One of the most sensitive and oft-debated issues with regard to Islam concerns the status and role of women in society. Arguably one of the aspects of social life which the emergence of Islam affected most was the status of women, with “the Qur’an hav[ing] more to say about the position of women than any other social question.”1 At the time of its revelation in the seventh century, the Qur’an exacted considerable change in Arabian society regarding the question of women and continued to do so in the centuries that followed. The principles outlined in the Qur’an which determine the lives of Muslim women can be outlined in several distinct terms. These include the social, spiritual and economic status of women. In order to discuss the multiple nature of Islam’s reformations to the position of women, an exploration of pre-Islamic Arabian society, especially its sociopolitical, economic and religious landscape, and a comparison to Qur’anic principles, is required.
The social milieu that provided the background for the emergence of Islam in Arabia is described by Muslims in one term: Jahiliyya, or The Age of Ignorance.2 Armstrong argues that this term was not used to define a historical era but to illustrate the spirit that pervaded this time of “spiritual and moral crisis,”3 thus referring “to a state of mind that caused violence and terror in seventh-century Arabia.”4 Women were not exempt from this violence and social crisis: infanticide, the burying alive of baby girls, was rife; marriage was not sanctioned;5 women did not have the right of inheritance and bequest; they were not treated fairly during divorce; and women were not afforded full control of their wealth.6 It is in placing the Qur’an and its principles against the backdrop of such a setting that the reformist spirit of Islam, which restores the true human character, can be seen.
One of the most important principles detailed in the Qur’an which regulates the lives of Muslim women is the spiritual status assigned to women. Viewed by Muslims as the literal word of God, the Qur’an is taken to be the means through which God makes Himself known and describes His laws.7 When Islam emerged in tribal Arabia, religion reflected the tribal nature of society and its social structure.8 Polytheism and idolatry were dominant, with the Ka‘ba, the shrine revered since the time of Abraham, housing 360 idols. Families banded together to form clans and clans came together to form tribes; tribal allegiance was the most important factor governing an individual’s position in society. One of the points discussed with reference to women in pre-Islamic society is the level of their participation in religious rites and traditions. Some have argued that, while being seen as improving the rights of women, the advent of Islam in fact restricted them. Leila Ahmed, most notably, includes among the roles of Jahiliyya women, “priestesses, soothsayers, prophetesses” and “warrior-leaders.”9 However, in his discussion of the feminine in Islamic mysticism, Elias locates the chief reason for women’s involvement in soothsaying, blackmagic and such occupations, as being women’s exclusion from religion.10 Islam’s emergence drastically altered the spiritual landscape of Arabia for women. One of the most important principles outlined in the Qur’an is the notion of religious, moral and spiritual, obligations being incumbent upon all individuals, regardless of sex. The Qur’an states, for example: “Those who submit to God and accept the true Faith; who are devout, sincere, patient, humble charitable, and chaste; who fast and are ever mindful of God-on these, both men and women, God will bestow forgiveness and a rich recompense.”11 Listing this and another ten sections from the Qur’an, Stowasser claims that these Qur’anic references “converge to establish the absence of the doctrine of woman’s spiritual inferiority in Koranic teaching.”12 Moreover, in contrast to the central concept of Original Sin in Christianity and Judaism, the Qur’an never mentions that woman is the devil’s gateway or a deceiver by nature:
The Qur’an clearly rejects any such notion of the “inherent” evil of woman. It explicitly demands respect for her “inherent” good as potential child-bearer (and primary nurturer). It places her on absolute par with men in terms of the spiritual potential (to know and serve Allah) and the potential to attain Paradise, provided she and he strive to realize such potential.13
The Qur’anic principle of spiritual and moral obligation has meant that women, from the very early days of Islam, have played an essential role, not just in practising the faith and engaging in Islamic mysticism,14 but also in writing the official history of Islam and compiling foundational works establishing the standards of religious and social practice for Islamic society.15
Another essential principle pertaining to women which is woven through the fabric of the Qur’an is that of marriage. Ahmed identifies marriage as the area where Islam has introduced the greatest reform, with no institution of marriage present at the advent of Islam.16 The reformist nature of Islam, however, lay not just in introducing new regulations, but also in overlaying new ideas to existing practice.17 While the institution of marriage, for instance, did not exist in the traditional form in pre-Islamic Arabia, there were different forms of it that were present.18 The Qur’an defines marriage as a contract between man and woman, with both assuming equal, though not identical, places. It sees the institution and the sexual relations between husband and wife not as shameful, but as commendable:
By another sign He created for you spouses from among yourselves, that you might live in peace with them, and planted love and kindness in your hearts.19
The status of women and the family in Islamic society was thus the product chiefly of Qur’anic prescriptions, which endure in affecting the lives of Muslim women.
As a final point, the economic principles detailed in the Qur’an provided such rights to women that women in the rest of the “civilized” world would have to wait until the nineteenth century for these rights to be recognized and granted.20 With the advent of Islam, women were granted the right to inherit and bequeath property, have possession and complete control of their wealth and receive a dowry, while married and after divorce.21 The economic autonomy detailed in the Qur’an was perhaps one of the most striking reforms at the time, and still continues to be discussed today.
The principles outlined in the Qur’an which regulate the lives of Muslim women transformed the tribal society in which Islam emerged. While a satisfactory evaluation of each of these principles is beyond the scope of this paper, it is axiomatic that the transformations that Islam induced have had far-reaching implications for the lives of Muslim women and have directly impacted how these lives are played out in ever-changing societies.
Fulya Celik is coordinator of Religious Studies at a private college.
1. A. Guillaume, Islam, 2nd edn, Harmondsworth, 1956, p.71.
2. H. Smith, ‘Islam’, The World’s Religions, San Francisco, 1991, p.223.
3. Karen Armstrong, Muhammad:Prophet for Our Time, London, 2006, p.34.
4. Ibid., p.19-20.
5. L. Ahmed, ‘Women and the Advent of Islam’, Signs, Summer 1986, p.668.
6. B.F. Stowasser, ‘The Status of Women in Early Islam’, in Hussein, F (ed), Muslim Women, New York, 1984, pp.15-17.
7. Smith, ‘Islam’, p.235.
8. J.L Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, New York, 2005, p.3.
9. Ahmed, ‘Women and the Advent of Islam’, p.691.
10. J.J. Elias, ‘Female and Feminine in Islamic Mysticism’, Muslim World, July/Oct 1988, p.214.
11. N.J Dawood, The Koran, London, 2003, p.296. (Ahzab 33:35).
12. Stowasser, ‘The Status of Women in Early Islam’, pp.20–23.
13. A. Wadud, Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, New York, 1999, p.99.
14. See Elias, “Female and Feminine in Islamic Mysticism.”
15. Ahmed, “Women and the Advent of Islam,” p.671.
16. Ibid., p.667.
17. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, p.94.
18. Ahmed, “Women and the Advent of Islam,” p.670.
19. Dawood, The Koran, p.285. (Rum 30:21).
20. Esposito, 2005.
21. Stowasser, ‘The Status of Women in Early Islam’, p.15-18.