Monday, July 2, 2012

The Quran's Audience as Essentially Male

Last year, I blogged on the issue of the Quran’s “audience,” which I argued was males only, women are never directly addressed in there, women are only talked “about” never “to,” and when a guideline/message is being given to women, men are asked to convey it to them. 

So for the past several months, I’ve been trying to find some Muslim scholars who address this issue, and someone recommended Farid Esack in a discussion on a different topic, and so I decided to read him. I was so, SO delighted and relieved to see that he brings up this problem of audience (he argues that the Qur’an’s “essential audience is male”), although he only mentions it and doesn’t discuss what all it actually means, or what it could mean for Muslim female readers of the Qur’an.

As Esack notes, this problem of the essential audience of the Qur’an should pose significant problems for scholars committed to gender justice; yet, this topic has received little to no attention from Muslim feminists/scholars [(“Islam and Gender Justice: Beyond Simplistic Apologia." In What Men Owe to Women: Men's Voices from World Religions, eds. John Raines and Daniel C. Maguire, p. 195). It is therefore important to engage this issue a little further and discuss its spiritual implications for the female reader of the Qur’an, as well as its significance for Muslim women activists. 
I, too, believe that the issue of the gender of the Qur’an’s audience has been marginalized, despite its relevance to Muslim women readers of the Qur’an and Muslim women practitioners of Islam. I want to first explain what this claim entails.
In the Qur’an, women are always addressed by the hunna (they (feminine)) pronoun while the men are addressed by the kum (you (general but often masculine, based on the textual context) pronoun. Islamic feminism has not only not attempted to answer this question, but it seems to have neglected to bring it up in any discussions of gender and the Qur’an, other than in Farid Esack’s works (discussed below). Wadud and Barlas discuss God’s gender and point out that because the Qur’an avows that ‘there is none like unto [God],’ the Qur'an establishes that God is Unique, hence beyond representation, and also beyond gender since gender is nothing but a representation of sex”(Asma Barlas, Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an, p.100). They, like other scholars, address the issue of God’s gender as being neutral, and many Islamic feminist scholars argue that even when the Qur’an seems to be addressing  only men—that is, using male pronouns—it is in fact addressing all genders, because the Arabic kum can mean “you all (masculine)” or “you all (general”) while kunna means “you all (feminine).” As Mohammad Ashrof writes, 
all the injunctions of the Qur'an are equally applicable, whenever human or people etc. are mentioned, to both men and women. Many Qur'anic verses subsume women and men in the broad terms of 'human being' or 'people' ('insan', 'nas'). Though these words take masculine pronouns in Arabic, and are often translated into English as "mankind" or "men," in Arabic they are gender-neutral and apply to/include women as well, as with the term "humankind" in English (Islam and Gender Justice p.87).
Thus, unless the Qur’an otherwise implies that it is speaking directly to men only, it can be assumed that it is addressing all Muslims. Yet, verses such as 4:19 pose a dilemma, for it reads: “O you who have believe, it is not lawful for you [kum] to inherit women [al-nisaa] by compulsion. And do not make difficulties for them [hunna] in order to take [back] part of what you [kum] gave them unless they [feminine] commit a clear immorality. And live with them [hunna] in kindness. For if you [tum] dislike them [hunna] - perhaps you [antum] dislike a thing and Allah makes therein much good.” Although this is not the only verse in which such a conversation between God and the (male) reader takes place, this can be seen as representative of the Qur’an’s approach at presenting guidelines: it uses men as a medium through which it conveys messages to women, never directly speaking to women but speaking to men about women. 

 Now, I will discuss two main possible reasons why the Qur’an never directly addresses women and, at the same time, explain why these reasons are problematic and are in fact not convincing.

The first reason of the Qur’an’s non-address to women may be due to the social views that the pre-Islamic Arab society held of women. However, this explanation humanizes (read: masculinizes) God: the speaker of the Qur’an is not just any male, certainly not a ghair mahram (unrelated) male [[A mahram male is anyone whom a Muslim woman is prohibited from marrying, such as her brother, father, son, grandfather; the opposite of mahram is a ghair-mahram, someone whom a woman would be able to marry, such as a cousin, a far relative, or a stranger]],  but it is God, the genderless Creator. Thus, to suggest that the Qur’an does not address women directly because it may have raised problems for Arab males, as they heard their wives, daughters, sisters being addressed directly with the pronoun “you” by a “stranger” also implies that God is a male who is not to refer to women directly. Is it really possible that the Arabs would have found this—the act of their God referring to women directly—unacceptable?

Second, the Qur'an/Islam brought many radical social changes in the Arab society not just regarding its views of women, such as the burial of daughters, but also regarding the religious ideals of the society, such as forbidding the worship of idols. It therefore begs the question of why the Qur’an did not attempt to change the idea that women can never be directly addressed by speakers. [In other words, it seems to have been selective in which views/ideals to change, and this selection was likely not arbitrary.] Additionally, such a claim destabilizes the popular Muslim claim that the Qur'an is for all times, all societies, as not all societies and certainly not in all times have societies found women to be private entities who are never to be addressed by un-related male members of the community. 

This problem of the essentially male audience leads to a more profound theological, ethical, and spiritual question: what does God's non-address of women suggest about the spiritual and ethical relationship with God that the Qur’an expects of its readers in general but its female readers in particular? Can women truly attain closeness with God the way men can? This is not to insinuate that the relationship that men are theoretically able to form with God is necessarily better and should be the standard against which women’s relationship with God is measured, but it is to point to the lack of an immediate link between God and His female readers of the Qur’an. Women are not the direct audience of the Qur’an the way men are, and a message has to be conveyed to women through a medium. The Qur’an’s non-address of women may be understood as grounds for the belief that women are inherently spiritually lacking, thus explaining why the Qur’an never directly addresses them. Yet, this cannot be assumed because the Qur’an does not present women as spiritually lacking or spiritually inferior to men; it in fact insists that the only measure of superiority among people is their piety (49:13). As for Muslim women activists, the Qur’an’s non-address to women raises another issue: if a woman is not the direct recipient, the direct audience of her Creator’s Word and needs a medium (a male) through which God can communicate with her, would the Qur’an support her direct involvement in society? That is, does she need a medium for her activism as well? If they clearly need an intermediary between themselves and God, must they not have one also when making demands on society or when calling for social changes in their society per their current status?


  1. Excellent post.

    I'll be mulling over this.

  2. I am very pleased to have 'run into' your blog. The erudite treatment of this subject, I find intellectually challenging as I have limited knowledge of the Qur'an, and only a strong interest to understand and help achieve equality. I am an American physician, male no less, and now feel that maybe I can add something while still learning. Some of the issues discussed are foreign to most Americans, or for that matter most people of the world other than Muslims. ( I am a convert by the way) What I do know pretty well is human nature as I have treated over 150,000 patients in my career that has emphasized women's health. Normally when I wish to treat women's mental ills I usually counsel the husband or father. When I see a women in distress and lost I need only look at her father for answers. For you see when one discusses a patriarchal religion or society they ascribe to the notion that history and tradition have laid down male attitudes and practices on how to treat women. When it comes to exegesis of a holy work often people fail to see it in the context of the time written. This is so because theology ascribes to believe the words for all time.I do not see this to be the case. What once meant survival while living in a tent does not now make for good advice and counsel. Civilization has been so rapid that what has occurred in the secular world is in stark contrast to the holy works. It is within the nature of all children to love and admire, and often desire to be like their parents. For a women the Father is extremely important to shape her concept of self love and then expectations of how she would want to be treated later in life. Tradition then sets up this schizophrenic tug of war, I want my husband to be like my father, yet I don't want him to treat me like he did my mother. Intellectually and innately a girl wants to be cherished, feel safe, treated tenderly, have worth and make a difference. Very little of this is demonstrated to their mother, sisters or themselves. In fact they are viewed as a Fendie. How then can a women transcend tradition, doctrine and custom? I wish I knew. The wisest advice I received on the knee of my Mother was, "Teach people how to treat you. With that premise one will surely create conflict. Our Civil War resulted in the deaths of over 2 million people because a people wanted to be treated as humans. Cultures clashing, societies be restructured, cause conflict and chaos with blood, sweat and tears. This is a war, a war that needs to be fought. My sadness results from me being a cheerleader to your cause. I wish I was as brave as all of you. I will do my best to inspire, educate and comfort, for that is all I know how to do. What I did do is raise three beautiful sons, men you respect and honor women.

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  4. It was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and he was male, so it wouldn't be adressing him as a woman...If you read the Quraan you will see that it says "O Muhammad" a lot, it's not adressed to a female.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Anonymous!

      Well, that'd work if every "you" in the Qur'an was to the Prophet only :) But the Qur'an doesn't talk to him directly as often as you seem to think; it talks to the rest of humanity more often.

  5. As salam alaykum,

    I have another possible way of looking at this.

    When it's obvious that men specifically are being addressed in the Qur'an, it's almost always as a commandment, or a lesson, that goes counter to the popular practice of the time -- like in your example. It's trying to teach men lessons that apply to men specifically, in societies that are patriarchal.

    So, the Qur'an referring often to to men is not something for men to be proud of, and is not reflective of a special spiritual place, because most of the time, it is pointing out our injustices and discrediting common practices by suggesting alternatives modes of behaviour from the norm.

    The fact that the Qur'an does not have similar commandments for women is just an acknowledgement of the situation of the society: there are a lot of things the men are doing wrong, which the women are either victims of, or do not have a role to play in due to their marginalized status (in the society).

    There is one place where the Qur'an addresses a group of women in a similar fashion as the many (often condemning) lessons it gives to men: the wives of the Prophet are addressed directly in 33:30, and 33:32.

    Again, they are being addressed here directly because this is only applicable to them, and is also a nod to the fact that they have a newfound status of power and clout as the wives of the Prophet. They are therefore reminded of the gravity of their position as role models.

    Note that the Qur'an brings to mind the gravity of the Prophet's position in a similar manner in other places by pointing out how grievous his punishment would be if he sought to cheat Allah or the believers.

    The creator himself, thus, addresses women *specifically* in the Qur'an, where it is relevant, and *men* specifically, where it is relevant. There is no "extra spiritual status" to be had from it.

    Apart from those specific instances, the Qur'an speaks to a general audience of mankind: men and women (when it uses some derivative of the word insan), and sometimes even more broadly to human men, human women, and the jinn - an entirely different species (when it just says they, or you, in the neutral/masculine/plural).

    It's also worthwhile to note that the Qur'an makes evident that women have just as direct a connection to God as any man. Just as some men are remembered in history only because of the strength of their character, so too are some women remembered in history solely because of the strength of their character (for example, the Pharoah's wife).

    Most relevant to your questions however, just as how some men have had angels bear them messages from their creator, some women, (for example Maryam, the mother of Jesus) too had this exact same connection.

    Moses' mother, in her time of duty, just like any male prophet, received direct divine inspiration and comfort:

    "So We revealed to Moses' mother, 'Suckle him, then, when thou fearest for him, cast him into the sea, and do not fear, neither sorrow, for We shall return him to thee, and shall appoint him one of the Envoys" Qur'an 28:7. A.J. Arberry's translation.


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