WOMEN IN ISLAM VERSUS WOMEN IN THE
MYTH & THE REALITY
Dr. Sherif Abdel Azeem
4. SHAMEFUL DAUGHTERS
6. UNCLEAN IMPURE WOMAN
PLIGHT OF WIDOWS
EPILOGUE & Notes
years ago, I read in the Toronto Star issue of July 3, 1990 an article
titled "Islam is not alone in patriarchal doctrines", by Gwynne
Dyer. The article described the furious reactions of the participants
of a conference on women and power held in Montreal to the comments
of the famous Egyptian feminist Dr. Nawal Saadawi. Her "politically
incorrect" statements included : "the most restrictive elements
towards women can be found first in Judaism in the Old Testament
then in Christianity and then in the Quran"; "all religions are
patriarchal because they stem from patriarchal societies"; and "veiling
of women is not a specifically Islamic practice but an ancient cultural
heritage with analogies in sister religions".
The participants could not bear sitting around while their faiths
were being equated with Islam. Thus, Dr. Saadawi received a
barrage of criticism. "Dr. Saadawi's comments are unacceptable.
Her answers reveal a lack of understanding about other people's
faiths," declared Bernice Dubois of the World Movement of Mothers.
"I must protest" said panellist Alice Shalvi of Israel women's network,
"there is no conception of the veil in Judaism." The article attributed
these furious protests to the strong tendency in the West to scapegoat
Islam for practices that are just as much a part of the West's own
cultural heritage. "Christian and Jewish feminists were not going
to sit around being discussed in the same category as those wicked
Muslims," wrote Gwynne Dyer.
was not surprised that the conference participants had held such
a negative view of Islam, especially when women's issues were involved.
In the West, Islam is believed to be the symbol of the subordination
of women par excellence. In order to understand how firm
this belief is, it is enough to mention that the Minister of
Education in France, the land of Voltaire, has recently ordered
the expulsion of all young Muslim women wearing the veil from French
schools!1 A young Muslim student wearing a headscarf is denied
her right of education in France, while a Catholic student wearing
a cross or a Jewish student wearing a skullcap is not. The scene
of French policemen preventing young Muslim women wearing headscarves
from entering their high school is unforgettable.
It inspires the memories of another equally disgraceful scene
of Governor George Wallace of Alabama in 1962 standing in front
of a school gate trying to block the entrance of black students
in order to prevent the desegregation of Alabama's schools.
The difference between the two scenes is that the black students
had the sympathy of so many people in the U.S. and in the whole
world. President Kennedy sent the U.S. National Guard to force the
entry of the black students. The Muslim girls, on the other hand,
received no help from any one. Their cause seems to have very little
sympathy either inside or outside France. The reason is the widespread
misunderstanding and fear of anything Islamic in the world today.
intrigued me the most about the Montreal conference was one question
: Were the statements made by Saadawi, or any of her critics, factual?
In other words, do Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have the same
conception of women? Are they different in their conceptions ? Do
Judaism and Christianity , truly, offer women a better treatment
than Islam does? What is the Truth?
is not easy to search for and find answers to these difficult questions.
The first difficulty is that one has to be fair and objective or,
at least, do one's utmost to be so. This is what Islam teaches.
The Quran has instructed Muslims to say the truth even if those
who are very close to them do not like it: "Whenever you speak,
speak justly, even if a near relative is concerned" (6:152) "O you
who believe stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah,
even as against yourselves, or your parents or your kin, and whether
it be (against) rich or poor" (4:135).
other great difficulty is the overwhelming breadth of the subject.
Therefore, during the last few years, I have spent many hours reading
the Bible, The Encyclopaedia of Religion, and the Encyclopaedia
Judaica searching for answers. I have also read several books discussing
the position of women in different religions written by scholars,
apologists, and critics. The material presented in the following
chapters represents the important findings of this humble research.
I don't claim to be absolutely objective. This is beyond my limited
capacity. All I can say is that I have been trying, throughout this
research, to approach the Quranic ideal of "speaking justly".
would like to emphasize in this introduction that my purpose for
this study is not to denigrate Judaism or Christianity. As Muslims,
we believe in the divine origins of both. No one can be a Muslim
without believing in Moses and Jesus as great prophets of God. My
goal is only to vindicate Islam and pay a tribute, long overdue
in the West, to the final truthful Message from God to the human
I would also like to emphasize that I concerned myself only with
Doctrine. That is, my concern is, mainly, the position of women
in the three religions as it appears in their original sources not
as practised by their millions of followers in the world today.
Therefore, most of the evidence cited comes from the Quran, the
sayings of Prophet Muhammad, the Bible, the Talmud, and the sayings
of some of the most influential Church Fathers whose views have
contributed immeasurably to defining and shaping Christianity.
This interest in the sources relates to the fact that understanding
a certain religion from the attitudes and the behaviour of some
of its nominal followers is misleading. Many people confuse culture
with religion, many others do not know what their religious books
are saying, and many others do not even care.
three religions agree on one basic fact: Both women and men are
created by God, The Creator of the whole universe. However, disagreement
starts soon after the creation of the first man, Adam, and the first
woman, Eve. The Judaeo-Christian conception of the creation of Adam
and Eve is narrated in detail in Genesis 2:4-3:24. God prohibited
both of them from eating the fruits of the forbidden tree. The serpent
seduced Eve to eat from it and Eve, in turn, seduced Adam to eat
with her. When God rebuked Adam for what he did, he put all the
blame on Eve, "The woman you put here with me --she gave me some
fruit from the tree and I ate it." Consequently, God said to Eve:
will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you
will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband
and he will rule over you."
Adam He said:
you listened to your wife and ate from the tree .... Cursed is the
ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all
the days of your life..."
Islamic conception of the first creation is found in several places
in the Quran, for example:
Adam dwell with your wife in the Garden and enjoy as you wish but
approach not this tree or you run into harm and transgression. Then
Satan whispered to them in order to reveal to them their shame that
was hidden from them and he said: 'Your Lord only forbade you this
tree lest you become angels or such beings as live forever.' And
he swore to them both that he was their sincere adviser. So by deceit
he brought them to their fall: when they tasted the tree their shame
became manifest to them and they began to sew together the leaves
of the Garden over their bodies. And their Lord called unto them:
'Did I not forbid you that tree and tell you that Satan was your
avowed enemy?' They said: 'Our Lord we have wronged our own souls
and if You forgive us not and bestow not upon us Your Mercy, we
shall certainly be lost' " (7:19:23).
careful look into the two accounts of the story of the Creation
reveals some essential differences. The Quran, contrary to the
Bible, places equal blame on both Adam and Eve for their mistake.
Nowhere in the Quran can one find even the slightest hint that
Eve tempted Adam to eat from the tree or even that she had eaten
before him. Eve in the Quran is no temptress, no seducer, and
no deceiver. Moreover, Eve is not to be blamed for the pains of
childbearing. God, according to the Quran, punishes no one for another's
faults. Both Adam and Eve committed a sin and then asked God for
forgiveness and He forgave them both.
image of Eve as temptress in the Bible has resulted in an
extremely negative impact on women throughout the Judaeo-Christian
tradition. All women were believed to have inherited from their
mother, the Biblical Eve, both her guilt and her guile. Consequently,
they were all untrustworthy, morally inferior, and wicked. Menstruation,
pregnancy, and childbearing were considered the just punishment
for the eternal guilt of the cursed female sex. In order
to appreciate how negative the impact of the Biblical Eve was on
all her female descendants we have to look at the writings of some
of the most important Jews and Christians of all time. Let us start
with the Old Testament and look at excerpts from what is called
the Wisdom Literature in which we find:
find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart
is a trap and whose hands are chains. The man who pleases God will
escape her, but the sinner she will ensnare....while I was still
searching but not finding, I found one upright man among a thousand
but not one upright woman among them all" (Ecclesiastes 7:26-28).
another part of the Hebrew literature which is found in the Catholic
Bible we read:
wickedness comes anywhere near the wickedness of a woman.....Sin
began with a woman and thanks to her we all must die" (Ecclesiasticus
Rabbis listed nine curses inflicted on women as a result of the
the woman He gave nine curses and death: the burden of the blood
of menstruation and the blood of virginity; the burden of pregnancy;
the burden of childbirth; the burden of bringing up the children;
her head is covered as one in mourning; she pierces her ear like
a permanent slave or slave girl who serves her master; she is not
to be believed as a witness; and after everything--death." 2
the present day, orthodox Jewish men in their daily morning prayer
recite "Blessed be God King of the universe that Thou has not made
me a woman." The women, on the other hand, thank God every morning
, for "making me according to Thy will." 3 Another prayer found in
, many Jewish prayer books: "Praised be God that he has not created
, , me a gentile. Praised be God that he has not created me a woman. j Praised be God that he has not created me an ignoramus." 4
Biblical Eve has played a far bigger role in Christianity
than in Judaism. Her sin has been pivotal to the whole Christian
faith because the Christian conception of the reason for the mission
of Jesus Christ on Earth stems from Eve's disobedience to God. She
had sinned and then seduced Adam to follow her suit. Consequently,
God expelled both of them from Heaven to Earth, which had been cursed
because of them. They bequeathed their sin, which had not been forgiven
by God, to all their descendants and, thus, all humans are born
in sin. In order to purify human beings from their 'original sin',
God had to sacrifice Jesus, who is considered to be the Son of God,
on the cross. Therefore, Eve is responsible for her own mistake,
her husband's sin, the original sin of all humanity, and the death
of the Son of God. In other words, one woman acting on her own caused
the fall of humanity. 5 What about her daughters? They are sinners
like her and have to be treated as such. Listen to the severe
tone of St. Paul in the New Testament:
woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I don't permit
a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.
For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived;
it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner" (I Timothy
Tertullian was even more blunt than St. Paul, while he was talking
to his 'best beloved sisters' in the faith, he said: 6
you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this
sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live
too. You are the Devil's gateway: You are the unsealer of the forbidden
tree: You are the first deserter of the divine law: You are she
who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack.
You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert
even the Son of God had to die."
Augustine was faithful to the legacy of his predecessors, he wrote
to a friend:
is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still
Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman......I fail
to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function
of bearing children."
later, St. Thomas Aquinas still considered women as defective:
regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten,
for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of
a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of
woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material
indisposition, or even from some external influence."
the renowned reformer Martin Luther could not see any benefit
from a woman but bringing into the world as many children as possible
regardless of any side effects:
they become tired or even die, that does not matter. Let them die
in childbirth, that's why they are there"
and again all women are denigrated because of the image of Eve the
temptress, thanks to the Genesis account. To sum up, the Judaeo-Christian
conception of women has been poisoned by the belief in the sinful
nature of Eve and her female offspring.
we now turn our attention to what the Quran has to say about women,
we will soon realize that the Islamic conception of women is radically
different from the Judaeo-Christian one. Let the Quran speak for
Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men
and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient,
for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give
in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard
their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah's
praise-- For them all has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward"
believers, men and women, are protectors, one of another: they enjoin
what is just, and forbid what is evil, they observe regular prayers,
practise regular charity, and obey Allah and His Messenger. On them
will Allah pour His Mercy: for Allah is Exalted in power, Wise"
their Lord answered them: Truly I will never cause to be lost the
work of any of you, Be you a male or female, you are members one
of another" (3:195).
works evil will not be requited but by the like thereof, and whoever
works a righteous deed -whether man or woman- and is a believer-
such will enter the Garden of bliss" (40:40).
works righteousness, man or woman, and has faith, verily to him/her
we will give a new life that is good and pure, and we will bestow
on such their reward according to the best of their actions" (16:97).
is clear that the Quranic view of women is no different than that
of men. They, both, are God's creatures whose sublime goal on
earth is to worship their Lord, do righteous deeds, and avoid evil
and they, both, will be assessed accordingly. The Quran never
mentions that the woman is the devil's gateway or that she is a
deceiver by nature. The Quran, also, never mentions that man
is God's image; all men and all women are his creatures, that is
all. According to the Quran, a woman's role on earth is not limited
only to childbirth. She is required to do as many good deeds
as any other man is required to do. The Quran never says that no
upright women have ever existed. To the contrary, the Quran has
instructed all the believers, women as well as men, to follow the
example of those ideal women such as the Virgin Mary and the Pharoah's
Allah sets forth, As an example to those who believe, the wife of
Pharaoh: Behold she said: 'O my lord build for me, in nearness to
you, a mansion in the Garden, and save me from Pharaoh and his doings
and save me from those who do wrong.' And Mary the daughter of Imran
who guarded her chastity and We breathed into her body of Our spirit;
and she testified to the truth of the words of her Lord and of His
revelations and was one of the devout" (66:11-13).
fact, the difference between the Biblical and the Quranic attitude
towards the female sex starts as soon as a female is born. For example,
the Bible states that the period of the mother's ritual impurity
is twice as long if a girl is born than if a boy is (Lev. 12:2-5).
The Catholic Bible states explicitly that:
birth of a daughter is a loss" (Ecclesiasticus 22:3).
contrast to this shocking statement, boys receive special praise:
man who educates his son will be the envy of his enemy." (Ecclesiasticus
Rabbis made it an obligation on Jewish men to produce offspring
in order to propagate the race. At the same time, they did not hide
their clear preference for male children : "It is well for those
whose children are male but ill for those whose are female", "At
the birth of a boy, all are joyful...at the birth of a girl all
are sorrowful", and "When a boy comes into the world, peace
comes into the world... When a girl comes, nothing comes."7
daughter is considered a painful burden, a potential source of shame
to her father:
daughter is headstrong? Keep a sharp look-out that she does not
make you the laughing stock of your enemies, the talk of the town,
the object of common gossip, and put you to public shame" (Ecclesiasticus
a headstrong daughter under firm control, or she will abuse any
indulgence she receives. Keep a strict watch on her shameless eye,
do not be surprised if she disgraces you" (Ecclesiasticus 26:10-11).
was this very same idea of treating daughters as sources of shame
that led the pagan Arabs, before the advent of Islam, to practice
The Quran severely condemned this heinous practice:
news is brought to one of them of the birth of a female child, his
face darkens and he is filled with inward grief. With shame does
he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he has had!
Shall he retain her on contempt or bury her in the dust? Ah! what
an evil they decide on?" (16:59).
has to be mentioned that this sinister crime would have never stopped
in Arabia were it not for the power of the scathing terms the Quran
used to condemn this practice (16:59, 43:17, 81:8-9). The Quran,
moreover, makes no distinction between boys and girls. In contrast
to the Bible, the Quran considers the birth of a female as a gift
and a blessing from God, the same as the birth of a male.
The Quran even mentions the gift of the female birth first:
To Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth. He creates
what He wills. He bestows female children to whomever He wills and
bestows male children to whomever He wills" (42:49).
order to wipe out all the traces of female infanticide in the nascent
Muslim society, Prophet Muhammad promised those who were blessed
with daughters of a great reward if they would bring them up kindly:
who is involved in bringing up daughters, and accords benevolent
treatment towards them, they will be protection for him against
Hell-Fire" (Bukhari and Muslim).
maintains two girls till they attain maturity, he and I will come
on the Resurrection Day like this; and he joined his fingers" (Muslim).
difference between the Biblical and the Quranic conceptions of women
is not limited to the newly born female, it extends far beyond that.
Let us compare their attitudes towards a female trying to learn
her religion. The heart of Judaism is the Torah, the law. However,
according to the Talmud, "women are exempt from the study of
Some Jewish Rabbis firmly declared "Let the words of Torah rather
be destroyed by fire than imparted to women", and "Whoever teaches
his daughter Torah is as though he taught her obscenity"8
attitude of St. Paul in the New Testament is not brighter:
in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent
in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission
as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should
ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman
to speak in the church." (I Corinthians 14:34-35)
can a woman learn if she is not allowed to speak? How can a woman
grow intellectually if she is obliged to be in a state of full submission?
How can she broaden her horizons if her one and only source of information
is her husband at home?
to be fair, we should ask: is the Quranic position any different?
One short story narrated in the Quran sums its position up concisely.
Khawlah was a Muslim woman whose husband Aws pronounced this statement
at a moment of anger: "You are to me as the back of my mother."
This was held by pagan Arabs to be a statement of divorce which
freed the husband from any conjugal responsibility but did not leave
the wife free to leave the husband's home or to marry another man.
Having heard these words from her husband, Khawlah was in a miserable
situation. She went straight to the Prophet of Islam to plead her
case. The Prophet was of the opinion that she should be patient
since there seemed to be no way out. Khawla kept arguing with the
Prophet in an attempt to save her suspended marriage. Shortly, the
Quran intervened; Khawla's plea was accepted. The divine verdict
abolished this iniquitous custom. One full chapter (Chapter 58)
of the Quran whose title is "Almujadilah" or "The woman who is arguing"
was named after this incident:
has heard and accepted the statement of the woman who pleads with
you (the Prophet) concerning her husband and carries her complaint
to Allah, and Allah hears the arguments between both of you for
Allah hears and sees all things...." (58:1).
woman in the Quranic conception has the right to argue even with
the Prophet of Islam himself. No one has the right to instruct her
to be silent. She is under no obligation to consider her husband
the one and only reference in matters of law and religion.
IMPURE WOMAN ?
laws and regulations concerning menstruating women are extremely
restrictive. The Old Testament considers any menstruating woman
as unclean and impure. Moreover, her impurity "infects" others as
well. Anyone or anything she touches becomes unclean for a day:
a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly
period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be
unclean till evening. Anything she lies on during her period will
be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean. Whoever touches
her bed must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will
be unclean till evening. Whoever touches anything she sits on must
wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till
evening. Whether it is the bed or anything she was sitting on, when
anyone touches it, he will be unclean till evening" (Lev. 15:19-23).
to her "contaminating" nature, a menstruating woman was sometimes
"banished" in order to avoid any possibility of any contact with
her. She was sent to a special house called "the house of uncleanness"
for the whole period of her impurity. 9 The Talmud considers a menstruating
woman "fatal" even without any physical contact:
Rabbis taught:....if a menstruant woman passes between two (men),
if it is at the beginning of her menses she will slay one of them,
and if it is at the end of her menses she will cause strife between
them" (bPes. 111a.)
the husband of a menstruous woman was forbidden to enter the synagogue
if he had been made unclean by her even by the dust under her feet.
A priest whose wife, daughter, or mother was menstruating could
not recite priestly blessing in the synagogue. 10 No wonder many
Jewish women still refer to menstruation as "the curse." 11
does not consider a menstruating woman to possess any kind of "contagious
uncleanness". She is neither "untouchable" nor "cursed." She practises
her normal life with only one restriction: A married couple are
not allowed to have sexual intercourse during the period of menstruation.
Any other physical contact between them is permissible. A menstruating
woman is exempted from some rituals such as daily prayers and fasting
during her period.
issue in which the Quran and the Bible disagree is the issue of
women bearing witness. It is true that the Quran has instructed
the believers dealing in financial transactions to get two male
witnesses or one male and two females (2:282). However, it is also
true that the Quran in other situations accepts the testimony of
a woman as equal to that of a man. In fact the woman's testimony
can even invalidate the man's. If a man accuses his wife of unchastity,
he is required by the Quran to solemnly swear five times as evidence
of the wife's guilt. If the wife denies and swears similarly five
times, she is not considered guilty and in either case the marriage
is dissolved (24:6-11).
the other hand, women were not allowed to bear witness in early
Jewish society. 12 The Rabbis counted women's not being able to
bear witness among the nine curses inflicted upon all women because
of the Fall (see the "Eve's Legacy" section). Women in today's Israel
are not allowed to give evidence in Rabbinical courts. 13 The Rabbis
justify why women cannot bear witness by citing Genesis 18:9-16,
where it is stated that Sara, Abraham's wife had lied. The Rabbis
use this incident as evidence that women are unqualified to bear
witness. It should be noted here that this story narrated in Genesis
18:9-16 has been mentioned more than once in the Quran without any
hint of any lies by Sara (11:69-74, 51:24-30). In the Christian
West, both ecclesiastical and civil law debarred women from giving
testimony until late last century. 14
a man accuses his wife of unchastity, her testimony will not be
considered at all according to the Bible. The accused wife has to
be subjected to a trial by ordeal. In this trial, the wife faces
a complex and humiliating ritual which was supposed to prove her
guilt or innocence (Num. 5:11-31). If she is found guilty after
this ordeal, she will be sentenced to death. If she is found not
guilty, her husband will be innocent of any wrongdoing.
if a man takes a woman as a wife and then accuses her of not being
a virgin, her own testimony will not count. Her parents had to bring
evidence of her virginity before the elders of the town. If the
parents could not prove the innocence of their daughter, she would
be stoned to death on her father's doorsteps. If the parents were
able to prove her innocence, the husband would only be fined one
hundred shekels of silver and he could not divorce his wife as long
as he lived:
a man takes a wife and, after lying with her, dislikes her and slanders
her and gives her a bad name, saying, 'I married this woman, but
when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,' then
the girl's father and mother shall bring proof that she was a virgin
to the town elders at the gate. The girl's father will say to the
elders, 'I gave my daughter in marriage to this man, but he dislikes
her. Now he has slandered her and said I did not find your daughter
to be a virgin. But here is the proof of my daughter's virginity.'
Then her parents shall display the cloth before the elders of the
town, and the elders shall take the man and punish him. They shall
fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the girl's
father, because this man has given an Israelite virgin a bad name.
She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as long
as he lives. If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the
girl's virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door
of her father's house and there the men of the town shall stone
her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being
promiscuous while still in her father's house. You must purge the
evil from among you." (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)
is considered a sin in all religions. The Bible decrees the death
sentence for both the adulterer and the adulteress (Lev. 20:10).
Islam also equally punishes both the adulterer and the adulteress
(24:2). However, the Quranic definition of adultery is very different
from the Biblical definition. Adultery, according to the Quran,
is the involvement of a married man or a married woman in an extramarital
affair. The Bible only considers the extramarital affair of a married
woman as adultery (Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22, Proverbs
a man is found sleeping with another man's wife, both the man who
slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from
Israel" (Deut. 22:22).
a man commits adultery with another man's wife both the adulterer
and the adulteress must be put to death" (Lev. 20:10).
to the Biblical definition, if a married man sleeps with an unmarried
woman, this is not considered a crime at all. The married man who
has extramarital affairs with unmarried women is not an adulterer
and the unmarried women involved with him are not adulteresses.
The crime of adultery is committed only when a man, whether married
or single, sleeps with a married woman. In this case the man is
considered adulterer, even if he is not married, and the woman is
considered adulteress. In short, adultery is any illicit sexual
intercourse involving a married woman. The extramarital affair of
a married man is not per se a crime in the Bible. Why is the dual
moral standard? According to Encyclopaedia Judaica, the wife was
considered to be the husband's possession and adultery constituted
a violation of the husband's exclusive right to her; the wife as
the husband's possession had no such right to him. 15 That is, if
a man had sexual intercourse with a married woman, he would be violating
the property of another man and, thus, he should be punished.
the present day in Israel, if a married man indulges in an extramarital
affair with an unmarried woman, his children by that woman are considered
legitimate. But, if a married woman has an affair with another man,
whether married or not married, her children by that man are not
only illegitimate but they are considered bastards and are forbidden
to marry any other Jews except converts and other bastards. This
ban is handed down to the children's descendants for 10 generations
until the taint of adultery is presumably weakened. 16
Quran, on the other hand, never considers any woman to be the possession
of any man. The Quran eloquently describes the relationship between
the spouses by saying:
And among His signs is that He created for you mates from among
yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquillity with them and He
has put love and mercy between your hearts: verily in that are signs
for those who reflect" (30:21).
is the Quranic conception of marriage: love, mercy, and tranquillity,
not possession and double standards.
to the Bible, a man must fulfil any vows he might make to God. He
must not break his word. On the other hand, a woman's vow is not
necessarily binding on her. It has to be approved by her father,
if she is living in his house, or by her husband, if she is married.
If a father/husband does not endorse his daughter's/wife's vows,
all pledges made by her become null and void:
if her father forbids her when he hears about it, none of her vows
or the pledges by which she obligated herself will stand ....Her
husband may confirm or nullify any vow she makes or any sworn pledge
to deny herself" (Num. 30:2-15)
is it that a woman's word is not binding per se ? The answer is
simple: because she is owned by her father, before marriage, or
by her husband after marriage. The father's control over his daughter
was absolute to the extent that, should he wish, he could sell her!
It is indicated in the writings of the Rabbis that: "The man may
sell his daughter, but the woman may not sell her daughter; the
man may betroth his daughter, but the woman may not betroth her
daughter." 17 The Rabbinic literature also indicates that marriage
represents the transfer of control from the father to the husband:
"betrothal, making a woman the sacrosanct possession--the inviolable
property-- of the husband..." Obviously, if the woman is considered
to be the property of someone else, she cannot make any pledges
that her owner does not approve of.
is of interest to note that this Biblical instruction concerning
women's vows has had negative repercussions on Judaeo-Christian
women till early in this century. A married woman in the Western
world had no legal status. No act of hers was of any legal value.
Her husband could repudiate any contract, bargain, or deal she had
made. Women in the West (the largest heir of the Judaeo-Christian
legacy) were held unable to make a binding contract because they
were practically owned by someone else. Western women had suffered
for almost two thousand years because of the Biblical attitude towards
women's position vis-à-vis their fathers and husbands. 18
Islam, the vow of every Muslim, male or female, is binding on him/her.
No one has the power to repudiate the pledges of anyone else. Failure
to keep a solemn oath, made by a man or a woman, has to be expiated
as indicated in the Quran:
[God] will call you to account for your deliberate oaths: for expiation,
feed ten indigent persons, on a scale of the average for the food
of your families; Or clothe them; or give a slave his freedom. If
that is beyond your means, fast for three days. That is the expiation
for the oaths you have sworn. But keep your oaths" (5:89).
of the Prophet Muhammad, men and women, used to present their oath
of allegiance to him personally. Women, as well as men, would independently
come to him and pledge their oaths:
Prophet, When believing women come to you to make a covenant with
you that they will not associate in worship anything with God, nor
steal, nor fornicate, nor kill their own children, nor slander anyone,
nor disobey you in any just matter, then make a covenant with them
and pray to God for the forgiveness of their sins. Indeed God is
Forgiving and most Merciful" (60:12).
man could not swear the oath on behalf of his daughter or his wife.
Nor could a man repudiate the oath made by any of his female relatives.
three religions share an unshakeable belief in the importance of
marriage and family life. They also agree on the leadership of the
husband over the family. Nevertheless, blatant differences do exist
among the three religions with respect to the limits of this leadership.
The Judaeo-Christian tradition, unlike Islam, virtually extends
the leadership of the husband into ownership of his wife.
Jewish tradition regarding the husband's role towards his wife stems
from the conception that he owns her as he owns his slave. 19 This
conception has been the reason behind the double standard in the
laws of adultery and behind the husband's ability to annul his wife's
vows. This conception has also been responsible for denying the
wife any control over her property or her earnings. As soon as a
Jewish woman got married, she completely lost any control over her
property and earnings to her husband. Jewish Rabbis asserted the
husband's right to his wife's property as a corollary of his possession
of her: "Since one has come into the possession of the woman does
it not follow that he should come into the possession of her property
too?", and "Since he has acquired the woman should he not acquire
also her property?" 20 Thus, marriage caused the richest woman to
become practically penniless. The Talmud describes the financial
situation of a wife as follows:
can a woman have anything; whatever is hers belongs to her husband?
What is his is his and what is hers is also his...... Her earnings
and what she may find in the streets are also his. The household
articles, even the crumbs of bread on the table, are his. Should
she invite a guest to her house and feed him, she would be stealing
from her husband..." (San. 71a, Git. 62a)
fact of the matter is that the property of a Jewish female was meant
to attract suitors. A Jewish family would assign their daughter
a share of her father's estate to be used as a dowry in case of
marriage. It was this dowry that made Jewish daughters an unwelcome
burden to their fathers. The father had to raise his daughter for
years and then prepare for her marriage by providing a large dowry.
Thus, a girl in a Jewish family was a liability and no asset. 21
This liability explains why the birth of a daughter was not celebrated
with joy in the old Jewish society (see the "Shameful Daughters?"
section). The dowry was the wedding gift presented to the groom
under terms of tenancy. The husband would act as the practical owner
of the dowry but he could not sell it. The bride would lose any
control over the dowry at the moment of marriage. Moreover, she
was expected to work after marriage and all her earnings had to
go to her husband in return for her maintenance which was his obligation.
She could regain her property only in two cases: divorce or her
husband's death. Should she die first, he would inherit her property.
In the case of the husband's death, the wife could regain her pre-marital
property but she was not entitled to inherit any share in her deceased
husband's own property. It has to be added that the groom also had
to present a marriage gift to his bride, yet again he was the practical
owner of this gift as long as they were married. 22
until recently, has followed the same Jewish tradition. Both religious
and civil authorities in the Christian Roman Empire (after Constantine)
required a property agreement as a condition for recognizing the
marriage. Families offered their daughters increasing dowries and,
as a result, men tended to marry earlier while families postponed
their daughters' marriages until later than had been customary.
23 Under Canon law, a wife was entitled to restitution of her dowry
if the marriage was annulled unless she was guilty of adultery.
In this case, she forfeited her right to the dowry which remained
in her husband's hands. 24 Under Canon and civil law a married woman
in Christian Europe and America had lost her property rights until
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, women's
rights under English law were compiled and published in 1632. These
'rights' included: "That which the husband hath is his own. That
which the wife hath is the husband's." 25 The wife not only lost
her property upon marriage, she lost her personality as well. No
act of her was of legal value. Her husband could repudiate any sale
or gift made by her as being of no binding legal value. The person
with whom she had any contract was held as a criminal for participating
in a fraud. Moreover, she could not sue or be sued in her own name,
nor could she sue her own husband. 26 A married woman was practically
treated as an infant in the eyes of the law. The wife simply belonged
to her husband and therefore she lost her property, her legal personality,
and her family name. 27
since the seventh century C.E., has granted married women the independent
personality which the Judaeo-Christian West had deprived them until
very recently. In Islam, the bride and her family are under no obligation
whatsoever to present a gift to the groom. The girl in a Muslim
family is no liability. A woman is so dignified by Islam that she
does not need to present gifts in order to attract potential husbands.
It is the groom who must present the bride with a marriage gift.
This gift is considered her property and neither the groom nor the
bride's family have any share in or control over it. In some Muslim
societies today, a marriage gift of a hundred thousand dollars in
diamonds is not unusual. 28 The bride retains her marriage gifts
even if she is later divorced. The husband is not allowed any share
in his wife's property except what she offers him with her free
consent. 29 The Quran has stated its position on this issue quite
give the women (on marriage) their dower as a free gift; but if
they, Of their own good pleasure, remit any part of it to you, take
it and enjoy it with right good cheer" (4:4)
wife's property and earnings are under her full control and for
her use alone since her, and the children's, maintenance is her
husband's responsibility. 30 No matter how rich the wife might be,
she is not obliged to act as a co-provider for the family unless
she herself voluntarily chooses to do so. Spouses do inherit from
one another. Moreover, a married woman in Islam retains her independent
legal personality and her family name. 31 An American judge once
commented on the rights of Muslim women saying: " A Muslim girl
may marry ten times, but her individuality is not absorbed by that
of her various husbands. She is a solar planet with a name and legal
personality of her own." 32
three religions have remarkable differences in their attitudes towards
divorce. Christianity abhors divorce altogether. The New Testament
unequivocally advocates the indissolubility of marriage. It is attributed
to Jesus to have said, "But I tell you that anyone who divorces
his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become
adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery"
(Matthew 5:32). This uncompromising ideal is, without a doubt, unrealistic.
It assumes a state of moral perfection that human societies have
never achieved. When a couple realizes that their married life is
beyond repair, a ban on divorce will not do them any good. Forcing
ill-mated couples to remain together against their wills is neither
effective nor reasonable. No wonder the whole Christian world has
been obliged to sanction divorce.
on the other hand, allows divorce even without any cause. The Old
Testament gives the husband the right to divorce his wife even if
he just dislikes her:
a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he
finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate
of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if
after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man,
and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate
of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if
he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed
to marry her again after she has been defiled" (Deut. 24:1-4).
above verses have caused some considerable debate among Jewish scholars
because of their disagreement over the interpretation of the words
"displeasing", "indecency", and "dislikes" mentioned in the verses.
The Talmud records their different opinions:
school of Shammai held that a man should not divorce his wife unless
he has found her guilty of some sexual misconduct, while the school
of Hillel say he may divorce her even if she has merely spoiled
a dish for him. Rabbi Akiba says he may divorce her even if he simply
finds another woman more beautiful than she" (Gittin 90a-b).
New Testament follows the Shammaites opinion while Jewish law has
followed the opinion of the Hillelites and R. Akiba. 33 Since the
Hillelites view prevailed, it became the unbroken tradition of Jewish
law to give the husband freedom to divorce his wife without any
cause at all. The Old Testament not only gives the husband the right
to divorce his "displeasing" wife, it considers divorcing a "bad
wife" an obligation:
bad wife brings humiliation, downcast looks, and a wounded heart.
Slack of hand and weak of knee is the man whose wife fails to make
him happy. Woman is the origin of sin, and it is through her that
we all die. Do not leave a leaky cistern to drip or allow a bad
wife to say what she likes. If she does not accept your control,
divorce her and send her away" (Ecclesiasticus 25:25).
Talmud has recorded several specific actions by wives which obliged
their husbands to divorce them: "If she ate in the street, if she
drank greedily in the street, if she suckled in the street, in every
case Rabbi Meir says that she must leave her husband" (Git. 89a).
The Talmud has also made it mandatory to divorce a barren wife (who
bore no children in a period of ten years): "Our Rabbis taught:
If a man took a wife and lived with her for ten years and she bore
no child, he shall divorce her" (Yeb. 64a).
on the other hand, cannot initiate divorce under Jewish law. A Jewish
wife, however, could claim the right to a divorce before a Jewish
court provided that a strong reason exists. Very few grounds are
provided for the wife to make a claim for a divorce. These grounds
include: A husband with physical defects or skin disease, a husband
not fulfilling his conjugal responsibilities, etc. The Court
might support the wife's claim to a divorce but it cannot dissolve
the marriage. Only the husband can dissolve the marriage by giving
his wife a bill of divorce. The Court could scourge, fine, imprison,
and excommunicate him to force him to deliver the necessary bill
of divorce to his wife. However, if the husband is stubborn enough,
he can refuse to grant his wife a divorce and keep her tied to him
indefinitely. Worse still, he can desert her without granting her
a divorce and leave her unmarried and undivorced. He can marry another
woman or even live with any single woman out of wedlock and have
children from her (these children are considered legitimate under
Jewish law). The deserted wife, on the other hand, cannot marry
any other man since she is still legally married and she cannot
live with any other man because she will be considered an adulteress
and her children from this union will be illegitimate for ten generations.
A woman in such a position is called an agunah (chained woman).
34 In the United States today there are approximately 1000 to 1500
Jewish women who are agunot (plural for agunah), while in Israel
their number might be as high as 16000. Husbands may extort thousands
of dollars from their trapped wives in exchange for a Jewish divorce.
occupies the middle ground between Christianity and Judaism with
respect to divorce. Marriage in Islam is a sanctified bond that
should not be broken except for compelling reasons. Couples are
instructed to pursue all possible remedies whenever their marriages
are in danger. Divorce is not to be resorted to except when there
is no other way out. In a nutshell, Islam recognizes divorce, yet
it discourages it by all means. Let us focus on the recognition
side first. Islam does recognize the right of both partners to end
their matrimonial relationship. Islam gives the husband the right
for Talaq (divorce). Moreover, Islam, unlike Judaism, grants the
wife the right to dissolve the marriage through what is known as
Khula'. 36 If the husband dissolves the marriage by divorcing his
wife, he cannot retrieve any of the marriage gifts he has given
her. The Quran explicitly prohibits the divorcing husbands from
taking back their marriage gifts no matter how expensive or valuable
these gifts might be:
if you decide to take one wife in place of another, even if you
had given the latter a whole treasure for dower, take not the least
bit of it back; Would you take it by slander and a manifest wrong?"
the case of the wife choosing to end the marriage, she may return
the marriage gifts to her husband. Returning the marriage gifts
in this case is a fair compensation for the husband who is keen
to keep his wife while she chooses to leave him. The Quran has instructed
Muslim men not to take back any of the gifts they have given to
their wives except in the case of the wife choosing to dissolve
is not lawful for you (Men) to take back any of your gifts except
when both parties fear that they would be unable to keep the limits
ordained by Allah. There is no blame on either of them if she give
something for her freedom. These are the limits ordained by Allah
so do not transgress them" (2:229).
a woman came to the Prophet Muhammad seeking the dissolution of
her marriage, she told the Prophet that she did not have any complaints
against her husband's character or manners. Her only problem was
that she honestly did not like him to the extent of not being able
to live with him any longer. The Prophet asked her: "Would you give
him his garden (the marriage gift he had given her) back?" she said:
"Yes". The Prophet then instructed the man to take back his garden
and accept the dissolution of the marriage (Bukhari).
some cases, A Muslim wife might be willing to keep her marriage
but find herself obliged to claim for a divorce because of some
compelling reasons such as: Cruelty of the husband, desertion without
a reason, a husband not fulfilling his conjugal responsibilities,
etc. In these cases the Muslim court dissolves the marriage.
short, Islam has offered the Muslim woman some unequalled rights:
she can end the marriage through Khula' and she can sue for a divorce.
A Muslim wife can never become chained by a recalcitrant husband.
It was these rights that enticed Jewish women who lived in the early
Islamic societies of the seventh century C.E. to seek to obtain
bills of divorce from their Jewish husbands in Muslim courts. The
Rabbis declared these bills null and void. In order to end this
practice, the Rabbis gave new rights and privileges to Jewish women
in an attempt to weaken the appeal of the Muslim courts. Jewish
women living in Christian countries were not offered any similar
privileges since the Roman law of divorce practiced there was no
more attractive than the Jewish law. 38
us now focus our attention on how Islam discourages divorce. The
Prophet of Islam told the believers that:
all the permitted acts, divorce is the most hateful to God" (Abu
Muslim man should not divorce his wife just because he dislikes
her. The Quran instructs Muslim men to be kind to their wives even
in cases of lukewarm emotions or feelings of dislike:
with them (your wives) on a footing of kindness and equity. If you
dislike them it may be that you dislike something in which Allah
has placed a great deal of good" (4:19).
Muhammad gave a similar instruction:
A believing man must not hate a believing woman. If he dislikes
one of her traits he will be pleased with another" (Muslim).
Prophet has also emphasized that the best Muslims are those who
are best to their wives:
believers who show the most perfect faith are those who have the
best character and the best of you are those who are best to their
Islam is a practical religion and it does recognize that there are
circumstances in which a marriage becomes on the verge of collapsing.
In such cases, a mere advice of kindness or self restraint is no
viable solution. So, what to do in order to save a marriage in these
cases? The Quran offers some practical advice for the spouse (husband
or wife) whose partner (wife or husband) is the wrongdoer. For the
husband whose wife's ill-conduct is threatening the marriage, the
Quran gives four types of advice as detailed in the following verses:
to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct,
(1) Admonish them, (2) refuse to share their beds, (3) beat them;
but if they return to obedience seek not against them means of annoyance:
For Allah is Most High, Great. (4) If you fear a break between them,
appoint two arbiters, one from his family and the other from hers;
If they wish for peace, Allah will cause their reconciliation" (4:34-35).
first three are to be tried first. If they fail, then the help of
the families concerned should be sought. It has to be noted, in
the light of the above verses, that beating the rebellious wife
is a temporary measure that is resorted to as third in line in cases
of extreme necessity in hopes that it might remedy the wrongdoing
of the wife. If it does, the husband is not allowed by any means
to continue any annoyance to the wife as explicitly mentioned in
the verse. If it does not, the husband is still not allowed to use
this measure any longer and the final avenue of the family-assisted
reconciliation has to be explored.
Muhammad has instructed Muslim husbands that they should not have
recourse to these measures except in extreme cases such as open
lewdness committed by the wife. Even in these cases the punishment
should be slight and if the wife desists, the husband is not permitted
to irritate her:
case they are guilty of open lewdness you may leave them alone in
their beds and inflict slight punishment. If they are obedient to
you, do not seek against them any means of annoyance" (Tirmidthi)
the Prophet of Islam has condemned any unjustifiable beating. Some
Muslim wives complained to him that their husbands had beaten them.
Hearing that, the Prophet categorically stated that:
who do so (beat their wives) are not the best among you" (Abu Dawood).
has to be remembered at this point that the Prophet has also said:
best of you is he who is best to his family, and I am the best among
you to my family" (Tirmidthi).
Prophet advised one Muslim woman, whose name was Fatimah bint Qais,
not to marry a man because the man was known for beating women:
went to the Prophet and said: Abul Jahm and Mu'awiah have proposed
to marry me. The Prophet (by way of advice) said: As to Mu'awiah
he is very poor and Abul Jahm is accustomed to beating women" (Muslim).
has to be noted that the Talmud sanctions wife beating as chastisement
for the purpose of discipline. 39 The husband is not restricted
to the extreme cases such as those of open lewdness. He is allowed
to beat his wife even if she just refuses to do her house work.
Moreover, he is not limited only to the use of light punishment.
He is permitted to break his wife's stubbornness by the lash or
by starving her. 40
the wife whose husband's ill-conduct is the cause for the marriage's
near collapse, the Quran offers the following advice:
a wife fears cruelty or desertion on her husband's part, there is
no blame on them if they arrange an amicable settlement between
themselves; and such settlement is best" (4:128).
this case, the wife is advised to seek reconciliation with her husband
(with or without family assistance). It is notable that the Quran
is not advising the wife to resort to the two measures of abstention
from sex and beating. The reason for this disparity might be to
protect the wife from a violent physical reaction by her already
misbehaving husband. Such a violent physical reaction will do both
the wife and the marriage more harm than good. Some Muslim scholars
have suggested that the court can apply these measures against the
husband on the wife's behalf. That is, the court first admonishes
the rebellious husband, then forbids him his wife's bed, and finally
executes a symbolic beating. 41
sum up, Islam offers Muslim married couples much viable advice to
save their marriages in cases of trouble and tension. If one of
the partners is jeopardizing the matrimonial relationship, the other
partner is advised by the Quran to do whatever possible and effective
in order to save this sacred bond. If all the measures fail, Islam
allows the partners to separate peacefully and amicably.
Old Testament in several places commands kind and considerate treatment
of the parents and condemns those who dishonor them. For example,
"If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death"
(Lev. 20:9) and "A wise man brings joy to his father but a foolish
man despises his mother" (Proverbs 15:20). Although honoring the
father alone is mentioned in some places, e.g. "A wise man heeds
his father's instruction" (Proverbs 13:1), the mother alone is never
mentioned. Moreover, there is no special emphasis on treating the
mother kindly as a sign of appreciation of her great suffering in
childbearing and suckling. Besides, mothers do not inherit at all
from their children while fathers do. 42
is difficult to speak of the New Testament as a scripture that calls
for honoring the mother. To the contrary, one gets the impression
that the New Testament considers kind treatment of mothers as an
impediment on the way to God. According to the New Testament,
one cannot become a good Christian worthy of becoming a disciple
of Christ unless he hates his mother. It is attributed to Jesus
to have said:
anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his
wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he
can not be my disciple" (Luke 14:26).
the New Testament depicts a picture of Jesus as indifferent to,
or even disrespectful of, his own mother. For example, when
she had come looking for him while he was preaching to a crowd,
he did not care to go out to see her:
Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent
someone to call him. A crowd was sitting around him and they told
him, 'Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.' 'Who
are my mother and my brothers?' he asked. Then he looked at those
seated in a circle around him and said,' Here are my mother and
my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and
mother.' " (Mark 3:31-35)
might argue that Jesus was trying to teach his audience an important
lesson that religious ties are no less important than family ties.
However, he could have taught his listeners the same lesson without
showing such absolute indifference to his mother. The same disrespectful
attitude is depicted when he refused to endorse a statement made
by a member of his audience blessing his mother's role in giving
birth to him and nursing him:
Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out,
'Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.' He replied,
'Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.'
" (Luke 11:27-28)
a mother with the stature of the virgin Mary had been treated with
such discourtesy, as depicted in the New Testament, by a son of
the stature of Jesus Christ, then how should an average Christian
mother be treated by her average Christian sons?
Islam, the honor, respect, and esteem attached to motherhood is
unparalleled. The Quran places the importance of kindness to
parents as second only to worshipping God Almighty:
Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him, And that you be
kind to parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in your
life, Say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, But address
them in terms of honor. And out of kindness, Lower to them the wing
of humility, and say: 'My Lord! bestow on them Your Mercy as they
Cherished me in childhood' " (17:23-24).
Quran in several other places puts special emphasis on the mother's
great role in giving birth and nursing:
We have enjoined on man to be good to his parents: In travail upon
travail did his mother bear him and in two years was his weaning.
Show gratitude to Me and to your parents" (31:14).
very special place of mothers in Islam has been eloquently described
by Prophet Muhammad:
man asked the Prophet: 'Whom should I honor most?' The Prophet replied:
'Your mother'. 'And who comes next?' asked the man. The Prophet
replied: 'Your mother'. 'And who comes next?' asked the man. The
Prophet replied: 'Your mother!'. 'And who comes next?' asked the
man. The Prophet replied: 'Your father'" (Bukhari and Muslim).
the few precepts of Islam which Muslims still faithfully observe
to the present day is the considerate treatment of mothers. The
honor that Muslim mothers receive from their sons and daughters
is exemplary. The intensely warm relations between Muslim mothers
and their children and the deep respect with which Muslim men approach
their mothers usually amaze Westerners. 43
of the most important differences between the Quran and the Bible
is their attitude towards female inheritance of the property of
a deceased relative.
The Biblical attitude has been succinctly described by Rabbi Epstein:
"The continuous and unbroken tradition since the Biblical days gives
the female members of the household, wife and daughters, no right
of succession to the family estate. In the more primitive scheme
of succession, the female members of the family were considered
part of the estate and as remote from the legal personality of an
heir as the slave. Whereas by Mosaic enactment the daughters were
admitted to succession in the event of no male issue remained, the
wife was not recognized as heir even in such conditions." 44
Why were the female members of the family considered part of the
family estate? Rabbi Epstein has the answer:
"They are owned --before marriage, by the father; after marriage,
by the husband." 45
Biblical rules of inheritance are outlined in Numbers 27:1-11.
A wife is given no share in her husband's estate, while he is her
first heir, even before her sons. A daughter can inherit only if
no male heirs exist. A mother is not an heir at all while the father
is. Widows and daughters, in case male children remained, were at
the mercy of the male heirs for provision. That is why widows
and orphan girls were among the most destitute members of the Jewish
has followed suit for long time. Both the ecclesiastical and civil
laws of Christendom barred daughters from sharing with their brothers
in the father's patrimony. Besides, wives were deprived of any inheritance
rights. These iniquitous laws survived till late in the last century46.
the pagan Arabs before Islam, inheritance rights were confined exclusively
to the male relatives. The Quran abolished all these unjust customs
and gave all the female relatives inheritance shares:
what is left by parents and those nearest related there is a share
for men and a share for women, whether the property be small or
large --a determinate share" (4:7).
mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters had received inheritance
rights thirteen hundred years before Europe recognized that these
rights even existed. The division of inheritance is a vast subject
with an enormous amount of details (4:7,11,12,176).
The general rule is that the female share is half the male's except
the cases in which the mother receives equal share to that of the
father. This general rule if taken in isolation from other legislations
concerning men and women may seem unfair. In order to understand
the rationale behind this rule, one must take into account the fact
that the financial obligations of men in Islam far exceed those
of women (see the "Wife's property?" section).
A bridegroom must provide his bride with a marriage gift. This
gift becomes her exclusive property and remains so even if she is
later divorced. The bride is under no obligation to present
any gifts to her groom.
Moreover, the Muslim husband is charged with the maintenance
of his wife and children. The wife, on the other hand, is not
obliged to help him in this regard. Her property and earnings
are for her use alone except what she may voluntarily offer her
Besides, one has to realize that Islam vehemently advocates family
life. It strongly encourages youth to get married, discourages divorce,
and does not regard celibacy as a virtue. Therefore, in a truly
Islamic society, family life is the norm and single life is the
rare exception. That is, almost all marriage-aged women and men
are married in an Islamic society. In light of these facts, one
would appreciate that Muslim men, in general, have greater financial
burdens than Muslim women and thus inheritance rules are meant to
offset this imbalance so that the society lives free of all gender
or class wars. After a simple comparison between the financial rights
and duties of Muslim women, one British Muslim woman has concluded
that Islam has treated women not only fairly but generously. 47
of the fact that the Old Testament recognized no inheritance rights
to them, widows were among the most vulnerable of the Jewish population.
The male relatives who inherited all of her deceased husband's estate
were to provide for her from that estate. However, widows had no
way to ensure this provision was carried out and lived on the mercy
of others. Therefore, widows were among the lowest classes in ancient
Israel and widowhood was considered a symbol of great degradation
But the plight of a widow in the Biblical tradition extended even
beyond her exclusion from her husband's property. According to Genesis
38, a childless widow must marry her husband's brother, even if
he is already married, so that he can produce offspring for his
dead brother, thus ensuring his brother's name will not die out.
Judah said to Onan, 'Lie with your brother's wife and fulfill your
duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother'
" (Genesis 38:8).
widow's consent to this marriage is not required. The widow is treated
as part of her deceased husband's property whose main function is
to ensure her husband's posterity. This biblical law is still
practiced in today's Israel . A childless widow in Israel
is bequeathed to her husband's brother.
If the brother is too young to marry, she has to wait until he comes
of age. Should the deceased husband's brother refuse to marry her,
she is set free and can then marry any man of her choice. It is
not an uncommon phenomenon in Israel that widows are subjected to
blackmail by their brothers-in-law in order to gain their freedom.
pagan Arabs before Islam had similar practices. The widow was considered
a part of her husband's property to be inherited by his male heirs
and she was, usually, given in marriage to the deceased man's eldest
son from another wife.
The Quran scathingly attacked and abolished this degrading custom
and divorced women were so looked down upon in the Biblical tradition
that the high priest could not marry a widow, a divorced woman,
or a prostitute:
woman he (the high priest) marries must be a virgin. He must not
marry a widow, a divorced woman, or a woman defiled by prostitution,
but only a virgin from his own people, so he will not defile his
offspring among his people" (Lev. 21:13-15)
Israel today, a descendant of the Cohen caste (the high priests
of the days of the Temple) cannot marry a divorcee, a widow, or
a prostitute. 49 In the Jewish legislation, a woman who has been
widowed three times with all the three husbands dying of natural
causes is considered 'fatal' and forbidden to marry again. 50
The Quran, on the other hand, recognizes neither castes nor fatal
persons. Widows and divorcees have the freedom to marry whomever
they choose. There is no stigma attached to divorce or widowhood
in the Quran:
you divorce women and they fulfil their terms [three menstruation
periods] either take them back on equitable terms or set them free
on equitable terms; But do not take them back to injure them or
to take undue advantage, If anyone does that, he wrongs his own
soul. Do not treat Allah's signs as a jest" (2:231).
any of you die and leave widows behind, they shall wait four months
and ten days. When they have fulfilled their term, there is no blame
on you if they dispose of themselves in a just manner" (2:234).
of you who die and leave widows should bequeath for their widows
a year's maintenance and residence. But if they [the widows] leave
(the residence) there is no blame on you for what they justly do
with themselves" (2:240).
now tackle the important question of polygamy. Polygamy is a very
ancient practice found in many human societies. The Bible didn't
condemn polygamy. To the contrary, the Old Testament and Rabbinic
writings frequently attest to the legality of polygamy. King Solomon
is said to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3)
Also, king David is said to have had many wives and concubines (2
The Old Testament does have some injunctions on how to distribute
the property of a man among his sons from different wives (Deut.
22:7). The only restriction on polygamy is a ban on taking a wife's
sister as a rival wife (Leviticus 18:18).
Talmud advices a maximum of four wives . European Jews continued
to practice polygamy until the sixteenth century. Oriental Jews
regularly practised polygamy until they arrived in Israel where
it is forbidden under civil law. However, under religious law which
overrides civil law in such cases, it is permissible .
about the New Testament? According to Father Eugene Hillman in
his insightful book 'Polygamy reconsidered'," No where in the New
Testament is there any explicit commandment that marriage should
be monogamous or any explicit commandment forbidding polygamy" .
Moreover, Jesus hasn't spoken against polygamy though it was
practiced by the Jews of his society. Father Hillman stressed the
fact that the church in Rome banned polygamy in order to conform
to the Greco-Roman culture (which prescribed only one legal wife
while tolerating concubinage and prostitution). He cited St. Augustine,
"Now indeed in our time, and in keeping with Roman custom, it is
no longer allowed to take another wife" .
churches and African christians often remind their European brothers
that the Church's ban on polygamy is a cultural tradition and not
an authentic Christian injunction.
Quran, too, allowed polygamy, but not without restrictions:
you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans,
marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if you fear
that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then only one"
Quran, contrary to the Bible, limited the maximum number of wives
to four under the strict condition of treating the wives equally
It should not be understood that the Quran is exhorting the believers
to practice polygamy, or that polygamy is considered as an ideal.
In other words, the Quran has "tolerated" or "allowed" polygamy,
and no more, but why? Why is polygamy permissible or allowed?
The answer is simple, there are places and times in which there
are compelling reasons for polygamy. Islam as a universal religion
suitable for all places and all times couldn't ignore these compelling
most human societies, females outnumber males.
In the U.S. there are, at least, eight million more women than men.
In a country like Guinea there are 122 females for every 100 males.
In Tanzania, there are 95.1 males per 100 females .
should a society do towards such unbalanced sex ratios?
There are various solutions, some might suggest celibacy, others
would prefer female infanticide (which does happen in some societies
in the world today !). Others may think the only outlet is that
the society should tolerate all manners of sexual permissiveness:
prostitution, sex out of wedlock, homosexuality, etc.
For other societies , like most African societies today, the most
honorable outlet is to allow polygamous marriage as a culturally
accepted and socially respected institution.
The point that is often misunderstood in the West is that women
in other cultures do not necessarily look at polygamy as a sign
of women's degradation. For example, many young African brides
, whether Christians or Muslims or otherwise, would prefer to marry
a married man who has already proved himself to be a responsible
husband. Many African wives urge their husbands to get a second
wife so that they do not feel lonely. 56 A survey of over six thousand
women, ranging in age from 15 to 59, conducted in the second largest
city in Nigeria showed that 60 percent of these women would be pleased
if their husbands took another wife. Only 23 percent expressed anger
at the idea of sharing with another wife. Seventy-six percent of
the women in a survey conducted in Kenya viewed polygamy positively.
In a survey undertaken in rural Kenya, 25 out of 27 women considered
polygamy to be better than monogamy. These women felt polygamy can
be a happy and beneficial experience if the co-wives cooperate with
each other. 57
Polygamy in most African societies is such a respectable institution
that some Protestant churches are becoming more tolerant of it.
A bishop of the Anglican Church in Kenya declared that, "Although
monogamy may be ideal for the expression of love between husband
and wife, the church should consider that in certain cultures polygyny
is socially acceptable and that the belief that polygyny is contrary
to Christianity is no longer tenable." 58
After a careful study of African polygamy, Reverend David Gitari
of the Anglican Church has concluded that polygamy, as ideally practiced,
is more Christian than divorce and remarriage as far as the abandoned
wives and children are concerned. 59 I personally know of some
highly educated African wives who, despite having lived in the West
for many years, do not have any objections against polygamy. One
of them, who lives in the U.S., solemnly exhorts her husband to
get a second wife to help her in raising the kids.
problem of the unbalanced sex ratios becomes truly problematic at
times of war. Native American Indian tribes used to suffer highly
unbalanced sex ratios after wartime losses. Women in these tribes,
who in fact enjoyed a fairly high status, accepted polygamy as the
best protection against indulgence in indecent activities. European
settlers, without offering any other alternative, condemned this
Indian polygamy as 'uncivilized' . 60
After the second world war, there were 7,300,000 more women than
men in Germany (3.3 million of them were widows). There were 100
men aged 20 to 30 for every 167 women in that age group .
Many of these women needed a man not only as a companion but also
as a provider for the household in a time of unprecedented misery
and hardship. The soldiers of the victorious Allied Armies exploited
these women's vulnerability. Many young girls and widows had liaisons
with members of the occupying forces. Many American and British
soldiers paid for their pleasures in cigarettes, chocolate, and
bread. Children were overjoyed at the gifts these strangers brought.
A 10 year old boy on hearing of such gifts from other children wished
from all his heart for an 'Englishman' for his mother so that she
need not go hungry any longer .
We have to ask our own consciences at this point: What is more
dignifying to a woman? An accepted and respected second wife as
in the native Indians' approach, or a virtual prostitute as in the
'civilised' Allies approach?
other words, what is more dignifying to a woman, the Quranic prescription
or the theology based on the culture of the Roman Empire?
is interesting to note that in an international youth conference
held in Munich in 1948 the problem of the highly unbalanced sex
ratio in Germany was discussed. When it became clear that
no solution could be agreed upon, some participants suggested polygamy.
The initial reaction of the gathering was a mixture of shock and
disgust. However, after a careful study of the proposal, the participants
agreed that it was the only possible solution. Consequently, polygamy
was included among the conference final recommendations. 63
world today possesses more weapons of mass destruction than ever
before and the European churches might, sooner or later, be obliged
to accept polygamy as the only way out. Father Hillman has thoughtfully
recognized this fact," It is quite conceivable that these genocidal
techniques (nuclear, biological, chemical..) could produce so drastic
an imbalance among the sexes that plural marriage would become a
necessary means of survival....Then contrary to previous custom
and law, an overriding natural and moral inclination might arise
in favour of polygamy. In such a situation, theologians and church
leaders would quickly produce weighty reasons and biblical texts
to justify a new conception of marriage". 64
the present day, polygamy continues to be a viable solution to some
of the social ills of modern societies. The communal obligations
that the Quran mentions in association with the permission of polygamy
are more visible at present in some Western societies than in Africa.
For example, In the United States today, there is a severe gender
crisis in the black community.
1. One out of every twenty young black males may die before reaching
the age of 21.
2. For those between 20 and 35 years of age, homicide is the leading
cause of death. 65
3. Besides, many young black males are unemployed, in jail, or on
4. As a result, one in four black women, at age 40, has never married,
as compared with one in ten white women. 67
5. Moreover, many young black females become single mothers before
the age of 20 and find themselves in need of providers.
The end result of these tragic circumstances is that an increasing
number of black women are engaged in what is called 'man-sharing'.
68 That is, many of these hapless single black women are involved
in affairs with married men. The wives are often unaware of the
fact that other women are 'sharing' their husbands with them. Some
observers of the crisis of man-sharing in the African American community
strongly recommend consensual polygamy as a temporary answer to
the shortage of black males until more comprehensive reforms in
the American society at large are undertaken. 69 By consensual polygamy
they mean a polygamy that is sanctioned by the community and to
which all the parties involved have agreed, as opposed to the usually
secret man-sharing which is detrimental both to the wife and to
the community in general. The problem of man-sharing in the African
American community was the topic of a panel discussion held at
Temple University in Philadelphia on January 27, 1993. 70 Some
of the speakers recommended polygamy as one potential remedy for
the crisis. They also suggested that polygamy should not be banned
by law, particularly in a society that tolerates prostitution and
mistresses. The comment of one woman from the audience that
African Americans needed to learn from Africa where polygamy was
responsibly practiced elicited enthusiastic applause.
Kilbride, an American anthropologist of Roman Catholic heritage,
in his provocative book, Plural marriage for our time, proposes
polygamy as a solution to some of the ills of the American society
at large. He argues that plural marriage may serve as a potential
alternative for divorce in many cases in order to obviate the damaging
impact of divorce on many children. He maintains that many divorces
are caused by the rampant extramarital affairs in the American society.
According to Kilbride, ending an extramarital affair in a polygamous
marriage, rather than in a divorce, is better for the children,
"Children would be better served if family augmentation rather than
only separation and dissolution were seen as options." Moreover,
he suggests that other groups will also benefit from plural marriage
such as: elderly women who face a chronic shortage of men and the
African Americans who are involved in man-sharing. 71
1987, a poll conducted by the student newspaper at the university
of California at Berkeley asked the students whether they agreed
that men should be allowed by law to have more than one wife in
response to a perceived shortage of male marriage candidates in
California. Almost all of the students polled approved of the idea.
One female student even stated that a polyganous marriage would
fulfil her emotional and physical needs while giving her greater
freedom than a monogamous union. 72 In fact, this same argument
is also used by the few remaining fundamentalist Mormon women who
still practice polygamy in the U.S. They believe that polygamy is
an ideal way for a woman to have both a career and children since
the wives help each other care for the children. 73
has to be added that polygamy in Islam is a matter of mutual consent.
No one can force a woman to marry a married man. Besides,
the wife has the right to stipulate that her husband must not marry
any other woman as a second wife. 74
The Bible, on the other hand, sometimes resorts to forcible polygamy.
A childless widow must marry her husband's brother, even if he is
already married (see the "Plight of Widows" section),regardless
of her consent (Genesis 38:8-10).
should be noted that in many Muslim societies today the practice
of polygamy is rare since the gap between the numbers of both sexes
is not huge.
One can, safely, say that the rate of polygamous marriages in
the Muslim world is much less than the rate of extramarital affairs
in the West. In other words, men in the Muslim world today are far
more strictly monogamous than men in the Western world.
Graham, the eminent Christian evangelist has recognized this fact:
"Christianity cannot compromise on the question of polygamy. If
present-day Christianity cannot do so, it is to its own detriment.
Islam has permitted polygamy as a solution to social ills and has
allowed a certain degree of latitude to human nature but only within
the strictly defined framework of the law. Christian countries
make a great show of monogamy, but actually they practice polygamy.
No one is unaware of the part mistresses play in Western society.
In this respect Islam is a fundamentally honest religion,
and permits a Muslim to marry a second wife if he must, but strictly
forbids all clandestine amatory associations in order to safeguard
the moral probity of the community." 75
is of interest to note that many, non-Muslim as well as Muslim,
countries in the world today have outlawed polygamy. Taking a
second wife, even with the free consent of the first wife, is a
violation of the law. On the other hand, cheating on the wife, without
her knowledge or consent, is perfectly legitimate as far as the
law is concerned! What is the legal wisdom behind such a contradiction?
Is the law designed to reward deception and punish honesty? It is
one of the unfathomable paradoxes of our modern 'civilised' world.
let us shed some light on what is considered in the west as the
greatest symbol of women's oppression and servitude, the veil or
the head cover. Is it true that there is no such thing as the veil
in the Judaeo-Christian tradition? Let's set the record straight.
to Rabbi Dr. Menachem M. Brayer (Professor of Biblical Literature
at Yeshiva University) in his book 'The Jewish woman in Rabbinic
literature', it was the custom of Jewish women to go out in public
with a head covering which, sometimes, even covered the whole face
leaving one eye free . He quotes some famous ancient Rabbis
saying,"It is not like the daughters of Israel to walk out with
heads uncovered" and "Cursed be the man who lets the hair of his
wife be seen....a woman who exposes her hair for self-adornment
law forbids the recitation of blessings or prayers in the presence
of a bareheaded married woman since uncovering the woman's hair
is considered "nudity".77
Dr. Brayer also mentions that "During the Tannaitic period the Jewish
woman's failure to cover her head was considered an affront to her
modesty. When her head was uncovered she might be fined four hundred
zuzim for this offense." Dr. Brayer also explains that veil of the
Jewish woman was not always considered a sign of modesty. Sometimes,
the veil symbolized a state of distinction and luxury rather than
modesty. The veil personified the dignity and superiority of noble
women. It also represented a woman's inaccessibility as a sanctified
possession of her husband. 78 It is clear in the Old Testament that
uncovering a woman's head was a great disgrace and that's why the
priest had to uncover the suspected adulteress in her trial by ordeal
veil signified a woman's self-respect and social status. Women of
lower classes would often wear the veil to give the impression of
a higher standing. The fact that the veil was the sign of nobility
was the reason why prostitutes were not permitted to cover their
hair in the old Jewish society. However, prostitutes often wore
a special headscarf in order to look respectable. 79 Jewish women
in Europe continued to wear veils until the nineteenth century when
their lives became more intermingled with the surrounding secular
culture. The external pressures of the European life in the nineteenth
century forced many of them to go out bare-headed. Some Jewish women
found it more convenient to replace their traditional veil with
a wig as another form of hair covering. Today, most pious Jewish
women do not cover their hair except in the synagogue. 80 Some of
them, such as the Hasidic sects, still use the wig. 81
about the Christian tradition? It is well known that Catholic
Nuns have been covering their heads for hundreds of years, but
that is not all. St. Paul in the New Testament made some very interesting
statements about the veil:
I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and
the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every
man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his
head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered
dishonours her head - it is just as though her head were shaved.
If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut
off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off
or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover
his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman
is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman
from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.
For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have
a sign of authority on her head" (I Corinthians 11:3-10).
Paul's rationale for veiling women is that the veil represents a
sign of the authority of the man, who is the image and glory of
God, over the woman who was created from and for man.
Tertullian in his famous treatise 'On The Veiling Of Virgins' wrote,
"Young women, you wear your veils out on the streets, so you should
wear them in the church, you wear them when you are among strangers,
then wear them among your brothers..."
the Canon laws of the Catholic church today, there is a law that
require women to cover their heads in church . Some Christian
denominations, such as the Amish and the Mennonites for example,
keep their women veiled to the present day. The reason for the
veil, as offered by their Church leaders, is "The head covering
is a symbol of woman's subjection to the man and to God" : The same
logic introduced by St. Paul in the New Testament .
all the above evidence, it is obvious that Islam didn't invent the
head cover, but Islam endorsed it. The Quran urges the believing
men and women to lower their gaze and guard their modesty and then
urges the believing women to extend their head covers to cover the
neck and the bosom "Say to the believing men that they should
lower their gaze and guard their modesty......And say to the believing
women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty;
that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what
ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over
their bosoms...." (24:30,31).
Quran is quite clear that the veil is essential for modesty, but
why is modesty important? The Quran is still clear:
Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women that
they should cast their outer garments over their bodies (when abroad)
so that they should be known and not molested" (33:59).
is the whole point, modesty is prescribed to protect women from
molestation or simply, modesty is protection.
the only purpose of the veil in Islam is protection. The Islamic
veil, unlike the veil of the Christian tradition, is not a sign
of man's authority over woman nor is it a sign of woman's subjection
to man. The Islamic veil, unlike the veil in the Jewish tradition,
is not a sign of luxury and distinction of some noble married women.The
Islamic veil is only a sign of modesty with the sole purpose of
protecting women, all women. The Islamic philosophy is that it
is always better safe than sorry.
fact, the Quran is so concerned with protecting women's bodies and
women's reputation that a man who dares to falsely accuse a woman
of unchastity will be severely punished,"And those who launch
a charge against chaste women, and produce not four witnesses (to
support their allegations)- Flog them with eighty stripes; and reject
their evidence ever after: for such men are wicked transgressors"(24:4).
this strict Quranic attitude with the extremely lax punishment for
rape in the Bible
a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married
and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl's father
fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated
her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives" (Deut. 22:28-30).
must ask a simple question here, who is really punished? The man
who only paid a fine for rape, or the girl who is forced to marry
the man who raped her and live with him until he dies? Another
question that also should be asked is this: which is more protective
of women, the Quranic strict attitude or the Biblical lax attitude?
people, especially in the West, would tend to ridicule the whole
argument of modesty for protection. Their argument is that the best
protection is the spread of education, civilised behaviour, and
self restraint. We would say: Fine but not enough.
If 'civilization' is enough protection, then why is it that women
in North America, dare not walk alone in a dark street - or even
across an empty parking lot?
If Education is the solution, then why is it that a respected university
like ours has a 'walk home service' for female students on campus?
If self restraint is the answer, then why are cases of sexual harassment
in the workplace on the news media every day? A sample of those
accused of sexual harassment, in the last few years, includes: Navy
officers, Managers, University professors, Senators, Supreme Court
Justices, and the President of the United States!
couldn't believe my eyes when I read the following statistics, written
in a pamphlet issued by the Dean of Women's office at Queen's University:
is fundamentally wrong in the society we live in. A radical change
in the society's life style and culture is absolutely necessary. A
culture of modesty is badly needed, modesty in dress, in speech, and
in manners of both men and women. Otherwise, the grim statistics will
grow even worse day after day and, Therefore, a society like
France which expels young women from schools because of their modest
dress is, in the end, simply harming itself.
Canada, a woman is sexually assaulted every 6 minutes",
in 3 women in Canada will be sexually assaulted at some time
in their lives",
in 4 women are at the risk of rape or attempted rape in her
in 8 women will be sexually assaulted while attending college
or university, and
study found 60% of Canadian university-aged males said they
would commit sexual assault if they were certain they wouldn't
It is one of the great ironies of our world today that the very same
headscarf revered as a sign of 'holiness' when worn for the purpose
of showing the authority of man by Catholic Nuns, is reviled as a
sign of 'oppression' when worn for the purpose of protection by Muslim
one question all the non-Muslims, who had read an earlier version
of this study, had in common was: do Muslim women in the Muslim
world today receive this noble treatment described here? The answer,
unfortunately, is: No. Since this question is inevitable in
any discussion concerning the status of women in Islam, we have
to elaborate on the answer in order to provide the reader with the
has to be made clear first that the vast differences among Muslim
societies make most generalizations too simplistic. There is a wide
spectrum of attitudes towards women in the Muslim world today. These
attitudes differ from one society to another and within each individual
society. Nevertheless, certain general trends are discernible. Almost
all Muslim societies have, to one degree or another, deviated from
the ideals of Islam with respect to the status of women. These deviations
have, for the most part, been in one of two opposite directions.
The first direction is more conservative, restrictive, and traditions-oriented,
while the second is more liberal and Western-oriented.
societies that have digressed in the first direction treat women
according to the customs and traditions inherited from their forebears.
These traditions usually deprive women of many rights granted to
them by Islam. Besides, women are treated according to standards
far different from those applied to men. This discrimination pervades
the life of any female: she is received with less joy at birth than
a boy; she is less likely to go to school; she might be deprived
any share of her family's inheritance; she is under continuous surveillance
in order not to behave immodestly while her brother's immodest acts
are tolerated; she might even be killed for committing what her
male family members usually boast of doing; she has very little
say in family affairs or community interests; she might not have
full control over her property and her marriage gifts; and finally
as a mother she herself would prefer to produce boys so that she
can attain a higher status in her community.
the other hand, there are Muslim societies (or certain classes within
some societies) that have been swept over by the Western culture
and way of life. These societies often imitate unthinkingly whatever
they receive from the West and usually end up adopting the worst
fruits of Western civilization. In these societies, a typical "modern"
woman's top priority in life is to enhance her physical beauty.
Therefore, she is often obsessed with her body's shape, size, and
weight. She tends to care more about her body than her mind and
more about her charms than her intellect. Her ability to charm,
attract, and excite is more valued in the society than her educational
achievements, intellectual pursuits, and social work. One is not
expected to find a copy of the Quran in her purse since it is full
of cosmetics that accompany her wherever she goes. Her spirituality
has no room in a society preoccupied with her attractiveness. Therefore,
she would spend her life striving more to realize her femininity
than to fulfil her humanity.
did Muslim societies deviate from the ideals of Islam? There is
no easy answer. A penetrating explanation of the reasons why Muslims
have not adhered to the Quranic guidance with respect to women would
be beyond the scope of this study. It has to be made clear, however,
that Muslim societies have deviated from the Islamic precepts concerning
so many aspects of their lives for so long. There is a wide gap
between what Muslims are supposed to believe in and what they actually
practice. This gap is not a recent phenomenon. It has been there
for centuries and has been widening day after day. This ever widening
gap has had disastrous consequences on the Muslim world manifested
in almost all aspects of life: political tyranny and fragmentation,
economic backwardness, social injustice, scientific bankruptcy,
intellectual stagnation, etc. The non-Islamic status of women
in the Muslim world today is merely a symptom of a deeper malady.
Any reform in the current status of Muslim women is not expected
to be fruitful if not accompanied with more comprehensive reforms
of the Muslim societies' whole way of life. The Muslim world is
in need for a renaissance that will bring it closer to the ideals
of Islam and not further from them. To sum up, the notion that the
poor status of Muslim women today is because of Islam is an utter
misconception. The problems of Muslims in general are not due to
too much attachment to Islam, they are the culmination of a long
and deep detachment from it.
has, also, to be re-emphasized that the purpose behind this comparative
study is not, by any means, to defame Judaism or Christianity. The
position of women in the Judaeo-Christian tradition might seem frightening
by our late twentieth century standards. Nevertheless, it has to
be viewed within the proper historical context. In other words,
any objective assessment of the position of women in the Judaeo-Christian
tradition has to take into account the historical circumstances
in which this tradition developed. There can be no doubt that the
views of the Rabbis and the Church Fathers regarding women were
influenced by the prevalent attitudes towards women in their societies.
The Bible itself was written by different authors at different times.
These authors could not have been impervious to the values and the
way of life of the people around them. For example, the adultery
laws of the Old Testament are so biased against women that they
defy rational explanation by our mentality. However, if we consider
the fact that the early Jewish tribes were obsessed with their genetic
homogeneity and extremely eager to define themselves apart from
the surrounding tribes and that only sexual misconduct by the married
females of the tribes could threaten these cherished aspirations,
we should then be able to understand, but not necessarily sympathize
with, the reasons for this bias. Also, the diatribes of the Church
Fathers against women should not be detached from the context of
the misogynist Greco-Roman culture in which they lived. It would
be unfair to evaluate the Judaeo-Christian legacy without giving
any consideration to the relevant historical context.
fact, a proper understanding of the Judaeo-Christian historical
context is also crucial for understanding the significance of the
contributions of Islam to world history and human civilization.
The Judaeo-Christian tradition had been influenced and shaped by
the environments, conditions, and cultures in which it had existed.
By the seventh century C.E., this influence had distorted the original
divine message revealed to Moses and Jesus beyond recognition. The
poor status of women in the Judaeo-Christian world by the seventh
century is just one case in point. Therefore, there was a great
need for a new divine message that would guide humanity back to
the straight path. The Quran described the mission of the new Messenger
as a release for Jews and Christians from the heavy burdens that
had been upon them: "Those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered
Prophet, whom they find mentioned in their own Scriptures--In the
Law and the Gospel-- For he commands them what is just and forbids
them what is evil; he allows them as lawful what is good and prohibits
them from what is bad; He releases them from their heavy burdens
and from the yokes that are upon them" (7:157).
Islam should not be viewed as a rival tradition to Judaism or Christianity.
It has to be regarded as the consummation, completion, and perfection
of the divine messages that had been revealed before it.
the end of this study, I would like to offer the following advice
to the global Muslim community. So many Muslim women have been
denied their basic Islamic rights for so long. The mistakes of the
past have to be corrected. To do that is not a favor, it is
a duty incumbent upon all Muslims. The worldwide Muslim community
have to issue a charter of Muslim women's rights based on the instructions
of the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet of Islam. This
charter must give Muslim women all the rights endowed to them by
their Creator. Then, all the necessary means have to be developed
in order to ensure the proper implementation of the charter. This
charter is long overdue, but it is better late than never. If
Muslims worldwide will not guarantee the full Islamic rights of
their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters, who else will ?
we must have the courage to confront our past and reject outright
the traditions and customs of our forefathers whenever they contravene
the precepts of Islam. Did the Quran not severely criticize the
pagan Arabs for blindly following the traditions of their ancestors?
On the other hand, we have to develop a critical attitude towards
whatever we receive from the West or from any other culture. Interaction
with and learning from other cultures is an invaluable experience.
The Quran has succinctly considered this interaction as one of the
purposes of creation: " O mankind We created you from a single pair
of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that
you may know each other" (49:13). It goes without saying, however,
that blind imitation of others is a sure sign of an utter lack of
is to the non-Muslim reader, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise, that
these final words are dedicated. It is bewildering why the religion
that had revolutionized the status of women is being singled out
and denigrated as so repressive of women. This perception about
Islam is one of the most widespread myths in our world today.
This myth is being perpetuated by a ceaseless barrage of sensational
books, articles, media images, and Hollywood movies. The inevitable
outcome of these incessant misleading images has been total misunderstanding
and fear of anything related to Islam. This negative portrayal of
Islam in the world media has to end if we are to live in a world
free from all traces of discrimination, prejudice, and misunderstanding.
Non-Muslims ought to realize the existence of a wide gap between
Muslims' beliefs and practices and the simple fact that the actions
of Muslims do not necessarily represent Islam. To label the status
of women in the Muslim world today as "Islamic" is as far from the
truth as labelling the position of women in the West today as "Judaeo-Christian".
With this understanding in mind, Muslims and non-Muslims should
start a process of communication and dialogue in order to remove
all misconceptions, suspicions, and fears. A peaceful future for
the human family necessitates such a dialogue.
should be viewed as a religion that had immensely improved the status
of women and had granted them many rights that the modern world
has recognized only this century. Islam still has so much to
offer today's woman: dignity, respect, and protection in all aspects
and all stages of her life from birth until death in addition to
the recognition, the balance, and means for the fulfilment of all
her spiritual, intellectual, physical, and emotional needs.
That's why it is no surprise to find that most converts to Islam,
today, in a country like Britain are women.
the U.S. women converts to Islam outnumber men converts 4 to 1 
Islam has so much to offer our world which is in great need of moral
guidance and leadership.
Ambassador Herman Eilts, in a testimony in front of the committee
on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives of the United
States Congress on June 24th, 1985, said, "The Muslim community
of the globe today is in the neighbourhood of one billion. That
is an impressive figure. But what to me is equally impressive is
that Islam today is the fastest growing monotheistic religion. This
is something we have to take into account. Something is right about
Islam. It is attracting a good many people."
Yes, something is right about Islam and it is time to find that
out. I hope this study is a step on this direction.
The Globe and Mail, Oct. 4,1994.
2. Leonard J. Swidler, Women in Judaism: the Status of Women in
Formative Judaism (Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press, 1976) p. 115.
3. Thena Kendath, "Memories of an Orthodox youth" in Susannah Heschel,
ed. On being a Jewish Feminist (New York: Schocken Books, 1983),
4. Swidler, op. cit., pp. 80-81.
5. Rosemary R. Ruether, "Christianity", in Arvind Sharma, ed., Women
in World Religions (Albany: State University of New York Press,
1987) p. 209.
6. For all the sayings of the prominent Saints, see Karen Armstrong,
The Gospel According to Woman (London: Elm Tree Books, 1986) pp.
52-62. See also Nancy van Vuuren, The Subversion of Women as Practiced
by Churches, Witch-Hunters, and Other Sexists (Philadelphia: Westminister
Press) pp. 28-30.
7. Swidler, op. cit., p. 140.
8. Denise L. Carmody, "Judaism", in Arvind Sharma, ed., op. cit.,
9. Swidler, op. cit., p. 137.
10. Ibid., p. 138.
11. Sally Priesand, Judaism and the New Woman (New York: Behrman
House, Inc., 1975) p. 24.
12. Swidler, op. cit., p. 115.
13. Lesley Hazleton, Israeli Women The Reality Behind the Myths
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977) p. 41.
14. Gage, op. cit. p. 142.
15. Jeffrey H. Togay, "Adultery," Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. II,
col. 313. Also, see Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism
from a Feminist Perspective (New York: Harper & Row Publishers,
1990) pp. 170-177.
16. Hazleton, op. cit., pp. 41-42.
17. Swidler, op. cit., p. 141.
18. Matilda J. Gage, Woman, Church, and State (New York: Truth Seeker
Company, 1893) p. 141.
19. Louis M. Epstein, The Jewish Marriage Contract (New York: Arno
Press, 1973) p. 149.
20. Swidler, op. cit., p. 142.
21. Epstein, op. cit., pp. 164-165.
22. Ibid., pp. 112-113. See also Priesand, op. cit., p. 15.
23. James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval
Europe ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) p. 88.
24. Ibid., p. 480.
25. R. Thompson, Women in Stuart England and America (London: Routledge
& Kegan Paul, 1974) p. 162.
26. Mary Murray, The Law of the Father (London: Routledge, 1995)
27. Gage, op. cit., p. 143.
28. For example, see Jeffrey Lang, Struggling to Surrender, (Beltsville,
MD: Amana Publications, 1994) p. 167.
29. Elsayyed Sabiq, Fiqh al Sunnah (Cairo: Darul Fatah lile'lam
Al-Arabi, 11th edition, 1994), vol. 2, pp. 218-229.
30. Abdel-Haleem Abu Shuqqa, Tahreer al Mar'aa fi Asr al Risala
(Kuwait: Dar al Qalam, 1990) pp. 109-112.
31. Leila Badawi, "Islam", in Jean Holm and John Bowker, ed., Women
in Religion (London: Pinter Publishers, 1994) p. 102.
32. Amir H. Siddiqi, Studies in Islamic History (Karachi: Jamiyatul
Falah Publications, 3rd edition, 1967) p. 138.
33. Epstein, op. cit., p. 196.
34. Swidler, op. cit., pp. 162-163.
35. The Toronto Star, Apr. 8, 1995.
36. Sabiq, op. cit., pp. 318-329. See also Muhammad al Ghazali,
Qadaya al Mar'aa bin al Taqaleed al Rakida wal Wafida (Cairo: Dar
al Shorooq, 4th edition, 1992) pp. 178-180.
37. Ibid., pp. 313-318.
38. David W. Amram, The Jewish Law of Divorce According to Bible
and Talmud ( Philadelphia: Edward Stern & CO., Inc., 1896) pp.
39. Epstein, op. cit., p. 219.
40. Ibid, pp 156-157.
41. Muhammad Abu Zahra, Usbu al Fiqh al Islami (Cairo: al Majlis
al A'la li Ri'ayat al Funun, 1963) p. 66.
42. Epstein, op. cit., p. 122.
43. Armstrong, op. cit., p. 8.
44. Epstein, op. cit., p. 175.
45. Ibid., p. 121.
46. Gage, op. cit., p. 142.
47. B. Aisha Lemu and Fatima Heeren, Woman in Islam (London: Islamic
Foundation, 1978) p. 23.
48. Hazleton, op. cit., pp. 45-46.
49. Ibid., p. 47.
50. Ibid., p. 49.
51. Swidler, op. cit., pp. 144-148.
52. Hazleton, op. cit., pp 44-45.
53. Eugene Hillman, Polygamy Reconsidered: African Plural Marriage
and the Christian Churches (New York: Orbis Books, 1975) p. 140.
54. Ibid., p. 17.
55. Ibid., pp. 88-93.
56. Ibid., pp. 92-97.
57. Philip L. Kilbride, Plural Marriage For Our Times (Westport,
Conn.: Bergin & Garvey, 1994) pp. 108-109.
58. The Weekly Review, Aug. 1, 1987.
59. Kilbride, op. cit., p. 126.
60. John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A history
of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper & Row Publishers,
1988) p. 87.
61. Ute Frevert, Women in German History: from Bourgeois Emancipation
to Sexual Liberation (New York: Berg Publishers, 1988) pp. 263-264.
62. Ibid., pp. 257-258.
63. Sabiq, op. cit., p. 191.
64. Hillman, op. cit., p. 12.
65. Nathan Hare and Julie Hare, ed., Crisis in Black Sexual Politics
(San Francisco: Black Think Tank, 1989) p. 25.
66. Ibid., p. 26.
67. Kilbride, op. cit., p. 94.
68. Ibid., p. 95.
70. Ibid., pp. 95-99.
71. Ibid., p. 118.
72. Lang, op. cit., p. 172.
73. Kilbride, op. cit., pp. 72-73.
74. Sabiq, op. cit., pp. 187-188.
75. Abdul Rahman Doi, Woman in Shari'ah (London: Ta-Ha Publishers,
1994) p. 76.
76. Menachem M. Brayer, The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature:
A Psychosocial Perspective (Hoboken, N.J: Ktav Publishing House,
1986) p. 239.
77. Ibid., pp. 316-317. Also see Swidler, op. cit., pp. 121-123.
78. Ibid., p. 139.
79. Susan W. Schneider, Jewish and Female (New York: Simon &
Schuster, 1984) p. 237.
80. Ibid., pp. 238-239.
81. Alexandra Wright, "Judaism", in Holm and Bowker, ed., op. cit.,
82. Clara M. Henning, "Cannon Law and the Battle of the Sexes" in
Rosemary R. Ruether, ed., Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in
the Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York: Simon and Schuster,
1974) p. 272.
83. Donald B. Kraybill, The riddle of the Amish Culture (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989) p. 56.
84. Khalil Gibran, Thoughts and Meditations (New York: Bantam Books,
1960) p. 28.
85. The Times, Nov. 18, 1993.