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The status of women in Islam


Z.R. El-Naggar

Fellow of the Islamic academy of sciences


Generally speaking, females represent the physically, psychologically and emotionally weaker half of the human race. This physical weakness is compensated by numerous instinctive powers in the form of super-sensual conceptions that are usually lacking in males. Nevertheless, this render half of humanity has always been dominated, maltreated, oppressed and exploited by the stronger half in the absence of the proper form of divine guidance. This fact can be clearly demonstrated by a fair review of the status of women throughout history.


Women in pre-Islamic civilizations and traditions:-


1) In the ancient Chinese civilization, women were regarded as disqualified minors; nothing was considered inferior to a woman. The Chinese rule presumed that "women were created and placed at the most inferior point of human race, and should be given the meanest work". Stemming from this, women had no rights what so ever (cf. Wil Durant, Chinese civilization).


2) In the ancient Indian civilization, the Manu law emphasized the subjection of women as a cardinal principle, that women are unclean and that they must be excluded from inheritance. In one of its articles (# 148) it reads that: "in childhood, a female must be subject to her father, and later to her husband. When her lord dies, she will be subject to his sons or his next of kin, for a woman must never be independent". It adds "there is no creature more sinful than woman".

The "Rite of sati" which stipulates that a Hindu widow should burn herself on the pyre of her deceased husband was in practice until lake in the 18th century and in parts of India is still practiced up fill now.

Recently, it was reported that more than five million widows are homeless, through expulsion by their late husbands' families or their own families.


3) In the ancient Greek civilization women were considered as minors, subject to some male control, her name as well as her body should be concealed behind the doors of her home and her consent on marriage was generally thought to be unnecessary.


4) In ancient Rome, women were considered to have no rights, no powers and no will. A Roman wife was described as : " a babe , a minor , a ward , a person incapable of doing or acting anything according to her own individual taste , a person continually under the tutelage and guardianship of her husband (cf. Allen , 1889 , v. 3 , p. 550). Women were generally looked down upon as chattels that were trafficked in, and were treated as slaves or housemaids. Considered as inferior to man, a wife had to sit on the ground in the presence of her husband, and follow a foot while he rode (cf. Wil Durant, history of the world). In the ancient Roman law, a woman was completely dependent on some man. If married, she and her property would pass into the power of her husband. The wife was considered a purchased property of her husband, and like a slave, is only acquired for his benefit. A woman could never exercise any civil or public office , she could never be a witness, a surety, a tutor, or a curator; she could never make a will or sign a contract.

In the Roman law, women were looked down upon as incapacitated beings, as children or insane persons. Age minority, insanity and womanhood were the main reasons for disqualifying any person. Both female children and wives had no independent status throughout the life of their guardians, who had full authority on them, including the right to sell, expel, torture imprison and even kill.


5) In the old Scandinavian law, women were under perpetual tutelage, whether unmarried or married. If a woman were to marry without the consent of her tutor, he was given the right to administer and usufruct her property during her life (cf. encyclopedia Britannica, v. 28, p. 783).


6) According to the old English common law: " all real property which a wife held at the time of her marriage became a possession of her husband. He was entitled to the rent from the land, and to any profit which might be made from operating the estate during the joint life of the spouses. As time passed, the English courts devised means to forbid a husband's transferring of real property without the consent of his wife, but he still retained the right to manage it and to receive the money which it produced. As to a wife's personal property, the husband's power was complete. He had the right to spend it as he saw fit".

Only by the late 19th century the " married women's property act " which came out in 1870 C.e. and was amended in 1882 C.e. and 1887 C.e. gave married women the right to own property and to enter contracts on a par with spinsters , widows and divorcees (cf. encyclopedia Britannica 11th edition , 1968 , v. 23 , p. 624) .

Under the title of "the subjection of women", John Stuart mill wrote: " meanwhile, the wife is the actual bondservant of her husband; no less so than slaves ".


7) The encyclopedia biblical (1902, v. 3, pp. 2942-2947) states that: " to betroth a wife to oneself meant simply to acquire possession of her by payment of the purchase money; the betrothed is a bought girl for whom the purchase money has been paid the girl's consent is unnecessary, and the need for it is nowhere suggested in the law the woman, being man's property, his right to divorce her follows as a matter of course ".


8) In the Jewish tradition, women were given a very inferior status, being considered unclean and untouchable during their periods. Whether daughter or wife a woman had no right of inheritance as long as there were male off springs to inherit the deceased father or husband.

Moreover, the woman herself could be inherited by either the father, brother, husband or any male in the family. Following the book of exodus, Egyptian Jews have the following article in their civil status law (article # 36) which states that "in the absence of a male offspring, the widow shall marry the brother of her dead man, and shall be to nobody but himself, unless he dissolves this wedlock".


9) The new testament is completely devoid of any injunction on the family life , but the early Christian traditions did not only follow the Jews in affirming the inferior status of women , but also deprived them of a number of legal rights they had previously enjoyed .

In their book entitled "marriage east and west", David and Vera Mace (1960 p. 80, 81) wrote:

"It would be hard to find anywhere a collection of more degrading references to the female sex than the early church fathers provide". These two authors (op. cit.) quote Lecky, the famous historian, where he speaks of "these fierce incentives which form so conspicuous and so grotesque a portion of the writing of the fathers" in his own words as follows:

" The woman was represented as the door of hell, as the mother of all human ills. She should be ashamed at the very thought that she is a woman.

She should live in continual penance on account of the curses she has brought upon the world. She should be ashamed of her dress, for it is the memorial of her fall. She should be especially ashamed of her beauty, for it is the most potent instrument of the devil".

David and Vera Mace (op. cit.) also quote Tertulian in his most scathing attack on women where he wrote addressing them: " do you know that you are each an eve? The sentence of God on the sex of yours lives in this age; the guilt must of necessity live too.

You are the devil's gateway; you are the unsealer of that forbidden tree; you are the first deserters of the divine law; you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack.

You destroyed so easily God's image, man "


10) In pagan Arabia women had no rights at all. They used to be looked upon as commodities to be bought and inherited. Because of such very low value assigned to women, the ugly habit of burying baby girls alive was widespread in some tribes for fear of shame. This female infant side is a cruel, murdering crime that reflects the attitudes of some parents who detested and rejected their female infants, and portrays an image for the status of woman in these days of ignorance (jahiliyyah). Among other bad habits of the pagan Arabs was that a widow was herself subject to be inherited along with the property of her dead husband.


Women in Islam:


The Glorious Qur'an was revealed more than fourteen centuries ago with the clear emphasis that both the fore-parents of the human race Adam and eve (may Allah be pleased with them both) had been created from one single soul ["O mankind! Be dutiful to your Lord, Who created you from a single person (Adam), and from him (Adam) He created his wife (Hawwa (Eve)), and from them both He created many men and women and fear Allah through Whom you demand your mutual (rights), and (do not cut the relations of) the wombs (kinship). Surely, Allah is Ever an AllWatcher over you."  (Surat An-Nis' (The Women):1).


"It is He Who has created you from a single person (Adam), and (then) He has created from him his wife (Hawwa (Eve)), in order that he might enjoy the pleasure of living with her. When he had sexual relation with her, she became pregnant and she carried it about lightly. Then when it became heavy, they both invoked Allah, their Lord (saying): "If You give us a Salih (good in every aspect) child, we shall indeed be among the grateful." (Surat Al-A'rf (The Heights): 189).


"And Allah has made for you wives of your own kind, and has made for you, from your wives, sons and grandsons, and has bestowed on you good provision. Do they then believe in false deities and deny the Favour of Allah (by not worshipping Allah Alone)." (Surat An-Nahl (The Bees): 72).


"The Creator of the heavens and the earth. He has made for you mates from yourselves, and for the cattle (also) mates. By this means He creates you (in the wombs). There is nothing like unto Him, and He is the All-Hearer, the All-Seer." (Surat Ash-Shra (The Consultation): 11). etc.].


The Noble Qur'an also came down with the emphasis that our fore-mother eve (may Allah be pleased with her) is not alone blamed for Adam's first sin. Both were jointly wrong in their disobedience to the divine order, both recognized their mistake and repented, and both were forgiven " Then the Shaitan (Satan) made them slip therefrom (the Paradise), and got them out from that in which they were. We said: "Get you down, all, with enmity between yourselves. On earth will be a dwelling place for you and an enjoyment for a time." (Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow): 36),  " Then Shaitan (Satan) whispered suggestions to them both in order to uncover that which was hidden from them of their private parts (before); he said: "Your Lord did not forbid you this tree save you should become angels or become of the immortals." 20. " And he (Shaitan (Satan)) swore by Allah to them both (saying): "Verily, I am one of the sincere wellwishers for you both." 21.  "So he misled them with deception. Then when they tasted of the tree, that which was hidden from them of their shame (private parts) became manifest to them and they began to stick together the leaves of Paradise over themselves (in order to cover their shame). And their Lord called out to them (saying): "Did I not forbid you that tree and tell you: Verily, Shaitan (Satan) is an open enemy unto you?" 22.  "They said: "Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If You forgive us not, and bestow not upon us Your Mercy, we shall certainly be of the losers." 23. "(Allah) said: "Get down, one of you an enemy to the other (i.e. Adam, Hawwa (Eve), and Shaitan (Satan), etc.). On earth will be a dwellingplace for you and an enjoyment, - for a time." 24." (Surat Al-A'rf (The Heights): 20-24). Indeed, Adam was specifically blamed alone in one Qur'anic verse at least "Then they both ate of the tree, and so their private parts appeared to them, and they began to stick on themselves the leaves from Paradise for their covering. Thus did Adam disobey his Lord, so he went astray." (Surat T-H): 121).  


The Qur'anic guidance declares in numerous verses the fact that men and women are integrating, equal halves of the human race. They are equal in their humanitarian nature, rights and obligations, despite their physical, physiological, psychological and emotional differences which integrate and are essential for the making and continuity of a balanced life for the human race. These marked and indisputable differences between men and women, do not imply any supremacy of one of the sexes over the other, as they only reflect their integral and complementary roles in life.


Indeed , both the Qur'an and the traditions of Prophet Mohammad (p.b.u.h.) have emphasized the spiritual, religious, intellectual, social, economic and political equality between men and women, raising women to their natural position in the human society and returning to them their honour and dignity which have always been lost in the absence of the true form of divine guidance .


Enough to mention that one of the lengthiest chapters (Suras) in the Holy Qur'an (Chapter # 4) is entitled An-Nis' (the women). this Qur'anic chapter covers social parameters such as women , their relationship to the other sex , marriage , family rights for and obligations on each member , orphans , inheritance , dealing with family disputes and the recalcitrant in the larger family and in the society at large . It emphasizes the necessity of divine guidance in such matters where man alone can never give a fair judgment.


Another lengthy Surah (Chapter) in the Qur'an is called Al-Imran or (the family of Imran) the father of Mary, mother of Jesus (may Allah be pleased with them both). the 19th chapter in the Qur'an is entitled Maryam (Mary), the mother of Jesus; the 58th Qur'anic chapter is named Al-Mujadilah (the pleading woman); the 60th chapter is entitled Al-Mumtahanah (the tested woman); both chapters # 65 and 66 which are named Al-Talaq (the divorce) and Al-Tahreem (the act of forbidding), respectively, deal with family and social matters including divorce, its necessity as a last resort, when all forms of reconciliation fail to preserve the family bondage (as Islam does not compel unhappy couples to stay together) and the necessary precautions the Qur'an prescribes against the abuse of such license, which out of all things is the most hateful to Allah, but permitted by Him. Indeed, the incompatibility of certain individuals and the weaknesses of human nature require certain outlets and safeguards if the sanctity of marriage is not to be made into a fetish at the expense of human life. These two Qur'anic chapters explain how far can the opposition of one sex against the other, or the lack of harmony between the two sexes, the turning away from sex in general, or the perversion of this divinely granted relation ship can be highly injurious to the higher interests of the individuals, their families and the society at large.


Enough to mention that two of the most highly praised figures in the Glorious Qur'an are Maryam (Mary), the mother of Jesus (peace be upon them both) and (Asia) the wife of the Pharoe of Moses (p.b.u.h.).

Prophet Mohammad (p.b.u.h.) is quoted to have said:


"The most generous (in character) amongst you is the one who is kind to women, and the wicked of you is the one who insults them".

In his farewell pilgrimage speech Prophet Mohammad (p.b.u.h.) is quoted to have said:

"I enjoin upon you to deal with women in a fair and a just way as they are the twin half of men ".

The rights of women in Islam

The rights of women in Islam have been fully detailed in the Glorious Qur'an and in the traditions of Prophet Mohammad (p.b.u.h.) so that no Muslim male could try to get around them, out selfishness or personal greed. These female rights can be briefly summarized as follows:


a) Spiritual equality between men and women in Islam:

The Noble Qur'an reads:

"O mankind! Be dutiful to your Lord, Who created you from a single person (Adam), and from him (Adam) He created his wife (Hawwa (Eve)), and from them both He created many men and women and fear Allah through Whom you demand your mutual (rights), and (do not cut the relations of) the wombs (kinship). Surely, Allah is Ever an AllWatcher over you." (Surat An-Nis' (The Women): 1).


The address here "O mankind!" includes both men and women. Their creation from a single soul testifies for the fact that men and women are equal halves of the human race, and hence are equal in their human nature, intellectual capabilities, rights and obligations. This divine declaration nullifies all discriminatory practices introduced by man in the absence of the true form of divine guidance. Heeding our Creator implies listening to His instructions and obeying them, including this equality between the sexes being " heedful of the wombs " draws our attention to the biological fact of this sex equality, and reminds us of the origin of our existence in the mother's womb, and the rights and obligations this fact implies. Equality between men and women is not only a human right and a pre-requisite for social justice, hut it is above all an act of worship following this divine decree, any violation of which will necessitate the . punishment in this world and in the world to come.


The Glorious Qur'an emphasizes the fact that the only means of distinction between human beings is their degree of piety and heedfulness of Allah as it reads:

"O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Verily, the most honourable of you with Allah is that (believer) who has At-Taqwa (i.e. one of the Muttaqoon (pious). Verily, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware." (Surat Al-Hujurt (The Dwellings): 13).


The Noble Qur'an also emphasizes that it is one's deeds (not one's gender) that counts as it reads:

"Every person is a pledge for what he has earned, (Surat Al-Muddaththir (The One Enveloped): 38).


The Qur'an stipulates that believing men and women are supporters of one another in enjoining what is just and in forbidding what is evil and in worshipping Allah in the way He Has prescribed, as it reads:

"The believers, men and women, are Auliya (helpers, supporters, friends, protectors) of one another, they enjoin (on the people) Al-Maroof (i.e. Islamic Monotheism and all that Islam orders one to do), and forbid (people) from Al-Munkar (i.e. polytheism and disbelief of all kinds, and all that Islam has forbidden); they perform As-Salat (Iqamat-as-Salat) and give the Zakat, and obey Allah and His Messenger. Allah will have His Mercy on them. Surely Allah is All-Mighty, All-Wise. 71. " Allah has promised to the believers -men and women, - Gardens under which rivers flow to dwell therein forever, and beautiful mansions in Gardens of Adn (Eden Paradise). But the greatest bliss is the Good Pleasure of Allah. That is the supreme success. 72.  (Surat At-Taubah (The Repentance): 71-72).


The word " Nas " (= Mankind) which includes both men and women is mentioned in the Glorious Qur'an 242 times, which clearly testify to the unity of the human race and the equality of both men and women as two facets of the same soul .

b) Religious equality between men and women in obligation and reward:

The Glorious Qur'an reads:

"So their Lord accepted of them (their supplication and answered them), "Never will I allow to be lost the work of any of you, be he male or female. You are (members) one of another, so those who emigrated and were driven out from their homes, and suffered harm in My Cause, and who fought, and were killed (in My Cause), verily, I will remit from them their evil deeds and admit them into Gardens under which rivers flow (in Paradise); a reward from Allah, and with Allah is the best of rewards." (Surat Al-Imran (The Family of Imran): 195).


The Noble Qur'an also reads:

"And whoever does righteous good deeds, male or female, and is a true believer in the Oneness of Allah (Muslim), such will enter Paradise and not the least injustice, even to the size of a Naqeera (speck on the back of a datestone), will be done to them." (Surat An-Nis' (The Women): 124).


The same meaning is repeated once more (16: 97) where the Qur'an reads:

"Whoever works righteousness, whether male or female, while he (or she) is a true believer (of Islamic Monotheism) verily, to him We will give a good life (in this world with respect, contentment and lawful provision), and We shall pay them certainly a reward in proportion to the best of what they used to do (i.e. Paradise in the Hereafter)." (Surat An-Nahl (The Bees): 97).


Despite the fact that the general address in the Qur'an uses the masculine gender, it is equally applicable to both men and women. This has been spelled out in many Qur'anic verses which literally address both males and females.

The Noble Qur'an stipulates that both man and woman are equally obliged to practice their Islam in full and that their deeds are equally regarded. In practicing their religious obligations such as uttering the Islamic declaration (the Shahadah) , offering the prayers, giving alms, fasting the month of Ramadan and performing pilgrimage by whoever can afford it, the Qur'an calls upon both male and female Muslims with the same address. In carrying out such religious obligations there is no difference whatsoever between men and women except for the limited time of the females' monthly period, when they are exempted from both daily prayers and fasting. Females are also exempted from fasting during their pregnancy and nursing periods if there is any threat to their health or to the life of their babies. Missed obligatory fasting days can be made-up for whenever the woman can, but missed prayers are forgiven.

The Glorious Qur'an reads:

"Verily, the Muslims (those who submit to Allah in Islam) men and women, the believers men and women (who believe in Islamic Monotheism), the men and the women who are obedient (to Allah), the men and women who are truthful (in their speech and deeds), the men and the women who are patient (in performing all the duties which Allah has ordered and in abstaining from all that Allah has forbidden), the men and the women who are humble (before their Lord Allah), the men and the women who give Sadaqat (i.e. Zakat, and alms, etc.), the men and the women who observe Saum (fast) (the obligatory fasting during the month of Ramadan, and the optional Nawafil fasting), the men and the women who guard their chastity (from illegal sexual acts) and the men and the women who remember Allah much with their hearts and tongues (while sitting, standing, lying, etc. for more than 300 times extra over the remembrance of Allah during the five compulsory congregational prayers) or praying extra additional Nawafil prayers of night in the last part of night, etc.) Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and a great reward (i.e. Paradise). 35. It is not for a believer, man or woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decreed a matter that they should have any option in their decision. And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger, he has indeed strayed in a plain error." 36. (Surat Al-Ahzb (The Confederates): 35, 36).


This same address to believers, men and women is repeated several times throughout the Noble Qur'an [e.g. "The believers, men and women, are Auliya (helpers, supporters, friends, protectors) of one another, they enjoin (on the people) Al-Maroof (i.e. Islamic Monotheism and all that Islam orders one to do), and forbid (people) from Al-Munkar (i.e. polytheism and disbelief of all kinds, and all that Islam has forbidden); they perform As-Salat (Iqamat-as-Salat) and give the Zakat, and obey Allah and His Messenger. Allah will have His Mercy on them. Surely Allah is All-Mighty, All-Wise. 71. Allah has promised to the believers -men and women, - Gardens under which rivers flow to dwell therein forever, and beautiful mansions in Gardens of Adn (Eden Paradise). But the greatest bliss is the Good Pleasure of Allah. That is the supreme success. "72. (Surat At-Taubah (The Repentance): 71, 72);

"And tell the believing women to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things), and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts, etc.) and not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent (like palms of hands or one eye or both eyes for necessity to see the way, or outer dress like veil, gloves, head-cover, apron, etc.), and to draw their veils all over Juyubihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms, etc.) and not to reveal their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands fathers, their sons, their husbands sons, their brothers or their brothers sons, or their sisters sons, or their (Muslim) women (i.e. their sisters in Islam), or the (female) slaves whom their right hands possess, or old male servants who lack vigour, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And all of you beg Allah to forgive you all, O believers, that you may be successful. (Surat An-Nr (The Light):31);

"And those who annoy believing men and women undeservedly, bear on themselves the crime of slander and plain sin." (Surat Al-Ahzb (The Confederates): 58);

 "So know (O Muhammad SAW) that La ilaha ill-Allah (none has the right to be worshipped but Allah), and ask forgiveness for your sin, and also for (the sin of) believing men and believing women. And Allah knows well your moving about, and your place of rest (in your homes). "(Surat Muhammad: 19);

"That He may admit the believing men and the believing women to Gardens under which rivers flow (i.e. Paradise), to abide therein forever, and to expiate from them their sins, and that is with Allah, a supreme success," (Surat Al-Fath (The Victory):5)

"They are the ones who disbelieved (in the Oneness of Allah Islamic Monotheism), and hindered you from AlMasjidalHaram (the sacred mosque of Makkah) and the sacrificial animals, detained from reaching their place of sacrifice. Had there not been believing men and believing women whom you did not know, that you may kill them, and on whose account a sin would have been committed by you without (your) knowledge, that Allah might bring into His Mercy whom He will, if they (the believers and the disbelievers) should have been apart, We verily had punished those of them who disbelieved, with painful torment. (Surat Al-Fath (The Victory): 25);

"O you who believe! When believing women come to you as emigrants, examine them, Allah knows best as to their Faith, then if you ascertain that they are true believers, send them not back to the disbelievers, they are not lawful (wives) for the disbelievers nor are the disbelievers lawful (husbands) for them. But give the disbelievers that (amount of money) which they have spent (as their Mahr) to them. And there will be no sin on you to marry them if you have paid their Mahr to them. Likewise hold not the disbelieving women as wives, and ask for (the return of) that which you have spent (as Mahr) and let them (the disbelievers, etc.) ask back for that which they have spent. That is the Judgement of Allah. He judges between you. And Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise." 10. " And if any of your wives have gone from you to the disbelievers, and you have an accession (by the coming over of a woman from the other side), then pay to those whose wives have gone, the equivalent of what they had spent (on their Mahr). And fear Allah in Whom you believe." 11. "O Prophet! When believing women come to you to give you the Baia (pledge), that they will not associate anything in worship with Allah, that they will not steal, that they will not commit illegal sexual intercourse, that they will not kill their children, that they will not utter slander, intentionally forging falsehood (i.e. by making illegal children belonging to their husbands), and that they will not disobey you in any Maroof (Islamic Monotheism and all that which Islam ordains) then accept their Baia (pledge), and ask Allah to forgive them, Verily, Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful." 12. (Surat Al-Mumtahanah (The Woman to be examined): 10-12);

"My Lord! Forgive me, and my parents, and him who enters my home as a believer, and all the believing men and women. And to the Zalimoon (polytheists, wrong-doers, and disbelievers, etc.) grant You no increase but destruction!" (Surat Nh (Noah): 28);

"Verily, those who put into trial the believing men and believing women (by torturing them and burning them), and then do not turn in repentance, (to Allah), will have the torment of Hell, and they will have the punishment of the burning Fire." (Surat Al-Burj (The Big Stars): 10), etc.] .

 This testifies to the absolute equality between men and women in Islam, despite their (natural differences physical, physiological, psychological and emotional differences) which have to be taken into account without the slightest infringement on the rights and obligations of each gender.

The equality between men and women in Islam stems from the basic purpose of their creation : to worship their creator in the way He has prescribed and to play their role on earth as successful vice-gerents who are not only constructive elements , but witnesses and conveyors of truth to all mankind and protectors of the divine justice . Through their sincere efforts for the implementation of the divine code of life, Muslim men and women can fulfill their goal on earth and achieve the pleasure of their Creator. This noble goal cannot be reached through the single efforts of one gentler, as it needs the combined and collective efforts of both men and women.


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