Inequality Resulting from the Separation of Moral and Social Spheres

For an overwhelming number of verses, the Qur’an holds men and women equally accountable in communal spheres of responsibilities such as upholding equity and securing justice (4:135), contrary to the misconception that women are not expected to maintain financial security or become protectors of society. In fact women who are privileged enough to be wealthy are commanded to guard the morality of society by upholding equity and securing justice just as men, who—with an acknowledgement of male privilege (4:34}—are commanded to uphold equity and secure justice in relation to women. In verse 4:34 the Qur’an safeguards women’s rights within patriarchies by identifying male privilege and regulating the responsibility of obstructing injustice to men, who are in a position to cause it, and by recognizing women’s sexual specificity in a patriarchy (which men mistaken as a right when in reality the purpose is to check their privilege). In verse 4:135 righteous women are commanded to guard justice while they are in positions of financial power.

Thus it is not solely the story of creation or the ontological relationship between the sexes and their mutual rights that establish the foundation of equality, but the Quran’s prevalent assertion that women and men carry the same capacity for moral agency, as demonstrated by the verses mentioned above and by the following:

That God may admit the men and women
Who believe to the Gardens
Beneath which rivers flow
Therein to dwell forever,
And acquit them of their ills;—
And that is, in the sight of God,
The highest achievement.

And that God may punish
The hypocrites, men and women,
And the idolators, men and women
Who imagine an evil opinion of God. (Qur’an 48:5—6)

These verses, as well as verse 33:35 and the numerous verses that repeatedly level the sexes in righteousness and sin illustrate the Quranic truth that both sexes live by the same standards of morality and both are equally capable of ethical individualism. In other words, the Qur’an does not sexualize moral agency. Verse 33:35 establishes that the Qur’an does not discriminate between the moral and social praxis of men and women and instead holds them to the same level and judges men and women on the basis of the same principles. And in examining the Quranic definition of morality in its inseparability with the social and legal aspects of community, we find that we cannot disconnect the moral with the legal:

To believe in God
And the Last Day
And the Angels
And the Book
And the Messengers;
To give of one’s substance
However cherished
to your kin
to orphans
to the needy
to the wayfarer
to those who ask
And for the ransom to free slaves;
To be steadfast in prayer
And practice regular charity
To fulfill the contracts
Which you have made;
And endure with fortitude
Misfortune or suffering
Or adversity
Throughout all periods of panic.
Such are the people
Of truth, the God-fearing. (Qur’an 2:177)

In one verse the Qur’an has made obligatory believing in God and the spending of substance out of love for God. Rituals such as prayers (the moral and spiritual) and material responsibilities to those who need protection (the social and legal) are mutually compulsory, and in fact one stems from the other and is a testimony of it. Legal and social responsibilities are so binding to morality in the Qur’an that it is impossible to disengage them. When Muslims separate the moral from the social by conceding moral equality to women but discriminating against women in the social and legal spheres by misinterpreting verses, they violate the core of Islam’s view of a morally defined community and of the morally governed individual.

And when we read inequalities into the Qur’an by separating the moral realm (in which women are commonly interpreted as equal) from the social realm (in which women are commonly interpreted as unequal) we violate the Quranic foundation that the social is the moral, and that social duties are as pivotal in defining faith as spiritual obligations such as prayer, and that there is an intrinsic relationship between the two. The Qur’an defines moral responsibility not only in terms of spirituality but communal responsibility and asserts that women and men retain equal capacity for moral agency, and therefore equal rights to communal—social and legal—responsibilities. To claim that “the belief that women cannot lead prayer is not to say that women are unequal to men”, for example, is therefore a deceptive and malicious untruth. As morality cannot be separated from duties to the ummah, anyone who contends that such a view is not depriving women of rights or is estimating women as inferior is a threat to the foundation of the Quran’s moral binding.

What such an argument reveals instead is that men and women are equal in the eyes of God (moral) but unequal in the eyes of men (interpreted social). The latter is irrelevant, despite what men would love for you to believe. The social and legal spheres are the application of the moral sphere.

18 thoughts on “Inequality Resulting from the Separation of Moral and Social Spheres

  1. Lily

    Brilliant! It’s so frustrating when people make excuses or try to convince us that these aren’t inequalities. “Women have to be behind a barrier because they’re respected” and “Leading prayer isn’t a big deal or anything so only a selfish/unfit/immodest person would want to” are like the things they would say to children.

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    1. Irena

      If you are specifically talking about congregations, women ARE allowed to pray in congregation and the barrier need not be a physical one, women can pray alongside men as long as there is a gap between the two sexes (to avoid fitnah and distraction). Separate entrance/exit does not mean the segregation is based on equality but on the mere fact that men and women who are not blood-related or married should not be mingling hence you give the women the comfort of happily walking in and out of the mosque without any encounter with non-mahram men. But I do get that a tiny door at the back on the mosque is unnecessary and anybody who advocates that it the way it should be, is frankly an idiot.
      As for a woman leading a prayer, you have to understand that God has sent certain rulings for men and certain ones for women. Who other than God better understands the fitrah (natural inclination) of a man or that of a woman? Granted, it IS acknowledged that exceptions exist but mostly, it addresses the general idea. And this idea was propogated by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
      Abu Dawood (576) and Ahmad (5445) narrated that Ibn ‘Umar (may Allaah be pleased with him) said: The Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “Do not prevent your women from attending the mosques, although their houses are better for them.” Classed as saheeh by al-Albaani in Sunan Abi Dawood.

      al-Bukhaari (684) and Muslim (421) narrated from Sahl ibn Sa’d al-Saa’idi that the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said, “Whoever notices anything amiss during the prayer, let him say tasbeeh, for if he does so it will be noticed; and clapping is only for women.”

      Common inference tells you that why would he specifically mention clapping for women if the imam makes an error when he allows for tasbeeh for men? Why not tasbeeh for men? Clearly the Prophet did not want women to speak up during prayer and given the overarching idea, it would be a distraction.

      It is one thing to say that we need to look at Quran and Hadith in context which is exactly what we are supposed to do but another to twist and distort in order to fulfill our whims and desires. The exact reason, we are told, that the People of the Book went astray. I have a hard time letting go of certain rulings too but you have to understand, ultimately, Islam isn’t about fulfilling your wants and what you think are your needs but following the law of God. This does not mean that you blindly do what one imam claims but study the Quran, the hadith, the idea that God through the Quran informs us of our natural inclinations which is very important, according to me, to understand and accept what has been revealed to us. You study alongside the ummah. But to question sahih hadith is to question decades of meticulous analysis and research on the validity of those narrations. Hence, different categories which can be weighed against each other to see which one is superior in terms of authenticity and hence should be used a guiding tool. But if I were to disregard them completely on the notion that the companions of the Prophet interpreted them on the basis of their cultural notions of desires, then you might as well say the same, astagfirullah, about the Prophet and discredit the Quran.

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      1. As for a woman leading a prayer, you have to understand that God has sent certain rulings for men and certain ones for women

        If you say God has ruled that women cannot lead prayer, you must provide the Quranic verse.

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  2. Irena

    I do not say anything, the sahih hadith, that said women can clap if the imam makes an error during prayer and men must utter tasbeeh, does. Why did he ask a woman to clap but not use her voice as well?
    As we both know, Quran did not describe every aspect of social or religious life which is why we were blessed with a Prophet whose actions and sayings were to be taken complimentary to the Quran. Yes, Quran is the Word of God and holds precedence over hadith and sunnah but this hadith does not contradict the Quran which has told us that God knows our fitrah and hence sent rules differently to both sexes.
    “Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard.”
    The above is a part of verse 34 from Surah an-Nisa.
    Is that equal? No. Did Allah create men and women equal? No. Clearly, on a scientific level, men are, generally, superior when it comes to physical strength. Women can survive child birth and scientific research has shown that even if men had a uterus and ovaries, the hormonal escalation during child birth would result in a man’s death. A menstrual cycle exists within the female anatomy and has profound physical, mental and emotional effects on a woman’s life which men will never understand. Women, generally speaking again, are blessed with compassion greater than a man ever will be. How do you think men become fathers emotionally? Estrogen levels rise and testosterone levels fall. If God wanted us to perform the same roles, why wire us differently? I think there are certain duties and responsibilities prescribed exclusively for both sexes.

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    1. You did in fact say that God rules women cannot lead prayer, as I’ve quoted you.

      I’ve already addressed the verses you mention in the first paragraph of the post, and how they are checking male privilege. The differences are specification for women by recognizing their disadvantages in a patriarchy and balancing the powers, not a sign of inequality or exclusivity in roles. The verse you’ve cited (terrible translation) shows that wealthy women are guardians just as men are.

      This isn’t new information. I’ve heard these arguments over and over and have refuted them, the process is derailing, and it’s quite offensive for you to use some of the terminology that you’re using. I never said that being equal means being the same. If you disagree with the premises of this blog (I wouldn’t even say that believing men and women weren’t created of intrinsic equal worth is Islamic) you are free to move elsewhere instead of lecturing here with routine material and pseudo science. There are thousands of other blogs that would be happy to host your views.

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      1. Irena

        My “quotes” was based on 4-34 and then I was commenting on the hadith about how men and women are supposed to correct an Imam that makes a mistake and asking you why the Prophet would ask differently of the two sexes.
        So if the verse checks male privelege, do you think the verse itself is flawed or that the interpretation is? If the latter, I would like to hear it (because you seem to perceive any comment as an attack or an attempt to “lecture”, I am not being sarcastic when I say I would like to hear it). And when you quote disadvantages, do not forget that of child-rearing which is why a father cannot compare to a mother.
        I only recently came across your blog so I said what I think, you could’ve simply linked me to your previous refutation tailored to my comment. I believe I am free to comment here or never visit it again, you do not have to tell me that. Unless you want me to stop commenting because all I think I am doing here is engaging in a discussion. Obviously you take it differently and react in this defensive tone. This might be routine material to you but anything I spoke of scientifically is not pseudo. Are you seriously going to argue that generally speaking, men are not physically stronger than women? I do not even have to provide proof for that. Do you need me to provide proof for my comment on fatherhood or the prospect of male pregnancy?

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        1. The hadith you are talking about has nothing to do with the post. This is my issue. I don’t think you’re engaging in a discussion, I think you’re flying off-topic and refusing to acknowledge that I’ve already stated in the post that the differences in the assignment of responsibility is for the purpose of shifting privilege, not for enforcing inequality. The verse itself isn’t flawed: its interpretation is. It is incorrectly interpreted as advantageous to men when in reality it is an application of additional responsibility that comes with being privileged in a patriarchy, thereby shifting the powers to offer women equality.

          If you want the post about the verse, it is linked in this post. 4:34 mentioned in the first paragraph is a link.

          I stated you were free to leave because I was merely avoiding having this argument AGAIN since you seem to be derailing. It was a polite suggestion, not meant to be defensive or rude. Your point that men are physically stronger is also irrelevant. And I’ve said in my previous comment that equal =/= same. At this point there is no real contribution, merely offsets in every direction that are based on presumptions.

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  3. Irena

    Actually, I was addressing the congregation issue with the hadith I mentioned. That the mere fact that the Prophet asked women to clap rather than invoke tasbeeh means something.
    “It is incorrectly interpreted as advantageous to men when in reality it is an application of additional responsibility that comes with being privileged in a patriarchy, thereby shifting the powers to offer women equality.” – I do not think I am very good at expressing myself hence you might have gotten a wrong idea but this was my point (in my head). The fact that men are made responsible for protection of women and their rights and I strongly believe that it is abused rather than used as a guiding tool in regards to forced marriages, honour killings, domestic violence et cetera.
    My point in regards to men being physically stronger was rooted in the fact that we are created differently and hence have different roles in society (while sharing rights entitled to us). “And I’ve said in my previous comment that equal =/= same.” – it might be my fault that I did not deduce that from your above comment but that is what I was trying to establish. In the eyes of Allah, we ARE equal to men.
    P.S – I read your post on 4:34 which was rather interesting. Would you be able to some day make a post on certain words which seem to have been used differently especially in regards to verses about women and their rights? I know Arabic is fluid hence there is no rigid definition but you could point out how bias could possibly come to play when another definition of the same word also fits into the verse.

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    1. But you cannot say that the hadith means there are different roles that should be enforced, without knowing the proper context or reasons. For example, women receive less inheritance than men–but only because men must give up all their property to women when they are married and they don’t own any of their wives properties. However, women no longer receive the amount of inheritance to which they are entitled from their husbands, in which case, men can not Islamically take more inheritance from their parents, because we can not pick and choose from parts of Quranic verses. We have to follow all of them. We cannot say that one condition should be met when the other is unmet: we cannot say that men inherit more from their parents while women don’t inherit from their husbands. The inheritance verse is here. The same could be happening with the hadith, where the context does not apply but the practice wrongfully continues to offer men an unIslamic advantage.

      The point of this post is that in Islam the social is tied to the moral. You can’t say that you believe in God and fail to live as though you believe in God. You must apply the morals of Islam to your life. You can’t just believe something and not live it. So when there is a spiritual practice such as prayer, the social dictations must offer equality because in the moral realm men and women are equal in God’s eyes.

      I’ll see if I can write that post… I usually write posts on different words separately. If you’re interested, altMuslimah had an article on a particular word that has been misinterpreted to oppress women; I wrote about it here.

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  4. Irena

    For example, women receive less inheritance than men–but only because men must give up all their property to women when they are married and they don’t own any of their wives properties. However, women no longer receive the amount of inheritance to which they are entitled from their husbands, in which case, men can not Islamically take more inheritance from their parents, because we can not pick and choose from parts of Quranic verses.

    I do not see how anybody can disagree with that and correct me if I am wrong, but do any scholars debate that? I always assumed not because it is clear that while men HAVE to take care of their wives and children, the women are NOT supposed to share their wealth. In fact, Abu Sufyan’s wife, Hind, used to take money from his wallet (or whatever was the equivalent of a wallet then, lol) because he was stingy and never gave her money for the household and asked the Prophet if it is stealing. He told her to just take what she need. He allowed her to take money for household activities without her husband’s permission because she and his children are entitled to it. I agree with you, inheritance traditions are significantly erroneous in the so-called Islamic societies. Forget inheritance, the mahr (dowry) works the other way around in South Asian societies and if the Islamic mahr (husband to wife) is decided, the husband gets her to spend it on the house or kids “hey I gave you money then, use that!”.

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    1. I’ve read about scholars still enforcing the difference in inheritance, and many families go so far as to give their sons better clothing and food than their daughters based on misreading, misinterpreting, and deliberately twisting this verse.

      And yes, I love that hadith about Hind lawl

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      1. Irena

        Did they do so during Prophet’s time? Because like I read this hadith
        Muslim (440) narrated that Abu Hurayrah (may Allaah be pleased with him) said: The Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “The best rows for men are those are the front and the worst are those at the back, and the best rows for women are those at the back and the worst are those at the front.
        And this too
        Muslim (658) narrated from Anas ibn Maalik that he prayed behind the Messenger (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) and with him was his grandmother and an orphan. He said: The orphan and I stood in a row behind him, and the old woman stood behind us.

        And I concurred that it invalidates a woman praying in front of men. They can pray alongside (with a gap, no need for a silly walled section)

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        1. I do not accept any hadith narrated by Abu Huraira.

          According to the scholar al Tabari, women are allowed to lead men in prayer. Ibn Taymiyah also permitted women to lead in prayer. The Prophet himself appointed Umm Waraqa to lead men in prayer. And by the standards of the Quran by which women are spiritually equal to men, women are allowed to lead men in prayer (because we are spiritual / moral equals and this must be applied to the social sphere.)

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  5. Irena

    Ibn Taymiyah said it should be done from the back of the group though, right?
    As for the Umm Waraqa hadith, I just looked into the debate on the definition of the word dar which some use to limit to her “house” hence the Sunni schools of law except for Malikis permit women to lead all-female congregation. But I suppose you argue that it was for the town.

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  6. Coolred38

    The best rows for men in the front and women in the back was meant for times when the muslim group was on the move and feared attack from an enemy…men stood in front in case an attack came ..women in the back were protected…and some of the men would not pray…standing guard..and then performing prayer once the others were done. Nothing to do with prayer and who stands where in general.

    The best place for women is in the house was in response to an old women who found it a chore to get to the mosque for every prayer. The prophet saw her struggle and pronounced that women can stay home and pray if they choose too…as a form of compassion for the elderly, the mothers etc. It wasn’t meant to mean that women SHOULD pray at home rather than the mosque.

    As far as “some” limiting the use of the word dar to household…of course they would to find proof that women cannot lead prayer. If it was a given that women cannot lead prayer..than it wouldn’t be “some” that argue for it..but ALL.

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