To Muslims, the Qur’an is the eternal word of God. It is not only referred to for spiritual fulfillment, but it contains guidance for their daily lives. It descended on Prophet Muhammad through the archangel Gabriel, and then it was transmitted through groups after groups of early companions and those who followed them. The word of God was memorized, word for word, by many of the companions, and it was then communicated, generation after generation, by oral transmission. This was corroborated by a special group of early literate Muslims, who recorded the word of God as it descended on the Prophet. Those highly respected scribes are called kuttab alwahy (writers of the revelation). According to those multiple chains of transmissions, Muslims take the Qur’an as the intact word of God. The sayings and actions of Prophet Muhammad (called hadeeth) are also considered to be part of the religious “text.” While hadeeth does not have the same sacredness as the Qur’an, the implications thereof are almost the same. The challenge is that while all Muslims accept the Qur’an as is, there is much controversy over the hadeeth corpus. Islamic sects differ as to which body of
hadeeth is rightfully attributed to the Prophet or not. Muslims do not dispute the authenticity of the Qur’an, though they tend to differ in the interpretation of some of its verses, including the verses that pertain to male-female dynamics and the Muslim woman’s dress.
Most of the Qur’an is dedicated to discussions about matters of belief such as belief in the existence of one God and resurrection, in addition to stories and narratives about earlier prophets and nations. The Qur’an has more than 6000 verses. About 150-200 of those are related to what is called ahkam, which cover issues related to Muslim behavior and rituals. Among those, there are only a few verses that tackle male-female relations. The various old and contemporary discourses on females and their roles in society had been mostly based on how different Muslim scholars interpret those verses. Muslims don’t disagree on what God said, but they sometimes disagree on what God meant. They don’t disagree on the text; they sometimes disagree on the implications of such a text.
Specifically, in assessing any text in relation to how women are positioned, few questions have to be settled:
- 1. Is the text related to a specific reason (sababi) or has it descended as a general text or guidance not related to an incident (ibtida’i)?2 Most of the Qur’an is ibtida’i yet some relevant verses, especially in relation to male-female dynamics, were descended for a reason. The reason could be an incident that happened to the early members of the Muslim community or an answer to a specific question raised by the companions of the Prophet. The significance of this distinction is that understanding whether the text is sababi or ibtida’i helps in understanding its “intended” meaning.
- 2. Are the implications of certain verses within the text specific to a designated group of people when these were revealed, or do they have a universal application transcending time and place? This is an issue in Qur’anic exegesis, tafseer, which is related to two concepts: the universality of the meaning (umumul-lafz) versus the specificity of the reason of revelation (khususu-sabab). Some scholars of Qur’an exegesis note that sometimes the text is revealed for a specific reason, but its implications apply to all. When other scholars disagree about the general application of a verse, this will be the start of a long debate. This has exactly been happening for centuries around the interpretation of some Qur’anic verses. Controversies emerged about whether those verses implicate only the people involved at the time, or do they involve all Muslims “till the Last Hour”? This applies, as will be discussed later, to some verses where disputes emerged about their specific applicability to the wives of the Prophet versus their universal application to all Muslim women.
- 3. Do the initial implications of the text still hold or have those been abrogated? Because of the gradual nature of some of the Islamic instructions, the Qur’an contains certain orders that replace earlier injunctions. For example, intoxicants—forbidden in Islam—were only made unlawful in a gradual manner. At an earlier stage, Muslims were instructed through a verse in the Qur’an not to pray while drunk. This was abrogated later by another rule that completely prohibited drinking intoxicants. Knowing about the timings of each verse, and whether one ruling abrogates another one, is a delicate science within Islamic law. It requires deep knowledge, not only of the text, but also of the context within which it was revealed to the Prophet. This has significance to the issue of women’s dress. The requirement for believing women to put on the veil occurred on the fifth year of the Islamic calendar. Any text that has a different requirement before that time would have been abrogated.3 Putting a date on a certain incident to have happened (such as a male-female social interaction), or a certain ruling to have been issued, before the fifth year, would lead to a different conclusion compared to the case if the incident or ruling is dated after the fifth year.
As scholars assess the few verses dedicated to male and female interactions in light of the above questions, disagreements emerge. Some understandings of certain Qur’anic verses would make all of the work scenarios— mentioned earlier in this chapter—inconceivable from an Islamic perspective. But what are those verses exactly? I am going to go over those verses here, not to offer a personal comprehension but rather to present examples of the thorny issues revolving around the text. This aims at facilitating the comprehension of the implications of each verse on male-female interactions and eventually whether and how this impacts female participation.