Beyond Simplistic Apologia

November 25th is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women as was kindly reminded to me again today by my bright and brave Saudi friend, Wafa. I don’t want to particularly talk about Muslim women and violence because violence is universal and is no way peculiar to the Muslim community.  But I thought I’d draw your attention to a Muslim man who thinks that “violence against women may physically and legally be a woman’s problem, morally and religiously it is very much that of men.”

I have already Farid Esack’s essay, Islam and Gender Justice: Beyond Simplistic Apologia three times since I borrowed the volume, What Men Owe to Women: Men’s Voices from World Religions (Edited by J.C. Raines and D. C. Maguire) this morning. It was THAT different! The entire book is fascinating and the writers, all men, have each been accused by members of their faith for holding progressive ideas for women of their faith. Farid Esack’s faith was questioned by a Muslim reviewer (Riffat Hassan) because he writes in his essay that, “In general, one discerns  … a discriminatory trend (in the Quran) when it deals with the social and legal obligations of women.”

Esack doesn’t apologise. He makes no excuses. He doesn’t sugar-coat. In fact, he accuses Amina Wadud for doing just that – “gender sensitive Muslims have struggled to “swallow” this text (Quran 4:34) after much sugar coating”!

Esack begins his essay by giving a brief history about himself, his place amongst theologians and talking about the questioner and respondent of the question ‘What men owe to women?’ He then begins to skin the gender sensitive Muslims and their “sugar-coated” exegesis of the Quran!

The author divides Quranic verses referring to women into two types:

a) General statements made which both affirm and deny gender equality and

b) specific injunctions, which are generally discriminatory towards women.

He explains them like this:

The following texts affirm the notion of equality in ethico religious responsibilities and recompense: (Q. 23:35) and (Q. 23:219)In the following four verses, frequently invoked by Muslims committed to some form of gender equality, we see how equality in a generalized manner is only seemingly affirmed. My own brief comment on the limited usefulness of invoking them for gender equality follows each verse:1) They (women) have rights similar to those against them (Q. 2:228)Here we note that ‘similar’ is left undefined and, as conservatives correctly argue, is not synonymous with ‘equal’.2) To men a share of what their parents and kinsmen leave and to women a share of what parents and relatives leave (Q. 4.7)“A share” is left undefined and, when another verse elsewhere does define it then it becomes clear that it is an unclear share.3) “To the adulteress and the adulterer, whip each one of them a hundred lashes […]” (Q.24.2)The fact of the inequality in the burden of proof in adultery is ignored. Pregnancy in the case of an unmarried woman is automatic proof of extra-marital relations while naming the male partner in the absence of witnesses to the act is tantamount to slander.4) “Say to the faithful men that they should cast down their eyes and guard their modesty; that is pure for them. And say to the faithful women that they cast down their eyes and guard their modesty.” (Q. 24:30-31)The succeeding verses, usually unmentioned in apologetic works, add an array of further specific injunctions regarding the social behaviour of women.  While one may argue that men are not absolved from these, women are the ones singled out.

Esack then continues with:

In social and legal matters, it is very difficult to avoid the impression that the Qur’an provides a set of injunctions and exhortations where women, in general, are infantalized “to be protected, and economically provided for by men, but admonished and punished if they are disobedient”.  The following are a few examples of this. a) Men marry their spouses while women are “given in marriage” by their fathers or eldest brother though they may have a say in the choice of a partner). b) The groom purchases her sexual favours though she may have a choice in the amount. Here we also observe the implicit notion of a one sided duty to fulfill the sexual needs of her husband. c) In the matter of divorce, the right of males is automatic while that of females is to be negotiated, contracted, and decided upon by male judges. d) The male may take up to four spouses though he may be compelled to treat them with equity and the first wife may leave him if the marriage contract proscribes him from taking additional wives. e) Muslim men may marry women from among the people of the Book but Muslim women may not. (Q. 2:220)

After discussing the verse on the “mono-gendered nature” of nushuz (4:34) in some depth, Esack asks, “If the excellence (of men over women) flows from God’s grace rather than from economic activity, then how does a shift in income patterns alter that excellence?” Indeed most feminist interpreters of Quran have tried to explain that the “excellence” of men over women as mentioned in 4:34 comes from economic superiority (AbulKalaam, Asad, Wadud, Hassan) which in Esack’s mind creates the problem that there is “the idea that a specific gender can acquire advantage as a group over another by virtue of some of its members possessing enjoying some grace or virtue (even if only economical).”

Explaining the same verse, Esack writes:

“While liberal readers insist that the second characteristic, “qanitat” (lit. “the obedient”) refers to obedience to God, most of the traditional interpreters have viewed this as obedience to the wishes of the husband and suggest that the obedience to one’s husband is, in fact, an extension – even a condition, of righteousness… it fairly obvious that the traditional exegetes are nearer to the truth in their fusion of duty to God and to husband… Sexual fidelity is thus portrayed as a combined duty to husband and God and while fidelity may also be a duty of the husband, the wife is singled out and her sexuality is joined to the husband’s property. In the process she and her sexuality are further objectified and notions of women as owned commodities underlined.”

I somewhat concur with this explanation as I mentioned once in a comment.

The problem, Farid Esack sees is that with the Quran, “there is no way that one can ascribe ‘discriminatory’ texts to a mysoginist Paul, or a well-meaning but time-bound David” since it is the word of God. But at the same time, “The Qur’an’s essential audience is male…(with women as) essentially subjects being dealt with – however kindly – rather than being directly addressed.”

Then he caught my attention with the rhetorical question, “How can one be content with a Transcendent who speaks about you and rarely to you?”

Esack’s answer can be found in the paradox of the sentence “while the Qur’an is far from the human rights or gender equality document that Muslim apologists make it out to be, that it, nevertheless, contains sufficient seeds for those committed to human rights and gender justice to live in fidelity to its underlying ethos.”

Esack believes that he owes women a call for forgiveness because he has realised that “God is even above Islam” and that Quran first “affirms the centrality of God in a believer’s life and not the law which is the contextual means of achieving the pleasure of God.” Despite Quran’s claims that it is a guide for humankind, Esack rightly points out that we can’t deny that the initial audience of the Book were the people of Hijaz in the 7th Century and so “those who place gender justice at the core of their concerns – rather than scripture – cannot but be cognisant of the severe limitations that such ahistorical notions place on them.”

Perhaps Esack’s   message for all of us on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women would be to develop a theology that is positive for both genders – “Our view of what we owe to women, is really a view of what we owe to ourselves. The kind of theology that we develop in thinking through this is as much a statement of our deepest selves as it is about the God whose presence we seek in a broken world desperate for wholeness and justice.”

What do you think? I welcome your comments.

Note: A version of Farid Essack’s essay is available online here.


19 thoughts on “Beyond Simplistic Apologia

  1. Lat k says:

    I understand the traditional view and how it connects the word like ‘qanitat’ ,just like how the author has done.It’s not an innovated thing as other religions like Hinduism do that too.

    To me,it’s about evolving from this and I don’t believe the Quran puts a stop to that.

    Seems like a very interesting book and I esp like the last quote!

  2. Metis says:

    It is a very good volume with men from different religions – Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism talking about what they owe women. There are two essays from Muslim men: one by Farid Esack and the other by Ali Engineer. I stopped reading Engineer because I found one place where he was deceiving. And after that I read Esack and he was Engineer’s complete opposite and I was surprised and shocked such a blatantly honest essay.

    Esack teaches Islam at Harvard and has been learning and teaching Quran since he was 10 years old. He studied in a very conservative school in Pakistan but he’s South African and that love for Islam can be seen from his other books in which he talks about doing Hajj and weeping at Kaaba. I knew this background about him so to read something like this from a man I thought would tell me the ‘ideal form of a Muslimah’ was very surprising. His attitude was more like, “this is what it is, no need to make excuse. Take it or leave it.” Works for me!

  3. M says:

    I also believe the Quran can only be a guide for mankind, for all times, if we allow it to evolve with us, at all times.

  4. Fatima says:

    Thank you for sharing the article. It is a very new and interesting perspective. I don’t think many Muslims will feel comfortable with the thought that Quran doesn’t teach equality because we have been professing that it does. What do you think is the best approach to take then if we are accept that there is no gender equality in the Quran?

    • Metis says:

      Thank you for your comment, Fatima and welcome here at Metis’.

      Mmm, it’s a tough question. I know most, perhaps all, MFs would disagree with me but I’ll still say it – I see gender equality in spirituality in Islam. Men and women are equal in religion – yes, despite a hadith 🙂 Quran maintains that throughout. But I don’t see gender equality at the social or worldly level. Twice the Quran itself calls the manner in which men and women are seen in society as ‘equitable’ not equal. There is similarity not sameness. The word ‘equal’ doesn’t occur anywhere and even when the word ‘similar’ occurs it is qualified by “but men have a degree (of advantage) over them.”

      This is why I haven’t really found Wadud’s work useful. I don’t see Quran addressing me all the time (like Wadud argues). If it did Surah Nisa would have been addressed to me directly like Surah Baqara addresses men directly, I wouldn’t have been the subject of conversation rather than being the other interlocutor. I found it interesting that Dr. Esack pointed that out as well.

      So to answer your question, we must first remove the negative and replace it with the positive. The correct question should be “What is the best approach to take if we are accept that there is gender equity in the Quran?”

      There is equity, but MFs require and are demanding equality and I think the problem is that they are trying to prove something that is just not there. But if we accept that we are equal in religion then that is what matters to us religiously. Social norms change, societies change, languages and clothing change. Rules should change accordingly. The essence of the Quran is timeless but to deny women the rights that modern world has managed to give some of us just because it didn’t happen in 7th Century Arabia is very wrong. We need to evolve and accept that even socially men and women should be equal. This doesn’t mean that I want men to rear children and women to work. No. I just think that women should become equal in worldly matters like divorce and inheritance and marriage.

      And we should also accept that we know very little about pre-Islamic women and modern research into their lives is showing us that they were not really as abused as we have been taught to believe. Thus we can’t base our argument that Islam gave women unimagined rights based on the alleged weak status of pre-Islamic women. This creates the need to find gender equality in the Quran and consequently the need for apologia.

      • susanne430 says:

        I enjoyed this post and this comment. Yes, it seems the Quran gives the seeds for social equality in the future although at the time of its coming down from God, it merely declared women equal in religion. To say they were equal in society would have been too radical, yet the seeds were there to ‘bear fruit’ in later generations – like now!

        The part about obeying men being part of obeying God reminded me of when I read the Quran and noted how often God said they had to obey God **and** the Apostle of God. I remember asking why the two were together so much and was this not shirk when someone said if you obeyed Muhammad, you were obeying God by extension. So the thing about women obeying their husbands and this equaling them obeying God maybe is related to this.

        Could the Quran be addressed to MEN and not women because it is a product of its time when men were the “important ones” in society and thus God would speak directly to men (Muhammad and earlier still, Moses) and not women?

        Of course in the Bible God spoke directly to Hagar and other women directly or through His angels when it suited Him.

        Enjoyed this!

        • Metis says:

          Thanks Susie for this valuable comment. I agree with you, I also see the seeds for reformation. I’m reading another book chapter which discusses some of the same issues in relation to the Mothers of the Believers. I’ll post on that too if people are interested.

          “Could the Quran be addressed to MEN and not women because it is a product of its time when men were the “important ones” in society and thus God would speak directly to men (Muhammad and earlier still, Moses) and not women?”

          I think so. If it were today, He would address women as well.

          • Sarah says:

            Actually God spoke to men before because women would not be taken seriously. Imagine if God picked a female messenger, with the amount of misogynistic men (who preferred to bury their daughters alive) would they accept the Qu’ran through a woman’s voice? Or will they start worshipping her like their female deities?

      • M says:

        I feel this exactly.

        Also, I think chivalry died the day we started demanding “equality” : ) I love it when men act like real gentlemen, but it’s so rare to find now!

      • unsettledsoul says:

        Excellent reply, I totally agree with what you are saying Metis.

  5. M says:

    (My comment was meant as a reply to your previous comment to Fatima.)

  6. unsettledsoul says:

    I think it means women who want to be the same, and want total equality, and possibly are apologists, and possibly think as Wadud thinks, should leave Islam instead of struggling so hard with it.

    Possibly it is true, women are struggling to reconcile with a part of the religion that just cannot be reconciled with.

    Religion has always been by, about, and for men. Religion still is by, about, and for men. And then there is us……. Trying to reconcile this fact. But it is true, the truth cannot be reconciled.

    How is it women adhere so strongly to a religion that does not even speak directly to them?

    • Metis says:

      I think that wasn’t Dr. Esack’s original intent. I mean he is a theologian who is also into dawah and all but it is hard, I have noticed, to stop him from speaking the truth. He has the right to say what he doesn’t find in the Quran like Wadud has the right to write about how Quran should be read. But I think despite his original intent, a superficial glance at the article may make one question if he meant feminists should leave Islam. That would, however, be superficial and I admit it took me three readings to really understand what he was saying. His message has a deeper meaning of God-central belief.

      “How is it women adhere so strongly to a religion that does not even speak directly to them?”

      I mentioned this somewhere that I knew a woman who was researching why women convert to Islam and her result was that the overwhelming majority converted for Muslim men. They may have been considering conversion but the final incentive was association with a Muslim man. However, most reported the initial research into Islam as the reason and only mentioned marriage when probed further. Some confessed that they want to make Islam work because they wanted to make the marriage work. Once you have converted, it isn’t easy to just leave. And we have the case of a blogger whose marriage broke down even after several years because she couldn’t accept Islam in the end. Once you invest so much time and energy into proving that a religion will work it is hard not to continue. Plus, Islam sets down clear rules and regulations that are really appreciated by majority of converts who have grown sick of a free life. Islam has a therapeutic effect as well like my acquaintance discovered for women who are depressed.

  7. unsettledsoul says:

    I know you say his message has a deeper meaning of God-central belief, but could you elaborate on this?

    You say there is equity in the Quran, not equality. Not at the social or worldly level.

    What then of women who want this equality, not equity? Wouldn’t they be wasting their time trying to reconcile this part of the religion? Maybe it is not so much superficial, but simply just that easy.

    Are women who want equality, such as Wadud, simply stretching too far? Is that why she doesn’t resonate with you?

    mmm, regarding your convert comment. I am sure that is true, most women’s associations with Islam have to do with a man, whether they admit or not is a different question, but I am not just talking about converts.. I am talking about Muslim women in general, born and convert.

    You yourself admit the Quran does not “speak to you” directly. How do you reconcile this?

    I am just curious about where you stand and what you think about it.

    I personally don’t think men and women are the same, we are not meant to be or do or think the same. We just aren’t. Once society can value what women do just as much as what men do, I think this call for sameness will disappear. It all boils down to appreciation for our roles. Mens roles are appreciated and valued in society, while women’s roles are not. When there are policies in place that value and protect women’s roles I think more women will be ok admitting we are not the same. I also think strict adherence to roles can be suffocating for some women, which again is why there is this call for sameness. It is society and people that are discriminating against women. Once the role of caretaker, child-bearer and domestic worker is valued in society, you will see women more comfortable with what the Quran is stating.

    What do you think?

    • Metis says:

      “What then of women who want this equality, not equity? Wouldn’t they be wasting their time trying to reconcile this part of the religion?”

      I think most women who appreciate and want equality, already have it. Those who don’t have it, live in countries where they can’t have it no matter how much they want it. Feminist debates in Islam started in the late 19th century and we still haven’t progressed much in Muslim majority countries. In some countries we have regressed like in Iran and Egypt.

      I am not opposing women who want equality. Who wouldn’t? I want equality (not sameness but equality); I know I am equal; in some areas my husband is superior and in some I am. But I think we can’t sustain lengthy debates over a longer period of time by insisting that we can see something that is not there. Wadud, for example, is a very famous scholar in the West, but I have spoken to several Arab feminists who accept that Wadud’s premise that Quran refers to a gender-neutral audience at all times is wrong. I am aware of at least two PhD dissertations written criticising her work. I think she is stretching it too far. But she has every reason to believe it. No one should have control over another person’s beliefs.

      In my opinion, what will work is if we accept that yes there is equity in the Quran but not necessarily equality but times have changed and modern women can’t live the lives of 7th Century Arabs. I have nothing in common with a 7th Century Arab woman. I bet I don’t even look anything like one. I don’t speak that language. I use soap!

      How do I reconcile that God doesn’t talk to me directly? Mmm, by knowing that He doesn’t talk to me in any Book 😀 Every religious scripture contains women as subjects but not audience. People might not agree with me but I have read many different types of scriptures and they are either about men talking to men, or about God talking to men, or about a prophet talking to men and somewhere women are thrown in for discussion. Even the verse 33:35 that many people quote to show gender equality is in the third person and not really addressed to a group like other verses for example 2:187 – the only difference is that even men are subjects of discussion along with the women. If Quran really addressed women, Prophet’s wife Umm Salamah wouldn’t have complained that God never speaks to women. It is hardly a fabricated hadith but it is never mentioned by anyone claiming a thesis otherwise.

      “Once the role of caretaker, child-bearer and domestic worker is valued in society, you will see women more comfortable with what the Quran is stating.”

      I don’t know because Quran isn’t even concerned with the roles of women and whether being a homemaker is a good thing or bad. What is more of concern are laws of inheritance and divorce and the order to discipline a wife. These are areas where equality is required.

  8. unsettledsoul says:


    I have been confronted with this term “God-central consciousness” on a few blogs, yet still have not found what the definition or intention of this term is. I guess that is why I was asking you to elaborate. What does God-central belief mean to you? Or, if it is what you think Esack is getting at, what do you think it means to him?

    • Metis says:

      How Esack explains and what I believe is that the main aim of any religion or religious thought should be consciousness about God. Everything else is an accessory that makes up a religion, defines it and projects it. So basic theological rules like oneness of God, doing good, tolerance, love, respect, charity, and worship are God-central rules that bring you closer to God, while hijab and other worldly rules (divorce, status of women in marriage, teaching-learning, witness in court of law, polygamy etc) are necessary accessories but updating them and modernising them will not change God-central consciousness as long as we are aware that God is the Central Being. If men don’t create a God-central theology they *will* oppress women because God is not the center of their consciousness, but it is them who have become the selfish center.

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