Friday, 20 March 2009

A Cyber-discussion on Gender Equality

Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq

Cyberspace is becoming a dominant player in modern communication. Muslims are also having their shares through Islam-related newsgroups such as soc.religion.islam or alt.religion.islam. One special importance of Cyberspace is that ordinary people can bring their dish of ideas and opinions to the feast of communication involving a global community of readership. On Cyberspace, just as right ideas about Islam can be made available in the form of Da'wah to a vast number of people, it is also important to recognize that our biases, prejudices, and misinterpretations can also reach the same people instantly.

The case in point is an interesting posting that recently I came across on an Internet by a Muslim author on "Does Qur'an State Men are Superior to Women?". He basically quoted a verse [4: an-Nisa'a: 34], an often quoted one, using translation and commentary of one of the leading Muslim personalities of this century, Sayyid Abul A'la Maudoodi. The author seems to affirm the title of his posting, which is a common view, deeply rooted in Muslim culture and tradition. Realizing that an interpretive bias of some is being attributed to Qur'an, I decided to engage in a dialogue. The author's view supported by the commentary of a noted scholar is the traditional view, but - putting modestly - can be quite contrary to the Islamic vision contained in the Qur'an.

I responded to the posting by stating a categorical and definitive Qur'anic position, the scope of which is general, and covers gender too. "O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (the person who is) the most Allah-conscious. And Allah has full knowledge and is well-acquainted (with all things)." [49: al-Hujurat: 13]

Thus, Taqwa (Allah- consciousness) is the only Islamic criteria of superiority. The author basically added the commentary of Maulana Maudoodi on the verse [4: an-Nisa'a: 34] in The Meaning of the Qur'an (Tafhimul Qur'an). Assuming that the quotation from the commentary indicated the author's concurrence with the commentary, it was an unfortunate posting.
Maulana Maudoodi's commentary says: "Men are superior to women ... not in the sense that they are above them in honor and excellence..."1 But, if honor and excellence are excluded from the scope of "superiority," what exactly is the meaning and basis of superiority then?

Like many other commentators, the Arabic word "faddala" has been translated in the quoted commentary as "superior." There are other notable translators and/or commentators who never employed the word "superior" or anything close to it in their translations. For example, A. Yusuf Ali translated the same verse as: "Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more (strength) than the other ...." T.B. Irving, et al. in The Qur'an: Basic Teachings, Fathi Osman in Muslim Women in the Family and many others have not translated the verse in terms of "superiority." Their translation shows no sense of superiority of men over women, which is also consistent with the verse [49: al-Hujurat: 13 quoted earlier]. This led to a discussion on whether the word "faddala" is a neutral word or does it necessarily imply superiority?

In addition to the verse [4: an-Nisa'a: 34], there are three more places in the Qur'an in which exactly the word "faddala" has been used. Variation of this word, such as "faddaltukum," "faddalkum," "faddalna," has been used in many other places in the Qur'an.

In [4: an-Nisa'a: 32]: "And in no wise covet those things in which God has bestowed His gifts more freely on some of you than on others: to men is allotted what they earn, and to women what they earn: But ask God of His bounty, for God has full knowledge of all things." In this verse, bestowing His gifts "more freely" does not imply any superiority. Unless, we accept such implication that those who are rich are superior to those who are poor. Indeed, Allah very clearly points out that what men and women will get is based on what they earn. They should not be judging themselves in comparison to others as to who has "superior" provisions. Such would be a perversion of the very fundamental precepts of Islam, indeed.

In [4: an-Nisa'a: 95]: "Not equal are those believers who sit (at home) and receive no hurt, and those who strive and fight in the cause of God with their goods and their persons. God has granted a grade higher to those who strive and fight with goods and persons than to those who sit (at home): to all (in faith) has God promised good: but those who strive and fight has He distinguished above those who sit (at home) by a special reward." In this verse, a sense of superiority is implied by the word "faddala," but not on the basis of any "inherent distinction". Rather it is an "earned" distinction. Also noticeable is that "ba'dukum ala ba'd" (one over the other) clause is absent in this verse.

Lastly, in [16: an-Nahl: 71]: "God has bestowed His gifts of sustenance more freely on some of you than on others: those more favored are not going to throw back their gifts to those whom their right hands possess, so as to be equal in that respect. Will they then deny the favors of God?" Once again, unless we accept the implication that the rich are better than or "superior" to the poor, one needs to treat the word "faddala" in a neutral sense. Allah has not created men as "superior" to women! Translating the verse [4: an-Nisa'a: 34] with "superiority" simply indicates a person's interpretive bias. It should not be attributed to the Qur'an either, as it is a gross injustice to the Qur'an.

The author's posting involves a clear case of inconsistency that is simply a carryover from Maulana Maudoodi's translation and commentary. A verse in the Qur'an can be broadened or narrowed in scope by another verse in the Qur'an. That is why in translating the verse [4: an-Nisa'a: 34], one observes the phrase "beat them lightly." The word "lightly" is not implied by this verse itself. This limitation of meaning on "fadriboohoonna" is based on other verses in the Qur'an and authentic narrations from the Prophet. Otherwise, literal translation would be not "beat them lightly," but "beat them." But any knowledgeable Muslim would agree that Qur'anic interpretation should be based on the totality of the Qur'an and in light of the authenticated Prophetic narrations. [Note: In reality, the word "beating" is a complete misapplication. Rather, the sense in which "beating" is understood is not PERMISSIBLE in Islam at all. See my articles (Hostage Islam series), No wife-beating in Islam, Part I-IV]

There are other verses such as [24: an-Noor: 6-10] and [9: at-Tauba: 71] that delimit [4: an-Nisa'a: 34]. Both Surah an-Noor and at-Tauba contain verses that were revealed later than the ones revealed in Surah an-Nisa'a. The verses [24: an-Noor: 6-10] deal with spousal charge of infidelity and it contains no provision for "beating" - light or otherwise. The verse [9: at-Tauba: 71] describes the Islamic norm of gender relationship that they are Awliya (patron, guardian, protector) of "each other". Is this is not a case of the common inconsistency? The author used the word "lightly" drawing on other verses and the prophetic narrations. When it came to the common, traditional misperception of superiority, he used the verse [4: an-Nisa'a: 34] alone without regard to other verses.

Now a note on Maulana Maudoodi's views and Qur'anic commentary. He was an independent, path-breaking, trail-blazing revivalist Islamic thinker. Yet, there are some areas in which he has proven himself to be more conservative than most others. Gender issues would be among those areas. The author must have read his commentary on the verse [49: al-Hujurat: 13] in Maulana Maudoodi's The Meaning of the Qur'an. Completely discounting birth-related distinctions, Maulana Maudoodi commented on that verse: "... In that (Islamic) society there is no distinction based on color, race, language, or nationality. ..."

One should be impressed by Maulana Maudoodi's articulation of the sweeping implication of the verse that destroyed the foundation of any other concept of superiority. However, is it not proper to include gender in that list too? Once again, unless we are willing to accept the implication that this Qur'anic declaration - Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (the person who is) the most Allah-conscious. - applies to males only, it is only Islamic that Maulana Maudoodi's comment should have read, inclusive of gender, as following: "... In that society there is no distinction based on color, race, language, nationality or gender. ..."
Muslims, similar to the position of Maulana Maudoodi, routinely take the position that Islam does not recognize any unfair distinction based on color, race, language, or nationality. Unfortunately, however, even in this age of gender consciousness, we are failing to present Islam in consonance with the full scope of the Qur'anic vision and the Prophetic heritage. In this age of global communication through Cyberspace, our articulation of Islamic viewpoints has to be more careful.


1. Mawdudi , S. A. A. (1992). The Meaning of the Qur?an (Markazi Maktaba Islami, Delhi, India), Vol. I, p. 325, n#57. A newer translation of Mawdudi? s same work by Islamic Foundation (Leicester, England) has a more nuanced rendition

[The author is an associate professor of economics and finance at the Upper Iowa University. This article was previously published in the Monthly Minaret, January 1996.]

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