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Women Are Not Nisa’ !

Studying the Qur’an is my life-long hobby. From a young age I attended study circles and memorized the Qur’an, and have always been passionate about exploring and learning from it. So I wonder, why has it taken me fifty years to realize something so critical for understanding this globally known text?

It all started with my Exploring the Qur’an class. We were going to discuss family and relationships in society, so naturally I turned to Surat al-Nisa’, which I had always been taught focused on women (al-nisa’ in modern Arabic). To my surprise, careful examination of only the first six verses opened my eyes to a new possibility: nisa’ does not mean women!

This should not have been such a big surprise–a lot of common understanding of the Quf’an is based on misinterpretation of key words, such as “Shaytan, nafs, ‘adhab” (شيطان، نفس، عذاب). But seeing that such a “basic” word like “women” had been inaccurately translated was a significant discovery–it “hit different,” as my students say.

As it turns out, nisa’ is not “women,” but refers to those who are behind in society. Verses 1-6 of Surat al-Nisa’, then, discuss how to promote balance and social justice:

  • Verse 1 announces that this call is to all people, and explains that while Allah created everyone, some are more advanced than others, whether in terms of age and experience, or degree of wealth or social standing.

  • Verse 2 continues addressing all people, and gives special instructions on how to handle the wealth or property of orphans given into another person’s trust.

  • Verse 3 proposes different degrees for caring for orphans, from effectively adopting them, to supporting just one, to not taking responsibility for any and instead focusing on one’s own domestic obligations, in the case that someone does not feel they could do justice to one orphan.

  • Verse 4 instructs people to give charity to support the less fortunate.

  • Verses 5 and 6 are directed at anyone in charge of managing an orphan’s affairs; they specify that underage orphans must be cared for prudently without wasting their own wealth, and that once they reach the age of being able to make contracts, that the orphans under care should receive their own independent wealth.

Notably, verse 3 is typically used as a justification for polygamy in Islam. As we can see here, with a fresh understanding of the topic, this is no longer the case! What an outstanding repositioning of the message of the Qur’an. It is an honor to be among the elite researchers of today releasing the Qur’an from centuries of politically- and culturally-dominated interpretation. May we all maintain open minds and hearts ready to receive new guidance, consider new possibilities, and accept new directions in life that bring us closer to harmony with the universe and with each other.

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