Thursday, January 20, 2011

Women as "Hunna" and Men as "Kum": The Quran’s Audience

Pre-script: kum = "you all" (includes all genders); hunna = "they (feminine)"
I know this is such a typical question, but I cannot figure out why God is always talking to men in the Quran. For the longest time, I accepted the reason that the Holy Book is sent to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), who was a man, and so it makes sense. But reading it over and over makes one realize that there are very few instances in the Quran that begin with Qul (“Say [O’ Prophet]”) or otherwise indicate that the verse is specifically talking to the Prophet.  And, even so, is this really a good enough justification for God’s speaking only to men -- save one or two instances, maybe?

I was reading Surah al-Nisa, the chapter of “The Women,” a while ago and was trying to understand something.

Verse 4:19 starts off talking to those who believe: “O’ those who believe” (in Arabic, yaa ayyuhalladheena aamanu). Yet, the verse is about how men should deal with women. Clearly, then, the believers the verse is talking to directly are male believers only; female believers are excluded from it. Meaning, believers = men. From 4:19 to 4:25, it talks to men directly – about women. In these verses, I understand why the Arabic kum (“you all”) is translated to “you all,” but check out the verses after 4:25, and a big question comes to your mind: “How do we know that the kum in these verses is referring to all believers and not just men believers?” In other words, what reason do I have to believe that the guidelines set in the verses after 4:25 apply to both women and men and not just to men? 4:26, for instance, reads: "Allah would explain to you and guide you by the examples of those who were before you, and would turn to you in mercy. Allah is Knower, Wise."
Who's the "you" in here? Just men, right? If in the other verses before this, the "you" refers to men alone, then what is our reason for believing it includes women, too?

It’s highly upsetting and disappointing. It feels like God just doesn’t want to talk to me, a woman, directly and has to talk to me through man. Why? And then I'm not allowed, according to one interpretation of Islam, to talk to God through man. Why? Am I not worthy of hearing my God talking to me directly? Am I incapable of understanding what my God has to say to me and that’s why it has to be done through my husband or another man?

Again, I know this is a typical question, and I understand that some will say, “Oh God. What’s new? Everyone, especially anti-Muslim/anti-Islam folks, ask this all time!” But I have not found an answer that I can understand or accept. I know there are many, but I need an answer given by an objective person, most certainly not from someone who's gonna say, "Oh, you're saying that just because you're a feminist and have been brainwashed by feminism," etc., etc. In that case, thanks for your opinion, but it doesn't contribute to the topic. Also, the person whose answer you give me can't be someone who accepts the interpretation of verse 4:34 as “man can beat his wife” and then says, “But, you see, it’s not like he can just abuse her all the time! He has to have a legitimate reason, like if she doesn’t submit to his sexual urges, you know? And it’s not like he can beat her with a belt or whatever; he can use only a miswaak [toothbrush] or its like.” Uh, no. If someone like this is going to explain to me why God talks directly to men in the Quran and rarely (if ever) to women, I am not going to bother considering it. (When you find the answer, don't share it with me if it's gonna be something like, "That's how all the scriptures are." What? What's your point? I haven't read all the Scriptures yet, and I may not ever get to them during my lifetime; but that has nothing to do with the question of why the Quran often uses men as the medium between God and women and doesn't talk to women directly.)

And don't worry if you don't end up convincing me, whether by yourself or through your favorite sheikh/scholar. I'll keep searching until I find the answer to this. That's what we're here for, right? To think, question, think again, and seek as much knowledge to answer our questions as possible for us. I hope – so desperately hope – that I find the answer at some point in my lifetime; even if it is to take me my entire lifetime to find the answer, I am willing to keep on exploring possible solutions to this quandary of mine so that I get closer to God and am not repelled by the voice I imagine when reading the Quran.
EDIT (April 30, 2012):
I posted this question on Facebook, and I got some excellent responses. The question was: Does anyone know of any Islamic feminist work that discuss why the Qur'an never directly talks to women? I'll be grateful for any suggestions! I'm looking, but I don't know what to search for, even. "The Qur'an's audience"? Naaaa... thanks in advance. The responses are as follows:

Person 1:
But the Qur'an does speak to women--either specifically or towards both men and women.
Me: Directly? Which verses?
Person 1: Quite a few..in Surahs Maryam and An-Nisa for instance.

Me: ‎(Indirectly as debatable, which is why I don't ask about it.) But specific verses would be greatly helpful :) Basically, what I'm asking about is this: When the Qur'an has something to say to women, it asks men/husbands to tell women to do that ... or it'll say "Oh men, do this to/with your wives" and it's never "O believers, do this with your spouses" or "oh wives, do this with your husbands" ... get what I mean?

Person 1: Yeah. I'm not versed in arabic enough, but I have heard shayukh discuss meanings of gendered words in different ways. I wouldn't say the Qur'an's (i.e. God's) audience is male, but many directives/laws are aimed at men and many of which are in relation to women (in terms of ensuring the rights of women, how to treat them, marriage, etc). Otherwise women are addressed with men (Oh Children of Adam, oh you who believe, of wives of the believers, etc), yes. In a way it makes sense if we recognize patriarchy in our societies and mores against women -- it makes sense that the Qur'an would, in terms of specific laws and directives that seek to benefit the status of women, would address males. As much as the Qur'an is a book for all times, it also spoke directly to the people to whom it was first revealed. Allahu 'Alim.

Me:
Got it. That, yes, I understand - I'm just wondering if anyone's addressed this "issue" yet and what they've said specifically about, again, why the Qur'an never talks directly TO women alone rather than using men/husbands as a medium to talk to us through. I'll be on the lookout and let y'all know what I find. Thanks for your input, Sana! Greatly appreciated :)

Person 2:
There is a hadith that suggests that the Prophet's wives asked him why the Qur'an didn't speak to women, and after that he received the verse that address "O believing men and believing women! ..." Maybe someone has written about that hadith.

Me:
I do talk about that in my paper, but that's still not very helpful, quite honestly. I mean, I applaud Umm Salmah for being bold enough to ask such a question, but if you think about the verse that was sent in response to her query, it is, again, to BOTH women and men. (I'm surprised she was satisfied with it.) I think her concern was probably that the Qur'an *never* directly talks *to* women. Again, it uses men as a medium through which it talks to women. And, besides, only one verse was revealed in response to her concern, whereas men get like all the rest that are directly only to men (like "Oh men, tell your wives...") ... but, as said,  that's prolly just 'cause I am not [we are not] easily satisfied, LOL.Oh, and the verse sent in response to her concern was actually not "to" women, either; it was ABOUT women and men. It reads: "For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in God's praise, for them has God prepared forgiveness and great reward" (Qur'an, 33:35) ... does my point make sense? I'm not sure if I'm asking exactly what I'm really trying to ask.

Person 3:
Just scanned the comments, the Qur'an begins to address women when Umm Salama (or another woman) complains about it to the Prophet. The Qur'an is, though, an androcentric text. No way around that. Amina Wadud's "tawhidic principle" addresses this issue in a powerful re-reading of the Qur'an's address (look at Qur'an and Woman and Inside the Gender Jihad). Kecia Ali talks about it directly in Sexual Ethics in Islam. There is more but this is off the top of my head. I'll read your blog in a bit, I'm a bit swamped at the moment but I hope this helps a bit. You've prolly already seen these sources, though. [...] ‎66:4-5. I forgot the name of the woman who is supposed to have asked the Prophet why women are not directly addressed (in general, not a specific woman), then the believers verse is revealed...). I haven't read Believing Women in the Qur'an in ages but I betcha she covers this. [...] anyway, I think there is a way to search verb endings in http://corpus.quran.com/ I just looked and can't sort it out, but I hear it is possible. So you could search for ti/tuma/tunna/ina/na


Me: Thank you so much! Yeah, I did mention in these comments somewhere the verse that was revealed in response to one of the Prophet's wives (I think it was Umm Salmah) when she complained that the Qur'an never addresses women -- but that verse doesn't answer my question either, unfortunately. I'll look at Kecia Ali's and Barlas's and Wadud's texts again and see what they say. I know they talk about "huwa" and the fact that it can be both masculine and gender-neutral, but that's not what I'm looking for. I'm specifically looking for a discussion on why God uses men as a medium through which it talks TO women -- in other words, women are always being talked ABOUT, not talked TO (unless it's an address to all of humankind). Thanks again for your responses!


Person 3: I mean they talk about the androcentric address of the Qur'an. There is someone who wrote about this specifically and I cannot remember who right now. Anyway, the Qur'an addresses men directly and women indirectly or inclusive of men except in 66:4-5 (and I believe one other, I'll check) where the Qur'an is addressing specific women in the Prophet's community (and at least in 66:4-5 about women who are disobedient). If you mean indirect address, like about women and their characteristics, I don't know off the top of my head but yeah, I would wager that all of the social discussions are gendered (women are understood in relationship to men) except maybe in discussions of taqwa. But maybe there too? I think it is something to be pissed about, but there are ways out of it according to how you want to think about the divine address theologically and the Qur'an as a transmitted revelation. I would say that the Qur'an is speaking to me, but through a historically contingent language and in a historically contingent context (and all that is orthodox to say in Sunni Islam) which I have to critique to get at what is *really* being said to me (which is also orthodox to say...I just disagree with a lot of what men say is being said to me). But there are lots of people who talk about this sort of stuff in more creative ways (mine is really very uncreative and tradition bound despite its jaundiced assessment of the material conditions). I think you want to look at Aysha Hidayatullah in this respect, Wadud, or Nasr Abu Zaid and others.

Person 4:
I see Umm Salamah’s tradition in another way as well – she realised that Quran was gender partial which means that it *was* partial and that revelations needed reminding that partiality existed. That makes me a little uncomfortable like the traditions about Omar Ibn Khattab inspiring some revelations (alcohol ban, hijab etc). In early Mu'tazilite literature these examples were used to argue that Quran was created.

Quran has these audiences: the Prophet; the Prophet’s wives (in a couple of verses); Muslim men; the Muslim ummah as a whole (believing men and women); opponents of Islam and Muslims.

In the verses where Allah speaks to Mary, it exists in Christian texts as well so it is a reference to another text and Mary in those verses is not the direct audience of the Quran rather it is a reference to a dialogue that existed between Allah and Mary.

I think I can understand your query, Shehnaz. You want to know why where Allah could have easily addressed women directly does He address men to tell women. Perhaps it is because of the patriarchal culture of those times but I feel like equality, equity and egalitarianism would have been much easier had women been empowered by being addressed directly by the God they worship. I know that Dr. Amina Wadud tries to explain all this elaborately but the question still remains why were women not addressed directly about hijab or period or divorce or custody of children etc? And I would have liked to read what scholars have to say about how addressing woman would have empowered them.

Me:
Thank you guys so, so much! You've given me lots to think about. I'll most certainly compile a list of scholars and their arguments/reasonings for this whole audience and share it with you when it's done.

<@ Person 3>, that's it! "the Prophet; the Prophet’s wives (in a couple of verses); Muslim men; the Muslim ummah as a whole (believing men and women); opponents of Islam and Muslims." "Women" are missing from this (whether Muslim or non-Muslim). And, indeed, my query is why God never addresses women when it so easily could have and would even have given us grounds to believe that the Qur'an CAN be read in a pro-woman view. But I honestly don't know about that anymore ... I'm not even one of God's intended audience, except as a "Muslim community. And I find that very troubling and problematic.

19 comments:

  1. ONCE AGAIN!insightful!

    your posts are teaching me so much about islam and your culture in general! :-)

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  2. better question is why we have no women prophet? I know the typical answer I get from fellow brothers but sadly it is unscientific at all.

    The best answer I got once again comes to this,"It is matter of faith and test".

    You know what there always seem to be more evidence for religions to a productive out of a need for a certain socio-economical benefit for a few than it really be a universal benefit. to being with religions are not truly universal. You need to be of a certain level of education to get it. Now this truly is against the purpose of religion, to be easy to follow and logical. I just do not realize why God did not produce his holy books in all the language of the world, he surely had the power but didnt do it!

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  3. Very well pointed Nazogai. I'd like to hear a reasonable answer as well! Though through speculation mayyybe in the Arabic 1400 years ago the word kum was used for all mankind and hunna being specific to females?

    As in the word mankind itself, its commonly used for men and women, and we dont have the word womenkind used as commonly (yet), though over the years there has been an addition to many english words that have the word "man" in them get a feminin alternative.

    However this isn't my reasoning, just a thought.

    The Quran also uses the word "We". Who is We? In todays language it is used for more than one person, but seeing it in a different light the word "Hum" also means "We" but it can be used as a singular term in some languages/dialects.

    Again, this isn't my reasoning it's just a thought, and I heard this "We" thing through your favourite Naik, *ducks*

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  4. Thank you lots for your insights, ladies! How so generous of you to share your thoughts! ~hugs~

    SEPO, glad you found it useful, Jaan! :)
    Kochaye Jaan, I'll be posting a blog entry some time soon on female prophets and all. I might also write on religion and logic, as the two seem to contradict each other sometimes but I don't think they should and I certainly don't think they have to -- and Islam as I understand it, for the most part, doesn't contradict reason/logic, so I'm sure it's possible for others, too.

    Hina Jaan, that's reasonable enough (that "kum" = all of humanity, as in "mankind," but "hunna" = women only). But then that raises another question: If that's the case for sure, then what reason do we have to believe that the laws/guidelines regarding marriage, etc. apply only to men? Take Quranic verse 5:5, for instance:

    "This day are (all) things good and pure made lawful unto you. The food of the People of the Book is lawful unto you and yours is lawful unto them. (Lawful unto you in marriage) are (not only) chaste women who are believers, but chaste women among the People of the Book, revealed before your time,- when ye give them their due dowers, and desire chastity, not lewdness, nor secret intrigues if any one rejects faith, fruitless is his work, and in the Hereafter he will be in the ranks of those who have lost (all spiritual good)."

    What reason do we have to believe that only men can marry Christian/Jewish women but women can't marry Jewish/Christian men? Does it not look like women are completely excluded from this verse and others similar to this? Most Muslims will say that the guidelines of food, etc. apply to BOTH women and men, yet this verse makes it look otherwise: They apply to men only.

    So, what I'm starting to wonder now is ... why OH FREAKING WHY is it that men and women have the same "rules" and spiritual obligations to follow (hell, women have more much of the time), but when it comes to rights and privileges and God's manner of addressing the "believers," men get the upper hand.

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  5. I can't deny, though, Hina, that it is most likely the intricacies of the Arabic language -- and most importantly, my own lack of knowledge about the language, which is why I'm studying it and intend to study it for the rest of my life. I'm gonna have to ask my Arabic teachers about this to better understand it, at least in this stage of my query. Later on, I'm sure I'll come up with my own theories :D:D

    Your comment also reminds me of the Arabic word hua, which means he or it. It is a masculine pronoun that applies not just to males and masculine terms but also to genderless terms, like "Allah."

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  6. Yes I remember that verse you quoted once before and it got me thinking then as well.

    It's reasonable to think that "if" Kum is for mankind then all things made lawful to Kum should be men AND women. But point to note is that the words don't say men are allowed to marry "people" of the book, it say's "chaste women" of the book. Now if that sentence applied to men and women then why specify chaste women only and why not chaste people, or chaste men and women of the book. If it were meant for men and women then it's telling all to marry just the women???

    However, on a separate note, is the term "believer" used specifically for a muslim or is it used for muslims AND people of the book?

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  7. Excellent questions, Hina!
    Yes, the only thing that gives away the fact that "kum" = men only is that it says "marry chaste women of the People of the Book," not "chaste people from the People of the Book." And, so, since it's clearly talking to men alone, what reason do I have to believe that the rest of the verses are talking to me, a woman, too? I'm being talked "about," not "to"!

    I must also mention, though, that the Quran is not in order, so it's possible that the the verses that come after 5:5 weren't actually revealed after 5:5. Remember that the Quran was compiled by a group of humans and not in the order in which it was revealed to the Prophet (pbuh). And it's not easy, if possible at all, to determine which verses came first and which ones later. Sometimes even in the Madina surahs, you'll see a note at the top that says, "All of verses A-S were revealed in Mecca, except for Verse J and M." Do you see what I mean?

    Good question about the whole "believer" thing and whether the People of the Book are considered believers. In the verse above, 5:5, it doesn't look like it because it says that you can marry chaste believing women AND chaste women from the People of the Book. So we have at least two categories: 1) believers 2) People of the Book.

    However, I have seen verses in the Quran in which the People of the Book are included among the believers.

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  8. My understanding is that anything that is not explicitly/obviously addressing only men (like the verse you quote about marrying women) is addressing both men and women. I still find it problematic that there are so many verses that address men alone but few (if any?) verses that address women. I chalk it up to the sexism of the time and culture but it does make me wonder if the Qur'an was not influenced by Mohamed himself.

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  9. Thank you for raising up this question. I'm not an Islamic or Arabic language scholar so I may not have the right answers. But I just wanna share my understanding here.

    My first language is Arabic and I studied Arabic all my life. In the Arabic language; when u speak to men only, you use the word "kum". Also the same word is to be used when you talk to men and women. In other words, if I'm talking to 100 women and one man, I would say "kum". So it should be understood from the context of the verse, who is god referring to. If he is talking about general topics so its for both men and women. If he is talking about for example how to treat wives so for sure he is talking to men.

    The other thing regarding giving commands to women; I looked for the verses that asks women to wear the hijab and I found that god was talking to the prophet Mohamed (PBUH) in this verse and asking him to deliver this message to his wives and all the Muslim women.

    I hope what I said makes sense to you.. I would like to have more discussion on that topic.

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  10. Hello, Omar!
    Thank you so much for dropping by and sharing your knowledge with us! I'm grateful for your contribution!

    You see, my question/concern isn't why the Qur'an uses the word "kum" to talk to both women and men. I understand the reason behind that, as it's entirely linguistic, and Arabic isn't the only language that works that way; Spanish is another one, for example, among tons of others.

    My question/concern is this: Why are women always referred to as "they" (and never as "you") in the Qur'an, while men are virtually always referred to as "you" and rarely as "they"? And the only times, it seems to me, it's "they" is when humans are being divided into two groups -- e.g., the good and the bad, the pious and the rebellious, etc. In which case, it's then like "The good among you will go to heaven; as for the bad ones, they will go to hell" (merely an example; not necessarily direct words from the Qur'an).

    Do you get what I'm trying to say? So, my complaint, or rather something that I just don't understand and am fighting hard to understand, is why the Qur'an *never* (never, ever) talks to me as a woman. I (a woman) am never talked TO; I'm always talked ABOUT. Men, on the other hand, are almost always talked TO, rarely ABOUT. It's like this. The Qur'an may say something like, "So the women ..." or "the divorced woman, ..." or something like that, as opposed to "You divorced women, ..." or "you women, ..." or "O' Women, do this/that...."

    I hope that clarifies it now :)

    Thanks again for your interest, and I look forward to hearing more from you!

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  11. I've been thinking about this topic when a dear friend of mine asked me this question. I started looking about the difference between men and women. The clearest thing that is very obvious between men and women is that men are physically stronger than women. There may be some other differences for sure but I will exclude them for now. Also Women are able to withstand more pain than men do, for example; giving birth. God said that he created men and women to complete each other and since men are physically stronger than women so if there is someone who would physically take care of the other, it will be the men taking care of women. "NOT" saying that anyone is better than the other.

    God said that Men "Qawwamun" on women. This word was mostly translated as "superior" although I don't agree 100% with it. I would agree more with translating this word as "take care of". So inside the home, the father takes care of his wife and daughters until his daughters grow up and get married and then they are to be taken care of by their husbands and so on.

    I hope we agree so far that there is a small difference between men and women that makes men “Qawwamun” on women.

    I used to know an Egyptian quote that says: “A ship with two leaders will sink". There should be one leader in any team. So from what was said before, the man is the "leader" of the house. He takes care about his wife and kids. He has to make sure that they are living well. He has to provide the woman with a separate house for herself as God ordered us. As a result when God wants to deliver a message to a family he addresses the men. And he addressed them saying how to treat women and their roles towards women and towards their home BUT NOT telling them to order their wives to do something. He didn't talk directly to women because he already advised men how to treat women in different situations even when they get divorced. All these things are to make sure that the woman is treated very well by her husband. So women are to obey God in what was assigned to them in the general verses that are addressing men and women.

    I looked at this situation as an example in life. If I own a company and I have a project and there is team leader with 6 employees working with him. When I wanna provide any piece of information about this project, I will address the team leader who is responsible on this project and not all the team. The team leader will take of this with his team. It's not the same situation but I feel it may be the close.

    What do u think??

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  12. Hello again, Omar!
    While I greatly appreciate your post and I agree that women and men are physiologically different (anyone who disagrees would just have to be blind), I can't seem to find the connection between the physical differences between women and men and why God never talks to women in the Qur'an.

    I've written a lot on differences between the two genders, so feel more than free to browse through this blog to see what I have to say about your views. I'd be repeating myself for the emptieth time if I actually spelled out what I think about what you've said :) For starters, you may click the following links:

    ~ On Feminism: http://qrratugai.blogspot.com/2009/11/on-feminism.html

    ~ Stimulating Classes: Sociology of Sex and Gender: http://qrratugai.blogspot.com/2010/01/stimulating-classes-part-5-sociology-of.html

    Thanks for your input!

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  13. Oh, and regarding the word "Qawwam," I have a post on this blog on the Qur'anic verse that uses that term in reference to the relationship between women and men. The link to it is: http://qrratugai.blogspot.com/2010/05/challenges-of-quranic-verse-434.html

    But, of course, none of that has to do with why God *never* talks to women in the Qur'an. Unless, of course, you'd like to explain what the relationship between your answer and my question is :)

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  14. If I am act as a contrarian, why is this so important ? Is'nt this question similar to the question why did Allah send his last revelation to seventh century Arabia ? Why not 7th century South america or India ? Or even today ?
    I love tennis for example. I am willing to work hard. Why I am not blessed with talent to be like Roger Federer or a mind like Einstien ? Why did Allah discrimnate against me ? Personally I view this type of questions as a kind of self - love . I want to understand the world the world. I deserve the best, I understand the world the best, the world should run according to me. It's all about me, me and me. It's all about worshipping the Nafs.

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  15. Hello there, anonymous!
    Thank you for dropping by and offering your input!

    Hm... well, what makes this question unimportant in your opinion? I personally don't see any connection between the "why to 7th century Arabia and why not ME/US today?" and "Why does the Qur'an never directly address women?" though I understand your point is that both questions are silly and unimportant. I do agree that the second question is perhaps of no significant value, but the former, I insist, is rather significant because it deals with issues of women's spirituality and God's female readers.

    I'm quite sorry that you see it as "self-love." Tragic, really. I would encourage you to read things beyond the idea that everyone who offers you a different view is simply being selfish or is selfish or is all about her/himself.

    Thanks again for your thoughts!

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  16. Some rather incoherent thoughts of mine on your answer.

    I understand that some people want emotional satisfaction,some want intellectual satisfaction and so on. We have lots of questions and feel dissatisfied if we dont get answers to our questions. There are many things which I don't understand but I always start off that I am wrong in my understanding of Islam.


    Some people would be impressed by accounts of miracles by the Prophets and saints while others would be sceptical and in fact may be move away as miracles cannot be explained 'scientifically'.

    They say that the Shaitan of an Alim is an 'Alim'.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for your insight, Anonnie! Agreed that everyone seeks different levels and kinds of satisfactions from their religions and faiths.

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  17. Hi there,
    Your problem could be solved very easily by switching to Christianity. Unlike in your religion, Jesus DOES speak directly to women in a way that stands completely outside the cultural norms of his time and place in history - unlike Muhammad, whose writings remained mired in the archaic conventions of his own culture, conventions which have now been handed down to you unchanged since the 7th century.
    SO much more satisfying to be a member of a religion which recognises your full value as a human being ... you should consider trying it!
    All the best to you.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your readership and comment, Anonymous. However, I don't think my "problem" can be solved by what you suggested at all - the Bible, contrary to your opinion, doesn't speak to women directly, either (no religious scripture does), and also contrary to your expectation, the Bible doesn't stand outside of the cultural norms of Jesus's time and place in history (again, no religious leader does, BUT I think the Qur'an comes closest; it's the most eternal text with the most eternal, most beautiful message out there, and I'm sticking to it).

      Thanks for the offer, nonetheless. I happen to be quite satisfied with my faith, my religion, my Holy Book, my Prophet (peace be on him, always), and the people I identify as my own (Muslims). :)

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Dare to opine :)

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