Surah 2: 212-237: divorce law in the Qur’an

So, listen. The Jefferson Qur’an is a critical reevaluation of the Qur’an. Emphasis on critical. The whole point of the book is to razorblade away the parts of the Qur’an that are ridiculous, immoral, or just pointless or repetitive. But it is also an attempt to take the Qur’an more seriously than many parts of either my secular or my American culture do. I live in a country where a substantial percentage of my countrymen want to literally commit genocide against Muslims, to commit war crimes against them, to specifically exempt them from the protections of the Constitution or even of internationally-undisputed norms of basic political and economic rights. There are a lot of people in my country who, whether or not the use the word, hate Muslims. So I think I have a responsibility to be measured in the things that I say and the way that I describe the Qur’an to you.

Women in the Qur’an, Traditions, and Interpretation is an excellent primer on this subject for both Muslims and non-Muslims. The fact that there is something “off” about gender relations in the Qur’an is one of those things that everyone in the culture has some vague awareness of even if they lack specifics. And it’s very true. The Qur’an creates very different legal and even moral worlds for men and for women, and one of those worlds is way better than the other one.

That being said, the same is true of the Bible. The Bible tells women to shut up and stop learning. The Bible tells women to veil their faces. A woman still cannot have the “real” jobs in the Catholic Church or in an Orthodox Jewish community. And, just like the Qur’an, Christians and Jews alike have had centuries of painful self-reflection and attempted rehabilitation of the bizarro gender norms presented in the Bible. I recommend John Maxwell’s Wisdom from Women in the Bible: Giants of the Faith Speak into Our Lives (Giants of the Bible), since a) it is one I have actually read, and b) it, too, does not mince words about the fact that the struggle for gender equality in the modern Christian community is up a very steep hill of textual opposition.

Today’s section deals with divorce laws in the Qur’an. I’m going to skip over verses 2:2-212-2:220 for right now since they are largely duplicative of material from the previous two sections, though there is a lot of good material in them and a lot of it will be included in the final version of the Jefferson Qur’an, as noted at the end of this post. To wit, here is Yusuf Ali’s translation of this crucial section of the Qur’an’s laws on divorce:


221. Do not marry unbelieving women (idolaters), until they believe: A slave woman who believes is better than an unbelieving woman, even though she allures you. Nor marry (your girls) to unbelievers until they believe: A man slave who believes is better than an unbeliever, even though he allures you. Unbelievers do (but) beckon you to the Fire. But Allah beckons by His Grace to the Garden (of bliss) and forgiveness, and makes His Signs clear to mankind: That they may celebrate His praise.

Note that 2:221 at least starts off by giving a reciprocal obligation for both men and for women not to marry “unbelievers.” The Qur’an also acknowledges that both men and women can be “allured” or seduced by the other gender, even though the traditional Western conception of the “seductress” has no male equivalent – the “Lothario” is the closest thing, but he is not evil in the way that a “seductress” is.

222. They ask thee concerning women’s courses. Say: They are a hurt and a pollution: So keep away from women in their courses, and do not approach them until they are clean. But when they have purified themselves, ye may approach them in any manner, time, or place ordained for you by Allah. For Allah loves those who turn to Him constantly and He loves those who keep themselves pure and clean.

Islam is not the only old-time religion that has a bizarre aversion/obsession with menstruation. Levitical law foists an especially weird and sexist aversion to the natural physiological byproducts of being born with two X chromosomes on the believer. The notion that there is something shameful, unhealthy, or even evil about menstruation abounds in religions around the world and I genuinely do not understand it. If there were a God who wanted us to be fruitful and multiply, you think he’d want us to be rather fond of the menstrual cycle, since a woman who menstruates is the sole fruitful multiplier of humans in the universe. I don’t know. It’s strange. I have no use for “periods are gross” in what is supposed to be the anthology of supreme moral guidance and cosmic wisdom.

Notice also that this part of the Qur’an does not specify what it means for a woman to “purify” herself after she stops menstruating. I assume this is because Muhammed likely lived in a culture that, like many cultures of his (and our) day, had a general aversion to menstruation and so already had “menstruation purification” rituals built into it, the same way that if I tell someone to “blow their nose” or “be polite,” the culture around me will supply the details of what that actually means without me having to spell it out in great detail. What the purification ritual looked like for Muhammed’s culture is hard to say with specificity except that, later in the Qur’an, I will be able to show you what it means for Muhammed.

223. Your wives are as a tilth unto you; so approach your tilth when or how ye will; but do some good act for your souls beforehand; and fear Allah. And know that ye are to meet Him (in the Hereafter), and give (these) good tidings to those who believe.

224. And make not Allah.s (name) an excuse in your oaths against doing good, or acting rightly, or making peace between persons; for Allah is One Who heareth and knoweth all things.

225. Allah will not call you to account for thoughtlessness in your oaths, but for the intention in your hearts; and He is Oft-forgiving, Most Forbearing.

“Tilth” means the cultivation of land. It’s a nice sentiment, to respect your wives as, you know, fertile fields, but it lacks a certain romantic charm.

Also note in 225, the believer is presented with another inconsistent proposal as to whether or not the Qur’an has a universalist soteriology. 

226. For those who take an oath for abstention from their wives, a waiting for four months is ordained; if then they return, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.

227. But if their intention is firm for divorce, Allah heareth and knoweth all things.

228. Divorced women shall wait concerning themselves for three monthly periods. Nor is it lawful for them to hide what Allah Hath created in their wombs, if they have faith in Allah and the Last Day. And their husbands have the better right to take them back in that period, if they wish for reconciliation. And women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable; but men have a degree (of advantage) over them. And Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.

2:228 is the quintessential legal framework for divorce in the Qur’an. A woman has to wait for three menstrual cycles before her divorce is finalized. Her husband gets a 90-day, no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee on divorce. Women have rights “similar” to men according to what is “equitable,” but also men have “advantage” over them. The unhelpful lack of specificity has given Islamic societies around the world to interpret to their hearts’ content, with sometimes truly revolting results.

229. A divorce is only permissible twice: after that, the parties should either hold Together on equitable terms, or separate with kindness. It is not lawful for you, (Men), to take back any of your gifts (from your wives), except when both parties fear that they would be unable to keep the limits ordained by Allah. If ye (judges) do indeed fear that they would be unable to keep the limits ordained by Allah, there is no blame on either of them if she give something for her freedom. These are the limits ordained by Allah. so do not transgress them if any do transgress the limits ordained by Allah, such persons wrong (Themselves as well as others).

230. So if a husband divorces his wife (irrevocably), He cannot, after that, re-marry her until after she has married another husband and He has divorced her. In that case there is no blame on either of them if they re-unite, provided they feel that they can keep the limits ordained by Allah. Such are the limits ordained by Allah, which He makes plain to those who understand.

2:229 tells a man that, if he has left his wife but “reclaimed” here before her three periods are up, he only gets one more shot at walking away before they have to make a decision. Looking at this verse it strikes me as like one of those American laws that is so weirdly specific and seemingly unnecessary that it must have been based on some specific incident that was so stupid that they just had to make a law out of it. Maybe Muhammed had a companion who was a serial heartbreaker, or one of those relationships like you knew in college where two of your friends would break up and get back together every six weeks for four years, and got so sick of it that he created a divine law just to shut them up. My Facebook might actually benefit from a rule like this.

231. When ye divorce women, and they fulfil the term of their (‘Iddat), either take them back on equitable terms or set them free on equitable terms; but do not take them back to injure them, (or) to take undue advantage; if any one does that; He wrongs his own soul. Do not treat Allah.s Signs as a jest, but solemnly rehearse Allah.s favours on you, and the fact that He sent down to you the Book and Wisdom, for your instruction. And fear Allah, and know that Allah is well acquainted with all things.

(‘Iddat is the three-period waiting, uh, period, established above.)

232. When ye divorce women, and they fulfil the term of their (‘Iddat), do not prevent them from marrying their (former) husbands, if they mutually agree on equitable terms. This instruction is for all amongst you, who believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is (the course Making for) most virtue and purity amongst you and Allah knows, and ye know not.

233. The mothers shall give such to their offspring for two whole years, if the father desires to complete the term. But he shall bear the cost of their food and clothing on equitable terms. No soul shall have a burden laid on it greater than it can bear. No mother shall be Treated unfairly on account of her child. Nor father on account of his child, an heir shall be chargeable in the same way. If they both decide on weaning, by mutual consent, and after due consultation, there is no blame on them. If ye decide on a foster-mother for your offspring, there is no blame on you, provided ye pay (the mother) what ye offered, on equitable terms. But fear Allah and know that Allah sees well what ye do.

234. If any of you die and leave widows behind, they shall wait concerning themselves four months and ten days: When they have fulfilled their term, there is no blame on you if they dispose of themselves in a just and reasonable manner. And Allah is well acquainted with what ye do.

235. There is no blame on you if ye make an offer of betrothal or hold it in your hearts. Allah knows that ye cherish them in your hearts: But do not make a secret contract with them except in terms Honourable, nor resolve on the tie of marriage till the term prescribed is fulfilled. And know that Allah Knoweth what is in your hearts, and take heed of Him; and know that Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Forbearing.

236. There is no blame on you if ye divorce women before consummation or the fixation of their dower; but bestow on them (A suitable gift), the wealthy according to his means, and the poor according to his means;- A gift of a reasonable amount is due from those who wish to do the right thing.

237. And if ye divorce them before consummation, but after the fixation of a dower for them, then the half of the dower (Is due to them), unless they remit it or (the man’s half) is remitted by him in whose hands is the marriage tie; and the remission (of the man’s half) is the nearest to righteousness. And do not forget Liberality between yourselves. For Allah sees well all that ye do.

These rules are more helpfully specific than the rules for divorce in the Bible and are detailed enough that one could actually build a legal framework around them. Remember, Muhammed is building a nation, not just a cult, so his rules will necessarily be more detailed and specific than anything you read in the New Testament. But do notice that these rules, even if they sound equitable or at least not entirely unfair (you must, for example, be reasonable in dividing a dower if you divorce before it is exercised), these rules are addressed to men. The women are them and the men are ye.

The Qur’an, like many other old-time religions, is also fixated on virginity and “consummation” in what strikes me as an unhealthy fashion. Having a specific rule to help you arithmetize the money owed to a person based on whether or not you’ve had sex with them is just strange to me and probably sounds very weird to modern ears. This, too, is likely based on rules that preexist Muhammed in pre-Islamic Arabia.

“Liberality” in 2:237 can also be translated as “generosity,” FYI.

So, now to carve some goodness out of this strange and slightly perverted section. Here is the material that I will be including in the final product, the Jefferson Qur’an:

2:212 The life of this world is alluring to those who reject faith.

I just like the sentiment here. Life just seems better to people who “reject faith.” As an atheist, I do not have to believe that my life is just a waiting room for death, that not much really matters in the finite life because there is an infinite life waiting for me afterward.

2:215 They ask you what they should spend in charity. Say: Whatever you spend that is good, is for parents and kindred and orphans and those in want and for wayfarers.

2:216 It is possible that you dislike a thing which is good for you, and you love a thing which is bad for you.

2:217 Tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter.

2:219 They ask you concerning wine and gambling. Say: “In them is great sin, and some profit, for men; but the sin is greater than the profit.” They ask you how much they are to spend; say: “What is beyond your needs.”

2:224 Make not Allah’s name an excuse in your oaths against doing good, or acting rightly or making peace between persons.

2:233 No mother shall be treated unfairly on account of her child, nor father on account of his child.

2:235 There is no blame on you if you make an offer of betrothal or hold it in your hearts.

Most of the material that remains falls into my generous-to-the-Qur’an rule of “anything relatively unconcontroversially good gets through to the Jefferson Qur’an,” even though much of this material is repeated from earlier sections.