Dossier 5-6: Equal Before Allah? Woman-man equality in the Islamic tradition

Publication Author: 
Riffat Hassan
December 1988 - May 1989
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I have been asking questions such as “What is the Islamic view of women?” and “What does it mean to be a Muslim woman?” for a long time. I was born female to a Muslim family living in Lahore, a Muslim city in a Muslim country, Pakistan. Not until 1974, however, did I begin my serious study of women’s issues in Islam and — I am still shocked to reflect — this happened almost by accident.

I was, at that time, faculty adviser to the Muslim Students’ Association chapter at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. (I had acquired this “honour” solely because there was no Muslim man on the faculty and it was mandatory for each chapter to have a faculty adviser.) Their annual seminar included an address by the faculty adviser, so I was asked — albeit not with overwhelming enthusiasm — if I would read a paper on women in Islam. I knew that speakers were not generally assigned subjects and that I had been asked to speak on women in Islam because, in the opinion of the group, it would have been totally inappropriate to expect a Muslim woman, even one who taught them Islamic Studies, to be competent to speak on any other subject pertaining to Islam. I resented what the assigning of the subject meant.

Still, I accepted the invitation for two reasons. First, I knew that being invited to address an all-male, largely Arab-Muslim group that prided itself on its patriarchalism was itself a breakthrough. Second, I was so tired of hearing Muslim men pontificate on the position or status or role of women in Islam, I thought that it might be worthwhile to present a woman’s viewpoint. I began my research on the subject more out of a sense of duty than out of any deep awareness that I had embarked on perhaps the most important journey of my life.

I do not know exactly at what time my “academic” study of women in Islam became a passionate quest for truth and justice on behalf of Muslim women — perhaps it was when I realized the impact on my own life of the so-called Islamic ideas and attitudes regarding women. What began as a scholarly exercise became simultaneously an Odyssean venture in self-understanding. But “enlightenment” does not always lead to “endless bliss”. The more I saw the justice and compassion of God reflected in the Qur’anic teachings regarding women, the more anguished and angry I became at seeing the injustice and inhumanity to which Muslim women in general are subjected in actual life. I began to feel that it was my duty — as a part of the microscopic minority of educated Muslim women — to do as much consciousness-raising regarding the situation of Muslim women as I could.

The Need for Women’s Theology in Islam

Despite the fact that women such as Khadijah and ‘A’ishah (wives of the Prophet Muhammad) and Rabi’a al-Basri (the outstanding woman Sufi) figure significantly in early Islam, the Islamic tradition has, by and large, remained rigidly patriarchal until the present time, prohibiting the growth of scholarship among women particularly in the realm of religious thought. Thus the sources on which the Islamic tradition is based, mainly the Qur’an, the Hadith literature (oral traditions attributed to the Prophet), and Fiqh (jurisprudence), have been interpreted only by Muslim men, who have arrogated to themselves the task of defining the ontological, theological, sociological and eschatological status of Muslim women.

Hardly surprisingly, then, until now the majority of Muslim women have accepted this situation passively. They are almost unaware of the extent to which their human (and Islamic, in a ideal sense) rights have been violated by their male-dominated and male-centred societies, which have continued to assert glibly and tirelessly that Islam has given women more rights than any other religious tradition. For Muslim women, kept for centuries in physical, mental, and emotional bondage, analyzing their personal experience is probably overwhelming. While the rate of literacy, for example, is low in many Muslim countries, the rate of literacy among the world’s one-half billion Muslim women, especially the majority who live in rural areas, is among the lowest in the world.

Today, largely due to the pressure of anti-women laws being promulgated in some parts of the Muslim world under the cover of “Islamization”, women with some degree of education and awareness are realizing that religion is being used for oppression rather than for liberation. To understand the strong impetus to “Islamize” Muslim societies, it is necessary to know that the greatest challenge confronting the Muslim world is that of modernity. The caretakers of Muslim traditionalism are aware that viability in the modern technological age requires adoption of the scientific or rational outlook, which inevitably brings about major changes in modes of thinking and behaviour.

Women, both educated and uneducated, are participating in the national workforce and contributing to national development. They think and behave differently from women who have no sense of their individual identity or autonomy as active agents in a history-making process or from women who merely regard themselves as instruments designed to minister to and reinforce a patriarchal system they believe to be divinely instituted.

In the recent past, many women in Pakistan were jolted out of their “dogmatic slumber” by the enactment of such laws as the Hudud laws (capital crime) or the Qanun-e-Shahadat (law of evidence), and by threatened legislation pertaining to women’s Qisas and Diyat (“blood fine”) aimed to keep women “in their place,” which means secondary, subordinate, and inferior to men.

In the face both of military dictatorship and religious autocracy, valiant efforts have been made by women’s groups in Pakistan to protest the manifestly anti-women laws and to highlight cases of gross injustice and brutality toward women. It is still, however, not clearly and fully understood even by many women’s rights activists in Pakistan and other Muslim countries that the negative ideas and attitudes about women prevalent in Muslim societies are rooted in theology. Unless and until the theological foundations of misogynistic and androcentric tendencies in the Islamic tradition are demolished, Muslim women will continue to be brutalized and discriminated against, despite statistical improvements relating to female education, employment, or social and political rights. No matter how many socio-political rights are granted to women, as long as they are conditioned to accept the myths used by theologians or religious hierarchies to shackle their bodies, hearts, minds, and souls, they will never become fully developed or whole human beings.

In my judgement the importance of engaging in a serious theological discussion of women-related issues in Islam today is paramount to liberate not only Muslim women but also Muslim men from unjust structures and laws that make a peer relationship between men and women impossible. It is good to know that in the last hundred years there have been at least two significant Muslim thinkers — Qasim Amin from Egypt and Mumtaz ‘Ali from India — who have been staunch advocates of women’s rights. Still, knowing this hardly lessens the pain of also knowing that even in this age, characterized by the explosion of knowledge, all but a handful of Muslim women lack any knowledge of Islamic theology. It is profoundly discouraging to contemplate how few Muslim women there are in the world today who possess the competence, even if they have the courage and the commitment, to engage in historical-critical study of Islam’s primary sources and to develop a theology focusing on women-related issues in the specific context of the Islamic tradition.

The Jewish and Christian View of Creation

My inquiry into the theological roots of man-woman inequality in the Islamic tradition led me to expand my field of study in at least two significant ways. First, realizing the profound impact of Hadith literature upon Muslim consciousness, particularly the two collections, Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim which, next to the Qur’an, the Sunni Muslims regard as the most authoritative books in Islam, I examined with care the women-related ahadith in these collections. Second, I studied several important writings by Jewish and Christian feminist theologians who were attempting to trace the theological origins of the anti-women ideas and attitudes found in their respective traditions.

As a result of my study and deliberation, I perceived that not only in the Islamic but also in the Jewish and Christian traditions three theological assumptions are the base of the superstructure of men’s alleged superiority to women. These three assumptions are: (1) that God’s primary creation is man, not woman, since woman is believed to have been created from man’s rib, and is therefore ontologically derivative and secondary; (2) that woman, not man, was the primary agent of what is customarily described as man’s Fall or man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and hence “all daughters of Eve” are to be regarded with hatred, suspicion, and contempt; (3) that woman was created not only from man but for man, which makes her existence merely instrumental and not of fundamental importance.

The ordinary Muslim believes, as seriously as the ordinary Jew or Christian, that Adam was God’s primary creation and that Eve was made from Adam’s rib. If confronted with the fact that this firmly entrenched belief is derived mainly from the Bible, and contradicts the Qur’an, this Muslim is almost certain to be shocked. The rather curious and tragic truth is that even Western-educated Muslims have little idea of the extent to which the Muslim psyche bears the imprint of Jewish and Christian ideas and attitudes pertaining to women.

Without some knowledge of what the Bible says about the creation of Adam and Eve, I do not believe that it is possible for Muslims to evaluate to what degree their views regarding women (particularly with reference to the issues of her creation and her responsibility in the Fall) have been influenced by the Jewish and Christian tradition rather than by the Qur’an. Such evaluation is, I believe, an essential prerequisite to developing a feminist theology rooted in the Qur’an.

The biblical account of creation consists of two different sources the Yahwist (10th century B.C.E.) and the Priestly (5th century BCE), from which arise two different traditions. There are four references to woman’s creation in Genesis: (1) 1:26-27, Priestly tradition; (2) 2:7, Yahwist tradition; (3) 2:18-24, Yahwist tradition; and (4) 5:1-2, Priestly tradition.

Study of these texts shows that the Hebrew term adam (“of the soil”) functions mostly as a generic term for humanity. Pointing out that the correct translation of this term is “the human”, Leonard Swindler (Biblical Affirmations of Woman) observes: “It is a mistake to translate it in Genesis 1:1 to 2:22 either as ‘man’ in the male sense, or as a proper name, ‘Adam’”.

Of the four texts referring to creation, undoubtedly the most influential has been Genesis 2:18-24, which states that woman (ishshah) was taken from man (ish). From this text it has generally been inferred that (1) Adam was God’s primary creation from whom Eve, a secondary creation, was derived and (2) Eve was created simply and solely to be the helpmate of Adam. Sheila Collins (A Different Heaven and Earth) concludes: “The seeds of woman’s subjection and of her predilection to evil are to be found in Hebrew culture and Hebrew religious tradition.” However, as Clark and Richardson (Women and Religion) note: “It is to the Hebrews’ credit that they did not, at least in the literature contained in the Jewish canon of the Bible, interpret the stories of Genesis 2 and 3 (Eve’s creation and her part in the first sin in Eden) as a justification for negative attitudes toward women. Eve, strangely enough, does not function as any kind of female symbol in the Old Testament.” In the Christian tradition, however, Eve’s derivative status and connection with the Fall have been used to allege man’s superiority to woman.

Feminist theologians of the modern era, both women and men, are acutely aware that traditional interpretations of the Yahwist’s account of woman’s creation in Genesis 2:18-24 have been strongly anti-women and have through the ages caused women “immeasurable harm” (Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex). While some of them consider the texts irredeemably sexist, others believe that if the Genesis accounts of human creation are understood in the light of modern knowledge in general, and modern hermeneutics in particular, they reveal new meanings that startlingly oppose traditional exegesis.

It seems both strange and ironic that while in our times an increasing number of Jews and Christians are rejecting traditional interpretations of the story of woman’s creation, Muslims, who, generally speaking, are ignorant of or hostile to Jewish and Christian religious literature, continue to hold on to them, perceiving them to be necessary to preserving the integrity of the Islamic way of life.

Creation in the Qur’an

While specific reference is made in Genesis to the creation of Adam and Eve, there is no corresponding reference in the Qur’an. In fact, there is no mention of Eve (Hawwa’) at all in the Qur’an. The term Adam occurs 25 times, but there is no categorical statement in the Qur’an that Adam was the first human being created by Allah. The term is used most frequently in reference to more than one or two human beings.

That the term Adam functions as a collective noun and stands for humankind is substantiated by an analysis of the several verses in which it occurs. The collective use of Adam is corroborated by the fact that the Qur’an sometimes replaces the term Adam by Alinsan or Bashar, which are both generic terms for humanity. Here it is important to note that though Adam usually does not refer to a particular human being, it does refer to human beings in a particular way, as pointed out by Muhammad Iqbal. “(I)n the verses which deal with the origin of man as a living being, the Qur’an uses the words Bashar or Insan, not Adam which it reserves for man in his capacity of God’s vice regent on earth... The word Adam is retained and used more as a concept than as a name of a concrete human individual.” It is noteworthy that the Qur’an uses the terms bashar, al- insan, and an-nas while describing the process of the physical creation of human beings. It uses Adam more selectively to refer to human beings only when they become representative of a self-conscious, knowledgeable and morally autonomous humanity.

Instead of “Adam and Hawwa’”, the Qur’an speaks of “Adam and zauj.” Muslims, almost without exception, assume that Adam was the first human being created by Allah and that he was a man. If Adam was a man, it follows that Adam’s zauj mentioned in the Qur’an becomes equated with Hawwa’ (Eve). Neither the initial assumption nor the inferences drawn from it are, however, supported in a clear or conclusive way by the Qur’anic text. The Qur’an states neither that Adam was the first human being nor that Adam was a male.

The term Adam is a masculine noun, but linguistic gender is not sex. If Adam is not necessarily a man, then Adam’s zauj is not necessarily a woman. In fact, the term zauj is also a masculine noun and, unlike the term Adam, it has a feminine counterpart, zaujatun. (Here it may be noted that the most accurate English equivalent of zauj is not “wife” or “husband” or even “spouse” but “mate”. The Qur’an uses zauj with reference not only to human beings but to every kind of creation, including animals, plants and fruits).

Why then does the Qur’an use zauj and not zaujatun if the reference is indeed to woman? In my opinion, the Qur’an leaves the terms Adam and zauj deliberately unclear, not only as regards to sex but also as regards to number, because its purpose is not to narrate certain events in the life of a man and woman (i.e., the Adam and Eve of popular imagination) but to refer to some life experiences of all human beings, men and women together.

The Qur’an describes human creation in 30 or so passages which are found in various chapters. Generally speaking, it refers to the creation of humanity (and nature) in two ways: as an evolutionary process where diverse stages or phases are mentioned sometimes together and sometimes separately, and as an accomplished fact or in its totality. In the passage in which human creation is described “concretely” or “analytically”, we find that no mention is made of the separate or distinct creation of either man or woman. In those passages in which reference is made to Allah’s creation of human beings as sexually differentiated mates, no priority or superiority is accorded to either man or woman.

In summary, the Qur’an even-handedly uses both feminine and masculine terms and imagery to describe the creation of humanity from a single source. That Allah’s original creation was undifferentiated humanity, and neither man nor woman (who appeared simultaneously at a subsequent time), is implicit in a number of Qur’anic passages.

Hawwa’ in the Hadith literature

If the Qur’an makes no distinction between the creation of man and woman, as it clearly does not, why do Muslims believe that Hawwa’ (Eve) was created from the rib of Adam? Although the Genesis 2 account of woman’s creation is accepted by virtually all Muslims, it is difficult to believe that it entered the Islamic tradition directly, for very few Muslims ever read the Bible. It is much more likely that it became a part of Muslim heritage through its assimilation in Hadith literature, which has been in many ways the lens through which the Qur’an has been seen since the early centuries of Islam.

Hadith literature, which modernist Muslims tend to regard with a certain scepticism, is surrounded by controversies, centring particularly around the question of the authenticity of individual ahadith as well as the body of the literature as a whole. Noted Islamicists, such as Alfred Guillaume, H.A.R. Gibb, and M.G.S. Hodgson have underscored the importance of the Hadith literature, stating that it not only has its own autonomous character in point of law and even of doctrine, but that it also has an emotive aspect, hard to overstate, relating to the conscious and subconscious thought and feeling of Muslims, individually and collectively.

That the story of Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib had become part of the Hadith literature is evident from the following hadith cited by Jane Smith and Yvonne Haddad in their article, “Eve: Islamic Image of Woman”:

“When God sent Iblis out of the Garden and placed Adam in it, he dwelt in it alone and had no one to socialize with. God sent sleep on him then He took a rib from his left side and placed flesh in its place and created Hawwa’ from it. When he awoke he found a woman seated near his head. He asked her, ‘Who were you created?’ She answered, ‘Woman’. He said ‘Why were you created?’ She said, ‘That you might find rest in me.’ The angels said, ‘What is her name?’ and he said, ‘Hawwa’.’ They said, ‘Why was she called Hawwa’?’ He said, ‘Because she was created from a living thing’.”

This Hadith clashes sharply with the Qur’anic accounts of human creation while it has an obvious correspondence to Genesis 2:18-33 and Genesis 3:20.

Some changes, however, are to be noted in the story of woman’s creation as retold in the above Hadith. It mentions the left rib as the source of woman’s creation. In Arab culture great significance is attached to right and left, the former being associated with everything auspicious and the latter with the opposite. In Genesis woman is named Eve after the Fall but in the above Hadith she is called Hawwa’ from the time of her creation. In Genesis woman is named Eve because “she is the mother of all who live” (thus a primary source of life), but above she is named Hawwa’ because she was created from a living thing (hence a derivative creature). These variations are not to be ignored. Biblical and other materials are seldom incorporated without alteration into a Hadith. The above example illustrates how, with respect to woman, Arab biases were added to the adopted text.

Citation of the above Hadith, and those like it, by significant Muslim exegetes and historians shows the extent to which authoritative works both of Qur’anic exegesis and Islamic history had become coloured by the Hadith literature. In the course of time, many ahadith became “invisible” the later commentators referring not to them but to the authority of earlier commentators who had cited them to support their views. This practice made it very hard to curtail their influence since they became diffused throughout the body of Muslim culture.

Perhaps no better proof of how totally ahadith such as the one cited have penetrated Muslim culture can be given than the fact that the myth of the creation of Hawwa’ from Adam’s rib was accepted uncritically even by Qadsim Amin (1836-1906), the Egyptian judge and women’s rights activist. His book Tahrir al-Mara (The Emancipation of Women, 1899) and Al-Mara al-Jadida (The Modern Woman, 1900) were epoch-making in the history of Muslim feminism. Amin’s romantic interpretation of the myth, reminiscent of Milton’s, shows that he did not realize how fundamentally the issue that concerned him most deeply, namely, woman’s social equality with man in a strongly male-centered and male-dominated Muslim society, hinged upon acceptance or rejection of the creation story and its anti-women interpretation. Nor, unfortunately, do many present-day Muslim women’s rights activists realize that this myth undergirds those very anti-women attitudes and structures they seek to change.

Yet such ahadith are found not only in the significant secondary sources of Islam but also in Sahih al-Bukhari (compiled by Muhammad ibn Isma’il al-Bukhari, A.H. 194-256 / A.D.810-870) and Sahih Muslim (compiled by Muslim bin al-Hajjah, A.H. 202 OR 206-261 / A.D. 817-875), the two Hadith collections regarded by Sunni Muslims as being second in authority only to the Qur’an. They were painstakingly collected from oral transmissions traceable to the sayings and precepts of the Prophet himself.

While it is not possible to give a detailed critical analysis here of either the isnad (list of transmitters) or the matn (content) of the six ahadith that deal with the creation of woman, a few comments on both may be useful. Analysis of the matn of the ahadith leads to identifying the following common elements in them: (1) Woman is created from a rib or is like a rib. (2) The most curved and crooked part of the rib is its top. (3) The crookedness of the rib (and of the woman) is irremediable and any effort to remove it will result in breakage. (4) In view of the above, an attitude of kindness is recommended and those who wish to benefit from women are advised to do so “while crookedness remains in her.”

Concerning these statements the following observations are made: (1) The rib story obviously originates in Genesis 2 but no mention is made in any of ahadith of Adam. This eliminates the Yahwist’s androcentrism but also depersonalizes the source of woman’s creation (i.e., the “rib” could, theoretically, be non-human). (2) The misogynist elements of the ahadith, absent from Genesis, clash with the teachings of the Qur’an, which describes all human beings as having been created fi ahsan-i taqwim (“most justly-proportioned and with the highest capabilities”)… (3) I cannot understand the relevance of making the statement that the most crooked part of the rib is its top. (4) The exhortation to be kind to women would make sense if women were, in fact, born with a natural handicap and needed compassion. Is “irremediable crookedness” such a handicap? (5) The exhortation to kindness seems to be pernicious, smacking of a hedonism or opportunism, which is hard to appreciate even if women were indeed “irremediably crooked”…

The theology of woman implicit in the ahadith is based upon generalizations about her ontology, biology, and psychology that are contrary to the letter and spirit of the Qur’an. These ahadith ought to be rejected on the basis of their content alone. However, matn-analysis (which was strongly urged by Ibn Khaldun, A.D. 1332-1406) has received scant attention in the work of many Muslim scholars who insist that a Hadith is to be judged primarily on the basis of itsisnad. With regard to the isnad the following points may be noted: (1) All these ahadith are cited on the authority of Abu Hurairah, a Companion of the Prophet who was regarded as controversial by many early Muslim scholars, including Imam Abu Hanifah (A.D. 700-767), founder of the largest Sunni school of law. (Here it is pertinent to note that though a more critical attitude toward Hadith and Hadith-transmitters prevailed during the earliest phase of Islam, later it became a “capital crime” to be critical of any Companion.) (2) All of the ahadith are gharib (the lowest grade of Hadith classification) because they contain a number of transmitters who were single reporters. Eminent scholars of Hadith defined a sahih or sound Hadith as one that is related in the first place by a Companion, in the second place by at least two Followers, and thereafter by many narrators. (3) All of the ahadith are da’if (“weak”) because they have a number of unreliable transmitters.

I regard the issue of woman’s creation as more important, philosophically and theologically, than any other. If man and woman have been created equal by God, who is believed to be the ultimate arbiter of value, then they cannot become unequal, essentially, at a subsequent time. Hence their obvious inequality in the patriarchal world is in contravention of God’s plan. On the other hand, if man and woman have been created unequal by God, then they cannot become equal, essentially, at a subsequent time. Hence any attempt to equalize them is contrary to God’s intent.

Given the importance of this issue, it is imperative for Muslim women’s rights activists to know that the egalitarian accounts of human creation given in the Qur’an have been displaced by the contents of ahadith, even though this cannot happen in theory. The only way that Muslim daughters of Hawwa’ can end the history of their subjection at the hands of the sons of Adam is by returning to the point of origin and challenging the authenticity of the ahadith that make women derivative and secondary in creation, but primary in guilt, sinfulness, and mental and moral deficiency. They must challenge the later sources that regard them not as ends in themselves but as instruments created for the convenience and comfort of men.

Riffat Hassan,
Professor in the Religious Studies Program at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, this year served in the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at HDS as a Research Associate and Visiting Lecturer. She is author of three books.

*Reproduced from: Harvard Divinity Bulletin (The Divinity School, Harvard University)
January-May 1987 / Volume WVII, No. 2