Archive for May, 2011

The Legacy of Islamic Intellectual History

The Legacy of Islamic Intellectual History
Part 1.

Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq


Praise be to Allah.

Early Muslims regarded Islam as the completion of Allah’s Message to humanity, as well as somewhat a continuation of the two other faiths regarded as Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Christianity; and contemporary Muslims have carried this religious conviction to modern times. However, Muslims regard these previous historically manifested religions as corrupted, based on deliberately corrupted texts, hence the need for the revival of Islam. The Qur’an as a Holy Book was regarded as the criterion for judging what is true and false among the previous religions encompassing the Middle-Eastern spiritual and intellectual universe of tradition some would call Judaeo-Christian-Islamic Civilization. Early attempts to show similarities among the three religions were initiated by Muhammad(saws), attempts which should not really be accepted as such if we accept that it was Allah, subhanu wa ta’ala, himself who revealed to the Prophet(as) these similarities. Yet what we can say is that part of the message of the Prophet(as), his proselytizing, his daw’ah and methodology, was to show the Jews and Christians of his time these similarities, also showing future generations as well, through the vehicle of the preservation of Revelation and Sunnah.

After Muhammad(saws), the early Muslim scholars, by reference to the Qur’an and Prophetic Traditions circulating at the time, and an appeal to the knowledge of the Prophets Muslims, Jews, And Christians have in common, were not attempting to reconcile these differences per se so much as they were attempting to show how and why Islam is the correct belief and how the Jews and Christians deviated from that original belief system. For it is believed by the majority of Muslims that Allah always sent his Prophets with Islam, an idea that many Modernist Muslims will have to contend with as they postulate the validity of other religious traditions besides Islam. With the belief that the Prophets always came with Islam comes the belief in the deviation of the People of the Book.

There was a large flow of Jewish and Christian converts into Islam, implications of which have not yet been thoroughly studied[1]. These converts related quite a few traditions that linked the three religions. Traditions of the Jews, the Isra’iliyyat [2], not found in the Hebrew canon, but in many Talmudic traditions and Jewish “legends”, were related and found their way into Muslim Prophetic Traditions.

Christian traditions, many relating to eschatology[3], not found in the Protestant and Catholic Canon(usually), yet found in Christian Apocrypha, the Nag Hammadi Library, Dead Sea Scrolls, and various Gnostic Christian writings were related. Ideas judged to be heretical by many Christians are also found among Muslim Prophetic Traditions. For some this suggests “religious borrowing”, sometimes used to mean “religious plagiarism” or theft/copying. For others, mostly Muslims, this is merely Islam affirming what is true in other traditions, rejecting what is false in them.

Many of these traditions describe Creation, Adam and Eve, Satan, Noah and Flood, Abraham, Hagar, and Isma’il; all concepts and personages found in Judaeo-Christian tradition. Though the traditions in Islam were sometimes related differently from their Jewish and Christian counterparts, they did serve to show how the three faiths were related, how they belonged to the same universe of tradition. The early Muslim scholars also inherited the legacy of rejection of core articles of faith among the Jews and Christians. While Muslims retained the the idea of One God, the Muslim idea of tawhid is quite different from the Christian conception of monotheism, and is even different from the Jewish conception. Muslims retained a similar view of Creation, belief in Angels, but were distinguished by the belief in all of the previous Prophets sent by Allah, many not even mentioned by name. I will not list the ideas rejected by Islam and held by the Jews and Christians here, but the legacy of the environment of interfaith relations, whether that environment was political and polemical, friendly, marked by daw’ah efforts, exchanges of ideas, or marked by war, this legacy impacted the Islamic intellectual tradition in ways palatable today.

The Islamic Intellectual Tradition

This series of articles will attempt to describe and analyze the impact of the Islamic Intellectual Tradition on contemporary Muslim thought. We will do this by giving a brief history of Islamic historiography and its implications for preserving orthodoxy. We will ask ourselves how Muslims transformed a primarily oral tradition to a written one. We will discuss how this tradition was marshaled to deal with the impact of Western colonialism. The 19th and 20th centuries saw unprecedented change in the Muslim world with respect to how it was the first time the Muslim world was largely inundated with foreign ideologies. We will examine how the Islamic intellectual Tradition was utilized to deal with these challenges.

The Islamic Intellectual Tradition, next to the period of Revelation itself, also was the chief element responsible for how non-Muslims were viewed and should be viewed by Muslims. We describe how the Ahl al-Kitab[4] and other non-Muslim groups were regarded and treated by the tradition. In addition, we will be discussing how certain seminal events, trends, and periods in Islamic history informed and shaped the emerging worldviews arising out the Islamic Intellectual tradition; we say worldviews because although the tradition has relative uniformity enabling it to be identified through its distinguishing characteristics, unifying underlying principles and coherence, it is not a monolithic tradition. These seminal events, trends, and periods include, but are not limited to, the Aftermath of the death of the Prophet(as) and the Ridda Wars[5] ; The Muslim Conquests; The Umayyad dynasty; The Abbasid Revolution and Dynasty; The Medieval Period; Islamic Philosophy; The Crusades; The Mongol Invasions and Conversion[6]; and the perceived Ottoman Decline. And finally we describe and analyze the impact of these events on the Islamic tradition as well as the implications of the responses of those working within the broad tradition for contemporary Muslims.

The term Islamic Intellectual History encompasses many disciplines, so it is proper to conceptualize the Islamic Intellectual Tradition as the sum of the intellectual discursive traditions found among the Muslim community; and we will discuss the relevant disciplines in some detail. Islamic Historiography, Fiqh and other major Islamic Sciences, the Islamic philosophical tradition, Islamic Heresiology, and the institutionalized Sufi tradition are all distinctive traditional strands in the broad intellectual tradition which have all contributed to the combined legacy of the Islamic Intellectual Tradition as a whole. Throughout this series we will see how Islamic education and the ‘ulama also played a key role in the development and impact of the Islamic Intellectual Tradition as well. We will be asking and attempting to answer a number of key questions in this series: What exactly is the Islamic Intellectual Tradition and what is its paradigmatic frame of reference?; How was it utilized to deal with the challenges Muslims faced and how was it marshaled and relied upon to respond to specific crises?; Who were some of its major luminaries, what were their ideas and what was their influence?;  What are some of the implications of its legacy for interfaith dialogue and relations?; What was the impact of the Islamic Intellectual Tradition on contemporary Muslim thought?; And how did the Islamic Intellectual tradition affect the broader world? Other important questions will also arise during the course of this series.


The legacy of the Islamic Intellectual Tradition is to be found in how contemporary Muslims view themselves, other Muslims, and people of other faiths, particularly the People of the Book- Jews and Christians. It also leaves behind a legacy of two key issues: just what constitutes authority in Islam and what is meant by tradition in Islam? Clearly its legacy informs and shapes the Muslim worldview in the contemporary period. While it is clear that Muslim scholars disagreed with many core articles of faith found in other religious traditions, there was also a  need to reconcile this rejection with the belief that Islam was a continuation of the religion of Abraham. Early Muslim scholars did this by utilizing a method that can only be regarded as what passed for comparative religion at the time. The scholars tried to show that Islam was the perfection of Allah’s Message to humanity and any divergence among other faith groups were viewed as indications of historical, deliberate corruption or misunderstanding. The intellectual environment surrounding the elucidation, propagation, and preservation of the ideas found in the texts of Qur’an and Sunnah determined the intellectual trajectory of the subsequent and consequent Islamic Intellectual Tradition. It cannot be denied that this and the resultant daw’ah of the early Muslims also played a key role in shaping the tradition. However we cannot conclude that the Islamic Intellectual tradition was largely reactionary, as internal dynamics and the belief that the tradition was to be put in the service of the perceived mission to spread Islam to the world at large also determined the character of the tradition. And one must never forget the over-arching theme and impetus of this tradition: worship of Allah alone and seeking nearness to Him. Allahu A’lam.



1. Many are unaware that it is these types of reports that are largely responsible for beliefs surrounding the Banu Qurayza “massacre”, for instance.

2. The Prophet (Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam) has already cautioned us against this source of knowledge (Israilliyyat):

Narrated Abu Huraira (RadhiyAllahu Anhu): The people of the scripture used to recite the Torah in Hebrew and they used to explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. On that Allah’s apostle said: ‘Do not believe the people of the scripture or disbelieve them, but say: “We believe in Allah and what is revealed to us”‘ . [Bukhari]

Similarly Ibn Mas’ud (RadhiyAllahu Anhu), the well-known Companion, is reported to have said: ‘Do not ask the Ahl al-Kitab about anything (in Tafsir), for they cannot guide you and are themselves in error….’

The rules relating to Israelite reports:

According to Usul Al Tafseer, Isra’iliyyat are narratives which have reached us through Jews and Christians. It may be noted that early commentators used to write down all sorts of narrations which reached them from an identified or unidentified source. Many of these narrations were straight Judaica. Therefore, it is equally necessary to know what they really are.

The reality is that some noble Companions and their Successors,ra, first belonged to the religion of the people of the Book, later on when they became Muslims and learned the Qur’an, they came across several events relating to past communities in the Qur’an and which they had also read in the books of their previous religion. Therefore, while referring to the events mentioned in the Qur’an they would describe other details before Muslims which they had seen in the books of their old religion.

These very details have entered into the books of Tafseer,[also Sira, and Hadith], under the name of ‘Isra’iliyyat’. Hafiz ibn Kathir,ra, who is one of the authentic research scholars, has categorized them into three different kinds:

1) Narrations, the truth of which is proved from other evidences of ‘the Qur’an and Sunnah, for instance, the drowning of Pharoah and the ascent of Sayyidna Musa (Alaihis Salam) onto Mount Tur (Sinai).

2) Narrations the falsity of which is proved from other evidences of the Qur’an and Sunnah, for instance, it appears in Judaic narrations that Sayyidna Sulayman (Alaihis Salam) had become (God forbid) an apostate in his later years. Its refutation is proved from the Qur’an. It is said there:

‘It was not Sulayman who became an infidel, but the devils did become infidels’ [2:102].

To cite yet another example, it finds mention in Judaic narration’s that (God forbid) Sayyidna Dawud (Alaihis Salam) (David) committed adultery with the wife of his general (Uriah), or, having him killed through all sorts of contrivances, ended up marrying his wife. This too is a blatant lie, and taking such narrations to be false is imperative.

3) Narrations regarding which the Qur’an, the Sunnah and the Shariah are “silent”, such as the injunctions of Torah etc., are subjects about which silence is to be observed as taught by the Prophet (Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam) neither confirm, nor falsify. There is, however, a difference of opinion among scholars whether or not reporting such narrations is permissible. Hafiz ibn Kathir,ra, has given the decisive word by saying that reporting these is permissible all right but doing so is useless because they cannot be taken as authentic.[Muqaddamah Tafseer ibn Kathir]

[See: Ma’ariful Quran]

These set of rules are applied by Hadith scholars when dealing with Isra’iliyyat material. These rules are based on the Hadith of the Prophet (Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam) which I have mentioned above.

About the transmitter Wahb Ibn Munabbih (Rahmatullahi Alaih):

Wahb Ibn Munabbih transmitted both Isra’iliyyat and Islamic traditions. It does not make him or any other transmitter untrustworthy or a fabricator.

Hafiz Ibn Hajar (Rahamtullahi Alaih) says, ” Wahb Ibn Munabbih Ibn Kamil al-Yamani, the father of `Abdullah Al Abnawi. He is trustworthy.” [Taqrib al-Tahdhib]

Imam al-Suyuti (Rahamtullahi Alaih) includes him in his book of Hadith memorisers. [Tabaqat al-Huffadh)]

Many of the Hadith scholars have recorded his Hadith, including al-Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud and al-Tirmidhi (Rahamtullahi Alaih).

So the conclusion here is that Wahb Ibn Munabbih and others like Ka’ab Ahbar, Hammam Ibn Munabbih (Rahmatullahi Alaihim) are considered to be trustworthy even though they transmitted Isra’iliyyat traditions along with the Islamic ones because they did not attribute these Isra’iliyyat traditions to the Prophet (Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam).

So, the narration above will be rejected totally as this contradicts the texts of the Qur’an and Sunnah.

And Only Allah Ta’ala Knows Best.

Moulana Qamruz Zaman
London, UK

3. Eschatology (pronounced /ˌɛskəˈtɒlədʒi/ ( listen); from the Greek ἔσχατος/ἐσχάτη/ἔσχατον, eschatos/eschatē/eschaton meaning “last” and -logy meaning “the study of”, first used in English around 1550) is a part of theology, philosophy, and futurology concerned with what are believed to be the final events in history, or the ultimate destiny of humanity, commonly referred to as the end of the world or the World to Come. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “concerned with ‘the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell’”.Regarding mysticism, the phrase refers metaphorically to the end of ordinary reality and reunion with the Divine. In many religions it is taught as an existing future event prophesied in sacred texts or folklore. More broadly, eschatology may encompass related concepts such as the Messiah or Messianic Age, the end time, and the end of days.

4. (Arabic: “People of the Book”), in Islāmic thought, those religionists such as Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians who are possessors of divine books (i.e., the Torah, the Gospel, and the Avesta), as distinguished from those whose religions are not based on divine revelations. The latter are an imprecisely identified group referred to as Sabaeans but also considered “People of the Book.”

5. The Ridda wars (Arabic: حروب الردة), also known as the Wars of Apostasy, were a set of military campaigns against the rebellion of several Arabian tribes against the Caliph Abu Bakr(ra) during 632 and 633 AD, after Prophet Muhammad(saws) died. The revolts, in Islamic historiography later interpreted as religious, were in reality mainly political. However, these revolts also had a religious aspect: Medina had become the center of a social and political system, of which religion was an integral part; consequently it was inevitable that any reaction against this system would have a religious aspect

The Encyclopedia of Islam. New Edition. Vol. 1, p. 110.

6. For a time the Il-Khans tolerated and patronized all religious persuasions—Sunni, Shīʿite, Buddhist, Nestorian Christian, Jewish, and pagan. But in 1295 a Buddhist named Maḥmūd Ghāzān became khan and declared himself Muslim, compelling other Mongol notables to follow suit. His patronage of Islamicate learning fostered such brilliant writers as Rashīd al-Dīn, the physician and scholar who authored one of the most famous Persian universal histories of all time. The Mongols, like other Islamicate dynasties swept into power by a tribal confederation, were able to unify their domains for only a few generations.

The Exemplar

Hadith Oliyankara Juma Masjid

Image via Wikipedia

The Exemplar

Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq

Bismillah Alhamdulillah wa salatu wa sallam ‘ala Rasulillah


The exemplar is a person who is the embodiment of moral virtue. Many Muslims have fallen prey to an infiltration into Islamic culture of this idea of having heroes and idols, specifically non-Muslim heroes and idols. It should go without saying that Muslims should not be idolizing any human being. This is a clear violation of tawhid. The Prophet(as) chastised some of his Sahaba, by saying that they used to worship their priests and rabbis, which they denied.

They take their rabbis, priests and monks or ascetics to be their Lords* besides Allah. And they take as their Lord, the Messiah son of Mary. Yet they were commanded to worship but One God. There is no god but He. Praise and Glory to Him, He is far too Glorious for what they ascribe to Him. [Quran 9:31]

Say, “Shall I take for my master other than Allah Who is the Initiator of the heavens and the earth? And He provides all without return. Feeds but is not fed.” Say, “ I have been commanded to be the foremost among those who surrender to Him and ascribe not divinity besides Him.” [Quran 6:14]

Do they ascribe to Him as partners things that can create nothing, but are themselves created? [Quran 7:191]

(Allah ta’ala says) I am so self-sufficient that I am in no need of having an associate. Thus he who does an action for someone else’s sake as well as Mine will have that action renounced by Me to him whom he associated with Me.[Hadith – Qudsi 5]

Imam Ahmad, At-Tirmidhi and Ibn Jarir At-Tabari recorded a Hadith via several chains of narration, from `Adi bin Hatim r.a., who was a Christian during the time of Jahiliyya … The Messenger of Allah recited this Ayah;

اتَّخَذُواْ أَحْبَـرَهُمْ وَرُهْبَـنَهُمْ أَرْبَاباً مِّن دُونِ اللَّهِ

(They took their rabbis and their monks to be their lords besides Allah). `Adi commented, “I said, `They did not worship them.”’ The Prophet said,

«بَلَى إِنَّهُمْ حَرَّمُوا عَلَيْهِمُ الْحَلَالَ وَأَحَلُّوا لَهُمُ الْحَرَامَ فَاتَّبَعُوهُمْ فَذَلِكَ عِبَادَتُهُمْ إِيَّاهُم»

Yes they did. They (rabbis and monks) prohibited the allowed for them (Christians and Jews) and allowed the prohibited, and they obeyed them. This is how they worshipped them.

It is clear from the above hadith that people practically worshiped their religious leaders in a form of minor shirk. Yet today we see this occurring as well. But it has extended to Muslims idolizing non-Muslims. Does this mean that Muslims should not admire other human beings, especially if they are not Muslims? Certainly not, but this is quite different from the minor shirk that we are talking about. Only three types of persons are eligible for emulation: Prophets, Messengers, alayhi salam, and saints/virtuous Muslims. And even so, no human being is entitled to unlimited emulation and obedience(taqlid), absolutely no human is entitled to worship, even “hero-worship”, and idolatry is absolutely forbidden(haram), as we know. We will first discuss wilaya and then Prophets and Messengers.

Not many outside of Islam are aware of this idea of Muslim saints. And many Muslims are opposed to this idea; possibly out of ignorance, possibly because they understand by saint something akin to the idea of saintliness found in Hinduism and Catholicism, or quite possibly because of a dislike of Sufism. As Shaykh Dr. Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt states:

“At the moment some are denying the idea of Sufism, after witnessing some innovations by those who call themselves Sufis…..”

There is a key difference between the Muslim saint as exemplar and what a Westerner normally thinks of when thinking about just who is a saint and what constitutes sainthood. People seem to normally associate saints with “mysticism”, extreme ascetic practices such a s self-denial, self-abnegation, celibacy, “leaving” behind the world of the profane and mundane, among other practices. Others associate saints with councils voting on who has reached the level of sainthood. In other words someone other than Allah decides who is a saint, and a person becomes recognized as a saint after his/her death. All of this is in contravention to Islam. What gives humans who are not themselves saints the right to declare someone a saint. Ultimately it is only Allah who confers this status upon His servants, and saints are known in life. Perhaps the more appropriate words would be “friend of God”, a title we find conferred on Ibrahim(as) by Allah Himself.

‘Allah is the friend of those who believe: He brings them out of every kind of darkness into light. And those who disbelieve, their friends are the transgressors who bring them out of light into every kind of darkness. These are the inmates of the Fire; therein shall they abide’ [Qur’an 2 :  258]

‘Surely, the nearest of men to Abraham are those who followed him, and this Prophet and those who believe; and Allah is the friend of believers’ [ Qur’an 3:69]

But God knows best who are your enemies: and none can befriend as God does, and none can give succour as God does”. [Qur’an 4:45]

“For Allah did take Ibrahim for (an intimate) friend “ [Qur’an 4:125]

In Islam these saints/ “friends of God” exemplify the ideal of simultaneously living in the world and being beyond this world, similar to the Christian idea “be in the world, but not of the world”. Celibacy, monasticism, and various other ascetic practices such as extreme fasting and self-flagellation are against Islam.

The acceptable ascetic practices are seen to be instrumental to enlightenment, not an end in and of themselves, and an unnecessary continuance of them is seen as an aberration resulting in and from misunderstanding. Sufis therefore reject extremism and maintain that the path to sainthood is achieved through the initial desire to pray as if one perceives that Allah is in front of them.

One day while the Prophet was sitting in the company of some people, (The angel) Gabriel came and asked, “What is faith?” Allah’s Apostle replied, ‘Faith is to believe in Allah, His angels, (the) meeting with Him, His Apostles, and to believe in Resurrection.” Then he further asked, “What is Islam?” Allah’s Apostle replied, “To worship Allah Alone and none else, to offer prayers perfectly to pay the compulsory charity (Zakat) and to observe fasts during the month of Ramadan.” Then he further asked, “What is Ihsan (perfection)?” Allah’s Apostle replied, “To worship Allah as if you see Him, and if you cannot achieve this state of devotion then you must consider that He is looking at you.” Then he further asked, “When will the Hour be established?” Allah’s Apostle replied, “The answerer has no better knowledge than the questioner. But I will inform you about its portents.
1. When a slave (lady) gives birth to her master.
2. When the shepherds of black camels start boasting and competing with others in the construction of higher buildings. And the Hour is one of five things which nobody knows except Allah.
The Prophet then recited: “Verily, with Allah (Alone) is the knowledge of the Hour–.” (31. 34) Then that man (Gabriel) left and the Prophet asked his companions to call him back, but they could not see him. Then the Prophet said, “That was Gabriel who came to teach the people their religion.” Abu ‘Abdullah said: He (the Prophet) considered all that as a part of faith .[Bukhari 1:42 Narrated By Abu Huraira]

Two key ideas about “sainthood” or wilaya should be noted here:

1. In conjunction with the idea of only Allah conferring upon His servants the status of sainthood is the idea that only saints recognize other saints. This seems to be a preventative measure against worship in the form of minor shirk and taqlid. Yet one can ask if no one besides other saints can recognize another saint, how do we recognize one as such, and by extension identify this person as an exemplar? Surely Muslims can recognize a virtuous person, despite the caution in Islam of declaring to know what is in another person’s heart? This key concept is very important and we will return to it later.

2. Of great significance to the idea of “sainthood” is the idea of miracles. Whether we believe that Allah confers on individuals besides His Prophets and Messengers the ability to perform miracles, the Sufis have a belief that kiramat(miracles) are not to be publicly advertised, but concealed. Yet this is precisely what we see among non-Muslim “holy men”, people flocking to these “saints” in order to receive blessings from them on account of their widely publicized miracles.

Along with the rejection of continued, ritualized asceticism, we find constant mention of the virtue of moderation in Islam. And we now return to the original idea of this article, that exemplars are the embodiment of moral virtue, to discuss Prophets and Messengers, alayhi salam, as exemplars. The contemplative life( fikr) and constant remembrance of Allah(dhikr) will lead to a type of moral character that engenders moral virtue. We are told that in the Prophets, alayhi salam, are the best examples of moral behavior for mankind, and that Prophet Muhammad(saws) is the pinnacle of this moral virtue which is to to be emulated. From this we can understand that although saints are exemplars, our focus should be on emulating the moral character of the Prophet(as) and embodying his moral virtues in our lives. Indeed in Islam we know to follow the Sunnah of the Prophet(as). Following his Sunnah is considered a virtuous act. So, because it is only saints who recognize other saints, since Sufis have a saying that the person who calls himself a Sufi is not a real Sufi, and since even though Muslims can recognize a virtuous person, despite the caution in Islam of declaring to know what is in another person’s heart, our role model, as Muslims, is the Prophet Muhammad, sal Allahu alayhi wa sabihi wa sallam.


We will define virtuous character as that character that is exemplified by the disposition to act in moderation and to exhibit excellence. Excellence is defined as putting the moral principles of the Qur’an to practice and taking the Sunnah of the Prophet as a model worthy of emulation. Moral virtue is the result of habit, and the Shari’ah has mandated certain actions that if done habitually will bring the worshiper closer to Allah, such as salat and dhikr, and will culminate in the realization of a morally virtuous character. Coupled with this is the idea of sincerity and intention, for no one who does these acts without sincerity and the intention of seeking the pleasure of Allah will accomplish any kind of moral virtue in themselves. Charity for the poor, being slow to anger, treating others kindly, and indeed all acts of worship from the Shari’ah, are acts that fall into the dual category of deeds that create moral virtue when done with the right intention and with sincerity, and deeds that reflect moral virtue, when done voluntarily with the right intention. Allahu A’lam

The Reality of Gender Equality in Islam

Portrait of a girl, 21st century, meant to loo...

Image via Wikipedia

The Reality of Gender Equality in Islam

Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq


Praise be to Allah.

One of the most provocative and controversial topics in Islam, at least for Westerners, is the status of women in Islam; especially with respect to Western ideas of gender equality. Are Muslim women really oppressed, and if so, to what extent? In this series of articles we will attempt a discussion of the gender role perceptions among Muslims and non-Muslim Westerners. Many fail to see that the perspective of the observer determines to a large degree what equality means. In this world of cultural relativism, and relativism in general, an unfortunate consequent side effect is the subjectivism of notions of equality. Equality obviously may mean different things for Muslim women versus Western women, and even within the Muslim community Muslim women may differ in their respective personal views about what it means to be equal to men. This is taken as a given. Yet whenever a discussion of the objective reality of gender equality surfaces, the Western concept of it becomes the acceptable one by definition. We will attempt to briefly introduce the subject of gender equality here by looking narrowly at the topic from the perspective of the concept of spiritual equality in Islam.

First a distinction must again be made between what Islam is, based on the discourses found in the Qur’an and Sunnah of the Prophet(as), and what Muslims actually do based on cultural practices and societally created and accepted norms. Many Westerners look narrowly at what has been done in the name of Islam and what continues to be practiced with respect to Muslim women and believe that this is what Islam truly advocates. Many examples include female infanticide, female genital mutilation, forced seclusion of women, forced marriages, sexual slavery, and forced/enforced veiling of women. And some Muslim scholars aren’t helping the issues when they make pronouncements and fatawa theologically justifying these practices. This topic will be approached and discussed from two main perspectives; that of the Muslim American female convert to Islam, and the perspective of male Sunni scholars of Islam. Other categories of Muslims will be looked at in other articles in the series. These perspectives will be compared and contrasted with the views of several Muslim intellectuals.

English convert to Islam, Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, is the author of over thirty books on the subjects of Islam and gender equality. She has written an article that was posted on the site, which is a website for “westerners seeking knowledge and understanding of Islam”, as was written on its front page. It is “theologically” motivated and geared towards theologically motivated “western converts” to Islam, and it was founded by a “Western” former Christian. According to Maqsood, the Qur’an explicitly states that men and women are equal in the sight of Allah and that “men and women were created from a single soul and are moral equals”. No husband, or any man for that, matter is a woman’s master. This quote from the article summarizes her viewpoint on the issue:

While the spirit of Islam is clearly patriarchal, it regards men and women as moral equals.  Moreover, although a man is technically the head of the household, Islam encourages matriarchy in the home. women may not be equal to men in the manner defined by     Western feminists, but their cores difference from men are acknowledged, and they have  rights of their own that do not apply to men

The Muslim Women’s League is an American Muslim women’s organization that operates and maintains a website. One of their stated goals is to work to “implement the values of and reclaim the status of women as free, equal and vital contributors to society”. The articles on the site that deal with gender equality issues always begin by stressing that men and women are spiritual equals, and both are morally responsible for their actions in the eyes of Allah. Quranic quotes such as the following from the article, “Gender Equality in Islam”, are used to illustrate this point:

I shall not lose the sight of the labor of any of you who labors in My way, be it man or  woman; each of you is equal to the other[Qur’an 3:195]

According to the author of this article  “the Qur’an states that both sexes are deliberate and independent and there is no mention of Eve being created out of Adam’s rib or anything else. Even the issue of which sex was created first is not specified, implying that for our purposes here on earth it may not matter”, and the following quote from the Qur’an is used to emphasize the point:

O mankind! Be conscious of your Sustainer, who created you out of one living entity(nafs), and out of it created its mate(zawj), and out of the two spread abroad a multitude of men and women. And remain conscious of Allah, in whose name you demand your rights from one another, and of these ties of kinship. Verily, Allah is ever watchful over you![Qur’an 4:1]

The article aptly illustrates that the Qur’an, which contains the original, primary source of Islamic belief, practices, and ideals, does not support the idea of gender inequality between the sexes. So what exactly is the nature of this gender equality, one might ask:

As equal, independent creations of God, the ultimate role of men and women is to serve as vice-regents on earth, to worship God and follow His commands so that we may return to Him. Both men and women share this responsibility, which constitutes our basic role  in life. The Qur’an outlines the attributes believing men and women should try to live by, but in no specific way are told in what capacity each individual man and woman should practice these.

Say: Behold, my prayer, and all my acts of worship, and my living and my dying are for God alone[Qur’an 6:163].

This verse was addressed to the Prophet[saws] but serves as an inspiration to all, reveals that our vicegerency is not only spiritual, but must     be consolidated with actual service. The Qur’an does not distinguish between a man and a woman’s vicegerency. Each sex has the ability to contribute to successive generations, as implied by the term khalifah in the Qur’an(viceregeant). But that doesn’t limit a  woman’s vicegerency solely to bear or rear children. There is no judgment made in the Qur’an made against barren women a woman who chooses not to have children, or a  young woman who dies before childbearing with one that has many children. Only two of  the Prophet’s wives even bore children with him, Khadija and Mariya, [ra]. Other wives such as Hafsa, Aisha and Zaynab,[ra], did not bear any children, and there is no evidence  that they were discounted for this.

Dr. Jamal Badawi is a well known and respected scholar and author on Islamic topics. An online book, “Gender Equity in Islam” , was authored by him that can be found on the website A continuing theme in the Qur’an is the idea of the spiritual, therefore the fundamental equality between the sexes in the eyes of Allah. Like the previous writers he also utilizes well placed quotes from the Qur’an to illustrate the point of spiritual equality between genders.

O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even against  yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah  can best protect both. Follow not the desires (of your hearts), lest you swerve, and if you distort(justice) or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well acquainted with all that you do.[Quran 4:135]

The believers, men and women, are protectors, one of another: they enjoin what is right  and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayer and practice regular charity and obey Allah and His Messenger.On them will Allah pour His Mercy: for All is Exalted in power, Wise. [Qur’an 9:71]

And he mentions a verse we have seen before, with a slightly different translation:

O mankind! Reverence  your Guardian-Lord, Who created you from a single person, created, of like nature its mate(zawj), and from them twain scattered (like seed) countless men and women-fear Allah, through Whom you demand your  mutual (rights), and (reverence) the wombs that bore you: for Allah ever watches over you![Qur’an 4:1]

The idea that men and women are spiritually equal in Islam should be clear from these Quranic quotes. The question then becomes how do misconceptions about gender equality arise among non-Muslims, and why do Muslims believe “unIslamic” things about women and treat women “unIslamically?” Dr. Khaled Abou El-Fadl, an influential contemporary Muslim thinker and jurist reproduces a few quotes on pages 258-260 of his book, “The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from Extremists”, that summarizes very well some of the misogynistic views of some who call themselves Muslims. The first quote, which deals with the worship of Allah, is important because it shows how women are continually denied their right to worship Allah as they are instructed in the Qur’an, thereby robbing them of their spiritual equality and equal moral responsibility before Allah. According to Mohammed Arkoun in his book entitled “Rethinking Islam: Common Questions, Uncommon Answers”, and one can agree with his assertion, the persistence even today of different socialization practices for daughter and son reflects the mother’s internalization of an objectively unfair status reproduced through daughters to ensure the survival of the system above and beyond the moral and religious calling of the person recognized by the Qur’an,”(Arkoun 61).

As stated above, many Westerners look narrowly at what has been done in the name of Islam and what continues to be practiced with respect to women and conclude that Islam necessarily mandates this treatment of women. For Arkoun and other intellectuals such as Lila Abou Lughod and Amina Wadud, it is issues of power and control that determine the degree to which any Muslim society adheres to the moral objectives and spiritual principles found in the Qur’an. The views of these scholars do not differ much from those found on the Muslim operated websites that were discussed in the beginning of this essay. However it is clear that to some of the writers mentioned, such as Maqsood and Badawi, Islam is still to be considered from a patriarchal perspective, as both believe that this is the perspective from which the Qur’an conveys its message to all mankind.


The Qur’an cannot be used to advocate and perpetuate gender inequality in Islam, as shown by various quotes from this essay. Although no ahadith were quoted it should be clear that since no authentic hadith can contradict the Qur’an, the authentic sunnah of the Prophet(as) found in some hadith support the idea of gender equality. However, many other ahadith give the opposite impression when read out of context, or translated inaccurately. In other cases ahadith that are graded da’if(weak) or fabricated(mawdu) are used to justify some misogynistic practices. Gender inequality among Muslims arose as a result of historical processes that saw their beginnings in the inherited practices of jahiliyya, and socially accepted norms that contradict the Islamic objectives and principles of the Qur’an.

Of course this analysis is too simplistic as we have left out the complex power dynamics of colonial and post-colonial Muslim societies that gave rise to displays of power symbolism in which women are always the first victims. And many scholars are aware that women have continually been mistreated despite Islam. In future parts we will analyze the ahadith that speak to gender equality or give the impression of a sanction for gender inequality as well as go deeper into Western non-Muslim and Muslim perspectives on just what constitutes “equality” in general and gender equality in particular. We will also take a historical look at treatment of women in Islam, postulating that there is an evolution and progressivism that was seemingly arrested by historical developments. It should be clear from the preceding discussion, though, that men who do seek to dominate women through unlimited exercise of power over their lives have to bypass Islam to do so, while using Islam through an Islamic veneer that gives the illusion of Islamic legitimacy. They also afford to do so by hiding behind “Islamicized” sociocultural practices that engender in the minds of clueless non-Muslim Westerners and Muslims alike the belief that inequality between the sexes is divinely mandated. Allahu A’lam.