The topic of this paper was chosen out of the conviction that humanity is suffering today from a number of serious social problems related to women and to the interrelations of the two sexes in society. Although these problems may be more pronounced, disturbing, more debilitating for some of us than for others, there are probably few if any regions of the contemporary world whose citizens have not felt in some way the repercussions of these problems.
Therefore, there is a pressing need for exploring possible solutions. The problem of women is linked, for the present study, with the Qur'an, and what I have called the “Qur'anic society,” out of strong conviction that the Qur'an offers the most viable suggestions for contemporary social reform which can be found in any model or any literature.
Many of you may be puzzled by the title of this paper-”Women in a Qur'anic Society.” You may ask yourselves, “Why didn't she say “Women in Muslim Society” or even “Women in an Islamic Society?” Let me explain why the expressions “Muslim” and “Islamic” were rejected for this paper, and how the use of the rather unusual appellation, “Qur'anic society,” is justified.
There are at least three reasons for my choice of that title. The first of these derives from the concern that many beliefs and practices have been labelled “Muslim” or “Islamic” without warranting those names.
There are approximately 40 nations of the world which claim to have a Muslim majority population and therefore to be exemplary of “Muslim” or “Islamic” societies. This of course results in a great deal of confusion as the question is asked: Which of these regions represents most faithfully the true “Islamic” society?
Among Muslims that question is most frequently answered by the claim that their own national or regional society is the truest to the intentions of Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala.
Non-Muslims, on the other hand, and especially the Western anthropologists who travel around the world to investigate the customs and mores of its peoples, tend to treat each variation within the Muslim World as equally valid.
This results from their adherence to what I call the “zoo theory” of knowledge. Adherents of that theory regard all Muslims-and of course similar treatment of other non-Western people is discernible-as different species within the human zoo. The “zoo theory” protagonists go to the field, record and snap pictures of every strange or exotic practice they see and hear; and for them, this is Islam or Islamic practice.
A trip to another part of the Muslim World with the ubiquitous devices for recording and photographing generates a different body of materials documenting superficial variations in customs. But this, too, is Islam or Islamic practice for the “zoo theory” investigator or ethnographer.
There is far too little effort spent on understanding Islam as a whole. As a result, the basic premise of skepticism and relativism is confirmed in the mind of the researcher; and he/she returns home convinced that there is not one Islam, but scores of Islams existent in the world. In like fashion, the researcher reports that there are many definitions or descriptions of the status and role of women in Muslim society.
Each one of the resultant definitions or descriptions is dubbed as “Muslim” or “Islamic” even if we as Muslims may hold some of these practices to be distortions or perversions of our principles and beliefs by the misguided or uninformed among us.
It was partly to avoid confusion with these variant descriptions and misunderstandings that I have chosen the appellation “Qur'anic” for the present discussion. In this way, I hope to move beyond the limited relevance and particularism of a “zoo theory” of investigation to a presentation which avoids such fragmentation and is ideologically in conformance with the true prescriptions of Islam.
In regard to matters so determining of our destiny and very existence, we can never be satisfied with mere reportage about certain human animals in the “zoo” who are statistically “Muslim” or whose customs have been labelled as “Islamic.” Those designations have sometimes been misapplied. “Qur'anic,” on the other hand, is a term which is unequivocal. It points clearly to the topic of this paper.
Secondly, “Qur'anic society” was judged to be the most suitable title for it orients us towards discovering those core principles in the Qur'an itself which form the underlying framework for our societies throughout the Muslim World.
It is the society based on Qur'anic principles which is the goal of all of us, even though we may unknowingly deviate from time to time from those principles. It is the conformance to a Qur'an-based society for which we must all work if the Muslim peoples are to enjoy a felicitous future.
It is not an Indonesian, Pakistani, Saudi Arabian, Egyptian or Nigerian version of that society that we should regard as indisputable norm, but one firmly based on the teachings of the Holy Qur'an. Only therein can we find a proper definition of woman's role in society. Since it is these teachings which are the subject of my paper, “Women in a Qur'anic Society” seemed the most proper title.
Thirdly, I wish by this choice of title to emphasize that we should regard the Holy Qur'an as our guide in all aspects of our lives. It is not only the prime source of knowledge about religious beliefs, obligations, and practices, it is also the guide, whether specific or implied, for every aspect of Islamic civilization. In the centuries of past glory, it determined the political, economic, social and artistic creativity of the Muslim peoples.
If we are to succeed as members of an Islamic society in the coming decades and centuries, it must again determine our thinking and our actions in an all-inclusive way. Din is not limited to the Five Pillars of the shahadah, salat, siyam, zakat, and the hajj.
Din in fact defies simple equation with the English term “religion,” for the former's significance penetrates into every nook and cranny of human existence and behaviour. Surely it should be our goal to relate every action to our Din. We can only do this by allowing the Holy Qur'an to in-form and re-form every realm of our lives.
As a step in this direction, let us consider what the Qur'an has to teach us about the society towards which we should be striving, and ponder its effect on the position of women. What are the basic characteristics of a Qur'anic society which particularly affect women?
Five characteristics - which seem basic, crucial and incontrovertible - of Qur'anic society will be considered. Although they are presented in a series, each one rests upon the others and affects them. The interdependence of these five characteristics makes it difficult to speak of any one of them without mention of the others, and of course they do not and cannot exist in isolation from one another.