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By : Nina Nurmila, PhD

Fundamentally, Islam is a Religion of Equality and Justice

If we define fundamentalism in reference to the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, which defines fundamentalism as strict maintenance of ancient or fundamental doctrines of any religion, then fundamentalism could be obviously positive because the fundamental teaching of Islam is in favor of women, raising women’s dignity and supporting justice and equality as stated in the following verses:

  1. Quran Surah (QS) An-Nisa’ (4): 1 states that human beings, whether male or female, is created from a one single soul (nafsin wahidah). Because created from the same origin, then there is no basis to argue that men are superior to women:


“O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you from one soul and created from it its mate and dispersed from both of them many men and women. And fear Allah, through whom you ask one another, and the wombs. Indeed Allah is ever, over you, an Observer”. (QS. An Nisa’: 1) 

2. QS 49: 13 confirms that the most noble of you in the sight of God are those who the most righteous (something that should be strived), not on the basis of color, race or gender:


“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted”. (QS Al Hujurat ; 13)

  1.   And the justice of God which does not discriminate female is obviously stated in QS 3: 195 and 4: 124 that Allah will not neglect a good deed of male or female; whoever does righteous deeds, whether male or female, while being a believer, those will enter Paradise and will not be wronged.


“And their Lord responded to them, “Never will I allow to be lost the work of [any] worker among you, whether male or female; you are of one another. So those who emigrated or were evicted from their homes or were harmed in My cause or fought or were killed – I will surely remove from them their misdeeds, and I will surely admit them to gardens beneath which rivers flow as reward from Allah, and Allah has with Him the best reward.” (QS. Ali Imran : 195) 


“And whoever does righteous deeds, whether male or female, while being a believer – those will enter Paradise and will not be wronged, [even as much as] the speck on a date seed”. (QS. An Nisa : 124).

  1. Again, these two verses (QS 16: 97, QS 33: 35) are equal that God will give the best reward in the form of forgiveness and great reward to whoever does righteous deeds and while being a believer, whether male or female; 


“Whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, while he is a believer – We will surely cause him to live a good life, and We will surely give them their reward [in the Hereafter] according to the best of what they used to do”. (QS. An Nahl : 97). 

  1.   QS 33: 73 which states that God will punish the hypocrites and unbelievers whether male or female. 


 “[It was] so that Allah may punish the hypocrite men and hypocrite women and the men and women who associate others with Him and that Allah may accept repentance from the believing men and believing women. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful”. (QS. Al Ahzab : 73)

  1.   Equality / partnership between men and women is also reflected in Surah 9: 71


“The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger. Those – Allah will have mercy upon them. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise”. (QS: At-Taubah : 71). 

  1. And the last is QS 2: 187


“It has been made permissible for you the night preceding fasting to go to your wives [for sexual relations]. They are clothing for you and you are clothing for them. Allah knows that you used to deceive yourselves, so He accepted your repentance and forgave you. So now, have relations with them and seek that which Allah has decreed for you. And eat and drink until the white thread of dawn becomes distinct to you from the black thread [of night]. Then complete the fast until the sunset. And do not have relations with them as long as you are staying for worship in the mosques. These are the limits [set by] Allah, so do not approach them. Thus does Allah make clear His ordinances to the people that they may become righteous”.  (QS. Al Baqarah : 187)

All the aforementioned verses which emphasize the equality of man, whether male or female, were revealed in the context of ignorant societies (jahiliyah) wherein they were very humiliating women. From these verses, we can conclude that Islam is fundamentally a religion that supports equality between men and women. So any Muslims who use the Quranic verses to justify the humiliation against women, it is contrary to the spirit of justice in Islamic, the revelation of Quran, and the attributes of Allah that is The Just by which impossibly God justifies injustice. 

Fundamentalism and Patriarchal Commentary on the Qur’an 

But unfortunately, fundamentalism is more popularly interpreted with revivalism that is to revive the way of life of Muslim community in the past, especially in the Islamic golden age in 9 – 13th century. Fundamentalist groups which are often more well-known as revivalist groups, conservatives, literalist, Islamist or radical Muslim groups want to recreate the Muslim community like in Medieval times, not only with the application of Sharia but also want to establish an Islamic state through political movement.

They conceive that Islam is not merely a religion but also a political ideology that should be able to recreate any aspects of life of the Muslim community whether in political, law, economic, social justice, foreign policy and others. Consequently, they use religion for their political purposes. 

One of the characteristics of the fundamentalists is that they are anti-Western and modern ideologies such as nationalism, secularism and communism. In the history of Indonesia, the fundamentalist movements or the movement to establish an Islamic state as in the Islamic golden age recorded for instance in the rebellion of Darul Islam / Indonesian Islamic Army (DI / TII). During the New Order, the Indonesian government harshly opposed these groups and even regulated all kind of mass organizations or political parties that they must be based on Pancasila.

After New Order, fundamentalist movements in Indonesia did not actually want to establish an Islamic state, but delicately they attempted to restore the seven words eliminated in the Jakarta Charter that is “the obligation to carry out Sharia of Islam to its followers”. This effort was initiated by the Crescent Star Party (PBB) and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) in 2000, but it was unsuccessful because of a lack of support from other parties such as the Functional Groups Party (Golkar Party), the National Awakening Party (PKB) and the United Development Party (PPP ). But their spirits did not seem fading away. The fundamentalist groups struggled to impose Islamic law at the local level by utilizing the issue of decentralization and local autonomy. Therefore, by the year of 2000, some districts which formerly were the basis movement of DI / TII in West Java, Aceh and Sulawesi began issuing Local regulations (Perda) which was then known as “Sharia Local Regulations” (Perda Sharia). 

The application of Perda Sharia caused negative effects for women because its contains are the result of literal and patriarchal understanding of the Qur’an which tends to restrict the movement of women, either by banning women to go outside at night after 10,00 p.m. or compelling them to wear particular clothes. At glance, these rules seem good or Islamic, for instance prohibiting seclusion, prostitution and gambling, and applying penalties for those who break the rules. However, if we examine the regulations further, there are many negative impacts especially for women. The real victim of this regulation was Ms. Lilis from Tangerang who was arrested by officers as returning home from work at night because she was suspected of being prostitute. As a result of her arrest and detention, Ms. Lilis lose her job, avoided and ridiculed by her neighbors so that she was depressed and eventually died. 

Why does the Perda Shari’a have negative impacts on women? Is Islamic law not good? Yes, Islamic law is good and has noble fundamental objectives as described in the previous section. But if Sharia (the Islamic laws stated in the Quran) is understood literally by the fundamentalist groups or interpreted with patriarchal perspective, it causes negative effects on women. Literal interpretation is the way of interpreting the Quran based on what is written in the Quranic verses without looking at the context of revelation of the verses, while the patriarchal interpretation tends to posit men in the main position, regardless of other aspects such as their ability or their economic contribution. 

The following is an example of understanding or interpreting the Qur’anic verse with patriarchal perspective, which is expressed by great influential commentator among Muslim community, that is Ibn Kathir (d. 774 H) in his book of commentary, Tafsir Qur’an al-Karim: 

يقول تعالى: { ٱلرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى ٱلنِّسَآءِ } أي: الرجل قيم على المرأة، أي: هو رئيسها وكبيرها، والحاكم عليها ومؤدبها إذا اعوجت، { بِمَا فَضَّلَ ٱللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍ } أي: لأن الرجال أفضل من النساء، والرجل خير من المرأة، ولهذا كانت النبوة مختصة بالرجال، وكذلك الملك الأعظم؛ لقوله صلى الله عليه وسلم ” لن يفلح قوم ولوا أمرهم امرأة ” رواه البخاري من حديث عبد الرحمن بن أبي بكرة عن أبيه، وكذا منصب القضاء، وغير ذلك، { وَبِمَآ أَنفَقُواْ مِنْ أَمْوَٰلِهِمْ } أي: من المهور والنفقات والكلف التي أوجبها الله عليهم لهن في كتابه وسنة نبيه صلى الله عليه وسلم فالرجل أفضل من المرأة في نفسه، وله الفضل عليها والإفضال، فناسب أن يكون قيماً عليها؛ كما قال الله تعالى :

{ وَلِلرِّجَالِ عَلَيْهِنَّ دَرَجَةٌ}

From the above commentary, it can be conceived that Ibn Kathir does not distinguish between what is natural and non-natural (something strived or constructed) in men and women. This is understandable because the society during the lifetime of Ibn Kathir was patriarchal where in mostly the men were possibly described like in the above commentary that is “men were protectors, leaders, judges and educators of women if they deviate”. Behind that statement, it contains an assumption that men are always more perfect figure than women who are economically, physically and intellectually lower so they needs to be straightened by men. It is evident in his further statement that: “because men are superior to women and men are better than women, therefore the prophetic is solely devoted to men only …” 

In a patriarchal society, women are positioned lower and just to meet all the interests of the patriarch (adult men). That is the women are companion, supporter, wives who devote anything to their husband and mothers who take care of their children. They are not completely regarded as a person who can pursue high education and work, even they can be better than men in terms of education and achievement. The fundamentalists view that men and women are complementary by standardizing their roles that men are the wage earner who work outside home, while women are housewives whose job is only at home. It is based on their literal interpretation on the Qur’an Surah An-Nisa’ (4): 34 as interpreted by Ibn Kathir above. Therefore, the fundamentalists tend to “lay off” women and consider the activities of women outside home as the activity which opposes their nature or even claimed to violate the rules of religion.

The desire of fundamentalist groups to restrict the space of women movement in the public space can be seen from the contents of Perda Shariah they impose. The negative impacts on women is when women are outside home, especially at night and do not dress the way they want, then they are vulnerable to either sexual harassment or arrest due to violating the rules. With the application of regional regulations (Perda) which manages the night time for women and the clothes they should wear, instead of blaming the rapist, the mistake is often addressed to women, for instance, “it is your fault why you go outside at night.” Or “it is your fault why you wear enticing clothes”. In fact, for some women, working at night is often not their option, but a necessity applied by the companies wherein they work like the factory workers, doctors or nurses. In addition, the Ulama do agree on the necessity of covering aurat (ornament), but they differ on the limitation of aurat which should be covered. The formalization of implementation of Sharia in the form of regulations is actually “the enforcement of implementation” on one interpretation against the other diverse interpretations. 

The Importance of Commentary of Gender Justice Perspective

The complementary division of labor between men and women as desired by fundamentalist groups, as the result of literal understanding on the Qur’an 4: 34, is actually not a problem if every man and woman enjoys and is able to perform his/her role well and also does not cause injustice or arbitrariness of the husband to his wife. The problem is there are so many men who cannot or do not want to carry out his role as a head of the family or wage earner.

The recent data of PEKKA (Women Headed Household Empowerment Program) in 2014 showed that 23 percent of families are headed by women and their livelihoods are covered by them. This happens among others because of divorce so that after the divorce, women have to support themselves and their children left by their ex-husbands, because their husbands wander for working but do not come back, or because of their husbands’ illness or disability so that they cannot earn for living. 

I am sure that the data on the numbers of women wage earner can be higher than 23 percent if more massive survey conducted nationally because there are so many women whose husbands are not sick or not disabled but they are reluctant to earn for living or have difficulty to get a job. However, due to the strong patriarchal culture in our society, this fact is often hidden for the purpose of maintaining the men’s honor. As a result, despite the fact that women are the wage earner, but their contributions are often not recognized and not rewarded, while men are still assumed as wage earner with all his authority as the head of the family who must be served and honored. Indeed, this is an injustice because women have double burden that is both earning for livelihood and taking care of the household, while their husbands do not contribute anything but they accept the rights and privileges as the head of family who have to be served. Therefore, it is necessary to deconstruct the patriarchal literal interpretation by reinterpreting the verses which are often used to legitimate men’s superiority that is Surah 4: 34 and 2: 228, from the perspective of gender equality. 

The results of Nasaruddin Umar’s research in his book “the Argument of Gender Equality in the Perspective of Qur’an” which distinguishes between the term dzakar (biologically male) and rijaal (someone who possesses certain criteria / gender) can be used as an alternative to reinterpret those two verses. According to him, one is born as dzakar and he keeps being a dzakar if he cannot fulfill certain criteria to be rijaal. 

By differentiating these two terms, we can understand that to be a rijaal who sustains the economic (qawwam) of the family, a person must be able to fulfill those two conditions determined in Surah 4: 34 those are: (1) has advantages than the other [whether in education or income], and (2) spend their wealth for the family. So a dzakar will always be dzakar, not rijal if he does not meet those two conditions. Thus, if untsa (female) fulfills those two conditions, she can be rijal (masculine) who heads the family. Through this interpretation, the main condition that enables a person to be the head of the family is not based on sex, rather the fulfillment of those two requirements to be a leader, which can be fulfilled by both men and women. 

Men and women ideally should have a complementary role, but it does not mean to be standardized that women must be at home. The ideal of the role division should be adjusted based on the conditions and the contexts of each mate flexibly. Some couples may be more suitable if the husband works outside home and the wife must be at home for taking care of the household, while for others, they may be more comfortable to work together for their livelihood and to share in doing their household’s work including child maintenance. Without denying that there will be the women who become the sole wage earner while their husbands merely become the household’s father. Whatever the roles exercised by men and women, the most important element should be maintained is justice and cooperation between them as stated in Surah At-Tawbah 9: 71 above. Wallaah a`lam bish-shawab. {} 

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