Intermezzo – The Wife of Adam and the Biblical Eve

The Wife of Adam and the Biblical Eve

Gender issues in the interpretation of the Qur’an

Intermezzo by Barbara Freyer Stowasser

For the Qur’an interpreters of the classical age and their modern traditionalist descendants, the women of sacred Qur’anic history, like the prophetic figures with whom they are associated, belong into a special ‘sacred’ realm of past factual events. These were the events that marked humankind’s historical evolution toward God’s final message in human time, of which the Prophet Muhammad received knowledge by way of revelation. However even the most literalist interpreters past and present, have also recognized the symbolic, ‘exemplary’ didactic dimension of the Qur’anic message in relation to the women of the sacred past. Over time, Islamic scripturalist scholars molded the images of women figures in the Qur’an to enforce their own societies’ prevailing value systems. In so doing they often in changed the images’ of these women of their nature and role, as first expressed in the Qur’an.

Classical Islamic interpretation of the notion of ‘women’s nature’ as exemplified in the person of Adam’s wife represents an example of this process. It shows how the medieval Qur’an interpreters brought about a paradigmatic alteration, a negation even of the Qur’anic theme of women’s full humanity, spiritual freedom, and moral responsibility. This shift in understanding was achieved by way of adaptation of Bible-related lore (isra’iliyyat) available in the form of Hadith (traditions about the life and words of Muhammad)). Their chain of transmission often originated with an early Jewish or Christian convert to Islam. The isra’iliyyat, including their symbolic images of the female’s defective nature, helped to enforce some of the sociopolitical foundations of the medieval Islamic world view; thus, they were seamlessly integrated into an Islamic framework.

The theme of ‘woman’s weakness’ with its paradoxical twin, ‘woman as threat to the male and society,’ dominated the scripture-based paradigm on gender throughout the medieval period, and the isra’iliyyat played a major role in its formulation. The modern age, which in the Arab world had its first stirrings in the eighteenth century, required a different scripturalist canon on women. As the image of female spiritual, mental, and physical defectiveness were being replaced by those of female nurturing strength and women’s importance in the struggle for cultural revival, the old Bible-derived legends ceased to be meaningful. It is, therefore, in nineteenth-century modernist tafsir that we first find a full-scale rejection of isra’ilivvat traditions.

Nevertheless, Bible-related traditions of gender images survived in traditionalist interpretation into the twentieth century. Since the 1980’s, there is now also a discernible feminist voice in Qur’anic interpretation that endeavors to separate and eliminate the Hadith-based classical interpretation from the Qur’an’s gender-egalitarian message.

Classical Muslim interpretation of the Qur’anic story of the rebellion of Adam and his wife against their Lord departs from the scripturalist referent in numerous ways. When al-Tabari (d. 923) wrote his great Hadith-based Qur’an commentary in the late ninth and early tenth centuries, many traditions on the story were in circulation which the Muslim scholars – as Tabari repeatedly acknowledges – “had learned from the people of the Torah.” While he quotes large numbers of these traditions, Tabari remains cautious as to their reliability; frequently he indicates mental reservations with the phrase “God knows best,” or by expressing his hope that his sources “God willing” are right.

Tabari quotes numerous accounts to elucidate how and why the woman was created: Iblis had refused to prostrate himself before Adam and had been cursed and expelled from the Garden. Then Adam was allowed to dwell there, but he felt lonely without a mate.

God cast a slumber over him, took a rib from his left side, soldered its place with flesh, and from the rib created his wife Hawwa’ in the form of a woman.

This Biblical story does not appear in the Qur’an itself. It was however linked to the Qur’an by quoting “so that Adam would find rest in her” (cf. Qur’an 7:189, 30:12). When Adam awoke, he supposedly saw her at his side and said – according to what they allege, and God knows best – “my flesh, my blood, my wife,” and he found rest in her. While, – according to this tradition, though not literally to be found in the Qur’an – the woman was thus created ‘from’ and ‘after’ the man, she also played a major role in the couple’s disobedience and their expulsion from the Garden. Most of the traditions brought together by Tabari blame the woman for yielding to Satan’s temptation. Indeed, it was the majority opinion of Muslim experts by Tabari’s time that it was only through the woman’s weakness and guile that Satan could bring about Adam’s downfall. Satan entered the Garden, from which he had previously been expelled, in the belly (or the mouth, fangs, jaw) of a snake, again a biblical image not found in the Qur’an. At that time, the snake was a four-legged, splendid riding animal resembling the Bactrian camel; some say that it wore clothes; it was also the only animal willing to heed Satan’s request for transportation into the Garden. Satan then tempted the woman to eat of the Forbidden Tree. After she had succumbed, she tempted her husband using Satan’s very words; or she commanded her husband to eat; or she refused to sleep with him unless he first ate of the Tree; or she gave him wine, and when he was drunk and his rational faculties had left him, she led him to the Tree and he ate. God then put His curse on the woman and the snake, but He did not curse the man, only the earth from which he had been created, and banished him to a life of want and toil.

According then to these Muslim traditions, God’s curse on the woman was more severe; it involved the constitution and mental abilities, indeed the personhood of Hawwa’ – the name given to the unnamed Qur’anic wife of Adam – and her daughters for all time to come.

Because Hawwa’ had tempted Adam, God’s servant and had made the Tree bleed when she picked its fruit, she was condemned to bleed once a month. She was doomed to carry and deliver her children against her will, and to be often close to death at delivery.

God also made the woman foolish and stupid, while He had initially created her wise and intelligent. Tabari quotes a tradition which says that “were it not for the calamity that afflicted Hawwa”, the women of this world would not menstruate, would be wise, and would bear their children with ease.

The snake in whose belly Iblis had entered the Garden was cursed to slither (naked} on its belly, to eat dust, and to be the eternal enemy of man, stinging his heel and having its head crushed by him whenever they would meet, wherefore the Prophet commanded the Muslims to “kill the snake wherever you find it.” Again this is very much more recognizable as a Biblical than as a Qur’anic tale.

On the question of the humane’ repentance after their disobedience, as described in the Qur’an, some traditions quoted by Tabari indicate that both the man and the woman acknowledged their sin and asked God’s forgiveness and mercy; but a larger number of reports specify that the prayer for forgiveness and God’s promise for eternal life involved Adam alone.

The later Qur’anic commentaries largely followed Tabari’s reinterpretation of the Qur’anic story. In the Qur’an the wife of Adam is a participant in human error, repentance and God’s challenge to recover the pristine innate nature of humankind (fitra) through struggle for righteousness on earth. In the tradition the woman had largely become Satan’s tool and was seen as afflicted through her own fault with the curse of moral, mental, and physical deficiency. Conversely the man, in the Qur’an her partner and spokesman, now alone embodied the human conscience. He alone was aware of his error, and repented; he was forgiven, and freed from God’s curse. Even the great rationalist exegete

Fakhr ai-Din Razi (d. 1210) finds occasion to quote the widely circulated and still popular woman-as-rib-of-Adam hadith that reflects Hawwa’s origin in Adam and thereby sums up female nature.

The hadith reflects Hawwa’s (‘Eve’s’) origin in Adam and also means to describe women’s nature. On the authority of the Prophet it indicates that

“the woman was created from a crooked rib. If you set out to straighten her, you will break her, and if you leave her alone while there is crookedness in her, you will enjoy her.”

Even the rationalist Qur’anic exegete Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1210) quotes this hadith in his al-Tafsir al-Kabir (vol. IX, page 161), and it has remained a popular item in Islamic sermons and publications on women’s issues.

The onslaught of modernity changed the interpretation of the Qur’anic story of Adam and his wife beyond recognition. The Egyptian theologian and jurist Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905) was Islamic modernism’s most important early representative in the Arab world. He endeavored to ‘renew’ Muslim morality and reform the traditional social structures of his day and particularly his region, Egypt, by returning to the pristine and dynamic faith and morality of Islam’s first generation. Reformation of Muslim society in that mold would bring about an Islamic modernism indigenous and righteous, internally dynamic and externally powerful. To this end, Abduh approached the Qur’anic text by emphasizing the literal meaning of the Qur’anic verses as well as their context, and largely deemphasizing the Hadith, most particularly the isra’iliyyat.

By way of an interpretation “purified of foreign lore,” Abduh sought to rediscover the original meaning of the Qur’an that had shaped the faith and ethics of the ‘righteous forefathers’ (al-salaf al-salih) in order to recapture a sense of their morality for infusion into his own society. Here, Abduh placed great importance on the notions of woman’s full humanity and equality with the man before God, because they are Qur’anic in origin and, in his opinion,
indispensible in shaping a truly moral society.

Traditionalist versions of the story of Adam and Eve, however, persevered. By the second half of the twentieth century, even conservative voices had started to pick up on the notion of equality of the sexes in Islam.

However they based this equality ever more urgently on the divinely decreed, immutable, and complete differences of their natures. God created the sexes as mutually complementary halves. To the man He gave decisive will, power of reason, and physical strength. The woman He created sensitive, emotional, supportive, and caring. Since this doctrine of the sexes’ psychological and physical difference does not have a clear basis in the Qur’an, contemporary traditionalists once again make use of the Bible inspired Hadith. Thus the woman-as-rib- of Adam tradition reappears, but now it emerges in a new context and underlies a new purpose.

In the hands of the Egyptian preacher Muhammad Mutawalli al-Sha’rawi, the ‘crookedness’ of the rib (from which the woman was created) defines her natural disposition and the preponderance of emotions over rationality . . . unlike the male in whom rationality surpasses emotion. Neither men nor women are inferior one to the other. The “crookedness” in the Hadith does not imply any corruption or imperfection in woman’s nature but signifies the very quality that enables her to be a compassionate mother and wife. On this basis, her “crookedness” has become a laudatory attribute for the women, because this “crookedness” is in reality woman’s “straightest” qualification for her task.

The story of ‘Eve’ in the Qur’an

My students are often amazed at the difference in plot and tenor of the ‘Eve’ story in Bible and Qur’an.

It is the Qur’anic ‘wife of Adam’ who is created in full equality with the man, while both are endowed with the gift of free will to choose obedience or rebellion (and then suffer exile and hardship, but not a fall from grace). According to my students, hers is one of the most egalitarian stories in the Qur’an.

     Sharing Mary, Bible and Qur’an Side by Side - Copyright © 2010 Marlies ter Borg / CreateSpace


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