Women in Islam : An Historical and Theological Perspective

Women in Islam : An Historical and Theological Perspective

(above image : Depiction of the costumes of Arab women in the 4th-6th centuries)


By Amina Abdullah Abu Shehab 

At the center of any discussion about Muslim women is the researcher’s basic task to undertake an enquiry into the Islamic holy texts and into the historical context in which they were revealed and practiced by what is now regarded as the sacred Muslim community of early Islam or the ‘righteous ancestors’. Today, as it has been in all ages since the advent of Islam, the position of Muslim women primarily stems from the Quran and hadiths. For the practicing Muslims, the Quran and hadiths lay down the model that God has chosen for His ummah (community) and this choice is not open to change. The Quran is (kalam Allah) the sacred word of Allah, that constitutes the absolute model and the pure idea. The hadiths are guides for ideal behaviour, for they report Muhammed’s comments and his everyday life and that of the early community. In Islam, the basic responsibility of the living Muslim community is to restore the stereotyped forms of behaviour advocated by the holy texts in their original purity. Doing so means that the ummah is following the straight path of God; departure from the ideal set of rules is tantamount to straying into error.

While the Quran was written at the time of Muhammed and became a closed book after his death, the hadiths were compiled at later periods and are contained in numerous collections, most notable among them are the books of Al-Bukhari (d.870), Muslim (d.875), Al-Tirmithi (d.892), Abu Da’ud (d.889), Ibn Majah (d.896) and Al-Nasa’i (d.915).

Muhammed’s prophecy came to oppose the dominant religious and social systems in Arabia, or what is called in the classic sources jahiliyyah. The orientalist Goldziher has remarked that jahiliyyah means ‘time of barbaric customs’ because Muhammed wanted to contrast Islam with barbarism (1967:202). Thus, in Islamic thinking, Islam came as the light of the dawn after the darkness of the jahiliyyah. To modern scholars, the pre-Islamic period is marked by a situation of change that was brought about by commercial development (E.R. Wolf, 1951:329). In the 6th century, Mecca, the native city of Muhammed and the religious center for pagan Arabs as it contained their sacred (haram) place, the Ka’ba, was expanding commercially and became the leading trading center. The town was controlled by the Quraysh tribe, the tribe of Muhammed. Eickelman points out that with the development of a commercial system, the social structure of Mecca altered.

Tension seems to have arisen between traditional tribal obligations based upon kinlike egalitarian principles and the consequences of the unequal distribution of commercial wealth. By the early seventh century, there were signs of a growing class differentiation with wealth concentrated into a few hands to the exclusion of the poorer clans in Mecca. Certain clans within the Quraysh monopolised the benefits of trade. An oligarchy emerged with the more powerful clans using mercenaries to enhance their position (Eickelman,1988:254)

Islam began when Muhammed started to challenge the existing religious and social patterns in Mecca. He claimed to be a messenger of God and called for the end of paganism and the general decadence of jahiliyyah, and the restoration of the pristine monotheism of Abraham, who was regarded as the father of the Muslims. As the Meccan Quranic verses demonstrate, the bases of Meccans’ wealth and the injustice the weaker parts of society suffered were strongly criticised. While the followers of Muhammed were individuals from weaker families and clans and slaves, the powerful Meccans rejected his religion. The Quraysh tribe refused Muhammed’s new religion for political and economic reasons. They were afraid of the effects that his preaching might have on their economic prosperity, and especially that his pure monotheism might injure the economic assets of their sanctuaries (Gibb, 1989:18). But Muhammed succeeded in acquiring the support of the leading tribes of Medina, a settlement to the north of Mecca. When the struggle between Muhammed and the leading clans of Quraysh reached a violent stage and his life was threatened, he migrated to Medina with his seventy devoted adherents. An alliance was immediately contracted between the emigrant Meccans, the (muhajir) and the Arab tribes of Medina, the (Ansar), under the leadership of Muhammed. The historic significance of the event of emigration (hijrah) was that Islam was able to find at Medina the opportunity and appropriate circumstances to translate the theory of Islam into a social practice and eventually to establish an independent Muslim community with distinct social, legal, cultural, economic and political institutions. This occurred under the divine authority represented in the Quran, the word of God, and the example of Muhammed.

With the formation of the ummah, a new social reality emerged. At the time of Muhammed, the predominant social and political organisation of the Arabs was the tribe, with kinship as the dominant rule in social relations. The ummah was based on religious brotherhood and not kinship (Watt, 1956: 239). In the Quran it is stated:

Take fast hold, all together, of the rope of Allah, and not be divided. Call to mind the favour of Allah which He bestowed upon you when you were at enmity with each other and He united your hearts in love so that by His grace you became as brethren (Q.3:103).

So it was faith, not blood or fame that determined the membership of the ummah: it was this egalitarian dimension of the new religion which attracted newcomers to the religion of Islam. The Quran also states that the Muslim ummah, compared to other religious communities, is justly balanced and has been given the universal mission to be the guardian over other nations:

By guiding you along the right path have We made you an exalted people that you may be guardians over mankind (Q.2:142).

In another Quranic verse, the ummah is supreme:

Ye are the best people for you have been raised for the benefit of mankind: you enjoin good, forbid evil and believe in Allah (Q.3:110).

The ummah is capable of leading because it conforms to the divine law. Given that the meaning of Islam is submission to Allah, who is absolute and perfect and has complete power, the idea of obeying the divine law stands at the foundation of the responsibility of the ummah.

It is not open to a believing man or a believing woman when Allah and His Messenger have decided a matter, to exercise their own choice in deciding it. Whoso disobeys Allah and His Messenger falls into open error (Q.33:36).

Given that the Quran does not include matters concerned with beliefs and rituals alone and that the scope of Quranic concerns reflects the comprehensiveness of Islam through the inclusion of social rules concerning modesty, marriage, adultery, divorce, inheritance, feuding, intoxicants, gambling, diet, theft, murder, and fornication, etc., to early Muslims, obedience to Allah meant strictly following the rules ordered by Allah to create and make the sort of community He chose for them as His best people.

On the other hand, the superiority of the ummah was enhanced by the conception that the mission of Muhammed was the end of the cycle of divine revelations that had dominated human history. It is part of the Islamic faith that Muhammed’s prophethood is the most complete and perfect in comparison to all previous ones. The question to be raised here concerns the relationship with other religious groups, particularly Christians and Jews, especially when Islam claimed to be completing the messages of Moses and Jesus Christ and to be the real heir of Abraham’s religion. The relationship between the Muslim ummah and the People of the Book is divided by historians into two stages: in the first stage, the ummah had a good relationship with the Jewish tribes of Medina. Muslims adopted some Jewish practices such as the Ashura, the fast on the tenth day of the first month (corresponding to the Day of Atonement), the institution of a midday prayer, and facing towards Jerusalem during prayer (Gibb, 1989:30). Moreover, some of the social laws in Islam are seen by some Western scholars to be strongly influenced by Judeo-Christian traditions. Levy, for example, regards the treatment of marriage as designed to bring Islamic practice into line with what held in Judaism and Christianity (Levy,1933:144).

The second stage is reflected in the Quran, where there are many verses addressing the Jews and inviting them to become Muslims. The Jews apparently refused to accept Muhammed’s prophethood. Further, they attempted to assassinate him and allied politically with the Meccans. Consequently, the Quran started to attack the Jews bitterly, claiming that they were the people who wanted to divert Muslims from their religion. The Quran also attacks them for altering the words of God and for practicing usury. The ummah was ordered by God not to follow Jewish practices, and a verse descended ordering Muslims to face the Ka’ba instead of Jerusalem (Q.2:143).

As regards Christians, the Arabs did not have a positive view of Christianity, given that it was the religion of the Abyssinians and the Byzantines, foreign forces whose influences they resisted. The relationship with Christians started as a friendly one and deteriorated finally when Muslims tried to spread their religion to the Christian territories north of Arabia. The Quran reflects the antagonism, stating the rejection of Islam for the doctrine of Christian divinity, the finality of Christian revelation, and the authority of the Church.

As a result of these developments, the ummah separated itself more and more from the People of the Book’s influence. The Quran states that the followers of Muhammed are neither Jews nor Christians, and associates Muhammed’s prophethood with Abraham, who was regarded with his son Ismael (father of the Arabs) as the founder of Mecca’s sanctuary, the Ka’ba.

This very short illustration of the sacred history of Islam and of the identity of the ummah is necessary for the task of examining women’s position in Islam.

Women were an important part of this sacred history. The great Khadijah, the first wife of the Prophet, played a very significant role in the early years of Muhammed’s mission. As Muslim historians have pointed out, she was the loving and wise woman who offered Muhammed advice, reassurance, and strength and announced to him that he had been chosen as a prophet. The first revelations Muhammed received caused him a great emotional crisis. He rushed to Khadijah seeking assurance and advice. ‘Cover me! Cover me!’, he said to her. She covered him and explained to him that what had happened to him was a sign of prophecy. ‘Who will believe in me?’ ‘You can request me before the others, for I believe in you’ (Al-Tabari, A. H. 1329, vol.28:90). Thus, Khadijah was Islam’s first adherent. She advised Muhammed and assisted him financially during the difficult time of the early years in Mecca.

Furthermore, one has to point out that the first martyr in Islam was also a woman; Sumiah died in Mecca under torture. Moreover, when Muhammed migrated to Medina there were women who took the decision to follow him and to join the Muslim community in Medina, leaving their families behind. They were accepted as full members of the ummah. Along with men, women’s delegations were received by the Prophet to swear the oath of allegiance in order to become members of the ummah. They participated fully in all the battles in defense of Islam. A woman fighter saved the life of the Prophet in the battle of Uhud. The women were so important that a question posed by a woman about women’s position in the ummah was to be answered by the Quran. Umm Salama asked Muhammed why the Quran did not address women as it did with regard to men. ‘One afternoon when I was combing my hair I was surprised to hear the Prophet’s voice in the mosque…I ran to a room from where I could hear better..l heard him reciting (Ibn Kathir, 1966, vol.5:459):

For men who submit themselves wholly to Allah, and women who submit themselves wholly to Him, and men who believe and women who believe, and men who are obedient and women who are obedient, and men who are truthful and women who are truthful, and men who are steadfast and women who are steadfast, and men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their chastity and women who guard their chastity, and men who remember Allah much and women who remember Him, Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward (Q.33:36).

God responded to Umm Salama’s wish and the above Quranic passage declares the equality of the sexes as believers; like men they deserve Allah’s vast rewards. The examples of Islam’s recognition of the female sex are many and so are women’s contributions in the making of the success of Islam. Despite some misogynic statements that were attributed to Muhammed in the religious heritage (for example, the saying that the major part of hell is made up of women), he had great respect and love for women. His famous statements about women are typical of his attitude towards womanhood. ‘It has been given to me to love three things in your base world: women, perfume and prayer, but the apple of my eye is prayer’ (Nasai). When he was asked about his most beloved person, his answer was to mention the name of his wife Aishah.

Regarding her, he asked the ummah after him: ‘Take half your religion from this fair-skinned woman’ (Nasa’i). Islamic sources tell us that if women embraced Islam and were close companions of the Prophet, this was because Islam made considerable improvements to their position. The background of the jahiliyyah is very crucial in the Islamic conception of the definition of the place of women in Islam.