So I’ve been making it a point to attend the extra lectures and talks with guest speakers that are always going on in AKU. Today, in light of it being International Women’s day, the Aga Khan Working Group for Women invited guest speaker Mr Abbas Husain to give a discussion on the Quran and how to interpret it correctly in terms of gender. It was a thought provoking talk to say the least, and I wanted tto go over some of the points he mentioned here in my post.
So he started off with the idea that reading, especially of a book such as the Quran, has to be done with four dimensions in mind – reading the text, reading between the lines, reading the writing on the wall, and reading for interpretation. He went on to mention that the Quran itself mentions itself in many terms, but some of the most important to remember were that it is Kitab, that is, a book. Furqan, as in, the criterion, and Hakeem, that is, it is Wise.
The translation of Surah Nisa and its highly controversial verse, however, is what he mostly focused on and what I really wanted to go through here.
Men are qawwamun of women, because Allah has given the one more faddala than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are qanitat, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their, beds (and last) wadariboohunna; but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance): for Allah is Most High, Great (above you all).
I am probably butchering the arabic in the process, but what I really wanted to do was what he did, that is, highlight the words that have caused the most contention in this verse that, to use Mr. Abbas’ words “has caused so much heartbreak over the centuries, and some say would have been better left out altogether.”
So to go through the conventional translation and the meanings recently derived.
As far as Qawwamun is concerned, the translation normally given is that of protector, maintainer. Which is the correct translation and can be counted as so. But the idea here is that the word can also be taken to mean supporter, and here it refers only to financial support, and not in terms of being supported in everything i.e. stronger. If you take the translation as ‘supporter’ it can also put an entirely different spin on the thing – the idea being that that which supports isn’t superior in any way to the that which is supported. Also, he went on to say that the verse speaks of Men and Women, not Husband and wife, as commentators sometimes take it to mean, and that in societal terms what this would mean would be that all men are protectors of all women – and in such a society that is envisioned by the quran, no woman need fear any man, for all would be safe. It is an empowering of women rather than a caging or degrading of them.
Then the word Faddala (bounty, favours) came into question. According to several translations this whole part has come to be translated as “because Allah has given men more bounty than the women.” This, in the light of the arabic, according to Mr Abbas, is a gross misinterpretation, as the verse speaks of ‘one’, and that can be referring to men or women, and thus the real meaning is that “we have bestowed some of you (male and female) with more blessings and some with less”. It is Not to be taken as an admission on the part of Allah that he prefers men to women and has blessed them more.
Then also he spoke of Qanitat (obedient), which is taken to mean obedient and in some translations has given rise to the idea that women have to be as obedient to their ‘protectors’ (see the chavinism building up there?) as they are to their God. But in the places in the Quran that the word qanitat and derivatives have been used, it is always in the sense of devoutly obedient, or obedient to God. So that the misconception that has down the line given rise to such nauseous ideas as husbands being ‘majazi khuda’ should really have been that “Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient (to God)” and not devoutly obedient to their overprotecting men.
Finally, he dealt with darraba, wa-adhriboohunna, or the term taken as the permission to beat women lightly in cases of disobedience. Since this was done very briefly in the question answer session and not part of the main lecture, he basically said that if you look at the Sunnah, and consider that the prophet never laid a finger on his wives or children, this translation of ‘beating lightly’ while may be correct, is seemingly highly contradicted by the actions of the holy prophet. That being said, translators and commentators recently have come to consider another meaning of the word, and that it should be taken as ‘interrupt’ or cease relationship with, and not as the translation of beating as is commonly thought.
In other words, the verse got blown to heaven 😛
There were many other topics mentioned, and several issues lightly touched upon. For instance the idea that since believers consider the Quran as God’s book and consider God as just, when they come across a verse that is grossly, obviously unjust, they must either abandon the idea that the Quran is God’s book or they must cease to think God is Just. Since neither of those are possible for a believer, they must always consider the only remaining option – that the meaning they have derived is in error.
He also touched upon how literalism is destroying thought these days (he called it ‘intellectual arthritis’, which everyone loved, of course) and how the quran can be taken to have multiple meanings, but it is up to us to pick the best meaning. Also of how metaphorical the quran’s text can often be, and how it should not be taken literally all the time, even when it seems to be saying something very plain and simple.
The question-answer session at the end was done very well, and some of the issues such as inheritance and witness cases, and the re-evaluation of concepts such as mehram and all, were talked about. I asked the last question of the day (after promising to blog about the lecture 😀 – i fulfulled my promise yay!) which was – considering 1400 years of unequal thinking, how long do you think it’s going to take for all the viewpoints to change to one of more equality?
Mr. Abbas was optimistic. He said that since recent times, many revolutions in thought and ideas took place in barely a lifetime. That it was more than possible that this would come about, and soon. And that concluded the session 🙂
SO yeah. Apologies for the long post, but I thought the issue deserved it 😀 See you guys soon.
P.S. for those of you scratching your head at my professed irreligiousness and yet lengthy discourse on this topic, I would like to say that this isn’t a representation of my views but a slightly hodgepodged and highly abbrievated review of a lecture that I happened to attend and find interesting. So yeah, go find other things to worry about.