During the last fifteen years since I came to accept Islam, I have been asked many questions about the Muslim way of life by non-Muslim friends and acquaintances.
The ignorance of the ordinary educated Westerner about Islam is almost total; but the area where the vacuum of knowledge has been most effectively filled with misinformation is possibly concerning the role of women in Islam.
Some non-Muslims ask such questions as "In Islam do you believe that women have souls?" and "Muslim women do not pray or go to Makka, do they?" and "Paradise is only for men in Islam, isn't it?"
Fantasy and Escape
According to these assumptions, the Muslim woman is spiritually a non-person, existing in a world of shadows, oppressed and suppressed, from which she will at death pass into a sort of limbo for soulless non-entities. This impression has in the past often been fostered by Christian missionaries, some of whom may even have actually believed it to be true. Side by side with this image In the Western mind is another one projected by the entertainment media, that of the Muslim woman as a member of the harem in the Hollywood versions of the Arabian Nights.
Here she forms a unit in a flock of scantily-clad and bird-witted young ladies who lie around in palaces awaiting the opportunity to be noticed by their lord and master, the sultan.
These images are of course very appealing to the Western imagination-firstly of the mysterious and chaste veiled woman, living in fear of her jealous and brutal husband; she is the traditional maiden in distress, waiting for St.
George to slay the dragon and rescue her; and secondly of the slave-girl, dazzling in silks and jewels, awaiting her master's pleasure.
Which Western man or woman has not at one time or another indulged in a fantasy in which he or she plays one of these roles? This is doubtless why the fantasy lingers so long.
We want to believe that these women exist so that we can weave these day-dreams about them, though publicly we must condemn a situation so obviously contrary to the principles of women's liberation.
This then is the fantasy, and as long as we recognise it as such, it is a pleasant form of escapism. But we are here to discuss women in Islam and to outline what is the role expected of a Muslim woman.
The best source of information on this must be not tales of imagination and Hollywood's choicest offerings but the source-book of Islam-that is the Qur'an, and the hadith, the recorded sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad.
My intention is to bring to your notice some of those verses of the Qur'an and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad which relate to women, and to try to draw some conclusions about what these mean-or should mean-in practice, with regard to a woman's life.
I do not intend to describe the status of Muslim women in individual countries past or present, however, since this varies considerably from one period to another and one place to another due to the influence of regional customs stemming from pre-Islamic or modern cultural factors.
Spiritual Status of Woman
Let me start by bringing forward clear evidence to correct the misconceptions about the spiritual status of women, and whether or not they have souls which might experience Paradise.
The Qur'an states categorically that men and women who practise the principles of Islam will receive equal reward for their efforts:
"Surely for men who submit (to God) and for women who submit (to God), for believing men and believing women, for devout men and devout women, for truthful men and truthful women, for steadfast men and steadfast women for humble men and humble women, for charitable men and charitable women, for men who fast and women who fast, for men who guard their chastity and women who guard, for men who remember God much and for women who remember-for them God has prepared forgiveness and a mighty reward" (33: 35).
Again God says:
“Whosoever performs good deeds, whether male or female, and is a believer, We shall surely make him live a good life, and We will certainly reward them for the best of what they did" (The Qur'an 16: 97).
Each of the Five Pillars of Islam: Belief, Prayer, Fasting, Poor-due and Pilgrimage-is as important for women as for men, and there is no differentiation of their reward.
As God says in the Qur'an:
"The noblest among you before God is the most heedful of you" (49: 13).
One may also mention that one of the most famous mystics in Islam, Rabi'a al'Adawiyya, was a woman.
Having established beyond question the spiritual equality of men and women in Islam, what of their intelligence, knowledge and education? The Prophet Muhammad said:
"The search for knowledge is a duty for every Muslim (male or female)".
"Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave".
"Knowledge" for a Muslim is not divided into sacred and secular, and the implication of these sayings of the Prophet, in modern terms, is that every Muslim boy or girl, man or woman, should pursue his or her education as far as it is possible, bearing in mind the words of Allah in the Qur'an:
"Only those of His Servants who are learned truly fear God" (35: 28).
In Islam therefore, both men and women are credited with the capacity for learning and understanding and teaching, and one of the aims of acquiring knowledge is that of becoming more conscious of God.
It is considered in Islam that the more a person, male or female, studies the creation and observes its workings, the more he or she becomes conscious of the Creator, the Power who made and sustains the creation.
One of the most famous women in the history of Islam is ‘A'isha, the Prophet's wife. And the quality for which she is remembered primarily is that of her intelligence and outstanding memory.
She is considered to be one of the most reliable sources of hadith by virtue of these qualities. More than a thousand ahadith are reported by her and she is regarded as one of the greatest teachers of the hadith.
Generally speaking, in the Muslim world of the early mediaeval times, there was not any bar or prohibition on women pursuing studies-on the contrary, the religion encouraged it.
As a result of this many women became famous as religious scholars, writers, poets, doctors and teachers in their own right, such as Nafisa a descendant of 'All who was such a great authority on hadith that Imam al-Shafii’ sat in her circle in al-Fustat when he was at the height of his fame; and Shaikha Shuhda who lectured publicly in one of the principal mosques of Baghdad to large audiences on literature, rhetoric and poetry, and was one of the foremost scholars of Islam.
There are numerous other instances of learned Muslim women who have been teachers, writers and poets, held in the highest respect by Muslim society.
There is therefore every encouragement for a Muslim woman to pursue studies in any field for her intellectual benefit and to make use of her academic or professional training for the good of the community, subject to certain moral precepts which will be dealt with later in this paper.
Relations Between the Sexes
Having clarified women's independent spiritual and intellectual status in Islam, I turn next to their status with regard to men and their relationship with men.
We are here looking at a relationship of interdependence. The Qur'an says:
"Among His signs is (the fact) that He has created spouses for you from among yourselves so that you may console yourselves with them. He has planted love and mercy between you; in that are signs for people who reflect” (30: 21).
This is a very important definition of the relationship between man and wife. They are expected to find tranquility in each other's company and be bound together not only by the sexual relationship but by "love and mercy".
Such a description comprises mutual care, consideration, respect and affection.
There are numerous ahadith, particularly those narrated by ‘A'isha, which give a clear insight into the way the Prophet treated his wives and the way they treated him.
The most striking thing about these is their evidence of the mutual care and respect of the marriage relationship.
There is no servility on the part of the wives, and there are probably as many references to the Prophet doing things to please his wives as there are of the wives doing things to please the Prophet.
The Qur'an refers to wives generally ill another chapter saying:
"They are garments for you while you are garments for them" (2: 187).
In other words, as a garment gives warmth, protection and decency, so a husband and wife offer each other intimacy, comfort and protection from committing adultery and other offences.
It follows from what has been quoted from the Qur'an that one of the important aims of Islamic regulations governing behaviour and human relations is the preservation of the family unit in such a way that the atmosphere of tranquility, love and mercy and consciousness of God can develop and flower to the benefit of husband and wife, and also of the children of the marriage.
Therefore in examining the conduct expected of men and women towards each other, both inside and outside marriage, we have to bear in mind these aims and weigh their benefits to the individual and to society.
We must also bear in mind that Islam has a coherent view of life, and that the various aspects of it should not be considered in isolation from each other. It comprises a total way of life, and each part of it needs to be seen in the total context.
To understand the role of a woman in a Muslim society therefore we have to examine both her duties and her rights, the behaviour expected of her towards men and the behavior due to her from men.
Rights and Obligations
Let us first examine what is due to her from men. The Qur'an says:
"Men are maintainers of women with the bounties which God 'has bestowed more abundantly on some of them than on others; and with what they may spend out of their possessions" (4: 34).
In a Muslim society therefore the man has full responsibility for the maintenance of his family.
This is not only a moral but also a legal obligation. Anything a wife earns is her own to dispose of, either to use it herself or to contribute it to the family budget if she wishes.
The wife herself is responsible for the care of her home and the welfare of her family.
She may express her views and make her suggestions concerning all matters, but the best role she can play in keeping the marital tie intact and strong, is to recognize her husband as the person responsible for the running of the affairs of the family, and thus to obey him even if his judgement is not acceptable to her, in a particular matter, provided he does not go beyond the limits of Islam.
This is the meaning of obedience in the context of marriage in Islam. It is a recognition of the role of the husband as the head of the family unit and the loyalty of both husband and wife to a higher law, the Shari'a.
The Prophet has said:
"The best woman is she who, when you see her you feel pleased, and when you direct her she obeys. She protects your rights and keeps her chastity when you are absent".
A man is expected to take care of his wife and show consideration to her and to all women as the weaker sex.
The concept of chivalry had its origin in the early Muslim world, and is held by many scholars to have passed from the Muslims into Europe at the time of the troubadours of Mediaeval France.
This concept of chivalry has come in for many blows in the last fifty years or so as it runs contrary to the present day tendency for women to try and struggle for their livelihood in a harsh world in the same way as men do. The Muslim opinion is that she should be spared from these struggles and worries so that she can give her full attention to the making of a home.
The Muslim woman's role in the home is a vitally important one to the happiness of the husband and the physical and spiritual development of their children.
Her endeavour is to make her family's life sweet and joyful and the home a place of security and peace.
This and her early character-training of the children have a lasting effect on the behaviour and attitudes of the next generation when they reach adolescence and adulthood. There is a well-known saying in Arabic- al-ummu madrasatun meaning "the mother is a school", which conveys the importance of this role.
 Ahmad Shalaby: History of Muslim Education, p.193.
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