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Islam and Women

Nov 2, 2006

Much has been written and spoken about the recent comments by the imam of the Lakemba Mosque in Sydney, Sheik Taj el-Din al Hilaly. Fortunately, many Muslims sought to distance themselves from the remarks, arguing that women are treated with dignity and respect in Islam. (But he has also had many supporters, including leading Australian clerics.)

While it is good to see Muslims condemning the outrageous remarks of the Imam, I have yet to see someone challenge them on their interpretation of women in Islam. Indeed, a good case can be made that much of what the disgraced Imam said was fully in accord with the Koran, the life and practice of Muhammad, and the hadith (collections of what Muhammad is reported to have done and said, or taught. They are the second most important body of literature in Islamic theology after the Koran).

All three paint a picture of women that seems more in keeping with the remarks of Hilaly than his critics. What follows is a very brief and introductory examination of the evidence.

Muhammad and Women

Islam’s prophet can certainly not be described as a women’s libber. Far from it. His actions toward, and teachings about, women are very worrying indeed.

He is of course well known for the many wives he had. His earlier days in Mecca were different than when he moved to Medina. While in Mecca, he married a 40 year-old woman, Khadija, while he was 25. He remained married to her until she died 25 years later.

However, when in Medina, he became very polygamous. His first wife while there was the infamous Aisha, a 6-year-old girl. He consummated his marriage with her when she was nine years old. Altogether he had at least 13 wives (perhaps as many as 16), nine of whom were left widows when he died.

In addition to his many wives, he also had many female slaves at his disposal. We know of at least two dozen who are listed by name. These women were either purchased by Muhammad or acquired as prisoners of war. Muhammad could have sexual relations with these women without being married to them. And according to the Koran (24:33), sex slaves could also be allowed to be sold into prostitution.

Finally, he had women who were neither wives nor slaves, who gave themselves to him for his sexual pleasure.

That men could beat their wives and slaves is found in the Koran (4:34), the hadith, and in Muhammad’s life.

The Koran and Hadith

Many suras in the Koran make it clear that women are seen as second-class citizens. Indeed, women are seen as inferior to men (Surah 2:228; 4:34). For example, a son’s inheritance should be twice that of a daughter (4:11). And in court, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s (2:282).

Also, in the case of rape, four male witnesses are needed to prove the crime. If a woman claims rape, but cannot produce four male witnesses to back her up, her story is dismissed, and she instead is accused of adultery. This law can be traced back to the time of Muhammad, where he made use of it.

Thus in countries under sharia law, it is easy for a man to rape a woman and get away with it. And women suffer doubly, first from the rape, then for not being believed. In Pakistan it is said that 75 per cent of women prisoners are there because they are rape victims.

The Koran allows polygamy, with men allowed to have up to four wives (4:3). Women are likened to a field, to be cultivated by men as they choose (2:223). Beating a wife and sexually deserting her is also allowed (4:34). And according to Islamic law, men can order their wives to stay locked indoors.

Divorce is very easy for a Muslim male. If a wife displeases a husband in any way, he simply says the word, and the divorce is effectively done.

Many hadith make it clear that a woman is the possession of her husband. A number of hadith speak of the majority of people found in hell as being women. Another says women, like horses, are an evil omen.

Numerous hadith also speak of the intellectual and religious inferiority of women. These deficiencies mean they cannot debate religious and other important ideas. Another hadith speaks of women as toys. Many speak of the priority of male sexual needs, and the role of women to fulfil them, without delay or murmur.

Moreover, many hadith speak of the dangers of women, how they are a temptation and a snare to them. One hadith says, “When a woman comes she comes in the form of a devil”.

Other considerations can be mentioned. The only real guarantee of going to Islamic paradise is to die fighting for Allah. But the rewards awaiting male Muslims are intriguing. Dark-eyed virgins (huris) await the Muslim male, and for eternity he will be treated to sensual delights. One hadith speaks of 72 huris allotted to each man.

Alas, no such promises are made for female Muslims. Not only are they servants to men in this life, but they will be servants to men in the next as well.

Consider also the veil (hijab), the full-body covering (burqa), and other coverings. These coverings in themselves indicate the lower status of women, and often result in medical problems. And numerous bits of anecdotal evidence can be mentioned here. In Mecca, Saudi Arabia in 2002 fifteen school girls perished in flames, because of Islamic teachings on coverings. Since no men were present, they had removed their veils in class. But when a fire broke out in the school, the religious police would not allow them to flee the building because they were unveiled. Better to have them burn to death than subject neighbouring men to impure thoughts.

Then there is the issue of female genital mutilation. While not solely a Muslim custom, it is one still enforced in many Muslim countries today. Its stated object is the reduction of female sexual response, and to restrict women’s wanton ways.

Many other examples could be brought forth. In strict Islamic countries it is real hell to be a woman. In Saudi Arabia for example a woman is not even allowed to drive a car. Hardly a haven of feminist ideals.

Conclusion

In the Koran, the hadith, and in Islamic history, there is a uniformity and consistency in the teaching of male superiority over women. In the light of such a poor portrayal of women, the Sydney Imam’s remarks have a familiar ring about them. We see in the life and teachings of Muhammad, the Koran, and the hadith, very similar sorts of remarks.

Thus it may be disingenuous of Muslims critiquing Hilaly to claim that he is not speaking for true Islam, or that he is outside of genuine Islamic tradition. It seems he may well be in its very centre.

Hopefully most Australian Muslim men do not share in, or approve of, the above-mentioned attitudes, teachings and actions. If they do, however, it seems there is plenty of warrant and justification for them within Islam.

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5 Responses to Islam and Women

  • How do we answer those who point out that polygamy was practised by the biblical forefathers with impunity?

    Jenni Howell, Melbourne

  • Thanks Jenni

    A good question. There were numerous practices that took place in the Ancient Near East, such as slavery, polygamy, and so on, which are mentioned in the Old Testament, and which God’s people sometimes took part in. The fact that they did does not necessarily mean it met with God’s approval. In fact, in some cases there were strong warnings against such activities. For example, Deut. 17:17 warns kings against taking many wives, lest their heart be turned away from God. Solomon is a good example of this taking place, unfortunately (1 Kings 11:1-3). So ‘impunity’ may not be the correct way to describe this. There were consequences.

    Thus like slavery, this was a practice which was rife in the ANE, and biblical law sought to regulate, humanise, and minimise. But God’s idea has always been monogamous marriage (Gen. 2:18-24).

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • i am a muslim woman and i have read the koran and the hadiths, first of all our prophet mohammed (peace be upon) always preached to men to treat their woman right, he never EVER beat women and he NERVER ever had sex slaves so get your facts right before you go and accuse our prophet of those alligations.
    our prophet was kind, generouse and always thought of other people.
    Bill why don’t you go and read the koran and hadiths yourself better yet go and ask an iman because right what you have written is a load of crap, i can’t even explain how angry i am because it is people like you who turn people against islam.

    Yes men do have rights over their wives but wives ALSO have rights over men, it is against islam to beat your wife and it dosn’t say any where that men are allowed to lock their wives up, seriously whats wrong with you???

    Idel Gal

  • Thanks Idel (if this is your real name)

    But it is exactly because I have read the Koran and the Hadith that I could write this article. Indeed, it is mainly based on quotes from the Koran and the Hadith. So this is simply a case of you shooting the messenger (me) because you do not like the message, as derived from your own sources.

    Sadly, you are exhibiting blind faith here. You refuse to listen to any contrary evidence, even if it comes from your own sources.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • The world has a field day mocking moderate/luke warm Christians as hypocrites, why are we encouraging another religion to be moderate? I know why, but wow, makes you think.

    Johannes Archer

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