Status of Women in Islam (1)
It has been said that Islam, as a social system, had been a total failure, because “It has misunderstood the relations of sexes… and by degrading women, has degraded each successive generation of their children down an increasing scale of disgrace and corruption until it seems almost impossible to reach a lower depth of vice.” This is certainly strong language and calls for an investigation, as to whether Islam has really misunderstood relations of sexes and whether it has really degraded women.
Very few of the critics make an effort to determine exactly what are actually the teachings of Islam are in this respect as embodied in the Glorious Qu’ran; and fewer still is the number of those who care to study the Prophet life, which is the most authentic commentary on the Qu’ran text. It is therefore most regrettable that misconception should have arisen about the status of women in Islam a point on which the attitude of Islam is clear and unmistakable. I am afraid many in Europe and in the USA form such strange opinions from a study of the tales or romance or books of travelling, written by professional globe-trotters. They see in the ‘harem’, which is by the way, a name in the East for the ladies ‘apartment’ a home, of gross sensuality and voluptuous pleasures. Such ideas have unfortunately prevailed in the West for a very long time; and are supported by the wrong interpretations that have been put, from time to time, on certain Qu’ran verses and certain sayings of the Prophet of Islam, and they have a firm hold on the imagination of the Western critics.
One of the verses of exquisite beauty which have been subject to misunderstanding in certain quarters, is: “…They [the wives] are a garment for you and you are a garment for them….” Qu’ran [2:187]. It is garment that hides one’s nakedness; so do husband and wife, by entering into marriage relations secure each other’s chastity. The garment gives comfort to the body; as does the husband find comfort in his wife’s company, as she in his. The garment is the grace, the beauty, the embellishment of the body, so too are wives to their husbands, as the husbands to them.
Another verse which has been similarly misunderstood is the verse which the Rev. Rodwell translates thus:- “Men are superior to women on account of the qualities, with which God has gifted the one above the other, and on account of the outlay they make from their substance for them. Virtuous women are obedient, careful during the husband’s absence, because God has of them been careful” [4:34].
From this verse several critics have drawn the erroneous conclusion that in Islam woman holds a very subordinate position, and that she has been placed under man’s tyrannical control, she having no choice but to submit to his arbitrary dictates and self-willed decrees. Even accepting Rev. Rowlell’s translation of the verse as correct, the verse sense appears to be nothing more than this: that man should treat his wife with love and affection and provide for her from his abundance, while woman should preserve her honour, attend to domestic duties and look up to him as her friend and guide. Understood thus, the verse has nothing revolting to our feelings, and describes the relationship between husband and wife as it naturally ought to be. There is nothing in the verse to imply that the wife’s judgment is in any way tied that she is simply the slave of her husband’s desires or that she is at best an ‘ornamental article of furniture’. Neither, according to respectable commentators of the Qu’ran, does the verse admit of the meaning which superficial critics have wilfully put upon it. These commentators understand the verse to point out a man’s right to exercise a certain control over his wife, and his duty to provide for her security and sustenance. The man’s superiority over woman rests on certain innate qualities which man generally possesses in greater proportion, in regard to knowledge and power. In power of endurance, in boldness and courage, man has a decided advantage over woman. Prophets, apostles, distinguished philosophers and commanders of armies have all been men, not women.
Lecky, himself undoubtedly a clear thinker and discerning critic, while discoursing on the distinctive difference between sexes observers thus: “Physically, men have the indisputable superiority in strength, and women in beauty. Intellectually, a certain inferiority of the female sex can hardly be denied, when we remember how almost exclusively the foremost places in every department of science, literature and art have been occupied by man…It is impossible to find a female Raphael, or a female Handel, or a female Shakespeare, Newton.” Lecky, however, thinks and perhaps rightly enough, that morally the general superiority of women over men is unquestionable. Be that as it may when once we admit the physical and intellectual superiority of man over woman, we cannot deny that woman has to depend upon, and take advantage of, the intellectual resources and superior strength of the opposite sex; and this is precisely what Muslim scholars hold to be the important and significance of the verse under consideration.
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