October 2009 
Year 16    No.144
The Superiority Myth 


The Supremacy Myth

The bogus arguments and "proofs" on the basis of which the better half of Godís finest creation is kept
under subjugation and servility is both shameful and sinful

 

BY MAULVI MUMTAZ ALI

In these pages, I propose to put forward my ideas on the rights of women which I have held for long. Although many of my other ideas have changed over time, I have had no reason to change or alter any of my ideas in this regard. If anything, I find myself holding on to them even more firmly with the passage of time. I hope that the articulation of these ideas and acting on them will bring about much- needed reform that will pull my community out of its current state of decline and despair.

I am well aware that I will be charged with aping the British and worse. And that many of my fierce opponents will go into overdrive to contradict, ridicule me. Abuses too will be hurled. But those to who sincerely believe in the majesty and grandeur of Shariah laws, those whose notions of dignity, self-worth and self-respect will not deter them from taking inspiration from the life and times of Prophet Mohammed and his family and the values they promoted, will have no hesitation in responding positively. Nor will they be discouraged by the criticisms of individuals and organizations, or the scorn and ridicule that they too would be subjected to by the ignorant and the rogues.

If this humble effort of mine results in the protection of the rights of even a single old woman in the entire country I would consider my effort to have been worthwhile.

Male Supremacy Myth

Men and women are both part of the human species. Neither is superior to the other but in each there are some distinctive qualities which makes them different from the other. These distinctive characteristics call for a corresponding set of different responsibilities and duties for men and women but beyond that there must be no differentiation between the two sexes. Apart from the distinctions based on their innate, God-created differences, any attempt to widen the divide or to prove the superiority of one over the other is nothing but personal prejudice and gender bias. It is but obvious that these differences are merely circumstantial, ephemeral and non-durable, the product of different environments, age and cultural background. We will show that the differences that are sought to explain and justify the differing status and rights of men and women go way beyond what is explicable or justified on the basis of the inherent differences between them. These are based on nothing but the presumptions, prejudices and ignorance of men. The consequences of such aberrant modes of thinking and being are the decline of culture, the ruination of the world and the continuance of the barbarism of ancient times in the name of Islam.

Most of our cultural constructs are rooted in the false notion that men are sovereign and women are their subjects, in the belief that women have been created with the sole purpose of placing herself in the service of men. Because of such a belief, men assert their rights over women just as they claim ownership rights over other forms of property and claim that women cannot have rights equal to that of men. If such false and baseless notions were merely the product of male prejudice and self-centeredness and there was no attempt to justify their claims with logic, reason and religious belief it would have been one thing. But the tragedy is that the claims of male supremacy are sought to be premised on sound reason, lofty principles and divine edict. The purpose of writing this piece is to expose the hollowness of their claim and the shamefulness of their conduct.

To the best of our knowledge the arguments which are forwarded to prove male supremacy are the following:

1. God has given men more physical strength than women. Therefore men claim full rights over all that is gained with the use of superior strength and hard labour. That is why the right to rule or govern, which includes the use of force, is both natural and divine right of men.

2. In addition to physical prowess men also have a superior mental capacity. That is why in every age and in every country women have been considered to be of low intellect, inherently gullible, ill-informed, lacking in conceptual ability, unreliable, treacherous.

3. Just as sovereignty over others is the most prestigious thing in worldly affairs, being bestowed with the mantle of a prophet or messenger is the greatest gift from God. Throughout human history Allah, has bestowed prophethood only on men. No woman has ever been sent to preach the divine message.

4. Theologically speaking, the Quranic verse, "al rejala qawwamoona alan nisa" is frequently quoted in support of menís superiority. The verse is taken to mean that men are rulers over women.

5. Another bogus argument presented is that Allah first created Adam and Eve was created subsequently only for his benefit. Therefore, it is the divine intent that women remain servile to men and be a source of his happiness and well-being.

6. In the Quran, the evidence of two women is treated as equal to that of one man. This and the fact that in inheritance the share of a woman has been stipulated as half that of a man is also proof of menís superiority.

7. The fact that men are permitted to marry four wives while the reverse is prohibited further proves that God has given man a more elevated status.

8. Virtuous men have been promised beautiful wives in paradise while even virtuous women have been given no such promise.

Call them fanciful, philosophical, logical or theological: such is the evidence and the proofs we are offered on the basis of which half the world is kept under subjugation, forced to live like slaves of men and even worse. Thus is the better half of Godís finest creation forced to satisfy the lust of the basest among men, cater to every demand of the even the most worthless and vile among self-serving men.

We will now examine these claims one by one and see whether they stand the test of logical scrutiny or whether they are false and baseless views manufactured by self-centered men. Anyone who is capable of shedding his cultural prejudices, prepared to examine arguments on merit, not consumed by anxiety about the implications of embracing a new idea for their own future conduct, will see that all the male supremacy arguments are baseless and worthless. Whatís more, these are gross violation of Godís edicts and Shariah laws.

 

Physically Superior?

The first claim about menís greater physical prowess is a mere assertion pretending to being a logical argument. Admitted, men are physically stronger than women. So what? How does this prove that physical strength is a legitimate basis for the claim that men are superior to women? It is but obvious that those who are physically stronger are expected to undertake more difficult, arduous and hazardous tasks than those who are less strong. Whoever said that men should not be asked to handle tasks that require greater strength, are more arduous or hazardous? Men are most welcome to them: breaking boulders, chopping trees, slitting throats and all such jobs that are hard to do or which only the heartless can do. But the question remains: how does their physical ability to do such tasks makes them superior or more cultured? How is superior to be defined and where is the argument or evidence for that?

The absurdity of this argument will be immediately apparent if instead of comparing men with women, we compare men with four-legged animals. Suppose we argued that because God has given greater physical strength to them than men, animals are superior and sovereign over men? If you stick to your warped logic, how can you run away from our claim? Are we not being true to the logical method? If men are superior (your definition) over women, by that very logic if follows that donkeys are superior to men. If the fact that a donkey can carry a far greater load than a man does not establish the formerís supremacy over the latter, how does a man become superior to a woman merely owing because he is capable of withstanding greater physical hardship?

To simplify the point further and to nail the bogus claim, let us analyze the basis on which men are women are/ought to be compared? There is no doubt that men and women are a part of the animal world. Surely this animalism is not what constitutes their identity but it is their human qualities and capacities which qualify both as being humans. A human being is a special animal endowed with common sense, logic and wisdom. It is these qualities and the evolutionary possibilities inherent in them that elevate a mere animal to the lofty level of humanity. Therefore, any comparison between them will make sense only if we examine the extent to which they have evolved from their animal existence.

But all that the superiority argument tells us is that men are of a heavier build, their bones are stronger, their legs more powerful. These characteristics are not part of that special quality that elevates the status of humans over animals. As it happens, all the traits referred to are related to animalism and a comparison between man and woman on that basis is nonsensical. Everyone knows that men and women are from the animal species. God in his infinite wisdom and power reduced the bestial qualities in human beings by diminishing their ferocity, predatory instincts and brutality and added some angelic qualities to create a new species: humans. Therefore, the comparison between man and woman ought to be based on these angelic qualities, as opposed to animal traits. Establishing manís superiority or development on the basis of bestial qualities is, in effect, to prove their baseness.

Apart from what has been said above, even if we were to agree that men are superior to women owing to physical strength, it should be evident that this is the result of social evolution and not the result of divine intent. As far as perceptible causes are concerned, it seems that the excess or lack of physical strength in men and women are not inherent. Instead, various cultures and societies have over countless centuries brought about gender differences similar to the difference between men and men generated over time across nations. Why is it that the Afridis of Kabul are burly and strong, while the Babus of Kolkata are lean and puny in appearance? Why are the Sikhs of Punjab referred to as the lions of Punjab, while the Baniyas of Hindustan are said to be meek? It should not be difficult to understand that what explains the Sikhs of Punjab being physically stronger than the Bengalis and Baniyas also explains men being stronger than women. The only difference is that the historical process that culminated in the different physical capacities of the two sexes started eons before than it did in case of Bengalis and Baniyas.

That more or less physical strength in men and women is not inherent but the result of socially governed causes can be demonstrated in another way too. Even though women in different parts of the world live under more or less similar conditions and do comparable work, due to cultural and other differences their physique and strength are different. If you compare the build of women living in Ghazni and Herat with the genteel ladies of Delhi and Lucknow you will come to know that the difference is not innate or God-given. This only means that the reason why women are physically less strong than men is because they were forced to live in a manner that their corporal capacity gradually diminished through underuse.

The second part, or a corollary, of the first claim about brawn-power based superiority of men is even more pathetic and utterly baseless. In the early period of human civilization, when barbarism and ignorance was rife and rights and the principles of society had not been defined, every controversial and contentious issue was resolved on the basis of the "Might is Right" principle. However, even then no single person was powerful enough to grab whatever he wanted without the active support of allies. By the time people evolved even the most rudimentary form of rule or governance, they had left far behind the ancient mode of life and progressed to a level where systems were in place and laws were laid down for their self-preservation. In other words, people had come to appreciate the importance of laying down customs, norms and laws and begun compelling others to abide by them. The head of state did not depend solely on his corporal might to govern, but rather on the support of his loyal friends and devoted allies. To this day, all kinds of governments are run on these principles.

Now no form of government can exclude women entirely and forever. Men have always been conscious of their superiority and have denied women opportunity and rights. Despite this, they have not managed to evolve any form of government that excluded women entirely. Hence, in all states and nations, at some time or another, the reign of government fell in the hands of women. And some of them ruled so skillfully that it is difficult to find a sovereign of their caliber in the ranks of men. In Hindustan, though the reign of Razia Begum was very brief, with regard to peace and posterity, it was better than the rule of many an emperor. The era of Jahangir saw Noor Jehan Begum as the power behind the throne. For its unparalleled peace, posterity and organization of state affairs, this period will always shine through the history of Hindustan as its golden age. Consider the present age and see how efficiently Her Majesty, the sovereign of the British Empire is governing, ensuring law and order, dispensing justice.

Can it still be said that sovereignty by right is for men only? The continuing belief that government is the result of sheer power is entirely erroneous. The progress of knowledge, promotion of culture and British rule over our country has made it clear that knowledge and learning are the greatest force in the world. Today, only the more educated and the knowledgeable can lay legitimate claim to superiority over others. So we hope that in future, men taking pride in their heavy build and big bones will not claim superiority over women but look elsewhere to buttress their bogus claim.

 

Intellectually Superior?

The second assertion is again a mere claim without proof. Scientists of the present time have established a marginal difference in the structure of male and female bodies and have described some bones in the female body as being delicate compared to male bones. Yet, to this day no clear distinction has ever been detected in the brain and in the development of those sections of the brain that determine various nuances of intellectual potency. Despite the fact that cultural norms have made womenís corporal strength lesser than that of men Ė so much so that a difference in the makeup of their bones can now be established Ė their mental capacity is by no means lesser than that of men. If anything, this shows that if traditional norms had allowed women equal opportunity for physical development, maybe, in fact undoubtedly, their mental faculties would have been more sophisticated than those of men.

As in the first case, a big flaw in this second assertion is that the difference resulting from prevalent social norms is considered to be inherent. In fact, even if the brainpower of women were in future to be found to be somewhat lower than that of men, why should it not be seen as the obvious result of womenís present cultural state, where their physical health is greatly neglected which so affects their nervous system that there is always a risk of diminished mental abilities, of making them what is described as impatient, impulsive, unpredictable, petulant, and dim-witted beings?

Since men and women have not been treated as equals, since they have been denied a level playing field in the pursuit of knowledge and development of their mental faculty, how can men claim their own relative advancement as a result of some innate quality? Using such logic, since at present the Zulus are deep in the throes of barbarism and ignorance while in the field of knowledge the British have left the intellectuals of Greece behind, would it be justified to deduce that there is some innate difference between the mental abilities of the British and the Zulus?

Thus, even if some difference were to be found in the mental prowess of men and women, it cannot be a verdict against the latter. In fact, there is no doubt that despite centuries of neglect in the intellectual development of women, despite the minds of countless generations of women being kept inactive, we still do not find them lacking in anything when compared to men. If anything, this clearly shows that the mental abilities of women are inherently superior to that of men.

 

All prophets were male?

The third proof of the superiority of men is based on the claim that no woman has ever been blessed with the mantle of a prophet. This is questionable on three grounds. Firstly, Muslims believe that through the ages God has sent 1,24,000 messengers or prophets to the world for the guidance of human beings. In all our holy books we find accounts of only 10 to 15 of these prophets, while all the other prophets from the ancient times probably do not exceed 30. This means that we know nothing of the lives of 123,970 prophets. Therefore, it cannot be said with any certainty whether they were all men, all women or that some were men and some women. To arrive at a verdict or to make jibes at half of humanity on the basis of limited information is nonsensical. Until we know about all the prophets, it is not appropriate to discourse on the basis of mere assumption.

Secondly, the nature of a womanís creation demands that she should not be assigned any task that requires long years of continuous struggle and hard work, which also necessitates complete separation from home and family. Keeping women free of such demanding activity, if anything, indicates Godís concern for her well-being. This should remind men that just as they derive serenity and comfort from women, so do women from men. They should also know that the well-being of women is of greater concern to God.

Thirdly, we most definitely do not believe in the equality of all men and all women even as we affirm that there is no intrinsic difference between man and woman. It is on account of circumstances that at times some women gain superiority over other women, some men gain superiority over other men and some men leave other women behind, while at other times, women prevail over men in the pursuit of excellence. Hence, the success of a handful of people over others is no proof of the superiority of one gender over another.

Of course, the superiority of some men who were ordained prophets over all men and women is evident. But this in itself does not prove any difference between the vast majority of men and women who are not prophets; this is no evidence of the superiority of the entire breed of men over women. Can any other woman lay claim to the eminence and respect enjoyed by Hazrat Amina who gave birth to Prophet Muhammad or mothers of other prophets? Absolutely not! It was an honor that God had reserved since the beginning of time for these fortunate ladies, and hence, they became its beneficiaries. So what if all the women in the world belong to the same gender as them? Likewise, would it be proper to assume that all the men of the world possess some part of the God-given esteem that prophets have only because they are part of the same gender?

 

Scriptural Claims Men rulers over women?

After the above-mentioned logical assertions and claims, we come to the scripture-based claims. But these are equally erroneous as they are based on a complete misunderstanding of the meaning of the Quran. The foremost proof that they derive from the Holy Quran comes from the Quranic verse which is generally translated as: Men are qawwamun (the protectors and maintainers) of/over (ala) women because God has faddala (preferred) some of them over some others and because they support them from their means. The theologians explaining this verse expound that men have been endowed with two types of higher qualities. One is the capacity to think and act and the other is the fact that men provide for the various needs of women, like food, clothing, shelter, etc.

I do not agree with this explanation because, first of all, translating qawwamun literally as "master" is in my opinion not correct. In fact, except for Maulana Shah Abdul Qadir no one else has translated it as such. Shah Rafi-ud-Din has translated qawwamun as "someone who is ready to move or is on the go," while his father, Shah Wali Ullah, translated it as "counsel, manager." In another Persian translation, known as the Sheikh Saíadi Translation, qawwamun has been translated as a "manager", "in-charge." Maulana Qadir does not clarify what according to him is the meaning of "some have been ranked superior over some others" in the verse. If the first "some" stands for some men and the second for some women, how does it establish the superiority of all men over all women? If on the other hand in both instances "some" refers to men, then how does saying that some men are superior to other men prove all menís superiority over all women? And if the verse is addressing all human beings, even if the first "some" implies all men and the second "some" implies all women it still does not establish the inherent natural or God-given superiority of all men over all women.

Besides, it is not at all clear from the verse in what sense superiority is implied. If one were to assume that in the first part of the verse what is being referred to is menís superior capacity for thought and action while the latter refers to the superiority arising owing to the fact that men pay for the maintenance of women it can be argued that the latter distinction does not arise from any God-given difference between men and women. That is why we cannot accept this as an argument for superiority. Menís superiority over women that may be achieved through pursuit of knowledge, excellence of character or other qualities that are an outcome of education and good upbringing is quite a different thing from the claim that men are superior to women by the mere fact of being men. The first is self-acquired or self-created while the second is intrinsic. There are many women who possess these self-acquired qualities of intellect and conduct more than men and in such cases they would obviously be superior to men.

Can anybody claim that Abu Jehalís (uncle of Prophet Mohammed who remained opposed to Islam throughout his life) ability to think and act was superior to that of Hazrat Khadija (first wife of the prophet? Or that Abu Laheb (another uncle, who was similarly opposed to Islam) was superior to Hazrat Fatima (daughter of the prophet)? Or that all men or a majority of them have more knowledge and love of God than Hazrat Rabia Basry (a renowned female sufi saint from Basra, Iraq)? A father also spends money on his children and pays wages to his servants. Can one conclude from this that the master is intrinsically superior to the servant? Absolutely not! If due to some quirk of fate the master-servant relation gets reversed wonít the superior-inferior relation also get reversed, even though this contradicts the notion of inherent superiority?

Thus this much-quoted verse cannot in any way be considered proof of the superiority of men over women. In fact, the meaning of the verse is straightforward and obvious. The word qawwamun here is used as a form of hyperbole and must not be taken literally. A person who does not find much time to sit and rest due to his hectic schedule and business, a person who is on the go most of the time, is referred to as qawwam. Since men have to travel to far off lands to earn a living and provide for his family, men have been declared qawwam or managers and caretakers of women. Since the world is full of all types of people, rich or poor, weak or strong, generous or miserly, God states that He has granted distinction to one over the other. Men are being asked to take care, look after their wives in keeping with their status, position and economic condition. This verse does not talk of sovereignty and servility. If at all it does, even a cursory reflection shows that men need to be careful as they have a religious duty towards women.

 

Unequal: Testimony and Shares?

The second spurious logic is based on the fact that the Quran has declared the testimony of two women equal to the testimony of one man and a womanís share in inheritance has been pronounced as half that of a man. But even this does not prove any real or inherent superiority. We need to consider several aspects here. Firstly, the cultural condition under which women have been kept leaves them ignorant, illiterate and inexperienced. Given the consequent difference of understanding and experience, if the testimony of men and women were treated on par in all manner of issues and trials, it could result in miscarriage of justice.

The Quranic verse in which the testimony of two women is declared equal to that of one man concerns loan agreements. In traditional societies, women are given little opportunity to engage in data gathering, documentation, account-keeping and court matters. Lack of education, awareness and experience in such matters are outside the realm of womenís everyday experience. Men on the other hand routinely deal with such matters and therefore have no such handicap. That is why, instead of one woman, the testimony of two women is considered necessary, so that, in case, one woman forgets the details of the case, the other woman can help her recall. This in fact is the rationale given by the Quran itself: "Two women should be present, so that if one woman forgets, the other may help her recall." If the Quran cites this difference arising out of social circumstance as the rationale for two women being present during a testimony and does not say that womenís testimony is worth half that of a man, who are petty theologians with fanciful notions and faulty logic to pass such judgment against half of humankind?

Secondly, the decree of the Quran regarding such testimony is an enabling provision, the observance of which has not been declared obligatory on Muslims. Latching on to an enabling provision elevating it to the status of an obligatory edict and feeding that into the male supremacy argument shows the insularity and sterility of the male mind. Thirdly, as we have stated earlier, the reason for the testimony of two women equaling that of one man is due to social circumstances and not because of the superiority or inferiority of men and women. It is not difficult to appreciate this for apart from the context of loans-related disputes, in matters familiar to women such as nikah (marriage), talaq (divorce), hudood-o-qisas (crime and punishment), where too testimony is involved, God makes no distinction between men and women.

Fourthly, there is an account from the life of the Prophet which actually establishes preference to a single womanís testimony over others. Sahi Bukhari (the collection of sayings of the Prophet considered to be among the most authentic) narrates the account of Aqba bin Haris, who had married some girl. A woman later objected to this wedding saying that the marriage was not legitimate as she had breastfed both the bride and the groom. Aqba told the woman he did not believe her since she had never before mentioned breast feeding him. He later asked his in-laws and they too said that to the best of their knowledge, the woman had never breastfed their daughter either. Eventually, Aqba went to the Prophet and narrated the story. The testimony of just one woman was enough for the Prophet to nullify the nikah thus terminating the marriage.

Now, can the learned fuqha (jurists) quote even a single example where such a verdict was given on the basis of a single manís testimony? Yet, it is well known that every now and then, however reluctantly, the fuqha are compelled to rely on the testimony of a single woman to give their ruling. Fifthly, it is possible that the primary reason behind recognizing two womenís testimony as equal to that of one man is that women sometimes are unable to appear before the court due to physical constraints. In such a situation, the advantage of having two women present is that if one is invalid, the other woman would be able to testify. If anything, granting women the option of being able to have her testimony placed on record by another woman affirms the primacy rather the diminishing of womenís rights.

As for share in inheritance, declaring unequal share for men and women does not prove the superiority of men at all. The burden of looking after all of a womanís financial needs lie entirely on the man, while women bear the easier task of housework. Since a man was charged with the responsibility of providing not only for himself but also his wife and children, how would it be appropriate to grant a woman Ė who receives wedding-time gifts from her parents, mehr from the husband, is entitled to be adequately taken care of by her husband alimony on divorce, and unlike man has no obligation to spend what is hers on anyone else Ė a share equal to that of the man in the distribution of inheritance?

This in itself should be a clear and indisputable proof that God is more compassionate and generous towards women. How else can one explain the fact that in spite of being fully entitled to her due share in her husbandís income, she is also entitled to receive a separate share from her fatherís inheritance, and has the right to alimony? Hence, in the distribution of inheritance, her share in accordance with Islamic laws does not establish the superiority of men. In fact, it validates the primacy of women.

 

Adam came first?

The male supremacy claim based on the fact that Adam was created first is nothing but childish. To begin with, we are tempted to assert that this is so because it was not acceptable to God that a woman is left without a companion for even a second. Therefore, it is for her sake that He created Adam first. But as a matter of fact, the belief that Adam was created first and then came Eve is part of the Christian and Jewish faith. This is not at all part of the Islamic creed. There is no mention in the Quran about who was created first, Adam or Eve.

 

Men allowed multiple wives?

The permission to men to marry four women at a time while women are prohibited from marrying more than one man is a false claim. The problem is that people are literalists who look for the meaning of words in isolation instead of striving to grasp their real meaning and thus unraveling the divine intent. Men gloat over the fact that a Quranic verse clearly entitles men to marry more than one wife: "You may marry two or three or four women whom you choose". But a little reflection will show that there is no such clear-cut license in the Quran. In fact, having more than one wife at a time is virtually forbidden and those who violate it could be guilty of adultery.

Firstly, some effort is needed to understand this verse in its true perspective. It is not at all clear whether the divine injunction permits a man to have four wives at the same time or whether all that is being said is that a man is permitted to marry sequentially up to four wives. Is it Godís command that on the death of the first wife a man is permitted to remarry and so on, but only one wife at a time is permitted and no marriage fifth time is permitted. Or is it being said that if for some health reasons the first wife is unable to meet her marital obligations, a man is permitted a second wife, even a third or fourth wife for similar reasons? Or are men being told that a man may remarry after divorcing his first wife, and similarly remarry following a second, third and fourth divorce but never after that? Or is it the divine command that no marriage after the first is permitted except with the permission of his current wife or her relations?

Since the verse under consideration is not such whose meaning is clear and unambiguous, we consider it to be among the non-explicit verses of the Quran which theologically speaking cannot be used to assert the veracity of a particular interpretation. For this reason this verse cannot be a basis for Shariah law.

Whether the ulema agree or not, the most likely interpretation in my view is that the permission for subsequent marriage is strictly subject to the willing consent of the first wife or her family members. Our conviction is based on the life of none other than Prophet Mohammed. According to a Hadith in Sahih Bukhari, Hazrat Ali intended to marry Abu Jehalís daughter who had converted to Islam even though he was already married to Hazrat Fatima. Hence the relatives of the prospective bride requested permission from the Holy Prophet. On hearing this, the Holy Prophet became very angry. Ascending the pulpit to deliver a sermon he announced: these people are asking for my permission as father to allow them to marry off their daughter to Ali even when my daughter is already married to him. But I will not allow it, I will not allow it, I will not allow it. If Ali really wants to do this, then he must divorce my daughter and only then take another wife. Fatima is very close to my heart, whosoever does her wrong, does me wrong and whosoever hurts her, hurts me.

This Hadith supports the interpretation of the Quranic verse under discussion that permission is a must for the second marriage. The unequivocal opposition from the Prophet proves that it is up to the current wife and her relatives to give or refuse permission. If contracting the second marriage had been permitted by God without consent of the first wife or her relatives, then the Prophetís conduct would be considered against the will of God, something that is inconceivable for a Muslim.

As we will discuss in the section on marriage (this is a separate chapter in Huqooq Niswan which is not reproduced here) that our ulema and religious leaders have given women the right to stipulate at the time of nikah itself that the husband will not contract a second marriage. Making this condition part of the marriage contract also shows that the second marriage depends on the permission of the first wife. If this consent was not mandatory, placing a condition in this regard at the time of nikah would not have been considered legal and neither would it be religiously binding afterwards. In other words, contrary to widespread perception, there is no blanket permission in the Quran for men to marry up to four vies.

Thirdly, and most importantly, in the verse under discussion, there is a clear-cut directive and an almost impossible-to-meet pre-condition for bigamy. A husband is permitted more than one wife on the strict condition that he ensures justice to all. It is further stipulated that if you are afraid that you will not be able to ensure this, stick to one wife. Now the question is: what are the requirements for justice? Is it possible for the average man to be able to observe it in practice? Most ulema contend that in a marriage, meeting the wifeís daily expenditures, paying her maintenance allowance, providing housing, spending time with the wife and discharging of conjugal duties as a husband are the various requirements of justice. However, we believe that true love and companionship are the paramount consideration in marriage and therefore the essential criteria for fair play and just treatment. And we firmly believe that in a bigamous or polygamous situation, this condition is virtually impossible for a man to meet.

Our adversariesí object saying there is no point in contemplating something that is practically impossible. If there is nothing to be gained by such discourse, Godís directive is rendered devoid of any practical implication, they say. Our answer to this proposition is that we believe that the real purpose of marriage is to find a lifelong companion, friend and comrade who shares with the spouse the ups and downs of life, is the source of solace and comfort at the end of the daily grind. When referring to the creation of Eve and commendation of marriage God says, "We have placed the love of women in your hearts so that you receive comfort and solace from them." Therefore, if this aspect is excluded from the marital bond, the relationship gets limited to the satisfaction of male lust.

At another place in the Quran, God asserts, "You will not be able to do justice to your women (wives) even if you strive for it." It is a basic axiom in Quranic elucidation that for internal consistency and coherence, to the extent possible you search for, unravel the meaning of any verse through other verses. The meaning of justice, for example, must remain uniform throughout the Quran. Now if the justice-to-all command in the verse quoted above is limited to what the ulema who oppose us claim it to be, then the same meaning of justice must apply to the second verse above. Why then does God proclaim that it is impossible for you to treat your wives justly? Why is God categorically and unambiguously asserting that you will not be able to render equal justice to your wives? God Almighty firmly states that you will never be able to do justice but the ulema who support polygamy assert: No, we can do justice! If this is not daring God what is?

However, one might legitimately ask: if God knows that man cannot do justice and says so in plain words in the Quran, why grant permission for up to four wives? Does this impossible to meet criteria not render the permission meaningless? To this we reiterate that, firstly, whatever the Quran says is simple and clear as we have already explained. You ask God what the use of this meaningless permission is. For our part, to the extent that we are able to comprehend the Holy Book, we do not find any difficulty understanding it. Clearly, the way God has granted permission for more than one wife is virtually impossible to achieve. In our view, the granting of permission in this circuitous manner is in fact a severe admonition to desist from misogyny. If a person consumed by greed is told that if he finds the phoenix he will also be able to achieve alchemy, it does not imply a belief on anyoneís part in the actual existence of the phoenix. Or a belief on the addresseeís part that he is quite hopeful of its possession and that the day he finds the phoenix alchemy is sure to follow.

Another good example in this regard could be presented from a Quranic verse in Surah Aaraaf. It reads: "No infidel will enter Paradise until such time as a camel passes through the eye of a needle." To conclude from this that there will indeed come a time when a camel will pass through the eye of a needle is to present a distorted picture of divine intent. Interestingly, under cover of poetic license a poet taking this statement on face value presents a very comical thought: "Had the miseries which befell me fallen on the camel, infidels would enter paradise." What the poet means to say is that the camel would become so lean due to grief that it would be able to pass through the eye of the needle. And since their entry in paradise was subject to this condition, infidels would then gain easy access to paradise! Godís edict concerning the taking of more than one wife is similar, when He warns that with multiple wives there is great danger of injustice.

Of course, if there exists a man who is confident that he would never do any injustice, then he may marry as many women as he likes: two, three, or four. In fact, it is only a figure of speech to say marry as many women as you want: there is no special sanctity to the number four. Trying to establish divine permission for multiple wives from this verse is no different from the above mentioned poetic imagination concerning the admission of infidels in paradise.

Keeping Fiqh and Tafseer principles in mind, this verse should be deliberated upon from another angle which has not been done sufficiently hitherto. In my opinion, deriving an edict concerning nikah from this verse is in itself a big mistake. The fact is that this verse is concerned with only a certain form of marriage. During the pre-Islamic period of ignorance (jahiliyah), Arab men used to indulge in an extremely vile and heartless practice. They would adopt orphan girls, bring them up, and when they matured, they would marry them with devious intent. Since the orphans had no family, the men would seize all the property of the orphans after marriage. The sole reason for adopting and later marrying these girls was to grab their possessions, just like even nowadays some men marry dance girls only with the intention of getting access to their riches. There are others who despite being married to a good woman are forever on the lookout for some wealthy woman to marry.

The obvious message of this verse is Godís warning to men against the then prevalent deceitful practice. The Quran forbids cruelty towards these orphan girls, commanding men to be judicious as to the rights of orphans. It is also made very clear that if you have any doubt about your ability to do justice, fear that if you marry such helpless orphans you will commit some wrong, by no means must you marry such girls. Instead marry other women with parents or guardians who can hold you accountable for your treatment of them. But even then justice remains a non-negotiable requirement, for that is the true principle behind marriage. If you can do justice, then you can contract up to four marriages; if not, limit yourself to only one wife.

It should be abundantly clear from what has been said above that the verse in question was not a general decree on marriage. Rather it was aimed at warning against the fraudulent dispossession of helpless orphan girls. So even today if there are such people who are guardians of orphan girls they must not marry them if they have any misgivings of unjust conduct on their own part later. Apart from the context of orphans, the Quran is silent on nikah. Perhaps, the issue has been left to both parties intending to marry according to their social status, cultural circumstances and preferences. Consequently, this verse in the Quran is no evidence of a blanket license to men to marry up to four women. And that is why this edict can be no argument in support of menís superiority.

 

Male right to divorce

As for divorce, the right of divorce that men have been granted is such that they should be extremely cautious about exercising it. In fact the only way men can lay claim to be decent and civilized is by not exercising this right outside exceptional circumstances. Divorce is such a sour medicine that the only ailment it should be administered for is that which has no other cure. Husband-wife relations are so delicate and private that going to courts and divulging them before others can only add to their grief and sorrow. It is true that nikah is an agreement like any other civil contract. After the covenant is signed, each party reserves the right to force his/her partner who is bent on violating the contract to abide by it and not strain the relationship. But it is also the case that only broken hearts think of terminating the contract. And when that stage is reached even if one is forced to continue with the contract, it can only be under duress. The relationship then will be a sham rather than the product of mutual love and respect.

The marital contract is after all premised on a meeting of hearts and when that no longer holds true what is left is a spiritless, physical proximity. In such circumstances both parties need to consider the worth of continuing such a relationship merely on the strength of a court decree although emotionally they are already distant from each other. Under such circumstances it is best that they part ways by mutual consent.

As to the question: who has been/should be given this right? In my opinion, if hostility between husband and wife is the reason for divorce, no matter who is bestowed with the right the result will be the same. It is not generally the case that a man says to his wife that he does not want her any longer, but the wife is still full of love for the husband and reluctant to end the relationship. We are of the opinion that in such a situation they should part ways irrespective of whether the man demands it or the woman.

No one can deny the fact that women are imbued with greater modesty, decency and desire to protect their dignity and honor as compared to men. It seems as if modesty and decorum are part of their genetic makeup and all those elements that bring out the gentleness which nature has conferred upon women, are apparent in abundant measure. Kindness, compassion, God-fear, empathy and love are innate qualities in women. A separation through divorce no matter how genuine the reasons would understandably be far more painful for one whose basic nature is constituted of love and kindness. Divorce for women Ė the personification of love Ė whoís every fiber is imbued with sincerity, would obviously be a most undesirable thing.

That is why God has protected women against precipitating an act. The Prophet declared divorce as being the worst act amongst all acts acceptable to God. Protect women, he preached to his followers. What an irony that something which has been termed the worst practice by God is touted as an argument for male superiority. In any case, we need to examine whether in fact men alone have the right to divorce. It is quite possible that men having lost interest in their wives refuse to divorce with the sole purpose of torturing them. In such situations, women have been given the right to unilaterally seek divorce through a court of law. This right of the women is called Ďkhulaí. In this way, she has the right to initiative separation proceedings. But even in such situations God protects her from any blame because on the face of it she is merely asking the court for justice.

Women can choose to terminate a marriage for other reasons too. It is reported in Akhbar-e-Sahiha that a very beautiful woman, Hafza binte Sahal, lived in Medina during the time of the Prophet. Her husband who was ugly loved his wife very much but the woman hated him. They would quarrel every day. At last, Hafza told the Prophet that she hated her husband very much and feared that she might be held accountable by God for not fulfilling her responsibilities as a wife. Therefore, she requested the Prophet to separate her from her husband. The Prophet tried to convince the woman but when he saw that harmony between the two was difficult, he asked the man to divorce her.

The husband told the Prophet that he had gifted precious land to his wife. Since she now wanted a divorce for no fault of his, his land should be returned to him. Hafza said he was welcome to the estate and anything else he may want as long as he let her go. In the end, the Prophet asked the land to be returned and ended their marriage.

What better right could be granted to women to protect them from the excesses of their husbands than the rights which have already been given to them under the Islamic law?

 

For men, houris in paradise

When all worldly logic fails to prove manís superiority over women, he turns to the Hereafter to establish his case. It is claimed that men have been promised very beautiful women ó houris ó in paradise. But this claim is as shameful and worthless as are the rest of them. The words of the Quran on which this imaginary superiority is based are: "Walahum feeha azwaaj motaharra" ("For them there will be virtuous partners in paradise"). They conclude from this verse that "hum" which is a masculine pronoun means men and azwaaj refers to the virgin maidens of paradise. However, this interpretation of the verse shows total ignorance of the special Quranic style of discourse.

The Quran has a distinctive style. Wherever the reference is to humanity at large, the masculine gender is used to convey its message. Look at the very first surah (chapter of the Quran) of the Quran, where God says: "Hudayyil muttaqeenallazina youmenoona bil ghaibe wa yaqeemun al salawath") ("Believers who have faith in the Day of Judgment and the unseen and who establish prayers"). Here only the masculine pronoun has been used but that surely does not mean that the Quran is only for the guidance of those pious men who have faith in the unseen and who pray regularly. Obviously women too are being addressed. In hundreds of places, the Quran refers to "aqueemul salwatah wa utu al zakaah" (those who pray regularly and pay the religious tax) using the masculine pronoun. Would it be right then to believe that the edict regarding prayers and payment of the obligatory tax is only for men while women have been exempted from these obligations? Certainly not!

Similarly, the Quranic edict concerning prayers and fasting, "mun shahada minkum al shahada faleesummha", read literally means: "Those (men) among you who have cited the moon must start fasting". Were we to believe that here women are excluded from fasting during Ramzaan, women will be altogether free of this obligation since we do not find any separate mention of this obligation for women elsewhere in the Quran. To repeat, in numerous places in the Quran though the masculine pronoun is used, the reference is obviously to both men and women. Incidentally, such usage is not uncommon in Urdu. For example, Bura karnay wale ka anjaam bura hota hai ("those who commit evil deeds will be meet their just ends"). As we all know, "wale" is masculine and walee feminine. Obviously it does not mean that "bura karne walee" women have nothing to worry about.

Similarly, it is not correct to take the word zouj to mean Ďa womaní. In Arabic, zouj means "partner". A woman is zouj of a man while a man is zouj of a woman. The expression "huqooq zoujain" ("the rights of partners") well illustrates the point of gender equality. Thus, the verse simply means that those who carry out righteous deeds will enter paradise and will have virtuous partners for companionship. That is, for men there will be women and for women there will be men.

This interpretation might seem surprising and elicit the question: we know, men will have houris, but who will be womenís partners? This confusion arises only because to pamper their own egos, men have decided to read certain passages of the Quran in a way that suits them and have convinced themselves that they have the right interpretation. Though they seem to accept the right interpretation when it is pointed out to them and claim to have jettisoned their earlier understanding, the fact is that they unconsciously stick to old ideas which linger in the mind. Old habits die hard and they find it difficult to internalize the new understanding even after apparently having come around to accepting them.

Muslim men have for long held the firm conviction that come the Day of Reckoning and there will be houris lying in wait for them in paradise. We explain to them that this is a mistaken view, so dislodge it from your mind and understand the real meaning of the Quran. Alright, they say, we accept what you say. But tell us: men will have houris as partners, but who will be womenís partners? Clearly with the thought of houris still has a strong hold on their imagination. They have not really accepted what they claim to have and this is a big folly.

The fact is that there is not a single verse in the Quran to indicate that the houris of paradise are a separate creation intended as reward for pious men. In the Arabic language all fair-complexioned woman with black eyes are called "hoor" (houri). The Quran clearly states that on the day of reckoning all human beings will be resurrected, all young in age. There is no further detail concerning men. But about women God specifically states that when resurrected all women be virgin and of marriageable age just like the resurrected men.

It is these very women who are variously described in the Quran as "houris" (black-eyed), "qaaserat ul fitrat" (of modest disposition), "khairaat" (good wives), "azwaaj" (wives). Referring to certain verses in the Quran and sayings of the Prophet, some of his Companions (Ibn Abbas for example,) have clearly taken the view that all the words in the Quran which are taken to imply that houris are a species apart from human beings in fact refer to none other than the women inhabitants of planet earth. When it is said that they are virgins it only means that this is so since their resurrection.

It is clear then that the beautiful women who are being referred to in the Quran are the very wives who once inhabited the earth but who will be resurrected as very beautiful and loving companions. In paradise where no one will ever age the pious women will provide companionship forever to their pious husbands. In Surah Hadd, Allah says that those who are rewarded with life eternal in paradise will get to meet their near and dear ones: parents, wives, children. In Surah Toor also it is mentioned that Allah will bring together in paradise those who are virtuous and whose children too are virtuous. In Surah Zakhraf it is stated: enter paradise with your wives and roam about freely. There are several other verses where it is reiterated that the virtuous who enter paradise will meet their virtuous relations there.

From all that has been said above it should be evident that it is neither the case that men have special mental faculties nor has the Quran given any elevated status to men because of which they should be considered superior. A close study of Shariah clearly establishes that men and women have equal rights. Surah Nisa, the one that contains many verses concerning women begins as follows: "O people, fear your Creator who has created you all of the same kind and created your partners from the same". The surah spells out the rights of heirs, orphans and women and anyone who might do injustice towards them is dealt a severe warning. It is asserted that men and women are created from a single nafs (self), with similar thoughts and feelings. Be it men or women, anyone who is oppressed or victimized feels pain just like you would in their place because you have all been made alike. So fear Allah and beware of committing any injustice against anyone.

In this surah, even though the husband has been given the responsibility of looking after all his wifeís needs, she has been granted a share in her fatherís property equal to half of the manís share. Whatís more, in certain situations a womanís share has been made the same as that of manís. For example, if the deceased leaves behind parents and children, each parent is entitled to a sixth of the total property, that is, the mother and the father get the same amount. In a situation where the deceased leaves behind neither parents nor children but only brothers and sisters, the share of the sisters are to be equal to that of the brothers.

In addition to the above, the wife is entitled to mehr (dower) from the husband at the time of marriage. In the event of divorce, however large the amount, the husband is not entitled to demand the return of even a penny. Before Islam there was a cruel practice in Arabia whereby when a husband lost interest in the wife he would mistreat her to the point that she would ask for divorce and return the dower amount. Declaring this to be an evil practice, Allah has warned Muslim men from misbehaving with their wives with the intent of recovering the dower amount from her.

At the same time, men have been commanded to behave decently with their wives. The Quran goes on to say that even if you dislike your wife for some reason you must still treat her well for it is possible that Allah may intend some good for you from the very thing you dislike. The principle of gender parity is reiterated, saying that men have a right to a portion of what they earn and women have a right to a portion of what they earn. In other words, both are equal, neither is superior to the other. To each there is a reward for his or her good deeds.

The womanís right to divorce through the khula system has been stated as follows: "If a woman fears misbehavior on the part of her husband, there is no harm if the two of them resolved matters amicably. But if they decide to separate, Allah will be equally generous with both". In the event of domestic conflict, the way prescribed for attempting resolution is equally gender just: If there is a misunderstanding between husband and wife, appoint two arbitrators, one from the manís family, the other from the womanís. No doubt, the more you reflect on the verses of the Quran, the more you will realize that the gender justice principle comes through clear and consistent.

The only difference between men and women has to do with their reproductive organs and there is no physical or mental prowess involved here. That woman are the "weaker sex" has only one implication: women give birth to children and bring them up, so men should perform arduous tasks and earn for the upkeep of the entire family.

Some medical experts claim to have recently detected a small disparity in the brain capacity of men and women. It is claimed that men have the capacity for totalizing, comprehensive thought, for analyzing things in intricate detail while women find it difficult to move conceptually from the particular to the general. Firstly, this proposition appears to be hypothetical and whimsical, and the same has yet to be established scientifically. If per chance, it were to be conclusively proved in the future, it would at best mean that men have a capacity that women lack relatively speaking and vice versa. For the moment the fact remains that until the present there has never arisen an issue, problem or challenge in the intellectual domain which men are able to address or comprehend but not women.

In fact, as far as some of my friendsí and my own experience are concerned, we find that compared to boys girls are sharper, more intelligent, more conscientious. I have been very pleasantly surprised to learn of many girls who never got to attend a madrasa and yet have learnt to read and write on their own. In most cases, they neither had access to formal education, nor to anyone at home who assumed the responsibility of tutoring them. They simply picked up some words from a sister, some from a brother, a few things now and then from the mother. They learnt to write by simply watching their siblings do the same. Gradually, through such self-learning they became educated enough to start teaching their younger brothers. But we have yet to come across a single example of a boy who is self-taught in similar fashion. Parents or elder brothers, who have taught a boy and a girl of the same age, would know that boys are relatively speaking dense and dim-witted, a dead loss as compared to girls.

As far as moral values are concerned, women are by far in the lead. Modesty, humility and decency are virtues you find in abundance in women; you wonít find even a tenth of the same in men. Some men are so prejudiced against women that if a widow opts for a second marriage after the death of her husband, it becomes a proof of their supposed treachery. But the same men have no qualms practicing polygamy and ignoring their obligations towards any of the wives Ė both contrary to the teachings of Islam. They remarry no sooner than the death of the wife, with not a momentís thought on how the step-mother will behave with the children from the earlier marriage. None of this ever invokes the betrayal charge against men while poor helpless, God-fearing widows who, to escape their desperate circumstances, look for succor through remarriage in keeping with the teachings of Allah and his prophet are immediately rendered unfaithful.

If remarriage per se is proof of treachery why are men, who practice polygamy merely to satisfy their lust, who violate Shariah laws, who sow thorns in the path of their children not declared the worst betrayers the most untrustworthy of all? Should not such hypocrites who pour scorn over widows who remarry have some shame?

It is not a practice among Muslims but consider the extraordinary devotion and commitment of Hindu women to their husbands. Granted, the sati system a repugnant practice. But think of what it involves and ask yourself honestly: is there an example anywhere in the world, from men of any race or religion, that could come even remotely close to such an example, of men are prepared to unhesitatingly sacrifice their life for the love of their wives?

Apart from all that has been said above which goes to show that women are superior beings, it is also worth noting that though God has no visage or features, yet for believers from all spiritual traditions Beauty is among His attributes. Muslims believe that God is the bestower of beauty and all beauty is dear to Him. Who can doubt that He has blessed women with a greater share of this divine attribute, that in every nation and country women are more beautiful than men? Does this not indicate that God is more well-disposed towards women?

Quite understandably, women blessed with this radiant gift, this amazing magnetic quality are more than able to hold their own against the most powerful, the mightiest and the most sagely amongst men. Who does not know that the most lion-hearted among men who never yielded before the worldís greatest misfortunes or calamities, who never cowered before the deadliest of weapons get mesmerized by one darting glance from a beautiful woman? Which is that lightning power whose single spark can ignite the senses of the bravest and the self-control of the most sagely amongst the hermits? Who does not know that one alluring feminine look is sufficient to melt the resolve of many a sage, or bring the iron-willed to their knees?

Who can deny that the beauty that so entrances is but a speck of divine splendor, a spark of the sun that illuminates the world? Why then should women not proclaim with pride:

"Garche khurdeem nisbate sat buzurg

zarra aftaab ta baaneem"

(A speck of dust Sire, to you may be

The sun is where I am coming from).

(See edit on page 3 for more on the writer. )

(Translated for Urdu by Javed Anand).


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