INTRODUCTION AND METHODOLOGY
Islam and Cultural Practices
When writing or speaking about the Islamic position on any issue, one ought to clearly differentiate between the normative teachings of Islam and the diversity of cultural practices prevalent among its adherents that may or may not be consistent with those teachings. This paper discusses the normative teachings of Islam with regard to the standing and role of women in society as the criteria by which to judge the practice of Muslims and to evaluate their compliance with Islam.
Primary Sources of Islam
In identifying what is "Islamic" it is necessary to make a clear distinction between the primary sources of Islam -- the Qur'an and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (P) -- and legal opinions derived from them by scholars in regard to specific issues.
Factors in InterpretationThe process of extracting laws from the primary sources is a human function. The surmise of legal practitioners may therefore vary considerabley and be influenced by their specific times, circumstances and cultures. Obviously, opinions and verdicts of human beings do not enjoy the autheority or the finality accorded to the primary sources, which God revealed. Futhermore, interpretation of the primary sources should consider, among other things:
1. The context of any statement or commandment in the Qur'an and the Sunnah.
In the case of the Qur'an, this includes both the context of the surah and the verses under examination, as well a sthe general perspective of Islam, its teachings, and its world-view. As for the Sunnah of the Prophet (P) the same applies to its texts.
2. The occasion of revelation that is, the historical background providing the primary reasons or causes underlying revelation of a Qur'anic portion or verse to the Prophet (P), which may help to better elucidate its meaning; and, with regard to the Sunnah, the event or the incident that occasioned the statement or action of the Prophet.
3. The role of the Sunnah in explaining and defining the meaning of the Qur'anic text.
To Muslims, Sunnah is a form of revealation given to Prophet Muhammad (P), but not verbatim, as is the case with the Qur'an. As such, authentic Sunnah is the second primary source of Islamic teachings, after the Qur'an. It plays the important roles of defining, explaining and elaborating the Qur'anic text. for example, the second "pillar" of Islam, prayer, is mentioned in the Qur'an but without details about how it should be performed. Such details were left for Prophet Muhammad (P) to explain based on the instructions of angel Gabriel.
Disregard or ignorance of sunnah may lead to serious errors of interpretation. At times, the literal or lexical meaning of a term used in the qur'an may not be its correct meaning if the Prophet (P) qualified or specified what is meant by it. erros are multipled when an erroneous literal meaning is translated from the original Arabic text of the Qur'an into another language, which, in turn may have its own connotations for the translated words used. A detailed illustration of this type of error is provided in endnote.
Following the above methodology, and for the reader's convenience, the issue of gender equity is discussed under four broad headings:
It is hoped that, insha'Allah (God willing), this humble contribution may help in providing a basic frame of reference for more detailed treatments of this vital topic, from an Islamic perspective.