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Islamic Sharia Laws ( 7 Jun 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Gender Equality in Islam


By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam

Co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009

May 07, 2012.

There is no Gender Inequality in the Qur’an, and the Sharia ruling vesting men with the guardianship of women contradicts its gender dynamics. 

        A panoramic glance at the plethora of Qur’anic ordinances on the theme that collectively support the caption. 

Historically, jurists have insisted that the lay Muslims lack the scholarship to interpret the Qur’an, and must therefore belong to a Sharia law school (mathhab) for their proper guidance in religious matters and conformity to a given legal system. This led to the institutionalization 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 a cumulative juristic tradition that circumscribes the views, opinions and rulings of Islam’s jurists and doctors of law and their interpretation of the Qur’anic ordinances pertaining to the different facets of life, including man-woman relationship. Since it privileges the opinions of scholars and jurists above the Qur’an – as and when they conflict with its dictate [1], its acknowledgement/claim to being an infallible word of God is no more than a sweeping and specious generalization that is untrue [2]. Furthermore, as the Islamic civilization spanned the medieval ages (8th – 18th CE), the views and opinions of scholars and jurists were inevitably informed by the civilizational paradigms of the medieval ages, rather than the dictates of the Qur’an. Thus, the Shar'ia of Islam incorporates a host of notions that stand in stark contradiction with the Qur’anic message - undiluted patriarchy is one such notion that the Muslims to this day regard as divinely ordained - an unquestionable and unalterable tenet of their faith.

The object of this exercise is to probe the Qur’an – the highest and irrefutable source of Islamic law that is above historical influence to demonstrate that there is no gender inequality in Islam and that the notion of male guardianship of women is anti-Qur’anic.

1. Rights and obligations of men and women in wedlock.

The biological constitution and the substantive procreative role of a woman renders her physically disadvantaged during the later months of her pregnancy and calls for her suckling/ nursing of her newborn baby for almost two years. The man who fathers her child, at the best, only partially shares its nursing. The principle of universal justice therefore imposes a normative financial responsibility or obligation upon a man towards the woman who bears the burden of his child in her womb, delivers it in agony after spell upon spell of pain and nurses it for another two years - a thirty months' ordeal (2:233, 46:15) [3]. This principle dictates the different facets of Qur’anic ordinances on man-woman relationship in and outside wedlock. These are embedded across the Qur'anic text and can be summarized as follows based on the extensively researched and highly accredited work of Muhammad Assad, extracted from a more recent focused work [4], that in the words of Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, "is an authoritatively reliable text to teach young Muslims or even the Muslims who never had time to study the Qur'an or the fundamentals of their religion." [4; p.xx]

        Men are required to give reasonable dowers to their wives (4:4), even if they break the marriage before consummation (2:236/237), though women may voluntarily forgo a part of marriage dower (4:4).

        By combining its sanction of sexual freedom in wedlock to a man with heeding God, the Qur'an lends a spiritual dimension to sexuality that is not admissive of any coercion in sexual matter (2:223). 

        Men should support their wives and maintain them with their income (4:34) though women of means may also support their husbands (4:32) 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).

        In the event of a husband charging his wife of adultery as the first hand but only witness, her oath of innocence will be accepted against his charge (24:6-9) 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 to lawfully.

        Women suspecting their husbands of extramarital perversity may try to resolve the matter with them mutually (4:128), failing which, terminate the marriage (4:130), and in extreme cases, unilaterally divorce them, after paying a compensation (2:229).

        Men are not vested with any legal or higher level of authority over their wives and are neither entitled to their unqualified obedience, nor authorized to beat a rebellious wife or have intimacy with captive women, bondmaids as the traditional matriarchic reading suggest (2:228, 4:34, 23:6/7, 70:29/30).

        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).

        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).

        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).

        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).

        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).

        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), nor to hinder them from marrying a spouse of their choice (2:232).

        Men to refrain from extorting any property from their wives, such as during a divorce or from the widows of kinsmen (2: 2:229, 4:19-20).

        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).

        Based on Qur’anic broader message, monogamy is the social norm [5] but a man may take more than one wife under exceptional circumstances (4:3).

        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), 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).  

        It is a binding duty for men and women to make a will taking witnesses before they die (2:180-182, 5:106-108).

        Each of the parents (mother and father) inherit equally from a deceased off-spring (4:12).

        Though a daughter inherits half as much as a son (4:12), a person should be able to adjust the inheritance among his heir by leaving a duly witnessed will – a binding commandment that technically privileges the inheritance laws.

2.  The Qur’an does not vest the man with guardianship role in family/ legal matters 

However matriarchic, Islamic civilization offered its women folk a far better bargain than its rival civilizations that were oppressive and mercilessly patriarchic – rather misogynistic. But with growing awareness of human rights and gender equality in recent times the table has turned. Women in the Islamic civilization are subjected to a suppressive, oppressive and even violent form of patriarchy while their counterparts in rival civilizations enjoy far better privileges and gender equality. So the question that needs urgent answering is, does the Qur’an advocate gender equality or treats women in a condescending or discriminatory manner – that is, privileges men as the superior gender category? This is not an arithmetical question that brokers a singular conclusive answer, such as two plus two is equal to four. But the Qur’an’s following general enunciations on conjugal relationship, viewed in conjunction with foregoing reciprocal roles and biological differences (opening paragraph above), point to a vision of gender equality that, by dint of the opening verse of the fourth Sura al-Nissa – that is named after women (al-Nissa), tilts the scale of privilege on the woman’s side.           

        It describes believing men and believing women as the protectors (awliya’) of each other (9:71) thereby abolishing the Justinian law [6] that advocates, among other things, the ownership of a woman by her father, or husband or the most rightful man in the filial hierarchy (such as a blood brother). 

        A sizeable number of its verses are addressed to humanity (implying both men and women) while some are explicitly addressed to men and women (4:124, 33:25), indicating that it subjects men and women to the same set of commandments and moral and behavioural paradigms. The Qur’anic verses that are specifically addressed to men-folk, owe their addressing mode to the dominant space the men-folk occupied in the social milieu of the seventh century Arabia, and not to their gender superiority. 

        Its verses relating to sexual relationship (30:21, 7:189) combine love (muwadda), mercy (rahma) and tranquillity (sukun) with the notion of pregnancy (haml) and are directed to the common gender (zauja), and not to the woman alone. In other places as well (2:233, 17:24, 31:14, 46:15), the Qur’an refers to the joint responsibility of the parents in nursing the child, though stressing on the physical hardship and agony of the mother in bearing and delivering it.

        It does not privilege the male gender in creation chronology or hierarchy and projects man and woman as co-equals – descending together from an integrated self (6:98, 16:72, 30:21, 49:13, 53:44), and furnishes no ground to accord a more privileged status to man.

        The episode of Adam’s exit from the paradise (2:30-38) likewise has no mention of an Eve emerging from his rib, or, prompting him to eat of the Forbidden tree, or earning divine curse for a treacherous role as in the Bible. Furthermore, the divine command, ‘‘Clear out, all (you people), with enmity between yourselves…’ (2:36) employing the expression “ba‘dakum ‘ala ba‘din” projects Adam as a symbol of human race rather than an individual, or an individual male. 

        It uses identical phrases while forbidding believing men and women to chose/ maintain pagan spouses (2:221) and on sexual morality (24:30, opening statement of 24:31).

        It empowered married Meccan women to take oath of allegiance with the Prophet (60:12) without having their husbands to stand witness.

        It places no premium on virginity, attaches no stigma on widowhood: its vocabulary does not even have a counterpart for the latter condescending word.

        Its command to call in Muslim women and grown up children (including daughters) to take an oath, along with their Christian counterparts, over an issue of utmost significance: the birth of Jesus (3:59-61).

        Women, like men, can act as a witness in equal capacity as men except for commercial contracts, owing obviously the harsh trading realities of the era (2:282) as elucidated further below.

        Women, like men, can have independent income and posses properties (4:32).

        Women, like men, can pursue universal knowledge and develop their potentials as God’s deputy (khalifah) on earth (2:30, 6:165, 27:62, 35:39), created in the finest model and favored above much of God’s creation (95:4, 17:70).

        The Qur’an projects a woman (not named) ruling over a land (Sheba) in consultation with her chieftains, and later embracing the true faith (27:32/33, 27:44).

        The Qur’an removes all taboos against menstruation (2:222). 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.  

In sum, it may not be an over-exaggeration to suggest that a believing feminist may see a touch of matriarchy in the Qur’an as reflected in the very opening verse of the Sura Nissa:

“O Humankind! Heed your Lord (attaqu rab bakum) who created you from a single self (nafs) and created from it its spouse and scattered from the two countless men and women. Heed God (attaqu al-Lah) through whom you demand (your mutual rights) and (heed) the wombs (arham)” (4:1).

3. Historical machinations versus the Qur’anic perspective on Women’s role in society

A deep-rooted misogynistic heritage, fostered by the dicta of some patently weak accounts [7], led the Muslim ‘Ulama to impose various restrictions on women. Any cataloguing of such restrictions will not serve any purpose, but it is sufficient to say that until very recent times, Muslim women were discouraged from pursuing higher education, working side by side with men in corporate offices, travelling by themselves, or even taking up a lawful profession of their choice – just to cite some glaring examples. However, as noted in the foregoing overview, the Qur’an does not impose any such restrictions on women. In fact, from the Qur’anic perspective, if men can travel by themselves or pursue studies, take up a lawful profession or work for a livelihood, so can women. However, it goes without saying that the choice of both men and women for taking part in any activity is conditioned by their external environment and by the facilities at their disposal. Thus, today, a woman can travel around the world without the need of a protective guardian while just a century ago, she would need a male guard or companion to go to a neighbouring village to ensure her safety. In sum, the Qur’an does not invest men with the guardianship of women and expects them to live together as friends and protectors of one another (awliya’, 9:71). While men are entrusted with the financial responsibility of the family (qawwamah), the woman can also play this role depending upon relative incomes of the spouses (4:34).

All these Qur’anic illustrations clearly and conclusively demonstrate its gender equality. But in light of the Qur’an’s social, moral and ethical tenets, such an ‘equality’ will not be on a strictly quid pro quo basis, but on the basis of mutual understanding and share and care. The advocates of preferential legal status of men may still quote the verse 2:282 to drive their discriminatory views against the women. This therefore needs to be clarified.

Is the Qur’anic injunction to substitute one male witness with two female witnesses (2:282) an eternal mandate?

Jurists cite the Qur’anic injunction embedded in the verse 2:282 to taking two female witnesses for one male witness for a business contract as a proof of a woman’s lower intellect/ legal standing. Such a conclusion from a single Qur’anic verse is misleading, as the Qur’an maintains its gender neutrality in all other witnessing situations, notably:

        While handing back properties to orphans as they reach a matured age (4:6).

        Witnessing a will (5:106-107).

        Witnessing an alleged adultery (4:15, 24:4).

        Witnessing the execution of a divorce (65:2).

Historically, trading has been a predominantly male profession as it involved travelling across hazardous terrains and staying away from homes. Therefore, the general instruction is to take two male witnesses and if two of them are not available, only then one male and two female witnesses. This existential dimension of the ordinance places the verse in the category of those relating to the material aspects of life in the seventh century Arabia, such as employing hunting animals to catch birds (5:4), travelling to the Ka‘ba on lean mounts (22:27), or employing cavalry (8:60) in combat. But the Qur’an repeatedly asks Muslims to reflect, to reason and to understand, and calls for consultation in running the affairs of the community (3:159, 42:38), and even in family matters (2:233). It is thus clear that the Qur’an did not want the Muslims to stop dead in the track of civilization at the seventh century Arabia. It leaves space for progress – for changing the material and commercial paradigms with time. It was possibly for this reason that Caliph Umar used to entrust a lady, Shaffa bint ‘Abdullah as an inspector over the market in Medina [8] while there have been countless female professors and jurists in Islamic history who bestowed academic and juristic credentials to many men under their signatures. Thus if the progress of civilization removes the traditional barriers constraining women’s active participation in commerce, the Qur’anic specific witnessing requirement may be adapted for the changed circumstances and a woman could command equal standing as a man as a witness to a business contract and all legal matters.   

Conclusion. The foregoing illustrations drawn on the Qur’an, considered collectively, demonstrate, without any doubts, that it does not accord men any superiority or preferential legal status over women. In merely few areas, notably witnessing a business contract and division of inheritance between siblings, it was conceivably immature for the Qur’an to empower women at a par with men. However, its verses on rights and obligations of men and women in wedlock (1 above) and gender related illustrations as summarized in this discourse offer the prospect for further empowerment of women with the progress of civilization. Thus, in light of the revolutionary turnabout in the gender dynamics of the rival civilizations over the past two centuries – from an oppressive inhuman patriarchy verging on misogamy to gender equality, the Islamic Shar'ia ruling of male guardianship or preferential legal status can be suspended and Muslim women can be empowered at a par with men, commensurate to her divinely envisioned ordained role in the society (3 above). However, as much as a woman cannot sexually coerce her husband and a husband cannot conceive, bear and deliver a child, there is no quid pro quo or absolute gender equality in Islam, but there is no gender inequality and, if anything, the scale of privilege is tilted in favor of women.       


1.       “Any Qur’anic verse which contradicts the opinions of ‘our masters’ will be construed as having been abrogated, or the rule of preference will be applied thereto. It is better that the verse is interpreted in such a way that it conforms to their opinion.” – extracted from Doctrine of ijma in Islam, by Ahmad Hussain, New Delhi, 1992, p.16.

2.       Article posted on this website captioned: ‘The Classical Islamic Law (Islamic Sharia Law) is NOT a Word of God!’


3.       The 30-months period of hardship mentioned in 46:15 as against two years (24-months) in 31:14 for only weaning is due to inclusion of six months of ‘bearing' period (haml) in 46:15. This is understandably because the embryo is barely six centimetres long at the end of ten weeks, and forms an effective burden of pregnancy only after the third month of pregnancy - W.J.Hamilton, Introduction to Biology, 3rd edition, U.K. 1976, p. 115.

4.       Muhammad Yunus and Ashfaque Ullah Syed, Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA 2009, approved by al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo (2002) and authenticated by the renowned jurist and scholar, Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, USA

5.       Article posted on this website, captioned: ‘The Qur’an prescribes Monogamy is the social norm for humanity’ Ref.

6.       Justinian Code: The Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (527-565) sponsored the collection of all the laws that were in force in the different regions of the empire into a Code (529) that was later expanded to include his own laws (534) and produced a very comprehensive written discourse (Corpus Juris Civilis). It remained the basis of canon law in Christianity until the late medieval ages, and is regarded until this day a rich reference material on jurisprudence.

7.       Examples of such accounts from the Sahih compilations:

        Until morning, the angels curse a woman who refuses to come to the husband at night.

- Sahih al-Bukhari, English translation by Mohsin Khan, New Delhi, 1984, Vol.7, Acc. 121, 122.

        Until morning, the angels curse a woman who refuses to come to her husband at night; and (the Lord) who is in heaven remains angry until the man is pleased with his woman.

        The woman whose husband is satisfied at night and spends the night contentedly will enter Paradise.

Sahih al-Muslim, Urdu translation by Wahiduz Zaman, Delhi 19…, Vol.4, Kitabun-Nikah, Acc. 43,44, p. 55

8.       Extracted from the article, On recognition of women in Islam by Khaled Abou El Fadl, featured on the following


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.