By Ghulam Hossein Adeel
January 13, 2016
The status of women in Islam is one of the crucial topics and dominant themes in the modern era, which theologians have been studying. Islam regards men and women as being of the same essence created from a single soul. A woman has a completely independent personality in Islam. In this paper, I will provide an overview of the status of women in Islam in general and then I will focus on the issue of equality.
One important part of the discussion will be devoted to clarify the conceptual context and the relevant terminology of the subject of inheritance and to explain certain rulings of inheritance in Islamic law that may seem at first glance to be in conflict with the idea of equality.
Status of Woman in Islam
In the Islamic perspective, a woman has an honoured position. She has special respect, love, affection and gentle feeling along with her legal and civil rights.
Is she not the compassionate mother?
Is she not the beloved wife?
Is she not the affectionate daughter?
Actually Islam expresses the best explanation for a woman’s true image in the following verses from the Qur’an:
We have enjoined man to be kind to his parents. His mother has carried him in travail, and bore him in travail, and his gestation and weaning take thirty months. When he comes of age and reaches forty years, he says, ‘My Lord! Inspire me to give thanks for Your blessing with which You have blessed me and my parents, and that I may do righteous deeds which may please You, and invest my descendants with righteousness. Indeed I have turned to you in penitence, and I am one of the Muslims.’ (46:15)
Your Lord has decreed that you shall not worship anyone except Him, and [He has enjoined] kindness to parents. Should they reach old age at your side – one of them or both- do not say to them, ‘Fie!’ And do not chide them, but speak to them noble words. Lower the wing of humility to them, out of mercy, and say, ‘My Lord! Have mercy on them, just as they reared me when I was [a] small [child]!’ (17:23 & 24)
Do not covet the advantage which God has given some of you over others. To men belongs a share of what they have earned, and to women a share of what they have earned. And ask God for His grace. (4:32)
Similar to the Qur’an, the Prophetic Hadiths also emphasize the honour and respect of women within such a frame of love, endearment and affection. This is especially true when the Hadiths teach about the mother, the wife and the daughter. For example, the Prophet said:
Observe your duty to God in respect to the women, and recommend them to be well treated.1
He also said:
I do not think that a man gets better in faith without loving women better.2
The Prophet had a daughter whom he loved very deeply and tenderly. He used to say: “Fatimah is a part of me; whoever wrongs her wrongs me and who pleases her pleases me.”3
He visited her frequently; and on his return from any journey he called on her first before going to his own home. Whenever she approached, his eyes glowed with joy. He would take her in his arm, kiss her warmly and offer her his own seat. Indeed this kind, tender pattern is an ideal model for mankind.
A man came to the Prophet and asked him, “O messenger of God! Whom should I be more dutiful to?” The Prophet replied: “To your mother.” He asked, then to whom. Then he replied: “To your mother.” The man again asked, then to whom. Then the Prophet replied: “To your father.”4
Islam considers both men and women equally human and grants them equal human rights. Though their tasks and functions may sometimes differ, they both have opportunities for achieving perfection and closeness to God. The following verses from the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet support this argument. For example, God says:
O mankind! Indeed We created you from a male and a female, and made you nations and tribes that you may identify with one another. Indeed the noblest of you in the sight of God is the most Godwary among you. Indeed God is All-knowing, All-aware. (49:13)
O mankind! Be wary of your Lord who created you from a single soul, and created its mate from it, and, from the two of them, scattered numerous men and women. (4:1)
Also Prophet Muhammad (S) said:
All people are equal, as the teeth of a comb. There is no claim of merit of an Arab and non-Arab, or a white over a black person or a male over a female. Only Allah-fearing people merit a preference with God.5
The most important sources in Islamic thought i.e. the Qur’an and Sunnah both confer the great message of universal equality among all mankind. The above texts are just a few examples and there are many more available.
Apart from this, there are hundreds of verses which take the form of address: “O mankind, or “O believer” which refer to both men and women. Both have similar duties to perform; for instance prayer, rituals, fasting, to command to good and to prohibit from evil. Moral virtues such as tolerance, truthfulness, honesty are required from both. According to Islam, personal superiority is only based on piety.
Islam’s regard for women is not simply giving her a chance to survive. Muslims, men and women, are told to seek knowledge and education wherever they find it and to use this knowledge to help fellow human beings. This is a duty about which they will be questioned on Judgement Day. History tells us about the immense contribution of Muslim women to the community. One lady i.e. the Lady Khadijah, daughter of Khuwaylid, and one young boy were the first to believe in Islam. Lady Khadijah was a great supporter of Islam and the Prophet.
An Analysis of Equality
There are four logical characteristics of equality, which are crucial in Qur’anic perspective:
Equality in religious matters;
Equality in ethical obligations and rewards;
Equality in education;
Equality in legal rights
1. Equality in Religious Matters
The Qur’an commands equality for men and women regarding religious obligations and rewards. We read:
Indeed the Muslim (or submissive) men and the Muslim (or submissive) women, the faithful men and the faithful women, the obedient men and the obedient women, the truthful men and the truthful women, the patient men and the patient women, the humble men and the humble women, the charitable men and the charitable women, the men who fast and the women who fast, the men who guard their private parts and the women who guard, the men who remember God greatly and the women who remember [God greatly]-God holds in store for them forgiveness and a great reward. (33:35)
2. Equality in Ethical Obligations and Rewards
Secondly, the Qur’an reveals to mankind the desired equality of the two sexes by establishing the same ethical obligations and rewards for women and men:
And whoever does righteous deeds, whether male or female, should he or she be faithful -such shall enter paradise and they will not be wronged [so much as] the speck on a date-stone. (4:124)
Whoever acts righteously, [whether] male or female, should he be faithful, -We shall revive him with a good life and pay them their reward by the best of what they used to do. (16:97)
If God had not deemed the two sexes of equal status and value, such explicit statements of their equality in ethical obligations and rewards would not have been made in the Qur’an.
3. Equality in Education
Although the more specific commands for the equal rights of women and men to pursue education can be found in the Hadith literature, the Qur’an does at least imply the pursuit of knowledge by all Muslims regardless of their sex. For example, it repeatedly commands all readers to read, to recite, to think, to contemplate, and as well as to learn from the signs (Ayat) of God in nature. In fact, the very first revelation to Prophet Muhammad (S) was concerned with the message of knowledge.
In the Qur’anic perspective there can never be a restriction of this knowledge to one sex. It is the duty of every Muslim man and every Muslim woman to pursue knowledge throughout life, even if it should lead the seeker to “China,” we are told. The Prophet even commanded that the slave girls be educated, and he asked Shifa’ bint ‘Abdillah to educate his own wife – Hafsah bint ‘Umar.
Audiences of both men and women attended lectures of the Prophet; and by the time of the Prophet’s death, there were many women scholars.6
4. Equality in Legal Rights
A fourth evidence in the Qur’an for the equality of men and women is its specification of legal rights which are guaranteed for every individual from cradle to grave. The Qur’an proclaims the right of both women and men in enjoying full legal rights. She may buy, sell, earn a living and manage her own money and property. In Islam the woman has a legally independent personality and her obligations are independent from those of her father, husband or brother.
Thus, the woman in Islam enjoys all rights and is treated equal to man in this respect.
In addition to these rights, the Qur’an grants the woman a share in the inheritance of the family (4:7-11) and warns against depriving her of that inheritance (4:19), specifies that the dowry (Maher) of her marriage should belong to her alone and never be taken by her husband (2:229; 4:19-21 & 25) unless presented by the woman herself as a free gift (4:44).
As with any privilege, these rights of women carry corresponding responsibilities. If she commits a civil offence, the Qur’an tells us, a woman’s penalty is no less or no more than that of a man in a similar case (e.g. 24:2). If she is wronged or harmed, she is entitled to compensation just like a man.
It is clear that the Qur’an not only recommends, but is also insistent upon, the equality of women and men as an essential characteristic in the Qur’anic perspective.
A Critical Analysis of Equality
There are some discussions about a woman’s equality in her inheritance, education and social rights. As we have already discussed, the religion of Islam has clearly required that equality has to be exercised regardless of the physical gender. However, there may be a difference between the theory of Islam and the practice of Muslims. In order to understand what Islam has established for woman, there is no need to look at wrong customs that may exist in some Muslim societies.
Objectively, religion means humanity, not cruelty or brutality. However, some cultures may have just a mask of Islam but in reality there are some local cultural problems behind the mask. For example, one writer says:
Men’s energies should be expended in worship, religious activities and in the search of knowledge.
This is to be attained by making women devote themselves to serving their men in the home, preparing food and drink, washing, cleaning and caring for the children and elderly.7
However, the above ideas are not related to genuine Islamic perspectives as demonstrated in the Qur’an and Hadith. This writer has just reverted back to pre-Islamic culture. Based upon the above texts from the Qur’an and Sunnah, these ideas are not plausible. If we were to ask the writer, “where are these characteristics in the Qur’an and Hadiths?” we will be assured of a silence that would speak volumes.
According to Islamic point of view, a woman has no obligation to prepare food and drink, wash and clean for her husband or his family. Of course, husbands and wives who form a family should share and care to maintain family life with mutual understanding.
In the case of inheritance, the question of equality is fully applicable. In principle, both man and woman are equally entitled to inherit the property of the deceased relation but the portions they get may vary. In some instances man receives two shares whereas woman gets only one. This is no sign of giving preference or supremacy to man over woman. The reasons why a man gets more in these particular instances may be classified as follows:
First, a man is solely responsible for the complete maintenance of his wife, his family and any other needy relations. It is his duty by Law to assume all financial responsibilities and maintain his dependents adequately. It is also his duty to contribute financially to all good causes in his society. All financial burdens are borne by him alone.
In contrast, a woman has no financial responsibilities whatsoever except very little of her personal expenses, e.g. the high luxurious things that she likes to have. She is financially secure and provided for.
If she is a wife, her husband is the provider; if she is a mother, it is the son; if she is a daughter, it is the father; if she is a sister; it is the brother, and so on. If she has no relations on whom she can depend, then there is no question of inheritance because there is nothing to inherit and there is no one to bequeath anything to her.
Even if she has no one to look after she will not be left to starve; maintenance of such a woman is the responsibility of the society as a whole and the state. She must be given aid or a job to earn her living, and whatever money she makes will be hers. So, in the hardest situation a woman’s financial responsibility is limited, while a man’s financial responsibility is unlimited.
Secondly, she is not actually deprived of anything that she has worked for. The property inherited is not the result of her earning or her endeavours. It is something coming from an external source, something additional or extra. It is something that neither man nor woman has struggled for. It is a sort of aid, and any aid has to be distributed according to the urgent needs and responsibilities especially when the Law regulates the distribution.