Logo Banner
Skip Navigation Links
  Women in Islam  

The following traditions of the Prophet indicate the elevated function of woman in Islam:

“Women are half of men.

Fear God in respect of women.

Heaven lies beneath the feet of mothers. (That is, those who serve their mothers well are deserving of Paradise.)

The best among you is he who is best for his family. For my family, I am the best of all of you.”

The most perfect man of religion is one who excels in character. The best among you is he who gives the best treatment to his womenfolk.

This makes it clear that, although males and females differ from one another biologically, they are equal in terms of human status. No distinction is made between women and men as regards their respective rights. This is all to the good if they are to be lifetime companions.

Man and woman in the eyes of Islam then are not the duplicates of one another, but the complements. This concept permits the shortcomings of one sex to be compensated for by the strengths of the other.

It is a fact that women in general are not physically as strong as men, but their physical weakness in no way implies their inferiority to men. The eyes are the most delicate parts of our body, while the nails by comparison are extremely hard. That does not mean that the nails are superior to the eyes.

Just as two different kinds of fruits will differ in colour, taste, shape and texture, without one being superior or inferior to the other, so also do men and women have their different qualities which distinguish the male from the female without there being any question of superiority or inferiority. They are endowed by nature with different capacities so that they may play their respective roles in life with greater ease and effectiveness.

However, in respect of innate talents all individuals, be they men or women, differ from one another. Yet their need for each other is equal. All are of equal value. One is not more important or less important than the other. Similarly when it comes to the establishment of a home and raising of a family, men and women have their separate roles to play. But each is vital. Each is indispensable to the other. And for them to come together, function in unison and live in harmony, there must be mutual respect and a prevailing sense that a difference of biological function does not imply inequality. For the biological division of human beings into male and female is the result of the purposeful planning of our Creator.

In Islam, a woman enjoys the same status as that of a man. But in ancient times, women had come to be considered inferior and were deprived, among other things, of the right to inherit property. Islam for the first time in human history gave them their due legal rights over property. Neither did it distinguish between men and women as regards status, rights and blessings, both in this world and the Hereafter. Both were considered equal participants in the carrying out of the functions of daily living. As the Qur’an so aptly puts it: “You are members, one of another.”

Since the earliest ideal phase of Islam, Muslim women have successfully exploited their talents towards the field of education in particular. Homes had become centres of learning. As women performed their role without going outdoors, there is a general impression that Islam has restricted women’s workplace to performing only domestic chores. But this is not the truth. First of all Islam encouraged them to receive education, then enthused them with a new zeal. Subsequently, they went out to impart this learning to the next generation. Let’s take the instance of the Prophet’s wives, held up as role models for women in Islam. Preserving their femininity, they participated in all kinds of religious and worldly activities. For instance, the Prophet’s wife Aisha, having gained full knowledge of Islam from the Prophet, was able, after the death of the Prophet, to perform the task of teacher and guide to the Muslim community for a period of about fifty years. Abdullah ibn Abbas, a Companion of great stature, and one of the best commentators of the Qur’an, was one of Aisha’s pupils.

As modern day research tells us women are better with words than men. It is perhaps this reason why they are able to run educational institutions successfully. Besides this there may be many such workplaces where women are able to exploit their full potential. Since earliest days of Islam we find Muslim women working outdoors. Umm Dahdah, wife of a Companion of the Prophet worked in her orchard. Khadija, Prophet’s wife conducted business, to cite only a few of such examples. However, Islam sets great value on the proper management of home. It is because home is the most important unit of any society. Home is the centre of preparing succeeding generations. Thus neglecting home front will amount to neglecting the next generation which in turn will result in a great national loss.

I would say that Islam grants even more respect to women than to men. According to one hadith a man once came to the Prophet and asked him who rightfully deserved the best treatment from him.

“Your mother,” said the Prophet. “Who’s next?” asked the man. “Your mother.” “Who comes next?” the man asked again. The Prophet again replied, “Your mother.” “Who is after that?” insisted the man. “Your father,” said the Prophet.

Another example concerns Hajra, the Prophet Ibrahim’s wife. Hajj, regarded as the greatest form of worship in Islam, entails the performance of Sai, one of the main rites of the Hajj. This is accomplished by running back and forth seven times between Safa and Marwah, two hillocks near the Kaba. This running, enjoined upon every pilgrim, be they rich or poor, literate or illiterate, kings or commoners, is in imitation of the desperate quest of Hajar, Ibrahim’s wife, for water to quench the thirst of her crying infant, four thousand years ago. The performance of this rite is a lesson in struggling for the cause of God. It is of the utmost significance that this was an act performed by a woman. Perhaps there could be no better demonstration of a woman’s greatness than God’s command to all men, literally to follow in her footsteps.

We can see that the principle implied by the expression ‘ladies first’ in modern times had already been established in Islam at the very outset.

Woman’s Role in Islam

The Qur’an calls Islam a religion of nature. This is because Islam is, in actual fact, based on the laws of nature. The commands of the Qur’an are a direct expression of those laws which have operated in the world of nature since its creation.

The teachings of Islam regarding women are based on the same laws of nature. Acceptance of these laws is not akin to the acceptance of general human laws, where both acceptance and refusal are possible. The rejection of Islamic laws as regards women is actually a rejection of the laws of nature and by doing so, man can never successfully construct his life in the present world.

Study of the Qur’an and Hadith tells us that one of the laws of nature is that all the things in the world have been created in the form of pairs. The Qur’an states:

And all things We have made in pairs, so that you may give thought. (51:49)

The scientific study of the universe has further corroborated this law of nature. As discovered by science the primary unit of the universe, the atom, is composed of negative and positive particles. In the absence of any one of the two, the atom cannot come into existence and even  trees have male and female characteristics. Just as human beings are born in the form of males and females, animals are likewise male and female. The whole world is said to exist in pairs. In this way, nature’s entire factory has functioned all along on this dual basis.

The duality of existence shows that if anything in this world is to function properly, it must first recognize its true position and adhere strictly to the limits set for it by nature itself.

For instance, if the negative particles of atoms tried to change themselves into positive particles, or vice versa, the entire structure of the atom would be shattered. In a similar way, if men, animals and trees wanted a change in their position—and particularly in the animal kingdom, if males and females opted for a change in their roles—the entire system of nature would be disrupted.

Islamic law regarding women is rooted in this system of nature. According to Islam, men and women are equal as regards honour and status, but physically and psychologically they are different. In order to maintain the system of nature between men and women socially, Islam advocates a division of labour, which entails separate workplaces. Islam stipulates that woman’s workplace should basically be the home, vis-à-vis man’s workplace in the outside world.

The system of the human world is divided into two departments of equal importance: one is represented by the ‘home’ and the other by the ‘office.’ Just as an office in this context is not confined by four walls but represents a centre of activity, similarly ‘home’ is not marked by a boundary, being also a complete practical centre of activity.

Under the division of Islam, man has been assigned to the ‘office’ so that he may successfully manage all departments external to the home. Similarly woman has been put in charge of the home so that she may successfully manage all domestic affairs. Both these tasks are of equal importance, neither being superior or inferior.

This system of nature has functioned successfully in the world for many thousands of years. With the emergence of western civilisation in modern times, it happened, for the first time, that in the name of equality an intensive effort was made, by declaring male and female to be identical and interchangeable, to repudiate it. But the 200-year experiment showed that this self-styled equality could not be established in any part of the world.

Many reports and surveys have come out in the western press in this connection. Here I would like to refer to a recent report concerning the USA, the most developed part of the world. This report was published in the December 94 issue of Span under the heading “Feminism’s Identity Crisis”:

Polls suggest that a majority of women hesitate to associate themselves with the feminist movement, not wanting to identify themselves as feminists... The polls also adumbrate unarticulated ambivalence about feminist ideals, particularly with respect to private life.”

Feminism is a non-issue, says Ellen Levine, the editor-in-chief of Redbook. Women don’t think about it. They don’t talk about it. And they seem not to be particularly interested in politics. Feminism, however, is popularly deemed to represent the belief that men and women are equally capable of raising children and equally capable of waging war. Thus feminism represents, in the popular view, a rejection of femininity. According to a survey by Redbook, feminism has made it ‘harder’ for women to balance work and family life.

However, I would admit that just as western woman has failed to find her real position, being caught in the lure of unnatural freedom, similarly a woman in the present Muslim society has been largely denied rights that Islam has given her, for instance, a woman becoming a victim of a man’s maltreatment or her failing to receive her share in her parent’s property, and so on.

Now the question arises as to the solution to this problem. In my view the only solution to it lies in education. It is a fact that present-day Muslims, both men and women, have been lagging far behind in education. There was a time when, during the Abbasid period, (751-1258 a.d.) the highest point in Muslim culture, literacy was almost one hundred percent. Not only men but all women received the education prevalent at that time. It is at this point—the point of education—that we should begin a new Islamic life. If Muslims were to concentrate on this, and strive towards the goal of one hundred percent literacy, that alone would suffice to bring about their overall reformation. Once that goal was attained, all other problems could be set right. Intellectually as well as practically, the Muslims would become a developed community. Ellen Levine believes that wage-earning mothers still tend to feel guilty about not being with their children and to worry that “the more women get ahead professionally, the more children will fall back.”

Women can play a great role in this campaign for education. For instance, educated women can coach their children at home. The literate woman’s ability to read to her young children, and the example she sets in her own quest for knowledge are the most powerful stimuli in their educational progress. Furthermore, women can be better teachers than men as far teaching children is concerned. For women this will not amount to a change of workplace, but will simply be an extension of the home, a broadening of the practical activity centred on child-rearing assigned to her by nature.

By playing this role effectively, Muslim women can prepare the next generation, which is the greatest need of the hour. In this way, they will hasten the time when an entire generation will be equipped with standard education. They would then have every opportunity to receive education in the higher institutions of their choice, and would be more certain of finding productive employment thereafter.

Islam Updates
  Quran Foundation is founded under the aegis of CPS International