Defying ‘Misconceptions’ and Defining ‘Real Status’ of Women in Islam

By Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

In Islam, biological division between man and woman is part of divine purposeful planning; otherwise both are accorded the same respect, dignity and honor as human beings, and are complements, not duplicates, of one another

MUSLIMS, in present day India, form ‘the largest religious minority in the world’. They have contributed, in various ways, to varied aspects of society. In the academic and scholarly domains as well, the Muslim scholars of (pre and post independent) India have contributed significantly in all domains—be it socio-cultural or academic and intellectual. They have contributed ore significantly to the diverse fields of Islamic sciences—ranging from sciences related to the foundational texts of Islam (Qur’an and Hadith), Prophet’s biography (Seerah), Legal thought/ Jurisprudence (Fiqh) to Islamic history/ civilization (past and present), Islamic intellectual tradition, and Islam and Muslims vis-à-vis contemporary issues and challenges (of diverse nature). This has continued, with much rigor, precision, and objectivity, in the present times as well. In fact, in the third decade of the 21st century, one observes that the Indian Muslim writers—(religious) scholars as well as academics/ intellectuals (senior and young)—are contributing vigorously to numerous discourses of the 21st century—a century of globalization, information technology, technological advancement, as well as a century of gender justice/ feminism and feminist movements/ liberation theology, and what not.

From an intellectual point of view, the last two decades of the 21st century (as we are presently passing through the third decade) have witnessed, though not abruptly but having roots deep in the history, various debates and discourses of varied nature. Many of these debates are squarely focused on Islam and Muslims vis-à-vis modern developments and discourses, and one of the crucial and controversial debated topics/ issues, falling in the socio-cultural domains, is the status, position, and role of women in Islam—both past and present.

Numerous works have been written, from different perspectives—ranging from historical, feminist, to gender justice, liberation theology, etc.—to discuss and deliberate on the numerous issues and problems faced by women in general (who form over half of world population) in the contemporary ‘patriarchal’ societies. Muslim women too—whether in the Muslim-majority-populated countries (of the Middle Eastern or Asian regions) or in pluralistic societies/ countries of the ‘West’ or in India (where Muslims form a significant minority: 195 million Muslims/ 14.2% of the total population)—are facing many issues and challenges because of various misinterpretations, socio-cultural ill-practices and malpractices. Besides, a number of Women’s Liberation Movements (and organizations) as well as ‘Women’s/ Gender Studies Centres’ are working to highlight and address the issues faced by women at global level and/ or in their specific societies, respectively. In fact, the UN theme for International Women’s Rights Day (celebrated annually on 8th March) was “Think equal, build smart, and innovate for change”, and focused on “Balance for Better” (2019), “Generation Equality” (2020), and “Women in leadership” (2021).

The fact is that in contemporary societies, women are snatched of their freedom, rights and role bestowed to them by the(ir) Creator. That is why the world is abuzz today with the slogans of ‘Women Empowerment’, ‘Gender Justice/ Equality’, ‘Liberation of Women’, etc., and thus, one sees numerous discussions and debates on the ‘status of women’ (in the light of the religious Scriptures and Traditions, including Islam). Especially, in context of status/ position/ role/ contribution of women in Islam, there is much intensity and strength in these debates, and thus one sees a “Battle of Books” going on. Dr Zeenath Kausar has very fittingly remarked (in her Muslim Women at the Crossroads; Malaysia, 2006, p. vii) that “What was once said by Muhammad Asad, that Islam is standing at the crossroads, is still relevant today. But this seems to be more applicable in the context of Muslim women. Issues related to women’s liberation, development and empowerment are becoming increasingly controversial and complex day by day. This seems to be the result of the extreme trends in feminism and ethno-cultural traditionalism in Muslim communities” (‘Islam at the Crossroads’ is actually title of Asad’s book).

Like other scholars, across the globe, Muslim scholars of India have also contributed, and are contributing, to the discourse of women in Islam, or more specifically to gender equality/ equity/ parity/complementality—or what I term as “Gender Equ(al)ity”. Some significant (selected) works by Indian Muslim scholars and academicians on issues related to women vis-à-vis Islam in general and Muslim Women in India in particular include the works by Sayyid Jalaluddin Umari, Maulana Wahiddudin Khan, Muhammad Yasin Mazhar Siddiqui, Asghar Ali Engineer, Seema Kazi, Mohammad Akram Nadwi, Yoginder Sikand, Maulana Khalid Saifullah Rahmani, Abul Hasan Ali Hasani, Abdur Raheem Kidwai, Muhammad Raziul Nadwi, and many others.

Within this ambiance and in this context, this article is intended to present an assessment and appraisal of four (4) books on ‘Women in Islam’, to get a clear picture of the rights, status, contribution, and role of women in the light of Quran, hadith, Seerah (Prophet’s biography) and Islamic history, and problems, issues, and challenges (social, educational, political, intellectual, etc.) faced by (Indian) Muslim women in the current times. These books are discussed and outlined under three (3) major thematic headings, viz. ‘Status and Role of Women in the light of the Islamic Foundational Sources (Quran and Sunnah)—an evaluation of Khan’s Woman in Islamic Shari‘ah (2018) and Kidwai’s Women in Islam—What the Quran and Sunnah Say (2020); ‘Women during the Prophetic Period—Role, Responsibilities and Contribution’ and Siddiqui’s Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and Women—A Social Study (2006); and ‘Muslim Woman in Theory and Practice: Issues and Challenges’—Content Analysis of Kidwai and Gupta’s edited volume on Muslim Woman. Here, in this part, I will try to cover the first major thematic section.

Status and Role of Women in the light of Islamic Foundational Sources: An Evaluation of Women in Islamic Shari‘ah (2018) and Women in Islam (2020) 

Maulana Wahiddudin Khan (d. 2021)—an Indian Muslim (spiritual) scholar, a Quran commentator, an ardent advocate of peace, harmony, pluralism, gender justice, interfaith dialogue and social harmony, and the founder of ‘Centre for Peace and Spirituality’ in 2001 (New Delhi)—has authored over 200 books on Islam and its diverse aspects—ranging from Quran, prophet’s biography, theology, morality, spirituality, non-violence, peace/ peace-building, to Islam and modern science gender studies.

On the subject under study, significant books to his credit are: Khatoon-e-Islam/Muslim Women published in 1987 and reprinted in 2017: its Arabic version was published from Cairo in 1994 and its English version, Women between Islam and Western Society, was published in 1995 (republished in 2014); Woman in Islamic Shari‘ah (2018; originally published in 1995); Aurat: Maemaar-e-Insaniyat/ Woman: The Builder of Humankind (2008; originally published in 2004); and many booklets such as Polygamy and Islam (2001), Concerning Divorce (2008 [2001]), and Hijab in Islam (2011 [2001]).

His Woman in Islamic Shari‘ah—actually gleaned and extracted from his Women between Islam and Western Society—consists of eleven (11) chapters and discusses the status of women in Islam in the light of teachings of the Quran and hadith, womanhood in Islam, qualities of (or to be possessed by) Muslim women, rights and duties of husband and wife in first five chapters, and presents a detailed discussions on concepts and issues related to divorce, polygamy, dowry, hijab, etc. in the light of Islamic teachings and history in chapters 6-10, and ends with a chapter on the “success in marriage”.

He begins the ‘Foreword’ (pp. 11-14) with Edward William Lane’s (Selections from Kuran, 1982, p. XC) statement that “the fatal point in Islam is the degradation of woman”. For Khan, this “ill-considered observation” gained such currency in the succeeding centuries that it became “an established fact” and instead of having elapsed this conviction has rather “deepened”. In this backdrop, he, thus, asserts: “To interpret the Islamic concept of woman as ‘degradation’ of woman is to distort the actual issue. Islam has never asserted that woman is inferior to man: it has only made the point that woman is differently constituted” (p. 11). This is precisely the main theme and thesis of this book.

Quoting numerous Quranic verses (like Q. 2: 228; 3: 195; 4: 7, 19, 124; 9: 71; 16: 97; 30: 21; 40:40) as well as Ahadith related to women, Khan (in chapter 1, “Qur’an and Hadith”, pp. 15-19) affirms that both the foundational sources of Islam “give detailed commandments regarding women, and also lay down clear guidelines for the relationship between men and women” and they “highlight the most important aspects of feminine virtue and the standing which a woman should have vis-à-vis her husband and father” (p.15).

In the second chapter, “The qualities of a believing woman” (pp. 20-27), he refers to the ‘Basic Attributes of Men and Women’ as depicted in Q. 33: 35 and Q. 66 (pp. 21-24). These qualities, taken together, “constitute an ideal, not just for men, but for both sexes”; they “form the basis of Islam” (p. 25). In this chapter, he further asserts that just as “men function on different planes of religiosity, so do women have their own separate spheres of religious effectiveness”; and besides the domestic sphere, it is possible for a “talented women to further the cause of religion when the right opportunity presents itself” (pp. 25, 26). In this case, he cites the examples of Aishah (RA) and Binte Imam Abu Jafar al-Tahavi and their contribution to the religious knowledge showing “the nature and extent of the contribution which can be made by believing Muslim women to the cause of Islam” (p. 27).

Similarly, in 3rd chapter, “Womanhood in Islam” (pp. 28-37), Khan quotes Q. 4: 1 (“Mankind, fear your Lord who created you from one soul and created man’s mate from the same soul”) and demystifies the notion that “Eve was created from Adam’s rib” in its explanation, saying that it is a “biblical explanation [Bible, Genesis, 2: 21-23], not a Quranic one”, for there is not a single verse which supports this notion. On the contrary, the fact is that “Eve was created—not from Adam himself—but from the same species as Adam”, as is elucidated in several verses like Q. 16: 72; 30: 21; and 42: 11, wherein the word for “Soul (nafs) has been used to mean ‘species’” (pp. 28-29). He summarizes this discussion aptly in these words: “women and men are from the same species. Biologically speaking, women have not been extracted from the bodies of their male counterparts. God fashioned them according to His Will, just as He fashioned men in accordance with His Almighty Will and Power” (p. 30). In the explanation of the Ahadith, like “women have been created from a rib” and “a woman is like a rib, if you try to straighten it, it will break”, he mentions that it should be “taken metaphorically, not literally” for it refers to “the delicacy of women’s nature” (pp. 31, 33).

In the 4th chapter he highlights “The status of woman” (pp. 38-48) and stresses, in unequivocal terms, that “a woman enjoys the same status as that of a man” in Islam, as is evident from Q. 3: 195 (“You are members, one of another”). “There is no difference between man and woman as regards status, rights and blessings both in this world and in the hereafter. Both are equal participants so far as the carrying out of the functions of daily living is concerned” (p. 38). He further mentions that the “biological division of human beings into male and female is the result of purposeful planning on the part of the Creator. ... Man and woman in the eyes of Islam are not the duplicates of one another, but the complements” and the “Islamic precepts for men and women are based on their respective, natural constitutions” (pp. 38-39; italics added for emphasis).

Similarly, in the explanation of Q. 4: 34, “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has made some of them to excel others”, Khan writes that it is “an additional, not a superior quality” (p. 46; italics added), because the Arabic word Fadilah is “used in the scriptures to indicate the additional, masculine quality of protectiveness. For a household to be properly run, it should, of necessity, have a guardian. Guardianship is rightly entrusted to the family member who is best qualified to undertake this responsibility—namely, the husband, for protectiveness is a virtue which has been granted by nature  in  greater measure to men than to women. Far from mentioning absolute masculine superiority, the above-quoted verse only implies that man is the master in the home because of the additional attributes with which he has been endowed by nature” (pp. 46-47). Thus, he translates the Arabic phrase Faddala ba’dahum ‘ala ba’d as “excelled some on other”, which occurs several times in the Qur’an, as in Q. 13: 4 which refers to the various kinds of crops and fruits growing from the same soil and water, “Yet We make some excel others in taste”. “Just as two different kinds of fruit will differ in color, taste, shape and texture, without one being superior or inferior to the other, so also do men and women have their different qualities which distinguish the male from the female without there being any question of superiority or inferiority. If men and women have been endowed with different capacities, it is so that they will play their respective divinely predetermined roles in life with greater ease and effectiveness.” (p. 48).

In the 5th chapter, he discusses “Muslim Women” (pp. 49-78) in Islamic history, and argues that they have “played significant roles and, by their feats, have demonstrated not only the vast arena which Islam affords them for the performance of noble and heroic deeds, but also the exaltedness of the position accorded to women in Islamic society” (p. 49). In his support of this argument, he presents the examples of various women “who played an effective role in Islam” (p. 50): e.g., Aishah (RA) is presented as a “woman of notable intelligence, whose intellectual gifts were fittingly utilized in the service of Islam”; the example of Mary, the mother of Prophet Isa/ Jesus (AS) and Khadijah bint Khuwaylid (RA), the Prophet’s (pbuh) first wife, are presented as ‘Two Remarkable Women’ who “subordinated their own wills to that of Almighty” (pp. 49, 50-51). In this chapter, he also refers to the examples of women of his own family who “in times of dire distress, were totally Islamic in their conduct” (p. 70). All this is thus expounded to reveal that the “position of women in Islam ... is a matter neither of conjecture, abstract theory nor of ancient history ... [but] is a matter of actual fact”, to which the author himself is a witness (p. 69).

In the 6th chapter he discusses the “rights of husband and wife” (pp. 79-94) and argues that the “rights of men and women, in reality, are not a matter of legal lists, but rather a matter of good living” (p. 93).

These are followed by a detailed discussion, in the light of Islamic teachings and historical evidences, on concepts and issues “concerning divorce”, “polygamy and Islam”, “Dowry”, and “Hijab in Islam” in chapters 7-10, respectively (pp. 95-114, 115-24, 125-,40, and 141-50) and the important points derived from these discussions are: “divorce should be sought only under unavoidable circumstances” as it has been described in the Traditions as “the most hateful of all lawful things in the eyes of God” (pp. 100-101); “lawful polygamy of Islam” is the solution to the “imbalance” of number of women over men which permits women “to opt on their own free will for marriage with anyone who can give them fair treatment to more than one wife” (p. 124); the “custom of dowry [Jahez in Urdu] is not Islamic” practice, but is (specifically) practised by Muslims of the Sub-Continent; however, Islam sanctions mahr (dower)—a sum of money handed over by groom to the bride at the time of marriage—which is “a token of his willing acceptance of the responsibility of bearing all necessary expenses of his wife” (pp. 125, 130); and on Hijab (veil) or Purdah in Urdu, where he mostly relies on the views and opinions of Shaykh Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, he maintains that “it is preferable for a woman to cover her face, it is not compulsory for her to do so” and that “hijab in itself should not be a source of attraction” or “become a display of finery referred to in the Quran as tabarruj”, as in Q. 24: 31 and 33: 33; and the “garment should cover the entire body of a woman except the face and hands, and should not become an attraction in itself. Neither should it be thin, nor tight. It should not accentuate the body ... [and] should not suggest fame” (pp. 144, 147).

The book ends with a chapter on “Success in marriage” (pp. 151-159), in which the author suggests that the “success and failure of married life depends entirely upon the bride’s willingness or unwillingness to adapt” to a “conciliatory stance” (p. 152) and he illustrates this with two examples, one each of a failed and successful marriage (pp. 152-53).

Keeping in view the overall subject-matter and the issues and topics it highlights and deliberates upon, it is fair to assert that Woman in Islamic Shari‘ah indeed highlights the real status, position, role, rights and responsibilities given to women in Islam and thoroughly discusses the crucial (and mostly misunderstood and misinterpreted) concepts and issues related to women—like divorce, polygamy, dowry, hijab, etc., In sum, the book makes a significant contribution to this much hyped (but misconstrued) subject.

Abdur Raheem Kidwai—Professor of English and Director, UGC-HRDC and K. A. Nizami Centre for Quranic Studies, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), India—has contributed significantly to Islamic scholarship, especially to the varied aspects of Qur’anic studies including the ‘gender studies’ aspects. His Women in Islam (which draws mainly, and is gleaned, from his book chapter on same theme, “Is the Quran a Male-centred Religious Text?”, featuring in his 2019 co-edited volume, Muslim Woman: this book will be evaluated in Part-II of this write-up) is a succinct and slim volume highlighting the rights, status, role, and contribution of Muslim women in the light of foundational Islamic texts as well as demystifying and deconstructing the misconceptions and misconstructions on the vital but sensitive issue of ‘Gender Parity’.

Divided into three main sections, preceded by a ‘Preface’ (vii-x) and ending with Index (pp. 170-80), it attempts to providing readers with an “opportunity to consider some of the references to women in authentic Islamic sources in order to shape an informed view” as well as to “let readers appreciate the high status that women enjoy in Islam” (p. vii). A simple compilation of those passages from the Quran and hadith collections which ‘refer to or address women specifically’, it highlights the “Islamic stance on womanhood: her existence as a creation of Allah, her purpose of life as a slave of Allah, her capacity for attaining self-development and proximity with Allah and her accomplishments”, and brings into the sharper light the fact that in the Quran “men and women are both accorded the same respect, dignity and honour as human beings”, and both are repeatedly addressed and urged “to be active, positive stakeholders in the construction of God-conscious society and for attaining salvation as pious individuals” (pp. viii, ix; italics added for emphasis). Maulana Khan also highlights similar statements.

In the Preface, Kidwai mentions that “certain Islamic practices ... [and] aspects of the faith such as polygamy, divorce, patriarchy, segregation of the sexes, etc.” have been increasingly taken out of context and “in isolation”, resulting in presenting Islam as “imposing degradation and suffering upon women”; while as, the primary Texts of Islam demonstrate that women in Islam—in the capacity of a mother, daughter, and wife—are bestowed “equality, dignity and exalted status” (p. vii). However, over the centuries, some “socio-cultural practices in Muslim societies, past and present, that have become norm”, along with prevalent ‘patriarchal’ supremacy and mind-set, pushed them to the corner and snatched their high status. This has resulted in giving space to various ‘misconceptions’ regarding their status, rights, role and responsibilities (p. vii).

In Section-I, ‘Quranic Verses and Ahadith Addressing and Referring to Women (pp. 3-136), the author first presents a collection of seventy six (76) verses from the Quran, which either address men and women collectively (e.g., Q. 9: 71-72; 16: 9; 33: 35; 48: 5; 57: 12; etc.) or to women specifically (as in Q. 2, 4, 24, 33, etc.), followed by a brief explanation of many of these verses contextualising and demonstrating ‘gender parity’. For instance, in the explanation of Q. 4: 32, ‘Do not be jealous over what God has given more to some [men and women] than others’, he writes: “The Qur’an is clear in pointing out that men and women will be recompensed alike; there is no distinction between men and women'' (p. 6). Similarly, in the explanation of Q. 4: 34—which he translates as ‘Men are the protectors and maintainers of women....’ and is one of the highly contested, extremely (mis)interpreted and misunderstood verses—Kidwai’s explanation provides many clarifications: “Since Islam does not lay any financial burden on women, it charges men with the responsibility to support their wife and family and hence his role as the protector. The Quran urges women to be faithful to their husbands. It prescribes graded corrective measures for tackling those women who are guilty of serious moral wrongdoings. Hadiths [Ahadith] clarify that beating, suggested as a last resort, should be nominal and not cause any injury. Wife-beating or any other form of domestic violence is completely ruled out in Islam and is a serious offence in itself” (p. 43). Similar stances can be found on issues related to inheritance, polygamy, divorce, dower, etc.

This is followed by a collection of 102 (numbering 178 in total) Ahadith—the Prophetic Traditions—from various authentic Hadith books and some classical Islamic sources (like Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Tabqat Ibn Sad, etc.) related to different aspects of women in different contexts. However, no footnotes are added in the explanation and contextualization of these Ahadith within the purview of ‘gender parity’, as most of these Traditions are self-explanatory; e.g., “Of all the bounties in this world, a pious wife is the best” (Ibn Majah); and “This world is for temporary stay and the best comfort in this world is a pious woman” (Sahih Muslim) (pp. 81, 96).

In Section-II, ‘Women Specifically Mentioned in the Quran’ (pp. 137-158), it provides an account of those ‘Believing Women’ in the light of “the Qur’an and other authentic Islamic sources” who are portrayed as “role models” by the Qur’an (p. 139) and are praised for their various virtues: Maryam (Mary), who is presented as an example of a “saintly woman” and is praised in high terms “for her piety, her chastity and her devotion to Allah” (pp. 139, 40); Queen of Sheba, “a sagacious, intelligent woman, adept at diplomacy and political strategies” and a “pious, mature and discerning female, wedded essentially to the cause of truth (p. 149); Pharaoh’s Believing Wife (Asiya), who ”stands out for her enviable commitment to truth” and is a “role model in recognition of her commitment, courage and strong faith even in face of adverse and hostile surroundings” (p. 150); Prophet Moses’s Mother, who is “applauded for her self-restraint and perseverance” (p. 151); Prophet Shuayb’s Daughters, who are “intelligent, modest and resourceful young women” and “dutiful daughters” (p. 153); and ‘Allah’s Response to Some Women’s Pleas’, wherein examples of the wives of the Prophets Zakariyya/ Zechariah and Ibrahim/ Abraham (AS) and of Khawlah bint Thalabah (RA) of Prophet’s (pbuh) time are presented as three examples depicting “Allah responding positively to the[ir] pleas”, as in Q. 58: 1-2 (p. 154).

He also refers to the ‘Disbelieving Women in the Qur’an’ or “wicked” women (p. 155) including the wives of Prophets Nuh/ Noah and Lut/ Lot (AS), who are “censured for their lack of faith” and thus are examples of “treachery”, as in Q. 66: 10; Egyptian Potiphar’s Wife, known as Zulaykhah in popular lore, who “appears as a temptress” in the context of Prophet Yusuf/ Joseph’s (AS) account as presented in many verses of Surah Yusuf, Q. 12: 23-24, 30-32, 51 (pp. 156-7); and Abu Lahab’s Wife (as in Q. 111: 1-5), who, along with her husband—an uncle of the Prophet (pbuh)—were “die-hard unbelievers and [Prophet’s] inveterate enemies”, and both are “among those few unbelievers whom the Qur’an reproaches by name and declares Hell as their abode” (p. 158).

This is followed by Section-III, ‘Women Hadith Narrators and Teachers’ (pp. 159-69), which, as the title clearly reveals, provides a list of some “prominent Hadith scholars from early Muslim history” with a view “to exemplify the dynamic contribution that Muslim women have made to Islamic history” (p. ix). These names and data (presented in this Section) are entirely based on Dr M. Akram Nadvi’s al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam (2007). For example, in this section, it mentions names of the Companions who have narrated hadith on the authority of Aishah, Umm Salmah, Hafsa (RA), and other ‘Lady Companions’ (pp. 160-62) as well as enlists leading women scholars among the Successors and from 2nd century hijri era (p. 169). The author writes that as many as “2764 Hadith feature in the six standard collections of Hadith [known as Sihah al-Sitta or Kutb-e-Sitta] on the authority of lady Companions”. Most interesting and remarkable point about these Ahadith is that they are not “restricted to the personal hygiene and purification of women”, but “embrace a wide range of topics including prayer, fasting, Zakah, Hajj, food, clothing, business, jihad, marriage and divorce, death, the Hereafter, supplication, morals and manner and the Prophet’s illustrious life”; and many of these Ahadith “have served as the basis of legal rulings inferred from them” (pp. 163, 64). He also refers to some lady teachers like Karimah al-Marwaziyah (d. 461 AH), Aisha bint Muhammad al-Maqdisiyyah, Umm al-Khayr Fatimah (d. 532 AH), Zaynab bint Umar ibn Kindi (d. 699 AH), and Khadijah bint ‘Abd al-Hamid (d. 734 AH), who have served as teachers to many great (male) scholars of their times (pp. 166-68). All this reveals, in clear terms, the active role played, and the academic contribution made, by women in early Islamic history.

Thus, highlighting a collection of passages related to women, and women role models, in the Quran and hadith, providing a list of women Hadith narrators, and describing a succinct overview of the Islamic stance on womanhood, Kidwai’s Women in Islam justifies, fairly, both the title and its aim: providing readers an opportunity to ‘appreciate the high status that women enjoy in Islam’. It portrays, in its real context, the place, rights, role, responsibilities and contribution of women and, thus, defies and demystifies the misconceptions about Muslim women and their role and contribution—both past and present. In sum, though slim in size, Kidwai’s book is rich in its subject-matter and provides much food for thought in depicting the real picture of women in Islam and in erasing misconceptions regarding their role and responsibilities.

Khan’s and Kidwai’s Books in Sum: Considering the overall subject-matter and the issues and topics highlighted and deliberated upon in these books, it is fair to assert that (taken together) Woman in Islamic Shari‘ah and Women in Islam make significant contribution to the literature depicting the status/role/ position of women in Islam in its real perspective/ context and in defying and expunging misconceptions regarding the role and responsibilities bestowed to women by their Creator—and thus are valuable works on brining into sharp light the real perspective of ‘Gender Equ(al)ity’ in Islam.

‘Women during the Prophetic Period—Role and Contribution’ and Content Evaluation of Siddiqui’s Work (2006)

Professor Muhammad Yasin Mazhar Siddiqui (1944-2020)—a prominent Islamic scholar who ranks among the first rate scholars on the Sirah/ Seerah and its modern trends and penchants—has contributed significantly to the thematic studies of the Seerah (by highlighting socio-political, economic, legal, etc. aspects). One of his works, which discusses social dimensions of Sirah is Rasul-i-Akram/ Nabi Akram (SAW) Aur Khawateen: Ek Samaji Muta’ala (Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and Women: A Social Study’). Published in 2006 (in India; and republished in Pakistan in 2008) it deals with the social ethics and women issues, their contribution and other aspects related to them during the Prophetic period. This work also includes study of domestic relationship of Muslim men and women during this period.

The book illustrates, with examples and events, that the Prophet (pbuh), through his exemplary life pattern, made numerous constructive reforms regarding the women’s rights and their relations (and their amity and intermingling with men)—one of the most delicate theme in the ‘social ethics’—and thus created a striking balance between the two extremes. He provided comprehensive guidelines on this aspect both by his words and deeds (Ahadith and Sunnah). It thus presents a study of the “social and domestic relationship of Muslims”, men and women, in the Prophetic era as well as the “occasions of segregation of men and women'', based on the witnesses and the historical facts of the Prophetic era (p. viii).

Consisting of 12 chapters, preceded be a Preface, some of the themes and issues discussed in this book, in its various chapters, are summarized below:

The first three chapters discuss the Prophet’s relation and his meetings with women, most of them belonging to his own tribe (Quraysh), both in the Makkan and Madinan periods. In these chapters, the major argument put forth is that this custom had its beginning before the Prophet-hood of Muhammad (pbuh) and was continuously practiced by the Prophet (pbuh) both in the Makkan and Madinan period (p. 41). In the fourth chapter, it discusses “Madinan Women in the Prophet’s House” (pp. 43-47)—an important and interesting aspect of the Prophet’s Sirah and of Islamic history as well: important and interesting in the sense that it throws ample light on the “social role and of religious equality of women in the Islamic movement” (p. 47); and owing to its critical and central significance amid present day debates on ‘gender equality’, ‘women empowerment’, etc., this theme is of much contemporary relevance.

The next three chapters (5-7) discuss women participation in the literary/ religious matters and in the expeditions: in 5th and 6th chapters, he argues that one of the greatest contributions of the women in the Prophetic period was the narration, communication and propagation of the Ahadith as well as in preservation and advancement of the Islamic Rulings/ Injunctions (Ahkam) to next generations as well. The 7th chapter, “Participation of Women in the Expeditions (Ghazwat) during Prophetic Period” (pp. 91-120)—the most lengthy and thoroughly discussed, through numerous examples, chapter of this work—makes a detailed examination of the participation of women in the expeditions. It concludes by bringing forth these facts: the “Prophet (pbuh) permitted women to participate in all expeditions”; “Except the battle of Badr  (624 CE), there is proof of women participation in all battles—from Uhud (3 AH/ 625 CE) to Tabuk (9AH/ 631 CE)”; “in all expeditions the Prophet (pbuh) was accompanied by his wives”; “the Prophet’s (pbuh) permission to women for participating in expeditions, and using their services, proves the Prophetic wisdom; i.e., the equal participation of the half of population, as per their ability and capacity, in the collective affairs (social matters)” within the limits set by Islam (hudud/ Shar‘iah rulings)”; thus, “women participation in expeditions not only brought forth their inner abilities but also established the role model that even in difficult situations women can showcase their strength and talent, and thus can provide an effective strength and backing for men'' (pp. 119-20).

The 8th chapter (pp. 121-38) examines the issues related to marriage—another important theme related to women issues—by highlighting the activities of the Prophet (pbuh) in arranging and managing, and giving advice and directions, various women's marriage cases. It also discusses, though very briefly, the Prophet’s conducting marriage of his daughters, arguing that these marriages have had various “social, religious and civilizational aspects and tribal and political importance” as well (p. 135). The chapter concludes with these remarks: “Tackling the issues of the marriage manifests the Prophet (pbuh) being the Mercy for all worlds (Rehmatan Lil Aalamini). By these [marriages] we can analyze the Prophet’s social reforms as well. A careful study of this social dimension of the Prophet’s (pbuh) illustrious life reveals evidently how crucial and significant role it played in creating and establishing an atmosphere of social harmony, fraternal relations (brotherhood), inter-tribal cooperation and in solidifying the (concept of) equality in Islam” (p. 138).

The 9th chapter presents an analysis of the activities of Muslim women in the financial field in general and particularly in the trade/ business, both in the context of Jahili Arab culture and in the framework of Islamic economy and civilization; and is aptly entitled “Auratoon ka Haqq e Kharid-o Farokhat aur Kasb-i-Ma’ash”/Rights of Women in Selling and Buying and Earning a Living (pp. 139-56). It also makes an examination of some important issues related to earning by women and the author concludes: “from many events and examples of the Prophetic period, it becomes much evident that Muslim women had not only the right to earn but were given ample opportunities to adopt different professions (in trade, agriculture, artisanship, and labour work/ wages) in order to meet their personal and domestic needs” (p. 139). This is followed by a chapter on examining and illustrating the “Social Relations of women and the Companions” (pp. 157-70).

The next chapter, “Complaints of Women and their Resolving” (‘Auratoon ki Shikayat ka Izala, pp. 171-87), is an important and interesting chapter, for there are various lessons for modern societies in it. The author highlights these kinds of complaints and their solving: complaints regarding forceful marriages (pp. 172-75); incidents of thrashing and beating, or domestic violence (pp. 176-80). This chapter concludes with these remarks vis-à-vis the contemporary scenario: “In the Prophetic period too, there have been few reports of such ill-practices, but the Prophet (pbuh) not only provided protection to women, but also devised policies and strategies to assure their welfare and peaeful living, and resolved their complaints. In the present times too, women complaint of such kind of ill-practices, rather one notices intense increase in such cases because the patriarchal society has ignored the Islamic fair and just rulings on these matters” (p. 186). Contextualising this issue within the present scenario, he further highlights that “rights of women are crushed in present day patriarchal Muslim societies and Islamic rulings are ignored in their matters”: they are not given the right of choosing their spouse (life partner), they are abused and beaten (or face domestic violence),  in many instances even their basic necessities are not fulfilled by their husband, etc., and regarding all these matters, there are clear injunctions and instructions, both in the Sacred Text and in the Prophetic Traditions and Practices (p. 187).

The book, in its final chapter, makes an analysis of the Prophetic principles and of Khulfa-i-Rashidin (Pious Caliphate Era) regarding the “intermingling (ikhtilaat) of men and women” and argues that “women in this period enjoyed various rights and possesed social protection as well. The Qur’anic verses and numerous Ahadith, besides the Prophetic practice as seen from the events of his Sirah and other historical events, demonstrate that there was not only permission of interaction between men and women within the limits of Islamic Law,but it was a social custom which was practiced, in continuity, by the Prophet (pbuh) and by the Companions as well” (p. 205). He, thus, concludes with this rational argument: “The basic principle and the correct way of the interaction and intermingling of men and women is the way practiced by the Prophet and his Companions; neither the way of the selfish and conservative ‘Ulama’ and fuqaha’ of later period nor the (advanced/ progressive) innovative thinking and approach of the social thinkers (liberal or reformist intellectuals). The real joy and contentment of this world and success and salvation of the Hereafter lies in following the Sunnah of the beloved Prophet (pbuh) and the practices of his Companions” (Ibid.).

In sum, Siddiqui’s Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and Women—A Social Study is unique not only in its subject-matter and theme, but also in its analytical style, objectivity, and above all, in its method(ology). The book makes a profound and remarkable contribution to 21st century Sirah literature vis-à-vis gender studies, bringing to the forefront the real status and rights enjoyed, and the real role and contribution made, by women in the classical period of Islamic history and discusses those aspects, issues and concerns of women during the Prophetic period which are highly misunderstood and misinterpreted in the present times.

Issues and Challenges faced by (Indian) Muslim Women: Reading Kidwai’s and Gupta’s Edited Volume (2019)

Muslim Woman examines “various aspects of the lives of Muslim women particularly in education, career, personal law, economy, social relations, etc.” (p. xxiii) in its 22 chapters, which are covered under six (6) main themes. Edited by Professor Kidwai and Dr Juhi Gupta (Assistant Professor of the Women’s Studies, AMU), its contributors are (young and senior) academicians from different universities of India—mostly from IUST (J&K), DU (New Delhi), and AMU—of “diverse disciplines ranging from Women’s Studies to English [Literature], Literary Studies, Islamic Studies, Arabic, etc.”.  It analyses “various issues concerning Muslim women, while taking into account the Quranic perspective” and seeks “to answer questions which are rooted in widespread misperceptions about Muslim women” (Ibid.). Interdisciplinary in nature, Muslim Woman provides a “holistic picture of contemporary issues and challenges that Muslim women face today” in ‘patriarchal’ societies, while not overlooking their rights and position as envisaged in the original Islamic teachings (Ibid.).

The book is preceded by a ‘Foreword’ (xi-xii) by Professor Akhtarul Wasey (professor emeritus of Islamic studies, Jamia Milia Islamia; president of Maulana Azad University of Jodhpur, Rajasthan); ‘Preface’ (xiii-xix) by Editors; and a ‘Prolegomenon’ (xxviii-xxxiv) by Claire Chambers (University of York, Heslington, York). In his ‘Foreword’, Professor Wasey points out very eloquently the “growing transformation in the Muslim mind set about gender parity”, vis-à-vis “the world is [being] abuzz today with the slogans of women empowerment” (p. xi). He also points out that though “Islam treats men and women alike”, but “women do not get their due in Muslim society” today; they are “denied what Allah and His Messenger granted them”; “Islam had bestowed upon women the very same rights and privileges, which are being demanded now” by them through protests, through NGOs, and through ‘Islamic feminism’, etc. In the ‘Prolegomenon’, Chambers focuses on “Postcolonialism and Feminism” by examining some “key feminist essays” of the last four decades (1977-2007), and explores “the productive overlap that exists between postcolonial studies and feminism” (p. xxvii).

In the Preface, the editors provide the context and structure of this Volume. “Owing to a lack of accurate knowledge about Islam and its teaching”, they argue, “common people are often misled in their interpretations of Islam”, and are “often influenced by the prevalent patriarchal social system”, and as a result, “a lot of misconceptions are on rise about Islam, which project Islam as being exploitative to its women” (p. xiii). In this backdrop, the present volume proposes “to address these stereotypes related to the treatment of Muslim women in the theological/ social/ cultural/ moral/ political/ economic and other aspects of their life”; and through “relevant examples and reasoning”, this volume, not only explores “the reasons for this false image of Islam” but provides “appropriate references to the religious text about rights and position of women as endorsed by God” (Ibid.).

The issues highlighted, and major arguments put forth in the respective chapters under six (6) major ‘Sections’ of Muslim Woman, are summarized below:

Section-1, ‘Muslim Women in the Primary Islamic Sources’, consists of first two chapters, contributed by Professor Kidwai and Mohd Haris bin Mansoor, and they provide answers to these burning questions, respectively: “Is the Quran a Male-Centred Religious Text?” (pp. 3-28) and “Are the Quran and Hadith Biased Against Women?” (pp. 29-38). Quoting ample Qur’anic verses, Ahadith, and examples of women in the Qur’an, Kidwai asserts that, “the Quran is remarkably free of any misogyny” because the “Quranic stance on woman, supplemented and complemented by Hadith, stands out for gender parity, justice and fairness” (p. 28). Similarly, Mansoor, while drawing attention mainly to those Quranic verses and Ahadith which are “quoted out of context in order to bring women to heel”, clarifies “these misinterpretations” and “tries to show the dignified status of women as ascribed in Islam” (p. 29).

Section-2, ‘Muslim Women’s Rights and Laws’, consists of six chapters (3-8) and addresses the issues of polygamy in Islam (chapter 3, pp. 41-47), nature of Islamic law of divorce (chapter 4, pp. 48-58), permissibility of Triple Talaq in Islamic legal tradition (chapter 5, pp. 59-67), presence of ‘Contemporary Women Muslim Scholars’ (chapter 6, (pp. 68-78), issue of ‘Women entering the mosque’ (chapter 7, pp. 79-86) and women’s choice in opting a ‘Career’ (chapter 8, pp. 87-94), contributed, respectively, by Javid Ahmad Bhat, Irfan Jalal, M. Waheed Khan, Mohd Yunus Kumar, Gowhar Quadir Wani, and Huma Yaqub. It is pertinent to mention here that Bhat, Jalal and Kumar are Kashmiri researchers from Islamic Studies department, IUST and Wani holds doctorate from AMU and is presently teaching at IUST.

Section-3, ‘Muslim Women and Education’, consists of three chapters (9-11) by Dr Faiza Abbasi, Sadaf Hussain, and Professor Sami Rafiq, respectively, on addressing various aspects of women education: like the girls’ education at AMU and refutation of their entry into library (chapter 9, pp. 97-111), issues faced by educated Indian Muslim women “in the Middle Class Indian Society” (chapter 10, pp. 112-122), and understanding and analysing “the cause of the lack of education among Muslim women” today (chapter 11, pp. 123-132).

Section-4, ‘Socio-Economic Status of Muslim Women’, consists of four chapters (12-15) and addresses/ answers four crucial questions, respectively by Juhi Gupta, Syed Ali Hur Kamoonpuri, Mustafa Nadeem Kirmani, and Kishwar Zafir; these questions are: Are Women socially suppressed under Islam?; Does Islam Discriminate Against the Girl Child?; Is Muslim Woman’s Status Lower than that of a Muslim Male? (‘Psycho-Quranic perspective); and What about the Underbelly: Muslim Women of Lower Income Groups? (pp. 135-46, 147-63, 164-72, and 173-80). Some of the main arguments and conclusions put forward in this section are: it is indeed “erroneous and misleading” to think that “Muslim women are oppressed in Islam” (p. 146); Islam has not only “honoured the girl child and placed her on a very high pedestal of dignity and sanctity”, but has “brought an unparalleled transformation in people’s attitudes and perceptions vis-à-vis the girl child” (p. 148); and the “the Quran gives utmost importance” to the principles of justice, equity, compassion, fairness, etc., “irrespective of gender” (p. 166).

Section-5, ‘Muslim Women vis-à-vis Feminism’, consists of two chapters (16 and 17) contributed by Md. Sajidul Islam and Sherin Shervani, respectively, who address and explore the issue of ‘Islamic feminism’ by answering the question: What Do Islamic Feminists Stand For? (pp. 183-188) and ‘In Whither to Go: Women in Islam and Western Feminism? (pp. 189-197). Shervani’s chapter is an interesting and insightful one as it explores and brings “about the contrast between the rights of women achieved in the West through the efforts of the Western feminist [movements] versus the rights given to a woman in Islam” (p. 189) and dispels many myths, and thus concludes very aptly: “The rights given to women in Islam are broad-spectrum and encompassing various aspects of life. But it is the unfortunateness of the Muslim societies that have failed their own women. The malpractices, misinterpretations and cultural, social ill practices have barred the Muslim women from getting the basic rights as bestowed on them in Islam. The women in Islam have not only been misjudged by the West but have been denied proper Islamic status by the Muslims themselves. Muslim women need to be liberated from the malpractices and wrong interpretations of Islamic laws, or pressures of the socio-cultural norms”. (pp. 196-7).

The sixth and final section consists of five (5) chapters based on ‘Interviews of Contemporary Women Studies Scholars and Creative Writers’ (pp. 200-232), like the leading British novelist Qaisra Shahraz (by Wahida Firdous); women’s rights lawyer and activist Ms Flavia Agnes (by Anam Nawaz); and with three renowned contemporary feminist scholars, namely Professor Mariam Cooke, Shelina Janmohamed, and Professor Sylvia Vatuk  (all by Haris Qadeer) throwing light on, and bringing into fore, diverse aspects of ‘feminist/ gender/ cultural studies’.

Professor Shafey Kidwai (a well-acclaimed scholar and critic in his review, published in The Hindu, dated 23rd Oct., 2020) has rightly described Muslim Women as an “anthology of articles [which] combines analytical sensibility with academic rigour to provide fresh insights into the historical and current status of women in Islam” that too “at a time when Muslims across the globe are being pilloried, not always for valid reasons”.

All in all, this edited Volume by Kidwai and Gupta brings together interdisciplinary perspectives not only to highlight, and explore, diverse issues faced by Muslim women currently, but also clarifies various stereotypes, misconceptions, and misperceptions associated with the rights, role, contribution and responsibilities of Muslim women. In sum, Muslim Woman—What Everyone Needs to Know provides a ‘holistic picture of contemporary issues and challenges’ faced by Muslim women in 21st century ‘patriarchal societies’ vis-à-vis the role, rights and position of women in the light of original Islamic teaching.

From the content analysis and evaluation of these works, it becomes evident that Islam believes in equality of men and women and both stand equal in their status and respect as is evident from Q. 4: 1 and Q. 49: 13, which clearly affirm the ‘single source of our creation’ (or ‘one living entity’). It also becomes much evident that Islam has bestowed women with an exalted status and has granted her many rights, which she enjoyed to its full with social protection under the Prophetic and Pious Caliphate eras, but it is the ‘patriarchal mind-set/ society’ and the so-called ‘liberation/ feminist movement’ which have deprived them from these rights in the present times, as Dr Akram Nadwi rightly states: “I do not know of another religious tradition in which women were so central, so present, [and] so active in its formative phase”. Thus, to summarize, Islam has not oppressed, but liberated women.

Considering the overall subject-matter of the four books evaluated and keeping in view the topics, themes, issues and challenges they highlight, address and deliberate upon, it is fair to assert that they make a significant and substantial contribution to the subject under study and bring to the forefront a candid and authentic portrayal of ‘Gender Equ(al)ity’ in Islam.

  • The author is Assistant Professor (Islamic Studies) in the Higher Education Department (J&K). Feedback at [email protected] 

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