The Status of Women in Islam
It is common talk that women constitute half the society and that the society should not neglect them, leave them idle, maltreat them nor dissolve their rights.
This is all true. It may as well be argued that although women constitute half of the population, their influence exceeds their number, since women, for good or ill, influence their husbands and children. The poet Hafiz Ibrahim struck this note when he described the woman as a whole school, the sound management of which leads to the production of a noble society.
For these reasons scientists, thinkers, leaders, reformers, preachers and educators have all shown interest in the case of the woman. They have called for doing her justice, treating her with respect and for the abolition of forms of unfairness and repression towards her so that she can have her rightful access to learning, work, responsibility and choice in marriage. Some did not find this enough; they wanted to give her the right of sexual permissiveness, homosexuality, unrestricted abortion, rebellion against the family, and disregard of values of religion and society.
These were some of the aims the International Conference on Women in Peking 1995 impelled. It has provoked a lot of controversy in the Islamic and even Christian worlds. We Muslims have a divine document that truly honors women and treats her with justice; it is a document that rescued her from the gloomy injustice of Pre-Islamic darkness. This documents of The Noble Qur’an-honours the woman as a human being, as a feminine being, as a daughter, wife, mother and, no less, as a full member of her society. True, some Muslims have wronged women in different ages by depriving her of her right to solid religious knowledge and her right to work. They have even forbidden her from going to the mosque for worship or leaning, compelled her to marry someone she did not like and confined her to her home. But this has happened in the absence of any sound religious awareness. Nor did it prevail everywhere; there have always been Muslims willing to reject this, something we have seen happening in rural areas.
Islam’s true stance on the status of the woman is what this small treatise seeks to make clear. Although the issues relating to women and the family are dealt with in some of our previous books, particularly The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam (Al-Halal wal-Haram fill Islam) and Contemporary Legal Opinions (Fataawa Muserah), the reader may find in these pages a light that guides the way to knowledge of the correct opinions on this critical issue, between harsh austerity and excessive indulgence. “And my guidance cannot come except from Allah, and in Him I have put my trust and unto Him I repent.” [Surah 11:88]
The Woman as Human Being
Islam was revealed at a time when a lot of people denied the humanity of the woman; some were skeptical about it; and still others admitted it, yet considered the woman a thing created for the humble service of the man.
With the advent of Islam, circumstances improved for the woman. The woman’s dignity and humanity were restored. Islam confirmed her capacity to carry out Allah’s commands, her responsibilities and observation of the commands that lead to heaven. Islam considered the woman as a worthy human being, with a share in humanity equal to that of the man. Both are two branches of a single tree and two children from the same father, Adam, and mother, Eve. Their single origin, their general human traits, their responsibility for the observation of religious duties with the consequent reward or punishment, and the unity of their destiny all bear witness to their equality from the Islamic point of view.
Establishing this fact, the Noble Quran says: ” O mankind! Be dutiful to your Lord, Who created you from a single person (Adam) and from him (Adam) He created his wife (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 All-Watcher over you. ” [ Surah 4:1] That people all people men and women, were created by their Lord from a single person or self, that this self is a nucleus from which Allah created an integral counterpart that completes this original self and is completed by it, is stated in another verse: ” It is He Who has created you from a single person (Adam), and (then) He has created from him his wife (Eve), in order that he might enjoy the pleasure of living with her.” [ Surah 7:189] Eventually Allah, out of this nuclear pair, scattered the multitudes of men and women, all worshippers of a single God and children of the same parents implying they are united in a fraternity, embracing men and women alike. Because of this fact, the verse commands people to fear Allah as their Lord and be heedful of the duties that the wombs, as symbolic of this bond, impose.
The man on this account is a brother to the woman and the woman is the other half of the pair. The Messenger (blessings and peace be upon him) says, “Women are the sisters of men.” [ Transmitted on the authority of Aisha by Ahmad (6/256); Abu Dawud (236); Al-Termithy (113); Al-Doram(1/195) and others.]The Qur’an, on its part, treats this issue of fraternal equality from more than one perspective. On the purely religious level for instance, the Quran says: “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 fast (the obligatory fasting during the month of Ramadan and the optional Nawafil fasting), the men and women who guard their chastity (from illegal sexual acts) and the men and 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). [ Surah 33:35]
On the basic social and religious responsibilities, the Quran establishes equality by maintaining: “The believers, men and women, are “Awliy,” (helpers, supporters, friends, protectors) of one another, they enjoin (on the people) Al-Ma`ruf (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 offer their prayers perfectly (lqamat-as-Salat), and give the Zakat and obey Allah and His Messenger. Allah will have mercy on them. [ Surah 9:71]
In Adam’s story, Divine Orders were made to him and his wife, both and equally: “O Adam! Dwell you and your wife in the Paradise and eat both of you freely with pleasure and delight of things therein as wherever you will, but come not near this tree or you both will be of the Zalim’n (wrongdoers). [ Surah 2:35] What is new, however, about this story as given by the Qur’an is that the temptation is blamed not on Eve but on Satan: “Then the Satan made them slip there from (the Paradise), and got them out from that in which they were. [ Surah 2:36] – the reverse of The Old Testament versions. Thus Eve was neither the sole eater from the tree, nor the one who initiated the act. Rather, the mistake was theirs both, and both of them repented and asked for forgiveness: “They said, “Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If You forgive us not, and bestow not upon us Your Mercy, we shall be losers”. [Surah 7:23]
Further still, some verses ascribe the trespass to Adam: “And indeed We made a covenant with Adam before, but he forgot, and We found on his part no firm will-power.” [Surah 20:115] And “Then Satan whispered to him saying, “O Adam! Shall I lead you to the Tree of Eternity and to a kingdom that will never waste away?” [Surah 20:120] and till “Thus did Adam disobey his Lord, so he went astray.” [Surah 20:121]
This implies that Adam was the one who trespassed first and was followed by his woman. Whatever the case may be, even accepting that Eve did commit a trespass, she, alone, would be responsible without any transmission of accountability to her daughters.
On the question of equality of punishment and reward and eligibility for Paradise, The Almighty says: “That was a nation who has passed away. They shall receive the reward of what they earned and you of what you earn. And you will not be asked of what they used to do. [Surah 2:134 and 2:141] Concerning the equality of men and women in receiving rewards and the entry of paradise, God says: ” 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.” [Surah 3:195] and 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). [Surah 16:97]
When it comes to financial matters, the rule of Islam abolished the conventions prevalent among many nations which deprived the woman of the right of ownership, inheritance, and those which created obstacles against her exercise of free and full control of her holdings. As a rule, Islam acknowledges the woman’s rights to all kinds of ownership, spending and channeling of her money. It gives her the rights of inheritance, selling, buying, renting, donating, lending, allocating property for religious and charitable purposes, giving alms, legal transfer and mortgage, as well as many other forms of contracts and actions.
The woman’s right to seek education or learning is basic and is also guaranteed by Islamic teachings. Islam actually makes it incumbent on the woman to seek knowledge; the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) says, `seeking knowledge is incumbent on every Muslim,” where “every Muslim” obviously involves men and women on an equal footing as a rule formalized by all authorities of jurisprudence .
The woman is also required to perform religious ordinances and forms of worship the way the man is. Praying, fasting, Zakat (the alms sanctifying tax), pilgrimage and all the other fundamental practices in Islam are required of Muslims in their capacity, both men and women, as responsible humans. Again the woman’s actions are recompensed by Allah the way the man’s actions are.
The woman is not excluded from the area of social activity; Allah says: ” The believers, men and women, are “Awliy,” (helpers, supporters, friends, protectors) of one another, they enjoin (on the people) Al-Ma`ruf (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). [ Surah 9:71] For instance, she can give refuge for those who seek it. If she hosts a refugee, her action is to be respected and observed. This rule relates back to Um Hanibint Abi Talib’s giving relief to a father in-law on the day of the Conquest of Mecca by Muslims. When her brother wanted to kill him because he was an infidel, she complained to Allah’s Messenger (blessings and peace be upon him) saying, “Allah’s Messenger, my mother’s son insists on killing my refugee, Ibn Hubayra.”The Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) replied, “We confer asylum on him that you give refuge to, Um Hani”. [ Mutafaq aley (agreed upon) on the authority of Um Hani, The Pearl and the Coral (Al-Lu’lu’ wal-Marjan) (193)]
Some people harbor certain doubts and raise questions about Islam’s stance on the woman’s status as a human being. Here we tackle the more important points of uncertainty or even skepticism.
One of these questions is: why, if Islam really regards the woman’s humanity on an equal basis with that of the man, does it give the man privilege over the female in some dealings such as legal testimony, inheritance, blood money, charge of the family, heading the state and other supporting ministrations?
The distinction (if it can ever be called one) between the man and the woman is not due to any preference by Allah, The Almighty, of the man or the woman on any account of being nobler or closer to the Lord. As a rule, it is piety and only piety that is the measure of ascendancy, nobility and closeness to Allah: ” Verily, the most honor able of you in the Sight of Allah is that (believer) who has At-Taqwa [i.e. one of the Muttaq ‘n: i.e. pious and righteous persons who fear Allah much](abstain from all kinds of sins and evil deeds which He has forbidden), and love Allah much (perform all kinds of good deeds which He has ordained)”. [Surah 49:13] The distinctions, however, are merely conditioned by the different tasks assigned to each of the two sexes by virtue of their natural disposition.
The Qur’anic verse known as “the indebtedness verse” in which Allah prescribes writing debt contracts as a precautionary measure is: “And get two witnesses out of your own men. And if there are not two men (available), then a man and two women, such as you agree for witnesses, so that if one of them (two women) errs, tile other can remind her. And the witnesses should not refuse whethey are called on (for evidence). [ Surah 2:282] Thus, the Qur’an makes the testimony of oman equal to the testimony of two women. Moreover, the majority of jurisprudents establish that a woman’s testimony does not count in major crimes and in matters which do not relate to the rule of retaliation in kind.
Yet the distinction is far from being due to any belief in a deficiency of the woman’s humanity and integrity. It is rather due to her natural disposition and her special inclinations which may exclude her involvement in such matters while being focused on motherhood or the household. Hence, there is very likely to be a kind of characteristic inattention on her part when it comes to handling these matters. For this reason, Allah commands creditors if they want to verify the value of debt to seek the testimony of two men or one man and two women. The Qur’an puts it unambiguously: ” so that if one of them (two women) errs, the other can remind her. [ Surah 2:282]
The exclusion of woman’s testimony, altogether, from cases of major crimes, and cases requiring retaliation in kind, is meant to protect women and distance them from sites of crime and aggressions against souls, honour and property. It is not infrequent, for instance, to see a woman closing her eyes, or running away in panic from a scene of bloodshed; therefore , it becomes difficult for that woman to give a reliable account of the crime.
Nevertheless, this has also meant for the jurisprudents that a woman’s testimony counts in cases of feminine affairs such as foster relationships, menstruation, delivery and such matters whose knowledge was confined to women in past ages and probably still is. Yet, Ata’a-tabiei (literally a follower a companion of one of the Prophet’s Companions) establishes that a woman’s testimony on such matters does count. In addition, other jurisprudents accept a woman’s testimony in crimes that take place in female gatherings that are not usually frequented by men, like women [ Surah 2:282] oriental pools, wedding parties attended solely by women. and other such gatherings. The question, however, is: if one woman kills, wounds or maims another and the only witness is a woman, should her testimony be ruled out because it is merely given by a woman or should men give testimony of something they did not witness? It is more in the nature of things to accept a woman’s testimony in this case so long as she is reputed to be honest, accurate and mindful. Commenting on the verse: ” And if there are not two men (available), then a man and two women” the former Sheikh of Al-Azhar Mahmud Shaltut says: The verse does not address the question of the status of the testimony. It rather addresses the methods of verification and establishment of confidence about the individual’s rights at the moment of transaction. The verse actually begins: “O you who believe! When you contract a debt for a fixed period, write it down. Let a scribe write it down in justice between you. Let not the scribe refuse to write as Allah has taught him,” until it reaches ” And get two witnesses out of your own men. And if there are not two men (available), then a man and two woman, so that if one of them (two women) errs, the other can remind her. [ Surah 2:282] Therefore the situation is one of verification and documentation of rights and not one of judgement. Thus the verse points to the best ways of documentation and verification by which partners in a deal can have maximum security. This therefore does not mean that a single woman’s, or a group of woman’s testimony without a man’s does not count in establishing rights nor is to be taken by a judge since the maximum required in jurisdiction is “evidence”.
Along this line of thinking, jurisprudent Ibn Al-Qayyim establishes that “evidence” in Islamic Law is more comprehensive than testimony; confirming “evidence” is the factor in establishing rights, what makes it “evident” and consequently what is to be considered by the judge.
The judge pronounces his verdict on the basis of decisive evidence, even if it were a non-Muslim’s testimony as long as he feels it worthy of his trust.
This leads Sheikh Shaltut to the conclusion that when two woman’s testimonies are counted as one man’s testimony, it is not because of some weakness or flaw in her mentality which would involve, in turn, a defect in woman’s humanity.
The verse, however, was so worded as to address the norms of that time, which are still very much the same for the majority of women. They do not attend debt registration sessions or transactions. The fact that some women take part in such activities does not alter the basic facts of life that the woman’s natural disposition in life such as procreation. Yet again, the verse serves as guidance on maximum verification. In some places, the tendency is for a woman to make transactions and witness the writing of debts; it is the people’s right to accept a woman’s testimony as they accept that of a man as long as they do this with equal confidence in both sexes” memories.
Still, Sheikh Shaltut does not stop here; he goes on to consider a case in which the word of men and women weigh equally: There is a stronger proof for equality in the Qur’an’s statement that the woman is just like the man in the type of testimony known as the oath of condemnation [ An oath in which either the husband or the wife accuses his or her partner of adultery and the only witness is one of them. (Translator’s note.)] “And as for those who accuse their wives but have no witnesses except themselves, let the testimony of one of them be four testimonies (i.e. testifies four times) by Allah that he be one of those who speak the truth. And the fifth (testimony) (should be) invoking the Curse of Allah on him if he be one of those who tell a lie (against her). But it shall avert the punishment (of stoning to death) from her, if she bears witness four times by Allah, that he (her husband) is telling a lie. And the fifth (testimony) should be that the Wrath of Allah be upon her if (her husband) speaks the truth”. [ Surah 24:6- 9] That is, four repetitions of the oath or testimony by the man concluded by an invocation of his damnation by Allah if he is lying, countered by and invalidated by four repetitions of the woman’s counter statement, also followed by an invocation of Allah’s wrath upon her if she is lying. [ Islamic Beliefs and Code of Laws, Sheikh Shalt, p.111 – 112]
The difference between the man and the woman in their respective shares in inheritance established by Allah’s statement: ” Allah commands you as regards your children’s (inheritance); to the male, a portion equal to that of two females. [ Surah 4:11], is clearly due to the difference in the duties and costs that each has to cope with by virtue of the Islamic teachings (shar’a)”.
For example, if a man dies leaving a son and a daughter, the son gets married and pays the obligatory bridal money (dower) to the bride and as soon as they live together, he has to provide and pay for their living expenses. On the other hand, when his sister gets married, she receives the bridal money from her bridegroom and when they live together, the husband provides for her without her paying a single penny, even if she is among the richest of people. Poor or rich, her living costs are estimated in proportion to her husband’s financial ability. The Qur’an puts it thus:” Let the rich man spend according to his means”. [ Surah 65:7] To simplify matters, if the father leaves a wealth of about 150,000 dollars, the son would get 100,000 and the daughter would get 50,000 dollars. Then the son pays the bridal money (dower) gives presents and furnishes a flat which may cost at least 25,000 dollars. If the daughter gets married and has the bridal money and the presents, she would get another 25,000. This makes them about even.
But this is not all; the man’s duties and spending increase as he provides for his children, in some cases his ageing parents, his brothers and sisters who have no income of their own and no one else to provide for them, and further still his relatives who are in similar circumstances-all by virtue of the Islamic Teachings (shar’a) and under certain conditions. For her part, though, the woman is not commanded by the shar’a to furnish aid unless she chooses to do so out of good manners and morals.
Nor is the distinction in any sense absolute. Sometimes the woman’s share in the inheritance is equal to that of the man’s. For instance, when the two parents inherit from their children; the Qur’an rules that: For parents, a sixth share of inheritance to each if the deceased left children. [ Surah 4:11] The reason in this case is that the parent’s needs are often similar. If siblings inherit from a brother who has neither parents nor children, the Qur’an establishes that: ” If the man or woman whose inheritance is in question has left neither ascendants nor descendants, but has left a brother or a sister, each one of them gets a sixth; but if more than two, they share in a third”. [ Surah 4:12] Thereby, the sister by the mother gets a sixth, which is the same as the brother by the same mother. If there are more than two siblings, they inherit a third to be distributed equally among them. All this is to say that equality of inheritance exists in many cases, and they are well-known to jurisprudents and experts in these matters.
More conclusively, there are cases in which the woman gets a bigger share than the man. For instance, if a woman dies leaving a husband, mother and two brothers and one sister by her mother, the sister alone gets a sixth; whereas only one sixth is given to the two brothers. Also if a woman dies leaving a husband, a full sister and a brother by her father, the husband gets half the inheritance and the sister the other half, whereas the half-brother gets nothing being merely an agnate. But if the half sibling is a sister and not a brother, she gets a sixth, as sustenance.
One more case where the woman gets more than the man follows Ibn “Abbas’s interpretation of the verse: ” If no children, and the parents are the (only) heirs, the mother has a third”. [ Surah 4:11]
This is means for Ibn Abbas that if a woman dies leaving a husband and her two parents, the husband receives a half, the mother a third and the father a sixth. Ibn Hazm relates this statement to Ibn “Abbas via Abdul-Raziq, and to Ali ibn Abi Talib via of Abi “Uwana and to Mu’adh ibn Jabal who were Companions of the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him), known also as experts on such matters. Ibn Hazim relates it also to Shuraih and to Dawud Al-Zahiry, among the jurisprudents, and he quotes the companion Ibn Mas’ud’s axiom on the matter: “Allah would not like to see me prefer a father to a mother.” Other authorities who concurred are Companions such as `Umar, `Uthman, and Zaid ibn Thabit. From their followers, there are Al-Hasan, Ibn Sirin and Al-Nakh’i. Among the jurisprudents, there are Abu Hanifa, Malik and Al-Shafi, may Allah be pleased with them all.
There is not a single well-authenticated statement by the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him), nor any consensus of religious authorities (Ijm,’) to establish that the blood money paid for the killing of a woman is half the sum paid for the killing of a man. There are two Hadiths (prophetic traditions), neither perfectly authenticated, that address the question. The best one on terms of authentication is that narrated Al-Nisa”i and Al-Daraqatny, which still suffers a time gap in the chain of transmitters up to the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him). Statements related to the Companions suffer in the same manner. What remains then is the only well-authenticated tradition on the subject “for a soul, a hundred camels.”
The general agreement of authorities that make the value of the blood money paid for the killing of a woman half that for the killing of a man falls short of a consensus. Ibn `UIayya and Al-Asam, two scholars from the high order of jurisprudents (fuquh,” as-salaf) make the value of the blood money the same for both men and women. This opinion is in agreement with the generality of reference to “believer” and `soul” in the Qur’an and the Hadith. If we opt for this opinion today, we are not to blame since, in addition to the previous reason, the legal opinion (fatwa) could change with the age and environment but the new legal opinion is not in conflict with the relevant textual statements nor with the general objectives of Islamic Teachings. Under the subtitle of “Blood Money, the Same for Men and Women,” Sheikh Shaltut writes:
Woman’s humanity stemming from the same origin as that of the man, her blood is the same as his, he being from her and she from him and equal retaliation in kind being the rule common to both cases of homicide and hell and damnation being the other wordly punishment for the killing of either man or woman, so the rule of the verse applies to the accidental homicide of either a man or a woman.
Given that our primary frame of reference is the Qur’an, we find that its statement is general and does not privilege the man with any special status: “and whosoever kills a believer by mistake (it is ordained that) he must set free a believing slave and a compensation (blood-money i.e. Diya) be given to the deceased’s family”. [Surah 4:92]
It is true that the scholars have differed over the amount of blood money, whether it is the same or double in the man’s case. Al-Razi tells us in his At-Tafsr Al-Kabr that the majority of jurisprudents double the sum in cases of male homicide. He adds that Al-Asam and Ibn `Ulayya make the sum paid the same. The majority cite the ruling of the Companions `Ali, `Umar and Ibn Mas’ud ruling on this matter, as well as the rules of inheritance and legal testimony in which the woman’s inheritance and testimony equals only half those of the man. Al-Asam, however, cites the verse: and whosoever kills a believer by mistake [Surah 4:92] All agree this verse addresses both men and women, therefore the ruling on the sum paid is the same.
Allah assigns guardianship to the man by virtue of the Qur’anic verse: ” Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has made the one of them to excel the other and because they spend (to support them) from their means”. [ Surah 4:34]
There are two reasons for this, one has to do with a natural quality and the other relates to something acquired. First, Allah has provided the man with a quality of greater strength whereas he has equipped the woman with a lighter and usually more delicate physique. Secondly, Allah has delegated the man to be the family provider. If the family collapses, he must bear the brunt of the collapse. This responsibility naturally entails deference and support.
Judiciary and political corps
Abu Hanfa establishes that women are not forbidden from occupying positions in the judiciary system in matters that are of their sphere of testimony, that is in non-criminal affairs. At-Tabari and Ibn Hazim, on the other hand, establish the authority of their judgement of criminal cases, as well as financial and other cases. Yet, that this is not prohibited does not give it the status of incumbency or necessity. It is a possibility that can be adjusted according to different circumstances and interests: the interest of the family, the interest of the community and, above all, the interest of Islam. Thus, the possibility may lead to a situation where some distinguished women at a certain point of their age are chosen for judgeship in certain matters and under certain circumstances.
On the other hand, her ineligibility under the Islamic teaching (shar’a) to hold the caliphate or head the state is owing to the great burdens of such a huge responsibility which in most cases outweigh the capacity of the woman (and the man) and conflicts with the natural disposition of the woman as mother. This does not exhaust all possibilities since we are aware that some women could be even more capable than some men. One such example is the Queen of Sheba whose story is told by Allah in the Qur’an. She led her nation to happiness and well-being in this and the other life and submitted herself with Prophet Solomon to Allah, Controller of the Worlds. Nevertheless, rules are not formed on the basis of rare occurrence but on the frequency of it. Thus the scholars establish that generally “the rare does not constitute a rule.” But for the woman to be a manager, dean, director, member of parliament, minister, etc., is all very well so long as it weighs the interests. All these questions are dealt with in detail in my book Contemporary Legal Opinions (Fatawa Mu’aserah).