I 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.
What 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?
It 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).
The 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
I 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 race. 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.
The 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:
"I 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."
To Adam He said:
"Because 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..."
The Islamic conception of the first creation is
found in several places in the Quran, for example:
"O 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).
A 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.
The 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:
"I 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).
In another part of the Hebrew literature which
is found in the Catholic Bible we read:
"No wickedness comes anywhere near the
wickedness of a woman.....Sin began with a woman and thanks to her we all must
die" (Ecclesiasticus 25:19,24).
Jewish Rabbis listed nine curses inflicted on
women as a result of the Fall:
"To 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
To 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. Praised be God that
he has not created me an ignoramus." 4
The 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:
"A 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
St. Tertullian was even more blunt than St.
Paul, while he was talking to his 'best beloved sisters' in the faith, he said:
"Do 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
St. Augustine was faithful to the legacy of his
predecessors, he wrote to a friend:
"What 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."
Centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas still
considered women as defective:
"As 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."
Finally, 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:
"If they become tired or even die, that
does not matter. Let them die in childbirth, that's why they are there"
Again 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.
If 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" (33:35).
"The 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,
"And 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).
"Whoever 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).
"Whoever 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
It 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
"And 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).
In 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:
"The birth of a daughter is a loss"
In contrast to this shocking statement, boys
receive special praise:
"A man who educates his son will be the
envy of his enemy." (Ecclesiasticus 30:3)
Jewish 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
A daughter is considered a painful burden, a
potential source of shame to her father:
"Your 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 42:11).
"Keep 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
It was this very same idea of treating daughters
as sources of shame that led the pagan Arabs, before the advent of Islam, to
practice female infanticide. The Quran severely condemned this heinous practice:
"When 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).
It 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
" 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).
In 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
"He 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).
"Whoever maintains two girls till they
attain maturity, he and I will come on the Resurrection Day like this; and he
joined his fingers" (Muslim).
The 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 the Torah." 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
The attitude of St. Paul in the New Testament is
"As 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)
How 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?
Now, 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
"Allah 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).
A 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 ?
Jewish 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:
"When 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).
Due 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
"Our 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.)
Furthermore, 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
Islam 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.
Another 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).
On 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
If 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
Besides, 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:
"If 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)
Adultery 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 6:20-7:27).
"If 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).
"If a man commits adultery with another
man's wife both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death"
According 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
To 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
The 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).
This is the Quranic conception of marriage:
love, mercy, and tranquillity, not possession and double standards.
According 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:
"But 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)
Why 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.
It 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
In 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:
"He [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).
Companions 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:
"O 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
A 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
The 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.
The 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
"How 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)
The 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
Christianity, 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
Islam, 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 clearly:
"And 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)
The 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
The 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.
Judaism, 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:
"If 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"
The 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
"The 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).
The 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
"A 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).
The 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.
Wives, 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. 35
Islam 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:
"But 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
In 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 the marriage:
"It 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).
Also, 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).
In 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. 37
In 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
Let us now focus our attention on how Islam
discourages divorce. The Prophet of Islam told the believers that:
"among all the permitted acts, divorce
is the most hateful to God" (Abu Dawood).
A 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:
"Live 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).
Prophet 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
The Prophet has also emphasized that the best
Muslims are those who are best to their wives:
"The 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 wives" (Tirmidthi).
However, 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:
"As 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).
The 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.
Prophet 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
"In 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
Furthermore, 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:
"Those who do so (beat their wives) are
not the best among you" (Abu Dawood).
It has to be remembered at this point that the
Prophet has also said:
"The best of you is he who is best to
his family, and I am the best among you to my family" (Tirmidthi).
The Prophet advised one Muslim woman, whose name
was Fatimah bint Qais, not to marry a man because the man was known for beating
"I 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
It 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
For the wife whose husband's ill-conduct is the
cause for the marriage's near collapse, the Quran offers the following advice:
"If 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).
In 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
To 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.
The 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
It 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:
"If 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).
Furthermore, 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:
"Then 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
One 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:
"As 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)
If 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?
In 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:
"Your 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).
The Quran in several other places puts special
emphasis on the mother's great role in giving birth and nursing:
"And 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).
The very special place of mothers in Islam has
been eloquently described by Prophet Muhammad:
"A 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).
Among 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
One 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
The 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 society.
Christianity 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.
Among 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:
"From 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).
Muslim 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 husband. 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
Because 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 a woman's
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 (Isaiah 54:4).
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.
"Then 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).
The 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. 48 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.
The pagan Arabs before Islam had similar
practices. A 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 marry not women whom your fathers
married--Except what is past-- it was shameful, odious, and abominable custom
Widows 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:
"The 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)
In 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:
"When 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).
"If 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
"Those 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).
Let us now tackle the important question of
polygamy. Polygamy is a very ancient practice found in many human societies. The
Bible did not 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 Samuel 5:13). 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 (Lev. 18:18). The Talmud advises a
maximum of four wives. 51 European Jews continued to practice polygamy until the
sixteenth century. Oriental Jews regularly practiced 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. 52
What about the New Testament? According to
Father Eugene Hillman in his insightful book, Polygamy reconsidered,
"Nowhere in the New Testament is there any explicit commandment that
marriage should be monogamous or any explicit commandment forbidding
polygamy." 53 Moreover, Jesus has not spoken against polygamy though it was
practiced by the Jews of his society. Father Hillman stresses 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."
54 African churches and African Christians often remind their European brothers
that the Church's ban on polygamy is a cultural tradition and not an authentic
The Quran, too, allowed polygamy, but not
"If 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" (4:3).
The Quran, contrary to the Bible, limited the
maximum number of wives to four under the strict condition of treating the wives
equally and justly. 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 ? The answer is
simple: there are places and times in which there are compelling social and
moral reasons for polygamy. As the above Quranic verse indicates, the issue of
polygamy in Islam cannot be understood apart from community obligations towards
orphans and widows. Islam as a universal religion suitable for all places and
all times could not ignore these compelling obligations.
In 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. 55 What 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.
The 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 'uncivilised'. 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. 61 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. 62 We have to ask our own conscience
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? In other words, what is more dignifying to a
woman, the Quranic prescription or the theology based on the culture of the
It 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
The 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
To 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. One out of every twenty young black males may die before
reaching the age of 21. For those between 20 and 35 years of age, homicide is
the leading cause of death. 65 Besides, many young black males are unemployed,
in jail, or on dope. 66 As a result, one in four black women, at age 40, has
never married, as compared with one in ten white women. 67 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
Philip 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
In 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
It 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).
It 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.
Billy 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
It 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'
Finally, 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 us set the record straight.
According 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. 76 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
brings poverty." Rabbinic 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
The 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
What 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:
"Now 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
St. 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. St. 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..." Among the Canon laws of the Catholic church today, there is a
law that requires women to cover their heads in church. 82 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 that "The head covering is a symbol of woman's
subjection to the man and to God", which is the same logic introduced by
St. Paul in the New Testament. 83
From all the above evidence, it is obvious that
Islam did not invent the head cover. However, Islam did endorse 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...."
The Quran is quite clear that the veil is
essential for modesty, but why is modesty important? The Quran is still clear:
"O 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
This is the whole point, modesty is prescribed
to protect women from molestation or simply, modesty is protection. Thus, 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 purpose of
protecting women, all women. The Islamic philosophy is that it is always better
to be safe than sorry. In 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)
Compare this strict Quranic attitude with the
extremely lax punishment for rape in the Bible:
" If 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.
One 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?
Some 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 Queen's has a 'walk
home service' mainly for female students on campus? If self restraint is the
answer, then why are cases of sexual harassment in the workplace reported 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! I
could not 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:
- In Canada, a woman is sexually assaulted
every 6 minutes,
- 1 in 3 women in Canada will be sexually
assaulted at some time in their lives,
- 1 in 4 women are at the risk of rape or
attempted rape in her lifetime,
- 1 in 8 women will be sexually assaulted while
attending college or university, and
- A study found 60% of Canadian university-aged
males said they would commit sexual assault if they were certain they
wouldn't get caught.
Something 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, unfortunately, women alone will be
paying the price. Actually, we all suffer but as K. Gibran has said,
"...for the person who receives the blows is not like the one who counts
them." 84 Therefore, a society like France which expels young women from
schools because of their modest dress is, in the end, simply harming itself.
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 women.
The 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 complete picture.
It 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
The 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.
On 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.
Why 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.
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.
In 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).
Therefore, 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
At 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 ?
Furthermore, 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 self-esteem.
It 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.
Islam 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. No wonder most of those who choose to become Muslims in a
country like Britain are women. In the U.S. women converts to Islam outnumber
male converts 4 to 1. 85 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.
1. 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.
3. Thena Kendath, "Memories of an Orthodox
youth" in Susannah Heschel, ed. On being a Jewish Feminist (New York:
Schocken Books, 1983), pp. 96-97.
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)
7. Swidler, op. cit., p. 140.
8. Denise L. Carmody, "Judaism", in
Arvind Sharma, ed., op. cit., p. 197.
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) p. 67.
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)
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. 125-126.
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)
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)
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., pp. 128-129
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.