Description of Woman (as a singular noun) in the Quran

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Syed Sharfuddin

There are many words used in the holy Quran to describe women in different relationships and roles. These are both in singular nouns such as wife, woman and partner and in plural nouns such as aunts, sisters, mothers, daughters, married women, divorced women and women as close relatives and in general.

الْمُسْلِمَاتِ و وَالْمُؤْمِنَات الْقَانِتَات و وَالصَّادِقَاتِ وَالصَّابِرَاتِ وَالْخَاشِعَاتِ وَالْمُتَصَدِّقَاتِ وَالصَّائِمَاتِ وَالذَّاكِرَات أُمَّهَاتُ و النِّسَاء وَالْمُحْصَنَاتُ وَبَنَات وَالْمُطَلَّقَاتُ وَأَخَوَات و عَمَّات و وَخَالاَتُ وَبَنَاتُ الأَخِ وَبَنَاتُ الأُخْت وَأُمَّهَات اللاَّتِي أَرْضَعْنَكُمْ وَأَخَوَاتُ مِّنَ الرَّضَاعَةِ وَرَبَائِب وَ ازواجٌ ﻭ قَانِتَاتٍ وَ تَائِبَاتٍ وَ ثَيِّبَاتٍ وَعَابِدَاتٍ وَسَائِحَاتٍ وَأَبْكَارًا وَﺍﻟﻤﺮأة ﻭﺍﻟﺰﻭجة ﻭﺍﻟﺼﺎﺣﺒﺔ

The number of times these words are used in the Quran in different chapters exceed 100. For example, the word wives أَزْوَاجٌ is used forty-seven times, women in generalالنِّسَاء forty-three times, mothers أُمَّهَات ten times, sisters أَخَوَات four times and the remaining words two or less than two times. However, this essay focuses on Quran’s description of woman (ﺍﻟﻤﺮأة), wife (ﺍﻟﺰﻭجة) and partner (ﺍﻟﺼﺎﺣﺒﺔ) and explores the consistent pattern of their use in all verses of the holy Quran.

The only woman who is mentioned by name in the Quran is Mary, mother of Jesus. Her name is mentioned in the Quran in 31 verses. The other three women who are mentioned without names are the wife of Pharaoh and the wives of Noah and Lot.
ضَرَبَ اللَّهُ مَثَلًا لِّلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا اِمْرَأَةَ نُوحٍ وَاِمْرَأَةَ لُوطٍ كَانَتَا تَحْتَ عَبْدَيْنِ مِنْ عِبَادِنَا صَالِحَيْنِ فَخَانَتَاهُمَا فَلَمْ يُغْنِيَا عَنْهُمَا مِنَ اللَّهِ شَيْئًا وَقِيلَ ادْخُلَا النَّارَ مَعَ الدَّاخِلِينَ
Translation: “For those who are bent on denying the truth, God has propounded a parable in [the stories of] Noah’s wife and Lot’s wife: they were wedded to two of our righteous servants, and each one betrayed her husband; and neither of the two (husbands) will be of any avail to these two women when they are told (on Judgment Day), ‘Enter the fire with all those (other sinners) who enter it.’ [Surah At-Tahreem 66:10].

وَضَرَبَ اللَّهُ مَثَلًا لِّلَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اِمْرَأَةَ فِرْعَوْنَ إِذْ قَالَتْ رَبِّ ابْنِ لِي عِندَكَ بَيْتًا فِي الْجَنَّةِ وَنَجِّنِي مِن فِرْعَوْنَ وَعَمَلِهِ وَنَجِّنِي مِنَ الْقَوْمِ الظَّالِمِينَ
Translation: “And Allah presents an example of those who believed: the wife of Pharaoh, when she said, “My Lord, build for me near You a house in Paradise and save me from Pharaoh and his deeds and save me from the wrongdoing people.” [Surah At-Tahreem 66:11].

وَمَرْيَمَ ابْنَتَ عِمْرَانَ الَّتِي أَحْصَنَتْ فَرْجَهَا فَنَفَخْنَا فِيهِ مِن رُّوحِنَا وَصَدَّقَتْ بِكَلِمَاتِ رَبِّهَا وَكُتُبِهِ وَكَانَتْ مِنَ الْقَانِتِينَ
Translation: “And Maryam (Mary) daughter of Imran, who safeguarded her chastity so We breathed in it of Our Spirit, and she sincerely (believed) in the Words of her Lord, and His Books; and she was one of the devout.” [Surah At-Tahreem 66:12]

ﺍﻟﻤﺮأة
The word woman is used in the Quran when a woman is single, i.e. not married, or she is married but has no children, or when her relationship with her husband is based on physical companionship but there is no spiritual or mental compatibility between them.

ﺍﻟﺰﻭجة
The word wife is used in the Quran for a married woman who is in physical relationship with her husband, as well as has full mental and spiritual compatibility with him, including sharing his faith.

‏ﺍﻟﺼﺎﺣﺒﺔ
The word partner is used in the Quran to describe a married woman who lived with her husband and children in the worldly life but on the Day of Judgement she will be alone, like her husband and anybody else. It is only after her account of deeds has been scrutinised and she has been admitted in Paradise, she will re-join her husband there, provided that he is also awarded Jannah. There she shall live with happily ever after.
هُمْ وَأَزْوَاجُهُمْ فِي ظِلَالٍ عَلَى الْأَرَائِكِ مُتَّكِؤُونَ
Translation: “They and their spouses will recline on couches happily” [Surah Yaseen 36:56]

The word partner is also used by Allah in negation to reinforce His oneness, without any partners.
بَدِيعُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالأَرْضِ أَنَّى يَكُونُ لَهُ وَلَدٌ وَلَمْ تَكُن لَّهُ صَاحِبَةٌ وَخَلَقَ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ وهُوَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ
Translation: “He is the Originator of the heavens and the earth. How can He have children when He has no wife? He created all things and He is the All-Knower of everything.” [Surah Al-Anaam 6:101]

ﺍﻟﻤﺮأة Examples

In Surah Al Naml, Queen Sheba was called a woman when the Hudhud bird reported her whereabouts to prophet Solomon because she was not a believer, nor was she married.
إِنِّي وَجَدتُّ امْرَأَةً تَمْلِكُهُمْ وَأُوتِيَتْ مِن كُلِّ شَيْءٍ وَلَهَا عَرْشٌ عَظِيمٌ
Translation: “I found a woman ruling over them, and she has been given all things that could be possessed by any ruler of the earth, and she has a great throne.” [Surah Al-Naml 27:23]

Similarly, when Moses was looking for a place to stay when he left the Pharaoh country after he was caught in a fight and killed a man unintentionally, he met two women امْرَأتَيْنِ by a water hole. They were women of faith but they were unmarried. He married one of them later after meeting her father (prophet Shoaib) who mentored and trained Moses for ten years before he returned to Egypt.
وَلَمَّا وَرَدَ مَاء مَدْيَنَ وَجَدَ عَلَيْهِ أُمَّةً مِّنَ النَّاسِ يَسْقُونَ وَوَجَدَ مِن دُونِهِمُ امْرَأتَيْنِ تَذُودَانِ قَالَ مَا خَطْبُكُمَا قَالَتَا لَا نَسْقِي حَتَّى يُصْدِرَ الرِّعَاء وَأَبُونَا شَيْخٌ كَبِير
Translation: “And when he arrived at the water of Madyan (Midian) he found there a group of men watering (their flocks), and besides them he found two women who were keeping back (their flocks). He said: “What is the matter with you?” They said: “We cannot water (our flocks) until the shepherds take (their flocks). And our father is a very old man.” [Surah Al-Qasas 28:23]

[7:83; 11:81; 15:60; 27:57; 29:32; 29:33] ﺍﻣﺮﺃﺓ ﻟﻮﻁ [66:10] ﺍﻣﺮﺃﺓ ﻧﻮﺡ
Allah has used the word woman for the wives of prophets Noah and Lot because they were not faithful to their husbands and did not join their husbands in submission to Allah.

[28:9; 66:11] ﺍﻣﺮﺃﺓ ﻓﺮﻋﻮﻥ
In describing the wife of the Pharaoh, who was a faithful servant of Allah but her husband did not have faith in Allah (in fact Pharaoh claimed to be god), the Quran uses the word woman for her.

[3:40 and 51:29] ﻭﻛﺎﻧﺖ ﺍﻣﺮﺃﺗﻲ ﻋﺎﻗﺮﺍً
This is a reference in the Quran to the wife of prophet Zachariah when she was barren and Zachariah was worried that they will pass away without having any offspring. But when Allah granted the prayer of Zachariah and gave him the good tiding that he will get a son from his wife, her description was changed from woman to wife.
فَاسْتَجَبْنَا لَهُ وَوَهَبْنَا لَهُ يَحْيَى وَأَصْلَحْنَا لَهُ زَوْجَهُ إِنَّهُمْ كَانُوا يُسَارِعُونَ فِي الْخَيْرَاتِ وَيَدْعُونَنَا رَغَبًا وَرَهَبًا وَكَانُوا لَنَا خَاشِعِينَ
Translation: “And so We responded unto him, and bestowed upon him the gift of (Yahya) John, having made his wife fit to bear him a child:  and, verily, these three would vie with one another in doing good works, and would call unto Us in yearning and awe; and they were always humble before Us.” [Surah Al-Anbia 21:90]

Prophet Abraham did not have an offspring with his wife Sarah for a long time. In Surah Hud she is described as woman when she received the good news from Abraham’s guests that she will get a son, as well as a grandson.
وَامْرَأَتُهُ قَآئِمَةٌ فَضَحِكَتْ فَبَشَّرْنَاهَا بِإِسْحَقَ وَمِن وَرَاء إِسْحَقَ يَعْقُوبَ
Translation: “His wife was standing (nearby), and she laughed. Thus We gave her the good news about Issāc, and about Jacob after him”. [Surah Hud 11:71]

[امْرَأَةُ عِمْرَان [3:35
In Surah Al-Imran the mother of Mary is mentioned as woman when she prayed to the Lord for a son so that she could offer him in the service of God. However, we have not been given any information about her husband.
إِذْ قَالَتِ امْرَأَةُ عِمْرَانَ رَبِّ إِنِّي نَذَرْتُ لَكَ مَا فِي بَطْنِي مُحَرَّرًا فَتَقَبَّلْ مِنِّي إِنَّكَ أَنتَ السَّمِيعُ الْعَلِيمُ
Translation: “When the wife of Imran prayed: “My Lord! I promise to offer what is in my womb in your service. Accept it from me: verily, Thou alone are all-hearing and all-knowing!” [Surah Al-Imran 3:35]

[ 111: 4] ﺍﻣﺮﺃﺗﻪ ﺣﻤﺎﻟﺔ ﺍﻟﺤﻄﺐ
In Surah Masaad, Allah calls the wife of Abu Lahab as woman because she could did not bear a child from him.

Zulaykha
Quran informs us that prophet Joseph was purchased by a nobleman of Egypt whose name or title was Al-Aziz. He brought young Joseph to his house to raise him as his foster son. Al-Aziz had no children from his wife Zulaykha. She was not faithful to her husband because she made sexual advances toward Joseph when he grew up. That’s why she is referred to in the Quran as woman instead of wife.
وَقَالَ الَّذِي اشْتَرَاهُ مِن مِّصْرَ لاِمْرَأَتِهِ أَكْرِمِي مَثْوَاهُ عَسَى أَن يَنفَعَنَا أَوْ نَتَّخِذَهُ وَلَدًا وَكَذَلِكَ مَكَّنِّا لِيُوسُفَ فِي الأَرْضِ وَلِنُعَلِّمَهُ مِن تَأْوِيلِ الأَحَادِيثِ وَاللّهُ غَالِبٌ عَلَى أَمْرِهِ وَلَـكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لاَ يَعْلَمُونَ
Translation: “And he who traded him, being of Egypt said to his wife, ‘give him an honourable lodging; it may be that he will profit us, or it may be that we take him as a son’. And thus, We (Allah) established Yusuf (Joseph) in the land, and that We (Allah) may teach him some of the interpretation of discourses. And Allah is Overcomer with His Command, but most people do not know. [Surah Yusuf 12:21]

وَقَالَ نِسْوَةٌ فِي الْمَدِينَةِ امْرَأَةُ الْعَزِيزِ تُرَاوِدُ فَتَاهَا عَن نَّفْسِهِ قَدْ شَغَفَهَا حُبًّا إِنَّا لَنَرَاهَا فِي ضَلاَلٍ مُّبِينٍ
Translation: And the lady, in whose house he (Joseph) lived, tried to seduce him. She locked the doors firmly and said, ‘Come to me!’ He replied, ‘Allah is my refuge! It is not right to betray my master, who has taken good care of me.’ Indeed, the wrongdoers never succeed. [Surah Yusuf 12:30]

قَالَ مَا خَطْبُكُنَّ إِذْ رَاوَدتُّنَّ يُوسُفَ عَن نَّفْسِهِ قُلْنَ حَاشَ لِلّهِ مَا عَلِمْنَا عَلَيْهِ مِن سُوءٍ قَالَتِ امْرَأَةُ الْعَزِيزِ الآنَ حَصْحَصَ الْحَقُّ أَنَاْ رَاوَدتُّهُ عَن نَّفْسِهِ وَإِنَّهُ لَمِنَ الصَّادِقِينَ
Translation: “He (Al-Aziz) said, ‘what was your case, O women, when you seduced Joseph?’ They said, ‘God forbid, we know of no evil in him.’ Al-Aziz’s woman said, ‘Now the truth has come to light. I did seduce him, and he is surely truthful.’ [Surah Yusuf 12:51]

ﺍﻟﺰﻭجة Examples

Eve
The word wife is used in the Quran for Eve because she had both a physical relationship, as well as mental and spiritual compatibility with Adam.
وَقُلْنَا يَا آدَمُ اسْكُنْ أَنتَ وَزَوْجُكَ الْجَنَّةَ وَكُلاَ مِنْهَا رَغَداً حَيْثُ شِئْتُمَا وَلاَ تَقْرَبَا هَـذِهِ الشَّجَرَةَ فَتَكُونَا مِنَ الْظَّالِمِينَ
Translation: “And We said: “O Adam, dwell you and your wife in this garden and eat freely thereof, both of you, whatever you may wish; but do not approach this one tree, lest you become wrongdoers. [Surah Al-Baqarah 2:35]

Wives of Prophet Muhammad
In addressing the wives of the prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be on him, the Quran does not call them women but addresses them as wives because like Eve, they had both a physical relationship, as well mental and spiritual compatibility with prophet Muhammad.
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ قُل لِّأَزْوَاجِكَ وَبَنَاتِكَ وَنِسَاء الْمُؤْمِنِينَ يُدْنِينَ عَلَيْهِنَّ مِن جَلَابِيبِهِنَّ ذَلِكَ أَدْنَى أَن يُعْرَفْنَ فَلَا يُؤْذَيْنَ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ غَفُورًا رَّحِيمًا
Translation: “O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters, as well as all (other) believing women, that they should draw over themselves some of their outer garments (when in public): this will be more conducive to their being recognized (as decent women) and they will not be hurt. And Allah has been ever-forgiving and ever-merciful. [Surah Al-Ahzab 35:59]

It is interesting that Quran has addressed all the wives of the prophet although some of them did not bear any children from him. Applying the criterion of woman Allah used for the spouses of prophets Zachariah and Abraham, they should have been addressed as woman. But there are two reasons for that. One is that they have been described as a group and not singularly by names to make a distinction between a wife of the prophet who had children with him and a wife who did not have children with him. Secondly and more importantly, Allah has made a singular exception of declaring all of them mothers of all Muslims and they are spiritually their children.
النَّبِيُّ أَوْلَى بِالْمُؤْمِنِينَ مِنْ أَنفُسِهِمْ وَأَزْوَاجُهُ أُمَّهَاتُهُمْ
Translation: “The Prophet has a higher claim on the believers than them and his wives are their mothers … [Surah Al-Ahzab 33:6]

When a married couple have a strained relationship, the Quran uses the word woman for wife because there is no compatibility between her and her husband. Allah permits a compromise in such situations so that each of them give up some of their rights voluntarily to prevent a wife’s ill treatment or neglect by her husband.
وَإِنِ امْرَأَةٌ خَافَتْ مِن بَعْلِهَا نُشُوزًا أَوْ إِعْرَاضًا فَلاَ جُنَاْحَ عَلَيْهِمَا أَن يُصْلِحَا بَيْنَهُمَا صُلْحًا وَالصُّلْحُ خَيْرٌ وَأُحْضِرَتِ الأَنفُسُ الشُّحَّ وَإِن تُحْسِنُواْ وَتَتَّقُواْ فَإِنَّ اللّهَ كَانَ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيرًا
Translation: “If a woman fears ill treatment or aversion from her husband, then, there is no sin on them in entering into a compromise between them. Compromise is better. Avarice is made to be present in human souls. If you do good and fear Allah, then, Allah is fully aware of what you do.” [Surah An-Nisa 4:128]

‏ﺍﻟﺼﺎﺣﺒﺔ Examples

The word partner is used in the Quran for wives where both physical contact and compatibility of mind and faith are absent between husband and wife. This will be the case with husbands and their wives on the most difficult Day of Judgement when every soul will be worried about its own self and forget all kinships of spouse, parents and children. Allah says about that Day
‏[Surah Abasa 80: 34 to 36]( ﻳﻮﻡ ﻳﻔﺮ ﺍﻟﻤﺮﺀ ﻣﻦ ﺃﺧﻴﻪ ﻭﺃﻣﻪ ﺃﺑﻴﻪ ﻭﺻﺎﺣﺒﺘﻪ ﻭﺑﻨﻴﻪ ‏)

Also in Surah, Al-Maarij the wife of a married person is described as partner on the Day of Judgement:

يُبَصَّرُونَهُمْ يَوَدُّ الْمُجْرِمُ لَوْ يَفْتَدِي مِنْ عَذَابِ يَوْمِئِذٍ بِبَنِيهِ وَصَاحِبَتِهِ وَأَخِيهِ
Translation: “though they may be in one another’s sight: for, everyone who was lost in sin will on Judgement Day will desire to ransom himself from his suffering by offering his own children and his partner and brother [Surah Al-Maarij 70: 11 to 12]

Allah has no Partner
When Allah describes His own oneness He uses the negation of a partner similar to the attestation ‘there is no god but Allah’, for He has no partner or companion, whether in divine thought or in divine relationship with anyone in anyway.
بَدِيعُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالأَرْضِ أَنَّى يَكُونُ لَهُ وَلَدٌ وَلَمْ تَكُن لَّهُ صَاحِبَةٌ وَخَلَقَ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ وهُوَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ
Translation: “he Originator of the heavens and the earth! How could it be that He should have a child without there ever having been a mate for Him – since it is He who has created everything, and He alone knows everything?” [Surah Al-Anaam 6:101]

Conclusion
The above criteria is visible throughout the Quran which was revealed over a period of 23 years. In that long period, to maintain one standard criteria to describe a woman as a woman, wife and partner in so many examples and parables in the Quran can only be the word of God and not of any human being. Verily, Allah’s holy book the Quran is a miracle which no human being can put together even if the whole mankind and jinn-kind get together to write one
(قُل لَّئِنِ اجْتَمَعَتِ الْإِنسُ وَالْجِنُّ عَلَىٰ أَن يَأْتُوا بِمِثْلِ هَٰذَا الْقُرْآنِ لَا يَأْتُونَ بِمِثْلِهِ وَلَوْ كَانَ بَعْضُهُمْ لِبَعْضٍ ظَهِيرا)
Translation: Say: “If all mankind and all invisible beings would come together with a view to producing the like of this Quran, they could not produce its like even though they were to exert all their strength in aiding one another.” [Surah Al-Isra 17:88]

May Allah make us among those whose Dua is accepted. Ameen.
وَالَّذِينَ يَقُولُونَ رَبَّنَا هَبْ لَنَا مِنْ أَزْوَاجِنَا وَذُرِّيَّاتِنَا قُرَّةَ أَعْيُنٍ وَاجْعَلْنَا لِلْمُتَّقِينَ إِمَامًا
Translation: “And who say (in their prayer) our Lord make our spouses and our offspring a joy to our eyes, and cause us to be foremost among those who are conscious of you.” [Surah Al-Furqan 25:74]

16 February 2018