Oftentimes the discourse on women in Islam employs terms such as “oppression” or “subjugation” or “inferiority.” There are certainly Muslim societies in which the rights of women are suppressed and the struggle for a just society is real. As you read below, many problems facing women in these regions are a result of political interests, politicization of religion, and cultural and patriarchal customs instead of religious doctrine.
When the religion of Islam was introduced in the Arabian peninsula, women were granted many rights that were unheard of at the time in other parts of the world. Among those rights included the right for women to inherit wealth, own property, choose her own spouse, retain her own family name after marriage, and the right to divorce.
As these rights were introduced, early Islamic history also showcased a presence of strong female figures. Khadjiah was the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife and an incredibly successful businesswoman - she also happened to be the first convert to Islam following the Prophet’s message.
Sumayya, a member of the early Meccan community of believers, was tortured and killed for refusing to renounce her conversion to Islam, marking her as the first martyr of faith.
Nusayba was a warrior. During the Battle of Uhud, in which the Muslim Medinan community was battling the opponents of Mecca, Nusayba was assisting the warriors on the battlefield and providing them with water. As the battle seemed to indicate a defeat for the Muslims, with armies in disarray, Nusayba was seen arming herself with a sword and shield, defending the Prophet Muhammad from his enemies.
Fatima, the Prophet’s beloved daughter, served as a spiritual model for believers and to this day Muslims turn to her example as an inspiration for mysticism and sainthood.
The primary preserver of the first physical copy of the Quran, compiled after the passing away of the Prophet Muhammad, was one of his wives – Hafsa.
Ayesha, another wife of the Prophet Muhammad, was one of the first scholars of Islam. After the Prophet’s passing, the Muslim community sought to learn about the Prophet and his teachings through his wife who would share many stories and traditions. Ayesha was one of the primary contributors to the collection of prophetic narrations (hadith).
Following the legacy of Ayesha, Muslim women contributed significantly to Islamic scholarship especially in the first few centuries. Biographies of over 8,000 female scholars have been compiled by Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadawi of Oxford University.
Muslim women were notable contributors in the philanthropic realm as well. For example, in the year 859, Fatima al-Fahry founded the University of Al-Qarawayn in Morroco which is considered to be the oldest running university in the world.
Throughout the centuries until present day, Muslim women are pioneering figures and leaders in fields such as medicine, politics, arts and education throughout the world. Since 2000 four Muslim women have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Qur’an and Women
According to the Qur’an, women like men come from one living soul (nafsin wahida) (Qur’an 4:1). Women are a complement, not a competition, to men (Qur’an 9:71-72). A woman is not defined by any social role such as mother or wife – a woman is first and foremost seen by God as a believer. The Quran espouses spiritual and ethical equality between men and women:
“For the men and women who are devoted to God - the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the steadfast men and steadfast women, the humble me and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the chaste men and chaste women, the men who remember God often and the women who remember God often - God has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.” [Qur’an 33:35]
The Qur’an offers some remarkable stories of inspirational women in the Qur’an. The mother of humanity, Eve (known as Hawa in Arabic), is depicted as a person who was on a journey with Adam in learning what human consciousness and free will is. Eve is not blamed at all for tempting Adam to eat from the forbidden tree – the blame is entirely on Satan who tempts them both. Eve is not punished any more than Adam in having to experience the consequences of disobeying divine will. The Qur’an indicates that both Adam and Eve, together, turn in repentance to God and are both equally forgiven and given redemption through the promise of revelation.
In the story of the Children of Israel and the making of Prophet Moses, the mother of Moses is shown to have great faith and courage when she listened to divinely inspired words to put baby Moses in a basket in the river. The sister of Moses is wise and intelligent to follow the basket and to suggest to the Pharaoh’s wife that she adopt the child. The wife of Pharaoh is described as a woman of faith who opposes the tyranny of her husband and prays to God against him.
In the story of the king and Prophet Solomon, the Qur’an tells us about the Queen of Sheba, by the name of Bilquis according to Islamic tradition, who rejects the counsel to go to war with Solomon’s kingdom and instead chooses to offer a gift and diplomacy. When, the queen is brought to Solomon’s court and shown clear signs then she is humble and wise enough to submit to God despite the political opposition.
Lady Mary, the mother of Jesus, has an entire chapter (Qur’an 19) dedicated to her. She is put forth as God’s chosen one to be held up as a model of faith and devotion for all peoples. Her story is told more extensively in the Qur’an than it is even in the Bible.
In confronting issues of inheritance, questions often arise in regard to the following verses:
Men shall have a share in what their parents and closest relatives leave, and women shall have a share in what their parents and closest relatives leave, whether the legacy be small or large: this is ordained by God. [4:7]
Concerning your children, God commands you that a son should have the equivalent share of two daughters. If there are only daughters, two or more should share two-thirds of the inheritance, if one, she should have half. Parents inherit a sixth each if the deceased leaves children; if he leaves no children and his parents are his sole heirs, his mother has a third, unless he has brothers, in which case she has a sixth. [In all cases, the distribution comes] after payment of any bequests or debts. You cannot know which of your parents or your children is more beneficial to you: this is a law from God, and He is all knowing, all wise. [4:11]
At first glance, the verses above seem to suggest inequality between men and women. When the verses were revealed in the Prophet’s time, it was a revolutionary moment for women to be receiving any sum of inheritance. In Islam, men are tasked with the role of being the primary financial maintainers and supporters of women and their households:
Men should take good care of their women, with [the bounties] God has given to some more than others and with what they spend out of their own money [4:34]
Thus, men have more religiously-mandated financial obligations than women. The larger sum of inheritance for men is meant to facilitate for this financial obligation with ease. It is important to note however that in Islamic jurisprudence, in the case that a woman is the primary breadwinner of the family, a judge may very well rule that she receives a larger inheritance. As with any Islamic ruling, laws pertaining to inheritance, are applied by judges who consider individual contexts.
Another source of controversy surrounds the subject of witness testimony. A verse in the Qur’an suggests that in the case that two men cannot serve as witnesses, then one man and two women should be called upon to testify:
...Call in two men as witnesses. If two men are not there, then call one man and two women out of those you approve as witnesses, so that if one of the two women should forget the other can remind her. [2:282]
The verse above is referring to a specific context for application - in the event of business transactions or trade. It is not a general ruling about witnessing. Historically, women were not as involved as men in the sphere of commerce. By requiring two women to serve as witnesses, this verse was simply acknowledging that reality.
Another explanation that Muslims give is that requiring two women witnesses may have been a way of encouraging an increase in women’s participation in business and trade by having them support one another against a patriarchal society where women’s testimonies may not be considered of much value or validity.
Polygamy in Islam
Under certain circumstance, the practice of polygamy is permitted. Islam did not invent the age-old tradition of men marrying multiple women. Rather, it regulated the practice to a limit of four wives. Polygamy is only mentioned once in the Qur’an:
...you may marry whichever [other] women seem good to you – two, three, or four. If you fear that you cannot be equitable [to them], then marry one. [4:3]
Thus, polygamy is only permitted under the condition that all wives are to be treated equally and with fairness – a near impossible task. Women also cannot be forced into a polygamous relationship. A wife certainly has the freedom to establish a clause in her marriage contract stating that the husband cannot engage in this practice without her consent.
Polygamy is neither obligatory nor recommended in Islam; it is merely allowed in certain situations. The purpose of allowing such a practice was not designed to please the lusts of men, but was, rather, regarded more as a piece of “social legislation.” In societies where women outnumber men, especially in those where warfare is common and male casualties are frequent, the allowance of multiple wives provided a practical solution for the caretaking of women and children who were left widowed and orphaned.
Polygamy also ensured that if a man wanted to engage in sexual relations with a woman, he then has the obligation of caring for the woman and her family rather than engaging in secret affairs or having mistresses toward whom there is no legal responsibility.
The donning of the hijab, or modest Muslim covering, is most often associated with the wearing of a headscarf. While there are certainly some who are forced by their own governments or families to wear the veil or full body veil, most Muslim women are free to choose.
One of the main reasons women choose to cover themselves is to express their devotion to God. They believe it to be a dignified act that they embrace with honor and pride.
Many women explain that the hijab is an expression of their understanding of feminism. In seeking to liberate themselves from the worldly gaze, these women would rather that their character or intellect be the focus in society rather than their bodies.
- Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam, by Mohammad Akram Nadawi
- The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender Relationships in Islamic Thought, by Sachiko Murata
- “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an, by Asma Barlas
- A Yaqeen Institute Series on Famous Women in Islam