‘Women are a tilth to you’

Surah 2 (Al-Baqarah/The Cow): 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 God.

And know that ye are to meet Him (in the Hereafter) and give (these) good tidings to those who believe.


The Qur’an is unapologetically written for a man’s world. Several verses make it explicit that they were addressed to an exclusively male audience, for example:

{2.221}: ‘Marry not idolatresses… and marry none to the idolaters till they believe…’, 〈57.〉,


{2.231 & 237}: ‘…when you have divorced women…’ 〈60.〉,


{2.240}: ‘… those who among you who are taken by death and leave behind wives…’ 〈63.〉,


{4.15}: ’As for those of your women…’ 〈66.〉,


{4.19}: ’It is not lawful for you to inherit women…’〈57.〉,


{4.23}: ’Forbidden unto you are your sisters…’ 〈57.〉,


{4.34}: ’The righteous women are devoutly obedient… As for those from whom you fear discord … … If they obey you…’, 〈68.〉


No comparable verse addresses women concerning their husbands nor is any verse expressed in a way that requires it to be read as having been addressed to a mixed sex audience, save for {33.30-34} – which are directed specifically at the wives and household of the Prophet, 〈79.〉


Other than for Mary the Qur’an makes a point of never naming a woman, even when so doing would have been the more natural way telling a story, so we get phrases such as:

{3.35}: ‘When the wife of Imran said: ‘My Lord I dedicate to you in consecration what is in my belly…’,


{7.19}: ‘O Adam! Dwell thou and thy wife in the Garden…’,


{11.71}: ‘And (Abraham’s) wife was standing there and she laughed. Then we gave her glad tidings of Isaac and after Isaac of Jacob’,


{33.37}: ‘And (remember) when thou said unto him whom God has blessed and whom thou hast blessed: ‘Retain your wife for yourself…’ …

Then when Zayd relinquished his claim upon her, We wed her to thee.


When Adam was made God’s viceregent upon the earth, {2.30}, there was no indication, as there is in Genesis 1.26-29 , that his authority over the world should be shared with his wife, and it is to Adam alone that God speaks. Hagar, who as the mother of Ishmael is the supposed matriarch of the Arab race and crucial to its claim to inclusion in God’s covenant with Abraham, and to whom is attributed with the foundation of Mecca, being not Abraham’s wife but a mere servant in his household, fails to merit even an anonymous reference.


Four verses, {16.57}, {37.149}, {43.16} and {52.39}, rebut the notion of angels as the daughters of God on the basis that God would not have chosen a daughter over a son, and, drives home the point by reminding the audience how ‘when one of them receives tidings of a female child, his face darkens and he is choked with anguish’, {16.58}.


The Sharia contains numerous provisions that give women less rights than men, such as the permissibility of polygyny 〈58.〉, the absence of a woman’s right to divorce 〈60.〉, the recommendation to men to physically chastise their wives if they are disobedient 〈59.〉, and lesser inheritance rights for female relatives 〈63.〉, and afford a lower evidential value given to the testimony of women 〈78.〉 below.


A ‘tilth’ (see {2.233} produced above) is an archaic term for land used for crop-growing, sometimes translated as ‘a ploughed field’. ’Go unto your tilth as you will’ is clearly intended to permit men a degree of freedom to engage in sexual activity with their wives and probably the right to impregnate them. The metaphor of a woman as a field in which her husband may plant his seed is consistent with the Qur’an writer’s understanding of reproductive biology, whereby a human being develops entirely from a man’s ‘seed’ – ‘a drop emitted’ (per Yusuf Ali) that is produced from between his ‘loins’ (alternatively ‘backbone’) and ribs, {86.6-7}, in which process the mother‘s biological role is merely one of providing a womb within which the man’s seed may germinate. Some hadith relate {2.233} to a wife’s duty to comply whenever her husband desires intercourse, several employing the odd (in this specific context) idiom ‘even if riding a camel’ . Others link the verse to the permissibility of different types of sexual positions – although the precise scope of what activity is permitted to the man by this verse is unclear and, inevitably, a fertile ground for disagreement. The three types of sexual relationships permitted to men by the Qur’an: with wives and slaves (〈65.〉) in this world and the houris of Paradise in the next 〈99.〉 share the common feature that all three give the male a position of complete authority over the female. None make reference to, and two of the three implicitly exclude, any requirement of female consent, pleasure or autonomy.