From Issue: 505 [Read full issue]

Inner Voices

Due heed must be paid to small voices (or inner voices) that sometimes challenge the interpretations offered by those who are considered to be speaking authoritatively. Many Muslims have a strong internal conviction that God is just and fair, and that any Quranic interpretation that conflicts with their sense of justice and fairness, even if it is considered authoritative, demands, at the very least, further scrutiny. To this end, stories like the following can encourage ordinary Muslims to feel confident enough to voice their reservations or discomfort with certain interpretations of the Quran.

Zaynab bint Muayqib was a woman of Madina, who, along with thousands of others, went out to attend the funerals of two great men - one a religious scholar and one a poet - who died on the same day at the beginning of the second century of Islam. Zaynab was among a large group of women who were gathering behind one of the coffins. A prominent Sayyid, Abu Jafar Muhammad ibn Ali ("al Baqir" - who would be identified by the Shiites as their fifth "Imam"), tried to approach the coffin. Blocked by the crowds of women who would not part to let him through, Abu Jafar began to snap his cloak at them saying, "Enough, you companions of Joseph!"

In response to Abu Jafar's insult, Zaynab called out, "O son of the Messenger of God, you are correct that we are the companions of Joseph - and we treated him better than you!" After the funeral was over, Abu Jafar sent someone to bring Zaynab to him. The narrator of the story says that Zaynab arrived "as though she were a spark of fire." Abu Jafar asked what she had meant when she said that "(We) women are better than (you) men." Zaynab responded to him: "We women, O son of the Messenger of God, invited (Joseph) to the delights of food and drink, and to enjoy and be comfortable. But you men threw him in the well, sold him for a miserable price and locked him in prison - so which of us was more tender and kind to him?"

When Abu Jafar used the Quran to dismiss the women who got in his way, Zaynab knew this was not fair. Her knowledge was not based on an academic study of the Quran, nor on the claim that she had any special spiritual status that gave her unique insight to the meanings of the Quran. Zaynab, rather, had confidence in her intuitive sense of fairness which allowed her to tell Abu Jafar how she perceived misogyny in his words (for his part, Abu Jafar is said to have expressed admiration at Zaynab's spirited defense). As a woman, Zaynab also had a different perspective than Abu Jafar on the Quranic story of Joseph. In her eyes, the story clearly shows a male propensity for violence and acquiring power at any cost.

Compiled From:
"The Story of the Qur'an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life" - Ingrid Mattson, pp. 226-228