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aaiil.org > Articles & Magazines > A Collection of Various Articles > Position of Women in Islam by Sarah Ahmad

Position of Women in Islam:

by Sarah Ahmad

And the believers, men and women, are friends one of another. They enjoin good and forbid evil and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, and obey Allah and His Messenger. As for these, Allah will have mercy on them. Surely Allah is Mighty, Wise (9:71).

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Islam,

Assalamu ‘Alaikum.

Islam recognises the position of women to be equal to that of men, both from a material as well as spiritual point of view. No religion of the world accords as high a status to women as Islam. Indeed, no other religious Book and no other reformer have done a fraction of what the Holy Quran and the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) have done to raise the status of women. Unfortunately, too many misunderstandings about the rights of women exist in the West for it to appreciate the liberation of women by Islam.

I will attempt to present a true picture of the status of women as daughters, mothers and wives, and to prove from verses of the Holy Quran that they have the same moral qualities, spiritual rank and material standing as men.

It would not be out of place to take first, a brief look at the position of women in Arabia before Islam. Women were hardly regarded as human beings by the olden Arabs. They were denied any share in inheritance; rather, they themselves were considered part of a man’s heritage, so that he could even marry his mother. A common custom was of zihar, or putting away the wife by calling her "mother", by which she was neither divorced nor did she hold the status of a wife any longer. Islam took up the cause of woman with the greatest earnestness, as, in her person, half the human race was rotting under severe oppression and Islam came to deal a death-blow to all kinds of oppression under which any class of society laboured.

Another barbarous custom prevalent among the Arabs was that of burying their infant daughters alive, for daughters were looked upon as a source of shame and disgrace. The abolition of this deep-rooted custom was one of the numerous blessings of Islam. The wonderful change brought about in the status of women by Islam is evident from an early revelation. The verse of the Quran reads:

He (Allah) grants females to whom He pleases and grants males to whom He pleases, or He grants them both males and females… (42:49, 50).

Note here that the female is mentioned before the male; thus one daughter actually has precedence over one son.

The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) himself was most loving and affectionate towards his daughters. There are numerous traditions enjoining kind treatment of one’s daughters, including one which says that if a believer cares for three daughters, brings them up properly and gets them married, he will go to Paradise. Also, the education of one’s daughters is just as important as that of one’s sons, because the seeking of knowledge is obligatory for both Muslim men and Muslim women, and there must be no distinction between the two.

"Heaven lies at the feet of a mother" is an oft-quoted saying of the Prophet which is expressive of the exalted status that Islam grants to mothers. The mother has a central position in the home. Tradition tells us that from among one’s parents, the mother has three times greater right to kindness from her offspring as compared to the father, on account of the greater hardship that she suffers in bearing, delivering and bringing up a child. Moreover, the mother has tremendous influence on a society, for she moulds the character of its future generations.

I will now discuss the position of woman with regard to her married life. In Islam, the woman has the same right to make a proposal of marriage as a man. The contract of marriage can only be completed with the mutual consent of both parties. Not only is it recommended that the man look at the woman before the betrothal, but it is also recommended that the woman look at the man, if she wants to marry him, and satisfy herself about him before she gives her consent.

Another point that needs to be discussed is whether a woman can give her consent to marriage without the approval of her guardian. Both the Hanafi and the Shi’ah view of law say that the marriage contract of an adult woman, possessed of understanding, whether she is a virgin or has been married before, is complete with her own consent, though it may not be confirmed by her guardian. The Quran, as well as the Tradition, recognises a woman’s right to marry the man she pleases. Bukhari reports that the Prophet said: "The widow and the divorced women shall not be married until her order is obtained, and the virgin shall not be married until her permission is obtained (B. 67:42).

An important part of marriage is the mahr (dowry). According to the Quran, the mahr is given as a free gift by the husband to the wife at the time of contracting the marriage (4:4). The payment of the mahr on the part of the husband is an admission of the independence of the wife, for she becomes the owner of property immediately on her marriage, even though she may not have owned anything before it. It may be noticed that this concept of a dowry is exactly the opposite of the common practice, in which a lavish dowry is to be supplied by the family of the bride, even though they may be in straitened circumstances. Islam does not impose any such condition that will bring difficulty on the parents of a girl child. On the contrary, it is the man who is obliged to settle a suitable dowry on the woman at the time of the marriage.

By entering the married state, a woman does not lose any of the rights that she possesses as an individual member of society, but she is at the same time recognised as undertaking new responsibilities in life, which carry with them new rights. As far as her home is concerned, according to the Tradition, the wife has the position of a ruler in it (Ar. rai’yah, B. 67:91), marriage at once raising her to a higher dignity, and the home being her territory.

The mutual relationship of husband and wife is described in the Quran as follows:

And of His sign is this, that He created mates for you from yourselves that you might find peace of mind in them, and He put between you love and compassion (30:21).

The closest union of two souls could not be described more fittingly; yet Islam is a practical religion and it does not shut its eyes to the hard realities of life. The home is a kingdom in miniature, where authority is exercised by both the husband and the wife. But unless one of them is given a higher authority, there would be chaos in this kingdom. The reason for giving the higher authority to the male partner is stated in the Quran as:

Men are the maintainers of woman, with what Allah has made of them to excel others, and with what they spend out of their property (4:34).

It means that the husband (in most cases) is entrusted with providing maintenance for the wife, and also that he has final charge of the affairs at home, thus exercising authority over the wife when necessary.

This division of work, however, does not at all mean that woman has been excluded from any other kinds of activity. A study of Tradition literature shows that, notwithstanding her duties at home, a woman took interest in all the national activities of the Muslims. The care of children did not prevent her from repairing to the mosque to join the congregational prayers, nor was this care an obstacle in her way to joining soldiers in the field of battle, taking care of the sick and the wounded, or taking part in the actual fighting when necessary. One of the Prophet’s wives, Zainab, used to prepare hides and she devoted the proceeds of their sale to charity. Women also helped their husbands in the labour of the field and carried on business — they could sell to and purchase from men, and men could sell to and purchase from them.

Islam has laid many duties upon the husband so that he has to provide a home for his wife to live in and to fulfil all her needs according to his means. In turn, the wife has her share of obligations towards her husband. She is to keep company with him, preserve his property from loss or waste and refrain from doing anything which would disturb the peace of the household. She is bound to avoid admitting into the house anyone of whom her husband disapproves and abstain from spending the husband’s income in ways in which he does not sanction. However, she can dispose of her own property as she likes. The family concern must be kept going by husband and wife in mutual co-operation, helping each other out whenever necessary.

The Quran lays the greatest possible stress on kind and good treatment towards the wife. Keep them in good fellowship and Treat them kindly are repeated words of advice of the Quran, so much so that kindness is recommended even when a man dislikes his wife. The Prophet laid equally great stress upon good treatment of a wife. "The most excellent of you," he is reported to have said, "is he who is best in his treatment of his wife." In his famous address at the Farewell Pilgrimage, he again laid particular stress on the good treatment of women: "O my people! You have certain rights over your wives and so have your wives over you…. They are a trust of Allah in your hands. So you must treat them with all kindness." It is related of the Prophet himself that he would help his wives in many household chores; he would even patch his own clothes, mend his own shoes and clean the dishes.

Another subject about which great misunderstanding prevails is the permission of polygamy granted by Islam. Firstly, it must be borne in mind that as a rule, Islam recognises the union of one man and one woman as the valid form of marriage; polygamy is allowed only in exceptional circumstances. The following verse of the Quran sanctions polygamy:

And if you fear that you cannot do justice to orphans, marry such women as seem good to you, two or three or four; but if you fear you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one (4:3).

The pre-Islamic Arabs were guilty of a double injustice to widows: they did not give them a share in the inheritance of their husbands, nor were they inclined to marry widows who had children, because the responsibility for the maintenance of the children would fall on them. The Quran remedied both these evils; it gave a share of inheritance to the widow with a share also for the orphans, and it commended the taking of such widows in marriage, and polygamy is allowed expressly for this purpose. Thus, in Islam, polygamy is allowed, not for the sake of the sensual pleasure of the man, as is commonly supposed, but for the sake of providing the widow with a protector and a home, and the children with paternal care and affection. This permission of polygamy was given at a time when the wars, which were forced on the Muslims, had decimated the men, leaving many widows and orphans to provide for whom was a necessity. A limited polygamy is an ideal solution to the problem of giving an excess of females in the population a home life in the aftermath of war or other factors.

Divorce is another institution of Islam regarding which much misconception prevails. In actual fact, the Islamic law on divorce has many points of advantage as compared with the Jewish and the Christian laws (as formulated in Deuteronomy and Matthew), the chief feature of improvement being that the wife can claim a divorce according to Islamic law, but neither Moses nor Jesus conferred that right on the woman. It will be seen that the Quran places the husband and wife on a perfect level of equality in the matter of divorce. Tradition makes it clearer still. A case is reported in Bukhari about Thabit bin Qais whose wife came to the Prophet and said: "O Messenger of Allah! I do not find fault in Thabit bin Qais regarding his morals or faith but I cannot get along with him." The Prophet said: "Wilt thou return to him his orchard?" (which he had settled upon her as dowry). On receiving a reply in the affirmative, the Prophet sent for Thabit and ordered him to take back his orchard and to divorce his wife. The technical term for the wife’s right to divorce by returning her dowry is called khul’, and is based on the tradition quoted above. The wife is also entitled to a divorce if the husband is missing for a certain period of time (which means he has disappeared and cannot be communicated with) because he is unable to fulfil his marital obligations. Moreover, the Quran says:

And when you divorce women and they reach their prescribe limit, retain them with kindness or set them free with kindness (2:231).

Thus, woman is to be treated with equal kindness and generosity, whether she is a sharer in the man’s wealth or woe, or one from whom he has been compelled to part company.

I will now discuss the standing position of women as regards her material possessions. The Quran says:

For men is the benefit of what they earn. And for women is the benefit of what they earn (4:32).

Women can also inherit property as can men, as the Quran states:

For men is a share of what the parents and the near relatives leave, and for the women a share of what the parents and the near relatives leave (4:7).

So you see that the Quran uses exactly the same words for the rights of owning property and inheritance for both men and women. It may be pointed out that these measures of equality were only won in Western society in the nineteenth century, after a long struggle, whereas they have existed in Muslim law since the time of the Prophet.

Let us now take a look at the spiritual status accorded to women by Islam. The Holy Quran speaks of good women alongside of good men and enumerates every good quality as being possessed by women exactly as it is possessed by men. Read the Quran and you find good and righteous women being given the same position as good and righteous men. The Quran does not differentiate between man and woman in the bestowal of reward for the good that he or she does.

And whoever does good, whether male or female, and he is a believer, these shall enter the Garden, in which they shall be given sustenance without measure (40:40).

The highest favour which God has bestowed upon man is the gift of Divine revelation, and we find women, to whom Divine revelation came, spoken of along with men. The Quran mentions revelation from God coming to Mary and the mother of Prophet Moses. God’s revelation to Mary is mentioned in the following words:

And when the angels said, O Mary, Allah has chosen thee and purified thee and chosen thee above the women of the world (3:41).

This kind of revelation comes only to those who reach the highest rank of closeness to God. Further, where the Quran speaks in chapter 19 of the great prophets of God, saying: And mention Abraham in the Book (19:41), And mention Moses in the Book (19:51), and so on, it speaks of a woman in exactly the same terms: And mention Mary in the Book (19:16). No other religious book has given such a high spiritual position to women.

Furthermore, the Quran has cited two women as the highest examples for believers to follow. It says:

And Allah sets forth an example for those who believe — the wife of Pharaoh, when she said: My Lord, build for me a house with Thee in the Garden and deliver me from Pharaoh and his work, and deliver me from the unjust people, and Mary, the daughter of Imran, who guarded her chastity, so We breathed into him (that is, the believer for whom Mary is an example) of Our inspiration (66:11–12).

Pharaoh’s wife here represents the believer who is not yet free from the bondage of sin, but prays to be delivered from it. Mary symbolises the highest grade of a believer, who guards himself (or herself) against all low desires, and therefore receives inspiration from God.

Since the early years of Islam, women have been instrumental in the spread of knowledge about the faith. After the Holy Prophet’s death, his wives acted as teachers of religious knowledge to the Muslims. Large numbers of people came to them with questions on various matters and they gave decisions about religious matters. A very large number of ahadith are reported from them. It is estimated that two-thirds of the hadith reports relating to matters of the Shariah have been related by Aishah (may Allah be pleased with her). Thus, the compilers of ahadith made no distinction between a narrator being a man or a woman.

There are instances in which women corrected the views of a man of the stature of Hazrat Umar. When he was the caliph, Hazrat Umar announced that he would introduce a certain restriction relating to the mahr (nuptial gift). An ordinary woman rose up from the audience and read a verse of the Quran that opposed the idea of any such limit, whereupon Umar immediately withdrew his proposal and said: "The women of Madinah have more understanding than Umar!"

It is recorded in Bukhari that, on his death-bed, Umar asserted that the Prophet had said that the "weeping and wailing of the relatives of a deceased person increases the punishment of the person in the after-life." Aishah, on being informed of this, said that Umar was wrong, and that the Holy Prophet had not said this because it contradicted the teaching of the Quran which states that a person cannot be punished for what others do.

A very common misconception is that a woman cannot lead the prayer, even if the congregation consists only of women. On the contrary, there is a hadith quoted in Sunan Abu Dawud, as well as the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal that the Holy Prophet Muhammad appointed a woman by the name of Umm Waraqah as the imam in her house, so the men as well as the women of the house prayed behind her.

I will now discuss the dress and manner of behaviour prescribed for the believing women in the Quran. It has already been shown that there is no injunction in the Quran or the Tradition enjoining the seclusion of women within the four walls of their houses. Women in Islam are as free to move about for their needs, or for the transaction of their affairs, as men. Islam brought a complete way of life for its followers and it teaches us how to act in dealings involving the intermingling of sexes so as to maintain the purity of these relations. The Quran says:

Say to the believing men that they lower their gaze and restrain their sexual passions. That is purer for them. Surely Allah is Aware of what they do. And say to the believing women that they lower their gaze and restrain their sexual passions and do not display their adornments except what appears thereof. And let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms (24:30, 31).

These verses, first of all, command the believing men and the believing women to cultivate the habit of keeping their eyes cast down when they meet one another. If they refrain from openly looking at members of the opposite sex, they will not be tempted to make any improper advances. The believing women are, in addition to this, required not to display their adornments except what appears thereof. The view of the vast majority of commentators is that the parts necessarily appearing are the face and the hands, for the covering of these would be a hindrance in one’s work. There is also a tradition reported in Abu Dawud according to which Asma, the daughter of Abu Bakr, came to the Prophet and she was wearing very thin clothes (through which her body could be seen). The Prophet turned his face away from her and said: "O Asma! When the woman attains her majority, it is not proper that any part of her body should be seen except this and this." He then pointed to his face and his hands. It must be emphasised that only the face is allowed to be left uncovered; the neck, the ears, the temples, the hair and any jewellery or ornaments that are worn, are to be hidden completely.

The next thing we are told is to draw the head-covering over the bosom. As in the West today, a common practice among women in pre-Islamic Arabia was of uncovering the shoulders and bosom, hence the injunction to its covering. On another occasion in the Quran, Muslim women are required to wear a dress whose very appearance should distinguish them as of a pure character.

O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to let down upon them their over-garments; this is more proper, so that they may be known and not be given trouble (33:59).

The over-garment mentioned here might be in the nature of a loose coat or a shawl to cover the beauty of one’s clothes and ornaments. It also follows that tight clothes that display the figure are not to be worn. It is especially essential that the shape of the breast be concealed by a loose covering, in addition to the normal clothing.

The Quran also informs us that a woman should take care to dress in the prescribed modest way when appearing before men other than those most nearly related to her. It says:

And they should not display their adornment except to their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or their brothers sons, or their sisters sons, or their women, or those whom their right hands possess, or guileless male servants, or the children who know not women’s nakedness (31:24).

Furthermore, the Quran tells the believing women to take care of how they converse in public, lest strange men are encouraged by their manner to make improper advances. It says:

O wives of the Prophet, you are not like any other women. If you would keep your duty, then be not soft in speech, lest he in whose heart is a disease yearn; and speak a word of goodness (33:32).

The wives of the Prophet are addressed here in connection with their public duties as teachers of religion, but the same teaching applies to all believing women when they have to fulfil their duties outside their homes, while coming into contact with a large number of people of all kinds. When women work among men, they have to avoid doing things which can be misinterpreted and bring them under the slightest shadow of suspicion. They must therefore take certain precautions, which include not talking informally with men or giving them any reason to take undue liberties.

These Islamic injunctions of modesty are as important today as they were in the past. They are not limited to women of the East or those of the West. In fact, it is especially important for Muslim women living in Western countries to appear distinctive by their modest dress and manner and set an example. The idea that the liberty of a woman is restricted by these injunctions is wrong. You will find women wearing the hijab working in highly specialised professions alongside men and proving their excellence in their fields, not limited in any way by the way they dress.

Thus, we have seen that according to the Quran and the Tradition, there is no difference between men and women with God, and morally and spiritually they can rise to the same eminence. I will conclude with verse 124 of chapter 4 of the Holy Quran:

And whoever does good deeds, whether male or female, and he is a believer — these shall enter the Garden and they shall not be dealt with a jot unjustly.

May Allah, Most High, forgive our sins and admit us among His righteous servants. Amin.

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