4 Women (Al-Nisa): Poems based on the Qur’an

For Abdel Haleem’s e-book translation: https://archive.org/stream/TheQuranKoranenglishEbook-AbdelHaleem-BestTranslationInThe/the_QURAN-abdel-haleem-ebook-english_djvu.txt

In Arabia before the onset of Islam, the tribes worshiped hundreds of gods which didn’t allow for a unified system of justice based upon moral laws. Certainly, the tribes had a method for arbitration, but their decisions were primarily relative to the self-interests of the leaders in an effort to maintain their power and control over the tribe. Subsequently, due to the lack of moral guidelines the tribal society oftentimes did not seek the welfare of others, which resulted in cheating tribal members out of money and goods, taking an orphan’s inheritance, marrying an orphan girl who was attractive to gain control of her inheritance, ill treatment of women, and numerous other offenses.

Nihal Şahin Utku, PhD, writing in Arabia in the Pre-Islamic Period, states the polytheistic Arabs used divining arrows, determined future events by looking at the flight of birds, and would use amulets and talismans for protection. In Mecca, decisions were made by an administrative body called the Mela after a discussion with the outcome determined by a unanimous vote, but each tribe was given the right to act independently. However, the authority of the tribe was represented by the tribal leader, but who held no real power to sanction. In Bedouin social life the arbitrators held significant power such that if they weren’t obeyed, a tribal member could be expelled from the tribe which would be deadly. Tribal traditions were established by tribal elders which provided the tribe’s social mores. Additionally, women were considered to be a burden and infanticide frequently practiced. According to some hadiths, even female children older than infants were killed. The women had to no status and were completely deprived of inheritance. According to Utku, “a woman would sleep with another man with the approval of her husband in order to have a child, wife swapping, a woman living with a man as a mistress, temporary marriages, marriages between a son and his stepmother, or even two sisters marrying the same man were not uncommon.” Hence, the tribe determined its own moral precepts which didn’t necessary enhance the social health of their community.

Philosophers and Theologians historically have argued the case whether reason alone can determine moral laws, or whether moral laws must come from God. Is human nature inherently good and capable of understanding the importance of morality without absolute laws? Can the use of reasoning derive moral laws that are for the benefit of everyone, and if so, who determines what those laws are? Would one first not have to determine what “good” is? Christine M. Korsgaard (Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy, Harvard University, scholar of moral philosophy and its history) believes “reason means reflective success,” because there is something within the human psyche that must consider reason as being able to deduce the “good.” And if our ability to reason has the inherent ability to determine what is good for ourselves and others, then there is no need for Divine moral laws, as humans should be able to determine those ourselves. However, that would mean every person being able to objectively reason the same moral deductions as everyone else, which would entail a kind of universal objectively which is impossible given our mental differences.

Moral laws must be universal and absolute to be effective in transforming wayward humans towards a productive and flourishing society. It is clearly evident the pre-Islamic tribes had difficulty with implementing a just system so that everyone could benefit. This is why every monotheistic religion has a set of rules or moral guidelines to follow, and even though the Qur’an was partly based on the Prophets and minimally on Jesus in the Gospel, the community of new believers needed a restructuring of their society that morality aligned itself with the teachings of the revealed Qur’an. This Surah was revealed over a lengthier than usual time period, but the gradual revealing of a new way of behaving may have been easier for the Arabs to accept. Many of the guidelines revealed in this Surah relate to moral behavior in its treatment of women, orphans, during battle, etc. in an attempt to implement social reforms for the benefit and spiritual growth of the community. Verse 26 gives the spiritual reason for the new rules, “He wishes to make His laws clear to you and guide you to the righteous ways of those who went before you. He wishes to turn you towards mercy…”

Commentator Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi:

Principles for the smooth running of family life have been laid down and ways of settling family disputes have been taught. Rules have been prescribed for marriage and rights of wife and husband have been apportioned fairly and equitably. The status of women in the society has been determined and the declaration of the rights of orphans has been made laws and regulations have been laid down for the division of inheritance, and instructions have been given to reform economic affairs. The foundation of the penal code has been laid down, drinking has been prohibited, and instructions have been given for cleanliness and purity. The Muslims have been taught the kind of relations good men should have with their Allah and fellow men. Instructions have been given for the maintenance of discipline in the Muslim Community.

Justice is mentioned numerous times, which is the new guideline’s raison d’être: “speak out for justice” (v.9), “God wishes to lighten your burden; man was created weak” (v. 28),“if you judge between people, to do so with justice; God’s instructions to you are excellent, for He hears and sees everything” (v. 58). “uphold justice and bear witness to God” (v. 135a), “refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly — if you distort or neglect justice, God is fully aware of what you do” (v.135b).

Additionally, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) taught his followers not to respond to the Jews, hypocrites, and idolaters, with anger, hatred or retaliation, “you should try to mold your character after that of your Allah, who is so forbearing that He does not withhold His provisions even from the most wicked culprits and shows forbearance to the most sinful offenders. You should, therefore, have a bit heart and show forbearance even in the most critical and provocative situations.” It must be remembered that the tribal way of responding to provocation of any sort was “a life for a life,” or in other words, any offense towards the tribe was fully retaliated, and even sometimes more than fully revenged. This admonishment must have been problematic to accept, as maintaining “honor” was extremely important to the tribe.

During this Surah’s revelation, Gabriel uses the metaphor of a date stone four times, “God purifies whoever He will; no one will be wronged by as much as the husk of a date stone (v. 49), “Do they have any share of what He possesses? If they did they would not give away so much as the groove of a date stone(v.53), “Little is the enjoyment in this world, the Hereafter is far better for those who are mindful of God; you will not be wronged by as much as the fiber in a date stone (v. 77), “anyone, male or female, who does good deeds and is a believer, will enter Paradise and will not be wronged by as much as the dip in a date stone (v. 124). Some translators have translated, “not a whit” instead of using the metaphor of the date stone. Many commentators have indicated the metaphor means, “a little bit,” or as “trifling, of little concern,” but could be translated more effectively. We must remember the Qur’an was revealed by the Archangel Gabriel. Allah does not provide revelation with simple meanings, but with numerous levels of understanding. Why did Gabriel use a metaphor of four different parts of a date stone? Why not just use the word “thread” in all four cases? If we look at the progression of parts of the date stone within this Surah you find the first metaphor begins with the “husk”, the second is the “groove,” the third, the “fiber” and the fourth, the “dip.” So, Gabriel is going from the outer (husk), to the next part of the date stone, the groove, even more inwards toward the fiber that extends from within the seed, and then the dip which is the innermost part. In looking at all four metaphors it appears there is an overarching metaphor that symbolizes looking deeper than what the exoteric meaning suggests. In looking at the four prefaced statements before each one of the metaphors, and then expressing in the progressive form, we find that God purifies our hearts so that we can display God’s characteristics, which promotes mindfulness of God so that we can then fully understand how to put our faith into action.

Additionally, it is important to note the use of the statement, “everything in the heavens and earth belong to him” (vs. 131–132) is used three times with the added word of “still” in the third time, “all that is in the heavens and the earth still belongs to God” (v. 170)The preface to these statements are, “Even if you do ignore Him,” and “yes, indeed” and the last use, “for even if you disbelieve.” “Yes, indeed” is frequently used as an exclamation to emphasize the importance of the preceding statement with the repeating of the initial statement after the use of “yes, indeed.” So, it doesn’t really matter if God is ignored or disbelieved, He is still the Creator and no matter what a person apprehends regarding God, they can’t change the reality that God exists and everything that is an existant was created by God. Directly after the third statement is, “If He so willed, He could remove you altogether and replace you with new people; He has full power to do so.” Historically, those who disbelieved their Messenger were either destroyed, or the spiritual blessings were passed on to those who believed.

This Surah closes with a reiteration of inheritance laws (this structure is used frequently to refresh the memory of what was initially recited — the inheritance laws were the first verses of this Surah), and then, “God makes this clear to you so that you do not make mistakes.” This Surah particularly demonstrates the process of a religious community being formed with its new ways of behaving in adherence with the teachings from its Book.

Poem

Based on: “People, be mindful of your Lord, who created you from a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them spread countless men and women far and wide…” (v. 1)

One soul made from the One
into a multiplicity of uniqueness;
it is the way of Allah
to create all from the formless
to diversity in forms
and bring unity from the One
and One into His unity.

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Sheryl Martin

Sheryl Martin

It is suffering that shoots streams of creativity out of my heart, and the brokenness of life that explodes my heart into its soul.