The Koran and the Unbelievers
A careful study of the Koran begs the question: is it a violent text? This question is of critical importance in our day, given recent events. This paper attempts to explore the question in great detail, never straying from Arberry’s standard translation of the classic text of the Islamic religion.The Koran divides humanity into believers and unbelievers. The believers believe in the divinity of its Revelation. The unbelievers do not. God commands the believers to say to the unbelievers:I serve not what you serveAnd you are not serving what I serve,Nor am I serving what you have served,Neither are you serving what I serve. (CIX)As a reward for serving this true God, the believers will be admitted “into gardens underneath which rivers flow.” For the unbelievers, there awaits “the fiery furnace” of Gehenna, where they will burn for all eternity, even though “they shall shout, Our Lord, bring us forth, and we will do righteousness, other than what we have done.'” To this plea, God replies, “What, did We not give you long life, enough to remember in for him who would remember? To you the warner came; so taste you now!” (XXXV, 34-35).The believers, then, believe in a God who will take absolutely no mercy on the unbelievers. In fact, their one and only God seems to derive a sadistic pleasure in meeting out damnation and fire, even taunting the unbelievers with their hopeless predicament (“so taste you now!”). If the believers were to apply this cruel aspect of God’s character as a model for how they should treat the unbelievers in the present life, on earth, it is no stretch to say that the most awful barbarity would follow. All-compassionate God shows no compassion for the unbelievers’ souls; how should His believers be expected to respect their lives? In a world which is “naught but a sport and a diversion (XLVII, 38),” would not the unbelievers necessarily become, in the eyes of the believers, the expendable fuel of a holy fire here on earth? In a few passages, the Koran seems to answer this question with a categorical no. God alone is the final judge. It remains for the believers but to worship Him and be patient. They should “Seek not to hasten it for [the unbelievers],” “it” being the Day of the Resurrection (XLVI, 34), as “God will suffice you for them” (II, 132). The believers are commanded to “leave them to eat, and to take their joy, and to be bemused by hope,” as “certainly they will soon know!” (XV, 2-3); “Leave them alone to plunge and play until they encounter that day of theirs which they are promised” (LXX 41). Putting aside for the moment the invidious condescension of the attitude believers ought to have, and reading these and like passages as strict dictates, the Koran seems to be making a relatively clear distinction between what God will eventually do to the unbelievers and how the believers must deal with them in the meantime.Indeed, if peace is possible, as a general rule the believers have an obligation to attempt it. “If they [the unbelievers] incline toward peace,” it is written in “The Spoils,” a Sura which treats principally the subject of war, “do thou incline to it” (VIII, 63), as “God loves not the aggressors” (II, 187). “If they withdraw from you, and do not fight you, and offer you peace, then God assigns not any way to you against them” (IV, 93). This language of peace, however, waxes weak. God tends to command non-aggression tentatively – rather recommending it than demanding it. God “loves not the aggressors,” but He does not hate them as he does the unbelievers. And although He “assigns not any way to you against them,” at no point in the entire text of the Koran is aggression against unbelievers expressly forbidden; at best it is not permitted. The only mention of actual kindness towards the unbelievers highlights how little God concerns himself with believers who choose to act in the most unkindly way:”God forbids you not, as regards those who have not fought you in religion’s cause, nor expelled you from your habitations, that you should be kindly to them, and act justly towards them; surely God loves the just.” (LX, 9)God does not compel his believers to “be kindly to them, and act justly towards them,” he merely “forbids you not.” To be not forbidden to do something is far from being bound to do it. Kindness and justice towards unbelievers become optional; the believer who chooses to forgo kindness and justice has done nothing wrong here. He has simply exercised his implied second option. This second option must be termed, by a simple process of elimination, cruelty.On the other hand, the above passage serves to define specific conditions for retaliation, thereby establishing specific conditions for peace. War here is a determinable state of affairs, not an unqualified justification of slaughter. Unbelievers must first pick a fight “in religion’s cause” or “expel you from your habitations” for the rules of war to apply.It is, indeed, those passages dealing with war that most clearly instruct readers in stabbing and slaying. Believers are commanded to fight only with those who “fight against God and His Messenger.” As for them, they should be “slaughtered, or crucified, or their hands and feet shall alternately be struck off, or they shall be banished from the land. That is a degradation for them in this world” (V, 37). If a believer dies in the process of trying to slaughter or crucify or disfigure an unbelieving aggressor, “it is unto God you shall be mustered” (III, 151); heaven is the reward for fighting in God’s way. If a believer “turns his back that day to them… he is laden with the burden of God’s anger” (VIII, 16); hell is the punishment for abandoning the fight, once it has begun. God very much encourages relentless battle: “Fight the unbelievers totally even as they fight you totally” (IX, 36). And he rewards his soldiers with superhuman power, providing them with an incentive to fight in the face of overwhelming odds: “If there be twenty of you, patient men, they will overcome two hundred” (VIII, 66). Once the unbelievers have been defeated, the victor is forbidden from mourning for him: “pray thou never over any of them when he is dead, nor stand over his grave” (IX, 85). Still, assuming that the distinction holds between peace and war, one might argue with a certain consistency that the Koran preaches a modicum of compassion for people who disagree with its precepts. But the Koran distinguishes between war and peace only in the loosest political terms:…Give thou good tidings to the unbelievers of a painful chastisement;Excepting those of the idolaters with whomYou made covenant, then they failed you naughtNeither lent support to any man against you.With them fulfil your covenant till their term; surely God loves the godfearing.Then, when the sacred months are drawn away,Slay the idolaters wherever you find them,And take them, and confine them, and lie in waitFor them at every place of ambush.Peace is here clearly defined as that period of time during which a covenant (or a treaty, in modern terms) applies. War is all other times. In other words, unless believers have sat down at the negotiating table and signed a peace treaty with unbelievers, believers are to act as if they were in fact at war. War is the norm, peace the exception (“the sacred months”), and fighting the Lord’s commandment.There are many lines in the Koran that support this militaristic reading. More than once God commands His believers to fight the unbelievers “til there is no persecution and the religion is God’s entirely” (I, 189; VIII, 40). “O believers,” urges God, “fight the unbelievers who are near to you, and let them find in you a harshness” (IX, 125). Can this be understood in any other way than as Allah commanding his followers to “smite their [the unbelievers’] necks” (XLVII, 4) whenever possible? If “persecution is more heinous than slaying,” and the unbelievers “will not cease to fight with you,” (I, 213) then it follows logically that believers have an obligation to “take them, and slay them wherever you find them” (IV, 92). This reading is hardly a stretch: it is on the Koranic surface.Gestures of peace appear all the more token in light of God’s commandment that believers must not take unbelievers as friends. Believers “have had a good example in Abraham, and those with him, when they said to their people… between us and you enmity has shown itself, and hatred for ever, until you believe in God alone” (LX, 4). “Let not,” commands God, “the believers take the unbelievers as friends… for whoso does that belongs not to God in anything” (III, 28); “the unbelievers are for you a manifest foe” (IV, 102). The Koran even robs this foe of his humanity. “They are like cattle; nay, rather they are further astray” (VII, 178); “Surely the worst of beasts in God’s sight are the unbelievers” (VIII, 58). Knowing this, to call the Koran a compassionate text is to blindly wish to see it as such. Short passages of peace are overshadowed by repeated orders to pick up the sword and slay the cattle-like unbelievers. A sophisticated theologian might argue that God is in fact “The Merciful, the Compassionate,” but a humble reader encounters instead a god who takes pleasure in contriving the most awful end for people who refuse to accept Islam as the true religion:As for the unbelievers,For them garments of fire shall be cut,And there shall be poured over their heads boiling waterWhereby whatsoever is in their belliesAnd their skins shall be melted; for them await hooked iron rods;As often as they desire in their anguish to come forth from it, they shall be restored into it, and: “Taste the chastisement of the burning!” (XXI, 21)The impassioned believer will note the literalness of God’s wrath. He will note that God employs human means (even “hooked iron rods”) to carry out his divine punishment. Will he not understand this – quite rationally – as a call to do similarly to the unbelievers in this world, a world of so much less importance? Melting skins and bellies may be metaphorical, but the many lines of the Koran that are something like “slay them wherever you come upon them” are not. Mixing the two, as the Koran does Sura after Sura, serves not only as an easy justification for the most heinous atrocities against unbelievers, but makes perpetrating such atrocities an act of the highest spiritual merit, a spark of the Divine for which believers should thank God, just as God will reward the perpetrator with Paradise.”We will cast into the hearts of the unbelievers terror… their lodging shall be the Fire” (III, 142). Is this the royal We, or is this God in league with his believers? In a world where, “wherever you may be, death will overtake you, though you should be in raised-up towers” (IV, 80), the question is of paramount importance. The answer that the Koran provides, again and again, over and over, in spite of a few mild warnings to the contrary, is that believers are in fact urged – if not commanded – to do Allah’s ghastly work.
The Simultaneous Proliferation and Subversion of Patriarchy in the Qur’an
The Qur’an1 is reflective of and conducive to the patriarchal social system in which it evolved. Many verses of the text attempt to structure and reaffirm patriarchal order and to reduce any threat to the patriarchal system. While the Qur’an is a text meant for all Muslims regardless of gender to abide by, it is evident that many if not most of the verses are addressed to a male audience. While the text contains many verses outlining the rights of women many of these verses are directed specifically toward men, in other words, the women’s rights verses are written in a style that is suggestive of an instruction manual for men – not for women. The patriarchal systems that are reaffirmed in the Qur’an are not merely limited to controlling women’s behavior; any substantial threat to patriarchy is condemned as wrong and deserving of punishment. Because of the patriarchal slant of the society into which the Qur’an was revealed, it is very interesting to explore the Qur’anic verses which seem to subvert the patriarchal system. Verses which undermine patriarchy are often more subtle than the ones that confirm it; some verses, depending on how they are interpreted could either support patriarchy or degrade it.There are several distinct ways in which the Qur’an bolsters pre-existing patriarchal ideas: It establishes women and children as property, prohibits activities which might disrupt patriarchal order (such as homosexuality, extra-marital fornication, and adultery), dictates that male relatives always inherit more property than female relatives, and suggests that women are rendered un-pure beings by menstruation and men are rendered un-pure by intercourse with women. These methods of proliferating patriarchy are very clear in some verses, while in other verses they are manifested more subtly.The most prominent reinforcer of patriarchal values is the obvious, often implicit notion that women and children are property. While the Qur’an undoubtingly strives to protect the rights and even happiness of women and children, their status as property of men is never substantially challenged. Because of this, it is difficult to ascertain at times whether women and children are protected for their own good as individuals or whether they are protected because they are a valuable commodity to men, though obviously these two reasons for protection are not mutually exclusive. The exchange of a financial compensation or dower in return for a woman’s hand in marriage is one of the most obvious signs that a woman is a commodity to be bought. The numerous verses dedicated to mediating when and how the dower should be paid emphasize the importance of this financial transaction and suggest that a marriage contract is almost void until it is validated by both the dower and the consummation.2 The varying price of the dower according to a woman’s social class or position in society3 is another strong indicator of the property-status of women.If women are the valuable possessions of their husbands or male family members steps must be taken to preserve their value. The control of women’s value is the control of their sexuality; this control further sustains the patriarchal system. The Qur’an clearly states that men are the protectors of women, and that in the case of her protector’s absence, a woman must guard herself from other men4. In addition to the obvious guarding of their sexuality, women are also expected to hide their beauty and behave modestly to prevent men from being tempted by them in the first place. The Qur’an gives a detailed list of the select people to whom a woman is permitted to display her beauty.5The importance of the control of a woman’s sexuality (and thereby her offspring) to maintaining and affirming patriarchal order can be further demonstrated by the severe consequences delivered to those who disregard the rules. If four people can testify that a woman has been acting lewdly she is to be confined to her house until death.6 If a couple is proven to be committing adultery they are to be flogged one-hundred times each and are banned from marrying anyone other than their partner in adultery.7 Women’s sexuality is not the only threat to patriarchy that is squelched by threats of punishment. Homosexuality, an obvious threat to patriarchal systems because, among other reasons, it abandons the notion of using women as sexual currency, is also strongly condemned and partakers in homosexual acts are threatened with punishment.8Another blatant way in which the Qur’an fortifies patriarchy is the manner in which inheritances are dealt out to inheritors. Female descendents receive only half of what their brothers receive. If a man has only daughters and no sons the daughters still only receive two-thirds of the inheritance. If a man’s wife dies and he has no children with her he receives one half of her inheritance, but a wife whose husband has died and left her with no children only receives a fourth of his inheritance. If a person dies leaving no husband and children but only brothers and sisters, the brothers get twice the inheritance of the sisters. 9 Such inheritance laws ensure the continuation of patriarchy because it is almost impossible for a woman to inherit more property than her male family members inherit.Perhaps one of the more subtle ways in which the Qur’an proliferates the patriarchal system is articulated by the verses that mention the impurity of women. It is implied that women are unclean during their periods and are therefore not to be touched.10 In addition, contact with women is considered to be one of the pollutants (along with using the bathroom and being ill) that must be washed away before prayer.11As seen in the examples above, the verses of the Qur’an often reinforce the patriarchal values of the society in which the text was revealed. It is therefore fascinating and important to recognize the large number of verses which seem to check the power of patriarchy, affording women, children, orphans, and other would-be second-class citizens equal or nearly equal rights with adult males. The marriage and divorce rights afforded to women and the importance of charity for orphans stressed by Allah are two examples of Qur’anic themes that weaken the patriarchal strength of the society. Perhaps the biggest subversion to the patriarchy, however, is not manifested in the rights of women and children but rather in Allah. As the all-knowing, ever-present patriarch who judges all individuals fairly regardless of their place in the temporal patriarchal system, Allah warns men that he knows all of their actions and will punish them if they abuse their patriarchal power.If a man obtains a marriage contract with a woman and then changes his mind before a dower is set and consummation has taken place he is still obligated to give a small gift to the woman, a gesture which seems to have no substantial purpose other than performing a good deed. Even though the dower is a reinforcement of the ideal of women as property the Qur’an clearly states that it is a gift given by the husband which the wife does not have to relinquish unless it is her will to do so.12 This gives women at least some financial security should a consummated marriage end in divorce. The Qur’an also expressly forbids men to force women who they have inherited into marriage or treat them with harshness13 and encourages men to let their wives leave them if they fear harsh treatment.14 In addition, polygamy, an obvious extension of patriarchy, is encouraged only when a man is sure he can treat all of this wives and children with equity15. Men are also forbidden to force their servants into prostitution.16 And finally, women are protected from false accusations by the provision that anyone who bears false witness against a woman should be flogged.17 All of these stipulations control and suppress the urges of absolute patriarchy and prevent women from being denied basic rights.The Qur’an acknowledges that men have the advantage in matters of divorce18 but makes many allowances that are advantageous to women. The three-month separation period or ‘Iddat that is designed so that couples may reconcile and women have time to know if they are pregnant is very reminiscent of modern standard divorce practice in America. One interesting specification regarding divorce is the that a woman who has divorced the same husband twice must marry another man should she ever want to return to her original husband. In addition, ex-husbands are specifically forbidden to prevent their ex-wives from re-marrying.19 And finally, it is instructed that men should pay a fair maintenance fee to all of their ex-wives.20 All of these laws counter the power of the patriarchal system in order to protect women from men who might otherwise marry and divorce women with reckless abandon.Another way in which the might of patriarchy is kept in balance is the considerable mention of the rights of orphans in the Qur’an. Since orphans have no fathers to represent them in the patriarchal hierarchy, the copious Qur’anic verses meant to protect orphans are a direct confrontation with the patriarchal system. Men are forbidden to marry widows if they feel they cannot deal fairly with the woman’s children.21 If they do inherit orphans by marriage men are expected to guard the property of orphans and give it back to them when the orphans reach adulthood. The ill-treatment of orphans is considered to be a grave offence as can be seen in the line “Those who devour the possessions of orphans devour only fire, and will surely burn in hell.”22 These admonitions of the mal-treatment of orphans protect those who, in an absolute patriarchy, would most likely be abused or forgotten.Perhaps the single largest affront in the Qur’an to a patriarchal social system is not the rights of women and orphans but the ever-presence of Allah. If Allah sees all of humanities deeds and judges according to what is fair regardless of who the person is, then men of power must act and feel kindly toward those who have a lower status on the patriarchal ladder. The surah Al-Nisa (The Women), which contains many of the laws pertaining to how men should treat women, begins with a serious caveat: “O men, fear your Lord” implying that any unrighteousness done to women or inferiors will be meticulously recorded by Allah. Allah is the ultimate patriarch, and though it might be obvious, it is worth stating that if men truly fear him they will also fear punishment for going against his will. In many ways Allah protects men the way men are expected to protect women. An interesting example of this is the following : “Tell the believing men to lower their eyes and guard their private parts. There is for them goodness in this. God is aware of what they do.”23 Thus, women are protected from patriarchy via the fear men have of punishment from Allah.It is also valuable to note that the creation of man and woman described by Allah in the beginning of An-Nisa is somewhat more simultaneous and equitable than the creation found in the Old Testament of the Jewish and Christian faiths. Allah states that from a single cell he produced both men and women, which is somewhat more equitable than the notion of creating man and then creating a woman from man. Allah tells men about this creation so that men “fear God in whose name you ask of one another the bond of relationships” and adds “God surely keeps watch over you.”24In conclusion, it is evident that the Qur’an reasserts the patriarchal values of the social system in which it was revealed, yet at the same time makes many attempts to protect women and children from an overbearing patriarchal system. Since many of the verses are aimed toward a male audience the Qur’an inherently promotes patriarchy. The presence of a God who sees everything and punishes men for their misdeeds toward those who have less power, however, simultaneously subverts this patriarchy and makes men accountable for upholding the rights of women and children.