In order to fully comprehend how Islam views women, it is essential to first understand the status of women in the Arabian peninsula. The social and political culture that existed in Arabia when the Prophet began to spread his message was rooted in membership in clans and tribes dominated by patriarchs. 54 The domination of society and culture by men during Jahiliyyah was absolute. During this period, a man could marry up to one hundred women, and, upon his death, they became part of his estate for his heirs. Some tribes practiced female infanticide, and women were never allowed to inherit. 55 It is in the context of the repressed status of women in Jahiliyyah that the innovativeness of the Qur’an’s declarations of a new status for women in society becomes clear.
The importance of this early domination of Arab society by men lies not in the popular notion that Islam is a patriarchal religion, but rather in the reassertion of male societal domination after the death of the Prophet. Although the Prophet’s death signalled the reanimation of patriarchal forces, it was not until the end of the reign of the first four Rightly-Guided khalifahs 56 that the political forces of patriarchy reasserted themselves and swiftly eroded the advances in women’s rights guaranteed by the Prophet’s teachings. 57 In order to undermine the gains made by women during the life of the Prophet, men alone began to assume the role of interpreting the Qur’an. 58 As discussed above, various schools of interpretation developed, but all had one thing in common–a patriarchal value system. 59 These schools began to disallow the participation of women in public life, and, as a result, Qur’anic scholarship and interpretation of Islamic law became the province of men, with predictable results for the rights of women in society. 60 The Islam intended by the Prophet and the Islam practiced today are identical in form only; in spirit, Islam has drifted from its guiding principles as they apply to Muslim women.
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A. The Age of the Prophet: Women as Equals
During the time of the Prophet, Islam diminished the excessive practices of Jahiliyyah by imposing new laws using the principle of gradualism. Islam granted women their dignity and allowed them to claim equal rights with men in all spheres of life. The Qur’an teaches Muslims that God created both men and women from the same soul: 61
O mankind! reverence Your Guardian-Lord, Who created you From a single Person, Created, of like nature, His mate, and from them twain Scattered (like seeds) Countless men and women.62
This concept is a marked departure from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which teaches that God first created man, and only afterward created woman as his companion. The image of creating Eve from one of Adam’s ribs reinforces the concept of women as subordinate to men. 63 The creation passage in the Qur’an marks a departure from this tradition, as do the practices and teachings of the Prophet.
In the period of nascent Islam, women played prominent roles in all realms of life: religious, political, educational, legal, moral, economic, and military. 64 A few examples will show what Islam accomplished in raising the educational level of women and will highlight Muslim women’s contributions to the growth of knowledge in Islamic society.
The Prophet gradually but persistently allowed women to assume important positions in society. He designated his wife A’isha as a religious authority by stating “take half of your religion from this ruddy-complexioned woman.” 65 Through the Prophet’s encouragement, A’isha played a visible and active role in the political, legal, and scholastic activities of the Muslim community. 66 The Prophet chose her as one of the people who would pass on knowledge of the Qur’an and his practices to later generations of Muslims. 67 A’isha herself taught famous scholars about the Qur’an and Hadith, and discussed complex problems of jurisprudence and commentary with them. 68 A’isha’s knowledge and intellect were such that her critique of some of the legal decisions of [End of Page 322] eminent jurists caused them to change their minds and instead adopt her views. 69 In addition, she narrated 2,210 Hadith of the Prophet, and scholars have noted that one-fourth of the norms of Shari’ah law were also narrated by her. 70 In almost every respect, A’isha appears to have been not only one of the Companions of the Prophet, but also an exceptional person. 71
Other women played prominent roles in the growth and enrichment of Islamic civilization. Imam Nawawi stated that Umm al-Mu’minin Hafsa “was one of the intellectual and intelligent persons.” 72 He also spoke about the mother of Anas, Umm Sulaim, as one of the learned and knowledgeable Companions of the Prophet. 73 Imam Nawawi expressed a similar opinion about Umm Atiyah, saying “[s]he is reckoned among those of the Companions who won excellence and honor and participated in jihad with the Prophet.” 74 Imam Bukhari stated that “Umm Darda’ sat in Tashahud [as a witness] as a man sits and was a jurist (therefore her actions are authoritative).” 75
Islam did not prevent women from participating in armed revolutionary resistance or legal decision-making. Zaynab, Ali’s daughter, was a revolutionary, 76 and Umm Atiyah, Hafsa, Asma’ bint Abi Bakr, and Sahla bint Suhail were all jurists. 77 Women also participated in the bay’ah 78 and, thus, were an integral part of the political process. In fact, through the bay’ah, they contributed later on to the election of the third khalifah. 79 In short, women were equal participants in the growth of the early Islamic state.
The well-known saying of Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the second Rightly-Guided khalifah, demonstrated the change in the status of women which had occurred with the advent of Islam: “By God, we did not pay attention to women in jahiliyyah until God said about them in the Qur’an what is said, and gave them their share in matters.” 80 After the schism in Islam that occurred when Ali died at the hands of the Kharijites, women in Islam began to lose their influence to the forces of patriarchy and despotism. It was through a [End of Page 323] biased interpretation of the Shari’ah, along with the rigid cultural tendencies of male jurists, that women became confined to a secluded life and subordinate existence to men.
Customs and traditions that were an integral part of society before the Prophet began to resurface after his death. These social norms were so deeply rooted that one generation could not eradicate the built-up injustices that had developed over the centuries. The behavior and attitudes that the Prophet had tried to correct inevitably reappeared, imprinting themselves on the religion as Muslim scholars and historians began to interpret the religion and apply its laws to suit their own circumstances. Societal impulses not only stopped the gradual progress of change but also reversed the trend, affecting the interpretation of Islam in such a way as to reinforce the preexisting customs and traditions. The cure for this dilemma was supposed to lie in education, and the education of Muslims was to be the weapon wielded by Islam against the renewed onslaught of ills brought on by ignorance. This part of the Article will examine the changes that Islam brought to society and will attempt to demonstrate the effect Islam was meant to have upon its followers.
As will be discussed below, women in Muslim societies often face discrimination, which runs counter to the rights Islam guarantees to all women. Although these rights are each important, no single right is as important as education, as it alone forms the basis of women’s ability to affect Muslim society and determine for themselves the correct application of Islam to their needs.
The Prophet applied the doctrine of gradualism to many of the changes which formed Muslim society, and the education of women was one tool in the gradual elevation of women to equal status with men. The education of women was part of Islam’s revolutionary progress out of Jahiliyyah and, together with other measures, helped to mold a new society which was to be more faithful to the pattern laid out for it by God. The evolution of Muslim society was not completed in the Prophet’s era, but his example was meant to guide future generations of Muslims in further completing God’s will. 81 Continued modification of women’s status would have ultimately resulted in equality with men had there not been a reversion to patriarchy with the catastrophic breakdown of the Muslim community into two disputing parts 82 and a subsequent regression of the Muslim society.
Education is much more than simply a right of women. It is also the religious obligation of all Muslims. 83 Islam makes absolutely no gender differentiation in the imperative to educate both women and men. 84 Muslims believe that those who seek [End of Page 324] knowledge will be rewarded with Paradise. 85 The Prophet himself stated that all women should be educated. 86 He also encouraged the education of women through his actions, specifically by ensuring that Hafsah, one of his wives, learned to read and write. 87 Scholars have commented that the Prophet did not forget to incorporate women in his general exhortation that Muslims be educated. 88 Not only is education a basic duty of all Muslims, but it represents the basis for the future equality of all believers.
2. Marital Consent
In Jahiliyyah, women generally did not have the right to choose whether to marry or not, as consent was granted or withheld by the father in consideration of a gift of money or goods which the father would keep for himself. 89 With the advent of Islam, these unenlightened practices were abrogated in favor of a woman’s right to consent. Islam guaranteed the dignity, liberty, and independence of women by securing for each woman the right to refuse or accept an offer of marriage without regard for the position of her parents. 90 The Prophet annulled the marriage of Khansa Bint Khuzama, a woman who had been forced into an unwanted marriage by her father, telling her that she could choose to marry whomever she wanted. 91 Although many of the Islamic schools of law erroneously take a different stance, the Prophet held that a virgin must consent to her marriage: “No virgin girl is to be married without first consulting her, and her silence is consent.” 92 Thus, according to Islam there should no longer be any forced marriages. A woman’s consent is a condition of marriage, and if a father forces his daughter to marry, the marriage is by that fact annulled. 93 During the Prophet’s life, whenever any decision was taken against the wishes of a young woman, the Prophet changed it after finding out her actual wishes. 94
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It is true that many Islamic schools of law allow a male guardian (wali) to make decisions concerning the marriages of young women. 95 Except for the Hanafi, the schools agree that a father who acts as a wali may force his virgin daughter to enter into marriage; 96 however, a mature woman does not need a wali when deciding upon a husband. 97 These schools have incorrectly interpreted the dictates of the Qur’an in this instance. The use of a wali results from a wish to spare minors from making poor decisions. 98 However, in view of the Prophet’s actions, the schools’ insistence on continuing the practice of male guardianship over women who have the capacity to assume responsibility for themselves seems contrary to the spirit of Islam.
As discussed earlier, prior to the advent of Islam, a woman had no right to even influence the decision concerning her marriage. The fact that women in Islam now have a say in their lives is part of the gradual, larger change in the status of women in Muslim society envisioned by the Qur’an. Viewed in light of gradualism, it is apparent that the Prophet’s actions in supporting women who refused to marry a man chosen for them represented a first step in allowing women full authority in choosing their own husbands.
The later retreat from the Prophet’s liberality demonstrated by the tradition of the wali represents a regression born of patriarchy and an incomplete understanding of the role of gradualism in reshaping society along Islamic lines.
In Jahiliyyah, fathers (or natural guardians, if the father was not present) would give their daughters in marriage without regard to the women’s wishes. 99 Men would sometimes give their daughters or sisters in marriage in return for another man’s daughter or sister, and neither of the wives would get a dower, which was considered to be the property of the husbands or fathers. 100 Islam abolished this practice.
A dower (mahr) is a mandatory free gift to the wife from the husband with no conditions attached. 101 The Qur’an states:
And give the women
(On marriage) their dower As a free gift . 102
In the West, the dower is often viewed as the price determined by men for the sale of a woman. Although this was an accurate description of the practice in Arab society before the Prophet, this is no longer the case. Islamic scholars state that the mahr should be [End of Page 326] suitable to the husband’s circumstances. 103 The Prophet stated that even an iron ring may serve as a mahr. 104 The Prophet allowed one man to teach his wife verses from the Qur’an as a mahr. 105 Umar Ibn al-Khattab, the second khalifah after the Prophet’s death, attempted to limit the dower, and a woman berated him in the mosque saying that he would not take away that which God had given to women; al-Khattab subsequently relented. 106 Because the amount of the dower has been viewed as contingent on the resources of the husband rather than upon any attributes of the wife or her status, it is evident that the mahr cannot be considered as the price paid for a wife.
In Islam, the mahr is considered to be the exclusive property of the wife. No one–including her husband or father–may acquire it against her wishes, or tell her how to spend it; the mahr is hers to spend as she sees fit. 107 The payment of the dower is to the wife alone; a father is not allowed to derive any financial gain whatsoever from the transaction. 108 The Qur’an forbids husbands from attempting to regain the dower from their wives, even in the event of a divorce:
But if ye decide to take
One wife in place of another,
Even if ye had given the latter
A whole treasure for dower,
Take not the least bit of it back:
Would ye take it by slander And a manifest wrong? 109
Moreover, a Muslim husband must take care of all household expenses, and the wife is not obligated to spend any money she has, whether earned or from her mahr, on any domestic expense. 110 The immediate prohibition upon husbands seizing their wives’ dower is an example of a societal practice so repugnant to basic tenets of Islam that it was abrogated immediately. Thus, it may be seen that the changes in the status of women fostered by Islam combined immediate cessation of reprehensible practices and gradual limitations upon practices which were viewed as undesirable.
These practices are equally important to the eventual equality of women, but were less amenable to abrupt cancellation for eminently practical reasons, as demonstrated by the limitation upon the practice of polygamy.
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Before the Age of the Prophet, men could marry up to one hundred women. 111 In fact, one Arab tribe, the Thakif, were known to place no conditions or limits on the number of women a man could marry. 112 Although polygamy existed in many different societies, Islam eventually circumscribed and limited the practice in the Qur’an. 113 Islam imposed limits where before there was no limit at all, although at first blush, the Qur’an appears to permit more than one wife:
If ye fear that ye shall not
Be able to deal justly
With the orphans,
Marry women of your choice,
Two, or three, or four;
But if ye fear that ye shall not
Be able to deal justly (with them),
Then only one, or (a captive)
That your right hands possess.
That will be more suitable,
To prevent you From doing injustice. 114
Upon closer analysis, however, it becomes apparent that this passage is a microcosm of the gradualism inherent in Islam. The verse above, when viewed in conjunction with IV:129, takes on new meaning:
Ye are never able
To be fair and just
As between women,
Even if it is Your ardent desire.115
The two passages are contained in the same surah and, thus, must be read as a whole–as the entire Qur’an should be.
The passage concerning four wives must be understood in the context in which it was revealed to the Prophet. This section of the Qur’an was revealed after the battle of Uhud, when approximately ten percent of the Muslim men had been killed, leaving a large number of women and children unprotected and without means of support. 116 An earlier verse explains that the Muslims must take extreme care with the property of orphans and that using up such property or substituting it with less valuable property constitutes a great sin. 117 Verse IV:3 continues with an admonition that if the Muslim man cannot [End of Page 328] deal justly with orphans (keeping in mind the care with which their property must be handled), then he may marry others. 118
One interpretation of this verse is that a good Muslim will first consider marrying a widow before considering other possible wives. If he realizes that he would not be able to deal justly with her property, only then may he consider marrying other women. Regardless, a man should never have more than four wives. Taken in conjunction with the admonition that a man cannot deal justly with more than one woman, these verses can be read to say that no Muslim should in fact marry more than one woman, whether widowed or otherwise. This idea has not been accepted by any of the existing schools, but is not inconsistent with other verses of the Qur’an, and so is a permissible reading.
The permission to marry more than one woman has been interpreted in different ways by various scholars, consistent with the above discussion or otherwise. One interpretation states that the permission is conditioned upon a Muslim being capable of justice between all of his wives. 119 Some believe it signifies that Muslims may marry up to four orphans or widows, and such permission was granted only for the limited factual situation which existed at the time. 120 Others have simply recognized the limitation on Muslims to four wives rather than the previous unfettered discretion practiced in Jahiliyyah. 121 Still others have recognized that the limitation of four is conditioned on fair dealing among them, and read the limitation in conjunction with the admonition that one cannot be just among one’s wives. These scholars have realized that as no man can be just between several women, the prohibition on more than one is in fact absolute. 122 This is the position taken by the Tunisian Personal Statute Code.
The Tunisian Code expressly bases itself on the Shari’ah and derives its legitimacy from a modern interpretation of Islamic law. 123 When it was formulated, the Code employed various interpretations, drawing from those espoused by the different schools; the government felt that this combination best suited the needs of the Tunisian people. 124 In Tunisia, polygamy has been abolished and penal sanctions established for any man who marries more than one woman. 125 The justification for this prohibition is that, since Islam states that a Muslim must do justice among all his wives, and at the same time that this is impossible, the passages in the Qur’an amount to a prohibition. Therefore, polygamy is simply a permitted matter, not an absolute right or religious duty. Since the political authority may legislate against a permitted thing or make it obligatory according to the needs of society, polygamy may be banned by the government to safeguard society. 126 The reasoning behind the change in treatment of women in Tunisia was the [End of Page 329] notion that the basic principle of nondiscrimination in Islam should be applied in society through an enlightened and just interpretation of Shari’ah law. 127 The ban on polygamy was only one of many reforms embodied in the Tunisian Code, 128 but it exemplifies the application of principles of religious interpretation to allow Islam to best serve the needs of a modern society.
Islam was not intended to freeze human history at the point in time at which God’s Word was revealed to the Prophet. Therefore, Islam provides mechanisms of change to meet the needs of a growing umma 129 and simultaneously guides its followers in the correct path. 130 The passage on four wives provides a model of how God limited the excesses subsisting in society while providing a mechanism for future scholars to reinterpret His Word and devine its full meaning. Islamic scholars have been reluctant to fully exercise the flexibility given to them in Islam, but there is now a growing movement to reapply the principles of ijtihad to the Qur’an and to carry society past the more limited outlook of its stultified and misogynistic past.
Proud to be a Muslimah
by:The Way Of Life In Islam