To clarify a very important point:
How can we compare the place of women in Islam and the Judaeo-Christian
Dr. Sherif Mohammad, an eminent writer-thinker with an academic
background in electrical engineering. He currently lives in Kingston,
Since modern Western thought and paradigmas are based on Western cultural
heritage, what is meant by religion has been the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Both the Western thinkers and Orientalists and �Westernized� intellectuals
in the Muslim world, in ignorance of Islam, have tended to criticize Islam
from the perspective of the critics directed to the Judeo-Christian
tradition. What follows is of great importance especially in correcting and
clarifying this important matter from the viewpoint of the status of women
Five years ago, I read in the Toronto Star issue of July 3, 1990 an
article titled �Islam is not alone in patriarchal doctrines�, by Gwynne
Dyer. The article described the furious reactions of the participants of a
conference on women and power held in Montreal to the comments of the famous
Egyptian feminist Dr. Nawal Saadawi. Her �politically incorrect� statements
included : �the most restrictive elements towards women can be found first
in Judaism in the Old Testament then in Christianity and then in the Quran�;
�all religions are patriarchal because they stem from patriarchal
societies�; and �veiling of women is not a specifically Islamic practice but
an ancient cultural heritage with analogies in sister religions�.
The participants could not bear sitting around while their faiths were
being equated with Islam. Thus, Dr. Saadawi received a barrage of criticism.
�Dr. Saadawi�s comments are unacceptable. Her answers reveal a lack of
understanding about other people�s faiths,� declared Bernice Dubois of the
World Movement of Mothers. �I must protest� said panelist Alice Shalvi of
Israel women�s network, �there is no conception of the veil in Judaism.� The
article attributed these furious protests to the strong tendency in the West
to scapegoat Islam for practices that are just as much a part of the West�s
own cultural heritage. �Christian and Jewish feminists were not going to sit
around being discussed in the same category as those wicked Muslims,� wrote
I was not surprised that the conference participants had held such a
negative view of Islam, especially when women�s issues were involved. In the
West, Islam is believed to be the symbol of the subordination of women par
excellence. In order to understand how firm this belief is, it is enough to
mention that the Minister of Education in France, has recently ordered the
expulsion of all young Muslim women wearing the veil from French schools
What intrigued me the most about the Montreal conference was one question
: Were the statements made by Saadawi, or any of her critics, factual ? In
other words, do Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have the same conception of
women? Are they different in their conceptions ? Do Judaism and Christianity
, truly, offer women a better treatment than Islam does? What is the Truth?
It is not easy to search for and find answers to these difficult
questions. The first difficulty is that one has to be fair and objective or,
at least, do one�s utmost to be so. This is what Islam teaches. The Quran
has instructed Muslims to say the truth even if those who are very close to
them do not like it:
Whenever you speak, speak justly, even if a near relative is concerned.
(6:152) �O you who believe, stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to
Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents or your kin, and whether
it be (against) rich or poor.� (4:135).
The other great difficulty is the overwhelming breadth of the subject.
Therefore, during the last few years, I have spent many hours reading the
Bible, The Encyclopedia of Religion, and the Encyclopedia Judaica searching
for answers. I have also read several books discussing the position of women
in different religions written by scholars, apologists, and critics. The
material presented in the following chapters represents the important
findings of this humble research. I don�t claim to be absolutely objective.
This is beyond my limited capacity. All I can say is that I have been
trying, throughout this research, to approach the Quranic ideal of �speaking
I would like to emphasize in this introduction that my purpose for this
study is not to denigrate Judaism or Christianity. As Muslims, we believe in
the divine origins of both. No one can be a Muslim without believing in
Moses and Jesus as great prophets of God. My goal is only to vindicate Islam
and pay a tribute, long overdue in the West, to the final truthful Message
from God to the human race.
I would also like to emphasize that I concerned myself only with
Doctrine. That is, my concern is, mainly, the position of women in the three
religions as it appears in their original sources not as practised by their
millions of followers in the world today. Therefore, most of the evidence
cited comes from the Quran, the sayings of Prophet Muhammad, the Bible, the
Talmud, and the sayings of some of the most influential Church Fathers whose
views have contributed immeasurably to defining and shaping Christianity.
This interest in the sources relates to the fact that understanding a
certain religion from the attitudes and the behaviour of some of its nominal
followers is misleading. Many people confuse culture with religion, many
others do not know what their religious books are saying, and many others do
not even care.
1. Eve�s fault?
The three religions agree on one basic fact: Both women and men are
created by God, The Creator of the whole universe. However, disagreement
starts soon after the creation of the first man, Adam, and the first woman,
Eve. The Judaeo-Christian conception of the creation of Adam and Eve is
narrated in detail in Genesis 2:4-3:24. God prohibited both of them from
eating the fruits of the forbidden tree. The serpent seduced Eve to eat from
it and Eve, in turn, seduced Adam to eat with her. When God rebuked Adam for
what he did, he put all the blame on Eve, �The woman you put here with me
--she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it.� Consequently, God said
�I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will
give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband and he will
rule over you.�
To Adam He said:
�Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree .... Cursed is
the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the
days of your life...�
The Islamic conception of the first creation is found in several places
in the Quran, for example:
�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 adviser. So by deceit he 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� � (7:19:23).
A careful look into the two accounts of the story of the Creation reveals
some essential differences. The Quran, contrary to the Bible, places equal
blame on both Adam and Eve for their mistake. Nowhere in the Quran can one
find even the slightest hint that Eve tempted Adam to eat from the tree or
even that she had eaten before him. Eve in the Quran is no temptress, no
seducer, and no deceiver. Moreover, Eve is not to be blamed for the pains of
childbearing. God, according to the Quran, punishes no one for another�s
faults. Both Adam and Eve committed a sin and then asked God for forgiveness
and He forgave them both.
2. Eve�s legacy
The image of Eve as temptress in the Bible has resulted in an extremely
negative impact on women throughout the Judaeo-Christian tradition. All
women were believed to have inherited from their mother, the Biblical Eve,
both her guilt and her guile. Consequently, they were all untrustworthy,
morally inferior, and wicked. Menstruation, pregnancy, and childbearing were
considered the just punishment for the eternal guilt of the cursed female
sex. In order to appreciate how negative the impact of the Biblical Eve was
on all her female descendants we have to look at the writings of some of the
most important Jews and Christians of all time. Let us start with the Old
Testament and look at excerpts from what is called the Wisdom Literature in
which we find:
�I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a
trap and whose hands are chains. The man who pleases God will escape her,
but the sinner she will ensnare....while I was still searching but not
finding, I found one upright man among a thousand but not one upright woman
among them all� (Ecclesiastes 7:26-28).
In another part of the Hebrew literature which is found in the Catholic
Bible we read:
�No wickedness comes anywhere near the wickedness of a woman.....Sin
began with a woman and thanks to her we all must die� (Ecclesiasticus
Jewish Rabbis listed nine curses inflicted on women as a result of the
�To the woman He gave nine curses and death: the burden of the blood of
menstruation and the blood of virginity; the burden of pregnancy; the burden
of childbirth; the burden of bringing up the children; her head is covered
as one in mourning; she pierces her ear like a permanent slave or slave girl
who serves her master; she is not to be believed as a witness; and after
To the present day, orthodox Jewish men in their daily morning prayer
recite �Blessed be God King of the universe that Thou has not made me a
woman.� The women, on the other hand, thank God every morning for �making me
according to Thy will.�  Another prayer found in many Jewish prayer
books: �Praised be God that he has not created me a gentile. Praised be God
that he has not created me a woman. Praised be God that he has not created
me an ignoramus.� 
The Biblical Eve has played a far bigger role in Christianity than in
Judaism. Her sin has been pivotal to the whole Christian faith because the
Christian conception of the reason for the mission of Jesus Christ on Earth
stems from Eve�s disobedience to God. She had sinned and then seduced Adam
to follow her suit. Consequently, God expelled both of them from Heaven to
Earth, which had been cursed because of them. They bequeathed their sin,
which had not been forgiven by God, to all their descendants and, thus, all
humans are born in sin. In order to purify human beings from their �original
sin�, God had to sacrifice Jesus, who is considered to be the Son of God, on
the cross. Therefore, Eve is responsible for her own mistake, her husband�s
sin, the original sin of all humanity, and the death of the Son of God. In
other words, one woman acting on her own caused the fall of humanity .
What about her daughters? They are sinners like her and have to be treated
as such. Listen to the severe tone of St. Paul in the New Testament:
�A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I don�t permit a
woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam
was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the
woman who was deceived and became a sinner� (I Timothy 2:11-14).
St. Tertullian was even more blunt than St. Paul, while he was talking to
his �best beloved sisters� in the faith, he said :
�Do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this
sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You
are the Devil�s gateway: You are the unsealer of the forbidden tree: You are
the first deserter of the divine law: You are she who persuaded him whom the
devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God�s image,
man. On account of your desert even the Son of God had to die.�
St. Augustine was faithful to the legacy of his predecessors, he wrote to
�What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still
Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman......I fail to see
what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing
Centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas still considered women as defective:
�As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten,
for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect
likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a
defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from
some external influence.�
Finally, the renowned reformer Martin Luther could not see any benefit
from a woman but bringing into the world as many children as possible
regardless of any side effects:
�If they become tired or even die, that does not matter. Let them die in
childbirth, that�s why they are there.�
Again and again all women are denigrated because of the image of Eve the
temptress, thanks to the Genesis account. To sum up, the Judaeo-Christian
conception of women has been poisoned by the belief in the sinful nature of
Eve and her female offspring.
If we now turn our attention to what the Quran has to say about women, we
will soon realize that the Islamic conception of women is radically
different from the Judaeo-Christian one. Let the Quran speak for itself:
�For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men
and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient, for
men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity,
for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and
for men and women who engage much in Allah�s praise-- For them all has Allah
prepared forgiveness and great reward� (33:35). �The believers, men and
women, are protectors, one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid
what is evil, they observe regular prayers, practise regular charity, and
obey Allah and His Messenger. On them will Allah pour His Mercy: for Allah
is Exalted in power, Wise� (9:71). �And their Lord answered them: Truly I
will never cause to be lost the work of any of you, Be you a male or female,
you are members one of another� (3:195). �Whoever works evil will not be
requited but by the like thereof, and whoever works a righteous deed
-whether man or woman- and is a believer- such will enter the Garden of
bliss� (40:40). �Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has faith,
verily to him/her we will give a new life that is good and pure, and we will
bestow on such their reward according to the best of their actions� (16:97).
It is clear that the Quranic view of women is no different than that of
men. They, both, are God�s creatures whose sublime goal on earth is to
worship their Lord, do righteous deeds, and avoid evil and they, both, will
be assessed accordingly. The Quran never mentions that the woman is the
devil�s gateway or that she is a deceiver by nature. The Quran, also, never
mentions that man is God�s image; all men and all women are his creatures,
that is all. According to the Quran, a woman�s role on earth is not limited
only to childbirth. She is required to do as many good deeds as any other
man is required to do. The Quran never says that no upright women have ever
existed. To the contrary, the Quran has instructed all the believers, women
as well as men, to follow the example of those ideal women such as the
Virgin Mary and the Pharoah�s wife:
�And Allah sets forth, As an example to those who believe, the wife of
Pharaoh: Behold she said: �O my lord build for me, in nearness to you, a
mansion in the Garden, and save me from Pharaoh and his doings and save me
from those who do wrong.� And Mary the daughter of Imran who guarded her
chastity and We breathed into her body of Our spirit; and she testified to
the truth of the words of her Lord and of His revelations and was one of the
3. Shameful daughters?
In fact, the difference between the Biblical and the Quranic attitude
towards the female sex starts as soon as a female is born. For example, the
Bible states that the period of the mother�s ritual impurity is twice as
long if a girl is born than if a boy is (Lev. 12:2-5). The Catholic Bible
states explicitly that:
�The birth of a daughter is a loss� (Ecclesiasticus 22:3).
In contrast to this shocking statement, boys receive special praise:
�A man who educates his son will be the envy of his enemy.� (Ecclesiasticus
Jewish Rabbis made it an obligation on Jewish men to produce offspring in
order to propagate the race. At the same time, they did not hide their clear
preference for male children : �It is well for those whose children are male
but ill for those whose are female�, �At the birth of a boy, all are
joyful...at the birth of a girl all are sorrowful�, and �When a boy comes
into the world, peace comes into the world... When a girl comes, nothing
A daughter is considered a painful burden, a potential source of shame to
�Your daughter is headstrong? Keep a sharp look-out that she does not
make you the laughing stock of your enemies, the talk of the town, the
object of common gossip, and put you to public shame� (Ecclesiasticus
42:11). �Keep a headstrong daughter under firm control, or she will abuse
any indulgence she receives. Keep a strict watch on her shameless eye, do
not be surprised if she disgraces you� (Ecclesiasticus 26:10-11).
It was this very same idea of treating daughters as sources of shame that
led the pagan Arabs, before the advent of Islam, to practice female
infanticide. The Quran severely condemned this heinous practice:
�When news is brought to one of them of the birth of a female child, his
face darkens and he is filled with inward grief. With shame does he hide
himself from his people because of the bad news he has had! Shall he retain
her on contempt or bury her in the dust? Ah! what an evil they decide on?�
It has to be mentioned that this sinister crime would have never stopped
in Arabia were it not for the power of the scathing terms the Quran used to
condemn this practice (16:59, 43:17, 81:8-9). The Quran, moreover, makes no
distinction between boys and girls. In contrast to the Bible, the Quran
considers the birth of a female as a gift and a blessing from God, the same
as the birth of a male. The Quran even mentions the gift of the female birth
�To Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth. He creates
what He wills. He bestows female children to whomever He wills and bestows
male children to whomever He wills� (42:49). In order to wipe out all the
traces of female infanticide in the nascent Muslim society, Prophet Muhammad
promised those who were blessed with daughters of a great reward if they
would bring them up kindly: �He who is involved in bringing up daughters,
and accords benevolent treatment towards them, they will be protection for
him against Hell-Fire� (Bukhari and Muslim). �Whoever maintains two girls
till they attain maturity, he and I will come on the Resurrection Day like
this; and he joined his fingers� (Muslim).
4. Female education
The difference between the Biblical and the Quranic conceptions of women
is not limited to the newly born female, it extends far beyond that. Let us
compare their attitudes towards a female trying to learn her religion. The
heart of Judaism is the Torah, the law. However, according to the Talmud,
�women are exempt from the study of the Torah.� Some Jewish Rabbis firmly
declared �Let the words of Torah rather be destroyed by fire than imparted
to women�, and �Whoever teaches his daughter Torah is as though he taught
her obscenity� 
The attitude of St. Paul in the New Testament is not brighter:
�As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in
the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission as
the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their
own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the
church.� (I Corinthians 14:34-35)
How can a woman learn if she is not allowed to speak? How can a woman
grow intellectually if she is obliged to be in a state of full submission?
How can she broaden her horizons if her one and only source of information
is her husband at home?
Now, to be fair, we should ask: is the Quranic position any different?
One short story narrated in the Quran sums its position up concisely.
Khawlah was a Muslim woman whose husband Aws pronounced this statement at a
moment of anger: �You are to me as the back of my mother.� This was held by
pagan Arabs to be a statement of divorce which freed the husband from any
conjugal responsibility but did not leave the wife free to leave the
husband�s home or to marry another man. Having heard these words from her
husband, Khawlah was in a miserable situation. She went straight to the
Prophet of Islam to plead her case. The Prophet was of the opinion that she
should be patient since there seemed to be no way out. Khawla kept arguing
with the Prophet in an attempt to save her suspended marriage. Shortly, the
Quran intervened; Khawla�s plea was accepted. The divine verdict abolished
this iniquitous custom. One full chapter (Chapter 58) of the Quran whose
title is �al-Mujadilah� or �The woman who is arguing� was named after this
�Allah has heard and accepted the statement of the woman who pleads with
you (the Prophet) concerning her husband and carries her complaint to Allah,
and Allah hears the arguments between both of you for Allah hears and sees
all things....� (58:1).
A woman in the Quranic conception has the right to argue even with the
Prophet of Islam himself. No one has the right to instruct her to be silent.
She is under no obligation to consider her husband the one and only
reference in matters of law and religion.
5. Unclean, impure women?
Jewish laws and regulations concerning menstruating women are extremely
restrictive. The Old Testament considers any menstruating woman as unclean
and impure. Moreover, her impurity �infects� others as well. Anyone or
anything she touches becomes unclean for a day:
�When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly
period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till
evening. Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean, and
anything she sits on will be unclean. Whoever touches her bed must wash his
clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening. Whoever
touches anything she sits on must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and
he will be unclean till evening. Whether it is the bed or anything she was
sitting on, when anyone touches it, he will be unclean till evening� (Lev.
Due to her �contaminating� nature, a menstruating woman was sometimes
�banished� in order to avoid any possibility of any contact with her. She
was sent to a special house called �the house of uncleanness� for the whole
period of her impurity . The Talmud considers a menstruating woman
�fatal� even without any physical contact:
�Our Rabbis taught:....if a menstruant woman passes between two (men), if
it is at the beginning of her menses she will slay one of them, and if it is
at the end of her menses she will cause strife between them� (bPes. 111a.)
Furthermore, the husband of a menstruous woman was forbidden to enter the
synagogue if he had been made unclean by her even by the dust under her
feet. A priest whose wife, daughter, or mother was menstruating could not
recite priestly blessing in the synagogue . No wonder many Jewish women
still refer to menstruation as �the curse.� 
Islam does not consider a menstruating woman to possess any kind of
�contagious uncleanness�. She is neither �untouchable� nor �cursed.� She
practices her normal life with only one restriction: A married couple are
not allowed to have sexual intercourse during the period of menstruation.
Any other physical contact between them is permissible. A menstruating woman
is exempted from some rituals such as daily prayers and fasting during her
6. Bearing witness?
Another issue in which the Quran and the Bible disagree is the issue of
women bearing witness. It is true that the Quran has instructed the
believers dealing in financial transactions to get two male witnesses or one
male and two females (2:282). However, it is also true that the Quran in
other situations accepts the testimony of a woman as equal to that of a man.
In fact the woman�s testimony can even invalidate the man�s. If a man
accuses his wife of unchastity, he is required by the Quran to solemnly
swear five times as evidence of the wife�s guilt. If the wife denies and
swears similarly five times, she is not considered guilty and in either case
the marriage is dissolved (24:6-11).
On the other hand, women were not allowed to bear witness in early Jewish
society . The Rabbis counted women�s not being able to bear witness
among the nine curses inflicted upon all women because of the Fall (see the
�Eve�s Legacy� section).
Women in today�s Israel are not allowed to give evidence in Rabbinical
courts . The Rabbis justify why women cannot bear witness by citing
Genesis 18:9-16, where it is stated that Sara, Abraham�s wife had lied. The
Rabbis use this incident as evidence that women are unqualified to bear
witness. It should be noted here that this story narrated in Genesis 18:9-16
has been mentioned more than once in the Quran without any hint of any lies
by Sara (11:69-74, 51:24-30). In the Christian West, both ecclesiastical and
civil law debarred women from giving testimony until late last century .
If a man accuses his wife of unchastity, her testimony will not be
considered at all according to the Bible. The accused wife has to be
subjected to a trial by ordeal. In this trial, the wife faces a complex and
humiliating ritual which was supposed to prove her guilt or innocence (Num.
5:11-31). If she is found guilty after this ordeal, she will be sentenced to
death. If she is found not guilty, her husband will be innocent of any
Besides, if a man takes a woman as a wife and then accuses her of not
being a virgin, her own testimony will not count. Her parents had to bring
evidence of her virginity before the elders of the town. If the parents
could not prove the innocence of their daughter, she would be stoned to
death on her father�s doorsteps. If the parents were able to prove her
innocence, the husband would only be fined one hundred shekels of silver and
he could not divorce his wife as long as he lived:
�If a man takes a wife and, after lying with her, dislikes her and
slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, �I married this woman, but
when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,� then the
girl�s father and mother shall bring proof that she was a virgin to the town
elders at the gate. The girl�s father will say to the elders, �I gave my
daughter in marriage to this man, but he dislikes her. Now he has slandered
her and said I did not find your daughter to be a virgin. But here is the
proof of my daughter�s virginity.� Then her parents shall display the cloth
before the elders of the town, and the elders shall take the man and punish
him. They shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the
girl�s father, because this man has given an Israelite virgin a bad name.
She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as long as he
lives. If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl�s virginity
can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father�s house and
there the men of the town shall stone her to death. She has done a
disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father�s
house. You must purge the evil from among you.� (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)
Adultery and fornication are considered sins in all religions. The Bible
decrees the death sentence for both the adulterer and the adulteress (Lev.
20:10). Islam also equally punishes both the adulterer and the adulteress
(24:2). However, the Quranic definition of adultery is very different from
the Biblical definition. Adultery, according to the Quran, is the
involvement of a married man or a married woman in an extramarital affair.
The Bible only considers the extramarital affair of a married woman as
adultery (Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22, Proverbs 6:20-7:27).
�If a man is found sleeping with another man�s wife, both the man who
slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel�
(Deut. 22:22). �If a man commits adultery with another man�s wife both the
adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death� (Lev. 20:10).
According to the Biblical definition, if a married man sleeps with an
unmarried woman, this is not considered a crime at all. The married man who
has extramarital affairs with unmarried women is not an adulterer and the
unmarried women involved with him are not adulteresses. The crime of
adultery is committed only when a man, whether married or single, sleeps
with a married woman. In this case the man is considered adulterer, even if
he is not married, and the woman is considered adulteress. In short,
adultery is any illicit sexual intercourse involving a married woman. The
extramarital affair of a married man is not per se a crime in the Bible. Why
is the dual moral standard? According to Encyclopedia Judaica, the wife was
considered to be the husband�s possession and adultery constituted a
violation of the husband�s exclusive right to her; the wife as the husband�s
possession had no such right to him . That is, if a man had sexual
intercourse with a married woman, he would be violating the property of
another man and, thus, he should be punished.
To the present day in Israel, if a married man indulges in an
extramarital affair with an unmarried woman, his children by that woman are
considered legitimate. But, if a married woman has an affair with another
man, whether married or not married, her children by that man are not only
illegitimate but they are considered bastards and are forbidden to marry any
other Jews except converts and other bastards. This ban is handed down to
the children�s descendants for 10 generations until the taint of adultery is
presumably weakened .
The Quran, on the other hand, never considers any woman to be the
possession of any man. The Quran eloquently describes the relationship
between the spouses by saying:
�And among His signs is that He created for you mates from among
yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquility with them and He has put love
and mercy between your hearts: verily in that are signs for those who
This is the Quranic conception of marriage: love, mercy, and
tranquillity, not possession and double standards.
According to the Bible, a man must fulfil any vows he might make to God.
He must not break his word. On the other hand, a woman�s vow is not
necessarily binding on her. It has to be approved by her father, if she is
living in his house, or by her husband, if she is married. If a
father/husband does not endorse his daughter�s/wife�s vows, all pledges made
by her become null and void:
�But if her father forbids her when he hears about it, none of her vows
or the pledges by which she obligated herself will stand ...Her husband may
confirm or nullify any vow she makes or any sworn pledge to deny herself�
Why is it that a woman�s word is not binding per se ? The answer is
simple: because she is owned by her father, before marriage, or by her
husband after marriage. The father�s control over his daughter was absolute
to the extent that, should he wish, he could sell her! It is indicated in
the writings of the Rabbis that: �The man may sell his daughter, but the
woman may not sell her daughter; the man may betroth his daughter, but the
woman may not betroth her daughter.� The Rabbinic literature also
indicates that marriage represents the transfer of control from the father
to the husband: �betrothal, making a woman the sacrosanct possession--the
inviolable property-- of the husband...� Obviously, if the woman is
considered to be the property of someone else, she cannot make any pledges
that her owner does not approve of.
It is of interest to note that this Biblical instruction concerning
women�s vows has had negative repercussions on Judaeo-Christian women till
early in this century. A married woman in the Western world had no legal
status. No act of hers was of any legal value. Her husband could repudiate
any contract, bargain, or deal she had made. Women in the West (the largest
heir of the Judaeo-Christian legacy) were held unable to make a binding
contract because they were practically owned by someone else. Western women
had suffered for almost two thousand years because of the Biblical attitude
towards women�s position vis-a-vis their fathers and husbands .
In Islam, the vow of every Muslim, male or female, is binding on him/her.
No one has the power to repudiate the pledges of anyone else. Failure to
keep a solemn oath, made by a man or a woman, has to be expiated as
indicated in the Quran:
�He [God] will call you to account for your deliberate oaths: for
expiation, feed ten indigent persons, on a scale of the average for the food
of your families; Or clothe them; or give a slave his freedom. If that is
beyond your means, fast for three days. That is the expiation for the oaths
you have sworn. But keep your oaths� (5:89).
Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, men and women, used to present their
oath of allegiance to him personally. Women, as well as men, would
independently come to him and pledge their oaths:
�O Prophet, When believing women come to you to make a covenant with you
that they will not associate in worship anything with God, nor steal, nor
fornicate, nor kill their own children, nor slander anyone, nor disobey you
in any just matter, then make a covenant with them and pray to God for the
forgiveness of their sins. Indeed God is Forgiving and most Merciful�
A man could not swear the oath on behalf of his daughter or his wife. Nor
could a man repudiate the oath made by any of his female relatives.
9. Wife�s property?
The three religions share an unshakeable belief in the importance of
marriage and family life. They also agree on the leadership of the husband
over the family. Nevertheless, blatant differences do exist among the three
religions with respect to the limits of this leadership. The
Judaeo-Christian tradition, unlike Islam, virtually extends the headship of
the husband into ownership of his wife.
The Jewish tradition regarding the husband�s role towards his wife stems
from the conception that he owns her as he owns his slave. This
conception has been the reason behind the double standard in the laws of
adultery and behind the husband�s ability to annul his wife�s vows. This
conception has also been responsible for denying the wife any control over
her property or her earnings. As soon as a Jewish woman got married, she
completely lost any control over her property and earnings to her husband.
Jewish Rabbis asserted the husband�s right to his wife�s property as a
corollary of his possession of her: �Since one has come into the possession
of the woman does it not follow that he should come into the possession of
her property too?�, and �Since he has acquired the woman should he not
acquire also her property?� Thus, marriage caused the richest woman to
become practically penniless. The Talmud describes the financial situation
of a wife as follows:
�How can a woman have anything; whatever is hers belongs to her husband?
What is his is his and what is hers is also his...... Her earnings and what
she may find in the streets are also his. The household articles, even the
crumbs of bread on the table, are his. Should she invite a guest to her
house and feed him, she would be stealing from her husband...� (San. 71a,
The fact of the matter is that the property of a Jewish female was meant
to attract suitors. A Jewish family would assign their daughter a share of
her father�s estate to be used as a dowry in case of marriage. It was this
dowry that made Jewish daughters an unwelcome burden to their fathers. The
father had to raise his daughter for years and then prepare for her marriage
by providing a large dowry. Thus, a girl in a Jewish family was a liability
and no asset . This liability explains why the birth of a daughter was
not celebrated with joy in the old Jewish society (see the �Shameful
Daughters?� section). The dowry was the wedding gift presented to the groom
under terms of tenancy. The husband would act as the practical owner of the
dowry but he could not sell it. The bride would lose any control over the
dowry at the moment of marriage. Moreover, she was expected to work after
marriage and all her earnings had to go to her husband in return for her
maintenance which was his obligation. She could regain her property only in
two cases: divorce or her husband�s death. Should she die first, he would
inherit her property. In the case of the husband�s death, the wife could
regain her pre-marital property but she was not entitled to inherit any
share in her deceased husband�s own property. It has to be added that the
groom also had to present a marriage gift to his bride, yet again he was the
practical owner of this gift as long as they were married .
Christianity, until recently, has followed the same Jewish tradition.
Both religious and civil authorities in the Christian Roman Empire (after
Constantine) required a property agreement as a condition for recognizing
the marriage. Families offered their daughters increasing dowries and, as a
result, men tended to marry earlier while families postponed their
daughters� marriages until later than had been customary . Under Canon
law, a wife was entitled to restitution of her dowry if the marriage was
annulled unless she was guilty of adultery. In this case, she forfeited her
right to the dowry which remained in her husband�s hands . Under Canon
and civil law a married woman in Christian Europe and America had lost her
property rights until late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For
example, women�s rights under English law were compiled and published in
1632. These �rights� included: �That which the husband hath is his own. That
which the wife hath is the husband�s.� The wife not only lost her
property upon marriage, she lost her personality as well. No act of her was
of legal value. Her husband could repudiate any sale or gift made by her as
being of no binding legal value. The person with whom she had any contract
was held as a criminal for participating in a fraud. Moreover, she could not
sue or be sued in her own name, nor could she sue her own husband . A
married woman was practically treated as an infant in the eyes of the law.
The wife simply belonged to her husband and therefore she lost her property,
her legal personality, and her family name .
Islam, since the seventh century C.E., has granted married women the
independent personality which the Judaeo-Christian West had deprived them
until very recently. In Islam, the bride and her family are under no
obligation whatsoever to present a gift to the groom. The girl in a Muslim
family is no liability. A woman is so dignified by Islam that she does not
need to present gifts in order to attract potential husbands. It is the
groom who must present the bride with a marriage gift. This gift is
considered her property and neither the groom nor the bride�s family have
any share in or control over it. In some Muslim societies today, a marriage
gift of a hundred thousand dollars in diamonds is not unusual . The
bride retains her marriage gifts even if she is later divorced. The husband
is not allowed any share in his wife�s property except what she offers him
with her free consent . The Quran has stated its position on this issue
�And give the women (on marriage) their dower as a free gift; but if
they, Of their own good pleasure, remit any part of it to you, take it and
enjoy it with right good cheer� (4:4)
The wife�s property and earnings are under her full control and for her
use alone since her, and the children�s, maintenance is her husband�s
responsibility . No matter how rich the wife might be, she is not
obliged to act as a co-provider for the family unless she herself
voluntarily chooses to do so. Spouses do inherit from one another. Moreover,
a married woman in Islam retains her independent legal personality and her
family name . An American judge once commented on the rights of Muslim
women saying: � A Muslim girl may marry ten times, but her individuality is
not absorbed by that of her various husbands. She is a solar planet with a
name and legal personality of her own.�
The three religions have remarkable differences in their attitudes
towards divorce. Christianity abhors divorce altogether. The New Testament
unequivocally advocates the indissolubility of marriage. It is attributed to
Jesus to have said, �But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife,
except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become adulteress, and
anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery� (Matthew 5:32). This
uncompromising ideal is, without a doubt, unrealistic. It assumes a state of
moral perfection that human societies have never achieved. When a couple
realizes that their married life is beyond repair, a ban on divorce will not
do them any good. Forcing ill-mated couples to remain together against their
wills is neither effective nor reasonable. No wonder the whole Christian
world has been obliged to sanction divorce.
Judaism, on the other hand, allows divorce even without any cause. The
Old Testament gives the husband the right to divorce his wife even if he
just dislikes her:
�If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds
something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce,
gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his
house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes
her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her
from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is
not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled� (Deut. 24:1-4).
The above verses have caused some considerable debate among Jewish
scholars because of their disagreement over the interpretation of the words
�displeasing�, �indecency�, and �dislikes� mentioned in the verses. The
Talmud records their different opinions:
� �The school of Shammai held that a man should not divorce his wife
unless he has found her guilty of some sexual misconduct, while the school
of Hillel say he may divorce her even if she has merely spoiled a dish for
him. Rabbi Akiba says he may divorce her even if he simply finds another
woman more beautiful than she� (Gittin 90a-b).
� The New Testament follows the Shammaites opinion while Jewish law has
followed the opinion of the Hillelites and R. Akiba . Since the
Hillelites view prevailed, it became the unbroken tradition of Jewish law to
give the husband freedom to divorce his wife without any cause at all. The
Old Testament not only gives the husband the right to divorce his
�displeasing� wife, it considers divorcing a �bad wife� an obligation:
� �A bad wife brings humiliation, downcast looks, and a wounded heart.
Slack of hand and weak of knee is the man whose wife fails to make him
happy. Woman is the origin of sin, and it is through her that we all die. Do
not leave a leaky cistern to drip or allow a bad wife to say what she likes.
If she does not accept your control, divorce her and send her away� (Ecclesiasticus
The Talmud has recorded several specific actions by wives which obliged
their husbands to divorce them: �If she ate in the street, if she drank
greedily in the street, if she suckled in the street, in every case Rabbi
Meir says that she must leave her husband� (Git. 89a). The Talmud has also
made it mandatory to divorce a barren wife (who bore no children in a period
of ten years): �Our Rabbis taught: If a man took a wife and lived with her
for ten years and she bore no child, he shall divorce her� (Yeb. 64a).
Wives, on the other hand, cannot initiate divorce under Jewish law. A
Jewish wife, however, could claim the right to a divorce before a Jewish
court provided that a strong reason exists. Very few grounds are provided
for the wife to make a claim for a divorce. These grounds include: A husband
with physical defects or skin disease, a husband not fulfilling his conjugal
responsibilities, etc. The Court might support the wife�s claim to a divorce
but it cannot dissolve the marriage. Only the husband can dissolve the
marriage by giving his wife a bill of divorce. The Court could scourge,
fine, imprison, and excommunicate him to force him to deliver the necessary
bill of divorce to his wife. However, if the husband is stubborn enough, he
can refuse to grant his wife a divorce and keep her tied to him
indefinitely. Worse still, he can desert her without granting her a divorce
and leave her unmarried and undivorced. He can marry another woman or even
live with any single woman out of wedlock and have children from her (these
children are considered legitimate under Jewish law). The deserted wife, on
the other hand, cannot marry any other man since she is still legally
married and she cannot live with any other man because she will be
considered an adulteress and her children from this union will be
illegitimate for ten generations. A woman in such a position is called an
agunah (chained woman). In the United States today there are
approximately 1000 to 1500 Jewish women who are agunot (plural for agunah),
while in Israel their number might be as high as 16000. Husbands may extort
thousands of dollars from their trapped wives in exchange for a Jewish
Islam occupies the middle ground between Christianity and Judaism with
respect to divorce. Marriage in Islam is a sanctified bond that should not
be broken except for compelling reasons. Couples are instructed to pursue
all possible remedies whenever their marriages are in danger. Divorce is not
to be resorted to except when there is no other way out. In a nutshell,
Islam recognizes divorce, yet it discourages it by all means. Let us focus
on the recognition side first. Islam does recognize the right of both
partners to end their matrimonial relationship. Islam gives the husband the
right for Talaq (divorce). Moreover, Islam, unlike Judaism, grants the wife
the right to dissolve the marriage through what is known as Khula�. If
the husband dissolves the marriage by divorcing his wife, he cannot retrieve
any of the marriage gifts he has given her. The Quran explicitly prohibits
the divorcing husbands from taking back their marriage gifts no matter how
expensive or valuable these gifts might be:
�But if you decide to take one wife in place of another, even if you had
given the latter a whole treasure for dower, take not the least bit of it
back; Would you take it by slander and a manifest wrong?� (4:20).
In the case of the wife choosing to end the marriage, she may return the
marriage gifts to her husband. Returning the marriage gifts in this case is
a fair compensation for the husband who is keen to keep his wife while she
choses to leave him. The Quran has instructed Muslim men not to take back
any of the gifts they have given to their wives except in the case of the
wife choosing to dissolve the marriage:
�It is not lawful for you (Men) to take back any of your gifts except
when both parties fear that they would be unable to keep the limits ordained
by Allah. There is no blame on either of them if she give something for her
freedom. These are the limits ordained by Allah so do not transgress them�
Also, a woman came to the Prophet Muhammad seeking the dissolution of her
marriage, she told the Prophet that she did not have any complaints against
her husband�s character or manners. Her only problem was that she honestly
did not like him to the extent of not being able to live with him any
longer. The Prophet asked her: �Would you give him his garden (the marriage
gift he had given her) back?� she said: �Yes�. The Prophet then instructed
the man to take back his garden and accept the dissolution of the marriage (Bukhari).
In some cases, A Muslim wife might be willing to keep her marriage but
find herself obliged to claim for a divorce because of some compelling
reasons such as: Cruelty of the husband, desertion without a reason, a
husband not fulfilling his conjugal responsibilities, etc. In these cases
the Muslim court dissolves the marriage .
In short, Islam has offered the Muslim woman some unequalled rights: she
can end the marriage through Khula� and she can sue for a divorce. A Muslim
wife can never become chained by a recalcitrant husband. It was these rights
that enticed Jewish women who lived in the early Islamic societies of the
seventh century C.E. to seek to obtain bills of divorce from their Jewish
husbands in Muslim courts. The Rabbis declared these bills null and void. In
order to end this practice, the Rabbis gave new rights and privileges to
Jewish women in an attempt to weaken the appeal of the Muslim courts. Jewish
women living in Christian countries were not offered any similar privileges
since the Roman law of divorce practised there was no more attractive than
the Jewish law .
Let us now focus our attention on how Islam discourages divorce. The
Prophet of Islam told the believers that:
�among all the permitted acts, divorce is the most hateful to God� (Abu
A Muslim man should not divorce his wife just because he dislikes her.
The Quran instructs Muslim men to be kind to their wives even in cases of
lukewarm emotions or feelings of dislike:
�Live with them (your wives) on a footing of kindness and equity. If you
dislike them it may be that you dislike something in which Allah has placed
a great deal of good� (4:19).
Prophet Muhammad gave a similar instruction:
�A believing man must not hate a believing woman. If he dislikes one of
her traits he will be pleased with another� (Muslim).
The Prophet has also emphasized that the best Muslims are those who are
best to their wives:
�The believers who show the most perfect faith are those who have the
best character and the best of you are those who are best to their wives� (Tirmidhi).
However, Islam is a practical religion and it does recognize that there
are circumstances in which a marriage becomes on the verge of collapsing. In
such cases, a mere advice of kindness or self restraint is no viable
solution. So, what to do in order to save a marriage in these cases? The
Quran offers some practical advice for the spouse (husband or wife) whose
partner (wife or husband) is the wrongdoer. For the husband whose wife�s
ill-conduct is threatening the marriage, the Quran gives four types of
advice as detailed in the following verses:
�As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, (1)
Admonish them, (2) refuse to share their beds, (3) beat them (lightly
without slapping them in their faces); but if they return to obedience seek
not against them means of annoyance: For Allah is Most High, Great. (4) If
you fear a break between them, appoint two arbiters, one from his family and
the other from hers; if they wish for peace, Allah will cause their
The first three are to be tried first. If they fail, then the help of the
families concerned should be sought. It has to be noted, in the light of the
above verses, that beating the rebellious wife is a temporary measure that
is resorted to as third in line in cases of extreme necessity in hopes that
it might remedy the wrongdoing of the wife. If it does, the husband is not
allowed by any means to continue any annoyance to the wife as explicitly
mentioned in the verse. If it does not, the husband is still not allowed to
use this measure any longer and the final avenue of the family-assisted
reconciliation has to be explored.
Prophet Muhammad has instructed Muslim husbands that they should not have
recourse to these measures except in extreme cases such as open lewdness
committed by the wife. Even in these cases the punishment should be slight
and if the wife desists, the husband is not permitted to irritate her:
�In case they are guilty of open lewdness you may leave them alone in
their beds and inflict slight punishment. If they are obedient to you, do
not seek against them any means of annoyance� (Tirmidhi)
Furthermore, the Prophet of Islam has condemned any unjustifiable
beating. Some Muslim wives complained to him that their husbands had beaten
them. Hearing that, the Prophet categorically stated that:
�Those who do so (beat their wives) are not the best among you� (Abu
Dawud). �The best of you is he who is best to his family, and I am the best
among you to my family� (Tirmidhi).
The Prophet advised one Muslim woman, whose name was Fatimah bint Qais,
not to marry a man because the man was known for beating women:
�I went to the Prophet and said: Abul Jahm and Mu�awiah have proposed to
marry me. The Prophet (by way of advice) said: As to Mu�awiah he is very
poor and Abul Jahm is accustomed to beating women� (Muslim).
It has to be noted that the Talmud sanctions wife beating as chastisement
for the purpose of discipline . The husband is not restricted to the
extreme cases such as those of open lewdness. He is allowed to beat his wife
even if she just refuses to do her house work. Moreover, he is not limited
only to the use of light punishment. He is permitted to break his wife�s
stubbornness by the lash or by starving her .
For the wife whose husband�s ill-conduct is the cause for the marriage�s
near collapse, the Quran offers the following advice:
�If a wife fears cruelty or desertion on her husband�s part, there is no
blame on them if they arrange an amicable settlement between themselves; and
such settlement is best� (4:128).
In this case, the wife is advised to seek reconciliation with her husband
(with or without family assistance). It is notable that the Quran is not
advising the wife to resort to the two measures of abstention from sex and
beating. The reason for this disparity might be to protect the wife from a
violent physical reaction by her already misbehaving husband. Such a violent
physical reaction will do both the wife and the marriage more harm than
good. Some Muslim scholars have suggested that the court can apply these
measures against the husband on the wife�s behalf. That is, the court first
admonishes the rebellious husband, then forbids him his wife�s bed, and
finally executes a symbolic beating .
To sum up, Islam offers Muslim married couples much viable advice to save
their marriages in cases of trouble and tension. If one of the partners is
jeopardizing the matrimonial relationship, the other partner is advised by
the Quran to do whatever possible and effective in order to save this sacred
bond. If all the measures fail, Islam allows the partners to separate
peacefully and amicably.
The Old Testament in several places commands kind and considerate
treatment of the parents and condemns those who dishonor them. For example,
�If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death� (Lev. 20:9)
and �A wise man brings joy to his father but a foolish man despises his
mother� (Proverbs 15:20). Although honoring the father alone is mentioned in
some places, e.g. �A wise man heeds his father�s instruction� (Proverbs
13:1), the mother alone is never mentioned. Moreover, there is no special
emphasis on treating the mother kindly as a sign of appreciation of her
great suffering in childbearing and suckling. Besides, mothers do not
inherit at all from their children while fathers do .
As one of the five greatest Prophets and Messengers of God, Jesus must
surely have paid due respect to his mother, whom the Qur�an mentions as an
example for all women and the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings,
declares to be one of the four greatest of the women in the world, the other
three being �Asiya (Pharaoh�s wife), Fatima and Khadija. However, it is
difficult to speak of the New Testament as a scripture that calls for
honoring the mother. To the contrary, one gets the impression that the New
Testament considers kind treatment of mothers as an impediment on the way to
God. According to the New Testament, one cannot become a good Christian
worthy of becoming a disciple of Christ unless he hates his mother. It
attributes to Jesus what follows:
�If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife
and children, his brothers and sisters � yes, even his own life � he can not
be my disciple� (Luke 14:26).
Furthermore, the New Testament depicts a picture of Jesus as indifferent
to, or even disrespectful of, his own mother. For example, when she had come
looking for him while he was preaching to a crowd, he did not care to go out
to see her:
�Then Jesus� mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent
someone to call him. A crowd was sitting around him and they told him, �Your
mother and brothers are outside looking for you.� �Who are my mother and my
brothers?� he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him
and said,� Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God�s will is my
brother and sister and mother.� � (Mark 3:31-35)
One might argue that Jesus was trying to teach his audience an important
lesson that religious ties are no less important than family ties. However,
he could have taught his listeners the same lesson without showing such
absolute indifference to his mother.
In Islam, the honor, respect, and esteem attached to motherhood is
unparalleled. The Quran places the importance of kindness to parents as
second only to worshipping God Almighty:
�Your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him, And that you be
kind to parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in your life,
Say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, But address them in
terms of honor. And out of kindness, Lower to them the wing of humility, and
say: �My Lord! bestow on them Your Mercy as they Cherished me in childhood�
The Quran in several other places puts special emphasis on the mother�s
great role in giving birth and nursing:
�And We have enjoined on man to be good to his parents: In travail upon
travail did his mother bear him and in two years was his weaning. Show
gratitude to Me and to your parents� (31:14).
The very special place of mothers in Islam has been eloquently described
by Prophet Muhammad:
�A man asked the Prophet: �Whom should I honor most?� The Prophet
replied: �Your mother�. �And who comes next?� asked the man. The Prophet
replied: �Your mother�. �And who comes next?� asked the man. The Prophet
replied: �Your mother!�. �And who comes next?� asked the man. The Prophet
replied: �Your father�� (Bukhari and Muslim).
Among the few precepts of Islam which Muslims still faithfully observe to
the present day is the considerate treatment of mothers. The honor that
Muslim mothers receive from their sons and daughters is exemplary. The
intensely warm relations between Muslim mothers and their children and the
deep respect with which Muslim men approach their mothers usually amaze
12. Female inheritance
One of the most important differences between the Quran and the Bible is
their attitude towards female inheritance of the property of a deceased
relative. The Biblical attitude has been succinctly described by Rabbi
Epstein: �The continuous and unbroken tradition since the Biblical days
gives the female members of the household, wife and daughters, no right of
succession to the family estate. In the more primitive scheme of succession,
the female members of the family were considered part of the estate and as
remote from the legal personality of an heir as the slave. Whereas by Mosaic
enactment the daughters were admitted to succession in the event of no male
issue remained, the wife was not recognized as heir even in such
conditions.�  Why were the female members of the family considered part
of the family estate? Rabbi Epstein has the answer: �They are owned --before
marriage, by the father; after marriage, by the husband.� 
The Biblical rules of inheritance are outlined in Numbers 27:1-11. A wife
is given no share in her husband�s estate, while he is her first heir, even
before her sons. A daughter can inherit only if no male heirs exist. A
mother is not an heir at all while the father is. Widows and daughters, in
case male children remained, were at the mercy of the male heirs for
provision. That is why widows and orphan girls were among the most destitute
members of the Jewish society.
Christianity has followed suit for long time. Both the ecclesiastical and
civil laws of Christendom barred daughters from sharing with their brothers
in the father�s patrimony. Besides, wives were deprived of any inheritance
rights. These iniquitous laws survived till late in the last century .
Among the pagan Arabs before Islam, inheritance rights were confined
exclusively to the male relatives. The Quran abolished all these unjust
customs and gave all the female relatives inheritance shares:
�From what is left by parents and those nearest related there is a share
for men and a share for women, whether the property be small or large --a
determinate share� (4:7).
Muslim mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters had received inheritance
rights thirteen hundred years before Europe recognized that these rights
even existed. The division of inheritance is a vast subject with an enormous
amount of details (4:7,11,12,176). The general rule is that the female share
is half the male�s except the cases in which the mother receives equal share
to that of the father. This general rule if taken in isolation from other
legislations concerning men and women may seem unfair. In order to
understand the rationale behind this rule, one must take into account the
fact that the financial obligations of men in Islam far exceed those of
women (see the �Wife�s property?� section). A bridegroom must provide his
bride with a marriage gift. This gift becomes her exclusive property and
remains so even if she is later divorced. The bride is under no obligation
to present any gifts to her groom. Moreover, the Muslim husband is charged
with the maintenance of his wife and children. The wife, on the other hand,
is not obliged to help him in this regard. Her property and earnings are for
her use alone except what she may voluntarily offer her husband. Besides,
one has to realize that Islam vehemently advocates family life. It strongly
encourages youth to get married, discourages divorce, and does not regard
celibacy as a virtue. Therefore, in a truly Islamic society, family life is
the norm and single life is the rare exception. That is, almost all
marriage-aged women and men are married in an Islamic society. In light of
these facts, one would appreciate that Muslim men, in general, have greater
financial burdens than Muslim women and thus inheritance rules are meant to
offset this imbalance so that the society lives free of all gender or class
wars. After a simple comparison between the financial rights and duties of
Muslim women, one British Muslim woman has concluded that Islam has treated
women not only fairly but generously .
13. Plight of widows
Because of the fact that the Old Testament recognized no inheritance
rights to them, widows were among the most vulnerable of the Jewish
population. The male relatives who inherited all of a woman�s deceased
husband�s estate were to provide for her from that estate. However, widows
had no way to ensure this provision was carried out, and lived on the mercy
of others. Therefore, widows were among the lowest classes in ancient Israel
and widowhood was considered a symbol of great degradation (Isaiah 54:4).
But the plight of a widow in the Biblical tradition extended even beyond her
exclusion from her husband�s property. According to Genesis 38, a childless
widow must marry her husband�s brother, even if he is already married, so
that he can produce offspring for his dead brother, thus ensuring his
brother�s name will not die out.
�Then Judah said to Onan, �Lie with your brother�s wife and fulfill your
duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother� �
The widow�s consent to this marriage is not required. The widow is
treated as part of her deceased husband�s property whose main function is to
ensure her husband�s posterity. This Biblical law is still practised in
today�s Israel . A childless widow in Israel is bequeathed to her
husband�s brother. If the brother is too young to marry, she has to wait
until he comes of age. Should the deceased husband�s brother refuse to marry
her, she is set free and can then marry any man of her choice. It is not an
uncommon phenomenon in Israel that widows are subjected to blackmail by
their brothers-in-law in order to gain their freedom.
The pagan Arabs before Islam had similar practices. A widow was
considered a part of her husband�s property to be inherited by his male
heirs and she was, usually, given in marriage to the deceased man�s eldest
son from another wife. The Quran scathingly attacked and abolished this
�And marry not women whom your fathers married--Except what is past-- it
was shameful, odious, and abominable custom indeed� (4:22).
Widows and divorced women were so looked down upon in the Biblical
tradition that the high priest could not marry a widow, a divorced woman, or
�The woman he (the high priest) marries must be a virgin. He must not
marry a widow, a divorced woman, or a woman defiled by prostitution, but
only a virgin from his own people, so he will not defile his offspring among
his people� (Lev. 21:13-15)
In Israel today, a descendant of the Cohen caste (the high priests of the
days of the Temple) cannot marry a divorcee, a widow, or a prostitute .
In the Jewish legislation, a woman who has been widowed three times with all
the three husbands dying of natural causes is considered �fatal� and
forbidden to marry again . The Quran, on the other hand, recognizes
neither castes nor fatal persons. Widows and divorcees have the freedom to
marry whomever they choose. There is no stigma attached to divorce or
widowhood in the Quran:
�When you divorce women and they fulfil their terms [three menstruation
periods] either take them back on equitable terms or set them free on
equitable terms; But do not take them back to injure them or to take undue
advantage, If anyone does that, he wrongs his own soul. Do not treat Allah�s
signs as a jest� (2:231). �If any of you die and leave widows behind, they
shall wait four months and ten days. When they have fulfilled their term,
there is no blame on you if they dispose of themselves in a just manner�
(2:234). �Those of you who die and leave widows should bequeath for their
widows a year�s maintenance and residence. But if they [the widows] leave
(the residence) there is no blame on you for what they justly do with
Let us now tackle the important question of polygamy. Polygamy is a very
ancient practice found in many human societies. The Bible did not condemn
polygamy. To the contrary, the Old Testament and Rabbinic writings
frequently attest to the legality of polygamy. They assert that King Solomon
had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3) Also, king David is said to
have had many wives and concubines (2 Samuel 5:13). The Old Testament does
have some injunctions on how to distribute the property of a man among his
sons from different wives (Deut. 22:7). The only restriction on polygamy is
a ban on taking a wife�s sister as a rival wife (Lev. 18:18). The Talmud
advises a maximum of four wives . European Jews continued to practise
polygamy until the sixteenth century. Oriental Jews regularly practised
polygamy until they arrived in Israel where it is forbidden under civil law.
However, under religious law which overrides civil law in such cases, it is
What about the New Testament? According to Father Eugene Hillman in his
insightful book, Polygamy reconsidered, �Nowhere in the New Testament is
there any explicit commandment that marriage should be monogamous or any
explicit commandment forbidding polygamy.�  Moreover, Jesus has not
spoken against polygamy though it was practised by the Jews of his society.
Father Hillman stresses the fact that the Church in Rome banned polygamy in
order to conform to the Greco-Roman culture (which prescribed only one legal
wife while tolerating concubinage and prostitution). He cited St. Augustine,
�Now indeed in our time, and in keeping with Roman custom, it is no longer
allowed to take another wife.� African churches and African Christians
often remind their European brothers that the Church�s ban on polygamy is a
cultural tradition and not an authentic Christian injunction.
The Quran, too, allowed polygamy, but not without restrictions:
�If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans,
marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if you fear that you
shall not be able to deal justly with them, then only one� (4:3).
The Quran, contrary to the Bible, limited the maximum number of wives to
four under the strict condition of treating the wives equally and justly. It
should not be understood that the Quran is exhorting the believers to
practise polygamy, or that polygamy is considered as an ideal. In other
words, the Quran has �tolerated� or �allowed� polygamy, and no more, but
why? Why is polygamy permissible ? The answer is simple: there are places
and times in which there are compelling social and moral reasons for
polygamy. As the above Quranic verse indicates, the issue of polygamy in
Islam cannot be understood apart from community obligations towards orphans
and widows. Islam as a universal religion suitable for all places and all
times could not ignore these compelling obligations.
In most human societies, females outnumber males. In the U.S. there are,
at least, eight million more women than men. In a country like Guinea there
are 122 females for every 100 males. In Tanzania, there are 95.1 males per
100 females . What should a society do towards such unbalanced sex
ratios? There are various solutions, some might suggest celibacy, others
would prefer female infanticide (which does happen in some societies in the
world today !). Others may think the only outlet is that the society should
tolerate all manners of sexual permissiveness: prostitution, sex out of
wedlock, homosexuality, etc.
For other societies , like most African societies today, the most
honorable outlet is to allow polygamous marriage as a culturally accepted
and socially respected institution. The point that is often misunderstood in
the West is that women in other cultures do not necessarily look at polygamy
as a sign of women�s degradation. For example, many young African brides ,
whether Christians or Muslims or otherwise, would prefer to marry a married
man who has already proved himself to be a responsible husband. Many African
wives urge their husbands to get a second wife so that they do not feel
lonely . A survey of over six thousand women, ranging in age from 15 to
59, conducted in the second largest city in Nigeria showed that 60 percent
of these women would be pleased if their husbands took another wife. Only 23
percent expressed anger at the idea of sharing with another wife.
Seventy-six percent of the women in a survey conducted in Kenya viewed
polygamy positively. In a survey undertaken in rural Kenya, 25 out of 27
women considered polygamy to be better than monogamy. These women felt
polygamy can be a happy and beneficial experience if the co-wives cooperate
with each other.
Polygamy in most African societies is such a respectable institution that
some Protestant churches are becoming more tolerant of it. A bishop of the
Anglican Church in Kenya declared that, �Although monogamy may be ideal for
the expression of love between husband and wife, the church should consider
that in certain cultures polygyny is socially acceptable and that the belief
that polygyny is contrary to Christianity is no longer tenable.� After a
careful study of African polygamy, Reverend David Gitari of the Anglican
Church has concluded that polygamy, as ideally practised, is more Christian
than divorce and remarriage as far as the abandoned wives and children are
concerned . I personally know of some highly educated African wives who,
despite having lived in the West for many years, do not have any objections
against polygamy. One of them, who lives in the U.S., solemnly exhorts her
husband to get a second wife to help her in raising the kids.
The problem of the unbalanced sex ratios becomes truly problematic at
times of war. Native American Indian tribes used to suffer highly unbalanced
sex ratios after wartime losses. Women in these tribes, who in fact enjoyed
a fairly high status, accepted polygamy as the best protection against
indulgence in indecent activities. European settlers, without offering any
other alternative, condemned this Indian polygamy as �uncivilised� .
After the second world war, there were 7,300,000 more women than men in
Germany (3.3 million of them were widows). There were 100 men aged 20 to 30
for every 167 women in that age group . Many of these women needed a man
not only as a companion but also as a provider for the household in a time
of unprecedented misery and hardship. The soldiers of the victorious Allied
Armies exploited these women�s vulnerability. Many young girls and widows
had liaisons with members of the occupying forces. Many American and British
soldiers paid for their pleasures in cigarettes, chocolate, and bread.
Children were overjoyed at the gifts these strangers brought. A 10 year old
boy on hearing of such gifts from other children wished from all his heart
for an �Englishman� for his mother so that she need not go hungry any longer
. We have to ask our own conscience at this point: What is more
dignifying to a woman? An accepted and respected second wife as in the
native Indians� approach, or a virtual prostitute as in the �civilised�
Allies approach? In other words, what is more dignifying to a woman, the
Quranic prescription or the theology based on the culture of the Roman
It is interesting to note that in an international youth conference held
in Munich in 1948 the problem of the highly unbalanced sex ratio in Germany
was discussed. When it became clear that no solution could be agreed upon,
some participants suggested polygamy. The initial reaction of the gathering
was a mixture of shock and disgust. However, after a careful study of the
proposal, the participants agreed that it was the only possible solution.
Consequently, polygamy was included among the conference final
The world today possesses more weapons of mass destruction than ever
before and the European churches might, sooner or later, be obliged to
accept polygamy as the only way out. Father Hillman has thoughtfully
recognized this fact,
�It is quite conceivable that these genocidal techniques (nuclear,
biological, chemical..) could produce so drastic an imbalance among the
sexes that plural marriage would become a necessary means of
survival....Then contrary to previous custom and law, an overriding natural
and moral inclination might arise in favour of polygamy. In such a
situation, theologians and church leaders would quickly produce weighty
reasons and biblical texts to justify a new conception of marriage.� 
To the present day, polygamy continues to be a viable solution to some of
the social ills of modern societies. The communal obligations that the Quran
mentions in association with the permission of polygamy are more visible at
present in some Western societies than in Africa. For example, In the United
States today, there is a severe gender crisis in the black community. One
out of every twenty young black males may die before reaching the age of 21.
For those between 20 and 35 years of age, homicide is the leading cause of
death . Besides, many young black males are unemployed, in jail, or on
dope . As a result, one in four black women, at age 40, has never
married, as compared with one in ten white women . Moreover, many young
black females become single mothers before the age of 20 and find themselves
in need of providers. The end result of these tragic circumstances is that
an increasing number of black women are engaged in what is called
�man-sharing� . That is, many of these hapless single black women are
involved in affairs with married men. The wives are often unaware of the
fact that other women are �sharing� their husbands with them. Some observers
of the crisis of man-sharing in the African American community strongly
recommend consensual polygamy as a temporary answer to the shortage of black
males until more comprehensive reforms in the American society at large are
undertaken. By consensual polygamy they mean a polygamy that is
sanctioned by the community and to which all the parties involved have
agreed, as opposed to the usually secret man-sharing which is detrimental
both to the wife and to the community in general. The problem of man-sharing
in the African American community was the topic of a panel discussion held
at Temple University in Philadelphia on January 27, 1993 . Some of the
speakers recommended polygamy as one potential remedy for the crisis. They
also suggested that polygamy should not be banned by law, particularly in a
society that tolerates prostitution and mistresses. The comment of one woman
from the audience that African Americans needed to learn from Africa where
polygamy was responsibly practised elicited enthusiastic applause.
Philip Kilbride, an American anthropologist of Roman Catholic heritage,
in his provocative book, Plural marriage for our time, proposes polygamy as
a solution to some of the ills of the American society at large. He argues
that plural marriage may serve as a potential alternative for divorce in
many cases in order to obviate the damaging impact of divorce on many
children. He maintains that many divorces are caused by the rampant
extramarital affairs in the American society. According to Kilbride, ending
an extramarital affair in a polygamous marriage, rather than in a divorce,
is better for the children, �Children would be better served if family
augmentation rather than only separation and dissolution were seen as
options.� Moreover, he suggests that other groups will also benefit from
plural marriage such as: elderly women who face a chronic shortage of men
and the African Americans who are involved in man-sharing.
In 1987, a poll conducted by the student newspaper at the university of
California at Berkeley asked the students whether they agreed that men
should be allowed by law to have more than one wife in response to a
perceived shortage of male marriage candidates in California. Almost all of
the students polled approved of the idea. One female student even stated
that a polyganous marriage would fulfil her emotional and physical needs
while giving her greater freedom than a monogamous union . In fact, this
same argument is also used by the few remaining fundamentalist Mormon women
who still practise polygamy in the U.S. They believe that polygamy is an
ideal way for a woman to have both a career and children since the wives
help each other care for the children .
It has to be added that polygamy in Islam is a matter of mutual consent.
No one can force a woman to marry a married man. Besides, the wife has the
right to stipulate that her husband must not marry any other woman as a
second wife . The Bible, on the other hand, sometimes resorts to
forcible polygamy. A childless widow must marry her husband�s brother, even
if he is already married (see the �Plight of Widows� section),regardless of
her consent (Genesis 38:8-10).
It should be noted that in many Muslim societies today the practice of
polygamy is rare since the gap between the numbers of both sexes is not
huge. One can, safely, say that the rate of polygamous marriages in the
Muslim world is much less than the rate of extramarital affairs in the West.
In other words, men in the Muslim world today are far more strictly
monogamous than men in the Western world.
Billy Graham, the eminent Christian evangelist has recognized this fact:
�Christianity cannot compromise on the question of polygamy. If present-day
Christianity cannot do so, it is to its own detriment. Islam has permitted
polygamy as a solution to social ills and has allowed a certain degree of
latitude to human nature but only within the strictly defined framework of
the law. Christian countries make a great show of monogamy, but actually
they practise polygamy. No one is unaware of the part mistresses play in
Western society. In this respect Islam is a fundamentally honest religion,
and permits a Muslim to marry a second wife if he must, but strictly forbids
all clandestine amatory associations in order to safeguard the moral probity
of the community.� 
It is of interest to note that many, non-Muslim as well as Muslim,
countries in the world today have outlawed polygamy. Taking a second wife,
even with the free consent of the first wife, is a violation of the law. On
the other hand, cheating on the wife, without her knowledge or consent, is
perfectly legitimate as far as the law is concerned! What is the legal
wisdom behind such a contradiction? Is the law designed to reward deception
and punish honesty? It is one of the unfathomable paradoxes of our modern
15. The veil
Finally, let us shed some light on what is considered in the West as the
greatest symbol of women�s oppression and servitude, the veil or the head
cover. Is it true that there is no such thing as the veil in the
Judaeo-Christian tradition? Let us set the record straight.
According to Rabbi Dr. Menachem M. Brayer (Professor of Biblical
Literature at Yeshiva University) in his book, The Jewish woman in Rabbinic
literature, it was the custom of Jewish women to go out in public with a
head covering which, sometimes, even covered the whole face leaving one eye
free . He quotes some famous ancient Rabbis saying,
� It is not like the daughters of Israel to walk out with heads
uncovered� and �Cursed be the man who lets the hair of his wife be seen....a
woman who exposes her hair for self-adornment brings poverty.�
Rabbinic law forbids the recitation of blessings or prayers in the
presence of a bareheaded married woman since uncovering the woman�s hair is
considered �nudity� . Dr. Brayer also mentions that �During the
Tannaitic period the Jewish woman�s failure to cover her head was considered
an affront to her modesty. When her head was uncovered she might be fined
four hundred zuzim for this offense.� Dr. Brayer also explains that veil of
the Jewish woman was not always considered a sign of modesty. Sometimes, the
veil symbolized a state of distinction and luxury rather than modesty. The
veil personified the dignity and superiority of noble women. It also
represented a woman�s inaccessibility as a sanctified possession of her
The veil signified a woman�s self-respect and social status. Women of
lower classes would often wear the veil to give the impression of a higher
standing. The fact that the veil was the sign of nobility was the reason why
prostitutes were not permitted to cover their hair in the old Jewish
society. However, prostitutes often wore a special headscarf in order to
look respectable . Jewish women in Europe continued to wear veils until
the nineteenth century when their lives became more intermingled with the
surrounding secular culture. The external pressures of the European life in
the nineteenth century forced many of them to go out bare-headed. Some
Jewish women found it more convenient to replace their traditional veil with
a wig as another form of hair covering. Today, most pious Jewish women do
not cover their hair except in the synagogue . Some of them, such as the
Hasidic sects, still use the wig .
What about the Christian tradition? It is well known that Catholic Nuns
have been covering their heads for hundreds of years, but that is not all.
St. Paul in the New Testament made some very interesting statements about
�Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the
head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays
or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who
prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head - it is just
as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she
should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have
her hair cut off or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not
to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is
the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man;
neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and
because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her
head� (I Corinthians 11:3-10).
St. Paul�s rationale for veiling women is that the veil represents a sign
of the authority of the man, who is the image and glory of God, over the
woman who was created from and for man. St. Tertullian in his famous
treatise �On The Veiling Of Virgins� wrote, �Young women, you wear your
veils out on the streets, so you should wear them in the church, you wear
them when you are among strangers, then wear them among your brothers...�
Among the Canon laws of the Catholic church today, there is a law that
requires women to cover their heads in church . Some Christian
denominations, such as the Amish and the Mennonites for example, keep their
women veiled to the present day. The reason for the veil, as offered by
their Church leaders, is that �The head covering is a symbol of woman�s
subjection to the man and to God�, which is the same logic introduced by St.
Paul in the New Testament .
From all the above evidence, it is obvious that Islam did not invent the
head cover. However, Islam did endorse it. The Quran urges the believing men
and women to lower their gaze and guard their modesty and then urges the
believing women to extend their head covers to cover the neck and the bosom:
�Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard
their modesty......And say to the believing women that they should lower
their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their
beauty and ornaments except what ordinarily appear thereof; that they should
draw their veils over their bosoms....� (24:30,31). The Quran is quite clear
that the veil is essential for modesty, but why is modesty important? The
Quran is still clear: �O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the
believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their bodies
(when abroad) so that they should be known and not molested� (33:59).
This is the whole point, modesty is prescribed to protect women from
molestation or simply, modesty is protection.
Thus, the only purpose of the veil in Islam is protection. The Islamic
veil, unlike the veil of the Christian tradition, is not a sign of man�s
authority over woman nor is it a sign of woman�s subjection to man. The
Islamic veil, unlike the veil in the Jewish tradition, is not a sign of
luxury and distinction of some noble married women.The Islamic veil is only
a sign of modesty with the purpose of protecting women, all women. The
Islamic philosophy is that it is always better to be safe than sorry. In
fact, the Quran is so concerned with protecting women�s bodies and women�s
reputation that a man who dares to falsely accuse a woman of unchastity will
be severely punished:
�And those who launch a charge against chaste women, and produce not four
witnesses (to support their allegations)- Flog them with eighty stripes; and
reject their evidence ever after: for such men are wicked transgressors�
Compare this strict Qur�anic attitude with the extremely lax punishment
for rape in the Bible:
� If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and
rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl�s father fifty
shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can
never divorce her as long as he lives� (Deut. 22:28-30)
One must ask a simple question here, who is really punished? The man who
only paid a fine for rape, or the girl who is forced to marry the man who
raped her and live with him until he dies? Another question that also should
be asked is this: which is more protective of women, the Quranic strict
attitude or the Biblical lax attitude?
Some people, especially in the West, would tend to ridicule the whole
argument of modesty for protection. Their argument is that the best
protection is the spread of education, civilised behaviour, and self
restraint. We would say: fine but not enough. If �civilization� is enough
protection, then why is it that women in North America dare not walk alone
in a dark street - or even across an empty parking lot ? If Education is the
solution, then why is it that a respected university like Queen�s has a
�walk home service� mainly for female students on campus? If self restraint
is the answer, then why are cases of sexual harassment in the workplace
reported on the news media every day? A sample of those accused of sexual
harassment, in the last few years, includes: Navy officers, Managers,
University professors, Senators, Supreme Court Justices, and the President
of the United States! I could not believe my eyes when I read the following
statistics, written in a pamphlet issued by the Dean of Women�s office at
In Canada, a woman is sexually assaulted every 6 minutes�, 1 in 3 women
in Canada will be sexually assaulted at some time in their lives�, 1 in 4
women are at the risk of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime�, 1 in 8
women will be sexually assaulted while attending college or university, and
A study found 60% of Canadian university-aged males said they would commit
sexual assault if they were certain they wouldn�t get caught.�
Something is fundamentally wrong in the society we live in. A radical
change in the society�s life style and culture is absolutely necessary. A
culture of modesty is badly needed, modesty in dress, in speech, and in
manners of both men and women. Otherwise, the grim statistics will grow even
worse day after day and, unfortunately, women alone will be paying the
price. Actually, we all suffer but as K. Gibran has said, �...for the person
who receives the blows is not like the one who counts them.�  Therefore,
a society like France which expels young women from schools because of their
modest dress is, in the end, simply harming itself.
It is one of the great ironies of our world today that the very same
headscarf revered as a sign of �holiness� when worn for the purpose of
showing the authority of man by Catholic Nuns, is reviled as a sign of
�oppression� when worn for the purpose of protection by Muslim women.
The one question all the non-Muslims, who had read an earlier version of
this study, had in common was: do Muslim women in the Muslim world today
receive this noble treatment described here ? The answer, unfortunately, is:
No. Since this question is inevitable in any discussion concerning the
status of women in Islam, we have to elaborate on the answer in order to
provide the reader with the complete picture.
It has to be made clear first that the vast differences among Muslim
societies make most generalizations too simplistic. There is a wide spectrum
of attitudes towards women in the Muslim world today. These attitudes differ
from one society to another and within each individual society.
Nevertheless, certain general trends are discernible. Almost all Muslim
societies have, to one degree or another, deviated from the ideals of Islam
with respect to the status of women. These deviations have, for the most
part, been in one of two opposite directions. The first direction is more
conservative, restrictive, and traditions-oriented, while the second is more
liberal and Western-oriented.
The societies that have digressed in the first direction treat women
according to the customs and traditions inherited from their forebears.
These traditions usually deprive women of many rights granted to them by
Islam. Besides, women are treated according to standards far different from
those applied to men. This discrimination pervades the life of any female:
she is received with less joy at birth than a boy; she is less likely to go
to school; she might be deprived any share of her family�s inheritance; she
is under continuous surveillance in order not to behave immodestly while her
brother�s immodest acts are tolerated; she might even be killed for
committing what her male family members usually boast of doing; she has very
little say in family affairs or community interests; she might not have full
control over her property and her marriage gifts; and finally as a mother
she herself would prefer to produce boys so that she can attain a higher
status in her community.
On the other hand, there are Muslim societies (or certain classes within
some societies) that have been swept over by the Western culture and way of
life. These societies often imitate unthinkingly whatever they receive from
the West and usually end up adopting the worst fruits of Western
civilization. In these societies, a typical �modern� woman�s top priority in
life is to enhance her physical beauty. Therefore, she is often obsessed
with her body�s shape, size, and weight. She tends to care more about her
body than her mind and more about her charms than her intellect. Her ability
to charm, attract, and excite is more valued in the society than her
educational achievements, intellectual pursuits, and social work. One is not
expected to find a copy of the Quran in her purse since it is full of
cosmetics that accompany her wherever she goes. Her spirituality has no room
in a society preoccupied with her attractiveness. Therefore, she would spend
her life striving more to realize her femininity than to fulfil her
Why did Muslim societies deviate from the ideals of Islam? There is no
easy answer. A penetrating explanation of the reasons why Muslims have not
adhered to the Quranic guidance with respect to women would be beyond the
scope of this study. It has to be made clear, however, that Muslim societies
have deviated from the Islamic precepts concerning so many aspects of their
lives for so long. There is a wide gap between what Muslims are supposed to
believe in and what they actually practise. This gap is not a recent
phenomenon. It has been there for centuries and has been widening day after
day. This ever widening gap has had disastrous consequences on the Muslim
world manifested in almost all aspects of life: political tyranny and
fragmentation, economic backwardness, social injustice, scientific
bankruptcy, intellectual stagnation, etc. The non-Islamic status of women in
the Muslim world today is merely a symptom of a deeper malady. Any reform in
the current status of Muslim women is not expected to be fruitful if not
accompanied with more comprehensive reforms of the Muslim societies� whole
way of life. The Muslim world is in need for a renaissance that will bring
it closer to the ideals of Islam and not further from them. To sum up, the
notion that the poor status of Muslim women today is because of Islam is an
utter misconception. The problems of Muslims in general are not due to too
much attachment to Islam, they are the culmination of a long and deep
detachment from it.
It has, also, to be re-emphasized that the purpose behind this
comparative study is not, by any means, to defame Judaism or Christianity.
The position of women in the Judaeo-Christian tradition might seem
frightening by our late twentieth century standards. Nevertheless, it has to
be viewed within the proper historical context. In other words, any
objective assessment of the position of women in the Judaeo-Christian
tradition has to take into account the historical circumstances in which
this tradition developed. There can be no doubt that the views of the Rabbis
and the Church Fathers regarding women were influenced by the prevalent
attitudes towards women in their societies. The Bible itself was written by
different authors at different times. These authors could not have been
impervious to the values and the way of life of the people around them. For
example, the adultery laws of the Old Testament are so biased against women
that they defy rational explanation by our mentality. However, if we
consider the fact that the early Jewish tribes were obsessed with their
genetic homogeneity and extremely eager to define themselves apart from the
surrounding tribes and that only sexual misconduct by the married females of
the tribes could threaten these cherished aspirations, we should then be
able to understand, but not necessarily sympathize with, the reasons for
this bias. Also, the diatribes of the Church Fathers against women should
not be detached from the context of the misogynist Greco-Roman culture in
which they lived. It would be unfair to evaluate the Judaeo-Christian legacy
without giving any consideration to the relevant historical context.
In fact, a proper understanding of the Judaeo-Christian historical
context is also crucial for understanding the significance of the
contributions of Islam to world history and human civilization. The
Judaeo-Christian tradition had been influenced and shaped by the
environments, conditions, and cultures in which it had existed. By the
seventh century C.E., this influence had distorted the original divine
message revealed to Moses and Jesus beyond recognition. The poor status of
women in the Judaeo-Christian world by the seventh century is just one case
in point. Therefore, there was a great need for a new divine message that
would guide humanity back to the straight path. The Qur�an described the
mission of the new Messenger as a release for Jews and Christians from the
heavy burdens that had been upon them:
�Those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find
mentioned in their own Scriptures--In the Law and the Gospel-- For he
commands them what is just and forbids them what is evil; he allows them as
lawful what is good and prohibits them from what is bad; He releases them
from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them� (7:157).
Therefore, Islam should not be viewed as a rival tradition to Judaism or
Christianity. It has to be regarded as the consummation, completion, and
perfection of the divine messages that had been revealed before it.
At the end of this study, I would like to offer the following advice to
the global Muslim community. So many Muslim women have been denied their
basic Islamic rights for so long. The mistakes of the past have to be
corrected. To do that is not a favor, it is a duty incumbent upon all
Muslims. The worldwide Muslim community have to issue a charter of Muslim
women�s rights based on the instructions of the Quran and the teachings of
the Prophet of Islam. This charter must give Muslim women all the rights
endowed to them by their Creator. Then, all the necessary means have to be
developed in order to ensure the proper implementation of the charter. This
charter is long overdue, but it is better late than never. If Muslims
worldwide will not guarantee the full Islamic rights of their mothers,
wives, sisters, and daughters, who else will ?
Furthermore, we must have the courage to confront our past and reject
outright the traditions and customs of our forefathers whenever they
contravene the precepts of Islam. Did the Quran not severely criticize the
pagan Arabs for blindly following the traditions of their ancestors? On the
other hand, we have to develop a critical attitude towards whatever we
receive from the West or from any other culture. Interaction with and
learning from other cultures is an invaluable experience. The Quran has
succinctly considered this interaction as one of the purposes of creation: �
O mankind We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made
you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other� (49:13). It goes
without saying, however, that blind imitation of others is a sure sign of an
utter lack of self-esteem.
It is to the non-Muslim reader, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise, that
these final words are dedicated. It is bewildering why the religion that had
revolutionized the status of women is being singled out and denigrated as so
repressive of women. This perception about Islam is one of the most
widespread myths in our world today. This myth is being perpetuated by a
ceaseless barrage of sensational books, articles, media images, and
Hollywood movies. The inevitable outcome of these incessant misleading
images has been total misunderstanding and fear of anything related to
Islam. This negative portrayal of Islam in the world media has to end if we
are to live in a world free from all traces of discrimination, prejudice,
and misunderstanding. Non-Muslims ought to realize the existence of a wide
gap between Muslims� beliefs and practices and the simple fact that the
actions of Muslims do not necessarily represent Islam. To label the status
of women in the Muslim world today as �Islamic� is as far from the truth as
labelling the position of women in the West today as �Judaeo-Christian�.
With this understanding in mind, Muslims and non-Muslims should start a
process of communication and dialogue in order to remove all misconceptions,
suspicions, and fears. A peaceful future for the human family necessitates
such a dialogue.
Islam should be viewed as a religion that had immensely improved the
status of women and had granted them many rights that the modern world has
recognized only this century. Islam still has so much to offer today�s
woman: dignity, respect, and protection in all aspects and all stages of her
life from birth until death in addition to the recognition, the balance, and
means for the fulfilment of all her spiritual, intellectual, physical, and
emotional needs. No wonder most of those who choose to become Muslims in a
country like Britain are women. In the U.S. women converts to Islam
outnumber male converts 4 to 1 . Islam has so much to offer our world
which is in great need of moral guidance and leadership. Ambassador Herman
Eilts, in a testimony in front of the committee on Foreign Affairs of the
House of Representatives of the United States Congress on June 24th, 1985,
said, �The Muslim community of the globe today is in the neighbourhood of
one billion. That is an impressive figure. But what to me is equally
impressive is that Islam today is the fastest growing monotheistic religion.
This is something we have to take into account. Something is right about
Islam. It is attracting a good many people.� Yes, something is right about
Islam and it is time to find that out. I hope this study is a step on this
1. The Globe and Mail, Oct. 4,1994.
2. Leonard J. Swidler, Women in Judaism: the Status of Women in Formative
Judaism (Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press, 1976) p. 115.
3. Thena Kendath, �Memories of an Orthodox youth� in Susannah Heschel,
ed. On being a Jewish Feminist (New York: Schocken Books, 1983), pp. 96-97.
4. Swidler, op. cit., pp. 80-81.
5. Rosemary R. Ruether, �Christianity�, in Arvind Sharma, ed., Women in
World Religions (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987) p. 209.
6. For all the sayings of the prominent Saints, see Karen Armstrong, The
Gospel According to Woman (London: Elm Tree Books, 1986) pp. 52-62. See also
Nancy van Vuuren, The Subversion of Women as Practiced by Churches,
Witch-Hunters, and Other Sexists (Philadelphia: Westminister Press) pp.
7. Swidler, op. cit., p. 140.
8. Denise L. Carmody, �Judaism�, in Arvind Sharma, ed., op. cit., p. 197.
9. Swidler, op. cit., p. 137.
10. Ibid., p. 138.
11. Sally Priesand, Judaism and the New Woman (New York: Behrman House,
Inc., 1975) p. 24.
12. Swidler, op. cit., p. 115.
13. Lesley Hazleton, Israeli Women The Reality Behind the Myths (New
York: Simon and Schuster, 1977) p. 41.
14. Matilda J. Gage, Woman, Church, and State (New York: Truth Seeker
Company, 1893) p. 142.
15. Jeffrey H. Togay, �Adultery,� Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. II, col.
313. Also, see Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a
Feminist Perspective (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1990) pp. 170-177.
16. Hazleton, op. cit., pp. 41-42.
17. Swidler, op. cit., p. 141.
18. Gage, op. cit. p. 141.
19. Louis M. Epstein, The Jewish Marriage Contract (New York: Arno Press,
1973) p. 149.
20. Swidler, op. cit., p. 142.
21. Epstein, op. cit., pp. 164-165.
22. Ibid., pp. 112-113. See also Priesand, op. cit., p. 15.
23. James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe
( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) p. 88.
24. Ibid., p. 480.
25. R. Thompson, Women in Stuart England and America (London: Routledge &
Kegan Paul, 1974) p. 162.
26. Mary Murray, The Law of the Father (London: Routledge, 1995) p. 67.
27. Gage, op. cit., p. 143.
28. For example, see Jeffrey Lang, Struggling to Surrender, (Beltsville,
MD: Amana Publications, 1994) p. 167.
29. Elsayyed Sabiq, Fiqh al Sunnah (Cairo: Darul Fatah lile�lam Al-Arabi,
11th edition, 1994), vol. 2, pp. 218-229.
30. Abdel-Haleem Abu Shuqqa, Tahreer al Mar�aa fi Asr al Risala (Kuwait:
Dar al Qalam, 1990) pp. 109-112.
31. Leila Badawi, �Islam�, in Jean Holm and John Bowker, ed., Women in
Religion (London: Pinter Publishers, 1994) p. 102.
32. Amir H. Siddiqi, Studies in Islamic History (Karachi: Jamiyatul Falah
Publications, 3rd edition, 1967) p. 138.
33. Epstein, op. cit., p. 196.
34. Swidler, op. cit., pp. 162-163.
35. The Toronto Star, Apr. 8, 1995.
36. Sabiq, op. cit., pp. 318-329. See also Muhammad al Ghazali, Qadaya al
Mar�aa bin al Taqaleed al Rakida wal Wafida (Cairo: Dar al Shorooq, 4th
edition, 1992) pp. 178-180.
37. Ibid., pp. 313-318.
38. David W. Amram, The Jewish Law of Divorce According to Bible and
Talmud ( Philadelphia: Edward Stern & CO., Inc., 1896) pp. 125-126.
39. Epstein, op. cit., p. 219.
40. Ibid, pp 156-157.
41. Muhammad Abu Zahra, Usbu al Fiqh al Islami (Cairo: al Majlis al A�la
li Ri�ayat al Funun, 1963) p. 66.
42. Epstein, op. cit., p. 122.
43. Armstrong, op. cit., p. 8.
44. Epstein, op. cit., p. 175.
45. Ibid., p. 121.
46. Gage, op. cit., p. 142.
47. B. Aisha Lemu and Fatima Heeren, Woman in Islam (London: Islamic
Foundation, 1978) p. 23.
48. Hazleton, op. cit., pp. 45-46.
49. Ibid., p. 47.
50. Ibid., p. 49.
51. Swidler, op. cit., pp. 144-148.
52. Hazleton, op. cit., pp 44-45.
53. Eugene Hillman, Polygamy Reconsidered: African Plural Marriage and
the Christian Churches (New York: Orbis Books, 1975) p. 140.
54. Ibid., p. 17.
55. Ibid., pp. 88-93.
56. Ibid., pp. 92-97.
57. Philip L. Kilbride, Plural Marriage For Our Times (Westport, Conn.:
Bergin & Garvey, 1994) pp. 108-109.
58. The Weekly Review, Aug. 1, 1987.
59. Kilbride, op. cit., p. 126.
60. John D�Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A history of
Sexuality in America (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988) p. 87.
61. Ute Frevert, Women in German History: from Bourgeois Emancipation to
Sexual Liberation (New York: Berg Publishers, 1988) pp. 263-264.
62. Ibid., pp. 257-258.
63. Sabiq, op. cit., p. 191.
64. Hillman, op. cit., p. 12.
65. Nathan Hare and Julie Hare, ed., Crisis in Black Sexual Politics (San
Francisco: Black Think Tank, 1989) p. 25.
66. Ibid., p. 26.
67. Kilbride, op. cit., p. 94.
68. Ibid., p. 95.
70. Ibid., pp. 95-99.
71. Ibid., p. 118.
72. Lang, op. cit., p. 172.
73. Kilbride, op. cit., pp. 72-73.
74. Sabiq, op. cit., pp. 187-188.
75. Abdul Rahman Doi, Woman in Shari�ah (London: Ta-Ha Publishers, 1994)
76. Menachem M. Brayer, The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature: A
Psychosocial Perspective (Hoboken, N.J: Ktav Publishing House, 1986) p. 239.
77. Ibid., pp. 316-317. Also see Swidler, op. cit., pp. 121-123.
78. Ibid., p. 139.
79. Susan W. Schneider, Jewish and Female (New York: Simon & Schuster,
1984) p. 237.
80. Ibid., pp. 238-239.
81. Alexandra Wright, �Judaism�, in Holm and Bowker, ed., op. cit., pp.
82. Clara M. Henning, �Cannon Law and the Battle of the Sexes� in
Rosemary R. Ruether, ed., Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish
and Christian Traditions (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974) p. 272.
83. Donald B. Kraybill, The Riddle of the Amish Culture (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1989) p. 56.
84. Khalil Gibran, Thoughts and Meditations (New York: Bantam Books,
1960) p. 28. The Times, Nov. 18, 1993.