Video Script: “Female bodies and male agency in the Qur’an”: Q. 4:34, the Qur’an’s audience, and verses on sex and marriage – Summary of Dr. Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics, Ch. 7

The following is the (rough?) script for my latest video on What the Patriarchy?!

Hello, salaam, and welcome to my channel, What the Patriarchy, where we’re working to dismantle the patriarchy one Islamic feminist issue at a time! I’m Dr. Shehnaz Haqqani.

Today, we continue our summary of Dr. Kecia Ali’s book Sexual Ethics & Islam, now at chapter 7, which is titled “If you have touched women: female bodies and male agency in the Qur’an.”

In this chapter, Dr. Kecia Ali analyzes the language of the Qur’anic verses that focus on marriage, sex, female bodies, menstruation, divorce and points out that while the verses are all ultimately complicated and cant simply be read as feminist or patriarchal, the language in them indicates female passivity and male agency. With exceptions. And she concludes that this suggests that men seem to have greater scope for action and moral agency. It does not mean that the Quran doesn’t care about women or justice for women and so on, but simply that these verses and this language raise questions for folks concerned with egalitarian interpretations of the scripture.

So one of the most important points raised here in this chapter is about the Qur’an’s audience: it looks like in all the verses on sex, divorce, and marriage, men are talked to about women. While it’s not misogynistic, it’s androcentric and it is not unproblematic, she says. But the tone is different, Ali tells us, between the verses on marriage and divorce and those involving sexual intimacy. Her observation is that the verses on marriage and divorce – and I quote from p. 147 in the new edition – “usually direct men to allow women particular freedoms; the latter [verses on sexual intimacy] do not contain similar directives, but rather only command men to behave in particular ways.” End quote. Still, all humans are accountable to God for all their actions, which for Ali implies a high ethical standard for people of all genders.

There’s a great discussion on the gendered audience of the Qur’an, and, no it’s not just about how Arabic is a gendered language and so “kum” (Arabic for “you all” either as masculine plural or gender-inclusive plural) doesn’t just mean men. And yes there’s that wonderful verse – Q. 33:35 – that asserts the spiritual equality of women and men and explicitly addresses women, includes women alongside men, and offers women and men equal reward for the same exact work.

Of course, the chapter covers Q. 4:34 – you know, the notorious “wife-beating verse” that literally ALL historical scholars until the 19th century interpreted to mean that it’s allowing a husband to hit his wife. Ali observes that historical, pre-modern interpreters of the Qur’an tended to focus on female obedience and male authority in their interpretations of this verse, while more recent/contemporary scholars focus on the financial component of men’s duties in a marriage and – apparently – the limits of a husband’s power over his wife. And she then analyzes the verse, explaining also how different groups of Muslims have interpreted it, like the traditionalist pre-modern interpretations, contemporary traditional ones, and progressive and reformist ones. Everyone disagrees on the meaning of the verse, and there are some gaps in the verse that each group reads their own ideas into. One of her points is about the translation and interpretation of a few important words, such as qanitat, nushuz, and dharaba. The word qanitaat is often translated as “obedient to husband” but that’s actually not inherent to the word itself and also it’s a theologically problematic thing since the Qur’an is more concerned with obedience to God, and it treats obedience to human authorities besides the Prophet Muhammad as insignificant. As with other scholars who’ve looked at this verse, Ali points out that the scholars have in the past understood the Arabic word nushuz in this verse differently for women than when the Qur’an uses it for men. For women, again, it is understood to be disobedience to the husband but for a man, when a man commits nushuz, its his dislike of or aversion towards his wife. For very few, it’s mistreatment of the wife.

Ali identifies this verse as a difficult verse, one that potentially poses problems for a feminist ethic. And this isn’t the only such verse. So the language of 4:34 is such that women are, again, being talked about and men are the disciplinarians, regardless of what the meaning of the word “dharaba” and “nushuz” might be.

Another verse she discusses is the husband and wife being garments for one another, verse 2:187. Again, men are spoken to and women are spoken about, even if in pretty good terms. So women are a “them” who must be dealt with by men, she observes, with regard to sex and women’s bodies. But that doesn’t mean necessarily that these verses support or promote male dominance. Some of them actually promote women’s liberty, like the divorce verse in Q. 2:232 & 234. Even tho the language is such that the women are being divorced rather than divorcing.  Exceptions exist, however, like 2:230, in which a woman is divorced by one man but she marries another. (Altho in 2:221, men marry and women are married to.) You also have verse 4:130, which uses the dual form to make its point about the couple – two people, husband and wife – separating per mutual agreement. In 2:229-230, both male and female feelings are acknowledged.

Other scholars have attempted to explain why the audience of the Qur’an is men: it’s a practical response to the patriarchy of the time and place the Qur’an was revealed in. Ali finds this explanation convincing in some contexts but not in all. (I personally don’t find it convincing at all.)

She discusses the garment verse in detail – that’s verse 2:187, which says you’re their garment and they’re your garment, that husbands and wives are garments for one another – and notes that despite the language (again, the verse is addressed directly to men), there’s actually nothing about it that’s gender-specific. It’s about ablution and fasting and having sex, and in fact, male scholars have actually interpreted the rules of ablution directed to men exclusively to also be applicable to women too. Still, the verse assumes that men are the initiators of sex. Other verses assume female passivity and male agency too, like a verse on menstruation, e.g., 2:222-223.

There’s a quote in this chapter that I love very much so I’m going to quote it verbatim. On p. 167 of the new edition: “If the Qur’an – and by extension God – treats the male as the primary recipient of guidance on matters of sex,… one must ask whether the egalitarian vision of gender justice that I and others would like to see diverges from God’s understanding of essential human nature.” End quote.

In the coda to this chapter, she – again – talks about some of the ways that scholarship on gender and the Qur’an has advanced in recent years and even talks about trans identity! Her point there is that literary theory, queer theory, etc. can help us better understand the Qur’an in ways that contribute to a more ethical, more egalitarian interpretations of it. So that even tho the Qur’an doesn’t use language that we use today to talk about gender – like obviously it doesn’t use the word non-binary or transgender – but expecting it to do so is prolly naïve. But that doesn’t mean that the Qur’an can’t accommodate our present realities, like egalitarian marriages and how that idea can come from the qur’anic telling of the creation story.

Thanks for watching. We’ll be back to summarize ch. 8 of this book next time!


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