Muslim Sexual Ethics:

Men, Women,
 & Human Beings
 in the Qur'an

Many Qur’anic verses subsume women and men in the broad terms of “human being” or “people” (insan, nas). Though these words take masculine pronouns in Arabic, and are often translated into English as “man,” “mankind,” or “men,” in Arabic they are gender-neutral and apply to/include women as well, as with the term “humankind” in English.

Additionally, certain Arabic nouns (as in French or Spanish) take a gender. Thus, a Muslim man is a muslim while a Muslim woman is a muslimah. The plurals reflect these gendered endings also, but less clearly. A group of Muslim women is muslimat; a group of Muslim men is muslimun. However, a group that includes both men and women is also referred to as muslimun. Thus, when the collective noun muslimun appears in the Qur’an in its male form, it cannot generally be assumed that it only refers to men; rather, in most cases it refers to all Muslims, male and female.

However, in some places, men and women are explicitly addressed as gendered human beings. At times, men and women are described separately, but in parallel fashion that makes clear their spiritual equality:

If any do deeds of righteousness, whether male or female, and have faith, they will enter Paradise and not be wronged in the slightest. (Q. 4:124)

Muslim men and Muslim women, believing men and believing women, devoutly obedient men and devoutly obedient women, truthful men and truthful women, patient men and patient women, humble men and humble women, charitable men and charitable women, men and women who fast, men and women who protect their chastity, and men and women who remember God frequently, for them God has prepared forgiveness and a great reward. (Q. 33:35)

At other times, though, the separate treatment of men and women illustrates difference between them (e.g., Q. 2:282 on women as witnesses). The Qur’an demonstrates an ever-present tension between hierarchy and egalitarianism, seen on other subjects such as wealth or slavery as well. While, on the one hand, all people are equals before God and the only distinguishing criterion is piety (Q. 49:13), on the other, inequality in human relationships is accepted and seemingly sanctioned. (e.g., Q. 16:71, 75). Descriptions of marriage (see Marriage in the Qur’an) reflect both norms of ultimate sameness and earthly differentiation.

Read more Qur’an verses dealing with male and female believers.

Content by Kecia Ali
Senior Research Analyst, FSE
Revised February 11, 2003