Women in Pre-Islamic Arabia
Reprinted from the Muslim Women's League USA (mwlusa.org)
The atrocious practice of female infanticide has become the ultimate symbol of womens oppression in pre-Islamic Arabia. As appalling as it is, however, female infanticide should not be the sole basis for assessing the status of women in the society before Islam. Arabia was a vastly diverse, tribal society, and womens rights, in turn, varied according to the prevailing customs and traditions of the tribes. To claim that Arab women were universally inferior to men, and had absolutely no rights before Islam is too simplistic, and does not do justice to the women of this period. Their status, therefore, deserves a more careful analysis.
It must be noted at the outset that most of the information about the Arabian society before Islam is not uniformly accepted by all scholars in the field. In many cases, the factual information and evidence presented by some scholars have been refuted or contradicted by others. This has to do with the sources of information about this period in Arab history, known as the age of ignorance ("Jahiliyyah"). Some writers tend to rely on the Quran and Hadith to arrive at their conclusions about pre-Islamic Arabia. But their conclusions are not always accurate, for they are inclined to take what is mentioned in the Quran or hadith as what was commonly practiced in the society, which may not necessarily be true. The Quran and hadith may address certain issues because of their moral importance or far-reaching implications, regardless of the frequency of their occurrence. Hence, to get a true sense of the Arab society before Islam, one has to consider other sources. Since the Arabs had no fully developed system of writing, the sources for this period are limited to traditions, legends, proverbs and above all to poems. The oldest poems of which there is any record were composed in about 500 AD. "In those days, poetry, rooted in the life of a people, was no luxury for the cultured few, but the sole medium of expression." (Philip Hitti, History of the Arabs. London, McMillan and Co., 1961, p. 72) As such, it has offered researchers glimpses into many aspects of the pre-Islamic society, from the tribal relations to the ideals of Arab virtue to the status of women. These poems, however, were not immune to error and corruption, since they were not recorded in writing until two to four hundred years later, during the second and third centuries of the Hijrah. Consequently, obtaining accurate, factual information about this era has become a challenging task. However, some general conclusions can be made, which are presented in this chapter.
Diversity of Arabian Society
One of the few facts that is universally agreed upon is the diversity of the Arabian society prior to Islam. Arabia was comprised of diverse communities with different customs, languages and lifestyles. As the social and cultural norms varied from place to place, so did womens rights. To better understand this diversity and its impact on women, a brief overview of the pre-Islamic Arab society is in order.
Generally speaking, the Arab peninsula was divided into two regions, the arid area of the north and the rain-fed area of the south. The southern region was blessed with resources of soil and climate. Because of its fertile land, its proximity to the sea and its strategic location on the commerce routes, the south had enjoyed throughout its earlier history a developed form of political life and an advanced culture. As a confederation of states, the region was heavily populated, and governed by different kingdoms at different times in its history. It was, as a result, greatly influenced by foreign cultures and religions such as Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Judaism. The people of the south were not Arabs, but Sabians or Himyarites of Semitic descent, and spoke a Semitic language of their own.
The northern region, on the other hand, was inhabited primarily by two groups: the Bedouins and the settled tribes. The Bedouins were tough, resourceful and as shepherds, constantly on the move. On the outskirts of the deserts, there was a ring of oases where the tribes had settled. Most of the important settlements were in western Arabia, such as Najran, Mecca, Yathrib (Medina) and Taif. The settled tribes relied on agriculture or commerce for their livelihood. Their spoken language was Arabic.
The inhabitants of north and south, however, were constantly interacting with each other. There were Arabs who lived in the south and there were Sabian communities in the north. In fact, it was the south that helped urbanize the north-west by opening up the deserts to trade and shifting the world commerce route to western Arabia. This, in turn, created among the Arabs of the north, a new type of settlement, the caravan city, and a new type of community, the community of traders.
In the sixth century, with the outbreak of international wars and the weakening of major powers that controlled the south, the region began to disintegrate and experienced a breakdown of its political and economic structure. At the same time, Mecca emerged as a new economic and social force in Arabia. Its geographical position on the spice route, half-way between Yathrib and Najran, the strongholds of Judaism and Christianity, respectively, made Mecca a caravan station and a holy city at the same time. The religious life was based on idolatry and polytheism; the object of worship was a trio of goddesses, al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat, considered to be daughters of a deity called Allah. Mecca's status as a holy city brought the nomads and the sedentary people together. During some months of the year, known as the Sacred Months, the Arabs would flock to Mecca and the neighboring region. This further promoted the supremacy of Mecca, and helped unify the Arabs. The perfection of the classical Arabic and the art of poetry by the Bedouins also contributed to the Arab unity. The Bedouins of central Arabia, who for centuries had been associated with foreign powers or Arab clients of foreign powers, were now drawn to the Arabs of Mecca who were independent of foreign rule and whose indigenous Arab culture the Bedouins could relate to. (P.M. Holt, et al, ed., The Cambridge History of Islam, Volume 1. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1970, p. 23). As the dominant power in Arabia in the century before Islam, Mecca, as well as other tribes in the north, deserve the most attention when examining the status of women.
The Impact of the Tribal System on Women
One cannot fairly address womens position in pre-Islamic Arabia without an understanding of the tribal system. For it was the tribal structure and customs that had the greatest impact on womens rights. The tribe was the main unit of the society before Islam. Each tribe consisted of a group of kindred clans; every clan was made up of members of a "hayy" which was an encampment of tents; each tent represented a family. The bond of blood connected together all members of the same tribe, who submitted to the authority of one chief ("shaykh"); the tribes chief was usually selected by the clan elders from one of the prominent families, and acted as an arbitrator to the internal conflicts. "Banu" (Children of) was the title with which they prefixed their joint names. The fact that certain clans prefixed their names with feminine names is perhaps an indication of an ancient matriarchal culture that existed in Arabia long before Islam. Group solidarity ("asabiyah") was the spirit of the tribe. It signified unconditional loyalty to fellow tribesmen. "Be loyal to thy tribe," was the motto of the time. "The clan's claim upon its members was strong enough to make a husband give up his wife." (Hitti, p. 27)
The tribe was a unit by itself, and regarded every other tribe as an enemy, unless they had forged alliances to protect one another. There was no centralized infrastructure to protect people and their property. In order to survive, every individual had to be affiliated with a tribe. Although some form of customary arbitration existed between different tribes, both Bedouins as well as the settled populations of Mecca and Medina often resorted to warfare as a means of settling disputes and maintaining order.
Laws and customs in this tribal society varied from one area to another. For this reason, we find different accounts of womens status during the days of Jahiliyyah. On the one hand, there are indications that women held high positions in the society and exerted great influence. They freely chose their husbands, had the right to divorce, and could return to their own people if they were not happy or well-treated. In some cases, they even proposed marriage. They were regarded as equals, not as slaves and were the inspiration of many poets and warriors. An example of a brave woman from this era is Fukayha who protected a man seeking refuge in her tent while being pursued by the enemy. She courageously covered him with her smock, and with her sword drawn, prevented his pursuers from capturing him until her brothers came to his defense, thereby saving his life. Many women had the gift of poetry, which they often dedicated to the dead. The fact that a hero's mother and sisters were deemed most worthy of mourning and praising him is cited as a proof of the high character and position of women in pre-Islamic Arabia. (R.A. Nicholson, A Literary History of The Arabs. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, reprinted 1966, p. 88)
But Arabia before Islam was a society where there were no rules, except that the strong dominated the weak. It seems reasonable to expect that a natural byproduct of such society would be the oppression of women. In fact, alongside the examples of strong and independent women, there are numerous reports of women having an inferior status. Female infanticide, for instance, was practiced by fathers who did not value their daughters as much as they valued their sons. In areas, such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, women were often deprived of their basic rights- to choose their husbands freely, to divorce if ill-treated or to inherit from their families. Even the poetry praising women focused primarily on their physical attributes; seldom was there any appreciation of moral beauty (Nicholson, p. 88), indicating that women were more the subject of lust than respect. We will now address the specific issues related to women in this society.
There is no doubt that Arabs committed infanticide before Islam. It was not a new thing nor was it limited to one group of tribes. Young girls were usually the victims of this dreadful practice, however, young boys may have also been killed once there were no more girls left. It was said proverbially, "The dispatch of daughters is a kindness" and "The burial of daughters is a noble deed." (Nicholson, p. 90) In Arabia, as among other primitive people, child-murder was carried out in such a way that no blood was shed, the infant was buried alive. Often the grave was ready by the side of the bed on which the daughter was born. (W. Robertson Smith, Kinship & Marriage in Early Arabia. London, Adam and Charles Black, 1903, p. 293) Although the practice of infanticide had once been general, it had nearly died out by the time of the prophet, except among a few tribes, such as the Tamim.
Female infanticide was usually prompted by one of two reasons: fear of poverty or fear of disgrace. The first reason is associated with the frequent famines caused by lack of rain and the fear of poverty that would result from providing for girls who were viewed as less productive than boys. Fathers were afraid that they would have useless mouths to feed, since daughters were considered mere "ornaments," as pointed out in the Quran:
... if any of them is given the glad tiding of [the birth of] what he so readily attributes to the Most Gracious, his face darkens, and he is filled with suppressed anger: What! [Am I to have a daughter-] one who is to be reared [only] for the sake of ornament? - thereupon he finds himself torn by a vague inner conflict...(43:15-19)
The Quran admonishes the Arabs against killing their children for fear of poverty and promises sustenance for them:
Hence, do not kill your children for fear of poverty: it is we who shall provide sustenance for them as well as for you. Verily, killing them is a great sin. (17:31)
The second reason for infanticide is a perverted sense of pride on the part of the fathers who wanted to avoid shame and disgrace, should their daughters be captured by the enemy in war, a common occurrence at that time. The murder of female children for fear of disgrace began with Qais Bin Assem, a leader of Tamim, as related in the following story (Smith, p. 292):
"Mosharmaraj the Yashkorite raided the sa'd and carried off, among other women, the daughter of a sister of Qais, who was then married to the son of her captor. When Qais came to ransom her, she refused to leave her husband. Qais was so indignant that he killed all his girls by burying them alive and never again allowed a daughter to live. One daughter born in his absence was sent by the mother to her own kin and on Qais's return he was told by his wife that she had been delivered of a dead child. Years passed on till the girl grew up and came one day to visit her mother. "I came in," so Qais himself told Muhammed, and saw the girl. Her mother had plaited her hair, and put rings in the side-locks, and strung them with sea-shells and put on her a chain of cowries, and given her a necklace of dried dates. I said, "who is this pretty girl?" and her mother wept and said, "She is your daughter," and told me how she had saved her alive. So I waited till the mother ceased to be anxious about her, then I led her out one day and dug a grave and laid her in it, she crying, "Father , what are you doing with me?" Then I covered her up with the earth, and she still cried, "Father, are you going to bury me? Are you going to leave me alone and go away?" but I went on filling in the earth till I could hear her cries no loner; and that is the only time that I felt pity when I buried a daughter."
It is reported that Qais's example found imitators until every chief destroyed his daughters for fear they might cause him shame. (Smith P. 292).
It seems reasonable to conclude that the murder of a daughter to avoid shame, under the horrible circumstances described in this story, is altogether different from the ordinary type of infanticide practiced on newborn infants in primitive nations. This suggests that the two motives for infanticide were unrelated. The scarcity of food during famines had perhaps more to do with the origin of infanticide than family pride, since the nomads of Arabia suffered constantly from hunger during most of the year. The only persons who had enough to eat were great men, and it was them who, following Qaiss precedent, killed their daughters out of pride. (Smith, p. 294) To the poor people, daughters were a burden, and killing them was a natural means of survival, as it was to other savage people.
In fact, infanticide was not limited to Arabia. It was and continues to be practiced in many different cultures. "The ancient Greeks destroyed weak, deformed or unwanted children; the Chinese wanted many sons and few daughters and did not let some infants, particularly daughters survive. Japanese farmers spoke of infanticide as "thinning out" as they did with their rice fields. In India, many daughters were not allowed to live. Eskimos left babies out in the snow, while in the Brazilian jungle, undesired infants were left under the trees. In London, in the 1860s, dead infants were a common sight in parks and ditches. In 19th century Florence, children were abandoned or sent to wet nurses who neglected them, while during the same period in France, thousands of infants were sent to wet nurses in the countryside, never to return. In some parts of Africa and New Guinea, an infant is buried with its mother if the mother dies in childbirth or soon after." (Glen Hausfater, et al, ed. Infanticide. New York, Aldine Publishing Company, 1984, p. 439)
Infanticide has been practiced for various reasons ranging from population control to maintenance of the social structure. It has been so common that an anthropologist has called it "the most widely used method of population control during much of human history." (Hausfater, p. 440) Today, in many countries female infant mortality rate is higher than that of boys. This usually is the case in cultures where the cost of raising daughters is high, either due to lower prestige or the need to accumulate a large dowry which is paid to the husband upon marriage (as in India), or where males are more valued than females. In China, for instance, female babies are sometimes drowned, and mothers of daughters are sometimes beaten. The reason can be found in the governments population control policy which does not allow a couple to have more than one child. Since boys can pass on the family name and are capable of generating more income, the girls become dispensable. Historically speaking, the rules and norms devaluing women and providing the motive for female infanticide stem from warfare which has always valued men more as fighters.
In the tribal society, the tribe was the main entity and focus of concern. As members of the tribe, men worked hard to earn their living, and supported their tribe by providing it with all the power that it needed. Marrying women, for the most part, had the purpose of increasing the number of the tribe's members and in turn, its power. Thus the family was overshadowed by the tribe, and its formation was left to personal discretion, unless a marriage might hurt the tribe in one way or another. Because of the emphasis on the tribe and the variation of customs, marriage was a flexible, loose institution with no strict, uniformed rules. Based on the literary sources as well as the forbidden marriages mentioned in the Quran and sunna, it is likely that the following forms of marriage existed in pre-Islamic Arabia at one time or another:
Marriage by agreement This was usually an agreement between the man and the womans family. If the husband was from another tribe, the woman often left her family and found a permanent home in her husband's tribe. The tribe which received the woman kept her children, unless there was a special contract to restore the offspring of the marriage to the mother's people. The children were, therefore, of the tribe's kin and not of the mother's. In some other tribes, it was customary that the woman did not leave her own tribe but either married someone within the tribe or a married a stranger who agreed to stay with her family. In this case, the children belonged to the mother's tribe and grew up under their protection. The women of these tribes enjoyed more freedom, and had the right to dismiss their husbands at will. "If they lived in a tent they turned it around, so that if the door faced east, it now faced west, and when the man saw this, he knew that he was dismissed and did not enter." (Smith p. 80) Marriage on these terms were out of the question if the woman did not remain with her own tribe.
Marriage by capture This was a universal practice before Islam. In times of war, women were often captured and taken to the slave market of a trading place such as Mecca and sold into marriage or slavery. It was Islam that made women immune to attack or capture in war time. In this marriage, the woman followed her husband, and bore children who belonged to him. She became his property and completely lost her freedom. Her husband had absolute authority over her, including the exclusive right to divorce. Accordingly, in this kind of marriage, which has been classified as a "marriage of dominion" ("Ba'al"), the husband was called the womans lord or owner, not just in Arabia but also among the Hebrews.
Marriage by purchase - In this marriage, the woman's family gave her away for a price, also called the dowry ("mahr"), which usually consisted of camels and horses. It replaced marriage by capture when the tribes began developing friendly relations, but it brought the woman practically into the same oppressive conditions as a captive wife. The emergence of this type of marriage perhaps contributed to the decline of female infanticide. Selling a daughter for a large dowry became much more profitable than burying her in the ground. (Azizah Al-Hibri, A Study of Islamic Herstory: Or How Did We Ever Get Into This Mess?, Womens Studies International Forum. Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1982, p. 209) It was a point of honor not to give away a woman in an unequal match. "If you cannot find an equal match, the best marriage for them is the grave." (Smith, p. 97) The Arabs, therefore, were not inclined to sell their daughters too cheap, and required substantial compensation for their loss.
Marriage by inheritance This was a widespread custom throughout Arabia, including Medina and Mecca, whereby the heir of the deceased inherited his wife. He could then keep her as a wife, give her away in marriage for a dowry or forbid her from remarriage altogether. It is related in Tabari's commentary : "In the Jahiliyyah when a man's father or brother or son died and left a widow, the dead man's heir, if he came at once and threw his garment over her, had the right to marry her under the dowry of her deceased husband or to give her in marriage and take her dowry. But if she anticipated him and went off to her own people, then the disposal of her hand belonged to herself." (Smith, 105) The marital rights, therefore, were rights of property which could then be inherited and sold, if the heir so pleased. This type of marriage, which was abolished under Islam, was also common among the Semites.
Temporary ("Mot'a") marriage This was a purely personal contract founded on consent between a man and a woman without any intervention on the part of the woman's family. There was no need for witnesses. In this type of marriage, the woman did not leave her home, her people gave up no rights which they had over her, and the children of the marriage did not belong to the husband, nor were they entitled to an inheritance. Another legend of ancient Arabia, Omm Kharija, was said to have contracted marriages in more than twenty tribes, and lived among her sons. This indicates that the children of the marriage did not follow their respective fathers. "For this marriage to take place, all that was needed was that the man should say "suitor" and that she should reply "I wed." and the marriage was straightway accomplished without a witness." (Smith, p. 86) This marriage was practiced mostly by strangers and travelers, and in return for a price payable by the man to the woman. Because of this price, the woman could not dismiss her husband for a certain length of time that she had agreed to upon marriage.
There were other types of marriage or cohabitation such as secret cohabitation, which has been frequently described in Arabic poetry. In this case, the woman only received occasional visits from the man she loved. The man often belonged to a hostile tribe and visited his lover in secret. Although the poets usually boasted of them as forbidden love affairs, the relations were usually well-known and not a cause of shame or punishment for the woman; the secrecy was simply a matter of etiquette. Marriage by exchange was another form of marriage where a man could exchange his wife or daughter for another man's wife or daughter without having to pay a dowry. Polygamy (marrying more than one wife) was also commonly practiced, not just by the Arabs but Jews and Christians as well. It is reported that a man could have as many as 100 wives. There are also indications that polyandry (marrying more than one husband) existed which had its roots in an ancient, defunct matriarchal culture. Wife-lending was a practice whereby husbands allowed their wives to live with "men of distinction" to produce noble offspring. The husband, who abstained while his wife lived with the other man, would then be socially considered the father of the child. In some tribes, service marriage was common. When a man was unable to pay the dowry, he agreed to serve the girl's father or kin for a period of time sufficient to earn the bride price. In experimental cohabitation, allowed in some tribes, men could live with young women before marriage. If they liked each other, they would enter into a marriage agreement. Otherwise, there was no commitment on either side. A man could also have as many concubines as he could afford. Keeping concubines coexisted with polygamy among the Semites for two basic reasons. Childless wives preferred their husband's living with slave girls than marrying another free woman. When the slave gave birth, the child was identified with the wife of her master. The second reason was that polygamy was costly and it was more economical to keep concubines instead. (Hammudah Abd al Ati, The Family Structure in Islam. American Trust Publications, 1977, p. 98-102)
Women of Mecca were in a relatively better position than women in Medina, although marriages by capture and purchase were also practiced in Mecca. Bedouin women, on the other hand, enjoyed more freedom and asserted themselves more strongly than women of the sedenatry tribes. The reason for this perhaps was due to the conditions of nomad life, which "made the strict seclusion of women impossible, and so it allowed for the development of a more independent female character." (Smith, p. 122) Although the Bedouin woman lived in a polygamous family and under a marriage of dominion, she could freely choose a husband and leave him if not treated well.
It can be concluded then that marriage in pre-Islamic Arabia was defined by the prevailing custom of the tribes, and influenced by the Jewish and Christian traditions. What preserved any sense of dignity for women under the humiliating conditions of most marriages was the weight attached to the bond of blood. In Arabia a woman did not change her kin on marriage and continued to have a claim on the help and protection of her own people. Although the marriage agreement often gave her husband complete control over her, a womans tribal affiliations set her apart from the slaves who had no helpers. A man was encouraged not to marry a woman from his own tribe so that she would have no kin nearby to take her side, thereby preventing ugly family feuds. The advantage of kinship naturally disappeared if the husband took his wife to a remote region. In this case, she was no longer a free woman. In one incident, the Jews of Medina ventured to insult an Arab woman married to a citizen of Medina, because she was of a strange kin, who had no one to protect her. (Smith, p. 124) This is why under some marriage agreements the husbands were prevented from carrying their wives away to strange places.
Of all the different forms of marriage and cohabitation practiced in pre-Islamic Arabia, only marriage by agreement slightly resembles the form of marriage permitted under Islam. But what sets the Islamic marriage apart from the pre-Islamic practices is that Islam acknowledged woman as a human entity with rights of her own. Marriage, therefore, became a contract between a woman and the man she had chosen to marry, and the dowry became a gift to her, rather than to her father.
As marriage was often an arrangement between the husband and the womans father, so was divorce. To cancel the marriage and get his daughter back, the father had to return the dowry or purchase price. But if a husband did not get back the dowry, the woman could not be free because the husband had purchased the exclusive right, similar to the right of property, to use the woman as a wife. Upon divorce, a divorced woman could also be claimed by her ex-husbands heirs, just as she would be upon his death. While Islamic law forbade remarriage to a woman who was divorced in pregnancy, in pre-Islamic Arabia, a pregnant divorced woman could be taken by another man under agreement with her former husband.
Women were usually excluded from inheriting from their families. The reason for this inequity again has to do with the tribal structure of the society where the strength of each tribe depended on the ability of its members to participate in war. This resulted in inheritance being based on the principle of "comradeship in arms;" since men were physically stronger and better fighters, it led to the exclusion from inheritance of women, minors of both sexes and invalids as well as in the preference of the paternal to the maternal lines. (Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of Caliphates. New York, Longman Inc., 1986, p.18)
If a woman did have the right of inheritance, it was usually among the tribes where there were still traces of an ancient matriarchal culture which dictated that the woman remain with her tribe after marriage. In this case, whatever she inherited would stay within the tribe and pass on to her children who belonged to her kin. In other types of marriage where the woman left her tribe, her rights of inheritance were reduced as much as possible, since her inheritance would fall in the hands of another tribe.
In places such as Medina, where marriage by purchase was the rule, women fared much worse. She could not inherit because she herself was part of her husband's estate to be inherited. In fact, when Islam mandated that sisters and daughters were entitled to a share of inheritance, men of Medina protested against the rule. Mecca had more advanced laws in regards to inheritance, perhaps because it had been influenced by higher civilizations through its commercial contacts with Palestine and Persia, and some Meccans having lived in Roman cities like Gaza. It was in Mecca that Khadija, for instance, led a perfectly independent life as a wealthy widow engaged in a lucrative caravan trade. Her estate included real property because she gave her daughter Zainab a house. It can be concluded then that Meccan women could hold property before Islam. Furthermore, because Mecca was considered a holy city and as a result, immune to invasion, the argument used in Medina, that no one should inherit who could not fight and defend property, no longer applied. (Smith, p. )
The Advent of Islam
In most tribes of pre-Islamic Arabia, it has been shown, women were deprived of their basic rights, such as the right to choose a husband, to divorce, and to inherit from their family. In some others, they had a better position. They could marry and divorce at will, engage in trade and hold property. What dictated the status of women, therefore, was the tribal customs and traditions. In absence of a central government, it was the tribe that served as the highest legal authority. As the supreme bond of the land, the paternal/tribal bond overshadowed all others.
The advent of Islam shifted the focus from the tribe to the individual, balanced by the concept of community and family, and instituted a system in which everyone was equal, regardless of his/her gender, race, age or wealth. Under Islam, it was the moral and religious principles, not tribal affiliations, that defined womens rights. Islam acknowledged women as free human beings with full rights of their own. With freedom must come responsibilities and obligations. This has led some to argue that women were more restricted after Islam vis-a-vis Jahiliyya, which may in fact be true in a few tribes that were not as oppressive to women as others. However, Islam improved the conditions of all women, regardless of which tribe they belonged to. It restored womens dignity and elevated their status, on the whole, to be equal to that of men.
The advent of Islam brought profound changes to the Arabian society in general and to women in particular. Islam reversed or abolished the repressive and cruel practices committed against women such as female infanticide. Where women's rights were taken away or ignored, Islam restored them, and where women enjoyed any degree of freedom, Islam reinforced and enhanced it. Islamic teachings emphasized the fact that the general principles of equality, freedom, independence and rights of women are not to be confined to or defined by social or cultural norms, but that they are ordained by God. The primary goal of divine law (Sharia) is to institute justice in the land, to eliminate injustice and protect the human rights of all members of society, regardless of their gender, race or religion. Islam, therefore, sought to secure the rights of not only women, but also those of minorities such as Christians, Jews, orphans and slaves who were also subjected to abusive treatment at the time. The Islamic movement was truly a revolutionary movement in regards to women's rights. It elevated the status of women to one equal to that of men and secured their legitimate rights- rights that women, for centuries, were deprived of- not only in Arabia, but all over the globe. But what distinguishes Islamic emancipation of women from other revolutionary movements, such as the Industrial Revolution, is that it arose not out of evolutionary necessity but out of Divine writ and Godly justice.
As profound as the women's rights advocated by Islam may be, however, by no means are they exhaustive. The message of Islam is a universal message intended to guide all of mankind for eternity. But in order to survive and thrive, the Quran had to be addressed to, understood and accepted by the Arabs of the 6th century. This concept is crucial to understanding the status of women in Islam and the extent of their rights as well as their obligations. The rights of women established in the Quran, although progressive in their essence and content, were limited in their scope and implementation in order to suit the human society which received the divine message at the time. As we approach the end of the 20th century and taking into account the enormous socio-economic changes that have taken place since the time of the Prophet, women's rights must be extended to the best of what they can mean in our modern time. Based on the Quranic teachings of what is fair (al adl) and what is generous and perfect (al-ihsan), we must go beyond the literal or interpretative limitations and examine the Quran's underlying principles which promote the equality of men and women- morally, spiritually, intellectually, socially and politically. It is this general principle that should serve as our guiding light in defining women's rights