Women in Islam
Among the influences which have played an important role in defining the social, spiritual and cosmological status of women in the course of Islamic history are Islam’s sacred text, the Qur’an; the Ḥadīths, which are traditions relating to the deeds and aphorisms of Islam’s Prophet Muḥammad; ijmā’, which is a consensus, expressed or tacit, on a question of law; qiyās, the principle by which the laws of the Qur’an and the Sunnah or Prophetic custom are applied to situations not explicitly covered by these two sources of legislation; and fatwas, non-binding published opinions or decisions regarding religious doctrine or points of law. Additional influences include pre-Islamic cultural traditions; secular laws, which are fully accepted in Islam so long as they do not directly contradict Islamic precepts; religious authorities, including government-controlled agencies such as the Indonesian Ulema Council and Turkey’s Diyanet; and spiritual teachers, which are particularly prominent in Islamic mysticism or Sufism. Many of the latter – including perhaps most famously, Ibn al-‘Arabī – have themselves produced texts that have elucidated the metaphysical symbolism of the feminine principle in Islam.
There is considerable variation as to how the above sources are interpreted by Orthodox Muslims, both Sunni and Shi’a – approximately 90% of the world’s Muslim population – and ideological fundamentalists, most notably those subscribing to Wahhabism or Salafism, who comprise roughly 9% of the total. In particular, Wahhabis and Salafists tend to reject mysticism and theology outright; this has profound implications for the way that women are perceived within these ideological sects. Conversely, within Islamic Orthodoxy, both the established theological schools and Sufism are at least somewhat influential.
Sources of influence
There are four sources of influence under Islam for Muslim women. The first two, the Quran and Hadiths, are considered primary sources, while the other two are secondary and derived sources that differ between various Muslim sects and schools of Islamic jurisprudence. The secondary sources of influence include ijma, qiyas and, in forms such as fatwa, ijtihad.
During his life, Muhammad married nine or eleven women depending upon the differing accounts of who were his wives. In Arabian culture, marriage was generally contracted in accordance with the larger needs of the tribe and was based on the need to form alliances within the tribe and with other tribes. Virginity at the time of marriage was emphasised as a tribal honour. William Montgomery Watt states that all of Muhammad’s marriages had the political aspect of strengthening friendly relationships and were based on the Arabian custom.
Women or Sūrat an-Nisāʼ is the fourth chapter of the Quran. The title of the sura derives from the numerous references to women throughout the chapter, including verses 3-4 and 127-130.
The above primary sources of influence on women of Islam do not deal with every conceivable situation over time. This led to the development of jurisprudence and religious schools with Islamic scholars that referred to resources such as identifying authentic documents, internal discussions and establishing a consensus to find the correct religiously approved course of action for Muslims. These formed the secondary sources of influence for women. Among them are ijma, qiya, ijtihad and others depending on sect and the school of Islamic law. Included in secondary sources are fatwas, which are often widely distributed, orally or in writing by Muslim clerics, to the masses, in local language and describe behavior, roles and rights of women that conforms with religious requirements. Fatwas are theoretically non-binding, but seriously considered and have often been practiced by most Muslim believers. The secondary sources typically fall into five types of influence: the declared role or behavior for Muslims, both women and men, is considered obligatory, commendable, permissible, despised or prohibited. There is considerable controversy, change over time, and conflict between the secondary sources.
Gender roles in Islam are simultaneously coloured by two Qur’anic precepts: (i) spiritual equality between women and men; and (ii) the idea that women are meant to exemplify femininity, and men masculinity.
Spiritual equality between women and men is detailed in Sūrat al-Aḥzāb (33:35):
Verily, men who surrender unto God, and women who surrender, and men who believe and women who believe, and men who obey and women who obey, and men who speak the truth and women who speak the truth…and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their modesty and women who guard (their modesty), and men who remember God much and women who remember – God hath prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward. — Verse 33 of the Qur’an, ‘The Coalition’
Islam’s basic view of women and men postulates a complementarity of functions: like everything else in the universe, humanity has been created in a pair (Sūrat al-Dhāriyāt, 51:49) – neither can be complete without the other. In Islamic cosmological thinking, the universe is perceived as an equilibrium built on harmonious polar relationships between the pairs that make up all things. Moreover, all outward phenomena are reflections of inward noumena and ultimately of God.
The emphasis which Islam places upon the feminine/masculine polarity (and therefore complementarity) results in a separation of social functions. In general, a woman’s sphere of operation is the home in which she is the dominant figure – and a man’s corresponding sphere is the outside world.However, this separation is not, in practice, as rigid as it appears. There are many examples – both in the early history of Islam and in the contemporary world – of Muslim women who have played prominent roles in public life, including being sultanas, queens, elected heads of state and wealthy businesswomen. Moreover, it is important to recognise that in Islam, home and family are firmly situated at the centre of life in this world and of society: a man’s work cannot take precedence over the private realm.
The Quran dedicates numerous verses to Muslim women, their role, duties and rights, in addition to Sura 4 with 176 verses named “An-Nisa” (“Women”).
Islam differentiates the gender role of women who believe in Islam and those who do not. The Muslim male’s right to own slave women, seized during military campaigns and jihad against non-believing pagans and infidels from Southern Europe to Africa to India to Central Asia, was considered natural. Slave women could be sold without their consent, expected to provide concubinage, required permission from their owner to marry; and children born to them were automatically considered Muslim under Islamic law if the father was a Muslim.
The classical position
Both the Qur’an – Islam’s sacred text – and the spoken or acted example of Muḥammad (sunnah) advocate the rights of women and men equally to seek knowledge. The Qur’an commands all Muslims to exert effort in the pursuit of knowledge, irrespective of their biological sex: it constantly encourages Muslims to read, think, contemplate and learn from the signs of God in nature. Moreover, Muḥammad encouraged education for both males and females: he declared that seeking knowledge was a religious duty binding upon every Muslim man and woman. Like her male counterpart, each woman is under a moral and religious obligation to seek knowledge, develop her intellect, broaden her outlook, cultivate her talents and then utilise her potential to the benefit of her soul and her society.
The interest of Muḥammad in female education was manifest in the fact that he himself used to teach women along with men. Muhammad’s teachings were widely sought by both sexes, and accordingly at the time of his death it was reported that there were many female scholars of Islam. Additionally, the wives of Muḥammad – particularly Aisha – also taught both women and men; many of Muḥammad’s companions and followers learned the Qur’an, ḥadīth and Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) from Aisha. Notably, there was no restriction placed on the type of knowledge acquired: a woman was free to choose any field of knowledge that interested her. Because Islam recognises that women are in principle wives and mothers, the acquisition of knowledge in fields which are complementary to these social roles was specially emphasised.
History of women’s education
While it was not common for women to enroll as students in formal religious schools, it was common for women to attend informal lectures and study sessions at mosques, madrasas and other public places. For example, the attendance of women at the Fatimid Caliphate’s “sessions of wisdom” (majālis al-ḥikma) was noted by various historians, including Ibn al-Tuwayr, al-Muṣabbiḥī and Imam. Historically, some Muslim women played an important role in the foundation of many religious educational institutions, such as Fatima al-Fihri’s founding of the University of al-Karaouine in 859 CE. According to the 12th-century Sunni scholar Ibn ‘Asakir, there were various opportunities for female education in what is known as the Islamic Golden Age. He writes that women could study, earn ijazahs (religious degrees) and qualify as ulama and Islamic teachers. Similarly, al-Sakhawi devotes one of the twelve volumes of his biographical dictionary Daw al-Lami to female religious scholars between 700 and 1800 CE, giving information on 1,075 of them. Women of prominent urban families were commonly educated in private settings and many of them received and later issued ijazas in hadith studies, calligraphy and poetry recitation. Working women learned religious texts and practical skills primarily from each other, though they also received some instruction together with men in mosques and private homes.
During the colonial era, until the early 20th century, there was a gender struggle among Muslims in the British empire; educating women was viewed as a prelude to social chaos, a threat to the moral order, and man’s world was viewed as a source of Muslim identity. Muslim women in British India, nevertheless, pressed for their rights independent of men; by the 1930s, 2.5 million girls had entered schools of which 0.5 million were Muslims.
In a 2013 statement, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation noted that restricted access to education is among the challenges faced by girls and women in the developing world, including OIC member states. UNICEF notes that out of 24 nations with less than 60% female primary enrollment rates, 17 were Islamic nations; more than half the adult population is illiterate in several Islamic countries, and the proportion reaches 70% among Muslim women. UNESCO estimates that the literacy rate among adult women was about 50% or less in a number of Muslim-majority countries, including Morocco, Yemen, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Niger, Mali, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Chad. Egypt had a women literacy rate of 64% in 2010, Iraq of 71% and Indonesia of 90%. While literacy has been improving in Saudi Arabia since the 1970s, the overall female literacy rate in 2005 was 50%, compared to male literacy of 72%.
- Gender and participation in education
Some scholars contend that Islamic nations have the world’s highest gender gap in education. The 2012 World Economic Forum annual gender gap study finds the 17 out of 18 worst performing nations, out of a total of 135 nations, are the following members of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC): Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, (Nepal), Turkey, Oman, Egypt, Iran, Mali, Morocco, Côte d’Ivoire, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Chad, Pakistan and Yemen.
In contrast, UNESCO notes that at 37% the share of female researchers in Arab states compares well with other regions. In Turkey, the proportion of female university researchers is slightly higher (36%) than the average for the 27-member European Union as of 2012 (33%). In Iran, women account for over 60% of university students.Similarly, in Malaysia, Algeria, and in Saudi Arabia, the majority of university students have been female in recent years, while in 2016 Emirati women constituted 76.8% of people enrolled at universities in the United Arab Emirates.At the University of Jordan, which is Jordan’s largest and oldest university, 65% of students were female in 2013.
In a number of OIC member states, the ratio of women to men in tertiary education is exceptionally high. Qatar leads the world in this respect, having 6.66 females in higher education for every male as of 2015. Other Muslim-majority states with notably more women university students than men include Kuwait, where 41% of females attend university compared with 18% of males; Bahrain, where the ratio of women to men in tertiary education is 2.18:1; Brunei Darussalam, where 33% of women enroll at university vis à vis 18% of men;Tunisia, which has a women to men ratio of 1.62 in higher education; and Kyrgyzstan, where the equivalent ratio is 1.61. Additionally, in Kazakhstan, there were 115 female students for every 100 male students in tertiary education in 1999; according to the World Bank, this ratio had increased to 144:100 by 2008.
However, in the United States, a recent study done by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that Muslim American women (73%) are more likely than Muslim American men (57%) to achieve higher education (post-high school education or higher).
Some scholars refer to verse 28:23 in the Quran and to Khadijah, Muhammad’s first wife, a merchant before and after converting to Islam, as indications that Muslim women may undertake employment outside their homes.
And when he came to the water of Madyan, he found on it a group of men watering, and he found besides them two women keeping back (their flocks). He said: What is the matter with you? They said: We cannot water until the shepherds take away (their sheep) from the water, and our father is a very old man. — Qur’an, [Quran 28:23]
Traditional interpretations of Islam require a woman to have her husband’s permission to leave the house and take up employment, though scholars such as Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa and Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Ebrahim Jannaati have said that women do not require a husband’s permission to leave the house and work.
During medieval times, the labor force in Spanish Caliphate included women in diverse occupations and economic activities such as farming, construction workers, textile workers, managing slave girls, collecting taxes from prostitutes, as well as presidents of guilds, creditors, religious scholars.
In the 12th century, Ibn Rushd, claimed that women were equal to men in all respects and possessed equal capacities to shine, citing examples of female warriors among the Arabs, Greeks and Africans to support his case. In the early history of Islam, examples of notable female Muslims who fought during the Muslim conquests and Fitna (civil wars) as soldiers or generals included Nusaybah bint Ka’ab a.k.a. Umm Amarah, Aisha, Kahula and Wafeira.
Medieval bimarestan or hospitals included female staff as female nurses. Muslim hospitals were also the first to employ female physicians, such as Banu Zuhr family who served the Almohad caliph ruler Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur in the 12th century. This was necessary due to the segregation of male and female patients in Islamic hospitals. Later in the 15th century, female surgeons were employed at Şerafeddin Sabuncuoğlu’s Cerrahiyyetu’l-Haniyye (Imperial Surgery).
Patterns of women’s employment vary throughout the Muslim world: as of 2005, 16% of Pakistani women were “economically active” (either employed, or unemployed but available to furnish labor), whereas 52% of Indonesian women were. According to a 2012 World Economic Forum report and other recent reports, Islamic nations in the Middle East and North Africa region are increasing their creation of economic and employment opportunities for women; compared, however, to every other region in the world, the Middle East and North African region ranks lowest on economic participation, employment opportunity and the political empowerment of women. Ten countries with the lowest women labour force participation in the world – Jordan, Oman, Morocco, Iran, Turkey, Algeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Syria – are Islamic countries, as are the four countries that have no female parliamentarians.
Women are allowed to work in Islam, subject to certain conditions, such as if a woman is in financial need and her employment does not cause her to neglect her important role as a mother and wife.[ It has been claimed that it is the responsibility of the Muslim community to organize work for women, so that she can do so in a Muslim cultural atmosphere, where her rights (as set out in the Quran) are respected. Islamic law however, permits women to work in Islamic conditions, such as the work not requiring the woman to violate Islamic law (e.g., serving alcohol), and that she maintain her modesty while she performs any work outside her home.
In some cases, when women have the right to work and are educated, women’s job opportunities may in practice be unequal to those of men. In Egypt for example, women have limited opportunities to work in the private sector because women are still expected to put their role in the family first, which causes men to be seen as more reliable in the long term.In Saudi Arabia, it was illegal for Saudi women to drive until June 2018; it is still illegal for them to serve in military and other professions with men. It is becoming more common for Saudi Arabian women to procure driving licences from other Gulf Cooperation Council states such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
According to the International Business Report (2014) published by global accounting network Grant Thornton, Indonesia – which is the world’s largest Muslim country by population – has ≥40% of senior business management positions occupied by women, a greater proportion than the United States (22%) and Denmark (14%). Prominent female business executives in the Islamic world include Güler Sabancı, the CEO of the industrial and financial conglomerate Sabancı Holding;Ümit Boyner, a non-executive director at Boyner Holding who was the chairwoman of TÜSİAD, the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen Association, from 2010 to 2013; Bernadette Ruth Irawati Setiady, the CEO of PT Kalbe Farma Tbk., the largest pharmaceutical company in the ASEAN trade bloc; Atiek Nur Wahyuni, the director of Trans TV, a major free-to-air television station in Indonesia; and Elissa Freiha, a founding partner of the UAE-based investment platform WOMENA.
In the United States, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that, “Instead of hiding, Muslim women responded to a Trump win with greater giving.” Nearly 30% of Muslim women vs. 19% of Muslim men have increased their donations to an organization associated with their faith community since the 2016 US presidential election, demonstrating a level of financial independence and influence.
Financial and legal matters
According to all schools of Islamic law, the injunctions of the sharī’ah of Islam apply to all Muslims, male and female, who have reached the age of maturity – and only to them. All Muslims are in principle equal before the law. The Qur’an especially emphasises that its injunctions concern both men and women in several verses where both are addressed clearly and in a distinct manner, such as in Sūrat al-Aḥzāb at 33:35 (‘Verily, men who surrender unto God, and women who surrender…’).
Most Muslim majority countries, and some Muslim minority countries, follow a mixed legal system, with positive laws and state courts, as well as sharia-based religious laws and religious courts. Those countries that use Sharia for legal matters involving women, adopt it mostly for personal law; however, a few Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen also have sharia-based criminal laws.
According to Jan Michiel Otto, “[a]nthropological research shows that people in local communities often do not distinguish clearly whether and to what extent their norms and practices are based on local tradition, tribal custom, or religion.” In some areas, tribal practices such as vani, Ba’ad and “honor” killing remain an integral part of the customary legal processes involving Muslim women. In turn, article 340 of the Jordanian Penal Code, which reduces sentences for killing female relatives over adultery, and is commonly believed to be derived from Islamic law, was in fact borrowed from French criminal law during the Ottoman era.
Other than applicable laws to Muslim women, there is gender-based variation in the process of testimony and acceptable forms of evidence in legal matters. Some Islamic jurists have held that certain types of testimony by women may not be accepted. In other cases, the testimony of two women equals that of one man.
Financial and legal agency: The classical position
According to verse 4:32 of Islam’s sacred text, both men and women have an independent economic position: ‘For men is a portion of what they earn, and for women is a portion of what they earn. Ask God for His grace. God has knowledge of all things.’ Women therefore are at liberty to buy, sell, mortgage, lease, borrow or lend, and sign contracts and legal documents. Additionally, women can donate money, act as trustees and set up a business or company. These rights cannot be altered, irrespective of marital status. When a woman is married, she legally has total control over the dower – the mahr or bridal gift, usually financial in nature, while the groom pays to the bride upon marriage – and retains this control in the event of divorce.
Qur’anic principles, especially the teaching of zakāh or purification of wealth, encourage women to own, invest, save and distribute their earnings and savings according to their discretion. These also acknowledge and enforce the right of women to participate in various economic activities.
In contrast to many other cultures, a woman in Islam has always been entitled as per sharī’ah law to keep her family name and not take her husband’s name. Therefore, a Muslim woman has traditionally always been known by the name of her family as an indication of her individuality and her own legal identity: there is no historically practiced process of changing the names of women be they married, divorced or widowed. With the spread of western-style state bureaucracies across the Islamic world from the nineteenth century onwards, this latter convention has come under increasing pressure, and it is now commonplace for Muslim women to change their names upon marriage.
“For men is a share from what the parents and near relatives leave, and for women is a share from what the parents and near relative leave from less from it or more, a legal share.” (Al-Quran 4:7)
Bernard Lewis says that classical Islamic civilization granted free Muslim women relatively more property rights than women in the West, even as it sanctified three basic inequalities between master and slave, man and woman, believer and unbeliever. Even in cases where property rights were granted in the West, they were very limited and covered only upper class women.Over time, while women’s rights have improved elsewhere, those in many Muslim-dominated countries have remained comparatively restricted.
Women’s property rights in the Quran are from parents and near relatives. A woman, according to Islamic tradition, does not have to give her pre-marriage possessions to her husband and receive a mahr (dower) which she then owns. Furthermore, any earnings that a woman receives through employment or business, after marriage, is hers to keep and need not contribute towards family expenses. This is because, once the marriage is consummated, in exchange for tamkin (sexual submission), a woman is entitled to nafaqa – namely, the financial responsibility for reasonable housing, food and other household expenses for the family, including the spouse, falls entirely on the husband. In traditional Islamic law, a woman is also not responsible for the upkeep of the home and may demand payment for any work she does in the domestic sphere.
Property rights enabled some Muslim women to possess substantial assets and fund charitable endowments. In mid-sixteenth century Istanbul, 36.8% of charitable endowments (awqāf) were founded by women. In eighteenth century Cairo, 126 out of 496 charitable foundations (25.4%) were endowed by women.Between 1770 and 1840, 241 out of 468 or 51% of charitable endowments in Aleppo were founded by women.
The Qur’an grants inheritance rights to wife, daughter, and sisters of the deceased. However, women’s inheritance rights to her father’s property are unequal to her male siblings, and varies based on number of sisters, stepsisters, stepbrothers, if mother is surviving, and other claimants. The rules of inheritance are specified by a number of Qur’an verses, including Surah “Baqarah” (chapter 2) verses 180 and 240; Surah “Nisa(h)” (chapter 4) verses 7–11, 19 and 33; and Surah “Maidah” (chapter 5), verses 106–108. Three verses in Surah “Nisah” (chapter 4), verses 11, 12 and 176, describe the share of close relatives. The religious inheritance laws for women in Islam are different from inheritance laws for non-Muslim women under common laws.
The Islamic teaching of going out of one’s way to treat women equitably in financial dealings is exemplified by a story featuring Abū Ḥanīfa al-Nuʿmān ibn Thābit ibn Zūṭā (700-767) – the founder of the Ḥanafī School of Law, who in his earlier life was a textile merchant in a garrison town – and a woman who came to his store offering to sell Abū Ḥanīfa a silk garment. The author and investment banker Harris Irfan narrates the story as follows:
“The lady offered to sell the garment to Abu Hanifa for 100 dirhams but Abu Hanifa would not buy it. ‘It is worth more than a hundred’, he told the surprised woman. ‘How much?’ he asked her again. She offered to sell it for 200 dirhams and he turned her down. Then she asked for 300, then 400, at which point the exasperated woman scolded him. ‘You are mocking me’, she declared, and prepared to walk away from the deal to try her luck elsewhere. So they summoned another merchant and he solemnly valued the garment at 500 dirhams. Rather than profit from the woman’s ignorance, Abu Hanifa had opted to settle for a fair trade, a principle he would abide by all his life – that the greedy should be regulated from taking advantage of the vulnerable.”
Sexual crimes and sins
The fornicating woman and the fornicating man, flog each one of them with one hundred stripes. No pity for them should prevail upon you in the matter of Allah’s religion, if you really believe in Allah and the Last Day; and a group of believers must witness their punishment. A man who is fornicator will not marry but a woman who is a fornicator or a polytheist; and a woman who is a fornicator will not marry but a man who is a fornicator or a polytheist. And this (i.e. marrying such spouses) has been prohibited for the believers. (Al-Quran 24:2-3)
- Traditional jurisprudence
Zina is an Islamic legal term referring to unlawful sexual intercourse. According to traditional jurisprudence, zina can include adultery (of married parties), fornication (of unmarried parties), prostitution, bestiality, and according to some scholars, rape.The Quran disapproved of the promiscuity prevailing in Arabia at the time, and several verses refer to unlawful sexual intercourse, including one that prescribes the punishment of 100 lashes for fornicators. Zina thus belong to the class of hadd (pl. hudud) crimes which have Quranically specified punishments.
Although stoning for zina is not mentioned in the Quran, all schools of traditional jurisprudence agreed on the basis of hadith that it is to be punished by stoning if the offender is muhsan (adult, free, Muslim, and having been married), with some extending this punishment to certain other cases and milder punishment prescribed in other scenarios. The offenders must have acted of their own free will. According to traditional jurisprudence, zina must be proved by testimony of four adult, pious male eyewitnesses to the actual act of penetration, or a confession repeated four times and not retracted later. Any Muslim who accuses another Muslim of zina but fails to produce the required witnesses commits the crime of false accusation (qadhf, القذف). Some contend that this sharia requirement of four eyewitnesses severely limits a man’s ability to prove zina charges against women, a crime often committed without eyewitnesses. The Maliki legal school also allows an unmarried woman’s pregnancy to be used as evidence, but the punishment can be averted by a number of legal “semblances” (shubuhat), such as existence of an invalid marriage contract. These requirements made zina virtually impossible to prove in practice.
Aside from “a few rare and isolated” instances from the pre-modern era and several recent cases, there is no historical record of stoning for zina being legally carried out. Zina became a more pressing issue in modern times, as Islamist movements and governments employed polemics against public immorality. After sharia-based criminal laws were widely replaced by European-inspired statutes in the modern era, in recent decades several countries passed legal reforms that incorporated elements of hudud laws into their legal codes. Iran witnessed several highly publicized stonings for zina in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution. In Nigeria local courts have passed several stoning sentences, all of which were overturned on appeal or left unenforced. While the harsher punishments of the Hudood Ordinances have never been applied in Pakistan, in 2005 Human Rights Watch reported that over 200,000 zina cases against women were underway at various levels in Pakistan’s legal system.
Qadhf and Li’an
In ‘lian’, when the husband accuses the wife of adultery, both have to swear five times each to support their case (24:6-9). When the wife swears five times, her evidence is upheld and given priority over his and she is not punished.
And those who accuse chaste women and never bring four witnesses, flog them eighty strips and never admit their testimony forever; indeed they themselves are impure. Except those who repent after this and amend themselvess; then God is forgiving and merciful. And those who accuse their wives and do not have four witnesses then witness of each one of them is four oaths by God that he is of truthfuls. And fifth that curse of God be on him if he is of liars. And it can save her from punishment if she oaths by God four times that he is of liars. And fifth time that wrath of God be on her if he is of truthfuls. — Qur’an, [Quran 24:4-9]
- Traditional jurisprudence
Rape is considered a serious sexual crime in Islam, and can be defined in Islamic law as: “Forcible illegal sexual intercourse by a man with a woman who is not legally married to him, without her free will and consent”. Sharī’ah law makes a distinction between adultery and rape and applies different rules. According to Professor Oliver Leaman, the required testimony of four male witnesses having seen the actual penetration applies to illicit sexual relations (i.e. adultery and fornication), not to rape. The requirements for proof of rape are less stringent:
Rape charges can be brought and a case proven based on the sole testimony of the victim, providing that circumstantial evidence supports the allegations. It is these strict criteria of proof which lead to the frequent observation that where injustice against women does occur, it is not because of Islamic law. It happens either due to misinterpretation of the intricacies of the Sharia laws governing these matters, or cultural traditions; or due to corruption and blatant disregard of the law, or indeed some combination of these phenomena.
In the case of rape, the adult male perpetrator (i.e. rapist) of such an act is to receive the ḥadd zinā, but the non-consenting or invalidly consenting female (i.e. rape victim) is to be regarded as innocent of zinā and relieved of the ḥadd punishment.
- Modern criminal laws
Rape laws in a number of Muslim-majority countries have been a subject of controversy. In some of these countries, such as Morocco, the penal code is neither based on Islamic law nor significantly influenced by it, while in other cases, such as Pakistan’s Hudood Ordinances, the code incorporates elements of Islamic law.
In Afghanistan, Dubai, Morocco and Pakistan, some women who made accusations of rape have been charged with fornication or adultery. This law was amended in Pakistan in 2006.
In several countries, including Morocco ( – 2014), Jordan ( – 2017), Lebanon, Algeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, rapists have been allowed to avoid criminal prosecution if they married their victim.There is a disagreement whether this practice is sanctioned by Islam or part of local custom.
Witness of woman
In Qur’an, surah 2:182 equates two women as substitute for one man, in matters requiring witnesses.
O ye who believe! When ye contract debt with each other for a fixed period of time, reduce them to writing. Let a scribe write down faithfully as between the parties: let not the scribe refuse to write: as Allah has taught him, so let him write. Let him who incurs the liability dictate, but let him fear His Lord Allah, and not diminish aught of what he owes. If they party liable is mentally deficient, or weak, or unable himself to dictate, let his guardian dictate faithfully, and get two witnesses, out of your own men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women, such as ye choose, for witnesses, so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her. The witnesses should not refuse when they are called on (For evidence). Disdain not to reduce to writing (your contract) for a future period, whether it be small or big: it is juster in the sight of Allah, More suitable as evidence, and more convenient to prevent doubts among yourselves but if it be a transaction which ye carry out on the spot among yourselves, there is no blame on you if ye reduce it not to writing. — Qur’an, [Quran 2:282]
Narrated Abu Sa’id Al-Khudri:
The prophet said,”Isn’t the witness of a woman equal to half of that of a man?” The women said, “Yes”. He said, ” This is deficiency of her mind”.
(Sahih Bukhari: Book of Witnesses: Chapter witness of women: Hadith no. 2658)
In Islamic law, testimony (shahada) is defined as attestation of knowledge with regard to a right of a second party against a third. It exists alongside other forms of evidence, such as the oath, confession, and circumstantial evidence.
In classical Shari’a criminal law men and women are treated differently with regard to evidence and bloodmoney. The testimony of a man has twice the strength of that of a woman. However, with regard to hadd offences and retaliation, the testimonies of female witnesses are not admitted at all. A number of Muslim-majority countries, particularly in the Arab world, presently treat a woman’s testimony as half of a man’s in certain cases, mainly in family disputes adjudicated based on Islamic law.
Classical commentators commonly explained the unequal treatment of testimony by asserting that women’s nature made them more prone to error than men. Muslim modernists have followed the Egyptian reformer Muhammad Abduh in viewing the relevant scriptural passages as conditioned on the different gender roles and life experiences that prevailed at the time rather than women’s innately inferior mental capacities, making the rule not generally applicable in all times and places.
Men have authority over women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand. If you fear a breach between them then appoint an arbiter from his folks and an arbiter from her folks; if they desire reconciliation God will affect between them; indeed God is All-knowing All-aware (Al-Quran, An-Nisa, 34-35)
The word “strike” in this verse which is understood as “beating” or “hitting” in English – w’aḍribūhunna – is derived from the Arabic root word ḍaraba, which has over fifty derivations and definitions, including “to separate’, “to oscillate” and “to play music”. Even within the Qur’an itself, the most common use of this word is not with the definition “to beat”, but as verb phrases which provide a number of other meanings, including several which are more plausible within the context of 4:34, such as “to leave [your wife in the event of disloyalty]”, and “to draw them lovingly towards you [following temporarily not sleeping with them in protest at their disloyal behaviour]”.
Sharī’ah law addresses domestic violence through the concept of darar or harm that encompasses several types of abuse against a spouse, including physical abuse. The laws concerning darar state that if a woman is being harmed in her marriage, she can have it annulled: physically assaulting a wife violates the marriage contract and is grounds for immediate divorce.
Sharī’ah court records from the Ottoman period illustrate the ability of women to seek justice when subject to physical abuse: as a notable 1687 case from Aleppo demonstrates, courts gave out penalties such as corporal punishment to abusive husbands.
A sixteenth-century fatwa issued by the Şeyhülislam (Shaykh al-Islam, the highest religious authority in the jurisdiction) of the Ottoman Empire stated that in the event of a judge becoming aware of serious spousal abuse, he has the legal authority to prevent the husband hurting his wife “by whatever means possible”, including ordering their separation (at the request of the wife).
In recent years, numerous prominent scholars in the tradition of Orthodox Islam have issued fatwas (legal opinions) against domestic violence. These include the Shī’ite scholar Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who promulgated a fatwa on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 2007, which states that Islam forbids men from exercising any form of violence against women; Shakyh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, the Chairman of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, who co-authored The Prohibition of Domestic Violence in Islam (2011) with Dr. Homayra Ziad; and Cemalnur Sargut, the president of the Turkish Women’s Cultural Association (TÜRKKAD), who has stated that men who engage in domestic violence “in a sense commit polytheism (shirk)”: “Such people never go on a diet to curb the desires of their ego…[Conversely] In his Mathnawi Rumi says love for women is because of witnessing Allah as reflected in the mirror of their being. According to tasawwuf, woman is the light of Allah’s beauty shed onto this earth. Again in [the] Mathanawi Rumi says a man who is wise and fine-spirited is understanding and compassionate towards a woman, and never wants to hurt or injure her.”
Some scholars claim Islamic law, such as verse 4:34 of Quran, allows and encourages domestic violence against women, when a husband suspects nushuz (disobedience, disloyalty, rebellion, ill conduct) in his wife. Other scholars claim wife beating, for nashizah, is not consistent with modern perspectives of Quran.
Some conservative translations suggest Muslim husbands are permitted to use light force on their wives, and others claim permissibility to strike, hit, chastise, or beat. The relationship between Islam and domestic violence is disputed by some Islamic scholars.
The Lebanese educator and journalist ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Maghribi argued that perpetrating acts of domestic violence goes against Muḥammad’s own example and injunction. In his 1928 essay, Muḥammad and Woman, al-Maghribi said: “He [Muḥammad] prohibited a man from beating his wife and noted that beating was not appropriate for the marital relationship between them”. Muḥammad underlined the moral and logical inconsistency in beating one’s wife during the day and then praising her at night as a prelude to conjugal relations.The Austrian scholar and translator of the Qur’an Muhammad Asad (Leopold Weiss) said: It is evident from many authentic traditions that the Prophet himself intensely detested the idea of beating one’s wife…According to another tradition, he forbade the beating of any woman with the words, “Never beat God’s handmaidens.”‘
In practice, the legal doctrine of many Islamic nations, in deference to Sharia law, have refused to include, consider or prosecute cases of domestic violence, limiting legal protections available to Muslim women. In 2010, for example, the highest court of United Arab Emirates (Federal Supreme Court) considered a lower court’s ruling, and upheld a husband’s right to “chastise” his wife and children with physical violence. Article 53 of the United Arab Emirates’ penal code acknowledges the right of a “chastisement by a husband to his wife and the chastisement of minor children” so long as the assault does not exceed the limits prescribed by Sharia. In Lebanon, as many as three-quarters of all Lebanese women have suffered physical abuse at the hands of husbands or male relatives at some point in their lives. In Afghanistan, over 85% of women report domestic violence; other nations with very high rates of domestic violence and limited legal rights include Syria, Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In some Islamic countries such as Turkey, where legal protections against domestic violence have been enacted, serial domestic violence by husband and other male members of her family is mostly ignored by witnesses and accepted by women without her getting legal help, according to a Government of Turkey report.
Turkey was the first country in Europe to ratify (on 14 March 2012) the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which is known as the Istanbul Convention because it was first opened for signature in Turkey’s largest city (on 11 May 2011). Three other European countries with a significant (≥c.20%) Muslim population – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro – have also ratified the convention, while Macedonia is a signatory to the document.The aim of the convention is to create a Europe free from violence against women and domestic violence. On 10 December 2014, the Serbian-Turkish pop star Emina Jahović released a video clip entitled Ne plašim se (“I’m not scared”) to help raise awareness of domestic violence in the Balkans. Ne plašim se highlighted the link between alcohol consumption and domestic abuse. The film’s release date was timed to coincide with the United Nations’ Human Rights Day.
In the United States, a recent 2017 study done by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that, “Domestic violence occurs in the Muslim community as often as it does in Christian and non- affiliated communities, but Muslim victims are more likely to involve faith leaders.”. Data from the study demonstrates that among American Muslims 13% of those surveyed said they knew someone in their faith community who was a victim of domestic violence, a number similar to that of Catholics (15%), Protestants (17%), of non-affiliated (14%), and even the general public (15%). Among Americans Muslims who knew of a domestic violence incident in the past year, the percentage of them who said the crime was reported to law enforcement (50%) is comparable to other groups and the general public as well. American Muslim respondents reported that a faith leader was informed of the domestic violence about half the time, a significantly higher rate than any other faith group surveyed in the poll.
Among classical Muslim authors, the notion of love was developed along three conceptual lines, conceived in an ascending hierarchical order: natural love, intellectual love and divine love.
Main article: Ishq
The Arab love story of Lāyla and Majnūn was arguably more widely known amongst Muslims than that of Romeo and Juliet in (Northern) Europe, while Jāmī’s retelling of the story of Yusuf (Joseph) and Zulaykhā — based upon the narrative of Surat Yusuf in the Qur’an — is a seminal text in the Persian, Urdu and Bengali literary canons. The growth of affection (mawadda) into passionate love (ishq) received its most probing and realistic analysis in The Ring of the Dove by the Andalusian scholar Ibn Hazm. The theme of romantic love continues to be developed in the modern and even postmodern fiction from the Islamic world: The Black Book (1990) by the Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk is a nominal detective story with extensive meditations on mysticism and obsessive love, while another Turkish writer, Elif Şafak, intertwines romantic love and Sufism in her 2010 book The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi.
In Islamic mysticism or Sufism, romantic love is viewed as a metaphysical metaphor for the love of God. However, the importance of love extends beyond the metaphorical: ibnʿArabī, who is widely recognised as the ‘greatest of spiritual masters [of Sufism]’, posited that for a man, sex with a woman is the occasion for experiencing God’s ‘greatest self-disclosure’ (the position is similar vice versa):
The most intense and perfect contemplation of God is through women, and the most intense union is the conjugal act.
This emphasis on the sublimity of the conjugal act holds true for both this world and the next: the fact that Islam considers sexual relationships one of the ultimate pleasures of paradise is well-known; moreover, there is no suggestion that this is for the sake of producing children. Accordingly, (and in common with civilisations such as the Chinese, Indian and Japanese), the Islamic world has historically generated significant works of erotic literature and technique, and many centuries before such a genre became culturally acceptable in the West: Richard Burton’s substantially ersatz 1886 translation of The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight, a fifteenth-century sex manual authored by Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Nafzawi, was labelled as being ‘for private circulation only’ owing to the puritanical mores and corresponding censorship laws of Victorian England.
Love of women
Particularly within the context of religion – a domain which is often associated with sexual asceticism – Muḥammad is notable for emphasising the importance of loving women. According to a famous ḥadīth, Muḥammad stated: “Three things of this world of yours were made lovable to me: women, perfume – and the coolness of my eye was placed in the ritual prayer”. This is enormously significant because in the Islamic faith, Muḥammad is by definition the most perfect human being and the most perfect male: his love for women shows that the perfection of the human state is connected with love for other human beings, not simply with love for God. More specifically, it illustrates that male perfection lies in women and, by implication, female perfection in men. Consequently, the love Muḥammad had for women is obligatory on all men, since he is the model of perfection that must be emulated.
There is a Hadith quoting,
“There is nothing better for two who love each other than marriage.”
Prominent figures in Islamic mysticism have elaborated on this theme. Ibn ‘Arabī reflected on the above ḥadīth as follows: “….he [Muḥammad] mentioned women [as one of three things from God’s world made lovable to him]. Do you think that which would take him far from his Lord was made lovable to him? Of course not. That which would bring him near to his Lord was made lovable to him.
“He who knows the measure of women and their mystery will not renounce love for them. On the contrary, one of the perfections of the gnostic is love for them, for this is a prophetic heritage and a divine love. For the Prophet said, ‘[women] were made lovable to me.’ Hence he ascribed his love for them only to God. Ponder this chapter – you will see wonders!”
Ibn ‘Arabī held that witnessing God in the female human form is the most perfect mode of witnessing: if the Prophet Muḥammad was made to love women, it is because women reflect God. Rūmī came to a similar conclusion:
“She [woman] is the radiance of God, she is not your beloved. She is the Creator – you could say that she is not created.”
According to Gai Eaton, there are several other ḥadīths on the same theme which underline Muḥammad’s teaching on the importance of loving women:
- “You should cherish your woman from the perfume of her hair to the tips of her toes.”
- “The best of you is the one who is best to his wife.”
- “The whole world is to be enjoyed, but the best thing in the world is a good woman.”
Another well-known ḥadīth explicitly states that loving conduct towards one’s wife is synonymous with advanced religious understanding:
- “The most perfect in faith amongst believers is he who is best in manner and kindest to his wife.”
Both the concept and the reality of beauty are of exceptional importance in the Islamic religion: beauty (iḥsān, also translated as “virtue”, “excellence” and “making beautiful”) is the third element of the canonical definition of Islam after belief (īmān) and practice (islām). At 53:31, the Qur’an emphasises the importance of avoiding ugly actions, while at 10:26 it states: “Those who do what is beautiful will receive the most beautiful and increase [or more than this].”
Female beauty is a central theme in Islam, which regards it as “the most direct visible manifestation of God’s beauty, gentleness, mercy and forgiveness”. This theme is developed most famously in Islamic mysticism or Sufism. In her work The Mystical Dimensions of Islam, Annemarie Schimmel records the position of Ibn ʿArabī – who is generally regarded as the greatest Sufi – on “perceiving the divine through the medium of female beauty and seeing the female as the true revelation of God’s mercy and creativity” as follows:
“The closing chapter of the Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam, that on the Prophet Muhammad, centers around the famous tradition according to which the Prophet was given a love for perfumes and women and joy in prayer. Thus, Ibn ‘Arabī could defend the idea that ‘love of women belongs to the perfection of the gnostics, for it is inherited from the Prophet and is a divine love’ (R 480). Woman reveals, for Ibn Arabī, the secret of the compassionate God. The grammatical fact that the word dhāt, ‘essence’, is feminine offers Ibn Arabī different methods to discover this feminine element in God.”
Metaphysical and cosmological significance of marriage
The metaphysical and cosmological significance of marriage within Islam – particularly within Sufism or Islamic mysticism – is difficult to overstate. The relationship and interplay between male and female is viewed as nothing less than that between heaven (represented by the husband) and earth (symbolised by the wife). Because of her beauty and virtue, the earth is eminently lovable: heaven marries her not simply out of duty, but for pleasure and joy. Marriage and sexual intercourse are not merely human phenomena, but the universal power of productivity found within every level of existence: sex within marriage is the supreme instance of witnessing God in the full splendour of His self-disclosure.
Marriage is the central institution of family life and society, and therefore the central institution of Islam. On a technical level, it is accomplished through a contract which is confirmed by the bride’s reception of a dowry or mahr, and by the witnessing of the bride’s consent to the marriage. A woman has the freedom to propose to a man of her liking, either orally or in writing. Muḥammad himself was the subject of a spoken marriage proposal from a Muslim lady which was worded “I present myself to you”, although ultimately Muḥammad solemnized her marriage to another man.
Within the marriage contract itself, the bride has the right to stipulate her own conditions. These conditions usually pertain to such issues as marriage terms (e.g. that her husband may not take another wife), and divorce terms (e.g. that she may dissolve the union at her own initiative if she deems it necessary).In addition, dowries – one on marriage, and another deferred in case of divorce – must be specified and written down; they should also be of substance. The dowry is the exclusive property of the wife and should not be given away, neither to her family nor her relatives. According to the Qur’an (at 4:2), the wife may freely choose to give part of their dowry to the husband. Fiqh doctrine says a woman’s property, held exclusively in her name cannot be appropriated by her husband, brother or father. For many centuries, this stood in stark contrast with the more limited property rights of women in (Christian) Europe. Accordingly, Muslim women in contemporary America are sometimes shocked to find that, even though they were careful to list their assets as separate, these can be considered joint assets after marriage.
Marriage ceremony and celebrations
When agreement to the marriage has been expressed and witnessed, those present recite the fātiḥah prayer (the opening chapter of the Qur’an). Normally, marriages are not contracted in mosques but in private homes or at the offices of a judge (qāḍi). The format and content of the ceremony (if there is one) is often defined by national or tribal customs, as are the celebrations (‘urs) that accompany it. In some parts of the Islamic world these may include processions in which the bride gift is put on display; receptions where the bride is seen adorned in elaborate costumes and jewellery; and ceremonial installation of the bride in the new house to which she may be carried in a litter (a type of carriage). The groom may ride through the streets on a horse, followed by his friends and well-wishers, and there is always a feast called the walīmah.
Historical commonality of divorce
In contrast to the Western and Orient world where divorce was relatively uncommon until modern times, divorce was a more common occurrence in certain parts of the late medieval Muslim world. In the Mamluk Sultanate and Ottoman Empire, the rate of divorce was high. The work of the scholar and historian Al-Sakhawi (1428-1497) on the lives of women show that the marriage pattern of Egyptian and Syrian urban society in the fifteenth century was greatly influenced by easy divorce, and practically untouched by polygamy. Earlier Egyptian documents from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries also showed a similar but more extreme pattern: in a sample of 273 women, 118 (45%) married a second or third time. Edward Lane’s careful observation of urban Egypt in the early nineteenth century suggests that the same regime of frequent divorce and rare polygamy was still applicable in these last days of traditional society. In the early 20th century, some villages in western Java and the Malay peninsula had divorce rates as high as 70%.
Marriage customs vary in Muslim dominated countries. Islamic law allows polygamy where a Muslim man can be married to four wives at the same time, under restricted conditions, but it is not widespread. As the Sharia demands that polygamous men treat all wives equally, classical Islamic scholars opined that it is preferable to avoid polygamy altogether, so one does not even come near the chance of committing the forbidden deed of dealing unjustly between the wives. Most modern Muslims view the practice of polygamy as allowed, but unusual and not recommended. In some countries, polygamy is restricted by new family codes, for example the Moudawwana in Morocco. Some countries allow Muslim men to enter into additional temporary marriages, beyond the four allowed marriages, such as the practice of sigheh marriages in Iran, and Nikah Mut’ah elsewhere in some Middle East countries.
A marriage of pleasure, where a man pays a sum of money to a woman or her family in exchange for a temporary spousal relationship, is found and considered legal among Shia sect of Islam, for example in Iran after 1979. Temporary marriages are forbidden among Sunni sect of Islam. Among Shia, the number of temporary marriages can be unlimited, for a duration that is less than an hour to few months, recognized with an official temporary marriage certificate, and divorce is unnecessary because the temporary marriage automatically expires on the date and time specified on the certificate. Payment to the woman by the man is mandatory, in every temporary marriage and considered as mahr. Its practitioners cite sharia law as permitting the practise. Women’s rights groups have condemned it as a form of legalized prostitution.
Polyandry, the practice of a woman having more than one husband (even temporarily, after payment of a sum of money to the man or the man’s family), by contrast, is not permitted.
Despite this, endogamy is common in some Muslim-majority countries. The observed endogamy is primarily consanguineous marriages, where the bride and the groom share a biological grandparent or other near ancestor. The most common observed marriages are first cousin marriages, followed by second cousin marriages. Consanguineous endogamous marriages are most common for women in Muslim communities in the Middle East, North Africa and Islamic Central Asia. About 1 in 3 of all marriages in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan are first cousin marriages; while overall consanguineous endogamous marriages exceed 65 to 80% in various Islamic populations of the Middle East, North Africa and Islamic Central Asia.
Do not marry women your fathers married to except that has passed; Indeed it was lewdness, disobedience and bad way. Prohibited to you are your mothers, your daughters, your sisters, your paternal aunts, your maternal aunts, brother’s daughters, sister’s daughters, your suckling-mothers, your sisters from suckling, mothers of your women, your stepdaughters in your guardianship from your women you have entered into them but if you have not entered into them then there is no blame on you, women of your sons from your loins and that you add two sisters (in a wedlock) except that has passed; surely God is All-forgiving and all-merciful. — Quran, [Quran 4:22]
Some marriages are forbidden between Muslim women and Muslim men, according to sharia. In the Quran, Surah An-Nisa gives a list of forbidden marriages.[Quran 4:22] Examples for women include marrying one’s stepson, biological son, biological father, biological brother, biological sibling’s son, biological uncle, milk son or milk brother she has nursed, husband of her biological daughter, a stepfather who has had sexual relations with her biological mother and father-in-law. There are disputes between Hanafis, Malikis, Shafi’is and Hanabalis schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence on whether and which such marriages are irregular but not void if already in place (fasid), and which are void (batil) marriages.
Age of marriage
Main article: Marriage in Islam
Child marriage, which was once a globally accepted phenomenon, has come to be discouraged in most countries, but it persists to some extent in most parts of the Muslim world. Islam is one of several major faiths whose teachings have been used to justify marriage of girls.
The age of marriage in Islam for women varies with country. Traditionally, Islam has permitted marriage of girls below the age of 10, because Sharia considers practices of Muhammad as a basis for Islamic law. According to Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, the two Sunni hadiths, Muhammed married Aisha, his third wife when she was 6, and consummated the marriage when she reached the age of 9 or 10. (This version of events is rejected by Shia Muslims.)
Narrated ‘Aisha: that the Prophet married her when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old, and then she remained with him for nine years (i.e., till his passing away). — Sahih al-Bukhari, 7:62:64
Some Islamic scholars suggest that it is not the calendar age that matters, rather it is the biological age of the girl that determines when she can be married under Islamic law. According to these Islamic scholars, marriageable age in Islam is when a girl has reached sexual maturity, as determined by her nearest male guardian; this age can be, claim these Islamic scholars, less than 10 years, or 12, or another age depending on each girl.
Some clerics and conservative elements of Muslim communities in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Nigeria and elsewhere have insisted that it is their Islamic right to marry girls below age 15.
Interfaith marriages and Muslim women
According to sharī’ah law, it is legal for a Muslim man to marry a Christian or Jewish woman, or a woman of any of the divinely-revealed religions. A female does not have to convert from Christianity or Judaism to Islam in order to marry a Muslim male. While sharī’ah law does not allow a Muslim woman to marry outside her religion, a significant number of non-Muslim men have entered into the Islamic faith in order to satisfy this aspect of the religious law where it is in force. With deepening globalisation, it has become more common for Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men who remain outside Islam. These marriages meet with varying degrees of social approval, depending on the milieu. However, conversions of non-Muslim men to Islam for the purpose of marriage are still numerous, in part because the procedure for converting to Islam is relatively expeditious.
Behaviour and rights within marriage
Islamic law and practice recognize gender disparity, in part, by assigning separate rights and obligations to a woman in married life. A woman’s space is in the private sphere of the home, and a man’s is in the public sphere. Women must primarily fulfill marital and maternal responsibilities, whereas men are financial and administrative stewards of their families. According to Sayyid Qutb, the Qur’an “gives the man the right of guardianship or superiority over the family structure in order to prevent dissension and friction between the spouses. The equity of this system lies in the fact that God both favoured the man with the necessary qualities and skills for the ‘guardianship’ and also charged him with the duty to provide for the structure’s upkeep.”
The Quran considers the love between men and women to be a Sign of God.[Quran 30:21] This said, the Quran also permits men to first admonish, then lightly tap or push and even beat her, if he suspects nushuz (disobedience, disloyalty, rebellion, ill conduct) in his wife.[Quran 4:34]
In Islam, there is no coverture, an idea central in European, American as well as in non-Islamic Asian common law, and the legal basis for the principle of marital property. An Islamic marriage is a contract between a man and a woman. A Muslim man and woman do not merge their legal identity upon marriage, and do not have rights over any shared marital property. The assets of the man before the marriage, and earned by him after the marriage, remain his during marriage and in case of a divorce. A divorce under Islamic law does not require redistribution of property. Rather, each spouse walks away from the marriage with his or her individual property. Divorcing Muslim women who did not work outside their home after marriage do not have a claim on the collective wealth of the couple under Islamic law, except for deferred mahr – an amount of money or property the man agrees to pay her before the woman signs the marriage contract.
And for you is half of what your wives leave if they have no child. But if they have a child, for you is one fourth of what they leave, after any bequest they [may have] made or debt. And for the wives is one fourth if you leave no child. But if you leave a child, then for them is an eighth of what you leave, after any bequest you [may have] made or debt. And if a man or woman leaves neither ascendants nor descendants but has a brother or a sister, then for each one of them is a sixth. But if they are more than two, they share a third, after any bequest which was made or debt, as long as there is no detriment [caused]. [This is] an ordinance from Allah, and Allah is Knowing and Forbearing. – (Al-Quran 4:12)
In case of husband’s death, a portion of his property is inherited by his wives according to a combination of sharia laws. If the man did not leave any children, his wives receive a quarter of the property and the remaining three quarters is shared by the blood relatives of the husband (for example, parents, siblings). If he had children from any of his wives, his wives receive an eighth of the property and the rest is for his surviving children and parents. The wives share as inheritance a part of movable property of her late husband, but they do not share anything from immovable property such as land, real estate, farm or such value. A woman’s deferred mahr and the dead husband’s outstanding debts are paid before any inheritance is applied. Sharia mandates that inheritance include male relatives of the dead person, that a daughter receive half the inheritance as a son, and a widow receives less than her daughters.
In contrast to Christianity – where sex is sanctified through marriage – in the Islamic conception, sexuality in and of itself is sacred and a blessing; as per Ibn ‘Arabī’s formulation, sex is a sublime act which can draw its practitioners closer to God.Marriage in Islam is a contract drawn up according to the Sharī’ah to legitimise sexual relations and protect the rights of both partners. However, in common with Christianity and Judaism, sexual activity outside of marriage is perceived as a serious sin in the eyes of God.
Sexual satisfaction and frequency of intercourse
Female sexual satisfaction is given significant prominence in the Islamic faith and its classical literature. As recorded by the British Muslim writer Ruqayyah Waris Maqsood in her book The Muslim Marriage Guide: “the early Muslims regarded sexual prowess and the ability to satisfy a woman as being an essential part of manhood. The niece of ‘Ā’ishah bint Abī Bakr, a scholarly and beautiful woman named A’isha bint Talha, married the pious Umar ibn Ubaydilah. On their wedding night he made love to her no fewer than seven times, so that when morning came, she told him: ‘You are a perfect Muslim in every way, even in this!’”
In this context, the Muslim caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab (584-644) believed that a married woman had the right to sex at least once every four days, while according to the hadith scholar, jurist and mystic Abu Talib al-Makki (d.996), “if [a husband] knows that [his wife] needs more, he is obliged to comply”.
The Prophet Muḥammad underlined the importance of foreplay and emotional intimacy in sexual relations, as the following hadith illustrates:
“[The Prophet Muḥammad said] ‘Not one of you should fall upon his wife like an animal; but let there first be a messenger between you.’
‘And what is that messenger?’ they asked, and [the Prophet Muḥammad] replied: ‘Kisses and words.’
Islamic luminaries expanded on this theme. The philosopher, mystic and jurist Al-Ghazālī (c.1058-1111) stated that “Sex should begin with gentle words and kissing”, while the Indian scholar al-Zabīdī (1732-1790) added to this exhortation in his commentary on Al-Ghazālī’s magnum opus, The Revival of the Religious Sciences (Iḥiyāʾ ʿulūm ad-dīn): “This should include not only the cheeks and lips; and then he should caress the breasts and nipples, and every part of her body.”
Classical Islamic scholars have written extensively about the art and desirability of husband and wife attaining simultaneous orgasms; Al-Ghazali gives the following counsel in his key work, The Revival of the Religious Sciences (Iḥiyāʾ ʿulūm ad-dīn):
“When he has come to his orgasm (inzal), he should wait for his wife until she comes to her orgasm likewise; for her climax may well come slowly. If he arouses her desire, and then sits back from her, this will hurt her, and any disparity in their orgasms will certainly produce a sense of estrangement. A simultaneous orgasm will be the most delightful for her, especially since her husband will be distracted by his own orgasm from her, and she will not therefore be afflicted by shyness.”
According to Quran and Sahih Muslim, two primary sources of Sharia, Islam permits only vaginal sex.
(…) “If he likes he may (have intercourse) being on the back or in front of her, but it should be through one opening (vagina).” — Sahih Muslim, 8:3365
There is disagreement among Islamic scholars on proper interpretation of Islamic law on permissible sex between a husband and wife, with claims that non-vaginal sex within a marriage is disapproved but not forbidden. Anal intercourse and sex during menstruation are prohibited, as is violence and force against a partner’s will. However, these are the only restrictions; as the Qur’an says at 2:223 (Sūratu l-Baqarah): ‘Your women are your fields; go to your women as you wish’.
After sex, as well as menstruation, Islam requires men and women to do ghusl (major ritual washing with water, ablutions), and in some Islamic communities xoslay (prayers seeking forgiveness and purification), as sex and menstruation are considered some of the causes that makes men and women religiously impure (najis). Some Islamic jurists suggest touching and foreplay, without any penetration, may qualify wudu (minor ritual washing) as sufficient form of religiously required ablution. Muslim men and women must also abstain from sex during a ritual fast, and during all times while on a pilgrimage to Mecca, as sexual act, touching of sexual parts and emission of sexual bodily fluids are considered ritually dirty.
Sexual intercourse is not allowed to a Muslim woman during menstruation, postpartum period, during fasting and certain religious activities, disability and in iddah after divorce or widowhood. Homosexual relations and same sex marriages are forbidden to women in Islam. In vitro fertilization (IVF) is acceptable in Islam; but ovum donation along with sperm donation, embryo donation are prohibited by Islam. These marriages meet with varying degrees of social approval, depending on the milieu.Some debated fatwas from Shia sect of Islam, however, allow third party participation.
Islam requires both husband and wife/wives to meet their conjugal duties. Religious qadis (judges) have admonished the man or women who fail to meet these duties.
A high value is placed on female chastity and exhibitionism is prohibited.
Female genital mutilation
Main articles: Female genital mutilation and Religious views on female genital mutilation
The classical position
There is no mention of female circumcision – let alone other forms of female genital mutilation – in the Qur’an. Furthermore, Muḥammad did not subject any of his daughters to this practice, which is itself of real significance as it does not form part of his spoken or acted example. Moreover, the origins of female circumcision are not Islamic: it is first thought to have been practiced in ancient Egypt. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the practice may be an old African puberty rite that was passed on to Egypt by cultural diffusion.
Notwithstanding these facts, there is a belief amongst some Muslims – particularly though not entirely exclusively in (sub-Saharan) Africa – that female circumcision (specifically the cutting of the prepuce or hood of the clitoris) is religiously vindicated by the existence of a handful of ḥadīths which apparently recommend it. However, these ḥadīths are generally regarded as inauthentic, unreliable and weak, and therefore as having no legislative foundation and/or practical application.
Notable Islamic perspectives on FGM
In answering the question of how “Islamic” female circumcision is, Haifaa A. Jawad – an academic specialising in Islamic thought and the author of The Rights of Women in Islam: An Authentic Approach – has concluded that “the practice has no Islamic foundation whatsoever. It is nothing more than an ancient custom which has been falsely assimilated to the Islamic tradition, and with the passage of time it has been presented and accepted (in some Muslim countries) as an Islamic injunction.” Jawad notes that the argument which states that there is an indirect correlation between Islam and female circumcision fails to explain why female circumcision is not practiced in much of the Islamic world, and conversely is practiced in Latin American countries such as Brazil, Mexico and Peru.
The French intellectual, journalist and translator Renée Saurel observed that female circumcision and FGM more generally directly contradict Islam’s sacred text: “The Koran, contrary to Christianity and Judaism, permits and recommends that the woman be given physical and psychological pleasure, pleasure found by both partners during the act of love. Forcibly split, torn, and severed tissues are neither conducive to sensuality nor to the blessed feeling given and shared when participating in the quest for pleasure and the escape from pain.”
The Egyptian feminist Nawal El-Saadawi reasons that the creation of the clitoris per se is a direct Islamic argument against female circumcision: “If religion comes from God, how can it order man to cut off an organ created by Him as long as that organ is not diseased or deformed? God does not create the organs of the body haphazardly without a plan. It is not possible that He should have created the clitoris in woman’s body only in order that it be cut off at an early stage in life. This is a contradiction into which neither true religion nor the Creator could possibly fall. If God has created the clitoris as a sexually sensitive organ, whose sole function seems to be the procurement of sexual pleasure for women, it follows that He also considers such pleasure for women as normal and legitimate, and therefore as an integral part of mental health.”
Sheikh Abbas el Hocine Bencheikh, a diplomat and Rector of the L’institut Musulman at the Grande Mosquée de Paris, pointed to the total lack of Islamic theological justification for female circumcision: “If circumcision for the man (though not compulsory) has an aesthetic and hygienic purpose, there is no existing religious Islamic text of value to be considered in favour of female excision, as proven by the fact that this practice is totally non-existent in most of the Islamic countries.”
Mahmud Shaltut, the former Sheikh of Al-Azhar in Cairo – one of the most important religious offices in Sunni Islam – also stated that female circumcision has no theological basis: “Islamic legislation provides a general principle, namely that should meticulous and careful examination of certain issues prove that it is definitely harmful or immoral, then it should be legitimately stopped to put an end to this damage or immorality. Therefore, since the harm of excision has been established, excision of the clitoris of females is not a mandatory obligation, nor is it a Sunnah.”
Initiatives to end FGM in the OIC
In the twenty-first century, a number of high-ranking religious offices within the OIC have urged the cessation of all forms of FGM:
- A 2006 international conference convened by Egypt’s Dar al ifta – an influential body which issues legal opinions on Islamic law and jurisprudence – concluded “that the [female genital] mutilation presently practised in some parts of Egypt, Africa and elsewhere represents a deplorable custom which finds no justification in the authoritative sources of Islam, the Qur’an and the practice of the Prophet Muḥammad…all measures must be taken to put a halt to this unacceptable tradition.”
- A November 2006 conference at Al-Azhar University in Cairo held under the auspices of the Grand Mufti of Egypt passed a resolution – with the same legal weight as fatwa – that FGM was to be considered a punishable offence, because it constitutes “an act of aggression and a crime against humanity”.
- In 2007 the Cairo-based Al-Azhar Supreme Council of Islamic Research, an entity belonging to what is generally regarded as one of the most significant theological universities in the OIC, ruled that female genital mutilation has no basis in Islamic law.
- In 2012, Professor Dr. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu – the then Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – urged countries to abolish female genital mutilation (FGM), saying the practice was against Islam and human rights: “This practice is a ritual that has survived over centuries and must be stopped as Islam does not support it.”
- In 2016, the OIC Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations reaffirmed its determination to eliminate FGM/C by 2030, in accordance with a global target set by the UN in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Recorded prevalence of FGM in the OIC
According to UNICEF (2014), twenty-six of the twenty-nine countries in which female genital mutilation is classified as ‘concentrated’ are in sub-Saharan Africa: there is no recorded prevalence in any non-African OIC member state outside Yemen (19% prevalence) and Iraq (8%).
From very early times various methods of contraception have been practiced in Islam, and Muslim jurists of the two major sects of Islam, Sunni and Shia, generally agree that contraception and family planning are not forbidden by Sharia; the use of contraceptive devices is permitted if the marital partners agree. All the Islamic schools of law from the tenth to the nineteenth century gave contraception their serious consideration. They dealt principally with coitus interruptus, the most common method, and unanimously agreed that it was licit provided the free wife gave her permission, because she had rights to children and to sexual fulfilment which withdrawal was believed to diminish. From the writings of the jurists it emerges that other methods of birth control – mostly intravaginal tampons – were also used by premodern women and the commonest view was that these should only be employed if the husband also agreed.
Given the era and the fact that both Christian and Jewish tradition outlawed contraception, the attitude of Muslims towards birth control has been characterised as being remarkably pragmatic; they also possessed a sophisticated knowledge of possible birth control methods. Medieval doctors like Ibn Sina (Avicenna) regarded birth control as a normal part of medicine, and devoted chapters to contraception and abortion in their textbooks (although it should be noted that the permissibility of abortion within Islamic thought varies according to a number of factors; Islam views the family as sacred and children as a gift from God). According to medieval Muslims, birth control was employed to avoid a large number of dependants; to safeguard property; to guarantee the education of a child; to protect a woman from the risks of childbirth, especially if she was young or ill; or simply to preserve her health and beauty.
Islam condemns female infanticide.
When the female (infant), buried alive, is questioned – For what crime she was killed; — Qur’an, [Quran 81:8]
In some Islamic populations, sex-selective female infanticide is of concern because of abnormally high boy to girl ratios at birth. In Islamic Azerbaijan, for example, the birth sex ratio was in the 105 to 108 range, before the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. After the collapse, the birth sex ratios in Azerbaijan has sharply climbed to over 115 and remained high for the last 20 years. The persistently observed 115 boys for every 100 girls born suggests sex-selective abortion of females in Azerbaijan in the last 20 years. Other Muslim-majority countries with high birth sex ratio, implying female sex-selective abortion, include Albania (112) and Pakistan (111).
In Islam, a woman may only divorce her husband under certain conditions. These are many and include neglect, not being supported financially, the husband’s impotence, apostasy, madness, dangerous illness or some other defect in the marriage. Divorce by mutual consent has only to be agreed upon by both parties to become effective. If a Muslim woman wishes to divorce her husband she has two options under Sharia law: seek a tafriq, or seek a khul. A tafriq is a divorce for certain allowable reasons. This divorce is granted by a qadi, a religious judge, in cases where the qadi accepts her claims of abuse or abandonment. If a tafriq is denied by the qadi, she cannot divorce. If a tafriq is granted, the marriage is dissolved and the husband is obligated to pay her the deferred mahr in their marriage contract. The second method, by far more common in wife-initiated divorces, khul is a divorce without cause, by mutual consent. This divorce requires a husband’s consent and it must be supported by consideration that passes from the wife to the husband. Often, this consideration almost always consists of the wife relinquishing her claim to the deferred mahr. In actual practice and outside of Islamic judicial theory, a woman’s right to divorce is often extremely limited compared with that of men in the Middle East.
In contrast to the comparatively limited methods of divorce available to a woman, Islam allows a Muslim husband to unilaterally divorce his wife, as talaq, with no requirement to show cause; however, in practice there is variance by country as to whether there are any additional legal processes when a husband divorces his wife by this method. For example, the Tunisian Law of Personal Status (1957) makes repudiation by a husband invalid until it has been ratified by a court, and provides for further financial compensation to the wife. Similar laws have been enacted elsewhere, both within an interpretive framework of traditional sharī’ah law, and through the operation of civil codes not based upon the sharī’ah. However, upon talaq, the husband must pay the wife her deferred mahr. Some Muslim-majority countries mandate additional financial contributions to be made to the wife on top of the mahr: for example, the Syrian Law of Personal Status (1953) makes the payment of maintenance to the wife by the husband obligatory for one year after the divorce, which is thus a legal recourse of the wife against the husband. The husband is free to marry again immediately after a divorce, but the woman must observe iddah, that is wait for 3 lunar months before she can remarry after divorce, to establish paternity, in case she discovers she is pregnant. In case of death of her husband, the iddah period is 4 lunar months and 10 days before she can start conjugal relations with another Muslim man.
Obligations during divorce
A key verse relating to obligation of women during divorce is 2:228:
Divorced women remain in waiting for three periods, and it is not lawful for them to conceal what Allah has created in their wombs if they believe in Allah and the Last Day. And their husbands have more right to take them back in this [period] if they want reconciliation. And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable. But the men have a degree over them [in responsibility and authority]. And Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise. – (Al-Quran 2:228)
This verse not only explains the divorce rights of women in Islam, it sets out iddah to prevent illegal custody of divorcing husband’s child by a woman, specifies that each gender has divorce rights, and that men are a degree above women.
With the coming of the Quranic revelation, the family replaced the tribe as the basic unit of Arab society, and today the family is still the primary means of social organisation in the Islamic world. As in many other traditional societies, the family in Muslim-majority countries is not restricted to the nuclear model solely consisting of parents and children, but is instead typically made up of a larger extended family network which includes grandparents, uncles, aunts, in-laws and cousins.
Pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding
Pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding are processes for which women are rewarded by God:
“A woman questioned the Prophet [Muḥammad]: ‘Men go to war and have a great reward for that, so what do women have.’ He answered: ‘When a woman is pregnant, she has the reward of someone who spends the whole night praying and the whole day fasting; when the contractions strike her, no one knows how much reward God gives her for having to go through this, and when she delivers her child, then for every suck it draws from her, she receives the reward for keeping a soul alive.’”
The Prophet Muhammad also stated that if a women dies in childbirth, she is counted as a martyr; the reward for martyrdom is Paradise.
A famous hadith of the Prophet Muhammad states that “Heaven lies under the feet of mothers”, and accordingly – and like all traditional systems – Islam has honoured the work of homemaker and mother as being of the highest value. While there is nothing in Islamic teachings that precludes women from working and receiving wages, as per Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity, “Islamic society has never thought that working in an office is of a higher order of importance than bringing up one’s children”.
Movement and travel
1990-2017 Saudi driving ban
A 1990 fatwa commissioned by the Saudi Arabian Ministry of the Interior formally enacted a ban on women driving. This prohibition was unique to Saudi Arabia and became a source of international ridicule. On 26 September 2017, a royal decree personally signed by Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud – the King and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia – directed the Ministry of the Interior to reverse the ban. The decree noted that “the original Islamic ruling in regards to women driving is to allow it”, and that those who opposed this view did so on the basis of “excuses that are baseless and have no predominance of thought (sic)”. Full implementation of the decree was scheduled for June 2018.
In an interview with The Atlantic, Hala Al-Dosari – a Saudi scholar at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study – posited that the driving ban was not religious or even cultural, but political; she also noted the absurdity of banning females driving when women in the era of the Prophet Muḥammad (570-632) were riding their camels without it being an issue. The author and academic Haifaa Jawad underlined that the royal decree was “not some bold initiative to present a new religious interpretation of the issue. Theologically speaking, the ban has no basis in the Quran or Hadith, and should never have been issued in the first place.”
Additionally, some analysts have contended that the US$3.5bn investment in the car-sharing app Uber by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund – together with other projected economic gains – was instrumental in the reversal of the ban on women driving.
Cleanliness and travel restrictions
A Muslim woman may not move in a mosque, or perform salat, while she is menstruating or during postpartum period, because bodily fluids are considered ritually impure in Islam. Some Muslim scholars suggest that the woman should stay in her house, or near her house, during this state. Some Islamic jurists claim that this is an incorrect interpretation of sharia, and suggest the Islamic intent was about hygiene, not about religious ritual cleanliness.
Modesty (Haya) is a religious prescription in Islam: the Qur’an commands both men and women to dress modestly and not display their bodies, and Muḥammad asserted that modesty is a central character trait in Islam.
In the specific context of women, the Qur’an at 24:31 speaks of covering women’s “ornaments” from strangers outside the family. This latter verse of the Qur’an represents the institution of a new public modesty: when the pre-Islamic Arabs went to battle, Arab women seeing the men off to war would bare their breasts to encourage them to fight; or they would do so at the battle itself, as in the case of the Meccan women led by Hind at the Battle of Uḥud. This type of behaviour is commonly seen by Islamic scholars and the broader Muslim public alike as emblematic of a state of spiritual ignorance (al-Jāhiliyyah).
All the orthodox schools of sharī’ah law prescribe covering the body in public: specifically, to the neck, the ankles, and below the elbow. However, it should be noted that none of the traditional legal systems actually stipulate that women must wear a veil: it is only the wives of Muḥammad who are instructed to wear this article of clothing (33:59).
On the basis of the injunction to be modest, various forms of dress were developed in different parts of the Islamic world, but some forms of dress were carryovers from earlier, pre-Islamic Near Eastern societies: the practice of women covering their hair was the norm in the earlier communities of Jews and Christians.The iconography of the Virgin Mary in Christian art always shows her with her hair covered, and this convention was followed into the modern era by both Georgian and Armenian Christians, in addition to Oriental Jewish women; Catholic women would not go to church without covering their heads until well into the twentieth century. The covering of the hair was taken by women to be a natural part of life as a sign of modesty and especially as a sign of respect before God.
In the twenty-first century, there continues to be tremendous variance in how Muslim women dress, not least because the Islamic world is so geographically and culturally diverse. Laws passed in states (such as laïcist Turkey and Tunisia) with twentieth century Westernisation campaigns – which mandated that women wear “modern”, western-style clothing – have been relaxed in recent years; similarly, the end of communism in Albania and the Yugoslav republics also meant an end to highly restrictive secular apparel legislation. As a result, it is now legal for women in these countries to wear clothes suggesting a (post-)modern Islamic identity – such as the headscarf colloquially known as the ḥijāb – in public, though not necessarily in all public institutions or offices of state.
Conversely, in a handful of states – notably Iran and Saudi Arabia – with modernist fundamentalist regimes, dress codes stipulating that women wear exclusively “religious” garments (as opposed to “secular” ones) in public which became mandatory in the latter part of the twentieth century are still in force. However, these countries are both theologically and culturally atypical within the Islamic world: Iran is the world’s only shī’a revolutionary state, while Saudi Arabia is one of only a handful of Wahhabi countries; in none of the others do the same restrictions on women’s clothing in public apply. The overwhelming majority of Muslim-majority countries do not have laws mandating the public wearing of either secular or religious apparel, and the full spectrum of female clothing – from bikinis to face veils – can be seen in countries such as Albania, Lebanon and Morocco.
In a 2018 study done by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, Muslim American women were, “the most likely” when compared to other domestic religious communities to, “wear “a visible symbol that makes their faith identity known to others.”” Of the Muslim women surveyed by ISPU, 46% say they wear a visible symbol to mark their faith in public all the time” (this includes the hijab), 19% some of the time, and 35% none of the time. The study did not find there to be any significant age or race difference.
In today’s modern context, the question of why muslim women wear the hijab is met with a variety of responses by Muslim American women, including the most popular, “piety and to please God” (54%), “so others know they are Muslim” (21%), and “for modesty” (12%). Only 1% said they wore it, “because a family member or spouse required it”.
According to all schools of Islamic law, only women are permitted to wear pure silken garments next to the skin, although the schools of law differ about almost every other detail concerning silk (such as the permissibility of men wearing silk mixed with other fibres). In Islamic tradition, silk is strongly associated with Heaven. The Qur’an speaks in several places of the sumptuous fabrics to be enjoyed by the virtuous in Paradise: their garments will be made of silk (22:23 and 35:33), and they will recline on carpets lined with rich brocade (55:54).
Similarly, sharī’ah law posits that only women may wear gold ornaments, such as jewellery. The intention behind this distinction is to help men maintain a state of sobriety, reserve, concentration, and spiritual poverty (the “perfections of the centre”). Conversely, women, who symbolise unfolding, infinitude and manifestation, are not bound by the same constraints.
Public versus private appearance
Clothing such as ḥijābs, chādors, and burqas are typically worn in public only. In private, it is common for women to wear Western-style clothing. Global fashion retail chains including Zara and Victoria’s Secret have branches in OIC member states like Saudi Arabia.
Religious objections to the modern ḥijāb
From the 1920s to the 1970s, the use of what is often referred to as the “veil” – this term could mean anything from a face veil to a shawl loosely draped over the head – declined until only a minority of Muslim women outside the conservative societies of the Arabian peninsula still used it. However, in recent decades there has been an increase in the number of Muslim women wearing new types of head coverings which are known by the generic appellation “ḥijāb”.
This development has been criticised on religious grounds from a number of angles:
1. Lack of scriptural validity. The Sorbonne-educated Franco-Bosnian academic Jasna Šamić has posited that the term “ḥijāb” does not have any connection with the noun or concept of “headscarf”: “The expression hijab in the Koran means ‘the veil hiding God’. In other words one can never see and get to know God, because our intellect is too weak [to fully comprehend Him].” Other analysts have pointed out that the Qu’rānic verse most cited in defence of the ḥijāb (Sūrat al-Aḥzāb, 33:59) does not mention this article of clothing at all; instead, it references a “long, overflowing gown” which was the traditional dress at the time of this revelation.
2. Lack of historical authenticity. Similarly, it has been noted that the ḥijāb as worn today is historically alien to the Islamic world. This is illustrated by an incident involving Gamal Abdel Nasser. During his rule as the 2nd President of Egypt (1956-1970), Nasser was given a list of demands by the Supreme Leader of the [Muslim] Brotherhood as part of a process of political reconciliation. This list included “imposing ḥijāb on Muslim women”: “The audience members didn’t understand what the word ‘ḥijāb’ meant. When Nasser explained that the Brotherhood wanted Egyptian women to wear a headscarf, the audience members burst out laughing.”
3. Superficiality. The rise of the ḥijāb in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has been criticised as “reverse objectification”, whereby women are primarily judged by what they wear as opposed to their broader conduct as human beings, despite their ostensibly modest dress. The Singaporean writer Sya Taha has expressed this as follows: “In any commercial magazine targeted at Muslim women, compare the number of pages dedicated to hijab styling or makeup with sport, art, music, humanitarian work or science…In contrast, Muslim women that do not wear hijab are often framed as though they must justify and reconcile how they can identify as Muslim women.”
4. Consumerism. Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, the author and Vice President of brand consultancy Ogilvy Noor, has warned that the rise of contemporary Islamic fashion as exemplified by the ḥijāb risks being overwhelmed by the ‘”consumerism and objectification” of the mainstream fashion industry: “Muslim fashion is teetering between asserting a Muslim woman’s right to be beautiful and well-turned out, and buying more stuff than you need, and being judged by your clothes – both of which are the opposite of Islamic values.”
5. Commercialism and Exploitation. Finally, the concern that the ḥijāb is being promoted for commercial rather than religious reasons is a live one. For example, the promoter of “World Hijab Day” – an event which began in 2013, and which encourages non-Muslim women to try out ḥijābs – is a Bangladeshi-American owner of a headscarf company, which typifies the prevalent conflict of interest issues. Similarly, the popularisation of the tudung ḥijāb in Malaysia has been characterised as an exercise in “cashing in” on a trend that is part of a multibillion-dollar industry. Additionally, the fact many of these ḥijāb garments are made by poorly-paid (often Muslim) women in developing countries contravenes the Qu’rānic precepts of consuming without abuse (2:60) or oppressing others (20:81).
Effect of globalisation on Muslim women’s couture
Thirdly, in addition to the many already existing fashion schools in Islamic world, branches of international fashion schools have opened across the OIC: most notably, the Paris-based École supérieure des arts et techniques de la mode or ESMOD has branch campuses in Beirut (established in 1999), Damascus (1995), Dubai (2006), Istanbul (2010), Kuala Lumpur (2012), Jakarta (1996),Sousse (1989) and Tunis (1989). Fourthly, numerous fashion weeks have been inaugurated in many Muslim-majority countries.
Fifthly, the fashion media sector within the Muslim world for both Western and Islamic fashion has grown tremendously from the 1990s onwards. Local editions of magazines from Marie Claire to Cosmopolitan are now published in a wide range of OIC member states, including Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Indonesia, while fashion magazines specifically targeted at more overtly religious demographics are flourishing: the Turkish title Âlâ is reportedly outselling both Vogue and Elle within its home market, while Aquila Style has a purported total circulation of 30,000 in three ASEAN states.
The 2014–15 Thomson Reuters State of the Global Islamic Economy Report forecasts that expenditure on clothing in OIC member states will reach US$484 billion by 2019.
Shrines and mosques
From the earliest centuries of Islam, Muslims have visited shrines and mosques to pray, meditate, ask forgiveness, seek cures for ailments, and seek grace – a blessing or spiritual influence (barakah) sent down by God. Some of these structures are named after women.
The Virgin Mary
Accordingly, the Virgin Mary is synonymous with numerous holy sites in the Islamic faith:
- The House of the Virgin Mary near Selçuk, Turkey. This is a shrine frequented by both Christians and Muslims. It is known as Panaya Kapulu (“the Doorway to the Virgin”) in Turkish. Pilgrims drink water from a spring under her house which is believed to have healing properties. Perhaps the shrine’s most distinctive feature is the Mereyem ana or wishing wall on which visitors attach their written wishes; because the House of the Virgin Mary is increasingly famous internationally, these messages are composed in English, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, French and Spanish, as well as Turkish. A giant statue of the Virgin Mary – similar in dimensions to that of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro – is planned to be erected in the vicinity of the shrine.
- The Virgin Mary Monastery in the province of Giresun, Turkey. This is one of the oldest monasteries in the area and has been active since the fourth century A.D.
- The Virgin Mary Mosque in Tartous, Syria. This was officially inaugurated in June 2015 as a symbol of peace and religious tolerance. Antoine Deeb – the representative of the Tartous and Lattakia Patriarchate – stated that naming the mosque after the Virgin Mary ‘shows that Islam and Christianity share the messages of peace and love.’
- The Virgin Mary Mosque in Melbourne, Australia.
- Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina. This site is associated with a number of Marian apparitions forecast by a Muslim mystic by the name of Hasan Shushud that were reported in the late twentieth century by local Catholics.
- The Chapel of Santa Cruz at Oran, Algeria. The chapel’s tower contains a large statue of the Virgin Mary, which is styled as Notre Dame du Salut de Santa Cruz. The historian James McDougall notes in his acclaimed A History of Algeria (2017) that to this day, the women of Oran “still climb up to the church the [French] settlers built…in 1959, at Santa Cruz, to light candles to lalla Maryam, the Virgin whose statue still looks benignly over their city from the mountaintop.”
Hala Sultan Tekke, Larnaca, Cyprus is an ancient site revered because it contains the burial place of Muḥammad’s paternal aunt Hala Sultan (Umm Haram in Arabic), although other scholars believe that she was in fact Muḥammad’s wet nurse.
According to legend, Hala Sultan died after falling off her mule and breaking her neck during the first Arab incursions into Cyprus around 647 A.D. The same night, a divine power supposedly placed three giant stones where she lay. In 1760, Hala Sultan’s grave was discovered by Sheikh Hasan; he began spreading the word about her healing powers, and a tomb was built there. The complex – comprising a mosque, mausoleum, minaret, cemetery and living quarters for men and women – was constructed in its present form while the island was still under Ottoman rule, and completed in around 1816.
According to the archaeologist Tuncer Bağışkan, during the Ottoman period in Cyprus, Ottoman-flagged ships used to fly their flags at half-mast when off the shores of Larnaca, and salute Hala Sultan with cannon shots.
This tekke is also notable for being the burial place of the grandmother of the late King Hussein of Jordan.
The granddaughter of Muḥammad is the patron saint of Cairo, the Arab world’s largest city and a regional cultural hub. She also has the following mosques named for her:
- The Sayeda Zainab mosque in Cairo, Egypt. The original structure was built in 1549; the modern mosque dates back to 1884. In 1898, the square in front of the mosque also took her name. The mosque was expanded in 1942 and renovated in 1999 following an earthquake seven years earlier. There is an annual feast dedicated to Sayeda Zainab which celebrates her birth; the celebration features ecstatic mystical whirling inside the shrine, while outside there are fairground attractions such as merry-go-round rides. Historically, the coffee shops around the square and the mosque were places where some of Egypt’s most notable writers and journalists met and exchanged ideas. There is a notable silver shrine inside the mosque. According to Sunni Muslim tradition, this mosque houses the tomb of Sayeda Zainab.
- The Sayeda Zainab Mosque in the city of Sayeda Zainab, a southern suburb of Damascus, Syria. According to Shia Muslim tradition, it is in fact this mosque which contains the tomb of Muḥammad’s granddaughter. It has been a destination of mass pilgrimage for Muslims since the 1980s. The dome is gold-leafed.
Fātimah al-Ma’sūmah was the sister of the eighth Imam and the daughter of the seventh Imam in ‘Twelver’ Shī’ism. Her shrine is located in Qom, a city which is one of the most important Shī’ah centres of theology. During the Safavid dynasty, the women of this family were very active in embellishing the Shrine of Fatima Masumeh. In times of war, Safavid royal women found refuge in Qom, and likely compared their situation to that of Fatima Masumeh.
One of the most famous saints in Islam, Rabi’āh al-‘Adawiyyah (‘Rabi’āh’) extolled the way of maḥabbah (‘divine love’) and uns (‘Intimacy with God’). Her mystical sayings are noted for their pith and clarity; some have become proverbs throughout the Islamic world. The famous mosque in Cairo, which is named in Rabi’āh’s honour, is notable for being the burial site of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. The mosque was badly damaged during the 2013 post-military coup unrest in Egypt. It has since been rebuilt.
Ruqayyah bint Ali
Ruqayyah bint Ali was the daughter-in-law of Muḥammad’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib. Legend has it that the Bibi Pak Daman (lit. ‘the chaste lady’) mausoleum – located in Lahore, Pakistan – named after her contains not just her grave but those of five other ladies from Muḥammad’s household. These females were amongst the most important women who brought Islam to South Asia. It is said that these ladies came here after the event of the battle of Karbala on the 10th day of the month of Muharram in 61 AH (October 10, CE 680). Bibi Pak Daman is the collective name of the six ladies believed to interred at this mausoleum, though it is also (mistakenly) popularly used to refer to the personage of Ruqayyah bint Ali alone. They preached and engaged in missionary activity in the environs of Lahore. It is said that Data Ganj Bakhsh, considered a great Sufi saint of the South Asia, was himself a devotee of the Bibi Pak Daman shrine and received holy knowledge from this auspicious shrine.
Further information: Gender segregation and Muslims and Women’s mosques
Today, Muslim women do indeed attend mosques. In fact, in the United States, a recent study by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that American Muslim women attend the mosque at extremely similar rates (35%) to those of American Muslim men (45%). ISPU also found that 87% of Muslim American women say that they “see their faith identity as a source of happiness in their life.”
Female religious scholars were relatively common from early Islamic history throughout the 16th century. Mohammad Akram Nadwi, a Sunni religious scholar, has listed 8,000 female jurists, and orientalist Ignaz Goldziher estimates 15 percent of medieval hadith scholars were women. Women, during early history of Islam, primarily obtained their knowledge through community study groups, ribat retreats and during hajjwhen the usual restrictions imposed on female education were more lenient. After the 16th century, however, female scholars became fewer. In the modern era, while female activists and writers are relatively common, there has not been a significant female jurist in over 200 years. Opportunities for women’s religious education exist, but cultural barriers often keep women from pursuing such a vocation.
Women’s right to become imams, however, is disputed by many. A fundamental role of an imam (religious leader) in a mosque is to lead the salat (congregational prayers). Generally, women are not allowed to lead mixed prayers. However, some argue that Muhammad gave permission to Ume Warqa to lead a mixed prayer at the mosque of Dar.
Hui women are self-aware of their relative freedom as Chinese women in contrast to the status of Arab women in countries like Saudi Arabia where Arab women are restricted and forced to wear encompassing clothing. Hui women point out these restrictions as “low status”, and feel better to be Chinese than to be Arab, claiming that it is Chinese women’s advanced knowledge of the Quran which enables them to have equality between men and women.
Sufi female mystics
Sufi Islam teaches the doctrine of tariqa, meaning following a spiritual path in daily living habits. To support followers of this concept, separate institutions for men (ta’ifa, hizb, rabita) and women (khanqa, rabita, derga) were created. Initiates to these groups pursued a progression of seven stages of spiritual discipline, called makamat (stations) or ahwal (spiritual states).
Rabiah al-Basri is an important figure in Islamic Mysticism called Sufism. She upheld the doctrine of “disinterested love of God”.
Current female religious scholars
There are a number of prominent female Islamic scholars. They generally focus on questioning gender-based interpretations of the Quran, the traditions of Muhammad and early Islamic history. Some notable Muslim women scholars are: Azizah al-Hibri, Amina Wadud, Fatima Mernissi, Riffat Hassan, Laila Ahmad, Amatul Rahman Omar, Farhat Hashmi, Aisha Abdul-Rahman, and Merryl Wyn Davies.
Many classical Islamic scholars, such as al-Tabari, supported female leadership. In early Islamic history, women including Aisha, Ume Warqa, and Samra Binte Wahaib took part in political activities. Abdurrahman ibn `Awf consulted with women in their rooms when he was charged of choosing `Uthman or Ali as the third caliphate after the death of Umar. The Caliph Umar appointed Samra Bint Nuhayk Al-Asadiyya as a market inspector in Mecca and Ash-Shifa bint Abdullah as an administrator in Medina. Ash-Shifa would later on become the head of Health and Safety in Basra, Iraq. Other historical Muslim female leaders include Shajarat ad-Durr, who ruled Egypt from 1250 to 1257, Razia Sultana, who ruled the Sultanate of Delhi from 1236 to 1239, and Taj ul-Alam, who ruled Aceh Sultanate from 1641 to 1675.
This historical record contrasts markedly with that of (predominantly Taoist and Buddhist) Chinese-majority nations, where there were no women rulers in the period between the reign of the fierce empress Wu Zetian at the turn of the eighth century (690-705), and the inauguration of Tsai Ing-wen as President of the Republic of China in 2016.
Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah, an Islamic institute that advises Egypt’s ministry of justice, had said women can both be rulers and judges in an Islamic state.
Female heads of state in Muslim-majority countries during the modern era
In the modern era, Pakistan became the first Muslim-majority state with an elected female head of government (1988). Currently Bangladesh is the country that has had females as head of government continuously the longest starting with Khaleda Zia in 1991.
In the past several decades, a number of countries in which Muslims are a majority, including Indonesia (President Megawati Sukarnoputri, 2001), Kosovo (President Atifete Jahjaga, 2011), Pakistan, Bangladesh (prime ministers Begum Khaleda Zia (1991-1996, 2001-2009) and Sheikh Hasina (1996-2001, 2009–Present), Leader of the Opposition Rowshan Ershad, Speaker of the House Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury(2013–present) and Deputy Leader of the House Syeda Sajeda Chowdhury (2009–present)), Turkey (Prime Minister Tansu Çiller, 1993), and Kyrgyzstan (President Roza Otunbayeva, 2010) have been led by women; Mauritius, which has a significant Muslim minority, elected a female Muslim (Ameenah Gurib) as president in 2015. At one stage in the 1990s, over 300 million Muslims – at that time, between one-third and a quarter of the world’s entire Islamic population – were simultaneously ruled by women when elected heads of state Tansu Çiller (the 22nd Prime Minister of Turkey), Khaleda Zia (the 9th Prime Minister of Bangladesh) and Benazir Bhutto (the 11th Prime Minister of Pakistan) led their respective countries.
Female legislators in Muslim-majority countries in the 21st century
As well as elected heads of state, a number of other elected female politicians have attained exceptional levels of notability within the OIC in the twenty-first century. These include Louisa Hanoune, the head of Algeria’s Workers’ Party and the first woman to be a presidential candidate in an Arab country (2004; Hanoune also ran for the same post in 2009 and 2014); Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia’s Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (2014-2019) who is also a successful seafood and transportation entrepreneur who has been profiled in the Financial Times; and Meral Akşener, a veteran Turkish conservative nationalist politician who is seen as a possible future challenger to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Several Muslim-majority nations have passed laws to incorporate more women in their parliaments and political processes. For example, Indonesia passed a law in 2013 that required political parties to field at least 30% women candidates in elections or pay a financial penalty, a law which was later amended to stipulate that at least one in three candidates on every party’s electoral list must be female and parties which do not fulfill this criterion will be barred from contesting the election; Tunisia’s mandated electoral lists composed of 50% women in both the 2011 and 2014 legislative elections; and in 2012, Algeria set a minimum parliamentary female membership requirement of 30%. Following the May 2012 legislative elections, women constitute 31.6% of Algerian MPs. In Senegal, 50% of local and national electoral lists have to be female as of 2012. Kosovo has had a female quota for its assembly as far back as 2001, when it was de jure part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia; the Muslim-majority (95.6%) Balkan republic guarantees women 30% of parliamentary seats as of 2016.
In 2012, among all regions of the world, the Gulf Arab region had the lowest overall percentage of women in parliament, and no women in the parliaments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. However, since 2012 Saudi women have been allowed to vote in some elections. The Shura Council of Saudi Arabia now includes female members after a January 2013 decree by the Saudi King that created reserved parliamentary seats for women. Kuwait granted its women the right to vote in the first half of the 1980s; this right was later rescinded, and then reintroduced in 2005. Additionally, the United Arab Emirates has allocated 30% of its top government posts to women; as of February 2016, females accounted for 27.5% of the UAE’s cabinet.
According to Sheikh Zoubir Bouchikhi, Imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston’s Southeast Mosque, nothing in Islam specifically allows or disallows voting by women. Until recently most Muslim nations were non-democratic, but most today allow their citizens to have some level of voting and control over their government. However, some Muslim countries gave women suffrage in the early 20th century. For example, Azerbaijan extended voting rights to women in 1918, two years before it became part of Soviet Union. Females in Turkey similarly gained the right to vote in municipal and parliamentary elections in 1930 and 1934 respectively.
Muslim Women and Islamophobia
In the United States, Islamophobia, coupled with the 2016 presidential election which heightened anti-muslim sentiment has particularly impacted on Muslim American women. In their 2018 American Muslim Poll, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding reported, “though roughly half of women of all backgrounds, including Muslim women, report experiencing some frequency of gender-based discrimination in the past year, Muslim women’s more frequent complaints are racial (75%) and religious (69%) discrimination.” Most Muslim women (72%) and Muslim men (76%) reject the notion that “most Muslims in America discriminate against women.”
Further data collected by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding has found that “Muslim women are more likely than Muslim men to report experiencing religious discrimination in the last year (68% vs. 55%)”. ISPU also found that most American Muslim women (68%) agree that most people associate negative stereotypes with their faith identity. Among these, more than half (52%) “strongly agree” that being Muslim is correlated with negative stereotypes. Data shows that American Muslim women are actually more likely than Muslim men to fear for their safety from white supremacist groups (47% vs. 31%) and nearly one in five (19%) Muslim women say they have stress and anxiety enough to believe they need the help of a mental health professional as a result of the 2016 presidential elections, compared with only 9% of American Muslim men. Despite this deficit in security and greater likelihood for experienced religious-based discrimination, Muslim women are no more likely than Muslim men to change their appearance to be less identifiable as a Muslim (16% vs. 15%). Additionally, despite many feeling stigmatized, a large majority of Muslim American women (87%) say they are proud to be identified as a member of their faith community.
In the Islamic conception, every human being has a responsibility towards oneself. Since human life is sacred and initially created by divine rather than human agency, people are responsible for trying to keep their bodies and souls healthy, and not causing themselves spiritual or physical harm. Consequently, sport has obvious attractions in Islam: traditions record that Muḥammad raced with his wife ‘Ā’ishah, and that he encouraged parents to teach their children swimming, riding and archery. Persian miniatures show Muslim women jointly playing polo with men in the same field. In the twenty-first century, some Muslim sociologists even argue that it should be obligatory for Muslim females to participate in sport of some kind.
The FIVB Volleyball Women’s Club World Championship has been claimed by clubs from OIC member states Azerbaijan and Turkey six times out of eleven total editions, with Turkey’s five gold medals beating Brazil (three golds) into second place.
Turkish clubs have also become a force in women’s basketball, with at least one Turkish side having been present in the final four of the EuroLeague Women since the 2011-12 season; in 2014, Galatasaray became the first Turkish team to win Europe’s elite club tournament. The EuroCup Women has seen a similar trend; in 2016-17, all four EuroCup Women semi-finalists were from Turkey.
The Iran women’s national futsal team are two-time champions of Asia, having won both editions to date of the AFC Women’s Futsal Championship (Malaysia 2015, Thailand 2018) by beating Japan in the respective finals. Additionally, in the 2010s Egypt has become the preeminent nation in women’s squash, with the country boasting four out of the top five players in the PSA World Rankings for May 2018, including World No. 1 Nour El Sherbini; moreover, Egypt’s women’s national team are the current world champions, adding the 2016 WSF World Team Squash Championships to their 2008 and 2012 titles.
At the same time, many Muslim women experience significant barriers to sports participation. These barriers include bans on the Islamic headscarf, commonly known as the hijab, cultural and familial barriers, and the lack of appropriate sports programs and facilities. Many Muslim female athletes have overcome these obstacles and used sports to empower themselves and others, such as through education, health and wellbeing, and a push for women’s rights.
Islamic Solidarity Games
The Islamic Solidarity Games is a large multi-sport event held every four years in which all qualifying athletes from Organisation of Islamic Cooperation member countries can compete, regardless of their religious affiliation. The female International Athlete Ambassadors for Baku 2017 – the most recent edition of the games – included Tunisian Olympic medallist wrestler Marwa Amri; taekwondo icons Elaine Teo (Malaysia) and Taleen Al Humaidi (Jordan); and the Palestinian swimmer Mary Al-Atrash.
The next edition of the Islamic Solidarity Games (2021) is scheduled to take place in Istanbul.
Comparison with other religions
From its inception, Islam has had contact and coexistence with other major world faiths, and this phenomenon intensified as the religion transcended its Arabian origins to spread over a wide geographical area: from the Adriatic region, where Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity took root, to the Hinduism- and Buddhism-dominated land masses of India and South-East Asia, Muslim populations have both influenced and been influenced by the pre-existing spiritual traditions that they encountered. Prominent examples of these processes include the syncretist philosophy of dīn-i-ilāhī (“religion of God”), an amalgam of several religions devised by Emperor Akbar (1542-1605) that was practiced at the Mughul Court in India; the crypto-Christianity of Kosovo, a belief system that created a tradition of joint Catholic-Muslim households which persisted into the twentieth century; and Pancasila, the official foundational philosophy of the modern Indonesian state which draws on indigenous beliefs, as well as Hindu, Christian and Islamic traditions.
In the twenty-first century, a number of new factors have facilitated the comparison of spiritual traditions – and the place of women within them – to an unprecedented level. These include: (i) a fresh wave of technological globalisation, which has obliterated communicational borders; (ii) the advent of cheap mass international air travel, which has hugely increased people’s exposure to other cultures; and (iii) the internationalisation of higher education, whereby students and scholars alike are spending ever-increasing amounts of time in countries with different religious demographic compositions to their own.
Notwithstanding these developments, comparing the position of women in Islam with that of women in other faith traditions is complicated by the following determinants:
- Geographical and cultural breadth. Given that the Muslim world encompasses states as diverse as Albania, Mali and Kazakhstan, diverse interpretations of texts such as the Qur’an are inevitable, although there are also large areas of concordance between the orthodox schools of Islamic thought, both Sunni and Shi’a. The prevalence of cultural customs which are sometimes ascribed to Islam but which have at best a tenuous scriptural basis (and that in fact may be diametrically opposed to the teachings of the religion) is another element which needs to be recognised.
- Scholarly differences. When analysing both Islam in general and the topic of women in Islam in particular, the views of scholars and commentators are profoundly shaped by certain cultural lenses. Those coming from a Western background, such as the Switzerland-born writer Charles le Gai Eaton, tend to compare and contrast Islam with Christianity; Eaton concluded that Islam, with certain important qualifications, was “essentially patriarchal”. Conversely, those coming from an East Asian background tend to emphasise similarities between Islam and religions such as Taoism, which stress complementarity between the sexes: according to the Japanese scholar Sachiko Murata, it was mandatory for her to use the I Ching as a means of “[conceptualising] Islamic teachings on the feminine principle without doing violence to the original texts.”
- Political distortions. The historical strength of various Muslim-led polities – which, unlike other comparable non-Western entities such as China and Japan, were adjacent to “Christian” Europe and/or perceived to be in competition with Western powers – meant that the question of women in Islam has not always been approached objectively by those professing expertise in the subject. This can be viewed as part of the “Orientalist” academic discourse (as defined by Edward Said) that creates a rigid East-West dichotomy in which dynamic and positive values are ascribed to Western civilisation; by contrast, “Oriental” societies (including but certainly not limited to Islamic ones) are depicted as being “stationary” and in need of “modernising” through imperial administrations.
Eve’s role in the Fall
In contrast with the biblical account of the Fall, in Islamic tradition Eve (Ḥawwā) did not tempt Adam (Ādam) to eat the forbidden fruit; instead, they were tempted together by the Devil. This means that Eve was not the cause of Adam’s expulsion from paradise: he was also responsible, and therefore both men and women are faced equally with its consequences. This has a number of important implications for the Islamic understanding of womanhood and women’s roles in both religious and social life. For one, in Islam, women are not seen as a source of evil as a result of the Fall.
Moreover, the Biblical statement that Eve was created from Adam’s rib (the famous ‘third rib’) finds no echo in the Qur’anic account: both male and female were created ‘from one soul’ (Sūrah 4:1). Similarly, the concept that (as per Genesis 3:16) the pains of childbirth are a punishment for Eve’s sin is alien to the Qur’an.
The Virgin Mary
The Virgin Mary (Maryām) is considered by the Qur’an to hold the most exalted spiritual position amongst women. A chapter of the Qur’an (Sūrat Maryam, the nineteenth sura) is named after her, and she is the only woman mentioned by name in Islam’s sacred scripture; Maryām is mentioned more times in the Qur’an than in the New Testament. Furthermore, the miraculous birth of Christ from a virgin mother is recognised in the Qur’an.
Main article: Polygamy
In the Western world, polygamy has long been associated with Islam; the idea of Islam as – to quote Professor Akbar S. Ahmed – some sort of ‘man’s paradise’, with every man possessing at least four wives, remains a powerful one. However, polygamy is far from unique to Islam; in fact, in traditionally multi-confessional India, polygamy is actually more widespread amongst other religious communities: the 1961 census found that the incidence of polygamy was the least amongst Muslims (5.7%), with Hindus (5.8%), Jains (6.7%), Buddhists (7.9%) and Adivasis (15.25%) all more likely have at least two wives. imilarly, India’s third National Family Health Survey (2006) found that a number of socioeconomic reasons were more likely to explain the prevalence of polygamy than the religion of the parties involved. This survey also found that a polygamous Hindu was likely to have (as a statistical average) 1.77 wives; a Christian, 2.35; a Muslim, 2.55; and a Buddhist, 3.41.
Like many other major world religions, Islam views extramarital sex as a great sin in the eyes of God; however, its general approach to sexuality is profoundly distinct to that of Christianity. There exists a marked contrast between the teachings of St Thomas Aquinas – who stated that marriage becomes “more holy sine carnale commixione” (i.e. when sexual desire is absent) – and IbnʿArabī’s conclusion that “The most intense and perfect contemplation of God is through women, and the most intense union [with God] is the conjugal act”.
In Islam and the Destiny of Man, the Swiss-born diplomat Charles le Gai Eaton elaborates on the respective sexuality perspectives of the world’s two most popular faiths:
“Islam disapproves of casual promiscuity as does Christianity; but the Muslim takes it for granted that when a man sees a beautiful woman he will desire physical union with her, and that when a woman sees a man who appeals to her she will be drawn to him, and this mutual desire is seen as flowing directly from the nature of things as willed by God. It is in itself an unqualified good, however much it may need to be hedged about with restrictions.”
Notable women in Islam
Saints, scholars, and spiritual teachers
Women have played an integral part in the development and spiritual life of Islam since the inception of Islamic civilisation in the seventh century AD. Khadijah, a businesswoman who became Muhammad’s employer and first wife, was also the first Muslim. There have been a large number of female saints throughout the Islamic world spanning the highest social classes (a famous example being Princess Jahānārā, the daughter of the Moghul emperor Shāh Jahān) and the lowest (such as Lallā Mīmūna in Morocco); some of them, such as Rābi’a of Basra (who is cited reverentially in Muḥammad al-Ghazālī’s classic The Revival of Religious Sciences) and Fāṭima of Cordoba (who deeply influenced the young Ibn ‘Arabī) have been pivotal to the conceptualisation of Islamic mysticism.
Today, some notable personalities of the Islamic world include the Turkish Sufi teacher Cemalnur Sargut – a disciple of the novelist and mystic Samiha Ayverdi (1905–1993), Amatul Rahman Omar, the first woman to translate the Qur’an into English, and Shaykha Fariha al Jerrahi, the guide of the Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi Order.
Female converts to Islam
Women make up a disproportionately large or rising share of converts to Islam in numerous Western countries. According to researchers based at Swansea University, of the approximately 100,000 people who entered the Muslim faith in the United Kingdom between 2001 and 2011, 75% were women. In the United States, more Hispanic women convert to Islam than Hispanic men; the share of overall female converts to Islam in the US rose from 32% in 2000 to 41% in 2011. Young females constitute an estimated 80% of converts to Islam in Lithuania. According to Susanne Leuenberger of the Institute of Advanced Study in the Humanities and the Social Sciences at the University of Bern, females make up around 60-70% of conversions to Islam in Europe.
Modern debate on the status of women in Islam
Main article: Women’s Rights in Islam?
Conservatives and the Islamic movement
Conservatives reject the assertion that different laws prescribed for men and women imply that men are more valuable than women. Ali ibn Musa Al-reza reasoned that at the time of marriage a man has to pay something to his prospective bride, and that men are responsible for both their wives’ and their own expenses but women have no such responsibility.
The nebulous revivalist movement termed Islamism is one of the most dynamic movements within Islam in the 20th and 21st centuries. The experience of women in Islamist states has been varied. Women in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan faced treatment condemned by the international community. Women were forced to wear the burqa in public, not allowed to work,not allowed to be educated after the age of eight,and faced public flogging and execution for violations of the Taliban’s laws. The position of women in Iran, which has been a theocracy since its 1979 revolution, is more complex. Iranian Islamists are ideologically in favour of allowing female legislators in Iran’s parliament and 60% of university students are women.
Liberal Islam, Islamic feminism, and other progressive criticism
Liberal Muslims have urged that ijtihad, a form of critical thinking, be used to develop a more progressive form of Islam with respect to the status of women. In addition, Islamic feminists have advocated for women’s rights, gender equality, and social justice grounded in an Islamic framework. Although rooted in Islam, pioneers of Islamic feminism have also used secular and western feminist discourses and have sought to include Islamic feminism in the larger global feminist movement. Islamic feminists seek to highlight the teachings of equality in Islam to question patriarchal interpretations of Islamic teachings. Others point out the incredible amount of flexibility of shariah law, which can offer greater protections for women if the political will to do so is present.
After the September 11, 2001, attacks, international attention was focused on the condition of women in the Muslim world. Critics asserted that women are not treated as equal members of Muslim societies and criticized Muslim societies for condoning this treatment. Some critics have gone so far as to make allegations of gender apartheid due to women’s status. Phyllis Chesler has alleged that Western academics, especially feminists, have ignored the plight of Muslim women in order to be considered politically correct. However, one survey in 2006 found that most Muslim women do not see themselves as oppressed.
The Indonesian Islamic professor Nasaruddin Umar is at the forefront of a reform movement from within Islam that aims at giving women equal status. Among his works is a book The Qur’an for Women, which provides a new feminist interpretation.
Some Muslim women exposed to the growth in civil rights accessible to secular or non-Muslim women have protested to strengthen their own rights within Islamic communities. One example is Malaysia, where 60% of the population is Muslim, and where there are separate parallel legal systems for secular law and sharia law. In 2006, Marina Mahathir, the daughter of Malaysia’s former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, published an editorial in the Malaysia Star newspaper to denounce what she termed “a growing form of apartheid” for Malaysia’s Muslim women:
Non-Muslim Malaysian women have benefited from more progressive laws over the years while the opposite has happened for Muslim women.
She pointed out that polygamy was illegal in Malaysia for non-Muslims but not for Muslims, and that child custody arrangements for Muslims were biased towards fathers as opposed to the shared-custody arrangements of non-Muslim parents Women’s groups in Malaysia began campaigning in the 1990s to have female sharia judges appointed to the sharia legal system in the country, and in 2010 two female judges were appointed.
In March 2016, an Australian Tribunal determined that separate male and female seating arrangements contravened section 33 of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act. The Tribunal ordered that all future publicity materials for public events hosted by Hizb ut-Tahrir must clearly inform attendees that segregated seating arrangements are not compulsory.
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