By Su’ad Abdul Khabeer
As far as I can tell, when Muslims, at least in the United States, reflect upon Surah al-Nisaa the focus is on relationships between husbands and wives and specifically verse 34 (though rarely verse 128). However, upon personal reflection, after rereading the sections of this surah that fall within the fifth juz’ of the Qur’an (4:24–147), I found that God uses marriage and relations between men and women to offer much broader directives on how all kinds of people should treat one another — with equity and ihsan. For example in verse 127, Allah reveals:
And they will ask you [Muhammad] to enlighten them about the laws concerning women. Say: “God enlightens you about the laws concerning them” – for [God’s will is shown] in what is being conveyed unto you through this divine writ about orphan women [in your charge], to whom – because you yourselves may be desirous of marrying them – you do not give that which has been ordained for them; and about helpless children; and about your duty to treat orphans with equity. And whatever good you may do – surely, God has indeed full knowledge thereof. — 4:127
Qur’anic commentators explain that the “they” in this verse refers to some early Muslims who took issue with newly introduced Islamic inheritance laws that departed from pre-Islamic tradition by making women and young children heirs to an estate. As a result, they asked for further clarification as a means of seeking a way around these new stipulations or for a change in revelation that better suited them. Accordingly, this verse is understood as both a clarification and, if I may, a Divine side eye. It is also understood as a preventive measure to ensure not only that inheritance law was upheld, but that a specific class of vulnerable people, orphans, were treated justly – by preserving their rights.¹
God addresses an inquiry about the legal rights of “women” by reminding those with more power and social standing of their responsibility to treat those who are more vulnerable with equity —
I am struck by the structure of this verse: God addresses an inquiry about the legal rights of “women” by reminding those with more power and social standing of their responsibility to treat those who are more vulnerable with equity — to protect and ensure the rights of the vulnerable — and that doing so is khair, a good thing, for which God accounts and compensates. This verse then serves as a “companion” to the oft-quoted verse, 4:135, which commands the believers to “be steadfast in upholding equity, bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God, even if against your own selves or your parents or kinsfolk. Whether the person concerned be rich or poor, God’s claim takes precedence over [the claims of] either of them…”
I consider these two verses companions because together they indicate that protecting the rights of the vulnerable, in a world structured to divide us into the haves and have nots, is to intrinsically be a witness to truth and often, a witness against ourselves, if indeed we believe that “God’s claims take precedence.” They represent what I regard as a Qur’anic principle of great importance: those with more have a responsibility to preserve and protect the rights of those with less. This is a key principle to be reminded of in our current moment where folks within and outside Muslim communities seek to defend and uphold, not equity, but their own power and privilege.
Within this juz’, God also makes it incumbent on us to be equitable and offer care and concern broadly:
And worship God [alone], and do not ascribe divinity, in any way, to any beside God. And do good unto your parents, and near of kin, and unto orphans, and the needy, and the neighbor from among your own people, and the neighbor who is a stranger, and the friend by your side, and the traveler, and those whom your right hands possess. Truly, God does not love any of those who, full of self-conceit, act in a boastful manner; (4:36)
Reflecting on this verse I was moved by the kinds of people mentioned, and therefore the kinds of relationships it covers — both those who we have family ties to, and thus, often feel bound to be good to, and those who we are not tied to in those ways — the homie you know (the neighbor from your people) and the homie you don’t (the neighbor who is a stranger). It also covers those treated as social outcasts — the orphans and the indigent — and those we may only know for a moment — the traveler, and those who are in some kind of position of servitude toward us (while slave-master relationships are mostly a thing of the past, they spawned many hierarchical relationships we still live with).
…protecting the rights of the vulnerable, in a world structured to divide us into the haves and have nots, is to intrinsically be a witness to truth and often, a witness against ourselves…
In this verse, God makes it imperative that we treat all these different kinds of people with ihsan, a term that many English translations of the Qur’an interpret as “good” but has a meaning that is deeper and broader than the word “good.” Ihsan implies not only something that is virtuous, but beautiful. It is a good that is done with excellence; excellence that comes from greater attention to how the good is given and received…the difference between good and ihsan is like the difference between singing and sangin’, or cooking and burning or saying a little speech and giving a Word. And again, reflecting on the structure of this verse, the imperative to treat all of these different folks with ihsan comes directly after the command to practice tawhid, which makes it clear how fundamental our relationships to others are to belief itself.
The Qur’an itself is described as a reminder, and this juz’ reiterates and reminds us how inextricable our relationship to and worship of God is from how we treat one another — there can be no ihsan with Allah if there is no equity and ihsan in our relationships with each other.
And Allah knows best.
- See pp. 248-249 of The Study Qur’an
Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer is scholar-artist-activist whose work explores themes of race, religion and popular culture. She is currently an associate professor of American Culture and Arab and Muslim American Studies at the University of Michigan. Su’ad received her PhD in cultural anthropology from Princeton University and is a graduate from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She also has an Islamic Studies diploma from the Institute at Abu Nour University (Damascus). Her latest book, Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States, examines how intersecting ideas of Blackness and Muslim identity challenge and reconstitute the meanings of race in the United States. Su’ad is deeply inspired by scholarship, like the work of Zora Neale Hurston and WEB Du Bois, that is holistic, both academic and creative, as well as committed to the public. Accordingly, Su’ad’s written work is accompanied by her one woman performance piece, Sampled: Beats of Muslim Life, and her poetry was featured in the anthology Living Islam Out Loud: American Muslim Women Speak. It was Su’ad’s deep commitment to public scholarship that led her to found Sapelo. She has also written for TheRoot.com, the Washington Post, trans-missions.org, the Huffington Post, and The Islamic Monthly; she has also appeared on Al Jazeera English. A Brooklyn native, Su’ad is unashamedly Black, undeniably Latina, and unapologetically Muslim.