Presentation on the 6th of December 2012 at Imperial College – London
By: Maha Dabbous
In the name of Allah the Most Gracious, Ever Merciful
I greet you all with the greeting of Islam,
Assalamu Alikum, Peace be on you.
First I want to thank you all for giving your time to attend this lecture and I hope and pray that it will be one that is interesting and informative for you.
For many people in our present time, when the two words ‘Women’ and ‘Islam’ are mentioned in one phrase, the word ‘oppression’ comes to mind.
Are Muslim women oppressed?
I fully agree that the major part of the blame for this wrong impression lies upon those mistaken Muslims who misinterpret the teachings of their own religion and distort its beautiful image by their actions.
However if someone disobeys a law and commits a crime, it is not right to blame that law for the unjust act. Similarly Islam should not be accused on account of the wrong notions and practices of any uninformed followers. Also Islam must not be blamed for what some non-Muslims think of it, especially when its teachings are in complete opposition to these wrong ideas.
The best way to judge Islam is to study its true teachings which are presently still preserved in the Holy Quran; with its pure text remaining in its original form. And this is what I hope to carry out today.
Let us first start with the subject of the oppression of women.
With even a casual glance into the history of mankind, one will come to know that women had been exploited and subjected to cruelty and oppression since the dawn of civilization, long before the advent of Islam.
But despite its very long history, this issue was brought to light in Europe only very recently when some feminist organisations started to publicize the subject. And even with their efforts we can still witness women being oppressed today.
As for the question of the oppression of women by Islam, of course as a Muslim, I will deny these convictions, and say that the teachings of Islam do not oppress women. Otherwise how could I have accepted and tolerated this oppression upon myself and why would I be standing here today to support it?
The Holy Quran teaches us that:
لَا إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ (البقرة 257)
[2:257] There should be no compulsion in religion.
So any lady who is following the teachings of Islam must be doing this willingly without compulsion. This immediately refutes any suggestion that Islam oppresses women because freedom of choice and oppression cannot exist simultaneously.
But still someone can think that maybe Muslim ladies are so oppressed to the extent that they are not even aware of it! And naturally this can prevent them from any rebellion against Islam!
So the only way to prove the truth of what I am claiming is to give some illustrations from the source of all Islamic teachings – The Holy Quran.
Let us now go back in time to the year 610 AD.
The world in the year 610 AD
This was the year when the verses of the Holy Quran started to be revealed to the Holy Prophet of Islam, whose blessed name was Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him).
What was the condition of women at that time in the land of Arabia?
Women were considered to be the property of men, existing just for their service and pleasure. They were even inherited as part of the possessions of the deceased males. Treated without any honour or respect they were looked upon as a symbol of disgrace; to the extent that some fathers were so humiliated by the news of a birth of a daughter that they mercilessly buried these baby daughters alive.
This attitude towards women was not only confined to the land of Arabia. In other parts of the known world of that time, similar atrocities were carried out against women.
Of course in individual cases some women managed to obtain social positions that enabled them to enjoy various privileges and live a life free from this degraded state. But this was not a genuine license because it was earned and not granted to them by way of right.
At that time, no religion, or law of state afforded to women any constitutional rights that could be legally put into practice.
With the revelation of the Holy Qur’an, women were instantly liberated from all these injustices that caused them to suffer silently for thousands of years.
The teachings of Islam included a complete set of rules concerning women. All their rights were declared and fully secured and immediately implemented.
The result was complete transformation in attitude regarding women.
Instead of being the inferior possessions of men, women were granted a comprehensive law to share inheritance with males. While ownership of property was established for women, men were no longer allowed to use the possessions of women without their consent.
The Holy Quran secured women’s financial maintenance under all circumstances. Even if women owned property or earned regular income, it was to be the duty of men to support them financially.
Inappropriate behaviour of men towards women was no longer tolerated, under any circumstances. And ladies were granted the right to make legal complaints in a court of justice.
In matrimonial relationships the rights of the wife were established. Her consent became a necessary requirement for the marriage to take place. Her husband’s good treatment to her was an essential obligation for the continuation of the marriage; otherwise she was entitled to divorce.
If divorce took place, the financial security of the wife was to be realized. If they had children, they would be left with the mother until a certain age while their financial maintenance was to be the responsibility of the father alone.
The rights of widows were also established.
The education of females was promoted and women were allowed to become active individuals in the society.
All this might seem normal and standard human rights today. But this becomes marvellous and amazing when we know that these very same Islamic rights of women were still not recognised by the civil laws of the states of world, even after the passage of more than a thousand years.
Just as an example, the rights of a woman to inherit or to be recognized as the owner of her own property were established in parts of Europe very recently, as late as the twentieth century. The same applies to the rights of a woman to end her marriage by divorce.
But the Holy Quran has granted these same rights to women thirteen centuries earlier, at a time when humanity’s attitude towards women was completely opposed to it. Islam has secured these human rights to women without even a single woman having to fight or struggle or raise a voice for this to be achieved.
These rights were not only declared and established but they were also immediately implemented through the instructions and practice of the Holy Prophet of Islam himself (peace and blessings of Allah be on him), leaving no room for speculation or distortion.
But that is not all.
Beside the financial and social rights, women’s spiritual status was also established. The Holy Qur’an proclaimed absolute spiritual equality between men and women; declaring that the same spiritual ranks were attainable by both alike.
The Holy Quran declared:
مَنْ عَمِلَ صَالِحًا مِنْ ذَكَرٍ أَوْ أُنْثَى وَهُوَ مُؤْمِنٌ فَلَنُحْيِيَنَّهُ حَيَاةً طَيِّبَةً وَلَنَجْزِيَنَّهُمْ أَجْرَهُمْ بِأَحْسَنِ مَا كَانُوا يَعْمَلُونَ (النحل:98(
[16:98] Whoso acts righteously, whether male or female, and is a believer, We will surely grant him a pure life; and We will surely bestow on such, their reward according to the best of their works.
In the eyes of God Almighty both men and women were equal. No longer could men state that they were superior to women. No longer could men forcefully dominate or mercilessly dictate. This has all come to an end as God proclaimed in the Holy Quran:
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُمْ مِنْ ذَكَرٍ وَأُنْثَى وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ (الحجرات:14)
[49:14] O mankind, We have created you from a male and a female; and We have made you into tribes and sub-tribes that you may recognize one another. Verily, the most honourable among you, in the sight of Allah, is he who is the most righteous among you. Surely, Allah is All-knowing, All-Aware.
But this is still not all.
So far I have only mentioned the civilizing injunctions of Islam that were recognised by the rest of the world after more than thirteen hundred years. But there are still other privileges and civil liberties that Islam has granted to women by way of right and that are still not recognised by any other civil law in the world outside the domain of Islam – even in our present time.
Of course I intend to illustrate this by citing some examples, but before doing so it is necessary to define the role of women in the Islamic society – as presented in the Holy Quran.
To carry out this, it will be essential to introduce first a wider scope, to identify the purpose of the creation of human beings.
The purpose of our existence
According to the Quranic teachings, God has created everything with a purpose, not only living creatures but also all other inanimate creations have a purpose for existence. When we consider any object of creation and study its role in life and its function in the world, we will be amazed to see how this object is perfectly fulfilling the purpose of its existence. We will never find any of these creations refusing to do the job that it was created for. For example, who can ever say that the sun has purposely refused to supply the earth and its inhabitants with its light and warmth? Or who can ever claim that a tree has deliberately declined yielding its fruits to benefit living creatures? Each one of these creations of God is fulfilling a purpose for its existence in exactly the same manner that it was meant to be. Even in the animal kingdom we see the same. Animals act according to their natural instincts, and by doing so they accomplish the purpose of their life on earth.
We never see these creations of God abusing their natural gifts.
The only exceptions to this rule are humans.
Human beings are granted the freedom of choice for their decisions and actions. If they make wrong decisions, they can abuse and waste any of their faculties and talents which can lead them to ruin.
On the other hand if they make right decisions and choose to fulfil the sacred purpose of their existence, they can attain the loftiest of the spiritual ranks that cannot be reached even by the angels of God.
But what is this purpose.
According to the Holy Quran, God created Human beings with the capacity to reflect His attributes in order to fulfil their role of being His representatives on earth. Therefore every person’s goal ought to be the moral development that enables one to manifest these Divine attributes in one’s own self, in an attempt to become an image of the Creator. This results in the elevation of the spiritual state of that person so as to gain nearness to God. It is an endless spiritual journey because the more one reflects the Divine attributes, the closer that person is drawn towards God, and the nearer one approaches God, the more the Divine attributes are reflected in that person. This continues as an endless progression as long as the person continues to strive on this path.
This objective is something that cannot be accomplished by other creations of God; only human beings were gifted with the ability to attain these lofty spiritual ranks.
To enable them to achieve this, God has been sending His prophets in every land and at all times. Their duty was to convey His guidance in the form of religious teachings which – if followed – can lead human beings to attain their spiritual destination.
The summit of all these religious teachings was reached in Islam; which presents the complete and final law from God to all mankind. Of course these teachings are meant to be followed by both men and women alike, as they are both gifted with capacities to reach the same spiritual ranks. But in the same time we notice subtle distinctions in the guidance concerning men and the guidance concerning women because of the physical differences between males and females.
These differences cause natural distinctions in their roles in life.
For example, as men are bodily stronger than women, it is natural to see that men around the world usually perform the tasks that require strenuous and outdoor activities.
The role of women
But this does not in any way degrade the position of women because they have their own sphere of responsibilities as well. As men appear outwardly stronger, women’s strengths come from within.
They are usually drawn to the tasks that involve the home and the family. They enjoy organizing and managing family affairs. Because of their capacity to give birth and nurture their offspring, they are gifted with the ability to devote themselves to looking after others with true unconditional love and care. In addition to this they possess the skills of upbringing and education and training.
Women instinctively discharge these vital and significant duties towards the members of their families without having to be reminded of it. For this reason we do not find such instructions in the Holy Qur’an that tell women to do these jobs. This is because the Holy Qur’an does not include commands to perform acts that are done by people instinctively. But on the other hand it gives instructions to guide people to the right way of doing these actions so as to benefit themselves spiritually.
For example the Holy Qur’an does not order people to eat and drink; because people naturally eat and drink, yet it gives guidance concerning what should be consumed and what should not, to teach them how to use these natural instincts to gain spiritual benefits.
Likewise the Holy Qur’an does not instruct women to fulfil their family duties because they do this naturally anyway, yet it gives them guidance on how to use these natural inclinations to achieve spiritual objectives for themselves and others as well.
The Holy Qur’an enlightens us in this regard, where Allah guides women by saying:
وَقَرْنَ فِي بُيُوتِكُنَّ وَلَا تَبَرَّجْنَ تَبَرُّجَ الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ الْأُولَى وَأَقِمْنَ الصَّلَاةَ وَآتِينَ الزَّكَاةَ وَأَطِعْنَ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ إِنَّمَا يُرِيدُ اللَّهُ لِيُذْهِبَ عَنْكُمُ الرِّجْسَ أَهْلَ الْبَيْتِ وَيُطَهِّرَكُمْ تَطْهِيرًا (الأحزاب 34(
[33:34] And settle in your homes with dignity, and do not show off yourselves like the showing off of the former days of ignorance, and observe Prayer, and pay the Zakat, and obey Allah and His Messenger. Surely Allah desires to remove from you all uncleanness, O Members of the Household, and purify you completely.
It is assumed by some people that the first part of this verse orders women to remain permanently at home.
But this verse does not tell women to stay at home and never go out, it says ‘settle in your homes’ which points to the necessity of establishing the home and making it a source of comfort for peaceful living. In this there is an indication that some instructions will follow concerning women’s home duties.
So this verse does not prohibit women from going out, and does not forbid women from getting education to the highest degrees and does not ban women from having jobs outside their homes. All this is naturally allowed in Islam for any woman who chooses to do so.
This verse has something else to say. It establishes a spiritual role for women that goes in line with their natural inclinations and skills.
We notice here that God did not say to women to stay at home to do the cooking or the cleaning or any other domestic work! He did not even tell them to stay at home to look after the husbands and raise the children! He plainly commanded them to settle in their homes and to observe the teachings of Islam and to follow the guidance of God and His Holy Messenger (peace and blessings of Allah be on him).
So what does this mean? It means that managing the affairs of the family is not the ultimate purpose for encouraging women to settle in their homes. There is a greater objective that is revealed in the verse that follows this one. In it God directs women by saying:
وَاذْكُرْنَ مَا يُتْلَى فِي بُيُوتِكُنَّ مِنْ آيَاتِ اللَّهِ وَالْحِكْمَةِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ لَطِيفًا خَبِيرًا (الأحزاب 35(
[33:35] And remember what is rehearsed in your homes of the Signs of Allah and of wisdom. Verily Allah is the Knower of subtleties, All-Aware.
Here a finer role for women is revealed. Their responsibility in the management of the household affairs and their care and education for the members of their families is not meant to be taken only in the physical sense; it is also to benefit them spiritually.
At this point I need to bring this subject to a short pause while I can touch upon spirituality in Islam.
Spirituality in Islam
The Holy Quran teaches us that our existence in this world includes our body and our soul. The body is our physical existence and the soul represents our spiritual entity. Once we die, our physical body will disintegrate and we will be left only with our spiritual existence – which will continue to live in a different form.
So it is essential that before leaving our present world we must secure a good life for our spiritual entity, otherwise we will suffer a state of agony after death. A blissful spiritual life can only be guaranteed by attaining to a lofty station that is close to our Creator, Who is the source of all peace. And as explained earlier we can secure our nearness to God by following His guidance that He conveyed to us through His prophets.
In other words, our peaceful spiritual life can be attained through the proper conduct of our physical life.
God ordained that our physical state is strongly connected to our moral and spiritual states.
Body and soul are interwoven. Each one of them affects the other. Therefore any physical condition or action will have its effect on the soul. For example when a Muslim prostrates, the physical body does the action, but the soul is affected as well because prostration fosters that person’s humility and obedience to God. This connection can be seen in all the obligatory physical practices that a Muslim is supposed to perform.
From this we understand that all the teachings of Islam that are to be observed by the physical body are actually meant to elevate the spiritual status. That is to say that our life on earth encompasses the means by which we can arrive at our desired spiritual destination. This can be achieved if we use these means in the way that was prescribed by our Creator in the Holy Quran.
As the ultimate purpose of the Quranic injunctions is the spiritual progress of the soul, its teachings are meant to employ all the natural urges of a person to fulfil one’s spiritual objectives.
Some human inclinations can have dangerous effects on one’s self if they go out of control, which can lead to the loss of moral values and destroy the spiritual qualities altogether. But if these natural inclinations are subjected to the control of the Divine law, they become moral values and then they enhance the spiritual condition of that person.
By understanding this fundamental point, the spiritual benefits of observing all Islamic teachings can be easily realized.
After this brief explanation, let us now return to the Quranic verses that we were discussing earlier.
[33:34-35] and observe Prayer, and pay the Zakat, and obey Allah and His Messenger. Surely Allah desires to remove from you all uncleanness, O Members of the Household, and purify you completely. And remember what is rehearsed in your homes of the Signs of Allah and of wisdom. Verily Allah is the Knower of subtleties, All-Aware.
As previously observed, these verses indicate that the ultimate purpose of the duties of women is to attain spiritual objectives.
As women follow these instructions, they purify their souls and learn how to use the provisions available to them to enlighten themselves and others with spiritual knowledge and wisdom. The verses end with a reminder of the limitless knowledge and awareness of God, to encourage ladies to reflect these Divine attributes in themselves and continue in their determination to acquire knowledge.
According to these Quranic verses, Muslim women have been assigned the responsibility of the spiritual education and upbringing of the society.
Now for women to be teachers of the community, it is essential that they acquire a wide range of knowledge first, not only in religious matters but also in other fields in general. This fact refutes the wrong assertion that Islam prevents females from acquiring knowledge and forbids girls’ education. The Holy Qur’an never distinguished between males and females in their rights for this privilege. On the other hand, there are particular instructions for the education of females to repel the discrimination that prevailed as a result of customs and traditions.
So if these customs still exist among some communities today, it will not be right to blame Islam for it, especially when the teachings of Islam came to dispose of such habits.
The Holy Prophet of Islam (peace and blessings of Allah be on him), has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the sacred duties of women in the society. He gave a lot of guidance in this regard and he particularly encouraged the education of girls, possibly seeing in them the future teachers of the community.
This is further endorsed by the early history of Islam when after his departure from this world, Muslims acquired a large amount of information and knowledge from his wives especially Sayyeda Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) who was the main source for their education and training.
As God entrusted women with a number of vital responsibilities, He also provided for them the means that will help them accomplish their duties with ease. For this reason we find that the verses of the Holy Quran granted women a number of special privileges by way of rights. As mentioned earlier these privileges have not been paralleled in any other of the civil laws of the world even in our present time.
I have chosen three of these special privileges to discuss today.
The first is mentioned in the Quranic declaration:
الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ (النساء 35(
[4:35] Men are guardians over women
Guardianship of men
This declaration is very much misunderstood even by some Muslims. It is wrongly assumed that it means that men are superior to women and that it promotes the dictatorship of men over women. This is not so. The true meaning of this declaration can be understood when we read it together with the next part of the same verse. In it God says:
الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَى بَعْضٍ وَبِمَا أَنْفَقُوا مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ (النساء 35(
[4:35] Men are guardians over women because Allah has made some of them excel others, and because they (the men) spend of their wealth.
We must pay special attention here to the phrase (Allah has made some of them excel others).
It does not say that Allah has made men excel women! It clearly says that Allah has made some of them excel others. This means that men surpass women in some aspects and women surpass men in other aspects. Therefore one is not superior to the other. As mentioned earlier, the Holy Quran tells us that, in the sight of God, the most honourable among males and females is the one who is most righteous.
So if men are not superior to women, what is the meaning of them being guardians over women?
The answer is found in the same verse in the phrase (because they (the men) spend of their wealth). The guardianship of men here means their duties to provide the financial necessities for women.
Here men are reminded of their responsibilities towards women. As guardians they must protect and provide for women so as to secure an easy and peaceful life for them that will enable women to fulfil their sacred tasks in the best possible way.
The Holy Quran teaches that a woman is not responsible for the financial provisions of the family. Even if she happens to earn money through work or by any other means, she is not bound to use this income to support her family financially, unless she willingly chooses to do so.
Also the spending of wealth mentioned in this verse can refer to other meanings beside financial payments. For example it can indicate spending knowledge and advice. In this case the meaning will be that as guardians, men must continue to offer the necessary advice and support to women that will help their continuous advancement and protect them from drifting away from the right course of progress.
The righteousness of women is a very important factor in the formation of an upright society. Upon them depends the welfare of the new generation and the progress of the society as a whole. This is why God has assigned to men the duty of providing the facilities and the protection and also the right advice and assistance for women that will secure their progress towards their target.
So to some extent we can say here that, in this respect, God has directed men to be at the service of women to protect them and help them attain spiritual loftiness because on this depends their own advancement as well as the society as a whole.
This is what is implied in the Quranic proclamation:
Men are guardians over women.
The guardianship of men is not to indicate their superiority over women, but it is to illustrate their care and concern for women.
Women are by nature delicate in their physical structure and mental fabric, and they need special care and protection.
It is important here to emphasize that the protection provided by men does not mean their superiority over women. On the contrary, this underlines the importance of the role of women in the society, who need to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere that will enable them to give full attention to the performance of their duties.
And if men are meant to protect women in this area, women are also required to provide men with protection in different fields. Women’s protection for men comes from within. This is also indicated in the same verse that mentioned the guardianship of men over women, in the following part of the verse God says:
الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَى بَعْضٍ وَبِمَا أَنْفَقُوا مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ فَالصَّالِحَاتُ قَانِتَاتٌ حَافِظَاتٌ لِلْغَيْبِ بِمَا حَفِظَ اللَّهُ (النساء 35)
[4:35] Men are guardians over women because Allah has made some of them excel others, and because they (the men) spend of their wealth. So virtuous women are those who are obedient, and guard the secrets with Allah’s protection.
It is the duty of women to protect the honour of men and to keep their secrets from being exposed. So as men protect women, women also protect men.
Yet as any organization needs a head to manage its affairs, the family also needs an allocated leader. According to the teachings of Islam, the husband is the appointed head of the family. But again this does not by any means degrade the wife’s position. If the husband is the head, the wife is the heart of that family, without whom no life can be sustained. As a matter of fact the roles of both husband and wife are equally vital for the healthy survival and prosperity of the family and the society as a whole. It is obvious that a body can neither survive without a head nor can it live without a heart. This is the same relationship between husband and wife in the family. Their joint efforts are needed to form an ideal family and to produce a perfect society.
This means that men and women complement one another and must strive mutually to act upon the Divine commandments for the sake of their prosperity and success. The Holy Quran says:
فَاسْتَجَابَ لَهُمْ رَبُّهُمْ أَنِّي لَا أُضِيعُ عَمَلَ عَامِلٍ مِنْكُمْ مِنْ ذَكَرٍ أَوْ أُنْثَى بَعْضُكُمْ مِنْ بَعْضٍ (آل عمران 196(
[3:196] So their Lord answered their prayers, saying, ‘I will allow not the work of any worker from among you, whether male or female, to be lost. You are from one another.
The phrase You are from one another reminds us that men and women complement one another and for the achievement of any positive results, both men and women need to carry out their share of responsibilities as the blessed results will be acquired only by their joint efforts.
Now back to our subject.
We have seen that the Holy Quran has secured the protection and necessary provisions of women through appointing men as their caring guardians. This privilege that Islam has granted to women was not granted by way of right in any other institution, whether secular or religious.
Another special privilege that Islam has bestowed upon women is one that secures a family life for every female in the community. This is mentioned in the Quran in more than one verse.
In one of these verses God instructs the Muslim men as follows:
وَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلَّا تُقْسِطُوا فِي الْيَتَامَى فَانْكِحُوا مَا طَابَ لَكُمْ مِنَ النِّسَاءِ مَثْنَى وَثُلَاثَ وَرُبَاعَ (النساء 4(
[4:4] And if you fear that you will not be fair in dealing with the orphans, then marry of women as may be agreeable to you, two, or three, or four; . . . . .
This is the verse that deals with the subject of polygamy.
The Question of Polygamy
There is a misconception about Islam that it insults women by allowing men to marry more than one wife. But what is forgotten here is that, Islam has not actually introduced polygamy. Before Islam men could marry as many wives as they wished.
Islam has come to limit this number of wives.
In other words, Islam has come to regulate polygamy – in favour of women – and put it under control so that this license will not be abused by men while its productive effects can continue to be benefited from.
Now what are these benefits?
The verse just mentioned tells us about this.
It highlights the importance of providing marriage to all ladies in the community.
This is understood when we realize that according to the Arabic lexicons, the Arabic word (Yatama) that is usually translated as (orphans), can also mean (ladies without husbands) in general and in particular (girls who never married before).
So the verse calls upon men to secure marriages for women who have no husbands. If this is not possible to achieve, then the Holy Quran gives this licence to men to marry more than one wife – with the maximum of four. This is to ensure that no lady will be left without marriage in the community.
Now this is another instance of a very much misunderstood injunction of the Holy Quran. It is believed by many that this injunction is favouring men and allowing them to use women for their own pleasure.
This is far from being the case.
First of all, if we ponder upon the words of this verse, we will find it giving the reasons for allowing polygamy. The verse does not say to men:
‘If you want to enjoy your life then marry more than one wife!’
And it does not tell them:
‘If you are not satisfied with one wife then go and marry another!’
Nothing about the interests of men is mentioned here.
The verse plainly advises men that, if for any reason there is an imbalance in the society that makes it not possible to secure marriage for all marriageable ladies, then men should marry more than one wife to remove the unevenness and solve the problem.
As a matter of fact, for a pious righteous man, marrying more than one wife is a huge burden. This is because for a man who decides to marry more than one wife, God has put some conditions to fulfil and duties to perform. These requirements are so difficult and hard to fulfil that it becomes very demanding on a man to accomplish them. So for a pious man who wants to obey these commandments and please his Creator, it becomes a huge burden on him to marry more than one wife. But if essential, the Muslim man will have to opt for this solution to ensure that every woman is protected by a family life of her own.
Yet as God knows that this is a very delicate matter and that it is difficult to handle in the proper manner, He has made it clear that this option is only to be employed by men who are capable of providing full justice between the wives. God made this clear in the same verse that was just quoted. After giving the license to men to marry up to four wives God says:
فَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ أَلَّا تَعْدِلُوا فَوَاحِدَةً (النساء 4(
[4:4] and if you fear you will not deal justly, then marry only one
So this is a real challenge. Men are told in this verse that if they fear that a situation will arise in the community where some ladies will be left without marriage then it will be their duty to marry more than one wife to remove the problem and provide a family life for these women. But on the other hand, if some men would fear that they will not be able to deal justly with their wives then these men are by Divine command not allowed to marry more than one wife.
So this licence in Islam is to be used with very special care and reservation by men; otherwise instead of benefitting individuals and the community in general, a man might end his spiritual progress and draw the displeasure of God upon himself.
Now although the verse mentioned here referred to all ladies without husbands, the Holy Quran still gives another special instruction in this regard, where God instructs Muslim men by saying:
وَأَنْكِحُوا الْأَيَامَى مِنْكُمْ (النور 33(
[24:33] And marry the widows from among you,
Here again it must be stated that according to the Arabic lexicons, the Arabic word (Ayama) which was translated here as (widows) gives the general meaning of (women who were married previously but are now without husband). God has given this special instruction because in some societies widows and divorced women are looked down upon; to the extent that their chances of marriage can become very slim. This is one reason why the Holy Quran has given particular mention to them in this verse.
So it becomes clear that the Holy Quran gives very special attention to securing the marriage of all ladies in the community.
From this we realize the importance of marriage in Islam.
We have seen earlier that the teachings of the Holy Quran have secured financial and other provisions for ladies by employing men to be their caring guardians.
This grants women the peace of mind that enables them to focus on accomplishing more important obligations with ease.
But women have also other needs that can only be fulfilled through marriage. For this reason the Holy Quran has given these commandments; to guarantee that the natural and mental and emotional needs of every female in the community are fulfilled.
Of course there are other reasons for allowing polygamy in Islam, some of which are in the interests of men. But the remarkable point to note here is that the only one reason that was mentioned in the Holy Quran for allowing polygamy is the one which takes care of the interests of ladies by securing a safe haven for every single woman in the community.
This displays the high esteem bestowed upon women by the Holy Quran. It teaches that women must be respected, protected, and cared for. They should not be left to face the harshness of life on their own while others just watch and pity them without doing anything to help.
Islamic teachings are designed by God to free women from even the slightest troubles and worries, to grant them the peace of mind and the emotional stability that enables them to advance in their spiritual development.
Now I will proceed to a third privilege that Islam has bestowed upon women. And again this is a third instance of a very much misunderstood injunction of Islam.
By this I refer of course to the Islamic veil.
The Islamic Veil
It is evident that in our present time, many people are not aware of the true objectives of the Islamic veil. They believe that Islam burdens women by instructing them to wear the veil that restricts their freedom and causes them to be isolated from the society. But contrary to this wrong impression, the Islamic veil is actually the means of securing several types of freedom for women. As a matter of fact the veil itself is a proof that Islam does not isolate women or confine them to their homes.
We have to bear in mind that the veil is not required to be observed by a Muslim woman inside her home where only her husband or other members of her direct family are present. She is only required to observe the veil when in the presence of outsiders. And by outsiders here I mean those who are outside the circle of her direct family members. This is of course the situation that is more likely to happen outside the home.
So if Islam confines Muslim women to their homes and isolates them from the outside world, then these Quranic instructions concerning the veil will be deemed unnecessary and redundant.
Therefore the very fact that these teachings of the veil are found in the Holy Quran proves that Islam definitely allows women to go out and interact with the society and also to participate in different activities whether it is education or work or any other legitimate act.
But in doing so a Muslim woman is required to shield herself by observing the Islamic veil which does not only concern her outer dress but also provides the necessary guidelines for the manners of dealing with outsiders. In this way she will be fully protected from exposure to any menace that she might come across in the world outside her home.
It is important here to remember that the veiling of women is not something that Islam has invented. The earlier revealed religions also taught women to be modest in their dress and to cover their heads. We can see the traces of this even today; for example in the dress of the Christian nuns who cover their heads and wear modest clothes. We can also see it in the fact that religious Jewish ladies cover their heads – if not with a scarf then with a wig. The same is the case with the traditional dress of Hindu ladies. This is evidence that their respective religions taught them to veil their bodies and heads in a certain manner.
As the final religion, Islam has come to complete and perfect the previous teachings concerning the veil. Therefore the Holy Qur’an has given further teachings in this regard, in addition to explaining the reasons and wisdom behind these teachings and pointing out the benefits gained by following them.
From the Holy Quran we learn that the Islamic veil guards the moral and spiritual conditions of the individual as well as the collective society. As mentioned earlier, the responsibilities of Muslim women is not just limited to being wives and mothers, they also share with men the responsibility of maintenance of the moral and spiritual progress of society. One of the methods to achieve this is the observance of the veil.
The veil in Islam is a complete style of life that regulates the way of dealing between men and women and ensures the protection of the standards of morality. As such it is a set of injunctions that must be observed by both men and women.
The Holy Quran has explained very clearly that the veil is not entirely the responsibility of women. There are also some obligations for Muslim men regarding the veil.
For example, the same instructions directing Muslim women to restrain their eyes and to guard their chastity were also addressed to men, as mentioned in the following two verses where God says:
قُلْ لِلْمُؤْمِنِينَ يَغُضُّوا مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِمْ وَيَحْفَظُوا فُرُوجَهُمْ ذَلِكَ أَزْكَى لَهُمْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ خَبِيرٌ بِمَا يَصْنَعُونَ (النور 31(
[24:31] Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and guard their chastity. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is well aware of what they do.
وَقُلْ لِلْمُؤْمِنَاتِ يَغْضُضْنَ مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِنَّ وَيَحْفَظْنَ فُرُوجَهُنَّ (النور 32(
And say to the believing women that they restrain their eyes and guard their chastity.
It is clear then that both men and women share equally the responsibility for observing this injunction. They must both restrain their looks or, in other words, they must observe the Veil of the eyes.
This refutes the idea that Muslim women are told to cover their bodies because men cannot avoid looking at them. As we see from these two verses, restraining the eyes needs to be observed by both men and women alike. And if men act upon this injunction and restrain their eyes, they will not be looking at women anyway to even notice whether they are covered or not.
This means that covering the body has other benefits for the ladies themselves, as we will see later.
In other verses there are additional instructions for Muslim men. They are taught that they should not enter houses until permission is given, and that when they are in the company of ladies, they should speak from behind a shroud of respect. This means that they must observe the Veil of speech when talking to ladies.
Again similar instructions were given to Muslim ladies.
Both men and women are to behave formally and decently when in each other’s presence.
The Islamic Attire
But even while the observance of the veil is an injunction equally binding on men and women alike, the Muslim woman has some additional responsibilities. The Holy Quran teaches that she must not display her beauty and adornment, whether this is natural beauty or artificial in the form of makeup and accessories.
Of course this is not saying that the Muslim woman has to look ugly and repulsive. What is meant here is that she should not come out in public with an inviting appearance that would attract eyes and incite desires and encourage actions. She should not show interest in drawing attention to herself whether by her dress or her makeup or her speech or her attitude or by any other means.
This establishes the fact that Islam shelters women from being exploited as an object for carnal pleasure. The observance of the Islamic Veil prevents women’s exposure to this humiliating situation and protects them from being labeled as such. As some people will probably be aware, various feminist movements are trying to deal with these issues today, but they achieve very little success.
The Holy Quran explains also that the Islamic veil protects women from being injured or harmed in any way. This is mentioned in the following verse:
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ قُلْ لِأَزْوَاجِكَ وَبَنَاتِكَ وَنِسَاءِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ يُدْنِينَ عَلَيْهِنَّ مِنْ جَلَابِيبِهِنَّ ذَلِكَ أَدْنَى أَنْ يُعْرَفْنَ فَلَا يُؤْذَيْنَ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ غَفُورًا رَحِيمًا (الأحزاب 60(
[33:60] O Prophet! tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers that they should draw close to them portions of their loose outer coverings. That is nearer that they may thus be distinguished and not molested. And Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful.
The phrase ‘That is nearer that they may thus be distinguished and not molested.’ is enlightening. It shows that the reason for this Islamic dress code is primarily for the benefit of the individual woman herself. It explains that this attire is like a uniform that distinguishes her from others and indicates that she is one who should be left alone and not harmed or injured physically or mentally or emotionally.
It is clear that these teachings are meant for the well being of women and to remove any cause of inconvenience for them from its very roots. A woman who is observing the Islamic veil in her dress and actions is not likely to be treated in a disrespectful manner. Thus the veil secures for Muslim women freedom from a lot of troubles that other women might face.
It establishes the dignity and honor and wellbeing of women. It also gives Muslim women peace of mind. It is generally observed that Muslim women who follow these beautiful teachings of Islam appear to be relaxed and at ease with themselves.
In addition to all that, the Islamic veil trains women to avoid the reliance on physical beauty as a mark for self-value or to gain self-confidence. This provides them with the opportunity to develop superior and advanced skills. Every woman is blessed with a great deal of potential talents and capabilities. But as a female, she also possesses the inherent instinct to desire to look beautiful and attractive. This instinct was implanted in women to help preserve the human species.
As this natural desire distracts a woman from pursuing her other special talents, Islam has harnessed it by the use of the veil which diverts her attention to her other abilities. As for these natural inclinations, marriage can fulfil these needs in an acceptable and legal manner. This liberates the woman to pursue her other potentials with ease and confidence. She then acquires new abilities and develops other skills. Her physical appearance becomes no longer the means by which she gains self esteem or through which she achieves her goals in life; because her higher qualities gain precedence. By this she can benefit herself and offer much more to others.
So far from depriving women of their freedom, or being a burden on women, observing the Islamic veil is a blessing for them and is the means by which they can obtain their freedom from the shackles that restrain their progress.
Of course the physical covering is only the first step to developing the true function of the veil which is realized when the veiling extends to the mind and heart, to shield one from impure and immoral thoughts.
Therefore, in addition to one’s words and actions, one’s thoughts also will reflect reverence.
This behaviour leads to the individual’s own moral uplift, and it also creates a decent atmosphere of respect that will benefit the moral state of the entire society.
Someone might think here that there is no need for the bodily veil, and a lady can just be dressed in a decent manner and watch her behaviour and actions to acquire the desired results.
In answer to this, we must remember what was mentioned earlier that physical actions affect the soul. This applies also to the bodily veil, which has its direct effect on the spiritual state.
An example to support this is the fact that Muslims cover their bodies and heads when they offer their daily obligatory prayers, even if they are alone in a place where no other person can see them. This indicates that the physical covering acts as a protection from negative influences that can affect one’s concentration in prayers.
So veiling the body can be considered symbolically to imply drawing a virtual mantle upon oneself for protection from all detrimental tendencies – whether physical or spiritual – that can hinder moral and spiritual advancement.
Therefore, when a woman observes the physical veil, she secures her spiritual progress in addition to fulfilling her obligations towards the society.
Finally it is also worth mentioning here that nowadays in the age of the modern facilities of communication that can provide direct and immediate access to the whole world; the Islamic veil is very much needed as the means of protection against the dangers that result from dealing with strangers on networks. The same guidelines for the manners of dealing with outsiders can still be applied here. Which proves that the teachings of Islam are suitable for all times and circumstances.
The teachings of Islam indeed acknowledge that prevention is better than cure. This is the philosophy that underlies the Islamic regulations relating to the observance of the veil, which protects one from being confronted with situations that might incite risky tendencies and hence it prevents the development of situations which can go out of control and cause moral stumbling. In this way ethical values can be preserved, and the society is safeguarded against many types of ailments.
On the individual level, whether male or female, observing the Islamic veil shields the mind from impure thoughts and liberates the heart from unhealthy inclinations and guards the moral condition, helping the spiritual progress that fulfils one’s purpose of existence.
The few examples that were presented here provide just a glimpse of what Islam has granted to women. The real effect of these teachings can be witnessed when they are put into practice.
This first happened at the time of early Islam.
After the revelation of the Holy Qur’an, the very same vulnerable ladies who were helplessly spending their worthless lives, at the mercy of cruel and oppressive males, rose to become the most motivated and influential women that history has witnessed. Some of them surpassed even men in bravery and courage. They excelled in knowledge and outshone in spiritual progress.
Despite the power and authority that Islam granted them, they preserved and maintained their modesty and tenderness, their hearts being filled with love and compassion to mankind and all creation of their beloved Creator.
The reason of course was that they were being escorted by a unique leader, the Holy Prophet of Islam (peace and blessings of God be on him) who was described in the Holy Qur’an as ‘a Mercy for mankind’ and who was sent by the Most Gracious and Ever Merciful Creator of the Universe. He reflected in his person the Creator’s attributes of Love and Benevolence to the highest level that is humanly possible. Thus he taught these ladies how to be ideal human beings, having the capacity of reflecting the beautiful attributes of their Creator whose Mercy encompasses all things.
These ladies enjoyed the certainty that the teachings of Islam comprised the means by which mankind can establish the living relationship with the Creator of the universe. They were confident that following this guidance was to secure an everlasting blissful life for all human souls after departing from this world.
For this reason they did not hesitate to present any sacrifice to protect the infant religion and preserve the perfect message that was sent to guide mankind for all times to come.
As a result of their selfless sacrifices and bravery, they paved the way for the generations of ladies that came after them and secured for them the means of a respectable honourable life. They taught them how to fulfil the purpose of existence as females in this world and how to attain to the loftiest spiritual ranks and enjoy the everlasting inner peace in this life and the life to come.
Females who lived on earth after their time, owe a great deal to these ladies and to the honourable leader who initiated the transformation in their lives.
If the teachings that this prophet conveyed were oppressing women in any way, then how could such ladies – who were his sincere followers – attain to the eminent positions that they enjoyed?
Why would his first wife – Sayyeda Khadija (may Allah be pleased with her) – support him and value his noble qualities and become the first among mankind to believe in his truth as the Messenger of God?
Why would a lady like Sayyeda Sumayya Umm Ammar (may Allah be pleased with her) readily accept to be brutally killed by one of his opponents rather than abandoning the beliefs that he taught, thus becoming the first martyr in the history of Islam?
And why would his youngest wife Sayyeda Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) propagate his teachings by educating his followers after his departure from this world, to become the teacher of generations of men as well as women?
These are not the actions of oppressed women!
True Muslim Women
These ladies, who met him and witnessed the blessed time of his existence on earth, sacrificed all what they could and laid down their lives to protect his holy person. This is because they realized the uniqueness of his honourable personality and qualities and they recognised the brilliance and beauty of his teachings and they appreciated the greatness and grandeur of his message that was to secure justice and peace for the ladies of all times to come.
As a result of abiding by the teachings he conveyed they attained their lofty ranks and inspired generations that came after them even through our present time.
May the peace and blessings of God be on him and his true followers eternally.
At the end, I thank you all for your attention and patience.