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ISLAM Judaism | Christianity
What does the religion teach about how men and women should relate to each other?

by John Kaltner

One of the most controversial aspects of Islam for non-Muslims is its view of relations between men and women. The common perception is it is a religion that endorses male superiority at the expense of women, who are the victims of oppression and subjugation. The Muslim woman’s plight is often represented by a disturbing image: she is nothing but a face—sometimes just a pair of eyes—peering out from a long head covering. The rest of her is covered in a dark, loose-fitting garment that further conceals her identity and personhood.

This is the experience of some women in the Muslim world, but it does not reflect the reality of the majority of them. In some places, as in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, women are denied their rights and forced to dress this way. This is a very important issue that Muslims must address and respond to. But it is a mistake for non-Muslims to consider it to be representative of the state of affairs in Islam as a whole. There are many other places, like North Africa and Southeast Asia, where men treat women as their equals.

The Qur’an reflects that ambiguity regarding gender relations. On the one hand, many commentators have noted an egalitarian message that is central to the book. According to this perspective, Islam’s sacred text recognizes that equality between the sexes was present from the beginning and is an inherent part of creation. “It is God who created you from a single cell, and from it created its mate, so that he might rely upon her” (7:189). Similarly, Qur’an 4:124 says there is no distinction between men and women, who will be rewarded equally if they act rightly. “Whoever does good works, whether male or female, and is a believer—they will enter heaven.” Women also have the right to a dowry upon marriage (4:4), and they can inherit money and property from deceased relatives (4:7).

But other passages seem to promote a more male-centered, patriarchal view of things. For example, the number of witnesses required to testify in a court of law is two men or one man and two women (2:282). Elsewhere, male superiority is understood to be due in part to the divine will. “Men are over women because God has given some more than others and because they spend from their wealth” (4:34). That same verse continues on in a way that appears to allow a man to physically abuse his wife under certain conditions.

What are we to do in the face of such conflicting statements? The key is to keep in mind the context out of which the text emerged. There are passages that clearly privilege the male perspective, and there is no denying the fact that certain verses put women in an inferior position. Such texts reflect the norms and practices of seventh-century Arabia, which was a male-dominated society. Should passages that are intended for that context become relevant or normative for later times and places?

This is where the issue of interpretation becomes critical. How one reads and applies these texts determines whether they are interpreted literally or dismissed as irrelevant for our day and age, as many Jews and Christians understand certain biblical passages. This is a critical issue that the Islamic community needs to address, but there is something that further complicates that task.

Islam lacks a centralized authority or hierarchy that can make decisions on important issues and speak on behalf of the ummah as a whole. There is no single figure or body that has the authority to determine which parts of the Qur’an should be relied upon to inform the community about what Islam teaches on male/female relations. This is why we see such a range of responses to the issue. How the classical Islamic sources are interpreted is one of the most important problems facing Islam today because there is so much at stake in it.

Polygamy, divorce, and women’s dress are three aspects of Muslim male/female relations that have often attracted the attention of non-Muslims. Muslim men are permitted to have up to four wives according to the Qur’an (4:4), but in many Islamic countries it is illegal to be married to more than one woman at a time. Even in those places where it is permissible it is not very common. Divorce is allowed in Islam—either the woman or the man can initiate it—but there is a hadith in which Muhammad declares that among the things that are allowed divorce is the most abominable in God’s eyes.

The only thing the Qur’an says about women’s clothing is that they should dress modestly (24:31), and a very similar thing is said to men in the preceding verse. Wearing a veil on the head or completely covering the body is not endorsed or mentioned in the text. Such practices are usually due to cultural norms that have nothing to do with religion, or they are supported by interpretations of other passage that do not speak specifically about how women should dress.

Copyright ©2006 John Kaltner

John Kaltner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses in Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Islam: What Non-Muslims Should Know (2003); Inquiring of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qu’ran (2003); Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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