Family, society and ultimately the whole of mankind is treated
by Islam on an ethical basis.
Differentiation in sex is neither a credit nor a drawback for the
sexes. Therefore, when we talk about status of woman in Islam it
should not lead us to think that Islam has no specific guidelines,
limitations, responsibilities and obligations for men. What makes
one valuable and respectable in the eyes of Allah, the Creator of
mankind and the universe, is neither one's prosperity, position,
intelligence, physical strength nor beauty, but only one's Allah-consciousness
and awareness (taqwa). However, since in the Western culture and
in cultures influenced by it, there exists a disparity between men
and women there is more need for stating Islam's position on important
issues in a clear way.
Dr. Jamal Badawi's essay, The Status of Women in Islam, was originally
published in our quarterly journal, Al-lttihad, Vol. 8, No. 2, Sha'ban
1391/Sept 1971. Since then it has been one of our mostdemanded publications.
We thank Br. Jamal for permitting us to reprint his essay. We hope
it will clarify many of the misconceptions.
Director Dept. of Education and Training
MSA of U.S. and Canada
P.O. Box 38 Plainfield, IN 46168 USA
Jumada al Thani 1400 April 1980
The status of women in society is neither a new issue nor is it
a fully settled one.
The position of Islam on this issue has been among the subjects
presented to the Western reader with the least objectivity.
This paper is intended to provide a brief and authentic exposition
of what Islam stands for in this regard. The teachings of Islam
are based essentially on the Qur'an (God's revelation) and Hadeeth
(elaboration by Prophet Muhammad).
The Qur'an and the Hadeeth, properly and unbiasedly understood,
provide the basic source of authentication for any position or view
which is attributed to Islam.
The paper starts with a brief survey of the status of women in
the pre-Islamic era. It then focuses on these major questions: What
is the position of Islam regarding the status of woman in society?
How similar or different is that position from "the spirit of the
time," which was dominant when Islam was revealed? How would this
compare with the "rights" which were finally gained by woman in
One major objective of this paper is to provide a fair evaluation
of what Islam contributed (or failed to contribute) toward the restoration
of woman's dignity and rights. In order to achieve this objective,
it may be useful to review briefly how women were treated in general
in previous civilizations and religions, especially those which
preceded Islam (Pre-610 C.E.). Part of the information provided
here, however, describes the status of woman as late as the nineteenth
century, more than twelve centuries after Islam.
Describing the status of the Indian woman, Encyclopedia Britannica
In India, subjection was a cardinal principle. Day and night
must women be held by their protectors in a state of dependence
says Manu. The rule of inheritance was agnatic, that is descent
traced through males to the exclusion of females.
In Hindu scriptures, the description of a good wife is as follows:
"a woman whose mind, speech and body are kept in subjection, acquires
high renown in this world, and, in the next, the same abode with
In Athens, women were not better off than either the Indian or
the Roman women.
"Athenian women were always minors, subject to some male - to
their father, to their brother, or to some of their male kin.
Her consent in marriage was not generally thought to be necessary
and "she was obliged to submit to the wishes of her parents, and
receive from them her husband and her lord, even though he were
stranger to her."
A Roman wife was described by an historian as: "a babe, a minor,
a ward, a person incapable of doing or acting anything according
to her own individual taste, a person continually under the tutelage
and guardianship of her husband."
In the Encyclopedia Britannica, we find a summary of the legal
status of women in the Roman civilization:
In Roman Law a woman was even in historic times completely dependent.
If married she and her property passed into the power of her husband
. . . the wife was the purchased property of her husband, and
like a slave acquired only for his benefit. A woman could not
exercise any civil or public office . could not be a witness,
surety, tutor, or curator; she could not adopt or be adopted,
or make will or contract. Among the Scandinavian races women were:
under perpetual tutelage, whether married or unmarried. As late
as the Code of Christian V, at the end of the 17th Century, it
was enacted that if a woman married without the consent of her
tutor he might have, if he wished, administration and usufruct
of her goods during her life.
According to the English Common Law:
...all real property which a wife held at the time of a marriage
became a possession of her husband. He was entitled to the rent
from the land and to any profit which might be made from operating
the estate during the joint life of the spouses. As time passed,
the English courts devised means to forbid a husband's transferring
real property without the consent of his wife, but he still retained
the right to manage it and to receive the money which it produced.
As to a wife's personal property, the husband's power was complete.
He had the right to spend it as he saw fit.
Only by the late nineteenth Century did the situation start to
improve. "By a series of acts starting with the Married women's
Property Act in 1870, amended in 1882 and 1887, married women achieved
the right to own property and to enter contracts on a par with spinsters,
widows, and divorcees." As late as the Nineteenth Century an authority
in ancient law, Sir Henry Maine, wrote: "No society which preserves
any tincture of Christian institutions is likely to restore to married
women the personal liberty conferred on them by the Middle Roman
In his essay The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill wrote:
We are continually told that civilization and Christianity have
restored to the woman her just rights. Meanwhile the wife is the
actual bondservant of her husband; no less so, as far as the legal
obligation goes, than slaves commonly so called.
Before moving on to the Qur'anic decrees concerning the status
of woman, a few Biblical decrees may shed more light on the subject,
thus providing a better basis for an impartial evaluation. In the
Mosaic Law, the wife was betrothed. Explaining this concept, the
Encyclopedia Biblica states: "To betroth a wife to oneself meant
simply to acquire possession of her by payment of the purchase money;
the betrothed is a girl for whom the purchase money has been paid."
From the legal point of view, the consent of the girl was not necessary
for the validation of her marriage. "The girl's consent is unnecessary
and the need for it is nowhere suggested in the Law."
As to the right of divorce, we read in the Encyclopedia Biblica:
"The woman being man's property, his right to divorce her follows
as a matter of course." The right to divorce was held only by man.
"In the Mosaic Law divorce was a privilege of the husband only ....
The position of the Christian Church until recent centuries seems
to have been influenced by both the Mosaic Law and by the streams
of thought that were dominant in its contemporary cultures. In their
book, Marriage East and West, David and Vera Mace wrote:
Let no one suppose, either, that our Christian heritage is free
of such slighting judgments. It would be hard to find anywhere
a collection of more degrading references to the female sex than
the early Church Fathers provide. Lecky, the famous historian,
speaks of (these fierce incentives which form so conspicuous and
so grotesque a portion of the writing of the Fathers . . . woman
was represented as the door of hell, as the mother of all human
ills. She should be ashamed at the very thought that she is a
woman. She should live in continual penance on account of the
curses she has brought upon the world. She should be ashamed of
her dress, for it is the memorial of her fall. She should be especially
ashamed of her beauty, for it is the most potent instrument of
the devil). One of the most scathing of these attacks on woman
is that of Tertullian: Do you know that you are each an Eve? The
sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt
must of necessity live too. You are the devil's gateway: you are
the unsealer of that forbidden tree; you are the first deserters
of the divine law; you are she who persuades him whom the devil
was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God's
image, man. On account of your desert - that is death - even the
Sop of God had to die). Not only did the church affirm the inferior
status of woman, it deprived her of legal rights she had previously
In the midst of the darkness that engulfed the world, the divine
revelation echoed in the wide desert of Arabia with a fresh, noble,
and universal message to humanity: "O Mankind, keep your duty to
your Lord who created you from a single soul and from it created
its mate (of same kind) and from them twain has spread a multitude
of men and women" (Qur'an 4: 1).
A scholar who pondered about this verse states: "It is believed
that there is no text, old or new, that deals with the humanity
of the woman from all aspects with such amazing brevity, eloquence,
depth, and originality as this divine decree."
Stressing this noble and natural conception, them Qur'an states:
He (God) it is who did create you from a single soul and therefrom
did create his mate, that he might dwell with her (in love)...(Qur'an
The Creator of heavens and earth: He has made for you pairs from
among yourselves ...Qur'an 42:1 1
And Allah has given you mates of your own nature, and has given
you from your mates, children and grandchildren, and has made
provision of good things for you. Is it then in vanity that they
believe and in the grace of God that they disbelieve? Qur'an 16:72
The rest of this paper outlines the position of Islam regarding
the status of woman in society from its various aspects - spiritually,
socially, economically and politically.
The Qur'an provides clear-cut evidence that woman iscompletely
equated with man in the sight of God interms of her rights and responsibilities.
The Qur'an states:
"Every soul will be (held) in pledge for its deeds" (Qur'an 74:38).
It also states:
...So their Lord accepted their prayers, (saying): I will not
suffer to be lost the work of any of you whether male or female.
You proceed one from another ...(Qur'an 3: 195).
Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has faith, verily
to him will We give a new life that is good and pure, and We will
bestow on such their reward according to the their actions. (Qur'an
16:97, see also 4:124).
Woman according to the Qur'an is not blamed for Adam's first mistake.
Both were jointly wrong in their disobedience to God, both repented,
and both were forgiven. (Qur'an 2:36, 7:20 - 24). In one verse in
fact (20:121), Adam specifically, was blamed.
In terms of religious obligations, such as the Daily Prayers,
Fasting, Poor-due, and Pilgrimage, woman is no different from man.
In some cases indeed, woman has certain advantages over man. For
example, the woman is exempted from the daily prayers and from fasting
during her menstrual periods and forty days after childbirth. She
is also exempted from fasting during her pregnancy and when she
is nursing her baby if there is any threat to her health or her
baby's. If the missed fasting is obligatory (during the month of
Ramadan), she can make up for the missed days whenever she can.
She does not have to make up for the prayers missed for any of the
above reasons. Although women can and did go into the mosque during
the days of the prophet and thereafter attendance et the Friday
congregational prayers is optional for them while it is mandatory
for men (on Friday).
This is clearly a tender touch of the Islamic teachings for they
are considerate of the fact that a woman may be nursing her baby
or caring for him, and thus may be unable to go out to the mosque
at the time of the prayers. They also take into account the physiological
and psychological changes associated with her natural female functions.
Despite the social acceptance of female infanticide among some
Arabian tribes, the Qur'an forbade this custom, and considered it
a crime like any other murder.
"And when the female (infant) buried alive - is questioned, for
what crime she was killed." (Qur'an 81:8-9).
Criticizing the attitudes of such parents who reject their female
children, the Qur'an states:
When news is brought to one of them, of (the Birth of) a female
(child), his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief!
With shame does he hide himself from his people because of the
bad news he has had! Shall he retain her on (sufferance) and contempt,
or bury her in the dust? Ah! What an evil (choice) they decide
on? (Qur'an 16: 58-59).
Far from saving the girl's life so that she may later suffer injustice
and inequality, Islam requires kind and just treatment for her.
Among the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (P.) in this regard are the
Whosoever has a daughter and he does not bury her alive, does
not insult her, and does not favor his son over her, God will
enter him into Paradise. (Ibn Hanbal, No. 1957).
Whosoever supports two daughters till they mature, he and I
will come in the day of judgment as this (and he pointed with
his two fingers held together).
A similar Hadeeth deals in like manner with one who supports two
sisters. (Ibn-Hanbal, No. 2104).
The right of females to seek knowledge is not different from that
of males. Prophet Muhammad (P.) said:
"Seeking knowledge is mandatory for every Muslim". (AlBayhaqi).
Muslim as used here including both males and females.
The Qur'an clearly indicates that marriage is sharing between
the two halves of the society, and that its objectives, beside perpetuating
human life, are emotional well-being and spiritual harmony. Its
bases are love and mercy.
Among the most impressive verses in the Qur'an about marriage
is the following.
"And among His signs is this: That He created mates for you from
yourselves that you may find rest, peace of mind in them, and
He ordained between you love and mercy. Lo, herein indeed are
signs for people who reflect." (Qur'an 30:2 1).
According to Islamic Law, women cannot be forced to marry anyone
without their consent.
Ibn Abbas reported that a girl came to the Messenger of God, Muhammad
(P.), and she reported that her father had forced her to marry without
her consent. The Messenger of God gave her the choice . . . (between
accepting the marriage or invalidating it). (Ibn Hanbal No. 2469).
In another version, the girl said: "Actually I accept this marriage
but I wanted to let women know that parents have no right (to force
a husband on them)" (Ibn Maja, No. 1873).
Besides all other provisions for her protection at the time of
marriage, it was specifically decreed that woman has the full right
to her Mahr, a marriage gift, which is presented to her by her husband
and is included in the nuptial contract, and that such ownership
does not transfer to her father or husband. The concept of Mahr
in Islam is neither an actual or symbolic price for the woman, as
was the case in certain cultures, but rather it is a gift symbolizing
love and affection.
The rules for married life in Islam are clear and in harmony with
upright human nature. In consideration of the physiological and
psychological make-up of man and woman, both have equal rights and
claims on one another, except for one responsibility, that of leadership.
This is a matter which is natural in any collective life and which
is consistent with the nature of man.
The Qur'an thus states:
"And they (women) have rights similar to those (of men) over
them, and men are a degree above them." (Qur'an 2:228).
Such degree is Quiwama (maintenance and protection). This refers
to that natural difference between the sexes which entitles the
weaker sex to protection. It implies no superiority or advantage
before the law. Yet, man's role of leadership in relation to his
family does not mean the husband's dictatorship over his wife. Islam
emphasizes the importance of taking counsel and mutual agreement
in family decisions. The Qur'an gives us an example:
"...If they (husband wife) desire to wean the child by mutual
consent and (after) consultation, there is no blame on them..."
(Qur'an 2: 233).
Over and above her basic rights as a wife comes the right which
is emphasized by the Qur'an and is strongly recommended by the Prophet
(P); kind treatment and companionship.
The Qur'an states:
"...But consort with them in kindness, for if you hate them it
may happen that you hate a thing wherein God has placed much good."
(Qur'an 4: l9).
Prophet Muhammad. (P) said:
The best of you is the best to his family and I am the best
among you to my family.
The most perfect believers are the best in conduct and best
of you are those who are best to their wives. (Ibn-Hanbal, No.
Behold, many women came to Muhammad's wives complaining against
their husbands (because they beat them) - - those (husbands) are
not the best of you.
As the woman's right to decide about her marriage is recognized,
so also her right to seek an end for an unsuccessful marriage is
recognized. To provide for the stability of the family, however,
and in order to protect it from hasty decisions under temporary
emotional stress, certain steps and waiting periods should be observed
by men and women seeking divorce. Considering the relatively more
emotional nature of women, a good reason for asking for divorce
should be brought before the judge. Like the man, however, the woman
can divorce her husband with out resorting to the court, if the
nuptial contract allows that.
More specifically, some aspects of Islamic Law concerning marriage
and divorce are interesting and are worthy of separate treatment.
When the continuation of the marriage relationship is impossible
for any reason, men are still taught to seek a gracious end for
The Qur'an states about such cases:
When you divorce women, and they reach their prescribed term,
then retain them in kindness and retain them not for injury so
that you transgress (the limits). (Qur'an 2:231). (See also Qur'an
2:229 and 33:49).
Islam considered kindness to parents next to the worship of God.
"And we have enjoined upon man (to be good) to his parents: His
mother bears him in weakness upon weakness..." (Qur'an 31:14)
(See also Qur'an 46:15, 29:8).
Moreover, the Qur'an has a special recommendation for the good
treatment of mothers:
"Your Lord has decreed that you worship none save Him, and that
you be kind to your parents. . ." (Qur'an 17:23).
A man came to Prophet Muhammad (P) asking:
O Messenger of God, who among the people is the most worthy
of my good company? The Prophet (P) said, Your mother. The man
said then who else: The Prophet (P) said, Your mother. The man
asked, Then who else? Only then did the Prophet (P) say, Your
father. (Al-Bukhari and Muslim).
A famous saying of The Prophet is "Paradise is at the feet of mothers."
(In Al'Nisa'I, Ibn Majah, Ahmad).
"It is the generous (in character) who is good to women, and it
is the wicked who insults them."
Islam decreed a right of which woman was deprived both before
Islam and after it (even as late as this century), the right of
independent ownership. According to Islamic Law, woman's right to
her money, real estate, or other properties is fully acknowledged.
This right undergoes no change whether she is single or married.
She retains her full rights to buy, sell, mortgage or lease any
or all her properties. It is nowhere suggested in the Law that a
woman is a minor simply because she is a female. It is also noteworthy
that such right applies to her properties before marriage as well
as to whatever she acquires thereafter.
With regard to the woman's right to seek employment it should
be stated first that Islam regards her role in society as a mother
and a wife as the most sacred and essential one. Neither maids nor
baby-sitters can possibly take the mother's place as the educator
of an upright, complex free, and carefully-reared children. Such
a noble and vital role, which largely shapes the future of nations,
cannot be regarded as "idleness".
However, there is no decree in Islam which forbids woman from
seeking employment whenever there is a necessity for it, especially
in positions which fit her nature and in which society needs her
most. Examples of these professions are nursing, teaching (especially
for children), and medicine. Moreover, there is no restriction on
benefiting from woman's exceptional talent in any field. Even for
the position of a judge, where there may be a tendency to doubt
the woman's fitness for the post due to her more emotional nature,
we find early Muslim scholars such as Abu-Hanifa and Al-Tabary holding
there is nothing wrong with it. In addition, Islam restored to woman
the right of inheritance, after she herself was an object of inheritance
in some cultures. Her share is completely hers and no one can make
any claim on it, including her father and her husband.
"Unto men (of the family) belongs a share of that which Parents
and near kindred leave, and unto women a share of that which parents
and near kindred leave, whether it be a little or much - a determinate
share." ((Qur'an 4:7).
Her share in most cases is one-half the man's share, with no implication
that she is worth half a man! It would seem grossly inconsistent
after the overwhelming evidence of woman's equitable treatment in
Islam, which was discussed in the preceding pages, to make such
an inference. This variation in inheritance rights is only consistent
with the variations in financial responsibilities of man and woman
according to the Islamic Law. Man in Islam is fully responsible
for the maintenance of his wife, his children, and in some cases
of his needy relatives, especially the females. This responsibility
is neither waived nor reduced because of his wife's wealth or because
of her access to any personal income gained from work, rent, profit,
or any other legal means.
Woman, on the other hand, is far more secure financially and is
far less burdened with any claims on her possessions. Her possessions
before marriage do not transfer to her husband and she even keeps
her maiden name. She has no obligation to spend on her family out
of such properties or out of her income after marriage. She is entitled
to the "Mahr" which she takes from her husband at the time of marriage.
If she is divorced, she may get an alimony from her ex-husband.
An examination of the inheritance law within the overall framework
of the Islamic Law reveals not only justice but also an abundance
of compassion for woman.
Any fair investigation of the teachings of Islam o~ into the history
of the Islamic civilization will surely find a clear evidence of
woman's equality with man in what we call today "political rights".
This includes the right of election as well as the nomination
to political offices. It also includes woman's right to participate
in public affairs. Both in the Qur'an and in Islamic history we
find examples of women who participated in serious discussions and
argued even with the Prophet (P) himself, (see Qur'an 58: 14 and
During the Caliphate of Omar Ibn al-Khattab, a woman argued with
him in the mosque, proved her point, and caused him to declare in
the presence of people: "A woman is right and Omar is wrong."
Although not mentioned in the Qur'an, one Hadeeth of the Prophet
is interpreted to make woman ineligible for the position of head
of state. The Hadeeth referred to is roughly translated: "A people
will not prosper if they let a woman be their leader." This limitation,
however, has nothing to do with the dignity of woman or with her
rights. It is rather, related to the natural differences in the
biological and psychological make-up of men and women.
According to Islam, the head of the state is no mere figurehead.
He leads people in the prayers, especially on Fridays and festivities;
he is continuously engaged in the process of decision-making pertaining
to the security and well-being of his people. This demanding position,
or any similar one, such as the Commander of the Army, is generally
inconsistent with the physiological and psychological make-up of
woman in general. It is a medical fact that during their monthly
periods and during their pregnancies, women undergo various physiological
and psychological changes. Such changes may occur during an emergency
situation, thus affecting her decision, without considering the
excessive strain which is produced. Moreover, some decisions require
a maximum of rationality and a minimum of emotionality - a requirement
which does not coincide with the instinctive nature of women.
Even in modern times, and in the most developed countries, it
is rare to find a woman in the position of a head of state acting
as more than a figurehead, a woman commander of the armed services,
or even a proportionate number of women representatives in parliaments,
or similar bodies. One can not possibly ascribe this to backwardness
of various nations or to any constitutional limitation on woman's
right to be in such a position as a head of state or as a member
of the parliament. It is more logical to explain the present situation
in terms of the natural and indisputable differences between man
and woman, a difference which does not imply any "supremacy" of
one over the other. The difference implies rather the "complementary"
roles of both the sexes in life.
The first part of this paper deals briefly with the position of
various religions and cultures on the issue under investigation.
Part of this exposition extends to cover the general trend as late
as the nineteenth century, nearly 1300 years after the Qur'an set
forth the Islamic teachings.
In the second part of the paper, the status of women in Islam
is briefly discussed. Emphasis in this part is placed on the original
and authentic sources of Islam. This represents the standard according
to which degree of adherence of Muslims can be judged. It is also
a fact that during the downward cycle of Islamic Civilization, such
teachings were not strictly adhered to by many people who profess
to be Muslims.
Such deviations were unfairly exaggerated by some writers, and
the worst of this, were superficially taken to represent the teachings
of "Islam" to the Western reader without taking the trouble to make
any original and unbiased study of the authentic sources of these
Even with such deviations three facts are worth mentioning:
1. The history of Muslims is rich with women of great achievements
in all walks of life from as early as the seventh century (B.C.)
2. It is impossible for anyone to justify any mistreatment of
woman by any decree of rule embodied in the Islamic Law, nor could
anyone dare to cancel, reduce, or distort the clear-cut legal rights
of women given in Islamic Law.
3. Throughout history, the reputation, chastity and maternal role
of Muslim women were objects of admiration by impartial observers.
It is also worthwhile to state that the status which women reached
during the present era was not achieved due to the kindness of men
or due to natural progress. It was rather achieved through a long
struggle and sacrifice on woman's part and only when society needed
her contribution and work, more especial!; during the two world
wars, and due to the escalation of technological change.
In the case of Islam such compassionate and dignified status was
decreed, not because it reflects the environment of the seventh
century, nor under the threat or pressure of women and their organizations,
but rather because of its intrinsic truthfulness.
If this indicates anything, it would demonstrate the divine origin
of the Qur'an and the truthfulness of the message of Islam, which,
unlike human philosophies and ideologies, was far from proceeding
from its human environment, a message which established such humane
principles as neither grew obsolete during the course of time and
after these many centuries, nor can become obsolete in the future.
After all, this is the message of the All-Wise and all-knowing God
whose wisdom and knowledge are far beyond the ultimate in human
thought and progress.
The Holy, Qur'an: Translation of verses is heavily based on A.
Yusuf Ali's translation, The Glorious Qur'an, text translation,
and Commentary, The American Trust Publication, Plainfield, IN 46168,
Abd Al-Ati, Hammudah, Islam in Focus, The American Trust Publications,
Plainfield, IN 46168, 1977.
Allen, E. A., History of Civilization, General Publishing House,
Cincinnati, Ohio, 1889, Vol. 3.
Al Siba'i, Mustafa, Al-Alar'ah Baynal Fiqh Walqanoon (in Arabic),
2nd. ea., Al-Maktabah Al-Arabiah, Halab, Syria, 1966.
El-Khouli, Al-Bahiy, "Min Usus Kadiat Al-Mara'ah" (in Arabic),
A 1- Waay A l-lslami, Ministry of Walcf, Kuwait, Vol.3 (No. 27),
June 9, 1967, p.17.
Encyclopedia Americana (International Edition), American Corp.,
N.Y., 1969, Vol.29.
Encyclopedia Biblica (Rev.T.K.Cheynene and J.S.Black, editors),
The Macmillan Co., London, England, 1902, Vol.3.
The Encyclopedia Britannica, (11 th ed.), University Press Cambridge,
England, 191 1, Vol.28.
Encyclopedia Britannica, The Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago,
III., 1968, Vol.23.
Hadeeth. Most of the quoted Hadeeth were translated by the writer.
They are quoted in various Arabic sources. Some of them, however,
were translated directly from the original sources. Among the sources
checked are Musnad Ahmad Ibn Hanbal Dar AlMa'aref, Cairo, U.A.R.,
1950, and 1955, Vol.4 and 3,SunanIbnMajah, Dar Ihya'a Al-Kutub al-Arabiah,
Cairo, U.A.R., 1952, Vol.l, Sunan al-Tirimidhi, Vol.3.