Women in Islam Versus Women in the
By Dr. Sherif Abdel Azeem
2. EVE'S FAULT ?
3. EVE'S LEGACY
4. SHAMEFUL DAUGHTERS ?
5. FEMALE EDUCATION ?
6. UNCLEAN IMPURE WOMAN ?
7. BEARING WITNESS
10. WIFE'S PROPERTY ?
13. FEMALE INHERITANCE ?
14. PLIGHT OF WIDOWS
16. THE VEIL
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 A young Muslim student wearing a headscarf is
denied her right of education in France, while a Catholic student
wearing a cross or a Jewish student wearing a skullcap is not.
The scene of French policemen preventing young Muslim women wearing
headscarves from entering their high school is unforgettable.
It 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." (6:152) "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 "speaking justly".
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' " (7:19:23).
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."
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." (Ecclesiasticus
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 2:11-14).
St. Tertullian was even more blunt than St. Paul, while he
was talking to his 'best beloved sisters' in the faith, he said:
"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
"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
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 itself:
"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." (9:71).
"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
"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." (16:97).
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 special
"A man who educates his son will be the envy of his enemy."
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." (Ecclesiasticus 42:11).
"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"
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
"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?" (16:59).
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
"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." (42:49).
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
"Whoever maintains two girls till
they attain maturity, he and I will come on the Resurrection
Day like this; and he joined his fingers." (Muslim).
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 brighter:
"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
"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
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 22:13-21)
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.
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-à-vis their fathers and husbands.
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.
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
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
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." (4:4)
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
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. 64a).
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 divorce. 35
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?" (4:20).
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 transgress them."
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.
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
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." (4:19).
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
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) spank 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 spanking 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 irritate her:
"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 also
"The best of you is he who is best
to his family, and I am the best among you to my family."
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." (Muslim).
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. 40
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." (4:128).
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.
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 ties. However, he could have taught his listeners the
same lesson without showing such absolute indifference to his
mother. The same disrespectful 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 nursing him:
"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.' " (Luke 11:27-28)
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' " (17:23-24).
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
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 last century46.
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
"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
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
"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 degrading custom:
"And marry not women whom your fathers
married--Except what is past-- it was shameful, odious, and abominable
custom indeed." (4:22).
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." (2:231).
"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." (2:234).
"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 restrictions:
"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." (4:3).
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 Roman Empire?
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
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 enthusiastic applause.
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 man-sharing. 71
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.
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 husband.
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.
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...." (24:30,31).
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." (33:59).
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."
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 Queen's University:
- 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
- A study found 60% of Canadian university-aged males said
they would commit sexual assault if they were certain they wouldn't
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."  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 women.
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 humanity.
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
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 before it.
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
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)
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)
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. 263-264.
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. 121-123.
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. 272.
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.
Note in addition: This manuscript was first published by WAMY,