Women and Religion in Islam
Helen M. Hacker Previously unpublished
Somewhat similar to their Western counterparts, Middle Eastern Muslim feminists are confronted by an oppressive, patriarchal religious tradition. Every Muslim is required to declare before witnesses, “I testify that there is no God but the one God, and Muhammad is his prophet.” The Quran consists of the messages and commandments of this male God as revealed to his male prophet, and is addressed to men. They are admonished on the proper treatment of women as wives and mothers. Only to them is vouchsafed a vision of Paradise in blissful detail, while Hell’s torments for women are graphically depicted. Muslim jurists who act as interpreters of the Shariah or Holy Law through their exercise of ijtinad are men, as is the imam or leader of the congregation in prayer. Only a man can be a Khalifah or successor to the Prophet. If not in the Suras or verses of the Quran, then in later religious outlook women are seen as repositories of dangerous sexual powers. Their potential disruptiveness justifies male domination.
Islam is a religion of law. The word itself means submission or commitment to divine guidance broadly expressed in the Shariah, a word meaning pathway or roadway. The Shariah established a religious social community or ummah. This Holy Law is comprehensive in that it touches every sphere of life, including matters that Westerners might consider outside the purview of law, such as dress, foodstuffs, forms of greeting, and courtesy. The Quran is brief and frequently unclear, so it became necessary to derive specific rules from the broad principles of the transcendental Shariah to apply to the multitude of problems and situations for which the Quran had no specific provisions, and also to find additional sources of authority. These are found first of all in the Sunnah or customary usage of the Prophet, consisting of reports that the Prophet had acted or judged matters in a particular way. Islamic mentality looks to the past as a storehouse of valid and normative guidance. The content of the Prophet’s Sunnah is known through oral reports called Hadith, which consists of two parts: the text and the “foundation” or chain of authorities through which it has come down. When Muslims confronted a difficulty or a novel situation, they searched for a report which would supply guidance by way of a precedent. If the Prophet had not said or done anything relevant to the situation, reports were fabricated. Today scholars are busy authenticating Hadith, separating wheat from chaff, not by criticism of the text but of the transmission process. After the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet, the third source of legal guidance is the consensus or ijma of the community. Alshafi, a widely accepted jurist of the third century, held that his consensus is always that of past generations, whereas modernist Muslims take it to be a power of legislation given to the contemporary community. The last of the roots of the law—and a court of last resort—is givas or analogical reasoning, used to extend the implications of an explicit rule of law arrived at on the basis of one of the preceding usul or sources. For instance, the Quranic prohibition of wine on the basis of its being an intoxicant would lead to the judgment that other intoxicants are also to be forbidden.
The process of striving to understand the sources of the law and to derive the rules of law from them is called by the technical term ijtihad, meaning to make a personal intellectual effort. Controversy exists today as to whether the “Door of Ijtihad” has closed, legitimating study only of the commentaries on the sources as opposed to the study and possible reinterpretation of the sources themselves. For modernists Islam is dynamic and progressive, incorporating in such principles as ijtihad the means for its own perpetual self-regeneration and self-adaptation to new circumstances. It is this view which those feminists take who seek to reconstruct Islamic tradition to uphold the rights of women. This task is especially imperative in view of the fact that it is in the sphere of the family and personal law that the Islamic fight or jurisprudence continues to have great influence in many Muslim states.
Let me now enumerate the traditional debilities visited upon women. Women are subject to Islamic law in all Muslim countries except Turkey and Tunisia. It involves:
- Legal and religious endorsement of patriarchy and polygamy.
- Unilateral power of the husband in divorce.
- Custody rights go to the husband in divorce.
- Husband has the right to restrict a rebellious wife to the conjugal home, and chastise her physically if she is disobedient or refuses intercourse.
- Females have unequal rights in inheritance.
- Unequal weight is given to women’s legal testimony in court, that is, the witness of a man is equivalent to that of two women.
Overall, the requirement that women should be chaste and modest and reserve themselves completely for their husbands has led to various kinds of segregation: veiling, the seclusion of the harem, exclusion from many activities that involve men—most importantly, prohibition against working with male strangers, and a general dependence on men. Men control women to preserve family “honor” and are economically responsible for them, regardless of the woman’s marital status. So women lacked the stimuli to cultivate independence and self-reliance and found satisfactions and rewards in their world of the family. We see here an interplay between voluntary seclusion and exclusion from public life. Youssef predicts that the strongest factor in changing the status of women is the growing acceptance of women’s right to equal educational opportunities. Also, economic pressures make it difficult for kinsmen to support unmarried, especially divorced, women.
In a previous paper I suggested three possible feminist responses to the denigration of women in the Judeo-Christian tradition: (1) rejection, (2) revolution, and (3) reconstruction. Only the first and the last represent positions that have been taken by Muslim women in regard to Islam. While some Muslim women, like Fatima Mernissi in Beyond the Veil, believe that no fundamental change can be effected within the Islamic tradition,1 none to my knowledge have advocated reviving forms of worship from the pre-Islamic past, to neo-paganism. The main thrust of Muslim feminist scholars is to modify or reinterpret Islamic tradition to reveal its basic equalitarianism. This hermeneutic quest can take two forms. One approach, which may be called literal or absolutist, seeks to establish the authentic Quranic texts which presumably have been traduced or eroded in false Hadith and patriarchal hegemony over the religious consensus and methods of inference and analogy. A second, relativistic approach takes the Suras as relative to their times and thus constantly in need of or susceptible to reinterpretation to fit contemporary needs. They go by the spirit rather than the letter of the Prophet’s revelation.
I would like to illustrate these two approaches in regard to two aspects of Islam, ideological and material, that is, the religious conception of women and the laws affecting the treatment of women which flow from this view. The Islamic image of woman may be inferred from the portrayal of Eve. According to Jane Smith and Yvonne Haddad, the image of Eve became altered in Islamic tradition from the picture presented in the Quran which in no way justifies the conception of women as lesser or inferior beings. First in scripture there is no word of Eve’s having come from any part of Adam, but in later reports one finds frequent references to Eve as having been created out of the side of Adam, or from his bone, often described as crooked. All well and good, but does it help that there is no reference to Eve’s creation at all, though creation there must have been, since she was invited into the Garden with Adam, in accordance with the Quranic command “Dwell with your wife in the Garden.” The authors, however, take it to mean that “we are all of one spirit…rejecting the notion that woman’s humanity is any less than that of man.” Second, in regard to the Fall, both Adam and his wife are warned not to eat off the tree of immortality (2:35, 7:19), Satan tempts them both and causes them to falter (2:36, 7:20, although in 2:120 Adam alone is tempted), and both eat off the tree and see their own nakedness (2:122) and both are expelled from the Garden. Thus, though it may be true that Eve was not responsible for tempting Adam, she seems of less importance than in the Genesis II account, and even if she was not made from a crooked bone, Eve was still created for Adam’s rest. There is, however, no other indication of her inferiority.
Also representative of feminists who hold that the true or authentic Islam is egalitarian and make a distinction between Islam and Islamic tradition and culture is Azizah al-Hibri, who was guest editor of a special issue on Women and Islam of the Women’s Studies International Forum. According to her—and I quote:
“Patriarchy co-opted Islam after the death of the prophet. This meant, among other things, that many passages in the Quran were interpreted loosely, and out of context, in support of a vicious patriarchal ideology. These interpretations were then handed down to women as God’s revealed words. Also, the Arabic language is a very rich language, and thus it is not uncommon to run into sentences that can be interpreted in a variety of ways.”
Today, as feminist activity asserts itself in the Islamic sphere, we find ourselves reexamining these old patriarchal interpretations and shaking them at the root. Muslim feminists should be guided by the fact that there is no clergy in Islam, each person being responsible directly to God for her own beliefs. She herself points the way in attacking three problem areas: polygamy, divorce, and the supremacy of men over women.
The Quran IV, verse 3 says “Marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if ye fear that you shall not deal justly (with them), then only one….” Lest men be foolhardy enough to think that they can deal justly with four wives—and according to tradition, men had only to satisfy their own consciences in this regard—verse 129 admonishes “Ye are never able to be fair and just among women, even if you tried hard.” Put these two passages together and the clear implication is that only one wife is permitted. But one may ask, if this is what Allah intended, why didn’t he just come out and say so? Perhaps because Muhammad needed to appease contemporary tribal leaders accustomed to polygamy and thus did not want to outlaw it summarily. (Zein ED-DIN…“it was out of God’s wisdom to eliminate some of these reprehensible customs, while leaving traces of them to turn men’s attention to Him so they would not give up His religion and abandon His Prophet.”)
Suras II and the amendments in IV seemingly give men a unilateral power of divorce, addressing men “who forswear their wives” and “women who are divorced.” Al-Hibri maintains, however, that marriage in Islam is a contract, and that the bride can include any conditions she desires, such as an automatic divorce if the husband takes another wife—or if he disobeys her in one instance she mentions.
3. Supremacy of men over women
This view is supported mainly by verse 34, Sura IV which is translated by A. Yusef Ali (1946. The Holy Quran: Text, Translation, and Commentary) “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women [the Picthall translation has it, “Men are in charge of women”] because God has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient and guard in (the husband’s) absence what God would have them guard. As to those women from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and boycott their beds and beat them. If they obey you, do not seek a way against them. God is high and exalted.” This verse lends itself to the interpretation that man is in charge of the woman, that the wife must obey her husband, and that the husband has the right to discipline his wife.
But al-Hibri challenges this interpretation as erroneous. Her translation runs, “Men are ‘qawwamun’ over women in matters where God gave some of them more than others, and in what they spend of their money.” She says the word “qawwamun” is difficult to translate. “Protectors” and “maintainers” is not quite accurate.
The basic notion involved here is one of moral guidance and caring. Moreover, men are not put in charge of women’s affairs because they are created superior to women, since, first of all, nowhere in the passage is there a reference to the male’s physical or intellectual superiority but rather it states a contingency—only if he is better versed than she in the matter. For example, in making a business decision, a wife may find that her knowledge of the market place is inferior to that of her husband’s, so he may have ‘qawwam’ over her in this matter, i.e., guiding her and protecting her interests with full knowledge that the final decision is hers alone. And then the second condition must be fulfilled that he supports her financially. According to al-Hibri’s interpretation, no one has the right to counsel a self-supporting woman. She also calls attention to the phrase “some of them” as indicating clearly that men as a class are not “qawwamun” over women as a class.
To wrap it up, she shows that the traditional interpretation is inconsistent with other Islamic teachings. Elsewhere in the Quran we have the following passage: “The believers, men and women, are ‘awliya,’ one of another” (IX, verse 71). “Awliya” means “protectors,” “in charge,” “guides.” It is quite similar to “qawwamun.” How could women be “Awliya” of men if men are superior to women in both physical and intellectual strength? How could women be in charge of men who have absolute authority over their lives? This passage clearly places male and female on equal footing. The peroration is reminiscent of St. Paul. The Prophet is quoted as saying: “All people are equal, as equal as the teeth of a comb. There is no claim of merit of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a white over a black person or of a male over a female. Only God-fearing people merit a preference with God.”
An alternative strategy for those who believe that the message of true Islam is egalitarian is to seek the spirit of the Quran when the letter is inadequate or absent. These feminists contend that Muhammad sought to elevate women above their status in seventh century Arabia, and buttress their stand by contrasting the rights given to women in the Quran with deplorable conditions in the age of “Jahiliyyah” or ignorance. According to Azizah al-Hibri, the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula was “viciously patriarchal.” They practiced female infanticide, polygymy with as many as 100 wives, did not allow women to inherit, and even forced daughters into prostitution. In this context Islam can be viewed as defending the rights of women in limiting men to four wives, giving women a share in the inheritance, even if unequal, accepting women’s legal testimony in court even at half the weight of a man’s, making female infanticide a crime against God, and killing women a crime equal to that of killing men, exhorting men to honor their mothers, etc. And its provisions compare favorably with European law until modern times. Azizah al-Hibri lists fourteen reforms that Islam accomplished, but overriding these in importance is the religious community which it established to replace the tribal power structure based on patrilineage which had no place for individual rights. In contrast to the “paternal bond” of Jahiliyyah in the religious bond of Islam everyone—regardless of sex, age, race, or social class—is equal. But in view of the hostile milieu in which Islam arose the Prophet had to make compromises to assure the growth of the new religion, much as St. Paul in Mary Daly’s early argument had to protect the early Christian Church against scandal. The fact that certain parts of the Quran were superseded by later injunctions when the time was ripe for them indicates Islam’s adaptability to social and historical change. Within the limitations imposed by the social climate the prophet did his best for women. For example, while he could not abrogate punishment for female adultery, he did make it almost impossible to prove. While some writers such as Nada Youssef say the husband has the unilateral power of divorce, al-Hibri, as we have seen, asserts that divorce was made “extremely easy” for both male and female. Nawal el Saadawi (1982) concurs that “Prophet Muhamad was more emancipated with respect to women than most men of his time, and even most Muslim men nowadays. He gave his women the right to stand up to him, rebuke him, or tell him where he had gone wrong.” She, however, attributes “the greater recognition accorded by the Prophet and early Islam to the rights of women” to the continuation of their pre-Islamic position, gradually lost as patriarchy took over Islam. Al-Hibri also discusses a “matriarchal” stage which was undone by a male monopoly of weaponry imported from surrounding patriarchal societies “under Byzantine and Persian influence”—so that like latter-day imperialists they preferred to impart their technological know-how to males rather than females. Whether the Prophet was continuing a tradition of female independence and power or seeking to inaugurate one does not contest his own progressive policy. (It is interesting to note that Muslim feminists, unlike some of their western counterparts, have not sought to revivify a presumed pre-Quranic past of goddesses and matriarchy.)
Extrapolation from the Quran to make Islam responsive to contemporary needs and experiences of women is not required in many areas for which the relevant passages are susceptible to conflicting interpretations. Here the problem is one of judicious selection. For example, women’s right to work may be supported by the quotation, “Men have the right to what they can earn by their efforts, and women have the right to what they earn also.” Those who would confine women to their homes are fond of quoting, “Settle down in your homes and do not make up as did the women of early Jahiliya times.” Even this verse would seem to permit an unadorned woman to leave her house for a good reason, and indeed the majority of Arab women work full-time in the fields, shops, and factories. Similarly, although the Quran says nothing specifically about contraception or abortion, the tradition is one of opposition predicated on the verse, “Do not kill your children for fear of heresy,” and “Your God provides generously for whom he desires, for He is all powerful.” Supporters of birth control further their views with the verse, “Allah wishes to ease your burdens not to make things more difficult.” Needless to say, Islam is not the sole or even the main cause of the problems faced by contemporary Muslim women, but the pervasive character of religious law exacerbates the effects of underdevelopment and foreign exploitation of resources, poverty, and feudal and capitalist class structures. An important obstacle in modernizing tradition is the association of feminism with colonialism and the nationalist appeal to women to uphold Islam and guard its traditions in opposing the imperialist oppressor. There is an inherent tension, if not contradiction, in this position. Patriotism cannot call women to participate in social reconstruction if they must be protected from contact with men. In fact, the departure of foreign women and minorities from clerical and factory jobs has presented new opportunities to Muslim women.
Although in Muhammad’s time women may have prayed in mosques and enjoyed religious equality with men, they were subsequently exempt from many duties (only men served as imams in the mosques and gadis in the courts), pilgrimages, holy wars, and religious prophecy. Women, however, developed their own form of religiosity, cults of saints, and Sufism. There is a danger that modern reform movements which emphasize “the blending of rational interpretations with traditionally acceptable understandings” may masculinize Islam “by moving away from emotional elements of folk religion.” Jane Smith (1980) raises the question: “Do the very movements that would appear to bring with them an improvement in the situation of women in fact signal a circumstance in which those kinds of religious practices apparently most congenial to women have the least likelihood of survival? Or is it necessary to assume that the reason why those particular practices and beliefs have lent themselves most easily to women is simply because women have been excluded from other areas of religious practice, a situation that might actually be changing?”
Sufism opened more avenues of life to women than orthodox Islam. In Turkey, women were members of dervish orders, participating in all parts of the ritual. Daisy Hilse Dwyer has provided a fascinating account of women’s Sufism in Morocco. Not only are female saints venerated, but women play an important role in this mystical complex. They organize the one-day local festivities in honor of saints, and hold positions as curers and muqaddamat (leaders and caretakers). On the basis of their own needs women made affiliatory decisions for themselves, frequently their husbands, and their children. Geographic accessibility, previous ties with the saint, the kind of protection needed, the kind and extent of observances required by the saint, and the saint’s reputation for jealousy are among the factors influencing women’s affiliations.
We have yet to consider those who take the position that Islam is incompatible with feminism. In her introduction to Beyond the Veil, Mernissi writes…”there is a fundamental contradiction between Islam as interpreted in official policy and equality of the sexes. Sexual equality violated Islam’s premise, actualized in its laws, that the heterosexual love is dangerous to Allah’s order. Muslim marriage is based on male dominance. The desegregation of the sexes violated Islam’s ideology on the woman’s position in the social order: the woman should be under the authority of fathers, brothers, or husbands. Since she is considered by Allah to be a destructive element, she is to be spatially confined and excluded from matters other than those of the family. The woman’s access to non-domestic space is put under the control of males.
Paradoxically and contrary to what is commonly assumed, Islam does not advance the thesis of women’s inherent inferiority. Quite the contrary, it affirms the potential equality between the sexes “…the democratic glorification of the human individual, regardless of sex, race, or status, is the kernel of the Muslim message.” Thus, contrary to Christianity, Islam promulgates an ideology of female strength, if not superiority, and justifies their subordination as preservative of the social order.
In conclusion, the question may be raised of the consequences of pro-woman interpretations of the Quran. Although they may not directly impinge upon social structure, they do make it possible for Muslims to support new freedoms for women if they so choose, just as traditional interpretations served to support male supremacy. These new interpretations can be important weapons in the propaganda war with Muslim fundamentalists, turning the credo of “Honor the text” against them, much as Phyllis Trible is doing with southern Baptists, which seems to be raising purely religious demands paralleling Western struggles for ordination, since Islam lacks a priesthood. It may be anticipated, however, that if Muslim women are looked to as the guardians of tradition, they will seek full religious, as well as secular, participation.
1 Simin Royanian, an Iranian scholar and panelist at a conference on “Women in Muslim Societies” at Brooklyn College last April said that only those who idealize Islam can believe that it could free women.