Beating your wife? Fine. Saying Jesus was crucified? Not so good.
Welcome to Sura 4, “Women,” another important Medinan sura containing laws for the conduct of women and Islamic family life, and a great deal more.
Allah starts by saying that he created men and women from a “single soul” (v. 1). Many Muslims in the West have pointed to this verse as evidence that Islam recognizes the full human dignity of women. Ayatollah Murtada Mutahhari says that “other religions also have referred to this question, but it is the Qur’an alone which in a number of verses expressly says that woman has been created of the species of man, and both man and woman have the same innate character.”
He then quotes 4:1. The “single soul” from which mankind was created was Adam’s, and while the Biblical story of Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib is not repeated here, Muhammad refers to it in a hadith that suggests that while men and women may have the same “innate character,” that doesn’t mean they are equal in dignity, for women are crooked.
The prophet of Islam is depicted as saying:
Woman has been created from a rib and will in no way be straightened for you; so if you wish to benefit by her, benefit by her while crookedness remains in her. And if you attempt to straighten her, you will break her, and breaking her is divorcing her. (Bukhari 8.3467)
Then comes the basis for Islamic polygamy (v. 3), allowing a man to take as many as four wives, as long as he believes he is able to “deal justly” with all of them.
According to the Mishkat Al-Masabih, Muhammad said:
The person who has two wives, but is not just between them, shall appear on the Day of Judgment in such a condition that one half of his body will be collapsing.
But of course, justice in these circumstances is in the eye of the beholder. Ibn Kathir says this the requirement to deal justly with one’s wives is no big deal, since treating them justly isn’t the same as treating them equally:
It is not obligatory to treat them equally, rather it is recommended. So if one does so, that is good, and if not, there is no harm on him.
And as for polygamy, why don’t women get to have four husbands? Muhammad Asad notes:
One might ask why the same latitude has not been given to women as well; but the answer is simple. Notwithstanding the spiritual factor of love which influences the relations between man and woman, the determinant biological reason for the sexual urge is, in both sexes, procreation: and whereas a woman can, at one time, conceive a child from one man only and has to carry it for nine months before she can conceive another, a man can beget a child every time he cohabits with a woman. Thus, while nature would have been merely wasteful if it had produced a polygamous instinct in woman, man’s polygamous inclination is biologically justified.
Allah goes on to say in v. 3 that if a man cannot deal justly with multiple wives, then he should marry only one, or resort to “the captives that your right hands possess” — that is, slave girls.
Slave girls, just like in the Islamic State, which everyone from John Kerry to Joe Biden to David Cameron — learned imams all — denounces today as “un-Islamic.”
Bulandshahri explains the wisdom of this practice, and longs for the good old days:
During Jihad (religion war), many men and women become war captives. The Amirul Mu’minin [leader of the believers, or caliph — an office now vacant] has the choice of distributing them amongst the Mujahidin [warriors of jihad], in which event they will become the property of these Mujahidin. This enslavement is the penalty for disbelief (kufr).
He goes on to explain that this is not ancient history:
None of the injunctions pertaining to slavery have been abrogated in the Shari’ah. The reason that the Muslims of today do not have slaves is because they do not engage in Jihad (religion war). Their wars are fought by the instruction of the disbelievers (kuffar) and are halted by the same felons. The Muslim [sic] have been shackled by such treaties of the disbelievers (kuffar) whereby they cannot enslave anyone in the event of a war. Muslims have been denied a great boon whereby every home could have had a slave. May Allah grant the Muslims the ability to escape the tentacles of the enemy, remain steadfast upon the Din (religion) and engage in Jihad (religion war) according to the injunctions of Shari”ah. Amen!
Allah also directs Muslims to “marry women who seem good to you.” Ibn Majah records a tradition in which Muhammad details the qualities of a good wife, including that “she obeys when instructed” and “the husband is pleased to look at her.”
In the following verse, Allah requires a husband to give his wife a dowry. Ibn Kathir explains that “no person after the Prophet is allowed to marry a woman except with the required dowry.” However, the wife may choose to free the husband from this obligation: “If the wife gives him part or all of that dowry with a good heart, her husband is allowed to take it.”
Allah then gives rules for inheritance and related matters (vv. 5-14). He directs that when an estate is being parceled out, daughters are to receive half the share that sons receive (v. 11). Why not? They’re “crooked,” after all.
Following that, he lays down penalties for sexual immorality. He prescribes home imprisonment until death (unless “Allah ordain for them some (other) way”) for women found guilty of “lewdness” on the testimony of four witnesses (v. 15). According to Islamic law, these four witnesses must be male Muslims; women’s testimony is inadmissible in cases of a sexual nature, even in rape cases in which she is the victim.
If a woman is found guilty of adultery, she is to be stoned to death; if she is found guilty of fornication, she gets 100 lashes (cf. Qur’an 24:2).
The penalty of stoning does not appear in the Qur’an, but Umar, one of Muhammad’s early companions and the second caliph, or successor of Muhammad as leader of the Muslims, said that it was nevertheless the will of Allah.
“I am afraid,” he said, “that after a long time has passed, people may say, ‘We do not find the Verses of the Rajam (stoning to death) in the Holy Book,’ and consequently they may go astray by leaving an obligation that Allah has revealed.” Umar affirmed: “Lo! I confirm that the penalty of Rajam be inflicted on him who commits illegal sexual intercourse, if he is already married and the crime is proved by witnesses or pregnancy or confession.” And he added that Muhammad “carried out the penalty of Rajam, and so did we after him.”
Then Allah gives instructions for how to punish men who commit adultery or homosexual acts (v. 16).
The Tafsir Al-Jalalayn says that this verse refers to men who commit “a lewd act, adultery or homosexual intercourse.” They are to be punished “with insults and beatings with sandals; but if they repent, of this [lewd act], and make amends, through [good] action, then leave them be, and do not harm them.” However, it adds that this verse “is abrogated by the prescribed punishment if adultery is meant [by the lewd act],” that is, stoning. The Islamic jurist al-Shafi’i, it goes on, requires stoning of homosexuals also, but “according to him, the person who is the object of the [penetrative] act is not stoned, even if he be married; rather, he is flogged and banished.”
(Revised April 2015)