On Mothering, Polygamy, and Veiling
Since we have already discussed the Qur’an’s elevation of mothers over fathers, the topic of motherhood is an appropriate point of departure to explore Barlas’ argument. Is this not evidence of the text’s reduction of women to mothers? Firstly, counters Barlas, whereas patriarchies glorify mothers, privileging women who have given birth over those who have not, they never elevate mothers over fathers, who remain the centrepiece of this oppressive system. Secondly, while modern patriarchies portray mothering as the sole function of women, the Qur’an does not present women as only being mothers. Indeed, a number of women who never bore children became highly influential figures in the first Muslim community. Barlas gives the example of Ayesha bint Abu Bakr (d. 678)—a wife of Muhammad—who, despite never becoming a mother, is one of the most revered personalities in Islam and a role model for Muslim women. As hadith scholars have shown, Ayesha played a seminal role in the formation of the hadith literature, relating roughly 2,200 reports. As we saw in the preceding chapter, Wadud, when highlighting the Qur’an’s emphasis on bearing rather than rearing, also drew upon Islamic history. Specifically, she pointed to Amina, the Prophet’s mother, who did not partake in her child’s rearing, giving him to a wet-nurse, Halima—an action that, significantly, did not lead to any stigma, to any ‘charge of un-motherliness’ in the biographical accounts. Furthermore, Barlas continues, the Qur’an does not politicize the act of giving birth. That is, it does not portray childbirth as a form of divine retribution against women. This stands in contrast to the Old Testament, which presents the ordeal of childbirth as a perpetual punishment for women, brought about by Eve’s enticement (Gen. 3:11-16):
He [God] said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of
the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.’ Then the Lord God said to the woman. ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’... To the woman He said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’
By foregrounding the absence of this narrative—portraying childbirth as punishment, thereby politicizing female biology—in the Qur’an, Barlas makes a novel contribution to the earlier work of Wadud and Hassan. As we have seen, these scholars underscored the absence in the Qur’an of the biblical understanding that (a) Eve was created from Adam’s rib, showing that they were both created from a ‘single soul’ (Q. 4:1) and, therefore, that women and men are ontologically the same; and that (b) Eve persuaded Adam to eat from the Tree, as the Qur’anic narrative presents this act of disobedience as a collective one, in which both partners were equally culpable.
According to Barlas, the Qur’an does not license polygamy. Like Wadud, she makes this case by using historical criticism and careful, textual analysis. Quoting Q. 4:2-3—the polygamy verse (4:3), as well as the one that immediately precedes it—she comments that not only did the text’s approval of having up to four wives actually restrict the number of wives that a man could take in that time (theoretically, men could have an unlimited number of spouses) but also that the Qur’an’s objective, as the precise wording of the passage reveals, was to ensure justice for female orphans. The verses read:
Give the orphans their property, and do not replace things of your own that are bad with things that are good among theirs, and do not eat up their property by mingling it with your own property, for that is, indeed, a grave crime. (4:2) 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. (4:3)
This focus on female orphans brings us back to the question of historical context. This verse was revealed in a situation wherein male guardians were exploiting orphans under their care and, thus, the Qur’an proposed marriage as a way of rectifying the problem, ‘the assumption being that marriage gives the husband a stake in the honest management of his wife’s property.’ The Qur’an’s espousal of polygamy, then, is tied to a specific moment of crisis in the burgeoning Muslim community and not applicable for all times. Paralleling Wadud, Barlas also makes a holistic reading, noting that social justice is a theme that permeates the text’s discourse on polygamy. For in addition to ensuring that justice is meted out to orphans, it states that a man is not allowed to marry more than one wife if he feels that he ‘will not be able to deal justly with them’, adding later on that even if he wanted to treat them equally, he would be unable to do so (Q. 4:129). The absence of justice in polygamous relationships therefore rules out the possibility of having multiple spouses. It is important to note, however, that Barlas does not simply rehash Wadud’s interpretive insights. By reflecting upon these verses in light of modern patriarchy, Barlas is able to push a liberating exegesis of the polygamy verse further. Many Muslims who support polygamy claim that it is in the inherent nature of men to desire multiple partners, as one woman cannot possibly satisfy the incessant male libido. Yet nowhere in the above verses, Barlas observes, are the ‘sexual nature or needs’ of men or women mentioned, showing that polygamy does not serve a sexual function.159 That is, there is no connection made between polygamy and desire. Indeed, the Qur’an, she argues, does not distinguish between male and female sexualities.160 By not framing its discussion on polygamy in terms of male desire, the Qur’an refuses to politicize male biology, to make a wider, social statement about men’s bodies. This returns us to the construction of gender as a category, for not only do women become women but so, too, do men become men, acquiring manhood and masculinity through everyday performative acts, from getting into fights with other men and driving powerful cars to withholding one’s emotions in the face of pain and having sex with multiple partners.
Just as the Qur’an does not sanction polygamy, Barlas argues, there is no scriptural basis for the female headscarf, referred to today as the hijab. But just because there is no scriptural basis for the veil—an exegetical argument that we will unpack shortly—this does not mean that Barlas views the veil as necessarily being oppressive. For what the veil can mean is contingent upon one’s environment: in certain contexts, particularly secular ones, the veil can become an empowering symbol of protest, of asserting ‘independence, visibility, and difference’, while in other contexts it can be ‘a socially-enforced mode of subordination to men’. There are two Qur’anic passages that are commonly cited to justify the veil. They are provided below:
O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the faithful to draw closely over themselves their wraps (jalabibihinna). That makes it likely that they will be recognized and not be troubled, and God is all-Forgiving, all-Merciful. If the hypocrites, those in whose hearts is a sickness, and the rumourmongers in the city, do not desist, We will surely rouse you against them. Then they will not be your neighbours in it except for a while. (Q. 33:59-60)
Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and to guard their private parts. That is more decent for them. God is well aware of what they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to guard their private parts, and not to display their charms, except for what is outward, and let them draw their veils (khumurihinna) over their breasts, and not display their charms except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husband’s fathers, or their sons, or their husband’s sons, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or their slave women, or male attendants lacking sexual desire, or children that are still unaware of women’s nakedness. Let them not thump their feet to make known their hidden ornaments. Turn to God in repentance, O believers, so that you may be felicitous.
These passages, Barlas comments, reflect two very different types of injunctions, the former historically contingent and the latter universally applicable. The precise wording of Q. 33:59-60 clearly indicates that it was addressing a particular situation and, therefore, needs to be read in light of this context. Specifically, non-Muslim men—‘the hypocrites, those in whose hearts is a sickness, and the rumour- mongers in the city’—were harassing Muslim women on the streets. This was in large part due to the culture of a slave-owning society, as slaves (who were traditionally uncovered) were seen as open to sexual approach. The Qur’anic commandment to cover was thus meant ‘to make Muslim women visible to non-Muslim (jahili) men as being sexually unavailable.’ While Q. 33:59-60 reflects a call to veil relating to a specific set of circumstances, Q. 24:30-1, the language of which is markedly broad in nature, represents a principle applicable to all times and places. Like Wadud, Barlas argues that the veil is an essentially ethical concept, or what she calls ‘a sexually moral and modest praxis’, and not something that can be reduced to mere physical attire, which is contextually bound. Not only is this a form of veiling that applies, as the wording of Q. 24:30-1 shows, to both men and women—indeed, men are addressed first—but it also presumes, Barlas adds, that men and women are, in fact, free to mix with one another, for how else can the injunction to lower one’s gaze make sense if the sexes are segregated? While Barlas offers a scripturally grounded rereading of veiling, she erroneously claims that the Arabic word hijab (literally, a screen or curtain) does not occur in the Qur’an. To be sure, hijab is never used to refer to a headscarf.
However, it does appear in three distinct senses: firstly, as a partition between Muhammad’s wives and the faithful, who were ordered to address his wives from behind a curtain (Q. 33:53); secondly, as a barrier that emerges between the believers and the pagans when the Qur’an is recited (Q. 17:45); and, finally, as a screen separating humankind and God, who would never speak to a human directly, but rather through divine inspiration, a curtain (hijab) or a messenger (Q. 42:51).
Closely tied to veiling is the issue of female sexuality. The sad irony behind the Qur’anic mandate to veil, laments Barlas, is that although its intent was to confront male sexual immorality—namely, nonMuslim men harassing Muslim women—it has since devolved into a patriarchal obsession with women’s sexual conduct. Indeed, a central assumption underlying Muslim conservatives’ support for female veiling, ranging from the headscarf that exposes the face and hands to the burqa, covering the entire body, is that women’s bodies are ‘sexually corrupting to those who see them; it is thus necessary to shield Muslim men from viewing women’s bodies by concealing them.’ This idea of women’s bodies as being too alluring, too sexually robust (and, conversely, of men as being morally weak and thus vulnerable to temptation when exposed to women’s bodies) is intrinsically connected to a wider view of sex as being unclean, impure, indecent. This problematic approach to sexuality, she argues, has more in common with Judaism and Christianity than the Qur’an—which makes no such claim—finding its way into Islamic thought through such extra-scriptural sources as the hadith and tafsir. A recurring theme, therefore, in women’s gender egalitarian readings of the Qur’an (recalling Wadud’s and Hassan’s commentaries of the Creation Story and the Events of the Garden) is the contrasting of the Qur’an with the Bible, in particular the Old Testament, critically discerning the dissimilarities between the two. In so doing, they have unearthed the lasting effects that biblical exegesis has had on Qur’anic exegesis as a field. On the contrary, Barlas notes, the Qur’an has a very different take on sexuality, approaching sex as ‘fulfilling and wholesome in itself, that is, outside of its procreative role.’ According to the text, she observes, the purpose of sexual intimacy is the attainment of tranquillity (sukun), without making any reference to reproduction (Q. 30:21). The verse reads:
Among His signs is that He created for you mates (azwajan) from your own selves that you may take comfort in them (litaskunu ilayha), and He ordained love and mercy between you. There are indeed signs in that for a people who reflect.
This passage not only illustrates vividly the compatibility of sexuality and religion, argues Barlas, but acknowledges that men and women have the same sexual natures, as reflected in the Qur’an’s usage of the gender-neutral term: ‘mates’ (azwaj, sing: zawj). That is, the text does not differentiate between male and female sexualities. As will be shown shortly, however, this claim has become a point of contention amongst Muslim progressives.