The True Position of Women in Islam
Based on the Qur’an & Sunnah
Little is it known that Islam was the first faith to truly recognize the humanity of women. It was the only faith and still remains the only faith that teaches that women are men’s twin halves and not playthings in the hands of men. That such a revolutionary message should have emerged from the deserts of Arabia during what we call the Dark Ages is truly remarkable.
Those were the times when glorious civilizations had sprung in many parts of the world, but treated women as chattels. In fact, the more ‘civilized’ they became, the more they oppressed their women. Take the ancient Greeks or Romans or Hindus who built grandiose civilizations but gave women a place only slightly better than their slaves. However, the true test of civilization is not its material progress but the way it treats its women. Going by this yardstick, we’ll find that it was Islam that laid the groundwork for a truly beautiful civilization where women were finally treated as human beings, not as a concession from men but as rights given them by God Himself.
But hold on. Something seems to be amiss. If that were so, how come it may be asked Muslim women in certain conservative parts of the Islamic world are treated as second class citizens, not having the right even to marry a man of their choice or getting about their lives without a guardian telling them what or what not to do. Something’s amiss surely.
The truth is that there are Muslim communities among us even today that regard women in the same manner that the Arabs of the Jahilliyyah or Pre-Islamic Age of Ignorance did. You will find this attitude even in the very birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia where women are treated as less than human by insecure men not very much different from the ancient Greeks who kept their wives out of the pale of society in the Gyna or the Romans who exercised the power of Patria Potestas to oppress their daughters or the Hindus who held that a woman was to be under perpetual tutelage as a daughter, wife and mother. Arch conservative clerics who are more keen to preserve a rigid form of male domination they inherited from their misguided ancestors are primarily to blame for this. Looking at the position of women not through the lens of the true teachings of Islam but through their tribal societies, they spew the poison of ignorance and make the lot of women a most pitiable one. What is most sad is the manner they interpret religion in such a way as to reduce women to near slavery without the ability to make even the most important decisions of their lives. The many websites run by Saudi scholars proliferating today do just that. They are more concerned about the duties and obligations of women rather than ensuring their rights, which needless to say is equally important.
It is these frightening developments that inspired me to compile this paper, which I have titled Half-Told Truths, which is exactly what is being done by these so-called scholars who misquote or cite scripture out of context to suit their narrow views that have no place in the true teachings of Islam or modern society. So let’s start debunking these myths of theirs by blowing away the mist of ignorance that has engulfed them and going back to the very roots of Islam, the Quran which is the Word of God Almighty, and the Sunnah, the sayings and doings of His Messenger, Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).
1) Gender Equality in Islam
Islam has always considered women as the twin halves of men, playing mutually complementary roles so that humanity could prosper. The Prophet was once asked about a man who found some wetness (on his clothes) but did not have an erotic dream, and he said, “He should have a bath.” Umm Salamah asked: “O Messenger of God, if a woman sees that, does she have to have a bath?” He said, “Yes, for women are the twin halves of men.” (Tirmidhi).
In fact, Islam gave women such a place that they even thought it worth dying for. The first martyr in Islam was not a man, but a woman, the slave girl Sumayya who her evil master Abu Jahl killed with a spear when she refused to give up her Islam. Could any other faith boast of such fervour? This is why you will find that for every male who converts to Islam today, there are three females. Of all converts to Islam, three out of four or approximately 75 percent are women. So ask yourself: Would you embrace a faith that oppresses you?
Unlike other scriptures, you will find many passages in the Qur’an addressing women on a footing of equality:
O mankind! Fear your guardian Lord, who created you from a single person, created, of like nature, his mate, and from the twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women; – fear God, through whom ye demand your mutual (rights), and be heedful of the wombs (that bear you): for God ever watches over you
The believers, men and women, are protectors, one of another: They enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, pay the alms tax and obey God and His Messenger. On them will God pour his mercy
(The Repentance: 71)
For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in Charity, for men and women who fast (and deny themselves), for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in God’s praise- for them has God prepared forgiveness and great reward
Here, you will find the Qur’an enunciating the ideal of mutual guardianship of men and women. They are protectors, one of another. No other faith ever propounded such a revolutionary idea. In the early Islamic era, women not only freely spoke to the Prophet, but even argued with him over matters that concerned themselves or the larger community, urging a break away from pagan customs even faster than he would have liked. In fact there is a Qur’anic chapter titled Al Mujadila or ‘She who pleads’ which was revealed after a Muslim woman named Khawla protested against the pagan custom of divorcing one’s wife by comparing her to one’s mother. The Prophet told her to be patient, but nay, she would have none of it and argued with him passionately about it. God, the All Seeing and All hearing, then sent a revelation abolishing the practice once and for all time:
God hath heard the saying of her that disputes with thee (Muhammad) concerning her husband, and complains to God. And God hears your colloquy. Lo! God is Hearer, Knower. Such of you as put away your wives (by saying they are as their mothers) – They are not their mothers; none are their mothers except those who gave them birth – they indeed utter an ill word and a lie.
Indeed, women were so regarded that nobody in the early Muslim community thought it odd to entrust the first copy of the completed Qur’an, which served as the standard for all copies of the scripture in future, to a woman. Yes, the first physical copy of the completed Word of God was kept, not in the custody of an organized male priesthood, but in the safekeeping of a single woman in Medina, Hafsa, the widow of the Prophet and the daughter of the Caliph Umar. It was from this copy lent by Hafsa to Umar’s successor Uthman that seven other copies were made and sent to the various parts of Arabia, thus preserving the Holy Book for all time. All this while Jewish Rabbis were teaching: “Let the words of the Torah rather be destroyed by fire than imparted to women” and the early Christians proclaiming after Paul: “It is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (Corinthians 14:34).
2) The Spiritual Sphere
Islam recognizes a woman as a human in her own right. Unlike other faiths or cultures which treated her like a minor having no rights whatsoever, Islam gave her many rights including the right to marry a mate of her choice, to divorce him if she found him unsuitable, to stipulate conditions in her marriage contract, to own, inherit and dispose property on her own accord and the right to fair and equal treatment as much as her male counterpart. Most importantly she is regarded as the spiritual equal of the male in the Sight of God, eligible to enter paradise if she does good or fall into the pit of hell if she does evil.
In some ways, she is even superior to man, both as a mother and a daughter, she can be a cause for a man entering paradise. Yes, it is she who opens the gates of paradise to her father, fulfills half the faith of her husband and has the paradise of her son under her feet.
Yes, because the Prophet said of daughters:
Whoever has three daughters, gives them shelter, meets all their needs and shows them kindness will certainly find his abode in paradise.
(Adab al Mufrad)
He said of wives:
When a man marries he has fulfilled half of his religion
And he said of mothers:
Paradise lies at the feet of your mother
So let’s start with the spiritual equality of women, because all faiths are concerned with the spiritual more than the mundane. In Islam a woman is absolutely equal in the spiritual sphere. She is a sister in faith who shares in all the religious duties of her brothers. She has the same opportunity to earn God’s Pleasure and the Everlasting Bliss of Paradise or earn His Wrath and be cast into hellfire.
God Almighty is very clear in the Qur’an that men and women are spiritually equal and that He will reward them accordingly for their deeds in this world:
Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, be he male or female: ye proceed one from another
If any do deeds of righteousness, – be they male or female- and have faith, they will enter Heaven, and not the least injustice will be done to them
(The Women: 124).
God hath promised to believers, men and women, garden under which rivers flow, to dwell therein, and beautiful mansions in gardens of everlasting stay but the greatest of bliss is the good pleasure of God: That is the supreme triumph
(The Repentance: 72)
The day shalt thou see the believing men and the believing women – how their light runs forward before them and by their right hands: (Their greetings will be): “Good News for you this day! Garden beneath which flows rivers! To dwell therein for aye! This is indeed the highest triumph
In the Qur’an we read how Asiyah, the Pharoah’s wife beseeched her Lord:
“O my Lord, build for me in nearness to Thee, a mansion in the Garden, and save me from Pharoah, and his doings”
The Prophet’s wife Ayisha said of Khadija, his first wife who stood with him through thick and thin:
His Lord commanded to give her the good news of a house of pearls in the Garden (Paradise). If he sacrificed a sheep, he would give some of it to her friends
This was a far cry from the other faiths of the time, including early Christianity. That was a time when the church fathers were wrangling among themselves whether women had souls at all, with many concluding that they had none. Much of it had to do with the ridiculous idea that Eve was responsible for Adam’s downfall which it borrowed from Judaism. In the Bible we read the Jewish Sage Joshua Ben Sera saying: “Woman is the origin of sin, and it is through her that we all die. Do not leave a leaky cistern to drip or allow a bad wife to say what she likes. If she does not accept your control, divorce her and send her away” (Ecclesiasticus 25:25).
Saint Paul, the true founder of Christianity as we know it today and a Jew himself, saw woman as the arch temptress, the very instrument of Satan in hastening Adam’s fall from Grace, the arch sinner responsible not only for her sin, but also that of her husband and indeed of all humanity. He did not mince his words when he said: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in transgression” (Timothy 2:11-14). As if that were not enough, he went on to say: “For the man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man” (Corinthians 11:8-10). How misogynist can you get?
He was not alone. Almost all the early church fathers held a similar view. St John the Damascene said: “Woman is a daughter of falsehood, a sentinel of hell, the enemy of peace, through her Adam lost paradise”. St.Cyprian said: “Woman is the instrument the devil uses to gain possession of our souls”. St.Gregory said: “Woman has the poison of an asp, the malice of a dragon”. Tertullian said: “Do you know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that forbidden tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law; you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert – that is death – even the Son of God had to die”.
In contrast, Islam held woman to be man’s equal, not only in the great fall, but also in this world through all its trials and tribulations.
But Satan whispered evil to him. He said: “O Adam! Shall I lead thee to the Tree of Eternity and to a kingdom that never decays? As a result they both ate of the tree and so their nakedness appeared to them
“Our Lord (said Adam and Eve), we have wronged our souls, and if You do not forgive us and have mercy upon us, we will surely be among the losers”
(The Heights: 23)
At a time when women’s participation in religious life was looked down upon in almost every part of the world, Islam made it obligatory, Prayer, Fasting, Giving Alms and Performing the Pilgrimage for example. It moreover allowed women into the mosques, the houses of God. The Prophet made this clear when he said “Do not prevent God’s maid-servants from going to the mosque” (Saheeh Muslim). In fact, women could even lead their household in prayer. The Prophet himself appointed Umm Waraqah to lead her household in prayer (Abu Dawood).
The prayer of the women was also to be the same as that of the men. There could be no difference as in the Jewish prayer where the men recite in their daily morning prayer “Blessed be God, King of the universe that Thou has not made me a woman” and the women simply thank God for “making me according to Thy will“. To differentiate between man and woman in the eyes of God is nothing but heresy in Islam. Nay, women were even held up as examples to the believers, both men and women, in the very Word of God itself:
And God sets forth as an example to those who believe, the wife of Pharaoh, when she said, “My Lord, build for me near to Thee a mansion in the Garden (of paradise) and save me from Pharaoh and his doings and save me from those that do wrong.” And Mary, the daughter of Imran, who guarded her chastity. We blew into her of Our Spirit, and she believed in the words of her Lord”
Thus spiritually women are men’s equal in every respect. If they are both equal in God’s Eyes, how can they not be in the eyes of men? To regard woman as man’s inferior thus cannot be a trait of the godly, but rather the way of the devil.
So now let us get on with the mundane, the rights and respect Islam gives women in this worldly life. The first is the right to life.
3) The Right to Life
The female as much as the male has a right to life. Although we might take this as a given, remember that to this day in some cultures, the killing of female newborns is not uncommon, India and China for example where female infanticide or foetecide is often winked at. In Pre-Islamic Arabia too female infanticide was common. Newborn girls were buried alive as they were thought as an economic liability. In fact many looked at bringing up daughters as a shame to their manliness. God Almighty made it clear in the Qur’an that the barbaric practice must stop:
And they assign daughters for God- Glory be to Him! And for themselves (sons) they desire! When news is brought to one of them, of (the birth of) a female, his face darkens, and he is filled with grief. With shame does he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he has had! Shall he retain it on contempt, or bury it in the dust? Ah! What an evil (choice) they decide on
In fact, the burying alive of girls would later come to be regarded in the community as a distinctive trait of the Jahiliyyah or era of ignorance when idolatry reigned supreme and God had all but been forgotten. That is why female infanticide is never heard of in Islamic societies. Islam preached that daughters are as much a Godsend as sons. In fact the gift of a daughter finds mention in the Qur’an even before that of a son:
To God belongs the Kingdom of the Heavens and the Earth. He creates what He Wills. He gives female offspring to whom He Wills and male offspring to whom He Wills
The Prophet not only preached against the killing of one’s daughters, but also promised that bringing them up would earn one God’s Grace, in itself enough to admit one to paradise.
Whoever has three daughters, gives them shelter, meets all their needs and shows them kindness will certainly find his abode in paradise. A man asked: “If only two daughters?”. He said: “Two also”
(Adab al Mufrad)
4) The Right to a Happy Marriage
Besides the right to a proper upbringing, Islam also gave women the right to a happily married life based on love and mercy:
And among His Signs is this: that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your hearts. Verily in that are signs for those who reflect
God says of this relationship between husbands and wives:
They are your garments and you are their garments
Why, because spouses are there for mutual love, warmth and comfort, fitting into one another as a garments fits the body. A garment, needless to say, is also for beauty on the one hand and concealment on the other, which is why the Holy Book uses the word libaas or garment to address this intimate and beautiful relationship.
Needless to say, marriage is for the common good of the partners concerned. Both men and women depend on one another for their emotional needs and to meet their sexual urges. The very perpetuation of the human race is possible only with the union of both sexes, which again shows how important the sexes are for one another. One simply cannot do without the other. More than the man, marriage is meant to protect the woman as it is she who benefits most from such an arrangement. This is why you will find that even in Western societies, it is women more than men, who desire marriage. Even if they were not proposed to, they would only be too glad to make the first move and propose to the one they have set their affections on if not for their shy nature, not to mention the fact that it is not the done thing, even in the enlightened West.
Unlike in the other cultures of the day, Islam never regarded a wife as a husband’s property. All it required of wives was to guard their chastity, to reserve their private parts for their husbands alone, and to assure their husbands their children were theirs.
Islam never said that a man owned his wife unlike some cultures in the West such as Spain and Portugal where even peasants are still known to sing: esta mulher e minha da cabeça ate as unhas (This woman is mine from her head to her toenails). Rather throughout the Qur’an we see a stress on mutual consultation as the basis of married life, as in the following:
If they both decide on weaning, by mutual consent, and after due consultation. There is no blame on them. If ye decide on a foster-mother for your offspring, there is no blame on you
This is a far cry from the Christian world which to this day holds that a wife is bound to obey her husband based on the marriage vow she gives at the time of her wedding. Was it not Paul, the founding father of the church who said: “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the Church” (Ephesians 5:22-23). The Jews were no better, regarding women merely as the property of men. This is why you will read in the Bible that a woman’s vow (which may even be something personal between her and God) is abrogated if her father does not approve it if she be a virgin or her husband does not approve it if she be married (Numbers 30:2-15). This is why you will read in the Talmud: How can a woman have anything; whatever is hers belongs to her husband? What is his is his and what is hers is also his… Her earnings and what she may find in the streets are also his. The household articles, even the crumbs of bread on the table, are his. Should she invite a guest to her house and feed him, she would be stealing from her husband (San. 71a, Git. 62a).
In contrast you will see that in Islam, marriage is a relationship between equals. A man once came to the Prophet and said: “Messenger of God, I have an orphan girl under my custody. Two men have proposed to her. One is wealthy and the other poor. We like the wealthy whereas she likes the poor”. Upon hearing this the Prophet said: “Nothing is better for those who love one another than marriage” (Ibn Majah).
To cement this beautiful relationship the Prophet even advised his followers to look at the spouses they hoped to marry. A companion of the Prophet Mughirah tells us that when he sought a woman in marriage, the Prophet asked him: “Have you seen her?”. “No” he said. The Prophet said “Then look at her, because it is more proper that love should be cemented between you”. When Mughirah went to the girl’s parents and told them about the Prophet’s advice, they did not like it. The girl who was in her room, overheard the conversation and called out: “If the Prophet has told you to look at me, then look”. Mughirah says: “I saw her and married her” (Tirmidhi). To think that even in much later Victorian times in England and elsewhere maidens were expected to drop their gaze on the floor at the slightest mention of men or marriage. And here we have the Prophet telling his followers to have a look at their prospective partners so that love would be cemented between them.
- The Right to Choose a Husband
Islam gave woman the right to consent to her marriage if it were arranged by her parents. Nay, it went even further. It gave her the right to contract a marriage of her choice, even without the consent of her father or any other guardian if needs be. That the woman’s consent is essential for marriage, a sine qua non for the validity of her marriage, is seen from both the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet. Although the Qur’an does not directly address the question of consent of either party, it implies that consent is necessary as it describes marriage as a mithaq or covenant between husband and wife:
And how could ye take it when ye have gone in unto each other, and they have taken from you a solemn covenant
( The Women: 21)
The sayings of the Prophet are however very clear on the matter:
No woman who has been previously married should be remarried until she gives her permission; similarly a virgin should not be married until her consent has been obtained
A grown up girl shall be asked permission about herself. If she is silent, it is her permission; and if she declines, there shall be no compulsion on her
(Tirmidhi, Abu Dawood, Nisai)
As for the minor girl given in marriage without her consent, the Prophet made it clear that she could, upon attaining majority, abrogate such a marriage on her own accord if she thought it unfit. This was made clear when the Prophet himself married the minor daughter of Hamzah to the son of Abu Salama and stated that they had the option of repudiating the marriage upon attaining puberty.
A woman has also been given the right to contract a marriage at her own discretion, even without the consent of her father or other agnate. This is very clear from both the Qur’an and the sayings and actions of the Prophet. The Qur’an which we Muslims regard as the Word of God clearly implies that women have free choice in contracting their marriages:
O ye who believe! Ye are forbidden to inherit women against their will
(The Women: 19)
This refers to the practice of inheriting women that existed in pre-Islamic times where the widows of deceased men passed on to the latter’s relatives. Although the practice, with or without their consent is illegal in Islam, the verse shows that the right to dispose of their persons has been given to the women themselves and not their guardians. If their guardians had any right over them, the right to decide would have been given to them.
The Qur’an further says of divorced women:
If he has divorced her, then she is not lawful to him until she marries another man
(The Heifer: 230)
Here the act of marrying is described with the verb tankiha in the feminine singular mode. It is specific to the woman and not a guardian, nor even conjoined with that of her guardian. This is also reflected in certain incidents that took place in the Prophet’s lifetime, like when Fatima bint Qais was told by the Prophet about her suitors who had proposed to her. “So far as Muawiya is concerned, he is penniless, so far as Abu Jahm is concerned, he is a great beater of women, but Usama bin Zaid…” giving her time to consider. She pointed with her hand, indicating that she did not like the idea of marrying Usama. The Prophet told her: Obedience to God and obedience to His Messenger is better for thee. She says: So I married him, and I became an object of envy (Saheeh Muslim). So it was she who married Usama and not that she was married off. She made her choice and she chose well.
The Qur’an goes on:
When ye divorce women, and they fulfill the waiting term, do not prevent them from marrying their (former) husbands, if they mutually agree on equitable terms
(The Heifer: 232)
In the above verse we find the Qur’an expressly prohibiting divorcees being prevented from remarrying their former husbands if they chose to. It goes on to say of widowed women:
If any of you die and leave widows behind, they shall wait concerning themselves four months and ten days: when they have fulfilled their term, there is no blame on you if they dispose of themselves in a just and reasonable manner, and God is well acquainted with what ye do
God here tells us that widows could dispose of themselves in a just and reasonable manner, implying that they could enter into a marriage contract at their own discretion. In the following verse we are told:
There is no blame on you if ye make an offer of betrothal or hold it in your hearts. God knows that ye cherish them in your hearts: But do not make a secret contract with them except in terms honourable, nor resolve on the tie of marriage till the term prescribed is fulfilled
(The Heifer: 235)
The Quran, after specifying the forbidden degrees of marriage, whether due to consanguinity, fosterage or marital status, states:
Thus hath God ordained (prohibitions) against you: Except for these, all others are lawful, provided ye seek (them in marriage) with gifts from your property, desiring chastity, not lust
(The Women: 24)
In the following verse we read:
If any of you have not the means wherewith to wed free believing women, they may wed believing girls from among those whom your right hands possess: And God hath full knowledge about your faith. Ye are one from another: wed them with the leave of their owners, and give them their dowers, according to what is reasonable
Here the Qur’an lays down the rule that slave girls should be wedded with the consent of their masters, clearly distinguishing them from free, believing women in whose case no such requirement is made. This shows that there was a difference in the capacities of free women, and slave women to contract marriage, in that the latter had to be wedded with the consent of their masters. No such conditions have been attached to free women, whether previously married or virgin, showing that free women, like free men could contract mariages sans the consent of their guardians.
The practice of the Prophet, itself a basis for Islamic law second only to the Qur’an clearly gives women the right to contract their own marriages. It once happened that a young woman, Khansa bint Khidam, came to the Prophet and complained to him about her father marrying her off without consulting her. Let me put it in her own words:
My father married me to his nephew and I did not like this match. So I complained to the Messenger of God. He said to me “Accept what your father has arranged”. I said” I do not wish to accept what my father has arranged”. He said: “Then this marriage is invalid, go and marry whomsoever you wish”. I said: I have accepted what my father has arranged, but I wanted women to know that fathers have no right in their daughters’ matters.
(Fath Al Bari)
What this shows is that not only is the legality of a marriage dependent on the approval of the female party, but also that fathers have no authority over their daughters’ affairs including the power to approve or disapprove their marriages.
Also very telling is the incident concerning Subai’a al-Aslamiyya. Two men asked to marry her. One was young and the other was old. She preferred the young man. The old man said: “You are not free yet (to marry)”. Her family was away, and he hoped that when they would come, they may prefer him over the other man. She went to the Prophet and he said: “You are free to marry, so marry whomever you wish” (Muwatta, Malik).
However, at the same time, the Prophet disapproved of women marrying by themselves without an agent to represent them is seen in another statement of his that the fornicatresses are those who marry by themselves without witnesses (Tirmidhi). What is condemned here is women marrying by themselves and without witnesses and not their marrying sans the consent of their guardians. You might wonder why the Prophet said so? All I can say was it was to ensure propriety in the marriage contract. Even today in the advanced West, it is established practice for the father of the bride to lead her to the groom and in a sense give her in marriage.
While Islam preserved it as a matter of custom rather than law to ensure modesty, Christians saw and continue to see in this sacrament that the bride doesn’t present herself; rather she is presented to her husband just as Eve was presented to Adam by God in the Garden of Eden. So just as God presented the first woman to her husband, so also the father of the bride who raised her on behalf of God, presents the woman to her husband, saying in effect “I guarded her, O Lord, and protected her as a father would. Now I’m presenting her as a chaste virgin solemnly handing her over to be protected and cared for by this man.”
It’s also a safeguard for a woman liable to make a hasty move by giving herself to some man without some sort of intervention. Such a marriage, without witnesses, could also lead to much intrigue. It was for a similar reason, to overcome the possibility of unmarried men and women cohabiting, falsely claiming to have married clandestinely, or carrying on with bigamous relationships that the Fourth Lateran Council in the early thirteenth century introduced the principle that couples must publish marriage banns prior to the ceremony, and that the celebration of marriages be carried out in public, in the presence of a priest.
The idea here is that there should be some order in contracting a marriage without at all prejudicing a woman’s free choice. It was in this spirit that Caliph Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law strongly discouraged marriage without the approval of a woman’s guardian, though considering such a marriage valid nevertheless (Kanz Al-Ummal).
In requiring the consent of the bride and granting her full capacity to enter into a marriage of her own choice, Islam was a long way ahead of other cultures where the bride had virtually no say in so important a matter as this. In the Mosaic Law followed by the Jews, a woman was simply betrothed by her father by to her husband by the payment of a bride price. As the Law said:
When a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed, and lies with her, he shall pay her marriage price and marry her. If her father refuses to give her to him, he must still pay him the customary marriage price for virgins
Although Christianity, inspired by Roman Law, recognized the bride’s consent to her marriage quite early, there were times the church fathers sought to place restrictions on her capacity to contract a marriage of her choice, like in the Council of Trent in the 16th century which ruled that the consent of parents was required for the soundness of matrimony, arguing that “in the Old Law children were always given in marriage by their fathers; and that the will of the parent is always to have very great influence on the choice of the child, is clear from these words of the Apostle “He that giveth his virgin in marriage doth well; and he that giveth her not, doth better”. And who is this Apostle it cites. It’s none other than Paul in Corinthians 7:38.
In fact, Christian communities in Europe that had just emerged from paganism were themselves deliberating whether a girl could marry without her father’s consent, the bishops themselves rejecting the principle that mutual consent of bride and groom was in itself sufficient to establish the validity of marriage. In fact sixth century Merovingian law laid so much stress on paternal consent that even if a Frank girl eloped to church with her lover she was to be returned to her father, fully backed by the church authority. There was even this Bishop, Bertram of Bordeaux, who went so far as to argue that his sister’s marriage was invalid because it was not approved by her relatives.
6) The Right to Divorce
As much as Islam recognizes the woman’s right to decide about her marriage, it also concedes her right to seek an end for an unsuccessful marriage. Divorce on the part of either husband or wife is strongly condemned in Islam. The Prophet said: “With God the most detestable of all things (permitted) is divorce” (Aboo Dawood). He also said “Marry but do not divorce. For God does not like men and women who desire only a taste of marriage” (Tabarani). He went further to say: “God created nothing on the face of the earth more dear to Him than emancipation (of slaves) and God created nothing on the face of the earth more disliking to Him than divorce” (Daraqutni).
Yet still it is permitted. Why, because it is better to separate a married couple who dislike or are unwilling to live with one another than bind them permanently in a perpetually unhappy union from which they want to get away, especially where the objectives of marriage like love and compassion between the partners are absent. Thus divorce though strong disapproved, is allowed as a last resort when all means of reconciliation between the partners have proven to be futile. Since marriage in Islam is a civil contract contracted between consenting parties it could be terminated if needs be, which is a far more practical option than the indissoluble sacrament it is in faiths like Christianity or Hinduism.
What is better, I ask you, compelling two people averse to each other and so different in taste and temperament to live together at the expense of domestic peace, or release them from the marriage so that they could find the desired peace in another mate more suited to their liking? Suppose we compel such couples to live with one another until as the Christian dictum goes till death do us part, what impact would it have on their psychological state when endless bickerings become the order of the day. Could it not prompt them to seek partners outside of wedlock, making their marriage a folly? Could it not make psychological wrecks of their children? The notion that such couples should be forced to live together for the sake of their children falls apart when you think of the tense, hateful environment the little innocents are compelled to grow up in, knowing when the next brawl between their quarrelsome parents would burst out.
Thus although Islam frowns upon it, it nevertheless recognizes divorce. Divorce at the instance of the husband is called Talaq. It involves the husband making a verbal pronouncement that the marriage is dissolved by saying talaq ‘divorce’ three times over three consecutive menstrual periods during which no sexual intercourse has taken place. The divorce becomes irrevocable once the third pronouncement is made. As such, the divorce is revocable and reconciliation possible any time before the third pronouncement is made. This rule is based on the statement in the Qur’an:
Divorced women shall wait concerning themselves for three monthly periods, nor is it lawful for them to hide what God has created in their wombs, if they have faith in God and the Last Day. And their husbands have the better right to take them back in that period, if they wish for reconciliation
Just as men have been given the right to divorce, so are women. Such divorce at the instance of the wife is known as Khul. It may be resorted to if the parties fear that they would not be able to keep the limits ordained by God. For this the Qur’an prescribes a settlement, namely that the wife agree to give a consideration from her dower to her husband for her release from the marriage bond
It is not lawful for you (men) to take back any of your gifts (from your wives) except when both parties fear that they would be unable to keep the limits ordained by God. There is no blame on either of them if she give something for her freedom
This could be done by mutual agreement between the estranged parties or by order of court. That the husband should consent to the arrangement is suggested by an incident that took place in the days of the Prophet when the wife of Thabit Bin Qais came to the Prophet and said: “O Messenger of God! I do not blame Thabit for defects in his character or his religion, but I, being a Muslim dislike to behave in an unislamic manner (if I remain with him)”. On that the Prophet said: “Will you give back the garden which your husband has given you (as dower)?”. She said “yes”. Then the Prophet said to Thabit “O Thabit ! Accept your garden and divorce her once” (Saheeh Al- Bukhari).
However, there is another way by which wives could secure their rights to divorce at their own discretion and that is to demand a pre-nuptial contract before the marriage takes place. This is commonly done to this day in many parts of the Muslim world. Since marriage as a civil contract and not a sacrament both parties may subject it to various conditions. Such pre-nuptial stipulations are binding, for the Prophet said:
The conditions most entitled to be abided by are those with which you are given the right to enjoy the (women’s) private parts (Stipulations of the marriage contract)
In the days of Caliph Umar, a man married a woman on condition that he would live in her house, but later changed his mind and asked her to move into his house. She refused, and the two of them appealed to the Caliph. Umar stood by the lady. “Her condition should be fulfilled” he declared “Rights may not exceed the agreement” (Fath Al Bari).
A Muslim woman is therefore able to stipulate various conditions in her marriage contract and secure for herself certain rights and privileges. This includes the right to divorce her husband if she so desires, especially in case of breach of the marriage contract. Thus a wife could stipulate that her husband shall not marry another wife or move her out of her home and if he were to do so, she shall be divorced. Besides such stipulations, the wife could resort to a device called isma, where she could repudiate the marriage herself by stipulating it as a condition in the pre-nuptial agreement. This of course involves the husband delegating to her what is known as tamlik, the authority to divorce herself. Although this is dependent on the consent of the prospective husband, the bride could insist on it or simply decide not to proceed with the marriage in case he refuses. In countries like India it has become common practice among the Muslims to incorporate the device into the nikahnamah or marriage contract.
Muslim women have throughout the ages made use of this device to empower themselves, often at the expense of their husbands. Take Sakinah bint Husayn, the granddaughter of Caliph Ali and Fatima and a great granddaughter of the Prophet who stipulated various conditions into her marriage contract including a condition that her husband will have no right to take another wife during their marriage. We also know that the wife of the future Abbasid Caliph Abu Ja ‘far Al-Mansur, Umm Musa stipulated in her marriage contract that “he should not take unto him another spouse besides her, nor yet a concubine, and this she wrote down in writ unto him. And he was afflicted thereby during ten whole years of his rule while she held him to his pledge unto her, until such a night that she bestowed unto him as a gift hundred maidens”.
Again, Islam was far ahead other cultures in giving women this right. In Mosaic Law divorce was a privilege of the husband only, why because she was deemed the man’s property and his right to divorce her followed as a matter of course. A Jewish woman could not divorce her husband without his consent on any ground whatsoever including desertion, nor could such a deserted wife marry another. To this day in orthodox Jewish communities such a woman is called agunah ‘chained’, because that’s what she is, chained to her husband. Jesus sought to bring some equality into this state of affairs, but not by giving the wife the right to divorce, but rather by speaking against the husband’s right to divorce his wife. He told the Pharisees who had asked him about a man divorcing his wife:
Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female and said ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human must separate
He then said: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9) and “If she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:12).
To this day, the Roman Catholic Church holds very strong views on divorce, so that couples desiring separation have no recourse but to go against the church’s teachings and resort to secular authority. This needless to say dents the church’s authority and still it sticks with this policy, despite it being the reason why the Church of England separated from it. That was when King Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife and the Church refused, resulting in the birth of the Anglican Church.
7) The right to a fulfilling sex life
Islam very early on recognised the right of the wife to sexual fulfillment. Foreplay before sex was stressed by the Prophet himself when one of his companions named Jabir married a matron. The Prophet asked him “Why not have a virgin who fondles you and you fondle her” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari). This is borne out in an incident that took place in the lifetime of the Caliph Umar. Umar during his nightly rounds in the streets of Medina once happened to hear a woman lamenting: “This night is becoming longer, darker (in the flush of my aroused passions) I am restive, I learn for my beloved to play with. By God, if I would n’t have feared God, I would have managed someone in the bed and moved all its sides”. Umar, realizing that the woman’s husband was away from her for a long time as he was engaged in a military campaign, asked his daughter Hafsa: “How long can a wife tolerate the separation of her husband ?” to which she replied “From four to six months”. Umar promptly issued the order: “No married person on military duty shall remain away from his home and wife for more than four months” (Radd Al Mukhtar).
In sharp contrast to European thinking, which as recently as Victorian times looked upon women as passionless, there were Islamic scholars like Al Ghazzali who wrote the book Ihya Uloom al-Deen stressing on the need for satisfying a woman’s sexual cravings. Ghazzali held that a man must work towards ensuring order in society by satisfying a woman’s sexual needs through the legitimate channel of marriage so as to avoid the chaos that might ensue if an unsatisfied woman decided to seek sexual satisfaction outside of marriage. Likewise the Muslim physician Ibn Sina in his Canon of Medicine prescribed extended foreplay which included “gently caressing the breasts and pubis until (the woman) is aroused and excited, at which point (the man) starts intercourse, making sure to rub her at the upper part of the labia- meaning the clitoris- because that is the site of her pleasure”.
Although it is true that Islam prescribes the circumcision of females, this is by no means designed to curb sexual pleasure in women as is commonly supposed. Rather it is meant to enhance it. This we gather from a saying of the Prophet (PBUH) where he is reported to have told Umm Atiyya Al Ansariya, a lady who circumcised females in Medina: When you circumcise, cut plainly (in a shallow manner) and do not cut deeply, for it is beauty for the face and desirable for the husband” (idha khafadti fa ashimmi wa la tanhaki fa innahu ashraq li-l wajh wa ahza ind al-zawj) (Sunan Abu Dāwud, Sunan Al Kubra of Baihaqi, Al Awsat of Tabarāni and Tārikh Baghdād of Al-Baghdādi).
This hadith clearly indicates the procedure to be followed in the circumcision of girls. The words “Cut plainly and do not cut deeply” (ashimmi wa-la-tanhaki) is to be understood in the sense of removing the skin covering the clitoris, and not the clitoris. The expression “It is beauty (more properly brightness or radiance) for the face” (ashraq li-l-wajh) is said to be further proof of this as it is to be understood to mean a face suffused with pleasure, in other words, the joyous countenance of a woman, arising out of her being sexually satisfied by her husband. Another version of the hadith puts it more directly, for instead of ashraq li’l wajh (radiance for the face) it gives ahwa li’l mar’a (more pleasure to the woman) When the Prophet said that it was more desirable for the husband, what he obviously meant was that he would be pleased that his wife too had attained orgasm at about the same time as him – perhaps even had multiple orgasms – and that he would not need to exert himself further to ensure she is fully satisfied.
The idea here is that it is only with the removal of the clitoral prepuce that real sexual satisfaction could be realized. It is contended that the procedure enhances sexual feeling in women during the sex act since a circumcised clitoris is much more likely to be stimulated as a result of direct oral, penile or tactile contact than the uncircumcised organ whose prepuce serves as an obstacle to direct stimulation. This necessarily leads to a satisfactory sex life among women, thus ensuring their chastity. The classical jurists were not such parochial men after all. They deduced from this one statement of the prophet what it really meant. Another reason they concluded thus was the fact that the prophet used the term khitan to denote both male and female circumcision. This would suggest that the procedure in the case of the female had to be similar to that in the male, mandating the removal only of the prepuce of the clitoris, which as we have shown contributes to improving the sex lives of women, not diminishing it.
8) Right to Property
Islam also gave women the right to inherit, to possess and to dispose of property long before the West did. As God says in the Qur’an:
Unto men (of the family) belongs a share of that which Parents and near kindred leave, and unto women a share of that which parents and near kindred leave, whether it be a little or much – a determinate share
And in no wise covet those things which God has bestowed his gifts more freely on some of you than on others: to men is allotted what they earn, and to women what they earn: but ask God of His bounty.
(The Women: 32)
Indeed, even the Prophet’s wives did as they wished with their property, without even so much as consulting him. There was this slave girl named Barirah whose master offered her freedom for a sum of money. She came to the Prophet’s wife Ayisha and asked her help. Ayisha promptly paid him the money and got Barirah released (Saheeh Al-Bukhari). This even applied to the larger Muslim community. It once happened that the Prophet was conducting the festival prayers and after delivering the sermon, he approached the spot where the women were. Bilal the freed slave then spread out a blanket whereupon the women placed their charity upon it.
The Prophet did not bother to ask them whether they had the permission of their husbands to do so because there was no need to. These women were giving away what they had on their own accord and did not need their husband’s consent to part with things that were rightfully theirs. What all this shows that is that women are free economic agents in Islam and none can take this right away. But that’s not all. Islam gave to woman the right of inheritance at a time when she herself was an object of inheritance in some cultures. The very idea that a woman could inherit at all in her own right was revolutionary at the time and for centuries afterwards.
To think English Common Law did not recognize a woman’s right to own property until 1882 with the Married Women’s Property Act. All that time, a wife was more like a bondservant of her husband, having no right to call even the clothes she wore her own. It was well within the husband’s right to strip his wife naked in front of an assembly if he thought it fit, why because he owned her very clothes!
The sad part was that whatever a woman earned from the sweat of her brow or inherited from her parents automatically went to her husband. This rule was called coverture where the wife and her property, whether existing at the time of marriage or coming into her hands in the course of the marriage all came within the authority of her husband.With coverture a woman lost her legal personality. She became what was known in Common Law terms as feme covert “veiled as it were, clouded and overshadowed” by the authority of her husband, where all her rights to own and sell property, will it to others, enter into contracts, and sue others, were subsumed to the authority of her husband. As an Old English Law put it: Man and wife are one person, but understand in what manner. When a small brooke or little river incorporateth with Rhodanus, Humber or the Thames, the poor rivulet looseth its name, it is carried and recarried with the new associate, it beareth no sway, it possesseth nothing during coverture. A woman as soon as she is married, is called covert, in Latin, nupta, that is, veiled, as it were, clouded and overshadowed, she hath lost her streame . . . To a married woman, her new self is her superior, her companion, her master.
It was only in Victorian England with the industrial revolution gaining steam that rich industrialists successfully lobbied the government to recognize the independent property rights of women, not for the love of them, but because it could induce them to work in their factories and so do as they pleased with their earnings.
9) Right to Participate in Political life
Islam very early on recognized the right of women to declare their approval of a leader by giving him the pledge of allegiance. In the days of the Prophet the women of Medina like their menfolk gave him the pledge of allegiance. When the Prophet arrived in the town, its men gave him the pledge and the women not to be outdone went to the Prophet and said to him: “Messenger of God, our men have given you their pledges of loyalty. We also would like to give you our pledges.”
The pledge of the men took place by their shaking hands with the Prophet by saying “Stretch your hand out to give you the pledge.”, but since the Prophet did not shake hands with women, they gave him a verbal pledge, establishing the right of women for all time to publicly participate in the selection of their leader.
The women’s pledge even finds mention in the Qur’an: “Prophet! When believing women come and pledge to you that they will not associate any partner with God, nor steal, nor commit adultery, nor kill their children, nor lie about who fathered their children, nor disobey you in anything reasonable, then accept their pledge of allegiance and pray to God to forgive them” (The Examiner: 12)
We also learn that following death of the Caliph Umar, even women were consulted in selecting the new Caliph Uthman. When Abdur Rahman Ibn Auf consulted the people about the candidates, he consulted them singly as well as collectively, privately as well as publicly, and even reached out to the women to get their views (Al Bidayah wa Nihayah).
Contrast this with the attitude of the Christian West until recent times, when women did not even have the right to vote. In Britain women did not win the vote until and that too after a long struggle by the Suffragetes who risked imprisonment in campaigning for their due rights. In France women were not enfranchised until after the Second World War and Switzerland gave women the right to vote only a few years ago. The attitude of the West to women’s enfranchisement could be seen from the reaction of Queen Victoria, herself a woman who wrote in 1870: “The Queen is most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of ‘Woman’s Rights’ with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor, feeble sex is bent, forgetting every sense of womanly feeling and propriety”.
Even decades later when the women’s franchise movement was gaining steam Winston Churchill, who would go on to be Prime Minister of Britain, cried out: “Nothing would induce me to vote for giving women the franchise. I am not going to be henpecked into a question of such importance”.
But that’s not all. Muslim men had other rights as well including the right to express themselves freely in important decisions of the state. Thus we hear that when Caliph Umar attempted to forbid people from paying excessive dowries saying: “Don’t fix the dowries for women over forty ounces. If ever that is exceeded I shall deposit the excess amount in the public treasury”, a woman from the audience stood up and said: “It is not within your right because God has proclaimed: Even if you have given one of them (wives) a whole treasure for dower, take not the least bit back”. When he heard this Umar said: “The woman is right and the man (Umar) is wrong. It seems that all people have deeper insight and wisdom than Umar”. He then withdrew the proposed ceiling (Ibn Al Jawzi).
Contrast this attitude with the father of the church Saint Paul who said:
Women should keep silent in the churches, for they are not allowed to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. But if they want to learn anything, they should ask their husbands at home. For it is improper for a woman to speak in the church
10) Right to Meaningfully Contribute to Society
Early Muslim women played a role in certain state functions such as in administering or policing marketplaces. Caliph Umar for instance is said to have appointed a woman, Shifa bint Abdullah, as the administrator of the market of Madina (Al-Isabah, Ibn Hajar) and Samra bint Nuhayk as an inspector to police the marketplace in Mecca. She even carried a whip to use in enforcing good and forbidding evil (Tabarani).
Women also had the right to offer protection to whomsoever they wished, even if it were a man. In the very early days of Islam we find the Prophet’s daughter Zainab announcing at the morning prayers in the mosque that she had given her protection to her Pagan husband Abu al As who had crept into her house unnoticed by the Muslims. The Prophet who was not even told of the incident supported his daughter’s right to grant the man protection. In like manner, Umm Hani, the sister of the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law Ali gave a pact of protection to a Pagan warrior whom her brother wanted to kill during the conquest of Mecca. She told the Prophet: “Messenger of God, my brother Ali claims that he is at war with a man to whom I have granted asylum, someone with the name Ibn Hubayrah” only to have the Prophet tell her: “We give protection to whomever you have given asylum, Umm Hani”(Saheeh Al Bukhari).
Did you know that in the Prophet’s time some Muslim women even participated in warfare and contributed to the war effort in no small way. When the Prophet and his companions went to war it was not rare for women to accompany them and involve themselves in war-related activities. Take Umm Atiyyah who participated in as many as seven battles with the Prophet, preparing food for the combatants, nursing the wounded and attending to the sick. To put it in her words:
I went with God’s messenger on seven expeditions: I would watch over their belongings, cook for them, treat the wounded and nurse the ill
In the Battle of Yarmuk fought against the Byzantines, some Muslim soldiers drawn from some recently converted tribes, had, overawed by the Byzantine onslaught, fled to the women’s camp. The hardy women of the Quraysh, leaving the men behind, rushed out to fight the Byzantines with swords flashing, among them Juwairiya who sallied forth into the thick of battle with her band of warrior women until she was wounded in the melee. Among them was Asma bint Yazid who took as many as nine enemy lives. We also learn that her better known namesake, Asma, daughter of Abu Bakr, fought side by side with her husband on horseback against the Byzantines (Futuh Ash Sham).
Not just wives, even newly married brides showed their prowess in battle, among them Umm Hakim, the daughter of Harith who had just married one Khalid. She had pitched her tent near a bridge and the wedding feast was on when some Byzantines fell upon them. The bride herself fought bravely, killing as many as seven enemy soldiers (Usud Al Ghaba). And who can forget Nusayba bint Ka‘b Al-Ansariyyah, also known as Umm Amara who in the Battle of Uhud rushed headlong into the fray with unsheathed sword in hand, defending the Prophet against his foes. The Prophet would later remark: “Wherever I turned, to the left or right, I saw her fighting for me”.
In later times, this battle-hardened lady fought against the false prophet Musaylimah, sustaining as many as twelve wounds, the deepest of which was on her shoulder inflicted by a man named Ibn Qami’ah. Did you know that the Prophet even distributed the booty left behind by the enemy to the women who contributed to the war effort. The Prophet was so pleased with the contribution of Umm Dhahak who accompanied him in the Khaybar campaign that he gave her the same share of spoils as he gave the men (Al-Isabah). Nusaybah too took part in the war against Banu Qurayza and the Prophet gave them part of the booty.
During the siege of Damascus, the enemy approached the Muslim women in the rear to take them hostage, only to have Khaula, daughter of Azdar cry out: “Sisters, will you disgrace the dignified skirts of Arabian chavalry. Let us die rather than submit”. They then took their tent-poles in their hands and wielded it at the enemy, killing as many as thirty of them before the Muslim army came to their assistance. At a time when Christian women were not expected to speak in church or public, this outspoken woman gave a fiery speech in Al Farat in support of her husband Atba’s decision to battle the Byzantines. Atba had been appointed commander by Caliph Umar but did not have the power of speech to encourage the combatants to do battle. His wife did him the favour (Futuh Al Buldan, Baladhuri).
During the Battle of Maisan fought against the Persians on the banks of the Tigris, Ardah, the granddaughter of Kaldah, the well known Arabian physician, seeing the Muslim army locked in battle with the enemy, made a long banner of her apron and got the other women of her camp to make similar banners, before riding out towards the Muslim army with banners held high. The enemy, thinking that a fresh reinforcement of Muslims had arrived, beat a hasty retreat (Tabari).
In the Battle of Qadissiya also fought against the Persians, Muslim women played an important role in rescuing their wounded from the battlefield. As one woman would later recall: “When the battle was over, we (women) rushed forward daringly to the battlefield with rods in our hands and picked up the wounded Muslim soldiers” (Tabari).
There were others who took care of the wounded, like Rafida who pitched her tent in the mosque of the Prophet to serve as a sort of military hospital to wash and dress the wounds of injured soldiers. The Prophet had high regard for her skills. When Sa’d Ibn Muath was wounded in the Battle of the Trench, the Prophet said: “Take him to Rafida’s tent” (Aboo Dawood).
Women in early Islam played an important as patrons of science and the arts and as builders of hospitals and universities. Sukayna, the great granddaughter of the Prophet and daughter of Husayn for instance was a fiercely independent woman and an educated one at that. She married more than once, and each time stipulated in her marriage contract that she would enjoy her independence without interference from her husband in any way. In this manner she went about her business freely, addressed meetings and received men of letters at her home, oftentimes even debating important issues with them. And who can forget Zubayda, the wife of Harun al-Rashid of Arabian Nights fame who owned properties all over the empire managed by agents she appointed for the purpose. A patron of the arts and sciences, she made provision for hundreds of men of letters from all over the empire to come work in Baghdad.
During the Mamluk period in Egypt a thousand years ago women established as many as five universities. A few centuries later, in the Ottoman empire we hear of women, mainly the wives or mothers of sultans, founding some well known hospitals including the famous Nurbanu Sultan hospital. Women even built some great mosques, like Roxelana, the wife of Süleyman the Magnificent who among other things founded the Haseki Külliye, a sprawling complex, consisting of a mosque and seminary.
Yes, the truth is that Islam was far ahead of its times when it came to recognizing the contribution of women in almost all aspects of life, including political life and as patrons of the arts and sciences.