Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, while laying out the Divine message, came out with a contour of rights and obligations for women. Seen in the light of then prevailing situation around the world, it was nothing short of a feministic revolution. As Lisa Beyer was to declare some 1400 years later, in Time of 25 November 2001, “For his day, Prophet Muhammad was a feminist.” She continues, “The doctrine he laid out as the revealed word of God considerably improved the status of women in 7th century Arabia.”
In local pagan society, it was the custom to bury alive unwanted female newborns; Islam prohibited the practice. Women had been treated as possessions of their husbands; Islamic law made the education of girls a sacred duty and gave women the right to own and inherit property. Muhammad even decreed that sexual satisfaction was a woman’s entitlement. He was a liberal at home as well as in the pulpit. The Prophet darned his own garments and among his wives had a trader, a warrior, a leatherworker and an imam.
Privileges and Obligations
Islam, on the other hand, conferred certain privileges and obligations, for the first time in history, which transformed women’s outlook, largely and globally. The Quran states clearly that men and women are of the same spiritual and human nature. They have received “Divine breath” that has given them their dignity and made them God’s leaders on earth.
Both have comparable duties and responsibilities, and both should face consequences of their behavior and actions. Than “men are superior to women” is nowhere mentioned in the Quran; the only mark of superiority, the Quran says, is piety and righteousness, and not race, sex, or skin color.
Islam protects the rights of woman before and after marriage: She has more financial security than a man; has rights to the full amount of her dower; has the right to keep all current and future properties and an income for her own security. She has the right to get financial assistance before, during and after marriage, regardless of her personal wealth.
The additional rights include financial assistance during “waiting time,” in case of divorce, and child assistance. This assistance, guaranteed throughout her life, constitutes an undeniable financial security. A woman has at her disposal her work income, whereas a man has the obligation to support his family and to fulfill all its needs.
Both of them are equal before a court of law. The distinctions concerning number of witnesses — men or women — are not mentioned in the Quran, except in context of financial contracts.
Polygamy was, and has been, the norms of almost every society, every community and religion and at every age. It was not anathema to the prophets of the Bible too. Polygamy in Islam is neither required nor encouraged. It prefers monogamy, but allows limited polygamy restricting it to four, at the most. A woman cannot be forced to become a second wife. A first wife, who does not accept polygamy, has the right to ask for divorce.
Islam takes care of the widows and orphans––both in spirit and law––during unexpected events befalling them during, for instance, natural calamities or wars etc. The spirit of the law is to take measures regarding the unexpected events happening to individuals and societies (for example the disequilibrium caused by wars) and to provide a moral, practical and humane solution for the widows and orphans.
Dissolution of marriage, again, has to have a mutual agreement between the spouses. The Quran under chapter talaq (divorce) indicates the different stages of a divorce (65:1-7 and 2:226,230). Similar references are found in Hadith too. Man here however has the upper hand for initiating a divorce, but the woman can do the same in certain cases. The fact that Islam considers marriage as social contract and makes it very flexible giving rights to women may be one reason why the rate of divorce in Muslim societies is inferior to the ones in the western world.
The mother has the right for child-custody after divorce, according to the Islamic law, until the child is seven years old at which time the child can choose the parent with whom he or she wants to live with. Here the well being of the child has been considered as the most important factor while enacting such provisions. This is besides considering the right of both parents to be present equality in the life of their children.
A Tirmidhi Hadith states: “The most perfect believer is the one who has the best behavior. The best among you are those who are best with their wives.” Islam was the first civilization to acknowledge the total financial independence of a woman and to grant her explicit rights. Muslim women constitute half the Ummah; and God, in His great wisdom, did not wait for other people to liberate them.
In addition to above rights, the Muslim woman has certain obligations stated by the same prescriptive sources. The essential question, however, is to know if the relationship woman-man in Islam is a relationship of dependence or of equality.
Based on the Quran and the prophetic tradition (Sunnah), one cannot however pretend that Islam differentiates between a man and a woman for many reasons:
1. Piety is the only criterion that Islam relies on to differentiate among believers.
Allah the Almighty says: “O people. We created your from a male and a female, and rendered you distinct peoples and tribes, that you may recognize one another. The best among you in the sight of God is the most pious. God is indeed Omniscient Cognizant.” (Quran, 49:13) There is a Hadith saying, “There is no difference between an Arab and a non-Arab, a white person and black person, except by piety.”
Another Hadith says: “Physical appearances do not matter to Allah; what matters to Him is the pious actions that you accomplish.”
2. The texts mentioning equality between the two genders are clear and explicit. The term “you are descended the ones from the others” used in the Quran is sufficiently explicit.
An erudite exegete, Az-Zamakhchar, while explaining the verse (“You are descended the ones from the others”), says: “Men and women are united by a strong and unique origin; they are therefore descended the ones from the others due to the strong ties that join them”.
There are numerous Quranic verses, which mention about the creation of man and woman; for example, “O people, observe your Lord; the One who created you from one being and created from it its mate, then spread from the two many men and women. You shall regard God, by whom you swear, and regard blood ties. God is watching over you.” (Quran, 4:1) The Divine reward is equally attributed to man and woman without making any distinction.
God, the Glorified, says: “Anyone who works righteousness, male or female, while believing, We will surely grant them a happy life in this world, and We will surely pay them their full recompense for their righteous works.” (Quran, 16:97)
Allah says: “Muslim men and women, the believing men, the believing women, the obedient men, the obedient women, the truthful men, the truthful women, the steadfast men, the steadfast women, the reverent men, the reverent women, the charitable men, the charitable women, the fasting men, the fasting women, the chaste men, the chaste women, and the men who commemorate God frequently, and the commemorating women; God has prepared for them forgiveness and a great recompense.” (Quran, 33-35)
The idea of equality between both genders is also confirmed in the following verse: “The believing men and women are allies of one another. They advocate righteousness and forbid evil, they observe prayers and give zakat, and they obey God and His messenger. These will be granted God’s mercy, for God is Almighty, Most Wise.” (Quran, 9:71) This idea is in addition confirmed by this word of the Prophet: “Human beings are as equal as the teeth of a comb” and this other word “women are the germane sisters of men.”
Furthermore, the Holy Quran strongly criticizes pre-Islamic traditions that were based on sexist discriminations: “When one of them gets a bay girl, his face becomes darkened with overwhelming anger. Ashamed, he hides from people, because of the bad news given to him. He even ponders: should he keep the baby grudgingly, or bury her in the dust. Miserable indeed is their judgment.” (Quran, 16:58-59)
Allah says: “He grants daughters to whoever He wills, and grants sons to whomever He wills.” (Quran, 42:49)
Here, and in response to the pre-Islamic traditions, girls are mentioned before boys, making proof of the prominent position occupied by a woman in civilized societies. Some texts mention the importance of a woman by the regards she is entitled to. The Prophet, when asked by one of his companions toward whom one should have more regards, answered three times, “Your mother.” Only fourth time he referred to “your father.” Other Hadiths too boast the merits of people who excel in education they offer to their daughters. However, it would be wrong to conclude that the female gender is superior to the male ones.
It is necessary to specify that the equality between the two genders, which is manifest in the social functions that they occupy, is not an absolute equality. In fact, the two sexes are different –– physiologically, biologically and psychologically. They, therefore, complement each other, and not that they are equal. Hence, the current trends of thought rendering equality between the two sexes is incompatible with reason and human nature.
Islam has granted woman a privileged place, whether mother, daughter, wife or sister. The Holy Quran mentions the term “mother” 23 times, “wife” 16 times, “woman” 37 times, “sister” 11 times, and “girl” more than 20 times––enough to understand the importance, Islam accords to women.
The woman in Islam is guaranteed of all rights, whether civil or personal. Like man, a woman is absolutely free to manage her personal goods as she likes, and she also has the right to perform commercial transactions. Those who migrated to Ethiopia at the advice of the Prophet had at least ten women with them. It is also a known fact that women have always participated in several important pacts in Islam such as a significant pact with the Prophet at Aquaba that involved Amara Nassibah bint Kaab Almaziniya, besides of course other male member of the Pact.
In principle, Islam does not differentiate between a man and a woman. Both are equal human beings in rights and obligations. But, because the tasks imposed by the matrimonial life are different and diverse, it is indispensable that each one of the two partners be assigned a part of these tasks according to his or her innate capabilities and psychological characteristics.
God has chosen man to accomplish the mission of a tutor or a guide for the family; and has chosen him to concretize the meaning of his existence by asking the woman to follow him within the limit of his prerogatives. On the other side, the Creator made the woman a sensual and sentimental being; and that is how she concretizes the meaning of the form. There is frequently a bad perception of this diversity of functions and tasks, because of the disparity of attributions between the two spouses. The problems that we confront today in human relations in general and in conjugal relations in particular are due, to two reasons:
1. The non-differentiation between the best and the most convenient
The best is for Allah to decide and is not what is dictated to us by our feelings and desires. As for the most convenient, it is what people judge as more adequate for their own way of life according to their effort and within the limit of their work. Muawiyah, for example, knew that there were people better than his son Yazid for his succession, but they were not the most convenient people to handle the hypocrites in his kingdom. That is why he preferred the most convenient over the best when he named Yazid as successor. Also, we find certain cases where the fact that it is convenient for the man to be the tutor and head of the family (as Shariah has decided) is in contradiction with his capabilities in accomplishing this mission for one reason or the other. In this case, the woman has the right to take in charge this mission, taking into consideration the possibility of substituting what is best for what is most convenient.
2. The neglect of the value of a complementing relationship
Human beings, when they see that their duties are multiplying and that their responsibilities are becoming bigger, tend to look for partners who can help and support them and with whom they can become complete. It is this kind of complementing relationship that diminishes life’s burdens and that is situated between the function and the form.
The Prophet consulted his wives and asked for their opinion, even though for him everything was perfectly clear. That is only an assertion of the complementing nature of the human relations and of the need to profit from all points of view when taking common decisions. His first wife Khadija was known for her assistance of the Prophet all her life.
The result of this approach to the rights and duties of man and woman is that the condition of the Muslim woman brings out her responsibility in the frame of a permanent complementing relationship. A woman is attributed a part of the common functions and can even, when needed, take the place of a man––in this setting, and in the conjugal and familial frame, the role of the Muslim woman is privileged.
We realize therefore the distance that separates the status of a woman in Islam, as defined by the Quran and the sunnah from the prejudices and the stereotypes that are spread in the non-Muslim countries, frequently undermining the status of the Muslim woman.
This vision is refuted by the texts and facts, ever since the golden ages of the Islamic society. That is why the condition of the woman in Islam appeared to be conforming to the resolutions of the Fourth Conference of the UN, held in Peking about the rights of the woman, in 1995. Whether it was question of her capability, her social promotion, the protection of her interests and of her person, the fulfillment of her participation in the familial life and her responsibility, the status of a woman in Islam was clearly revealed to be compatible with the final resolutions of the Conference in Peking.