‘Women Empowerment’ in Islamic Perspective

On Reading Zaira Ashraf Khan’s Prophet Muhammad and Empowerment of Women

By Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

NUMEROUS works have been written from different perspectives to deliberate on the issue of ‘women empowerment’, but the world is still abuzz with the slogans of ‘Women Empowerment’, ‘Gender Justice’, ‘Gender Equality’, ‘Liberation of Women’, etc. ‘Women Empowerment in Islam’ is one of the crucial and controversial debated topics/ issues in the 21st century and many Muslim scholars, young and peers, have contributed in their own ways to this discourse. A new addition to this discourse is Prophet Muhammad and Empowerment of Women—A Prophetic Model of Emancipation of Women by (daughter of this soil) Dr Zaira Ashraf Khan (a young researcher/ academic from Srinagar who is working, sine 2016, as an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies in J&K’s Higher Educations Department).

Title: Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and Empowerment of Women—A Prophetic Model of Emancipation of Women
Author: Zaira Ashraf Khan
Publication Details: New Delhi: Viva Books, 2021 
Pages: 124; ISBN: 9789393329141; Paperback; Price: Rs. 595/-

Published by Viva Books, New Delhi, this book is a modest effort to evaluate: (i) critically “the theories of Feminist movement and their assumptions on religion being one of the central reasons for the deplorable condition of women, particularly in Islam“, and (ii) how the Prophet (pbuh) championed the cause of women empowerment and “transformed the entire [Arabian] society in a span of 23 years” and what strategies he followed and the role he played in uplifting women (p. xvii). In other words, the book presents a comparative study of two women empowerment movements (of East and West launched in 6th Century CE and 16th CE, respectively) which were ‘aimed at the common goal of emancipating women and granting them the rights towards leading a dignified life’ by highlighting ‘the practical approach of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in curbing the gender disparity and narrowing the gender gap in the Arabian Society’ and by analysing and evaluating critically the ‘various theories of feminist movement’ and of ‘feminist theorists on the religion of Islam’.

An outcome of the author's PhD dissertation (pursued at Shah-i-Hamdan Institute of Islamic Studies, University of Kashmir) the book consists of six (6) chapters, excluding Acknowledgements, Introduction, Conclusion and Bibliography. It spans over 120 pages and has a Foreword (pp. ix-xi) by Prof. Hamid Naseem Rafiabadi (Head, Department of Religious Studies, Central University of Kashmir) and an ‘Endorsement’ by Prof. Abdur Raheem Kidwai (Director, K.A. Nizami Centre for Quranic Studies, Aligarh Muslim University)—both of them have contributed significantly to the subject under study in their own ways.

In his Foreword, Prof. Rafiabadi (author’s PhD Supervisor) contextualises the discourse of “women empowerment” vis-à-vis Islam and its primary sources and substantiates it with examples from Islamic history, and argues that “Islam conferred on women with plentiful of blessings whether it be in the form of rights in the ancestral property, education, business, marriage” or other arenas of life—the real ‘empowerment’ (pp. ix, x). He appreciates the efforts of the author and calls her book “a commendable work” and a “well researched book” (pp. x, xi). Similarly Prof. Kidwai in his endorsement has highly praised this work “for its insightful coverage of all the relevant aspects of Gender justice in Islam” and for “presenting the Islamic stance on gender equality and women empowerment in a reader-friendly and authentic way.”

In her “Introduction”, Dr Khan contextualises the process of, and the movements associated with, the ‘Women Empowerment’, and how “Muslim women have been depicted as subjugated section of society” and how Islam and its Text and its Prophet (the Qur’an and Prophetic Traditions, Ahadith), have been “questioned, criticised and debated” by the feminists (p. xvi). She also refers to the Sirah literature (works on the life of the last Prophet) and the lack of significant works on Prophet’s life and women empowerment and thus finds ways to highlight the uniqueness of her work: “Numerous works have been authored on the role of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) ranging from spiritual and social roles to the political ones. But the role he played in the empowerment of women centuries back provides a scope for further deliberations, because the subject of women empowerment is more novel in today’s time, and to look for an exemplary prototype for the women liberation ... is even more required today” (p. xvi). The main reason which prompted the author to carry research on this delicate topic is also mentioned by the author when she writes: “Various challenges and unanswered questions of defining empowerment for women, evaluation of the Western feminist movement, analysis of the role of Prophet Muhammad in getting women out of the state of despondency, granting them their rights and evolving them into accomplished scholars of their times, and dispelling the misconceptions about the position of women in Islamic tradition; [all these concerns] prompted the research of the subject under study” (p. xvii).

Chapter 1, “Women Empowerment—A General Perspective” (pp. 1-10) looks into the concept of empowerment from the feminist perspective, locates the historical inception of the idea of women empowerment, and contextualises the ‘Feminist Movement’ by probing into its various phases. It concludes with the argument that “the definition of empowerment was subservient to the changing perspective of its advocates that led to various liberation theories” (p. 9). This becomes the basis for the discussions of Chapter 2, “Women’s Liberation Theories and Some Prominent Feminist Theorists” (pp. 11-20), in which the author deals with various liberation theories that developed over a period of three centuries in the West “in the cause of Women Empowerment”—a movement which had “many narratives” and “each narrative took shape of a distinct theory” (p. 11); and among these, the prominent ones, discussed by author in detail, are: Liberal Feminism (pp. 11-15), Existentialist Feminism (pp. 15-16), Radical Feminism (pp. 16-17), Socialist Feminism (pp. 17-18), Cultural Feminism (p. 18). The chapter ends with these insights: “there are various feminist theories”, some being very rational in their claim and others very radical in their approach, “trying to come up with the solution to the male induced indifference in the past 3 centuries.” (p. 19)

Chapter 3, “Qur’anic Archetype of Women: A Study of Prophetic Times” (pp. 22-40), deals with the subject of women and gender relations as highlighted in the Qur’anic injunctions and discusses “the spiritual, social, educational, economical, legal and moral rights of women (in Islamic tradition)” (p. 21). Laced with Qur’anic verses and the wisdom hidden in them, this chapter highlights the real picture of women—her status, her rights, and her place—in Islam. This theoretical outlook of women empowerment is further discussed in Chapter 4, “Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and Empowerment of Women” (pp. 41-70), which aims to explore “the course of empowerment of women as brought forth by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) over a span of 23 years” in the 7th century Arabian  society—“a typical male dominated society” (p. 41). The author describes it as a “movement that questioned and challenged the system of domination, deceit and abomination towards women; the movement that was based on justice [:] neither biased nor coercive” (p. 41). The chapter depicts the “Status of Women in Islam” through the Prophetic Narrations (Ahadith) “in praise of women, narrations upholding the honor of women and their identity, reprimanding men about them, narrations encouraging women towards a productive life” and other such aspects (p. 43).

For example, in the explanation of the tradition that “women are similar to men”, the author writes that it was a “breakthrough for women empowerment in Arabia and an end to predominant stereotyping” (p. 43); and in the explanation of the tradition that “a woman is created from a rib”, she writes: “This hadith is often misquoted to authenticate crookedness in the creation of woman and her very existence. ... The crookedness of the rib doesn’t seem complimenting with woman’s nature; rather it is a clear indication of denouncing any sort of coercion in moulding one’s inherent character according to one’s norms, preferences or desires instead of valuing it” (pp. 46-47). Similarly, to show contemporary relevance of the Prophetic wisdom, in the description of a report narrated by Aisha (R.A.) that “Never has Prophet Muhammad [pbuh] hit any woman or servant”, Khan writes: “It is astounding to blame Islam for the perpetuation of domestic violence or any sort of violence when it calls for justice and patience” (p.65). The chapter also highlights the Prophet’s “compassionate behavior towards women of his household” by providing a portrayal of the wives of the Prophet (pbuh), the Mothers of the Believers (pp. 49-57) by focusing on these aspects: “Honouring his Wives”, their “Participating in the Religious Endeavours”, “Education”, “Compassion”, “Playful Moments”, Assisting [in] Household Chores”, “Seeking [their] Counsel”, “Dealing Strife with Patience and Compassion”, “Against Domestic Violence”, and “Love for Children” (pp. 57-65). Through these examples, the author depicts how the Prophet’s life and conduct “liberated them from the bondage and slavery [,] the social norms [of the day] and directed them to the creator” and “how he was instrumental in dismantling the age old traditions of patriarchy and despotism” (pp. 49, 57).

As clearly evident from the title, “A Continued Legacy of Women Empowerment in Islamic Tradition”, Chapter 5 (pp. 71-84) evaluates the overall reformation that society of Arabia was undergoing by providing an account of “vibrancy and participation of women in the Muslim societies from 6th-12th century, seeds of which were implanted by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and ardently followed by the Muslims” (p. 83). The chapter documents the names and contribution of various female scholars in different eras and in different fields and substantiates these arguments: “The engagement of Muslim women in rational and intellectual discourses demonstrates the freedom they enjoyed in their society” (p. 80); “Women right from the Prophetic times were active and had strong presence in all intellectual and religious debates” (p. 82); and the “women in Muslim societies were living a life of purpose. Their contribution in any arena was as obvious as that of men” (p. 83).

Chapter 6, “Gender Relations in Islam: A Textual (Nasus) Study” (pp. 85-90) provides a description of gender relations vis-à-vis Islamic texts; i.e., it throws light on the “gender relations as endorsed by divine injunctions of the religion of Islam from the Qur’anic perspective” (p. 85). To achieve this objective, the chapter discusses (i) “Qur’anic Dictum on Gender relations” in the light of Q. 49:13. This recalls the “our origin and our position in the sight of our Creator” (p. 86); (ii) “Qur’anic View on Gender Equality and Gender Identicality” by referring to Q. 4: 124; 33; 35; 3: 36; 67:2; 4: 33; and 3: 195: this highlights that “equality should not be taken same as Identicality”, for there is difference between “being identical and being equal. Islam recognizes that men and women have different abilities and strengths that complement each other” (p. 86); and (iii) “Islam: Promotion of Coexistence, not Confrontation”, which is sub-divided into four “main gender relation scenarios [as] depicted in [the] Quran”: (a) “In Islam, the role of a man and woman is complimentary, it is not conflicting. It is that of a partnership, it is not antagonistic” (as is evident from Q. 9: 71); (b) Q.30: 21 makes it evident that men and women are “a source of affection and solace for each other”; (c) Q. 2: 187 declares that spouses are like a garment, i.e., they “beatify and complete one another”; and (d) Q. 4: 34, one of the “misunderstood” and misconstrued verses, declares that men are supposed “to develop a strong sense of responsibility in terms of maintaining and protecting women” (pp. 87, 88). From these Qur’anic injunctions, the author confers that the crimes like “domestic violence and female infanticide which] are prevalent in the Muslim societies” and the “cases of violence and oppression” executed on women, “contradicts the teachings of Islam and misrepresents divine commandments based on justice and equality which must be rectified by revisiting the pristine essence of Islamic injunctions” (p. 89).

Thus, having discussed “two significant movements dedicated to the empowerment of women” (p. 91), one from the East (beginning in 6th century Arabia) and another from West (beginning in 16th century), the book ends with the ‘Conclusion’ (pp. 91-95) wherein the author highlights the similarities and dissimilarities between these two women liberation movements, contending that both were similar in the sense that they fought for a common cause, i.e., “a fight for equal rights of women vis-à-vis men in all social, economic, marital, educational, political, existential domains” (pp. 93-94); however, Islamic prototype of women empowerment had certain distinctive features, viz., it brought forth a “balanced society that does not lead to any sort of gender clash or confrontation”; it didn’t restricted the “domain of empowerment ... but rather stands for the sanctity of women”; it neither denigrated women contribution in private sphere nor undermined her contribution in public arena; and , most importantly, it “never competed for identicality with men” (p. 94). The author also refers to the major factors due to which women folk are considered as “one of the most marginalized sections of the society” in the current Muslim societies and thus putting the Islamic texts and the Prophet (pbuh) “to criticism”; these are:  Misinterpretations of Islamic texts; Misrepresentation of Islamic ideals in Muslim societies; and false presumptions of status of Muslim women (p. 94).

Thus, through her meticulous analysis, keen efforts, and well documentation, Dr Zaira presents a critical evaluation and assessment of western women liberation movement (theories and theorists) as well as presents an authentic and comprehensive Islamic stance on gender equality and women empowerment.

The book is, however, blemished by grammatical/ typographical and technical errors: e.g., the word Quran is mentioned inconsistently as “Qur’an” and “Quran” (see, pp. 23, 24, 28, 32, 35, 62) and in the Foreword as “The Noble Quran” (p. ix); most of the times Qur’anic verses and Ahadith are provided with the Arabic text, however the same is missing on some occasions (see, pp. 24, 26, 28, 35-36, 44, 54, 58, 59, 60, 86, 88); the appellation “R.A.” and “r.a.” are used interchangeably without any classification (pp. 37-38); dates are mentioned in variedly both in CE and AH (see, pp. 50-51); few sentences are either complicated or grammatically incorrect; examples are: “this verse signifies that the [relation] both between male and female” (p. 23), “a women was inherited” (p. 35), and “that liberated them from the bondage and slavery [,] the social norms [of the day]” (p. 49); number of Ahadith reported on authority of Umm Salamah (R.A.) is mentioned variedly as 387 and 378 on page 53: “She ... preserved three hundred and eighty-seven [387] ahadith”, and “As many as 378 traditions are reported to have been narrated by her”. Moreover, one observes inconsistency in the references style as well. Furthermore, though the author has cited Prof. M. Y. M. Sidiqui’s Rasool-e-Akram (SAW) aur Khawatee in a chapter, but the same is not mentioned in the literature review section in the Introduction (p. xvii).

Keeping aside these omissions, Dr Zaira indeed deserves applause for her deep research acumen, meticulous analysis and insights, and well researched book which presents the Islamic stance on gender equality and women empowerment simply but meticulously. In sum, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and Empowerment of Women is a must-read for everyone interested in knowing the intricacies of this subject.

  • The author is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC Sogam, Kupwara (J&K). Email: [email protected] 

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