The Ground Level: Nearly Similar Obligations
There is a minute difference between the obligations of the two genders as far as the obligations of the ground floor are concerned. Faith is an essential prerequisite for the salvation of all human beings irrespective of their gender. The words occurring and Surah Al-'Asr and Surah Al-Teen: "save those who believe and do good works" are general in nature applying to both men and women.
Furthermore, it is categorically stated in the Ayah 124 of Surah Al-Nisa that those who act righteously, be they male or female, will surely enter Paradise.
The foremost duty of every Muslim, man or woman is to attain firmness of Faith. Then daily prayers and fasting in the month of Ramadan, both being equally compulsory for men and women. Zakah and Hajj are the duties to be fulfilled by both men and women, who have the ability (physical and financial) to perform them. In addition, women cannot perform Hajj unless and until there is a Mahram to escort them. Similarly all the restrictions regarding Halal and Haram are the same for both genders. In short, obedience to Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’ala) and His Prophet (sallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) in all spheres of life is meant for the whole mankind, irrespective of any difference in gender.
The slight difference between the obligations of men and women at the ground level can be understood via the example of Salah. Women are exempted from the congregational prayers and encouraged to pray at home. At home, it is preferred that they pray in a room instead of the lawn. If the room happens to have a small chamber in it, then the chamber is preferred over the room.
Exceptional has been the case of the congregational Friday and 'Eid prayers. Women were encouraged by the Prophet (sallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) to attend these two prayers. This was due to the fact that no communication media and other means of propagation (books, magazines or audio/visual facilities) were available in those days. The sermons of Friday and 'Eid prayers were the sole source of education and information for them. However, these are two exceptions and the overriding rule is that it is better for ladies to offer their prayers privately in their homes rather than at public places.
Besides these and other negligible differences, the duties of Muslim men and women at the first stage are similar in nature. It will be pertinent here to discuss three important verses (34-36) of Surah Al-Ahzab. Although the direct addressees of these Ayahs are the wives of the Prophet (sallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), all Muslim women have been indirectly addressed through them. The first of these Ayahs deal with the acquisition of real and conscious faith, the primary source of which is the Qur'an itself. Indeed it is reading the Holy Qur'an, learning and teaching it and pondering over it that gives rise to faith and strengthens our conviction. The Ayah reads:
"And bear in mind that which is recited in your houses of the revelations of Allah and wisdom. Lo, Allah is Subtle, Aware." (Al-Qur’an, Surah Al-Ahzab, 33:34)
The wives of the Prophet (sallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) are being addressed here. It was in their houses that the Prophet (sallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) received the Divine revelation (Wahi), recited its verses, and preached the words of wisdom (Hikmah). The word Hikmah here refers to the Holy Qur'an, the fountainhead of knowledge and wisdom. Moreover, he (sallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) used to explain the Holy Qur'an in the form of Hadith which also reflected the wisdom of Qur'an. The first and foremost lesson that is evident from the verse is that we are being told to engage ourselves in reading and comprehending the Holy Qur'an and Hadith, and in comprehending the Holy Qur'an and Hadith, and in learning and teaching them. For this is what will sustain and enrich our belief in Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’ala) as well as bolster and reinforce it. If we hasten to the stage of preaching without first sufficiently strengthening and entrenching our own belief, we will be putting the cart before the horse.
Let us now reflect on the next Ayah. In the Holy Qur'an, usually the grammatical tense of the male gender is used while discussing the desirable traits of both men and women. Therefore whenever men are addressed it is understood that women are also being spoken to. The following Ayah, however, is an exception in the sense that both genders are mentioned here separately. This signifies that the qualities that Islam expects of its followers are the same for men and women. The Ayah states:
The ten traits mentioned in this Ayah are:
1. "Muslim men and Muslim women"
Men and women who totally submit themselves to the will of Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’ala).
2. "Believing men and believing women"
Those who believe in Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’ala), the angels, the prophets, the revealed books and the Day of Judgment.
3. "Obedient men and obedient women"
Those who stand like slaves, all vigilant for the Master's call.
4. “Truthful men and truthful women”
Those who are true in their words and deeds.
5. "Patient men and patient women"
Patience is a very comprehensive term. Patience can mean abstaining from the forbidden. Patience can imply doing Allah's bidding in the face of ordeals. For instance, performing ablution with icy cold water in the winter when warn water is not available is a manifestation of patience and a submission to Allah's will. Patience also refers to remaining steadfast in the face of all odds and calamities while following the straight path.
6. "Humble men and humble women"
Who humble themselves in front of Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’ala).
7. "Charitable men and charitable women"
Who spend on others despite their own needs for the sake of pleasing Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’ala).
8. "Fasting men and fasting women"
Those who observe fast to cleanse and purify their soul and body from the lust of materialistic desires and bear the pangs of hunger and thirst only to please Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’ala).
9. "Men and women who strictly guard their modesty"
In this respect, Islam imposes the same restrictions on men and women.
10. "Men and women who indulge much in Allah's remembrance"
In the next Ayah, the essence and the sum up of the first level is stated in a very explicit manner.
"And it is not befitting for a believing man or a believing woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decided an affair (for them), that they should (after that) claim any say in their affair; and whoso is rebellious to Allah and His Messenger, he verily goeth astray in error manifest." [Al-Qur’an, Surah Al-Ahzab, 33:36)
This means that there is no room whatsoever for any believing man or woman to act according to their personal preferences once Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’ala) and His Messenger (sallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) have passed their verdict regarding a matter.
The only option open to them is to listen and obey. And if one chooses to differ from the decision of Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’ala) and His Messenger (sallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), be they men or women, it would be plain disobedience and infidelity; they are the ones who have definitely gone astray. This is the essence of lslam, Ita'a, and 'Ibadah. For what is Islam? It is total submission to commands of Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’ala) and His Prophet (sallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam).
What is lta'a? Obedience to Allah and His Prophet. What is 'lbadah? To become a slave of Allah in all aspects and at all times. The most important factor in this regard is that we are devoid of authority and choice where there is a clear order from Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’ala) and His Prophet (sallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam). If authority is exercised against the Will of Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’ala) and His Prophet (sallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), it will be against the tenets of Islam. We are only free to act according to our will and understanding if there is no explicit ruling about an issue.
As said earlier there is a minimal difference between the responsibilities of men and women as far as the ground floor of religious obligations is concerned. The disparity gradually becomes more and more pronounced as we advance to the higher levels. It is vital to understand the basis for this disparity in Islam. Islam lays great emphasis on modesty and chastity and aspires to uphold and preserve these values in a Muslim society. That is why there is a separate dress code for men and women and the segregation of genders. The injunctions regarding the dress code (Satr and Hijab) are more strict for women and the conditions vary from Mahram to non-Mahram. What we need to understand here is that the difference in the nature of the duties assigned to men and women is in order to maintain an atmosphere of modesty, decency and purity in the society.
Islam discourages unnecessary intermingling of men and women id determines separate spheres of activity for them. In this context, we can easily understand why a woman's prayer is best in the most secluded part of the house, and why her presence is discouraged in the mosque (though not forbidden). In short, the rationale behind the dissimilarity between men and women's obligations, whether slight or pronounced, is to close all avenues that may lead to indecency and immorality.
 An Ayah is a verse of Qur'an. The plural of Ayah is Ayaat.
 "And who so does good works, whether of male or female, and lie (or she) is a believer, such will enter paradise."
 Mahram refers to the male with whom a woman can directly interact without having to completely cover herself.
 Hadith pertains to the sayings of the Prophet (sallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam).
 Non-Mahrams to women are those men with whom women cannot interact.
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