Immigration. Cultural assimilation. To be British. To pledge our allegiance to the Union Jack. A woman in a hijab wins the British Bake off.
Tabloid news persistently characterises Islam as intrinsically violent, akin to terrorism, a threat to British values, anti-democratic, and misogynistic. It is this issue of misogyny, sexism, the characterisation of women in Islam, which is the theme of today’s service, a theme I will address by looking at a passage in the Quran which has historically been used to assert male dominance. A theme which I am obviously wholly capable of addressing as a white, male, middle class, educated, Christian!
This obviously does present me with a challenge, as I cannot simply step out of my skin and assess Muslim female issues as a neutral arbitrator. My reading of the Quran is ever coloured by my liberal Christian suppositions, as indeed should be the case. Suppositions such as my approach to the sacred texts.
As a liberal Christian I have learned to be rather uncompromising with the Biblical text, treating it not as the words of God, but as humanity’s questing after the sacred; and thus riddled with inconsistencies, sexism, and barbarism. This affords a great deal of latitude in its use and application, latitude which cannot simply be applied to the Quran. The Bible is inspired and mediated through many authors, and therefore it is appropriate to take the idiosyncrasies of those authors into consideration in one’s interpretation.
In Islam on the other hand, the Quran is revealed. Revealed verbally by Allah to Muhammad (peace be upon him) through the angel Gabriel. This affords Muslims less room to manoeuvre, though they can still take into consideration the context in which the Quran was revealed, how it says what it says, and frame specific parts in the context of the whole.
So here is a reading from the Quran Chapter 4 verse 34 which literally translates as…
‘Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has made one of them superior the other. Because one of them spends what he has to support the other. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient to Allah and to their husbands. As to those women from which you see ill-conduct, admonish them first, then refuse to share their beds, and lastly beat them, but if they return to obedience, do not continue to hold their ill-conduct against them. Surely, Allah is Ever Most High, Most Great.’
This passage has classically been held as the most important in the Quran regarding the relationship between men and woman. There are some problems in the literal translation of this verse. Certainly this verse has been taken by men as the unconditional preference of men over women. Though note that the superiority or preference towards men is conditional upon men’s economic support of women – a cultural norm of sixth century Saudi Arabia. Many men will assert that this state of affairs is the natural order of things – which is to say that men were created by God to be inherently superior to women, in strength and reason – though there is no Qur’anic support for this view.
Rather, this passage can be understood as asserting the fact that some men excel over some woman in some matters, as some woman excel over some men in some matters. This verse pertains to the economic superiority of one over the other in a particular time and place. As such, one cannot assert the intrinsic value of male over female from this verse.
Rather, finding Qur’anic support pertaining to the equality of men and woman is far easier to come by – take for example the Adam and Eve episode found in the Quran and the Hadith. Eve is not created as an afterthought, as is the case in our biblical tradition, nor is Eve blamed for eating the forbidden fruit, rather it says, ‘they ate of it’, and were both to blame for the transgression. Both Adam and Eve were co-created from one soul.
Okay so returning to verse 4:34 the second part asserts that ‘the righteous women are devoutly obedient to Allah and to their husbands. As to those women from which you see ill-conduct, admonish them first, then refuse to share their beds, and lastly beat them…’ The passage intends to provide a means for resolving disharmony between husband and wife, though it has certainly been used, and continues to be used, to justify violence and abuse.
First of all this idea of obedience to Allah and to their husbands. This is wrongly understood as two separate rules: obedience to God, and obedience to husband. Rather it is better understood as co-operative subservience before Allah. This is where the literal translation falls down; the word for obedience between one created being and another is not the word used here. So it can be understood in this way: First, find a verbal solution. If verbal discussion fails then move on to a more drastic solution. Separation. And in extreme cases, the ‘scourge’ is permitted.
If the steps are followed in sequential order, then surely the argument goes that it should be possible to avoid the final step. The first step, finding a verbal solution, is the preferred in Quran whenever two parties are trying to resolve a matter. Peace is better. As the Quran states, it is peace and making amends that are the goals, not violence and forced obedience.
Beds apart allows for mutual reflection, a cooling off period before re-addressing the problem. But what can be said about the final step, which we can translate as scourge, or beat lightly, or to strike?
I have read of an argument which states that the ‘gentle nature’ of this violence was intended to limit the excessive violence already being done against woman. And the intention was always to recover harmony, not to commit violence for the sake of violence. In other words the norm of female subjugation and male violence is in fact not being affirmed here, but reigned in within the context of this marriage type, in which the male has cultural and economic superiority.
A marriage type which can no longer be applied to the marriage types of today in the west in which couples seek mutual emotional, intellectual, economic, and spiritual enhancement. In other words the Quran focuses on the marital norms of the time when it was revealed, or broadly sets out to establish a mechanism for resolving conflict through mutual consultation.
The revelation was received into a patriarchal context, a culture built on a structure of domination and subordination. The male experience was looked upon as the norm. As such, females were looked upon in terms of their utility to men, most obviously for reproduction. Separating these cultural norms from the Qur’anic ideal is therefore exceedingly difficult. One is forced not to look upon single instances, such as the verse we have considered in which the social context is accommodated, but rather to find the greater Qur’anic principles at work, and resisting literal application of certain Qur’anic statements. In other words a western Muslim can believe in the whole book as is required of them (chapter 3 vs 119), by recognizing the book’s ultimate intent.
And perhaps here we can locate a wider principle in the way we approach the most central text to our own tradition, in our unfolding of its ultimate intent. And in so doing I make a full circle. I acknowledged my liberal Christian starting point. We explored together a rather problematic verse from the Quran, attempting to tackle it in the most sensitive way possible, respecting the tradition which it emerges from, drawing out from that some conclusions which can be fed back into our liberal Christian, Unitarian context and perhaps inform our own practices. In this case the unfolding search for ultimate intent, or macro level principles which sit above those things in our own sacred text which we might get hung up on, such as biblical genocide, sexism, miracles, and so on…
I wanted to explicitly point this process out because I have been thinking about our own Unitarian identity. And to be honest the way this movement frames it as a dichotomy between the humanists and the Christians makes little sense to me. I wonder how I would want to answer that question: are you a humanist Unitarian or a Christian Unitarian? I really don’t know… I want to say that I’m strongly humanist and strongly Christian. I don’t like the dichotomy – I want to spend a lot of time thinking about religions, and ideas, and philosophies, but it surely has to be done by means of a shared language – a different language every week would be as useful as a broken clock, only right twice a day.
Perhaps it is a somewhat optimistic vision of Unitarianism: rooted in Christianity, but ever stretching out our branches in every direction.
In conclusion then, the Abrahamic sacred texts were written or revealed within a patriarchal context. God’s masculine identity was asserted, thus alienating women from the divine, creating metaphorical walls which limit the horizons of the excluded, and belittles their God-given humanity. These Abrahamic texts point to an ultimate intent, best expressed in the words of Theodore Parker, ‘“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one… And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
This bending towards justice is found in the naming of historical abuse. It is found in asserting the sexist reality of the words we have heard for generations. It is found in recasting that which is damaging. It is found in the words of Jesus as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. It is found in uncovering silenced voices, and affirming the feminine within our tradition.