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 Quran and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (P)2–and the legal opinions derived from them by scholars in regard to specific issues.
FACTORS IN INTERPRETATION
The process of extracting laws from the primary sources is a human function. The surmise of legal practitioners may therefore vary considerably and be influenced by their specific times, circumstances and cultures. Obviously, opinions and verdicts of human beings do not enjoy the authority or the finality accorded to the primary sources, which God revealed. Furthermore, interpretation of the primary sources should consider, among other things:
1. The context of any statement or commandment in the Quran 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 as the general perspective of Islam, its teachings, and its worldview. 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 Sunnah in explaining and defining the meaning of the Quranic text
To Muslims, Sunnah is a form of revelation as is the case with the Quran. As such, authentic Sunnah is the second primary source of Islamic teachings, after the Quran. It plays the important roles of defining, explaining and elaborating the Quranic text. For example, the second "pillar" of Islam, prayer, is mentioned in the Qurian 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 Quran may not be its correct meaning if the Prophet (P) qualified or specified what is meant by it. Errors are multiplied when an erroneous literal meaning is translated from the original Arabic text of the Quran 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 14.
Following the above methodology, and for the reader's convenience, the issue of gender equity is discussed under four broad headings:
Chapter 1: The Spiritual Aspect
Chapter 2: The Economic Aspect
Chapter 3: The Social Aspect
Chapter 4: The Political and Legal Aspect
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.