The Status of Women is the Status of Islam *

The Status of Women is the Status of Islam *

By Samar Luberto

A society is composed of many parts; two of its fundamentals are male and female. In order for the two to function together well, there has to be a certain degree of respect and mutual sharing. In the Islamic framework, attached to the two roles are many rights and duties and even further recommendations for progressive and natural co-existence of the two sexes.

The status of women in society is a crucial factor in its ability to progress. Prior to Islam, women were oppressed all over the world. After the dawn of Islam and during its early years, woman’s status was elevated and women were given all the rights that were necessary for their development and progress. These rights not only contributed to their own specific needs, but to the success of the Islamic civilization as well.

The status of Muslim women has deteriorated from the early years of Islam and is at its worst in the present century. The problem is not Islam, it is the Muslims. Islam is not responsible for the stagnation and deterioration that has taken place within the Muslim world including the deterioration in the status of women. Muslims are starting to realize that in order for there to be a reestablishment of a true Islamic civilization, there must be a journeying back to the basics. This means that women and their rights are a part of this configuration.

Men and women too have failed to uphold their duties and defend their rights according to Islam. “Women have the same (rights in relation to their husbands) as are expected in all decency from them; while men have a degree over them. God is Powerful, Wise.” 2:228 In THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN by Muhammad Iqbal, the author says regarding this ayah: “In this verse, God, Most Merciful, has alluded to the rights of women before referring to the rights of men. A point of expediency in this sequence is that men invariably secure their rights by sheer strength but women are usually unable to secure their rights by force, therefore the need for safeguarding their rights is more serious. (Tafseer Ma’arif al Qur’an). Another textual indication in this sequence is that men should take the initiative in fulfilling the rights of women. The seniority of men referred to in the Qur’anic verse neither implies greater rights of men nor suggests any excellence in terms of the life hereafter (as supported by Qur’an 33:35). In fact there are many subtleties in this Divine statement. As explained by Abdullah bin Abbas (ra), a companion of the Prophet (saw), it simply suggests that men should have greater forbearance towards women. The implication is that should women be remiss in discharging the rights of women, it is expected that they would tolerate such lapses but not fall short themselves in fulfilling the rights of women. Some examples of women’s rights which have deteriorated are: education, economics, security of person, and community support.

EDUCATION - One reason that the Ummah has suffered disgrace after disgrace is lack of necessary knowledge, both religious and scientific. Ignorance of Islam has led to Muslims following corrupt practices and foreign ideologies, believing them to be superior as well as believing their propaganda against Islam. Two aspects of this can be seen regarding women. In the first case, the Muslim woman adapts herself totally to the Western model of womankind, in which she is no better than a slave. In the second case she follows her cultural traditions more carefully than Islamic ones and can be said to be somewhat ‘backwards’. The fact that many Muslim women do not receive a necessary Islamic education has led to this dichotomy in which Muslims are disgraced and Islam is attacked as being too old- fashioned and a product of the dark ages. Obviously, the Islamic model is somewhere in between the two. The Muslim woman should be more educated and her right and necessity for acquiring knowledge should be taken more seriously and men have an obligation to help fulfill this right. If we look back to Muslim Spain many centuries ago we see that Muslim women were encouraged to attend the University! Yet, it is easy for men to ignore this and only view women in terms of satisfying their material comfort (cooking, cleaning, sexual passion, etc.) causing the women to become engrossed in worldly things (clothes, furniture, backbiting, “domestic competition”, etc.) and Islam becomes a name and not a practice. Because many women are not encouraged by their husbands or their families to take learning seriously, they become frozen intellectually and are more likely to follow incorrect traditions and practices. Or, as in the first case, they have no respect for Islam and even view it with enmity or fear. In fact, in order to overcome some of the existing social problems, a correct understanding of Islam is essential for the Muslims as a whole.

ECONOMICS - One of the blessings of Islam for women is in the economic sphere: the man is totally responsible for the economic support of women, yet the woman is not barred from earning money herself and has total control of all money and property belonging to her. However, some Muslim men take advantage of this (and the American attitude) and pressure their wives to work, either to the extent that the wife is the breadwinner or so that the family can “live better”. But I doubt that the women can truly “live better” when faced with such pressures. In fact, the whole family is liable to suffer under such conditions. Most of the women with this particular problem are American and with sufficient educational backgrounds. Here two things provide for such a manipulation: 1) the general attitude that all American women want to work and 2) the high educational background is twisted to serve the wrong purposes (i.e. education is the basis for forcing the woman to work). Allah, (swt) gave the man financial responsibility for the woman, not the other way around! Unfortunately, many women in such situations have no one to support them and to help them deal with their husbands.

SECURITY OF PERSON- A too common deviant practice is wife-beating. In every Muslim community one will most likely encounter women who have been beaten or abused in some fashion. However, the Prophet (saw) has said, “Do not beat or abuse female servants of Allah.” (ABU DAWOOD). Many men misinterpret the ayah 4:34 to mean that they may beat their wives. This is done by taking this ayah out of context with the whole teaching of the Qur’an on this subject, by interpreting the Arabic wording in limited ways and by ignoring the overwhelming evidence of hadith on this subject. In fact, if a woman complains to a QADI that her husband abuses her and an investigation shows that it is true, then he will inflict some type of punishment on the husband. At the time of his death, the Prophet (saw) gave three instructions, one being “And about your women, they are prisoners in your hands. You have taken them as trusts of Allah, if men can’t refrain from beating their wives, they certainly are not living up to their trusts. The domestic strife caused by such acts does not even need to be mentioned.

COMMUNITY SUPPORT - Another major problem, which hinders any real solution to some of the above problems is the lack of support that Muslim women have in dealing with their problems. In most Muslim countries, Muslim women have families that can help to protect their daughters, but in America - in the absence of Muslim families, the absence of an Islamic court system, or even of a cohesive community, Muslim women are left hanging. Either their families are thousands of miles away or their parents aren’t Muslim to begin with. In such circumstances, there is a lack of any pressure on the man and he may take advantage of this situation. Especially hard placed are newly converted women who may not have a wali who will truly take her interests to heart and see to it that her rights are explained to her and that they are protected. In this situation many women are taken advantage of even regarding the marriage contract, maher, and other basic rights. Some men even try to keep non-Muslim or new Muslim spouses ignorant about the actual teachings of Islam so that they may do as they like.
Women also contribute to their own problems by: 1) the manner of upbringing of their sons, and 2) being swayed by worldly things and remaining passive (even apathetic) to their rights. In some Muslim cultures, it is very common for the mother to punish the daughter for something her son did; or not to allow the boy to help around the house, claiming that it’s “woman’s work’, or not allowing the daughter an equal opportunity for education. The first example is clearly unjust and intolerable: it teaches the son that he, too, may punish women and blame women for his own shortcomings. The second example allows the boy to grow up lazy and look upon women as only serving his material pleasures. Yet, the Prophet (saw) said: “Helping wives (in their domestic work) earns (men) the reward of charity.” “If a Muslim goes to market, purchases something and after returning home gives it first to his daughters rather than his sons, Allah will look at him and Allah will not punish one to whom He will look.”

There is more benefit in this life and in the hereafter in treating women well - as wives, as sisters and as daughters. If Muslim men do not see this benefit and are not taking the initiative to secure women their rights, then who will? It is up to women to be informed and to make their legitimate claims. Having a support group can help. And, if the situation is very bad, there’s always protective services. But, it is very unfortunate that Muslim women have to go that far because the Muslim community is usually not helpful.

Looking back at how far we have regressed from the early days of Islam, there is a lot of work to be done. And, this work has to be done NOW. Who is going to believe that Islam is so great when it is judged by the practice of Muslims. In the area of women’s rights which is rightfully a big issue in this century the Muslims in practice are not living up to Islam. Maybe when Muslims start to realize the importance of women’s rights (in practice, not on paper!), they will be able to succeed once again. I am writing this article as an appeal to my Muslim brothers and sisters as it relates to the status of women in Islam. I am an African- American brother and took my shahada five years ago. Upon becoming a Muslim, one of the first books I purchased was the STRUGGLE OF MUSLIM WOMEN by Br. Kaukab Siddique. It would be many years before I would understand the significance of the issues taken up between its pages. The points which I would like to discuss can best be illustrated by an incident which confronted me recently. Not too long ago, I attended an Islamic conference in Chicago which was well attended by many sincere, committed Muslims. I occupied a room in the hotel with some American brothers of Pakistani descent. One night, after the day’s events, a heated discussion developed between the brothers pertaining to an opinion held by one of the scholars in the conference. This particular alim was of the view that Islam permits a woman to be a ruler of the state. These brothers were incensed by this ruling, and one even went so far as to say that he “detested” it. According to him, the only obligation of a Muslim woman is to OBEY her husband. Being a convert to Islam (and therefore not carrying this kind of historical baggage), I found it very difficult to identify with the rage that these brothers were experiencing. Armed with the information contained in Dr. Siddique’s book, I proceeded to share with them what I believed to be the truth concerning this issue. I pointed out to them that there is no verse in the Qur’an which forbids a woman from being a ruler. On the contrary, Allah relates to us the story of Bilquees, a woman who ruled over a mighty nation. She accepted Islam after being impressed by the character of Prophet Suleiman (as). Here was an opportune context for Allah to make female rulership forbidden, if this was His Will. It is the only instance in which this subject is referred to in the Qur’an, yet instead of condemning this great woman, He (swt) draws our attention to her noble rule which was carried out through the process of shoora (mutual consultation).

I then examined with them the evidence found in the Sunnah concerning this subject. One should not understand at this juncture in the story that these brothers took this information sitting down. Indeed, they were quite visceral in their disagreement with my position. There is only one hadith which can be interpreted to mean that a woman’s rulership is haram, but upon closer scrutiny of this hadith, we notice inconsistencies in its chain of narrators which should be taken seriously by those who choose to present it as a proof (THE STRUGGLE OF MUSLIM WOMEN, page 52). The hadith is found in Bukhari. The Prophet is alleged to have said: “The people who install a woman as their leader would not meet with success.” Even if we accept the wording of this hadith at face value (leaving aside for a moment its problematic isnad), it avails itself to several different meanings. These words were supposedly uttered upon hearing that the Persians had appointed the daughter of their king as their ruler. Consider the context. Did the Prophet mean that it is haram for a woman to be a ruler? Or did the Prophet mean, in effect: The Persians will meet with ruin because the Qur’an promises their defeat at the hands of the Romans (30:1), simply using the personality of their ruler to identify the people who would fulfill this prophecy?
I kindly explained to them that this is the reason why some Muslim scholars (including the very famous historian Tabari) support the view that a woman can lead the community. My point was simply to convey to them the fact that this issue is an invidious one, and that what is required is an open mind, not the dogma which has accrued over the centuries. Unfortunately, my brothers were so emotional that they could not rationally consider the evidence.

With all of the love and respect that is due to my brothers and sisters from overseas, I must remind them that we Muslims in America accepted Islam from its root sources, the Qur’an and the Sunna. If an opinion is presented to us as being definitive, it must be backed up with categorical and unambiguous statements from these sources. One thing that I have come to realize since becoming a Muslim is that there are many points of view and historical perspectives. This being the case, I have learned to critically examine all sides of any issue and refrain from taking hard line positions, even when I have reached my own conclusions. (Allah knows best.)

It seems to me that if a woman is not too fragile to fight and die in jihad (3:159) then certainly she should be able to handle the affairs of the state. The scholars of today presume to know more than those who were nominated by Hazrat ‘Umar (ra) for the office of Khalifah (Hazrat Zubair and Hazrat Talha) both of whom followed the leadership of Hazrat ‘Aisha (ra) in the Battle of the Camel. Imam Abu Hanifa said “Those who believe in Allah and His messenger and turn to our Qibla are of us.”

The Imam was trying to stress tolerance in the ummah. It is when we start detesting the substantiated opinions of our brothers and sisters that we begin fighting one another. This need for tolerance is especially true when it comes to restoring those rights to women that were stolen from them after monarchy polluted the Islamic system of life.


Originally published in print in the July/August 1991 edition of

The American Muslim.