…And the male is not like the female. [Sûrat Al ¢Imrân, 3:36]
CRADLING HER NEWBORN daughter in her arms, Ḥinna bint Fâqûdh, the wife of ¢Imrân and the mother of Maryam, cried out these words in anguish and dismay. While pregnant, she had sworn an oath to dedicate her child in the service of her Lord – presuming that the fetus was male, for only boys and men were allowed to worship in the holy spaces of Jerusalem. When she had uttered her vow during pregnancy, she had assumed – as many do – that the privileges allotted to men were a symbol of their superiority. After all, only men were Prophets, and only men are given the authority to be considered imâm and amîr of their communities and their households.
Yet Allah, Al-Muṣawwir (the Fashioner) knew best what was in her womb, and indeed it was He who created Maryam (a.k.a. Mary, the mother of Jesus) to be a woman, not a man. It was Allah who decreed something far greater for the tiny girl held in her mother’s arms, a destiny that would forever be commemorated until the end of time. And it was Allah who commanded His Prophet Zakariyyah to take the young child and her in the worship of her Lord. In a time when dedicated worship to Allah was considered a right reserved for men, Allah ordered that Maryam – barely more than an infant – be given her own miḥrâb in Bayt Al-Maqdis. From above the seven heavens, the angels themselves testified to Maryam’s position:
And when the angels said, “O Mary, indeed Allah has chosen you and purified you and chosen you above the women of the worlds. O Mary, be devoutly obedient to your Lord and prostrate and bow with those who bow [in prayer]!” [Sûrat Al ¢Imrân, 3:42-43]
And the male is not like the female… whereas Hinna feared that her daughter’s gender would prevent her from achieving greatness, Allah Himself made Maryam a Divine Sign to the entire universe: that indeed, the male is not like the female, for a female was capable of piety that so many men of our world are unable to attain.
The Messenger of Allah œ declared in his last sermon:
O people! Your Lord is one Lord, and you all share the same father. There is no preference for Arabs over non-Arabs, nor for non-Arabs over Arabs. Neither is their preference for white people over black people, nor for black people over white people. Preference is only through righteousness. (Aḥmad)
Allah Himself said in the Quran:
And their Lord responded to them, “Never will I allow to be lost the work of [any] worker among you, whether male or female; you are of one another… [Sûrat Âl ¢Imrân, 3:195]
It is clear from the words of Allah and His Messenger that importance in the sight of Allah does not lie in the roles and responsibilities one has been given, regardless of gender, but rather in the righteousness that each individual develops and acts upon. Maryam is the ultimate example of how superiority is dependent not upon one’s gender, but upon one’s actions. Allah chose her above so many others, men and women alike, to highlight precisely this point.
Alas, today we have those who repeat Hinna’s words in a spirit that echoes the misunderstanding that superiority lies in one gender over the other.
Today, the ayah …And the male is not like the female is so often used to tell women to shut up – to tell them not to question injustices committed against them, to remain silent when their Shar¢i rights are stripped from them, to accept ill treatment and flimsy excuses instead of legitimate explanations for ‘scholarly’ sayings and rulings issued that only harm women.
Whereas the Prophet Zakariyyah’s guardianship over Maryam emphasized that she was to be honored and respected, there are men and women alike today who would rather echo a different attitude entirely. Their attitude was – and is – that the difference between male and female was one of superiority and inferiority; that women are not considered as worthy by Allah as men are; that what makes women different is what makes them far less important.
And the male is not like the female: Female input is required in all spheres of life because women have insights that men may never be able to come up with, yet for women, they are clear and obvious, a part of our everyday lives. There is wisdom and benefit in our differences.
The Prophet œ used to consult and discuss matters with his wives and female Companions on a regular basis, knowing that they had valuable contributions to offer.
- It was Umm Salamah who provided the provided œ with successful advice at Ḥudaybiyya; it was Ḥafṣah to whom ‘Umar went to ask about the longest period of time that women could stand to be away from their husbands.
- It was ¢Âishah who provided valuable commentary on many aḥâdîth and would inspect the menstrual pads of other women in order to determine whether or not their menses had ended.
- It was ¢Amrah bint ¢Abd Al-Raḥmân who was considered an expert on financial transactions by the scholars of Madinah.
- It was Ḥafṣah bint Sîrîn who was praised as being a superior source of fiqh and tafsîr over the men of her era.
- It was Umm Al-Dardâ’ Al-Ṣughra’ to whom caliph ¢Abd Al-Malik ibn Marwân used to travel to study with, seeking her insights.
Allah mentions our differences to remind us that we need each other – not that we must work against each other. We are meant to appreciate each other and grow in love for each other. Indeed, the history of Islam is filled with examples of men and women who cooperated together and strengthened each other, and who worked together to make this Ummah great.
Today, it is heartbreaking to see the âyah used in a perverse manner instead – one used to put women down and insult their intelligence rather than uplifting them and encouraging them. When women ask questions, whether about polygyny, inheritance, Jannah, or anything else, they are often responded to, not with thoughtful answers and explanations, but with the expectation for them to fall silent and to accept attitudes and authority when these are clearly incorrect.
Though the words were said by Maryam’s mother in worry over being unable to fulfill her oath, Allah gave those words a greater meaning: that Maryam, a female, was not like a male – if Hinna had had a son instead of a daughter, then history would have been very, very different.
Yet those words, which should remind us of the greatness of women and their role in our Dîn, are used instead to humiliate and marginalize women on an almost daily basis.
The ‘fitna’ that men face is claimed to be greater than any oppression, injustice, or temptation that women face – because ‘we aren’t the same.’ Why not pause for a moment and think about how indeed, we are not the same: In so many ways, the fitna that women face is either the same or so much greater.
Sex? Money? Power? Women suffer in so many ways because of them, yet they are consistently told that their desires don’t matter; their access to finances is unnecessary, and they have no authority outside the domestic sphere; to seek any of the above is to ‘try and be like men.’
The idea that women are merely trying to be seen as full-fledged humans with all the needs and necessities associated, appears alien to so many men – even the ‘good’ ones, the ones who do not intend harm, the ones who do not intend injustice, yet who have heard ‘the male is not like the female‘ for so long and in all the wrong ways, that they refuse to believe women when they are beseeched to understand how indeed, the way women are not like them is because women suffer so much… and often at their hands, intentionally or not.
In truth, the Divine words And the male is not like the female is meant to emphasize that the differences between male and female should not be viewed as some kind of validation for the marginalization of women, but to celebrate the fact that men and women alike were created uniquely. There are indeed many commonalities between the genders, but there is also difference – and these differences are to be appreciated, not mocked. These differences are meant to be used in tandem with each other so that the genders can complement each other and support each other to build a beautiful, holistic environment wherein everyone benefits – not just one group.
From Hinna bint Fâqûdh, we know that the male is not like the female; from Maryam we know that the female is capable of so much more than we choose to acknowledge. However, as long as the Divine Words of Allah are twisted to inflict oppression, then we will continue to see another, darker reality of the verse: And the male is not like the female!
We ask Allah to make us of those who understand the wisdom of His Words and live according to them in the most excellent of ways, and not amongst those who abuse His Words for our own desires and benefit.