Monday, July 2, 2012

Does the Qur'an Speak Directly to Women?: The Qur'an's Audience as Essentially Male

Last year, I blogged on the issue of the Quran’s “audience,” which I argued was males only, women are never directly addressed in there, women are only talked “about” never “to,” and when a guideline/message is being given to women, men are asked to convey it to them. 

So for the past several months, I’ve been trying to find some Muslim scholars who address this issue, and someone recommended Farid Esack in a discussion on a different topic, and so I decided to read him. I was so, SO delighted and relieved to see that he brings up this problem of audience (he argues that the Qur’an’s “essential audience is male”), although he only mentions it and doesn’t discuss what all it actually means, or what it could mean for Muslim female readers of the Qur’an.

Even Umm Salama, the Prophet's inquisitive wife, asked him once, "How come the Qur'an never talks to women?" And in response, according to the Islamic tradition, 33:35 was revealed, which says that "Women who believe and men who believe, women who are pious and men who are pious, ... women who are patient and men who are patient, for them is great reward." But even this verse doesn't actually speak to women; it talks about them like it talks about men. The other verses, all on gender/sexuality/marriage issues,  talk about women to men with men as the medium. "Approach YOUR wives ...," "Don't marry ...; marry ..."; "Treat your wives with ..."; "your wives are your ...," "when you divorce your wives, ...," and so on. 

Just clarifying that that's what I mean when I say it doesn't talk TO women but talks ABOUT them. Big difference. Other times, the Qur'an will start off talking about/to all people (or so we're told), but then change its audience to men alone. Examples are below. So why should we think that even the beginning of those verses are for all people?

As Esack notes, this problem of the essential audience of the Qur’an should pose significant problems for scholars committed to gender justice; yet, this topic has received little to no attention from Muslim feminists/scholars [(“Islam and Gender Justice: Beyond Simplistic Apologia." In What Men Owe to Women: Men's Voices from World Religions, eds. John Raines and Daniel C. Maguire, p. 195). It is therefore important to engage this issue a little further and discuss its spiritual implications for the female reader of the Qur’an, as well as its significance for Muslim women activists. 
I, too, believe that the issue of the gender of the Qur’an’s audience has been marginalized, despite its relevance to Muslim women readers of the Qur’an and Muslim women practitioners of Islam. I want to first explain what this claim entails.
In the Qur’an, women are always addressed by the hunna (they (feminine)) pronoun while the men are addressed by the kum (you (general but often masculine, based on the textual context) pronoun. Islamic feminism has not only not attempted to answer this question, but it seems to have neglected to bring it up in any discussions of gender and the Qur’an, other than in Farid Esack’s works (discussed below). Wadud and Barlas discuss God’s gender and point out that because the Qur’an avows that ‘there is none like unto [God],’ the Qur'an establishes that God is Unique, hence beyond representation, and also beyond gender since gender is nothing but a representation of sex”(Asma Barlas, Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an, p.100). They, like other scholars, address the issue of God’s gender as being neutral, and many Islamic feminist scholars argue that even when the Qur’an seems to be addressing  only men—that is, using male pronouns—it is in fact addressing all genders, because the Arabic kum can mean “you all (masculine)” or “you all (general”) while kunna means “you all (feminine).” As Mohammad Ashrof writes, 
all the injunctions of the Qur'an are equally applicable, whenever human or people etc. are mentioned, to both men and women. Many Qur'anic verses subsume women and men in the broad terms of 'human being' or 'people' ('insan', 'nas'). Though these words take masculine pronouns in Arabic, and are often translated into English as "mankind" or "men," in Arabic they are gender-neutral and apply to/include women as well, as with the term "humankind" in English (Islam and Gender Justice p.87).
Thus, unless the Qur’an otherwise implies that it is speaking directly to men only, it can be assumed that it is addressing all Muslims. Yet, verses such as 4:19 pose a dilemma, for it reads: “O you who have believe, it is not lawful for you [kum] to inherit women [al-nisaa] by compulsion. And do not make difficulties for them [hunna] in order to take [back] part of what you [kum] gave them unless they [feminine] commit a clear immorality. And live with them [hunna] in kindness. For if you [tum] dislike them [hunna] - perhaps you [antum] dislike a thing and Allah makes therein much good.” Although this is not the only verse in which such a conversation between God and the (male) reader takes place, this can be seen as representative of the Qur’an’s approach at presenting guidelines: it uses men as a medium through which it conveys messages to women, never directly speaking to women but speaking to men about women. 

Now, I will discuss two main possible reasons why the Qur’an never directly addresses women and, at the same time, explain why these reasons are problematic and are in fact not convincing.

The first reason of the Qur’an’s non-address to women may be due to the social views that the pre-Islamic Arab society held of women. However, this explanation humanizes (read: masculinizes) God: the speaker of the Qur’an is not just any male, certainly not a ghair mahram (unrelated) male [[A mahram male is anyone whom a Muslim woman is prohibited from marrying, such as her brother, father, son, grandfather; the opposite of mahram is a ghair-mahram, someone whom a woman would be able to marry, such as a cousin, a far relative, or a stranger]],  but it is God, the genderless Creator. Thus, to suggest that the Qur’an does not address women directly because it may have raised problems for Arab males, as they heard their wives, daughters, sisters being addressed directly with the pronoun “you” by a “stranger” also implies that God is a male who is not to refer to women directly. Is it really possible that the Arabs would have found this—the act of their God referring to women directly—unacceptable?

Second, the Qur'an/Islam brought many radical social changes in the Arab society not just regarding its views of women, such as the burial of daughters, but also regarding the religious ideals of the society, such as forbidding the worship of idols. It therefore begs the question of why the Qur’an did not attempt to change the idea that women can never be directly addressed by speakers. [In other words, it seems to have been selective in which views/ideals to change, and this selection was likely not arbitrary.] Additionally, such a claim destabilizes the popular Muslim claim that the Qur'an is for all times, all societies, as not all societies and certainly not in all times have societies found women to be private entities who are never to be addressed by un-related male members of the community. 

This problem of the essentially male audience leads to a more profound theological, ethical, and spiritual question: what does God's non-address of women suggest about the spiritual and ethical relationship with God that the Qur’an expects of its readers in general but its female readers in particular? Can women truly attain closeness with God the way men can? This is not to insinuate that the relationship that men are theoretically able to form with God is necessarily better and should be the standard against which women’s relationship with God is measured, but it is to point to the lack of an immediate link between God and His female readers of the Qur’an. Women are not the direct audience of the Qur’an the way men are, and a message has to be conveyed to women through a medium. The Qur’an’s non-address of women may be understood as grounds for the belief that women are inherently spiritually lacking, thus explaining why the Qur’an never directly addresses them. Yet, this cannot be assumed because the Qur’an does not present women as spiritually lacking or spiritually inferior to men; it in fact insists that the only measure of superiority among people is their piety (49:13). As for Muslim women activists, the Qur’an’s non-address to women raises another issue: if a woman is not the direct recipient, the direct audience of her Creator’s Word and needs a medium (a male) through which God can communicate with her, would the Qur’an support her direct involvement in society? That is, does she need a medium for her activism as well? If they clearly need an intermediary between themselves and God, must they not have one also when making demands on society or when calling for social changes in their society per their current status?


  1. It has been posited that the position of women during pre-Islamic Arabia as socially inferior, unequal and repressive; However I disagree;

    Women inherited and could carry on trade: e.g. Khadija
    Women went to the war front: e.g. Hind, wife of Abu Sufyan, who was urging at battle; even taunting her husband for not standing up to Muhammad during invasion of mecca.
    Women poets who had freedom to lampoon - like Asma, Fartana, Quraybah.

    Essentially, Islam made women's position unequal and repressive. This sociological change is reflected in Qur'an and in Hadiths. e.g. One of the Hadiths state that majority of inhabitant in the Hell are women

    1. Thank you for your response, Paratrup! I actually agree with you that the image of pre-Islamic Arab women as completely, absolutely, wholly oppressed and all isn't true, either. Comparing the roles and rights that Aisha (r.) had, who may symbolize the woman in transition from "the period of ignorance" to that of Islam, compared to Khadija (r.), who symbolizes the woman before Islam (born and raised in "the period of Ignorance") reveals a lot for us to consider, but few are willing to think about this, I've seen. You might find this of interest then:

      And I'm certain you'd love the books mentioned in the post as well.

      However, I'm not sure I entirely agree with your last point--i.e., that Islam made women's position unequal and repressive. That depends actually on what "Islam" is defined as. Islamic law, yes, certainly makes the woman completely unequal to man and represses her almost as much as possible. But Islamic law is unfortunately barely any Qur'an and is mostly hadiths and the early scholars' opinions and conclusions.... and, of course, they were products of their times, so to eternalize and universalize their views is utterly unfair to the Islam that I'm sure God intended for Muslims.

      Peace, and thanks again for your comment!


Dare to opine :)

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