On reading it through for the first time, I find the Quran even worse than expected. It seems little more than a vehicle by which Mohammed asserted power over others, and demanded that everyone submit utterly to him. There is one great law to which all people must bow at all times, to gain paradise with rivers of honey and water and wine and milk, and in which one lounges on couches and eats fruit and it entertained by virgin beauties, and avoids a hell of boiling water or copper that burst one's innards and has to consume hellish devil fruit to intensify agony forever. And that law is absolute, unquestioning obedience to the "prophet's" every whim.
Also try to avoid annoying him, because the man wants peace. He has wars of conquest to plan, after all. And without fear of hell, dozens of beautiful women in one palace with their no-doubt emasculated guards are likely to raise a ruckus, for instance when The Prophet brings home a beautiful wife he steals from an adopted son. Mohammed's wives and slave girls had best stay inside, and put on body armor whenever they see a non-relative, so lonely men outside the compound won't be tempted by them, or vice versa. And everybody who "cheats" on the prophet has to go to the aforementioned hell, after being whipped half to death in this one, to receive twice the usual punishment. (But if they meekly obey, they get double bling in heaven.)
Thus the constant Quranic refrains, "submit" and "God and His Messenger." How does one submit to God? To be sure, alms help. There is a lot about kindness to the poor and to strangers in the Quran. You should be kind to others in the community, and once or twice, Mohammed even hints that if non-Muslims are kind to you, you may reciprocate.
But God is invisible, His Messenger is not. So submission primarily means obeying the Messenger. It means fighting when he says fight, and not being a coward or hypocrite, or befriending Mohammed's enemies. It means all the loot from the wars he starts, goes to him first. And then because God is compassionate, he'll pass some of that on to the poor. (After his wives fight over the best stuff, it seems.) It means he can see into believers' hearts, and recognize the hypocrites. And all violence, in this world and the next, is permitted the Prophet, no questions asked.
"Crass" is, perhaps, the best word for my general impression.
Since Mohammed had a taste for the ladies, several long passages are directed specifically to keeping them in line. There are no passages of light-hearted banter, still less tender affection, such as Karen Armstrong's gloss would lead us to expect. We analyzed most of the Quran in Part I and Part II. We observed the manipulative nature of Mohammed's patriarchy, and how it sowed seeds for a rich crop of gender oppression in the Muslim world today. Mohammed himself, no one else, encouraged polygamy, by word and example, the making and sexual abuse of female slaves, covering wives, teaching that men should rule women and that their testimony in court should be worth more, and purdah, the effective house imprisonment of half the human race.
But am I being anachronistic? Maybe things were universally that bad or worse for women, and in the context of his times, Mohammed actually lightened the load of women?
Not so. Following the Judeo-Christian tradition, Mohammed did, it is true, ban female infanticide. In "The Darkening"(LXXXI), Judgment Day is described as a time "when the buried infant shall ask for what sin she was slain." Mohammed also affirmed the spiritual nature of women (he needed them in heaven, for one thing!).
But Christians early on already found Mohammed's stipulations about women self-serving and "obscene." After finishing our survey of the Quran, I'll conclude with some comments by St. John of Damascus, which demonstrate Mohammed was already recognized, by at least one Christian with access to the facts, as an oppressor of women.
Quran on Women, Part III
I'll start with the minor stuff. Let me begin by summarizing relatively unimportant references to women, and some slightly more important references that fit patterns we have already described.
God created male and female. ("Apartments," XLIX, 12; "The Star," LIII, 46; "The Night," XCII, 3) God knows when females bear young. ("The Angels," XXXV, "Distinguished," XLI). God Himself does not have daughters. ("The Mount," LII, 39; "The Star," 20, 28; "Ornaments" [XLIII. 15-18]).) Both men and women may go to paradise. ("Ya Sin" XXXVI; "Ornaments," XLIII.70; "Victory" XLVIII. 5-8; "Iron," LVII, 13; "He Frowned" LXXX, 35). God will have mercy on the righteous "and their wives" ("The Believers," XL, 8 and 43, "Mohammed," XLVII. 22). However, sinful and unbelieving women will also be judged, including Mohammed's unbelieving and hostile uncle and aunt: "he shall roast as a flaming fire, and his wife, the carrier of the firewood, upon her neck a rope of palm fibre." ("Perish," CXI.) God gives females and males to one another as He likes. (XLII. 48-49) A man should be kind to his mother, who suffered to give birth to him and raise him. ("The Sand Dunes," XLVI, 13-17) Pharaoh spared Jewish women. ("Believers") Women should not scoff at their female betters. ("Apartments," XLIX, 12) The story of Sarah laughing when she is told she will bare a son is repeated. ("The Scatterers," LI, 29). "Victory" seems to suggest that male and female Muslims kept the slaughter in the conquest of Mecca being worse than it was. (26)
So Mohammed again affirms the basic humanity of women, which means their capacity for both good and evil, that God created them, and that they will live forever, either in Paradise or Gehenna. And he also claims to know which will be which, those opposing his message adhering to the latter resort.
The final portions of the Quran also add four points that are new but seem relatively minor. Let us deal briefly with those, before we get to major innovations.
(1) "The Star" points out that there are no female angels:
"Those who do not believe in the world to come name the angels with the names of females."
Presumably this is a dig at animism with its female deities. Some scholars think having female divinities makes a society kinder to women, but I can't say I've seen much evidence for this. So I don't think this point matters much.
(2) Mohammed offers God's rules for spouses who break up and then get back together in "The Disputer" (LVIII, 1-6). If you disown your wife by saying, "Be as my mother's back," that's dishonorable, and you need to avoid touching one another until you do one of three things: (a) get some counseling -- no, just kidding, though that would make sense; (a) set a slave free; (b) fast for two months, presumably during the daytime; or (c) feed sixty poor people.
This doesn't seem like a terrible idea, though obviously the goal here is mainly to keep oneself from saying such a thing to begin with by attaching a significant penalty to the act, not primarily to set slaves free, which one could do any time, if one wished. The irony is, Mohammed seems to have enslaved many of his enemies, but he also recognized that it was meritorious to set slaves free.
(3) Another practical rule is given in "The Woman Tested" (LX). The gist is, if a Muslim woman arrives in the Muslim community having walked away from an unbelieving husband, check to make sure she is a real Muslim, then let her stay and remarry. But explain the rules to her: no adultery, no stealing, no slaying of children. Also, if an unbelieving wife wants to leave, let her go, though you might want to "retaliate."
(4) Several suras later, God tells Mohammed, "O Prophet, when you divorce women, divorce them when they have reached their period . . . Do not expel them from their houses, nor let them go forth, except when they commit a flagrant indecency. Those are God's bounds . . . " But wait three months, to make sure they're not pregnant. Then if it turns out they are pregnant, provide for them until they are no longer nursing. ("Divorce," 1-2)
These rules seem a mixed bag: Mohammed is being theological in the first, and at his most practical, as CEO of Medina or Mecca, in the other three. He lays down the Mosaic Law, or universal Tao if you like C. S. Lewis' term for the moral truths discovered by Natural Theology. Some of this might represent progress, certainly the ban on infanticide -- though one assumes he got that idea from Jews and Christians.
But his juices are not really flowing, the theocratic spin doctor in his head has not really woken up, here: this is abstract and practical, not (for him) existential and personal.
Mohammed is more innovative in several other suras which revolve around two issues: the delights his troops will experience if they die in the struggle, having obeyed him to the letter (which he makes clear is a prerequisite of attaining paradise), and his own personal struggle to keep the lid on the equally expanding empire at home.
What about the notion that Islamic martyrs will enjoy 72 nubile virgins in heaven? Is there any support for that in the Quran?
Paradise is described relentlessly and with impressive internal consistency in the Quran. Its chief features are: (1) rivers of potable liquid, including water, wine, milk, and honey; (2) gardens; (3) fruit and other edibles; (4) the saved will lounge on couches, facing one another, presumably for conversation; (5) while demur but passionate beings of some apparently female sort attend them, in some way. It is this last feature we will concentrate on, which is mentioned in seven or so sutras.
"The Rangers" (XXXVII) is one of those sutras. God's "sincere servants" can look forward to Gardens of Bliss, reclining on couches with a cup from a spring passed around, full of some delightful white liquid which makes no one sick or drunk . . .
"And with them wide-eyed maidens restraining their glances, as if they were hidden pearls."
Then those in paradise look down into hell, where the Tree of Ez-Zakkoum grows, with its fruit shaped like "heads of satans," which the damned have to eat along with drinking boiling water.
"Sad" (XXXVIII) also mentions maidens "restraining their glances," adding that they are "of equal age." (53) "The Tiding" (LXXVII) describes them as "maidens with swelling breasts, of equal age." "Smoke" (XLIV) speaks of giving the god-fearing, who enjoy their gardens and fountains while molten copper bubbles in the belly of the unbelievers, "wide-eyed houris" as an additional delight. (Also "The Mount," LII, 20). These creatures seem to be one and the same with the aforementioned maidens.
"The All-Merciful" (LV) adds more details. Mohammed is challenging men and jinn to deny his revelation, with a refrain "O which of your Lord's bounties will you and you deny?" Among those bounties are named:
"maidens restraining their glances, untouched before them by any man or jinn -- lovely as rubies, beautiful as coral . . . maidens good and comely . . . houris, closed in cool pavilions . . . untouched before them by any man or jinn . . . reclining upon green cushions and lovely druggets . . . "
We have seen that even in this world, Mohammed saw women as a form of, well, booty. He captured and stockpiled ladies, and made every provision, physical and psychological, to keep them at his beck and call, without however bothering him with their concerns. And given his physical understanding of eternity, it does not seem shocking that Mohammed would likewise see women as part of the goods of heaven, to be lavished on faithful followers. (Almost always assumed, in his rhetoric, to be male.) Where exactly they come from, or where all that food and other substances go after they digest or perform other earthly acts in paradise (houri do not partake of unpleasant bodily functions, just pleasant ones), does not seem to have concerned him. This is a desert fantasy, and all bills are covered by "God can do anything," without the need to be consistent or rational.
We are not surprised, then, to find in "The Terror" (LVI) that "wide-eyed houris" like "hidden pearls" are a "recompense for that they labored." (20+) "God" explains:
"Perfectly we formed them, perfect, and We made them spotless virgins, chastely amorous, like of age for the Companions of the Right."
Companions of the right are faithful believers, who hold their books of judgment in right hands.
Of course Mohamed's own predilection was for women of much less than his age. (Or rather more, in the case of his first wife.) But perhaps such small differences do not matter much, in light of eternity.
The hadith further explain these references. According to various hadith, every Muslim man gets two (more authentic) or at least 72 (later hadith) wives in heaven, along perhaps with an army of servants:
"The smallest reward for the people of Heaven is an abode where there are eighty thousand servants and seventy two wives, over which stands a dome decorated with pearls, aquamarine and ruby, as wide as the distance from [Damascus] to San'a." Al-Tirmidhi
These ladies are pure, reconstructed virgins (or maybe jinn?) with lustrous eyes, translucent bodies, and passion for their husbands. They appear demur and obedient as good Muslim women.
One almost feels that Mohammed and his interpreters are buying goods in bulk at Cosco -- "Should I take a two pack of comely houris? Oh, what the heck, let's get 72! They will need to last an eternity, after all!"
That is a late hadith. Mohammed himself did not take things that far, but he did get the ball rolling, with velocity, in that general direction.
Just Slip Out the Back, Aliah
But in this vale of tears, women are, sad to say, not always demur, wide-eyed, and inoffensive. Therefore, we must also pay close attention to Sura 66, "The Forbidding," or "The Prohibition." Here Mohammed has some real, and incompletely subdued, women on his hands.
The last passage that offers important new insights on the status of women in Islam, and in Mohammed's life, is Sura 66. This is another revelation given by God to help Mohammed track the always elusive "straight path" to marital harmony in a harem filled with lively and perhaps bored young women. Again I will make use of the translation by Al-Hilali and Khan, which includes some explanatory notes, and more precise numbering of verses. I find that in this case, I cannot restrain myself from reading (and writing) between the lines (Mohammed's soul often seems an open book, as he says his signs are):
1. O Prophet! Why do you ban (for yourself) that which Allah has made lawful to you, seeking to please your wives? And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
Further translation: Get those women off your back and do what it is you like and they don't. Are they objecting to another woman in the harem? Hey, if God says it's OK, don't listen to them!
2. Allah has already ordained for you (O men), the dissolution of your oaths. And Allah is your Maula (Lord, or Master, or Protector, etc.) and He is the All-Knower, the All-Wise.
So when a guy say his girl has to go, she has to go -- because that's how God has set things up. Are we taking notes?
3. And (remember) when the Prophet disclosed a matter in confidence to one of his wives (Hafsah), so when she told it (to another i.e. 'Aishah), and Allah made it known to him, he informed part thereof and left a part. Then when he told her (Hafsah) thereof, she said: "Who told you this?" He said: "The All-Knower, the All-Aware (Allah) has told me".
So Mohammed guessed partly right, and partly wrong. (Or a little bird spoke into his ear.) The part he got right, proved Allah was speaking to him.
4. If you two (wives of the Prophet , namely 'Aishah and Hafsah) turn in repentance to Allah, (it will be better for you), your hearts are indeed so inclined (to oppose what the Prophet likes), but if you help one another against him (Muhammad), then verily, Allah is his Maula (Lord, or Master, or Protector, etc.), and Jibrael (Gabriel), and the righteous among the believers, and furthermore, the angels are his helpers.
Note carefully, and plan accordingly. If you go against your husband, you'll not only have the dictator of Mecca against you. You'll also have all your neighbors against you, AND the angels, AND God. Your prospects are poor.
5. It may be if he divorced you (all) that his Lord will give him instead of you, wives better than you, Muslims (who submit to Allah), believers, obedient to Allah, turning to Allah in repentance, worshipping Allah sincerely, fasting or emigrants (for Allah's sake), previously married and virgins.
"So hit the road if you like, ladies -- though where you'll go, before you arrive in hell for that double punishment I talked about, that's another question. I'll make out OK."
Does the reader find it as hard for you as for me, to picture a warm and loving relationship between this man and the wives he seems so eager to cast out into the cold?
6. O you who believe! Ward off from yourselves and your families a Fire (Hell) whose fuel is men and stones, over which are (appointed) angels stern (and) severe, who disobey not, (from executing) the Commands they receive from Allah, but do that which they are commanded.
"And God has bouncers with superpowers to keep people who disobey me burning in hell."
9. O Prophet (Muhammad)! Strive hard against the disbelievers and the hypocrites, and be severe against them, their abode will be Hell, and worst indeed is that destination.
10. Allah sets forth an example for those who disbelieve, the wife of Nuh (Noah) and the wife of Lout (Lot). They were under two of our righteous slaves, but they both betrayed their (husbands by rejecting their doctrine) so they [Nuh (Noah) and Lout (Lot)] benefited them (their respective wives) not, against Allah, and it was said: "Enter the Fire along with those who enter!"
11. And Allah has set forth an example for those who believe, the wife of Fir'aun (Pharaoh), when she said: "My Lord! Build for me a home with You in Paradise, and save me from Fir'aun (Pharaoh) and his work, and save me from the people who are Zalimun (polytheists, wrong-doers and disbelievers in Allah).
12. And Maryam (Mary), the daughter of 'Imran who guarded her chastity; and We breathed into (the sleeve of her shirt or her garment) through Our Ruh [i.e. Jibrael (Gabriel)], and she testified to the truth of the Words of her Lord [i.e. believed in the Words of Allah: "Be!" and he was; that is 'Iesa (Jesus) - son of Maryam (Mary); as a Messenger of Allah], and (also believed in) His Scriptures, and she was of the Qanitin (i.e. obedient to Allah).
Mohammed uses Bible stories this way constantly. He doesn't want people to think his dictatorial leadership style is unique, so he rewrites the stories of Old Testament prophets to show that they had to deal with women too, and some of those women were a pain in the neck, too, and got judged for their sins.
To be clear: women, like men, can obey or disobey, go to heaven or go to hell. The former determine the latter. And by "obey" we mean God, the Creator of all things. But He's invisible, so practically that means obey the prophet. Who, by the way, happens to be your husband. (And women should obey husbands in general, as mentioned in other suras.) Also, don't aggravate the Messenger of God. He has an expanding slave empire to run, booty to take, keep, and distribute, enemies to torture, plots to foil, and lots of messages from God to dictate.
So that's how you keep women in line. Mohammed being the "seal of the prophets" and the most perfect man, it is only right to expect his followers to pay close attention to his example -- which to give them credit, many of the worst of them have done, down to the present day.
John of Damascus' viewpoint
All in all, from a "modern" perspective (whatever that means), the Quran paints an ugly picture of the status of women in Islam. The book is written for men, not women. True, woman are spiritual beings who can go to heaven through works of righteousness. But the one work of righteousness that far outstrips all others is slavish obedience to a cruel, ruthless, libidinous, and shamelessly manipulative dictator. One who dangles them on the edge of hell if they complain when he cheats on them all or squabble over the wealth his armies bring in. One who steals women, marries little girls, or has female poets assassinated for criticizing him (but these latter two are in other sources). Men are to be in charge, up to and including beating their wives, or running them out of the tent with suitable compensation whenever they like. (But it's best to treat multiple wives equally --heck, the Prophet abused them all!) Furthermore, women are not to leave the house, or interact with men who have not been neutered or are close relatives, without full-body armor, and that in the Arab heat. The Saudi law against women driving seems to follow.
But, you might say, this is just my modern, anachronistic perspective. No ancient civilization treated women as full citizens. Maybe Mohammed actually made things better, considering their position before he was born. He did, at any rate, ban female as well as male infanticide -- following his Jewish and Christian neighbors.
This is a little hard to swallow, considering the fact that Mohammed's first wife was a successful businesswomen, who must surely have left the house from time to time.
But let's get an ancient perspective.
As has been related, this Mohammed wrote many ridiculous books, to each one of which he set a title. For example, there is the book On Woman, in which he plainly makes legal provision for taking four wives and, if it be possible, a thousand concubines—as many as one can maintain, besides the four wives. He also made it legal to put away whichever wife one might wish, and, should one so wish, to take to oneself another in the same way.
Mohammed had a friend named Zeid. This man had a beautiful wife with whom Mohammed fell in love. Once, when they were sitting together, Mohammed said: ‘Oh, by the way, God has commanded me to take your wife.’ The other answered: ‘You are an apostle. Do as God has told you and take my wife.’ Rather—to tell the story over from the beginning—he said to him: ‘God has given me the command that you put away your wife.’ And he put her away. Then several days later: ‘Now,’ he said, ‘God has commanded me to take her.’ Then, after he had taken her and committed adultery with her, he made this law: ‘Let him who will put away his wife. And if, after having put her away, he should return to her, let another marry her. For it is not lawful to take her unless she have been married by another. Furthermore, if a brother puts away his wife, let his brother marry her, should he so wish.’ In the same book he gives such precepts as this: ‘Work the land which God hath given thee and beautify it. And do this, and do it in such a manner” —not to repeat all the obscene things that he did.
I'm not sure why John added that bit about landscaping towards the end of this passage. Normally this is not considered one of your more risqué businesses.
But having sorted through the story of Zaid, which John properly calls "obscene," and other scenes from Mohammed's sordid career on the make, this seems an entirely just judgment. John had been reading the gospels, which preceded the Quran, and set an example that Mohammed apparently chose not to follow.