General Rules Applicable to Muslim Women

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Aḥmad Zaki Yamani

All praise is due to God who has created us all from one male and one female. He says in the Qur͗an: “Mankind! We have created you all out of a male and a female” (Q 49: 13) God has also established a close relationship between Muslims, men and women, as He describes: “The believers, men and women, are close friends to one another: They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong” (Q 9: 71).

Peace and blessings are also due to the unlettered Prophet who was sent to a community some of whose members viewed women as a symbol of humiliation and ignominy. This led some of their men to bury their daughters alive in order to avoid the shame they could bring them when they grew up. With his message, Prophet Muḥammad raised women to full equality with men, except where financial conditions dictated otherwise. In no respect are women inferior to men; indeed, both are equal. The Prophet says: “Women are men's full sisters” [Related by Aḥmad, Abū Dawud and al-Tirmidhi on [ʿAʾishah's authority].

Islamic civilization is different from that of the West. Islam bases its view of women on certain values and standards that are at variance with those adopted and advocated by Western civilization. A woman's faith is, according to Islam, the basic criterion to evaluate her. As used here, 'faith' incorporates good manners, broad knowledge and a sense of fearing God that leads to obeying His commands. There are several reasons why a particular woman is sought in marriage, mainly, her strength of faith, her financial standing, her beauty and her family and ancestry. The Prophet has instructed his companions and his followers to choose the woman with strong faith. From the Islamic point of view, a woman's beauty is not meant for display or sale. It is not something to be placed 'on show' so as to give pleasure to the audience! A woman's beauty is her own asset which she gives only to the man she chooses as her husband. She only reveals in public what does not excite desire or cause temptation.

Despite its human principles and its scientific and technological advancement, Western civilization places a woman's beauty at the top of its considerations in its overall view of women. Hence, fashion designers always emphasize the lines that give prominence to beauty, which is also used extensively by television channels in their competition for viewers.

Although the sex trade remains outlawed in most Western countries, it is often overlooked unless it becomes a nuisance.

What gives true value to a woman is her faith, morality, education, knowledge and humanity. Some Muslims try to restrict women's humanity, imposing limits on her education and activity, but these are in breach of Islamic teachings, in letter and spirit. Some others want Muslim women to be an exact replica of their Western counterparts. These cause a split within Muslim society which leads to a hardening of attitudes on the part of its restrictive elements who then become inflexible. At the same time, the advocacy of adopting the Western attitude pushes Muslim women towards the precipice of material civilization, going with the tide of globalization. They thus find themselves in an untenable position, having lost their own people's respect and found no happiness through a culture different from their own.

Islam put in place a clear code for women, which is truly revolutionary when compared with what prevailed in Arabia at the time. It also represents a radical departure from philosophical and religious concepts that were widespread in different areas shortly before its advent. Hindu Brahman law treats the woman as lacking in competence. Hence, she is not allowed to act according to her own free choice. Her father's authority over her is transferred to her husband when she gets married. Should she become a widow, authority over her is transferred to his sons, or to his close kinsmen1.

In ancient Greece, women were deprived of education, and subject to man's authority. When Plato tried to introduce in his Utopia the principle of equality of man and woman in education, his attempt ended in failure because of the strong criticism this principle received from philosophers and intellectuals. Aristotle maintained that, in relation to man, a woman is like a salve with his master, a labourer with a scholar, or a Barbarian with a Greek. Justin, the famous Greek orator, said: 'We only marry women so that they would give us legitimate children.'2

The least that can be said about the attitude of Judaism to women is that it is hostile. The Talmud, for example, advises Jews that it is better for a man to walk behind a lion than behind a woman. In Jewish Scriptures it is clearly stated that a woman must be under a man's authority, and he controls her affairs3.

According to some Christians, Christianity adopts the same attitude to women as Judaism. Thus a woman is described as necessary evil, natural attraction, inevitable disaster, danger in the home, fatal temptation and evil painted with false colours. The Italian friar St. Thomas Aquinas says: 'A woman must submit to man because of her physical and natural weakness. The man is her master at the beginning and at the end. God requires that a woman should remain under man's authority.4 '

The Roman code introduced rights for the individual vis-à-vis the state, representing a very significant legal development. Yet the woman's status remained for a very long time largely similar to what prevailed in Greece, with the man having full authority over her. Like madness, femininity was sufficient to require a legal guardian.

Some improvement in her status was introduced in the Lower Empire, whereby a woman had the right to choose her guardian. It was only under Emperor Tudors Hotorius that she was granted competence over her financial affairs, provided she acted with her husband's consent5.

As already mentioned, Islamic legislation concerning the status of women represents a complete revolution when compared with what prevailed in Arabian society, where the light of the Islamic message first shined, or with the social set up in earlier or contemporary civilizations. Islam gave women complete financial independence and legal competence, taking the lead in this regard among all human societies. However, we note that there is a contemporary trend to limit and restrict her status in some Muslim societies.

Differences on the status of women is as old as Islam itself. Social tradition and local environment contributed to differences in practice in different areas and different scholarly views. A clear case of the influence of the local environment on attitudes to women is cited by ʿUmar ibn al-Khattab, comparing what prevailed among the people of the Quraysh who lived in Makkah with that which prevailed in Madinah among the Ansar at the time of the Prophet's immigration with his companions: “We, the people of the Quraysh, used to be masters over our women. When we immigrated we found that the Ansar deferred to their women. Our women soon began to borrow some practices from the Ansar women. One day I shouted at my wife, and she replied to me. I was surprised that she should reply to me, but she said: 'Why are you surprised that I should reply? By God, the Prophet's wives do reply to him. Any of them may sulk all day long until the evening. “She certainly made me worry” [Related by al-Bukahri]. Indeed, ʿUmar complied with the Prophet's instruction allowing his women to go to the mosque to attend the congregations of night [Isha] and dawn [Fajr] prayers, despite being averse to their going out. It was ʿUmar who wanted, during his reign as Caliph, to restrict dowries. A woman objected citing clear evidence, and he accepted her objection and submitted to her view. After his death, one of his offspring refused to allow his women to attend those two prayers in the mosque, in contravention of the Prophet's directive, swearing that he would prevent them so that they would not use such trips wrongly. Imam al-Nawawi mentions this in his commentary on Saḥiḥ Muslim. This incident signifies reverting to the traditions that prevailed in Makkah prior to Islam.

Despite the fact that during the time of the Prophet and his rightly-guided successors women enjoyed and exercised rights that were unheard of until then, the subsequent generations experienced some setbacks due to the prevalence of views and attitudes that had their basis in social environment.

In Madinah, women took part in all aspects of social life, alongside men. This continued to be the case in the early part of the Umayyad period, as the Arabs observed their own tradition. Women used to go out with their faces uncovered, then, some of the Umayyad Caliphs were inclined to impose the veil on their own women and some of the distinguished figures in society followed suit. Damascus, the capital city, was not an Arab city, but an old one which at one time was ruled by the Greeks who imposed the veil on women. Hence, prior to Islam, Damascus was the only subsequently Muslim city where the veil was used and segregation between the two sexes observed6.

Under the Abbasid dynasty, the Caliphs followed their Umayyad predecessors' practice. Then, Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ called for imposing the veil on all women, despite its not being obligatory. This ushered a new tradition which praised secluded women7.

After these remarks on the influence of social tradition on the status of women, it is important to draw a distinction between Islamic law, its definitive provisions and the objectives behind its rulings — which are indisputably binding — and Islamic Fiqh. The latter is a branch of Islamic scholarship which studies Islamic law and its application. As a remarkable human endeavour, it has attained a high degree of excellence to be proud of. Competent Fiqh scholars in all generations may exercise scholarly discretion in arriving at new rulings that fit their time and society.

The rulings that result from Islamic Fiqh may change according to time and place. The best example of this are the changes introduced by imam al-Shafiʿi after he left Baghdad to live in Egypt. The same scholar dealt with the same religious texts to arrive at new rulings. The only thing that differed to bring about such a change was the location and the social environment. Thus we refer to the old and new Shafiʿi rulings. It is a well-known Islamic rule that says: “It is undeniable that rulings may change as a result of changing times”

Today, we are at the beginning of a new century which has ushered many changes in living conditions. Education has become much more widely spread, and its methods greatly developed. Means of communication and transfer of information have also changed beyond recognition so as to make knowledge and information available to all without restriction. At the same time, women have proved their competence in various fields, including science, economics and business. They compete with men in areas that remained for long man's monopoly. Thus, women have participated fully and excelled in military service, scientific research, and they have even come up with new inventions.

With such changing conditions and successive developments, some of our scholars have been calling for women to stay at home so as not to come in contact with men in their social environment. They further say that women should only do the work that suits their nature and is approved by Islamic law. Wary of the effects of Western permissiveness, they advocate strict curtailment of women's social activity. At the same time, they broaden the sphere of what they believe to be part of Islamic law, thus forcing religious texts out of context and misunderstanding their import. They undoubtedly mean well, and we know that their prime motive is to protect our women. We also appreciate the strong hold they upbringing and local environment have on their thinking, but the question is too serious to be left to their method, well-intentioned as it certainly is. What they advocate is too restrictive when compared with the openness under which Muslim women lived during the lifetime of the Prophet (peace be upon him).

Imam Ibn al-Qayyim, who was endowed with great insight in Islamic scholarship, was absolutely right when he stated that, as he endeavours to arrive at the right rulings, a Fiqh scholar 'must reconcile between what is required and what is practical.8 ' Had he been alive today, he would have studied the practical situation we live in and would have acted in a different way to that of some of our contemporary scholars. He would have reconciled duties that allow room for discretion and a situation that moves fast like the tide. In order to save ourselves from drowning in such floods, we need to build a sturdy boat that does not lose sight of the spirit of Islamic law and complies with its authentic texts. To isolate ourselves is to invite disaster from which there can be no saviour. Unless we realize this, we will be burying our heads in the sand.

When writing about the equality of man and woman under Islam, I only aim to present its true image and explain the differences in rulings applicable to each, wherever they exist. These differences are based on the respective natures of the two sexes. They neither favour the man at the expense of the woman, nor detract from complete equality.

For a woman, femininity is a quality that earns her respect, while masculinity is the counter quality which brings praise for man. Neither quality grants a superior position to either sex or makes the other inferior. In fact, man's qualities give him more duties without placing him in a privileged position. From another point of view, neither a virile woman nor an effeminate man earns any respect. The Prophet has cursed 'women who behave in a masculine manner and men who behave like women.' [Related by al-Bukhari, Aḥmad, Abū Dawud, al-Nasaʾi, al-Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah]. Hence, we need to consider the question of equality in the light of these concepts and also in the light of Islamic financial legislation, which exempts women from certain duties imposed on man.

The West has called for a unisex approach that rejects the principle of division of responsibilities on the basis of sexual differences. This approach is in conflict with Islam which, while allowing women to work in all fields, gives greater priority to the woman's most fundamental task as a wife and a mother. This gives the woman a highly respectable status in Muslim society.

Contrary to what was originally envisaged, the unisex approach in the West has resulted in greater favouritism for man, who now enjoys much greater respect in most fields.

Islam neither overlooks nor exaggerates the biological differences between man and woman. Her role as a mother and wife, and her looking after her children places the Muslim woman at the highest of ranks, earning her great respect. Yet her biological differences with man do not prevent her from doing whatever suits her of work in other fields.

When considering the importance of social conditions in interpreting religious texts, the question of the woman's legal competence is cited as one of the important issues influenced by factors of society and environment. When dealing with this question we must not lose sight of what prevails on the ground in any society, particularly when this is not in conflict with Islamic teachings, let alone when such teachings support it.

Numerous and contradictory are the views expressed on the question of Muslim women's political competence. They often reflect the prevailing traditions as in tribal society or in male-dominated communities. On the other hand, some of these views reflect profound understanding of the spirit of Islamic law, the import of its provisions, changing circumstances as well as flexibility and practicality.

 Perhaps no question has generated more controversy in our Muslim countries than the status of women generally and their legal and political competence in particular. Controversy over this last aspect becomes more intense whenever it appears that the overall drift is towards acknowledging her competence. In Kuwait, where there is a substantial measure of democracy, some Islamic, or tribal, figures continue to strongly oppose giving women the right to stand in parliamentary elections, or even to vote. This happens when some of Kuwait's neighbouring countries, which are still at the doorstep of democracy, have given their women full rights to vote in and contest parliamentary elections. At the same time, women in the Islamic Republic of Iran have stood as presidential candidates. A woman was elected as Mayor of Tehran. Prior to that, women were appointed as judges, and they have been members of the Consultative Council ever since the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The government of Kuwait is trying again to pass legislation in parliament to allow Kuwaiti women full participation in parliamentary elections. When this book was completed the Kuwaiti parliament had not yet adopted any bill giving women the political rights God has given them.

The gap between the two parties will appear much greater if we were to add what the Taliban government in Afghanistan did when depriving women of the chance to fulfil their Islamic duty of education, and what happens in Saudi Arabia where women are not allowed to drive. In fact, Saudi women have come to view driving as a great prize to which they cannot reasonably aspire!

The real Islamic attitude in all such matters is a middle position between the two extremes of rigidly holding on to old social traditions and importing alien values and practices. My aim in this book is to present the real Islamic attitude which I have endeavoured to deduce from the Qur͗an and authentic Sunnah, or traditions of the Prophet. I also rely on what prevailed in the first Islamic society of Madinah during the lifetime of the Prophet and the period of the rightly-guided Caliphs. I also include the views of great scholars of the past. If my book achieves its goal, this is only by the grace of God, for which all praise is due to Him. If it fails, the fault is its author's alone.

Source note:
This was published in:
Woman in Islam_ English version, 2005, Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK, p13-26.

Please note that some of the images used in this online version of this article might not be part of the published version of this article within the respective book.
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