familias’ gave complete control to the men of the family for both their children and wives. Under these laws, the lives of children and wives were at the sole discretion of the men in their family.
In the sixth century Arabia, men were ashamed if a daughter was born in their household. Many who considered themselves courageous and brave would bury their daughters after their birth to get rid of the shame. The practice was considered honorable. Qays bin Asim, ancient leader of Banu Tamim is credited by some historians as the first to kill children on the basis of honor. It is recorded that he murdered all of his daughters to prevent them from ever causing him any kind of dishonor. This is the time which was called the time of ignorance or “Jahiliyyah” by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him). He brought a message which was forward looking, open minded and based upon principals of justice for all – men and women. Holy Qur’an is the Word of God and a lasting source of guidance for all Muslims for all times.
Let us examine if Qur’an accepts or prescribes an inferior role for women?
Qur’an uses the word khalaqa to describe creation. Khalaqa means to create, to bring something into existence from a state of non-existence. The account of creation in the Qur’an also makes it clear that the creation happened in several steps and not all at once:
Just recall the time when your Lord said to the angels, ‘I am going to create a human of clay: (primordial soup) when I perfect it in every way (evolution), and blow into it of my ruh (spiritual awareness), all of you should bow down before it.’ (Al Qur’an 38: 72-73)
Qur’an addresses many aspects of creation in different verses. If we look at the creation of human beings, Qur’an does not tell us if man was created before the woman or if woman was created from man thus implying an inferior status as part is not equal to the whole. Qur’an does not say that Adam was the first man. It also does not say that Eve was created from Adam’s rib. These concepts have come to us from the Bible:
And God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. (Genesis 2:21-22)
There are some Ahadith which tell us that Eve was created from man’s rib but all of them are considered weak as their sources are weak and all originated from one person, Ibn Abbas. The content (matn) of these Ahadith is also in contradiction to Qur’anic version of creation. Therefore these Ahadith are best disregarded.
Then there are some other Ahadith where women are compared with the shape of a rib or derived from a rib. Some are mentioned in Bokhari and Muslim, the two most influential Hadith collections in Sunni Islam. One such hadith is quoted here:
‘Abd al-‘Aziz related to us that he was reporting on the authority of ‘Abd Allah who said: Malik had told us that he was reporting on the authority of Abu Zinad who was reporting on the authority of al-A’raj who was reporting on the authority of Abu Hurairah (with whom may Allah be pleased) who said: Allah’s Rasul (may peace be on him) said:The woman is like a rib, if you try to straighten her, she will break. So if you want to get benefit from her, do so while she still has some crookedness. (Bokhari)
With regards to the isnad (list of transmitters) the following may be noted: All these ahadith are cited on the authority of Abu Hurairah, a Companion who was regarded as controversial by many early Muslim scholars, including Imam Abu Hanifah (A.D. 700-767),founder of the largest Sunni school of law (fiqh). All six of such ahadith in Bokhari and Muslim are gharib (the lowest grade of hadith classification) because they contain a number of transmitters who were single reporters. All of these six ahadith are da’if (weak) because they have a number of unreliable transmitters. Matn (content) of these Ahadith is also contrary to Qur’anic version of creation of human beings, which we shall examine now:
O people be aware of your Lord, Who created you (humans) from a single soul (nafs) and created therefrom mates for you. (4:2)
He it is who has created you from a single soul (nafs). (7:190)
(God) created you (humans) from a single soul (nafs). (39:7)
Qur’an describes creation of human beings from a single soul – nafs – which is a gender neutral term. From this nafs, God created both man and woman.
Allah also tells us in the Qur’an that He perfected the creation of humans:
Surely We created the humankind in the best stature. (95:5)
Allah it is Who …. fashioned you , and perfected your shapes. (40:65)
Who (God) gave everything He created the best form. (32:7)
Here perfection means that God created humans exactly as He wanted to. Also a look at these verses and many others in the Qur’an make it clear that the creation did not happen all at once. The creation of humans was perfected over time, pointing towards evolution. One of the names of God is “Musawwir,” meaning an artist:
He is God, The Creator, The Maker, The Fashioner (Musawwir). His are the most beautiful attributes. (Al Qur’an 59:25)
Just like an artist, God started with the basics and over time brought His creation to perfection, the process of evolution.
In the account of creation God has not assigned any superiority to one gender over the other for any reason. Qur’an describes the final step of creation as follows:
Just recall the time when your Lord said to the angels, “I am going to create a human of clay: (primordial soup) when I perfect it in every way (evolution), and blow into it of my ruh (spiritual awareness), all of you should bow down before it. (Al Qur’an 38: 72-73)
Once again God put His spirit equally in man and woman.
Adam and Eve in the Garden
It is clear from Qur’anic descriptions that the Garden was never intended as the dwelling place for the humans. Allah’s plan for humans was to function in the earth as His trustee.
And when your Lord said to the angels, I am about to place a vicegerent in the earth. (Al Qur’an 2:31)
In the Garden humans had no need to struggle for the basic necessities of life such as food, clothing and shelter:
It is given unto you that you hunger not therein, neither are you naked, And you thirst not therein nor are you exposed to the sun’s heat. (Al Qur’an 20:119-120)
However in the Garden, and on earth, humans share the same test: the choice between obedience and disobedience. Allah warns Adam and Eve against approaching one of the trees in the Garden. The Qur’an does not give special attributes to the tree itself. It is merely a symbol of the test.
It is noteworthy that, with one exception, the Quran always uses the Arabic dual form to tell how Satan tempted both Adam and Eve and how they both disobeyed:
But Satan caused them both to slip and be expelled from where they resided. (Al Qur’an 2:37)
In maintaining the dual form, the Qur’an overcomes the negative Biblical and Judaic implications that the woman was the cause of evil and damnation.
For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. (1Timothy 2:11-12)
Moreover Qur’an clearly states that individuals – men and women – are responsible for their own actions:
Upon recognition of the error that they had made, both of them (Adam and Eve) repented and asked for forgiveness. They said, ‘Our Lord we have wronged ourselves; and if You forgive us not and have not mercy on us, we shall surely be of the lost.’ (Al Qur’an 7:24)
The one exception to the Qur’anic use of the dual form to refer to the temptation and disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden, singles out Adam:
And the devil whispered to him saying: ‘O Adam! Shall I show you the tree of immortality and power that does not waste away?’ Then the two of them (Adam and his wife) ate of the fruit (of the forbidden tree), so their shame became manifest to them and they started covering themselves with leaves. And Adam disobeyed his Lord, so went astray. (Al Qur’an 20:122)
Their Lord not only accepted their repentance and forgave them; He demonstrated a very special feature of Himself: mercy and grace. He extended to them, and to all the humans, the explicit guidance – revelation.
We can draw following guidance from this story of Adam and Eve in the Holy Qur’an.
Any human might disobey through forgetfulness, the general nature of human weakness, and the temptations of Satan, but one who recognizes his error, repents and asks for forgiveness, will be forgiven. Moreover, guidance is always available to humankind to remind them of their commitment to Allah and the guile of Satan, the enemy. This is a special mercy from their Lord. However, whoever disobeys through arrogance and intentional rebellion has been promised due punishment and eternal damnation. He is like Satan, who disobeyed and persisted in his arrogant, disobedient ways.
The Equity of Recompense, The Hereafter in the Qur’an
The hereafter is divided into several stages: Death, Resurrection, Judgment and finally, Heaven or Hell.
Death is the first inevitable experience for each and every created being without distinction of gender, class, nationality, or time of existence. It is the first stage of the hereafter for each being. It marks the entrance to that realm:
Each nafs will taste death. And you will be paid on the day of Resurrection only that which you have fairly earned. Whoever is removed from the Fire and is made to enter Paradise, he indeed is triumphant. The life of this world is but comfort of illusion. (Al Qur’an 3:186)
The term nafs is used in Qura’nic discussion of the hereafter. With regard to death, it is that essential part of each being which experiences the passage from life in this known world into the unknown realm of the hereafter. It is central to the consideration of the Hereafter because it is this term that is used to elevate the Qura’nic discussions of recompense in the Hereafter above gender distinctions.
The Resurrection is the first part of the Hereafter, unknown or unacceptable to the Arabs at the time of the revelation:
And they say: When we are bones and fragments, shall we be raised up a new creation? Say: Be you stones or iron or some created thing that is yet greater in your thoughts. They ask, ‘who shall restore us to life?’ Say, He who created you the first time. (Al Qur’an 17:50-52)
The Qur’an is emphatic that the day of Resurrection is unlike anything experienced before:
O humankind! Fear your Lord. Lo! The earthquake of the Hour (of doom) is a tremendous thing: On that day you will witness that every nursing mother will forget her nursing and every pregnant one will be delivered of her burden, and you will see people as drunken, yet they will not be drunken, but the Doom of Allah will be strong (upon them). (Al Qur’an 22:2-3)
Thus the day of Resurrection is a disruption of the order of the reality which we have known and lived.
Existence on earth is described in the Qur’an as a trial or test to see the value of the deeds performed by the individuals. At the Resurrection all humans will be brought back to life for judgment, which will be made by Allah, who knows what is secret and what is manifest:
And not a speck’s worth in the earth or in the sky escapes your Lord, nor what is less than that or greater than that. (Al Qur’an 10:62)
And whether you make known what is in your minds or hide it, Allah will bring you to account for it. (Al Qur’an 2:285)
All deeds of every individual will be weighed. This will indicate the true value or measure of the deeds. Evil things are without merit or weight. (weightless) The weight of all good things will be added and given increased value.
And He accepts the prayers of those who believe and do good works, and grants them more out of His Grace. (Al Qur’an 42: 27)
If the scales are light, one has been unsuccessful. If the scales are heavy, it is an indication of success:
And we set a just balance for the day of Resurrection, so that no nafs is wronged in the slightest. Even as it may be the weight of a grain of a mustard seed, we bring it forth. (Al Qur’an 21:48)
Then as for him whose scales are heavy (with good works), he will live a pleasant life. But as for him whose scales are light, the Bereft and Hungry one will be his mother. Ah, what will convey to you what she is! Raging fire. (Al Qur’an 101:7-12)
Lo! This life of the world is but a passing comfort, and lo! The Hereafter is the enduring home. Whoever does an ill deed, he will be repaid the like thereof, while whoever does right, whether male or female, and is a believer, (all) such will enter the Garden. (Al Qur’an 40:40-41)
With regard to the Hereafter, individual responsibility and experience is given more emphasis. It is the individual who experiences death, the transition from the living world to the Hereafter: “Each nafs will taste of death.” (3:186). The recompense awarded is also on the basis of the individual. Whether a man or woman, each is rewarded individually according to what he or she earns and there is a single scale of judgment.
So in the Qur’anic narrative recompense is acquired through actions performed by the individual before death:
And Allah has created the heavens and the earth with truth, and each nafs may be repaid what it has earned. And they will not be wronged. (Al Qur’an 45:23)
No one can diminish the merits earned by another; neither can anyone increase them. No one can share in the merits achieved by another, nor in the punishment which will be given:
And fear the day when no nafs will avail of another in the slightest, nor intercession be of use to it, nor will compensation be accepted from it, nor will they be helped. (Al Qur’an 2:49)
There is no possibility of gender discrimination on this subject as Qur’an has been very explicit in addressing men and women separately and equally:
And those who do good works, male or female, and is a believer, they shall enter the Garden.(Al Qur’an 4:125)
Whoso acted righteously, male or female and is a believer, We shall surely grant them a pure life: and We shall surely bestow upon them their reward according to the best of their works. (Al Qur’an 16:98)
The Final Abode
The Qur’an acknowledges our earthly values and fears:
We verily created humankind and We know what his nafs whispers to him and We are nearer to him than his jugular vein. (Al Qur’an 50:17)
It states emphatically that Allah knows what is hidden and what is secret.
For those who disobey Allah and whose deeds were lighter, they will be placed in Hell:
Woe unto the repudiators on that day! Depart unto that which you used to deny. Depart unto the shadow falling three fold. Which yet is no relief, nor shelter from the flame … This is the day wherein they speak not. (Al Qur’an 77:29-32, 36)
The Qur’an depicts Paradise in more exquisite details than other unseen phenomena. In general, the depictions of Paradise are meant to entice the reader towards the afterlife. There are some forms given to the pleasures of Paradise which are specific to the audience at the time of the revelation, the desert dwellers of seventh century Arabia. Thus the appeals of the descriptions of ‘gardens with rivers flowing beneath’ is greater for someone living in an arid desert environment than, perhaps, for someone living in the tropics of Malaysia.
However, to confine the Qur’an to only that context would be incorrect. The Qur’an is from God, and not confined to or exhausted by one society or its history. Although the perspectives of the seventh century Arabs were given significant consideration in the Qur’an’s modes of expressions, its eternal message is not limited to any single form of articulation. The values indicated by the text transcend the particular modes of expression. One must determine how those particulars are significant and express them in terms relevant to our own lives. Each new generation of Qur’anic readers must re-evaluate Qur’anic values and determine what they mean to them:
And no nafs knows what supreme joy is hidden (awaiting) them, as a reward for their good works. (Al Qur’an 32:18)
Since Paradise and its pleasures are beyond human comprehension, the resemblance in these descriptions to pleasures experienced in this world must be taken analogously. First the Qur’an acknowledges the good (khayr) in some earthly things, like wealth, power, food, family status, offspring, and women:
Beautified for mankind is love of the joys from women and offspring, and stored up heaps of gold and silver, and horses branded (with their mark), and cattle and land. That is the comfort of the life of the world. Allah! With Him is a more excellent abode. Say shall I inform you of something better than that? For those who keep from evil, with their Lord are gardens. (Al Qur’an 3:15-16)
Zawj in the Hereafter
Among other pleasures of the Paradise, Qur’an describes companions for the believers. These companions have been the subject of great discussions among the Muslims as well as the non-Muslims.
The term Hur-al-Ayn meant something specific to the Arabs. She was so called because of her whiteness or fairness or cleanness. She was a woman of clear complexion and skin. The descriptions given are specific and sensual – youthful, virgin females with large dark eyes, white skin, and a pliant character. The specific depiction of the companions of Paradise demonstrates the Qur’an’s familiarity with the dreams and desires of the Arabs. The Qur’an offers the Hur as an incentive to aspire after truth. It is notable that after the Makkan period, the Qur’an does not use the term Hur again. It describes the companions of the Paradise in generic terms:
For those who keep from evil, with their Lord are gardens underneath which rivers flow, and pure azwaj and contentment from Allah. (Al Qur’an 3:16)
These believers are male and females and azwaj is a gender neutral term.
The Qur’anic use of ‘you and your azwaj’ with regard to the hereafter needs a closer look. First, the separation between good and evil takes precedence and the individual is recompensed only in accordance with his or her deeds:
This is the day of separation, which you used to deny. Assemble those who did wrong, together with their azwaj and what they used to worship. (Al Qur’an 37:22-23)
Second, the Qur’an reminds us that only those who have done right will attain reward in Paradise, even if on earth they were related.
Our Lord! And make them enter the Gardens of eternity which You have promised them, with such of their fathers and their azwaj and their descendants as do right. (Al Qur’an 40:9)
Thus the use of ‘you and your azwaj’ means you and whoever is paired with you because of like nature, deeds, faith etc.
The emphasis then is on partnership, friendship, comfort, and harmony in Paradise, as opposed to the isolation, loneliness, and despair of Hell. Perhaps one might be reunited with his or her earthly spouse in Paradise, provided that the basis for the reunion is shared belief and good deeds.
Some commentators use the Qur’anic statements that there will be pure azwaj (i.e. plural) as an indication that a pious man will go to Paradise and will have multiple Hur for his pleasure. Indeed, it is a contradiction of terms that a pious man who practices self-constraint should have multiple erotic pleasures as his objective. The use of the plural azwaj corresponds to the use of the plural preceding it: for ‘believers’ (and such terms). The usage is meant to indicate that companionship awaits those who believe (men and women) in their attainment of Paradise – not that each man will get multiple wives.
Paradise offers a standard at an even higher level: the perspective of Allah. From this perspective, the greatest importance of Paradise is attaining peace, ending all want, transcending all earthly limitations and finally coming into the company of Allah. These highest pleasures are the same for female inhabitants of Paradise as for males. With regard to the eternal, both woman and man are equal in their potential to experience this highest transcendence. When Qur’an offers fulfillment of desire in Paradise, what is most important will be closeness to Allah.
So the Paradise is described to the Muslim subconscious: whatever pleasure you like, such will await you in Paradise – if you restrain yourself from overindulgence, misuse and abuse here on earth. For the Arab patriarch, the primary audience of the Makkan period, it might be young virgin woman with white skin and large dark eyes. However, the Qur’an’s descriptions of the companions of Paradise must be viewed on the basis of its entire teachings, social and moral.
Equality Before God
The Qur’an depicts human individuals as having inherently equal value by looking at three stages in human existence. First, in the creation of humans, the Qur’an emphasizes the single origin of all humankind. “He created you from a single soul.” (4:2) Second, with regard to development here on earth, the Qur’an emphasizes that the potential for change, growth and development lies within the nafs of the individual (or the group) as well. “Allah does not change the condition of a folk until they (first) change what is in their anfus (plural of nafs).” (13:12) Finally, all human activity is given recompense on the basis of what the individual earns. (4:125)
The Qur’an does make distinctions between people. The value of the distinctions between humankind on earth can be clearly summed up by the Qur’anic statement in sura Al-Hujarat:
We created you from male and female and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed the most noble of you from Allah’s perspective is whoever has the most taqwa. (Al Qur’an 49:14)
It is clear that the Qur’an does not assign a higher value to a human based upon gender. They are both considered partners (Zawj) of each other and a source of comfort for each other:
And the believers, men and women, are friends of one another. They preach virtue and discourage evil. They observe salat, pay zakat and obey Allah and His Messenger. It is these upon whom Allah will have mercy. (Al Qur’an 9:71)
Surely, men who submit themselves to God and women who submit themselves to Him, and believing men and believing women, and obedient men and obedient women and truthful men and truthful women, and men steadfast in their faith and steadfast women, and men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their chastity and women who guard their chastity, and men who remember Allah much and women who remember Him — Allah has prepared for all of them forgiveness and a great reward. (Al Qur’an 3:36)
[i] Honor Lost: Love and Death in Modern Day Jordan.
[ii] The biological roots of heat-of-passion crimes and honor killings.