Are men and women unequal in Islam?

One crucial, unequivocal verse in the Qur’an lays the ground for the concept of equality between men and women: “The believers, men and women, are allies (awliya) of one another. They enjoin the ‘common good’ (al ma‘ruf) and forbid the bad (al munkar), they observe prayers (salat) and give charitable alms (zakat) and obey God and his Prophet”; Qur’an, 9:71. Munkar refers to all that is rejected by all members of a given society; a set of morally unacceptable practices. In Qur’anic etymology it is considered as the antonym of ma‘ruf or ‘common good’.

It is quite surprising to note that some very explicit verses such as this, which exhort equality between men and women, have been marginalized in Islamic thought; they are rarely cited, and are even at times completely overlooked in favor of other verses that are more difficult to interpret or whose application was contingent on the time of revelation.

The term awliya in this verse means alliance, mutual assistance and mutual reinforcement.

The above-mentioned verse begins with a major command that calls men and women to remain mutually supportive through a spiritual, emotional and companionate alliance based on common belief in God and His Prophet. It is a benevolent association that is portrayed in words like awliya – allies of one another – where one perceives this subliminal closeness between men and women whereby one is part of the other in communion and harmony.

This wilayah that unites hearts and actions is simply the effective sanction of gender equality. This equality translates, in everyday life, into concrete actions and acts of human solidarity, where the only criterion for evaluating each other is integrity and moral rectitude.

These notions, obvious as they are, cannot be found in most traditional exegesis, where we notice that this verse has been unfortunately skimmed and interpreted rather loosely. Indeed, this clear, even undeniable exhortation to equality between men and women, especially in the management of the public or socio-political spheres, is virtually absent from the classical commentaries.

It is true that, overall, classical and traditional exegesis does acknowledge a certain spiritual equality between men and women as a foundation of Islam. This spiritual equality is based essentially on the practice of worship and on rewards and punishments in the hereafter. But this is the only equality that is recognized, since most commentators try to find a religious compromise between gender equality in worship practices and traditional gender hierarchy and complementarity, which are the norm in most cases. This complementarity has always been understood as a manifestation of the classical division of roles in the family, but also in public life, where women were always confined to secondary, subordinate roles compared to those assigned to men.

Thus most scholars have interpreted this verse as yet another one about spiritual equality, especially in worship (ibadat), not least because the rest of the verse does mention prayer and almsgiving. Yet this verse contains a prescription of paramount importance that constitutes its core: the injunction to enjoin common good and discourage bad actions, which, we can clearly see, is an independent provision that precedes acts of worship. In other words, the Qur’an describes ideal male and female believers as being, first of all, people who help each other, on equal terms, in enjoining the common good, al ma‘ruf and forbidding bad deeds, and then people who perform their religious rituals, salat and zakat, always in unity and mutual solidarity.

It is interesting to see how this Qur’anic principle – enjoining the common good (al ma‘ruf) and forbidding the bad (al munkar) – which is identical to what one finds in the wilayah verse, has been differently analyzed and interpreted in the different commentaries. In fact, most commentaries have considered this Qur’anic injunction to be of major importance, since we can measure the degree of each individual’s commitment to building a just and morally equitable society in its practical application to social realities on the ground. The commentators are nearly unanimous that this injunction is part of an overall political and social agenda that exhorts the Muslims to spread ethical values and respect for others, to be open to the world, to be on a permanent quest for knowledge, to act in the common interest, to be intelligent and denounce injustice in any form, and never to be silent in the face of social and political oppression and discrimination.

Consequently, the majority of classical hermeneutical texts understood the command to enjoin the common good and oppose evil actions, reiterated several times in the Qur’an, as an obligation to socio-political action, incumbent upon the whole of the community or an elite part of it, in order to guarantee the minimal conditions for social justice and prosperity inside that community.

But it is surprising to find that this same command, when found in the verse about wilayah and the alliance between men and women, does not generally give rise to the same commentaries. The exact same formulation in the Qur’an is interpreted differently as soon as it is addressed to men and women on an equal footing. In other words, when the Qur’an calls on believers, in general, to observe this injunction, as in verse 3:104, it is understood as a prescription concerning ‘men’ only, while all Muslim scholars are of the opinion that the Qur’an, when using the general term al mu’minun– the believers – is most often addressing both men and women, and that these exhortations concern women just as much as men. The Qur’an is unambiguous, and stresses emphatically this close cooperation or wilayah between men and women in socio-political action, before generalizing it to acts of religious ritual. Incidentally, some contemporary commentators harken back to this original meaning and confirm the prescription of joint socio-political participation by both men and women, as unequivocally advocated in the Qur’an.

Dr. Sayed Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah (1935-2010), the Lebanese scholar, in his interpretation of this verse speaks: “of a ‘coalition’ between men and women in ‘faith’, a ‘wilayat iman’.” He also states “that this verse reaffirms the egalitarian vision of the Qur’an, which encourages women to be involved in all areas of social and political life, in contrast to the traditional exclusivist understanding that tends to reduce women to their function as wives and mothers, a role that, while important, cannot constitute their unique horizon in life”.

As a result of this analysis of the different interpretations of this verse, we can clearly infer its egalitarian nature regarding men and women, especially in the socio-political sphere. The Qur’anic injunction could hardly be clearer. It seeks to inaugurate a new conception of relations between men and women, including equal participation in political decision making. This is a revolutionary and avant-garde concept, even by modern standards, when women’s equal right to political participation is not a worldwide given and seems to constitute the main obstacle to women’s rights in most societies.

Through a contextualized reading, we can also integrate this concept of wilayah into a framework for equal citizenship, as suggested by modern democratic ideals. The call of the Qur’an to this shared responsibility of women and men in the political management of society is the equivalent of the key democratic principle, which ideally requires equal responsibility for all citizens. Thus, the concept of wilayah could be understood as a corollary of equal citizenship in our Muslim societies in our search for democracy.

Obviously this Qur’anic injunction, which encourages egalitarian participation of men and women in political life, has never been to the taste of despotic regimes, which sadly have governed many Muslim countries for the longest periods of their history. Thus, the concept of wilayah, in the sense of promoting socio-political participation, has contracted through the history of Islamic civilization. From its universal political and intellectual dimensions, it was downgraded to a strictly delimited area of religious ritual, al-wilayah al-diniyah.

Rational interpretation of this verse, and many others that promote justice and equality, could never overcome the impact of political powers that reduced it to one single edict: absolute obedience and fear of the government, regardless of the injustice and abuse to which governments subject their people. Most Muslims are unaware that they have a say, granted by Islam, in the management of their own political affairs. They were instructed to live and understand religion in terms of fear and blind obedience.

In this verse, then, the concept of wilayah is used in its broadest sense and takes in all the actions that can bring about positive change in societies at any given time in history. It is as much a matter of political citizenship as of day-to-day citizenship. Most importantly here, both men and women are called on equally to be the main agents of change in their respective societies.

However, as with other principles constantly upheld by the Qur’an, it is regrettable that this verse and all the egalitarian ideas it affirms – like wilayah, political partnership, citizenship, and political action in support of the common good – have never been valued in Islamic thought. They have almost never had the importance they deserve, especially compared to other principles and concepts that were secondary in the Qur’an. But they have over time become priorities for a large number of Muslims because of the ideological and literalist propaganda resulting from a deplorable Islamic intellectual impoverishment. Thus, this verse has long been overlooked, being understood by most erudite Muslims as only one more verse about gender equality in the matter of worship.

Today, it is essential to reread this verse and reformulate the principles it reveals, especially seeing its singular relevance and significance to our modern Muslim societies.

It is also vital that the concept of wilayah regains its importance and centrality to gender relations. All other Qur’anic concepts regarding women should be reread and redefined in the light of the concept of wilayah, in order to rediscover and restore the egalitarian spirit that motivates the spiritual message of Islam. It is only on this condition that all the other questions about women and men, many of which are inherently time-bound, can be analyzed and properly understood in our contemporary context.

 Asma Lamrabet

À propos de l'auteur


Native de Rabat (Maroc), Asma Lamrabet, exerce actuellement en tant que médecin biologiste à l’Hôpital Avicennes de Rabat. Elle a exercé durant plusieurs années (de 1995 à 2003) comme médecin bénévole dans des hôpitaux publics d'Espagne et d’Amérique latine, notamment à Santiago du Chili et à Mexico.

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