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Defining the Term ‘Women’ ( al-nisa”) – A

July 6, 2021

Defining the Term ‘Women’ ( al-nisa”) pt-A

The Arabic term al-nisa” is the plural of two different singular terms:

first, of mar”a (woman) and, second, of nasi” (deferment). The latter term refers to things that are delayed or postponed, for example, we say, ‘the delivery has been postponed’ or ‘Zayd is late’. Verse 9:37 uses al-nasi” in this sense: ‘Verily the transposing (of a prohibited month) (al-nasi” u) is an addition to unbelief…’ (Tawba:37).

And a hadith, if authentic, states, ‘Whoever likes his provision to be increased and his life to be extended (yansa’, i.e., his death post poned), should uphold the ties of kinship.

The former term, in contrast, refers either to the opposite partner of men (i.e., women, but in the sense of men’s social, nonsexual companion) or to the plural of woman (as a collective term), while, incidentally, the feminine singular imra”a (woman) has the same root as the male singular imru” (man).

The conventional—and rather primitive rendering of the creation story wants us to believe that Adam was created before his wife.

According to this story, she was formed out of his ribs and thus entered the world after him. Women were thought to be those who ‘come after’, ‘lag behind’ or are ‘delayed’, a misconception to which the following verse was believed to give full support:

O [humankind]! Reverence your Guardian-Lord, who created you from a single person, created, of like nature, his mate… (Nisa”:1)

A more objective (scientific) understanding, however, can prove that at the beginning of creation there was no division into male and female creatures. The first organisms were all single celled. They increased in their number not by copulation and fertilization but through cell division (mitosis). Only when evolution had reached the stage by which animals and humans reproduced life through procreative intercourse do we witness a (simultaneous) split into a male and female sex.

In evolutionary terms, the traditional creation story simply does not make sense. Also, it is a biological fact that male sperms always produce embryos that initially are both male and female (some scientists even claim that they are initially all female). Thus, scientific research on the early stages of embryonic development also contradicts the hypothetical ‘male first, female second’ story.

As said before, the term nisa” expresses the notion of delay, deferral, or postponement, and can refer to basically everything that might ‘come later’. We propose to understand nisa” in this sense when we look at 3:14, which uses the term nisa” when talking about people’s ‘love of things’ and objects ‘eagerly desired’:

Fair in the eyes of men [zuyyina li’l-nas] is the love of things they covet: [nisa”] and sons; heaped-up hoards of gold and silver; horses branded (for blood and excellence); and (wealth of ) cattle and [a bonus in crops of wheat]. Such are the possessions of this world’s life; but in nearness to God is the best of the goals (to return to). (al ‘Imran:14) In this context nisa” cannot possibly mean ‘women’.

First, because such a rendering would ignore the fact that the verse speaks about the desires of all people (al-nas!), men and women, and not just men.

Second, it would turn women into commodities and goods of plea Sure that are no more than ‘heaped-up hoards of gold and silver’, and on a par with ‘horses, cattle and well-tilled land’. However tempting it must be for some of the fuqaha” and many sexist exegetes to regard women as part of their livestock (ranked as equals with cows, sheep, donkeys, oxen, and mules), we should resist such a ridiculous interpretation of Allah’s speech. Instead, nisa” here literally means ‘things that arrive last’, that is, goods of the latest fashion.

The verse is absolutely accurate in saying that people in general, not just men (!), want to purchase the most recent models (cars, mobile phones, clothes, CD-players, designer spectacles, etc.). All over the world, people want to follow the latest fashion and look down on things that are ‘last year’. This implies an endless cycle of consumption because what is ‘hot’ in one year is old and ‘out’ in the next, when it will be replaced by the new arrivals, by what ‘follows next’ (al-nisa” ). Al-Nisa” can also refer to people who ‘come next’ or ‘follow behind’, as in the following verse:

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty… [in front of ] their women [sic] [au nisa”ihunna]… (Nur:31)

This verse addresses the ‘believing women’ who should lower their gaze and guard their private parts. It then mentions those relatives in front of whom women are allowed to reveal their zina (explained later), one group being described as nisa”ihunna, usually translated as ‘their [i.e. the believing women’s] women’ But is it correct to say ‘women’s women”?

If we look at the sequence  of the people given:

…except their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their nisa”…, we notice that the verse does not continue to list those ‘who come next’, that is, the sons of the sons, or the sons of the brothers’ sons, or the sons of the sisters’ sons, and so on; and what could have potentially become an endless list is efficiently condensed into the phrase ‘and those who follow next’ (nisa” ). The same applies to verse 55 of Surat Ahzab, ‘There is no blame (on these ladies if they appear)… [in front of ] nisa”ihunna… (33:55); the term

nisa” here refers again to those male relatives who ‘follow those mentioned before’.

The Verse of Guardianship (4:34)

Having defined the crucial terms of nisa” and rijal, we are now in a position to understand the verse of guardianship:

[rijal] are the protectors and maintainers [qawwamun] of [ al-nisa”], because God has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore, the righteous women are [qanitat], and guard […] what God would have them guard.

As to those women on whose part you fear […] ill-conduct, admonish them (first). (Next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly) as translated by scholars[sic]; but if they return […], seek not against them means (of annoyance)—for God is most high, great (above you all). (Nisa”:34)

We have ruled out the possibility that the first line of this verse can be interpreted as ‘Men are the protectors and maintainers of women’, because each of the two terms al-rijal and al-nisa” refer to both men and women in this context. Let us say it again: to assume that al-rijal means ‘men’ and al-nisa” ‘women’ is a serious mistake because in this verse both terms are not gendered: al-rijal refers to both men and women, and al-nisa” means ‘those who follow behind’.

We need, of course, to identify the middle term that connects al-rijal and al-nisa”.

We know that the qawwamun are ‘those in charge’ or ‘those with power and competence’. Many well-meaning feminists have tried to reverse the supposed sexism of the verse and claim that qawwamun means ‘standing in service’, implying that men are not the masters but in fact the servants of women. This may sound quite appealing to some but it is frankly very far-fetched.

It still suggests that one should keep a division between men and women, even if husbands are now the alleged servants of their wives. It also fundamentally contradicts the next line of the verse, ‘God has given to some [the rijal] more than others [the nisa”]’. Such preference given by God is incompatible with the notion of servitude. Some have claimed that this verse makes it clear that Islam, in contrast with other religions and cultures, does not want gender equality and hence treats men and women differently.

We object to this because the verse does not exclusively address ‘male believers’ (mu”minun) and ‘female believers’ (mu”minat), the followers of Muhammad, but rather men and women in general. For us this implies that the verse must have a high degree of universality, to the extent that it is as applicable to men and women in Tokyo or São Paulo as it is to men and women in Cairo, Damascus, or Riyadh. Thus, we are not allowed to claim a higher or different status for the religion of Muhammad’s  followers.

If we keep referring only to the context of Mecca and Medina of the seventh century while reading God’s revelation, we are bound to loose the Book’s universal message which is valid in all places and at all times. The second line, ‘God has given to some more than [some] others’, is for some exegetes an indication of God’s preference of men to women.

Since their interpretation of the first line is essentially gendered, they claim that God’s preference for men explains why men are in charge of women, since it is, in their view, clearly stated in the first line. This ignores the fact that the text says ‘some’ and not ‘all’.  According to the scholars’ interpretation it would imply that God prefers ‘some’ men to ‘some’ women. The question would then be who these chosen men are, and who  are the men whom God does not favor? Also, who are the (other) women God prefers to men?