Annur: The Light (Verse 30 and Part of Verse 31)
The first verse in the Qur’an (Annur—30) discussed here is actually an instruction to the believing men that they lower their gaze when they see members of the other sex:
Tell the believing men to lower [from4] their gaze and be modest. That is
purer for them. Lo! God is aware of what they do. (The Qur’an; Annur;
It is interesting that this comes before an identical instruction is given to the believing women to lower [from] their gaze. The first part of the second verse that immediately follows asks the same of the believing women:
And tell the believing women to lower [from] their gaze and be modest.....
(The Qur’an: Annur, 24:31)6
The remainder of the second verse asks the believing women to do other things required exclusively of them as will be discussed later. I will initially restrict my discussion to the first requirement which applies equally to both men and women.
This verse (The Light—verse 30) and the first part of the second verse (verse 31) have been the subject of debate for centuries. Under one understanding, believing men are ordered to totally lower their gaze not looking at the face of the female even for a second. The same is expected of the believing women. Ibn Katheer7 (1300-1373), a well-respected scholar who authored a popular and extensive interpretation of the Qur’an, notes:
This is a commandment of God to His faithful servants to turn away their eyes from what they have been forbidden to look at, so they only look at what is permitted for them to look at, and to turn their eyes away from those individuals they are not allowed to see. If it happens that one’s sight inadvertently falls on such a thing, let his eyes be turned away quickly.8
This understanding would arguably limit, or even totally curtail, the participation of females in the public space. If males cannot look at females at a//, and if females cannot look at males at a//, then how could any female participate in the public sphere—which is controlled by males-? This would include any workplace unless this workplace is restricted to females. Given that economic and political organizations are dominated by men, one solution would be either for women not to enter in the public sphere at all, or they would have to have their own female-only institutions. This is exactly the case in some countries, like in Saudi Arabia, where women often have their own businesses or service units (female-only bank branches or dedicated places in restaurants, etc.). Yet this is rather an exception as such practices are not representative of what happens in other Muslim and Arab countries. In addition, one would make the argument that such arrangements are not economically feasible in most situations.
In the political sphere, parallel gender-segregated public units or institutions would not be possible. It is impossible to envisage two parallel political structures, one for men and the other for women. Thus, while women can operate within their own female-only business institutions, they cannot have their own separate political ones. As a result, under this understanding, women have to be mostly secluded from political participation.
The first understanding is just one extreme interpretation of these verses. Another approach in interpreting these two verses is based on a fine linguistic nuance. The Qur’an indicates that the believing men are required to lower “from” their gaze, and the believing women are also required to lower “from” their gaze. This is understood to mean that, even for pious Muslims, a degree of gaze is inevitable. Muslims are required to avoid long stares at members of the other sex, in addition to those gazes that are deemed as being “lustful.” Beyond that, there is a degree of gaze that is practically required for any social interaction. Al-Qaradawi9 (1926-) explains this as follows:
What Islam forbids is prolonging the gaze from a man to a woman and from a woman to a man.... It is noted that the two verses require lowering “from” the gaze ... which does not mean closing the eyes, nor does it mean directing the head [and eyes] to the ground as this is not what is meant nor is it possible to do that.... Yes, the hungry looks from one of the sexes to the other are adulterous to the eye, but looking is permissible unless accompanied with lust, or ifit is feared that such looks would lead to fitna (sedition or temptation).10
Al-Qaradawi’s understanding was also reported, though not adopted, by Ibn-Katheer who noted that some scholars have understood from this verse, and from the practice of the Prophet, that the believing women could look at other men if there is no lust (shahwah). The evidence is drawn from a story where the Prophet allowed his wife to look at some men practicing playfully with their spears in the mosque during a feast.
This controversy is very pertinent to the issue of female participation in the male-dominated workplace. If one were to adopt the former view that all looking is forbidden, then this would invariably lead to significant hurdles in terms of the ability of females to integrate in the workplace or in other economic or political environments. Under the second understanding, the door to more male-female interactions becomes more feasible.