By Dr. Debra Majeed
Strong arguments can be, and are, routinely made about the special blessings each day of Ramadan brings. As an African American Muslim woman whose vocation calls for me to spend more time navigating secular, non-Muslim spaces than not, I am especially inspired at the start of the month of fasting.
Ramadan is divided into three stages: its first 10 days are devoted to reflecting on the mercy of Allah (forgiveness of Allah and protection from hellfire, being the other two stages). Juz’ 5 (4:24–147) falls within this period; reading it always compels me to renew my quest to have my “parched thirst” quenched. That is, I begin to re-examine the manner in which the mercy of G’d speaks directly to me in all of the identities I inhabit, and calls on believers to embody the mercy of G’d in our interactions with each other. I begin by intentionally and verbally seeking the mercy and blessings of Allah. The Qur’an — itself a mercy — contains an abundance of supplication-worthy passages. One of my favorites on mercy is from al-Mu’minun (23:118), So say: “O my Lord! grant Thou forgiveness and mercy for Thou art the Best of those who show mercy!”(Yusuf Ali translation).
For the most part, the contents of Juz’ 5 were revealed on different occasions during the early years of the evolving Muslim ummah following the Hijra to Madinah from Mecca. Much of the section addresses the aftermath of the Muslims’ defeat at the Battle of Uhud — a factor that contributed to two key passages regarding multiple-wife marriage or polygyny. By including verses 4–147 of al-Nisa’ Juz’ 5 encompasses the majority of the fourth chapter, and draws our attention to the Qur’an’s egalitarian message. Not only do these verses invite African American Muslim women to think and use our personal, embodied experience and reasoning to comprehend it, but they also challenge all Muslims to consider issues that regularly impact the lived realities of women. Specifically, the revelations that comprise Juz’ 5 direct women and men to infuse with respect — one could argue, mercy — the three-pronged network of our relationships; namely, our familial relationships, relationships with Muslim neighbors, including hypocrites and our relationship with our Creator.
With these multiple, interconnected themes, Juz’ 5 links the mercy of Allah to the justice of Allah by first reminding African American women (and, thereby, other marginalized groups) of one single reality: we matter. So much so that it is with al-Nisa’ that Allah addresses female believers — offering a concept of G’d that dismantles male-focused renderings of a Creator who favors men. After the introduction of stipulations that regulated the long-engaged practice of polygyny, the section focuses on familial relationships with verse 24 and its clarification of the social status of women deemed permissible for marriage. Indeed, justice as an example of the mercy of Allah would return in verse 129. Here, even men with the best intentions are cautioned about the limitations of their humanness to embody justice and reminded that dyadic monogamy is the rule, not the exception, for Muslim marriage. Thus, the Qur’an upholds the honor due women and reminds female readers of the enduring protections and responsibilities established by Allah that we should not permit the men in our lives to abandon. That is why commands such as “Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves…” (4:135), prompt a reading of problematic verses like 4:34 and issues of maintenance, or whether Muslim marriage provides husbands with an inherent right to beat their wives (it doesn’t) in view of the Qur’an’s over-arching pursuit of justice. Regardless of our circumstances or the challenges we face in our homes, mosques, or the larger society, Ramadan comes along to remind African American Muslim women that Allah desires to turn to us in mercy (4:26), is “never unjust in the least degree.” (4:40), and “is enough for a Protector.” (4:40)
Another recurring theme is the unity of the ummah or our relationships with our Muslim neighbors, as well as “People of the Book.” Juz’ 5 encourages us to ethically engage in trade or commerce with other Muslims — increasing the potential of a more financially secure community (4:29). For African American Muslims, this directive can involve creating initiatives for collaborative business ventures that bring employment opportunities to Black neighborhoods (e.g., self-determination and cooperative economics) and help other Black people maintain financial independence. It commands us to avoid coveting the gifts of others (4:32), whether material or human — a jihad for some Muslim women who, in their own eyes, see no end to their single existence. This section also instructs us to guard against the pretense of those who do not embody what they claim to believe. In reference to self-identified Muslims, Allah tells us to be prepared to take up arms against them if necessary, but
if they withdraw from you but fight you not, and (instead) send you (guarantees of) peace, then Allah hath opened no way for you (to war against them) — 4:89–90
Similarly, G’d warns us against Jews and Christians as People of the Book who disregarded the teachings of their prophets and corrupted their faith.
Finally, the verses of this section admonish us to seize with reverence every worship opportunity. Time in the mosque with other believers and home alone for self-reflection is just one of the many and varied mercies Ramadan affords us. When Allah commands us to “approach not prayers with a mind befogged…nor in a state of ceremonial impurity” (4:43), I am reminded that both the my mental health and physical well-being matter, especially when I seek communion with my Creator. May Ramadan 1439/2018 be that period in which our senses are so in tune with the mercy of Allah in all our relationships and African American Muslims model before the world the level of surrender to that G’d calls all of creation.
Dr. Debra Majeed is a professor of religious studies at Beloit College and the author of Polygyny: What It Means When African American Muslim Women Share Their Husbands. She works with mosque communities to cultivate resources that support healthy marriage regardless of form and to eradicate domestic violence from the lives of women.