The Status of Women in Islam
In any presentation or discussion regarding Islam there is always the inevitable debate regarding the position of women in Islam, or rather the lack of their position. If a problem arises in any country regarding Muslim women, be it marital, social or fiscal the question endlessly asked is why does Islam tolerate such abuse? Why does Islam not condemn such foul action leading ultimately to the phrase, ‘Muslim women are oppressed’.
However if there is a dilemma concerning a woman who is Christian or Jewish, she may have been forced to marry someone or abused by her husband, raped or molested. Yet no one deems fit to question Christianity or Judaism. No one asks why Judaism or Christianity tolerates such inequality and intolerance. Why not? Since the questioner knows the question is irrelevant. In normal cases it does not matter what the religion says, since the problem is personal, related to the individual. If a Jewish husband abuses his wife or a Catholic father abuses his children, no one questions the faith of the perpetrator but looks to environmental, social, cultural or psychological reasons. Indeed in recent months when prominent Catholic priests were accused of child molestation in the USA, although many journalists whilst covering the news story, questioned the structure of the Catholic Church, no debate ensued regarding the teachings of Christianity and whether or not the teachings permitted this type of behavior. Instead the discussions were limited to the priests or their immediate superiors but divorced from the religion itself.
Yet if any incident occurs relating to a Muslim women in particular, blame is automatically apportioned to Islam, regardless of whether the Muslim woman is even a practicing Muslim or not. If a Muslim woman is abused by another Muslim, denied her rights or forced in to a marriage for instance, such practices are completely alien to Islamic traditions and merely reflect the culture or social conditioning of the individuals involved. This article therefore wishes to set the record straight, and enlighten those who are alien to Islam that women are highly esteemed in Islam and are fortunate to be within its folds. In Islam superiority or hierarchy is not dependant upon ones gender, race, color, wealth or status. The Prophet (peace be upon him) stated in his last sermon that (insert). What is important for any Muslim is his ‘God consciousness’ known as taqwa. Taqwa is the basis of respect and value in the eyes of Allah and not Gender. Insert verse)
However since the West is preoccupied in portraying a negative attitude regarding women in Islam, Muslims are in general forced to go on the defensive and prove the contrary. Although this is not a happy situation, to be silent and hope the media will stop its attack is a naive assumption and so the issue needs to be addressed. The research regarding this paper is based entirely on the books, lectures and notes of The Qaid, Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri so all credit is due to him for his unending efforts. However since I have had the honor to compile this paper I take the ultimate responsibility of any mistakes that may occur in this compilation, I thus seek forgiveness from Almighty Allah for any errors that may occur.
Legal Status of Women in Islam
The basic premise of equality between the sexes is taken from a verse of the Holy Qur’an where Allah Almighty states he created man and woman from a single source and origin:
"O Mankind, Be dutiful to your Lord who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate (of same kind) and from them twain has spread a multitude of men and women". (An-Nisa, 4:1)
Stressing this noble and natural conception, the Qur'an further states:
He (God) it is who did create you from a single soul and there from did create his mate, that he might dwell with her (in love)...
"And Allah has made for you azwaj (mates or wives) of your own kind, and has made for you from your mates, children and grandchildren, and has made provision of good things for you. Do they then disbelieve in false deities and deny the favor of Allah?" (An-Nahl, 16:72)
Since men and women have been created from one origin and one entity, neither of them can claim superiority over each other. They have been created from the same source and so their essence is the same. This is reinforced in the Qur’an many times so as to ensure mankind is aware that both are equal in the eyes of God.
When the Qur’anic injunctions regarding women were revealed, the status of women at that time must be also appreciated. In pre-Islamic Arabia, and indeed throughout the world, the very legitimacy of women as human beings was still being questioned and debated, so even the idea of bestowing her with formal rights and favors was not open for discussion . Women were seen as mere objects and pieces of chattel for men to buy and sell at their whim, existing for the fulfillment of male desire or reserved for the procreation of the human race. Other than this, women were neither respected nor considered equal to their male counterparts.
Moreover in pre-Islamic Arabia it has already been well documented how baby girls were buried alive by the Arabs who felt shame and humiliation if a girl was born, not wishing to endure any expense on her behalf, preferring her death to a life long burden of maintenance. Thus in such a society did Allah Almighty elevate women to the position of equals with man. With the advent of Islam, the status of women was revolutionized. Firstly she was considered to be the equal of man, upgraded to be on par with him which necessarily entailed giving women rights and duties for her to fulfill. She was now considered an essential part of the society, indispensable to man, honored, revered and to be respected by all. Having been neglected for so long women were dramatically catapulted into the limelight of life and offered full participation in society.
Indeed this was a new phenomenon since it is very easy to give rights to a person but difficult to have those rights enforced and obeyed. The Arabs of that time were unfamiliar with this new concept, having spent generations upon generations neglecting and abusing women. Suddenly they were being asked to treat them with kindness and generosity but also with respect and as equals. However for any such change to be realistically implemented a culture needs to be created or adapted to promote the enforcement of rights. Rights in themselves cannot be very effective unless society itself is ready to accept and enforce them.
In order to do this the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) himself led the way by setting the example by giving women their due rights and be treated as equals. On numerous occasions he acted in a manner solely to elevate women and show to his Companions the dignity of womanhood. A notable incident is the role that his wife Sayyidina Khadija (RadhiAllahu Anha), played in the history of Islam. She is famous in Islamic history for being the first woman to convert to Islam, but in fact she was the first person, male or female to accept Islam and the Prophethood of Muhammad (ﷺ).
When the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) received divine revelation for the first time, perhaps it would have been more natural for him to seek advice and consolation from his best friend Sayyidina Abu Bakr (RadhiAllahu Anhu), as opposed to his wife. Since the Arab society was a patriarchal one, where males dominated every walk of life, or an Arab man it would have been much more natural to seek counsel with a man than a woman. However the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) chose to return to his wife and seek her advice. Of course he was in no need to do so, being aware of all matters, but he did so to set an example for the rest of mankind.
So when the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) received the first divine revelation from Almighty Allah he was naturally surprised and shocked and returned immediately home to consult his wife. What is interesting about the reply of Sayyidina Khadija (RadhiAllahu Anha) is that she could have merely placated him, consoled him with gentle words and offered him food and rest. However instead she made what can only be described as the first speech in Islamic history. She reassured the Holy Prophet (ﷺ), stating since he had never done a wrong in his life, had always helped the poor and needy, been kind to the orphans and widows and always gave financial help to those in debt, anything that could happen to him could only be the truth and right. Thus from the very inception of Islam, women have played a pivotal role in its birth to its expansion.
Men and Women are not Adversaries
Although men and women are considered equals in the eyes of Allah Almighty, a key element in Islamic thinking is that men and women are not considered each other’s adversaries. They are not in competition with each other and there is no concept of the ‘battle of the sexes’. Instead they are considered partners in life, created together to compliment each other, assist each other and be a source of peace and contentment for one another. Both of their roles are integral to the foundations of society and each are given roles to accommodate differing needs.
Thus when Allah created the first man, Sayyidna Adam (alaihissalam) he also created Sayyidina Hawwa (Eve) so they would dwell together in happiness. Even in Heaven, where every need and desire could be fulfilled, Allah Almighty still thought fit to create a pair of individuals as opposed to just Prophet Adam (alaihissalam), since one cannot exist without the other.
"Dwell you and your wife in Paradise and both of you freely with pleasure and delight of things therein as wherever you will, but come not near this tree or you both will be of the Zalimun (wrongdoers)". (Al-Baqarah, 2:35)
"And of everything We have created pairs, that you may remember".
Moreover although men and women have been created on an equal footing, created together to be a source of contentment and peace, Islam does not consider men and women to be the same. Men and women are equal in status, equal as human beings, as individuals in their own right, but they are considered to be fundamentally different from each other, both physically and emotionally, thus in the context of rights and duties they have equal rights but their rights reflect their differing personalities.
The Noble Qur’an states:
"And the male is not like the female".
The Holy Prophet (ﷺ) also stated:
"Treat women well, for they have been created from a rib. The rib is most curved in its upper part, so that if you try to straighten it out, it will break, but if you leave it as it is, it will remain intact. Therefore, follow my advice on giving fair treatment to women"
(Sahih Bukhari, Kitab An-Nikah)
This Hadith alludes to the fact that women are innately more delicate and sensitive than men and so being harsh and imposing upon them will only serve to break and not change them. Women do think differently to men, have different ideas and views and thus should not be forced to change or adopt anything with force or harshness. This is where Islam differs from current thinking in the West. Over the last fifty years or so there has been a shift towards a uni-sex society where emphasis is placed on the idea that not only are men and women equal but they are also the same. Equality is equated with similarity and thus it is argued women and men should have the same rights, obligations and duties as each other.
This may sound very acceptable in principle but the problem arises in the case of women. In the West, equality is linked to achieving goals and standards set by men thus emphasis is usually placed on women, who are encouraged to adopt male attitudes and thinking as opposed to men adopting more feminine roles. So women are encouraged more and more to enter the work force, work side by side with men, adopt their attitudes and desires, and embrace their ideals and goals. Roles that have been traditionally aligned to men are considered more worthy and respected thus women are encouraged to pursue them. However this leaves a vacuum regarding the home. Who should be responsible for the domestic affairs of life and all that it entails? This question is rarely discussed. If equality is similarity then surely Western society should put pressure on men to give equal time to cooking and cleaning as well as working outside the home. However other than a few slogans about the emergence of the ‘new age man’ men’s roles have primarily remained the same with the vacum in the home again being filled by woman who ultimaltey adopt a double role.
On the contrary, the essence of womanhood, being a mother or wife is being undermined and under valued. If a woman is asked about her profession she will gladly say she is a doctor or lawyer but reluctantly admit she is ‘only a house wife’ or say she is ‘just a mother’ looking after her children. Woman also lose out in real and practical terms. If both the husband and wife work, inevitably it will be the wife or female partner who will still be the primary carer of the children, be responsible for the cleaning and cooking, and be responsible overall for the domestic affairs of the house. Thus by pursuing and adopting male roles, women have given themselves a double shift – one outside the home and one inside it. This is not to say that Islam does not encourage women to work or frowns upon working woman. This is not the case at all. Islam acknowledges the need for women to enter all areas of life and society. However Islam appreciates the role of the mother, valuing it above all other roles in society. A mother is bestowed with high status, privileges and children and adults alike are asked to respect and value what she does. Once the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) was asked by a Companion who is entitled to be treated the best by him. The Holy Prophet replied "your mother". The Companion asked and after that? The Holy Prophet replied "your mother". The Companion again asked and after that? He replied "your mother". Only after being questioned the fourth time did the Holy Prophet reply "your father". (Sahih Bukhari – kitab-al-adab).
This appreciation is something that is non-existent in Western society. No matter how much is said to the contrary, women who are housewives or look after children are not valued and are portrayed as being stuck in a derogatory and unfulfilling role. However Islam embraces a woman’s femininity and allows her to follow her natural instinct, but at the same time gives her the freedom to pursue activities she needs and desires, but without devaluing her. Women are under tremendous social pressure to enter the work force and imitate men. Those women who are unable to participate often suffer from frustration and psychological disturbances, feeling undervalued, unappreciated performing a duty in the home which is more important than any other profession, requiring skills, patience and aptitude that very few men can boast of but, are still deemed to be inferior according to the standards of society.
Inn contrast it is very apparent that many Muslim women who are mothers and wives are greatly satisfied with their roles, knowing the society they live in values what they are doing and also secure in the knowledge that had they been living in a different society, they would still have to adopt these roles out of practical necessity but be burdened with the hardships of earning and supporting their families too.
So in order to ensure the healthy functioning of society Islam creates a division in responsibility and sets out specific roles for women.
"The Mothers shall wean their children for two years (that is) for those parents who desire to complete the term of suckling, but the father of the child will bear the cost of the mother’s food and clothing, on a reasonable basis".
"Men are the protectors and maintainers of women"
This does not mean that these roles cannot be changed, adapted or exchanged for practical needs and desires but what it does insure is that a woman is valued for her natural role as a mother but if she has to enter the work place or engage in responsibilities not traditionally assigned to her, that work is highly valued for she is considered as performing a great favor for her husband and family. It is not her natural duty to go out and work for example, but if she chooses too do so (after consulting her family) and then uses her income for instance to support the family she will be seen as doing ihsan, favoring her family and thus receive not only adulation and respect from her family and society at large but also receive great rewards in the Hereafter.
Contrast this situation with a woman living in the UK for example. She will bear the children, cook and clean for them, make breakfast for her husband and children and then have to go to work, maybe part or full time. She will then normally pick up her children from school or college, and then have to wait on her husband too. Although more and more men are helping in domestic affairs, very few of them take more that a superficial interest and never consider themselves fully responsible, even if both husband and wife work full time.
Thus Islam creates a division in roles so that both men and women can live in harmony together. Since men have been given a greater burden in being duty bound to support their wives they are therefore allotted a greater share in inheritance. (In real terms very few people inherit a great deal these days). The woman on the other hand, in exchange for looking after the house and family, is given the right to be fully maintained by her husband or male member of the household, alleviating any financial responsibility from her. If she chooses to work, she can do so, or she can decline, even if her family is in desperate need since it is her husband’s primary duty to care for her. If she chooses to work she can keep her income for herself she and if she chooses to spend it on her family she will be doing that family a favor, as opposed to the husband who is duty bound to do the same.
Men and Women Compliment Each Other
Although Islam does not consider men and women to be the same, it appreciates that men and women have to live and work together in society, so the Qur’an promotes positivism towards each other stating:
"..You are from one another".
"The Creator of heavens and earth. He has made for you pairs from among yourselves"
Islam also recognizes the indispensable nature of men and woman. They compliment each other, working for the ultimate goal of seeking the pleasure of Almighty Allah and His Prophet (ﷺ) in life and so cannot do with out each other. Just like a bicycle, in order for it to work, it needs two wheels. A bicycle has been created so that it functions best with two wheels. If one is missing one cannot travel far. If one of the wheels is smaller or larger than the other, this will create an imbalance. However if the wheels are equal and fitted in their respected sides the bicycle will run smoothly. Such are the roles of men and women, who are created to work together in uniformity, possessing the same goals and objectives, equal but not identical, complimentary and not adversaries.
In a Hadith of the Holy Prophet he states:
"Women are the other half of men"
(Sunan Abu Dawud, Kitab At-Taharah
"They ( wives) are libas (body cover or garments) for you (husbands) are the same for them"
Al- Baqarah, (2:187),
"The believers, men and women are auliya (helpers) of one another"
By describing husbands and wives as garments for each other, alludes to them being each others protectors, supporters and friends. They should help each other and since one is indispensable to the other they should both aim to live in harmony and tranquility, as Sayyidina Adam was directed when Sayyidina Hawwa (RadhiAllahu Anha) was created as his mate for him (7:189)
Women are not blamed for the ‘Original Sin’
Another important aspect of Islam is that women are not blamed for the ‘original sin’ as denoted by Judea- Christian tradition. This legacy has tarnished the reputation of women from the beginning of time and has been the source of much of the contempt about women in general. In the Christian traditions, Sayyidina Hawwa (RadhiAllahu Anha) is described as a temptress, enticing Sayyidina Adam (alaihissalam) to disobey God wishes. Since she was blamed for the ‘original sin’, this was used as a justification to humiliate and debase her. However the Islamic tradition is much different.
"O Adam! Dwell you and your wife in the Paradise and eat both of you freely with pleasure and delight of things therein as wherever you will, but come not near this tree or you both will be of the Zalim'n (wrongdoers).
Although the divine order of prohibition was given to both Adam (alaihissalam) and his wife, Sayyidina Hawwa (RadhiAllahu Anha) is not blamed in any way for what occurred next.
"Then the Satan made them slip therefrom (the Paradise), and got them out from that in which they were"
Al Baqarah, 2:36
The Qur’an does not solely blame Hawwa for the act but lays the blame on both. Moreover it clears the fact that neither did Sayyidina Hawwa tempt Sayyidina Adam (alaihissalam) to eat from the tree, nor did she initiate the act herself. Shaitan was held responsible for the temptation which is the reverse of the Old Testament version. Once they realized their mistakes, both of them repented and they were forgiven:
"Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If You forgive us not, and bestow not upon us Your Mercy, we shall be losers".
In many places in the Qur’an, it is Sayyidina Adam (alaihissalam) who is specifically mentioned in the Qur’an as having been responsible for the error and he is addressed alone in this matter.
"And indeed We made a covenant with Adam before, but he forgot, and We found on his part no firm will-power."
"Then Satan whispered to him saying, "O Adam! Shall I lead you to the Tree of Eternity and to a kingdom that will never waste away?"
"Thus did Adam disobey his Lord, so he went astray."
It was argued in the past that women by nature were corrupt and thus could never be seen as equals to man, a concept Islam categorically rejects. Instead Islam stresses the high respect and esteem that is due to woman, something that no society or religion actively advocates. Women have been fighting for equal rights for hundreds of years in the West and to a large extent have succeeded in obtaining equal legal rights. However rights in themselves are not enough to create equality or even a sense of worth. The environment and society needs to be conditioned and its participants made to think in a particular way, to be motivated and encouraged to view women with dignity and honor. This is why Islam is so unique since it actively states again and again that women must be regarded highly by men.
In a Hadith of the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) he states:
"Only a man of noble character will honor women, and only a man of base intentions will dishonor them"
"The most perfect man in religion is one who excels in character. The best amongst you is he who gives the best treatment to his womenfolk"
(Sahih Thirmidhi, Abwab ar-Rada)
Men are also asked to overlook any faults a woman may have encouraging kindness and gentleness towards them. The Holy Prophet stated:
"No believing man should hate a believing woman, since if there is any habit of hers that displease him, there will be some other habit that will please him"
(Sahih Muslim, Kita bar-Rada)
Thus to respect and honor women and treat them with equality is linked to a Muslims faith since he will be rewarded in the Hereafter for his dealings.
Birth of a daughter should be a time to rejoice
Islam also sees the birth of a baby girl as a blessing as opposed to a burden. This may seem strange to a Western audience but in pre-Islamic Arabia, female infanticide was socially acceptable and indeed encouraged. The birth of a daughter was considered a shameful act and unfortunately similar sentiments still exist in some parts of the Asian sub-continent. Often non-Muslim commentators equate this practice with Islamic values and practices but in reality there is only condemnation for any such behavior. Female infanticide is considered a crime of murder just like any other unlawful killing:
"And when the female (infant) buried alive - is questioned, for what crime she was killed."
At-Takweer, 81: 8-9
The Qur’an also criticizes those who lament when a baby girl is born:
"When news is brought to one of them, of (the Birth of) a female (child), his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief! With shame does he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he has had! Shall he retain her on (sufferance) and contempt, or bury her in the dust? Ah! What an evil (choice) they decide on?"
An-Nahl, 16: 58-59
Islam sees the birth of a girl as a time to rejoice and in celebration of womanhood, those who treat their daughters kindly with respect and kindness are guaranteed paradise, a privilege mentioned only in the context of females. The Holy Prophet (ﷺ) said;
"Whosoever has a daughter and he does not bury her alive, does not insult her, and does not favor his son over her, God will enter him into Paradise." (Ibn Hanbal, No. 1957).
"One who brings up three daughters, teaches them good manners and morals, and arranges their marriages and treats them with fairness, deserves to be ushered into Paradise"
(Sunan Abu-Dawud, Kitab-al-Adab)
Religious and Social Responsibilities are the same
A woman has an equal right and is indeed bound to observe religious and social obligations as men are.
"Every soul will be (held) in pledge for its deeds"
A woman must pray, fast and give charity as her male counterpart and will be held accountable if she fails in her obligations.
"...So their Lord accepted their prayers, (saying): I will not suffer to be lost the work of any of you whether male or female. You proceed one from another"
Al-Imran, 3: 195
Thus a woman is seen as an independent individual, with her own personality and traits and thus will be rewarded or punished according to the acts she does. This is important since Islam recognizes a woman as a separate entity from her husband or father or brother, so she too must be educated and be given the opportunity to seek knowledge so she can fulfill her role in society too. She must imbue within her conduct the same moral standards as men and is equally responsible for maintaining peace and contentment within the society around her. The Qur’an states:
"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, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah's praise, for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward. (33:35)
However since the underlying principle within Islam is that women are equal but different it takes this aspect into account regarding her duties. Though a woman must pray daily as men must do, she is exempted from this if she is on her menstrual cycle. It is mandatory for Muslim men to attend the Friday prayer, but for women this obligation has been relaxed and made optional for her. She also does not have to fast during her menstrual cycle, and is also exempted from keeping the fasts during pregnancy and whilst suckling her child if she or her child is at risk. Thus a woman is given leniency in this regard, having due regard to her femininity.
A woman is also under the same ethical obligations as men in respect of her social duties for society.
"Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has faith, verily to him will we give a new life that is good and pure, and we will bestow on such their reward according to their actions.
She must play an active role in her community by enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong.
"The believers, men and women, are "Awliya," (helpers, supporters, friends, protectors) of one another, they enjoin (on the people) Al-Ma`ruf (i.e. Islamic Monotheism and all that Islam orders one to do); and forbid (people) from Al-Munkar (i.e. polytheism and disbelief of all kinds, and all that Islam has forbidden)
And then both will be rewarded for their works
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.
Whosoever does right, whether male or female, and is a believer, him verily We shall quicken with good life, and We shall pay them recompense according to the best of what they do. (16:97)
In both these verses Allah Almighty saw it fit to mention women in particular. He could have addressed the believers as a whole, or the whole of mankind in general which He does so in other parts of the Qur’an but by specifically stating "whether male or female" denotes the importance of including women, emphasizing the need for their active involvement.
It is thus apparent that women are highly regarded and esteemed in an Islamic society, encouraged to participate actively for its betterment.
By Ghazala Hassan Qadri
Compiled from the works of Dr. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri