The Reawakening of the Muslim Woman

By Ashur Shamis
A classic article by Ashur Shamis, first published in The Muslim magazine in 1977.


This message on the role of women in Islam is based entirely on the Qur’an and Sunnah. It attempts to demolish and invalidate the contemporary misconceptions which exist among Muslims on this subject. It attempts to strengthen the confidence of Muslim women in confronting the misguided trends of modern times.

“May Allah brighten the face of a being who assimilated the principles of Islam and transmitted them righteously”.

The writer of this message, though relying on the basic sources of Islam, does in no way restrict the potentialities and qualities of women. He has no intention of limiting any rights of women that have been naturally bestowed by Allah. However, the approach adopted attempts to put right, in a consistent manner, the injustices which have been imposed on Muslim women.

This message is primarily addressed to Islamic workers, men and women, so that they should resort to the Qur’an in this issue and pioneer a bold movement of women led by those who seek guidance only from Islam. It is difficult to visualise the existence of a complete Islamic movement without the presence of women, or in the absence of their activities.

This study is directed in general to the Muslim nation. It is essential to have the correct concept of women in Islam, and the knowledge of how to implement it in practice, it there is to be an Islamic revival and the building of a new and pure culture.

But how can Muslim women be reawakened? This is the central question of this pamphlet. The answer is two-fold:

  1. The first concerns the Shari’ah and the formulation of Muslim behaviour in its light;
  2. The second concerns the practice of these principles in day-to-day life. Through this, women will become conscious of their responsibilities to Islam-its values and aims-and to society-its problems and challenges for reconstruction.

This pamphlet covers the first part. The second has not been published because it should be the outcome of local and regional “ijtihad” (finding solutions, in an Islamic spirit, to problems about which a clear injunction is not to be found in the Qur’an and Sunnah). Furthermore it requires an atmosphere of intellectual freedom which is not available at the time of writing. Before we leave you with this message, we pray to Allah to bless the writer and his struggle. We also pray that he is comforted in this period of his arrest with the companionship of Allah.



Woman has been delegated responsibility; Islam addresses her directly; she needs no intermediary from among men. A woman in Islam is an independent human being. Responsibility for her actions and beliefs has been delegated to her directly, and no intermediary is required. Once she is adolescent and has knowledge of Islam, she is accountable for her actions. A woman’s response to the call of Allah will not be sincere unless it is voluntary and stems from a genuine interest. It cannot be offered in proxy through a father, husband or other relative. For example in the early years of the nubuwwa (prophetic mission) groups of people pledged themselves to the Prophet. Both men and women participated in these pledges. People acted as individuals in accepting or rejecting the Islamic call, irrespective of their sex or family.

Fatima bint Al-Khattab accepted Islam while her brother was then a kafir; Zainab bint Rasool Allah-her husband was kafir; Umm Salim bint Malhan-her husband was kafir; Hawa bint Yazid underwent bullying by her husband Qais ibn Al-Hatim for being a Muslim; Umm Kulthum bint Uqba lbn Maieth was the sole member in her family to accept Islam, and migrated; Haritha bint Al-Muammil, her sister Umm Abbis Ar-Rumiya, and Summaya bint Khabbath were tortured and persecuted for becoming Muslim; Um Habiba bint Abi Sufyan persevered the hardships of emigration, and later when her husband Abdullah ibn Jahsh accepted Christianity, she persisted in her belief.

Women, through the strength of their faith, propagated Islam amongst their relatives in various ways: Umm Sharik Al-Quraishiya Al-Amiriya- through secret means among women-until this was discovered and she was tortured and expelled by the Meccans; Umm Salim who insisted that her fiancée become Muslim as a condition for marriage.
She said,

“By Allah, a man like you Abatalha should not be refused, but you are an unbeliever, and I am a Muslim. So it is not lawful for me to marry you, but if you accept Islam then that is my dowry.”

Just as acceptance of Islam is a woman’s personal decision, so also are her actions. Worship is based on one’s intentions. The reward or retribution for a woman’s actions are decided without man’s recommendation. The family is not a collective unit when it comes to accountability to Allah. The individual accounts for himself or herself alone.

On the Day of Judgement there is to be no union between husband and wife concerning their fate. Neither can provide relief to the other.

The Qur’an contains numerous verses which place emphasis on individual accountability:

“. . . And they are all coming to Him on the Day of Judgement individually . . .”;

“. . . On the Day that a being flees from his brother, mother and father, wife and children . . .”;

“. . . the one who acts righteously, be it male or female . . .”;

“. . . Allah gave an example to those who disbelieved, the wife of Noah, and the wife of Lut . . .”;

“. . . And Allah gave an example to those who believed, the wife of Pharaoh . . .”.



The basis is that there is a unified and self-consistent law; the message is general and addressed to both men and women; particular rules cannot be made if there is no basis for them in the Shari’ah.

The Shari’ah is but a practical expression of the requirements of belief. Separate Shari’ahs do not exist for men and women. Within the body of the Shari’ah there are only a limited number of rulings that are separate for men and women, so that in each case, religious adherence may more closely match their human nature. The basis is a single, unified and self-consistent Shari’ah. Particular rules cannot be made if there is no evidence for them in the Shari’ah.

Whether in the Fard ul Ain (a duty compulsory on the individual), prayer, fasting, zakat, pilgrimage, zikr, or in the matters of conduct, trustworthiness, fairness, charity, ihsan, piety, decency, men and women have an equal responsibility.

Woman also has a duty in the fard ul Kifaya (collective responsibility which protect the integrity of religion. She should be prepared to perform these obligations, and is as responsible as a man if these duties are not undertaken.

Woman is exempted from some obligations such as providing economic support to the family, attending congregational prayer, or taking part in war. She is not obliged to do any of these if her help is not required by man. However, she can participate in these activities if she so desires though it becomes obligatory if man has failed to do them.

No one can prevent women from doing righteous deeds in everyday life. The Prophet ordered them to give charity, and they responded to his command. They attended congregational prayer, even Fajr and isha, during the time of the Prophet.

Women like Hamna bint Jahsh, Al-Rabie bint Muawiz, Laila Al-Ghifariah, Umm Al-Dahak, served in the battlefield by supplying warriors with water, nursing the wounded and carrying them to safety. Women like Safia bint Al-Mutailib, Nusaibah bint Kaab, Umm Haram and her sister Umm Salim participated in actual fighting.

The Shari’ah has bestowed on woman the same responsibility and freedom given to man. She can engage herself for marriage to a man, verbally or in writing. She can refuse or leave a man who is imposed on her. However, the marriage contract should be attended by a guardian, and for a divorce to be valid, it must take place before a judge.

The case of Imama bint AI-Asmad Al-Mughiri is an example of engagement by writing. As examples of verbal engagements there are the instances of the women who offered themselves in marriage to the Prophet.

A woman cannot be compelled to believe. A wife of Christian or Jewish faith should not be compelled to Islam. Women can acquire unlimited knowledge. The Prophet placed emphasis on educating women. They used to attend the study groups which met to listen to him. A woman is free to express her opinion-for example Our Mother Aisha, may Allah be pleased with her, used to make verdicts (fatwa) in the presence of the Prophet, and later in the presence of his successors.

It is well known that in Islam woman has the right of possession.

In the Shariah woman has a responsibility to participate both in family and general affairs. Asma bint Abu Bakr and Zubair ibn Al-Awwam have consulted each other over their children’s affairs, even after divorce.

Woman can contribute in political issues, elections and criticism.

Al-Bidaya Wai-Nihaya refers to the contribution of women to the shura after the khalifa of Umar. She can attend Muslim gathering (refer to the sahih hadiths (authentic traditions) on attendance of women to Eid-prayer even those who did not pray, and the celebrations of Abyssinians).

There are no practices exclusively for men, apart from the responsibilities described earlier which were obligatory for men and optional for women.

There is no dominance of man over woman except within the framework of the marital life, established on the principles of willingness, consultation and ihsan (right conduct). Within this man has the responsibilities of economically supporting the family, of enjoining the good, and meting gentle punishment in cases of extreme deviation by women (Ta’deeb). Parental supervision and discipline applies equally for both sons and daughters.

Public life is not a field for men only. There is no segregation between men and women in situations where Muslims gather; prayer (refer to the command of the Prophet not to prevent women from the mosque, even during the night, and his order to let the women attend Eid prayers; Hajj, despite all overcrowding in performing the rituals and study circles (Majlis).

The Prophet, peace be upon him, preached to men and women in the same place. The questions put by both men and women even related to marital relationships. At one of these joint study groups a woman once questioned the Prophet, why he remarked that women would outnumber men in Hell. Once when the Prophet arranged a special study circle solely for women he explained that this was done for practical reasons. The growing size of the joint meetings had meant that women had not been able to hear properly.

Woman can go out for her needs, to the market, shopping or on business, even if she is subjected to inconvenience and rudeness. The Prophet permitted women to go out for business even after the verse on veil, hiiab (The Clans, 33) for his wives was revealed. The verse on women’s garments (The Light, verse 31) followed incidents of misbehaviour in the streets of Medina. Righteous women were subjected to rudeness from men passing the time by the side of the streets.

In this situation, the Prophet did not forbid women from leaving their homes, but instead gave them instructions on how to dress outside. The Prophet also told the men to observe the “rights of the streets” i.e. to lower their gaze on seeing women.

Qibla’Umm bani Ammar is an example of a woman who conducted trade. Al-Shifa binti Abdullah ibn Abdishams, was appointed by Umar to be in charge of part of the shopping Centre. There is no isolation between men and women within the home. Women can receive family guests, talk to them and serve them. The Prophet use to visit women like, Khawla binti Qais, AI- Shifa binti Abdullah, Malika binti AI-Harith, Ummu Waraqa binti Abduiiah. He used to eat or say prayers in their houses. Even the bride used to serve guests herself (refer to hadith of Ummu Usaid, the bride of Abu Usaid AI-Sa’idi). The Prophet visited the house of lyas ibn AI-Bakeer without the wife being segregated.

Many rulings were specifically directed to the wives of the Prophet, since their status is unlike that of other women. Their accountability is doubled be it in reward or punishment, as stated in the Qur’anic verse (The Clans, 33) that a wife of the Prophet should not appear before men, not even if only her face and hands were exposed, which is permissible for other Muslim women. From the text of the verse, it is obviously restricted to the wives of the Prophet. It contains injunctions on the stay of women in the Prophet’s house and the way the Muslims should speak to his wives. A further injunction forbids the Prophet’s wives from remarrying. The circumstances of the revelation (Asbabal-Nuzool), confirm its exclusiveness to the wives of the Prophet only.

Many authentic Hadiths state that it is a confirmation of Umar’s comment on the prolonged stay of the guests on the wedding day of Zainab binti Jahsh, the Prophet’s wife.

Islamic social life is directed to serving Allah, and if communication between men and women is permitted, it is a test which a Muslim should avail as an aspect of worship. It is prohibited to exploit the relation between men and women as a chance for sexual enjoyment outside lawful marital and family relations. There is no place in the Islamic faith for flirting sexual inclinations that enslave the people, their energy and relations.

Adultery is forbidden as are confessions of sexual desires of a man for a woman. The Prophet has forbidden meetings in privacy between an unmarried man and woman, and also entering the house of a lonely woman, except in a group. However, privacy of individuals is respected: there is the hadith of the woman from Ansar who came to the Prophet. He took her in privacy to the side of the road, but within sight of people, before giving her advice.

A prolonged gaze or stare of a man to a woman or vice versa is forbidden because such a gaze invites temptations. Actually, the gaze should be lowered the moment a temptation arises (refer to the order in the Qur’an to lower the gaze-the Light verse 31-32) and the Prophet’s order not to prolong the gaze.

The prohibition is not for any gaze-it is for glance intended to arouse sexual seduction. For example there is the hadith of Al-Fadi ibn Abas, who stared with admiration at a beautiful woman. The Prophet said after he turned away the face of Al-Fadl “I have seen a boy and girl and I expected seduction”.

Overcrowding of men and women to the extent of direct contact of bodies is not allowed except in a practical issue like Hajj. Wherever, men and women are to be together, in houses, streets, gatherings or public occasions, then the situation must be adjusted to the teachings of the Prophet.

There must be sufficient room so that breaths remain apart. The Prophet also advised that a special entrance for women should be set up in mosques. He also advised separating crowds of men and women in the streets. He advised all men to wait in the mosque until all women were out.

Men and women are forbidden to expose their bodies or intend to seduce one another by appearance or gestures. The Qur’an ordered women to hide their ornaments except those that appear casually and not to show more than their faces or hands and not to go outside with perfume on. The Prophet repeatedly warned against those women who tempted by body movements. The Qur’an also warned men who confront and try to tempt women.

No relation between men and women is allowed if this paves the way to temptation and illegal sexual relations. The Qur’an warned against approaching adultery. This is the framework for situations which are not mentioned above.

Therefore, greeting women is allowed and also talking to them with decent intention and in the manner the Prophet used to.

Families are allowed to gather and eat together at home or otherwise taking into account the above precautions. Persons engaged for marriage and divorcees are given some freedom in meeting and talking with each other (refer to the hadiths on engagement and the hadith of Mughaith who used to chase his wife Buraidah in the streets of Medina asking for the reconciliation she had refused).

The occurrence of temptation is dependent on three factors.

  • First, self control, which is part of one’s upbringing and resistance to temptation.
  • Second, the subject of discussion between the man and the woman.
  • Third, the environment in which the meeting takes place.

There is no justification for the isolation of women in Muslim societies. Some Muslims are doing this, on the grounds of avoiding the greater evil (Sadu Al-tharai).

Such practices deprive women from the benefits of Muslim society, such as co-operation, learning and other sincere and benevolent actions. Women should enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and should show concern about communal life and collaborate for the establishment of the Islamic social order.

“The believers, men and women are protectors, one of another: they enjoin what is just and for- bid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and obey God and His Apostle. On them will God pour His mercy: for God is Exalted in power, Wise.” (Repentance, 8:71).

The Muslim
April-July 1977


Part II

Muslims today have neglected many teachings of Islam including those relating to the status of women. Whenever the faith of male believers is not deeply rooted they tend to become unfair to women and oppress them. This can be seen from the fact that most Qur’anic decrees relating to women are actually restraints upon men forbidding them to transgress the rights of women. Only a few decrees are concerned with restraining women. Consider the following Qur’anic injunctions:

And if you have divorced women and they have reached their term, do not debar them from marrying their husbands if they have agreed together willingly. (2:232)

And if you have divorced women and they have reached their term, then retain them in kindness or release them in kindness. Retain them not to their hurt so that you transgress (the limits). (2:231 )

0 you who believe! it is not lawful for you to inherit women against their will . . . (4:190)

And it is not lawful for you that you take from them (women) any of that which you have given them . . . These are the limits of God; transgress them not. (2:229)

Lodge them where you lodge according to your means and harass them not so as to make life difficult for them. (65:6)

Qur’anic verses dealing with ila’ (forswearing of wives), divorce and iddah (waiting period of approximately four months after divorce) have all or nearly all been revealed to put an end to social traditions which had long been oppressive to women and which placed them in the agonising position of being neither happily married or divorced.

The verse dealing with inheritance was revealed to re-establish a right of the Muslim woman. In addition to the above, Qur’anic verses were revealed condemning the dislike for and the prejudice against newly-born girls and their burial alive. Moreover, there are numerous sayings of the Prophet prohibiting men from insulting women, detaining or battering them. These sayings commend the good upbringing and educating of women and generally enjoin fair treatment for them.

The weakening of religious commitment on the part of man (as we have said) tends to lead to aggression against woman because she is created with a degree of softness and emotionalism. Moreover she is distracted by her normal physiological functions from attending fully to her religious duties or becoming heavily involved in public life and becoming fortified by such involvement. For these reasons it was easy for man in the age of Ignorance (Jahiliyyah) to oppress her. Such oppression has been practised in many human societies . . . Man persuades himself that women are terribly deficient by nature and so prevents them from leading a public life. This prevention in its own right adds to their weakness and deficiency thus in turn confirming men’s erroneous belief concerning women and given added justification for their maltreatment and oppression.

The traditional tendency to oppress women is clearly manifested in societies which are dominated by men’s whims and fantasies with respect to women, for instance, Arabian, Persian and Indian societies. Although Islam spread in those societies, its teachings were not always properly understood and some residual cultural influences of pre-lslamic times continued to linger in spite of the general dominance of Islamic forms. One serious consequence of this is that the newly converted societies began to attribute those residual non-Islamic cultural influences to the corpus of the doctrines of the new religion. In this way, non-Islamic traditions acquired the force of being part of the religion itself and of its legal system, the Shari’ah. The influence of these traditions over the lives of people became greater because they now possessed religious sanction. Many ploys were used to modify the Shari’ah so that the non-Islamic traditions could be harmonized with it. One of these was to compare the various Qur’anic verses relating to the status of women. The verses which seemed to allow more freedom for women were explained away by saying that they were abrogated. Others where restraints and restrictions are emphasised were firmly upheld. Rules relating to the general appearance and the public behaviour of Muslim women were greatly enlarged upon. The tendency here has been to be very strict and meticulous about detail. But when it came to rules which affirm women’s rights and allow them certain freedoms the tendency (of some of the traditional jurists) was to narrow down the significance and scope of those rights and liberties as much as possible. Yet another ploy has been to apply rules that were meant to be applied to the private life of the Prophet and his wives to the generality of Muslim women.

One of the most recurring legalistic arguments used to constrain the life of Muslim women is the misguided application of the principle of Sad adh-dharaa’i (i.e., the closure and prohibition of the means to forbidden practices-in other words, whatever leads to haram is also haram). This principle has led to the laying down of very strict rules for the conduct of Muslim women. The justification for these rules has always been that they are necessary for averting infatuation and seduction which is deemed to be the inevitable result of women’s immodest behaviour. The approaches to the enacting of those rules were characterised by a great deal of caution and reservation.

Although a more balanced approach for Islamic jurisprudence will be to weigh the possibilities of seduction against the possibilities of the realization of the public good which could result from the participation of Muslim women in public affairs, the traditional Muslim societies tend to favour caution and conservatism . . . Such policies and tendencies of traditional Muslim societies tend to favour caution and conservatism . . .Such policies and tendencies of traditional Muslim societies resulted in the weakening and destruction of the basic balance in the objective of religion. The basic fabric of Muslim society which had been laid down by the Prophet has been largely changed (by such traditional conservatism).

One of the best known arguments for changing some rules governing social relationships is the claim that the rules of the Qur’an and the Sunnah were meant for the virtuous society of the Prophet’s era. But people have changed after him and later ages and generations became corrupt. It thus became imperative that there should be a general tightening up of the rules of conduct. If Muslims were really sincere in this claim, then they would have applied it to every rule in their life. But in fact the general pattern in Muslim thought has been to take the Qur’anic texts literally and to become rigid and inflexible. They take texts literally even when it is quite clear that those texts concerned specific space-time events of the Prophet’s era. They were only inclined to accept flexibility and modification in the case of women because such flexibility tends to confirm their whims of framing laws that are far more rigid and restrictive (than they had been in the time of the Prophet).

However, the claim that Qur’anic rules were only meant for an ideal society such as existed in the Prophet’s time, presupposes a nation that is excessive in its veneration for that society and in its belief in its impeccable purity. It considers that first society of the Prophet as if all its individuals were of the same type as the four rightly guided caliphs. It also deals with it as if it was completely . . . free of the misguided or hypo- critical residues of pre-isiamic Arabian Ignorance (jahiliyyah). These residual elements were not completely wiped away from all minds and souls by nascent Islam. Aspects of these residual elements in Muslim behaviour can be noticed by students of the history of the first Muslim society. Whatever the present state of our society, the true approach of Islam is to reform its malpractices and corruption, not to be defeated by them and change the Islamic way of life to suit circumstances. Muslim thought and practice have ended up by changing many of the principles relating to women, even those that are grounded in the creed itself or in the Shari’ah. Thus she is not addressed on the basis of faith or on the need to conform to Islamic patterns of behaviour and education, except indirectly as a dependant and follower of man. For example, she has no free- dom either in the choice of a husband whom she could love or in separating from a husband whom she detests. She has no right of being consulted as a wife or of being treated kindly. More often, there is no possibility of her owning anything or becoming involved in trade or doing what she likes with her possessions; she could even be deprived of her rightful share of inheritance by various stratagems.

When the role of woman in public life was terribly reduced, the family neglected its duty of educating her and of making her aware even of her personal religious duties, not to mention other duties of a more far-reaching nature. All she could become was a wife and the concept of a good wife has not always included the requirement that the woman should be of a religious character.

As for the sphere of public life, the Muslim woman was deprived of the possibility of contributing something towards the reform of society. She may still contribute something in the material field but she is exploited in the process. Moreover when she works she is often not motivated at all by any moral or spiritual considerations; she is not brought up to be motivated by such religious ideas.

Perhaps the most cruel thing that has happened to the Muslim woman has been her isolation from public life. Her appearance-even her voice-in public was pronounced an indecency. Her physical presence where men were present was termed unlawful mingling. She became imprisoned in the home in the very same way she would have been so imprisoned if it had been proved that she had committed an indecency. The justification for her imprisonment in the home was said to be the need for her to devote herself to the upbringing of her children and the service of her husband. But, alas, she was prepared neither by knowledge nor by practical experience for the task of looking after the home. How can anyone who has been isolated from public life be fit to be an educator? . . .

(The author in the final section deals with the historical background to the position of women in western society. He argues that the present degrading permissiveness of western society which has stripped women of her dignity and humanity was the result of the revolt against the sickly religious institutions of medieval Europe. He suggests that some institutions which have developed in Muslim society are similar to those of medieval Europe in so far as women are concerned.

The following are his concluding remarks:

If the traditionalists among us therefore insist on their rigid ways what had befallen medieval Europe (i.e., the growth of rampant secularism and the rejection of religion as such) will most certainly befall them at an even quicker pace than they might think. The revolt against the traditional status of women is no doubt coming very soon.

If the Islamists are called upon by their faith to bridge the distance between the ideal Islamic legislation for the role of women and the actual present conditions of Muslim women, then so do the modern trends of social change at this juncture call upon them, in a most urgent fashion, to take the initiative and hasten to bring about the Islamic reform before the matter gets out of control and before the non-Islamic trends grow even more powerful and irresistible.

The Islamists must be wary lest their fear of foreign modernizing invasion of the West and the sexual permissiveness that comes in its wake would lead them into an erroneous and ill-fated attempt to preserve the outmoded accretions and to overhaul or patch, thinking that this is the lesser of the two evils. Conservatism is, as we have maintained, a poor response and is not productive. A better course of action for the Islamists is to try to lead the efforts which seek to improve the lot of women and deliver them from the man-made status of traditional ways so that Muslim society would not be left vulnerable to every advocate of westernization who might wish to steer it away from the straight path of Islam, exploiting and drawing support from people’s unhappiness with the present status of women.

This article is based on a translation for THE MUSLIM of the booklet “Kayta Tanhad At-Mar’at”, published by the Islamic Movement, Sudan, 1976.
The Muslim
December 1977