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
to your kin
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
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.