By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam
June 17, 2013.
(Co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009)
- This is in response to the news: “Islamic States Reject UN’s Attempt To Protect Women”
Historically, Muslim jurists have insisted that the lay Muslims lack the scholarship to interpret the Qur’an, and must therefore belong to a Sharia law school (Madhhab) for their proper guidance in religious matters and conformity to a given legal system. This led to the institutionalisation of ‘Sharia law’ as the taproot of Islamic civilization and its veneration as the word of God, whose rulings could not be breached or challenged. The truth, however, is, the Islamic Sharia Law is the sum total of the views, opinions and rulings of Islam’s jurists and doctors of law dating from its early centuries and belonging to its diverse regions. Accordingly a research paper captioned “Universal Dimensions of the Qur'an and Historic Specificity of Islam's Theological Sciences” presented at the 14th Annual Conference held by CSID (Centre for Study on Islam and Democracy) at Washington DC on May 29th 2013  defines and elaborates the notion of Islamic Sharia law as follows:
“Islamic law, otherwise known as Islamic Sharia law, is a cumulative juristic tradition that encompasses the legal response (fatwa) and opinions (rai) of all past jurists of Islam. Prof. Khaled Abou Fadl of UCLA eloquently expressed: “Sharia law refers to positive Islamic law or the Ahkam, the positive legal commandments deduced and expounded through centuries of cumulative legal practice.
“Islamic Sharia law is shaped and informed by customs, traditions, social and political conditions, juristic norms and state of knowledge of the diverse historical points of Islamic civilization - dating from the founding Caliphate (632-661/10-40 AH) through the medieval ages to this day. Thus, due to the fallible nature of humans’ endeavour, it contains, among countless noble rulings, many rulings that are antithetic to the Qur’anic message and Nobel persona of the Prophet.
The paper also tables the following argument which complements the seemingly cut and dry caption of this article:
“Islamic democracy, like its secular counterpart, must not discriminate against religious minorities in anyway, and treat women as men’s co-equal (awliya) in the spirit of the Qur’anic pronouncements on universal brotherhood of humanity (al Qur’an 49:13) and gender equitability (al Qur’an 9:71).
With this general briefing and update, we come to the specifics.
Protection and of Women and their coequality with men in Islam as preserved in the Qur’an
Any detailed discussion on the various facets of the Qur’anic message on the theme will be too technical, too taxing and probably, too controversial. Therefore, we are reproducing below summary statements extracted from a recently published exegetic work, Essential Message of Islam, that is approved by the highest religious office in Sunni Islam (al-Azhar al-Sharif) and authenticated by a leading American jurist of Islam, Khaled Abu El Fadl, Professor of Law, UCLA, USA. The Qur’anic verses are numbered in the traditional manner (Surah number: verse serial no.) while the chapter number of the referenced work is shown after a slash.
• Men are required to give reasonable dowers to their wives (4:4/ Ch. 33.4), even if they break the marriage before consummation (2:236-237/ 34.6-34.7), though women may voluntarily forgo a part of marriage dower (4:4). .
• Women are entitled to independent income (4:32/ 33.50)
• Men should support their wives and maintain them with their income (4:34/ 33.6) though women of means may also support their husbands (4:32/ 33.5) as God has favoured men and women in different measures (4:34).
• Men suspecting their wives of extramarital perversity should counsel them, leave them alone in their beds, and finally assert on them, failing which, involve the community for arbitration (4:34-35/ 33:6).
• In the event of a husband charges his wife of adultery as the sole witness, her oath of innocence will be accepted against his charge (24:6-9/ 36.6) thus privileging a woman over her husband in an issue that prior to Islam, the husband could have settled on the spot by simply killing his wife - and that too lawfully.
• The validity of single witnessing of a woman for sexual infidelity (24:6-9/ 36.6) demonstrates the sufficiency of a rape victim’s sole testimony under oath without any need of additional witnesses.
• Women suspecting their husbands of extramarital perversity may try to resolve the matter with them mutually (4:128/ 33.6), failing which, terminate the marriage (4:130/ 33.6), and in extreme cases, unilaterally divorce them, after paying a compensation (2:229/ 34.2).
• Men are not invested with any legal or higher level of authority over their wives (2:228/ 34.2; 4:34/ 33.6)
• Men are not entitled to unqualified obedience of their wives, nor empowered to beat a rebellious wife (4:34/ 33.6)
• Men are not allowed sexual relation with captive women bondmaids (23:5-6, 70:29-30/ 19.1).
• A man, who wants to terminate a marriage, must give a notice of divorce to his wife on two occasions within a span of three lunar months before reaching a final decision on divorce (2:229, 2:231, 65:2/ 34.2).
• A man is obliged to take back his wife under notice of divorce if she is found pregnant within the notice period of three months (2:228/ 34.2).
• If the foregoing does not work out, the man is liable to bear the living expenses of his wife and that of the child born from the pregnancy through to the entire nursing period of two years including the delivery costs (2:233, 65:6-7/ 34.5).
• A man is to bear the costs, subject to means, if a child born to his divorced pregnant wife is to be nursed by a foster mother (2:233/ 34.5).
• Men to feed and accommodate their women under divorce notice during their waiting period, in the manner they live, and not to harass them or make their life difficult (65:6/ 34.5).
• Men to release their women under divorce notice after the expiry of the waiting period, and not to retain them in order to injure them, and otherwise not to exceed limits (2:231/ 34.2), nor to hinder them from marrying a spouse of their choice (2:232/ 34.4).
• Men to refrain from extorting any property from their wives, such as during a divorce or from the widows of kinsmen. (4:19/ 35.2; 2:229, 4:20/ 34.2).
• Men to give a reasonable maintenance to their divorced wives (until they are remarried/as arbitrators decide depending upon the merit of the case) (2:241/ 34.8).
• Depending upon circumstances, a woman, upon the death of her husband, is entitled to maintenance for one year, without having to leave home (2:240/ 35.2), and to have the option to settle down by herself and even entertain marriage proposals from prospective suitors after a waiting period of four months and ten days (2:234-235/ 35.1).
• Each of the parents (mother and father) inherits equally from a deceased off-spring (4:12/ 38.2).
• Though a daughter inherits half as much as a son (4:12/ 38.2), a person should be able to adjust the inheritance among his heir by leaving a duly witnessed will.
• It is a binding duty for men and women to make a will taking witnesses before they die (2:180-182, 5:106-108/ 37).
• The Qur’an recommends monogamy as a social norm (4:3/ 31:1, 31.2).
• The Qur’an does not support marriage of minors (Ch. 32.6).
• Love and mercy between the sexes is a ‘sign’ of God (Ch. 33.1).
• There is no religious requirement for women to wearing of any external head to toe veil, covering head, and observing gender-based segregation. (Ch. 28.4).
• The Qur’an acknowledges the role of women as a wali (protector, counsellor and defender) of men and vice versa (9:71).
• The Qur’an privileges women over men spiritually in her venerated role in the final stage of creative process (4:1).
• The absence of any reference to her father or guardian from practically all the Qur’anic verses on marriage and divorce demonstrates a Muslim woman’s prerogative to choose her own mate (Ch. 32.2)
• With removal of the traditional barriers constraining women’s active participation in commerce, the Qur’an’s specific witnessing requirement (two women and one man if two men were not available) may be adapted for the changed circumstances (2:282/ 24:2).
• The Qur’an does not blame a woman for any of man’s infirmities, vices or misfortunes. Thus for example, it blames both Adam and his spouse for their temptation by Satan and their primordial fall from Paradise (2:36, 7:20-22/ 5.1).
• At the final stage of creative process God breathes some of divine Spirit into humans regardless of gender (15:29, 32:9, 38:72/ 5.3) and thus imbues humans with an innate ‘fitra’ regardless of gender.
• The Qur'an is not gender biased in promising of rewards to the believers who do good deeds (4:124/ 2.4).
• It does not differentiate between men and women in their devotion to God (33:35/ 2.4)
• In the context of the revelation, it invested women with independent authority to affirming their allegiance to the faith in Islam directly to Prophet, without the consent or presence of their husbands or guardians (60:12/ 36.1).
• Again, in the context of the revelation its commanded Muslim women and grown up children (including daughters) as independent witnesses to take an oath, along with their Christian counterparts, over an issue of utmost spiritual significance: the birth of Jesus (3:59-61).
• The Qur’an removes all taboos against menstruation (2:222/ 33.3). So, technically a woman can perform all her religious duties including prayer and fasting during her courses as long as it does not cause her any undue hardship – decision will be hers dictated by her physical and mental condition.
Any assessment of the foregoing tenets and proclamations of the Qur’an will amply bear out that the Qur’an offers protection and coequal personal rights to women and those who deny them such rights today are the deniers of the message of the Qur’an – though God knows best. The Islamic Sharia law of this era must draw on the Qur’an, which is undoubtedly the highest source of law in Islam and not rely on its rulings that were inevitably informed by the realities of its formative era - the early through medieval ages when patriarchy reigned supreme and women’s rights and privileges were stunted accordingly.
The critic may cite the Qur’anic punishment for adultery as a counter argument to this paper. The truth is the Qur’anic specific punishment, e.g. flogging, drew on the prevalent code and aimed at eradicating institutional adultery that was needed to protect and secure women, who were previously treated as chattels. Therefore, to take the punishment in isolation or out of its historical context as harsh or draconian will be misleading. The Qur’an was not sent down to punish humanity but to deliver humanity – particularly the women and the oppressed classes, from the sufferings society inflicted upon them - “to lift from them their burdens and shackles that were upon them (before)” (7:157), and the achievement of its noble objectives inevitably entailed some hard measures, affecting albeit, a fractional minority of people.
Note of Caution
As the Qur’anic vision on role and protection of women and gender dynamics was far too ‘feminist’ for its era and through the medieval ages, numerous Ahadith (pl. of Hadith or tradition of the Prophet) came into oral circulation that barred women of her Qur’anic privileges. But Ahadith were specific to era, and, as admitted by the earliest compilers, the authenticity of a great many Ahadith is questionable, while the Qur’an having been uttered / revealed recorded and memorized at the same historical point “does provide a firm basis of undoubted authenticity.” .
1. Ashfaque Syed’s speech on the presentation starts at about 49 minutes 30 seconds point in the time bar in the following link.
2. Maxime Rodinson, Muhammad, English translation, 2nd edition, London 1996, p.x [Foreword].
Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009