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Spiritual Role of Women

by Muslim Women's League
September 1995

I shall not lose sight of the labor of any of you who labors in My way, be it man or woman; each of you is equal to the other (3:195)

Spiritual equality, responsibility and accountability for both men and women is a well developed theme in the Quran. Understanding the spiritual equality of women in Islam is to understand that equality between men and women in the sight of God is not limited to purely spiritual, religious issues, but is the basis for equality in all temporal aspects of human life.

Gender Equality in the Qur'an

The concept of gender equality is best exemplified in the Quranic rendition of Adam and Eve. The Bible explains that "the Lord God said: 'it is not good for the man to be alone; I will make a suitable partner for him'... then built up into a woman the rib that he had taken from the man."1 In contrast, the Quran states that both sexes were deliberate and independent and there is no mention of Eve being created out of Adam's rib or anything else. Even the issue of which sex was created first is not specified, implying that for our purposes here on earth it may not matter.

O mankind! Be conscious of your Sustainer, who has created you out of one living entity (nafs), and out of it created its mate (zawj), and out of the two spread abroad a multitude of men and women. And remain conscious of God, in whose name you demand your rights from one another, and of these ties of kinship. Verily, God is ever watchful over you! (4:1)

Quranic translators disagree on the meaning of nafs in the above verse which Muhammad Asad translates here as "living entity." He states that "out of the many meanings attributable to the term nafs—soul...most of the classical commentators chose 'human being', and assume that it refers here to Adam."2 Sayyid Abul A'la Mawdudi is one such commentator who ascribes that "the creation of the human species began with the creation of one individual...from whom the human race spread in the world."3 Yusef Ali translates nafs as "person," and that God created a single person first, Adam, then his mate, Eve.4 But Asad disagrees with the literal one-person origination and quotes the words of an eminent 19th century scholar: "Muhammad Abduh, however, rejects this interpretation (Manar IV, 323 ff.) and gives, instead, his preference to 'humankind' inasmuch as this term stresses the common origin and brotherhood of the human race....The literal translation of minha as 'out of it' clearly alludes, in conformity with the text, to the biological fact that both sexes have originated from 'one living entity'."5 According to this verse, God created humankind and its sexual counterpart out of its own kind. The Arabic word referring to mate (zawj) in the above Quranic verse is grammatically neutral and can be applied both to male and female interchangeably.6 So it is not clear, nor should we conjecture, that Adam was created first, Eve was created out of Adam, or that Eve/woman is innately subservient to Adam/man. The fact that the Quran does not specify one specific sex over the other is proof of gender non-bias and equality.

Putting aside the scholarly discourse, does it really matter who was created first or is this just an issue of semantics? Unfortunately, this issue is often brought up in discussions about gender equality. It is commonly argued that Adam was created first, and that by this gesture God finds the male dominant and superior to the female; however, the wording of the Quran in the above verse (4:1) does not support this claim. So one can't help wonder why some have such determination to prove that Adam came first, other than this point would support a sexist agenda. Interestingly, this point is indeed supported in 1 Timothy of the Bible as a letter of Paul: "A woman must listen in silence and be completely submissive. I do not permit a woman to act as teacher, or in any way to have authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was created first, Eve afterward."7 And in 1 Peter, women are referred to as the "weaker sex" and are told to be submissive to their husbands.8

The comparison to Biblical beliefs is important because according to modern scholar Leila Ahmed in Women and Gender in Islam: "converts [to Islam] brought traditions of thought and custom with them. For instance (to give just one example of how easily and invisibly scriptural assimilation could occur), in its account of the creation of humankind the Quran gives no indication of the order in which the first couple was created, nor does it say that Eve was created from Adam's rib." Ahmed goes on to argue that "in Islamic traditionist literature, however, which was inscribed in the period following the Muslim conquests, Eve, sure enough, is referred to as created from a rib."9

It is also frequently argued in Muslim circles that because a woman’s menstruation prevents her from fulfilling her religious duties at all times (such as prayer, fasting) she consequently cannot achieve the same level of faith as men. Therefore, it is argued that she is inferior to men. For a thorough analysis of how a hadith of the Prophet was misunderstood to further this point, please read the chapter on "Sexuality."

Accountability, Independence, and Freedom of Choice

The Quran describes how Adam and Eve were told to avoid a specific tree, which they both approached. For this act of disobedience to God, they were consequently banished from the garden; however, later both repented and were forgiven by God. The Quran does not allude to Eve’s tempting Adam to eat from the tree and being responsible for their downfall, as is described as the "original sin" of the Bible: "it was not Adam who was deceived but the woman. It was she who was led astray and fell into sin."11 In the Quranic version, both were held accountable and both paid the price for their choices, proving that gender equality is an intrinsic part of Islamic belief. (See Quran 2:30-37)

Women are independent individuals, as exemplified by the fact that all human beings will be accountable for their own intentions and deeds on the Day of Judgment when no human being shall be of the least avail to another human being (82:19). If men were ultimately responsible for women (fathers for their daughters, husbands for their wives, etc.), then this accountability would be solely on men's shoulders to bear all the way until the Day of Judgment. But this is not the case:

And whatever wrong any human being commits rests upon himself alone; and no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another's burden... For, He it is who has made you inherit the earth, and has raised some of you by degrees above others, so that He might try you by means of what he bestowed upon you (6:164-165)

(In this verse, reference to "degrees" is to individual talents and capabilities, and not gender, race or social status)

Consequently, we cannot be judged according to our own deeds unless we have the freedom of choice to do so. This free choice carries with it the responsibility to make the right choices or paying the consequence for wrong ones, best exemplified by Adam and Eve.

Restrictions on Women

History is replete with examples of traditional societies where women have typically been subject to more restrictions than men, exemplified by lack of opportunities (being able to work or vote) or immobility (needing permission from a male relative to travel or not being able to drive), etc. Although it is mistakingly argued Islam has played a strong role in restricting the freedom of women in Muslim societies, these restrictions are not inherent in the religion of Islam, but rather stem from cultural interpretations. Trying to incorporate 9th century Arab customs to 20th century populations is often inappropriate despite intentions to have a pure society. When looking to Islam for guidance, it’s important to separate what is cultural from the essence of the religious perogative. If an authoritative ruling from Saudi Arabia states that women cannot drive because it would increase possible contact to freely mix with men which can lead to sins, this logic must be judged against Islam and history. It is a fact that the Quran emphasizes modesty for both men and women in order so that we conduct ourselves respectfully. (See "Social Interaction") It is also a fact that men and women in the time of the Prophet did interact, so the justification of this law on Islam is bogus. It is unduly harsh and anti-Islamic. It should not serve as an example of how Islam restricts women, as much as it should serve an example of how illogical it is to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Essentially, the rationale for restricting women is that these restrictions will force them to behave purely, and in order to have a pure society one must put up with fewer civil liberties. The problem with this rationale is that it it pre-empts one’s intentions and actions because it punishes the women who would have followed God’s commands anyway, it doesn’t allow women the opportunity to make choices that God has willed for them to be judged by, and above all, it places the burden of society’s morality on women. Men are not held accountable to the same standards. Eve was not restricted from the tree in order to follow God’s commands by default. She was tested, chose to disobey God and went to the tree on her own free will. She also paid the price. There is nothing wrong with making a wrong decision, for it is better to learn, repent and be stronger for it than never to be challenged at all and remain meek all our lives.

Role as Vicegerents

As equal, independent creations of God, the ultimate role of men and women is to serve as vicegerents on earth, to worship God and follow His commands so that we may return to Him. Both men and women share this responsibility, which constitutes our basic role in life. The Quran outlines the attributes believing men and women should try to live by, but in no specific way are we told in what capacity each individual man and woman should practice these: Say: Behold, my prayer, and all my acts of worship, and my living and my dying are for God alone (6:163). This verse which was addressed to the Prophet but serves as an inspiration to all, reveals that our vicegerency is not only spiritual, but must be consolidated with actual service.

Is vicegerency defined as childbearing for women?

The Quran does not distinguish between a man and a woman's vicegerency. Each sex has the ability to contribute to successive generations, as implied by the term khalifa in the Quran (vicegerent). But that doesn’t limit a woman's vicegerency solely to bear or rear children. There is no judgment made in the Quran against a barren woman, a woman who chooses not to have children, or a young woman who dies before childbearing with one that has many children. Only two of the Prophet's wives even bore children with him, Khadija and Mariya. Other wives such as Hafsa, Aisha and Zaynab did not bear any children, and there is no evidence that they were discounted for this.

In many Muslim cultures today, however, a woman's role and status are often defined and affected by her decision to delay childbearing, the number and sex of the children, or the inability or desire to have children at all. If childbearing is indeed the only role for women, then such cultural preoccupations are understandable; but Islamic teachings always have a way of putting things in balance, reinforcing the significance of motherhood, but not defining roles completely by biology. (See chapters on "Social Interaction" and "Sexuality.")

Equality in Practice

In the Quran, reference to men and women is through attributes and deeds, by which we will be judged. The most pious of us, or those who follow God's commands, are referred to as believers or mu'mineen (pl.) in the Quran. In many references, in fact, the Quran resonates this equality by eloquently repeating "men and women" with ethical and practical qualities throughout the verses, and even emphasizes this 10 times in the following verse:

Verily, for all men and women who have surrendered themselves unto God, and all believing men and believing women, and all truly devout men and truly devout women, and all men and women who are true to their word, and all men and women who are patient in adversity, and all men and women who humble themselves before God, and all men and women who give in charity, and all self-denying men and self-denying women, and all men and women who are mindful of their chastity, and all men and women who remember God unceasingly: for all of them has God readied forgiveness of sins and a mighty reward. (33:35)

It’s paramount to understand that the Quran equates being a mu'min (sing.) with actual practice, so that it is not enough to just have faith in principle; we must put our faith into practice. The same applies to our belief in the equality of men and women; this principle that's outlined in the Quran must also be put into practice. In reference to the above verse, a modern scholar says that "the implications are far-reaching. Ethical qualities, including those invoked here--charity, chastity, truthfulness, patience, piety - also have political and social dimensions."12

Equality and Feminism

The feminist movement of the 60s did much to gain recognition for women’s rights in the United States, and made many strides in women’s leadership and political clout. But what it failed to do was recognize that men and women are different and women shouldn’t be exactly like men because they aren’t men. Islam recognizes this major point, but what many Muslims fail to understand is that just because men and women are different, this doesn’t mean that men are made to do only "A", and women are made to do only "B". There is more overlap in our roles and contributions to society than there is clear-cut specialization. Clearly a stand somewhere between political feminism and specialization of the sexes is a balanced one that considers the natural roles between the sexes and individual talents.

Examples of Women in the Qur'an

The Quran refers to several specific women who triumphed spiritually despite worldly trials: Asiya, the wife of Pharaoh, who was thought to be the same woman who saved of the life of infant Moses; and Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus.

And for those who have attained to faith God has propounded a parable in the story of Pharaoh’s wife as she prayed, "O my Sustainer! Built You for me a mansion in the paradise that is with You, and save me from Pharaoh and his doings, and save me from all evildoing folk!" And Mary the daughter of Imran, who guarded her chastity, whereupon We breathed of Our spirit into that which was in her womb, and who accepted the truth of her Sustainer's words - and thus, of His revelations - and was one of the truly devout. (66:11-12)

Queen Sheba's Example of Spirituality and Leadership

The Queen of Sheba is also mentioned in the Qur'an as a model of wisdom and leadership (27:23-44). The Queen (unnamed in the Quran, but whom historians believe is named Balqis) is described as a prudent and loyal ruler of sun-worshippers who valued material wealth and their own achievements, yet lacked spiritual values. After King Soloman convinces her of their misguided ways, Queen Balqis declares her devotion to God and gladly gives up her material throne for a more valuable spiritual gain: O my Sustainer! I have been sinning against myself by worshipping aught but Thee: but now I have surrendered myself, with Solomon, unto the Sustainer of all the worlds! (27:44)

Simply put, there is no Quranic injunction limiting women in leadership roles. As described in the Quran, the Queen of Sheba was praised for her prudent leadership; she and her people were criticized on the grounds of lacking spiritual guidance, which she later conceded. This constitutes her noteworthy mention in the Quran, that she was able to see beyond her political power and believe in something that may have been "politically incorrect." The Quran did not comment on how the leading of her people was compromised due to her gender or that their lack of spirituality was the fault of a woman. The silence of the Quran on this gender-specific point is an important editorial on its lack of relevance to the issue at hand.

Despite her clear example in the Quran, however, there have been no shortage of scholarly opinions to minimize her significance or to question her role as a leader. "What is most fascinating about the story of Balqis, however, is that it prompted the commentators to get involved in a long, tangled, oversubtle exegesis of the problems which seemed to torture them personally and which the Koran superbly ignored."13 The well-known Islamic historian of the 10th century, Muhammed Al-Tabari, diminished the importance of her throne even though the Quran refers to it as a "mighty" or "magnificent" throne as it is most commonly translated (27:23); other experts questioned the marital status of the Queen and whether or not she married Solomon; the 10th century historian Mas'udi questioned her origin and wrote that she was born from a human father and a jinn (supernatural) mother; scholars in the Encyclopedia of Islam even question the historical existence of the rule of queens in her land at all.14 Even if she was legendary, it's important to know that "the Qur'an often employs such legends as a vehicle for allegories expressing certain universal ethical truths....Within the context of the Qur'an, the only thing that is relevant in this respect is the spiritual truth underlying each one of these legends."15

What may be the most troubling of all these analyses is the fact that they miss the point entirely about the mention of Balqis in the Quran. Whether she was legendary or real, married or not, of whatever origin, this does not affect the example of her leadership and spirituality the Quran so eloquently presents. "Despite everything, Balqis has held her own in the face of the historians' attempts to reduce or humiliate her."16

For more discussion on the leadership roles of women before, during and after the advent of Islam, see chapter on "Women in Politics."

Women as Leaders of Prayer

A discourse on whether or not women could lead prayer arose in the early years of Islam. It is known that some of the early Khawarij party of "dissidents" who vied for power after the Prophet's death, had women leaders who were also known for leading prayer for them. Ghazala, who led the Khawarij army and defeated the Iraqi tyrant Al-Hajjaj during the Omayyid dynasty, was known to have led prayer. (Leila Ahmed, p. 71) Well-respected scholars such as Muhammad al-Tabari (10th century) and Abi Thawr (what century and full name?) had taught in their schools of thought early on that women could lead a mixed congregation in prayer; they just disagreed on where she should stand. (Need references for both scholars and the point of views on their disagreement of a women's stand in prayer-Dr Osman ecommended Ibn Rushd’s Bidayat al-Mujtahid, but I couldn’t find the reference there. Need to check elsewhere.) What is often used to substantiate this opinion is when the Prophet told a woman, Um Waraqa, that she could lead her household in prayer (which included a muezzin, a man who called prayer.) The major schools of jurisprudence agree on the authenticity of this story, but the argument against it is whether it was an exception only for Um Waraqa or a generality applied to all women. Because Um Waraqa was allowed to lead prayer for Ahlu Dariha ("people of their home"), it is unclear whether the word dar in Arabic implied location in general or only her specific household. Abi Thawr's argument for women leading prayer also includes hadith about the one who is the most knowledgeable on the Quran should lead prayer, and this may not be limited to only men. Also, after the Prophet's death, Aisha and Um Salama have been known to act as imams (spiritual leaders) for other women in prayer.17 It is generally understood by most, if not all, Muslim scholars that any acts that are not categorically prohibited in Islam, are actually allowed. The point to be made is not that women should suddenly start taking over leading prayers in mosques around the world, but to show that women were involved in all aspects of practical and religious Muslim life, even possibly leading prayer.

Women's Role in Religious Activities and Friday Prayer

Islam is not a passive, private world of ascetics, but a religion that prides itself on its active community practices, from daily congregational prayers to annual pilgrimages. And community activities in Islam are not by any means exclusively male-oriented. "Women of the first Muslim community attended mosque, took part in religious services on feast days, and listened to Muhammad's discourses. Nor were they passive, docile followers but were active interlocutors in the domain of faith as they were in other matters."18 The Prophet was attentive to requests of the women believers. When some of his female followers complained that they needed more of Mu hammad's time in instruction in the Quran, he agreed to set aside more time for them. To be assured of their equality in the eyes of God, women (and specifically, the Prophet's wife, Umm Salama) had asked Muhammad why they were not mentioned in the Quran. Soon revelations were revealed discussing the equality of men and women, as well as an entire chapter, surat al-Nisa' ("The Women," chapter 4) devoted to new laws affecting the rights of women and surat al-Ahzab ("The Confederates," chapter 33) which dealt with many personal rules of behavior and relationship between the Prophet and his family, as well as many other verses throughout the Quran.

Attendance at Friday congregational prayer is as much a woman's obligation as it is a man's. Here, again, there is no distinction drawn in the Quran. Of course, women who are exempt from prayer entirely, such as during their menstruation, are exempt from the service. However, this is not a general rule that a woman cannot attend Friday prayer services at all. (For more discussion on women and menstruation, see chapter on Sexuality.) Those who quote a hadith that the best prayer for a woman is in her home, are ignoring the stronger one that instructed men to not prevent women from attending mosques. In addition, if there are restrictions about women attending congregational prayer among men, as some may wrongly contend, then there would not have been clear provisions from a hadith that it is best for men to pray in the front rows and best for women to pray in the last rows, to protect her privacy.

Equality of Women in Combat

"War was one activity in which women of pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabia participated fully. They were present on the battlefield principally to tend the wounded and to encourage the men, often with song and verse... Some women also fought. In the Muslim battles of Muhammad's lifetime, women functioned in all three roles, on both sides -- even Muhammad's wives."19 During the Battle of Uhud, women constituted the entire medical corps and tended to the injured. Um Umara was well known for having fought by the Prophet's side and shielded him from enemies. "Her courage and her effectiveness with weapons led Muhammad to observe that she had acquitted herself better than many men." 20 Um Saleem carried a dagger to fight in al-Khondaq; Nusaiba bint Ka'b fought and wounded 12 at Uhud and the Prophet praised her fighting by saying "Never did I look right or left but she was there defending me and fighting before me." 21 Nusaiba also fought in the war of apostasy under Abu Bakr. 22 Um Al Dhouhha bint Mas'ud attended the battle of the Kheiber and the Prophet gave her an equal share of the spoils to the men's; After the death of the Prophet, Um Hakim "single-handedly disposed of seven Byzantine soldiers at the battle of Marj al-Saffar, as well as groups, even battalions, of women participating in the fighting." 23

These examples prove that the Prophet did not restrict women to merely wait at home for their men to return, but encouraged anyone willing to fight and work for Islam to do so. His army was an army of believers, both men and women. Clearly if women as a whole were not equal or as competent as their male counterparts, they wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to protect the security of their community and the life of the Prophet. Despite the clear examples during the life of the Prophet, soon after his death, women's role in the domain of warfare, was challenged. Many women among the Khawarij (the political "dissident" movement arising in the mid-seventh century) "won renown for their prowess in battle, among them Ghazala, who defeated al-Hajjaj in a duel."24 (Al-Hajjaj was a tyrannical Iraqi ruler during the Ommayyid dynasty.) This renown was soon overtaken by retreat from warfare after orthodox leaders, who opposed women's participation in battle, "killed and exposed naked the women captured in their battles with the Kharijis [sing. form of Khawarij]--conduct suggesting an attitude toward women on the battlefield far different from that of the first Muslim community. The strategy was effective in leading Khariji women eventually to withdrawing from the theater of war." 25

Such misguided beliefs, among many, have unfortunately come to shroud the courageous and active participation of women in the early years of Islam, and have contributed to a misunderstanding of our role and status in the Muslim community today.

Notes:

bullet The New American Bible (New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1970), Genesis 2:18, 22
bullet Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Quran (Gibraltar: Dar al-Andalus, 1980), p. 100
bullet Sayyid Abul A'la Mawdudi, Towards Understanding the Qur'an, Vol. II (London: The Islamic Foundation, 1989), p. 5
bullet The Holy Qur'an, trans. A. Yusuf Ali (American Trust Publications), p. 178
bullet Asad, The Message of the Quran, p. 100
bullet Ibid
bullet The New American Bible, 1 Timothy 2:11, 12
bullet The New American Bible, 1 Peter 3:7
bullet Ahmed, Laila, Women and Gender in Islam, Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 4-5
bullet The New American Bible, 1 Timothy 2:14
bullet Ahmed, Laila, Women and Gender in Islam, p. 65
bullet Mernissi, Fatima, The Forgotton Queens of Islam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 142
bullet Mernissi, Fatima, The Forgotton Queens of Islam, p. 142-144
bullet Asad, The Message of the Quran, p. 576
bullet Mernissi, Fatima, The Forgotton Queens of Islam, p. 142-144
bullet Ahmed, Laila, Women and Gender in Islam, p. 61
bullet Ibid, p. 72
bullet Ibid, p. 69-70
bullet Ibid, p. 70
bullet In Fraternity, p. 73-74
bullet Ibid, p. 73
bullet Ahmed, Laila, Women and Gender in Islam, p. 70
bullet Ibid, p. 71
bullet Ibid, p. 71

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