Women and Islam

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The position of women in the world today falls far short of the ideal. In nearly every corner of the globe and within almost every country, the physical, mental, and social abuse of women is all too apparent. This oppression and exploitation of women has many causes and forms.

In the western nations, specifically the United States, the denigration of women is rooted in the Judea/Christian scripture and tradition. The Biblical story of the creation of Adam and Eve and their subsequent transgression and fall from grace is narrated in the Book of Genesis:

“And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and also gave unto her husband with her; and he did eat.” — [3:6].

“Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thy shall bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. And unto Adam he said, because thy has hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thy eat of it all the days of thy life.”
— [3:16, 17].

The serpent (which represents disorder and disobedience to God) approaches Eve and persuades her that the prohibition against eating the forbidden fruit is unjustified. Eve partakes of the fruit and passes it to Adam who also eats of it. They are thus cursed by God and expelled from the Garden which represents union and harmony (paradise).

In the Biblical account, the blame for the initial disobedience (or sin) is placed squarely on the person of the woman. And regardless of Adam joining her in disobedience to God; his waywardness is seen primarily through the lens of Eve, (who represents the universal woman) and who is depicted as a temptress and as a weak and untrustworthy vessel.

Thus Eve, the Biblical prototype for the original woman is both indicted and convicted for the fall of humanity. And the penalty of her initial transgression (according to Biblical lore) is visited upon the heads of subsequent generations of human beings into infinity. A curse is placed upon all of humanity and everyone is made to suffer for the alleged weakness and guilt of Eve.

This paves the way for the doctrine of vicarious atonement where the innocent are sacrificed or murdered for the guilty. All of this being rooted in the alleged weakness and guilt of the woman and her central role in the Original Sin.

Islam

The Qur’anic account differs on several fundamental points from the Biblical story. Eve is never described as the willing accomplice of Satan in terms of seducing Adam into disobedience. In the Qur’an both the man and the woman share equally in the sin of disobedience to the decree of God. No mention (or importance) is assigned to whether it was the woman or the man that first approached the forbidden tree. They are both held equally responsible. The Qur’an speaks for itself:

“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 advisor. So by deceit she 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: 19-22].

The Qur’an mentions yet another component which leaves no hook for the doctrine of original sin to latch on to. God forgives Adam and his wife after they turn to him with contrite hearts and sincere repentance. Thus there is no platform of blame from which to launch an attack on the spiritual propensity or nature of women. Neither the man nor the woman were cursed, so there is no need for sacrifices in the mode of vicarious atonement for a so-called original and inherited sin. Maulana Muhammad Ali explains:

“From a material as well as a spiritual point of view, Islam recognizes the position of woman to be the same as that of man. Good works bring
the same reward whether to a male or a female: ‘I will not suffer the work of a worker among you to be lost , whether male or female, the one of you being from the other.’ — [3: 194]. Paradise and its blessings are equally for
both: ‘And whoever does good whether male or female, and he (or she) is a believer – these shall enter the Garden.’ — [40: 40; 4:124]. Both shall enjoy the higher life: ‘Whoever does good, whether male or female, and is a believer,
We shall certainly make hin (or her) live a good life.’ — [16:97]. Revelation which is God’s greatest spiritual gift in this life is granted to men and women: “And when the angels said: O Mary, surely, Allah has chosen thee and purified thee” — [3: 41]; “And We revealed to Moses’ mother, saying: Give him suck; thou fearest for him, cast him into the river and fear not nor grieve” — [28: 7]. From a material point of view, woman is recognized as on a par with man. She can earn money and own property just as a man can do and therefore she may, if she feels the need, follow any profession. “For men is the benefit of what they earn” — [4: 32]. She has full control over her property and can dispose of it as she likes: “But if (the women) of themselves be pleased to give you a portion thereof (i.e., of their property), consume it with enjoyment” — [4: 4]. Women can also inherit property as men can: “For men is a share of what the
parents and the near relatives leave, and for women a share of what the parents and the near relatives leave.” — [4:7]. [1]

Sadly, although the position of women is spelled out the Qur’an and there is ample evidence the traditions and seerah of the life of the prophet and his companions which illustrate that women are the equal partners of men, far too many Muslims fail to think and act according to the harmonious design inherent in the relationship between men and women. Instead they act upon the social and psychological poisons that are part of their particular culture. A culture which is not predominately Islamic but is (first and foremost) tied to the norms and/or idiosyncracies of the nation in which they were born and reared, whether Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Britain or the United States.

In short, God has stipulated in the Qur’an that women are equal to men and they are to be treated honorably. The prophet has stated (and showed through his actions) that women are equivalent to men and they are complimentary to each other. Any avowed adherent of Islam that behaves in a way contrary to these directives is at best a bad Muslim and at worst not really a Muslim at all.

Yet because of the blind aping of customs which are antithetical to Islam, the Muslim women finds that she is oppressed, denigrated, underappreciated and looked upon as a second class citizen. This mistreatment of the Muslim woman by her male counterpart has become so widespread that even people in the West (where women are treated as nothing more than sexual outlets for a litany of perversions) are prone to believe Islam is archaic and overbearing to the rights and concerns of women. And even those who follow Islam are guilty of forgetting the Qur’anic injunction:

“And of His signs is this; that He created mates for you from yourselves that you might find quiet of mind in them, and He put between you love compassion. Surely there are signs in this for a people that reflect.” — [30:21].

The Imitation of Western Values and Lifestyles

There is a innate wholesomeness, beauty and dignity in the Muslim woman which is exclusive to her and not found in any other woman. This wholesomeness is the result of her identification with and submission to God. Unlike many non-Muslim woman, the Muslimah does not equate her identity (or her worth) with her similarity or her proximity to men. Indeed her gauge of measurement is dependent upon her closeness to the ideals, directives and decrees made known to her through the Light of God as revealed in the Qur’an. Since she has submitted her will to God in Islam, and because she is God’s servant, all servitude to anyone or anything other than God is rendered inoperable and void. Even her husband, her father, her mother, or the Imam, is only to be obeyed in reference to how consistent their instructions are to those provided by God. And if their suggestions or directives are contrary to those of God and His Messenger, than they must not be followed. Also, she should never be passive in the face of brutality and exploitation, whether it is directed against herself or others.

Muslim women in the West face a unique set of difficulties and distractions. They are surrounded and systematically bombarded with information and influences which are un-Islamic in content and effect. Those who do not live in stable Muslim communities or who do not have strong ties with Muslim family members or friends, are particularly vulnerable of being overwhelmed by a tide of dangerous concepts and inappropriate behaviors. They may even be persuaded that the so-called Western lifestyle is superior to the Islamic one and consequently a strange kind of inversion of reality takes place whereby that which is ugly becomes desirable and that which is beautiful becomes unattractive.

She may also (like the Western women in her midst) believe that her freedom is based upon her ability to become involved in activities that have been traditionally designated for men. Yasmin Mogadesh writes:

“Fifty years ago, society told us that men were superior because they left home to work in factories. We were mothers, and yet we were told that it was women’s liberation to abandon the raising of another human being in order to work on a machine. We accepted that working in a factory was superior to raising the foundation of society-just because a man did it.

Then after working, we were expected to be superhuman-the perfect mother, the perfect wife, the perfect homemaker-and have the perfect career. We soon came to realize what we had sacrificed by blindly mimicking men. We watched as our children became strangers and soon recognized the privilege we’d given up.” [2]

Different but Harmonious

The woman and the man are equal entities before God, but they are not identical. And as such they were never meant to function as interchangeable parts, that are endowed with the same qualities, characteristics and sensibilities.

Their equality does not nullify their singularity as it pertains to their masculine and feminine qualities. The masculine qualities of the man and the feminine qualities of the woman are meant to work together in a complimentary, harmonious manner.

The masculine essence coupled with the feminine essence provides a compeer far greater than the sum of its parts.

The man should be naturally comfortable and satisfied with the role assigned to him by his Lord and Fashioner, and like wise, the woman should find honor and fulfillment in her position as the genuine match to masculine qualities and characteristics.

The fixation and envy that many women have with masculine attributes is mis-directed and dangerous. Both to the woman who is deluded into thinking that the masculine role is superior, as well as to the society as a whole; for regardless of her attainment of a position traditionally considered masculine or her acquisition of the manly trappings as it pertains to status, clothing, demeanor, etc., she cannot abandon or absolve herself of her nature which will always be essentially feminine.

Likewise, the man who insanely covets feminine characteristics while neglecting or ignoring his masculine essence, will contaminate both himself and those around him while contributing to the overall instability of society. For even as they strive to imitate those qualities of the opposite sexual dynamic and to saddle it as their own; they are frustrated with their inability to achieve congruity or satisfaction. Indeed it is impossible to exchange genders because both the male and female have been ordained as such and cannot move an inch away from their assigned positions. All appearances to the contrary are illusionary and fanciful. And the more society attempts to accommodate this unnatural state, the more it suffers with perversion, disease, insanity, and violence.

The position of the woman, her functions, obligations and duties, serve as the bedrock of human relationships. No society advances far without the benefit of a healthy and feminine dynamic. A dynamic which is essentially nurturing, intuitive, caring, and (both physically and ascetically) beautiful. These feminine characteristics are crucial to the development of humanity, both individually and as a whole. And to neglect or to belittle them is toxic and destructive to the functions of civilization. Marmaduke Pickthall observes:

“If it is true, as life experience suggests (and the advocates of women’s rights in Europe and America are never tired of declaring that women’s interests are separate from those of men) that women are really happier among themselves in daily life, and are capable of progress as a sex rather than in close subservience to men, then the Islamic rule which makes the woman the mistress in her sphere does not discord with human nature. While every provision is made for the continuation of the human race, and while the relation of a woman to her husband and near kinfolk is just as tender and intimate as in the West, the social life of women is among themselves. There is no ‘mixed bathing’ no mixed dancing, no Promiscuous flirtation, no publicity. But according to the proper teachings of Islam, there ought to be no bounds to women’s opportunities for self development and progress in her own sphere. Therefore, there is nothing to prevent women from becoming doctors, layers, judges, preachers and diviners, but they should graduate from women’s colleges and practice on behalf of women.”[3]

Thus the relationship between men and women and their interaction with society as a whole result is the intended harmony and balance necessary for the development of human potential and happiness. Each member taking care to exert its influence for the maximum benefit of each functionary. And each one (regardless of gender) maintaining respect and appreciation for the other.

Notes and References:

[1]. Maulana Muhammad Ali, “The Religion of Islam,” Book Crafters, Chelsea, MI. Sixth Edition (1990) p.p. 476, 477

[2]. “A Woman’s Reflection.” Yasmin Mogadesh, http://usa.mediamonitors.net/content/view/full/13887/ (Friday 25 March 2005)

[3]. “Social Degradation of Women-a Crime and a Libel on Islam,” by Marmaduke Pickthall, accessible online at: http://muslim-canada.org/picthall.htm

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