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Reading from the Qur'an for this week

Chapter 4, Surah An-Nisa, “The Women”, Verses 1,2,3

In the name of God, the most Merciful and the Instiller of Mercy [toward His creatures]
O mankind, be mindful of your responsibility to God who created you from a single living being out of which He also created his mate, and from these two beings spread out all men and women. Keep your duty to God, remain conscious of your rights and obligations to one another, as you all have a common bond with God, and maintain the ties of fellowship among yourselves. Know that God is ever watchful over His creation.234
Give to the orphans their property intact, do not substitute your worthless property for their good ones, and do not consume their property as your own—doing so is a great sin!235

If you have reason to fear that you will act unjustly to such orphans [girls], then marry such or other women [in a similar situation such as widows who lost their husbands in war] based on mutual understanding—one, two, three, or four. But if you fear that you will not be able to treat each with equal fairness, then marry one from such women or from those who are rightfully in your possession. This will more likely ensure that you do not deviate from the right path.236

234 The beginning part of this surah is a wonderful affirmation of our origin and our common human bond with one another. Based on revelations in the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an, the first human who was gifted with knowledge and endowed with the unique human capability of free will and spirit from God was Adam. His wife, Eve, was then created by God to be his mate. From these two ancestors, we all came to inhabit this planet in successive generations and for generations to come. This shared bond among ourselves and our unique connection to God are to be understood and applied in all of our human interactions and social activities. Such awareness should shape the purpose our lives and define the contour of how we apply our gift of knowledge as we seek wisdom to better the human condition on this earth and prove our worth to the Almighty Creator and to ourselves, which is equally important.

235 In affirming our common human bond to one another and our primal connection to God, special attention is drawn to a group of people who have been especially vulnerable and easily exploited by societies throughout the ages, and this continues to be true even today—these are the orphans who have lost their parents through natural causes or societal conflicts and wars. These orphans are subject to exploitation and abuse by others (more often than not by their own guardians or those who seek guardianship with the intent to exploit). In these verses the Qur’an took the first challenge to raise awareness about orphans and by that every vulnerable human being and then to set guidelines by which one should behave with respect to orphans, in order to protect their rights, safeguard their inherited property and possessions, and restrain human greed, lust, and evils from harming them. This is a moral imperative, as well as a legal imperative, for each one of us to be aware of and to follow. Each community and society should establish and enforce such rules and regulations to protect its most vulnerable. Unfortunately, many Muslim communities and nations have dismal performances with respect to such rights for orphans, women, and minorities in their communities. This is also true of many other nations and cultures, as evidenced by slavery in the American continent, horrible conditions of orphans in Romania under Ceaușescu, and abuse of so-called comfort women by Japanese soldiers during wars against Korea and China, just to reference a few such large-scale abuses of human rights against orphans, women, and the vulnerable human populations in our contemporary world.

236 Similar to orphans in general, another group of people, mostly women—orphan girls, widows, and women among war captives and in domestic slavery—are being addressed, whose rights were violated most frequently in the generations who received the revelations, but these violations continue even to this date in some parts of the globe. One of the most vicious forms of human injustice suffered by these women is lack of freedom, lack of choices, and sexual exploitation for being weak and vulnerable. Islam strictly prohibits any sexual interactions outside of marriage as a first step to contain such sexual exploitation, and secondarily, it makes provision for limited polygamy, under strict terms, to stem men’s exploitation of such women and for these women to live a family and dignified life. The terms for such limited polygamy is very clear: (1) it is the exception rather than the norm, (2) it is subject to mutual consent (and not coercion) among all the parties, (3) strict requirements establish that such wives are treated equally according to all parties, which in most cases is impossible to achieve, and (4) even then, it is limited to conditions created by man-made calamity, where there is a large number of women and girls who are made widows or orphans without further family support and who could be subject to exploitation or a life of despair and vulnerability if such special provisions are not made. This is again suggestive and not the only means by which protections, rights, and human dignity can be extended to orphan girls and widowed women when their fathers and husbands had sacrificed their lives for the protection and betterment of the very society that is asked to protect their honor and dignity afterward.

This issue of polygamy is very controversial among Muslims and people of other faiths or ideologies. It is very important to have a frank and honest dialogue on this topic since even in this day and age, women in general and orphan girls, stepdaughters, and widows without proper financial or family support in particular are subject to horrific injustice under our very eyes, aside from generational abuses in the form of selective abortion of female fetuses, gender inequality in pay and freedom, sexual abuse in foster homes and by stepfathers, and organized crime and exploitation of women throughout the world—poor countries and rich countries, countries that claim to live under democracy, countries that claim religious and strict moral standards, and communist countries all show evidence and incidents of such exploitations. There exists ample evidence to believe that there is serious and widespread failure in eliminating such inhuman conditions on this planet, especially when it comes to girls and women.

There are Muslim clerics, imams, sheikhs, and autocratic Muslim leaders who abuse such verses to justify polygamy in Islam and conveniently forget the context, prevailing social norms, and temporal and provisional nature of such verses. By the same token, there are those who want to stir up Islamophobia and claim their self-processed expertise on Islam to cite these same verses in isolation and act in the same vein as those Muslim clerics and leaders who lack adequate scholarship and a genuine desire to understand what God intends and how best to uphold human dignity and freedom, the sacred right of each and every human being. It is about these people that God said, “But those whose hearts are steeped in perversity and seek to misguide attempt to give meanings to these verses according to their own interpretation. Only God and those who have developed deeper knowledge understand these meanings, who say, ‘We believe in it, and it is all from our Sustainer.’ Only people of understanding will take note of this guidance” (3:7).

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While all human beings on this planet are connected by our common parentage—Adam and Eve—exploitation of humans by humans is a serious moral and social issue that we all need to reflect on and act upon. All social and moral imperatives, as articulated in the Qur’an, need to be discussed and debated by the community to reach a common and contemporary understanding so that moral, social, and legal norms can be documented, explained, and vetted by the community and once committed to, have to be followed through enforcement as appropriate legally and morally.

Protecting the rights of vulnerable women in our societies starts with each one of us—each one of us has to stay clear of any such exploitation and be extra vigilant about those who are among us. We need to develop informed and thoughtful understanding that ensure justice and equity, human dignity, and human relationship, especially with respect to those who are vulnerable, such as orphans, women, and minority communities—along racial, ethnic, and religious lines.

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