SWO Articles and Documents
Women in the Qur'an
by S. Kianfar
The following article is taken from the journal Sufism: An Inquiry. The article is based on a talk presented at the Sufi Women Organization quarterly luncheon.
"O ye who believe! Guard your own souls:
If ye follow (right) guidance, no hurt can come
to you from those who stray.
he goal of you all is to Allah.
It is He that will show you the truth of all that ye do."
The Qur'an serves as a moral guideline to humanity and is, therefore, a moral history. It proposes moral values, which are 'extrahistorical.' The Qur'an is selective about historical details which help to fulfill its purpose of universal guidance. It promotes the application of the precepts exemplified by those characters mentioned in the verses rather than merely gives a record of the events themselves. In reviewing the characters introduced in the Qur'an, we see that women comprise a significant portion of individuals who serve as models. There are approximately twenty-four female characters in the Qur'an. Their roles can be divided into two categories:
(1) Those characters with no independent significance who are slightly mentioned or alluded to. The role is generally included in order to bring coherence to a story or event. There are approximately 18 women in this category. An example of such a reference is Elizabeth, wife of Zakariya, where Zakariya states "O my lord! How shall I have a son seeing I am very old and my wife is barren?" (Qur'an 3:40).
(2) Those character who are used to illustrate a moral point. They serve as examples of good character from which the seeker can learn and model oneself. There are five women in this category: Hawaa' (Eve), who is a symbol of equality, Umm-Musa (the Mother of Moses), who exemplifies the nurturing spirit, Biqlis (Queen of Sheba), who is cunning and wise, Hannah (Anne, Mother of Mary), who is of noble birth, and Maryam (Mary), who is the essence of virtue. Of these two categories, I shall focus on women in the second category, who serve as models to the devout Muslim.
Hawaa' / Eve
"O mankind! reverence your Guardian-Lord,
who created you from a single person,
created, of like nature, His mate,
and from them twain scattered (like seeds)
countless men and women;- reverence Allah,
through whom ye demand your mutual (rights),
and (reverence) the wombs (That bore you):
for Allah ever watches over you."
Here, the message of equality is clear. The first creation is neither male of female, but a person. In addition, the person's 'mate,' or matched pair, is equal in nature. Moreover, each has been disseminated across the lands equally, like seeds. The role of women in creation is greatly acknowledged here as the process of pregnancy and birth is venerated. This message of equality is heard again when, after Allah created Adam and Iblis, the Qur'an declares:
"O Adam! dwell thou and thy wife in the Garden;
and eat of the bountiful things therein
as (where and when) ye will;
but approach not this tree,
or ye run into harm and transgression.
Then did Satan make them slip
from the (garden), and get them out
of the state (of felicity) in which they had been."
Thus, in contrast to the Biblical rendition of creation, there is no sense of Eve's inferiority: either having been produced from the rib of Adam or tempting Adam to follow Satan. Rather, both Adam and Eve has been in a state of grace but fell into temptation and from the garden.
Umm-Musa / Mother of Prophet Moses (pbuh)
Moses' mother is inspired by Allah to save Prophet Moses (pbuh) when she judges he is at risk of being slaughtered by Pharaonic decree.
"So We sent this inspiration to the mother of Moses:
'Suckle (thy child), but when thou hast fears about him,
cast him into the river, but fear not nor grieve:
for We shall restore him to thee, and
We shall make him one of Our apostles.'"
As with Mary later on, Allah consoles Umm-Musa that Allah will return him safely to her - not undermining her nurturing instinct in light of the priority to save Prophet Moses (pbuh). In addition, it is left to her judgement to decide when it is time for Moses to be saved, thus Allah trusts His will with her. In a reference to Umm-Musa later on, we read:
"Behold! We sent to thy mother, by inspiration, the message:
'Throw (the child) into the chest,
and throw (the chest) into the river:
the river will cast him up on the bank,
and he will be taken up by one who is an enemy
to Me and an enemy to him.'"
What is especially significant about this account is that Umm-Musa receives wahy (or communication from Allah), thus making her a muhaddas (an individual to whom Allah speaks). As these verses indicate, women as well as men are recipients of wahy. In addition, this elevates the actions of Umm-Musa: her belief in the words of Allah were so strong that she acted upon them despite her nurturing instinct.
Biqlis / Queen of Sheeba
Biqlis is introduced in the Qur'an as a wealthy ruler, and here gender is not emphasized as a novelty.
"I found (there) a woman ruling over them
and provided with every requisite;
and she has a magnificent throne.
I found her and her people worshipping
the sun besides Allah. Satan has made
their deeds seem pleasing in their eyes,
and has kept them away from the Path,-
so they receive no guidance."
As she is a pagan ruling over pagan worshippers, Solomon sends her a letter inviting her to submit to Allah (in Qur'an 27:28). This demonstrates the religious, social, and political importance of gaining her allegiance to Islam. Upon receiving Solomon's letter, she states:
"Ye chiefs! here is delivered to me -
a letter worthy of respect."
Thus, she recognizes the nobility of the letter and the truth of the Divine message. In responding to the letter, she is extremely tactical and diplomatic. Initially, she sends Solomon a gift (in Qur'an 27:36) to appease him while consulting with her wazirs (in Qur'an 27:29) in order to avoid bloodshed and maintain peace. Here, Biqlis is better than the norm, as she opts not to fight, unlike many of her male contemporaries, to pursue peace. After consultation and personal reflection, Biqlis is moved by the contents of the letter and decides to visit Solomon. Solomon hears of her visit and prepares a test to see if she is one who is guided by truth.
"He said: 'Transform her throne out of all recognition by her:
let us see whether she is guided (to the truth)
or is one of those who receive no guidance.'
So when she arrived, she was asked,
'Is this thy throne?' She said, 'It was just like this;
and knowledge was bestowed on us
in advance of this,
and we have submitted to Allah (in Islam).' "
Biqlis passes the test and informs Solomon that she accepted Islam prior to her visit with him. Again, she is better than the norm because she accepts Islam and monotheism although all that she has known thus far as been paganism.
Hannah / Anne, Mother of Mary
In the Qur'an, Hannah's virtuous lineage (from the House of 'Imran) is emphasized alongside her dedication to Allah when she was pregnant.
A chapter, or surah, of the Holy Qur’an is dedicated to the model of Maryam (Mary, mother of Prophet Jesus). The beginning of Surah Maryam is shown above.
"Behold! a woman of 'Imran said:
'O my Lord! I do dedicate unto Thee
what is in my womb for Thy special service:
So accept this of me:
For Thou hearest and knowest all things.' "
This account is significant for Maryam (Mary, Mother of Jesus) as well as for Hannah. She had been expecting a son when she dedicates what is in her womb to the service of Allah. Instead, Allah gives her a daughter.
"When she was delivered, she said:
'O my Lord! Behold! I am delivered of a female child!'-
and Allah knew best what she brought forth-
'And no wise is the male like the female.
I have named her Mary, and I commend her
and her offspring to Thy protection
from the Evil One, the Rejected.' "
Hannah is better than the norm as she is pleased to discover that she has given birth to a girl despite the fact that in pre-Islamic culture female infanticide was practiced. In addition, although Jewish law at the time forbid women to be devoted to the Temple, Hannah trusted God's promise that Maryam would live a life of service.
Maryam / Mary, Mother of Prophet Jesus (pbuh)
While the aforementioned women are significant models of morality, Maryam has a special and esteemed placed in the Qur'an and in Islam, where a sura (or verse of the Qur'an) is named after her and Allah chooses her above all women.
"Behold! the angels said:
"O Mary! Allah hath chosen thee and purified thee-
chosen thee above the women of all nations."
Maryam is given several honorific titles in the Qur'an: as the 'sister of Aaron' (in Qur'an 19:28) and as 'one of the devout servants.'
"And Mary the daughter of 'Imran,
who guarded her chastity;
and We breathed into (her body) of Our spirit;
and she testified to the truth of the words of her Lord
and of His Revelations,
and was one of the devout (servants)."
Her relationship to Aaron is significant because it refers to her noble lineage as a daughter of 'Imran and likens her service Prophet Jesus (pbuh) to Aaron's service to Prophet Moses (pbuh). By labeling her a devout servant, or qanitin, this shows that Maryam had true faith in the words of Allah and His messengers. The nobility of Maryam is also emphasized in Qur'an 19:34, where Prophet Jesus (pbuh) is referred to as the son of Mary, breaking with the pre-Islamic tradition of identifying individuals through their male ancestors. More importantly, this places emphasis on the point that Prophet Jesus (pbuh) was created in Maryam's womb by Divine decree rather than biology.
"She said: 'How shall I have a son,
seeing that no man has touched me,
and I am not unchaste?' He said: 'So (it will be):
Thy Lord saith, 'that is easy for Me: and (We wish)
to appoint him as a Sign unto men
and a Mercy from Us':It is a matter (so) decreed.' "
In stating that Prophet Jesus (pbuh) is not the son of God, the Qur'an does not question Maryam's chastity or virtue. During her delivery, Maryam experiences significant pain and Allah provides consolation for her.
"But (a voice) cried to her from beneath the (palm-tree):
'Grieve not! for thy Lord hath provided a rivulet beneath thee;
And shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree:
It will let fall fresh ripe dates upon thee.' "
Allah provides food, drink, and comfort to Maryam during the pain of childbirth, similar to Umm-Musa. Thus, the priority of delivering Prophet Jesus (pbuh) safely is not at the expense of Maryam's well-being. In addition, it is especially significant that Maryam receives wahy (or communication from Allah), thus making her a muhaddas (an individual to whom Allah speaks) like Umm-Musa. As these accounts emphasize, Maryam's virtue, nobility, and devotion is not confined by her gender and she serves as an example for all mankind.
After reflecting on the women in the Qur'an, it seems most appropriate to end with a quote from Seyedeh Dr. Nahid Angha, a leader in the defense of universal human rights:
"One cannot emphasize enough the influence of the teachings of the Prophet [Mohammad] (swa) and the verses of the Qur'an upon the advancement of civilization. In the history of humankind, none worked so much to protect human rights, especially women's, with such integrity, strength, strategic genius, beauty and divinity, or to honor humanity, by freeing it from the chains of prejudice, manipulations, personal and social injustice."
(from Sufism: An Inquiry)
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