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The Origins of Humankind

Wadud commences her exegesis by revisiting the Creation Story. Due to a lack of detailed discussion in the Qur’an with regard to the creation of Adam and Eve, she notes, early commentators drew extensively upon biblical accounts.[1] As a result, the distinctly biblical notion of Eve as being created from Adam’s rib became mainstreamed in Islamic thought. The precise passage, found in the Book of Genesis, reads:

So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’[2] (Genesis 2:21-3)

Women’s gender egalitarian readings have shown how the hadith literature, which was heavily influenced by biblical lore, acted as an important literary medium through which such ideas entered Qur’anic exegesis, for it was common practice for exegetes to refer to hadith reports while interpreting the text. The Pakistani scholar Riffat Hassan gives the following hadith report, narrated by the controversial companion Abu Hurayra, as an example of the striking convergence between the hadith and the Bible on the origins of woman:

Treat women nicely, for a woman is created from a rib, and the most curved portion of the rib is its upper portion, so if you should try to straighten it, it will break, but if you leave it as it is, it will remain crooked. So treat women nicely.[3]

It is important to note, moreover, that Qur’anic commentators were well aware that such hadith reports drew upon biblical accounts. For instance, the great exegete Abu Ja‘far al-Tabari (d. 923) openly acknowledged in his hadith-based commentary of the Qur’an that such accounts had been ‘learned from the people of the Torah’, adding that ‘God knows best’ (wallahu ’a‘lam) regarding the reliability of these accounts.[4]

After pointing out the lack of any Quranic basis behind this idea of woman as being created from man’s rib—that is, highlighting what the text does not say—Wadud discusses the Qur’an’s portrayal of the origins of humankind. Paralleling the earlier work of Hassan,86 she underlines that in the Qur’an woman and man were created from a ‘single soul’. The verse reads:

O humankind, be conscious of your Sustainer, who has created you from a single soul (nafsin wahidatin), and from it created its mate (zawjaha), and from the two of them dispersed men and women in multitudes.87 (Q. 4:1)

There is clearly no mention here of woman being created from the flesh, or even soul, of man. In fact, in a strictly grammatical sense, notes Wadud, the feminine was created first and it is the masculine that is derived, for the Arabic word for soul (nafs) is a feminine noun while that of mate (zawj) is a masculine one.88 But conceptually speaking, she clarifies, this verse moves beyond gender distinctions,89 thereby establishing the ontological equality of women and men. Reflecting upon this verse, as well as others like Q. 51:49—‘And of all things We have created pairs (zawjayn), perhaps you will then reflect’—she concludes that duality is a defining feature of the creation,90 with each partner existing in a symbiotic relationship of harmony with the other.

In addition to rereading the Creation Story, Wadud critically analyses the Events of the Garden. Just as Qur’anic commentators were deeply influenced by biblical accounts (or what are referred to as the isra’iliyat literature in Islamic scholarship) when it came to explaining the origins of humankind so, too, were they informed by this earlier literature while interpreting Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve. According to the Old Testament, Satan first whispered into interesting to note here that the Arabic name used by Muslims to refer to Eve— Hawwa’—is also drawn from the hadith literature and not found anywhere in the Qur’an. Indeed, as the following hadith excerpt from Tabari’s commentary shows, the name Hawwa’ is itself based on the entrenched idea of woman as being created from man’s rib: ‘The angels said: Why was she named Hawwa ’? He [Adam] said: Because she was created from a living (hayy) thing.’ See ibid, 29.

  • 86 Hassan, ‘An Islamic Perspective’, 98.
  • 87 The origins of humankind are also described, as Wadud notes, in Q. 7:189, 6:98, and 39:6.
  • 88 Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 19-20.
  • 89 Ibid. 90 Ibid, 20-1.

the ear of Eve, who then, enticed by his words, approached Adam. The biblical account, found in Genesis 3:1-7, reads:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?”’ And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.”’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will surely not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

Indeed, by the time of al-Tabari in the tenth century, the majority of Muslim scholars believed that it was through the inherent weakness of Eve that Satan was successfully able to tempt Adam.[5] In stark contrast to the biblical account, Wadud points out that the Qur’an does not blame the woman, as it uses the Arabic dual form when describing Satan’s temptation.[6] Q. 7:20-2 is a compelling case in point:

But Satan whispered to both of them, in order to reveal their hidden parts of which they were not aware (till then), and said: ‘Your Sustainer has forbidden you to go near this tree lest you become angels or immortal.’ Then he swore to both of them an oath: ‘I am your sincere friend;’ And led them both (to the tree) by deceit. When they both tasted the tree their disgrace became exposed to them, and they patched the leaves of the Garden to hide it. And the Sustainer said to both of them: ‘Did I not forbid you this tree and tell you that Satan is your open enemy?’

It is important to note here that Wadud is not the first Muslim scholar to offer such a gender-sensitive reading of this fateful event. Hassan has also underlined the Qur’an’s usage of the Arabic dual form, thereby showing that what transpired in the Garden was a collective act of disobedience in which Adam and Eve were equally responsible.93

Furthermore, not only is the woman never singled out in the Qur’an’s treatment of the narrative, but, Wadud observes (paralleling Hassan again),[7] in the sole exception to the text’s usage of the Arabic dual form it is the pronoun ‘him’ that is employed.[8] The passage, which we have already discussed in the preceding chapter on Engineer who reinterpreted it through the lens of economic justice, reads:

Certainly We had enjoined Adam earlier; but he forgot, and We did not find resoluteness in him. When We said to the angels, ‘Prostrate before Adam,’ they prostrated, except Iblis [Satan]: he refused. We said, ‘O Adam! This is indeed an enemy of yours and your mate’s. So do not let him expel you from Paradise, or you will be miserable. Indeed you will neither be hungry in it nor naked. Indeed you will neither be thirsty in it nor suffer from the sun.’ Then Satan tempted him [fawaswasa ilayhi al- shaytanu]. He said, ‘O Adam! Shall I show you the tree of immortality, and an imperishable kingdom?’ So they both ate of it, and their nakedness became exposed to them, and they began to stitch over themselves with the leaves of paradise. Adam disobeyed his Sustainer, and went amiss. (Q. 20:115-21)

Yet how can this account that clearly blames Adam—‘Then Satan tempted him’—be reconciled with other Qur’anic verses that use the dual form exclusively? Wadud explains this inconsistency by placing this passage in its wider, textual context. In particular, she looks at the verse that immediately precedes it (Q. 20:114), which reads: ‘So exalted is God, the True Sovereign. Do not hasten [O Muhammad] with the Qur’an before its revelation is completed to you, and say, “My Sustainer! Increase me in knowledge.”’ Fearing that he would forget the Qur’anic revelations relayed to him by Gabriel, Prophet Muhammad was hastily repeating the revelations in order to memorize them. A prime function of this specific retelling of the Garden story, comments Wadud, is thus to illustrate to the Prophet that it is Satan who instils forgetfulness in humankind, as exemplified by Adam forgetting to stay away from the forbidden tree.[9] The implication being made here is that the Prophet need not worry about forgetting the revelations, for God will ensure that the Prophet memorizes the entire scripture.[10]

  • [1] Ibid, 20.
  • [2] In this book, all translations of biblical passages have been taken from HolyBible: English Standard Version, Anglicized Edition (London: Collins, 2007).
  • [3] As cited in Hassan, ‘An Islamic Perspective’, in Women, Religion and Sexuality:Studies on the Impact of Religious Teachings on Women, ed. Jeanne Becher (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990), 102.
  • [4] Abu Ja‘far al-Tabari, as cited in Barbara F. Stowasser, Women in the Qur’an,Traditions, and Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 28. It is
  • [5] Stowasser, 29. 2 Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 25.
  • [6] 93 Hassan, ‘An Islamic Perspective’, 104.
  • [7] Ibid. 2 Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 25. 3 Ibid.
  • [8] 97 This interpretive conclusion is corroborated further by Q. 75:16-19, which
  • [9] reassures the Prophet that, through divine assistance, he will indeed be able to
  • [10] memorize the Word correctly.
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