A New Perspective: Women in Islam
A New Perspective: Women in Islam
Author : Sayyid Moustafa al Qazwini & Fatma Saleh
“A New Perspective” is a dialogue between an Islamic scholar and a Muslim woman. The book discusses and expounds various issues regarding the rights and laws that pertain to women in Islam, and unwraps some of the distorted images and misconceptions that surround Muslim women.
About the Authors’
Sayyid Moustafa al-Qazwini is the founding Imam of the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County, California. He was born in Karbala, Iraq. Graduated from the Islamic seminary in Qum, Iran and immigrated to the United States in 1994, he is an author of several Islamic books, and lectures across the nation.
Fatma Saleh, a native of Lebanon, was raised in Southern California. She has lived here since 1971. She is an active Muslim member in the Islamic community of Los Angeles and a volunteer for several non-profit organizations.
Other Books by the Sayyid Moustafa al-Qazwini
Discovering Islam —presents Islam in a simple, contemporary fashion and is intended for Muslims and seekers of knowledge from all faiths. It discusses the basic principles and practices of Islam as well as some of the social and political issues, which have been the center of debate in modern times.
Inquiries about Shia Islam —attempts to bridge the gap between the Islamic schools of thought by clarifying common misconceptions about Shi’a Islam and explaining philosophies and practices specific to the Shi’a school of thought. These issues are discussed primarily in the light of the Holy Qur’an and the traditions of the Holy Prophet (S) as related in the books of Ahadith.
In the Name of Allah, the Infinitely Compassionate, the Most Merciful.
By the token of time,
Verily Man is in loss,
Except those who have faith,
and do righteous deeds,
and join in the mutual teaching of truth,
and of patience, and of constancy.
Qur’an: Sura Al-Asr (Time)103
Like the soul longing for its Creator,
our work is dedicated to
the One and Only,
I would like to thank my husband, Hassan,
my children, Ali, Lena, and Dena,
my loving father, and beautiful mother,
and my teacher, Sayyid Moustafa.
Without your patience,
the journey would not have been possible to begin.
In the Name of Allah, the Infinitely Compassionate, the Most Merciful.
The delicate issue of women in Islam has been a subject plagued and manipulated by malicious and misrepresented sources of information. An extensive body of written work has been produced by a variety of literary writers, journalists, theologians, and Islamic scholars regarding Muslim women. Some writers have genuinely manifested the subject of Muslim women while others, who have no in-depth knowledge about the core of the religion, have used the subject of women in Islam as a forum full of skepticism, exaggeration, and misinformation.
It is often stated that Islam considers a woman to be in the relative position of a lesser human being, and even that Prophet Muhammad (S) has been reputed as having been “anti-woman.” However, upon an in-depth examination of the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet, one finds this to be a disingenuous accusation. The Prophet was greatly aware of women’s rights. He fought actively to respond to them through legislation and practices.
Writers commonly have depicted and judged Islam by the misconduct of Muslims, rather than by the content and philosophy of its teachings. An author and critic wrote, “Part of the glue that holds Muslim men together is the thorough suppression of women.” 1
On the contrary, the indigent and the oppressed were the very reasons for Islam’s emergence-women in particular. Illustrious examples of prejudice, opposition, and appeasement on the subject have tainted literary works regarding Muslim women, either written by men from a man’s perspective or sometimes by women emotionalizing some sensitive issue, such as polygamy. Finally, other writers have been influenced to conform or redress Qur’anic injunctions so that the order would be considered “politically correct.” An example of this is the claim that the Qur’an does not require women to cover.
To date, Islamic scholars have not extensively addressed some of the more complex issues concerning women in Islam, or given them deserved attention. Islamic scholars have been neglectful in researching and analyzing subjects thoroughly. Many Muslims and non-Muslims alike are neither familiar with the formalities of binding social and personal rights nor with the choices available to women in Islam.
Often times people subjectively dwell on the final outcome or verdict affecting Muslim women without being open to understanding or reviewing the logical relation upon which the action was based, or on the intricate connections of other related circumstances that were the reasoning for the judgment. One needs to genuinely and impartially question the reasons for the practices regarding women in Islam.
Prejudging a matter prior to examination undermines the very essence of knowledge. One must erase all preconceived ideas about the subject of Muslim women and approach the matter like any other work, open and unbiased. A related story has been told of a man encountering Prophet Muhammad. Upon conversing with the Prophet, he realized the man was an argumentative person. The Prophet responded to him by saying, “Ask me as an inquirer not as a debater.”
Accordingly, this book is not intended to be a debate, but rather a discussion to enlighten the elusive subject of the rights of Muslim women.
Islam innovated social and individual rights for women, and, respectively, has accredited women as full partners in life. Islam enables a woman to own and dispose of her property without the consent of her father or husband. She is able to contract and manage her own business affairs, as well as to earn and manage her own money. Islam entitles her to an inheritance as a mother, daughter, sister, and wife.
She has the right to deny or accept marriage proposals. Her marriage dower is solely for her. She is entitled to vote (which is considered to be a religious duty), and to give her opinion or opposition to issues. Her penalty in a civil offense is the same as a man’s. If she is harmed, she is entitled to just compensation.
A book on women in Islam has been needed. It is an opportunity for me, as a perpetual learner of Islamic knowledge, who has been blessed by Allah, and fortunate to experience the seminary and university (traditional and modern) views of both Eastern and Western societies to discuss, in dialogue format, the issues surrounding Muslim women. Before being an Islamic scholar, I am a man, and as a learning man of Islamic knowledge, it would be mendacious to confidently state that I completely understand the varying dimensions of what affects or shapes a woman’s nature and feelings. The rules governing women in Islam many times indirectly affect men, and thus make us sometimes unaware of a woman’s personal perspective.
I believe that, as a seminary scholar, I am obliged to gain a better understanding by personally engaging in and discussing the sensitive issues of women in Islam.
Unlike the story of the Prophet encountering the argumentative person, I find my co-author to be the opposite. Sister Fatma Saleh has a thriving trait-the love of discovering and seeking knowledge about her religion. She has a passion to learn and an intuitive perception to discern matters logically. She is on a quest to understand and seek explanations regarding the perplexing issues surrounding Muslim women. By contributing her personal comments and inquiries from a woman’s perspective, and extensively discussing the issues, I was able to better accommodate and evaluate women’s sentiments in my responses.
Finally, I maintain impartiality of personal judgment throughout the dialogue. I rely and accommodate the consensus opinions and rulings of leading and prominent Islamic scholars. In addition, I favor neither conforming to flattering Islamic viewpoints, nor to pleasing Western opinion. My concerns and priorities have been, and always will be, to be truthful and accountable before Allah on the day that all people shall stand before Him. The truth and answers inevitably lie with Him.
Orange County, California
In the Name of Allah, the Infinitely Compassionate, the Most Merciful.
The issue of women in Islam had been a subject that both offended and fascinated me. As a woman, as a born Muslim woman, I was unconvinced and argumentative concerning my faith. I attributed Islam as being domineering, circumscribable, and prejudicial against women. I, like many other Muslim women (and non-Muslims), had based my religious convictions on the practices of culture rather than on the core of faith. This mistake left me inimical toward Islam.
I often echoed the tauntingly haunting words of a Muslim woman I encountered briefly, “Thank God I found Islam before I found Muslims.” Not only had I, too, found Muslims before I found Islam, but the constructed animosity toward my faith was also founded on the adverse writings, teachings, and dogmatic matters that encumbered Muslim women. Thus, I lived most of my life distant, with preconceived and misconceived ideas about Islam and Muslim women, until I began to discursively question and ponder various subjects that I perceived as disturbing and complex. Hence, my research began on women and their rights in Islam.
Faithfully, I had maintained that God in His ultimate wisdom was just. Therefore, if God were a just God, then why was the share of inheritance not equal between genders in Islam? Why was a Muslim woman’s testimony worth only half that of a Muslim man’s? Did God really intend to limit the livelihood of Muslim women while allowing Muslim men greater freedom? Was there truly such a concept as Muslim women’s rights? How does Islam regard the disposition of women? Would a just God ever be unfair to His creations?
Seeking the unalloyed truth, I interrogated the issues. Beneath the distorted images, misconstrued and omitted facts, the rights of women in Islam lay hidden. Indeed women had profound rights in Islam. However, like most eras of civilization where men were fully empowered, society deemed to obstruct, deny, and strip women of rights, regardless of their religion, socio-economic level, or ethnicity. Ironically, one of the most fundamental rights given to women in Islam is the absolute freedom to educate themselves, and Muslim women have either not taken advantage of this right or, in some cases, have been denied this opportunity. Thus, ignorance about Islam has been a major opponent of Muslim women.
Primarily, I focused my attention on Qur’anic verses, traditions of the Prophet, and some ambiguous Shari’a rulings (codes of law based on the Qur’an) that related to women. Some of my findings on Muslim women were either unfounded, misrepresented, or needed an analytical explanation. I began to discover that simply reading the Qur’anic verses or shari’an laws at face value resulted in an incomplete evaluation of their intended purposes.
Many of the injunctions, in fact, are juxtaposed with related rulings. For example, in the law of Hodud and Qisas (the law of talion and physical punishment) a woman is valued at half of a man in terms of death dues. The law apparently signifies that a woman’s life is worth less than that of a man’s. However, one must recognize the law was based and dependent on the gender that was financially responsible for the livelihood of the family.
If a woman were murdered, and she had been the responsible party in sustaining her family, then her death due would be based according to a man’s caliber. Islamic writings that are misleading, or taken out of context, continue to characterize the negative images that shadow Muslim women.
As a consequence of my research, many of the misconceptions I had accumulated began unfolding. Islam is not only a reverence for God, but it is also an institutionalized system that governs a community of both men and women who must function as a single unit to be successful. Yet, many issues and rulings still needed to be discussed and further elucidated.
I, (an average Muslim woman) was unaware of the numerous Islamic rights that pertained to Muslim women. Muslim women had (and have) substantial political, social, and economic rights. Nevertheless, the subject of women in Islam needed to be discussed, explained, and written about. Throughout my independent studying, I tallied a plethora of inquiries and commentaries on the subject of women in Islam. I am fortunate to have met a scholar whose knowledge of Islam is not only profound but also contemporary.
I had known Sayyid Moustafa Al-Qazwini three years before my proposed offer to write a book on women’s rights in Islam. I attended his lectures, attentively listened to his interpretative views on Islam, and discussed Islamic matters with him at length. Sayyid Moustafa is a talented orator, but above all, he has the unique ability to discursively reason Islamic doctrines. He is a scholar with insight. He sees beyond the technicalities of practicing Islamic rituals.
I wanted an opportunity to explore the subject of women in Islam from a woman’s perspective with the expertise of an Islamic scholar. When I approached Sayyid Moustafa about writing a book on Muslim women, he welcomed the idea. For over a year, I put forth my inquiries and Sayyid Moustafa responded with the answers.
Throughout our numerous interviews and correspondence, we discussed and debated Qur’anic verses, traditions of the Prophet, and rights of women in marriage, divorce, testimony, and many other related issues regarding Muslim women. With the Sayyid’s knowledge of Islam, and his citing of specific sources, he was able to interpret and clarify many issues regarding women in Islam. The end result is this book, entitled A New Perspective.
Although the degree of subjects covered is limited, the responses are based upon the consensus of Islamic scholars and other reliable sources. However, subjects which were covered, (and others that were not) remain to be explored in-depth and would require volumes of written work. This book is only a stepping-stone for future detailed works on women in Islam.
One of the most significant ways to empower Muslim women is through education, inquiry, and dialogue. My motivation to write this book was not only to inform Muslim women about their rights, but also non-Muslims. A doctor once asked me, “Is there such a thing as rights for Muslim women?” My answer was, “ Most definitely. What is fortunate for Muslim women is that their rights were given to them by divine intervention. Muslim women never had to struggle for their rights. Their struggle has been in securing them.”
I would like to take this moment to thank those who have been gratuitous in the making of this book. To the editors, Sylvia Whitlock, Ph.D., and Jennifer Bovitz. Thank you for your time, suggestions, and words of encouragement. I am deeply grateful. For the cover art and design, Rouzbeh Bahramali (www.studiorouzbeh.com). May Allah bless you for your effort and sincere dedication. Thank you.
It is customary in Islam that when the name of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, other prophets, or imams (descendants and successors of Prophet Muhammad) are enunciated, the following phrases are mentioned:
Allah — “Glorified and Exalted” (Subh^a-na wa Ta°a-la). Written abbreviation — S.w.T..
Prophet Muhammad —“Peace be upon him and his family.” “S^alla’l-La-hu °alayhi wa a~lihi wa sallam”Written abbreviation — S.
After the names of other prophets, imams from the family of Prophet Muhammad, and his daughter — “Peace be upon him/her/them.” °Alayhi-ha-hum assala-m”,Written abbreviation — a.s..
With great respect, admiration, acknowledgment, and praise, we have omitted the mentioned phrases for the sake of continuity and have stated them in the beginning:
In the Name of Allah, the Infinitely Compassionate, the Most Merciful:
Subh^a-na wa Ta°a-la
Peace be upon him and his family.
Peace be upon the prophets.
Peace be upon the imams.
O Mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord, who created you from a single entityand created its mate of the same kind and spread from these two, many men and women; and be careful of your duty to Allah, by whom you demand one another your rights, and to the ties of relationship; surely Allah ever watches over you.(4:1)
Fatma: Allah 2 expresses that He created mankind “from a single entity” then created its mate; is “mate” in reference to the woman being created from the substance of man? Furthermore, is the Qur’an 3 implying that the creation of the woman came after the making of the man?
Sayyid: There are some Islamic scholars who assert that the man was created first, then the woman was created from the remaining substance of the man. However, by examining the above verse, Allah indicates that the woman and the man were created simultaneously, and that their creations came from the same substance. This is the meaning of “a single entity: min-nafsin waahida.” The creation of man is a dichotomy in which one body or mass was divided into two equal parts. Therefore, both genders were created from the exact substance, simultaneously, and no element in the creation of the genders is superior to the other.
Fatma: Then, to whom is Allah referring when He mentions, “and created its mate?”
Sayyid: “Its mate” refers to both the wife and to the husband. Allah affirms that, from the same entity, He created the spouses. They were not necessarily individually addressed as the wife or the husband. The Qur’an gives compelling evidence that the creation of man and woman came from one and the same material. Allah divided the genders into two equal parts. There is no precedence, superiority, or inferiority in the creation of the genders. There is equality. The Qur’an states,
“And one of His signs is that He has created for you [men and women], from your own type, spouses so that you may enjoy comfort in their company” (30:21).
Fatma: I have read in some Islamic references that Eve was created from the rib or remnants of Adam. 4 I have always associated this concept with Christian doctrine, not Islamic. What is Islam’s position regarding this issue?
Sayyid: There are some ambiguous Islamic references that claim Eve was created from the rib or remnants of Adam, but there is no substantial evidence regarding the authenticity of such references.
Fatma: How did equivocal references appear in Islamic resources? How do Islamic scholarsdetermine whether references have enough substantial evidence to be considered reliable?
Sayyid: Elaborating and defining all Islamic resources that scholars rely on would be too extensive. In brief, I will mention two of the most predominant Islamic sources: the Qur’an and the Ahadith 5 (traditions of Prophet Muhammad). 6
All Islamic scholars, regardless of their schools of thought, agree upon the authenticity of the Qur’an. 7 There is no dispute among the schools regarding the immaculateness and flawlessness of the Qur’an. The Qur’an is exactly the same text today as it was when it was revealed to Prophet Muhammad over 1400 years ago. However, the interpretation of the Qur’an becomes problematic when Islamic scholars attempt to elucidate the Qur’an. One scholar may explain or perceive a verse one way while another scholar may view it from a different perspective or interest.
When it comes to examining traditions of the Prophet, Islamic scholars are very careful about ensuring authenticity. Scholars do not accept every tradition as genuine. First, scholars closely study and thoroughly examine the credibility and reliability of the chain of narrators, as well as exactly what the narrators said. If scholars discover any author or narrator to be unreliable or not trustworthy, this particular narrator’s traditions will be disregarded.
At the same time, if scholars perceive authors or narrators to be even somewhat questionable, they will refer to the traditions as being “weak.” The acceptance of a tradition depends on two things. First, the tradition must be validated through the household of the Prophet, the twelve infallible Imams, 8 or through the trustworthy companions of the Prophet. Second, their traditions must not contradict the Qur’an. Once these two criteria are met, then scholars are certain that the tradition is authentic.
In Islamic literature, there is an abundance of unauthentictraditions referred to as “Israelites.” 9 In the history of Islam, there were some people who, upon converting to Islam, were truly incognizant and unacquainted with Islamic ideology, yet still wrote unwarranted traditions. Some of these people started to propagate traditions that were unfounded; for instance, indoctrinating traditions that allege some prophets as sinning, committing adultery, and being drunk. Such outlandish lies are alien to the Islamic creed. Dignified Islamic scholars label these narrators, and their traditions, as “Israelites.”
There were also some Muslim narrators who became influenced bynon-Muslims; they socialized with them, read their books, and agreed with some of their ideas. Hence, these narrators implemented non-Muslim standards and customs as Islamic traditions. Some of the narrated traditions contradicted the Qur’an in addition to the traditions of the Prophet, or had no relation or credibility to Islamic philosophy.
Amidst the two major branches of Islam, 10 there is a relentless controversy regarding some narrators of Islamic traditions and what the narrators said. For example, some of the main contributors to Sunni traditions are not regarded in the same fashion in Shia traditions. Shia scholars cannot accept all traditions written by such familiar narrators; for instance, one narrator was reprimanded for exorbitant traditions, 11 while others wrote extensive traditions in which only a measure can be considered reliable. However, occasionally some scholars will use these narrators’ traditions to corroborate a point, if proven from other narrated sources, that the narration was authentic.
To summarize, scholars do not regard every written tradition as authentic. If scholars suspect that a narrator wrote unattested traditions, then scholars must thoroughly examine everything the narrator had said before accepting a tradition’s authenticity.
Returning to your question, there are some Islamic traditions that originated from previous scriptures, which claim Eve was created from the rib of Adam or his remnants, but the authentic sources deny this to be true.
Fatma: There are some Islamic traditions that claim Eve instigated Adam to act against Allah’s command, and that she was the reason why man was ousted from Paradise. Is there any truth to these traditions?
Sayyid: Adam and Eve were both dismissed from Paradise because they both disobeyed Allah’s instruction. 12 However, the Qur’an puts forth the notion that Adam was more to blame than Eve. 13 Nonetheless, they both repented to Allah, and they both were forgiven. 14 Additionally, the Christian doctrine of “original sin” has no place in Islam. This is based on the clear statement in the Qur’an that no person carries the burdened sin of another. 15
“Every soul draws the meed of its acts on none but itself, no bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another” (6:164).
Fatma: What I find astonishing is that, during the Prophet’s short period of preaching, he was able to abolish many of the pre-Islamic rituals among pagan Arabs, such as burying daughters alive. He was able to implement rights for women at a time when the concept of women’s rights was unheard of within the society. 16 He was able to reform the attitude of a society that, a few years prior, was barbaric toward women. What I find perplexing is that soon after the Prophet’s death, the rights and the attitude toward Muslim women ironically appeared to relapse. Today, Muslim women are still struggling in securing their rights and trying to overcome the perception of being treated like second-class citizens among their society. Why do you suppose this happened?
Sayyid: The premise you gave is not entirely correct. Certainly, the Prophet abolished all of the uncivilized acts that were being perpetrated against women, such as female infanticide, 17 forced prostitution, 18 and matrimonial mistreatment. 19 At the same time, Islam gave women rights to participate in political affairs, 20 to conduct and maintain their business affairs, 21 and rights to claim inheritance. 22 However, to state that the Prophet was able to reform the attitude of each person in that society is an overstatement.
Examine the chapters “Repentance” and “Hypocrites” in the Qur’an. These chapters depict the duplicity and indisposition of some people in that society. Analyze how Allah contemptibly addressed some people in that society. Examine how some behaved toward the Prophet and how they caused him a great deal of grief by demonstrating disrespect and disobedience. Some members of that society were insincere, unwitting, and obstinate. Even after the Prophet’s death, the first successor, Abu Bakr, spent most of his time defending attacks caused by deceitful defectors. It would not be correct to presume that justice, respect, and harmony prevailed.
Islam granted women rights to inherit from their families. However, as an example of a slow-to-change society, shortly after the death of the Prophet, his most beloved daughter, Fatima, was denied her inheritance. Although she was mainly denied inheritance because of political and economical implications, still the denial was unjustified. In the minds of some people, cultural traditions and customs continued to prevail, especially when they pertained to women.
Women, then and now, are struggling for their rights in Islam. Neither Islam nor the Prophet can be blamed for the societal treatment of women. Religion cannot be criticized for denying women their rights. Granted, Muslim women in the 21st century are in a much better position than their predecessors; but still, today, some women are continuously dealing with tribunal societies ignorant of the true teachings and practices of Islam.
Fatma: Considering what you mentioned about the Prophet not entirely being able to reform the minds and practices of some people surrounding him, then what exactly did the Prophet achieve if the Qur’anic laws were not being adhered to?
Sayyid: Guidance is a divine task based on man’s willingness. The Qur’an states,
“Verily O’ Mohammad you guide not whom you like but Allah guides whom He will and He knows best those who are [willing to be] guided” (28:56).
The Prophet’s achievement was in initiating laws according to the Qur’an for the sake of humanity, and, furthermore, in setting an exemplary lifestyle teaching humanity how to manage and deal with events or situations throughout one’s lifetime.
Qur’anic laws were not exclusively meant for a group of people who lived in Medina or Mecca over 1400 years ago. The Prophet knew that society would not change easily. Those who embraced Islam during the Prophet’s time were mainly between the ages of thirty and sixty. Their personalities, characters, perceptions, and views on life were already established. The Prophet could not reform the mentality of everyone in such a short period. There was a transition period from the age of ignorance and paganism to the age of faith and equitable commitment. Qur’anic laws were to be achieved by the future generations. Comparatively, as we are working for bettering our children’s lives, likewise was the Prophet. The Prophet was working for the next generation, for those who would adhere and practice to the teachings of Islam.
Fatma:“And stay quietly in your houses, and make not a dazzling display, like that of the former times of ignorance”(33:33).
“And stay quietly in your houses.” This Qur’anic verse seems to be in regards to the wives of the Prophet; however, some Islamic scholars also apply this verse to all Muslim women. Is this verse directed at all Muslim women or just the wives of the Prophet?
Sayyid: This particular verse was addressed to the wives of the Prophet, but this does not mean that every time the Qur’an referred to the wives of the Prophet it was exclusively for them and no other women. While studying the Qur’an, one will come across many verses in which Allah addresses the Prophet, but, in truth, Allah is not only addressing the Prophet. Allah required the Prophet to acknowledge the revelations and wanted the rest of the Muslim community to listen and administer them.
“Stay quietly in your house” does not mean that women cannot venture outside of their homes. It is informing women of unnecessary excursions or “questionable environments.” Let me give you an example. If on the battlefield there are enough men working and fighting, then there is no need for women to be there. Certainly, women may assist within other areas, but they should not be on the battlefield, on the frontline in combat.
Some scholars also have interpreted this verse as a forewarning toward one of the wives of the Prophet, informing the wife not to cause any adversity—to remain home. Years after the Prophet’s death, one of his wives assisted indeflecting a war against the legitimate caliph of the time, Imam Ali in the battle of Camel, in which thousands of Muslims died.
Fatma: How does Islam regard the nature of women?
Sayyid: Women and men are born with the same humanistic qualities and are partners in humanity, according to Islam. A woman is as genuine of a human being as a man, and must, therefore, enjoy the irrefutable and undeniable rights as Allah’s creation.
A woman is in no way born imperfect or less intelligent than that of her counterpart.
“We created man [men and women] in the best of molds”(95:4).
A woman’s innate disposition in distinguishing right from wrong is the same as a man’s; she is not more predisposed for evil or its instigation.
“By the soul as it perfected and inspired it about its wrong and its right”(91:7-8).
According to the Qur’an, Allah characterizes a woman as having,
“A great deal of good” (4:19).
A woman comes into this world with a clean, pure, and unburdened soul. “Every soul draws the meed of its acts on none but itself; no bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another”(6:164).
A woman’s obligation in fulfilling her religious ritual toward Allah is equal to that of a man, and her rewards and condemnations are the same.
“I shall not lose the sight of the labor of any of you who labors in My way, be it man or woman; each of you is equal to the other” (3:195).
A woman can reach the same closeness to Allah as a man.
“If any do deeds of righteousness, be they male or female and have faith, they will enter Heaven” (4:124).
Fatma:What is Islam’s view on the position and accountability of Muslim women in society?
Sayyid: Women were created to be half of society. Women are to assist in ensuring the morality, preserving the safety, and securing the well-being of future generations, and to become mothers. Women were created to become mothers and educators of children, among other significant roles.
In our era, some women have lost pride in being or becoming mothers. The honor, dignity, and admiration for motherhood has fallen. Some regard the title of “mother” or “homemaker” as demeaning. There is no shame or degradation in being a homemaker or mother. There is nothing amiss in loving and nurturing the family. On the contrary, motherhood is the most important foundation on which children depend.Mothers are the educators of children; they are their teachers. Children look up to their mothers; they admire them, learn from them, inherit their character, their moral beauty, and their compassion. Motherhood is something beautiful, precious, and important. It is a long and difficult journey to become a devoted mother.
Nevertheless, the importance of fatherhood should not be lessened. A father’s role is extremely significant to the family’s well-being and his absence would create difficulties. Yet, the absence of a mother could be a disaster for a family. Mothers are the threads that keep the family united.
Mothers are the builders of society. They are the ones who foster great leaders, scientists, doctors, husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers. A mother can change a whole society by raising one child. This child could reform a whole nation; in essence, mothers write history.
Fatma: Does Islam encourage women to be independent and self-sufficient? Can they be free to choose what they want to become in life?
Sayyid: Women need to be independent and self-sufficient before marriage, during marriage, and even in the event of a divorce or death. Women should be prepared, at any given moment, to depend upon themselves. No one is certain of what the future holds for him or her. Being independent and self-sufficient can have many beneficial consequences. It creates feelings of confidence, security,and courage. However, Islam also wants a woman to be mindful that some of her decisions should be made in consultation with someone in her life, like her parents, for example.
Fatma: Does Islam favor segregation of the genders?
Sayyid: Segregation of the genders is entirely dependent on the occasion, circumstance, or establishment. For example, Islam would recommend segregation for social gatherings for the sake of pleasure and amusement, since they may lead to maleficent outcomes. However, Islam would not object to appropriately mixed gatherings in which intellectual, informative, or spiritual lectures were discussed. The main point is that, if immoral outcomes are not feared, then mixed social gatherings are acceptable.
Fatma: Regarding the precepts concerning women in Islam, there is a copious body of literature that instructs women on what is not recommended for them. For example, it is not recommended for women to attend mosques, recite the Qur’an in the presence of men, lecture in the presence of men, or pursue fields that are dominated mainly by men. One tends to find an array of varying restrictions. What is the consensus, among the scholars, regarding these issues?
Sayyid: There is no consensus among the scholars regarding these issues by reason of controversy. Primarily, when scholars mention the boundaries of women, they are considering the particular societies in which women live. For instance, there are some societies where women are not highly visible publicly; therefore, men are socially unaccustomed to women. In societies where women predominantly stay at home, rarely venture out, even as far as the market, it would not be surprising for scholars to advise women not to patronize the mosques too often. Scholars that make such guidelines do so in an attempt to safeguard women. In a similar fashion, in societies where women are engaged in and actively participate publicly (such as in the work force or educational institutions), then such an advisement would neither be applicable nor appropriate.
Fatma:I would like to read to you a quote from a Muslim man who wrote an article in the “London Times” on women in Islam.
Our religion doesn’t give women any human dignity; women are considered slaves, I write against the religion because if women want to live like human beings they will have to live outside the religion of Islamic law. 23
What do you suppose this is indicative of?
Sayyid: This quotation is full of bigotry and emotionalism. The author is neither objective nor accurate in his description. Unmarred Islamic laws are contrary to the author’s opinionated conclusions. Islam not only elevated the humanistic stature of women, but also secured women’s positions by empowering them with social rights.
Unfortunately, there are some Muslim countries that claim to be Islamic, but they are not adherents of the genuine Islamic faith. This person may have been raised in such a country that claims to be a representative of Islam, but its Islamic practices and values have been abandoned. Perhaps, in his country, Islam is a slogan rather than an exercised religion.
There are some countries that claim to be Islamic, yet deprive women of education, isolate them from social activities, and do not allow them to voice their political opinions. They strip women of their rights, honor, dignity, and continue to maintain to be representatives of Islam. Unfortunately, we have this today, but this is not Islam; it is social culture.
Additionally, there are some Islamic countries that attempt to depict modernism by electing women as their prime ministers. Although they may have women representing their countries in the highest office, in general, they continue to disrespect women within their societies. Upon examination of these societies, one may find mistreatment or abuse of women. Some even arrange marriages for their daughters without their consent. Some husbands regard their wives as servants. Such practices (and others) are customs of society, not customs or values of Islam.
Fatma: Attitudes and practices that are conducted in the name of Islam are actually contrary to the basic messages found in the Qur’an. If one examines some Arab societies in which both Christians and Muslims live together, one tends to find that the Muslim woman living among her own people is not respected in the same manner as compared to the Christian woman among her fellowship. Generally, the Christian woman is shown more appreciation and respect within her community. Why do you suppose that, in some Islamic societies, Muslim women are looked upon as secondary among her people?
Sayyid: The respect of Christian women you describe is not a result of religion, but tradition. Likewise, the comparative lack of respect that Muslim women receive in their society also did not originate from religion, but from tradition.
There are many Qur’anic verses that assert the notion men and women are to live concordantly with one another. There is a considerable amount of verses in the Qur’an that state men and women are equal. The Prophet even described men and women as being halves of one another.
Traditionally, in some Eastern societies, women have been viewed as secondary, but Islam opposes such viewpoints or mistreatments. Some people, however, might read certain passages of the Qur’an and wrongly draw inaccurate conclusions based on the laws of inheritance and testimony that women are placed in a lesser class than that of men. To understand the laws, one must analyze their derivations, the deeper reasoning, and logic behind them. The laws mostly are based on economic and social foundations and nothing else. They are not based on the wrong assumption that women are secondary or inferior. Islamic laws were made to ensure not only the rights of the individual, but also the rights of society as a whole.
One must also keep in mind that not only Arabs or Muslim societies mistreated women. Christians, Jews, Persians, Indians, etc., and non-religious societies have also misused women and, in some places, continue to do so. Even today, in the West, women are mistreated and disrespected in many areas.
Fatma:You mentioned earlier that we are still dealing with tribunal societies, and that people continue to be ignorant of the teachings and practices of Islam. Often the foundation of a Muslim family is centered on giving preference, opportunities, and more affection toward their sons than their daughters. Why is this?
Sayyid: Formerly,many people tended toward mainstream society, which perceived men as being superior to women. This perception of superiority was also reflected within the genders of the family. Partiality toward sons was the case in families that were uninformed about the true practices of Islam. This would not be the case in a well-informed Muslim family that based its teachings on the Qur’an and traditions of the Prophet.
Nonetheless, we cannot blame Islam for the way parents mistreat their daughters. Islamic literature encourages more affection to be given toward the daughter than the son. Allah instructs parents to offer more attention to their daughters by way of example. For instance, when parents leave on a trip, the last one they should say good-bye to is their daughter, and, upon their return home, she should be the first one to be greeted.This is what the Prophet did to his own daughter, Fatima. Whenever she walked into the room the Prophet used to stand up, kiss her, and offer her his seat. He would invite her to eat meals with him. Whenever the Prophet returned home from a trip, he would stop at his daughter’s home before going to see his wives.
There are numerous verses in the Qur’an and traditions of the Prophet that detail the manner in which a daughter is to be treated. I will cite a few of the Prophet’s traditions regarding the treatment of daughters.
The best of your children are your daughters. 24
The sign of a lucky woman is that her first child is a girl. 25
First, he should give to his daughters then to his sons. Whoever keeps his daughter happy will get a reward equal to the one who has freed a slave from the progeny of Prophet Ishmael. 26
Whoever brings up faithful daughters, educates them, disciplines them, and marries them will be rewarded Paradise. 27
Fatma: When the subject of female circumcision is addressed, the word “Islam” is often succeeded. Is there any association between Islam and female circumcision?
Sayyid: There is no association between Islam and female circumcision. Female circumcision may commonly be practiced by some African societies. The fact that those who practice female circumcision may be Muslims, does not justify concluding that it is based on Islamic rituals or practices.
Fatma: In some Islamic countries, and in some cases when a Muslim woman is suspected or rumored to have committed an illicit act, male members of the family would take it upon themselves to execute her. This disturbing act is known as “Death by Honor.” Usually the perpetrator is sentenced to a few years in prison and then released. Would this form of conviction be a reflection of Islamic law?
Sayyid: Any crime or sin committed in an Islamic society must be dealt with accordingly through the Islamic and civil courts. Vigilantism is forbidden. Islam honors the life and the lives of all people. Taking the life of another person is considered a cardinal sin. The only person that is permitted to execute the law is a qualified Islamic judge, not a family member. Therefore, “Death by Honor” has no basis in the Islamic tradition. In fact, the Qur’an comments on the penalty for those who accuse or rumor on the subject of adultery or fornication without providing credible witnesses.
And those who launch a charge against chaste women, and produce not four witnesses to support their allegations—flog them with eighty strips; and reject their evidence ever after; for such men are wicked transgressors.(24:4)
Schools of Islamic thought are paths Muslims follow to the Qur’an and traditions of Prophet Muhammad.
There are five schools of thought:
1) Ja’fari: comprises 23% of the Muslims. Established by Imam Ja’far ibn Muhammad al-Sadiq in Medina, Hijaz 148 Hijrah. Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq was the sixth Imam of the twelve designated Imams of the school of Ahl al-Bayt (family members of Prophet Muhammad).
2) Hanafi: comprises 31% of the Muslims. Established by Imam al-Nu’man ibn Thabit, better known as Abu Hanafi in Kufa, Iraq during the Abbasid Empire.
3) Maliki: comprises 25% of the Muslims. Established by Imam Malik ibn Anas al-Asbahi in Medina, Hijaz during the Abbasid Empire in 148 hijrah (Islamic calendar).
4) Shafi: comprises 16% of the Muslims. Emerged in Egypt by Imam Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i during the Fatimid Dynasty.
5) Hanbali: comprises 4% of the Muslims. Established by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal in Baghdad, but only gained popularity in the Arabian peninsula due to the ideas of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism.
“And women shall have rights similar to the rights upon them in a just and equitable manner; but men have a degree over them”(2:228).
Fatma: This verse is perhaps one of the most controversial and misrepresented verses regarding the relationship between a husband and a wife. Does the verse only pertain to conjugal rights within the family structure, or does it also extend into the whole of society as well? Secondly, could you expound and exemplify the entirety of this verse?
Sayyid: The verse, which you quoted, may not be a suitable translation. Sometimes it can be difficult to translate the precise meaning of an Arabic word into English. There are many Arabic words that cannot be translated from their original meaning or meanings into any language. Transcribers have to search for alternative words in attempt to most accurately define a particular Arabic term. In some instances the precise meaning of the word can be lost, misrepresented, or misinterpreted. Let me attempt to translate that verse:
And the rights of the wives—in relation to their husbands—are equal [just/enabled] to their obligations—toward their husbands—but men in their obligations—toward their wives—stand a step further: Wa lahunna methullathi ‘al ayhinna bil-ma’uruf: walir-rijaali ‘alayhin-na darajah. (2:228)
Regarding your first question, Islamic jurists (fuqaha) commentthat this verse only pertains to family affairs, not to the relationships of men and women in society or outside the boundaries of family life.
In regards to society, the Qur’an states that Muslim men and women share life’s moral and social responsibilities equally and jointly. In addition, they are equal in front of the law and in all religious obligations 28 and punishments. 29
In addition to the verse mentioned, there is another verse in the Qur’an that is conjointly related, and, thus, it is important to explain them simultaneously.
Men are the supporters and sustainers of women according to what Allah has given [or enabled] advantages of one over the other and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are truly devout ones: Ar-rijaalu qaw-waamuuna ‘alan-nisaa-‘i bima faz-zalallaahu ba’-za hum ‘alaa ba ‘zinwwa bimaa ‘anfaquu min’amwaalihim. Fas-Saalihaatu qaanitaatun. (4:34)
The Qur’an has decreed,
“Men in their obligations—toward their wives—stand a step further: walir-rijaali ‘alayhin-na darajah” (2:228).
The “step further” of which the Qur’an speaks is not a position of greater rank or nobility. The “step” the Qur’an makes reference to is the obligatory duty given to the man in the care of the woman; it is not a degree of superiority. Allah ordained men with the responsibility to preserve and solely sustainwomen. This is supported by the verse that states,
“Men are the supporters and sustainers of women: ar-rijaalu qaw-waamuuna ‘alan-nisaa-‘i”(4:34).
The “step further” is in no way a form of dominance or preferment.
The Qur’an reminds us that men and women were created from the same essence.
“[Allah] created you all out of one living entity: khalaqakum min-nafsinw-waahida” (4:1).
The Qur’an consistently makes reference to equity, parity, and equilibrium among the genders. It disposes of genders and makes no distinction whatsoever between the superiority or inferiority of men and women. On the contrary, it is the piety of a person that distinguishes him or her by ranks or degrees, not gender or lineage.
“The most honored of you [male or female] in the sight of Allah is he who is most righteous of you: in-na ‘akramakum ‘indal-laahi ‘atqaakum” (49:13).
Islam does not represent favoritism or show partiality in the interest of men. Precedence is given toward the general welfare of society, not genders. It is equilibrium of interest between both genders which benefits all members of society. The totality of society always supersedes one sector of society. The rights and responsibilities of a woman are equally proportioned to those of a man, but they are not necessarily identical. Equality and identicalness are two different issues.
“Certainly we sent Our Messengers with clear proofs and sent down with them the Book and the Balance, so that humankind may conduct itself with equity” (57:25).
Women and men are symmetrically balanced when it comes to their relationship with Allah. On the other hand, the symmetrical balance differentiates when it comes to men and women’s roles and responsibilities, not only toward themselves and each other but also to society as a whole. It is never implied that one gender surpasses the other; in essence, both genders must be in an equal pace with one another, each recognizing the importance of its unbiased contribution. Women and men in Islam are complementary to each other. According to a tradition of the Prophet, “Men and women are siblings of one another.” 30
The Qur’an mandates that the husband exclusively shoulders the responsibility of maintaining his wife financially, and that he safeguards the interest of the family. In Islam, the wife is not obligated to pay for her living expenses, and it is incumbent upon the husband to maintain her according to his means. If the husband is wealthy, then he must provide for his wife an affluent lifestyle or, on the other hand, if the husband is poor, then the wife forestalls a less than moderate way of living. 31
Referring to the two verses (2:228 and 4:34), assuredly, they have defended the honor and integrity of women. When a Muslim woman marries, she has the privilege of never working outside the home. She does not have to contend with raising children, managing a home, and contributing additional income to support the family. Islam has acknowledgedthe noble responsibility and tasks that a woman must endure in raising a family. Therefore, Islam has freed her from the additional undertaking of providing for the family financially. In fact, she is not obligated for any of the domestic affairs.
Fatma: Are you implying that there is no such concept as a “homemaker” in Islam?
Sayyid: There is no such term as “homemaker” in Islam. A woman in Islam is not compelled to cook, clean, launder, or perform any other domestic duties. If the wife chooses to do the work, it would be considered noble and thoughtful; otherwise, she is not obligated to do so. Besides, she can also request monetary compensation for any of the work, even that of nursing her own child. Nonetheless, Islam does not want to undermine the importance or the need of the wife to assist with the household duties. To be considered a homemaker is prestigious, if not the noblest of all roles, for a woman. Not to deter from the subject, it is important to note some very important traditions from the Prophet regarding domestic duties.
“How much reward is there for a woman’s housework?” Um-Salamah (wife of the Prophet) asked the Prophet. The Prophet replied, “Any woman who in the way of improving the order of the house, takes something from somewhere and places it somewhere else would enjoy the grace of Allah and whoever attracts the blessings of Allah would not be tormented by Allah’s anger.“ 32
The Prophet said, “O women! Whosoever among you is busy in arranging the domestic affairs, Allah willing, she will get the reward of Islam’s soldiers and Mujahidi-n 33.” 34
Sequentially, in reference to the two verses, they have not only sanctified the prestige of women, but have underwritten a fostered relationship for raising and caring of children by assuring that the mother would be home and exempted from toilsome domestic work. She is then able to dedicate all her time, thoughts, and love toward nurturing the family.
Some people have taken these two verses and adversely interpreted them as a form of male dominance, or as a form of superiority over women, even defining the verses as the wife being compelled to submit herself to her husband’s will unconditionally. These interpretations are entirely contrary to the foundations and principles of Islam. Islam, by no manner or mean, would allow any form of ascendancy. Islam adamantly opposes tyranny, oppression, dictatorship, abuse, or the infringement of rights. The Qur’an specifically states,
“Treat them [wife] in a just manner: wa lahunna methullathi ‘al ayhinna bil-ma’ruuf” (2:228),
“Live with them on a footing of kindness and equity: wa ‘aashiruuhun-na bil-ma’-ruuf” (4:19).
These verses, among many others found in the Qur’an, and hundreds of noted traditions of the Prophet, constitute the basis of marriage.
“And the rights of the wives—in relation to their husband—are equal to their obligations—toward their husbands” (2:228).
This verse affirms that the husband is neither an authoritative partner who cannot be questioned, nor one who is to be favored with absolute obedience. Allah has enunciated in this verse entitlements for wives similar to those of husbands. To clarify, the matrimonial rights are conditional, and are dependent upon a reciprocal compliance in which each partner has a set of responsibilities or duties that must be fulfilled. If one or both partners fails to perform his or her duties, then, subsequently, an injunction and verdict may be implemented.
Fatma: Later, I would like you to explain these conditions, but in continuance of 4:34, the Qur’an mentions two things that need clarifying. One is the word “fadallah,” which has been translated as “given or enabled advantages of one over the other,” and the other is “truly devout: qaanitaat.” What do they mean exactly?
Sayyid: The word “fadallah” may mean given, enabled, preferred, or distinguished in responsibilities and duties, depending on the content and context of the sentence. In reference to this particular verse, it is best to use the word enabled, given, or distinguished, but not preferred.
“Fadallah” is interpreted as distinguishing men from women concerning the undertakings and responsibilities of supporting, sustaining, and taking full care of the family. Itdoes not signify that men are preferred or greater in excellence than women. In fact, upon studying the Qur’an and traditions of the Prophet, one may conclude that admiration, leniency, and preference are sometimes given more to women. There are extraordinary traditions by the Prophet that summarize the eminence of women. Once a man came to the Prophet asking:
“O Messenger of Allah, who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship?” The Prophet said, “Your mother.” The man said, “Then who is next?” The Prophet said, “Your mother.” The man asked for the third time, “Then who is next?” The Prophet said, “Your mother.” The man further asked, “Then who is next?” Only then, the Prophet said, “Your father.” 35
Also, the Prophet said, “Heaven lies beneath the feet of mothers.” 36
Allah would not permit any form of injustice or deficiency among His creations. Allah bestowed unique and distinguishable features upon each individual—mentally, physically, and spiritually.
“And wish not for the things in which God hath bestowed His gifts freely on some of you than others” (4:32).
This verse denotes that every man and woman is created with notable qualities.
Fatma:Why did Islam choose men to be the caretakers of women?
Sayyid: Scholars cite many explanations. However, primarily scholars focus on the biological fact that men are physically stronger than women; therefore, men are more apt to exert themselves for the livelihood of their families. Hence, men become the caretakers of women. In addition, the nature of a man’s psychological development is audacious and chivalrous.
Addressing the word “qaanitaat,” some scholars have transcribed the word as meaning obedient, yet it has many other meanings in Arabic. For example, it can mean truly devoted, or lifting of hands during prayer, or listening, or submitting, and perhaps it could give meaning of obedience, but again obedience toward the husband is only limited within the religious perimeter. That is to say, if the husband makes a request of his wife, and that request is indoctrinated or practiced by Islam, and if it were within her ability, then the wife should cooperate and adhere to the request. On the other hand, if the husband makes a request of his wife which is religiously unlawful, or inappropriate, or not within her ability, then she is not obligated to obey his request.
Fatma: In the archives of Islamic literature, there are some traditions regarding women that I find to be degrading and highly reprehensible. I would like your comment on one particular tradition of the Prophet and its veracity.
It is not right that any human being should prostrate to another being, and if it were right for any human being to prostrate to another human being I would have ordered the woman to prostrate to her husband due to the greatness of his rights upon her. By Him in whose Hands my soul, if from his foot to the crown of his head there was a wound pouring forth with puss and she came and licked that then she would still not have fulfilled his rights. 37
Sayyid: Keep in mind when we discussed the authenticity of some traditions in the chapter “Making Clarity,” I explained that not all traditions of the Prophet were authentic. Then, in the beginning of this chapter, I also discussed that not all Arabic terms can be translated properly. However, I am familiar with the first half of the tradition, but I cannot verify the authenticity of the second half (“foot to the crown…”).
This tradition is allegorical, in the sense that if a woman were fortunate enough to marry a pious man with exceptional qualities, one who treated her extraordinary well and fulfilled all her physically and emotionally needs, then, respectfully, she would treat him in the same manner.
Fatma: How do you elucidate this tradition from Imam Ali, who not only happened to be one of the rightful rulers of Islam, 38 but also shared one of the closest ties to the Prophet? 39
O, you people! Women are deficient in faith, deficient in shares, and deficient in intelligence. As regards to the deficiency in their faith, it is their abstention from prayers and fasting during their menstrual period. As regards to deficiency in their intelligence, it is because the evidence of two women is equal to that of one man. As for the deficiency of their shares, that is because of their share in inheritance being half of men. So, beware of the evils of women. Be on your guard even from those of them who are good. Do not obey them even in good things so that they may not attract you to evils. 40
Sayyid: Imam Ali was not suggesting or confirming that Allah insufficiently created women. There is no deficiency in the creation of women.
“We have indeed created man in the best of molds” (95:4).
The concluded examples that Imam Ali draws on are metaphoric and the tradition is missing a fundamental part which was the incident that infused the words. Imam Ali was indirectly addressing one woman who caused a great deal of damage to the Islamic communityin the battle of Camel. However, this subject would deter us from our topic. For further details, one can refer to other resources. 41
“And the rights of the wives—in relation to their husbands—are equal to their obligations—toward their husbands” (2:228).
You briefly touched upon this verse and, interestingly, mentioned the words “conditional” and “reciprocal compliance.” Can you elaborate on this matter?
Sayyid: When it comes to the rights of men and women, the Qur’an always speaks about mutuality, cooperation, and respect. These are the fundamental principals in any matrimonial relationship.
“Wa lahunna methullathi ‘al ayhinna bil-ma’ruuf” is translated as “And the rights of the wives—in relation to the husbands—are equal to the obligations toward their husbands” (2:228).
This verse is the basis by which the foundation of matrimonial relationships must thrive. Allah notes that, in the same way men have rights over women, women also have rights over men.
Fatma: What are those rights that a husband has upon his wife?
Sayyid: It is extremely important to mention both the husband’s rights upon the wife, and the wife’s rights upon the husband in order to compare and comprehend the very delicate issue of Islamic matrimonial rights. Keeping in mind that the relationship of husband and wife is based on mutuality, cooperation, and respect, there are indoctrinated rights which husbands have upon their wives, and the Islamic jurists (fuqaha)note them as the following:
1) Haqq-al-ta’a: which means the right ofcompliance from the wife. The compliances are that the husband can require his wife to comply with her religious and moral duties.Furthermore, she is not to leave the house without his permission, if it encroaches upon his right for “tamkeem”(see below #2).
2) Tamkeem:which means that the wife makes herself physically available to her husband provided that she is physically and psychologically well. Alternatively, some scholars refer to it as Haqq-l-istimta’a—the right of physical and emotional enjoyment.
3) Haqq-al-maiyah:which means that the wife spends time with her husband; a form of companionship.
The wife’s rights upon her husband are as follows:
1) Nafaqa:which means that the husband is required to financially cover all the living expenditures of his wife. This is a very broad term, and it involves a stupendous list of miscellaneous items needed for living, such as shelter, clothing, home fixtures, and money.
2) Haqq-al-irwa`al-jinsi: which means physical fulfillment. This right not only discusses the act of intimacy, but also entails the romantic and playful gestures made by the husband to his wife.
3) Muthajia: which means
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