The Condition of Women before Islam
Islam came at a time when women all over the world were being oppressed
and exploited. The most any society would accord the woman was to admit that she was part of the human race. They never admitted
her dignity or gave her rights and responsibilities equal to those of men. The Greeks considered her to be an object of pleasure
and amusement. This view was articulated in the classical texts most unambiguously:
We take prostitutes for pleasure, lovers to care for our daily health, and wives to give us legitimate children.
The Romans gave the father and husband the right to sell her to whomever they pleased.
The Arabs gave
the son the right to inherit the wife of his father (not his own mother) just like he would inherit his father’s wealth
and his steed! That is if she were lucky enough not to have been buried alive at birth.
This was the case with the
rest of the world’s societies at that time, like those of the Persians and the Hindus.
Women remained in this
horrible state without protesting or rebelling against it. No one else was to do so either. Nor were there any social or economic
developments that would require a betterment of her status.
Then Islam came, proclaiming her rights and her equality
with men. It established for her all of her rights to bring her out of the miserable state that she was in and elevate her
to the noble status that she deserves.
How did this happen?
Equality Between Men and Women in Islam
Islam establishes the principle of equality between men and women
in all aspects of life that they are equal in, because both of them are equally human. It does however distinguishes between
them in some areas, taking into consideration the natural differences between them and the special qualities that each of
Equality between men and women in Islam is derived from the following considerations: 1. Equality
in their human origins:
Islam conclusively establishes that all human beings have a common origin. This fact is mentioned
in many verses of the Qur’ān:
- O Mankind, fear your Lord who created you from a single soul and created from it its mate and brought forth
from the two of them many men and women. 2.
Equality in their common destiny:
- O Mankind, verily we created you from a male and a female and made you
into nations and tribes so you may know one another. Verily the most honorable of you with Allah are the most righteous.
Islam also establishes that all of mankind is going to return to Allah who created
them, and everyone – male and female – is going to be recompensed for his or her worldly deeds. They will receive
well if they did good and they will be requited with evil if they did evil. Allah says:
- And every one of you will come to Him alone on the Day of Resurrection.
- A human being will have nothing
except for what he does. And his deeds will be seen. Then he will be recompensed fully.
- So their Lord accepted of
them their supplication and answered them: ‘I will never allow the work of any of you to be lost, male or female. You
are from each other.
- Whoever works righteousness as a believer, whether male or female, we will truly give a good
life and We shall pay them a reward in proportion to the best of what they used to do.
Women's Rights in Islam
We should point out that human rights in Islam are not merely rights but are religious
obligations. This means that it is obligatory for every person to protect them and restore them if they are taken away. It
is equally obligatory upon society to make sure that every individual can enjoy his or her rights to the fullest.
has secured for the woman every human right. This includes her intellectual, religious, social, economic and political rights.
Intellectual and Religious Rights
Islam has guaranteed every man and woman the right to think and believe
as they choose. It considers thinking and investigating to be an obligation upon every human being. There are numerous verses
in the Qur’ān that encourage people to think about and investigate the phenomena both in the world around them and in
the wonder of life itself. Allah says:
- Do they not look in the dominion of the heavens and the Earth and all the things that Allah has created?”
- Say (O Muhammad): “Behold all that is in the Heavens and the Earth.’ But neither signs nor warners benefit
those who do not believe.”
- Say: “‘Travel in the land and see how Allah originated Creation.”
- Say (O Muhammad): “I exhort you to one thing only: that you stand up for Allah’s sake together and individually
and reflect: there is no madness in your companion (Muhammad).”
As for the right to one’s own belief,
Islam has guaranteed it and forbidden anyone to compel another to change his or her belief. Allah says:
- There is no compulsion in religion. Verily, the true path is clearly distinct from error.
- So, will
you (O Muhammad) then compel mankind so they will become believers?
- You (O Muhammad) are merely a warner. You are
not a dictator over them.
The Qur’ān threatens those who persecute believing men and women in order to
turn them from their faith:
Verily those who persecute the believing men and women and then do not turn to Allah in repentance, they will
have the punishment of Hell, and they will have the punishment of the Fire.
From all of these texts, the independent
religious identity of the woman becomes quite clear. No one else can impose upon her what she should believe. She must, of
her own free will, decide what to believe. Allah says:
- O you who believe, if believing women come to you as emigrants, examine them. Allah knows best their faith.
Then, if you ascertain that they are true believers, do not send them back to the disbelievers.
- O Prophet, if believing
women come to you to give you their pledge that they will not associate anything in worship with Allah, nor steal, nor commit
fornication, nor kill their children, nor commit slander, nor forge falsehood (to making illegitimate children belong to their
husbands), nor disobey you in goodness, then accept their pledge and ask Allah to forgive them. Verily, Allah is Oft-Forgiving,
- O wives of the Prophet! Whoever of you commits manifest lewdness will have a double punishment. This
is easy for Allah. And whoever of you is obedient to Allah and His Messenger and works righteous deeds will be given a double
When Islam came, women accepted Islam and made the emigration to Madinah, even though their fathers,
husbands, and the rest of their male relatives remained disbelievers. Umm Habībah, the daughter of Abū Sufyān, accepted Islam
and emigrated in spite of the fact that her father was one of the leaders of the disbelievers. Even when her husband abandoned
Islam, she remained steadfast in her belief.
Fātimah, the daughter of al-Khattāb, became Muslim before her brother
`Umar did and was the cause for him accepting Islam, because of her faith and because she stood up to him when he found out
about her becoming a Muslim and wanted to abuse her.
Umm Kulthūm, the daughter of `Uqbah b. Abī Mu`īt, accepted Islam
and emigrated in spite of the fact that every member of her family remained polytheists.
There were many women who
accepted Islam and were the reasons for their husbands accepting Islam. Umm Sulaym – the wife of Abū Talhah al-Ansārī
– and Umm Hakīm bint Huzām – the wife of `Ikrimah b. Abī Jahl – were among these women.
Social and Economic Rights
Not only does Islam recognize her right to think and believe as she likes, it
considers her to be an active member of society who can make a valuable contribution. Islam, therefore, secures for her many
rights, including the right to an education, the right to own property and to use it at her own discretion, and the right
to work. 1. The right to an education:
In Islam, seeking knowledge is a religious duty upon every man and woman.
This is because knowledge is integral to Islamic life. In the light of knowledge, a person’s eyes are opened. This person
can then worship the Lord with proper insight and understanding. Allah says:
Read in the name of your Lord who created. Who created the human being from a clot. Read, and your Lord is the
Most Generous. Who taught by the pen. Who taught the human being what he knew not.
Knowledge is a gift from Allah
to every human being. Consequently, it is a right granted to all. No man or woman may be barred from it. The woman’s
right to knowledge is exactly the same as a man’s. She must know the teachings of her religion and may acquire a deep
understanding thereof. The verse mentioned above is addressed to all humanity, ordering them to read and to learn. It was
the first verse of the Qur’ān to be revealed. It does not differentiate between men and women.
This is what
the woman enjoyed since the first days of Islam’s history. Women used to compete with men in attaining knowledge at
the mosque and at the houses of Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him). Their strong desire for knowledge made the women
ask the Messenger (peace be upon him) to set aside a special day for teaching them, above and beyond the general lessons that
were open to women and men alike. Allah’s Messenger did, in fact, set aside a special day to remind them and to teach
Due to the care given by the women and the attention to knowledge given by Islam, many great scholars, jurists,
writers, and poets appeared among the women during the era of the Companions and the Successors, and during every era of Islamic
history. 2. The right to own and dispose of property:
This is established by the Qur’ān in many of its
verses. Allah says:
- Men have a share of what they earn and women have a share of what they earn.
- Men have a share of what
their parents and relatives leave behind, and women have a share of what their parents and relatives leave behind, whether
the estate be small or large – a legal share.
- And give to the women their dowries with a good heart; but if
they, of their own good pleasure, remit any part of it to you, take it and enjoy it without fear.
There is consensus
among the scholars of Islam that all economic activities of a woman, like buying, selling, leasing, giving gifts, and giving
collateral, are legally valid and that she has a completely independent economic existence. 3. The right to work:
In Islam, a woman can practice any occupation that she chooses, as long as that occupation is lawfully permitted for men and
women to engage in. There is no restriction placed upon her in this. From the dawn of Islam, women engaged in many occupations
such as commerce, agriculture, and manufacturing.
A woman came to Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) and
said to him: “I am a woman who engages in buying and selling.” She then asked him for the legal rulings pertaining
to some of the commercial transactions that she used to engage in.
Another woman came to him complaining that one
of the men forbade her from working on her farm. Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: “Go work your date
palms; for perhaps you might give some charity or do acts of righteousness.” 4. The right to inheritance:
When Islam established inheritance for the woman, it was the first time in history that women were able to enjoy this right.
The Qur’ān establishes for her this right in a number of its texts. Allah says:
- Men have a share of what their parents and relatives leave behind, and women have a share of what their parents
and relatives leave behind, whether the estate be small or large – a legal share. 5. The right to marry:
- Allah commands you regarding
your children’s (inheritance): to the male a portion equal to that of two females; if there are only daughters, two
or more, their share is two-thirds of the inheritance; if only one, her share is half. For parents, a sixth share for each
if the deceased left children. If there are no children and they are the only heirs, the mother has a third…
You have half of what your wives leave if they have no children, but if they leave a child, then you receive a fourth of that
which they leave after payment of legacies that they may have bequeathed or debts. They have a fourth of what you leave behind
if you leave no child, but if you leave a child, they receive an eighth of that which you leave after payment of legacies
that you may have bequeathed or debts. If the man or woman whose inheritance is in question has left no other heirs, but has
left a brother or a sister, each one (if no more than two) gets a sixth, but if they are more than two, they share in a third.
- If a man dies leaving a sister but no child, she shall have half the inheritance. If the deceased is a woman who
left no child, then her brother inherits from her. If they are two sisters, they shall have two-thirds of the inheritance…
Islam establishes for the woman the right to have a choice as to whom she will
share her life with. Allah says:
- And do not prevent them from marrying their (former) husbands if they mutually agree on a reasonable basis.
- When have fulfilled their term (of waiting after the death of their husbands), there is no sin on you if they if
they dispose of themselves in a reasonable manner.
Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: “A
previously married woman has more rights over herself, and a virgin must have her permission sought.”
are cases where Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) annulled the marriages of women who were married against their
In spite of the newness of this terminology, we find, if we review the Islamic texts and
look back on the experience of the early Muslim societies, that Islam has established for the woman rights that can be labeled
political rights. Among these are the following: 1. The right to give consultation:
There are many verses in
the Qur’ān that establish the principle that Muslim affairs, in general, are to be based on mutual consultation. It
is the business of the Muslims to exchange opinions and consult each other on these matters. Allah says:
- And consult them in the affairs.
- And their affairs are by mutual consultation.
general texts pertain equally to both men and women.
We find that Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) would
consult his wives on issues of general import. For example, he consulted with Umm Salamah on the occasion where he had ordered
his Companions to shave their heads and come out of their pilgrim state at Hudaybiyah. They did not do so, because they hated
turning away from Mecca without making pilgrimage to it. She advised him to shave his own head and sacrifice, so he did so
and all the others hurried to follow suit. He then praised her and commended her for her keen intellect.
We find that
the group of people led by `Abd al-Rahman b. `Awf who were active in selecting `Uthmān as Caliph was comprised of both men
and women, whereby “they came to the ladies in their private rooms to seek their consultation with regards to selecting
`Uthmān.” This is what we find in the historical source works. It indicates to us that even those women who remained
concealed in their dwellings were consulted on the matter. 2. Emigration and giving allegiance:
emigrated to Abyssinia and to Madinah. This emigration was equivalent to what we refer to today as seeking political asylum.
This was a time when the Muslims were being oppressed in Mecca and were forbidden from expressing their views and
calling to their faith. They emigrated, seeking a place where they would be afforded the opportunity to practice their rites
and express their beliefs. The first place the Muslims chose to go to was Abyssinia, because at that time it was ruled by
a king who never oppressed anyone in his domain.
Muslim women emigrated during this time, sometimes unaccompanied,
like Umm Kulthūm bint `Uqbah b. Abī Mu`īt and Umm Salamah (may Allah be pleased with them both) did during the women’s
emigration. This is mentioned in the Qur’ān:
O you who believe, if believing women come to you as emigrants, test them.
As for the oath of allegiance,
it is a political and religious pact between the Muslims and Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) that is an expression
of their faith in the Messenger and their political affiliation with his cause. The following verse talks about the oath of
allegiance given by women:
O Prophet, if believing women come to you to give you their pledge that they will not associate anything in worship
with Allah, nor steal, nor commit fornication, nor kill their children, nor commit slander, nor forge falsehood (to make illegitimate
children belong to their husbands), nor disobey you in goodness, then accept their pledge and ask Allah to forgive them. Verily,
Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
This list includes a clause of political significance: “nor
disobey you in goodness...
”3. Enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong:
has established the role of the believing women in enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong. Allah says:
The believers, men and women, are protectors of one another; they enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong.
This duty, just as it includes the responsibility to rectify social ills, also has political dimensions that
manifest themselves in giving advice and admonition to those holding political power.
As for military combat, Islam
has not made it obligatory upon the woman, but it is permissible for her to participate in the war effort, usually as a noncombatant
with duties like getting water to the fighters and tending to the wounded. In spite of this, in some battles, women saw combat.
Umm Sulaym al-Ansāriyyah defended Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) during the battle of Uhud and was wounded about