Women in Islam The topic of this paper was chosen out of the conviction that humanity is suffering today from a number of serious social problems related to women and to the interrelations of the two sexes in society. Although these problems may be more pronounced, disturbing, more debilitating for some of us than for others, there are probably few if any regions of the contemporary world whose citizens have not felt in some way the repercussions of these problems. Therefore, there is a pressing need for exploring possible solutions. The problem of women is linked, for the present study, with the Qur’an, and what I have called the “Qur’anic society,” out of strong conviction that the Qur’an offers the most viable suggestions for contemporary social reform which can be found in any model or any literature. Many of you may be puzzled by the title of this paper-“Women in a Qur’anic Society.” You may ask yourselves, “Why didn’t she say “Women in Muslim Society” or even “Women in an Islamic Society?” Let me explain why the expressions “Muslim” and “Islamic” were rejected for this paper, and how the use of the rather unusual appellation, “Qur’anic society,” is justified.
There are at least three reasons for my choice of that title. The first of these derives from the concern that many beliefs and practices have been labelled “Muslim” or “Islamic” without warranting those names. There are approximately 40 nations of the world which claim to have a Muslim majority population and therefore to be exemplary of “Muslim” or “Islamic” societies. This of course results in a great deal of confusion as the question is asked: Which of these regions represents most faithfully the true “Islamic” society? Among Muslims that question is most frequently answered by the claim that their own national or regional society is the truest to the intentions of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. Non-Muslims, on the other hand, and especially the Western anthropologists who travel around the world to investigate the customs and mores of its peoples, tend to treat each variation within the Muslim World as equally valid. This results from their adherence to what I call the “zoo theory” of knowledge. Adherents of that theory regard all Muslims-and of course similar treatment of other non-Western people is discernible-as different species within the human zoo.
The “zoo theory” protagonists go to the field, record and snap pictures of every strange or exotic practice they see and hear; and for them, this is Islam or Islamic practice. A trip to another part of the Muslim World with the ubiquitous devices for recording and photographing generates a different body of materials documenting superficial variations in customs. But this, too, is Islam or Islamic practice for the “zoo theory” investigator or ethnographer. There is far too little effort spent on understanding Islam as a whole. As a result, the basic premise of scepticism and relativism is confirmed in the mind of the researcher; and he/she returns home convinced that there is not one Islam, but scores of Islams existent in the world.
In like fashion, the researcher reports that there are many definitions or descriptions of the status and role of women in Muslim society. Each one of the resultant definitions or descriptions is dubbed as “Muslim” or “Islamic” even if we as Muslims may hold some of these practices to be distortions or perversions of our principles and beliefs by the misguided or uninformed among us. It was partly to avoid confusion with these variant descriptions and misunderstandings that I have chosen the appellation “Qur’anic” for the present discussion. In this way, I hope to move beyond the limited relevance and particularism of a “zoo theory” of investigation to a presentation which avoids such fragmentation and is ideologically in conformance with the true prescriptions of Islam. In regard to matters so determining of our destiny and very existence, we can never be satisfied with mere reportage about certain human animals in the “zoo” who are statistically “Muslim” or whose customs have been labelled as “Islamic.” Those designations have sometimes been misapplied. “Qur’anic,” on the other hand, is a term which is unequivocal. It points clearly to the topic of this paper.
Secondly, “Qur’anic society” was judged to be the most suitable title for it orients us towards discovering those core principles in the Qur’an itself which form the underlying framework for our societies throughout the Muslim World. It is the society based on Qur’anic principles which is the goal of all of us, even though we may unknowingly deviate from time to time from those principles. It is the conformance to a Qur’an-based society for which we must all work if the Muslim peoples are to enjoy a felicitous future. It is not an Indonesian, Pakistani, Saudi Arabian, Egyptian or Nigerian version of that society that we should regard as indisputable norm, but one firmly based on the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. Only therein can we find a proper definition of woman’s role in society.
Since it is these teachings which are the subject of my paper, “Women in a Qur’anic Society” seemed the most proper title. Thirdly, I wish by this choice of title to emphasize that we should regard the Holy Qur’an as our guide in all aspects of our lives. It is not only the prime source of knowledge about religious beliefs, obligations, and practices, it is also the guide, whether specific or implied, for every aspect of Islamic civilization. In the centuries of past glory, it determined the political, economic, social and artistic creativity of the Muslim peoples. If we are to succeed as members of an Islamic society in the coming decades and centuries, it must again determine our thinking and our actions in an all-inclusive way.
Din is not limited to the Five Pillars of the shahadah, salat, siyam, zakat, and the hajj. Din in fact defies simple equation with the English term “religion,” for the former’s significance penetrates into every nook and cranny of human existence and behaviour. Surely it should be our goal to relate every action to our Din. We can only do this by allowing the Holy Qur’an to in-form and re-form every realm of our lives. As a step in this direction, let us consider what the Qur’an has to teach us about the society towards which we should be striving, and ponder its effect on the position of women.
What are the basic characteristics of a Qur’anic society which particularly affect women? Five characteristics – which seem basic, crucial and incontrovertible – of Qur’anic society will be considered. Although they are presented in a series, each one rests upon the others and affects them. The interdependence of these five characteristics makes it difficult to speak of any one of them without mention of the others, and of course they do not and cannot exist in isolation from one another. 1. EQUAL STATUS AND WORTH OF THE SEXES The first of these characteristics of a Qur’anic society which affect women is that both sexes are held to be equal in status and worth.
In other words, the Qur’an teaches us that women and men are all creatures of Allah, existing on a level of equal worth and value, although their equal importance does not substantiate a claim for their equivalence or perfect identity. This equality of male and female is documentable in the Qur’an in passages pertaining to at least four aspects of human existence and interaction. A. Religious Matters The first of these Qur’anic confirmations of male-female equality are contained in statements pertaining to such religious matters as the origins of humanity, or to religious obligations and rewards. 1.
Origins of Humanity. The Qur’an is devoid of the stories found in the Old Testament which denigrate women. There is no hint that the first woman created by God is a creature of lesser worth than the first male, or that she is a kind of appendage formed from one of his ribs. Instead, male and female are created, we read, min nafsin wahidatin (“from a single soul or self”) to complement each other (Qur’an 4:1; 7:189). Whereas the Torah or Old Testament treats Eve as the temptress of the Garden of Eden, who aids Satan in enticing Adam to disobey God, the Qur’an deals with the pair with perfect equity. Both are equally guilty of sinning; both are equally punished by God with expulsion from the Garden; and both are equally forgiven when they repent. 2.
Religious Obligations and Rewards. The Qur’an is not less clear in commanding equality for men and women in its directives regarding religious obligations and rewards. We read: Lo! Men who surrender unto Allah, and women who surrender, and men who believe and women who believe, and men who obey and women who obey, and men who speak the truth and women who speak the truth, and men who persevere (in righteousness) and women who persevere and men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give aims and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their modesty and women who guard (their modesty), and men who remember Allah and women who remember-Allah hath prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward. (33:35) B. Ethical Obligations and Rewards Secondly, the Qur’an reveals to mankind the desired equality of the two sexes by establishing the same ethical obligations and rewards for women and men. And who so does good works, whether male or female, and he (or she) is a believer, such will enter Paradise and they will not be wronged the dint in a date-stone.
(4:124) Whosoever does right, whether male or female, and is a believer, him verily We shall quicken with good life, and We shall pay them a recompense according to the best of what they do. (16:97) If Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala had not deemed the two sexes of equal status and value, such explicit statements of their equality in ethical obligations and rewards would not have been made in the Qur’an. C. Education Although the more specific commands for the equal rights of women and men to pursue education can be found in the hadith literature, the Qur’an does at least imply the pursuit of knowledge by all Muslims regardless of their sex. For example, it repeatedly commands all readers to read, to recite, to think, to contemplate, as well as to learn from the signs (ayat) of Allah in nature. In fact, the very first revelation to Prophet Muhammad (S) was concerned with knowledge. In a Qur’anic society, there can never be a restriction of this knowledge to one sex. It is the duty of every Muslim and every Muslimah to pursue knowledge throughout life, even if it should lead the seeker to China, we are told.
The Prophet (S) even commanded that the slave girls be educated, and he asked Shifa’ bint ‘Abdillah to instruct his wife Hafsah bint ‘Umar. Lectures of the Prophet (S) were attended by audiences of both men and women; and by the time of the Prophet’s death, there were many women scholars. D. Legal Rights A fourth evidence in the Qur’an for the equality of men and women is its specification of legal rights which are guaranteed for every individual from cradle to grave. Unlike the situation in the West, where until the last century it was impossible for a married woman to hold property on her own, to contract with other persons, or to dispose of her property without the consent of her husband, the Qur’an proclaims the right of every woman to buy and sell, to contract and to earn, and to hold and manage her own money and property.
In addition to these rights, the Qur’an grants woman a share in the inheritance of the family (4:7-11), warns against depriving her of that inheritance (4:19), specifies that the dower (mahr) of her marriage should belong to her alone and never be taken by her husband (2:229; 4:19-21,25) unless offered by the woman as a free gift (4:44). As with any privilege, these rights of women carry corresponding responsibilities. If she commits a civil offence, the Qur’an tells us, woman’s penalty is no less or no more than that of a man in a similar case (5:41; 24:2). If she is wronged or harmed, she is entitled to compensation just like a man. It is clear that the Qur’an not only recommends, but is even insistent upon, the equality of women and men as an essential characteristic of a Qur’anic society.
The claim of the non-Muslim critics that Islam denigrates women is denied emphatically by the Qur’an. Similarly denied are the arguments of certain Muslims that women are religiously, intellectually and ethically inferior to men, as Jewish and Christian literatures had earlier maintained. 2. A DUAL SEX RATHER THAN UNISEX SOCIETY Now let us consider the second basic characteristic of the Qur’anic society which affects the position of women. This is found in the directives for a dual sex rather than a unisex society.
While maintaining the validity of the equal worth of men and women, the Qur’an does not judge this equality to mean equivalence or identity of the sexes. Probably all of you are familiar with the contemporary move toward unisex clothes and shoes, unisex jewellery and hair styles, unisex actions and entertainments. In fact, it is often difficult in America to decide whether one is looking at a boy or a girl. This results from the current notion in Western society that there is little if any difference between the two sexes in physical, intellectual and emotional endowment; and that, therefore, there should be no difference in their functions and roles in society. The dress and the actions are but superficial evidence of this deeper conviction.
Accompanied by a downgrading of the qualities and roles traditionally associated with the female sex, this current idea has generated a unisex society in which only the male role is respected and pursued. Although meant to bring a larger measure of equality for women, the idea that men and women are not only equal, but equivalent and identical, has actually pushed women into imitating men and even despising their womanhood. Thus it is generating a new type of male chauvinism. Tremendous social pressures have resulted in stripping women of their role-responsibilities formerly performed by them, and they are forced to live a life devoid of personality and individuality. The society based on the Qur’an is, in contrast, a dual-sex society in which both sexes are assigned their special responsibilities.
This assures the healthy functioning of the society for the benefit of all its members. This division of labour imposes on men more economic responsibilities (2:233, 240-241; 4:34), while women are expected to play their role in childbearing and rearing (2:233; 7:189). The Qur’an, recognising the importance of this complementary sexual assignment of roles and responsibilities, alleviates the greater economic demands made on male members of the population by allotting them a larger share than women in inheritance. At the same time it grants women the right to maintenance in exchange for her contribution to the physical and emotional well being of the family and to the care she provides in the rearing of children. The unisex ideology generates a competitive relationship between the sexes which we find in America and which is disastrous for all members of society: the young; the old; the children; the parents; the single and the married; the male and the female.
The dual-sex society, by contrast, is a more natural answer to the question of sexual relationships, a plan encouraging co-operation rather than competition between the sexes. It is a plan which has been found suitable in countless societies through history. Only in very recent times did the idea of sexual non-differentiation or identity achieve prominence, and then primarily in the Western society. Even the medical evidence for mental or emotional difference between the sexes is suppressed in Western research, for it threatens the prevailing trends of thought. How long this socially disastrous movement will continue before it is rejected as bankrupt is not known.
But certainly we as Muslims should b …