Did Muhammad Believe in Women’s Rights?

Article ID: JAF2345 | By: Mary Jo Sharp

This article first appeared in the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL, volume 34, number 05 (2011). For further information or to subscribe to the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL go to: http://www.equip.org/christian-research-journal/


 SYNOPSIS

The view of women in Islam has long been a hot topic, but even more so due to the amount of attention Islam has received in the press lately. Even with all of the media coverage, the actual theological doctrine on women has hardly been addressed. There are troubling passages concerning women in the Qur’an and in the collections of hadith that have seen little criticism in the public square. In 2010, I debated a Muslim woman in a mosque in Toronto, Ontario, during which I brought to light many of the difficult and demeaning passages about women in the Qur’an, and defended the high level of respect for women in the Bible. Islam teaches that men are created superior to women, which is why they must discipline women. Women are a majority in hell due in part to the deficiency of their intellect. Wives are to satisfy the sexual desires of their husband when and how he chooses or they displease Allah and are cursed by the angels. Muhammad married a young girl and consummated that marriage when she was nine. These aspects of Islamic theology create an environment of male veneration and female degradation. Conversely, in Christianity, women are the first to find the empty tomb and proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the foundational doctrine of our faith. Even this one feature of the gospel story creates a profound difference between women in Islam and women in Christianity.


A couple of my friends recently traveled to Europe for their honeymoon. While in England, they noticed posters, banners, and advertisements all over London for the “Inspired by Muhammad” campaign.1 One poster that caught their eye was a picture of a female Muslim barrister with the quote, “I believe in women’s rights. So did Muhammad.” Another campaign advertisement on the side of a taxicab read, “The rights of women are sacred.” So it seems the campaign is promoting positive imagery concerning the view of women in Islam.

Why the positive image campaign? The American Broadcasting Company’s (ABC) 20/20 program attempted to shed some light on the Islamic view of women through an episode entitled, “Islam: Questions and Answers” in October of 2010. However, not much light was shed on the actual theology of Islam as based in the texts. Let’s look at a few basic teachings from the Qur’an and from the most trusted collections of hadith2 to understand the Islamic teaching on women and contrast that view with Christianity.

 ALLAH CREATED MEN AS SUPERIOR

There are two passages in particular that reveal the woman’s status in comparison to a man’s status in the Qur’an. The first is Surah (chapter) 2:228, which reads, “And women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable; but men have a degree (of advantage) over them.”3 This passage is referent to divorce rights and begins by saying that men and women have similar rights, but the rights are not the same: men have a degree over women’s rights. Why are men said to have a degree over women in this passage? Perhaps the second passage from the Qur’an will help explain.

In Surah 4:34, Allah revealed to the prophet, “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other.”4 The reason men must take care of women is because men have been made superior to women. Ibn Kathir, the most respected Muslim commentator on the Qur’an, explains this passage in his tafsir (commentary): “Because Allah has made one of them to excel the other,’ meaning because men excel over women and are better than them for certain tasks. This is why prophethood was exclusive to men, as well as other important positions of leadership. The Prophet said, ‘People who appoint a woman to be their leader will never achieve success.’ Al-Bukhari recorded this Hadith. Such is the case with appointing women as judges or on other positions of leadership.”5 The explanation is clear here: men are superior to women and that’s the way Allah has made them. Yet, if there remains doubt, the verse from Surah 4:34 says, “So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them.” The man is to discipline the woman from whom he fears rebellion. A list of disciplinary actions given by Allah to Muhammad is to be enacted by the man if he fears her disobedience (admonish, banish, scourge). The philosophical rendering of these verses is that women are made inferior to men by Allah, so it is the man’s responsibility to discipline her, even to the point of “scourging” or “beating” her.

In February of 2010, I debated Tabasum Hussain, a Muslim woman, on this topic of the views of women in the Qur’an and the Bible. The debate was held in a mosque in Toronto, Ontario, with an overflow crowd. About eighty-five percent of the audience was Muslim. By the “question and answer” time, there were more questions than I could answer in the time allotted. A few Muslim gentlemen approached me afterward and one asked, “If the view of women in the Qur’an was given by God, then that view, whether or not it lined up with the Christian view of women, would just be the way it is, right? I mean if it’s true, then it’s true.” Notice this Muslim man’s honesty with me. He’s not trying to make Islam more appealing to the Western ear, such as seen in the “Inspired by Muhammad” campaign. He says if it is true, then that’s just the way it is. So what else does Muhammad’s revelation teach about women?

 A WOMAN’S INTELLECT AND AFTERLIFE

Muhammad explained written contracts for a fixed debt in Surah 2 of the Qur’an. In teaching how Allah wanted contracts witnessed, Muhammad said, “And call to witness, from among your men, two witnesses. And if two men be not (at hand) then a man and two women, of such as ye approve as witnesses, so that if the one erreth (through forgetfulness) the other will remember” (Surah 2:282). There must be two women to witness if there is not one man available, because of the forgetfulness of women.

Something must be amiss in a woman’s mind if she is prone to forgetfulness, and Muhammad explained the problem in Sahih Muslim 142. He had a vision of hell and saw that a majority of the inhabitants were women. A woman asked him why women were the majority in hell. He replied, “I have seen none lacking in common sense and failing in religion but (at the same time) robbing the wisdom of the wise, besides you.” On hearing this, the woman asked what was wrong with the common sense of women. Muhammad answered, “Your lack of common sense (can be well judged from the fact) that the evidence of two women is equal to one man, that is a proof of the lack of common sense.”6 While the statement is notably circular in reasoning, it is also demonstrative of Muhammad’s view of the intellect of women: they lack common sense. This saying about the female intellect comes from two of the most trusted hadith collections: Sahih Muslim and Sahih al-Bukhari. Consequently, it can be firmly established that Muhammad teaches that women have a deficient intellect.

 THE OPPRESSION OF WOMEN: PHYSICAL ABUSE

In the debate, I argued Surah 4:34 as a problematic verse for the view of women in Islam. Eight of ten translations of the Arabic term, idreb, have been translated “beat” or “scourge.” Should men fear rebellion from women, they are to beat the women as part of disciplinary action. Notice, according to Surah 4:34, the woman does not actually have to do anything wrong; the man must only fear her rebellion. Muslims may argue, however, that Surah 4:34 refers only to a light tap, not intended to harm the woman. In Sahih Muslim, Aisha (Muhammad’s favorite wife) reported that Muhammad struck her in such a way that caused her pain,7 and she seemed scornful of the disciplinary practice. In Sahih al-Bukhari 5825, Aisha states, “I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women. Look! Her skin is greener (bruised) than her clothes.”8 During the debate, Dr. Hussain responded that the woman who was beaten in the Bukhari passage was a liar and therefore deserving of the punishment. This is a major difference between the view of women in Christianity and Islam. There are no texts in which Jesus affirms a woman should be beaten for lying, nor for other sins.

A second possible Muslim rebuttal on the issue of beating is from the collection of hadith, Sunan Abu Dawud. There is a passage in Sunan Abu Dawud 2141, in which Muhammad said, “Do not beat Allah’s handmaidens.” While this is a correctly quoted part of the hadith, the fuller context gives a much different picture. Immediately following this quote, the passage reads, “but when Umar came to the Apostle of Allah and said: Women have become emboldened towards their husbands, he (the Prophet) gave permission to beat them.” To confirm further the authority of a husband in the question of wife-beating, Muhammad states in the next hadith, 2142, that “a man will not be asked as to why he beat his wife.” Muhammad’s interpretation of Surah 4:34 leaves no question that, in Islam, a woman can be beaten by her husband with the blessing of the prophet himself.9 The importance of utilizing the hadith for interpreting the Qur’anic passage cannot be stressed enough here. Rather than relying on my own interpretation of Surah 4:34, I have Muhammad’s interpretation from the collected sayings in the hadith.


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 THE OPPRESSION OF WOMEN: SEXUAL CONTROL

In ABC’s 20/20 program entitled, “Islam: Questions and Answers,” host Diane Sawyer attempted to answer the question of whether men control women in Islam. However, she never investigated the more explicit passages of the Qur’an with regard to women as sexual objects. In Surah 2:223, Muhammad revealed, “Your wives are as a tilth [a field to be plowed] unto you; so approach your tilth when or how ye will.” At first glance, this passage may not seem substantial, but Muhammad’s explanation of this verse in the hadith establishes the basis for a man’s control over the wife’s sexual intimacy. Muhammad, commenting on 2:223, states, “By Him in Whose Hand is my life, when a man calls his wife to his bed, and she does not respond, the One Who is in the heaven is displeased with her until he (her husband) is pleased with her.”10 Furthermore, the angels curse her until dawn.11 Allah is displeased with a woman until she sexually satisfies her husband when and how he wants. What are the implications of such a teaching? It can be deduced from these passages that a man’s sexual gratification is directly related to a woman’s reward of heaven or punishment of hell. According to At-Tirmidhi, “If a woman dies while her husband was pleased with her, she will enter paradise.”12 This teaching elevates her sexuality to one of the most important determining factors of her eternal salvation, and establishes the judgment as directly tied to the will of the husband.

Still, a more problematic teaching, and one that is not scrutinized deeply enough in the public square, is Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha. When Muhammad married Aisha, he was in his fifties, but Aisha was six years old. Sahih Bukhari reports when the consummation of their marriage occurred: “The Prophet wrote the marriage contract with her when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old.”13 How can a girl be expected freely to choose marriage at the age of six and consummation of the marriage at the age of nine? She cannot be expected to understand marriage at this young age and, therefore, she lacks a real choice in either matter—another means of controlling female sexuality. Furthermore, when asked by Aisha, Muhammad made it clear how a Muslim man could know that he has a virgin girl’s consent for a marriage: “Her consent is (expressed by) her silence.”14

Is the Veil a Choice? Is the veil of a Muslim woman simply a choice that she makes or is the veil a divine command? In listening to interviews in the U.S. media, one would lean toward a reply of “choice,” but the Qur’an and the hadith tell a different story. In Surah 33:59, God commands, “O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested.” God commanded the prophet Muhammad to cover his wives, daughters, and the Muslim women. The reasoning for why the women are to be covered: so as not to be molested. Other translations use the words hurt, offended, insulted, given trouble, and annoyed in place of molested. This is a very different picture of the veil than ABC’s depiction of wearing it as a personal choice purely for modesty or piety. According to the passage, if a woman does not veil, she can expect some kind of trouble from men.

Another passage from the Qur’an, Surah 24:31, specifies that women should “lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty” except in the presence of certain family members, slaves, male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex. In combining the two passages, the purpose, method, and command to veil becomes more understandable. Women are to cover their bodies in the presence of those who may be sexually attracted to them and “molest” or “annoy” them. Furthermore, Muhammad ordered the veiling of his own wives and distinguished his wives from his lady-slaves specifically by veiling.15 According to Sahih Bukhari, one of Muhammad’s wives, Safiyya, was “ordered to use a veil.”16 So, if a Muslim woman is going to follow the teaching and example of Muhammad, she must veil. There is no real choice for women offered in the texts of Islam.

After reviewing the actual texts and interpretations on these issues, women seem to be much more controlled by men in Islam than ABC’s 20/20 program and the positive image campaigns portray. The ultimate reality in Islam is that women are a majority in hell because of their many problems, including their ungratefulness to the husbands.17 Any Muslim woman stating that she has control over her life and equality with Muslim men must at least reconcile the passages covered in this article with her view of Islam.

 The Christian View: Willing to Die For

At the beginning of my debate, I presented the view of women according to the Bible. I selected three areas: (1) the woman in creation, (2) the woman in this life, (3) the woman in the afterlife. In this article I will briefly address the first two areas. Also, recognizing that Christians debate over views of biblical womanhood, I kept my presentation to those issues that directly contrasted the Islamic texts with the biblical, emphasizing the importance of the role of women in the foundational doctrine of the Christian faith: resurrection.

Women in Creation. In the Genesis creation account, God created both male and female in His likeness (1:27). Both mankind and womankind are recipients of God’s image, meaning that Eve was given the same essential characteristics in her human nature as Adam. The creation account demonstrates an equality in human nature that is absent from the Islamic accounts.

After God made man and woman, He commanded Adam and Eve to subdue and rule the earth. Notice that the wording is directed toward both Adam and Eve. “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Gen. 1:28 ESV). Consequently, in her creation, the woman was meant to share the responsibility of a co-ruler, along with her husband Adam. At this point, God saw what He had made and declared that it was very good (Gen. 1:31). Eve was a part of this very good creation of God.

Woman’s creation from the rib of man is not negatively portrayed in the biblical texts, though a Muslim may describe it as such. In the Genesis 2 account the man is supposed to leave his father and mother, “hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” The indication of this passage from the grammatical structure is that a man will leave his parents and unite with his wife as a direct result of her creation out of him (Gen. 2:24 ESV). In addition, woman is regarded as man’s own flesh, his own body. Paul affirmed the unity as one flesh when he wrote to the church in Ephesus that “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies…for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it” (Eph. 5:28–29 ESV). So woman is one with man; he is to treat her as he treats himself. In Islam, woman is in need of discipline by the man; he is to treat her much differently than himself.

Women in This Life. The godly woman in the biblical texts is a capable, trustworthy person. As a wife, Proverbs 31 states an excellent woman is more precious than rubies. She is a hard worker who also provides for her family and makes important financial decisions. She is wise and teaches kindness to others. There is strength in her arms and she is clothed with strength and dignity. The woman is to be praised because she is a blessing.

Furthermore, the apostle Paul describes women as persons for whom men must be willing to die. In Ephesians 5:25–26, he commands, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her” (ESV). How did Christ love the church? He was willing to be crucified for her! In loving a woman as Christ loved the church, the Christian man should be ready to suffer for her, even to the point of death.

Finally, women in all four Gospel accounts were the first people to witness the empty tomb and the resurrected Lord. They were also the first to testify publicly to the resurrection of Jesus. The Christian God gave women the honor and responsibility of testifying to the foundational doctrine of the Christian faith before anyone else. If I took this one feature of women in the Christian faith alone and compared it to all the positive verses related to women in the Qur’an, the difference in level of respect would be astounding. In Christianity, God entrusted women to testify aptly to His most important salvific act in human history. In Islam, women are a majority in hell for the intellectual deficiency inherent in their created nature. These are clearly two very different views on women in two very different religions.

Mary Jo Sharp is the founder of Confident Christianity Apologetics Ministry and a graduate of Biola University. She participates in public, formal debates on Islam and appears on the Aramaic Broadcasting Network show, Jesus or Muhammad, engaging in live debate with callers from around the world.


NOTES

  1. “Inspired by Muhammad” website. Available at http://www.inspiredbymuhammad.com/womens_rights.php#profile.
  2. Hadith are the narrations concerning the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad. They were collected in the eighth and ninth centuries and are considered important tools for understanding the Qur’an.
  3. All Qur’an quotations are from the Yusuf Ali translation unless otherwise noted.
  4. The Qur’an. Mohammad Pickthall translation.
  5. Hafiz Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Ibn Kathir, trans. Shaykh Safiur-Rahman Al-Mubarakpuri, vol. 2 (Houston: Darussalam Publishers, 2000), 442.
  6. Sahih Muslim 142, trans. Abdul Hamid Siddiqi, vol. 1 (Lahore: Ashraf Printing Press, 1976), 47–48.
  7. Sahih Muslim, no. 2127.
  8. Sahih Bukhari, trans. Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, vol. 7 (Riyadh: Darussalam, 1997).
  9. The argument among Islamic scholars is usually centered on what kind of beating, not whether to beat.
  10. Sahih Muslim, no. 3366.
  11. Ibid., no. 3368.
  12. Jami At-Tirmidhi, trans. Abu Khaliyl (Houston: Dar-us-Salam Publications, 2007).
  13. Sahih Bukhari, no. 5133.
  14. Ibid., 5136–37.
  15. Sahih al-Bukhari, no. 4213, 5085. Muhammad had sexual relationships with his female slaves, so this is an important distinction of a Muslim wife.
  16. Ibid., no. 4212.
  17. “Ungrateful to Their Spouses,” Sahih Muslim, no. 142.