GENDER ISSUES: Women in Islam and Muslim Society - Part II
Posted Jul 4, 2004

Women in Islam and Muslim Society - Part II

by Hasan al Turabi

The Prophet (*) taught Muslims, if they had to sit by the road, to lower their gaze as women pass by. Abu Saeed Al-khudri quoted the Prophet (*) as saying, “try to avoid sitting by the roads and paths”. The Muslims said, “O Prophet! sitting by the roads is unavoidable for us”. The Prophet (*) then said, “If you insist on sitting there, then give the highway its due”. The Muslims asked, “what is that?” the Prophet (*) said, “lowering of your gaze, desisting from hurting any one, exchange of greetings, asking others to do good, and warning others off anything foul”. (Muslim).

Women can engage in business and commerce. Take the case of Qailah Umm-Bani Atmar, one of the merchant ladies. She said, “I am a woman who buys and sells”. (Al Isabah). Umar Ibn Al Khattab entrusted the supervision of administrative market affairs to Shaff’a bint Abdullah bin Abd Shams. Umar used to seek her counsel, pay due regard to her and hold her in high esteem. (Al-Isabah). In this regard the dialogue between Abu Al-Yasar and a woman who came to purchase dates from him, is also significant to show how women went about shopping (Trimithi).

Islam does not call for segregation between men and women. A woman may, therefore, receive the family guests, serve and entertain them. Consider the story of Ibraheem (Abraham) (*), when he received the angels in the guise of (human) guests who told him, “We were sent to the folk of Lot”. And his wife, standing by, laughed. They gave her good tidings of the birth of Isaac and after Isaac of Jacob. She said, “O woe to me, shall I bear a child when l am an old woman and this is my husband an old man? This is a strange thing?” (Hud, 70-72)

There were some elderly ladies whom the Prophet (*) used to visit, regularly. He might take meals in their places and pray there, and when they fell sick he would call upon them to console them. Take, for instance, Umm-Aiman. She migrated from Mekkah to Madinah walking all the way on foot with none to keep her company and in extremely hot weather. The prophet (*) used to honour her with his social visits (Seerat Ibn-Hisham).

Khaulah bint Qais is another such lady. According to Al Tabrani, Ibn-Harith heard Khaula hint Qais say: “the Prophet (*) and I took meals in the same dish”. (AI-Isabah). Al-Shaffa bint Abdullah was one of the wise and prominent ladies of Madinah. The Prophet (*) used to visit her and took his mid-day nap in her house. She arranged a bed and a sheet for him to sleep in. (Al-Isabah)

Al-Shaykhan (i.e Bukkari and Muslim) give an account of Maleekah Al Ansariah on the authority of Anas who said that his grandmother Maleekah invited the Prophet to meals which she herself had prepared. The same tradition relates how the Prophet (*) offered his prayers in their houses: Anas said, “An orphan and I would stand behind him, and the old lady behind us”. (Al-Isabah)

Lubabah bint Al-Harith, it is stated, was one of the first ladies after Sayyedah Khadijah, to embrace Islam. The Prophet (*) used to visit her and take his mid-day nap in her house. Umm-Waraga was a lady that the Prophet (*) used to visit. The Prophet (*) allowed her to pray at home and to lead her staff, male and female, in prayer (Abu Dawoud). It was she who, when the Prophet (*) conducted the battle of Badr, requested him to allow her to accompany him so that she might treat the patients and that perhaps God might bless her with martyrdom. (Al-Isabah).

Fatimah bint Asad bin Hashim was a very pious lady. The Prophet (*) used to visit her and take his mid-day nap in her house. (Tabaqat)

Umm al Fadhl bint Al-Harith was the first woman to embrace Islam after Sayyedah Khadijah. The Prophet (*) used to visit her and take his mid-day nap in her house. (Tabqat). All these were women of social distinction worthy of the Prophet’s consideration.

Even a bride may undertake to serve guests personally. Sahal bin S’ad Al Ansari stated that Abu Saeed invited the Prophet (*) to his wedding feast. His bride Umm-Saeed was the one who prepared the meals and served the guests too. She put some dates in a stone vessel to soak in water. When the Prophet (*) had finished the meal she crushed the dates with her own hand and gave the prophet (*) to drink, as a special favour. (The Shaikhan, Bukhari and Muslim).

The practice of family visits was also common in the early period of Islam. For instance, the visits of the Prophet (*) to Al Rabee bint Muawiz and her husband Ilyas bin Al Kabeer, were well-known. Abu Dawoud, At-Tirmithy and Ibn-Majah quoted a number of traditions on the authority of Ibn-Aqeel. Al Rabee bint Muawiz gives a description of the Prophet’s ablution. She said that the Prophet (*) used to come to them and say, “please pour water so that I may do the ablution (wadu)”. (Al-Isabah)

So far as the familiar Hijab is concerned, it refers to the special regulation pertaining to the Prophet’s wives due to their status and situations. They occupied a position different from all other women, their responsibility is thereby stiffened. God has ordained that their reward as well as punishment be double that for any other woman. “O wives of the Prophet whoever of you commits a vile deed will have her punishment doubled. And that, for God, is quite easy. And whosoever of you serves God and his Prophet devoutly and acts righteously, we shall give her double reward. And we have prepared for her honourable sustenance in the hereafter”. (Al-Ahzab, 30-31).

The verses of the same Sura ordained that the wives of the Prophet (peace upon him) draw a curtain (to ensure privacy in the Prophet’s room which naturally attracted many visitors of all sorts), and that they dress up completely without showing any part of their bodies including face and hands to any man; though all other Muslim women were exempted from these restrictions.

“O you who believe don’t enter the Prophet’s homes except when you are invited for a meal and don’t come too early awaiting its preparation. But when you are invited, do enter (the prophet’s home). When you have finished the meal, disperse, without (lingering) for familiar talk. Such behaviour used to inconvenience the Prophet who was too embarrassed shy (to ask you to disperse). But God is not embarrassed to say the truth. And when you ask the Prophet’s women something ask, them from behind a curtain. This is purer for your hearts as well as for theirs. It is not proper for you to annoy the Prophet. None of you will at all marry the Prophet’s wives after his death. God considers that an enormously great sin”. (Al-Ahzab, 53).

The text of this commandment is evidently restricted to the Prophet’s house, dialogue with his wives, and impermissibility of their remarriage after his death. The circumstances surrounding the revelation of the commandment confirm that the provisions of the commandment are so confined. An authentic tradition demonstrates that this commandment vindicated a specific suggestion advanced by Umar bin al Khattab. Sayyedha Aishah is quoted as saying that Umar bin Al Khattab asked the Prophet (*) to confine his wives. She said, “but the Prophet (peace he upon him) did not do so. Then God sent down the verses relating to confinement”. (Bukhari, Musand Al-Imam Ahmed Ibn-Hambal).

The verses may directly concern the prolonged stay of the guests who came to attend the wedding to Zainab bint Jahash. Ibn-shihab reports that Anas bin Malik gave him the following account: “When the Prophet (*) arrived in Madinah, I was a boy of ten. And I spent 10 years serving him. None knows more than myself about the revelation related to the confinement of his wives. Ubai bin K’ab used to ask me about the Prophet’s marriage to Zainab bint Jahash. The Prophet (*), as bridegroom, invited the people in the morning to feast. Most took the meal and went away. A group of them, however, remained with the Prophet (*) and stayed rather long. The Prophet (*) stood up and went out. I followed him out so that they might likewise go. The Prophet (*) walked up to the threshold of Sayyedah Ayishah’s room, and thought that by that time they might have left. But when he returned, with me after him, to Zainab’s, that group was still sitting and had not dispersed. The Prophet (*) returned, and again I followed, till he reached threshold of Sayyedah Aiashah’s room that they might go. It was only when we returned that they had just gone out. As a consequence the verses relating to confinement were revealed. A curtain was then lowered between me and the Prophet’s private quarters”. (Bukhari).

A further confirmation of the foregoing conclusion in respect of the scope of the confinement rule is that those women who were separated from the Prophet (*) before consummation of marriage, were not given the title of Mothers of the Believers nor was confinement imposed on them. Some did, in fact, remarry after the Prophet’s death. Take, for instance, Asma bint Al Numan. There is consensus over the fact that the Prophet (*) did marry her; but there is some controversy about the circumstances surrounding his separation from her. Some said that she remarked, “I seek refuge in God from you”. The prophet (*) said, “You sought sure refuge and God has granted you protection from me”. He, therefore, divorced her. (Al-Isabah). Another example is the case of Qeelah bint Qais whom the Prophet (*) married in the tenth year A.H., shortly before his death.. It is reported that the Prophet’s instructions were that if she liked she might be confined and abstain from remarriage. Otherwise she might marry whomsoever she liked. She opted to marry Ikrimah in Hadramaut. When the news of the remarriage reached Abu Bakr, he threatened to burn their house. but Umar told him that she was not reckoned among the Mothers of the Believers, and that the Prophet (*) did not consummate his marriage with her, nor was she confined. (AI-Isabah).

The commandments regarding confinement were sent down in the month of Dhul-Qaidah of the fifth year of Hijrah. It did not affect the position of the generality of Muslim women.

Life in Islam is oriented towards God. If it allows men to come into contact with women that is indeed a test. A Muslim should make such association an opportunity for furthering the aims of worship and gratitude to God. At least he should observe the limits of what is permissible in that association. There can be no legitimacy in exploiting the relations between persons of opposite sexes as an occasion for illicit sexual enjoyment in contravention of God’s commands and in deviation from the proper system for conjugal relations. There is no scope in religion for licentious sexual pleasure, which reduces man to a situation of slavery to passions, instead of to God, or to which man dedicated his time and exploits his total energies as ultimate purpose in life. There is no room for unbridled and uncontrolled passions outside the bounds of marriage.

Fornication, therefore is strictly forbidden; and as commanded by the Quran, no man is allowed to approach a woman with that intention. “Don’t get close to fornication. it is indeed atrocious and a bad way”. (Al-Isra, 32).

One should even avoid any perverse sight or touch that may excite sex. Abu Saeed Al-Khudri reported that the Prophet (*) said, “No man should look at another man’s private parts, nor a woman at another woman’s. No man or woman shall rub skin with another in the same dress”. (Abu Dawoud, At-Tirmithy, Muslim).

It is not permissible for a man and a woman not tied by marriage to seek privacy - the two of them alone hidden from the view of other people. Indeed in such a situation the temptation of sex would be dominant and would engross one’s thoughts, whereas in larger company one is more likely to be oblivious of sex and preoccupied by the pursuits and affairs of the community.

Ibn-Abbas says that the Prophet (*) said, “Keep it in mind that in the absence of a mahram (real father, real brothers, real uncles, etc. to whom a women can not be lawfully married) no man shall be alone with a woman”. (Bukhari and Muslim). Abduallah bin Amr bin Al-A’as said a number of men of the tribe of Bani Hashim came to see Asma bint Amees. In the meantime Abu Bakr Also came. She was at that time his wife. When Abu Bakr saw those people, he did not approve of their being in his house. He told the Prophet (*) about it and said, “I did not see anything wrong”, the Prophet said, “God has acquitted her of that suspicion”. Then the Prophet ascended the pulpit and said, “In the absence of her man, no woman shall meet a man but in the presence of another man or two”. (Muslim)

In public, however, man and woman can confer privately at a distance from others. Anas reports that a woman said to the Prophet (*) “O Messenger of God! I need you for something”. The prophet went with her a little way along a path so that others could not hear and spoke with her. (Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawoud)

The story of Moses (*) and the two daughters of Shuaib, as narrated by the QurҒan, is very instructive: “and when he came onto the water of Madian, he found there a group of people watering, and he found apart of them two women holding back. He said: ‘what is the matter?’ They said: ‘we cannot water until all the shepherds leave, and our father is an old man.’ He watered for them and withdrew to the shade… shortly afterwards, one of the two maidens came to him and said: ‘my father calls you that he might reward you for watering for us….’ One said, ‘O my father, hire him, for the best you can hire is one who is strong and trustworthy’”. (Al-Qasas, 22-28)  A man should not gaze at a women nor a woman at a man so fixedly that temptation is stimulated. Instead, whenever any such thing strikes the mind, one must desist from looking on. “Tell the believers to lower their looks and guard their private organs. This is purer for them. God is fully aware of what they are doing. And ask believing women to lower their looks and to guard their private organs….” (An Nur, 30-31)

In the traditions, Jabir bin Abduallah is reported to have said, “I asked the Prophet (*) about looking at some woman by chance, the Prophet (*) told me to divert my looks”.

The Prophet (*) advised Ali, “O Ali, you must not gaze at a woman. You are allowed the first look but not the subsequent”. But Ali’s report does not mean that looking at a person of the opposite sex is absolutely forbidden. It is only when one seeks sexual pleasure or finds and relishes it. Indeed, in the model society of Islam, Muslims used to assemble freely and frequently; they were mostly acquainted with each other, men and women; they conversed and interacted intensively. But all those activities, were undertaken in a spirit of innocence and in the context of a virtuous society.

The meaning behind the prohibition of some looks at women is borne out by the correlation between such looks and sexual intercourse: “Allah decreed for every human being his unavoidable share of sexual intercourse. The eye partakes of that by looks, the tongue by speech the soul aspires and craves, and the genital organs fulfil or deny the final act”. (Bukhari and Abu Dawooed).

Similarly Abdullah bin Abbas reports that the Prophet was riding a camel with Al-Fadhl, Abdullah’s brother, behind him. A beautiful woman came to ask the Prophet about the Haj of her father. Al Fadhl began to stare at her; her beauty impressed him a lot. The Prophet (*) having noticed this while Al Fadhl was busy looking, put his hand behind and turned his face away from her hither and thither as she went along with them. Al Abbas said to the Prophet, “you are twisting the neck of your nephew!” The Prophet replied, “I noticed that both the boy and the girl were young; and I feared that Satan may intervene”. (At-Tirmithy and Bukhari).

When assembled men and women must not be crammed together in such a manner that breaths and bodies are very close to each other. If the practical exigencies demand, they may, however, get closer than normal, as for instance during Haj. And wherever there are men and women in homes, streets, meetings or public occasions, it is advisable that some distance between the two sexes be maintained. It is on the basis of the same principle that men and women occupy conspicuously separate rows in prayers. During the prayer, sitting or standing, people take up their position in a very compact manner; and while praying one should be completely detached from everything that may divert one from attending fully to God. The Prophet (*) designated a door exclusively for ladies to enter and leave the mosque. Ibn-Umar reports that the Prophet (*) said, “may we restrict this door for ladies only”. (Abu Dawoud).

Similarly, on the highway, men and women must maintain some distance. Hamza bin Sayyed Al Ansari cited his father as saying that he heard the Prophet (*) ask the ladies, “you stay apart, for you can not walk in the middle of the road; you bear to the sides of the road”. “A Lady”, he added, “would walk so close to the walls along the road that her clothes would touch the walls”. (Abu Dawoud). The Prophet (*) used to defer his departure so that the ladies might leave the mosque first. (Bukhair). Umm-Salama reported that when the Prophet (*) finished with his prayer, the women would immediately get up from their places to leave, while he would remain in his place for a short while, and then would rise to go.

The dress of a man or a woman should be modest. By no gesture, word or appearance should man or woman deliberately tempt the other.( See An-Nur 31 and Al-Ahaab, 59).

The Prophet (*) directed that excepting face , hands and feet,  no other part of a woman’s body should be exhibited.  Sayyedah Ayishah is said to have reported that Asma bint Abu Bakr came to the Prophet (*) wearing a dress made of thin cloth. The Prophet (*) turned his face away and said to her: “when a girl matures it is not appropriate for her to show but such and such”, pointing towards his face and hands. Abu Dawoud quoted this tradition, And the majority of Muslims have accepted it in practice.

Temptation is the basic criterion on which these rulings rest. “For women of advanced age who do not expect to be married, there is no harm if they set aside their outer garments provided they do not play up their charms. But it is better for them if they abstain from doing so. And God is All-seeing and All-knowing”. (An-Nor 60). The Prophet (*) prohibited women from passing by men after perfuming themselves. he warned women in these words: “after using scents no lady should attend Isha prayer with us” (Muslim). Abu Musa Al Ashari reports that the Prophet (*) said, “any woman who, after perfuming herself, passes by the people so that they may find her smell, is a fallen woman”. (Musnad Imam Ahmed). The Prophet (*) warned against women who walk swinging ostentatiously and temptingly (Muslim)

Any relationship or situation which may be instrumental to temptation or illegal sexual contact between men and women, is thus not permissible. God says, “don’t approach fornication. It is indeed a vile deed and what an evil practice it is”. (Al Isra 32) That is the standard which determines each cases.

Islam tolerates that one may greet women or talk to them in decent and chaste language and with good intent. The Prophet used to do so. Asma bint-Yazeed reported that one day the Prophet (*) passed through the mosque where a group of women were sitting. He greeted them by waving his hand. (At-Tirmithy). In the chapter Kitab ul-adab of his collection of traditions, Abu Dawoud gave the following account on the authority of Asma: “the Prophet (*) passed by us and greeted us”. Imam Bukhari has given a chapter in his collection of authentic traditions under the title, “Greeting Women by Men”. Ibn-Hazim reported that his father cited Sahal, why so? he said, an aged lady used to send me some goods. She would take the roots of salaq (a salad) and put them in a pan, and then prepare some barley bread. After offering Juma prayer we would go and greet her and she would serve us those dishes, which gave us a lot of joy. On Fridays we always took our meal and mid-day nap after offering Juma prayer. (Bukhari)

Asma bint-Yazeed narrated that, “the Prophet (*) passed by us, the women, and greeted us”. (Al-Tirimizy)

When greeting a lady, shaking hands in a spontaneous manner may be permissible, especially if it is a customary practice in a chaste setting. One may find in Islamic texts strong admonition against touching strange women. But the word “touch” or the like is, in this context, a euphemism for sexual intercourse.

Whenever women came to the Prophet (*) for the oath of allegiance, it is reported that he would not shake hands with them. This is obviously a reservation unique to him. It is quoted by Al Bukhari that the Prophet (peace by upon him) said: “I don’t shake hands with women”. Other reports say that the Prophet (*) did shake hands with the ladies covering the hand with a garment. (Abu Dawoud cited that on the authority of Al Shaabi and Abdul Razzaq). Sometimes the Prophet (*) would deputise Umar for that function (Al Tabrani).

As long as the conditions already mentioned are observed, family gatherings and joint meals, both at home or elsewhere are permissible. Abu Hurairah (may God be bless him) narrated that a man came to the Prophet (*) and said, “I am completely exhausted with hunger”. The Prophet (*) sent a message to one of his wives. She told him, “by God, who sent you with the truth, I don’t have anything except water”. The Prophet (*) then sent the message to another of his wives. She, too, told the same thing. It was the same with all the rest of his wives: “By God, who sent you with the truth, I don’t have anything except water”. “By God, who sent you with the truth, I don’t have anything except water”. The Prophet (*) then said, “whosoever takes this man as his guest God will grant him mercy”. An Ansari of Medina stood up and said, “O Messenger of God, I shall take him as my guest”. He, then took him to his dwelling, and said to his wife, “Do you have something?” “Nothing except the meal for my children”, she replied. He said to her, “you distract them with something: when our guest arrives, put out the lamp, and show him that we. too, are eating”. He narrated how they all sat down and the guest took his meal. Next day when the Ansari went to the Prophet (*) the latter said to him, “God appreciated so much the treatment you extended to your guest last night”. (Muslim)

More than anybody else, it is permissible for those who are seeking each other’s hand in marriage, to see or talk to each other. Mughirah bin Shubah stated that he proposed to a woman for marriage. The Prophet (*) told him, “Have a look at her. that some affection might develop between you two”. Mughirah went to the girl’s parents and told them about the Prophet’s instruction. It was as if they were reluctant. The lady, who was in her private room. having overheard this, called out, “If the Prophet has ordered you to see me, then do so”. Mughirah said: “I saw her and married her”. (Ahmed, Ibn-Majah, At-Tirmithy, Ibn-Habban and Al-Darimi).

The application of the standard of temptation depends subjectively on what a person finds in his soul - that is what he experiences by way of feeling in the case. This is naturally a function of his religious education and integrity. Objectively, it would depend on the seriousness of the affair in any association of men and women such as would distract them from thinking of sex, and partly on the innocence of the particular social context.

The juridical principle is sound: that the avenues and approaches of wrong-doing should be closed by barring acts innocent in themselves for fear of what might ensue. But over-caution may inhibit legitimate conduct on the pretext that it exposes to the risk of temptation and vice. This may lead to the distortion of the general social system of Islam which is based on the full participation of men and women in everyday life with piety and chastity. Indeed, segregation and isolation may well protect a woman from temptation, but it essentially denies her the benefits of the communal life of Muslims.  It denies and abrogates her legitimate role in the social process of cooperation in the promotion of knowledge and good work, in the mutual counseling of Muslims to do all that is beneficial and avoid all that is objectionable, in their solidarity for the maintenance of their well-being and the defense of their establishment. God says, “The believing men and women, are associates and helpers of each other. They (collaborate) to promote all that is beneficial and discourage all that is evil; to establish prayers and give alms, and to obey God and his Messenger. Those are the people whom God would grant mercy. Indeed God is Mighty and Wise”. (Al-Taubah, 71)

The benefits drawn from that communal life of Muslims more than outweigh any preventive considerations in the segregation of sexes in ways not ordained or clearly implied in the formal text of the Sharia.

SOURCES: 1) Tafseer Ibn-Katheer,  2) Tafseer Al-Tabari,  3) Fath Al-Bari, By Ibn-Hajar Al-Asqalani, Commentary on Sahih Al-Bukari,  4) Al Jami Al Saheeh By Al-Tirmithy,  5) Saheeh Muslim,  6) Sunan Abu Dawoud,  7) Sunan Ibn-Maja,  8) Al Isabah Fi Tamyeez Al Sahabah By Ibn-Hajar,  9) Tabaqat By Ibn-Saad,  10) Tareekh By Tabari,  11) Sunan By Al Nisai


For further discussion of this subject, see also:
In Recognition of WomenӔ, Khaled Abou el Fadl, Vol 2:3, 1993 TAM, p. 9. 
Q & A by Syed M. ad-Dursh and Zakiyyah Muhammad, Vol. 2:5, 1993, TAM, p. 32.
WomenӒs Rights, Sheila Musaji, Vol. 2:5, TAM, p. 33.
Book Review of ԓPolygamy: A Remedy or a Right?, Imam Alauddin Shabazz, by Karima Omar, Vol. 2:2, TAM, p. 19.
ԓQuranic Study, Surah 4:24”, Vol. 2:1, TAM, p. 13.
ғAn Appeal for Tolerance Regarding Established Views on Women in Islam, Abdur Rahman Muhammad, Vol. 1:10, TAM, p. 11.
ԓThe Status of Women Is The Status Of Islam, Samar Luberto, Vol. 1:10, TAM, p. 10.
ԓOf Varying Degrees, M. Hashem Sherif, Vol. 1:10, TAM, p. 12.
ԓWomens Rights and the Interpretation of the LawҔ, Jamal Elias, TAM, Vol. 1:9, TAM, p.6.
QurӒanic Study, Surah 4:34-35”, Vol. 1:10, TAM, p. 17.