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Women and the Interpretation of Islamic Sources
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Heba Raouf Ezzat

Can a feminist reinterpretation of Islamic sources be set in the context of Islamic theology? In other words: Can there be a feminist interpretation of Quran and Sunna? Was there one in the past, and if not…can we initiate one in the future?

These questions have appeared on the agenda of women’s debates in the Muslim world in the past two decades…stressing the “feminist” as different…currently absent and …urgently needed.

Introductory issues

1- Women’s contribution to Islamic sciences dates back to early Islam, and has not seized through the centuries, with interruptions here and there in history due to different reasons in each case. This history of women’s involvement in ‘Ilm and Fiqh was recorded by male scholars themselves in books of history of Islamic sciences. The issue is not initiated by contemporary Western feminism but has its roots in our culture. This is important to clarify that the liberating potential of Islam is inherent in Islam itself and its history and is not a result of forces outside the culture and civilisation of Islam or a result of the contact with the West in the colonial era. The issue is not necessarily “feminist” and other terminology can –and sometimes should- be used instead of the confusion and the enforcement of the concept “feminist” on the Islamic concepts and their semantic field as a key concept.

2- The text dealt with in Christianity (the Bible) differs substantially from the Book (Quran) in Islam regarding the status of the text , its origin , its legacy , and its position in the religion. While Jesus is the logos of the Christian faith , Muhammad is not the logos in Islam, but the revelation…the Book…the Quran. This gives the text - as well the Sunna that put it into action - a centrality in the process of jurisprudence and legislation that is quite unique. This raises the question whether one can talk about an international cross-cultural and cross religious, unified or common agenda for women in this matter.

3-While in the back of mind of the Western discourse of the matter is only related to the text , in Islam the interpretation can not be completed without the a complex interaction with the Sunna , a thorough understanding and critical reading of the fiqh , and a continuous process of Ijtihad and Tajdid to place the divine and absolute within the relative and present. The knowledge of related Islamic disciplines and methodologies is a must, along with a profound updated knowledge of the social and political contexts. Not only average Muslims are required to study carefully the Islamic sciences, but Islamic scholars are also required to know the realities of life - a strict condition of Fatwa and Ijtihad that is known to everyone.

4-Contemporary Muslim women have been involved in studying and teaching the Islamic sources, and Islamic Universities have distinguished women scholars…the most prominent Bint Al-Shati -the professor of Tafsir in Egypt and Morocco who died recently, as well as many female professors at Al-Azhar and in all Islamic Universities. It has been neglected in recent writings that started giving attention to the role of women within the Islamic movements in transmitting and studying the Islamic sources that they, too, contributed to the knowledge and Ijtihad. Ann Sophie Roald (In K.Ask & M.Tjomsland 1998 ) for example studied Bint Al-Shati, yet forgot Zainab A-Ghazali - the leading Egyptian Muslim activist of the Muslim Brotherhood - who published an interpretation of the Quran 1994. Though published by the famous Dar Al Shorouk publishers, and forwarded by a praise by a (male) professor of Tafsir at Al-Azhar University, Karam did not even refer to that volume when studying Ghazali’s “feminist” ideas. (A.Karam , 1998) Women’s reading and interpretation of the Islamic sources is then an ongoing process in the Islamic as well as Islamist circles.

5-Taking the awareness about women’s problems and the unjust treatment of women in Islamic societies with different Islamic pretexts as the criteria according to which one classifies writings as “feminist” or not (sometimes regardless of the sex/gender of the author], one can find indeed that male scholars have been more outspoken and “revolutionary” than women scholars. Hence insisting on “feminist” as description for the reading or interpretation, places feminism as a frame of reference and a basically secular paradigm to be the point of reference. Within the Islamic circle adjectives such as : “fair” , “just", “methodologically correct” and “nearer to the general aims of Islam (Maqasid)” are more accurate.

Methodological reflections

Established Islamic methodology to approach the Islamic sources has been challenged lately by secularist writings, either generally as a whole, or focusing mainly on the issue of women. In this respecr Fatima Mernissi ( Morocco) can be considered to be the most sophisticated one. Her work discusses –among other things- the compatibility of some narrators of the Hadith and their hostile position towards women that affected their integrity and credibility, deconstructing by that some crucial Hadith on women that were narrated in Al-Bukhari and accepted as authentic Hadith. (Merrnissi,1996) .

Her work was attacked by many Islamic scholars, not because of its feminist nature but because it challenges the established, widely accepted, methodology. Others such as Nawal Saadawi ( Egypt) or Farida Banani ( Morocco) are more general in their arguments. These writings state that Ijtihad is needed to initiate new ideas and perspective that are more compatible with the modern notions of human rights, while at the same time accepting and advocating intellectually Western notions and concepts on “gender” and “patriarchy” without much revision or criticism.

A researcher with a secular paradigm when dealing with the Islamic sources rejects established Islamic sciences’ methodology and usually bases his/her analysis on approaches that deal with “texts” regardless of the origin of these texts - revealed or human. Any contribution will always be classified as a secular critique to the transcendental and will hence be rejected and refuted by the mainstream Islamic schools of thought and jurisprudence - even if insightful and worth discussing.

The political situation and polarization is dominant in a lot of discussion spaces. The arguments of secularisits are not read and understood by Islamic scholars, while any effort or new Ijtihad on the Islamic side is usually accused of being for propagandist, not serious, for political purposes and temporary. Especially in the issues of women the political is very much linked with the methodology, the selection of topics and the way these are addressed from both sides according to the hot issues on the political agenda. The lack of a real intellectual environment for dialogue blocks change on the grass root level for the best of the majority of women.

A second point is that attempts to bridge the gap between social sciences and Islamic sciences have been going on in many academic circles in the Muslim world. Disciplines like economy were given more attention than other disciplines such as political science and sociology.

It is very important to realize that any reform in women issues by combining a contemporary reading of the sources with a knowledge of social sciences requires Ijtihad on both sides. Till now only attempts to reform the reading of the text have been in process, while the Ijtihad on the social sciences level has been almost non-existent. A simple example for that is the attempt to seek new fatwas allowing women to participate in politics by voting as well as become political representatives. Little has been done to introduce a new political theory that would revise the centrality of the state major actor, or revise the whole issue of political representation and its problems.

Democracy , as people have to be constantly reminded, can take many forms, not necessarily representative democracy, and not necessarily in a party system. Authoritarianism or totalitarianism are not the only option to the former statement, but a variety of forms for political governance that are definitely NOT the simple non-sophisticated talk about an “Islamic State” that is always more of a State than it is …Islamic. The Ijtihad has to be on all tracks, otherwise one will end up defending just and equal women participation in a political system that is not just nor fair or equal itself –structurally speaking .

Discussing the issue of women and politics one finds different approaches. Following you will find two different ones. The first is called here the selective anti-Sunna method as it is based on the selection of the source (reference), denying and refusing the whole of Sunna and Hadith. It is short and brief as it saves itself the path of Ijtihad and argumentation.

The selective anti-Sunna Method

“Can a woman take the leadership role? Is it prohibited? The answer will be different if you look at the Quran, or if you look at the the Hadiths, that most of them were written about 200 years after the Prophet's death. When God tells us a story in the Quran, He does not do so just for entertaining us, but to teach us a lesson.

"We narrate to you the most accurate history through the revelation of this Quran. Before this, you were totally unaware." 12:3. "In their history, there is a lesson for those who possess intelligence......" 12:111.

The role of an important woman in the history of the old world, as much as Muslims are concerned, is shown in the story of Belquees, the Queen of Sheba. See 27:22-44. God mentioned her history in the Quran to let us know that a woman in a ruling position is not offensive as far as God is concerned. She represented a democratic ruler who consulted with her people before making important decisions, See 27:29. She visited Solomon, talked to him , made decisions for herself and her people, not hiding behind walls, or shying behind another man. After witnessing what God gave Solomon, she became a submitter (Muslim), while still the Queen of Sheba. "She was told, "Go inside the palace." When she saw its interior, she thought it was a pool of water, and she (pulled up her dress) exposing her legs. He said, "This interior is now paved with crystal." She said, 'My Lord, I have wronged my soul. I now submit with Solomon to God, Lord of the universe".

Here we witness one of the first Muslim women in charge of a nation, ruling them as a queen of Sheba. Can we learn a lesson from the Quran? we should. The lesson is that, God in the Quran never put restrictions on a woman in a ruling position. Contrary to what the traditional Muslim scholars and Hadiths teach, a woman in a leading political position is not against God's system or against the Quran. It might be against the chauvinistic views of the men who wrote the corrupted history of Hadiths.

What did the books of man, the Hadith books ,teach about women in leadership positions? Completely the opposite, and then they claim that Hadiths do not contradict the Quran.. Of course the reason is that, the Prophet Muhammed would have never contradicted the Quran, but those who invented these stories about him did.

In one of the most famous Hadiths that is often raised in the face of any Muslim woman seeking higher education or higher position in her career is one by a man called Abu Bakra who narrated a Hadith reported in Bukhary that states that any community ruled by a woman will never succeed. The fallacy of this Hadith is not only proven in history but in the fact that Abu Bakra himself was reported in the Muslim history books to be punished publicly for bearing false witness. Despite this known story of his bearing false witness, Bukhary did not remove his Hadith from among his collected Hadiths according to the rules that Bukhary himself claimed to follow. Such a bearer of false witness should never be allowed or accepted as a witness ever, according to the Quran (24:4).

The tajdid method

Access to political positions is dealt with in the dominant feminist discourse as a gain that women should target for power and influence. “Power” is also the reason why Islamists deny them that right so they would have no authority over the supposedly wiser males. It is usually forgotten that political positions are not gains to be sought but rather responsibilities to be carried. They necessitate specific competence which, according to Ibn Taymiyya, is based on two factors: strength and integrity. Strength is dependent on the nature of the jurisdiction. Strength in judgments is based on the knowledge about the Qur’an and the Hadith and the ability to implement them. Personal integrity all depends on the fear of God.

It is also neglected that whoever takes that power is obliged to abide by the laws of the Shari’a - be that person a man or a woman. Their decisions concerning the public law and the codes of ethics should be issued through the mechanisms of Shura. They are obeyed in as far as they do; otherwise, there is no obedience to those who disobey God and “Obedience is conditioned by the virtues” and “If the ruler judges unfairly or in contradiction to the established rules, his judgment is rejected.” Reading literature on the topic reveals that the disagreement arises in Fiqh from the different readings and interpretation of the Islamic sources that we can discuss as following:

Scholars disagree on the possible meaning of the verse, which goes, “Men are in charge (qawwamun) of women, because of what God has graced some of them over the others and because they spend of their property (for the support of women).” (IV:34). Some interpretations argue that being “in charge” is exclusive for men since they possess superior attributes over women with respect to the management of affairs, the physical and psychological strengths, etc. To them, this makes it unfeasible that a woman takes over any public jurisdiction that can make her “in charge” or even let her share such responsibility. In their view, the text states explicitly that responsibility is given to men.

It is also argued that even if the responsibility stated in the above-mentioned verse is meant to be in the specific family context, the argument is still valid, since a woman is necessarily then incompetent in managing wider public affairs.

Other scholars maintain that the relationship between men and women in general is based on equality and that the Qur’an here only refers to the family in a regulative manner not to the human nature or the competence of women in general. This does not indicate that women are less competent, but rather suggests the more appropriate party who can be replaced by the other if necessary in cases of the absence of the father due to any reason.

Views are at variance concerning the Prophet’s Hadith narrated by al-Bukhari in the authority of Abu Bakra who said, “When the Prophet was informed that in Persia, the daughter of the King (Kisra) succeeded to the throne, he said, ‘No success is destined for a folk whose ruler is a woman’.” Some literature debate that this includes all women in all public jurisdiction. The statement is seperated from its context and taken as a divine rule. Other opinions see that, in general, this is exclusive to the caliphate -the highest position in an Islamic political system.

Some contemporary scholars deny the authenticity of the hadith altogether, describing it as “fake”, maintaining that it is at best a “Hadith Ahad” - a Hadith narrated by a sole narrator-, a case which excludes it as a source of Sharia’ in serious matters of legislation and constitution. The first party have done no attempt to interpret the above-mentioned Hadith in the light of the other relevant Qur’anic verses (the simple next step in interpretation that is usually forgotten here!), or the other Prophetic tradition on the issue. The second group basically adhered to the same approach except that they made it specific and have not associated it with competence but with certain positions.

The following remarks can be given about the Hadith discussed:

-It has to be interpreted in the light of the other Hadiths on Persia and King Kisra. It was reported in the context of a narration reported by Ibn Hajar al-’Asqalani quoted in Sahih al-Bukari. It was reported that Kisra tore off the message sent to him by the Prophet and that the Prophet accursed him. Then the Kisra’s son first killed him and then his brothers and the killer was ultimately poisoned himself. Therefore, Poran prohibited. Otherwise, how can women manage to perform their religious obligations without necessarily mixing with men? Alleged resulting “Fitna” cannot thus be taken as an argument since the legitimate rulings are established on the Qur’an and the Sunna.

To sum up, public jurisdi and political po require special competence in both men and women , They remain at the end the full occupation of a minority of people and among them some women are definitely eligible. Arguments to the established rules of interpretation. It is my conclusion that only few women can practically manage both the responsibilities of family and jurisdiction at a time. If they have the compatibility or can gain it they have full choice –even a responsibility- to participate on these political levels in a Muslim society.

Polygamy by Brother Yaseen
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[html] In this article, I would like to look into some Quranic verses related to marriage and polygamy independently from traditional belief and male dominated connotations that infiltrated so-called Muslim world for centuries. Famous English translations of the Quran have also been very disappointing with regard to interpretations given to crucial verses in the Quran especially the ones that refer to women rights and orphans in society.

My principles of analysis of these verses are: linguistic, consistency throughout the Quran in the usage of specific words and expressions, logic and common sense, the topic covered and the audience addressed. We must always seek the best meaning from God's word and avoid as much as possible "adding" our own interpretations to verses for words and meanings that are not there. One must admit that every "reading" of the Quran is unique and it is impossible and impractical for a reader of the Quran to remove totally their personal understanding and interpretation. I would explore verses 3 and 4 from Chapter 4 in the Quran: An-Nisa' (The women) in greater details as this is the most widely used verse in justifying the polygamy practice.

When I considered looking at verse 4:3 in a different way, I was merely challenging my own faith. I had no idea that the new meaning that I explored would fit like a glove. I invite all brothers and sisters to do the same. God explains the Book.

Marriage rules in the Quran:

All the Quran is consistent, logical and there are no contradictions in it:

Verse (4:82) Why do they not ponder over the Quran? If it were from other than GOD, they would have found in it numerous contradictions.

From the Quran, we can establish that there are only two simple rules in marriage that make it impossible to have polygamy unless we accept there are contradictions in the Quran.

Rule #1 Verse 24:32: Marrying off the unmarried

"Marry off those who are single among you and those of your male and female servants who are righteous. If they are poor, God will enrich them of his grace, for God is bounteous and all-knowing."

The Quran is a textually consistent and logical Book. Let us review the verse above from the "logical" angle: "Marry off those who are single among you…" In this verse, we are commanded by God to marry off the singles within the society (males and females widows or singles). Marrying off the un-married means exactly what it says. Who do we marry off the unmarried to? If we marry them off to other "married" people, then we are marrying off the "unmarried" and the "married" as well, so this causes a contradiction. Therefore, we can only marry off the "unmarried" to other "unmarried" men or women. Once any of these men or women has become married, they can't be included by this verse anymore. So logically to reach a polygamous situation, a man must marry women by two, by three and by four at the same time. This does not seem to be possible or acceptable.

Rule #1: In a society, God is commanding us to only marry off the unmarried.

Rule#2 Verse (4:20) Taking one wife in place of another:

If you wish to marry another wife, in place of your present wife, and you had given any of them a great deal, you shall not take back anything you had given her. Would you take it fraudulently, maliciously, and sinfully?

Taking one wife instead of another means there is a pre-requisite of divorce before another marriage takes place. This establishes rule number 2:

Rule #2: A divorce must take place before a man marries another wife.

This rule makes it even harder to have polygamy through the Quran.

In fact, those two are the clauses of binding marriage contract (solemn covenant) "mithaaqan ghaleethan" referred to in verse 4:21.

"And how could you take it when you have gone in unto each other, and they have taken from you a firm (binding) contract? "

It is important to note that the same expression "mithaaqan ghaleethan" is also used in the Quran to describe what God took from the prophets: A solemn covenant "mithaaqan ghaleethan".

Verse 33:7 (Yusuf Ali's translation) And remember, we took from the Prophets their Covenant. As (We did) from thee: From Noah, Abraham, Moses, And Jesus son of Mary: We took from them a solemn covenant.

When a married "Muslim" marries a second wife, he would have broken the Quranic Rule#1 because he is already married and he also would have broken Rule#2 because he did not take a wife instead of another (divorce then marriage).

Chapter 4 and "Polygamy Verses":

Let us look into the first six verses of Chapter 4 especially verse 4:3 and verse 4:4 in greater details and establish: Who are the parties in marriage? What are the conditions? And are any of the rules established so far broken?

Chapter 4: The women (An-Nisa')-transliteration-

Bismi Allahi alrrahmani alrraheemi 1.Ya ayyuha alnnasu ittaqoo rabbakumu allathee khalaqakum min nafsin wahidatin wakhalaqa minha zawjaha wabaththa minhuma rijalan katheeran wanisaan waittaqoo Allaha allathee tasaaloona bihi waal-arhama inna Allaha kana AAalaykum raqeeban 2.Waatoo alyatama amwalahum wala tatabaddaloo alkhabeetha bialttayyibi wala ta/kuloo amwalahum ila amwalikum innahu kana hooban kabeeran 3.Wa-in khiftum alla tuqsitoo fee alyatama fainkihoo ma taba lakum mina alnnisa-i mathna wathulatha warubaAAa fa-in khiftum alla taAAdiloo fawahidatan aw ma malakat aymanukum thalika adna alla taAAooloo 4.Waatoo alnnisaa saduqatihinna nihlatan fa-in tibna lakum AAan shay-in minhu nafsan fakuloohu hanee-an maree-an 5.Wala tu/too alssufahaa amwalakumu allatee jaAAala Allahu lakum qiyaman waorzuqoohum feeha waoksoohum waqooloo lahum qawlan maAAroofan 6.Waibtaloo alyatama hatta itha balaghoo alnnikaha fa-in anastum minhum rushdan faidfaAAoo ilayhim amwalahum wala ta/kulooha israfan wabidaran an yakbaroo waman kana ghaniyyan falyastaAAfif waman kana faqeeran falya/kul bialmaAAroofi fa-itha dafaAAtum ilayhim amwalahum faashhidoo AAalayhim wakafa biAllahi haseeban

Translation: Yusuf Ali [an-Nisa' 4:1] 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 God, through whom ye demand your mutual (rights), and (reverence) the wombs (That bore you): for God ever watches over you. [an-Nisa' 4:2] To orphans restore their property (When they reach their age), nor substitute (your) worthless things for (their) good ones; and devour not their substance (by mixing it up) with your won. For this is indeed a great sin. [an-Nisa' 4:3] If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, Marry women of your choice, Two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice. [an-Nisa' 4:4] And give the women (on marriage) their dower as a free gift; but if they, of their own good pleasure, remit any part of it to you, Take it and enjoy it with right good cheer. [an-Nisa' 4:5] To those weak of understanding Make not over your property, which God hath made a means of support for you, but feed and clothe them therewith, and speak to them words of kindness and justice. [an-Nisa' 4:6] Make trial of orphans until they reach the age of marriage; if then ye find sound judgment in them, release their property to them; but consume it not wastefully, nor in haste against their growing up. If the guardian is well-off, Let him claim no remuneration, but if he is poor, let him have for himself what is just and reasonable. When ye release their property to them, take witnesses in their presence: But all-sufficient is God in taking account.

Who is the audience?

Clearly the first verse answers this question: O Mankind! "Ya ayyuha alnnasu", the audience is mankind/people in society.

What is the topic? The subject in question is one of compassion, kindness, and responsibility towards a weak and disadvantaged group in society: the rights of orphans -verses 2 to 6-. In the first verse, we are asked to be conscious of our Lord and Sustainer who created us from one living entity or one single soul. From this "entity" was created its "mate" or its "pair" (zawjaha). From this pair originated and spread many countless men and women; the introduction is very fitting to what follows in the next few verses.

How does the subject develop (verse 4:2)? Orphans' possessions, rights and interests are really the crucial point. One must give/render unto/hand over to the orphans their possessions. They are requested not to substitute the bad for the good and not to consume the possessions of the orphans into theirs' as it is a great crime.

The primary context is doing justice to the orphans and managing and protecting their financial affairs as can be found in several other verses:

4:10 (A Ali translation) Those who devour the possessions of the orphans unjustly devour only fire, and will surely burn in Hell.

6:152 (M Asad translation) And do not touch the substance of an orphan -save to improve it- before he comes of age…

17:34 (M Asad translation) And do not touch the substance of an orphan save to improve it before he comes of age…

18:82 (M Asad translation) "And as for that wall, it belonged to two orphan boys [living] in the town, and beneath it was [buried] a treasure belonging to them [by right]. Now their father had been a righteous man, and so thy Sustainer willed it that when they come of age they should bring forth their treasure by thy Sustainer's grace"…

Now is 4:3 really about polygamy? It is important to point out here that there are several verbs in Arabic related to marrying from the root: "Na Ka Ha":

Nakaha : to marry Ankaha : to marry off Istankaha : to ask/seek for marriage.

The verbs Nakaha and Ankaha have the same imperative form Ankuhu - This is the plural form-. The first form of the verb Nakaha (to marry) can be found in many verses: 2:221, 2:230, 4:22, 24:3, 33:49, 33:53, 60:10. The second form of the verb (to marry off) can be found in 24:32 and 28:27. Ahmed Ali translation reads (verse 24:32):

"Marry off those who are single among you and those of your male and female servants who are righteous. If they are poor, God will enrich them of his grace, for God is bounteous and all-knowing."

Analysis of verse 4:3

4:3 "Wa-in khiftum alla tuqsitoo fee alyatama": If you can't do justice to the orphans. This part of the verse is crucial and has been consistently ignored by all interpreters. "Doing the orphans justice" (male and female orphans) is about caring for them, maintaining them and looking after their inheritance. 4:3 " fainkihoo": " This has always been taken to mean "Marry" in the imperative form but I will show that this meaning is invalid. The meaning must be " Marry off". 4:3…" ma taba lakum": This is taken as: "who has become good to you" or "who are lawful to you" or "of your choice". I shall prove that these interpretations are against the Quran and create contradiction. The women in question are fully qualified from the Quran and do not need an additional attribute. The Quran is its own dictionary. Please note that the verb "taba" is in the past tense as is in 4:4 (fa-in tibna lakum AAan shay-in minhu nafsan) though there is a subtle difference. In 4:4, these women are giving a part of what they are entitled to "sadduqqatihina" of their own accord -God willing, I shall tackle the word "sadduqqatihina" when analysing 4:4 to show that it is not dowers-. In 4:3, they are also giving something but not physical: They are giving their consent to a proposal or the idea of marriage. I rendered " ma taba lakum" to " who have agreed with you". It could also be rendered as "who happily have consented with you" (about being married off). 4:3…" mina alnnisa-i": " from the women", the only women mentioned in this verse, the verse before (4:2) and the subsequent three verses (4:3-6) are women belonging to the category of orphans. This is a unique group of women, therefore most common translations of the phrase " ma taba lakum" was wrong because they did not pick up an important link between verse 4:3 and 4:4 as well as other verses. 4:3…"Mathna wa thulatha wa rubaa"  (also used in 35:1) means: by two, by three and by four (In other words in groups of two, three or four, this meaning therefore has been ignored because it does not fit easily with what traditional interpretations want to find), It is sure this does not mean two three and four because two, three and four in Arabic are: ithnaan, thalatha and arbaa' and not mathna, thulatha and rubaa. One must accept that nobody marries two three or four wives at the same time! But that's exactly what it means if we take "ankuhu" as Marry instead of Marry off. Please also note here there is no mention of "lawful to you" (Muhamed Asad) or marry the mothers of the orphans (Rashad Khalifa)!

4:3…" fa-in khiftum alla taAAdiloo" If you fear you can't be fair (in the marrying off by two, by three and by four). 4:3… "fawahidatan": then only one, this refers to: "If you fear you can't be fair"

4:3…."aw ma malakat aymanukum": lit: or what your right hands possessed,

"ma malakat aymanukum" (MMA) : can be found in the Quran to refer to different groups of people and women in different situations. The context is very important; this is not referring to slaves or captives.

Several articles have been written regarding the expression: "ma malakat aymanukum" and I have been looking into this term throughout the Quran. It is a "logical" term that defines a group of people to contrast or complement another group (or groups) of people mentioned in the same verse (or consecutive verses).

Examples of "ma malakat aymanukum" (what your right hands possessed):

I have used the following abbreviations: "ma malakat aymanukum"(plurial form)=MMA "ma malakat yameenuk" (singular form)=MMY

Verse 33:52 MMY=the women the prophet was already married to in contrast to women he is not married to. Verse 4:25 MMA=believing (female) slaves in contrast to free believing women. Verse 4:24 MMA=believing women married to unbelievers (who they fled from -verse 60:10-) in contrast to believing women married to believing men.

My understanding of this term from other verses such as 70:30 and 23:6, it is referring to wives/husbands married before "Islam"/revelation in contrast to spouses in marriages after the revelation (azwaaj (spouses) literally meaning pairs!).

The expression "what your right hands possessed" is referring to a category of women who are on one hand similar to orphaned women in terms of needing care and protection, but at the same time, there is a contrast because they have not go an entitlement to an "inheritance" as orphans would.

If the expression " ma taba lakum" is taken to mean: "who has become good to you" or "who are lawful to you" or "of your choice", there would not be any need to add another category: "what your right hands possessed" as women who has become good to you, lawful to you or of your choice should also encompass what is perceived to mean "slaves" or "captives". Therefore the clause "or what your right hands possessed" would become unnecessary. The meaning that would suit "what your right hands possessed" is "those who you have a pledge (or duty) to care for".

thalika adna alla taAAooloo: this is better than getting into hardship (this refers back to the first clause: "if you fear you can not do justice to the orphans….". The verb "3aala" in the form "taAAoolloo" means getting into hardship or financial difficulty.

Therefore: The marrying off by one (instead of by more than one at one time) is to be fair to all the orphaned women. The principle of marrying off is for the carer to avoid financial hardship and for doing justice to the orphans (not spoil their inheritance).

In many cases, these orphans are related to you. It is still common in many countries that close relations take over the care of orphans when the provider of these orphans dies.

90:11-16 (Ahmed Ali translation): 11. But he could not scale the steep ascent. 12. How will you comprehend what the steep ascent is? 13. To free a neck (from the burden of debt or slavery), 14. Or to feed in times of famine 15. The orphan near in relationship 16. Or the poor in distress;

As I said above the audience from verse 4:2 includes men and women carers. It is demeaning to assume that there is an imperative order to men (from God) to get married to orphans in their care, this goes totally against the guidance of God when dealing with vulnerable people in society. God will never ask any men to "marry" a number of orphans as this depends on their consent (or rejection). God will only ask us to do what is good for our own souls and guidance and be equitable to all disadvantaged people including orphans. One further point; in the verse prior to this one we are asked render them their possessions and not to consume it, are the male carers not doing exactly the opposite by marrying them? And what sort of God fearing people are we if the only way to be just and equitable to orphans is to marry them when God tells us in many verses to be generous and charitable to weak and disadvantaged groups in society? The primary context of the verse is fairness and justice in managing the financial affairs of orphans.

"yataama" : are both male and female orphans, however marrying off in this verse specifies only female orphans to enable them to have a good respectable start in their independent lives.. Therefore, the verse could read like this:

And if you fear you can't do justice to the orphans, then marry off the women (orphans) who have consented to by two, by three and by four. But if you fear that you will be unfair then (marry off) by one or what your right hand possessed as this is better than getting into hardship.

Because this verse has never been understood properly before, I shall break it down to its main clauses to understand it better:

And if you fear you can't do justice to the orphans, then: "Marry off the women (orphans) who have consented to you by two, by three and by four!" But if you fear that you will be unfair then: "(Marry off) by one or what your right hand possessed!" This is better than getting into hardship.

Now let us assume that the verse is about "Marrying" not "Marrying off" and see if it could also make perfect sense.

And if you fear you can't do justice to the orphans, then:

"Marry the women (orphans) who have consented with you by two, by three and by four!" But if you fear that you will be unfair then: "(Marry) by one or what your right hand possessed!" This is better than getting into hardship.

It only makes perfect sense if you ignore the first clause (And if you fear you can't do justice to the orphans, then:). The first clause seems to be totally out of place, that's why I put it separate.

Contradiction in the Quran! Now let us accept the meaning "marry" and break the clauses of verse 4:3 the proper way:

And if you fear you can't do justice to the orphans, then: "Marry off the women (orphans) who have consented with you by two, by three and by four!" But if you fear that you will be unfair then: "By one or what your right hand possessed!" This is better than getting into hardship.

Because the first and last clause are linked (ignoring the middle clauses) what we are exactly saying is (taking the "marry" option):

And if you fear you can't do justice to the orphans, then: "Marry the women (orphans) who have consented with you"…... This is better than getting into hardship.

Does marrying the orphans in your care resolve your financial problems and do justice to the orphans?

For most people, this would have been enough evidence to reject "Marry" option in verse 4:3 because this creates contradiction in God's word.

It is interesting to note that we are told in verse 4:127 that we will find the mention of orphaned women (or female orphans) "yatama alnnisa-i". Therefore the women referred to in verses 4:3-4 are the orphaned women.

4:127.Wayastaftoonaka fee alnnisa-i quli Allahu yufteekum feehinna wama yutla AAalaykum fee alkitabi fee yatama alnnisa-i allatee la tu/toonahunna ma kutiba lahunna watarghaboona an tankihoohunna waalmustadAAafeena mina alwildani waan taqoomoo lilyatama bialqisti wama tafAAaloo min khayrin fa-inna Allaha kana bihi AAaleeman

"And they ask you judgement about women. Say: God will instruct you about them and you will also read in the book concerning the orphaned women to which you intend to deny what has been ordained to them and wish to marry them off, as well as to regard the vulnerable children, that you should be just in the matter of orphans. God knows whatever good you do."

Verse 4:127 is again about marrying off the orphaned women and not marrying them. There are plenty of verses that deal with marriage, marrying an orphan is no different from marrying any other woman. Obviously what you give to the orphans is what is ordained/recorded for them through inheritance and not dowers (in verses 4:2-6 and 4:127). The vulnerable children are simply orphans (male and female) who have not reached maturity or a marriageable age yet in opposite to orphaned women (verses 4:3 and 4:127).

In the verse above 4:127, God tells us that we will find in the book the mention of the orphaned woman with regard marrying them off and with regard to their inheritance, this is only found in the initial verses of Chapter 4(4:3-4). The addressed (audience) and their role in verse 4:127 are consistent: Carers responsible for the orphans and their financial affairs rather than carers and potential husbands at the same time (with "marry" and "dowers" interpretation). In fact the only answer found in the Quran regarding the "ruling" about orphaned women that those believers have asked for is verse 4:4.

Verse 4:4, what do you give to the orphans? You give them "sadduqatihina" which as I said is not dowries or marriage portions, and you give it "nihlah" that is willingly without expecting a return for it. In marriage the groom seeks a wife, a bearer of children, a companion and a supporter in return.

There is no other single verse in the Quran that deals with marriage and uses any form of "sadduqatihina" to mean dowers. This word has been translated as "dowries", "due dowries", "free gift of their marriage portion"

I shall now give examples of what the groom is to provide in a normal marriage from the Quran:

4:24-25 (Ahmed Ali translation) 24- Also forbidden are married women unless they are captives (of war). Such is the decree of God. Lawful for you are women besides these if you seek them with your wealth for wedlock and not for debauchery. Then give those of these women you have enjoyed, the agreed dower (Ujurahuna). It will not be sinful if you agree to something (else) by mutual consent after having settled the dowry. God is certainly all-knowing and all-wise. 25- If one of you can not afford to marry a believing gentlewoman (let him marry) a maid who is a believer. God is aware of your faith: The one of you is of the other; so marry them with the consent of their people, and give them an appropriate dowry (Ujurahuna). They are women (seeking) wedlock, and lechery, nor secretly looking for paramours. But if they are married and guilty of adultery, inflict on them half the punishment (enjoined) for gentlewomen. This is for those who are afraid of doing wrong. In case they can wait, it is better for them. God is forgiving and kind.

5:5 (Ahmed Ali translation) On this day all things that are clean have been made lawful for you; and made lawful for you is the food of the people of the Book, as your food is made lawful for them. And lawful are the chaste Muslim women, and the women of the people of the Book who are chaste, (for marriage) and not fornication or liaison, if you give them their dowries (Ujurahuna). Useless shall be rendered the acts of those who turn back on their faith, and they will be among the losers in the life to come.

33:50 (Ahmed Ali translation) We have made lawful for you, O prophet wives to whom you have given their dower (Ujurahuna)……

60:10 (Ahmed Ali translation) …..There is no sin if you marry them provided you give their dowers to them (Ujurahuna).

"Ujurahuna" meaning "their dowers" is consistently and exclusively used in the Quran for what a man gives a woman as a marriage portion in a normal marriage. This textual consistency leave one in no doubt that "Sadduqatihina" in verse 4:4 does not carry the meaning "their dowers". It has been taken to mean that because of misunderstanding of verses 4:3 and 4:4.

Translation of verses 4:3 and 4:4

And if you fear you can't do justice to the orphans, then: "Marry off the women (orphans) who have consented with you by two, by three and by four!" But if you fear that you will be unfair then only by one or what your right hand possessed, as this is better than getting into hardship.

And Give the women their inheritance willingly, but if they; of their own accord, remit any part to you, Take it and enjoy it with right good cheer.

Verses 4:5 and 4:6 The main thing to understand about those two verses is that they are referring to both male orphans and female orphans. If one is not sure, one is able to find clues in God's book: "Feeding, clothing and speaking to with kindness" is towards both sexes of orphans. The testing and the handing over of possessions (once orphans have matured) in front of witnesses is to both male orphans and female orphans. The rich carer should abstain and the poor one may spend/use as much as is fair.

Let us look at the overall picture of verses 4:3-6 in relation to the verses before 4:1-2 and the verses after 4:7 and onwards from the topic in question. I put emphasis on inheritance or dowers depending on the verse and the scenario:

Scenario1: Marrying off and "sadduqatihina"= orphaned women's inheritance 4:1 (humanity origins) 4:2 (inheritance) 4:3 (Marrying off) 4:4 (inheritance) 4:5 (inheritance) 4:6 (inheritance) 4:7 onwards (inheritance)

Scenario2: Marrying and "sadduqatihina"=dowers 4:1 (humanity origins) 4:2 (inheritance) 4:3 (Marrying) 4:4 (dowers) 4:5 (inheritance) 4:6 (inheritance) 4:7 onwards (inheritance)

The odd one out can easily be spotted.

When "sadduqatihina" is taken as inheritance (as it should), there is consistency of topics in verses 4:2-6 and the following verses (from 4:7). The audience and its role in verses 4:2-6 is also the same; that is: Carers responsible for the welfare and the financial affairs of the orphans. However when the meanings "marry" and "dowers" are taken, we find the audience switches from carers in 4:2 to husbands/grooms in 4:3-4, then it switches back again to carers in 4:5-6!

The inheritance verses: Verses 4:7-13 (Yusuf Ali's translation)

[an-Nisa' 4:7] From what is left by parents and those nearest related there is a share for men and a share for women, whether the property be small or large,-a determinate share. [an-Nisa' 4:8] But if at the time of division other relatives, or orphans or poor, are present, feed them out of the (property), and speak to them words of kindness and justice. [an-Nisa' 4:9] Let those (disposing of an estate) have the same fear in their minds as they would have for their own if they had left a helpless family behind: Let them fear God, and speak words of appropriate (comfort). [an-Nisa' 4:10] Those who unjustly eat up the property of orphans, eat up a Fire into their own bodies: They will soon be enduring a Blazing Fire! [an-Nisa' 4:11] God (thus) directs you as regards your Children's (Inheritance): to the male, a portion equal to that of two females: if only daughters, two or more, their share is two-thirds of the inheritance; if only one, her share is a half. For parents, a sixth share of the inheritance to each, if the deceased left children; if no children, and the parents are the (only) heirs, the mother has a third; if the deceased Left brothers (or sisters) the mother has a sixth. (The distribution in all cases ('s) after the payment of legacies and debts. Ye know not whether your parents or your children are nearest to you in benefit. These are settled portions ordained by God; and God is All-knowing, Al-wise. [an-Nisa' 4:12] In what your wives leave, your share is a half, if they leave no child; but if they leave a child, ye get a fourth; after payment of legacies and debts. In what ye leave, their share is a fourth, if ye leave no child; but if ye leave a child, they get an eighth; after payment of legacies and debts. If the man or woman whose inheritance is in question, has left neither ascendants nor descendants, but has left a brother or a sister, each one of the two gets a sixth; but if more than two, they share in a third; after payment of legacies and debts; so that no loss is caused (to any one). Thus is it ordained by God; and God is All-knowing, Most Forbearing. [an-Nisa' 4:13] Those are limits set by God: those who obey God and His Apostle will be admitted to Gardens with rivers flowing beneath, to abide therein (for ever) and that will be the supreme achievement.

God is never Forgetful. In the above inheritance verses, there no mention that if a man has two wives/spouses or more, they share a quarter or any other portion. The portion of the daughters if there are two or more (and no sons) is two-thirds (4:11) -after legacies or debts-. When there is no ascendants or descendants, the brothers and sisters share in a third if they are more than two -after legacies or debts-. If there are no children, the spouses inherit the quarter of the husbands' inheritance-after legacies or debts- (4:12). Verse 4:12 only makes concise perfect sense when there is no polygamy, otherwise if a man has 4 wives, it is not clear if each wife gets a quarter or a sixteenth or any other portion -after legacies or debts- unless we rely on other sources for inheritance rules.

The war There is no mention of "war" that tradition wants to convince us of as a justification for "polygamy" in verse 4:3 (with "marrying" meaning). These verses are equally applicable at war and at peace. The more polygamous the society is the greater is the number of widows left behind and the greater is the burden on the society. However verses 4:3-4 are not about the widows of war, they are uniquely about orphaned women.

Other misunderstood verses Some readers and many translators give some Quranic verses an interpretation influenced by polygamous assumptions. Let us look into verse 4:129 and put it into the context of the verse before it and the verse after it. 128.Wa-ini imraatun khafat min baAAliha nushoozan aw iAAradan fala junaha AAalayhima an yusliha baynahuma sulhan waalssulhu khayrun waohdirati al-anfusu alshshuhha wa-in tuhsinoo watattaqoo fa-inna Allaha kana bima taAAmaloona khabeeran 129.Walan tastateeAAoo an taAAdiloo bayna alnnisa-i walaw harastum fala tameeloo kulla almayli fatatharooha kaalmuAAallaqati wa-in tuslihoo watattaqoo fa-inna Allaha kana ghafooran raheeman 130.Wa-in yatafarraqa yughni Allahu kullan min saAAatihi wakana Allahu wasiAAan hakeeman

Yusuf Ali Translation reads:

[an-Nisa' 4:128] If a wife fears cruelty or desertion on her husband's part, there is no blame on them if they arrange an amicable settlement between themselves; and such settlement is best; even though men's souls are swayed by greed. But if ye do good and practise self-restraint, God is well-acquainted with all that ye do. [an-Nisa' 4:129] Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire: But turn not away (from a woman) altogether, so as to leave her (as it were) hanging (in the air). If ye come to a friendly understanding, and practise self-restraint, God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. [an-Nisa' 4:130] But if they disagree (and must part), God will provide abundance for all from His all-reaching bounty: for God is He that careth for all and is Wise.

Verse (4:128) is about a woman fearing aversion and desertion from her husband. Verse (4:130) is about a husband and wife parting from each other.

Verse (4:129) is not about polygamy but is about divorce and women' rights. It is a statement of fact that in divorce, it is not possible for all divorcing men to be fair in settlements with all divorcing women, but even so women should not be left "hanging" without a settlement of some sort. In brief the women here are not one man's wives.

Prophets and their wives in the Quran: It is interesting to note that on the exception of prophet Muhammed, none of the other prophets mentioned in the Quran had more than one wife:

Adam (verse 2:35-Ahmed Ali translation): "And we said to Adam: "Both you and your spouse live in the Garden, eat freely to your fill wherever you like, but approach not this tree or you will become transgressors."

Abraham: Contrary to biblical tradition, prophet Abraham was mentioned as having one wife (verse 11:71-72) His wife who stood near, laughed as We gave her the good news of Isaac, and after Isaac of Jacob. She said: "Woe betide me! Will I give birth when I am old and this my husband aged? This is indeed surprising!" Please also check 51:29-30

Zachariah (3:40) "How can I have a son, O Lord," he said, "for I am old and my wife is barren?" "Thus," came the answer; "God does as He will." Also check 19:8 and 21: 90!

Lut (11:81) (The angels) said: "O Lot, we have verily been sent by your Lord.They will never be able to harm you. So, leave late at night with your family, and none of you should turn back to look; but your wife will suffer (the fate) they are going to suffer. Their hour of doom is in the morning: Is not the morning nigh?"

Moses (28:27-28) He said: "I would like to marry one of these two daughters of mine to you if you agree to work for me on hire for eight pilgrimages. And if you stay on for ten, it is up to you. I do not wish to impose any hardship on you. God willing you will find me a man of honour." (Moses) said: "This is (agreed) between you and me. Whichever term I fulfil, no injustice will be done to me. God is witness to our agreement."

Prophet Muhammed: It is worth noting that the marriages of prophet Muhammed (known through the Quran) were commanded by God:(33:37, 33:50) and that these commands were uniquely addressed to him: 33:50:"…This is a privilege only for you and not the other believers, We know what we have ordained for them about their wives and those whom their right hands may possess, so that you may be free of blame, for God is forgiving and kind."

These marriages had social, political and educational purposes, and there was an additional condition with them: he was not allowed to divorce his wives.

Is there justification of polygamy in the Quran? It is interest
Marriage Contracts in Islamic Jurisprudence
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Muslim marriage is a contract, not a sacrament. Though it has importance as the only religiously sanctioned way for individuals to have legitimate sexual relationships and to procreate (now that slave-concubinage is no longer practiced), marriage is a civil agreement, entered into by two individuals or those acting on their behalf. And because it is a contract (‘aqd), it conveys legal rights and obligations to each spouse. This brief essay will discuss those rights along with the crucial issues of how and whether they can be modified through contractual stipulations (shurut, sing. shart). The focus here is on “Islamic law” in the sense of jurisprudence (fiqh), and not, it should be stressed, on what Islamic marriage ideally should be according to the Qur’an or prophetic tradition.

Islamic jurisprudence, as elaborated by various schools of legal thought, considers the main purpose of the marriage contract to make intercourse lawful (halal) between a husband and wife and to legitimize any resulting offspring. The marriage contract also establishes further rights and duties for each spouse. Aside from the basic requirement of “mutual good treatment,” which is not legally defined, these rights and duties are differentiated by gender. They are also interdependent: a failure by one spouse to perform a specific duty may jeopardize his or her claim to a particular right.

The husband’s first duty is to pay an agreed-upon dower (mahr or sadaq) to his wife; this property, which can range from a token sum to a substantial amount of wealth, is legally hers and she may save, spend, or invest it however she chooses. In exchange for the payment of dower, the husband receives what is referred to as milk al-nikah, milk al-‘aqd, or milk al-bud‘, “ownership (or control) of marriage (or intercourse) / the marriage contract / [the wife’s] vulva”; this milk is a prerequisite for lawful intercourse. Because he possesses this control, he and he alone can unilaterally end the marriage at any time by a pronouncement of repudiation (talaq). If the wife wishes to end the marriage, she must either pay him to gain his agreement (in divorce for compensation, khul‘) or, if she has grounds (which vary according to the different schools of legal thought), she may seek judicial divorce.

In addition to dower, the wife has a right to lodging, clothing, and support, as well as, in most cases, support for at least one servant to perform domestic chores and wait on her, as was common in pre-modern societies. If she has co-wives, she also has the right to an equal share of her husband’s time. In exchange for his support of his wife, jurists hold that a husband has the right to restrict her movements and to expect that she be always available for sexual intimacy. A wife who refuses his advances or leaves the marital home without permission, or with permission but on her own behalf, loses her right to support as well as any claim to a portion of her husband’s time.

The jurists disagree over whether the rights established by the marriage contract can be modified by the inclusion of stipulations. Most often, such stipulations are aimed at securing certain rights or privileges for the wife. The most commonly debated provisions specify that the husband will not take any additional wives or will not relocate his wife from her hometown. Among the four Sunni legal schools, the Hanbalis grant the most recognition to these stipulations, holding that if the husband violates either stipulation, the wife has the right to dissolve her marriage. (It does not mean that any additional marriage he concludes will be void, only that she can opt to leave him if he marries again; likewise, she cannot bind him to remain with her in her town, but can obtain a divorce if he insists on relocating her.) Jurists from three other legal schools (Maliki, Hanafi, and Shafi‘i), by contrast, consider both clauses to be utterly void and without effect. A woman can include these stipulations in her marriage contract but, at least according to the predominant view of jurists from these three schools, she cannot enforce them in any way. However, if her husband had delegated to her a right to divorce if the stipulation was breached or had pronounced a suspended divorce that would take effect automatically if he violated the stipulation, then the binding power of the husband’s divorce oaths serves as guarantor of the stipulation.

The inclusion of stipulations in marriage contracts is discussed by many Muslims today as the best way to protect women’s rights within marriage. In majority-Muslim societies, current legal codes determine how stipulations will be enforced. For Muslim minorities living in secular societies where Muslims are not subject to a particular interpretation of Islamic law by government decree, the legal strategy of including conditions in a marriage contract can be a useful way of making clear the spouses' expectations for the marriage and their roles within it. In general, such contracts will be only morally binding and, unless very carefully drafted, not legally enforceable under civil law, though there are organizations, such as Karamah, working on model marriage contracts that will be enforceable in the United States.

There is disagreement among Muslims about the degree to which such modified contracts address the legal disadvantages Muslim women face during marriage and in case of divorce. When husbands and wives agree that they wish to enforce traditional rules, such as dower obligations, the marriage contract is a vital tool. But for those who object to the overall framework of differentiated rights and duties, or to particular male prerogatives, modifications to marriage contracts cannot successfully resolve the problem. For example, regardless of which stipulations are attached to the contract, the legal structure of marriage in Islamic jurisprudence presumes the husband’s continual sexual access to his wife and his right to end the marriage unilaterally at any time. To resolve these issues will require a fundamental rethinking of the legal concept of milk, ownership or control, and its place in Muslim marriage – in other words, the basic nature of the marriage contract itself.


Content by Kecia Ali
Senior Research Analyst, FSE
Introduction to Islamic Legal Theory
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Islamic family law regulates gender relations, sexuality and family life. It constitutes the legal framework which regulates the transmission of wealth and lineage (nasab) from one generation to the next. It defines the moral and social aspects of marriage and deals with nearly all the social and financial consequences of divorce, especially questions concerning the custody of children and alimony (see Moors 2003). Family law thus directly and constantly affects the daily life of people. Over time, however, family law has been transformed from a religiously inspired law regulating relations within the institution of the family to a set of complex institutional arrangements generating discourses involving the state, religious institutions, political parties and civil society, including the women’s movement.

In the Arab World and until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, family affairs were the domain of religious scholars, who dealt with them according to the rules of different schools of Islamic jurisprudence (madhahib). At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, with the emergence of post-colonial nation-states, Muslim reformists and state officials worked together on codifying the scattered books and rules of different Islamic schools in a unified national canon known as the personal status code. Thereby, religious scholars were allowed to deal with the domain of family law and rituals, but it was understood that they would refrain from interfering in constitutional, fiscal and administrative matters (Masud 2001).

The profound changes Muslim societies underwent during the twentieth century influenced every aspect of life. Processes of modernization, urbanization, education and the fundamental shifts in demographic patterns such as decreasing rates of fertility, polygyny and early marriage led to a growing conflict between the legal regulation of family law and new socio-economic realities. These processes led to further modification and reforms, albeit slight, of codified family law.

During the second half of the twentieth century, at the beginning of the 1970s, two paradoxical phenomena emerged. Firstly, the structural changes mentioned fostered a growing visibility of women as both economic and political actors. This was expressed in slogans and activities promoting a more gender-balanced representation in the economy and politics. Secondly, the same changes paved the way for new players to enter the political arena. Communists and nationalists were no longer able to mobilize the public around attractive slogans. In contrast, the Islamist movements succeeded in putting states on the defensive. They called for the Islamicization of society through a revision of gender relations from the legal and social standpoints. Both the above phenomena recharged the discussion on the substance, scope and frame of reference of family law.

In the 1990s, the struggle between the proponents of a broader application of the sharī‘a and the advocates of women’s rights intensified. Political groups were forced to take a position. It is noteworthy that, although the object of family law is the regulation of gender relations and sexuality, the debate went so far as to address ‘non-gendered’ subjects and to involve institutions that had previously been concerned with different agendas. Family law was no longer strictly a matter of gender, sexuality or religion; rather, it was a metaphor used to express political and economic interests.

In their quest for political power, Islamists used the issue of family law as a lever to expand their sphere of influence and thus to further undermine the legitimacy of the state. Modernists found room to edge into the rather limited political space. Women’s organizations, for their part, engaged in the debate, wishing to break through prevailing limitations in the field of gender relations. Members of the religious establishment considered the reform debate and its potential implications a threat that could render them far less relevant and endanger their relatively privileged socio-economic status (Shaman 1999). Family law thus became a powerful political symbol, almost synonymous with Islam (Buskens 2003) and all parties involved in the debate wanted to present themselves as credible players in the political arena.

The focus was thus, as stated above, on the place of Islam, the sharī‘a and religion in the lives of people and on determining who was entitled to exercise ijtihād. The debate also referred to notions of national and cultural authenticity and the ways in which various expressions of traditionalism and modernism are contested (Buskens 2003). Unlike in the 1980s, when women’s groups concentrated on issues of employment, education and political rights (Moors 2003), the 1990s witnessed the active participation of women in the family law debate, a new field in which they could make their voices heard. In many settings, however, the actual substance of the debate was drowned in dogmatic, rhetorical confrontation (an-Na’im 2001) between ‘Islamic’ and ‘Western’ values (Moors 2003). This verbal jousting in fact masked a struggle for power and legitimacy. The opposing groups used vague notions of Islamicization and westernization to delegitimize and discredit each other.

This collection of material sheds light on the still ongoing debate in the Arab World regarding the issue of family law and reform.


an-Na’im, A. (2001) ‘ Rights at Home: An Approach to the Internalization of Human Rights in Family Relations in Islamic Communities’ , paper presented at the Second Workshop on Islamic Family Law at the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, in Florence, 21-25 March.

Buskens, L. (2003), ‘Recent Debates on Family Law Reform in Morocco: Islamic Law as Politics in an Emerging Public Sphere’, Islamic Law and Society 10(1): 70-132.

Masud, M.K. (2001) Muslim Jurists’ Quest for the Normative Basis of Shari'a. Leiden:

ISIM Publication.

Moors, A. (2003) ‘Introduction: Public Debates on Family Law Reform: Participants, Positions, and Styles of Argumentation in the 1990s’, Islamic Law and Society 10(1): 1-12.

Shaman, R. (1999) ‘State, Feminists and Islamists: The Debate over Stipulations in Marriage Contracts in Egypt’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 62(3): 462-83.
Awards for homophobia and misogyny in Malaysia (26 June 2012)
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Awards for homophobia and misogyny in Malaysia

Welcome dose of irony at award show for sexist, misogynist, homophobic and transphobic comments by public figures in Malaysia
26 June 2012 | By Anna Leach
The organizing team of the Aiyoh... Wat Lah?! Awards
Who won the prize in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday? Was it the education minister who warned teachers and parents how to prevent ‘cases of LGBT’ in schools? Or the judge who fined a transgender woman for ‘dressing in women’s clothing and having feminine mannerism’?

Neither of these incidents were in fact recognised by the inaugural Aiyoh… Wat Lah?! (a Malaysia expression of disbelief) awards - not because they don’t fit the award criteria, but because they happened this week, not in 2011.

At the award show on Sunday at the Annexe Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, Ribena Berry (aka actor and writer Jo Kukathas) gave prizes in seven categories to ‘public examples of misogyny, sexism, homophobia and transphobia’ that happened last year in Malaysia.

The awards are a refreshing dose of irony in a country where NGOs to organize an ‘anti-LGBT’ rally, the government suggests banning gay characters from TV and politicians call for gay ‘rehab’ centers to be set up.

‘These outrageous comments have always been there,’ Smita Sharma, programme officer for All Women's Action Society, one of the groups who organized the awards, told Gay Star News. ‘We thought we need a more creative way of reaching out to the media and the public [other than press statements].

We’re just saying, look, this is ridiculous. It's a bad, bad joke. And one with horrible implications for women and others who are discriminated against on a daily basis.’

In the Insulting Intelligence category nominations included the claim that homosexuality is unconstitutional because it goes against Islam by de facto law minister Nazri Aziz.

‘While the Constitution may recognise Islam as the religion of the federation, this does not mean that something that is perceived as un-Islamic is unconstitutional,’ corrected the judges under the banner the Joint Action Group on Gender Equality (JAG). ‘Furthermore, there is no law in the country that criminalises homosexuality per se.’

But the winner in that category was the words of MP Ibrahim Ali who attributed the high rate of extramarital affairs to ‘wives who neglect their responsibilities to their husbands’.

The Policy Fail category ‘awarded’ not just words, but action. It was won by a state-run boot camp to ‘cure’ teenage boys of effeminate behavior.

The awards weren’t all about negative examples. The Right on Track category celebrated a progressive decision by a (female) judge which set a precedent for protecting women's rights in Malaysia.

High Court Judge Zaleha Yusof ruled in July 2011 that the sacking of a woman purely because she was pregnant was discriminatory and against the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

‘You never expect that someone is going to make such a progressive ruling,’ said Sharma. ‘It was wonderful. Everyone was just elated and thinking - there is hope in our courts! It set a precedent because this was the first time someone said that Malaysia ratifying the CEDAW convention makes the treaty binding for the Malaysian government. This compels the government to recognize this standard of rights for women.’

In second place for the Right on Track category was unexpected statement from the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism that condemned the police ban on the sexual minorities Seksualiti Merdeka festival in November 2011.

‘This was really really important,’ said Sharma. ‘At a time when so many anti-LGBT statements were made, to have a religious body say that any kind of hate speech or any kind of attempt to curtail right to freedom of assembly is unacceptable, was really amazing.’

Sharma says it’s too early to say whether the Aiyoh… Wat Lah? awards will become an annual occurrence. What is sure is that there is already plenty of material in 2012 from politicians. She said:

‘Just last week this one politician said, and I quote, “I don't think beautiful girls will want the indelible ink [from voting] to mar their pretty hands or nails. How are they supposed to paint their nails afterwards? They might not even want to meet their boyfriend's after voting. They might not even vote. Women should rise up and protest against the implementation of indelible ink.” As far as I'm concerned, that is already the winner of the Insulting Intelligence category.’
MP of Sri Gading suggestion to hang Ambiga (29 June 2012)
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MP of Sri Gading suggestion to hang Ambiga
29 June 2012

The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) is alarmed at the escalating level of attacks towards senior lawyer and human rights activist Dato’ Ambiga Sreenivasan who has been subjected to all manner of abuse lately.

The latest attack is by Sri Gading MP Datuk Mohamad Aziz who on June 26 had asked in Parliament whether Dato’ Ambiga should be “considered a traitor to the nation and should be sentenced to be hanged”

Such a remark, by a legislator no less, is shockingly offensive and violent to the extreme. It violates basic standards of decency expected of parliamentarians and shows a deep lack of understanding of the democratic process. A call for free and fair elections is a democratic right in a democratic country. That attacks on Dato’ Ambiga are selective in its approach has not gone unnoticed either.

Although the said MP has since retracted his remark and apologised to his BN colleagues in MIC and PPP, he did not apologise to Dato’ Ambiga. This lack of courtesy is unacceptable and should be condemned by all decent Malaysians.

Noticeably silent throughout the sustained attack against Dato’ Ambiga is the Prime Minister, forcing us to wonder if he condones such downright uncivilised behaviour. JAG is of the opinion that government leaders should focus their efforts on upholding justice, equality, civil liberty and democracy in Malaysia and not behave in a manner which betrays these principles.

Released by the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality, which comprises:
All Women's Action Society (AWAM)
Perak Women for Women Society (PWW)
Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (EMPOWER)
Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor (PSWS)
Sabah Women’s Action Resource Group (SAWO)
Sisters in Islam (SIS)
Women's Aid Organisation (WAO)
Women’s Centre for Change, Penang (WCC)
Gender stereotyping of women: stop controlling women’s appearance and behaviour (29 June 2012)
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Gender stereotyping of women: stop controlling women’s appearance and behaviour
29 June 2012

The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) is alarmed at the discriminatory treatment of women, the most recent involving news anchor Ras Adiba Mohd Radzi and Ampang MP, YB Zuraida Kamaruddin.

On June 26, it was reported that Ras Adiba was suspended by television station NTV7 for cropping her hair in support of Makna's (National Cancer Council of Malaysia) Jom Botak cancer awareness campaign. A source within NTV7 was reported to have said that it felt the need “to upkeep a certain look and feel" of the station, and that a bald woman would not be presentable as news anchor.

NTV7’s stand perpetuates the gender stereotyping of women. Instead of recognising the presenter’s skills, experience and active role for a worthy cause, the station focused on the superficial issue of length of hair.

JAG is also disturbed about the anonymous calls allegedly made from a religious department to Ras Adiba, all of which referred to a fatwa prohibiting women from shaving their heads. Instead of encouraging empathy with those in need, a virtue integral to all religions including Islam, the persons who had called were fixated on how a woman should appear.

This brand of harassment is reminiscent of the National Fatwa Council’s fatwa against "tomboys", a word defined so vaguely as to describe almost any number of Malaysian women.

The disturbing message is that women who do not look or behave according to a narrow prescribed definition of ‘femininity’ will face sanction.

In a similar vein, on 24 June 2012 YB Zuraida Kamaruddin was described by the Prime Ministeras “tak sayang mulut” and was accused of behaviour unbecoming of a woman. This occurred when she was posing a question to him on the neglect of numerous initiatives for women, such as gender mainstreaming, gender sensitisation and the 30% quota for women in top management.

Such comments by the Prime Minister, who is also the Women’s Minister, do not become his office.

JAG calls for an immediate halt to all similar degrading comments and policies. Instead of promoting archaic views on how women should dress and behave, the media and policymakers should highlight and address the pressing issues that affect women’s lives.

Released by the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality, which comprises:

All Women's Action Society (AWAM)
Perak Women for Women Society (PWW)
Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (EMPOWER)

Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor (PSWS)

Sabah Women’s Action Resource Group (SAWO)

Sisters in Islam (SIS)
Women's Aid Organisation (WAO)
Women’s Centre for Change, Penang (WCC)
Court postpones decision on SIS book ban reversal (25 June 2012)
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Court postpones decision on SIS book ban reversal

UPDATED @ 09:53:40 PM 25-06-2012
June 25, 2012
KUALA LUMPUR, June 25 — The Court of Appeal today delayed its decision on the the status of a book published by Sisters In Islam (SIS) to July 27, which was banned about four years ago.

The book, titled “Muslim Women and the Challenges of Islamic Extremism”, was banned by the Home Ministry on July 21, 2008 on the grounds that it would threaten public order.

The ban was challenged in court where High Court judge Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof overturned the government’s decision on January 25, 2010.

However, the government filed an appeal against the High Court decision on February 3, 2010, more than two years ago.

“The case was heard in full, but the judges deferred their decision to July 27 because they wanted to consider the matter further,” Suri Kempe from SIS told The Malaysian Insider when contacted today.

Both sides were able to make their submissions, with the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) raising three arguments on behalf of the government, said Suri.

She said the AGC’s first contention was that the High Court judge went beyond his jurisdiction.

It further asserted “the High Court judge was too restrictive in the reading of the word ‘public order’”, saying he should have allowed for the word “likelihood” when interpreting Section 7 of the Printing Presses and Publications Act.

SIS had earlier pointed out that that during the book’s circulation two years before the ban, “there was no evidence that public order had been threatened as a result of the book’s contents”.

The last argument raised by the AGC was that SIS and the respondents had no legal right to be heard as the Act did not contain such a provision.

Suri said SIS’s lawyer, Malik Imtiaz Sarwar (picture), had rebutted the first point by saying “the judge recognised his role in judicial review and that he centred his judgment on the ban order itself.”

Malik also told the court that the home minister’s ban had “encroached (upon) a fundamental right of the publisher” and made the right to be heard even more important.
SIS had last week said the book is a compilation of scholarly essays and “highlights areas and approaches that are problematic with regards to the administration of Islam in Malaysia, in particular the implementation of Islamic Family Law and syariah criminal laws.” Presiding over today’s hearing were Datuk Abdul Wahab Patail, Datuk Clement Allan Skinner and Mah Weng Kwai.
Eight reasons why books should not be banned (24 June 2012)
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Eight reasons why books should not be banned

June 24, 2012

JUNE 24 — On Monday, June 25, 2012, Sisters in Islam (SIS) will be in court again. This time around, the Government of Malaysia is appealing a High Court decision that lifted the ban on a book published by SIS, “Muslim Women and the Challenge of Extremism.”

The book was first banned on July 31, 2008, on the premise that it was “prejudicial to public order.” Other reasons cited by the Ministry of Home Affairs were fears that the book would “confuse Muslims, particularly Muslim women” and “those with shallow knowledge of Islam.” SIS appealed against the decision, and on January 25, 2010, Justice Mohamad Ariff Md. Yusof lifted the ban. His reasoning was that there was no evidence that the book had created a public order problem during the two years it had been in circulation.

He also concluded that the minister’s decision was “an error in law” — that the decision was illegal, irrational, and “wholly disproportionate” — to the argument made.

Justice Ariff’s decision was significant as it applied two recent Federal Court decisions which ruled that the court had the right to objectively review a minister’s discretion to be unreasonable.

However heart-warming the Honourable Judge’s decision was, it is disconcerting to note that book-banning in Malaysia is not an isolated practice. Over the years, we have seen a host of other books axed, the most recent being Irshad Manji’s “Allah, Liberty and Love.”  She is joined by a long list of international and local authors, including John Esposito and Karen Armstrong (two Christian academics considered among the most sympathetic to Islam), Khalil Gibran, Kassim Ahmad, Faisal Tehrani and cartoonist Zunar. What is even more alarming today is that the religious authorities are using provisions under the Syariah Criminal Offences law to charge a book store manager for selling a book they deem “offensive.”

While the list of books being banned is growing, the reasons given for their banning are not. The most oft-repeated reasons include the “tendency to confuse”, “tarnishing the sanctity of Islam”, “contrary to a fatwa” or “causing suspicion and public anxiety.”

Book-banning is the precursor to far more dangerous and insidious developments. The collateral damage created in such a climate of paranoia is only to our detriment.Here are eight fundamental reasons why book-banning should stop.

1. Ban a book, close a mind
Book-banning is an attempt to stop free flow of thought, ideas and information, usually the kind that does not conform to mainstream views. In Malaysia, the argument is that these ideas may potentially create confusion, disrupt public order, and/or are allegedly against a religion.History shows that many banned publications are now visionary and brave observations that promoted “sacrilegious” ideas, for example, the idea that the Earth is round, not flat. Choking knowledge is one effect of book-banning but there is deeper injury inflicted on society.It sends a menacing signal, eventually nurturing fear of knowledge. A frightened mind is a closed mind, one that cannot create or produce a bright future.

2. What on earth are we thinking?
Authorities that ban books ostensibly believe that people cannot think for themselves. When people are barred from thinking, ideas are created in isolation. These inevitably clash with reality, or have no connection to it.Ironically, this is a key factor that creates confusion in society, creating fertile ground for the very same disorder the authorities claim they are trying to prevent. Allowing free flow of thought, however, gives individuals the opportunity to engage and interact with new ideas, creating vibrant intellectual activity and discernment. Robust ideas will withstand critique and argument.

3. Two thumbs down for the education system?
A good education system produces individuals who can think critically and with conscience. The widespread banning of books is an acknowledgement of the failure of the existing education system.It is a clear signal that we have failed to produce Malaysians who can tell the difference between knowledge and ignorance. Ironically (once again) the authorities’ actions indicate that the problem lies not in the book, but in an education system that produces easily confused, disruptive and disrespectful citizens.

4. A monopoly of ideas
In a democratic society, it is only logical that those who are responsible for public administration must always be open to criticism. In fact, as citizens we have the right to voice our opinions, more so on the policies that govern and impact our daily lives.However, when an authority perceives its interpretations or solutions are challenged, book-banning provides a means by which to stifle this criticism. In Malaysia and in the context of Islam in particular, book-banning is an attempt by the religious authorities to monopolise the discourse to only those who subscribe to one particular point of view.Freedom of expression is a universal value guaranteed by the Federal Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and upheld in the teachings of Islam.

5. Irksome, ineffective and irrelevant
The ostensible reason for banning a book is to stop it from being read. But all publicity is good publicity. A ban merely arouses curiosity and books that otherwise would not have garnered much interest will now be sought out by many more online.Moreover, barriers to information have been decimated by the Internet. Not only can one buy a banned book online, one can easily gather the “taboo” information with a few smart search words. A single email from one individual to another can go viral, hitting the inboxes and social media accounts of thousands worldwide.This phenomenon is anything but new. Those who think books should be banned are simply exposing themselves as commodities that have long passed their sell-by date.

6. Is this where our taxes go?
When a book is banned, the relevant government authorities mobilise resources, both human and financial, to raid bookstores and publishers, and seize the books. The cost of this exercise in futility is borne by the taxpayers when funds should instead be spent in ways that enrich, not cripple, the rakyat.

7. The knowledge economy
We hear much about Malaysia becoming a knowledge-based society in mainstream news, an idea that is publicly promoted by authorities. The banning of books and the knowledge and ideas within them is in direct contradiction to realising this goal.A stunted mind cannot be a resource for growth in a knowledge economy and will leave Malaysia far behind, as the world races ahead towards a higher quality of life.

8. Fundamental liberties in Islam
Islam is clearly based on principles of justice, equality and fairness. All the points above show
Government Appeal on KL High Court Decision on SIS Book (23 June 2012)
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Government Appeal on KL High Court Decision on SIS Book

On 25 June 2012, the Court of Appeal will hear the Minister of Home Affairs’ appeal against the High Court decision to lift the ban on a book published by Sisters in Islam (SIS).

The book, Muslim Women and the Challenges of Islamic Extremism was first banned by the Government on 21 July 2008. High Court judge Justice Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof overturned the ban on 25 January 2010, ruling that the book is not a threat to public order. The High Court’s decision was appealed by the Government on 3 February 2010.

In his full written judgement, the learned Judge explained there are no objective facts to show that the book would “disturb public order, confuse Muslim women or confuse those with shallow knowledge of Islam”. Moreover, the book had been in circulation for over two years prior to the ban. During this time, there was no evidence that public order had been threatened as a result of the book’s contents.

He also concluded that the Minister's decision constituted "an error in law"  on the grounds of  'illegality' and 'irrationality' and that it was  'wholly disproportionate' to the concern expressed.

The book is a compilation of essays based on research carried out by renowned international scholars and activists. As Justice Mohamad Ariff rightly pointed out, the book is academic in nature. It highlights areas and approaches that are problematic with regards to the administration of Islam in Malaysia, in particular the implementation of Islamic Family Law and the Syariah Criminal laws.

These essays attempt to discuss issues that are related to the rights of Muslim women. The ability to maintain these rights are inexorably intertwined with freedom of expression. We must be able to openly discuss, without fear, critical issues that are related to Muslim women, in particular when they impact our everyday lives. In reversing the ban, the judge effectively safeguarded not only a constitutional liberty, namely freedom of expression, but a means by which to uphold women’s rights.

SIS maintains that Justice Mohamad Ariff’s decision was courageous, principled and commendable. We hope the Court of Appeal will honour and stand by the judicious decision made by the High Court.

Sisters in Islam

23 June 2012
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