Dr. Susmit Kumar

In pre-Islamic Arabia, the condition of women was terrible. The Quran elevated the status and rights of women in 7th century Arabia, but these seem too restrictive now, in the 21st century. In the ancient environment where women were so devalued that female infanticide was a common and tolerated practice, the Quran introduced reforms that prohibited it, permitted women to inherit, restricted the practice of polygamy, curbed abuses of divorce by husbands, and gave women the ownership of the dowry, which had previously been paid to the bride’s father. As the thrust of the Quranic reforms regarding women’s status was an ameliorative one, it seems reasonable to conclude, as did Fazlur Rahman, an eminent liberal scholar of Islam, that “the principle aim of the Quran was the removal of certain abuses to which women were subjected.”[1]

For some modern Islamic militants, the enrollment of women in a traditional profession like teaching is too much, however. Iranian cleric Ayatollah Khomeini, in his sermons and writing both before and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, spoke with great anger of the inevitable immorality that, he said, would result from women teaching adolescent boys.[2] The most quoted hadith against woman is recorded by al-Bukhari: According to ‘Abdallah Ibn ‘Umar, the Prophet said, “I took a look at paradise, and I noted that the majority of the people there were poor people. I took a look at hell, and I noted that there women were the majority.”[3]

Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk took exactly the opposite view. In a series of speeches delivered in the early 1920s, he argued eloquently for the full emancipation of women in the Turkish state and society. Our most urgent present task, he repeatedly told his people, is to catch up with the modern world; we shall not catch up if we only modernize half the population.[4]

Women’s Right of Inheritance

In the pre-Islamic tradition, women had no assured right of inheritance, which in any case was a matter between men, the men of the husband’s clan or her own relations:

Before Islam, when a man lost his father, brother, or son, and that person left a widow, the heir, taking advantage of the privileges of the dowry paid by the dead man, hastened to the widow, covered her with his cloak, and thus arrogated to himself the exclusive right to marry her. When he married her, he deprived her of her right to the part of the inheritance constituted by the dowry. But if the widow succeeded in getting to her own clan before the arrival of the heir, he lost his rights over her in favor of her own clan.[5]

In Arabia it was customary for a man to give a mahl, a dowry, to his bride. This had usually been absorbed by the woman’s male relatives. In Islam, the dowry is to be given directly to the woman herself, so in the event of divorce, a man is not allowed to reclaim the mahl, and a woman’s security is assured (suras 2:225-40; 65:1-70).[6]

Inequality was evident in the laws of inheritance also, derived by the Sharia from the Quran. A man is allowed to bequeath not more than one-third of his property as he wishes to persons or purposes that would not otherwise inherit from him. The remainder must be divided according to strict rules. His wife will receive at most one-third. If he leaves sons and daughters, a daughter would inherit only half the share of a son; if he leaves only daughters, each would receive a certain proportion of his property, but the remainder would go to his male relations. (This is Sunni law; in Shiite law, daughters inherit everything if there are no sons.) The provision that daughters receive only half as much as sons echoes another stipulation of the Sharia: In a legal case, the testimony of a woman has only half the weight of a man’s.[7]

In questions of heritage, the Quran tells us that male children should inherit twice the portion of female children:

A male shall inherit twice as much as a female. If there be more than two girls, they shall have two-thirds of the inheritance, but if there be one only, she shall inherit the half. Parents shall inherit a sixth each, if the deceased have a child; but if he leave no child and his parents be his heirs, his mother shall have a third. If he have brothers, his mother shall have a sixth after payment of any legacy he may have bequeathed or any debt he may have owed (Quran 4:11-12).[8]

To justify this inequality, Muslim authors lean heavily on the fact that a woman receives a dowry and has the right to maintenance from her husband.[9]

Women—Unfit to Govern

There is a famous hadith frequently used by Muslim men to debar women from positions of power. During the Battle of the Camel between A’isha and ‘Ali, A’isha contacted a wealthy companion in Basra, Abu Bakra, to help her in the battle. Abu Bakra told her that he was against civil war. After the battle, he is supposed to have said to her:

It is true that you are our umm [mother, alluding to her title of ‘Mother of Believers,’ which the Prophet bestowed on his wives]; it is true that as such you have rights over us. But I heard the Prophet say: “Those who entrust power [mulk] to a woman will never know prosperity.”[10]

This was reported in al-‘Asqalani’s 13th volume, where he quotes al-Bukhari’s Sahih, which contains the traditions that al-Bukhari classified as authentic after a rigorous process of selection, verification, and counter-verification.[11]

Women have recently become political leaders in Muslim-majority countries: Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Sheikh Hashina and Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh, and Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia. A fundamentalist nation like Saudi Arabia, however, uses hadith to debar women from politics and even refuses them voting rights.

1 Mayer, Ann Elizabeth, Islam and Human Rights, pp. 97-98, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1999; Fazlur Rahman, “The Status of Women in the Qur’an,” in Women and Revolution in Iran, ed. Guity Nashat, Westview Press, Boulder, 1983, p. 38.

2 Lewis, Bernard, What went Wrong?, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002, p. 72 and references therein.

3 Al-Bukhari, Al-Sahih (Collection of Authentic Hadith), Dar al-Ma’rifa, Beirut, 1978, Vol. 4, p. 137, referenced in Mernissi, Fatima, op. cit., p. 76.

4 Lewis, Bernard, What went Wrong?, op. cit., p. 72.

5 Al-Tabari, Tafsir, Dar al-Fikr edn., vol. 8, p. 107, referenced in Mernissi, Fatima, op. cit., pp. 120-121.

6 Armstrong, Karen, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, Harper San Francisco, New York, 1992, pp. 190-191.

7 Hourani, Albert, A History of the Arab Peoples, MJF Books, New York, 1991, pp. 121-122.

8 Warraq, Ibn, “Islam Supports Gender Inequality,” in Islam Opposing Viewpoints, edited by Hurley, Jennifer A., Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2001, p. 89. (Originally published in Free Inquiry, vol. 17, no. 4, Fall 1997)

9 Ibid.

10 Asqalani, Fath al-bari, Al-Matba’a al-Bahiya al-Misriya, Cairo, n.d., vol. 13, p. 46, referenced in Mernissi, Fatima, The Veil and the Male Elite, Perseus Books, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991, pp. 56-57.

11 Mernissi, Fatima, The Veil and the Male Elite, Perseus Books, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991, p. 3, and references therein.

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