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 Islamfortoday.com, 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 jannah.org. 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.