THE MYTH & THE REALITY
WOMEN IN ISLAM VERSUS WOMEN IN THE JUDAEO-CHRISTIAN TRADITION
By Dr. Sherif Abdel Azeem
Five years ago, I read in the Toronto Star issue of July 3,
1990 an article titled "Islam is not alone in patriarchal doctrines", by
Gwynne Dyer. The article described the furious reactions of the participants
of a conference on women and power held in Montreal to the comments of the
famous Egyptian feminist Dr. Nawal Saadawi. Her "politically incorrect"
statements included : "the most restrictive elements towards women can be
found first in Judaism in the Old Testament then in Christianity and then in
the Quran"; "all religions are patriarchal because they stem from
patriarchal societies"; and "veiling of women is not a specifically Islamic
practice but an ancient cultural heritage with analogies in sister
religions". The participants could not bear sitting around while their
faiths were being equated with Islam. Thus, Dr. Saadawi received a barrage
of criticism. "Dr. Saadawi's comments are unacceptable. Her answers reveal a
lack of understanding about other people's faiths," declared Bernice Dubois
of the World Movement of Mothers. "I must protest" said panellist Alice
Shalvi of Israel women's network, "there is no conception of the veil in
Judaism." The article attributed these furious protests to the strong
tendency in the West to scapegoat Islam for practices that are just as much
a part of the West's own cultural heritage. "Christian and Jewish feminists
were not going to sit around being discussed in the same category as those
wicked Muslims," wrote Gwynne Dyer.
I was not surprised that the conference participants had
held such a negative view of Islam, especially when women's issues were
involved. In the West, Islam is believed to be the symbol of the
subordination of women par excellence. In order to understand how
firm this belief is, it is enough to mention that the Minister of Education
in France, the land of Voltaire, has recently ordered the expulsion of all
young Muslim women wearing the veil from French schools!1 ...
The scene of French
policemen preventing young Muslim women
wearing headscarves from entering their high school is inspires the memories
of another equally disgraceful scene of Governor
George Wallace of Alabama in 1962 standing in front of a school gate trying
to block the entrance of black students in order to prevent the
desegregation of Alabama's schools. The difference between the two scenes is
that the black students had the sympathy of so many people in the U.S. and
in the whole world. President Kennedy sent the U.S. National Guard to force
the entry of the black students. The Muslim girls, on the other hand,
received no help from any one. Their cause seems to have very little
sympathy either inside or outside France. The reason is the widespread
misunderstanding and fear of anything Islamic in the world today.
What intrigued me the most about the Montreal conference
was one question : Were the statements made by Saadawi, or any of her
critics, factual ? In other words, do Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have
the same conception of women? Are they different in their conceptions ? Do
Judaism and Christianity , truly, offer women a better treatment than Islam
does? What is the Truth?
It is not easy to search for and find answers to these
difficult questions. The first difficulty is that one has to be fair and
objective or, at least, do one's utmost to be so. This is what Islam
teaches. The Quran has instructed Muslims to say the truth even if those who
are very close to them do not like it:
"Whenever you speak, speak justly,
even if a near relative is concerned"
"O you who believe stand out
firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or
your parents or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor" (4:135).
The other great difficulty is the overwhelming breadth of
the subject. Therefore, during the last few years, I have spent many hours
reading the Bible, The Encyclopaedia of Religion, and the Encyclopaedia
Judaica searching for answers. I have also read several books discussing the
position of women in different religions written by scholars, apologists,
and critics. The material presented in the following chapters represents the
important findings of this humble research. I don't claim to be absolutely
objective. This is beyond my limited capacity. All I can say is that I have
been trying, throughout this research, to approach the Quranic ideal of
2. EVE'S FAULT
5. FEMALE EDUCATION
6. UNCLEAN IMPURE
14. PLIGHT OF
I would like to emphasize in this introduction that my
purpose for this study is not to denigrate Judaism or Christianity. As
Muslims, we believe in the divine origins of both. No one can be a Muslim
without believing in Moses and Jesus as great prophets of God. My goal is
only to vindicate Islam and pay a tribute, long overdue in the West, to the
final truthful Message from God to the human race. I would also like to
emphasize that I concerned myself only with Doctrine. That is, my concern
is, mainly, the position of women in the three religions as it appears in
their original sources not as practised by their millions of followers in
the world today. Therefore, most of the evidence cited comes from the Quran,
the sayings of Prophet Muhammad, the Bible, the Talmud, and the sayings of
some of the most influential Church Fathers whose views have contributed
immeasurably to defining and shaping Christianity. This interest in the
sources relates to the fact that understanding a certain religion from the
attitudes and the behaviour of some of its nominal followers is misleading.
Many people confuse culture with religion, many others do not know what
their religious books are saying, and many others do not even care.
2. EVE'S FAULT ?
The three religions agree on one basic fact: Both women and
men are created by God, The Creator of the whole universe. However,
disagreement starts soon after the creation of the first man, Adam, and the
first woman, Eve. The Judaeo-Christian conception of the creation of Adam
and Eve is narrated in detail in Genesis 2:4-3:24. God prohibited both of
them from eating the fruits of the forbidden tree. The serpent seduced Eve
to eat from it and Eve, in turn, seduced Adam to eat with her. When God
rebuked Adam for what he did, he put all the blame on Eve, "The woman you
put here with me --she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it."
Consequently, God said to Eve:
"I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing;
with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your
husband and he will rule over you."
To Adam He said:
"Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree
.... Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat
of it all the days of your life..."
The Islamic conception of the first creation is found in
several places in the Quran, for example:
"O Adam dwell with your wife in the Garden and enjoy as
you wish but approach not this tree or you run into harm and transgression.
Then Satan whispered to them in order to reveal to them their shame that was
hidden from them and he said: 'Your Lord only forbade you this tree lest you
become angels or such beings as live forever.' And he swore to them both
that he was their sincere adviser. So by deceit he brought them to their
fall: when they tasted the tree their shame became manifest to them and they
began to sew together the leaves of the Garden over their bodies. And their
Lord called unto them: 'Did I not forbid you that tree and tell you that
Satan was your avowed enemy?' They said: 'Our Lord we have wronged our own
souls and if You forgive us not and bestow not upon us Your Mercy, we shall
certainly be lost' "
A careful look into the two accounts of the story of the
Creation reveals some essential differences. The Quran, contrary to the
Bible, places equal blame on both Adam and Eve for their mistake. Nowhere in
the Quran can one find even the slightest hint that Eve tempted Adam to eat
from the tree or even that she had eaten before him. Eve in the Quran is no
temptress, no seducer, and no deceiver. Moreover, Eve is not to be blamed
for the pains of childbearing. God, according to the Quran, punishes no one
for another's faults. Both Adam and Eve committed a sin and then asked God
for forgiveness and He forgave them both.
3. EVE'S LEGACY
The image of Eve as temptress in the Bible has resulted in
an extremely negative impact on women throughout the Judaeo-Christian
tradition. All women were believed to have inherited from their mother, the
Biblical Eve, both her guilt and her guile. Consequently, they were all
untrustworthy, morally inferior, and wicked. Menstruation, pregnancy, and
childbearing were considered the just punishment for the eternal guilt of
the cursed female sex. In order to appreciate how negative the impact of the
Biblical Eve was on all her female descendants we have to look at the
writings of some of the most important Jews and Christians of all time. Let
us start with the Old Testament and look at excerpts from what is called the
Wisdom Literature in which we find:
"I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare,
whose heart is a trap and whose hands are chains. The man who pleases God
will escape her, but the sinner she will ensnare....while I was still
searching but not finding, I found one upright man among a thousand but not
one upright woman among them all" (Ecclesiastes 7:26-28).
In another part of the Hebrew literature which is found in
the Catholic Bible we read:
"No wickedness comes anywhere near the wickedness of a
woman.....Sin began with a woman and thanks to her we all must die"
Jewish Rabbis listed nine curses inflicted on women as a
result of the Fall:
"To the woman He gave nine curses and death: the burden
of the blood of menstruation and the blood of virginity; the burden of
pregnancy; the burden of childbirth; the burden of bringing up the children;
her head is covered as one in mourning; she pierces her ear like a permanent
slave or slave girl who serves her master; she is not to be believed as a
witness; and after everything--death." 2
To the present day, orthodox Jewish men in their daily
morning prayer recite "Blessed be God King of the universe that Thou has not
made me a woman." The women, on the other hand, thank God every morning for
"making me according to Thy will." 3 Another prayer found in many Jewish
prayer books: "Praised be God that he has not created me a gentile. Praised
be God that he has not created me a woman. Praised be God that he has not
created me an ignoramus." 4
The Biblical Eve has played a far bigger role in
Christianity than in Judaism. Her sin has been pivotal to the whole
Christian faith because the Christian conception of the reason for the
mission of Jesus Christ on Earth stems from Eve's disobedience to God. She
had sinned and then seduced Adam to follow her suit. Consequently, God
expelled both of them from Heaven to Earth, which had been cursed because of
them. They bequeathed their sin, which had not been forgiven by God, to all
their descendants and, thus, all humans are born in sin. In order to purify
human beings from their 'original sin', God had to sacrifice Jesus, who is
considered to be the Son of God, on the cross. Therefore, Eve is responsible
for her own mistake, her husband's sin, the original sin of all humanity,
and the death of the Son of God. In other words, one woman acting on her own
caused the fall of humanity. 5 What about her daughters? They are sinners
like her and have to be treated as such. Listen to the severe tone of St.
Paul in the New Testament:
"A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.
I don't permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be
silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one
deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner" (I Timothy
St. Tertullian was even more blunt than St. Paul, while he
was talking to his 'best beloved sisters' in the faith, he said: 6
"Do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence
of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity
live too. You are the Devil's gateway: You are the unsealer of the forbidden
tree: You are the first deserter of the divine law: You are she who
persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed
so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert even the Son of God
had to die."
St. Augustine was faithful to the legacy of his
predecessors, he wrote to a friend:
"What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a
mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any
woman......I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the
function of bearing children."
Centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas still considered women
"As regards the individual nature, woman is defective
and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the
production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production
of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material
indisposition, or even from some external influence."
Finally, the renowned reformer Martin Luther could not see
any benefit from a woman but bringing into the world as many children as
possible regardless of any side effects:
"If they become tired or even die, that does not matter.
Let them die in childbirth, that's why they are there"
Again and again all women are denigrated because of the
image of Eve the temptress, thanks to the Genesis account. To sum up, the
Judaeo-Christian conception of women has been poisoned by the belief in the
sinful nature of Eve and her female offspring.
If we now turn our attention to what the Quran has to say
about women, we will soon realize that the Islamic conception of women is
radically different from the Judaeo-Christian one. Let the Quran speak for
"For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women,
for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are
patient, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give
in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their
chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah's praise-- For them
all has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward"
"The believers, men and women, are protectors, one of
another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil, they observe
regular prayers, practise regular charity, and obey Allah and His Messenger.
On them will Allah pour His Mercy: for Allah is Exalted in power, Wise"
"And their Lord answered them: Truly I will never cause
to be lost the work of any of you, Be you a male or female, you are members
one of another"
"Whoever works evil will not be requited but by the like
thereof, and whoever works a righteous deed -whether man or woman- and is a
believer- such will enter the Garden of bliss"
"Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has
faith, verily to him/her we will give a new life that is good and pure, and
we will bestow on such their reward according to the best of their actions"
It is clear that the Quranic view of women is no different
than that of men. They, both, are God's creatures whose sublime goal on
earth is to worship their Lord, do righteous deeds, and avoid evil and they,
both, will be assessed accordingly. The Quran never mentions that the woman
is the devil's gateway or that she is a deceiver by nature. The Quran, also,
never mentions that man is God's image; all men and all women are his
creatures, that is all. According to the Quran, a woman's role on earth is
not limited only to childbirth. She is required to do as many good deeds as
any other man is required to do. The Quran never says that no upright women
have ever existed. To the contrary, the Quran has instructed all the
believers, women as well as men, to follow the example of those ideal women
such as the Virgin Mary and the Pharoah's wife:
"And Allah sets forth, As an example to those who
believe, the wife of Pharaoh: Behold she said: 'O my lord build for me, in
nearness to you, a mansion in the Garden, and save me from Pharaoh and his
doings and save me from those who do wrong.' And Mary the daughter of Imran
who guarded her chastity and We breathed into her body of Our spirit; and
she testified to the truth of the words of her Lord and of His revelations
and was one of the devout" (66:11-13).
4. SHAMEFUL DAUGHTERS ?
In fact, the difference between the Biblical and the
Quranic attitude towards the female sex starts as soon as a female is born.
For example, the Bible states that the period of the mother's ritual
impurity is twice as long if a girl is born than if a boy is (Lev. 12:2-5).
The Catholic Bible states explicitly that:
"The birth of a daughter is a loss" (Ecclesiasticus
In contrast to this shocking statement, boys receive
"A man who educates his son will be the envy of his
enemy." (Ecclesiasticus 30:3)
Jewish Rabbis made it an obligation on Jewish men to
produce offspring in order to propagate the race. At the same time, they did
not hide their clear preference for male children : "It is well for those
whose children are male but ill for those whose are female", "At the birth
of a boy, all are joyful...at the birth of a girl all are sorrowful", and
"When a boy comes into the world, peace comes into the world... When a girl
comes, nothing comes."7
A daughter is considered a painful burden, a potential
source of shame to her father:
"Your daughter is headstrong? Keep a sharp look-out that
she does not make you the laughing stock of your enemies, the talk of the
town, the object of common gossip, and put you to public shame"
"Keep a headstrong daughter under firm control, or she
will abuse any indulgence she receives. Keep a strict watch on her shameless
eye, do not be surprised if she disgraces you" (Ecclesiasticus
It was this very same idea of treating daughters as sources
of shame that led the pagan Arabs, before the advent of Islam, to practice
female infanticide. The Quran severely condemned this heinous practice:
"When news is brought to one of them of the birth of a
female child, his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief. With
shame does he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he has
had! Shall he retain her on contempt or bury her in the dust? Ah! what an
evil they decide on?"
It has to be mentioned that this sinister crime would have
never stopped in Arabia were it not for the power of the scathing terms the
Quran used to condemn this practice (16:59, 43:17, 81:8-9). The Quran,
moreover, makes no distinction between boys and girls. In contrast to the
Bible, the Quran considers the birth of a female as a gift and a blessing
from God, the same as the birth of a male. The Quran even mentions the gift
of the female birth first:
" To Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the
earth. He creates what He wills. He bestows female children to whomever He
wills and bestows male children to whomever He wills"
In order to wipe out all the traces of female infanticide
in the nascent Muslim society, Prophet Muhammad promised those who were
blessed with daughters of a great reward if they would bring them up kindly:
"He who is involved in bringing up daughters, and
accords benevolent treatment towards them, they will be protection for him
against Hell-Fire" (Bukhari and Muslim).
"Whoever maintains two girls till they attain maturity,
he and I will come on the Resurrection Day like this; and he joined his
5. FEMALE EDUCATION ?
The difference between the Biblical and the Quranic
conceptions of women is not limited to the newly born female, it extends far
beyond that. Let us compare their attitudes towards a female trying to learn
her religion. The heart of Judaism is the Torah, the law. However, according
to the Talmud, "women are exempt from the study of the Torah." Some Jewish
Rabbis firmly declared "Let the words of Torah rather be destroyed by fire
than imparted to women", and "Whoever teaches his daughter Torah is as
though he taught her obscenity"8
The attitude of St. Paul in the New Testament is not
"As in all the congregations of the saints, women should
remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in
submission as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they
should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to
speak in the church." (I Corinthians 14:34-35)
How can a woman learn if she is not allowed to speak? How
can a woman grow intellectually if she is obliged to be in a state of full
submission? How can she broaden her horizons if her one and only source of
information is her husband at home?
Now, to be fair, we should ask: is the Quranic position any
different? One short story narrated in the Quran sums its position up
concisely. Khawlah was a Muslim woman whose husband Aws pronounced this
statement at a moment of anger: "You are to me as the back of my mother."
This was held by pagan Arabs to be a statement of divorce which freed the
husband from any conjugal responsibility but did not leave the wife free to
leave the husband's home or to marry another man. Having heard these words
from her husband, Khawlah was in a miserable situation. She went straight to
the Prophet of Islam to plead her case. The Prophet was of the opinion that
she should be patient since there seemed to be no way out. Khawla kept
arguing with the Prophet in an attempt to save her suspended marriage.
Shortly, the Quran intervened; Khawla's plea was accepted. The divine
verdict abolished this iniquitous custom. One full chapter (Chapter 58) of
the Quran whose title is "Almujadilah" or "The woman who is arguing" was
named after this incident:
"Allah has heard and accepted the statement of the woman
who pleads with you (the Prophet) concerning her husband and carries her
complaint to Allah, and Allah hears the arguments between both of you for
Allah hears and sees all things...." (58:1).
A woman in the Quranic conception has the right to argue
even with the Prophet of Islam himself. No one has the right to instruct her
to be silent. She is under no obligation to consider her husband the one and
only reference in matters of law and religion.
6. UNCLEAN IMPURE WOMAN ?
Jewish laws and regulations concerning menstruating women
are extremely restrictive. The Old Testament considers any menstruating
woman as unclean and impure. Moreover, her impurity "infects" others as
well. Anyone or anything she touches becomes unclean for a day:
"When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the
impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches
her will be unclean till evening. Anything she lies on during her period
will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean. Whoever touches
her bed must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean
till evening. Whoever touches anything she sits on must wash his clothes and
bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening. Whether it is the bed
or anything she was sitting on, when anyone touches it, he will be unclean
till evening" (Lev. 15:19-23).
Due to her "contaminating" nature, a menstruating woman was
sometimes "banished" in order to avoid any possibility of any contact with
her. She was sent to a special house called "the house of uncleanness" for
the whole period of her impurity. 9 The Talmud considers a menstruating
woman "fatal" even without any physical contact:
"Our Rabbis taught:....if a menstruant woman passes
between two (men), if it is at the beginning of her menses she will slay one
of them, and if it is at the end of her menses she will cause strife between
them" (bPes. 111a.)
Furthermore, the husband of a menstruous woman was
forbidden to enter the synagogue if he had been made unclean by her even by
the dust under her feet. A priest whose wife, daughter, or mother was
menstruating could not recite priestly blessing in the synagogue. 10 No
wonder many Jewish women still refer to menstruation as "the curse." 11
Islam does not consider a menstruating woman to possess any
kind of "contagious uncleanness". She is neither "untouchable" nor "cursed."
She practises her normal life with only one restriction: A married couple
are not allowed to have sexual intercourse during the period of
menstruation. Any other physical contact between them is permissible. A
menstruating woman is exempted from some rituals such as daily prayers and
fasting during her period.
7. BEARING WITNESS
Another issue in which the Quran and the Bible disagree is
the issue of women bearing witness. It is true that the Quran has instructed
the believers dealing in financial transactions to get two male witnesses or
one male and two females (2:282). However, it is also true that the Quran in
other situations accepts the testimony of a woman as equal to that of a man.
In fact the woman's testimony can even invalidate the man's. If a man
accuses his wife of unchastity, he is required by the Quran to solemnly
swear five times as evidence of the wife's guilt. If the wife denies and
swears similarly five times, she is not considered guilty and in either case
the marriage is dissolved (24:6-11).
On the other hand, women were not allowed to bear witness
in early Jewish society. 12 The Rabbis counted women's not being able to
bear witness among the nine curses inflicted upon all women because of the
Fall (see the "Eve's Legacy" section). Women in today's Israel are not
allowed to give evidence in Rabbinical courts. 13 The Rabbis justify why
women cannot bear witness by citing Genesis 18:9-16, where it is stated that
Sara, Abraham's wife had lied. The Rabbis use this incident as evidence that
women are unqualified to bear witness. It should be noted here that this
story narrated in Genesis 18:9-16 has been mentioned more than once in the
Quran without any hint of any lies by Sara (11:69-74, 51:24-30). In the
Christian West, both ecclesiastical and civil law debarred women from giving
testimony until late last century. 14
If a man accuses his wife of unchastity, her testimony will
not be considered at all according to the Bible. The accused wife has to be
subjected to a trial by ordeal. In this trial, the wife faces a complex and
humiliating ritual which was supposed to prove her guilt or innocence (Num.
5:11-31). If she is found guilty after this ordeal, she will be sentenced to
death. If she is found not guilty, her husband will be innocent of any
Besides, if a man takes a woman as a wife and then accuses
her of not being a virgin, her own testimony will not count. Her parents had
to bring evidence of her virginity before the elders of the town. If the
parents could not prove the innocence of their daughter, she would be stoned
to death on her father's doorsteps. If the parents were able to prove her
innocence, the husband would only be fined one hundred shekels of silver and
he could not divorce his wife as long as he lived:
"If a man takes a wife and, after lying with her,
dislikes her and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, 'I married
this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her
virginity,' then the girl's father and mother shall bring proof that she was
a virgin to the town elders at the gate. The girl's father will say to the
elders, 'I gave my daughter in marriage to this man, but he dislikes her.
Now he has slandered her and said I did not find your daughter to be a
virgin. But here is the proof of my daughter's virginity.' Then her parents
shall display the cloth before the elders of the town, and the elders shall
take the man and punish him. They shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver
and give them to the girl's father, because this man has given an Israelite
virgin a bad name. She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce
her as long as he lives. If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the
girl's virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her
father's house and there the men of the town shall stone her to death. She
has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in
her father's house. You must purge the evil from among you." (Deuteronomy
Adultery is considered a sin in all religions. The Bible
decrees the death sentence for both the adulterer and the adulteress (Lev.
20:10). Islam also equally punishes both the adulterer and the adulteress
(24:2). However, the Quranic definition of adultery is very different from
the Biblical definition. Adultery, according to the Quran, is the
involvement of a married man or a married woman in an extramarital affair.
The Bible only considers the extramarital affair of a married woman as
adultery (Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22, Proverbs 6:20-7:27).
"If a man is found sleeping with another man's wife,
both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the
evil from Israel" (Deut. 22:22).
"If a man commits adultery with another man's wife both
the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death" (Lev. 20:10).
According to the Biblical definition, if a married man
sleeps with an unmarried woman, this is not considered a crime at all. The
married man who has extramarital affairs with unmarried women is not an
adulterer and the unmarried women involved with him are not adulteresses.
The crime of adultery is committed only when a man, whether married or
single, sleeps with a married woman. In this case the man is considered
adulterer, even if he is not married, and the woman is considered
adulteress. In short, adultery is any illicit sexual intercourse involving a
married woman. The extramarital affair of a married man is not per se a
crime in the Bible. Why is the dual moral standard? According to
Encyclopaedia Judaica, the wife was considered to be the husband's
possession and adultery constituted a violation of the husband's exclusive
right to her; the wife as the husband's possession had no such right to him.
15 That is, if a man had sexual intercourse with a married woman, he would
be violating the property of another man and, thus, he should be punished.
To the present day in Israel, if a married man indulges in
an extramarital affair with an unmarried woman, his children by that woman
are considered legitimate. But, if a married woman has an affair with
another man, whether married or not married, her children by that man are
not only illegitimate but they are considered bastards and are forbidden to
marry any other Jews except converts and other bastards. This ban is handed
down to the children's descendants for 10 generations until the taint of
adultery is presumably weakened. 16
The Quran, on the other hand, never considers any woman to
be the possession of any man. The Quran eloquently describes the
relationship between the spouses by saying:
" And among His signs is that He created for you mates
from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquillity with them and He
has put love and mercy between your hearts: verily in that are signs for
those who reflect"
This is the Quranic conception of marriage: love, mercy,
and tranquillity, not possession and double standards.
According to the Bible, a man must fulfil any vows he might
make to God. He must not break his word. On the other hand, a woman's vow is
not necessarily binding on her. It has to be approved by her father, if she
is living in his house, or by her husband, if she is married. If a
father/husband does not endorse his daughter's/wife's vows, all pledges made
by her become null and void:
"But if her father forbids her when he hears about it,
none of her vows or the pledges by which she obligated herself will stand
....Her husband may confirm or nullify any vow she makes or any sworn pledge
to deny herself" (Num. 30:2-15)
Why is it that a woman's word is not binding per se ? The
answer is simple: because she is owned by her father, before marriage, or by
her husband after marriage. The father's control over his daughter was
absolute to the extent that, should he wish, he could sell her! It is
indicated in the writings of the Rabbis that: "The man may sell his
daughter, but the woman may not sell her daughter; the man may betroth his
daughter, but the woman may not betroth her daughter." 17 The Rabbinic
literature also indicates that marriage represents the transfer of control
from the father to the husband: "betrothal, making a woman the sacrosanct
possession--the inviolable property-- of the husband..." Obviously, if the
woman is considered to be the property of someone else, she cannot make any
pledges that her owner does not approve of.
It is of interest to note that this Biblical instruction
concerning women's vows has had negative repercussions on Judaeo-Christian
women till early in this century. A married woman in the Western world had
no legal status. No act of hers was of any legal value. Her husband could
repudiate any contract, bargain, or deal she had made. Women in the West
(the largest heir of the Judaeo-Christian legacy) were held unable to make a
binding contract because they were practically owned by someone else.
Western women had suffered for almost two thousand years because of the
Biblical attitude towards women's position vis-ā-vis their fathers and
In Islam, the vow of every Muslim, male or female, is
binding on him/her. No one has the power to repudiate the pledges of anyone
else. Failure to keep a solemn oath, made by a man or a woman, has to be
expiated as indicated in the Quran:
"He [God] will call you to account for your deliberate
oaths: for expiation, feed ten indigent persons, on a scale of the average
for the food of your families; Or clothe them; or give a slave his freedom.
If that is beyond your means, fast for three days. That is the expiation for
the oaths you have sworn. But keep your oaths" (5:89).
Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, men and women, used to
present their oath of allegiance to him personally. Women, as well as men,
would independently come to him and pledge their oaths:
"O Prophet, When believing women come to you to make a
covenant with you that they will not associate in worship anything with God,
nor steal, nor fornicate, nor kill their own children, nor slander anyone,
nor disobey you in any just matter, then make a covenant with them and pray
to God for the forgiveness of their sins. Indeed God is Forgiving and most
A man could not swear the oath on behalf of his daughter or
his wife. Nor could a man repudiate the oath made by any of his female
10. WIFE'S PROPERTY ?
The three religions share an unshakeable belief in the
importance of marriage and family life. They also agree on the leadership of
the husband over the family. Nevertheless, blatant differences do exist
among the three religions with respect to the limits of this leadership. The
Judaeo-Christian tradition, unlike Islam, virtually extends the leadership
of the husband into ownership of his wife.
The Jewish tradition regarding the husband's role towards
his wife stems from the conception that he owns her as he owns his slave. 19
This conception has been the reason behind the double standard in the laws
of adultery and behind the husband's ability to annul his wife's vows. This
conception has also been responsible for denying the wife any control over
her property or her earnings. As soon as a Jewish woman got married, she
completely lost any control over her property and earnings to her husband.
Jewish Rabbis asserted the husband's right to his wife's property as a
corollary of his possession of her: "Since one has come into the possession
of the woman does it not follow that he should come into the possession of
her property too?", and "Since he has acquired the woman should he not
acquire also her property?" 20 Thus, marriage caused the richest woman to
become practically penniless. The Talmud describes the financial situation
of a wife as follows:
"How can a woman have anything; whatever is hers belongs
to her husband? What is his is his and what is hers is also his...... Her
earnings and what she may find in the streets are also his. The household
articles, even the crumbs of bread on the table, are his. Should she invite
a guest to her house and feed him, she would be stealing from her
husband..." (San. 71a, Git. 62a)
The fact of the matter is that the property of a Jewish
female was meant to attract suitors. A Jewish family would assign their
daughter a share of her father's estate to be used as a dowry in case of
marriage. It was this dowry that made Jewish daughters an unwelcome burden
to their fathers. The father had to raise his daughter for years and then
prepare for her marriage by providing a large dowry. Thus, a girl in a
Jewish family was a liability and no asset. 21 This liability explains why
the birth of a daughter was not celebrated with joy in the old Jewish
society (see the "Shameful Daughters?" section). The dowry was the wedding
gift presented to the groom under terms of tenancy. The husband would act as
the practical owner of the dowry but he could not sell it. The bride would
lose any control over the dowry at the moment of marriage. Moreover, she was
expected to work after marriage and all her earnings had to go to her
husband in return for her maintenance which was his obligation. She could
regain her property only in two cases: divorce or her husband's death.
Should she die first, he would inherit her property. In the case of the
husband's death, the wife could regain her pre-marital property but she was
not entitled to inherit any share in her deceased husband's own property. It
has to be added that the groom also had to present a marriage gift to his
bride, yet again he was the practical owner of this gift as long as they
were married. 22
Christianity, until recently, has followed the same Jewish
tradition. Both religious and civil authorities in the Christian Roman
Empire (after Constantine) required a property agreement as a condition for
recognizing the marriage. Families offered their daughters increasing
dowries and, as a result, men tended to marry earlier while families
postponed their daughters' marriages until later than had been customary. 23
Under Canon law, a wife was entitled to restitution of her dowry if the
marriage was annulled unless she was guilty of adultery. In this case, she
forfeited her right to the dowry which remained in her husband's hands. 24
Under Canon and civil law a married woman in Christian Europe and America
had lost her property rights until late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries. For example, women's rights under English law were compiled and
published in 1632. These 'rights' included: "That which the husband hath is
his own. That which the wife hath is the husband's." 25 The wife not only
lost her property upon marriage, she lost her personality as well. No act of
her was of legal value. Her husband could repudiate any sale or gift made by
her as being of no binding legal value. The person with whom she had any
contract was held as a criminal for participating in a fraud. Moreover, she
could not sue or be sued in her own name, nor could she sue her own husband.
26 A married woman was practically treated as an infant in the eyes of the
law. The wife simply belonged to her husband and therefore she lost her
property, her legal personality, and her family name. 27
Islam, since the seventh century C.E., has granted married
women the independent personality which the Judaeo-Christian West had
deprived them until very recently. In Islam, the bride and her family are
under no obligation whatsoever to present a gift to the groom. The girl in a
Muslim family is no liability. A woman is so dignified by Islam that she
does not need to present gifts in order to attract potential husbands. It is
the groom who must present the bride with a marriage gift. This gift is
considered her property and neither the groom nor the bride's family have
any share in or control over it. In some Muslim societies today, a marriage
gift of a hundred thousand dollars in diamonds is not unusual. 28 The bride
retains her marriage gifts even if she is later divorced. The husband is not
allowed any share in his wife's property except what she offers him with her
free consent. 29 The Quran has stated its position on this issue quite
"And give the women (on marriage) their dower as a free
gift; but if they, Of their own good pleasure, remit any part of it to you,
take it and enjoy it with right good cheer"
The wife's property and earnings are under her full control
and for her use alone since her, and the children's, maintenance is her
husband's responsibility. 30 No matter how rich the wife might be, she is
not obliged to act as a co-provider for the family unless she herself
voluntarily chooses to do so. Spouses do inherit from one another. Moreover,
a married woman in Islam retains her independent legal personality and her
family name. 31 An American judge once commented on the rights of Muslim
women saying: " A Muslim girl may marry ten times, but her individuality is
not absorbed by that of her various husbands. She is a solar planet with a
name and legal personality of her own." 32
The three religions have remarkable differences in their
attitudes towards divorce. Christianity abhors divorce altogether. The New
Testament unequivocally advocates the indissolubility of marriage. It is
attributed to Jesus to have said, "But I tell you that anyone who divorces
his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become
adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery"
(Matthew 5:32). This uncompromising ideal is, without a doubt, unrealistic.
It assumes a state of moral perfection that human societies have never
achieved. When a couple realizes that their married life is beyond repair, a
ban on divorce will not do them any good. Forcing ill-mated couples to
remain together against their wills is neither effective nor reasonable. No
wonder the whole Christian world has been obliged to sanction divorce.
Judaism, on the other hand, allows divorce even without any
cause. The Old Testament gives the husband the right to divorce his wife
even if he just dislikes her:
"If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him
because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a
certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if
after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her
second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives
it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first
husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has
been defiled" (Deut. 24:1-4).
The above verses have caused some considerable debate among
Jewish scholars because of their disagreement over the interpretation of the
words "displeasing", "indecency", and "dislikes" mentioned in the verses.
The Talmud records their different opinions:
"The school of Shammai held that a man should not
divorce his wife unless he has found her guilty of some sexual misconduct,
while the school of Hillel say he may divorce her even if she has merely
spoiled a dish for him. Rabbi Akiba says he may divorce her even if he
simply finds another woman more beautiful than she" (Gittin 90a-b).
The New Testament follows the Shammaites opinion while
Jewish law has followed the opinion of the Hillelites and R. Akiba. 33 Since
the Hillelites view prevailed, it became the unbroken tradition of Jewish
law to give the husband freedom to divorce his wife without any cause at
all. The Old Testament not only gives the husband the right to divorce his
"displeasing" wife, it considers divorcing a "bad wife" an obligation:
"A bad wife brings humiliation, downcast looks, and a
wounded heart. Slack of hand and weak of knee is the man whose wife fails to
make him happy. Woman is the origin of sin, and it is through her that we
all die. Do not leave a leaky cistern to drip or allow a bad wife to say
what she likes. If she does not accept your control, divorce her and send
her away" (Ecclesiasticus 25:25).
The Talmud has recorded several specific actions by wives
which obliged their husbands to divorce them: "If she ate in the street, if
she drank greedily in the street, if she suckled in the street, in every
case Rabbi Meir says that she must leave her husband" (Git. 89a). The Talmud
has also made it mandatory to divorce a barren wife (who bore no children in
a period of ten years): "Our Rabbis taught: If a man took a wife and lived
with her for ten years and she bore no child, he shall divorce her" (Yeb.
Wives, on the other hand, cannot initiate divorce under
Jewish law. A Jewish wife, however, could claim the right to a divorce
before a Jewish court provided that a strong reason exists. Very few grounds
are provided for the wife to make a claim for a divorce. These grounds
include: A husband with physical defects or skin disease, a husband not
fulfilling his conjugal responsibilities, etc. The Court might
support the wife's claim to a divorce but it cannot dissolve the marriage.
Only the husband can dissolve the marriage by giving his wife a bill of
divorce. The Court could scourge, fine, imprison, and excommunicate him to
force him to deliver the necessary bill of divorce to his wife. However, if
the husband is stubborn enough, he can refuse to grant his wife a divorce
and keep her tied to him indefinitely. Worse still, he can desert her
without granting her a divorce and leave her unmarried and undivorced. He
can marry another woman or even live with any single woman out of wedlock
and have children from her (these children are considered legitimate under
Jewish law). The deserted wife, on the other hand, cannot marry any other
man since she is still legally married and she cannot live with any other
man because she will be considered an adulteress and her children from this
union will be illegitimate for ten generations. A woman in such a position
is called an agunah (chained woman). 34 In the United States today there are
approximately 1000 to 1500 Jewish women who are agunot (plural for agunah),
while in Israel their number might be as high as 16000. Husbands may extort
thousands of dollars from their trapped wives in exchange for a Jewish
Islam occupies the middle ground between Christianity and
Judaism with respect to divorce. Marriage in Islam is a sanctified bond that
should not be broken except for compelling reasons. Couples are instructed
to pursue all possible remedies whenever their marriages are in danger.
Divorce is not to be resorted to except when there is no other way out. In a
nutshell, Islam recognizes divorce, yet it discourages it by all means. Let
us focus on the recognition side first. Islam does recognize the right of
both partners to end their matrimonial relationship. Islam gives the husband
the right for Talaq (divorce). Moreover, Islam, unlike Judaism, grants the
wife the right to dissolve the marriage through what is known as Khula'. 36
If the husband dissolves the marriage by divorcing his wife, he cannot
retrieve any of the marriage gifts he has given her. The Quran explicitly
prohibits the divorcing husbands from taking back their marriage gifts no
matter how expensive or valuable these gifts might be:
"But if you decide to take one wife in place of another,
even if you had given the latter a whole treasure for dower, take not the
least bit of it back; Would you take it by slander and a manifest wrong?"
In the case of the wife choosing to end the marriage, she
may return the marriage gifts to her husband. Returning the marriage gifts
in this case is a fair compensation for the husband who is keen to keep his
wife while she chooses to leave him. The Quran has instructed Muslim men not
to take back any of the gifts they have given to their wives except in the
case of the wife choosing to dissolve the marriage:
"It is not lawful for you (Men) to take back any of your
gifts except when both parties fear that they would be unable to keep the
limits ordained by Allah. There is no blame on either of them if she give
something for her freedom. These are the limits ordained by Allah so do not
Also, a woman came to the Prophet Muhammad seeking the
dissolution of her marriage, she told the Prophet that she did not have any
complaints against her husband's character or manners. Her only problem was
that she honestly did not like him to the extent of not being able to live
with him any longer. The Prophet asked her: "Would you give him his garden
(the marriage gift he had given her) back?" she said: "Yes". The Prophet
then instructed the man to take back his garden and accept the dissolution
of the marriage (Bukhari).
In some cases, A Muslim wife might be willing to keep her
marriage but find herself obliged to claim for a divorce because of some
compelling reasons such as: Cruelty of the husband, desertion without a
reason, a husband not fulfilling his conjugal responsibilities, etc.
In these cases the Muslim court dissolves the marriage. 37
In short, Islam has offered the Muslim woman some
unequalled rights: she can end the marriage through Khula' and she can sue
for a divorce. A Muslim wife can never become chained by a recalcitrant
husband. It was these rights that enticed Jewish women who lived in the
early Islamic societies of the seventh century C.E. to seek to obtain bills
of divorce from their Jewish husbands in Muslim courts. The Rabbis declared
these bills null and void. In order to end this practice, the Rabbis gave
new rights and privileges to Jewish women in an attempt to weaken the appeal
of the Muslim courts. Jewish women living in Christian countries were not
offered any similar privileges since the Roman law of divorce practiced
there was no more attractive than the Jewish law. 38
Let us now focus our attention on how Islam discourages
divorce. The Prophet of Islam told the believers that:
"among all the permitted acts, divorce is the most
hateful to God" (Abu Dawood).
A Muslim man should not divorce his wife just because he
dislikes her. The Quran instructs Muslim men to be kind to their wives even
in cases of lukewarm emotions or feelings of dislike:
"Live with them (your wives) on a footing of kindness
and equity. If you dislike them it may be that you dislike something in
which Allah has placed a great deal of good"
Prophet Muhammad gave a similar instruction:
" A believing man must not hate a believing woman. If he
dislikes one of her traits he will be pleased with another" (Muslim).
The Prophet has also emphasized that the best Muslims are
those who are best to their wives:
"The believers who show the most perfect faith are those
who have the best character and the best of you are those who are best to
their wives" (Tirmidthi).
However, Islam is a practical religion and it does
recognize that there are circumstances in which a marriage becomes on the
verge of collapsing. In such cases, a mere advice of kindness or self
restraint is no viable solution. So, what to do in order to save a marriage
in these cases? The Quran offers some practical advice for the spouse
(husband or wife) whose partner (wife or husband) is the wrongdoer. For the
husband whose wife's ill-conduct is threatening the marriage, the Quran
gives four types of advice as detailed in the following verses:
"As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and
ill-conduct, (1) Admonish them, (2) refuse to share their beds, (3) beat
them; but if they return to obedience seek not against them means of
annoyance: For Allah is Most High, Great. (4) If you fear a break between
them, appoint two arbiters, one from his family and the other from hers; If
they wish for peace, Allah will cause their reconciliation" (4:34-35)
The first three are to be tried first. If they fail, then
the help of the families concerned should be sought. It has to be noted, in
the light of the above verses, that beating the rebellious wife is a
temporary measure that is resorted to as third in line in cases of extreme
necessity in hopes that it might remedy the wrongdoing of the wife. If it
does, the husband is not allowed by any means to continue any annoyance to
the wife as explicitly mentioned in the verse. If it does not, the husband
is still not allowed to use this measure any longer and the final avenue of
the family-assisted reconciliation has to be explored.
Prophet Muhammad has instructed Muslim husbands that they
should not have recourse to these measures except in extreme cases such as
open lewdness committed by the wife. Even in these cases the punishment
should be slight and if the wife desists, the husband is not permitted to
"In case they are guilty of open lewdness you may leave
them alone in their beds and inflict slight punishment. If they are obedient
to you, do not seek against them any means of annoyance" (Tirmidthi)
Furthermore, the Prophet of Islam has condemned any
unjustifiable beating. Some Muslim wives complained to him that their
husbands had beaten them. Hearing that, the Prophet categorically stated
"Those who do so (beat their wives) are not the best
among you" (Abu Dawood).
It has to be remembered at this point that the Prophet has
"The best of you is he who is best to his family, and I
am the best among you to my family" (Tirmidthi).
The Prophet advised one Muslim woman, whose name was
Fatimah bint Qais, not to marry a man because the man was known for beating
"I went to the Prophet and said: Abul Jahm and Mu'awiah
have proposed to marry me. The Prophet (by way of advice) said: As to
Mu'awiah he is very poor and Abul Jahm is accustomed to beating women"
It has to be noted that the Talmud sanctions wife beating
as chastisement for the purpose of discipline. 39 The husband is not
restricted to the extreme cases such as those of open lewdness. He is
allowed to beat his wife even if she just refuses to do her house work.
Moreover, he is not limited only to the use of light punishment. He is
permitted to break his wife's stubbornness by the lash or by starving her.
For the wife whose husband's ill-conduct is the cause for
the marriage's near collapse, the Quran offers the following advice:
"If a wife fears cruelty or desertion on her husband's
part, there is no blame on them if they arrange an amicable settlement
between themselves; and such settlement is best"
In this case, the wife is advised to seek reconciliation
with her husband (with or without family assistance). It is notable that the
Quran is not advising the wife to resort to the two measures of abstention
from sex and beating. The reason for this disparity might be to protect the
wife from a violent physical reaction by her already misbehaving husband.
Such a violent physical reaction will do both the wife and the marriage more
harm than good. Some Muslim scholars have suggested that the court can apply
these measures against the husband on the wife's behalf. That is, the court
first admonishes the rebellious husband, then forbids him his wife's bed,
and finally executes a symbolic beating. 41
To sum up, Islam offers Muslim married couples much viable
advice to save their marriages in cases of trouble and tension. If one of
the partners is jeopardizing the matrimonial relationship, the other partner
is advised by the Quran to do whatever possible and effective in order to
save this sacred bond. If all the measures fail, Islam allows the partners
to separate peacefully and amicably.
The Old Testament in several places commands kind and
considerate treatment of the parents and condemns those who dishonor them.
For example, "If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to
death" (Lev. 20:9) and "A wise man brings joy to his father but a foolish
man despises his mother" (Proverbs 15:20). Although honoring the father
alone is mentioned in some places, e.g. "A wise man heeds his father's
instruction" (Proverbs 13:1), the mother alone is never mentioned. Moreover,
there is no special emphasis on treating the mother kindly as a sign of
appreciation of her great suffering in childbearing and suckling. Besides,
mothers do not inherit at all from their children while fathers do. 42
It is difficult to speak of the New Testament as a
scripture that calls for honoring the mother. To the contrary, one gets the
impression that the New Testament considers kind treatment of mothers as an
impediment on the way to God. According to the New Testament, one cannot
become a good Christian worthy of becoming a disciple of Christ unless he
hates his mother. It is attributed to Jesus to have said:
"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and
mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own
life--he can not be my disciple" (Luke 14:26).
Furthermore, the New Testament depicts a picture of Jesus
as indifferent to, or even disrespectful of, his own mother. For example,
when she had come looking for him while he was preaching to a crowd, he did
not care to go out to see her:
"Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing
outside, they sent someone to call him. A crowd was sitting around him and
they told him, 'Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.' 'Who
are my mother and my brothers?' he asked. Then he looked at those seated in
a circle around him and said,' Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever
does God's will is my brother and sister and mother.' " (Mark 3:31-35)
One might argue that Jesus was trying to teach his audience
an important lesson that religious ties are no less important than family
The same ... attitude is depicted when he refused to endorse a statement made by a member
of his audience blessing his mother's role in giving birth to him and
"As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd
called out, 'Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.' He
replied, 'Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.' "
If a mother with the stature of the virgin Mary had been
treated with such discourtesy, as depicted in the New Testament, by a son of
the stature of Jesus Christ, then how should an average Christian mother be
treated by her average Christian sons?
In Islam, the honor, respect, and esteem attached to
motherhood is unparalleled. The Quran places the importance of kindness to
parents as second only to worshipping God Almighty:
"Your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him,
And that you be kind to parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age
in your life, Say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, But
address them in terms of honor. And out of kindness, Lower to them the wing
of humility, and say: 'My Lord! bestow on them Your Mercy as they Cherished
me in childhood' "
The Quran in several other places puts special emphasis on
the mother's great role in giving birth and nursing:
"And We have enjoined on man to be good to his parents:
In travail upon travail did his mother bear him and in two years was his
weaning. Show gratitude to Me and to your parents" (31:14).
The very special place of mothers in Islam has been
eloquently described by Prophet Muhammad:
"A man asked the Prophet: 'Whom should I honor most?'
The Prophet replied: 'Your mother'. 'And who comes next?' asked the man. The
Prophet replied: 'Your mother'. 'And who comes next?' asked the man. The
Prophet replied: 'Your mother!'. 'And who comes next?' asked the man. The
Prophet replied: 'Your father'" (Bukhari and Muslim).
Among the few precepts of Islam which Muslims still
faithfully observe to the present day is the considerate treatment of
mothers. The honor that Muslim mothers receive from their sons and daughters
is exemplary. The intensely warm relations between Muslim mothers and their
children and the deep respect with which Muslim men approach their mothers
usually amaze Westerners. 43
13. FEMALE INHERITANCE ?
One of the most important differences between the Quran and
the Bible is their attitude towards female inheritance of the property of a
deceased relative. The Biblical attitude has been succinctly described by
Rabbi Epstein: "The continuous and unbroken tradition since the Biblical
days gives the female members of the household, wife and daughters, no right
of succession to the family estate. In the more primitive scheme of
succession, the female members of the family were considered part of the
estate and as remote from the legal personality of an heir as the slave.
Whereas by Mosaic enactment the daughters were admitted to succession in the
event of no male issue remained, the wife was not recognized as heir even in
such conditions." 44 Why were the female members of the family considered
part of the family estate? Rabbi Epstein has the answer: "They are owned
--before marriage, by the father; after marriage, by the husband." 45
The Biblical rules of inheritance are outlined in Numbers
27:1-11. A wife is given no share in her husband's estate, while he is her
first heir, even before her sons. A daughter can inherit only if no male
heirs exist. A mother is not an heir at all while the father is. Widows and
daughters, in case male children remained, were at the mercy of the male
heirs for provision. That is why widows and orphan girls were among the most
destitute members of the Jewish society.
Christianity has followed suit for long time. Both the
ecclesiastical and civil laws of Christendom barred daughters from sharing
with their brothers in the father's patrimony. Besides, wives were deprived
of any inheritance rights. These iniquitous laws survived till late in the
Among the pagan Arabs before Islam, inheritance rights were
confined exclusively to the male relatives. The Quran abolished all these
unjust customs and gave all the female relatives inheritance shares:
"From what is left by parents and those nearest related
there is a share for men and a share for women, whether the property be
small or large --a determinate share"
Muslim mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters had received
inheritance rights thirteen hundred years before Europe recognized that
these rights even existed. The division of inheritance is a vast subject
with an enormous amount of details (4:7,11,12,176). The general rule is that
the female share is half the male's except the cases in which the mother
receives equal share to that of the father. This general rule if taken in
isolation from other legislations concerning men and women may seem unfair.
In order to understand the rationale behind this rule, one must take into
account the fact that the financial obligations of men in Islam far exceed
those of women (see the "Wife's property?" section). A bridegroom must
provide his bride with a marriage gift. This gift becomes her exclusive
property and remains so even if she is later divorced. The bride is under no
obligation to present any gifts to her groom. Moreover, the Muslim husband
is charged with the maintenance of his wife and children. The wife, on the
other hand, is not obliged to help him in this regard. Her property and
earnings are for her use alone except what she may voluntarily offer her
husband. Besides, one has to realize that Islam vehemently advocates family
life. It strongly encourages youth to get married, discourages divorce, and
does not regard celibacy as a virtue. Therefore, in a truly Islamic society,
family life is the norm and single life is the rare exception. That is,
almost all marriage-aged women and men are married in an Islamic society. In
light of these facts, one would appreciate that Muslim men, in general, have
greater financial burdens than Muslim women and thus inheritance rules are
meant to offset this imbalance so that the society lives free of all gender
or class wars. After a simple comparison between the financial rights and
duties of Muslim women, one British Muslim woman has concluded that Islam
has treated women not only fairly but generously. 47
14. PLIGHT OF WIDOWS
Because of the fact that the Old Testament recognized no
inheritance rights to them, widows were among the most vulnerable of the
Jewish population. The male relatives who inherited all of a woman's
deceased husband's estate were to provide for her from that estate. However,
widows had no way to ensure this provision was carried out, and lived on the
mercy of others. Therefore, widows were among the lowest classes in ancient
Israel and widowhood was considered a symbol of great degradation (Isaiah
54:4). But the plight of a widow in the Biblical tradition extended even
beyond her exclusion from her husband's property. According to Genesis 38, a
childless widow must marry her husband's brother, even if he is already
married, so that he can produce offspring for his dead brother, thus
ensuring his brother's name will not die out.
"Then Judah said to Onan, 'Lie with your brother's wife
and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for
your brother' " (Genesis 38:8).
The widow's consent to this marriage is not required. The
widow is treated as part of her deceased husband's property whose main
function is to ensure her husband's posterity. This Biblical law is still
practiced in today's Israel. 48 A childless widow in Israel is bequeathed to
her husband's brother. If the brother is too young to marry, she has to wait
until he comes of age. Should the deceased husband's brother refuse to marry
her, she is set free and can then marry any man of her choice. It is not an
uncommon phenomenon in Israel that widows are subjected to blackmail by
their brothers-in-law in order to gain their freedom.
The pagan Arabs before Islam had similar practices. A widow
was considered a part of her husband's property to be inherited by his male
heirs and she was, usually, given in marriage to the deceased man's eldest
son from another wife. The Quran scathingly attacked and abolished this
"And marry not women whom your fathers married--Except
what is past-- it was shameful, odious, and abominable custom indeed"
Widows and divorced women were so looked down upon in the
Biblical tradition that the high priest could not marry a widow, a divorced
woman, or a prostitute:
"The woman he (the high priest) marries must be a
virgin. He must not marry a widow, a divorced woman, or a woman defiled by
prostitution, but only a virgin from his own people, so he will not defile
his offspring among his people" (Lev. 21:13-15)
In Israel today, a descendant of the Cohen caste (the high
priests of the days of the Temple) cannot marry a divorcee, a widow, or a
prostitute. 49 In the Jewish legislation, a woman who has been widowed three
times with all the three husbands dying of natural causes is considered
'fatal' and forbidden to marry again. 50 The Quran, on the other hand,
recognizes neither castes nor fatal persons. Widows and divorcees have the
freedom to marry whomever they choose. There is no stigma attached to
divorce or widowhood in the Quran:
"When you divorce women and they fulfil their terms
[three menstruation periods] either take them back on equitable terms or set
them free on equitable terms; But do not take them back to injure them or to
take undue advantage, If anyone does that, he wrongs his own soul. Do not
treat Allah's signs as a jest"
"If any of you die and leave widows behind, they shall
wait four months and ten days. When they have fulfilled their term, there is
no blame on you if they dispose of themselves in a just manner"
"Those of you who die and leave widows should bequeath
for their widows a year's maintenance and residence. But if they [the
widows] leave (the residence) there is no blame on you for what they justly
do with themselves"
Let us now tackle the important question of polygamy.
Polygamy is a very ancient practice found in many human societies. The Bible
did not condemn polygamy. To the contrary, the Old Testament and Rabbinic
writings frequently attest to the legality of polygamy. King Solomon is said
to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3) Also, king David is
said to have had many wives and concubines (2 Samuel 5:13). The Old
Testament does have some injunctions on how to distribute the property of a
man among his sons from different wives (Deut. 22:7). The only restriction
on polygamy is a ban on taking a wife's sister as a rival wife (Lev. 18:18).
The Talmud advises a maximum of four wives. 51 European Jews continued to
practice polygamy until the sixteenth century. Oriental Jews regularly
practiced polygamy until they arrived in Israel where it is forbidden under
civil law. However, under religious law which overrides civil law in such
cases, it is permissible. 52
What about the New Testament? According to Father Eugene
Hillman in his insightful book, Polygamy reconsidered, "Nowhere in the New
Testament is there any explicit commandment that marriage should be
monogamous or any explicit commandment forbidding polygamy." 53 Moreover,
Jesus has not spoken against polygamy though it was practiced by the Jews of
his society. Father Hillman stresses the fact that the Church in Rome banned
polygamy in order to conform to the Greco-Roman culture (which prescribed
only one legal wife while tolerating concubinage and prostitution). He cited
St. Augustine, "Now indeed in our time, and in keeping with Roman custom, it
is no longer allowed to take another wife." 54 African churches and African
Christians often remind their European brothers that the Church's ban on
polygamy is a cultural tradition and not an authentic Christian injunction.
The Quran, too, allowed polygamy, but not without
"If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly
with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if
you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then only one"
The Quran, contrary to the Bible, limited the maximum
number of wives to four under the strict condition of treating the wives
equally and justly. It should not be understood that the Quran is exhorting
the believers to practice polygamy, or that polygamy is considered as an
ideal. In other words, the Quran has "tolerated" or "allowed" polygamy, and
no more, but why? Why is polygamy permissible ? The answer is simple: there
are places and times in which there are compelling social and moral reasons
for polygamy. As the above Quranic verse indicates, the issue of polygamy in
Islam cannot be understood apart from community obligations towards orphans
and widows. Islam as a universal religion suitable for all places and all
times could not ignore these compelling obligations.
In most human societies, females outnumber males. In the
U.S. there are, at least, eight million more women than men. In a country
like Guinea there are 122 females for every 100 males. In Tanzania, there
are 95.1 males per 100 females. 55 What should a society do towards such
unbalanced sex ratios? There are various solutions, some might suggest
celibacy, others would prefer female infanticide (which does happen in some
societies in the world today !). Others may think the only outlet is that
the society should tolerate all manners of sexual permissiveness:
prostitution, sex out of wedlock, homosexuality, etc. For other
societies , like most African societies today, the most honorable outlet is
to allow polygamous marriage as a culturally accepted and socially respected
institution. The point that is often misunderstood in the West is that women
in other cultures do not necessarily look at polygamy as a sign of women's
degradation. For example, many young African brides , whether Christians or
Muslims or otherwise, would prefer to marry a married man who has already
proved himself to be a responsible husband. Many African wives urge their
husbands to get a second wife so that they do not feel lonely. 56 A survey
of over six thousand women, ranging in age from 15 to 59, conducted in the
second largest city in Nigeria showed that 60 percent of these women would
be pleased if their husbands took another wife. Only 23 percent expressed
anger at the idea of sharing with another wife. Seventy-six percent of the
women in a survey conducted in Kenya viewed polygamy positively. In a survey
undertaken in rural Kenya, 25 out of 27 women considered polygamy to be
better than monogamy. These women felt polygamy can be a happy and
beneficial experience if the co-wives cooperate with each other. 57 Polygamy
in most African societies is such a respectable institution that some
Protestant churches are becoming more tolerant of it. A bishop of the
Anglican Church in Kenya declared that, "Although monogamy may be ideal for
the expression of love between husband and wife, the church should consider
that in certain cultures polygyny is socially acceptable and that the belief
that polygyny is contrary to Christianity is no longer tenable." 58 After a
careful study of African polygamy, Reverend David Gitari of the Anglican
Church has concluded that polygamy, as ideally practiced, is more Christian
than divorce and remarriage as far as the abandoned wives and children are
concerned. 59 I personally know of some highly educated African wives who,
despite having lived in the West for many years, do not have any objections
against polygamy. One of them, who lives in the U.S., solemnly exhorts her
husband to get a second wife to help her in raising the kids.
The problem of the unbalanced sex ratios becomes truly
problematic at times of war. Native American Indian tribes used to suffer
highly unbalanced sex ratios after wartime losses. Women in these tribes,
who in fact enjoyed a fairly high status, accepted polygamy as the best
protection against indulgence in indecent activities. European settlers,
without offering any other alternative, condemned this Indian polygamy as
'uncivilised'. 60 After the second world war, there were 7,300,000 more
women than men in Germany (3.3 million of them were widows). There were 100
men aged 20 to 30 for every 167 women in that age group. 61 Many of these
women needed a man not only as a companion but also as a provider for the
household in a time of unprecedented misery and hardship. The soldiers of
the victorious Allied Armies exploited these women's vulnerability. Many
young girls and widows had liaisons with members of the occupying forces.
Many American and British soldiers paid for their pleasures in cigarettes,
chocolate, and bread. Children were overjoyed at the gifts these strangers
brought. A 10 year old boy on hearing of such gifts from other children
wished from all his heart for an 'Englishman' for his mother so that she
need not go hungry any longer. 62 We have to ask our own conscience at this
point: What is more dignifying to a woman? An accepted and respected second
wife as in the native Indians' approach, or a virtual prostitute as in the
'civilised' Allies approach? In other words, what is more dignifying to a
woman, the Quranic prescription or the theology based on the culture of the
It is interesting to note that in an international youth
conference held in Munich in 1948 the problem of the highly unbalanced sex
ratio in Germany was discussed. When it became clear that no solution could
be agreed upon, some participants suggested polygamy. The initial reaction
of the gathering was a mixture of shock and disgust. However, after a
careful study of the proposal, the participants agreed that it was the only
possible solution. Consequently, polygamy was included among the conference
final recommendations. 63
The world today possesses more weapons of mass destruction
than ever before and the European churches might, sooner or later, be
obliged to accept polygamy as the only way out. Father Hillman has
thoughtfully recognized this fact, "It is quite conceivable that these
genocidal techniques (nuclear, biological, chemical..) could produce so
drastic an imbalance among the sexes that plural marriage would become a
necessary means of survival....Then contrary to previous custom and law, an
overriding natural and moral inclination might arise in favour of polygamy.
In such a situation, theologians and church leaders would quickly produce
weighty reasons and biblical texts to justify a new conception of marriage."
To the present day, polygamy continues to be a viable
solution to some of the social ills of modern societies. The communal
obligations that the Quran mentions in association with the permission of
polygamy are more visible at present in some Western societies than in
Africa. For example, In the United States today, there is a severe gender
crisis in the black community. One out of every twenty young black males may
die before reaching the age of 21. For those between 20 and 35 years of age,
homicide is the leading cause of death. 65 Besides, many young black males
are unemployed, in jail, or on dope. 66 As a result, one in four black
women, at age 40, has never married, as compared with one in ten white
women. 67 Moreover, many young black females become single mothers before
the age of 20 and find themselves in need of providers. The end result of
these tragic circumstances is that an increasing number of black women are
engaged in what is called 'man-sharing'. 68 That is, many of these hapless
single black women are involved in affairs with married men. The wives are
often unaware of the fact that other women are 'sharing' their husbands with
them. Some observers of the crisis of man-sharing in the African American
community strongly recommend consensual polygamy as a temporary answer to
the shortage of black males until more comprehensive reforms in the American
society at large are undertaken. 69 By consensual polygamy they mean a
polygamy that is sanctioned by the community and to which all the parties
involved have agreed, as opposed to the usually secret man-sharing which is
detrimental both to the wife and to the community in general. The problem of
man-sharing in the African American community was the topic of a panel
discussion held at Temple University in Philadelphia on January 27, 1993. 70
Some of the speakers recommended polygamy as one potential remedy for the
crisis. They also suggested that polygamy should not be banned by law,
particularly in a society that tolerates prostitution and mistresses. The
comment of one woman from the audience that African Americans needed to
learn from Africa where polygamy was responsibly practiced elicited
Philip Kilbride, an American anthropologist of Roman
Catholic heritage, in his provocative book, Plural marriage for our time,
proposes polygamy as a solution to some of the ills of the American society
at large. He argues that plural marriage may serve as a potential
alternative for divorce in many cases in order to obviate the damaging
impact of divorce on many children. He maintains that many divorces are
caused by the rampant extramarital affairs in the American society.
According to Kilbride, ending an extramarital affair in a polygamous
marriage, rather than in a divorce, is better for the children, "Children
would be better served if family augmentation rather than only separation
and dissolution were seen as options." Moreover, he suggests that other
groups will also benefit from plural marriage such as: elderly women who
face a chronic shortage of men and the African Americans who are involved in
In 1987, a poll conducted by the student newspaper at the
university of California at Berkeley asked the students whether they agreed
that men should be allowed by law to have more than one wife in response to
a perceived shortage of male marriage candidates in California. Almost all
of the students polled approved of the idea. One female student even stated
that a polyganous marriage would fulfil her emotional and physical needs
while giving her greater freedom than a monogamous union. 72 In fact, this
same argument is also used by the few remaining fundamentalist Mormon women
who still practice polygamy in the U.S. They believe that polygamy is an
ideal way for a woman to have both a career and children since the wives
help each other care for the children. 73
It has to be added that polygamy in Islam is a matter of
mutual consent. No one can force a woman to marry a married man. Besides,
the wife has the right to stipulate that her husband must not marry any
other woman as a second wife. 74 The Bible, on the other hand, sometimes
resorts to forcible polygamy. A childless widow must marry her husband's
brother, even if he is already married (see the "Plight of Widows"
section),regardless of her consent (Genesis 38:8-10).
It should be noted that in many Muslim societies today the
practice of polygamy is rare since the gap between the numbers of both sexes
is not huge. One can, safely, say that the rate of polygamous marriages in
the Muslim world is much less than the rate of extramarital affairs in the
West. In other words, men in the Muslim world today are far more strictly
monogamous than men in the Western world.
Billy Graham, the eminent Christian evangelist has
recognized this fact: "Christianity cannot compromise on the question of
polygamy. If present-day Christianity cannot do so, it is to its own
detriment. Islam has permitted polygamy as a solution to social ills and has
allowed a certain degree of latitude to human nature but only within the
strictly defined framework of the law. Christian countries make a great show
of monogamy, but actually they practice polygamy. No one is unaware of the
part mistresses play in Western society. In this respect Islam is a
fundamentally honest religion, and permits a Muslim to marry a second wife
if he must, but strictly forbids all clandestine amatory associations in
order to safeguard the moral probity of the community." 75
It is of interest to note that many, non-Muslim as well as
Muslim, countries in the world today have outlawed polygamy. Taking a second
wife, even with the free consent of the first wife, is a violation of the
law. On the other hand, cheating on the wife, without her knowledge or
consent, is perfectly legitimate as far as the law is concerned! What is the
legal wisdom behind such a contradiction? Is the law designed to reward
deception and punish honesty? It is one of the unfathomable paradoxes of our
modern 'civilised' world.
16. THE VEIL
Finally, let us shed some light on what is considered in
the West as the greatest symbol of women's oppression and servitude, the
veil or the head cover. Is it true that there is no such thing as the veil
in the Judaeo-Christian tradition? Let us set the record straight. According
to Rabbi Dr. Menachem M. Brayer (Professor of Biblical Literature at Yeshiva
University) in his book, The Jewish woman in Rabbinic literature, it was the
custom of Jewish women to go out in public with a head covering which,
sometimes, even covered the whole face leaving one eye free. 76 He quotes
some famous ancient Rabbis saying," It is not like the daughters of Israel
to walk out with heads uncovered" and "Cursed be the man who lets the hair
of his wife be seen....a woman who exposes her hair for self-adornment
brings poverty." Rabbinic law forbids the recitation of blessings or prayers
in the presence of a bareheaded married woman since uncovering the woman's
hair is considered "nudity".77 Dr. Brayer also mentions that "During the
Tannaitic period the Jewish woman's failure to cover her head was considered
an affront to her modesty. When her head was uncovered she might be fined
four hundred zuzim for this offense." Dr. Brayer also explains that veil of
the Jewish woman was not always considered a sign of modesty. Sometimes, the
veil symbolized a state of distinction and luxury rather than modesty. The
veil personified the dignity and superiority of noble women. It also
represented a woman's inaccessibility as a sanctified possession of her
The veil signified a woman's self-respect and social
status. Women of lower classes would often wear the veil to give the
impression of a higher standing. The fact that the veil was the sign of
nobility was the reason why prostitutes were not permitted to cover their
hair in the old Jewish society. However, prostitutes often wore a special
headscarf in order to look respectable. 79 Jewish women in Europe continued
to wear veils until the nineteenth century when their lives became more
intermingled with the surrounding secular culture. The external pressures of
the European life in the nineteenth century forced many of them to go out
bare-headed. Some Jewish women found it more convenient to replace their
traditional veil with a wig as another form of hair covering. Today, most
pious Jewish women do not cover their hair except in the synagogue. 80 Some
of them, such as the Hasidic sects, still use the wig. 81
What about the Christian tradition? It is well known that
Catholic Nuns have been covering their heads for hundreds of years, but that
is not all. St. Paul in the New Testament made some very interesting
statements about the veil:
"Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is
Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head.
And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours
her head - it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not
cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace
for a woman to have her hair cut off or shaved off, she should cover her
head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of
God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but
woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For
this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of
authority on her head" (I Corinthians 11:3-10).
St. Paul's rationale for veiling women is that the veil
represents a sign of the authority of the man, who is the image and glory of
God, over the woman who was created from and for man. St. Tertullian in his
famous treatise 'On The Veiling Of Virgins' wrote, "Young women, you wear
your veils out on the streets, so you should wear them in the church, you
wear them when you are among strangers, then wear them among your
brothers..." Among the Canon laws of the Catholic church today, there is a
law that requires women to cover their heads in church. 82 Some Christian
denominations, such as the Amish and the Mennonites for example, keep their
women veiled to the present day. The reason for the veil, as offered by
their Church leaders, is that "The head covering is a symbol of woman's
subjection to the man and to God", which is the same logic introduced by St.
Paul in the New Testament. 83
From all the above evidence, it is obvious that Islam did
not invent the head cover. However, Islam did endorse it. The Quran urges
the believing men and women to lower their gaze and guard their modesty and
then urges the believing women to extend their head covers to cover the neck
and the bosom:
"Say to the believing men that they should lower their
gaze and guard their modesty......And say to the believing women that they
should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not
display their beauty and ornaments except what ordinarily appear thereof;
that they should draw their veils over their bosoms...."
The Quran is quite clear that the veil is essential for
modesty, but why is modesty important? The Quran is still clear:
"O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the
believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their bodies
(when abroad) so that they should be known and not molested"
This is the whole point, modesty is prescribed to protect
women from molestation or simply, modesty is protection. Thus, the only
purpose of the veil in Islam is protection. The Islamic veil, unlike the
veil of the Christian tradition, is not a sign of man's authority over woman
nor is it a sign of woman's subjection to man. The Islamic veil, unlike the
veil in the Jewish tradition, is not a sign of luxury and distinction of
some noble married women. The Islamic veil is only a sign of modesty with
the purpose of protecting women, all women. The Islamic philosophy is that
it is always better to be safe than sorry. In fact, the Quran is so
concerned with protecting women's bodies and women's reputation that a man
who dares to falsely accuse a woman of unchastity will be severely punished:
"And those who launch a charge against chaste women, and
produce not four witnesses (to support their allegations)- Flog them with
eighty stripes; and reject their evidence ever after: for such men are
wicked transgressors" (24:4)
Compare this strict Quranic attitude with the extremely lax
punishment for rape in the Bible:
" If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged
to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl's
father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated
her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives" (Deut. 22:28-30)
One must ask a simple question here, who is really
punished? The man who only paid a fine for rape, or the girl who is forced
to marry the man who raped her and live with him until he dies? Another
question that also should be asked is this: which is more protective of
women, the Quranic strict attitude or the Biblical lax attitude?
Some people, especially in the West, would tend to ridicule
the whole argument of modesty for protection. Their argument is that the
best protection is the spread of education, civilised behaviour, and self
restraint. We would say: fine but not enough. If 'civilization' is enough
protection, then why is it that women in North America dare not walk alone
in a dark street - or even across an empty parking lot ? If Education is the
solution, then why is it that a respected university like Queen's has a
'walk home service' mainly for female students on campus? If self restraint
is the answer, then why are cases of sexual harassment in the workplace
reported on the news media every day? A sample of those accused of sexual
harassment, in the last few years, includes: Navy officers, Managers,
University professors, Senators, Supreme Court Justices, and the President
of the United States! I could not believe my eyes when I read the following
statistics, written in a pamphlet issued by the Dean of Women's office at
In Canada, a woman is sexually assaulted every 6 minutes,
1 in 3 women in Canada will be sexually assaulted at some
time in their lives,
1 in 4 women are at the risk of rape or attempted rape in
1 in 8 women will be sexually assaulted while attending
college or university, and
A study found 60% of Canadian university-aged males said
they would commit sexual assault if they were certain they wouldn't get
Something is fundamentally wrong in the society we live in.
A radical change in the society's life style and culture is absolutely
necessary. A culture of modesty is badly needed, modesty in dress, in
speech, and in manners of both men and women. Otherwise, the grim statistics
will grow even worse day after day and, unfortunately, women alone will be
paying the price. Actually, we all suffer but as K. Gibran has said, "...for
the person who receives the blows is not like the one who counts them." 84
Therefore, a society like France which expels young women from schools
because of their modest dress is, in the end, simply harming itself.
It is one of the great ironies of our world today that the
very same headscarf revered as a sign of 'holiness' when worn for the
purpose of showing the authority of man by Catholic Nuns, is reviled as a
sign of 'oppression' when worn for the purpose of protection by Muslim
The one question all the non-Muslims, who had read an
earlier version of this study, had in common was: do Muslim women in the
Muslim world today receive this noble treatment described here? The answer,
unfortunately, is: No. Since this question is inevitable in any discussion
concerning the status of women in Islam, we have to elaborate on the answer
in order to provide the reader with the complete picture.
It has to be made clear first that the vast differences
among Muslim societies make most generalizations too simplistic. There is a
wide spectrum of attitudes towards women in the Muslim world today. These
attitudes differ from one society to another and within each individual
society. Nevertheless, certain general trends are discernible. Almost all
Muslim societies have, to one degree or another, deviated from the ideals of
Islam with respect to the status of women. These deviations have, for the
most part, been in one of two opposite directions. The first direction is
more conservative, restrictive, and traditions-oriented, while the second is
more liberal and Western-oriented.
The societies that have digressed in the first direction
treat women according to the customs and traditions inherited from their
forebears. These traditions usually deprive women of many rights granted to
them by Islam. Besides, women are treated according to standards far
different from those applied to men. This discrimination pervades the life
of any female: she is received with less joy at birth than a boy; she is
less likely to go to school; she might be deprived any share of her family's
inheritance; she is under continuous surveillance in order not to behave
immodestly while her brother's immodest acts are tolerated; she might even
be killed for committing what her male family members usually boast of
doing; she has very little say in family affairs or community interests; she
might not have full control over her property and her marriage gifts; and
finally as a mother she herself would prefer to produce boys so that she can
attain a higher status in her community.
On the other hand, there are Muslim societies (or certain
classes within some societies) that have been swept over by the Western
culture and way of life. These societies often imitate unthinkingly whatever
they receive from the West and usually end up adopting the worst fruits of
Western civilization. In these societies, a typical "modern" woman's top
priority in life is to enhance her physical beauty. Therefore, she is often
obsessed with her body's shape, size, and weight. She tends to care more
about her body than her mind and more about her charms than her intellect.
Her ability to charm, attract, and excite is more valued in the society than
her educational achievements, intellectual pursuits, and social work. One is
not expected to find a copy of the Quran in her purse since it is full of
cosmetics that accompany her wherever she goes. Her spirituality has no room
in a society preoccupied with her attractiveness. Therefore, she would spend
her life striving more to realize her femininity than to fulfil her
Why did Muslim societies deviate from the ideals of Islam?
There is no easy answer. A penetrating explanation of the reasons why
Muslims have not adhered to the Quranic guidance with respect to women would
be beyond the scope of this study. It has to be made clear, however, that
Muslim societies have deviated from the Islamic precepts concerning so many
aspects of their lives for so long. There is a wide gap between what Muslims
are supposed to believe in and what they actually practice. This gap is not
a recent phenomenon. It has been there for centuries and has been widening
day after day. This ever widening gap has had disastrous consequences on the
Muslim world manifested in almost all aspects of life: political tyranny and
fragmentation, economic backwardness, social injustice, scientific
bankruptcy, intellectual stagnation, etc. The non-Islamic status of
women in the Muslim world today is merely a symptom of a deeper malady. Any
reform in the current status of Muslim women is not expected to be fruitful
if not accompanied with more comprehensive reforms of the Muslim societies'
whole way of life. The Muslim world is in need for a renaissance that will
bring it closer to the ideals of Islam and not further from them. To sum up,
the notion that the poor status of Muslim women today is because of Islam is
an utter misconception. The problems of Muslims in general are not due to
too much attachment to Islam, they are the culmination of a long and deep
detachment from it.
It has, also, to be re-emphasized that the purpose behind
this comparative study is not, by any means, to defame Judaism or
Christianity. The position of women in the Judaeo-Christian tradition might
seem frightening by our late twentieth century standards. Nevertheless, it
has to be viewed within the proper historical context. In other words, any
objective assessment of the position of women in the Judaeo-Christian
tradition has to take into account the historical circumstances in which
this tradition developed. There can be no doubt that the views of the Rabbis
and the Church Fathers regarding women were influenced by the prevalent
attitudes towards women in their societies. The Bible itself was written by
different authors at different times. These authors could not have been
impervious to the values and the way of life of the people around them. For
example, the adultery laws of the Old Testament are so biased against women
that they defy rational explanation by our mentality. However, if we
consider the fact that the early Jewish tribes were obsessed with their
genetic homogeneity and extremely eager to define themselves apart from the
surrounding tribes and that only sexual misconduct by the married females of
the tribes could threaten these cherished aspirations, we should then be
able to understand, but not necessarily sympathize with, the reasons for
this bias. Also, the diatribes of the Church Fathers against women should
not be detached from the context of the misogynist Greco-Roman culture in
which they lived. It would be unfair to evaluate the Judaeo-Christian legacy
without giving any consideration to the relevant historical context.
In fact, a proper understanding of the Judaeo-Christian
historical context is also crucial for understanding the significance of the
contributions of Islam to world history and human civilization. The
Judaeo-Christian tradition had been influenced and shaped by the
environments, conditions, and cultures in which it had existed. By the
seventh century C.E., this influence had distorted the original divine
message revealed to Moses and Jesus beyond recognition. The poor status of
women in the Judaeo-Christian world by the seventh century is just one case
in point. Therefore, there was a great need for a new divine message that
would guide humanity back to the straight path. The Quran described the
mission of the new Messenger as a release for Jews and Christians from the
heavy burdens that had been upon them: "Those who follow the Messenger, the
unlettered Prophet, whom they find mentioned in their own Scriptures--In the
Law and the Gospel-- For he commands them what is just and forbids them what
is evil; he allows them as lawful what is good and prohibits them from what
is bad; He releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that
are upon them" (7:157).
Therefore, Islam should not be viewed as a rival tradition
to Judaism or Christianity. It has to be regarded as the consummation,
completion, and perfection of the divine messages that had been revealed
At the end of this study, I would like to offer the
following advice to the global Muslim community. So many Muslim women have
been denied their basic Islamic rights for so long. The mistakes of the past
have to be corrected. To do that is not a favor, it is a duty incumbent upon
all Muslims. The worldwide Muslim community have to issue a charter of
Muslim women's rights based on the instructions of the Quran and the
teachings of the Prophet of Islam. This charter must give Muslim women all
the rights endowed to them by their Creator. Then, all the necessary means
have to be developed in order to ensure the proper implementation of the
charter. This charter is long overdue, but it is better late than never. If
Muslims worldwide will not guarantee the full Islamic rights of their
mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters, who else will ?
Furthermore, we must have the courage to confront our past
and reject outright the traditions and customs of our forefathers whenever
they contravene the precepts of Islam. Did the Quran not severely criticize
the pagan Arabs for blindly following the traditions of their ancestors? On
the other hand, we have to develop a critical attitude towards whatever we
receive from the West or from any other culture. Interaction with and
learning from other cultures is an invaluable experience. The Quran has
succinctly considered this interaction as one of the purposes of creation: "
O mankind We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made
you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other" (49:13). It goes
without saying, however, that blind imitation of others is a sure sign of an
utter lack of self-esteem.
It is to the non-Muslim reader, Jewish, Christian, or
otherwise, that these final words are dedicated. It is bewildering why the
religion that had revolutionized the status of women is being singled out
and denigrated as so repressive of women. This perception about Islam is one
of the most widespread myths in our world today. This myth is being
perpetuated by a ceaseless barrage of sensational books, articles, media
images, and Hollywood movies. The inevitable outcome of these incessant
misleading images has been total misunderstanding and fear of anything
related to Islam. This negative portrayal of Islam in the world media has to
end if we are to live in a world free from all traces of discrimination,
prejudice, and misunderstanding. Non-Muslims ought to realize the existence
of a wide gap between Muslims' beliefs and practices and the simple fact
that the actions of Muslims do not necessarily represent Islam. To label the
status of women in the Muslim world today as "Islamic" is as far from the
truth as labelling the position of women in the West today as
"Judaeo-Christian". With this understanding in mind, Muslims and non-Muslims
should start a process of communication and dialogue in order to remove all
misconceptions, suspicions, and fears. A peaceful future for the human
family necessitates such a dialogue.
Islam should be viewed as a religion that had immensely
improved the status of women and had granted them many rights that the
modern world has recognized only this century. Islam still has so much to
offer today's woman: dignity, respect, and protection in all aspects and all
stages of her life from birth until death in addition to the recognition,
the balance, and means for the fulfilment of all her spiritual,
intellectual, physical, and emotional needs. No wonder most of those who
choose to become Muslims in a country like Britain are women. In the U.S.
women converts to Islam outnumber male converts 4 to 1. 85 Islam has so much
to offer our world which is in great need of moral guidance and leadership.
Ambassador Herman Eilts, in a testimony in front of the committee on Foreign
Affairs of the House of Representatives of the United States Congress on
June 24th, 1985, said, "The Muslim community of the globe today is in the
neighbourhood of one billion. That is an impressive figure. But what to me
is equally impressive is that Islam today is the fastest growing
monotheistic religion. This is something we have to take into account.
Something is right about Islam. It is attracting a good many people." Yes,
something is right about Islam and it is time to find that out. I hope this
study is a step on this direction.
1. The Globe and Mail, Oct. 4,1994.
2. Leonard J. Swidler, Women in Judaism: the Status of
Women in Formative Judaism (Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press, 1976) p. 115.
3. Thena Kendath, "Memories of an Orthodox youth" in
Susannah Heschel, ed. On being a Jewish Feminist (New York: Schocken Books,
1983), pp. 96-97.
4. Swidler, op. cit., pp. 80-81.
5. Rosemary R. Ruether, "Christianity", in Arvind Sharma,
ed., Women in World Religions (Albany: State University of New York Press,
1987) p. 209.
6. For all the sayings of the prominent Saints, see Karen
Armstrong, The Gospel According to Woman (London: Elm Tree Books, 1986) pp.
52-62. See also Nancy van Vuuren, The Subversion of Women as Practiced by
Churches, Witch-Hunters, and Other Sexists (Philadelphia: Westminister
Press) pp. 28-30.
7. Swidler, op. cit., p. 140.
8. Denise L. Carmody, "Judaism", in Arvind Sharma, ed., op.
cit., p. 197.
9. Swidler, op. cit., p. 137.
10. Ibid., p. 138.
11. Sally Priesand, Judaism and the New Woman (New York:
Behrman House, Inc., 1975) p. 24.
12. Swidler, op. cit., p. 115.
13. Lesley Hazleton, Israeli Women The Reality Behind the
Myths (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977) p. 41.
14. Gage, op. cit. p. 142.
15. Jeffrey H. Togay, "Adultery," Encyclopaedia Judaica,
Vol. II, col. 313. Also, see Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai:
Judaism from a Feminist Perspective (New York: Harper & Row Publishers,
1990) pp. 170-177.
16. Hazleton, op. cit., pp. 41-42.
17. Swidler, op. cit., p. 141.
18. Matilda J. Gage, Woman, Church, and State (New York:
Truth Seeker Company, 1893) p. 141.
19. Louis M. Epstein, The Jewish Marriage Contract (New
York: Arno Press, 1973) p. 149.
20. Swidler, op. cit., p. 142.
21. Epstein, op. cit., pp. 164-165.
22. Ibid., pp. 112-113. See also Priesand, op. cit., p. 15.
23. James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in
Medieval Europe ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) p. 88.
24. Ibid., p. 480.
25. R. Thompson, Women in Stuart England and America
(London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974) p. 162.
26. Mary Murray, The Law of the Father (London: Routledge,
1995) p. 67.
27. Gage, op. cit., p. 143.
28. For example, see Jeffrey Lang, Struggling to Surrender,
(Beltsville, MD: Amana Publications, 1994) p. 167.
29. Elsayyed Sabiq, Fiqh al Sunnah (Cairo: Darul Fatah
lile'lam Al-Arabi, 11th edition, 1994), vol. 2, pp. 218-229.
30. Abdel-Haleem Abu Shuqqa, Tahreer al Mar'aa fi Asr al
Risala (Kuwait: Dar al Qalam, 1990) pp. 109-112.
31. Leila Badawi, "Islam", in Jean Holm and John Bowker,
ed., Women in Religion (London: Pinter Publishers, 1994) p. 102.
32. Amir H. Siddiqi, Studies in Islamic History (Karachi:
Jamiyatul Falah Publications, 3rd edition, 1967) p. 138.
33. Epstein, op. cit., p. 196.
34. Swidler, op. cit., pp. 162-163.
35. The Toronto Star, Apr. 8, 1995.
36. Sabiq, op. cit., pp. 318-329. See also Muhammad al
Ghazali, Qadaya al Mar'aa bin al Taqaleed al Rakida wal Wafida (Cairo: Dar
al Shorooq, 4th edition, 1992) pp. 178-180.
37. Ibid., pp. 313-318.
38. David W. Amram, The Jewish Law of Divorce According to
Bible and Talmud ( Philadelphia: Edward Stern & CO., Inc., 1896) pp.
39. Epstein, op. cit., p. 219.
40. Ibid, pp 156-157.
41. Muhammad Abu Zahra, Usbu al Fiqh al Islami (Cairo: al
Majlis al A'la li Ri'ayat al Funun, 1963) p. 66.
42. Epstein, op. cit., p. 122.
43. Armstrong, op. cit., p. 8.
44. Epstein, op. cit., p. 175.
45. Ibid., p. 121.
46. Gage, op. cit., p. 142.
47. B. Aisha Lemu and Fatima Heeren, Woman in Islam
(London: Islamic Foundation, 1978) p. 23.
48. Hazleton, op. cit., pp. 45-46.
49. Ibid., p. 47.
50. Ibid., p. 49.
51. Swidler, op. cit., pp. 144-148.
52. Hazleton, op. cit., pp 44-45.
53. Eugene Hillman, Polygamy Reconsidered: African Plural
Marriage and the Christian Churches (New York: Orbis Books, 1975) p. 140.
54. Ibid., p. 17.
55. Ibid., pp. 88-93.
56. Ibid., pp. 92-97.
57. Philip L. Kilbride, Plural Marriage For Our Times
(Westport, Conn.: Bergin & Garvey, 1994) pp. 108-109.
58. The Weekly Review, Aug. 1, 1987.
59. Kilbride, op. cit., p. 126.
60. John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate
Matters: A history of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper & Row
Publishers, 1988) p. 87.
61. Ute Frevert, Women in German History: from Bourgeois
Emancipation to Sexual Liberation (New York: Berg Publishers, 1988) pp.
62. Ibid., pp. 257-258.
63. Sabiq, op. cit., p. 191.
64. Hillman, op. cit., p. 12.
65. Nathan Hare and Julie Hare, ed., Crisis in Black Sexual
Politics (San Francisco: Black Think Tank, 1989) p. 25.
66. Ibid., p. 26.
67. Kilbride, op. cit., p. 94.
68. Ibid., p. 95.
70. Ibid., pp. 95-99.
71. Ibid., p. 118.
72. Lang, op. cit., p. 172.
73. Kilbride, op. cit., pp. 72-73.
74. Sabiq, op. cit., pp. 187-188.
75. Abdul Rahman Doi, Woman in Shari'ah (London: Ta-Ha
Publishers, 1994) p. 76.
76. Menachem M. Brayer, The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic
Literature: A Psychosocial Perspective (Hoboken, N.J: Ktav Publishing House,
1986) p. 239.
77. Ibid., pp. 316-317. Also see Swidler, op. cit., pp.
78. Ibid., p. 139.
79. Susan W. Schneider, Jewish and Female (New York: Simon
& Schuster, 1984) p. 237.
80. Ibid., pp. 238-239.
81. Alexandra Wright, "Judaism", in Holm and Bowker, ed.,
op. cit., pp. 128-129
82. Clara M. Henning, "Cannon Law and the Battle of the
Sexes" in Rosemary R. Ruether, ed., Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in
the Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974) p.
83. Donald B. Kraybill, The riddle of the Amish Culture
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989) p. 56.
84. Khalil Gibran, Thoughts and Meditations (New York:
Bantam Books, 1960) p. 28.
85. The Times, Nov. 18, 1993.