The Position of Women in Islam
Woman's status in Islam is one of the most controversial and serious issues of our time, not only among Muslim women and those who represent them in the area of women's rights in the Islamic world, but also among fundamentalist Muslims. The reader may find himself confused owing to the large number of books that treat this subject, for the most part, superficially and partially. Some cover Islam's achievements for the woman,(1) maintaining that it was Islam that gave the woman her rights and honour,(2) while others blame all the disadvantages in the position of Muslim women on Islam.(3)
Since in this book we mean by Islam what the Qur´an and Hadith say, we want to treat the woman's position primarily in these two sources. What rights has Islam given to the woman, and what disadvantages has it brought her? Some commentaries of consequence will also be reviewed. We will also cite the opinions of older theologians and jurists (experts on Sharia), and the comments of the contemporary fundamentalists and their attitudes toward the western and eastern critics who uphold the issue of women's rights.
As will be made clear in the following chapters, it will not be possible to cite the Qur´anic references when treating the woman's position in the Sharia (Islamic law). The Qur´an often remains silent when it comes to certain topics, even if the topics have to do with the heart of the Sharia.(4) There are also matters that the Qur´an touches upon without describing them in detail.(5)
Women in the Qur´an
Woman appears in the Qur´an in three aspects:
First: As a biological and social being. Second: as a believer. Third: as a character in the biblical salvation narrative.(1)
Apart from the wife of Muhammad's uncle Abu Lahab, and Zainab, one of Muhammad's wives to whom the Qur´an alluded,(2) the Virgin Mary is the most important female character in the Qur´an. The nineteenth sura of the Qur´an is named after her, the only female name the Qur´an mentions. The other women whose stories are narrated in the Qur´an are never mentioned by name, rather they were called the wives of their respective husbands. Among them are: Eve,(3) the wife of Imran (Sura Al Imran 3:35), the wife of the governor (Sura Yusuf 12:30), Pharaoh's wife (Sura al-Qasas 28:9), Lot's wife (Sura al-Tahrim 66:10), Abraham's wife (Sura Hud 11:71), and Noah's wife (Sura al-Tahrim 66:10).
What the Qur´an says about the woman as a biological social being can be considered objective, not diminishing any of her rights, though the prevailing theme in this respect is "Men are the managers of women for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another, and for that they have expended of their property" (Sura al-Nisa´ 4:34). The Qur´an pictures Mary's mother as being disappointed over the fact that she gave birth to a "female": "Lord, I have given birth to her, a female- (And God knew very well what she had given birth to; the male is not as the female)-" (Sura Al Imran 3:36). We find in such Qur´anic verses Muhammad's attempt to project the Bedouin concept of the woman onto a biblical episode.(4)
As concerns creation, no distinction in rank is found between man and woman. According to Islam, Adam was the first man, as the Bible also says, "He has created the two kinds, male and female" (Sura al-Najm 53:45), and "O mankind, We have created you a male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another" (Sura al-Hujurat 49:13). God addresses His commands, interdictions and statutes to both sexes.(5)
After this brief treatment of the woman as a biological social being and as a character in the Qur´anic stories, we would like to study woman as a believer in the Qur´an. The Qur´anic verses dealing with woman as a believer constitute the basic element and foundation for her legislative and social position. As we shall see in the following chapters, this subject can be grasped by studying woman's status in comparison with man's in marriage, divorce, witnessing, inheritance, veiledness, and concubinage. Inequality between man and woman, at the expense of the woman, stands out clearly in these chapters, in spite of the attempts of zealous Muslims and European orientalists to explain the texts away. These attempts have often lead to the opposite of what the Qur´an means and what the ordinary Muslim understands.(6) We will cite, whenever there are grounds, the opinions of the theologians and jurists who soften the meaning of both the Qur´an and the Hadith.
Those concerned with the Qur´an and those who read it know well that the judgments mentioned in it concerning women form a good part of it. As it is known, the fourth sura is called "Women", and is one of the longer suras. But before looking into the legislative position of women, we would like to touch once again on the status of women in relation to men.
The Status of Women
There is no Qur´anic distinction between the Muslim and the non-Muslim woman in terms of her status as a biological social being since men are, on principle, in charge of women, and the male is not like the female (Sura Al Imran 3:36). One can understand the prevailing mentality at the time with the aid of the Qur´anic criticisms of the habits of the Meccan idolaters: "Have you considered al-Lat and al-Uzza, and Manat the third, the other? What, have you males, and He females? That were then an unjust division!" (Sura al-Najm 53:19-22). The Qur´an, which condemns the Arab's live burial of girls, conveys to us, at the same time, the prevailing conception of the woman at that time: "And when any of them is given the good tidings of a girl, his face is darkened and he chokes inwardly, as he hides him from the people because of the evil of the good tidings that have been given unto him, whether he shall preserve it in humiliation, or trample it into the dust" (Sura al-Nahl 16:48,59).
If we accept what the Qur´an said about the woman in the pre-Islamic era and what the Muslim historians recorded (trying their best to prove that Islam improved the position of the woman and promoted her from the bottom of the pit to an honourable life), we must admit that Islam was unable to realise a reformation in this arena, for the simple reason that the same conceptions of women still persist in most Islamic countries today. One of the most important reasons for this phenomenon was the pragmatic approach that Muhammad followed, which adopted even the pre-Islamic (Jahili) traditions(1) to uphold his own cause. His ultimate goal was not to establish a new moral code, but to achieve a final triumph for the Shahada, which states, "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah," and to force the Bedouins to recognise Allah's sovereignty over all the gods.
As mentioned above, the most important Qur´anic verse the jurists cite as proof of the claim that women are inferior to men is: "Men are the managers of women for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another, and for that they have expended of their property" (Sura al-Nisa´ 4:34). Al-Tabari says, "By this God (may He be highly praised) means that men are in charge of their women in chastising and restraining them regarding their obligations for God and themselves."(2) He makes further comments, which we will cite: "Ibn Abbas narrated that he said, [Men] are commanders and [the woman] has to obey him in all that God commands her to obey him. Obedience to man is being good to his family." Al-Dhahhak narrated: "Man is in charge of the woman commanding her to obey God. If she refuses, he has [the right] to give her a mild beating, and he had the advantage over her on account of what he provides for her and what he earns." Al-Suddi said, "They should restrain and discipline them."(3)
As to the reason why this verse was given, it is said that a man struck a woman, and she came to the Prophet seeking punishment. The prophet passed his judgment between them, and this verse was revealed, "And hasten not with the Qur´an ere its revelation is accomplished unto you" (Sura Ta Ha 20:114). The verse "Men are the managers of women" (Sura al-Nisa´ 4:34) was also revealed.(4) Ibn Abbas says in a tradition that by "for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another," (Sura al-Nisa´ 4:34) the Qur´an meant that "God preferred men to women by the former's [sound] mind, dividing of the portions in the booty and inheritance."(5)
Muhammad `Abduh "the Reformer" (1905-1949), who was known for his hostile attitude toward blind tradition, has discovered new aspects of man's superiority over women in this verse: "This superiority is based on two factors; the one has to do with nature, while the other has to do with earning. The natural one consists in the fact that man's disposition is stronger, more accomplished, complete, and beautiful. Perhaps it strikes you as odd that man is more beautiful than woman. Beauty has to do with the completeness and perfection of natural disposition. As far as his living body, man is nothing more than an animal, for the physical nature of both is the same. We see the males of all animals more accomplished and more beautiful than the females, such as you see in the rooster and the hen, the ram and the ewe, and the lion and the lioness. The hair of the beard and the moustache is of the characteristics of the perfection and beauty of man's nature, therefore the hairless man is considered imperfect in nature and wishes he could find a medicine that would cause his hair to grow, even if he were used to shaving his beard. In consequence of this, men are strong in character [disposition], perfect in nature, sound in mind, and of sound judgement in the foundation and end of everything. Doctors and scientists say, 'Sound in body, sound in mind.' It follows then that men are perfect in tasks having to do with earning, for they are more capable of earning a living, inventing, and tackling affairs of everyday life. For this reason they have been commanded to stand above women, protect them, and to carry the onus of general presidency in the milieu of the domestic life of the family. For it is vital that every society should have a president to whom people ought to refer in the standardisation of public welfare."(6)
Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad (1889-1964), one of the most renowned Arab men of letters in the twentieth century, sets an enviable record in his attacks on women. He says, "Woman has been engaged in preparing food since mankind started cooking in pre-historic times. She has learned it since childhood in the dwelling-places of the family or the tribe. She likes food and craves for it. Yet after she inherited this occupation for thousands of years, she is still not as good at it as the man who dedicates a few years to it. She keeps up with him neither in the high quality of well-known dishes nor in innovating new varieties of improved ones. She is unable to manage a kitchen in which several females and males work together. The same goes for the craft of embroidery and tailoring, which are among the old-time crafts women practised at home. Women rely on men to make their clothing rather than on themselves." Women, as al-Aqqad claims, have no part in knowledge or scientific thinking, even the well-known women in the field of science could not attain any success but for the support and guidance of the men, "The name of Madame Curie is the first name that is mentioned by those who maintain full equality of the two sexes. Even if it is true that this lady matches first class male scientists, this will always remain an undeniably rare exception. The truth about this specific lady keeps her from being reckoned among the exceptional cases in scientific researches, since she did not work apart from her husband and since her work was neither concerned with invention nor with innovation."(7) As to hypocrisy and double-dealing, these are two inherent characteristics of women: "Female hypocrisy, which can be attributed to women especially, is due to a certain weakness in womanhood that she abides by in every society, and is not imposed on her by manners or laws. She does not part company with it by choice or by force- she may even refuse to do so if the choice was hers... There is a major difference between man and women in sexual intercourse- in most days of her period the sexual desire is separated from the reproduction instinct, whereas the sexual desire for man is never an amusement."(8)
This al-Aqqad who is viewed by many people in the east and the west as a genius, believes that woman is a necessary evil, and that she does not possess any talent or virtue at all. "There are none among the estimable ethics of women that are more characteristic of and natural to her femininity than these three qualities: bashfulness, compassion, and cleanliness. She depends on these in her nature or in man's nature. This should have been rather her practice in all the other qualities that men mastered from old... The inborn compassion is not fit for evaluating woman's mercy, since it has to do with what the psychic forces and the power of conscience enjoin on her. It is the comparison between women's and man's compassion for the children of others that is fit as a standard of evaluation. Man could be seen showing compassion for his step-children as much as he does his own, treating them equally even if it were out of courtesy and consideration. Woman, however, behaves differently in her treatment of her step-children; the children sometimes do not escape torture, malevolence, deliberate humiliation, and harm."(9) "The primary point of reference regarding morals with women is sexual restraint, which is an instinct that the female animals have in common, and is not a willful act that distinguishes mankind in particular. There are worlds of difference between this sort of sexual restraint and the virtue of bashfulness, which is regarded as a human moral virtue."(10)
Regarding the advantages man has over women, Ahmad Shalabi says, "He is taller than she, his bones are bigger, and she weighs less than he does. His muscles are stronger, his brain is bigger than hers, and likewise his heart."(11) The sayings of Muhammad concerning women that could be culled from the Hadith do not speak in her favour. There are traditions indicating that Muhammad describes women as though they were deficient in intelligence and understanding. Abu Sa`id al-Jundi narrated: Once the Messenger of God went out to a prayer place to offer the prayer of Greater Bairam or a Lesser Bairam. Then he passed by the women and said, "O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you [women]." They asked, "Why is it so, Messenger of God?" He replied, "You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you." The women asked, "What is deficient in our intelligence and religion, Messenger of God?" He answered, "Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?" They replied in the affirmative. He said, "This is the deficiency in your intelligence. Isn't it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?" The women replied in the affirmative. "This is the deficiency in your religion," he said.(12)
In Islamic theological sources, it is put forward as an evidence of the women's deficient intelligence that there is none among them who was known for being knowledgeable or a genius. "As to the deficiency of intelligence, it is known that women have rarely minds as good as men. Perfection and excellence are rarely and exceptionally found among them. Women of reasoning and good discretion are very few in number. Men of this quality, however, are countless."(13) The scholastic expert of fiqh, who showed this magnificent proof of the deficiency of women's minds, could have found the main reason for this in the Hadith of Muhammad: "Do not let [women] into all of the rooms, and do not teach them how to write. Teach them to spin and recite Sura al-Nur."(14) Or "Do not let your women live in rooms, do not teach them how to write, and seek assistance against them. Constantly tell them 'No', because 'Yes' tempts them to ask a lot."(15)
One who studies the sayings of Muhammad pertaining to women cannot help but question why women were created. "One woman, of 99 women, is in heaven, and the rest of them are in Fire."(16) "Fire has been created for the senseless, the women, except for the one who obeyed her husband."(17) "Men perish when they obey women."(18) "Men are in a good state as long as they do not obey women."(19)
Muhammad gives us another reason why men should fear and beware of women: "Beware of women; the first temptation among the Children of Israel was caused by them;"(20) "I fear no temptation that would befall my people but for the temptation of women and wine;"(21) and "But for the woman, man could have entered paradise."(22)
The woman has no right to behave as though she possesses any authority or influence over her husband, for Muhammad "forbade women to talk except by leave of their husbands."(23) Also "Women are not allowed to go out except out of necessity, but for the occasion of the two feasts: The Greater Bairam and the Lesser Bairam. They are also not allowed to walk down the roads, but keep to the edges of the street."(24) "Women are not allowed to use the middle of the road."(25) "Women are not to be greeted nor to greet."(26) "A believing woman is the same among women as a white-footed raven among the ravens. Fire has been created for the senseless, and women are the most senseless of all."(27) If the woman wanted to clear herself of this charge, she had to serve her husband.(28)
In another tradition Muhammad described women as "unclean" creatures. In a Hadith, Muhammad says, "Three things corrupt prayer: Women, dogs, and donkeys."(29) "The Messenger of God said, 'A man's prayer is interrupted if a donkey, black dogs, and women pass by him nearby.' So I said, 'What difference is there between the red one, the yellow one, and the white one?' He said, 'My brother, I asked the Messenger of God just as you asked me. He said, "The black dog is a devil." ' "(30) In a another tradition given by Ibn Abbas, the fire-worshipper, the Jew, and the pig are listed alongside the woman as things that corrupt prayer. The prayer of a Muslim is corrupted if "they pass by him as far as a rock could be thrown."(31)
There are several sayings in which Muhammad reduced women to the level of animals. "Woman is a vile beast,"(32) and "I think that women were created for nothing but evil."(33) It seems that the woman as a source of mischief and evil omen is a rooted concept in Muhammad's mind. This anti-female concept, which goes back to the Jewish traditions,(34) accompanies us in all books of Hadith: "Bad omen is in three things: horses, woman, and the home."(35)
"'The woman has two things to cover her: the grave and marriage.' It was asked, 'Which of them is better?' He said, 'The grave.' "(36)
After all these traditions and stories, which make up a small part of the copious Islamic traditions about women, the words of Mahmud Shaltut seem to be pure mockery. He says about the status of women in Islam, "It is a status that the woman had not enjoyed in any divine law, nor in any society that people set up for themselves."(37) He adds, "Islam has granted women all that is good, and protected her from all that is evil. The only thing it denied her was the liberty that false culture [namely, the western culture] has pushed her into. That liberty causes the western woman, whenever she retreats to her human conscience, to weep tears of blood over her forfeited respect, misused honour, and lost happiness."(38)
Women's Image in Arabic Literature
The conceptions of Muhammad and the experts of Islamic fiqh have influenced Arabic literature and shared in the formation of an "imaginative" picture of woman in literature. The reader may possibly ask if this topic is necessary. In fact, we are forced to quote what has been written about women in the writings of the Arab men of letters, because they have not lost any of their popularity, especially those that have been compiled during the Abbasid era and after. There is no escaping the study of such literature if one wants to present a realistic picture of women in Islam.
Attributed to `Ali Ibn Abi Talib is the saying, "Woman is all evil; the most evil thing about her is that she is indispensable."(1) "As to the counsel of women, it is a sign of the hour of doom."(2) "Woman is not in charge of anything that goes beyond herself; for woman is a sweet basil not a governess. She should not promise by her own honour, nor should you provoke her ambition by asking for the mediation of another [woman]. Never be jealous where jealousy is not proper."(3) ) Al-Jahiz (d. 868) holds the same view as Muhammad regarding the deficiency of women's intelligence as he says, "We have seen women; they are weaker in mind than men, while children are weaker in mind than they are. They are also more stingy than women, and women are the weaker in mind in comparison with men. We do not know of anyone who is more wicked than a child: he is the worst liar, the worst gossip, the most evil of mankind, the least in doing good and the most cruel of all."(4) The Ummayad poet al-Farazdaq compares women to serpents. He says,
They are amiable with their husbands when they withdraw;
When they go out, they are like snakes.(5)
In al-Bayan wa al-tabyin, women are mentioned in the same section as imbeciles, mentally handicapped, and children.(6) Ibn `Abd Rabbih quotes the following verses from `Ubada, considered to be the one who knew the most about women:
Ask me about women for I am knowledgeable
And a doctor of the maladies that women cause.
If a man's hair grows gray, or if his money decreases,
He will have no part in their love.
They desire wealth wherever it is found,
And the prime of youth is irresistible for them.(7)
Ibn `Abd Rabbih is not satisfied with quoting the poems and tales of the Arabs, he also quotes from the proverbs of the prophets: "In the wisdom of David, peace be on him, it is said, 'I found among men one in a thousand, but I found none among all women.' "(8) Yet, despite her deceit, unfaithfulness, and other reproachful qualities, women "and especially concubines", are a property that man cannot do without. In describing the ideal concubine, Caliph `Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwan (685-705 A.D.) said, "If you want one for pleasure, take a Berber woman, for bearing children take a Persian woman, if you need one for service take a Christian woman ["rumiyya": also, a Byzantine woman].(9) We know also from the proverbs of literary writers that woman increases in evil in her old age, "They said that the end of man's life is better than its beginning; his patience increases, his resistance [to temptation] becomes stronger, his flame dies down, and his trade is made perfect. The end of women's life, though, is worse than its beginning; her beauty vanishes, her womb grows barren, and her morals deteriorate."(10) As to her beauty, it is said, "A fair handmaid is coloured by the colour of the sun; in forenoon she is pale, and in the evening she is yellow."(11) "Yet, mere beauty is not enough; she must also be smiling and patient, proud among her own folk and humble with her husband, and fruitful."(12) "When someone wants to have a strong child, he should make her angry, and then have sex with her."(13)
So far we have examined the contents of old books that deal with women. It is natural to assume that Muslim scholars and writers nowadays hold other standards and conceptions about the "gentle sex", but the reality is disappointing. Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad, who cannot be relegated to the fundamentalist circles, is considered an extremist in attacking and despising women. Al-Aqqad claims that his warped opinions of women are backed up by modern sciences, and he quotes Christian Ehrenfels' apology for polygamy: "Polygamy is necessary for the preservation of the Aryan stock."(14) Al-Aqqad's opinion about women will be quoted in the coming chapters, but for now we will give al-Aqqad's "philosophical" analysis of the phenomenon of immodesty amongst women: "This modesty, which is enjoined on woman by morals, exists in women in proportion to how she feels about her husband and how he sees her. If women gather together far away from the eyes of men, they forget about modesty. Then they care for nothing that they would usually observe while they are still in the presence of men. The woman does not cover herself in the [public] bath, unless she has a defect or for fear that her peers and companions should compete with her."(15)
Now if we overlook the romances included in classical Arabic literature in which women appear perfectly equal to their lovers or husbands, we find that both classical and modern writers have a very negative picture of women. This discreditable and troubling issue has been criticised by the Islamic thinker Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897 A.D.). The Egyptian writer Qasim Amin, who dedicated the better part of his life to the struggle against the wrong done to women, agreed. The issue of women, as Qasim Amin viewed it, was an issue of civilisation and a social problem that needed to be solved, otherwise any progress in the Egyptian society would only be an unattainable dream. He said, "Women are equal to men, their miserable conditions are due to the injustice of men, who never gave them the chance to act in freedom and in the spirit of responsibility, but rather forced absolute ignorance upon them by all sorts of means."(16) The root of this injustice is the ignorance of Muslim scholars of the nature of women. "It is so strange that scholars have outstripped one another in binding and fettering women through all the inhuman laws and ordinances they could imagine, as though she were a devil to be locked up. If fact, they were shamefully ignorant of her circumstances."(17)
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