The historical context of Sura 4:11

The dreaded phrase historical context often comes up when discussing the state of Qur’anic inheritance law. Rather than relying on the much less defensible point that men should bear the burden of economic responsibility to the disadvantage of women, some use the supposed barbarity of the time period as a conversation stopper.

I am glad that Alexander Delorme is keeping the conversation going with his semi-regular pieces on the Qur’an. In his latest post, he read and commented on An-Nisa:

Men with multiple wives are given near-absolute freedom, with minor exceptions made in the interest of “cleanliness” and “honour”, but said wives are forced into absolute prostration. In this surah we also find the famous verse which grants men twice the inheritance of women, as well as many other weird and idiotic attempts to orchestrate competent marriage laws.

I’ve placed the part that interests me in bold. Alexander is referring to verse 4:11:

11. Concerning your children, God commands you that a son should have the equivalent share of two daughters. If there are only daughters, two or more should share two-thirds of the inheritance, if one, she should have half.

The rest of the verse goes into the nitty-gritty details of inheritance, instructing Muslims on what they should do for parents, childless fathers, brothers of the deceased, etc. Regarding barbarity, many have argued that women were in a bad place in the 7th century and by including them in the inheritance, even at a disadvantage, Muhammad was progressive for the period. Karen Armstrong is a big fan of this angle, claiming that the Quran “gave women rights of inheritance and divorce centuries before Western women were accorded such status.”

Armstrong and others who share her opinion are guilty of overreaching, but even those who are critical of Islam’s treatment of women tend to acknowledge that the religion was at least slightly more progressive than what was available at the time. Once you dig a bit deeper, however, you begin to realize how little information we have about the tribal cultures backgrounding Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina.

We should take care to avoid romanticizing Islam. Even within Islam, the issue is a bit more complex than a world laid waste by cruelty. Take Khadijah for example. She was Muhammad’s first wife and the first convert to Islam. She was apparently married three times, was a successful merchant, hired Muhammad, and apparently asked Muhammad to marry her through a friend. Although Khadijah is only one example of a woman from the period, and it’s likely she’s an exaggerated figure, she did not seem to suffer terribly because of her gender.

It seems that most of the accounts of a barbaric pre-Islamic Arabia come from Muslim sources that often repeat the claim that women had no rights before the rise of Islam. Let’s say for the sake of argument that conditions for women were worse before the rise of Islam. This should still leave one feeling dissatisfied regarding Sura 4:11. I do not want to leave it there, however, as it’s worth looking at groups about which we have more reliable information.

I am largely recalling this from memory, but other religions and cultures from the period put women at par with their standing in Islam. Ireland gave women some limited property rights and legal protections that look almost modern in comparison to Islam’s allowances. I don’t want to make the same mistake as Armstrong, falling into a different but no less worrisome trap of romanticizing Ireland’s indigenous system of law, but if we’re going to be generous with Islam, we should be generous with Gaelic society and the later innovations brought with Christianization. We might also want to take a look at the women of the Tang Dynasty in China, who had a relatively brief respite from poor treatment during the same period as the rise of Islam. Widowed women could own land and be independent; divorce and remarry; take part in sports and the arts; and they also had access to education. I mention these two examples to illustrate that simple characterizations of the 7th century often fail the test of history, fuelling either unnecessarily dismissive critiques on the one hand and eyebrow-raising apologetics on the other.