Sometimes, when people ask me why God doesn’t let Muslims eat pork I tell them that since men can be such pigs it’s probably just too close to cannibalism. We laugh and move on but I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t appreciate the joke or understand exactly what I’m talking about.
Men have been trying to control women throughout history. God made us different, and differences breed conflict, but Islam is all about conflict resolution. When you study the Qur’an in the context of the Sunnah (Prophetic traditions) it becomes obvious that Allah wants us to live in harmonious peace with everyone. There is no greater place in which to act peaceably than our own homes. Unfortunately, instead of following God’s plan for us, men have time and again twisted words, ignored commands and done pretty much anything else to stay in control.
I grew up as a Christian and I remember how hard we struggled with the sexual revolution. In both the Old and New Testaments, for both Judaism and Christianity, the role of women as an “inferior” creation was a recurring theme. Women were responsible for the fall of all mankind, and in Genesis 3:16, the Old Testament, God promised man:
“Unto the woman he said, “I will greatly multiply thy sorry and thy conception, in sorrow thou shalt bring for children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”
Women were the source of all that was wrong with the world, and were destined to bear shame for the rest of their lives:
“Of the woman came the beginning of sin, and through her we all die.”
The New Testament was no better. According to St. Paul, women were made for man’s sake:
“For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man.”
(1 Corinthians 11: 8-9)
Women were meant to be silent:
“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, not to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” (1 Timothy 2: 11-14)
“Let your woman keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”
(1 Corinthians 14-34-35)
Women were expected to submit to their husbands in everything:
“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.”
(Ephesians 5: 22-24)
As an emancipated male, I did my best to ignore those passages and pretend they didn’t exist but the hypocrisy gnawed at me until I came to Islam.
As a Muslim, one of the first things I realized was that I had a religion that could free women from guilt, inferiority and subservience to men! In the Qur’an, the creation story was similar but women were portrayed in a profoundly different manner:
“It is He Who created you from a single person, and made his mate of like nature, in order that he might dwell with her in love.”
(Qur’an 7: 189)
In Islam, even though men and women were created with different attributes and roles, their status before God was the same, and they were made to love one another. Responsibility for the fall from grace was shared, as was the path to pleasing God again:
“O mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is them who is the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted with all things.”
(Qur’an 49: 13)
Instead of condemning women as inferior, the Qur’an commanded their reverence and declared that men and women had mutual rights over one another:
“O mankind! Reverence your Guardian Lord, who created you from a single person, created of like nature his mate, and from them twain scattered like seeds countless men and women; reverence Allah, through who ye demand your mutual rights, and reverence the wombs that bore you: for Allah watches over you.”
(Qur’an 4: 1)
Even the injunction preventing Muslim women from marrying outside their faith didn’t faze me: I knew traditional Jewish and Christian husbands expected subservience, and since Muslim men and women submit only to God, clearly the Qur’anic rule was there to protect women from marrying men who may demand their submission.
Imagine my dismay when I realized my naiveté: I’d come to Islam studying the Qur’an and the Sunnah; it took me a while to develop an interest in the thousand years of Islamic “development” that lay between then and now. So many people have asked me, “If the Qur’an says God made men and women different but equal, why does it let men treat women so badly?” I can only tell them the simple truth that it doesn’t, despite the fact that a thousand years of popular masculine Qur’anic re-interpretation says it does.
When Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) revealed Islam to the tribes of the Quraysh, women were second-class citizens at best, and property at worst. Wives were virtually enslaved and unwanted daughters were left to die. Islam changed all that; it gave women value, and freed them to pursue their own paths to Heaven. However, since then, the goal of an embarrassingly large proportion of Muslim scholars has apparently been to drag us back to the seventh century.
Despite the injunctions of the Qur’an and Sunnah, scores of Muslim men are devaluing Muslim women throughout the world, while others struggle to follow correct Islamic practice. But which sources are giving these men the self-determined aura of legitimacy?
Many find justification in the Qur’anic rules of inheritance, which often recommend a woman receive half the bequest of a man. There is also the verse in Surah Al-Baqarah (Qur’an 2:282) which proposes a new role for women as witnesses to financial transactions, recommending, however, that another woman must participate to help her do it correctly. Because of these verses, many Muslims and non-Muslims believe that the Qur’an suggests that one woman is worth half a man!
The key to understanding the relationship Allah intends for men and women lies in Surah An-Nisa (Qur’an 4:34):
“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more strength than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore, the righteous women are devoutly obedient (to Allah) and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next) refuse to share their beds, and last DZARABA (“waidriboohunna”), but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, Great above you all.” (Yusuf Ali Translation)
That single Ayah (verse) answers every misconception that may be created the laws of Islamic inheritance. The Ayah does not say men are superior to women. The word that describes how Allah gives us greater strength and resources is a derivative of the root “FDL” which means, “graced”. Islamic scholars agree that Allah made men different from women because we have different roles and different ways that He expects us to serve Him. Surah An-Nisa is clear in that He made men (among other things) to serve the needs of women! He says he made us to be providers, maintainers and protectors of women, and that he expects us to do it all in service to Him!
Likewise, in Islam, women don’t serve their husbands; they serve God by providing for their husband’s needs in different ways. Throughout the Qur’an it is clear that, in God’s view, women have a status equivalent to men. In fact, Muslims must revere the wombs that bore them (Qur’an 4:1) signifying that women have an extremely high status, that of reverence.
Examining the life of the Prophet Muhammad’s (Peace Be Upon Him) provides additional proof of the elevated status of women in Islam: we know that he treated his wives with generosity and kindness, and told his companions that the higher status was for those who treated their wives the best. He once predicted that a man who lived as a tyrant in his home would only be resurrected from the waist up, and proclaimed that caring for one’s daughters was a way to attain Jannah (heaven). He even told his companions that Jannah (heaven) lies beneath their mother’s feet.
Islamic marriage is a reciprocal relationship in which Muslim men and women serve Allah by serving each other. The reason men get twice as much inheritance as women do is because they are traditionally expected to look after all the expenses of the wife and the family. Anything the wife earns is hers to keep; she is not required to spend on anyone but herself. Therefore, she would consequently not require as much of the inheritance. That being said, however, Islamic law requires that a will be executed according to the wishes of the deceased.
Coming to the latter part of the verse Surah An-Nisa (Qur’an 4:34) I have left one word - Dzaraba - un-translated. Arabic is a profoundly complex language and it would be pretentious to assume that some of its most complicated words can be accurately translated by one or two English ones. Dzaraba is a good example; it means ‘Beat’, ‘Strike’, ‘Smite’, ‘Heal’, ‘Take a new path’ and ‘Explore a new Direction’.
Beyond the confining, conventional translation of ‘strike’, Dzaraba is a complex verb that is used to describe purposeful action. Therefore, the actions prompted by the verb Dzaraba must fulfil the condition, “Do what you do for the sake of a greater purpose than the action itself.”
When you Dzaraba a piece of metal, you might make a coin. When you Dzaraba the land, you may cut a new path across it. When a Muslim man chooses to Dzaraba his wife for the sake of his marriage, he MUST choose to act in a manner that serves her, his marriage and his God. And that Ayah closes with a reminder that Allah is watching him: a stark warning and an eternal reminder that Allah expects him to do it in the service of Allah and his marriage, not to alleviate his own anger and pain, or to validate his ego.
Dzaraba in this context may mean to beat, or it may mean to find another path. It may mean that one should strike a faithless wife out of one’s life, or it may mean that one should heal the relationship in some other way. There are some early scholars who have interpreted the act of ‘striking’ to beating someone with a miswak (an early toothbrush). This would, in essence, would be a fairly painless punishment and probably more humiliating for the husband than the wife, and would thereby encourage him to find an acceptable resolution elsewhere. But can it really ever mean “beat” to a Muslim who loves the example of our prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him)? I think not: the Sunnah (Prophetic tradition) is clear: Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) never beat his wives, and so neither can we.
Finally, there is the ‘verse of debt’ in Surah Al-Baqarah in which a woman’s role as a witness is explained:
“And call upon two of your men to act as witnesses; and if two men are not available, then a man and two women from among such as are acceptable to you as witnesses, so that if one of them should make a mistake, the other could remind her.”
One of the best explanations of this is by Dr. Taha Jaber Al-Alwani, former chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America, and President of the School of Islamic and Social Sciences in Herndon, Virginia. He says in his testimony at www.alhewar.com/tahatestimony.htm:
“The Qur’an, in its own subtle manner, and with characteristic sagacity, places the reclassification of women as fully participating members of society on its agenda for reform. By establishing a role for woman in the witnessing of transactions, even though at the time of revelation they had little to do with such matters, the Qur’an seeks to give concrete form to the idea of woman as participant.
The objective is to end the traditional perception of women by including them, “among such as are acceptable to you as witnesses,” and to bring about their acceptance as full partners in society by means of this practical recognition. In this way, the Qur’an seeks to overcome the psychological impediments of men that prevent them from accepting women as their equals in society.”
What’s the bottom-line regarding women’s rights and status in Islam? When Islam was revealed, it freed women of all religions from the domination of men. Since then, Christians and Jews have made their own religions treat women more fairly, equally and ‘Islamically’ than us! Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) and the Qur’an proclaimed the equality of men and women over a thousand years ago; our status is elevated by God only through our piety and obedience to Him. It’s time we caught up.