Thursday, 3 January 2013

Creation based Gender Equality in the Quran and the Bible

For Christian theologian Phyllis Trible Genesis 1:27 is the central biblical clue for how to understand the whole of the biblical metanarrative: So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 

While Muslim theologian Amina Wadud observes that in the Quranic version of the story the genders relate to God and themselves in God’s creating them from the same genderless soul. While both versions have slight nuance, both show the equality of the genders from the beginning of their creation...

Within the context of Genesis 1, Genesis 1:27 represents the pinnacle of creation. The whole of the chapter has been building up to this moment where “creation moves in an orderly fashion from chaos to cosmos.”1 In the first three days of creation God designs the frame of the universe in creating light and darkness, the firmament separating the waters, and the earth which puts forth vegetation. Whereas day four, five and six, fill in the world with the lesser lights and a separation of day and night, aquatic and aerial animals, and finishing with land animals and humankind.2 The acclamation of creation as good is exclaimed throughout the creation account, with a final affirmation of humankind as the pinnacle of creation in it being declared “very good.”3

Within the creation of humankind they are identified more specifically as male and female, and are then given the responsibilities of dominion and fertility with an added blessing of food given to them in Genesis 1:29-30.4 Trible points out that both male and female are created on the same day and they both eat the same food, and in doing so “complete the symmetry of the overall design.”5
The sexual differentiation of male and female is made only for humans, and this is intended “not for procreation but to the image of God.”6 While animals and humans share in procreation, the distinction of male and female goes beyond to a deeper meaning. The further specificity of human purpose is also pointed out in their sharing of “dominion over the earth” and only to human beings does God “speak directly in the first person.”7

In relation to the poetic structure of Genesis 1:27, Trible points out in the “male and female” correspondence to God’s image there is a “formal parallelism” which “indicates a semantic response.”8 The move from the singular “him” to “them” shows how the “plural form reinforces sexual differentiation within the unity of humanity.”9

Trible sees this best understood as a metaphorical model where God is the “lesser known” underlying and overarching element which drives all of creation. The “male and female” humanity is the “vehicle” through which he makes himself known as his image bearers.10 Many Muslim and Christian theologians would be comfortable with describing this as the relationship between a wholly “other” God making himself in some way knowable through his creational action.11
Trible goes on to suggest that the three nouns humankind, male, and female correspond to the pronouns him and them in such a way that they are all “objects of the verb create with God as its subject.” These fives words in interaction with each other show their “shared and particular meanings.”12

When Genesis 1:27 moves from “him” in the singular to “them” in the plural, it reinforces the reality that there is “two creatures, one male and one female.” For Trible this does not allow for any “androgynous” interpretation of the original humanity. “Humankind exists as two creatures, not as one creature with double sex.”13 The singular word “humankind” in relationship with the singular “him” also shows that “male and female are not opposite but rather harmonious sexes.” Humankind does not get split into two, but it is in the unity of “male and female” which shows the unity of humanity. The sexual differentiation of male and female is neither identical nor is it an “antonym” rather it “recognizes distinction within harmony.”14

The parallel nature of “male and female” further shows that their harmonious differentiation is not a hierarchal relationship but one of equality. They were created at the same time, and “neither has power over the other; in fact, both are given equal power.”15 Humankind is given dominion over the earth which is followed by the plurality of “them” showing that God has given both of them “equal power over the earth.”16 The fact that Genesis 1 does differentiate “male and female” in their shared roles of procreation and dominion shows that we should be open to a diverse understanding of how to enact and share these responsibilities. The parallel command given to the fish and the birds to procreate was not individualized into gender roles, so we to should be weary of doing so. The uniqueness of humanity is not in our ability to procreate but in the shared dominion we are given as humankind. Therefore we should be careful not to stereotype the text with “masculine” and “feminine” gender roles.17
Within our understanding of being God’s image Trible reminds us like any good Muslim or Christian theologian that they were are called to bear the image of God in our imagination, integrity, dominion, and freedom, we are never to describe ourselves in relation to God himself, but only to his giving of “similarities.”18 The God given attributes of the “male and female” shows us not only our similarity to God, but also the “otherness of the divine image.” The “male and female” is in this sense the “finger pointing to the image of God.”19

While Trible wants to affirm that the switch from plural to singular pronouns shows the human variety, freedom, and fullness within God, this shift also preserves with “exceeding care, the otherness of God.” God is not a man or a woman, or some combination of the two; rather he is the singular unknowable. We have no idea about the “way in which the deity creates” but we do know that in his transcendent creational freedom he has chosen to image himself in the separately identifiable, yet harmoniously unified “male and female” creation.20

Genesis 1:27 becomes the creational foundation for how God chooses to show himself in the world. Metaphors like father, husband, king and warrior partially express the image of God as male, while images of God as a pregnant woman, mother, midwife, and mistress show the “diverse and partial expressions of the image of God” as female.21If one were to move deeper into Trible’s meta-narrative of human failure and redemption, you would be able to see how this foundational lens of Genesis 1:27 speaks always to the ultimate telos of humanity.

For Muslim theologian Amina Wadud creation exists in a three step process. You begin with the initiation of creation, its formation or perfection, and the bringing of it to life. This creational process is developed through an analysis of verses like Sura 38:71-72:
Just recall the time when your Lord said to the angels, 'I am going to create a human of clay: when I perfect it in every way, and blow into it of my ruh all of you should bow down before it.
The Arabic word for create here is khalaqa, and while this word is used to denote the first step in the creation process, it also used in the second step of the creation process in how it is used to discuss the creation of everything. The Arabic word sawwara which means to “form, shape or perfect,” it is also used to describe the second step in the creation process. This “perfection” is used to describe Allah forming “humankind exactly as he wanted it to be.” Sura 95:4 describes how “Surely We created humankind in the best stature” while Sura 40:64 describes how it is Allah who has “fashioned you, and perfected your shapes.”22

Allah shows in the Qur'an that the form given to humankind is the form best suited to fulfill its vicegerency on earth. This has a similar dimension to the biblical account in the sense that human beings are given dominion over the earth. The biblical account has further resonance with the Quranic account in that human creation is also made up of two distinct but compatible genders. These two make up a part of that which “perfects” the human created form. Hence, “the creation of the human form was a conscious decision by Allah, ‘who gave everything He created the best form.’”23 In the third step of the creation process humankind is elevated “above the rest of creation” with “the breathing of the Spirit of Allah (nafkhat al-ruh] into each human, whether that be male or female.”24
Here we see an interesting intersection of both Genesis 1 and 2. While man and woman are created at the same time, as is the case in Genesis 1, the inclusion of Genesis 2 in mankind being given the “breath of life” makes for an interesting addition to the Quranic version of the story.
What becomes foundation for Wadud is how to translate Sura 4:1. The passage from her perspective should be translated this way:
Mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single nafs, and from it created its zawj, and from that pair spread abroad [over the earth] a multitude of men and women.
The four contested terms in this passage are the Arabic words ayat, min, nafs, and zawj. The term ayat which Wadud translates into a form of duty to God can be more deeply seen as an implicit marker of God. The whole world is made up of these markers including humanity itself.25 The explicit Ayat is made up of “verbal symbols or words” and is made up of information about the realm of the unseen world. These explicit markers cannot be perceived through ordinary means, and must be seen as divine revelation. Both these explicit and implicit markers are connected to creation, and are designed to help complete the purpose of the Quran as guidance to true reality. Therefore, “we should act always in such a way that our attention be directed towards something that is beyond it.”26 It is here I think we can begin to sense the platonic or dualistic nature of the Quran within its contrasting of that which is hidden and revealed, along with that which is real and false.

The Arabic term min represents one of the more controversial terms in the sense that it can refer to something being extracted from something else, or it could simply imply that something is “of the same nature as.”27 Wadud prefers the second definition because of its egalitarian implications and suggests that her argument is more deeply proven in how to understand the final more substantial terms nafs and zawj.

Nafs for Wadud “refers to the common origin of all humankind.”28 Nafs is commonly interpreted as the human soul, and in Quranic version of creation story, is the original substance from which human beings are created, and is genderless.29 It is interesting to see the contrast in the biblical account of the creation story where human beings related to God’s image in their different yet harmonized gender, while in the Quranic version of the story the genders relate to God and themselves in God’s creating them from the same genderless soul. The final significant term which Wadud wants to point us to is zawj, which can be translated into “mate, spouse, or group.”30 Wadud wants to emphasize that while this has often been used to correlate with the Biblical account of Eve, we know even less about “the creation of zawj, then we do about the creation of the original nafs.” What really interests her is the analysis of the Quranic use of pairs throughout the creations accounts. For the Quran “everything in creation is paired.”31 And the Quran even goes so far as to dictate that “all things” God has created comes in pairs, and “perhaps you will all reflect on this fact.”32 For the Quran “a pair is made of two co-existing forms of a single reality,” the “two congruent parts formed to fit together as a whole.” Therefore because each created thing is dependent upon its zawj (mate), “the creation of both the original parents is irrevocably and primordially linked” and so the “two are equally essential.”33
Although these pairs are both created equal, this does not mean they are the same. Sura 53:45 and 3:36 show their difference in that “male is not like female” and there is no “explicit characteristics to either one or the other, exclusively.”34 While the female naturally goes through the child bearing processing, no other aspect of the child rearing process is given explicitly to the female as her duty. Thus the biological function of the mother should not be correlated into Quranic support for the stereotyped “psychological and cultural perceptions of mothering.35

While masculine and feminine are not seen as primordial characteristics, there is a Quranic dictate for them to be seen as mutual comforts to one another, as Sura 30:21 suggests that “Among His signs is this: He has created azwaj for you from your own an/us so that you may find rest in them.”36

The two central similarities in the the Biblical and Quranic creation stories then in is that men and women were made to have dominion over the earth, and they are made as different yet equally compatible companions to one another.
1 (Trible 1978) 12
2 (Trible 1978) 12-13
3 (Trible 1978) 13
4 (Trible 1978) 14
5 (Trible 1978) 15
6 (Trible 1978) 15
7 (Trible 1978) 15
8 (Trible 1978) 17
9 (Trible 1978) 17
10 (Trible 1978) 17
11 (Burrell 1986)
12 (Trible 1978)17-18
13 (Trible 1978) 18
14 (Trible 1978) 18
15 (Trible 1978) 18
16 (Trible 1978) 19
17 (Trible 1978) 19
18 (Trible 1978) 19
19 (Trible 1978) 20
20 (Trible 1978) 20-21
21 (Trible 1978) 22
22 (Wadud 1999) 16-17
23 (Wadud 1999) 17; Sura 32:7
24 (Wadud 1999) 17
25 (Wadud 1999) 17; Sura 2:164; 3:190; 51:49
26 (Wadud 1999) 18
27 (Wadud 1999) 18
28 (Wadud 1999) 19
29 (Wadud 1999) 20
30 (Wadud 1999) 20
31 (Wadud 1999) 21
32 (Wadud 1999) 21; Sura 51:49
33 (Wadud 1999) 21
34 (Wadud 1999) 21
35 (Wadud 1999) 22
36 (Wadud 1999) 22
37 (Wadud 1999) 23
38 (Wadud 1999) 23; 44-61
39 (Trible 1978) 72; 195

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