Women as in the Quran and Sunnah — Dr Amriah Buang

14 centuries after the advent of Islam, we still know very little as to what exactly Islam says about the status of women. This is unacceptable.

Ruling Principle: Equity and Parity Between Men and Women 

The Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad SAW, indicate equity and parity between men and women although their functions in marriage, family and society are not identical. 

The Quran emphasises that God in His perfect wisdom has created all species in pairs, and so men and women have been created of the same species; as it is stated that: 

“He created you from a single being; then of the same kind made its mate.”

al-Zumar 39:6

In the chapter of al-Nisā‘, Allah Almighty also said that: 

“O mankind! Fear Allah Who created you from a single person [Adam], and from him [Adam] Allah created his wife [Hawwa],

and then from both of them, He created many men and women spread [all over the world].

And fear Allah through Whom you make claims [of your mutual rights]. And do not cut off the relations with your blood relatives. Indeed, Allah is All-Watching over you.”

al-Nisā ́4:1

According to the Islamic view, men and women complement each other and are a means of mutual fulfilment. 

The passages from the Noble Quran confirm that woman is completely equated with man in the sight of God in terms of her rights and responsibilities. It is clearly stated that: 

“Every soul will be (held) in pledge for its deeds.”

al-Muddathir 74:38

In another occasion, the Quran articulates that: 

“Whoso does good, whether male or female, and is a believer, these will enter the Garden; they will be provided therein without measure.”

al-Mu’min 40:40

Accordingly, men and women are spiritually akin one to another, and are equally the recipients of God’s favours and bounties in this life and they will be equally rewarded in the hereafter. 

Family life

Family life is not based on a formal hierarchy of rights and responsibilities, but the basis for a husband-wife relationship in Islam are: 

  • sakīnah (peace, restfulness, honour), 
  • mawaddah (affection), 
  • raḥmah (forgiveness,  grace,  mercy,  compassion),  and  
  • rufq (gentleness).  

In his Last Sermon, Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said: 

“O  People, it is true that you have certain rights with regard to your women, but they also have rights over you.  Remember that you have taken them as your wives only under Allah’s trust and with His permission.

If they abide by your right then to them belongs the right to be fed and clothed in kindness. Do treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers.

And it is your right that they do not make friends with anyone of whom you do not approve of, as well as never to be unchaste.”

(Suzanne McIntire, 2009)

Economic participation

On the economic aspect, Islam dictated the right of a woman to independent ownership, which she had been completely deprived before the rise of Islam and even after in many societies up to the early twentieth century. 

A woman’s right to her money, real estate and other properties, whether she is married or single, is fully acknowledged in Islamic law.

She maintains her full rights to buy, sell, mortgage or lease any of her properties. 

Also, there is no ruling in Islam, which forbids a woman from seeking employment although Islam regards her role in society as a mother and a wife as the most sacred and essential ones. 

Moreover, there is no restriction on benefitting from a woman’s skill and knowledge in any field (Jamal Badawi, 2014).

Social participation and public service

There is no textual ruling in the Quran and in the Sunnah of the Prophet (SAW) and in the consensus of scholars (ijmā), to deprive women of public and political rights as well (ʿAbd al-Ḥakīm Ḥasan, 1983).

According to Mohammad Hashim Kamali (2002), during the time of the Prophet (SAW) and the early years of Islam, women were not excluded from public life.

Any restrictions that were subsequently imposed on them were partly due to circumstantial developments that did not command normative and undisputed validity in the Shari’ah.

There was a long line of women scholars and activists who attained high positions and were renowned for their excellence as scholars, social workers, public figures, educators during the time of the Prophet (SAW) and during the next generations when Islamic civilisation was flourishing. 

Let me bring only a few examples on this occasion.

During the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), along with the men, women were assigned to the principal administrative posts. 

The Prophet appointed a woman, called  Samra’ bint Nuhaik al-Asadiyyah, as a muhtasib (market inspector), to regulate commercial activity and guard public interest; and she was kept at her position during the rule of the first two caliphs (Athar Murtuza, 2004).

Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab appointed to a position of market inspector and manager another woman, Al-Shif (Lailah) bint Abdullah, who was well-known and highly respected in the community for her knowledge, piety and morality. 

Educational advancement

Aisha bint Abu Bakr, the beloved wife of the Prophet (SAW), played a key role in the growth, development, and understanding of Islam. 

She transmitted a great amount of knowledge learned from Muhammad (SAW) and is considered as the best scholar on the role of women in Islam. 

Being a role model to a significant amount of others added to her attributions as a consultant regarding Muhammad’s (SAW) prayer and practices, soon she introduced herself into a world of politics.

In the Battle of the Camel in 656 CE, for instance, Aisha participated by giving speeches and led an army on the back of her camel (Wilferd Madelung, 1997).

The next example of scholarly excellence at the generation of the tabi’in (‘followers’) is ‘Amrah bint Abd al-Rahman, the pupil and secretary of Aisha bint Abu Bakr.

With her extensive knowledge, ‘Amrah was considered an authoritative voice of Hadith and overrode many other male scholars during that period. 

The renowned Umayyad caliph Umar Ibn Abd al-Aziz  (r. 717-720 CE), a  great scholar in his own right, said that no one remains alive, who is more learned in the hadith of Aisha than ‘Amrah.

Later in her life, she was classified as a judge.

Another Aisha, the daughter of an eminent Sahaba Sa’ad ibn Abd Waqqas, was well learned in Islamic sciences to the point that a number of famous jurists and scholars on Hadith, including Imam Malik, Hakim ibn ‘Utaybah and Ayyub al- Sakhtiyani, were her pupils (Elmira Akhmetova, 2015). 

Imam Shafie’ also studied ‘Ilm al-Hadith in Egypt with a woman from the descendent of the Prophet (SAW), Sayyida Nefisa bint Al-Hassan ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib, one of the leading scholars of that time (Elmira Akhmetova, 2015). 

Political participation

Respect towards all human beings, regardless of their gender and social status, is the primary rule in Islam. 

As citizens of Islamic governance, men and women are afforded equal protection and security. 

Any fair examination of the teachings  of Islam into the sources of the Shari’ah and history of Islamic civilisation will definitely find clear pieces of evidence of women’s equality with men on political sphere too, what we call today ‘political’ or ‘citizenship rights.’

Along with male citizens, women enjoy at least six basic rights under the Islamic government (Mohammad Hashim Kamali, 2013):

  • the right to vote; 
  • the right to a nomination for political office; 
  • the right of consultation in the affairs of the government; 
  • the right to express an opinion on political matters; 
  • the citizen’s right not to obey a deviant ruler; and, 
  • the right to health, welfare, occupation and education.     

Every citizen of an Islamic polity is entitled to participate in the election of the ruler and other representative government bodies. 

The Prophet (SAW) received the pledge of allegiance (bay’ah) from both men and women on at least two or three occasions, the first two of which are known as the First Aqabah and the Second Aqabah, and the third as Bay’at al-Ridwan (Mohammad Hashim Kamali, 2002).

In addition, the citizen of an Islamic polity enjoys the right to criticise and to express his or her opinion on the conduct of government as well as political matters. 

This right is manifested in the prominent Quranic principle of hisbah which means the promotion of good and prevention of evil (amr bi’l-ma’ruf wa-nahy an al-munkar). 

Under hisbah, no individual in the state, regardless of his or her gender, religious belief or social strata, can be prohibited from promoting a good cause or putting a stop to an evil one (Elmira Akhmetova, 2014).

In the Quran and Sunnah as well as in the early Islamic history we may find various examples of women who had participated in serious discussions and argued even with the Prophet (SAW) himself (al-Mujādilah 58:1-4; al-Mumtaḥanah 60:10-12).

The same equal treatment of both men and women in regard to the essence of human dignity, accountability, and matters pertaining to property, educational, public and social rights and responsibilities was maintained in the early years of Islamic history.

During the time of the second caliph, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, for example, a woman argued with him in the mosque, proved her point and caused him to declare in the presence of people: “A woman is right and ‘Umar is wrong.” 

To sum up, women were actively engaged in public, political, economic and educational spheres of the early Islamic society.

Appointment to the influential posts was based on the qualifications and skills of the individual, and not on his or her gender.

  • ʿAbd al-Ḥakīm Ḥasan  (1983), al-ʿĪlī, al-Ḥurriyāt al-ʿAmmah (Cairo: Dār al-Fikr, 1983), 296.
  • Athar Murtuza (2004), “Muhtasib’s Role: Safeguarding the Public Interest During the Islamic Middle Ages,” American Accounting Association  2004  Mid-Atlantic Region Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=488882
  • Elmira Akhmetova (2014), “The Arab Spring, Good Governance and Citizens’ Rights,” Islam and Civilisational Renewal, vol.5, no.3 (2014), 342.
  • Elmira Akhmetova (2015), “Women’s Rights: The Quranic Ideals and Contemporary Realities,” Islam and Civilisational Renewal, ICR Journal, Vol 6, No 1. Jamal Badawi, 2014
  • Mohammad Hashim Kamali (2002), Freedom, Equality and Justice in Islam (Malaysia: Ilmiah Publishers, 72.
  • Mohammad Hashim Kamali (2013),  Citizenship and Accountability of Government: An Islamic Perspective (Kuala Lumpur: IAIS & Ilmiah Publishers, 2013), 147.
  • Suzanne McIntire (2009), Speeches in World  History, The United States of America: Facts on File Inc., 79.
  • Wilferd Madelung (1997), The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 147 and 157-176
  • equity: the quality of being fair and impartial. “equity of treatment”
    • Similar: fairness, fair-mindedness, justness, justice, equitableness
  • parity: the state or condition of being equal, especially as regards status or pay. “parity of incomes between rural workers and those in industrial occupations”
    • Similar: equality, equivalence, uniformity, sameness, consistency

Contributed to us by Prof. Dr. Amriah Buang

President, Interactive Muslimah Association (IMAN), Malaysia

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best Fikrah team. Read all her contributed articles here.

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