Women's status in Islam must be seen in context of pre-Islam Arabia

Story by  Saleem Rashid Shah | Posted by  Aasha Khosa • 1 Years ago
Muslim Women praying at jama masjid (Ravi Batra)
Muslim Women praying at jama masjid (Ravi Batra)


Salim Rashid Shah/

It's said and passionately argued by most of the scholars of Islam that ‘The basic message of the Quran is socio-economic justice and essential human egalitarianism.’ It's in this light that the status of a woman in Islam must be explained and subsequently theorized.

Friday Musings

Pre-Islamic Arabia was steeped in darkness to an extent that women were significantly invisibilized and reduced to mere appendages of a patriarchal society. Many just-born girls would be buried alive in the scorching deserts of Arabia. The birth of a girl child was considered a bad omen bound to bring disrepute to an otherwise male-dominated family. The problem was rooted in socio-economic conditions than culture because a woman was entitled to nothing of her father’s assets and the cost-benefit ratio of raising a girl who would land up into some other family was bleak.

It's in this context that the Quranic message of the empowerment of women was revealed and must be understood in the same way. Islam came as a saviour and gave women unprecedented rights. It assured women dignity in an otherwise deeply unjust society.

An important feature of the legislation of the Quran is that it always had a background or a historical context, which the Muslim commentators of the Quran call ‘occasions of revelation.’ It was these occasions of revelation around which a particular verse of the Quran was revealed. To understand the passages of the Quran that talk about women, their empowerment, and their rights, the historical context and the occasions of revelation become crucial. The message of the Quran was loud and clear - to uplift a woman and give her the status that she deserved. In the 21st century to make an argument that no matter how much women develop intellectually, their evidence must carry less value than that of a man is simply an outrageous affront to the Quranic purpose of social evolution and justice.

Let's talk about ‘Zakat’, an essential pillar of Islam. The Quran imposed a Zakat levy, a tax primarily on the rich for the welfare of the poor but to think that some people must remain poor for the rich to earn merit before God is not the right reasoning. There is, of course, no society where there are no needy people, and in Islam, the state, through its Zakat system, has to fulfill their needs but an argument like this one gives a decisive blow to the very orientation of the Quran and provides the best kind of prop for the communist slogan that religion is the opium of the masses.

The role of women in Islam can be more clearly understood in light of the historic ‘Treaty of Hudaiyyabiah’ signed between the Prophet and his Makkan adversaries in 629 CE. It is said that the treaty was a one-sided affair where the Prophet gave in on the most points to the Quraysh and many of his companions opposed it. In what proved to be later a very successful treaty in favour of Islam and its spread, it is said that before signing the treaty the Prophet took counsel from one of his wives namely Umm e Salama.

A few incidents to clarify the status of women during the Prophet’s times require a mention here.

It is said that during the Medina years of the Prophet's life there used to live a couple with the name Mughees and Javeria. It so happened one day that Javeria came to the Prophet's house to put in front of him her demand to get divorced from Mughees. Mughees on the other hand was not willing to divorce his wife and the matter was now in the court of the Prophet. The Prophet asked Javeria to reconsider her decision and refrain from getting divorced because Mughees wanted to uphold the marriage. In an intriguing reply, Javeria asked the Prophet if it was His suggestion or the verdict of God. The Prophet replied negatively and said that this was not a decree from God but purely His suggestion. ‘If that is the case’ said Javeria In a stunning reply, she would want the divorce and not consider the advice. The couple got divorced and this set an example of how empowered a woman was during the times of the Prophet.

At the turn of the 11th century, a shift came in the jurisprudential tradition of Islam where intellectual growth, the spirit of free-thinking, and inquiry took a back seat. ‘Politics’ which was thought to be a rather murky affair by many Islamic scholars of the day now held sway in defining the interpretations of Islam. The Ulema-State alliance took strong roots and it was a consequence of this alliance that more rigid and uncompromising interpretations of Islam came to the fore. Women and their empowerment took a crushing blow at this time and the ripples could be felt even today.

In the entire history of Islam, Shariah has not been more abused, misunderstood, and misrepresented than in our epoch. It has been used to justify oppression and despotism, injustice, and criminal abuse of power. It has been projected as an ossified body of law that bears little or no relationship to modern times. All this has been to the detriment of the Muslim people and especially women and has suffocated the true revival of Islam and a genuine emergence of contemporary Muslim intellectual thought.

While it needs to be rescued from the weight of fossilized traditional scholarship, it must also be protected from the onslaught of modern apologia that has tried to impose an acutely modern and westernized framework on it.

In the tussle between traditional and modern, which is the go-to theme on issues around women, never have they been avenged. In fact, under the guise of modernity, are the capitalist and patriarchal frameworks that do not contribute to any economic, social, or religious upliftment of Muslim Women. Even in the global scenario, the word "Muslim Women" has been reduced as a catchphrase to obliquely refer to their sorry state.

The answer to the emancipation of Muslim women does not lie in global or national networks. It lies in the local lives that they lead. It lies in their economic upliftment, their unfiltered access to their religion, and doing away with the religious guards that stand in the way of their mobility.

The author is a student of English Literature based in New Delhi