Surah 24: The Light, Part 2

So last surah I looked at the laws dealing with extra-marital marriage and prosecution of adultery. These two sections of the surah were not only contained in a close space to each other, but were obviously related to specific historical events involving the community of believers. Beyond that first section of surah there are still many more moral commands to be described. They seem much more general and sedate than the first material, though perhaps one could argue that they are still related to the topic. Having forbidden extra-marital sex, categorized it as legally punishable, and declared its practitioners to be outside the community, the surah does still have a few comments related to marriage in the community. Then there are also some rules concerning personal boundaries like the domestic privacy rights and the proper modes of dress.

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There is in the middle of all this a sermon on light and darkness, and a final set of commands about honoring Muhammad, but I’m going to make that its own post next week. Today, we are just going to finish looking at these more personal obligations, seeing where they hold up to their claims of clarity and what sort of society they anticipate creating.

Privacy of the Home

After the topic related to alleged sexual scandal, we might assume that topics of modesty would be the first thing the surah turns to. In fact, it does not, rather we get personal boundaries established in terms of domestic privacy. The first mention of domestic privacy is in ayat 27-29, and the commands are simple principles of private property. I would be curious about whether the permission to squat in vacated houses means any house without a resident currently living inside, or any house without an owner. Squatting rights may have been helpful to nomads and traveling merchants, so that they could take shelter in dead homesteads and ruins of past civilizations. Whether you could squat in an off-season holiday home? I don’t know how far this law gets applied.

Much later in ayat 58-59, clarification comes that children are exempted from the entry etiquette until they reach puberty. There are times of day, however, when even children are required to seek permission to enter a house. Within ayah 58 there is a command that three times of day are to be held especially private so that even children and slaves must enquire before entering. The times are listed chronologically: before the morning prayer, at midday strip-down, after the evening prayer. Though unstated, you can get the gist that these times are defined because they are when any given tenant is likely to be resting and undressed. Many Mediterranean cultures have some kind of sanctioned midday nap, and in America we are aware of the “siesta” of Spanish culture. Islamic countries (which did once include Spain) also share a siesta culture to escape their hottest times of the day, called a qailulah. While Islamic advocates of routine napping seem to mostly take their precedents from the hadith, we can see in this ayah a hint of a scheduled napping culture, made explicit by Sahih International’s added parenthetical “for napping.”

How to Dress [Women]

In a way, modest dress is a form of privacy, so it should not surprise us that the surah’s thoughts on such are paired and even nested within each other. Physical modesty is addressed as both a matter of how you use your eyes and how you dress. I have heard some Islamic apologists argue that the instructions to men and women in these verses were equivalent, even including quotes from the identically worded respective commands in ayat 30 and 31. I was disappointed upon seeing the verses in their entirety that they are not at all equivalent. While it is true the verses begin with the same basic commands of lowered gaze and covered private parts, the section concerning women continues for a much longer time with specifications and added expectations that are much more open to abuse.

The key thing is that women are called to la yubdiina ziinatuhunna illa maa ẓahar minhaa, “not display their adornments except what appeared of it.” “Adornments” is a functional category that gets applied more broadly in the Quran than in general English. Things that the Quran has described as adornments are garb worn to the masjid, wealth and children, horses and donkeys, jewelry, and festivals. Adornments are dangerous as earthly sources of pleasure that distract from eternal rewards, but they are also perceived as God-given blessings when received and perceived in the right contexts. So what counts as a woman’s adornments? Well, perhaps we can infer from the next immediate consideration: women are to wrap their khumur, “veils,” over their juyuub, “front shirt plackets.” Maybe the Quran is using “adornments” as a euphemism for “boobs.” This could combine to a fairly simple command: that a woman is to cover her breasts as best she can, with an acknowledged limit that to some extent breasts may always be apparent (since for many women there is no real way to hide the shape of their busts) and so this covering doesn’t need to get too extreme.

This verse is why Islam has such a distinctive type of veil for women. Judaism and Christianity have a much less solidified place for female veiling, and a less dictated form. Take a look at this post about Jewish hair coverings to see the diversity of Jewish opinion concerning veils over time, particularly on the topic of whether wigs count as coverings. Since the Quran has a command that expects the usage and dictates the form of the veil, it has remained more prominent and distinctive in Islam, and usually the form of covering includes draping the veil over the neckline.

There are many variations, some of which do not comply with the covering over the breast command, but these options are the most mainstream in the Muslim world.

Further specification on the topic is that a woman does not need to be concerned with covering up in the presence of these people: husbands, fathers, fathers-in-law, sons, step-sons, brothers, blood-nephews, slaves, women (though the use of a possessive suffix, “their women,” suggests some limits, maybe meaning familial women, believing women, or female servants), eunuchs/impotent slaves, small children.

From this list we can surmise that the point of covering is oriented around sexual tension, as the people in this list are either sexually permissible (husbands) or presumed to be inherently nonsexual (family and children). [However, this intention is not absolutely certain given that uncles, who are also sexually beyond limits, are not included within this list.] Thus, while both men and women are equally told to limit their gaze, the burden of diffusing sexual tension in public is placed more at the woman’s feet than the man’s by these added principles of her need to cover “adornments.” Another specification much farther down the surah in ayah 60 is that post-menopausal women, uninterested in nakaḥa (remember the marriage/sex conversation of last week?), are allowed to set aside their thayaab, “garments,” so long as they still avoid mutabarrijaatin bi-ziinatin, “a display of ornaments.” While women beyond intimate interests are exempted from some aspects of modesty, they are still encouraged to refrain from abusing or exercising these exemptions, and still subject to evaluations of how much they are displaying their adornments.

Now, I have only here represented what I consider to be the simplest meaning of the text: veils covering the shirt-front placket to minimize exposed breasts. Obviously, there is a huge range of definition and debate in this conversation. What is the intended philosophy behind these mandates? How broadly or narrowly should one define “adornments” or “what appeared of it”? For whose benefit is the covering up? I spared you the picking apart of vocabulary –this week, that is– because it is all very ambiguous and full of potential. Why use four etymologically diverse words (yubdii, zahar, yuʕlam, mutabarrijaat) to communicate ideas of making something apparent? What is the precise definition of khumur, juyuub, ziina, and thayaab as relates to female fashion, and how do those definitions translate to modern fashions? What did these ayat specifically intend to communicate originally? Can the principle be kept without needing to preserve the original application? Does past cultural consensus have the power to dictate modern application? Should women’s fashion be frozen to that of this time period in order to preserve the meaning and practices prescribed in the Quran?

What I find most disturbing here is that the Quran expects the believing women (these verses are not about non-believing women) to object to these commands. Ayah 31: “And do not let them stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment.” Translations of this clause vary somewhat, with a lot of them interpreting the weird idea that the women are striking their feet in order to…draw attention to their hidden adornments? Like…make the jewelry jingle or their breasts jiggle? I don’t understand why interpreters have taken this tack, as the immediate image I got was that the women are being portrayed in childish tantrums, stomping their feet and pouting at this suppression of their vanity. “To make known” is less a matter of them covertly showing off adornments that have been hidden as much as seeking to uncover what had been mandated into concealment. I guess stomping your feet to make jewelry jingle or textures jiggle is also very childish, so it’s not a better option.

The key reason that I strongly object to these passages is not merely because they target women with requirements unequal to their male counterparts, or that their vague guidelines are open to abuse, but rather that the Quran has undermined female participation in the conversation. Women are expected to resist or subvert these mandates, and the community is told to censure them. This creates a one-way path for female dress codes to trend towards more and more coverage. Objections to or creative interpretations of commanded coverage falls suspect of being motivated by female vanity and petulancy. In order for modesty codes to not trend towards burdening women with more coverage and more responsibility for diffusing sexual tension, women need to be given equal standing in the conversation so that they may advocate for their needs, abilities, and identities. The Quran’s projection of the childish paradigm upon even its believing women undermines that standing.

Marriage and Slaves

Ayah 32 starts with a command for the people to marry fellow believers. Is this a statement that the Quran prefers marriage as the normal condition of its believers? Or is it a commandment that those who do marry should marry believers? It could go either way. Islam on the whole has shown preference for marriage among its people.

The ayah stands out because it mentions marrying believing slaves, male or female. This doesn’t mention whether a marriage across social statuses would involve freeing the slaves. We might be surprised at the idea of a free woman being married to a slave husband, since that potentially confuses the social hierarchy. Optimists might say this indicates the good standing of slaves, showing such were independent enough to support a wife and family. Cynics might take this to signify that women are always at sub-slave status. In the hadith (which, it must always be stated, are regularly confused and contradictory on even critical details) there is record of such a pairing, with the wife perhaps having been wedded while still a slave and then emancipated later. In that case though, the marriage did not work out and the woman was given the option to divorce her husband since her social standing was greater than his.

Ayah 32 anticipates that some people will object to marrying slaves (though the object pronoun “them” could potentially be broader) for financial concerns, and it promises that God will provide. This runs contrary to the next sentence in ayah 33, in which men are told to remain chaste until they are financially able to afford marriage. One possible harmonization of these seeming contradictions is that the first ayah is discouraging society from withholding marriage offers out of financial discrimination, but that the second ayah is clarifying to the individual that suffering from discrimination is still no excuse to opt out of the system. It never denies that money is important to the system. I am actually a little confused as to why these sentences are in separate ayat rather than combined into one solid ayah, given that they speak to the same topic. My guess would be that the ayat markers were placed according to the (what I now perceive as typical) soft rhyming scheme. That the interjection that concludes ayah 32 was not placed after the first sentence of ayah 33 is possibly evidence that this surah was already laid out before scholars determined how to delineate ayat.

On the topic of emancipation, ayah 33’s middle portion advises believers to assent to freeing their slaves through a writ. The surah does not specify the nature of this writ, and indeed my translation “writ” is a very narrow way of encapsulating the much broader word used, al-kitaab, “the writing.” Some scholars, like Yusuf Ali, posit that the writing is not a certificate of emancipation, but a contract setting what work the slave must accomplish to earn their freedom. The following adjurations to the owners thus encourage them to support said slave financially for this purpose.

And now we hit another sticky controversy: sex slavery. The third section of ayah 33 discourages masters of forcing their unwilling slave-girls into prostitution. The word used for “slave girls,” fatayaat, is different from the term used in ayah 32 for “slave women,” ‘imaa’, in that it has strong connotations of youthfulness. The roots of the word bighaa’ sometimes build words around yearning, and in this case they build a word for prostitutes as objects of lust. This could mean professional prostitution, but more likely in the Quran’s moral framework (which leaves no room for prostitution) it refers to masters demanding sex of their slaves. So no sex slaves, good! Unfortunately the ayah keeps going and opens up an exception for if the slave girl is into it, or at least, is not set on chastity. Consent is a very sticky thing to define in a slave-master relationship. Can you be sure of consent when the girl is also under your power, taught in life to be submissive to men and her elders, maybe scared of denying you, maybe hoping to buy freedom? Still, no sex slavery on principle, and no overt raping of slave girls, okay. But then it still keeps going, with the ayah then conceding that if someone does force their slaves-girls, God is willing to overlook it. There are no listed reparations, no particular consequences, just a need to be forgiven by a God who is already inclined to do so. Some translations interpret this last line about forgiveness to be not about the masters but about the slaves, which is hardly better. It’s equally not great to say that the victim needs forgiveness for having been a victim.

…I Don’t Know What to Do with This.

One last ayah to look at today, and I really don’t know what to say about it. Ayah 61. What do you make of it? If its whole point is simply that you can eat with whoever you want, or even all alone, then why does it need so much detail? Are there any places where you cannot eat? Why start off with the clause about the lame, blind, and sick? If that clause is separate, what are they being exempt from? The previous ayat covered domestic privacy as concerns children and the dressing habits of old women. Presumably the lame, blind, and sick aren’t being exempted from those laws. Since there is no restriction upon eating in other peoples’ houses, why should the lame, blind, and sick need exemption? What are they being exempted from?! I’m confused.

I guess one idea, if I play with the wording a bit, is that the surah is clarifying that the lame, blind, and sick are not in such states because God is punishing them, and thus you shouldn’t treat them as guilty (maybe by excluding them from meals). And given the surah has laid down the basics of domestic privacy, maybe it felt it was necessary to envision the community as both social and private so as not to accidentally communicate that it was discouraging social calls into each others’ homes. At any rate, the one easy takeaway is to always enter a house wishing peace upon its occupants. That’s nice.

See You Next Week

This week’s post was a bit of a bummer to write, with two topics that did not connect well with female needs, and I’m a little lost at how I want to wrap this up.

I don’t know of any civilization that has historically stood up well for the quality of its women’s lives in either practice or ideology. I can make defenses for my own Christian ideology, but I would never deny that my scriptures leaves struts available and ready for misogynist ideas to build from. To make your religion injustice-proof you need to be able to envision the directions your religion will take and the changing contexts it will survive in. I doubt Paul anticipated the total silencing of women in church gatherings (he did, after all, give guidelines to how they should prophecy). I doubt that Muhammad envisioned the state-mandated burqa when he laid out laws of a religious state and women’s modesty. It’s possible he didn’t even think slavery would be so long-lasting an institution under Islam as it proved be, given how frequently believers are enjoined to release their believing slaves. But the struts are there and ready to be built upon, immortalized in a document which commands its adherents against questioning its content.

Also, in investigating and debating whether to mention the extremes to which covering up has gone, I discovered a web-node of purdah subculture (purdah being a specific Muslim practice of cloistering women from all public contact). The whole experience was quite surreal, as women posted about the layers of gloves they donned when going into public and cheered each other into greater extremes. Then I noticed the community was remarkably inclusive of trans-women, who see full-body covering as a way to be Muslim and trans. It was also pretty into its own brand of BDSM.

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