"O people! We have created you from a single (pair), male and female, and made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other (Li Ta’arafu). Truly, the most honored of you in the sight of God is the one (who is) the most righteous toward you… ” (49:13)
Li Ta’arafu ("you may get to know each other") is a very comprehensive Qur’anic term that encompasses the purpose and reality of created humankind, to whom Allah entrusted His “vicegerency” on earth in order to reform and establish a just, peaceful society and overcome oppression and racial and religious strife. An ideal society cannot exist until there is justice for all, thus the Qur’an places great emphasis on the universal human right to seek justice and to do justice. Justice encompasses both the concept that all are equal, regardless of gender and race, as well as the recognition that we must help meet the needs of those who suffer deprivation, and those whose fundamental freedoms are hampered by oppression, traditionalism, authoritarianism, or tyranny.
Li Ta’arafu, in addition to emphasizing unity and understanding among people of different races and religions, also means to deepen our knowledge of the reality that men and women, with their male and female biology, together form the human species, for both are created to serve Allah’s purpose as “vicegerents” on earth. As such, they are both endowed with equal responsibilities in the promotion of justice and the nurturing of a just and peaceful society.
It should be clear to all that questions about women’s rights, nature and roles in society — far from being fringe concerns or special issues — run directly through the Qur’anic discourse on humanity. In reality, Islam is faced with a conceptual divide caused by the discrepancy between the original egalitarian spirit of the Qur’an, that grants every woman full participation in society as an “independent personality” (2:30), and the classical Muslim traditions and interpretations that confine women to home and childbearing functions only.
This talk will focus on the Qur’anic worldview of human equality and vicegerency in the light of the Li Ta’arafu with the hope that it will generate intellectual discourse, or ijtihad, and re-examination of the traditional tafsir of the Qur’an, and other sources of Islam, such as the Sunnah, Hadith and Shari’ah by the Muslim women, to settle the festering issues of gender inequality in the Muslim world. Until then, the question of Muslim women’s status and changing roles in society will lie at the heart of a complex set of problems that the Muslim world has yet to address.
HUMAN EQUALITY IN THE QUR’AN:
Almost 1,400 years ago, the Qur’an categorically stated that woman is equal to man in nature, intellect, morality, and free personality (4:1), and defined her as being a “vicegerent of Allah (God)” with individual personality, as well as full cognitive and rational abilities. (2:30).
According to the Qur’an, Allah created man and woman simultaneously, of like substance, and in like manner. Several verses clearly state that Allah created man and woman from a single life-cell or being (4:1). It is an indisputable Qur’anic teaching that men and women are equal in the sight of Allah; in fact, the Qur’an uses both feminine and masculine terms and imagery to describe this single-source creation of humanity. Thus, woman was not created to serve the ends of man, nor vice-versa. Both were created to serve Allah’s purpose, both are called upon equally to be righteous, and both are "members" and "protectors" of one another.
Although the Qur’an is very clear on these fundamental points of creation, secondary sources such as the tafsir (exegesis) of the Qur’an, Hadith, Shari’ah (law) and theology are often ambiguous. These secondary Qur’anic sources presented the female mate, or Zawj, similarly to the Biblical “Eve” — sinful, evil, intellectually and psychologically inferior — a misunderstanding that came to form the basis of existing Muslim family practices, including rigid gender roles and the family laws.
The story of creation in the Qur’anic narrative, in ayah ( 4:1) exemplifies the concept of human equality. However, the specific naming and the mode of creation is not the main emphasis in the Qur’an. Rather, the focus is on the purpose of human creation in the first place. Therefore, Zawj in particular must be viewed within the context of humanity as a whole. “Did you think that We have created you without purpose and that you would not be brought back to us?” (23:115).
To explain the purpose of the Zawj’s creation, we will examine two key themes in the Qur’an that deal with human equality. One is the fundamental equality of all human beings before Allah. The Qur’an does not place men and women in opposite classes; it considers them different only in gender and, as such, acknowledges their functional differences. As partners in Allah’s creation, they are fully equal.
The other is the revolutionary aim of religious liberation through individual accountability and freedom of choice. “Allah does not change the condition of a folk until they (first) change what is in themselves (anfus).” Therefore, the Qur’an finds no contradiction between the independent self-identity of a woman or man, since both will be judged according to their individual behaviors, not according to their gender. “If any do deeds of righteousness, be they male or female, and have faith they will enter heaven and not the least injustice will be done to them.” (4:124)
The Qur’an identifies two primary purposes for human creation. One is the worship of Allah: “I have only created jinns and men (people), that they may serve Me.” (51:56) Second is vicegerency (2:30). The principals underlying worship and vicegerency are one and the same and require the following conditions.
First and foremost of the principles underlying both worship and vicegerency is Tawhid, the oneness of Allah, whose worship must be without compulsion. Secondly, individuals must be free (33:72) to act autonomously and independently through the use of their intellectual and cognitive abilities. Thirdly, each person must assume the responsibility for his/her own deeds or actions and their consequences, in terms of divine law and justice. These principles also serve to establish justice and the absolute equality of human beings before Allah. “Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, male or female: you are members, one of another.” (3:195)
Therefore, the exclusion and segregation of women from full participation in human affairs is not in harmony with the Qur’anic concept of jihad that requires every human being to struggle against him or her-self, and others, in order to manifest spiritual reality through right actions and deeds.
The role of scholars is essentially to guide their societies through the vagaries of time and change, so that new problems will not be left unattended and old solutions will not be applied to them. This is not a task to be reserved exclusively for Muslim men. In keeping with the revealed teachings of Qur’an, the various Hadiths of the Prophet (PBUH), and the actual history of Islam, women ought to be at the forefront of both the Jihad (struggle) and Ijtihad (independent thought). The study of the Qur’an should be a primary goal of all Muslim women, if they are going to fulfill the potential of their creation as "vicegerents" of Allah. Until Muslim women gain their rights, as enshrined in the Qur’an given by the Almighty creator Allah, there will be no solution for the fabricated gender issues constructed from the dichotomy between the Qur’an and secondary Qur’anic sources.
Our starting point then must be full knowledge, not the piecemeal kind of learning that scholars call fard ain, but that knowledge which is as unlimited as the sky. There must arise women scholars of repute, whose achievements bring them to stand shoulder to shoulder with their counterpart; together we can pull the Ummah (Muslim community) out of the abyss.