by Zafar Bangash
The four surahs that follow the introductory chapter of the majestic Qur’an, Surah al-Fatihah, were mostly revealed in Madinah. While the Qur’an is not arranged in the chronological order of the ayat as they were revealed over a 23-year period, these four surahs happen to have been revealed basically in sequence. Thus, Surah al-Baqarah’s period of revelation is believed to be in the first year of the Hijrah (the prophet’s (SAW) migration from Makkah to Madinah) although some of its ayat were revealed later, all the way up to the end of the prophetic mission. The other three surahs — Al ‘Imran, al-Nisa’, and al-Ma’idah — were revealed in the ensuing years.
It should be noted that Qur’anic revelations occurred during charged moments in Islamic history, often to provide direction for challenging circumstances and issues that were unfolding on the ground in accordance with a divine program for social cohesion, harmony, justice, upliftment, and fulfilment. The Qur’anic principles were the theme, the Arabian society was the set, the early Muslims and their adversaries were the actors, the prophet (SAW) was the main protagonist, and Allah (SWT), as the Creator, was providing His loving care and direction. This was especially the case for the final 10 years of the Muhammadi mission in Madinah when the nascent Islamic community was involved in supplanting jahili institutions and governance with divine prescripts that would establish and consolidate the prototypical Islamic state.
Readers who have kept abreast of Imam Muhammad al-‘Asi’s tafsir, The Ascendant Qur’an: Realigning Man to the Divine Power Culture, would know that the first five volumes consisted of explanations leading to the end of Surah Al ‘Imran.1 The sixth volume begins with elaborating the meanings of Surah al-Nisa’, the fourth surah of the noble Book. The title of this surah, meaning women, in and of itself sheds light on the surah’s core subject matter, although it is important to note that the longer surahs of the Qur’an deal with diverse subjects, not necessarily concentrating exclusively on the particular theme associated with the title. The only exception to this general rule is Surah Yusuf, which devotes the entirety of its contents to one subject: the life history of prophet Yusuf (AS).
If it was asserted that the first 35 ayat of this surah primarily focus on matters relating to the affairs of women, it would not be too far off the mark, especially in view of the fact that a large domain of Islamic historical scholarship sustains that point very well. However the obviousness of this assertion obscures, or perhaps camouflages, a more important social consideration, one that places the rights and responsibilities of women within the broader social context of families. More precisely, the first part of Surah al-Nisa’ addresses the need for stabilizing and maintaining healthy family structures, and integrating all members of society — orphans, widows, refugees, the landless and homeless— into them. And it is within this context that women occupy a central position. outside the bounds of this context is where the rights of women are violated and their responsibilities often subsumed into a highly agendized, male-dominated quest for temporal power. roles without context often lead to unsustainable platitudes, many of which are exploited by historical power structures in a bid to justify and perpetuate their illegitimate position of dominance. Women are as essential to family and community as men are to finance and security; and without the mutual cooperation of male and female within marriage and family units according to Allah’s (SWT) ground rules, society will have neither community, nor security. or these considerations, the preservation of family is specifically emphasized in this surah and indeed in some other surahs of this glorious Qur’an. A stable family is the bedrock of society: destroy the family and disintegration of the society will automatically follow. Muslims are commanded to maintain family contacts. severing these contacts is a violation of Allah’s (SWT) commands and would incur divine retribution.
Muslim men are required to secure the financial, legal, and moral rights of the members of an Islamic society, for without the protection of such rights, these members of society will not be able to discharge their unique responsibilities, thereby damaging the society as a whole. In this vein, with their rights protected, Muslim women have the responsibility to build community. To be sure, there is plenty of overlap between these two roles for male and female, as well there should be; but in this regard, it must be emphasized that no reading of the Qur’an and sunnah ever placed the imperative of maintaining security above that of building community or vice versa. To qualify the underlying importance of this point, Allah (SWT) begins Surah al-Nisa’ by affirming the absolute equality of men and women,
O People! Avoid your Sustainer [and His ], who has created you out of one living organism/spirit, and out of it created its mate, and out of the two spread abroad a multitude of men and women. And remain guarded of Allah, in whose name you demand [your rights] from one another, and of these ties of kinship. Verily, Allah is ever watchful over you! (4:1).
With such an introduction, how is it possible for some people to read the succeeding ayat and then conclude that Islam is unfair to women and agnostic to their intrinsic rights? This ayah is placed first precisely to forestall such an assumption. As we consider the contents of this surah, we need to keep in mind the socio-political milieu that prevailed in Madinah at the time these ayat were revealed. Two distinct features can be identified. firstly, the noble Messenger (SAW) and his small but growing group of followers, as they set out to supplant jahili-based practices with divinely ordained laws, faced a challenge from entrenched vested interests — the Arabian mushriks, the Jewish tribes residing in Madinah, and the munafiqs, a group of fifth columnists within the ranks of Muslims who were not present in Makkah. Barring a few exceptions such as ‘Abdullah ibn Salam, a respected rabbi who accepted Islam once he heard its message, the opposition of the Jewish tribes was both surprising and distressing to the noble Messenger of Allah (SAW). After all, these were people of previous scripture (Ahl al-Kitab) who apparently yielded to the one God. unfortunately, while they understood, and in private admitted, the divine origin of the message, their prejudices based on tribal and parochial interests and the racist thought of being made equal to the previously unscriptured Arabs prevented them from giving their unqualified allegiance to the final Messenger (SAW). secondly, the scope of the Muhammadi Islamic mission was global, and thus the first Muslims were required to deliver the message of Islam to all the people whether they resided in Madinah or outside it, especially the tribes residing to the west and north of the oasis town.
Initial instructions on how to organize society were described at length in Surah al-Baqarah. In the years following that time period, the Islamic society and state in Madinah had “grown into” carrying the Covenant and thus the early Muslims were now prepared to receive more refined and specific rules. Many of these are contained in this surah. When we study Surah al-Nisa’, we find that it provides guidance regarding an array of subjects, the vast majority of which are bound together by the common thread of family obligations and family priorities. Thus it includes Islamic injunctions for organizing society around family foundations insofar as they concern the appropriateness of potential spouses, the conduct of men toward women and vice versa, the rights of orphans, and strict prohibitions on the usurpation of such rights. similarly along the same lines, laws of inheritance, rules regarding resolution of family disputes, the complete prohibition on consumption of alcohol, and the initial punishment for adultery (which was later modified when the ayat of Surah al-Nur were revealed) are promulgated in this surah. The value of this Islamic societal discipline is sustained by examples of the consequences of covenant abandonment by earlier recipients of the divine message, in particular the Jews and their chronic recalcitrance against Allah (SWT) and His prophets (AS).
In this volume — the sixth so far in this multi-volume tafsir— Imam al-‘Asi deals with only the first 35 ayat out of the 177 that comprise the entire surah. Given the importance of family matters, marriage, the treatment of orphans, and laws of inheritance, he felt it was important to deal with this set in a comprehensive manner. The question of marriage and the misunderstandings that have arisen (or have been fomented) around the permission to marry up to four wives have been analyzed within the context of nurturing healthy families, so as to dispel all doubts in the minds of any people who sincerely wish to look at the Qur’an free of any orientalist or Islamophobic bias. Those that insist on seeing the Islamic message through their blinkers of prejudice are described as “…deaf, dumb, and blind” by none other than Allah (SWT) Himself, the lord and sustainer of all the worlds. The sexual and moral anarchy that has gripped Western society can be attributed in part to the hypocrisy of the one-man/one-wife “standard” that relegates unattached women to a life of exploitable victimhood (prostitutes, concubines, mistresses, spinsters, low-paid employees, etc.) reserved almost strictly for the carnal excitement of the worldwide sex industry while their emotional and financial needs are rationalized away by the destruction of marriage as a social and moral institution.
True, the permission granted by Allah (SWT) to maintain up to four wives has been uncharitably and opportunistically exploited by not only the detractors of Islam, but also the type of “Muslim” who looks for a Qur’anic sanction to rubber-stamp his own inability to discipline his sex drive. The ayat referring to this license are clearly conditional on the breakdown of societal institutions that would otherwise provide for the integration of orphaned children and their mothers into secure and stable family units. They have little or nothing to do with satiating a male sex addiction.
It is well-known that the Islamic effort to tame the passions and proclivities is intended in part to open the Muslim’s eyes to social imbalance, social inequality, and social injustice; that is, a personal program of self-discipline enhanced by devotional activities is supposed to translate into a social program of transformational change that facilitates the permeation of justice and mercy in all aspects of public life. To suggest that sexual discipline is exempted from this program is inanity, because of all the various appetites, it is sexual gratification that is fundamentally social (one generally cannot have sex with himself), and thus sexual activity must be governed by a social discipline that is both means and end. personal sexual gratification comes with social responsibilities, both of which are circumscribed and defined by Allah (SWT). Those who are acquainted with the safety and security of a family shaped as it is by the emotional affinities, the deeply compassionate feelings, and the sexual bonds of husband and wife are required to take note of those in their society who do not enjoy the same privileges and to extend the family circle to include them if the financial wherewithal is available. Thus to extend this line of thinking and to spell it out clearly, four wives can only be managed — with fairness and justice toward each co-wife— by a husband who is sexually and financially disciplined, not one who is looking for a marketplace to let his passions run wild. And for those who are not capable in this area, then the Qur’an counsels only one.
It is common knowledge that there are always more women in society than men, a condition that is exacerbated by war, where men die in battle leaving behind widows. should such women with orphaned children be left to their own means with no societal provision to assimilate them into caring and comforting families? Regrettably, even Muslims today, who have generally failed to socialize Qur’anic imperatives into their public and collective lives, are guilty of abandoning widowed and divorced women. Designating such women as “single mothers” does not address their emotional, psychological, financial, or sexual needs.
Historically, the role of women in society has been a contentious issue; it is no less so today. What is, however, astonishing is that despite clear divine guidance and the respectable status accorded to women by Islam, even some Muslims continue to indulge in ignorant practices that have more to do with regional cultural mores than divine guidance. This is most strikingly evident in the Arabian peninsula (erroneously, and in defiance of the prophet’s (SAW) sunnah, referred to as saudi Arabia), the very cradle of Islam, where women are permitted to ride on camels but not drive cars. If the proscription on driving were the only problem, one might look the other way, but saudi violations of Allah’s (SWT) commands are so extensive and so egregious that we are forced to conclude they have returned to the days of jahiliyah, even as the secular West is inching its way toward giving women better status in society as far as their civil rights are concerned.
The struggle for women’s rights in the West has a long and tortuous history. In the us, the right to vote was secured by women after World War I ended in 1918; even so, this was restricted to women over the age of 30. This is not surprising given that the us Declaration of Independence, drawn up on July 4, 1776 by representatives of the 13 colonies that formed the first American Union, did not recognize women as part of a legitimate constituency, in word or in spirit,
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.2
Women were excluded from the unalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” in the beginning, and they were clearly not deemed equal to men until as recently as 1918. further, not all men were included in the declaration. The slave population, which happened to be of African origin, men without landed property, and the occupied tribes of Native Americans were excluded from representation.
In Britain, women had to wait until 1929 while in Switzerland it was not until 1941 that women attained the right to vote. Interestingly, as recently as 1908, the Catholic Church was still debating whether women had a soul. Compare this with Islam not only affirming equal rights for women but also guaranteeing rights of inheritance and property ownership more than 1,400 years ago. And in the Islamic domain of human liberation there was and is no concept of a woman adopting her husband’s family name upon marriage, a tradition that has been carried into Western civilization from roman practice, in which a woman would become her husband’s property upon marriage lest we get carried away by the notion of women’s liberation, we would do well to keep in mind that behind this campaign there was an economic factor. following the end of World War II, which resulted in the slaughter of some 60 million people in Europe and Russia, the western economies had a hard time overcoming the shortage of manpower needed to run their factories. During the years when men served at the war fronts, women were mobilized to fill factory and assembly-line positions at home in Europe and North America. By the time the war ended, greedy industrialists and corporate bosses along with their functionaries in legislative assemblies recognized a way to sustain wartime profiteering even in peacetime: women could be mobilized as cheap labor for production, hence the coincidental emergence of the modern women’s liberation movement to get women out of the home and into the workplace. unfortunately, generations of Western women fell for this clever ruse, and now 50 years later, some of them have begun to realize that women’s liberation is not all that it was cracked up to be. It is also instructive to note that this period coincided with the greatest migration of people from the “Third World” to Europe and North America. The easing of immigration policies was not motivated by any higher moral calling; it was entirely for economic reasons. While it is true that workers from Third World countries earned better wages in the West than in their own countries, the opening of Western borders was not based on compassion or motivated by the desire to improve the lot of non-indigenous peoples. It was driven by the need to increase low-wage manpower so as to expand production and profits on the back of stagnant wages.
As our eternal guide, the Qur’an deals with all aspects of life. In His infinite wisdom and mercy, Allah (SWT) has provided us guidance so that we can order our lives according to His commands and in our own best interest. In providing such comprehensive commentary on these important issues affecting Muslim family life, Imam al-‘Asi has rendered a great service to the Ummah. It is one of the most outstanding commentaries on family life in Islam and would go down as one of the classics of all times. one volume addresses all the issues that linger in the minds of Muslims about notions of the supposed inequality of men and women in Islam, and that are used by Western liberalism to attack Islam as being inconsistent with providing a balanced and just social program for all human beings in the 21st century — a man being allowed to marry four women simultaneously, a man inheriting twice the amount a woman can qualify for, a man having the license to beat a woman, a man being superior to a woman, and a man’s testimony being equal to that of two women.
Muslims would do well to internalize these lessons in order to implement them in their individual as well as collective lives. This volume, as all the previous ones, has been ably edited by ‘Afif Khan, who in his inimitable style has added immense value to the understanding of this monumental tafsir of the noble Qur’an. finally, we would like to acknowledge the passion and commitment of the late Dr. Kalim Siddiqui in providing the impetus to initiate this project, which he did not survive to see completed. We invoke Allah’s (SWT) blessings and mercy upon his memory and those who have survived his passing. As we proceed further with engaging the divine message, understanding it, and implementing it in our lives, we would enrich our lives as well as make them more meaningful by bringing them closer to the divine command.
Director, Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Rabi‘ al-Awwal 6, 1433 AH (January 30, 2012 CE)
1. Muhammad H. al-‘Asi, The Ascendant Qur’an: Realigning Man to the Divine Power Culture, Volumes 1–6. (Toronto, Canada: Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought, 2008–2012).
2. US National Archives, The Charters of Freedom: A New World Is at Hand, (Washington, DC: Us National Archives website, 2012). http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html