I enjoy my own language, and when I come across a word which might not be so familiar to me, I like to check its meaning. So when in a written phrase I came across the word ‘tilth’, I reached for my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and discovered that tilth is “labour, work or effort, directed to useful or profitable ends.” It is derived from the term tillage, meaning soil that is tilled or ploughed before seed is sown, and comes (as you probably can guess) from farming methods of the Middle Ages.
|A field is tilled, the seed is sown, and the crop can later be harvested. But if the field is instead used as a metaphor, can we be so certain that what we have sown is what we also shall reap?|
The phrase which contains this term is: “Your women are a tilth for you, so go to your tilth as you will.” This is startling enough. It is not an implication, but a statement, and this statement plainly declares that women are to be viewed – and treated – by men as ploughed fields in which they can ‘sow their seed’ – a metaphor so obvious that it becomes literal – ‘as you will’: as they want to, and whenever they feel like it. There is no arguing with this phrase, no ‘but it really means...’ type of protest possible. It says what it says, and what it says would seem to be a particularly crude example of arrogant male chauvinism.
I wonder what you might now be thinking? Are you uncomfortably thinking that this phrase could come from some discreetly-overlooked verse of scripture? Such rampant chauvinism in scripture is, it has to be said, hardly unknown. My posts here already have dealt with the notorious verses in Paul’s pastoral letters which, we now know, are not actually by Paul at all. These particular verses read like a rule book of women’s dos and don’ts as prescribed by the Church, even though they were written by an unknown hand several decades after Paul lived, presumably as an ecclesiastical way of keeping women in their place.
But this phrase does not appear in Christian scripture. It can in fact be read in Surah 2:223, the second Surah of the Quran titled Al-Baqarah (The Cow), which is where I came across it. But perhaps this phrase is just an isolated exception among these Surahs? I read on for a few verses more. At the end of verse 2:228 comes this statement: “And women have rights similar to those of men in a just manner…” Well (I think) this is more reassuring. But then comes the twist at the end: “…and men are a degree above them.” This is again unequivocal. Men, according to the Quran, are a rather more superior class of creation than women.
Surah 4 of the Quran is titled An-Nisa’ (The Women) and prescribes various guidelines for family, relationship and inheritance issues not dissimilar to such Old Testament lawgiving passages. In verse 4:34 we read: “Men are in charge of women, because God has made them excel the other, and because they spend their property (for the support of women). …As for those (women) from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them…”. If there were any doubts before about how women should be viewed and treated, this verse definitively dispels them. A woman who is kept by a man is at the behest of that man. Any woman who objects to her allotted status is to be scourged. My above dictionary defines this variously as being flogged, whipped or beaten.
There are other such examples among the Surahs, but I shall briefly quote one from Surah 4:117-121. These verses are about the error and folly of following other beliefs, and having in the previous verses been assured that whomever opposes the Messenger (Muhammad) shall be ‘exposed to Hell’, we read: “They invoke in His (God’s) stead only females (female deities); they pray to none else than Satan…” In short: other gods are bad enough, but goddesses are beyond the pale, and any respect due to them amounts to Satanism, with ‘they’ in this instance referring to virtually anyone not following Islam. But the goddess manifests through every young girl, every woman, and certainly through every mother, and every last Islamic terrorist owes the gift of his life, his very existence, to the mother who bore him and brought him into the world.
I undertook the writing of this particular post, not as a specific protest against what would seem to be the Quran’s advocating of gender inequality (although that arises of itself out of the material quoted here), but to try and come to terms with, and even to attempt to find reasons for, a news item which I happened to read. The incident, I warn you, is disturbing, and involved a young recruit of Islamic State who dragged his mother out into the street and executed her in public with a single shot. Her crime? She attempted to persuade her son to leave IS. This incident is so many different kinds of wrong that we might struggle to take them in. What is left of our own humanity when we are driven to such an act? What does it say about the beliefs which we profess, both religious and ideological?
Barack Obama among others has protested that such inhuman atrocities have nothing to do with the religion which their members profess to follow. I disagree. Were that so, then the followers of IS would be a mere brigandage, bereft of religious adherence. But terrorism in these early years of our century means Islamic terrorism, and the mass rapings of women and young girls by IS are documented. The Nigerian Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram has forced the two hundred Christian schoolgirls it abducted two years ago to convert to Islam and take Islamic ’husbands’. In reality, girls kidnapped by this Islamic terrorist group and also by IS either are used for domestic labour, or are themselves forced to commit atrocities, or are used as sex slaves.
Maybe Islamic terrorism is Islamic for a reason. And maybe Muslim attitudes towards women exist for a reason, and the words from the Quran quoted here are as they are: men are superior to women, men have rights over women, and domestic violence towards women is both sanctioned and condoned. When the Prophet Muhammad consummated his marriage to his third wife Aisha he was already into his fifties. She was nine.
The Prophet said that women totally dominate men of intellect and are possessors of hearts.
But ignorant men dominate women, for they are shackled by the ferocity of animals.
But ignorant men dominate women, for they are shackled by the ferocity of animals.
 The term ‘Shorter’ in the title is perhaps ironic: the dictionary is necessarily split into two large format volumes totalling almost eight thousand pages.
 Please see my post "Behold This Woman".
 The chapters of the Quran are known as Surahs (or Suras), with 114 Surahs of various lengths. The verses of each Surah are known as ayahs.
 As I have abridged the verse in my post, I will give the verse here in full: “Men are in charge of women, because God has made them excel the other, and because they spend their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which God has guarded. As for those from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! God is ever High Exalted, Great!"
 The BBC has a policy of referring in its news items to Islamic State as ‘so-called Islamic State’ to accurately reflect the fact that the group is not actually a state at all.
 Like Islamic State in the Middle East, Boko Haram in Nigeria wants to establish an Islamic caliphate in their region. To this end they oppose all forms of education which are not strictly Islamic, which is why they specifically target schools, with hundreds of students being killed or abducted. Boko Haram also opposes any form of education for women, as do the Taliban in Afghanistan, which is why schoolgirls are targeted, either to be killed or kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam.
 Moses, who appears both in the Old Testament, the Torah and the Quran, allowed his forces to keep the young girls they captured ‘for themselves’ (please see the Old Testament's Book of Numbers 31:18 and my post Frontier Justice in the Promised Land). So even after all these centuries men are still using religion as a pretext for behaving like beasts towards womankind, and the whole premise that religion of itself makes someone inherently more morally decent and altruistic is a sham.
 The co-ordinated mass sexual assaults on women that occurred during the 2015-16 New Year celebrations in Cologne (below), allegedly by males of North African origin, are also relevant here. It would seem that any women who by Islamic cultural standards behave ‘provocatively’ are perceived as having loose morals and are therefore seen as fair game. There seems to have been little awareness among these men that what they did was actually a criminal offence.
 These are the ages of Aisha given in paragraph 66, Book 62, Volume 7 of the hadith (commentaries on the Prophet) Sahih al-Bukhari. There is some disagreement about the exact age of Aisha. She apparently was six or seven when she married Muhammed, with the marriage being consummated when she was either nine or ten years old. One commentary points out that it was normal for young girls to be married off at that time and in that culture. But what might be culturally acceptable is not by default morally right, and such an assertion directly contradicts the claim that the Quran is outside of time, and speaks to all ages and all cultures. Clearly it does not. What it reflects is a 7th-century Arabic culture, just as the Old Testament reflects a Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age tribal culture and its attendant social values.
DIFFERENCES IN TRANSLATIONS: It is worth noting that various online English translations of the Quran give slightly differing versions from the translation I have used for this post. Indeed, one supplies candidly specific instructions: “2:223. Your wives are a tilth for you, so go to your tilth (have sexual relations with your wives in any manner as long as it is in the vagina and not in the anus), when or how you will…” Or more agriculturally: “2:223. Your women are cultivation for you; so approach your cultivation whenever you like...” In Surah 4 some coyly translate “scourge” as “beat (lightly)” or “chastise”. But as my dictionary defines ‘chastise’ as ‘to inflict corporal punishment’, it’s really the same difference. And beating is still laying a hand on a woman, however the term is moderated by adding ‘lightly’.
THE ARCHANGEL AND WOMEN: It is worth remembering that the Quran is purported to have been dictated to the Prophet Muhammed by the archangel Gabriel. As with any such claim by any belief, this claim clearly is unprovable, and so falls within the province of religious belief. It nevertheless is reasonable to question the validity of such a claim when this in turn means that the archangel, and therefore God, not only is okay with but actually advocates the treatment of women as quoted above in the Quran.
A MATTER OF PERSONAL HYGENE: What struck me in my reading of the Quran is that, unlike Christian scripture, it clearly addresses itself to a male readership: “your women”, "your wives" etc. To offer one final quote: Surah 4:43 concerns personal hygiene and cleanliness, and advises: “And if you be ill, or on a journey, or one of you comes from answering a call of nature, or you have touched women, and you find no water, then go to high clean soil and rub you faces and your hands (therewith). Lo! God is Benign, Forgiving.” We might trust that God also is benign enough to forgive those who compare touching women with washing your hands after going to the toilet.
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles. Oxford University Press, revised edition 1980.
The Quran Translated: Message for Humanity. Based on the English translation of M. Marmaduke Pickthall. Revised by: International Committee for the Support of the Final Prophet. Washington, D.C., 2005. I will restate the point made previously on this blog: irrespective of my own beliefs, I treat all books in my possession which are regarded by others as religious texts with due care and equal respect.
Islamic State militant 'executes own mother' in Raqqa. BBC News website, 8 January 2016. Retrieved on 19 March 2016.
Terrorists kidnap more than 200 Nigerian girls. USA Today, April 21 2014. Retrieved on 19 March 2016.
Photos from Reuters, AFP/Getty Images, Colourbox and uncredited sources.