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Women in Islam


To appreciate how far the treatment of Muslim women today is from the Islamic norm, we need to understand the situation of women in 7th century Arabia.

In an age when women were treated like chattel, baby girls were routinely buried alive and where the leading cultures of the world debated whether a woman had a soul or not, Islam’s revolutionary message tossed established social norms aside in unprecedented fashion within a span of 23 years. Some of the new “norms” that Islam established included:

–  Refuting the concept that God is a man. In Islam God has no gender!

–  Women not only have a soul, they receive the same rewards for their faith as men

–  A person who cares for two daughters and raises them well is guaranteed paradise

–  Women have the right to be educated

–  A woman has the right to own property and conduct their own businesses

–  It is a woman’s right to choose whom she wishes to marry and to seek divorce

–  A woman does not have to share her wealth with her husband

–  Paradise lies at the feet of a mother

–  Women did not have to change their names when they were married

–  A woman had the legal right to fixed shares of inheritance from her husband, children, grandchildren and brothers. She could not be disinherited either.

Islam’s message of a God without gender, of God’s love and honor for women, Islam’s call to end injustice and oppression of women and to uplift their status transformed the Prophet’s community. The first believer in the Prophet’s message was a woman – his wife Khadija. She was also a major financial supporter of her husband’s message. The first person to be martyred in Islam was an impoverished woman by the name of Soumayya who was publicly executed for believing in One God. Some of Islam’s greatest scholars, even some of its bravest soldiers, were women.

After the Prophet’s death, his wives were an immense source of knowledge for the nascent Muslim community. One of the most prolific narrators of the Prophet’s sayings, his habits, his likes and dislikes was his wife, Aisha. In fact, it was agreed by consensus that the Prophet’s wives were the sole authorities when it came to providing guidance on how he conducted his marital life. This knowledge was passed down from generation to generation and is still studied by Muslims interested in how to conduct their marital relationships with love, wisdom, spirituality and understanding.

In the sequel to this article, we will take a look at how the situation for Muslim women began to change as the Muslim world grew in size and influence.

Further Reading

“And the believing men and the believing women are protectors and supporters of one another …” (Quran 9:17)

“In God’s eyes, the most honored of you are the ones most mindful of Him: God is All-Knowing, All-Aware.” (Quran 49:13)

The sweeping changes in the status of women brought about by the Quran and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in the 7th century continued even after the Prophet’s death.

Women’s endorsement and allegiance was sought by the community during the  nomination of the successors to the Prophet. They played very prominent roles in advising Muslim rulers on issues such as military leave for solidiers or even admonishing them if a particular policy contravened the spirit of the Quran. Men and women from near and far flocked to learn the sciences of the faith – Quranic commentary, Prophetic traditions, jurisprudence, grammar and morphology, history and so forth – from renowned women scholars. Complex and difficult legal dilemmas were often brought to the Prophet’s wife Aisha for resolution.

The early Muslim community recognized and honored a wide spectrum of women’s roles and responsibilities. A mother was considered the first school for her children. The Prophet taught that an honest and trustworthy business person would occupy the highest ranks of paradise. An essential characteristic of faith was to provide sincere and informed advice to leaders in the community. No role was considered insignificant or unworthy of God’s appreciation and acceptance.

This progressive state, however, would not remain the same. Various political and social trends were responsible.

  1. Political leadership among Muslims devolved from a representative system based on public consultation to a dynastic monarchy. The military began to play a more assertive and aggressive role in society to ensure compliance. “Old school” patriarchy began to erode the political gains made by ordinary Muslim women.
  2. As Islam expanded throughout the known world, various cultures began to intermingle pre-Islamic customs with the faith. With the passage of time, these customs were considered “Islamic.” The ancient Persian practise of “purdah” or total segregation between men and women is an example.
  3. Certain verses of the Quran or statements of the Prophet were selectively emphasized or taken out of context by people within these cultures as proof of men’s superiority.
  4. Legal provisions and dispensations for women in the sharia were either ignored or discarded. For example, the right of a woman to initiate a divorce in the same manner as her husband.

Despite these changes we consistently see brilliant examples of achievement by Muslim women throughout Islamic history and across the Muslim world. Women from Africa to India to the Persian Gulf distinguished themselves as major Islamic scholars, controllers of gargantuan public endowments and even as ruling queens of their countries. Their legacies would at times acquire global stature. A female Muslim scholar by the name of Fatima Al-Fihri was responsible for creating the world’s first university in 859 CE. The Qarawiyyin (also spelled Karouine) University still exists in the city of Fez.

During the Industrial Age, most of the Muslim world was overrun by European colonial powers. Muslim women suffered not only death and economic deprivation, they were often victims of systematic rape and sexual abuse. The colonial powers created a societal “elite” that acted as grassroots watchmen of empire. These homegrown loyalists were often scathing in their rejection of their own people’s faith, values and customs. Many of them formed the political power bases of their countries after the colonial masters left. Corruption, poverty, illiteracy and a lack of safety and security became the hallmark of numerous countries across the Muslim world.

Enormous economic and educational challenges continue to confront the global Muslim community. These issues are often left unstated by those who criticize the treatment of Muslim women. If they are mentioned, Islam is typically made the scapegoat. The fallout from colonial rule and totalitarian rulers in the post colonial era has been conflicts, wars and deprivation for millions. Fifty-six Muslim majority countries make up a quarter of the world’s population but account for less than five percent of its economy. Muslims comprise the world’s largest refugee population. Without access to education, health care and social services, people trapped in narrowly defined notions of faith and culture face monumental odds against changing their circumstances. To blame Islam for decades and even centuries of repression and misrule is both ignorant and short sighted.

And yet a shift toward Islamic ideals is discernible throughout the Muslim world. Muslim women have been at the forefront of popular freedom movements across the Middle East. A Muslim woman from Yemen – Tawakkul Karman – was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Women Islamic scholars have once again begun to make important contributions to legal and spiritual discourses. Women are also making greater inroads in various fields of education and employment. The west has a potentially critical role to play in this progress. Not as condescending “west knows best” task masters but as concerned citizens of the global village that help foster dialogue, debate and development in a spirit of mutual compassion and respect.