Womanhood Status Reform in Islam A Historical Perspective

By: Sanah Burhan
Published: 2002

Introduction
Flipping through the pages of history in search of information about the treatment of women, one would not find much justice, even though they constitute one half the world population, and play a crucial role for man and society.
It was not until the advent of Islam, in early 600 CE, that a woman was recognized as a partner to man. Her status and natural role in the family and society was dignified and her rights of inheritance, marriage, divorce and equality were established. Tasking women with more than they can bear and competing with men in hard labor is doing them injustice. Islam did not only establish women’s social status and rights, but were also honored for the task of motherhood and family education. The health and success of any society is a measure of the health of its component – the family. This writing is greatly influenced by the writing of Dr. Muhammad al-Habash in his book, “Women Between the Islamic Law and Life” and by the scholarly work of Mawlana Wahiduddin Khan in his book, “Woman Between Islam and Western Society.”

Womanhood Status Before Islam

In ancient societies in much of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, women came to be considered inferior to men. Superstition, speculation and other forms of perverted thinking fostered this unreasonable approach. The main reason for the ill treatment of women in ancient times was the prevalence of superstition. Superstition became elevated to the status of religion and, as such, had pervasively influenced human relations. In this regard, the Encyclopedia Britannica says:

In Athens, women’s status had been degenerated to that of slaves. Wives were secluded in their homes, had no education and few rights and were considered by their husbands no better than chattels. In ancient Rome, a woman’s legal position was one of complete subordination, first to the power of her father or brother and later to that of her husband, who held paternal power over his wives. In the eyes of the law, women were regarded as imbeciles. Encyclopedia Britannica, (1984) vol. 19, p. 909.

Ridiculing the trend of ancient Greeks regarding women, Bernard Russell writes:

Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was married twice, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wive’s mouths. Bernard Russell, The impact of Science on Society (1976), p 17


The Christian teaching, on the other hand, did little to improve the situation. The Bible’s teachings that Eve caused Adam’s ejection from the Garden of Eden had even worsened her condition. The Encyclopedia Britannica, stated:

(According to Christianity) they were regarded as temptresses, responsible for the fall of Adam, and as a second class human beings.” Encyclopedia Britannica, (1984) vol. 19, p. 909

Before Islam, widowed and divorced women were not permitted to remarry. Women in Arabia, like their sisters elsewhere in much of the world were not allowed to inherit property and in certain tribes female infanticide was practiced. It was considered dishonorable to give birth to a female baby. Daughters were not a source of strength compared to boys and could become a source of disgrace and humiliation as a result of raids. The Holy Qur’an made a reference to this criminal habit.

When news is brought to one of them, of (the birth of) a female (child), his face darkens, and he is filled with inward grief. With shame does he hide himself from his people, because of the bad news he has had, shall he retain it on (sufferance and) contempt or bury it in the dust? Ah! What an evil (choice) they decide on? Our’an, 16:58-59

Reforming the Status of Women
Under Islam, the disgraceful place of women that was inherited from ancient societies underwent the greatest most unparalleled reformation ever in the history of mankind. With the advent of Islam, women were able to restore their dignity and legal rights. With the arrival of Islam, the values of motherhood were established and reinforced. In Islam, women were removed from their crippling position to be a vital part in the society. It is in Islam that women joined the ranks of scholars and leaders in carrying the torch of enlightenment to a world full of darkness.

The ways in which Islam revolutionized the place of woman in the society came about in a variety of means and ways. Understanding some of the mechanisms used in the process of this reform is indicative of the extent and depth of this reform. The basic areas of reform, however, were:

1 Raising the stature of women in the society.
2 Limiting women’s responsibilities to the functions that fit her nature.
3 Honoring and respecting women for their roles in motherhood and education.
4 Restoration of women’s legal rights; such as the right to inherit, to wed and to divorce.
The revolution of change adapted by Islam in moving women out from inferiority and humiliation into a new age of enlightenment and dignity is important and complicated. Liberation and equality were about to be established in a society where women never thought they would be equal to men. In such a society, God gently touched the hearts of the believers with the following verse:

For men and women who have surrendered, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for truthful men and women, for enduring men and women, for humble men and women, for men and women who give in charity, for men who fast and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, for men and women who remember God in abundance – for them God has prepared forgiveness and great reward. Qur’an, 33:35

This remarkable revelation lays out the golden rule of Islam: all people are equal, no differentiation in gender – men and women are equally tasked and equally rewarded. God said in the Holy Qur’an:

But the believers who do good works, whether men or women, shall enter the gardens of Paradise. They shall not suffer the least injustice. Our’an, 4:124

In another remarkable revelation, men were indirectly tuned into recognizing women as their partners. Let us examine this revelation, which is dealing with the subject of suffering and agony of sinners in the Day of Resurrection, but in the process pointing out the reality of partnership of men and women. God said:

The day that the sky will be like molten brass, and the mountains will be like wool, and no friend will ask after a friend, though they will be put in sight of each other – the sinner’s desire will be: would that he could redeem himself from the penalty of the Day by (sacrificing) his children, his female-friend (wife) and his brother. Qur’an, 70: 8-12

The wisdom of God in this verse again reflects His compassion in addressing the issue of equality of the genders and in making it realized in a society that could not tolerate such a thought. In Arabic, like in other languages, when a person addresses those who are below him, the form of verbs used is the Order Form, such as a mother telling her child to clean up his mess. When a person addresses those who are above him, the form of the verbs used is the Request Form, such as a child asking his mother to buy a toy for him. But when a person addresses his friend, neither the Order nor the Request forms are used. In this case, the addressee is equal in stature to the addressed, and the Neutral Form of the verb is used. Using the word “female-friend” – a word requires the Neutral Form to be used for “wife” is an indirect and smooth way in bringing women to stature and respect into a society where women’s stature was inconceivable. Such a delicate mechanism was required in weaning out the society of its old perception of women. Furthermore, Prophet Muhammad also said:

Women are the partners of men. Abu Dawud, Sunan, 1/61

Another technique in the battle for liberation of women from the ancient disgraceful status, is the naming of chapters in the Qur’an in her recognition. For example, one of the longest chapters in the Qur’an is called al-Nisa’ (The Women) or “in defense of women,” as the Grand Mufti of Syria, Shaykh Ahmad Kuftaro pointed out. Besides being an honorary title for all women, this chapter relates many subjects regarding women’s affairs and rights. Another chapter of the Qur’an is named al Mujadilah, or “the woman with plea.” The title of this chapter carries more than enough demands to embody legislation and law in defense of women. In this chapter, Allah narrates the story of a woman who came to Prophet Muhammad complaining about her husband and argued her case to the Prophet until a revelation on her behalf, changing the ruling of the Prophet to be in her favor. What is significant about the story of this woman, was and still is, a standing reminder for men to think twice before doing injustice to women.

Thus, Islam’s basic teaching is that the weak are entitled to special protection.

There is yet another chapter in the Qur’an named “Mary,” after the virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. The implications in the titles of these chapters combined with their teachings constitute a major step in the liberation of women. The Holy Qur’an relates many more stories of reverence relevant to women and their role in the community. These verses are an undisputable contribution to the health and well being of all women, the mothers of the society.
Many unfair civil and social laws regarding women were discounted in Islam. For example, women in many places throughout the world were not allowed to inherit real property. Islam changed this unfair tradition. God said:

Men shall have a share of what their parents and kinsmen leave; women shall have a share of what their parents and kinsmen leave; whether it be little or much, it is legally theirs. Qur’an, 4:7

Similarly, women were forced to marry or were sold in the market. Islam changed that. In marriage, women’s consent is a condition of the validation of the marriage. As far as slavery, Islam weaned the society away from it for both male and female.

Teachings of Prophet Muhammad Regarding Women

The teachings of Prophet Muhammad regarding women constitute another major element that not only helped remove the old rust of discrimination but rightly presented with honor and reverence. Here are some of Prophet Muhammad sayings:

Only a man of noble character will honor women, and only a man of base intentions will dishonor them. Kanz al-Ummal, 16/371

The best among you is he who is best to his family. For my family, I am the best of all of you. Ibn Majah, Sunan 1/636

Treat women well, for they have been created from a rib. The rib is most curved in its upper part, so if you try to straighten it out, it will break, but if you leave it as it is, it will remain intact. Therefore, follow my advice on giving women fair treatment. Al Bukhri, 9/206

The Muslim Philosopher, Mawlana Waheedulddin Khan in his book, “Woman Between Islam and Western Society,” made a beautiful commentary on this tradition of the Prophet, saying:
“The Prophet was referring to her delicate nature. Physically, women are weaker than men, psychologically, they are more highly strung, more prone to emotional upset. This is a fact which every one realizes, irrespective of education. A father, for instance, will not be as hard on a daughter as he might be on his son. In likening a woman to a rib, the Prophet was expressing this fact of life in metaphorical terms. Ribs have a slight curve in them. There is good reason for them to be made that way. They should be left in their natural state. No attempt should be made to straighten them. The Prophet used a parable to explain the delicacy of women’s nature, pointing out that they should be treated in accordance with their nature. God has created them that way, and He has done so for a good reason. They should be treated kindly and be told something tactfully, in a gentile tone. Abruptness and severity will break them, as a rib is broken by any attempt to straighten it.”

Mothers are the Primary Educational Institution of Society
Myth and superstition were not the only reason for regarding women as inferior to men in ancient time; there was also failure to recognize the importance of the home as the basic unit which collectively constitutes society, the training ground for future generations. When the basic education unit of the society is destroyed, the society will cease to exist. The strength of the society is dependent on the quality of its constituent families.

Islam recognizes mothers to be a vital element in bringing about a healthy society. In fact, many Muslim scholars maintain that the primary function of woman is raising a good family. Islam encourages marriage, gives the primary responsibility of earning and support to the male and raising the children to the female. Because of their role in home education, mothers hold greater respect and honor than fathers. A man came to Prophet Muhammad and asked him:

Oh Messenger of God, who rightfully deserves the best treatment from me? ‘Your mother,” replied the Prophet. “Who is next?” asked the man. “Your mother,” said the Prophet. “Who comes next?” the man asked again. “Your mother,” replied the Prophet. “Who is after that? insisted the man. “Your father,” said the Prophet. Al Bukhari, 10/329

Prophet Muhammad also said:

Heaven lies beneath the feet of mothers.” Al Suyuti 1/536

Those who are serving mothers well truly deserve Paradise. Obedience to mothers or parents is a duty for every Muslim. This philosophy is rule number one in raising children with character. God said:

We have enjoined on man respect and kindness to his parents: In pain did his mother bear him, and in pain did she give him birth. Qur’an, 46:15

In America, it has become a common understanding that an unsafe community is the result of raising children poorly. Children who grow up in homes where they do not receive proper care from their mothers or both parents are more likely to fall victim to alcohol, drugs and other destructive ailments, along with rape, theft, and disregard of people’s lives than those who have been reared differently. It is to avoid this type of insecurity and cumbersome living that Islam projected the role of motherhood to be the most honorable of all tasks.

Men and Women are Different by Nature

Men and women are not only physically different, but are physiologically different as well. Nobel Laureate Dr. Alexis Carrel discussed the fundamental difference between the two genders in great depth. In his book, “Man the Unknown,” Dr. Alexis Carrel enumerated the biological facts, which are crucial to this issue, then stated:

The differences existing between man and woman do not come from the particular form of the sexual organs or the mode of education. They are caused by the very structure of the tissues and by the impregnation of the entire organism with specific chemical substances secreted by the ovary. Every one of the cells of her body bears the mark of her sex. The same is true of her organs and, above all, of her nervous system. Alexis Carrel, Man the Unknown, (New York, 1949), p. 91

Fortunately, this physiological and physical difference makes it possible for each gender to have their own spheres of work and tasking. The fact that men and women function in different spheres has no bearing on discrimination based on their sexes. Rather, the difference in tasking enables both sexes to maintain their distinctive characteristics, while allowing them to deploy their respective talents and skills to make the best use of their innate capabilities. Dr. Muhammad al-Habash in his book, “Women Between the Islamic Law and Life” stated:

If we are to assume that woman is like man in her inner-feeling and compassion, in her perception and thinking, then man would have long been separated from socializing with her, and if we are to assume that the man is like a women in his soft emotions and tenderness, then the women would have long been disassociated from him.” Al-Habash, Women Between the Islamic Law and Life. (2001).

When the particles of oxygen and hydrogen combine to make the element of water, they are attracted to complementing each other to bring about success, but when they do not present attraction or a complementing mechanism for each other, there would not be a need for association. “It is thus the wisdom of God to make men and women find attraction and things they lack in the other gender,” said Dr. al-Habash. Furthermore, when the particle of hydrogen and oxygen combined to make a particle of water, neither of the elements can be construed as superior over the other.

Islam favors the role of motherhood over any other tasks that women are capable of doing. This is because women are the most qualified by her nature to master this important task. Raising children demands compassion, intricacy and more patience, which are qualities innate to mothers. Placing women in positions not tolerated by her nature will not yield a favorable result. In fact, discarding the function of motherhood for other fields of work is directly responsible for depriving children from the love and care of mothers they rightly deserve, to the care and love of baby sitters. This nonattendance of mothers to their children yields poor family ties and loose structure in the family and society. Mankind will never win against nature.

The Muslim Woman’s Unlimited Role in the Society
The preference of motherhood over other functions in the society does not preclude the Muslim woman from participating in other areas outside of motherhood. In fact, from the rise of Islam until modern days, Muslim women have been part of the political and social sectors of their society. Ummu Salamah, Prophet Muhammad’s wife, advised the Prophet in important political and legislative matters. In the Treaty of Hudaybiyah, for example, the Prophet acted upon her advice in making the treaty a reality.

Hudaybiyah was a ten-year treaty for peace between the Muslims and the Pagans. In the final and crucial negotiation phase, the companions of the Prophet considered some of the conditions of the treaty humiliating and did not accept it. When the Prophet complained to Ummu Salamah about his companion’s refusal, she said to him: “Begin the ritual of the pilgrimage and your companions will follow. After the Prophet did what his wife suggested, the companions soon followed his actions. The Treaty of Hudaybiyah marks the highest achievement of victory for Muslims, and a Muslim woman was an integral part of that process. From the inception of Islam in the early 600 CE, Muslim women continued to be part of the Muslim policy. In modern days, many Muslim women became the leaders of their countries. Mighawati Sukarnu, for example is the Prime minister of Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. Benazer Boutu was the former Prime Minister of Pakistan and Ibtikhar Ma’soumi was the Second Vice president of Iran.


The Muslim Man is not Superior to the Muslim Woman

The position of women with respect to husbands in a Muslim household is often misunderstood in the West. The family is a social unit and like all things in life it requires management and supervision. Similar to a president or manager taking the responsibility for the well being of their company or employees, the man, in the unit of a Muslim family, is assigned the responsibility for his family, based on natural capacity, not gender. The Qur’an states this fact in very simple terms, it says:

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has made some of them to excel others, and because they support them from their means. Qur’an, 4:34

Easily seen, the choice of making the man responsible for the well being of the family is based on his ability of management and livelihood support, not on “superiority because he is a man.” Again, Islam set both men and women at equal terms of human status. Both male and female have definite partnership with one another and there is no distinction, based on gender, with respect to their human value, rights and the Islamic law. The Holy Qur’an states:

Women shall with justice have rights similar to those exercised against them, although men have a degree (in responsibility) above women. Allah is mighty and wise. Qur’an, 2:228

Just as the ship in the ocean or aircraft in the sky, commanded by a captain and a pilot are responsible before the law for their job, the man is commanded the responsibility of his family and responsible before God for its safety and destination. Otherwise, both parents mutually share the management of the family, just like the entire crews manage the aircraft in the air and the ship in the ocean.

The Issue of The Scarf

Muslim women wear the scarf as a means of modesty. Modesty requires that she does not show certain parts of her body (except her face and hands) or wear tight or transparent clothes in public. The scarf does not construe a limitation or incapacity with respect to her nor make her inferior to man or other women. Over exposure of sexual attractiveness can steer spouses away from one another. Over exposure of sex is also a key to committing crimes of rape and murder in which much of modern societies have fallen victim to. Muslim men, along with Muslim women are commanded to be modest. The Holy Qur’an stated:

Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: and God is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof. Qur’an, 24:30

The Issue of the Veil and of Segregation
Muslim women in certain parts of the world, wear a dark cloth that covers her from head to toe. In addition to this kind of complete covering, a male/female segregation measure is also implemented to prevent any type of contact between the two genders. In some Muslim countries, for example, all schools from preschool through college, mosques, hotels, transportation, parks and restaurants are built in a fashion where it would be difficult for the two genders to mix or socialize. Extremism and culture combined are probably responsible for this type of restrictive form of Muslim society. The traditional teachings of Islam, however, according to Dr. al-Habash are not streamed for segregation or extremism. Dr. al-Habash in his book, “Women Between the Islamic Law and Life” presented several of evidences and examples from Prophet Muhammad’s life that clearly demonstrate Islam’s acceptance of socialization and the mixing of gender. Dr. al-Habash stated the extremist’s theory for segregation which is:

The Islamic values in a society disintegrate as time moves away from the era of the Prophet, which allows for greater seduction and the increase of vice.” He then commented: “This claim should not have been taken as a reason for building walls and a host of other physical mechanisms for implementing segregation of the genders. Keeping in mind that the increase in vice is proportional to the increase of time from the Prophethood’s era, which will ever keep calling for building higher walls and more sophisticated means of separation.”

Instead of taking the proper courses and educating the two sexes in the proper Islamic philosophy, the extremist’s action is focused on covering the women from head to toe and on building homes, public places, mosques and shopping centers with mechanisms that completely segregate men and women. By doing so, the extremists did not only deviate from the teachings of the Prophet, but also prohibited the lawful and restricted the permissible. Furthermore, these restrictions are based on anticipation of negative future outcome and expectation. According to Dr. al-Habash, this approach is in violation of the core Islamic teaching that clearly states: “No established lawful action can be prohibited based on mere future speculation of harm.”

In his work, Dr. al-Habash discounted and renounced the extremist’s approach by stating: “The extremist’s theory, in effect, is stating that God created all times gloomy, full of mischief and vice, and that the Prophetic guidance is no good except for the short duration of that Prophetic period, and that in all other periods people are destined to live a restricted sorrowful and distressful life instead of a pleasant and optimistic one.”


Prophet Muhammad did not practice this restrictive style of life nor was it prescribed for his followers.

In defending this view, Dr. al-Habash presented several of the many Prophetic Traditions and events that would leave no doubt on any person’s mind that Islam is a religion of social tolerance and mix of gender under the appropriate Islamic ethics and values. Some of the points, Dr. al- Habash presented are under the subtitles:
• “women recite poetry before the Prophet and a group of men,”
• “women share the public meetings along with men,”
• “woman conducts a speech before men and presents her argument,”
• “women receive (welcome) men during social functions,”
• “women go along with men after their business,”
• “women practice politics and give asylum (protection) to men,”
• “women prayed as a prayer leader for their household that includes men,”
• “women conduct their own professional business,”
• “women conduct social and judicial tasks,”
• “women teach men,”
• “women sit along with men on the food tables,”
• “women argued to make a judicial change in the Islamic Law.”For each of these topics, Dr. al-Habash
presented a mindful and scholarly discussion based on core authentic foundations.

Furthermore, Dr. al-Habash pointed out that if the rituals of the duty of pilgrimage and the formal prayers in the Haram Mosque in Mecca are made with mix of men and women without a separation divider and without women covering their faces, then why have mosques elsewhere been built with mechanisms of total separation?

One must simply ask , are the Holy Qur’an and the guidance of the Prophet incapable of addressing people’s behavior towards sex, but yet those who prohibited the permitted and enforce segregation by building walls and other infrastructures are? Indeed, Islam with its divine values and educational system regarding sex and gender relationships are blessings from God and certainly more than adequate for permissible gender relationships, while, at the same time, diminishes sexual misbehaviors and therefore crimes.

It appears that the extremist’s approach and style is an extension of the culture and the way women were treated before Islam. Muslim reported in his Sahih:

Abdullah Ibn Omar said: I heard the Prophet of God saying: ‘Do not prevent women from attending mosques.’ Bilal, his son replied back: ‘By God we will prevent them,’ His father approached him protesting his answer with anger stating: ‘I say the Prophet of God said [allow them,] and you say [don’t!]’ Sahih Muslim, Kitab al Salah.

This example clearly showed that even during the time of the Prophet this type of attitude regarding women was still prevalent. A true Muslim, by definition, is supposed to be ethical, tolerant, social, wise and rational.

The Issue of Polygamy

Prior to Islam, polygamy was unlimited. Islam permitted polygamy with up to four wives. Polygamy is not a duty, but rather permission. However, for a man to marry more than one wife, several conditions must be met and substantiated by the legal system before the marriage can take place. Polygamy, in many ways, is a means of social and financial assistance available for the unfortunate, battered, divorced and widowed women. Similar to the financial assistance programs provided for single mothers by a particular state or the Federal government in America, polygamy can provide not only financial, but also psychological and social support for women. As we stated earlier, Islam assigned the primary function of earning and livelihood in the family to the man and caring for the children and education is the primary function of the mother. Polygamy is permitted so that a mother with children cannot be left to the elements of hunger and poverty, but so she can find assistance and protection not only financial but also social and intimate.


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