Now, whenever I come across something within early scholarship on the Qur’ān that calls for liberating women, I usually brace myself for someone who will come along and try to undo it. I naturally assumed, after reading al-Farrā’, that Ṭabarī was going to sell us out. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t! He affirms his predecessor’s reading: “This reading, with the kasrah on the qāf, is the one I consider to be most correct, for, if it is from waqār as we have chosen (‘alā mā akhtarnā), then there is no doubt that the reading must have a kasrah on the qāf.”
So, the root waqara becomes qir in the command form (be dignified). For addressing a group of women, the letter nūn would be added to make the word: qirna. Ṭabarī then reminds us of other verbs that behave the same way in the command form. Waʿda (promise) becomes ʿid. Wazana (weigh) becomes zin.
He then repeats al-Farrā’ verbatim, pointing out that if you’re going to use the other root (qarra, to be sedentary) then you have a lot more work to do to coax it into dropping the extra rā’. Zamakhsharī (d. 1144) follows this model of presenting both possibilities, but he does not align himself with one. Qurṭubī (d. 1272), who usually copies Ṭabarī verbatim, affirms that the proper pronunciation is with a kasrah, but chooses the alternate meaning, despite all the machinations necessary to bring it into line with the rules of grammar.
Still he notes that he has heard a different meaning altogether, “from aqarr bihi ‘aynan (to have joy),” and the meaning is, “take joy in your homes (wa-qrirna bihi ‘aynān fī buyūtikunna).” Ignoring the fact that this reading doesn’t quite work grammatically (to what does the bihi refer?), Qurṭubī says it’s reasonable (wa huwa wajh ḥasan), but there’s a hadith that says women should stay home. “Ammār told ‘Ā’ishah that God had told her to stay home, and she replied, ‘Oh, Abā Yaqdhān, You’re still speaking the Truth!’”
‘Ā’ishah, the “most eloquent of people “(not just women), the expert on early law and teacher of a generation! Can you envision an exchange like that? I don’t THINK so. However, let’s not dismiss it before we take a look and see if this gem made it into Bukhārī or Muslim.
Zip. Zero. Big fat bagels. Nothing in Bukhārī, Muslim, Tirmidhī, Abū Dā’ūd, Ibn Mājah or Mālik’s Muwaṭṭa’. Nothing, of course, in al-Farrā’ or Ṭabarī. In short, here’s what we have: We have al-Farrā’ and after him, we have Ṭabarī, both of whom are good enough for our male religious establishment on any and all other occasions, both arguing that the absence of the kasrah would make this word into something it’s not. Ibn Mujāhid himself notes that only two of the Seven Readers use the fatḥah and ALL FIVE of the others use the kasrah.
But, hey, let’s take the Ibn-Mujāhid equal-validity-of-all-seven-readings idea and just say that aqrarna could indeed reduce to qarna (with the fatḥah not the kasrah). We are then left with the command form of remain or settle, which is what we find in our Qur’ān today. On what basis does it have to mean anything other than, settle your homes and make them stable places? In other words, don’t leave your homes and go on a 30-city tour with Led Zeppelin! Be there for your kids. Read to your kids, or read for yourself, a book (or the Qur’ān!) instead of spending your time “getting your tabarruj on” at the Clinique counter.
There is space for both of these interpretations. (But the dignity one is “more correct” says Mr. Sunnī Universe.)
Nearly 100 years ago in Turkey, Mustafa Kemal tried to prove to the world that Muslim women were not prisoners of their homes. He offered enticements to bring them out of their houses, encouraging them to learn and to work. He even put them in beauty pageants to show them off, or beat the non-Muslim world at its own game (well, heck, how better to honor a woman than to parade her, scantily-clad, up and down a catwalk?!). But that he had something to prove is the bummer, right? That Muslim women had been prisoners of their homes, and were certainly still perceived as such, surely played into his decision to take an opposite extreme.
We don’t have to participate in beauty pageants to prove we are not prisoners. But we still have prisons from which to liberate ourselves and our sisters. One such prison is that of illiteracy (when was the last time any of us helped a sister learn to read in any language?), and the other is the prison in which patriarchal interpretation is unquestioningly accepted. There is space to be found in our sources for kinder, gentler interpretations; there are scholars whose beautiful minds win them all kinds of crowns and sashes among the “male establishment,” and indeed among ‘trying-to-cope’ believing women like you and me. And there is no reason why women can’t win the pageants of the mind. We could crowd several catwalks with history’s Muslim women scholars; ‘Ā’ishah and Ḥafṣa bint Sīrīn were but two of our earliest stars.
However, for now, I reckon we girls need to spend just a little more time cracking the grammar books.
I’m staying home today to do just that…
Carolyn Baugh is a PhD candidate in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is writing her doctoral dissertation on the subject of forced prepubescent marriage in early Islamic legal texts. She is also the author of a novel entitled “The View from Garden City” (Forge, 2008).
Photo Credit: Fadzly’s Eyes