By Jamillah Karim
I take pride in the fact that the Qur’an has a chapter titled “Women” (an-Nisa’). Demonstrating the Qur’an’s attention to women, this chapter is where I begin when making the case for women’s liberation in the Qur’an. Ironically, though, in this chapter are some of the Qur’an’s most controversial verses, including the ones about polygyny (4:3), gender roles (4:34), and instruction for both men and women facing disrespect or desertion (nushuz) from a spouse (4:34, 4:128).
Reading juz’ 5 of the Qur’an, the section that spans from v. 24 to v. 147 of the chapter “Women,” I see through a lens that I imagine is shared by my African American Muslim sisters. We believe that the Qur’an is God’s sublime speech and that God wants and commands full justice for His creation, women and men. As God states in the chapter “Women,”
“O you who believe! Be steadfast maintainers of justice, witnesses for God, though it be against yourselves, or your parents and kinsfolk, and whether it be someone rich or poor, for God is nearer unto both” (4:135 The Study Quran Translation)
Trusting in God and the Qur’an’s commitment to justice, we approach seemingly patriarchal verses with trust that God knows and wants the best for us. Even still, we bring our questions, seek explanations, and often produce our own answers. Although most African American Muslim women do not identify as feminists, we approach gender issues in the Qur’an with feminist attitudes, inescapable given our time and context. We explain and justify verses in ways that we imagine will benefit women. Or we assert that time-specific verses do not apply to our collective social circumstances or to our personal needs.
When we justify them in ways that speak to our unique experiences as African American women, we operate as womanists, or Black feminists. For example, African American women who actively embrace the polygyny verse–which permits God-conscious, just men to marry up to four wives–often do so in light of the fact that the number of professional, educated Black women surpasses that of their male counterparts because of the enduring impact of slavery and racism. “Do we and our sisters deserve to be deprived of godly, financially stable men because there are not enough to go around,” some of us protest, “all because of the dominant group’s legacy of greed, exploitation, lies, and denial?” Such protest exposes and resists racism at the same time that it demands better opportunities for women.
But most importantly, because of our trust in God and His Book, when African American Muslim women like myself read the chapter “Women,” especially in Ramadan, we are not consumed by the verses that bring out the feminist in us. Ramadan is a month in which our hearts are occupied with the remembrance of Allah, pushing us to yearn for Allah and His Beloved Prophet Muhammad, prayers and peace be upon him, and to carry out the deeds that will place us in their very presence, in this temporary life and in the everlasting life. As v. 69 of “Women” states,
“Whosoever obeys God and the Messenger, they are with those whom God has blessed, the prophets, the truthful ones, the witnesses, and the righteous. What beautiful companions they are!”
Muslims, regardless of race or gender, hold this verse dear, and it particularly resonates in a month in which we aspire to embody the most beautiful of human conduct. In this blessed month, we can truly imagine ourselves in this noble company because we are closer than ever to doing everything for Allah’s pleasure, and not for our own egos, which we seek to have purified by our fasting and our sincere beseeching.
Given that spirituality, and not feminism, is my primary focus when I read the Qur’an, I intended to privilege reflection on the verses that call us to Allah, His Beloved Prophet, and to our higher selves. And just when I seek to do that, I rediscover the brilliance of this text.
I rediscover that one of the things, among the many, that the chapter “Women” is doing is calling men to treat women with regard and respect by appealing to their desire to be with God and to be in the company of the Prophet of God. In other words, the Qur’an makes fair treatment toward women a sacred duty. The Qur’an makes justice for women a religious pursuit and a means to the Beloved.
Juz’ 5 of the Qur’an begins with v. 24 which speaks directly to men, and addresses them again and again. Never in this chapter are women collectively singled out and addressed in the second person as are men. (In other words, never do we find the feminine, second person, plural.) In this way, the Qur’an functions as a feminist text in the sense that it acknowledges that women are more likel to be harmed by men than vice versa, and that men need the reminder to act with beauty and justice.
Another recurring theme in this chapter is the command for Muslims to heed those in authority over them.
“And if you differ among yourselves concerning any matter, refer it to God and the Messenger, if you believe in God and the Last Day” (4:59).
Such verses are paramount reminders to all of us seeking Allah’s pleasure, and are not necessarily gender related. At the same time, it is as though verses reminding of God’s power are meant to complement verses that, on the surface, favor men. It is as though the Qur’an is reminding men that even though we have given you privileges denied to women, such as having multiple spouses, remember the ultimate authority over you. Indeed, v. 4:34, which gives men directions on how to treat wives acting with arrogance and contempt, ends with the reminder that “truly God is Most High, the Greatest.” In other words, don’t forget that “Allah has the power to take you to task for oppressing your wives,” as one translation puts it (Qur’an Made Easy).
Finally, a substantial part of the chapter “Women” calls men to fight for the sake of God,
“And what ails you that you fight not in the way of God, and for the weak and oppressed–men, women, and children–who cry out, ‘Our Lord! Bring us forth from this town whose people are oppressors, and appoint for us from Thee a protector, and appoint for us from Thee a helper’” (4:75).
How must godly men fight for the sake of God and for the oppressed today? Are Muslim men today truly qawwamun, standing up for women, providing for women, fighting on behalf of women, and fighting against their own souls to ensure that they do right by women? Are they treating women with utmost respect and kindness, improving their mental and physical well-being in the pursuit of God’s pleasure and favor?
“Those who stay behind among the believers–except for the disadvantaged–and those who strive in the way of God with their goods and lives are not equal. God favors those who strive with their goods and their lives a degree above those who stay behind. Unto both God has promised that which is most beautiful. But He favors those who strive with a great reward above those who stay behind.”
Let our men be those who strive with their goods and lives, and let them fight the “gender jihad,” the fight for the advancement and rights of women.
Jamillah Karim is author of Women of the Nation andAmerican Muslim Women. She is a former Professor of Religion at Spelman College. She specializes in Islam and Muslims in the United States (African American, South Asian and Arab), Islamic Feminism, Race and Ethnicity, and Immigration and Transnational Identity.