Polygamy, Veiling, and Seclusion
Indeed, by using hermeneutical tools like textual analysis and historical criticism, Wadud is able to make a convincing case against polygamous readings of the Qur’an. Most Muslims believe that polygamy—or, to be more precise: polygyny, in which only men have more than one partner—is upheld in Islam, arguing that the Qur’an allows men to take up to four wives. Challenging this argument, Wadud writes that we need to examine the exact wording of the Qur’anic text with regard to this practice. The polygamy verse, in its entirety, reads:
If you fear that you will not deal justly with the orphans, then marry women that you like, two, three, or four. But if you fear that you will not be able to deal justly with them, then only one, or what your right hands possess. That makes it likelier that you will not be unjust. (Q. 4:3)
Far from being an open license for polygamy, she comments, this passage deals with a specific social crisis that emerged in the early Muslim community, in particular that of the unjust treatment of orphans—a historical context evidenced further by the Qur’anic verse immediately preceding this one, which warns male guardians of orphans not to mismanage their wealth and mix it with their own. The verse reads:
Give the orphans their property, and do not replace the good with the bad, and do not eat up their property (by mingling it) with your own property, for that is indeed a grievous crime. (Q. 4:2)
A practical solution that the Qur’an put forth, then, to counter such exploitation was that of marriage to female orphans who had come of age, thereby protecting them through the legal responsibilities that came packaged with the institution of marriage. Yet what historical circumstances led to this mismanagement of orphans’ wealth? While Wadud does not engage this question, the Islamic historian Amira Sonbol has pointed out that the Chapter of Women (Surat al-Nisa’)— the Qur’anic chapter in which Q. 4:3 is located—was revealed shortly after the Muslim defeat at the Battle of Uhud (625), and this explains the large number of orphans and widows.
In addition to pointing out that Q. 4:3 speaks to a particular context, Wadud underscores a key condition that Q. 4:3 lays down for polygamous relationships: specifically, that such an arrangement is only possible if the husband is able to deal justly with all his wives. The Qur’an reiterates the centrality of just conduct, observes Wadud, in a later verse in the same chapter, which reads: ‘You will not be able to treat your wives with justice’ (Q. 4:129)—a statement that has led numerous commentators to conclude that monogamy is, in fact, the preferred form of marriage. And it is precisely because the text has this overwhelming emphasis on justice that the absence of this condition in the lived experiences of women in polygamous relationships today ought to constitute sufficient grounds for the abolition of this practice. As Wadud put it in our interview:
Now what we need are specialists in social work who can provide evidence of the full effects of polygamy and they are, you know, interviewing children, men and women... and they are showing, this is the result. So if the Qur’an uses the term justice three times in the verse on polygamy, and then you show that obviously there is a travesty of justice in the experience, whatever it was that the Qur’an intended and however it may have been practiced at the time of the Prophet, what we are seeing now is the injustice of it.
Furthermore, she continues, contemporary Muslims have rightly criticized and abandoned the practice of slavery—an institution that is never explicitly prohibited in the Qur’an, though the text does emphasize the just treatment of slaves and their freeing as a form of atonement for specific sins. So if today Muslims, without much hesitation, are able to condemn slavery on the basis of it being an affront to human dignity and without any Qur’anic mandate, then why not oppressive practices against women like polygamy?
Wadud also uses the Qur’an to critique such established Muslim practices as veiling and female seclusion. While she has chosen to observe the headscarf, she clarifies that she does ‘not consider it a religious obligation, nor ascribe to it any religious value per se.’ In fact, it was not questions of religion but rather race—specifically, as a Black woman living in a White supremacist society—that compelled her to don the veil, even before her conversion to the Muslim faith. To put it in her own words:
The actual impetus behind my dress was in contradistinction to the experiences of African slave women who were stripped of their garments of piety before the lecherous eyes of slave auctioneers and masters. In fact,
I covered my hair and wore long dresses before I accepted Islam.
Citing Q. 7:26—‘the best dress is the dress of taqwa [piety]’—Wadud argues that modesty cannot be reduced to mere physical attire, subject to the approval or disapproval of men and male-dominated communities, but rather is an ethical principle embodied in one’s relations with others. Indeed, such social practices as veiling and female seclusion were introduced into the early Muslim community, as the historian Leila Ahmed has shown in her pioneering study Women and Gender in Islam (1992), by Sassanian society, which was heavily segregated, as well as Christian communities in the Mediterranean and Middle East. In addition to foregrounding the Qur’anic text’s emphasis on modesty as a principle, Wadud highlights this historicity of the veil—that is, its emergence in a particular context in Muslim history—and how it initially symbolized protection, worn by women of wealth and power. With regard to female seclusion, Q. 33:33 has become a popular passage amongst conservative men who believe that women should not leave their homes. The verse, written in the Arabic feminine plural, reads:
Stay in your houses and do not deck yourselves with wanton display (tabarruj) as in the former Days of Ignorance. Maintain the prayer and pay the mandatory almsgiving, and obey God and His Apostle.
Wadud tackles this tricky verse with two, principal hermeneutical moves. Firstly, she places it within its wider textual context, citing it along with the verse that immediately precedes it (Q. 33:32), which begins with the phrase, ‘O wives of the Prophet’, thereby clarifying that a specific group of people is being addressed. But even if women happen to be the immediate audience, she continues, why should this verse only be applicable to women? Can women not be used to illustrate larger lessons for the community? Far from being a categorical command to remain in the home, Wadud argues that there is a larger ethical principle underlying this verse and one that is equally applicable to men and women: namely, to observe modesty and humility by staying away from ‘wanton display’ (tabarruj) and ostentatious behaviour in front of others, as practiced in ‘the former Days of Ignorance’, referring to pre-Islamic Arabia.