Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

The Status of Women in Islam
According to the Qur’an

By Rev. Bassam M. Madany

On Sunday, October 12, 2008, an ex-Muslims website published an article with this title, “The Reasons for the Backwardness of Muslims (Asbab Takhallof al-Muslimeen)” It listed eight reasons for that “backwardness”.  Of particular interest was number seven,

“The Qur’an addressed the wives of the Prophet requiring them to remain in their homes and not to adorn themselves like the women of the Jahilyya (pre-Islamic era.) The legal authorities interpreted this specific command as normative for all Muslim women. This led to the weakening of Islamic societies, adding to their backwardness and poverty.”

Then on Friday, October 24, another article dealt with the following subject: Violence Against Women in the Qur’an as Exemplified in their Beating

In the above two articles the author is translating from and then commenting upon two articles written by Muslim intellectuals who, because of the freedom of the Internet, were able to express his radical views about Islam and its treatment of women without the fear of reprisal. (The original Arabic articles are found here: 1, 2). What follows are significant excerpts translated from the Arabic original of the second one of these articles:

“The Qur’an represents itself as the last Holy Book of a monotheistic religion, namely, Islam. The divine origin of the Qur’an --- according to the claim of Muslims --- implies that it should exhibit the highest levels of maturity, wholeness, and righteousness with respect to human relations in general, and to the relations between men and women, in particular.

“Now if Islam is the apex of the Divine revelations, and if Muhammad is the seal of the Messengers and Prophets of Allah, does the Qur’an actually manifest a level of maturity that would offer solutions to the problems between men and women within the context of marriage? And does the Message possess those conditions of acceptability in its original milieu, as well as for all time and all places? Or has its Message become a victim of various illegitimate and novel readings and interpretations that are totally at variance with Allah’s intentions?!!”

 “One of the clearest examples of the teachings of the Qur’an is the subject of “wife-beating” as it appears in Surat Al-Nisa’ (Women) verses 34, 35.

As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Marmaduke Pickthall’s Translation

As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all). Yusuf Ali’s Translation

“While the ‘Divine’ text appears very clear, Muslim receptors of the message have offered different and varied interpretations of this Ayat. Some agree with its obvious meaning, others try to minimize the intensity of the punishment by suggesting that some women would repent merely by being kept away from the conjugal bed. Others insist that some form of beating must take place. Both Sunni and Shi’ite exegetes have agreed that “beating” is clearly taught in the text, and is necessary to make women reasonable in their conduct. They only disagree as to the degree or kind of the ‘beating.’

“In the Old Testament we have very strict standards regarding sexual sins, such as in the Book of Leviticus 21: 9

“Also the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by harlotry, she profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.” New American Standard Bible (©1995)

“And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.” King James Bible

“Now when we come to the New Testament we notice a tremendous progress in the teachings regarding husband-wife relations, where we find a marked improvement in the status of women. We think, for example, of Jesus’ attitude towards a woman caught in adultery as related in the Gospel according to John 8:

3 And the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the midst, 4 they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 "Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?" 6 And they were saying this, testing Him, in order that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground. 7 But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, "He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."

“In the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 19, we read the following account:

3 The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? 4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, 5 And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? 6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.

“We may also refer to the Letter of Paul to the Church in the city of Ephesus, Chapter 5: verses 22-25, and notice the progress in husband-wife relations,

22 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. 24 Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. 25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.

“As we study the texts of the Jewish and Christian holy books, we find no clear reference to a physical punishment such as “beating” that should be inflicted on a wife. Now, it is true that the Old Testament books do relate severe punishments for misbehaving women, but when we come to the New Testament, we find that those punishments have totally disappeared.

“But as we come to the Qur’an, do we find a higher level of evolution and maturity in the laws that govern husband-wife relations? Not at all! In contrast, do we find the duty of “beating” a wife in the teachings of Jesus Christ, or of his disciples after him? On the contrary, we discover this teaching as related in Mathew 5:17 “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.”

“Had the Qur’an been a fulfillment of the previously-given “Heavenly Messages,” as the reasonable solutions to all of mankind’s problems, including the proper way of treating Muslims claim, it would have evidenced a higher degree of maturity, imparting final and reasonable solutions to all of mankind’s problems, including the proper way of treating women. Therefore, we may conclude that the Qur’anic discourse was actually a purely Muhammadan message destined to offer solutions to those contemporary conditions that existed in the days of the Prophet. They derived their understanding of their society from their cultural environment. Thus, they were normative for their own time and place.”

This article exposes the violent attitudes toward women reflected in the Qur’an.  It is good to find reformist Muslim intellectuals who are troubled by these attitudes.  They believe the lack of progress in their societies is reflected in the status of women and their mistreatment by the men in their lives all over the Muslim world.  And the main culprit is their own sacred text – the Qur’an.

The writer does not hesitate to refer to the Chapter on Women (#4) in the Qur’an that allows a husband to inflict bodily discipline on his wife when she disobeys him, or merely gives the impression that she does not want to do his bidding.

But even more surprising is when a Muslim refers positively to the previously revealed Scriptures of the Jews and Christians and their teachings about husband-wife relations. The writer evidently believes in the progression of truth claiming there was “progress” from the teachings of the Old Testament to those of the New Testament regarding the status and treatment of women.  This was especially true for those who sinned against the moral law.  The author stressed that there is no trace of such “progress” in the Qur’an. On the contrary, the Islamic sacred book manifests a serious regression in this area.

One needs to realize how Muslims think of their Qur’an.  They consider its authority final and its existence eternal!  So when this author penned his shocking criticism of a supposedly eternal book in Arabic on a Kuwaiti website he was being very brave.  Granted, the website is dedicated to the Reformation of Islam, but one wonders how long such ideas as his will be tolerated, even on a reformist Islamic website with worldwide exposure!

Moreover, it is a pleasant surprise to note the author’s general acquaintance with the Bible.  He quotes from both the Old and New Testament..  He noted the Pauline injunction Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” (Ephesians 5:25)  No doubt this text was purposely used to counter the Qur’an’s abusive stance toward women.  Whether the author understands the deeper theological content behind this passage is unknown.  We understand that the passage reminds Christian husbands to model their love for their wives as Christ in his death “gave himself” for the church.  One can only hope and pray that the writer understood Paul’s words as referring to our Lord’s redemptive and sacrificial love.  Yet the importance of this reference cannot be underestimated.

It is my hope that with the impact of the Internet on the Arab-Muslim world, more of its people will realize the higher and nobler standards of the Gospel that govern husband-wife relations. And not only that, but my prayer is that thinking Muslims would understand that the ethical standards of the Christian faith are firmly grounded in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross, rose again on the third day, is coming at the end of time to judge the living and death, and to inaugurate the eternal Kingdom of God.