THE QUR'AN, ISLAM, AND THE OPPRESSION OF WOMEN
Bob Avakian Responds to a Letter on the Qur'an
Revolutionary Worker #969, August 16, 1998
Editor's Note: Within the past year, the Revolutionary Worker ran a series of articles by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP, on communism and religion. Here, Comrade Avakian responds to the following letter relating to an article in that series, on Islam.
Letter from a ReaderGentlemen:
I happened to pick up a copy of your 7/20/97 issue and noted an article on Islam. I'm sure it was well-intentioned, but there is at least one horrendous inaccuracy in it. I don't mind people airing our dirty linen if it's real--it helps to keep us honest, but lies or unverified untruths help no one. Specifically, the reference to the Quran chapter "Prohibition" (RW 7/20 p. 14, first column) is to chapter 66, verses at the beginning. Keep in mind that the Prophet was a head of state, and any matter of great political consequence confided to his wives should not be a subject of gossip. The quote from the Maududi translation reads as follows: "...the Prophet had confided a matter to a wife in secret. Then, when she disclosed the secret (to another), and Allah informed the Prophet..., the Prophet made known (to his wife) part of it, and overlooked part of it. So when the Prophet told her...she asked, 'Who informed you of this?' The Prophet said, 'I was informed by Him Who knows everything and is All-Aware. If you both (women) repent to Allah (it is better for you), for your hearts have swerved from the right path, and if you supported each other against the Prophet, you should know that Allah is his Protector, and after Him Gabriel and the righteous believers and the angels are his companions and helpers. It may well be that if the Prophet divorces all of you, Allah will give him in your place better wives, who are true Muslims, who are believing and obedient, penitent and worshipping and given to fasting, be they widows or virgins.'" (66:3-5) Be aware, also of two things: that the oppression of women one finds sometimes in "Muslim" societies is a carry-over from earlier, pagan and occult religious practices, and is not approved by the Quran; and that more than a few women have fled to Islam for safety and freedom from oppression--and they seem to be happy here.
Anyway, the scurrilous slant given to this particular quotation of the Quran does no service to your publication, as anyone at all familiar with the Quran will see immediately that either the reference was not checked for accuracy, or someone feels it is in their best interest to lie. Please be more careful in the future.
Thank you for listening.
Bob Avakian Responds:
The Qur'an, Islam, and the Oppression of Women
First, after receiving this letter, I went back and looked again into the particular passage in question from the Qur'an. (This is in the opening sections--in particular verses 3 through 5--of the chapter, or surah, called "The Forbidding" or "The Prohibition" or "The Banning" in various English translations.) I reviewed a number of commentaries on this passage, as well as on the Qur'an more generally, and I did some further reading of historical studies and other reference material relating to Muhammad, the Qur'an, and Islam. Finally, I re-read the entire Qur'an (in English translation). All of this has strongly confirmed what I wrote in the original article (to which the above letter is responding): the Qur'an does in fact uphold and provide "religious authority" for the oppression of women, including the taking of women as prizes of war and plunder and generally a subordinate and "second class" status for women in society. The particular passage in question, regarding Muhammad's relations with his wives (and concubines), is both an expression of this in a general sense and is also, as I stated in the original article, an instance where, to say the least, Muhammad receives a "revelation from Allah" which is very convenient for Muhammad personally as well as serving his larger objectives.
As the above letter mentions, this particular passage refers to a situation where one (or more) of Muhammad's wives was gossiping about a matter involving Muhammad. An important question here--a question which the Qur'an itself does not directly speak to, and which the above letter also does not take up--is what exactly was the content of this gossip, what were his wives gossiping about? In reviewing various commentaries, etc., on this passage, it seems that there are several different interpretations, or traditions, concerning this. Some say that the passage in question refers to a tendency, on the part of at least some of Muhammad's wives, not to speak with proper deference to Muhammad, which was setting a bad example for other Islamic wives, in not being sufficiently respectful and obedient to their husbands. Others tell of how some of Muhammad's wives, who were upset that he was spending more time than was customary with one wife, played a trick on him so that he would no longer do this. But the interpretation of this passage that seems most in accord with historical accounts of Muhammad's life, and in particular his relations with his wives and concubines--and most consistent with what is said here in the Qur'an itself--is the interpretation I referred to in the original article (to which the above letter is replying).
This interpretation recounts how Muhammad had been given a Coptic slave girl, Mariya, as a concubine--this was part of a political arrangement with the ruler of Egypt at that time. Mariya bore Muhammad a son. This itself is said to have caused jealousy among Muhammad's wives, because sons were considered more valuable than daughters. (This son, however, died while still in infancy.) Further, on a certain day, when Muhammad was supposed to be sleeping with one of his wives, he was discovered by her sleeping with Mariya. Muhammad then promised to have no more sexual relations with Mariya; at the same time he insisted that nothing be said about all this. But some of Muhammad's wives did not obey this instruction and began gossiping about the whole affair. In response, Muhammad refused to have anything to do with these wives for a month. Furthermore, he made known a "revelation from Allah" which became part of the Qur'an--in particular the warning (in verse 5 of this surah) that, if Muhammad's wives continue to give Muhammad trouble, it may be that Muhammad will divorce them and Allah will provide Muhammad with better wives! (Among other sources, this interpretation is included, and gone into in some detail, in the historical study of Muhammad by Maxime Rodinson, which is available in English translation from the original French.)
Oppression of Women in the Qur'an--
Clearly, not only this particular interpretation but all of the various traditions associated with these verses in the Qur'an reflect the fact that Muhammad's wives (and concubines) were in an inferior social position, both in relation to Muhammad himself and more generally in terms of the larger Islamic society and state in which they lived. Women in that society were regarded and treated as subordinate persons who must be dependent on and under the domination of men. This oppressive condition of women is asserted and authorized repeatedly throughout the Qur'an. This is the tradition that is represented in Islam--as in other major religions.
In other writings, including the article to which the above letter is responding, I have shown how the Qur'an (like other religious scriptures) upholds the oppression of women. Here let me just cite one example--one passage from the Qur'an--that makes this unmistakably clear, including in its call to whip or physically beat ("scourge") women when they are not obedient. This is from the surah entitled "Women" (verse 34):
"Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they [men] spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then, if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High Exalted, Great." (From The Glorious Qur'an, translation by Mohammad M. Pickthall)
Adherents of Islam often argue--as the above letter does--that, with regard to women's status, Islam actually represented a step forward in relation to "earlier, pagan and occult religious practices." And there is some truth to this. To cite one significant aspect of this, the Qur'an condemns and forbids the burying alive of female children, which was a common practice among the "pagan" Arabs of Muhammad's time (see, for example, the surah "Cattle," in verse 140) More generally, the Qur'an declares that women who are believers and act in accordance with Islam will also be rewarded in paradise; and the Qur'an sets down certain rights for women. But the fact remains that the Qur'an also sets forth that women occupy--that it is "Allah's will" for women to occupy--an inferior status to that of men. This is directly stated in such passages as the following: "they (women) have rights similar to those (of men) over them in kindness, and men are a degree above them. Allah is Mighty, Wise." ("The Cow," verse 228--Mohammad M. Pickthall translation). And then, again, there is the instruction (quoted above) that men should "scourge" and otherwise punish women who are disobedient.
With regard to the claim, which is made in the above letter, that "more than a few women have fled to Islam for safety and freedom from oppression--and they seem to be happy here": The fact is that in those parts of the world where Islam is the dominant religion, there is resistance, in many different ways and forms--including open declarations and mass movements as well as clandestine organization--against the oppression of women and the way in which the Qur'an and the tenets of Islam are invoked as the ideological/religious "justification" for this oppression. For example, among the powerful exposures of this oppression--and calls to resist such oppression--have been statements from women in such countries as Iran and Afghanistan which have been printed in the Revolutionary Worker in the recent period.* And it is important to recognize not only that such oppression exists and is upheld and enforced by the religious and political authorities in those countries, and other Islamic countries, but also that the "justification" for this is found in the Qur'an itself.
Once again, the point is not that the Qur'an and Islam are somehow unique among religions in terms of upholding the oppression of women and exploitative and oppressive relations generally. All major religions and religious scriptures have this in common. This is certainly true of Christianity and its Bible--as expressed in the New Testament as well as in the Old. And I am not saying that Islam represented a step backward, with regard to the status of women and in terms of oppressive relations in society generally, at the time and place in which Islam arose (Arabia, nearly 1500 years ago). The fundamental and essential point is precisely that the time has long since passed when Islam, and religion in general, can act as a standard and a guide for moving society forward. The social relations of which Islam (and religion in general) is ultimately an expression, and all the various forms of slavery and oppression bound up with these relations, have long since become historically outmoded and obsolete--they represent the past and, in today's world, they represent a direct barrier to the full emancipation of women and all of humanity.
In today's world, in order to carry out the great historical revolutionary leap which will bring about a society and a true global community that is not divided into oppressors and oppressed, as Marx and Engels wrote in the "Communist Manifesto," there must be a radical rupture with religious ideology. There must be a radical rupture with all ideology that upholds and reinforces relations of exploitation and oppression, just as there must be a radical rupture with the property relations that embody this exploitation and oppression, including the oppression of women. These radical ruptures are at the heart of what communism is all about--of the ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism and the revolutionary struggle and revolutionary goal it represents.
As an expression and application of this ideology, our Party seeks to unite all who can be united, including people who hold religious views of various kinds, in the fight against the many different ways in which the masses of people are exploited and oppressed. Our orientation is to carry forward a dynamic of unity-struggle-unity with these many diverse people and forces, throughout the entire process of preparing for and then carrying out the overthrow of this capitalist-imperialist system and then moving forward to revolutionize society and abolish all oppression and exploitation, as part of the world-wide proletarian revolution. And, as a very important part of this, we seek to carry out, in a comradely way, struggle over the question of religion as well as other decisive questions of world outlook, in order to continue advancing toward the final goal of breaking all the chains binding people, both in the economic, social and political realms and in people's thinking.
* See "Correspondence on Islamic Law and the Oppression of Women in Iran," in Revolutionary Worker #931, November 9, 1997 and "Women from Afghanistan and Iran Call for Celebration on International Women's Day," in Revolutionary Worker #947,
March 8, 1998.
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