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Pathways of the Feminine in the Muslim Tradition

According to the Sura of Women, God created human beings from one person or soul and the term used to define this one person or soul evokes both sexes. Amongst the ninety-nine names for God, ‘the merciful’and ‘the compassionate’ stand out. Etymologically, they refer back to the maternal womb.

This article was published in Oasis 11. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-06-19 14:45:58


The sura of the Koran on ‘women’ is in large measure on and about women and their legal status.[1] It begins as follows: ‘In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate Mankind, fear your Lord, who created you of a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them scattered abroad many men and women; and fear God by whom you demand one of another, and the wombs’ [Koran 4:1; cf. 39:6]. According to this second statement, God created all human beings from a single person or a single soul (nafs wâhida). The term nafs, soul or person, is morphologically masculine but invariably agrees with the feminine. Many exegetes have dwelt upon the employment by God in His book of such a name to refer to Adam the first man. Amongst others, Fakhr al-Dîn al-Râzî (died 1209), in his Keys to the Arcane, refers to another feminine noun that the Koran applies to Adam, namely khalîfa, vicar of God, ‘he who takes the place of someone and succeeds him.’ This approach is important: without having to postulate that the Holy Book of Islam conceals a female beginning, it is evident that in the mentality that guided it the notion of progression or posterity is female. It is no accident that amongst the ninety-nine names of God, al-Rahmân and al-Rahîm – ‘the Merciful’, ‘the Compassionate’ stand out. These share the etymology of rahma, compassion or gift, but they also refer to the matrix of the maternal womb, rahim o rahm. Râzî emphasises this when remembering a saying of the Prophet: ‘God is al-Rahmân and the mother is al-rahim, her name comes from His.’ Whatever the case, the description of Adam as a ‘single soul’ leads this author to emphasise the first ethical precept, universal sympathy: the Lord orders fear of Him – ‘Mankind, fear your Lord’ – and immediately states that He created us all from one soul – ‘created you of a single soul’ – and in this way He wanted to teach that obedience means meditating on the shared origin of all of us from one human being and to multiply affection and compassion for every creature. Once it was established that a ‘single soul,’ the shared progenitor of everyone, is Adam, exegesis encountered a new question of gender: ‘from it created its mate’ (zawj) (Koran 4:1; cf. 30:21: ‘He created for you, of yourselves, spouses, that you might repose in them, and He has set between you love and mercy’). The term translated by the term ‘spouse’ is masculine from a morphological point of view; literally it applies to the ‘other of the two’ without a specification of gender. Some exegetes, especially in the field of mysticism, picked up on the neglect of gender that is implicit in the use of this term which repeats the indeterminateness of the primordial soul or ‘nafs.’ This was the case with Qushayrî (died 1072) in his Subtleties of Indications which reads in the ‘spouse’ of Adam a generic analogue, a reproduction. But the overwhelming majority of exegetes agreed in translating the other of Adam by ‘Eve,’ in Arabic Hawwâ’. Thus they eliminated the ambiguity (of nafs), forgot the reciprocity (of zawj) and insisted that Eve was a part or portion of the first man. And they reintegrated the Biblical theme of the rib about which the Koran is silent. Tabarî (died 923), in his Collection of Declarations, stressed the original and temporary uniqueness of man which after a certain fashion reflects the eternal uniqueness of God: ‘The Most High describes Himself, the Unique One, through the creation of all human from a single individual; thus He makes known to His servants that... each one has an obligation to respect the right of the other as a right of a brother over a brother.’ Tabarî also observes that God threw Adam into a sleep, then took a rib from his left side, and while Adam was sleeping and felt nothing He readjusted that part of him. From the rib He created his spouse (zawja), Eve, to whom He gave the form of a woman so that he could repose with her. According to another ancient account related by the same author: ‘Adam was walking in the Garden, sad and alone, he did not have another (zawj) with whom to repose. He fell asleep and when he awoke he saw by his side a woman whom God had created from his rib: “Why were you created?” he asked her. “So that you could repose with me,” she answered.’ The image of the man and the woman in the Garden, their trusting living with each other, is very sweet; that single progenitor obtained serenity and found a dwelling and shelter in the new creature who was his counterpart, his complement. In the sura on the Creatures who sow one reads: ‘And of everything created We two kinds (zawjayni, dual of zawj), haply you remember… And set not up with God another god’ [Koran 51:49-51]. This is completeness in duality which helps men to reflect on the very singular uniqueness of God. The reciprocity of man and woman is illuminated again in the Book, for that matter in a verse from the Sura of the Cow: ‘they are a vestment (libâs) for you, and you are a vestment for them’ [Koran 2:187]. When Tabarî read this verse he thought of a strong embrace between spouses, when the body of one becomes for the other like that spouse’s clothes, protecting that spouse from the eyes of people and from falling into the illicit. And, to stress the mutual giving of serenity and mutual trust which makes up conjugal union, he refers to another vestment that God benevolently bestowed upon mankind: ‘It is He who appointed the night for you to be a garment and sleep for a rest, and day He appointed for a rising’ [Koran 25:47]. Arguments that Existed Prior to Revelation In the explanations and accounts just cited, the progenitors are figures with an intact serenity; the rib is an integral part of the man and does not imply a reduction of value. But Muslim exegesis also rested upon a position which involved a different intention and which laid emphasis upon how the woman derived from the man – following Koran 30:21, all woman were ‘created…of yourselves’ – and hence woman’s specific subordination; thus they upheld the misogyny which as we know was common in the Semitic past. One should remember that these accounts figured in later works in which cultural arguments that existed prior to the revelation of the Koran re-emerged. One example is offered by the Andalusian Qurtubî, ‘the Cordovan’ (d. 1272) and his work The Collection of the Precepts of the Koran. ‘Eve was created from Adam’s rib without him suffering as a result because if he had felt pain no man would have felt affection for his woman. When he awoke the angels asked him: “Adam, do you love her?” “Yes,” he replied. They asked Eve: “And you, Eve, do you love him?” “No,” she said…Some have stated that if a woman has ever spoken with sincerity about her love for her husband, that woman was Eve.’ ‘Scholars have stated that woman is crooked,’ Qurtubî went on, ‘because she was created from a crooked thing, namely a rib.’ And he immediately cites a saying attributed to the Prophet Mohammed: ‘Woman was created from a rib and cannot stand up straight; if she satisfies you, she satisfies you even though she is crooked.’ Another example is offered by the commentary of Suyûtî (d. 1505), The Scattered Pearls: God created man from the earth, thereby decreeing his yearning for the earth, and created woman from man, thereby decreeing her yearning for men. Thus the author advises: ‘lock up your woman.’ The same is taught by the Hanbalite Ibn Kathîr (d. 1373), a disciple of Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), in his Explanation of the Sublime Koran: greedy and voracious for men, woman should be isolated and imprisoned. And yet the Koran does not directly associate women with reclusion, which was certainly done by subsequent exegetic endeavour, but more with guardianship. And one is not always dealing with guardianship exercised by men in relation to woman. In the Sura on Women one reads: ‘Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for God’s guarding’ [Koran 4:34]. In this passage woman is the subject not the object of guardianship; as regards the ghayb that she is called upon to guard, ‘what escapes or is absent,’ this is a term full of meaning in the Book because for the most part it translates Mystery, that which is precluded to the knowledge of creatures [cf. Koran 6:59]. Commentators were clearly troubled by this drawing near of woman to God, both of whom were involved in the guardianship of Mystery, and they worked to limit its contents. Tabarî explains that righteous women ‘guard what is hidden’ in the sense that they take care of their husbands when they are far from home, and such is the case with the first spokesmen of a cornerstone of subsequent exegesis: the reduction of the ghayb, Inaccessibility, to a more common absence, the occasional and temporary absence of the husband; the guardianship that women are ordered to have becomes guardianship of themselves during the absence of their husbands. As the pupil of the great Ghazâlî (d. 1111) in Bagdad, Ibn al-‘Arabî (d. 1148), declared in his The Precepts of the Koran, during the absence of their husbands women should do nothing that would displease their husbands if they were present and saw them. In the Tradition of the Prophet, obedience to husbands is defined as the cornerstone of female ethics. According to a rather well-known account, a woman went to the Prophet as the representative of other women and said: “This war (jihâd) God prescribed to men; if they suffer they will be rewarded, if they die they will be living with their Lord and will be nourished by Him. And we, a multitude of women, who are before them, will we have nothing?” The Prophet answered: “Tell all the women that you meet that obeying their husbands and acknowledging their rights is equally worthy with God; but very few of you do this.” At the same time Tradition introduced the idea of the necessary concealment of the female. The Prophet is said to have declared: ‘amongst women the best is she who, if you look at her, conceals herself, if you give her an order, obeys it, if you are absent stewards on your behalf herself and your money as well.” There are many variants of this saying of the Prophet, designed to make a concealing of the female a part of religion. ‘There is nothing better for man, after faith in God, than a woman of good character, who conceals herself when you look at her…; there is nothing better for a Muslim, after Islam, than a beautiful woman who conceals herself when he looks at her, who obeys his orders, and who, when he is absent, attends to his money and also to herself.’ ‘A woman must always show herself full of modesty before her husband,’ teaches the Damascene Dhahabî (d. 1348), ‘and lower her face before him. She must obey his orders, remain silent when he speaks, stand up when he arrives, avoid everything that irritates him, be available to him during sleep, not betray his trust when he is absent, neither in bed nor in money nor in the home, embellish herself in his presence and not do this in his absence, honour his family and his relatives and give great consideration to every little thing that comes from him.’ Dhahabî also observes that demonstrating ornaments from under her veil, putting on scent to leave the home and wearing clothes draped around her sides in the Bedouin manner, is behaviour that God abhors: not to conceal oneself, particularly as regards clothing, is something very indecent for a woman. The Great Subject of ‘Guardianship’ Let us return to the Book. The drawing near of women to God already pointed out with reference to the ghayb – ‘guarding the secret,’ Koran 4:34 – is more explicit in the rest of the verse: ‘for God’s guarding.’ According to these words repeat or should repeat a divine action. But again the literature of commentary translated everything into the obedience of a wife to her husband and lastly into the obligation to engage in chastity outside marriage. The first question that the exegetes posed was: what does God guard? Some, like Râzî, thought that given that in this case one was dealing with women God guards the rights of women. The question had legal consequences: women had to guard the rights of their husbands as an exchange for the care that God extends to them, as a dutiful restitution of the good things that God has decreed in their favour by ordering husbands to be fair and to protect them. Some offered the following paraphrase: women must guard their husbands during their absence, just as the more they guard God, the more they fear Him. This possibility at the level of interpretation is based on an idiomatic use of Arabic: ‘for God’s guarding’ means ‘act for him as regards a specific provision.’ Other authors, like the Hanbalite Ibn Kathîr, limit the guardianship requested of women to the guardianship of their chastity outside the marriage tie, and thus to abstention from illicit sexual acts (zinâ). When commenting on guardianship, Ibn Kathîr cites a saying of the Prophet: ‘If a woman prays five times [a day], if she performs her fasting of the month [of ramadân], if she guards her chastity and obeys her husband, it will be said to her: “Enter paradise from the door that you most like.”’ Let us return to the Sura of Women. The passage that has already been examined which applies to believers is immediately preceded by a statement that is very well-known and constantly quoted – ‘Men are the managers of the affairs of women’ [Koran 4:32] – but without attention being paid to its scriptural context. Indeed, it should be remembered that the priority of males is not generalised and meta-historical – as when it is said that ‘He created for you, of yourselves, spouses’ [Koran 30:21] – but belongs to a specifically juridical discourse on the portioning of inheritances, a subject that this sura addresses starting with its first verses. And what follows this passage should be remembered: ‘To everyone We have appointed heirs of that which parents and kinsmen leave…Men are the managers of the affairs of women for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another, and for that they have expended of their property’ [Koran 4:33-34]. The superiority of men is undeniably expressed but only at the level of finance and furthermore with a rational justification for the precept: ‘for that they have expended of their property.’ It is interesting to observe that this justification is secondary to the will of God – ‘for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another’ – and thus, for the umpteenth time in the Koran, human reason with its outcomes finds itself subordinated to divine freedom of choice. Let us now proceed to a reading of the Sura on Women. ‘And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them. If they then obey you, look not for any way against them; God is All-high, All-great’ [Koran 4:34]: the blows are an extreme ratio and when they are necessary must be light. In addition, they explain that the disobedience of women that is addressed is defined by the Book a nushûz, that is to say presumption or haughtiness, and in particular reluctance in sexual relations, which the Sura of the Cow prescribes to man as licit in any way within a legitimate union [cf. Koran 2:223]. Disobedience of the nushûz kind is anyway referred to with reference to man as well, once again in the Sura on Women, with the final sense of repudiation: ‘If a woman fear rebelliousness or aversion in her husband, there is no fault in them if the couple set things right between them; right settlement is better’ [Koran 4:128]. The already mentioned scholar of the prophetic Tradition, Dhahabî, teaches that it is a duty for a woman not to reject her husband when he desires her. The Prophet is said to have declared on a number of occasions that this involves blame from the angels and that “if the husband invites his wife into his bed, she has to go even if the bed is above a brazier.” The same author also teaches that a wife should neither boast of her own beauty not despise her husband for his ugliness if he is ugly. And he relates an event that happened to the famous philosopher Bassora Asmâ‘î (d. 828) during one of his study trips amongst the Bedouin: ‘He reached the desert and met a beautiful woman who had an ugly husband. He asked her: “How can you resign yourself to being under a man such as this?” She answered him: “There are two possibilities: either he is obedient to He who created him, and I am the reward, or I have sinned and he is my punishment.”’ Conversely, since the woman is ordered to obey her husband, Dhahabî reminds the husband to act well with his wife and to bear with patience her possible bad character because God said “treat them with kindness” [Koran 4:19]; and the Prophet is said to have declared “you have a right over your women and your women a right over you” and “the best of you is he who is best with his family.” The superiority of men is affirmed in another famous passage from the Koran: ‘Women have such honourable rights as obligations, but their men have a degree above them; God is All-mighty, All-wise’ [Koran 2:228]. The reciprocity of behaviour of men and women was often understood by Muslim commentators as making themselves mutually pleasing; the Prophet is said, in fact, to have been pleased by the woman who adorned herself for him just as he himself liked to adorn himself for a woman. Or delighting in each other, especially from a sexual point of view. But in the Koran the sphere is rather, and once again, juridical; the specific context is that of repudiation (talâq): once the divorce has been ratified, the woman can wait three menstrual periods before marrying again because of the possibility of a pregnancy. The superiority of man appears, therefore, to refer to the less time required of a man as regards a new marriage; however, at its starting point, it is evidently implied from unilateral divorce [cf. here Koran 65:1-2]. Greater Legal Capacity Whatever the case, exegesis worked to define the superiority of men at a detailed level. According to Tabarî, the ‘degree above them’ concerns inheritance which is greater in the case of men, or the jihâd, in the sense of war, to which only men are called, or power or lordship, or the wedding gift which is the responsibility solely of men; he even refers to beards which are granted to men but not to women. But above all the ‘degree’ is the performance of a man of all his duties towards his wife and indulgence with her and means the Most High obliges a man to be patient and to respect all the rights of a woman. In these ancient tenets the superiority of men, which is always emphasised, was translated for the most part into a greater legal capacity, a greater number of rights, but also a greater number of legal obligations. This was also later the case even though the impetus towards subordination of women gained increasing effectiveness. For example, the Iranian Tabarsî (d. 1154), of the Shiite faith, in his Compendium of Declaration, lays stress upon the incompatibility of the rights of men and of women: men had more rights than women, and many more rights. And he refers to a woman who asked the Prophet if her rights in relation to her husband were equal to his rights in relation to her: “No and no again; they are a hundred to one!,” Mohammed replied. Qurtubî like the others also expressed himself in terms of a clear servitude of a woman and remembered in his turn a saying of the Prophet that was continually quoted: “If I had to order someone to kneel down to others as God is knelt down to, I would order a woman to kneel down before her husband.” But he adds that a man is obliged to be generous with a woman, as regards money and as regards manners and character. Above all strength as the prerogative of man was emphasised by the great Râzî who did not forget about sympathy and solidarity between the sexes with a view to obtaining that mutual repose to which the Koran refers. He writes that a woman in the hands of a man is like a prisoner who does not know how to do anything. But specifically for this reason man should take great care of a woman: specifically because God decreed that men were a degree above women they are called to respect even more the rights of women; God warns them not to cause injury to their companions because the more they are benefited by God the greater is the sin that might be committed. Injurious behaviour of a man towards a woman is translated, lastly, as ingratitude towards the Creator as regards the gifts that have been received – a very grave sin. The author takes up the idea of the Koran of the superiority of men as a gift and not as a fact that is due. A man must thank the Lord, not take advantage of the precedence in his favour that has been decreed but make good use of it in a humble way. ‘The intention of this passage,’ continues Râzî, ‘is the obtaining of a shared advantage, divided between the two, because the purpose of a union between a man and a woman is peacefulness, trust, affection, the crossing of bloodlines and a greater serenity in life. All of this is shared by both parties.’ Of the same approach was a contemporary, Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966), the theoretician of integral and political Islam, in his commentary In the Shadow of the Koran: what matters in a woman is first of all her devotion to God, an interior devotion which is concerned with reciprocal serenity and mutual affection, but above all else with care, with shelter, with benefit divided by both the parts of the single human being that God created at the outset because God wanted to honour man by making him into two parts. A Muslim woman is she who guards in the absence of her husband, and even more in his presence, the inviolability of the holy conjugal tie. The position of these two authors, clearly enough, does not reflect the mentality of all authors, nonetheless it attests to a continuity: the emphasis of the Koran on reciprocity, exchange and mutual comfort as cardinal features of the relationship between a man and a woman was not, and never should be, lost.




[1] Here I refer to ‘La creazione della donna e il suo ruolo nella tradizione islamica’, in Giovanni Filoramo (a cura di), Le religioni e il mondo moderno, vol. IV (Nuove tematiche e prospettive), Einaudi, Torino, 2009, pp. 341-373.