Scholar’s corner: The status of women in Islam

The status of women in Islam is arguably one of the most singlely debated issues that generates a considerable amount of debate from Muslims and non-Muslims alike.[1] At least two schools of thought stem from the debate. First are those who view Muslim women as segregated, subordinated and ranked as second-class citizens. [2] This generalisation has more to do with the appalling and despicable situations some Muslim women are subjected to – such as honour killing, forced marriages, domestic violence, and FGM. [3]

Next come Muslim apologists who believe that Muslim women enjoy a greater right than any other society and that “Islam improved the position of women in all respects”.[4]

These same individuals argue that Islam liberated women from ill-treatment and inhuman practices.  For instance, some claim that women lose their family name when entering marriage, in Islam she has right to keep her name.[5] Furthermore, while in other faiths divorce is not impossible, in Islam, these people argue, women are allowed to seek for divorce.

While both claims are understandable they nevertheless appear to contain some flaws, to say the least. For instance it would wholly be misleading and ignorant to put the whole blame on Islam without taking into consideration the socio, geographical and political circumstances in which the religion was revealed.

Likewise it would also be oversimplification to say that Islam grants women an absolute right and that Muslim women enjoy more rights than others in society.  I acknowledge that it would be foolish and arrogant on my part to claim that a complex topic such as ‘women in Islam’ can be studied in detail in such a limited space.

In the UK, two women are murdered every week. We are also saddened by the news that one in every four women here suffers from domestic violence and that one in every four women is suffers (or will) suffer from rape (attempted or otherwise). [6]

The above figure may include Muslim women but the sad reality is that internal factors (that includes pressure from relatives or their abuser) stops women reporting.

For instance how many Muslim women are killed in the so called ‘honour killing’ here in Britain or elsewhere?  How many Muslim women suffer from the trauma of forced marriages and in the name of Islam? Unfortunately we do not know and it would be wholly unwise to speculate.

In the Name of Islam?

Do these abuses stem from a purely cultural illness? Does the Qur’an condone or condemn these abuses? [7] I find the Qur’an and its traditions to be at the heart of the problem. Or at least to be more accurate, the readings and the interpretations of the texts are at the heart of the problem. Asma Barlas makes the following comment: “To identify Islam inseparably with oppression [of women] is to ignore the reality of misreadings of the sacred text.” [8]

Take for instance the issue of ‘men are superior/ protectors of women’ and ‘wife beating’. Some Muslims go as far as to say that men are superior to women and the sad thing is that this superiority, they would argue, is not only physical but also mental and spiritual.

Sadly, these men quote the Qur’an to justify these claims. For instance, a Qur’anic verse that reads: “Men are [protectors/ superiors to] of women because God has made one of them to excel the other” (Qur’an 4: 34). The word used by the Qur’an is ‘Qawwamune’ and can, as El- Fadl rightly explained, be translated as protector, guardians, supporters or masters. Moreover, the word can also be translated as servants.[9] It goes without saying, that very few would adopt ‘servants’ as the most accurate translation.

Beside ‘men are superior/protectors,’ some Muslim men argue that beating one’s wife is acceptable because the Qur’an allows it:“ As to those women on whose part you see ill conduct, admonish them, refuse to share their beds and beat them”( Qur’an 4: 34).[10]  This verse presents difficulties and generates a considerable amount of contradictions. Moreover the verse has opened “serious misinterpretation”. This verse alongside others that allow polygamy makes it difficult, if not impossible, for anyone seeking to advocate that the Qur’an “is egalitarian and anti-patriarchal.” [11]

I remember few years ago in France, the bewilderment of Professor Tariq Ramadan when President Nicolas Sarkozy, then Interior Minister, put the issue of ‘wife beating’ to him while the two were debating on the national TV. Sarkozy asked if Islam permits “wife beating” or not? Professor Ramadan was somehow uncomfortable but later admitted so.

At an interfaith meeting two years ago when the issue of ‘wife beating’ was on the table again. I recall one of the Muslim participants who both is well read and well respected within the Muslim community here in Britain, was adamantly trying to prove that ‘wife beating’ is not in the Qur’an. It surprised me to see a versatile scholar acting like an armchair scholar.

I cannot comprehend why Muslim scholars should be uncomfortable or shy away from answering this question. Yes, the Qur’an does say beat your wife but it is vitally important to understand the context in which this is said.

The historical context for the revelation of this verse reveals that it was “in the nature of restrictions [and] not a license” for men to continue beating their wives. [12] If one is to consider the verse more carefully, it becomes apparent that beating is the last resort. It is worth remembering that beatings and other atrocities were widespread in this patriarchal tribal society; after all we are talking about 7th Century Arabia. In my opinion, this verse is irrelevant in modern time. Yes, it is in the Qur’an but it should not be applied.

How about the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (PBUH) himself? How did he understand this Qur’anic verse? Time constraints prevents us from looking at all the relevant reports related to Muhammad’s approach to this verse i.e. ‘Men superior/protectors’ and ‘wife beating’.

In light of the above, I consider the following tradition to be sufficient. Muhammad (PBUH) is reported to have said to his followers: “The best among you is the one who is the best with his family and I am the best with my family.”[13] It is important to note that there is no single tradition which states or even hints that Muhammad had ever raised his hand against any member of his family- be it wife or child.

It is very unfortunate that the above verses are taken to mean that the Qur’an advocates gender inequality, condones violence and heinous acts towards women. But every sound minded person would see that the above verses neither justify nor condone the appalling treatment of Muslim women. Unfortunately, some beg to differ.

I do not wish to be perceived as a ‘Muslim apologist’. However, if some do, then their reading of me is, to some degree, is understandable. But I hope that such a reading would not lead individuals to similar ill-reasoning and dogmatic conclusions that some people hold about certain Qur’anic passages.

Time and time again, the Qur’an tells readers that both woman and man are equal in the sight of God and that most honourable amongst mankind is not male or female, rich or poor, but the most righteous. So I invite readers to glance at, even briefly, at the Qur’anic verse below before jumping to conclusions.

“O mankind! We created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and clans, that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you. Verily God is All-Knowing, All-Aware” (Qur’an 49:13).

What is presented is just a tip of the iceberg. There are many more atrocities that are being inflicted on Muslim women in the name of Islam. But I recognise that the problem is more complex than it appears and generalisations to a degree, are both an oversimplification and mistake. Likewise, I do acknowledge that socio and cultural factors play a part in the problem. But I do also strongly believe that some Muslims’ reading and understanding of the Qur’an and traditions, shoulder a larger blame. But if we accept that the ‘reading’ is influenced by milieus than blame lays entirely on the person reading.

Hence there is an urgent need for Muslims, mainly those in West, to fully understand the historical context in which the Qur’an was revealed and also be cautious of the “conservative and patriarchal exegesis” carried out by previous scholars. [14] These Muslim exegetes were living in a patriarchal and misogynistic society and attempted to interpret the Qur’an “to legitimise actual usage of their own day.” [15] To this we say that the Qur’an is a divine book but its interpretation is human.  Therefore, any divine book whose meaning and message is sought through literal interpretation not only loses its wisdom but also becomes a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands.

Muslim women also have a role to play. As Barlas reminds us “even though Muslim women directly experience the consequences of oppressive misreading of religious texts, few question their legitimacy and fewer still have explored the libratory aspects of the Qur’an’s teachings.” [16] Moreover, it appears that some Muslim women are unaware that in the early period of Islam, women played vital roles in shaping the then embryonic Muslim community. Take for instance Khadija, the first wife of Muhammad. She was the first to convert to Islam, owned “her own business and played a prominent role in the birth of the Islamic community.”[17] Not only that, women and men used to pray in the same places and women also fought in battles alongside men.

Hence it is high time that the oppression stops. Muslim women need not to be on the defensive but rather on the offensive. Muslim women such as Fatima Mernissi, Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas to name just few understand this point very well as their books are annoying many ‘Islamists’ and awakening many Muslim women. It is to be hoped that many more Muslim women will follow suit.


[1] Ruth Roded, Women in Islamic Biographical Collections ( Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc, 1994), p.1 ; Khaled Abou El Fadl, The Great Theft ( Harper Collins Publishers, 2007), p. 250;
[2] John L. Esposito, Islam, Gender and Social Change ( Oxford University Press, 1998)
[3] B. A. Awad, ‘The Status of Women in Islam’, The Islamic Quarterly, vol. viii no: 1-2 (1964)p. 22 ; Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam  (Yale University press, 1992), p. 42;  Fadwa El-Guindi, Veil, Modesty, Privacy and Resistance ( Berg, 1999), p. 10.
[4] Ahmed, op. cit, p. 40
[5] Zahra,op. cit., p. 19.
[6] BBC News, February, 17th 2009.
[7] Asma Barlas, Believing Women in Islam (University Texas  Press, 2002), p. 1.
[8] Ibid., p. xi
[9] Abou El Fadl, p. 267.
[10] Qur’an 3: 34.
[11]Barlas, op. cit., p. 6.
[12] Ibid., p. 6.
[13] Hadith reported by both Bukhari and Muslim.
[14] Barlas, op. cit., p. 9.
[15] Ibid., p.8.
[16] Barlas, op. cit., p. 3.
[17] Esposito, op. cit., p. xiii.

Imam Dr Mamadou Bocoum is presently head of the Library and a lecturer at the Muslim College, London and a Chaplain at Ford Prison, Sussex. Dr Bocoum holds a BA in Arabic Language and received his certificate in Imamship in 2004. In 2009, he completed his PhD in Islamic Studies. Dr Bocoum is keen on interfaith work and assisting Tell MAMA with outreach.