Human history, one might conclude from the Bible and Quran, is an ongoing struggle against the human tendencies towards evil and polytheism. The late Hebrew Prophet Jeremiah censures his people for (among other transgressions) sacrificing their children to the Ammonite god Molekh. Much earlier, such child sacrifices are already condemned in the Pentateuch, and Leviticus 20:3 describes this ritual as profaning (חַלֵּל) God’s holy name. The Hebrew root for ‘profaning’ H-L-L, has an Arabic cognate, which is found in a Quranic verse (5:2) warning believers not to profane (تحلوا) God’s religious symbols, days, rituals and devotees. A famous Biblical prohibition against taking God’s name in vain (although it uses different wording) has been interpreted in various ways, many of which prohibit associating God’s name with sinful acts (be they lies, idolatrous rituals or anything else sinful). So, God’s name can be profaned by both explicit and implicit association with evil.
A famous hadith says that, “Any matter of importance that is not begun with God’s name is defective,” and observant Muslims are in the habit of reciting God’s name at the beginning of prayer, before eating, and when about to undertake any major action – provided of course the act is something religiously lawful. The hadith’s specification that the teaching applies to matters of importance implies that trivial matters should not be started with God’s name, in order to preserve the sanctity of the Name by not taking it in vain. Clearly, then, the name of God should not be recited before sinful actions, and in fact to do so is considered an act of blasphemy and apostasy by Muslim legal scholars. (They make an exception for someone who says it out of habit, without presence of mind, because he did not consciously intend to associate the name of God with the sin. In Shakespeare’s poem, The Rape of Lucrece, Tarquin stops at Lucrece’s door to pray before entering to rape her, “As if the heavens should countenance his sin.” “But in the midst of his unfruitful prayer,“ Tarquin realizes:
The powers to whom I pray abhor this fact;
How can they then assist me in the act? )
If the Hebrew prophets of yore were to witness our times, they would likely inveigh against the many social and ethical ills of today. And while child sacrifice is (thankfully) no longer prominent, there is a bane of our times that is evocative of its horrific disdain for the sacredness of life. Of course, I am referring to the acts of wanton killing and terrorism that (sadly) appear to be increasingly common. Major sins, like rape and murder, are certainly an act of implicit profanation of God’s name, and if someone (God forbid) explicitly utters God’s name upon it, the profanation becomes even greater.
When Caliph `Ali heard the Kharijites chanting the slogan, “Judgment is only God’s,” he is reported to have said, “It is a statement of truth by which falsehood is intended.” So, if a murderer shouts “Allahu Akbar” / “God is Great” / “Elohim Gadol” over his murder, those who truly understand God’s teachings might well shake their heads, and respond much as Caliph `Ali did. Yes God is indeed greater; greater than to defile His name by your profane sin of murder; greater than to not hold murderers responsible. We will not allow criminals to appropriate our sacred language. God is truly Great.
(ii) “A degree over women”
“And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable, and men have a degree over them.” (Qur’an, 2:228)
The “degree” that men have over women, unspecified in the Qur’anic text, has given rise to a range of different suggested interpretations, some of which clearly hold little weight (such as the view that it refers to the beard!). The eminent traditionist-exegete Tabari (d. 310 H), after quoting all the transmitted opinions, concluded that the strongest view is that men are being instructed to unconditionally fulfill their duties and responsibilities in full, while being forgiving of women if they fall short in their duties; i.e. it is a degree of responsibility, rather than privilege. Tabari and others have narrated this view, with isnad, from Ibn `Abbas, an eminent exegete from among the companions of the Prophet.
According to traditional Muslim understandings of gender roles (I will not address Muslim feminist interpretations), men also are expected to lead the family unit (every social unit needs one person in charge, in order to function efficiently), but this leadership neither implies a superiority (remember when Abu Bakr was appointed Caliph, he said, “I have been appointed to lead you, but I am not the best among you”), nor is it supposed to be a means for overbearingness or tyranny. Rather, the relationship between husband and wife is to be based on love, compassion and cooperation, and includes consultation.
“And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquillity in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy.” (Qur’an, 30:21)
“And the believers, men and women, are protecting friends one of another” (Qur’an, 9:71)
“….and whose affair is [determined by] consultation among themselves” (Qur’an, 42:38)
The alleged hadith, “Consult with [women] and then do the opposite of what they advise,” has no authentic chain of narration back to the Prophet (as pointed out, for example, by Sakhawi in al-Maqasid al-Hasana), and is likely a sheer fabrication. Among the more striking narrations showing that the Prophet (s) valued the opinions of women is the famous incident at Hudaybiyah, in which he acted on advice from his wife Umm Salamah on a matter of great religious and public significance.
A previous post showed the basic spiritual equality of men and women, as derived from the Quran. We now need to look more closely at three verses that are sometimes misunderstood to conclude an automatic superiority for men:
(i) “Men are in charge of [taking care of] women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. ” (Qur’an, 4:34)
(ii) “And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable. But the men have a degree over them.” (Qur’an, 2:228)
(iii) “And the male is not like the female.” (Qur’an, 3:36)
(i) Men are qawwamun over women”
“Men are in charge of [taking care of] women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. ” (Qur’an, 4:34)
Firstly, the Qur’an has told us clearly that the criterion for superiority before Allah is taqwa, not gender:
“Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you.” (Qur’an, 49:13)
Indeed, no Muslim man would dare claim that, merely by being male, he is better than Lady Khadijah, Lady Fatimah, or the Virgin Mary!
Remember also that two verses before this (4:32), we were reminded that men and women have each been blessed in different ways by Allah. What the verse 4:34 is telling us, therefore, is that men have the responsibility of taking care of women, because (generally) their constitution and nature are such that they are more capable or working and providing physical protection and defense.
Secondly, note that the wording is not فضلهم عليهن (which would clearly mean: graced/blessed men over women) but rather: بِمَا فَضَّلَ ٱللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍ literally: “has graced some of them over others.” Shaykh al-Sha`rawi, the famous 20th-century Egyptian (male) scholar of tafsir, pointed out that although men may be graced/blessed in one aspect, they are less endowed in other respects, and that the two genders have complementary roles in which each utilizes their respective strengths to support the other. The 3rd-century theologian and polymath `Uthman al-Jahiz has pointed out several aspects in which women can be considered superior to men, including various positive traits of character (remember the Prophet (s) was described as more modest than a virgin in her chamber), and the fact that there has been a woman (the Virgin Mary) for whom Allah created a child without male involvement, but there has never ben a man for whom Allah made a child without female involvement. Contemporary female Syrian scholar Hanan Lahham expressed succinctly the logical conclusion to make from 4:34, tying together the concepts that were already known to earlier exegetes (mufassireen), even if they didn’t express it so explicitly. She writes that, “Allah granted to each gender characteristics that help them to perform their roles; the intended meaning is not a superiority of one gender over the other.”
The verse (4:34) also intimates that some women have certain superiorities over some men, and vice-versa. Thus, some women might be physically stronger, or more capable breadwinners, than some men. None of this is ruled out by the verse, nor by the labelling of men as maintainers, because as `Allamah Ibn `Ashur (a high-ranking 20th century Tunisian scholar) has commented in his tafsir, what the verse is describing is not a universal but a customary norm. (We may note, in passing that patriarchically organized societies have dominated human history for several millenia.) Even among pre-modern mufassirin, the possibility had been raised that this verse conveys that there are some women who are better than many men. In fact, the famous medieval linguist and mufassir, Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi, mentioned the possibility (suggested by the verse) that the term “men” (الرجال) in the verse (4:34) refers not to gender (for otherwise the term “males” (الذكور) could have been used) but only to those males who are deserving of being called “men” by virtue of their strength, wisdom and resoluteness. A lot of women would not be able to fully respect a man who does not live up to his expected role. Thus, many of the fuqaha allow a wife to annul the marriage if the husband is not able to provide financial support to his wife. (Of course, she has the option of remaining with him and being patient, and also the option of spending her own money on the household, and can expect reward from Allah for doing so, but she is not obliged to do either of these).