Women in Islam
versus Judaeo-Christian Tradition
The Myth & The Reality
Table of Content
Dr. Sherif Mohammad, an eminent writer-thinker with an
academic background in electrical engineering, is active in preaching and
propagation of Islam and has written extensively on Islamic issues and
contemporary social and political problems affecting humanity at large. He
currently lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
Dr. Sherif says in the Introduction (p.4), " ... my
concern is, mainly, the position of women in the three religions as it appears
in their original sources not as practised by their millions of followers in the
world today. Therefore, most of the evidence cited comes from the Quran, the
sayings of Prophet Muhammad, the Bible, the Talmud, and the sayings of some of
the most influential Church Fathers whose views have contributed immeasurably to
defining and shaping Christianity. This interest in the sources relates to the
fact that understanding a certain religion from the attitudes and the behaviour
of some of its nominal followers is misleading. Many people confuse culture with
religion, many others do not know what their religious books are saying, and
many others do not even care."
This booklet addresses a timely issue concerning the status of women as documented in
the three Abrahamic religions. The status of women in revealed faiths defined by, among
other things, rights, privileges and responsibilities, is perhaps one of the least
understood and most distorted , yet most talked about issues concerning women - specially
the myths surrounding the status of Muslim women.The booklet is well-documented with
sources of information being drawn and properly referenced from the holy books of Jews,
Christians and Muslims and other literatures. I am most impressesed by the logic and
eloquence expressed in the writing style of Dr. Sherif Mohammad.
While Dr. Jamal Badawi's women articles give an overall understanding of women's status
in Islam, Sherif's is a comparative analysis of the Abrahamic religions' views on a whole
gamut of issues affecting women. Together, they anwser the relentless propaganda and
onslaught against Islam in this regard. Specially, Sherif booklet exposes the hypocrisy
and double standard that wrongly scapegoat Islam.
This booklet dispels many misperceptions about women's status as evidenced in the
Qur'an, distinguishes between real Islamic belief and varied Muslim practices influenced
by culture and social customs and highlights the heterogeneity of Muslim women's status.
In view of widespread misperceptions not only among non-Muslim Westerners but also among
many Muslims in this regard, this booklet should be read by all conscious people. In
dispelling certain myths, the booklet also holds out the prospect of building up
harmonious relations among Muslims and non-Muslims
This landmark booklet is a must for all who take interest in knowing the status of
women in the three revealed faith and those who would like to search for the truth
Reviewed by Nazre Sobhan
Five years ago, I read in the Toronto Star issue of July 3, 1990 an article titled
"Islam is not alone in patriarchal doctrines", by Gwynne Dyer. The article
described the furious reactions of the participants of a conference on women and power
held in Montreal to the comments of the famous Egyptian feminist Dr. Nawal Saadawi. Her
"politically incorrect" statements included : "the most restrictive
elements towards women can be found first in Judaism in the Old Testament then in
Christianity and then in the Quran"; "all religions are patriarchal because they
stem from patriarchal societies"; and "veiling of women is not a
specifically Islamic practice but an ancient cultural heritage with analogies in sister
The participants could not bear sitting around while their faiths were being equated
with Islam. Thus, Dr. Saadawi received a barrage of criticism. "Dr. Saadawi's
comments are unacceptable. Her answers reveal a lack of understanding about other people's
faiths," declared Bernice Dubois of the World Movement of Mothers. "I must
protest" said panelist Alice Shalvi of Israel women's network, "there is no
conception of the veil in Judaism." The article attributed these furious protests
to the strong tendency in the West to scapegoat Islam for practices that are just as much
a part of the West's own cultural heritage. "Christian and Jewish feminists
were not going to sit around being discussed in the same category as those wicked
Muslims," wrote Gwynne Dyer.
I was not surprised that the conference participants had held such a negative view of
Islam, especially when women's issues were involved. In the West, Islam is believed to be the
symbol of the subordination of women par excellence. In order to understand how firm
this belief is, it is enough to mention that the Minister of Education in France, the land
of Voltaire, has recently ordered the expulsion of all young Muslim women wearing the
veil from French schools [The Globe and Mail, Oct. 4,1994.]! A young Muslim student wearing a headscarf is denied her
right of education in France, while a Catholic student wearing a cross or a Jewish student
wearing a skullcap is not. The scene of French policemen preventing young Muslim women
wearing headscarves from entering their high school is unforgettable. It inspires the
memories of another equally disgraceful scene of Governor George Wallace of Alabama in
1962 standing in front of a school gate trying to block the entrance of black students in
order to prevent the desegregation of Alabama's schools. The difference between the two
scenes is that the black students had the sympathy of so many people in the U.S. and in
the whole world. President Kennedy sent the U.S. National Guard to force the entry of the
black students. The Muslim girls, on the other hand, received no help from any one. Their
cause seems to have very little sympathy either inside or outside France. The reason is
the widespread misunderstanding and fear of anything Islamic in the world today.
What intrigued me the most about the Montreal conference was one question : Were the
statements made by Saadawi, or any of her critics, factual ? In other words, do Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam have the same conception of women? Are they different in their
conceptions ? Do Judaism and Christianity , truly, offer women a better treatment than
Islam does? What is the Truth?
It is not easy to search for and find answers to these difficult questions. The first
difficulty is that one has to be fair and objective or, at least, do one's utmost to be
so. This is what Islam teaches. The Quran has instructed Muslims to say the truth even if
those who are very close to them do not like it:
"Whenever you speak, speak justly, even if a near relative is concerned"
"O you who believe stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even
as against yourselves, or your parents or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or
The other great difficulty is the overwhelming breadth of the subject. Therefore,
during the last few years, I have spent many hours reading the Bible, The Encyclopedia
of Religion, and the Encyclopedia Judaica searching for answers. I have also read
several books discussing the position of women in different religions written by scholars,
apologists, and critics. The material presented in the following chapters represents the
important findings of this humble research. I don't claim to be absolutely objective. This
is beyond my limited capacity. All I can say is that I have been trying, throughout this
research, to approach the Quranic ideal of "speaking justly".
I would like to emphasize in this introduction that my purpose for this study is not to
denigrate Judaism or Christianity. As Muslims, we believe in the divine origins of both.
No one can be a Muslim without believing in Moses and Jesus as great prophets of God. My
goal is only to vindicate Islam and pay a tribute, long overdue in the West, to the final
truthful Message from God to the human race.
I would also like to emphasize that I concerned myself only with Doctrine. That is, my
concern is, mainly, the position of women in the three religions as it appears in their
original sources not as practised by their millions of followers in the world today.
Therefore, most of the evidence cited comes from the Quran, the sayings of Prophet
Muhammad, the Bible, the Talmud, and the sayings of some of the most influential Church
Fathers whose views have contributed immeasurably to defining and shaping Christianity.
This interest in the sources relates to the fact that understanding a certain religion
from the attitudes and the behaviour of some of its nominal followers is misleading. Many
people confuse culture with religion, many others do not know what their religious books
are saying, and many others do not even care.
The three religions agree on one basic fact: Both women and men are created by God, The
Creator of the whole universe. However, disagreement starts soon after the creation of the
first man, Adam, and the first woman, Eve. The Judaeo-Christian conception of the
creation of Adam and Eve is narrated in detail in Genesis 2:4-3:24. God prohibited both of
them from eating the fruits of the forbidden tree. The serpent seduced Eve to eat from it
and Eve, in turn, seduced Adam to eat with her. When God rebuked Adam for what he did, he
put all the blame on Eve, "The woman you put here with me --she gave me some fruit
from the tree and I ate it." Consequently, God said to Eve:
"I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give
birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you."
To Adam He said:
"Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree .... Cursed is the
ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your
The Islamic conception of the first creation is found in several places in the Quran,
"O Adam dwell with your wife in the Garden and enjoy as you wish but approach
not this tree or you run into harm and transgression. Then Satan whispered to them in
order to reveal to them their shame that was hidden from them and he said: 'Your Lord only
forbade you this tree lest you become angels or such beings as live forever.' And he swore
to them both that he was their sincere adviser. So by deceit he brought them to their
fall: when they tasted the tree their shame became manifest to them and they began to sew
together the leaves of the Garden over their bodies. And their Lord called unto them: 'Did
I not forbid you that tree and tell you that Satan was your avowed enemy?' They said: 'Our
Lord we have wronged our own souls and if You forgive us not and bestow not upon us Your
Mercy, we shall certainly be lost' " (7:19:23).
A careful look into the two accounts of the story of the Creation reveals some
essential differences. The Quran, contrary to the Bible, places equal blame on both
Adam and Eve for their mistake. Nowhere in the Quran can one find even the
slightest hint that Eve tempted Adam to eat from the tree or even that she had eaten
before him. Eve in the Quran is no temptress, no seducer, and no deceiver. Moreover, Eve
is not to be blamed for the pains of childbearing. God, according to the Quran,
punishes no one for another's faults. Both Adam and Eve committed a sin and then asked
God for forgiveness and He forgave them both.
The image of Eve as temptress in the Bible has resulted in an extremely negative
impact on women throughout the Judaeo-Christian tradition. All women were believed to have
inherited from their mother, the Biblical Eve, both her guilt and her guile. Consequently,
they were all untrustworthy, morally inferior, and wicked. Menstruation, pregnancy, and
childbearing were considered the just punishment for the eternal guilt of the cursed
female sex. In order to appreciate how negative the impact of the Biblical Eve was on all
her female descendants we have to look at the writings of some of the most important Jews
and Christians of all time. Let us start with the Old Testament and look at excerpts from
what is called the Wisdom Literature in which we find:
"I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a trap
and whose hands are chains. The man who pleases God will escape her, but the sinner she
will ensnare....while I was still searching but not finding, I found one upright man among
a thousand but not one upright woman among them all" (Ecclesiastes 7:26-28).
In another part of the Hebrew literature which is found in the Catholic Bible we read:
"No wickedness comes anywhere near the wickedness of a woman.....Sin began
with a woman and thanks to her we all must die" (Ecclesiasticus 25:19,24).
Jewish Rabbis listed nine curses inflicted on women as a result of the Fall:
"To the woman He gave nine curses and death: the burden of the blood of
menstruation and the blood of virginity; the burden of pregnancy; the burden of
childbirth; the burden of bringing up the children; her head is covered as one in
mourning; she pierces her ear like a permanent slave or slave girl who serves her master;
she is not to be believed as a witness; and after everything--death." [Leonard J.
Swidler, Women in Judaism: the Status of Women in Formative Judaism
(Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press, 1976) p. 115.]
To the present day, orthodox Jewish men in their daily morning prayer recite "Blessed
be God King of the universe that Thou has not made me a woman." The women, on the
other hand, thank God every morning for "making me according to Thy will."
[Thena Kendath, "Memories of an Orthodox youth" in Susannah
Heschel, ed. On
being a Jewish Feminist (New York: Schocken Books, 1983), pp. 96-97.]
Another prayer found in many Jewish prayer books: "Praised be God that he has not
created me a gentile. Praised be God that he has not created me a woman. Praised be God
that he has not created me an ignoramus." [Swidler, op. cit., pp. 80-81.]
The Biblical Eve has played a far bigger role in Christianity than in Judaism. Her sin
has been pivotal to the whole Christian faith because the Christian conception of the
reason for the mission of Jesus Christ on Earth stems from Eve's disobedience to God. She
had sinned and then seduced Adam to follow her suit. Consequently, God expelled both of
them from Heaven to Earth, which had been cursed because of them. They bequeathed their
sin, which had not been forgiven by God, to all their descendants and, thus, all humans
are born in sin. In order to purify human beings from their 'original sin', God had to
sacrifice Jesus, who is considered to be the Son of God, on the cross. Therefore, Eve is
responsible for her own mistake, her husband's sin, the original sin of all humanity, and
the death of the Son of God. In other words, one woman acting on her own caused the fall
of humanity [Rosemary R. Ruether, "Christianity", in Arvind Sharma, ed., Women in World
Religions (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987) p. 209.]. What about her daughters? They are sinners like her and have to be
treated as such. Listen to the severe tone of St. Paul in the New Testament:
"A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I don't permit a woman
to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first,
then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became
a sinner" (I Timothy 2:11-14).
St. Tertullian was even more blunt than St. Paul, while he was talking to his 'best
beloved sisters' in the faith, he said [For all the sayings of the prominent Saints, see Karen Armstrong, The Gospel According
to Woman (London: Elm Tree Books, 1986) pp. 52-62. See also Nancy van Vuuren, The
Subversion of Women as Practiced by Churches, Witch-Hunters, and Other Sexists
(Philadelphia: Westminister Press) pp. 28-30.]:
"Do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of
yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the Devil's
gateway: You are the unsealer of the forbidden tree: You are the first deserter of the
divine law: You are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack.
You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert even the Son of God
had to die."
St. Augustine was faithful to the legacy of his predecessors, he wrote to a friend:
"What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve
the temptress that we must beware of in any woman......I fail to see what use woman can be
to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children."
Centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas still considered women as defective:
"As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the
active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the
masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or
from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence."
Finally, the renowned reformer Martin Luther could not see any benefit from a woman but
bringing into the world as many children as possible regardless of any side effects:
"If they become tired or even die, that does not matter. Let them die in
childbirth, that's why they are there"
Again and again all women are denigrated because of the image of Eve the temptress,
thanks to the Genesis account. To sum up, the Judaeo-Christian conception of women has
been poisoned by the belief in the sinful nature of Eve and her female offspring.
If we now turn our attention to what the Quran has to say about women, we will soon
realize that the Islamic conception of women is radically different from the
Judaeo-Christian one. Let the Quran speak for itself:
"For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and
women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient, for men and women who
humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for
men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah's
praise-- For them all has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward" (33:35).
"The believers, men and women, are protectors, one of another: they enjoin what is
just, and forbid what is evil, they observe regular prayers, practise regular charity, and
obey Allah and His Messenger. On them will Allah pour His Mercy: for Allah is Exalted in
power, Wise" (9:71). "And their Lord answered them: Truly I will never cause to
be lost the work of any of you, Be you a male or female, you are members one of
another" (3:195). "Whoever works evil will not be requited but by the like
thereof, and whoever works a righteous deed -whether man or woman- and is a believer- such
will enter the Garden of bliss" (40:40). "Whoever works righteousness, man or
woman, and has faith, verily to him/her we will give a new life that is good and pure, and
we will bestow on such their reward according to the best of their actions" (16:97).
It is clear that the Quranic view of women is no different than that of men. They,
both, are God's creatures whose sublime goal on earth is to worship their Lord, do
righteous deeds, and avoid evil and they, both, will be assessed accordingly. The
Quran never mentions that the woman is the devil's gateway or that she is a deceiver by
nature. The Quran, also, never mentions that man is God's image; all men and all women are
his creatures, that is all. According to the Quran, a woman's role on earth is not limited
only to childbirth. She is required to do as many good deeds as any other man is required
to do. The Quran never says that no upright women have ever existed. To the contrary, the
Quran has instructed all the believers, women as well as men, to follow the example of
those ideal women such as the Virgin Mary and the Pharoah's wife:
"And Allah sets forth, As an example to those who believe, the wife of
Pharaoh: Behold she said: 'O my lord build for me, in nearness to you, a mansion in the
Garden, and save me from Pharaoh and his doings and save me from those who do wrong.' And
Mary the daughter of Imran who guarded her chastity and We breathed into her body of Our
spirit; and she testified to the truth of the words of her Lord and of His revelations and
was one of the devout" (66:11-13).
In fact, the difference between the Biblical and the Quranic attitude towards the
female sex starts as soon as a female is born. For example, the Bible states that the
period of the mother's ritual impurity is twice as long if a girl is born than if a boy is
(Lev. 12:2-5). The Catholic Bible states explicitly that:
"The birth of a daughter is a loss" (Ecclesiasticus 22:3).
In contrast to this shocking statement, boys receive special praise:
"A man who educates his son will be the envy of his enemy."
Jewish Rabbis made it an obligation on Jewish men to produce offspring in order to
propagate the race. At the same time, they did not hide their clear preference for male
children : "It is well for those whose children are male but ill for those whose
are female", "At the birth of a boy, all are joyful...at the birth of a girl all
are sorrowful", and "When a boy comes into the world, peace comes into
the world... When a girl comes, nothing comes." [Swidler, op. cit., p. 140.]
A daughter is considered a painful burden, a potential source of shame to her father:
"Your daughter is headstrong? Keep a sharp look-out that she does not make you
the laughing stock of your enemies, the talk of the town, the object of common gossip, and
put you to public shame" (Ecclesiasticus 42:11). "Keep a headstrong daughter
under firm control, or she will abuse any indulgence she receives. Keep a strict watch on
her shameless eye, do not be surprised if she disgraces you" (Ecclesiasticus
It was this very same idea of treating daughters as sources of shame that led the pagan
Arabs, before the advent of Islam, to practice female infanticide. The Quran severely
condemned this heinous practice:
"When news is brought to one of them of the birth of a female child, his face
darkens and he is filled with inward grief. With shame does he hide himself from his
people because of the bad news he has had! Shall he retain her on contempt or bury her in
the dust? Ah! what an evil they decide on?" (16:59).
It has to be mentioned that this sinister crime would have never stopped in Arabia were
it not for the power of the scathing terms the Quran used to condemn this practice (16:59,
43:17, 81:8-9). The Quran, moreover, makes no distinction between boys and girls. In
contrast to the Bible, the Quran considers the birth of a female as a gift and a blessing
from God, the same as the birth of a male. The Quran even mentions the gift of the
female birth first:
" To Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth. He creates what
He wills. He bestows female children to whomever He wills and bestows male children to
whomever He wills" (42:49). In order to wipe out all the traces of female infanticide
in the nascent Muslim society, Prophet Muhammad promised those who were blessed with
daughters of a great reward if they would bring them up kindly: "He who is involved
in bringing up daughters, and accords benevolent treatment towards them, they will be
protection for him against Hell-Fire" (Bukhari and Muslim). "Whoever maintains
two girls till they attain maturity, he and I will come on the Resurrection Day like this;
and he joined his fingers" (Muslim).
The difference between the Biblical and the Quranic conceptions of women is not limited
to the newly born female, it extends far beyond that. Let us compare their attitudes
towards a female trying to learn her religion. The heart of Judaism is the Torah, the law.
However, according to the Talmud, "women are exempt from the study of the
Torah." Some Jewish Rabbis firmly declared "Let the words of Torah rather
be destroyed by fire than imparted to women", and "Whoever teaches his daughter
Torah is as though he taught her obscenity"
[Denise L. Carmody, "Judaism", in Arvind Sharma, ed., op. cit., p. 197.]
The attitude of St. Paul in the New Testament is not brighter:
"As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in
the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission as the law says. If
they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it
is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church." (I Corinthians 14:34-35)
How can a woman learn if she is not allowed to speak? How can a woman grow
intellectually if she is obliged to be in a state of full submission? How can she broaden
her horizons if her one and only source of information is her husband at home?
Now, to be fair, we should ask: is the Quranic position any different? One short story
narrated in the Quran sums its position up concisely. Khawlah was a Muslim woman whose
husband Aws pronounced this statement at a moment of anger: "You are to me as the
back of my mother." This was held by pagan Arabs to be a statement of divorce which
freed the husband from any conjugal responsibility but did not leave the wife free to
leave the husband's home or to marry another man. Having heard these words from her
husband, Khawlah was in a miserable situation. She went straight to the Prophet of Islam
to plead her case. The Prophet was of the opinion that she should be patient since there
seemed to be no way out. Khawla kept arguing with the Prophet in an attempt to save her
suspended marriage. Shortly, the Quran intervened; Khawla's plea was accepted. The divine
verdict abolished this iniquitous custom. One full chapter (Chapter 58) of the Quran whose
title is "Almujadilah" or "The woman who is arguing" was named after
"Allah has heard and accepted the statement of the woman who pleads with you
(the Prophet) concerning her husband and carries her complaint to Allah, and Allah hears
the arguments between both of you for Allah hears and sees all things...." (58:1).
A woman in the Quranic conception has the right to argue even with the Prophet of Islam
himself. No one has the right to instruct her to be silent. She is under no obligation to
consider her husband the one and only reference in matters of law and religion.
Jewish laws and regulations concerning menstruating women are extremely restrictive.
The Old Testament considers any menstruating woman as unclean and impure. Moreover, her
impurity "infects" others as well. Anyone or anything she touches becomes
unclean for a day:
"When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly
period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening.
Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be
unclean. Whoever touches her bed must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will
be unclean till evening. Whoever touches anything she sits on must wash his clothes and
bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening. Whether it is the bed or anything
she was sitting on, when anyone touches it, he will be unclean till evening" (Lev.
Due to her "contaminating" nature, a menstruating woman was sometimes
"banished" in order to avoid any possibility of any contact with her. She was
sent to a special house called "the house of uncleanness" for the whole period
of her impurity [Swidler, op. cit., p. 137.]. The Talmud considers a menstruating woman "fatal" even
without any physical contact:
"Our Rabbis taught:....if a menstruant woman passes between two (men), if it
is at the beginning of her menses she will slay one of them, and if it is at the end of
her menses she will cause strife between them" (bPes. 111a.)
Furthermore, the husband of a menstruous woman was forbidden to enter the synagogue if
he had been made unclean by her even by the dust under her feet. A priest whose wife,
daughter, or mother was menstruating could not recite priestly blessing in the synagogue
[Swidler, op. cit., p. 138.]. No wonder many Jewish women still refer to menstruation as "the curse."
[Sally Priesand, Judaism and the New Woman (New York: Behrman House, Inc., 1975) p. 24.]
Islam does not consider a menstruating woman to possess any kind of "contagious
uncleanness". She is neither "untouchable" nor "cursed." She
practises her normal life with only one restriction: A married couple are not allowed to
have sexual intercourse during the period of menstruation. Any other physical contact
between them is permissible. A menstruating woman is exempted from some rituals such as
daily prayers and fasting during her period.
Another issue in which the Quran and the Bible disagree is the issue of women bearing
witness. It is true that the Quran has instructed the believers dealing in financial
transactions to get two male witnesses or one male and two females (2:282). However, it is
also true that the Quran in other situations accepts the testimony of a woman as equal
to that of a man. In fact the woman's testimony can even invalidate the man's. If a
man accuses his wife of unchastity, he is required by the Quran to solemnly swear five
times as evidence of the wife's guilt. If the wife denies and swears similarly five times,
she is not considered guilty and in either case the marriage is dissolved (24:6-11).
On the other hand, women were not allowed to bear witness in early Jewish society
[Swidler, op. cit., p. 115.].
The Rabbis counted women's not being able to bear witness among the nine curses inflicted
upon all women because of the Fall (see the "Eve's Legacy" section).
Women in today's Israel are not allowed to give evidence in Rabbinical courts
[Lesley Hazleton, Israeli Women The Reality Behind the Myths (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1977) p. 41.]. The
Rabbis justify why women cannot bear witness by citing Genesis 18:9-16, where it is stated
that Sara, Abraham's wife had lied. The Rabbis use this incident as evidence that women
are unqualified to bear witness. It should be noted here that this story narrated in
Genesis 18:9-16 has been mentioned more than once in the Quran without any hint of any
lies by Sara (11:69-74, 51:24-30). In the Christian West, both ecclesiastical and civil
law debarred women from giving testimony until late last century [Matilda J. Gage, Woman, Church, and State (New York: Truth Seeker Company, 1893) p. 142.].
If a man accuses his wife of unchastity, her testimony will not be considered at all
according to the Bible. The accused wife has to be subjected to a trial by ordeal. In this
trial, the wife faces a complex and humiliating ritual which was supposed to prove her
guilt or innocence (Num. 5:11-31). If she is found guilty after this ordeal, she will be
sentenced to death. If she is found not guilty, her husband will be innocent of any
Besides, if a man takes a woman as a wife and then accuses her of not being a virgin,
her own testimony will not count. Her parents had to bring evidence of her virginity
before the elders of the town. If the parents could not prove the innocence of their
daughter, she would be stoned to death on her father's doorsteps. If the parents
were able to prove her innocence, the husband would only be fined one hundred shekels of
silver and he could not divorce his wife as long as he lived:
"If a man takes a wife and, after lying with her, dislikes her and slanders
her and gives her a bad name, saying, 'I married this woman, but when I approached her, I
did not find proof of her virginity,' then the girl's father and mother shall bring proof
that she was a virgin to the town elders at the gate. The girl's father will say to the
elders, 'I gave my daughter in marriage to this man, but he dislikes her. Now he has
slandered her and said I did not find your daughter to be a virgin. But here is the proof
of my daughter's virginity.' Then her parents shall display the cloth before the elders of
the town, and the elders shall take the man and punish him. They shall fine him a hundred
shekels of silver and give them to the girl's father, because this man has given an
Israelite virgin a bad name. She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as
long as he lives. If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl's virginity can
be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father's house and there the men of the
town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being
promiscuous while still in her father's house. You must purge the evil from among
you." (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)
Adultery and fornication are considered sins in all religions. The Bible decrees the
death sentence for both the adulterer and the adulteress (Lev. 20:10). Islam also equally
punishes both the adulterer and the adulteress (24:2). However, the Quranic definition of
adultery is very different from the Biblical definition. Adultery, according to the
Quran, is the involvement of a married man or a married woman in an extramarital
affair. The Bible only considers the extramarital affair of a married woman as
adultery (Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22, Proverbs 6:20-7:27).
"If a man is found sleeping with another man's wife, both the man who slept
with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel" (Deut. 22:22).
"If a man commits adultery with another man's wife both the adulterer and the
adulteress must be put to death" (Lev. 20:10).
According to the Biblical definition, if a married man sleeps with an unmarried woman,
this is not considered a crime at all. The married man who has extramarital affairs with
unmarried women is not an adulterer and the unmarried women involved with him are not
adulteresses. The crime of adultery is committed only when a man, whether married or
single, sleeps with a married woman. In this case the man is considered adulterer, even if
he is not married, and the woman is considered adulteress. In short, adultery is any
illicit sexual intercourse involving a married woman. The extramarital affair of a married
man is not per se a crime in the Bible. Why is the dual moral standard? According to Encyclopedia
Judaica, the wife was considered to be the husband's possession and adultery
constituted a violation of the husband's exclusive right to her; the wife as the husband's
possession had no such right to him [Jeffrey H. Togay, "Adultery," Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. II, col. 313. Also,
see Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective (New
York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1990) pp. 170-177.]. That is, if a man had sexual intercourse with a
married woman, he would be violating the property of another man and, thus, he should be
To the present day in Israel, if a married man indulges in an extramarital affair with
an unmarried woman, his children by that woman are considered legitimate. But, if a
married woman has an affair with another man, whether married or not married, her children
by that man are not only illegitimate but they are considered bastards and are forbidden
to marry any other Jews except converts and other bastards. This ban is handed down to the
children's descendants for 10 generations until the taint of adultery is presumably
weakened [Hazleton, op. cit., pp. 41-42.].
The Quran, on the other hand, never considers any woman to be the possession of any
man. The Quran eloquently describes the relationship between the spouses by saying:
" And among His signs is that He created for you mates from among yourselves,
that you may dwell in tranquillity with them and He has put love and mercy between your
hearts: verily in that are signs for those who reflect" (30:21).
This is the Quranic conception of marriage: love, mercy, and
possession and double standards.
According to the Bible, a man must fulfil any vows he might make to God. He must not
break his word. On the other hand, a woman's vow is not necessarily binding on her. It has
to be approved by her father, if she is living in his house, or by her husband, if she is
married. If a father/husband does not endorse his daughter's/wife's vows, all pledges made
by her become null and void:
"But if her father forbids her when he hears about it, none of her vows or the
pledges by which she obligated herself will stand ...Her husband may confirm or nullify
any vow she makes or any sworn pledge to deny herself" (Num. 30:2-15)
Why is it that a woman's word is not binding per se ? The answer is simple: because she
is owned by her father, before marriage, or by her husband after marriage. The father's
control over his daughter was absolute to the extent that, should he wish, he could sell
her! It is indicated in the writings of the Rabbis that: "The man may sell his
daughter, but the woman may not sell her daughter; the man may betroth his daughter, but
the woman may not betroth her daughter." [Swidler, op. cit., p. 141.]
The Rabbinic literature also indicates
that marriage represents the transfer of control from the father to the husband:
"betrothal, making a woman the sacrosanct possession--the inviolable property-- of
the husband..." Obviously, if the woman is considered to be the property of someone
else, she cannot make any pledges that her owner does not approve of.
It is of interest to note that this Biblical instruction concerning women's vows has
had negative repercussions on Judaeo-Christian women till early in this century. A married
woman in the Western world had no legal status. No act of hers was of any legal value. Her
husband could repudiate any contract, bargain, or deal she had made. Women in the West
(the largest heir of the Judaeo-Christian legacy) were held unable to make a binding
contract because they were practically owned by someone else. Western women had suffered
for almost two thousand years because of the Biblical attitude towards women's position
vis-a-vis their fathers and husbands [Gage, op. cit. p. 141.].
In Islam, the vow of every Muslim, male or female, is binding on him/her. No one has
the power to repudiate the pledges of anyone else. Failure to keep a solemn oath, made by
a man or a woman, has to be expiated as indicated in the Quran:
"He [God] will call you to account for your deliberate oaths: for expiation,
feed ten indigent persons, on a scale of the average for the food of your families; Or
clothe them; or give a slave his freedom. If that is beyond your means, fast for three
days. That is the expiation for the oaths you have sworn. But keep your oaths"
Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, men and women, used to present their oath of
allegiance to him personally. Women, as well as men, would independently come to him and
pledge their oaths:
"O Prophet, When believing women come to you to make a covenant with you that
they will not associate in worship anything with God, nor steal, nor fornicate, nor kill
their own children, nor slander anyone, nor disobey you in any just matter, then make a
covenant with them and pray to God for the forgiveness of their sins. Indeed God is
Forgiving and most Merciful" (60:12).
A man could not swear the oath on behalf of his daughter or his wife. Nor could a man
repudiate the oath made by any of his female relatives.
The three religions share an unshakeable belief in the importance of marriage and
family life. They also agree on the leadership of the husband over the family.
Nevertheless, blatant differences do exist among the three religions with respect to the
limits of this leadership. The Judaeo-Christian tradition, unlike Islam, virtually extends
the headship of the husband into ownership of his wife.
The Jewish tradition regarding the husband's role towards his wife stems from the
conception that he owns her as he owns his slave [Louis M. Epstein, The Jewish Marriage Contract (New York: Arno Press, 1973) p. 149.]. This conception has been the reason
behind the double standard in the laws of adultery and behind the husband's ability to
annul his wife's vows. This conception has also been responsible for denying the wife any
control over her property or her earnings. As soon as a Jewish woman got married, she
completely lost any control over her property and earnings to her husband. Jewish Rabbis
asserted the husband's right to his wife's property as a corollary of his possession of
her: "Since one has come into the possession of the woman does it not follow that he
should come into the possession of her property too?", and "Since he has
acquired the woman should he not acquire also her property?" [Swidler, op. cit., p. 142.]
caused the richest woman to become practically penniless. The Talmud describes the
financial situation of a wife as follows:
"How can a woman have anything; whatever is hers belongs to her husband? What
is his is his and what is hers is also his...... Her earnings and what she may find in the
streets are also his. The household articles, even the crumbs of bread on the table, are
his. Should she invite a guest to her house and feed him, she would be stealing from her
husband..." (San. 71a, Git. 62a)
The fact of the matter is that the property of a Jewish female was meant to attract
suitors. A Jewish family would assign their daughter a share of her father's estate to be
used as a dowry in case of marriage. It was this dowry that made Jewish daughters an
unwelcome burden to their fathers. The father had to raise his daughter for years and then
prepare for her marriage by providing a large dowry. Thus, a girl in a Jewish family was a
liability and no asset [Epstein, op. cit., pp. 164-165.]. This liability explains why the birth of a daughter was not
celebrated with joy in the old Jewish society (see the "Shameful Daughters?"
section). The dowry was the wedding gift presented to the groom under terms of tenancy.
The husband would act as the practical owner of the dowry but he could not sell it. The
bride would lose any control over the dowry at the moment of marriage. Moreover, she was
expected to work after marriage and all her earnings had to go to her husband in return
for her maintenance which was his obligation. She could regain her property only in two
cases: divorce or her husband's death. Should she die first, he would inherit her
property. In the case of the husband's death, the wife could regain her pre-marital
property but she was not entitled to inherit any share in her deceased husband's own
property. It has to be added that the groom also had to present a marriage gift to his
bride, yet again he was the practical owner of this gift as long as they were married
[Epstein, op. cit., pp. 112-113. See also Priesand, op. cit., p. 15.].
Christianity, until recently, has followed the same Jewish tradition. Both religious
and civil authorities in the Christian Roman Empire (after Constantine) required a
property agreement as a condition for recognizing the marriage. Families offered their
daughters increasing dowries and, as a result, men tended to marry earlier while families
postponed their daughters' marriages until later than had been customary [James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe ( Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1987) p. 88.]. Under Canon
law, a wife was entitled to restitution of her dowry if the marriage was annulled unless
she was guilty of adultery. In this case, she forfeited her right to the dowry which
remained in her husband's hands [James A.
Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe ( Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 480.]. Under Canon and civil law a married woman in
Christian Europe and America had lost her property rights until late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries. For example, women's rights under English law were compiled and
published in 1632. These 'rights' included: "That which the husband hath is his own.
That which the wife hath is the husband's." [R. Thompson, Women in Stuart England and America (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,
1974) p. 162.] The wife not only lost her property
upon marriage, she lost her personality as well. No act of her was of legal value. Her
husband could repudiate any sale or gift made by her as being of no binding legal value.
The person with whom she had any contract was held as a criminal for participating in a
fraud. Moreover, she could not sue or be sued in her own name, nor could she sue her own
husband [Mary Murray, The Law of the Father (London: Routledge, 1995) p. 67.]. A married woman was practically treated as an infant in the eyes of the law.
The wife simply belonged to her husband and therefore she lost her property, her legal
personality, and her family name [Gage, op. cit., p. 143.].
Islam, since the seventh century C.E., has granted married women the independent
personality which the Judaeo-Christian West had deprived them until very recently. In
Islam, the bride and her family are under no obligation whatsoever to present a gift to
the groom. The girl in a Muslim family is no liability. A woman is so dignified by Islam
that she does not need to present gifts in order to attract potential husbands. It is the
groom who must present the bride with a marriage gift. This gift is considered her
property and neither the groom nor the bride's family have any share in or control over
it. In some Muslim societies today, a marriage gift of a hundred thousand dollars in
diamonds is not unusual [For example, see Jeffrey Lang, Struggling to Surrender, (Beltsville, MD: Amana
Publications, 1994) p. 167.]. The bride retains her marriage gifts even if she is later
divorced. The husband is not allowed any share in his wife's property except what she
offers him with her free consent [Elsayyed Sabiq, Fiqh al Sunnah (Cairo: Darul Fatah lile'lam Al-Arabi, 11th edition,
1994), vol. 2, pp. 218-229.]. The Quran has stated its position on this issue
"And give the women (on marriage) their dower as a free gift; but if they, Of
their own good pleasure, remit any part of it to you, take it and enjoy it with right good
The wife's property and earnings are under her full control and for her use alone since
her, and the children's, maintenance is her husband's responsibility [Abdel-Haleem Abu Shuqqa, Tahreer al Mar'aa fi Asr al Risala (Kuwait: Dar al Qalam, 1990)
pp. 109-112.]. No matter how
rich the wife might be, she is not obliged to act as a co-provider for the family unless
she herself voluntarily chooses to do so. Spouses do inherit from one another. Moreover, a
married woman in Islam retains her independent legal personality and her family name
[Leila Badawi, "Islam", in Jean Holm and John Bowker, ed., Women in Religion
(London: Pinter Publishers, 1994) p. 102.].
An American judge once commented on the rights of Muslim women saying: " A Muslim
girl may marry ten times, but her individuality is not absorbed by that of her various
husbands. She is a solar planet with a name and legal personality of her own."
[Amir H. Siddiqi, Studies in Islamic History (Karachi: Jamiyatul Falah Publications, 3rd
edition, 1967) p. 138.]
The three religions have remarkable differences in their attitudes towards divorce.
Christianity abhors divorce altogether. The New Testament unequivocally advocates the
indissolubility of marriage. It is attributed to Jesus to have said, "But I tell you
that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become
adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery" (Matthew
5:32). This uncompromising ideal is, without a doubt, unrealistic. It assumes a state of
moral perfection that human societies have never achieved. When a couple realizes that
their married life is beyond repair, a ban on divorce will not do them any good. Forcing
ill-mated couples to remain together against their wills is neither effective nor
reasonable. No wonder the whole Christian world has been obliged to sanction divorce.
Judaism, on the other hand, allows divorce even without any cause. The Old Testament
gives the husband the right to divorce his wife even if he just dislikes her:
"If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds
something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her
and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of
another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce,
gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who
divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled" (Deut.
The above verses have caused some considerable debate among Jewish scholars because of
their disagreement over the interpretation of the words "displeasing",
"indecency", and "dislikes" mentioned in the verses. The Talmud
records their different opinions:
"The school of Shammai held that a man should not divorce his wife unless he
has found her guilty of some sexual misconduct, while the school of Hillel say he may
divorce her even if she has merely spoiled a dish for him. Rabbi Akiba says he may divorce
her even if he simply finds another woman more beautiful than she" (Gittin 90a-b).
The New Testament follows the Shammaites opinion while Jewish law has followed the
opinion of the Hillelites and R. Akiba [Epstein, op. cit., p. 196.]. Since the Hillelites view prevailed, it
became the unbroken tradition of Jewish law to give the husband freedom to divorce his
wife without any cause at all. The Old Testament not only gives the husband the right to
divorce his "displeasing" wife, it considers divorcing a "bad wife" an
"A bad wife brings humiliation, downcast looks, and a wounded heart. Slack of
hand and weak of knee is the man whose wife fails to make him happy. Woman is the origin
of sin, and it is through her that we all die. Do not leave a leaky cistern to drip or
allow a bad wife to say what she likes. If she does not accept your control, divorce her
and send her away" (Ecclesiasticus 25:25).
The Talmud has recorded several specific actions by wives which obliged their husbands
to divorce them: "If she ate in the street, if she drank greedily in the street, if
she suckled in the street, in every case Rabbi Meir says that she must leave her
husband" (Git. 89a). The Talmud has also made it mandatory to divorce a barren wife
(who bore no children in a period of ten years): "Our Rabbis taught: If a man took a
wife and lived with her for ten years and she bore no child, he shall divorce her"
Wives, on the other hand, cannot initiate divorce under Jewish law. A Jewish wife,
however, could claim the right to a divorce before a Jewish court provided that a strong
reason exists. Very few grounds are provided for the wife to make a claim for a divorce.
These grounds include: A husband with physical defects or skin disease, a husband not
fulfilling his conjugal responsibilities, etc. The Court might support the wife's claim to
a divorce but it cannot dissolve the marriage. Only the husband can dissolve the marriage
by giving his wife a bill of divorce. The Court could scourge, fine, imprison, and
excommunicate him to force him to deliver the necessary bill of divorce to his wife.
However, if the husband is stubborn enough, he can refuse to grant his wife a divorce and
keep her tied to him indefinitely. Worse still, he can desert her without granting her a
divorce and leave her unmarried and undivorced. He can marry another woman or even live
with any single woman out of wedlock and have children from her (these children are
considered legitimate under Jewish law). The deserted wife, on the other hand, cannot
marry any other man since she is still legally married and she cannot live with any other
man because she will be considered an adulteress and her children from this union will be
illegitimate for ten generations. A woman in such a position is called an agunah (chained
woman) [Swidler, op. cit., pp. 162-163.]. In the United States today there are approximately 1000 to 1500 Jewish women
who are agunot (plural for agunah), while in Israel their number might be as high as
16000. Husbands may extort thousands of dollars from their trapped wives in exchange for a
Jewish divorce [The Toronto Star, Apr. 8, 1995.].
Islam occupies the middle ground between Christianity and Judaism with respect to
divorce. Marriage in Islam is a sanctified bond that should not be broken except for
compelling reasons. Couples are instructed to pursue all possible remedies whenever their
marriages are in danger. Divorce is not to be resorted to except when there is no other
way out. In a nutshell, Islam recognizes divorce, yet it discourages it by all means. Let
us focus on the recognition side first. Islam does recognize the right of both partners to
end their matrimonial relationship. Islam gives the husband the right for Talaq (divorce).
Moreover, Islam, unlike Judaism, grants the wife the right to dissolve the marriage
through what is known as Khula' [Sabiq, op. cit., pp. 318-329. See also Muhammad al Ghazali, Qadaya al Mar'aa bin al
Taqaleed al Rakida wal Wafida (Cairo: Dar al Shorooq, 4th edition, 1992) pp. 178-180.]. If the husband dissolves the marriage by divorcing
his wife, he cannot retrieve any of the marriage gifts he has given her. The Quran
explicitly prohibits the divorcing husbands from taking back their marriage gifts no
matter how expensive or valuable these gifts might be:
"But if you decide to take one wife in place of another, even if you had given
the latter a whole treasure for dower, take not the least bit of it back; Would you take
it by slander and a manifest wrong?" (4:20).
In the case of the wife choosing to end the marriage, she may return the marriage gifts
to her husband. Returning the marriage gifts in this case is a fair compensation for the
husband who is keen to keep his wife while she choses to leave him. The Quran has
instructed Muslim men not to take back any of the gifts they have given to their wives
except in the case of the wife choosing to dissolve the marriage:
"It is not lawful for you (Men) to take back any of your gifts except when
both parties fear that they would be unable to keep the limits ordained by Allah. There is
no blame on either of them if she give something for her freedom. These are the limits
ordained by Allah so do not transgress them" (2:229).
Also, a woman came to the Prophet Muhammad seeking the dissolution of her marriage, she
told the Prophet that she did not have any complaints against her husband's character or
manners. Her only problem was that she honestly did not like him to the extent of not
being able to live with him any longer. The Prophet asked her: "Would you give him
his garden (the marriage gift he had given her) back?" she said: "Yes". The
Prophet then instructed the man to take back his garden and accept the dissolution of the
In some cases, A Muslim wife might be willing to keep her marriage but find herself
obliged to claim for a divorce because of some compelling reasons such as: Cruelty of the
husband, desertion without a reason, a husband not fulfilling his conjugal
responsibilities, etc. In these cases the Muslim court dissolves the marriage [Sabiq, op. cit., pp. 318-329. See also Muhammad al
Ghazali, Qadaya al Mar'aa bin al
Taqaleed al Rakida wal Wafida (Cairo: Dar al Shorooq, 4th edition, 1992), pp. 313-318.].
In short, Islam has offered the Muslim woman some unequalled rights: she can end the
marriage through Khula' and she can sue for a divorce. A Muslim wife can never become
chained by a recalcitrant husband. It was these rights that enticed Jewish women who lived
in the early Islamic societies of the seventh century C.E. to seek to obtain bills of
divorce from their Jewish husbands in Muslim courts. The Rabbis declared these bills null
and void. In order to end this practice, the Rabbis gave new rights and privileges to
Jewish women in an attempt to weaken the appeal of the Muslim courts. Jewish women living
in Christian countries were not offered any similar privileges since the Roman law of
divorce practised there was no more attractive than the Jewish law [David W. Amram, The Jewish Law of Divorce According to Bible and Talmud ( Philadelphia:
Edward Stern & CO., Inc., 1896) pp. 125-126.].
Let us now focus our attention on how Islam discourages divorce. The Prophet of Islam
told the believers that:
"among all the permitted acts, divorce is the most hateful to God" (Abu
A Muslim man should not divorce his wife just because he dislikes her. The Quran
instructs Muslim men to be kind to their wives even in cases of lukewarm emotions or
feelings of dislike:
"Live with them (your wives) on a footing of kindness and equity. If you
dislike them it may be that you dislike something in which Allah has placed a great deal
of good" (4:19).
Prophet Muhammad gave a similar instruction:
" A believing man must not hate a believing woman. If he dislikes one of her
traits he will be pleased with another" (Muslim).
The Prophet has also emphasized that the best Muslims are those who are best to their
"The believers who show the most perfect faith are those who have the best
character and the best of you are those who are best to their wives" (Tirmidthi).
However, Islam is a practical religion and it does recognize that there are
circumstances in which a marriage becomes on the verge of collapsing. In such cases, a
mere advice of kindness or self restraint is no viable solution. So, what to do in order
to save a marriage in these cases? The Quran offers some practical advice for the spouse
(husband or wife) whose partner (wife or husband) is the wrongdoer. For the husband whose
wife's ill-conduct is threatening the marriage, the Quran gives four types of advice as
detailed in the following verses:
"As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, (1)
Admonish them, (2) refuse to share their beds, (3) beat them; but if they return to
obedience seek not against them means of annoyance: For Allah is Most High, Great. (4) If
you fear a break between them, appoint two arbiters, one from his family and the other
from hers; If they wish for peace, Allah will cause their reconciliation" (4:34-35).
The first three are to be tried first. If they fail, then the help of the families
concerned should be sought. It has to be noted, in the light of the above verses, that
beating the rebellious wife is a temporary measure that is resorted to as third in line in
cases of extreme necessity in hopes that it might remedy the wrongdoing of the wife. If it
does, the husband is not allowed by any means to continue any annoyance to the wife as
explicitly mentioned in the verse. If it does not, the husband is still not allowed to use
this measure any longer and the final avenue of the family-assisted reconciliation has to
Prophet Muhammad has instructed Muslim husbands that they should not have recourse to
these measures except in extreme cases such as open lewdness committed by the wife. Even
in these cases the punishment should be slight and if the wife desists, the husband is not
permitted to irritate her:
"In case they are guilty of open lewdness you may leave them alone in their
beds and inflict slight punishment. If they are obedient to you, do not seek against them
any means of annoyance" (Tirmidthi)
Furthermore, the Prophet of Islam has condemned any unjustifiable beating. Some Muslim
wives complained to him that their husbands had beaten them. Hearing that, the Prophet
categorically stated that:
"Those who do so (beat their wives) are not the best among you" (Abu
It has to be remembered at this point that the Prophet has also said:
"The best of you is he who is best to his family, and I am the best among you
to my family" (Tirmidthi).
The Prophet advised one Muslim woman, whose name was Fatimah bint
Qais, not to marry a
man because the man was known for beating women:
"I went to the Prophet and said: Abul Jahm and Mu'awiah have proposed to marry
me. The Prophet (by way of advice) said: As to Mu'awiah he is very poor and Abul Jahm is
accustomed to beating women" (Muslim).
It has to be noted that the Talmud sanctions wife beating as chastisement for the
purpose of discipline [Epstein, op. cit., p. 219.]. The husband is not restricted to the extreme cases such as
those of open lewdness. He is allowed to beat his wife even if she just refuses to do her
house work. Moreover, he is not limited only to the use of light punishment. He is
permitted to break his wife's stubbornness by the lash or by starving her [Epstein, op.
cit., pp 156-157.].
For the wife whose husband's ill-conduct is the cause for the marriage's near collapse,
the Quran offers the following advice:
"If a wife fears cruelty or desertion on her husband's part, there is no blame
on them if they arrange an amicable settlement between themselves; and such settlement is
In this case, the wife is advised to seek reconciliation with her husband (with or
without family assistance). It is notable that the Quran is not advising the wife to
resort to the two measures of abstention from sex and beating. The reason for this
disparity might be to protect the wife from a violent physical reaction by her already
misbehaving husband. Such a violent physical reaction will do both the wife and the
marriage more harm than good. Some Muslim scholars have suggested that the court can apply
these measures against the husband on the wife's behalf. That is, the court first
admonishes the rebellious husband, then forbids him his wife's bed, and finally executes a
symbolic beating [Muhammad Abu Zahra, Usbu al Fiqh al Islami (Cairo: al Majlis al A'la li Ri'ayat al
Funun, 1963) p. 66.].
To sum up, Islam offers Muslim married couples much viable advice to save their
marriages in cases of trouble and tension. If one of the partners is jeopardizing the
matrimonial relationship, the other partner is advised by the Quran to do whatever
possible and effective in order to save this sacred bond. If all the measures fail, Islam
allows the partners to separate peacefully and amicably.
The Old Testament in several places commands kind and considerate treatment of the
parents and condemns those who dishonor them. For example, "If anyone curses his
father or mother, he must be put to death" (Lev. 20:9) and "A wise man brings
joy to his father but a foolish man despises his mother" (Proverbs 15:20). Although
honoring the father alone is mentioned in some places, e.g. "A wise man heeds his
father's instruction" (Proverbs 13:1), the mother alone is never mentioned. Moreover,
there is no special emphasis on treating the mother kindly as a sign of appreciation of
her great suffering in childbearing and suckling. Besides, mothers do not inherit at all
from their children while fathers do [Epstein, op. cit., p. 122.].
It is difficult to speak of the New Testament as a scripture that calls for honoring
the mother. To the contrary, one gets the impression that the New Testament considers kind
treatment of mothers as an impediment on the way to God. According to the New Testament,
one cannot become a good Christian worthy of becoming a disciple of Christ unless he hates
his mother. It is attributed to Jesus to have said:
"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and
children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he can not be my
disciple" (Luke 14:26).
Furthermore, the New Testament depicts a picture of Jesus as indifferent to, or even
disrespectful of, his own mother. For example, when she had come looking for him while he
was preaching to a crowd, he did not care to go out to see her:
"Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone
to call him. A crowd was sitting around him and they told him, 'Your mother and brothers
are outside looking for you.' 'Who are my mother and my brothers?' he asked. Then he
looked at those seated in a circle around him and said,' Here are my mother and my
brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother.' " (Mark
One might argue that Jesus was trying to teach his audience an important lesson that
religious ties are no less important than family ties. However, he could have taught his
listeners the same lesson without showing such absolute indifference to his mother. The
same disrespectful attitude is depicted when he refused to endorse a statement made by a
member of his audience blessing his mother's role in giving birth to him and nursing him:
"As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, 'Blessed
is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.' He replied, 'Blessed rather are those
who hear the word of God and obey it.' " (Luke 11:27-28)
If a mother with the stature of the virgin Mary had been treated with such discourtesy,
as depicted in the New Testament, by a son of the stature of Jesus Christ, then how should
an average Christian mother be treated by her average Christian sons?
In Islam, the honor, respect, and esteem attached to motherhood is unparalleled. The
Quran places the importance of kindness to parents as second only to worshipping God
"Your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him, And that you be kind to
parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in your life, Say not to them a word
of contempt, nor repel them, But address them in terms of honor. And out of kindness,
Lower to them the wing of humility, and say: 'My Lord! bestow on them Your Mercy as they
Cherished me in childhood' " (17:23-24).
The Quran in several other places puts special emphasis on the mother's great role in
giving birth and nursing:
"And We have enjoined on man to be good to his parents: In travail upon
travail did his mother bear him and in two years was his weaning. Show gratitude to Me and
to your parents" (31:14).
The very special place of mothers in Islam has been eloquently described by Prophet
"A man asked the Prophet: 'Whom should I honor most?' The Prophet replied:
'Your mother'. 'And who comes next?' asked the man. The Prophet replied: 'Your mother'.
'And who comes next?' asked the man. The Prophet replied: 'Your mother!'. 'And who comes
next?' asked the man. The Prophet replied: 'Your father'" (Bukhari and Muslim).
Among the few precepts of Islam which Muslims still faithfully observe to the present
day is the considerate treatment of mothers. The honor that Muslim mothers receive from
their sons and daughters is exemplary. The intensely warm relations between Muslim mothers
and their children and the deep respect with which Muslim men approach their mothers
usually amaze Westerners [Armstrong, op. cit., p. 8.].
One of the most important differences between the Quran and the Bible is their attitude
towards female inheritance of the property of a deceased relative. The Biblical attitude
has been succinctly described by Rabbi Epstein: "The continuous and unbroken
tradition since the Biblical days gives the female members of the household, wife and
daughters, no right of succession to the family estate. In the more primitive scheme of
succession, the female members of the family were considered part of the estate and as
remote from the legal personality of an heir as the slave. Whereas by Mosaic enactment the
daughters were admitted to succession in the event of no male issue remained, the wife was
not recognized as heir even in such conditions." [Epstein, op. cit., p. 175.]
Why were the female members of
the family considered part of the family estate? Rabbi Epstein has the answer: "They
are owned --before marriage, by the father; after marriage, by the husband."
[Epstein, op. cit., p. 121.]
The Biblical rules of inheritance are outlined in Numbers 27:1-11. A wife is given no
share in her husband's estate, while he is her first heir, even before her sons. A
daughter can inherit only if no male heirs exist. A mother is not an heir at all while the
father is. Widows and daughters, in case male children remained, were at the mercy of the
male heirs for provision. That is why widows and orphan girls were among the most
destitute members of the Jewish society.
Christianity has followed suit for long time. Both the ecclesiastical and civil laws of
Christendom barred daughters from sharing with their brothers in the father's patrimony.
Besides, wives were deprived of any inheritance rights. These iniquitous laws survived
till late in the last century [Gage, op. cit., p. 142.].
Among the pagan Arabs before Islam, inheritance rights were confined exclusively to the
male relatives. The Quran abolished all these unjust customs and gave all the female
relatives inheritance shares:
"From what is left by parents and those nearest related there is a share for
men and a share for women, whether the property be small or large --a determinate
Muslim mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters had received inheritance rights thirteen
hundred years before Europe recognized that these rights even existed. The division of
inheritance is a vast subject with an enormous amount of details (4:7,11,12,176). The
general rule is that the female share is half the male's except the cases in which the
mother receives equal share to that of the father. This general rule if taken in isolation
from other legislations concerning men and women may seem unfair. In order to understand
the rationale behind this rule, one must take into account the fact that the financial
obligations of men in Islam far exceed those of women (see the "Wife's
property?" section). A bridegroom must provide his bride with a marriage gift. This
gift becomes her exclusive property and remains so even if she is later divorced. The
bride is under no obligation to present any gifts to her groom. Moreover, the Muslim
husband is charged with the maintenance of his wife and children. The wife, on the other
hand, is not obliged to help him in this regard. Her property and earnings are for her use
alone except what she may voluntarily offer her husband. Besides, one has to realize that
Islam vehemently advocates family life. It strongly encourages youth to get married,
discourages divorce, and does not regard celibacy as a virtue. Therefore, in a truly
Islamic society, family life is the norm and single life is the rare exception. That is,
almost all marriage-aged women and men are married in an Islamic society. In light of
these facts, one would appreciate that Muslim men, in general, have greater financial
burdens than Muslim women and thus inheritance rules are meant to offset this imbalance so
that the society lives free of all gender or class wars. After a simple comparison between
the financial rights and duties of Muslim women, one British Muslim woman has concluded
that Islam has treated women not only fairly but generously [B. Aisha Lemu and Fatima Heeren, Woman in Islam (London: Islamic Foundation, 1978) p.
Because of the fact that the Old Testament recognized no inheritance rights to them,
widows were among the most vulnerable of the Jewish population. The male relatives who
inherited all of a woman's deceased husband's estate were to provide for her from that
estate. However, widows had no way to ensure this provision was carried out, and lived on
the mercy of others. Therefore, widows were among the lowest classes in ancient Israel and
widowhood was considered a symbol of great degradation (Isaiah 54:4). But the plight of a
widow in the Biblical tradition extended even beyond her exclusion from her husband's
property. According to Genesis 38, a childless widow must marry her husband's brother,
even if he is already married, so that he can produce offspring for his dead brother, thus
ensuring his brother's name will not die out.
"Then Judah said to Onan, 'Lie with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty
to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother' " (Genesis 38:8).
The widow's consent to this marriage is not required. The widow is treated as
part of her deceased husband's property whose main function is to ensure her husband's
posterity. This Biblical law is still practised in today's Israel [Hazleton, op. cit., pp. 45-46.]. A childless widow
in Israel is bequeathed to her husband's brother. If the brother is too young to marry,
she has to wait until he comes of age. Should the deceased husband's brother refuse to
marry her, she is set free and can then marry any man of her choice. It is not an uncommon
phenomenon in Israel that widows are subjected to blackmail by their brothers-in-law in
order to gain their freedom.
The pagan Arabs before Islam had similar practices. A widow was considered a part of
her husband's property to be inherited by his male heirs and she was, usually, given in
marriage to the deceased man's eldest son from another wife. The Quran scathingly attacked
and abolished this degrading custom:
"And marry not women whom your fathers married--Except what is past-- it was
shameful, odious, and abominable custom indeed" (4:22).
Widows and divorced women were so looked down upon in the Biblical tradition that the
high priest could not marry a widow, a divorced woman, or a prostitute:
"The woman he (the high priest) marries must be a virgin. He must not marry a
widow, a divorced woman, or a woman defiled by prostitution, but only a virgin from his
own people, so he will not defile his offspring among his people" (Lev. 21:13-15)
In Israel today, a descendant of the Cohen caste (the high priests of the days of the
Temple) cannot marry a divorcee, a widow, or a prostitute [Hazleton, op.
cit., p. 47.]. In the Jewish legislation,
a woman who has been widowed three times with all the three husbands dying of natural
causes is considered 'fatal' and forbidden to marry again [Hazleton, op.
cit., p. 49.]. The Quran,
on the other hand, recognizes neither castes nor fatal persons. Widows and divorcees have
the freedom to marry whomever they choose. There is no stigma attached to divorce or
widowhood in the Quran:
"When you divorce women and they fulfil their terms [three menstruation
periods] either take them back on equitable terms or set them free on equitable terms; But
do not take them back to injure them or to take undue advantage, If anyone does that, he
wrongs his own soul. Do not treat Allah's signs as a jest" (2:231). "If any of
you die and leave widows behind, they shall wait four months and ten days. When they have
fulfilled their term, there is no blame on you if they dispose of themselves in a just
manner" (2:234). "Those of you who die and leave widows should bequeath for
their widows a year's maintenance and residence. But if they [the widows] leave (the
residence) there is no blame on you for what they justly do with themselves" (2:240).
Let us now tackle the important question of polygamy. Polygamy is a very ancient
practice found in many human societies. The Bible did not condemn polygamy. To the
contrary, the Old Testament and Rabbinic writings frequently attest to the legality of
polygamy. King Solomon is said to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3)
Also, king David is said to have had many wives and concubines (2 Samuel 5:13). The Old
Testament does have some injunctions on how to distribute the property of a man among his
sons from different wives (Deut. 22:7). The only restriction on polygamy is a ban on
taking a wife's sister as a rival wife (Lev. 18:18). The Talmud advises a maximum of
four wives [Swidler, op. cit., pp. 144-148.]. European Jews continued to practise polygamy until the sixteenth
century. Oriental Jews regularly practised polygamy until they arrived in Israel where it
is forbidden under civil law. However, under religious law which overrides civil law in
such cases, it is permissible [Hazleton, op. cit., pp 44-45.].
What about the New Testament? According to Father Eugene Hillman in his
insightful book, Polygamy reconsidered, "Nowhere in the New Testament is there any
explicit commandment that marriage should be monogamous or any explicit commandment
forbidding polygamy." [Eugene Hillman, Polygamy Reconsidered: African Plural Marriage and the Christian
Churches (New York: Orbis Books, 1975) p. 140.] Moreover, Jesus has not spoken against polygamy though it
was practised by the Jews of his society. Father Hillman stresses the fact that the Church
in Rome banned polygamy in order to conform to the Greco-Roman culture (which prescribed
only one legal wife while tolerating concubinage and prostitution). He cited St.
Augustine, "Now indeed in our time, and in keeping with Roman custom, it is no longer
allowed to take another wife." [Eugene Hillman, Polygamy Reconsidered: African Plural Marriage and the Christian
Churches (New York: Orbis Books, 1975) p. 17.] African churches and African Christians often
remind their European brothers that the Church's ban on polygamy is a cultural tradition
and not an authentic Christian injunction.
The Quran, too, allowed polygamy, but not without restrictions:
"If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry
women of your choice, two or three or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to
deal justly with them, then only one" (4:3).
The Quran, contrary to the Bible, limited the maximum number of wives to four under the
strict condition of treating the wives equally and justly. It should not be understood
that the Quran is exhorting the believers to practise polygamy, or that polygamy is
considered as an ideal. In other words, the Quran has "tolerated" or
"allowed" polygamy, and no more, but why? Why is polygamy permissible ? The
answer is simple: there are places and times in which there are compelling social and
moral reasons for polygamy. As the above Quranic verse indicates, the issue of
polygamy in Islam cannot be understood apart from community obligations towards orphans
and widows. Islam as a universal religion suitable for all places and all times could
not ignore these compelling obligations.
In most human societies, females outnumber males. In the U.S. there are, at least,
eight million more women than men. In a country like Guinea there are 122 females for
every 100 males. In Tanzania, there are 95.1 males per 100 females [Eugene Hillman, Polygamy Reconsidered: African Plural Marriage and the Christian
Churches (New York: Orbis Books, 1975) pp. 88-93.]. What should a
society do towards such unbalanced sex ratios? There are various solutions, some might
suggest celibacy, others would prefer female infanticide (which does happen in some
societies in the world today !). Others may think the only outlet is that the society
should tolerate all manners of sexual permissiveness: prostitution, sex out of wedlock,
For other societies , like most African societies today, the most honorable outlet is
to allow polygamous marriage as a culturally accepted and socially respected institution.
The point that is often misunderstood in the West is that women in other cultures do not
necessarily look at polygamy as a sign of women's degradation. For example, many young
African brides , whether Christians or Muslims or otherwise, would prefer to marry a
married man who has already proved himself to be a responsible husband. Many African wives
urge their husbands to get a second wife so that they do not feel lonely [Eugene Hillman, Polygamy Reconsidered: African Plural Marriage and the Christian
Churches (New York: Orbis Books, 1975) pp. 92-97.]. A survey of
over six thousand women, ranging in age from 15 to 59, conducted in the second largest
city in Nigeria showed that 60 percent of these women would be pleased if their husbands
took another wife. Only 23 percent expressed anger at the idea of sharing with another
wife. Seventy-six percent of the women in a survey conducted in Kenya viewed polygamy
positively. In a survey undertaken in rural Kenya, 25 out of 27 women considered polygamy
to be better than monogamy. These women felt polygamy can be a happy and beneficial
experience if the co-wives cooperate with each other [Philip L. Kilbride, Plural Marriage For Our Times (Westport, Conn.: Bergin & Garvey,
1994) pp. 108-109.].
Polygamy in most African societies is such a respectable institution that some
Protestant churches are becoming more tolerant of it. A bishop of the Anglican Church in
Kenya declared that, "Although monogamy may be ideal for the expression of love
between husband and wife, the church should consider that in certain cultures polygyny is
socially acceptable and that the belief that polygyny is contrary to Christianity is no
longer tenable." [The Weekly Review, Aug. 1, 1987.]
After a careful study of African polygamy, Reverend David Gitari
of the Anglican Church has concluded that polygamy, as ideally practised, is more
Christian than divorce and remarriage as far as the abandoned wives and children are
concerned [Kilbride, op. cit., p. 126.]. I personally know of some highly educated African wives who, despite
having lived in the West for many years, do not have any objections against polygamy. One
of them, who lives in the U.S., solemnly exhorts her husband to get a second wife to help
her in raising the kids.
The problem of the unbalanced sex ratios becomes truly problematic at times of war.
Native American Indian tribes used to suffer highly unbalanced sex ratios after wartime
losses. Women in these tribes, who in fact enjoyed a fairly high status, accepted polygamy
as the best protection against indulgence in indecent activities. European settlers,
without offering any other alternative, condemned this Indian polygamy as 'uncivilised'
[John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A history of Sexuality in
America (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988) p. 87.]. After the second world war, there were 7,300,000 more women than men in Germany (3.3
million of them were widows). There were 100 men aged 20 to 30 for every 167 women in that
age group [Ute Frevert, Women in German History: from Bourgeois Emancipation to Sexual Liberation
(New York: Berg Publishers, 1988) pp. 263-264.]. Many of these women needed a man not only as a companion but also as a
provider for the household in a time of unprecedented misery and hardship. The soldiers of
the victorious Allied Armies exploited these women's vulnerability. Many young girls and
widows had liaisons with members of the occupying forces. Many American and British
soldiers paid for their pleasures in cigarettes, chocolate, and bread. Children were
overjoyed at the gifts these strangers brought. A 10 year old boy on hearing of such gifts
from other children wished from all his heart for an 'Englishman' for his mother so that
she need not go hungry any longer [Ute
Frevert, Women in German History: from Bourgeois Emancipation to Sexual Liberation
(New York: Berg Publishers, 1988) pp. 257-258.]. We have to ask our own conscience at this point: What
is more dignifying to a woman? An accepted and respected second wife as in the native
Indians' approach, or a virtual prostitute as in the 'civilised' Allies approach? In
other words, what is more dignifying to a woman, the Quranic prescription or the theology
based on the culture of the Roman Empire?
It is interesting to note that in an international youth conference held in Munich in
1948 the problem of the highly unbalanced sex ratio in Germany was discussed. When it
became clear that no solution could be agreed upon, some participants suggested polygamy.
The initial reaction of the gathering was a mixture of shock and disgust. However, after a
careful study of the proposal, the participants agreed that it was the only possible
solution. Consequently, polygamy was included among the conference final recommendations
[Sabiq, op. cit., p. 191.].
The world today possesses more weapons of mass destruction than ever before and the
European churches might, sooner or later, be obliged to accept polygamy as the only way
out. Father Hillman has thoughtfully recognized this fact,
"It is quite conceivable that these genocidal techniques (nuclear, biological,
chemical..) could produce so drastic an imbalance among the sexes that plural marriage
would become a necessary means of survival....Then contrary to previous custom and law, an
overriding natural and moral inclination might arise in favour of polygamy. In such a
situation, theologians and church leaders would quickly produce weighty reasons and
biblical texts to justify a new conception of marriage." [Hillman, op. cit., p. 12.]
To the present day, polygamy continues to be a viable solution to some of the social
ills of modern societies. The communal obligations that the Quran mentions in association
with the permission of polygamy are more visible at present in some Western societies than
in Africa. For example, In the United States today, there is a severe gender crisis in the
black community. One out of every twenty young black males may die before reaching the age
of 21. For those between 20 and 35 years of age, homicide is the leading cause of death
[Nathan Hare and Julie Hare, ed., Crisis in Black Sexual Politics (San Francisco: Black
Think Tank, 1989) p. 25.]. Besides, many young black males are unemployed, in jail, or on dope
[Nathan Hare and Julie Hare, ed., Crisis in Black Sexual Politics (San Francisco: Black
Think Tank, 1989) p. 26.]. As a
result, one in four black women, at age 40, has never married, as compared with one in ten
white women [Kilbride, op. cit., p. 94.]. Moreover, many young black females become single mothers before the age
of 20 and find themselves in need of providers. The end result of these tragic
circumstances is that an increasing number of black women are engaged in what is called
'man-sharing' [Kilbride, op. cit., p. 95.]. That is, many of these hapless single black women are involved in
affairs with married men. The wives are often unaware of the fact that other women are
'sharing' their husbands with them. Some observers of the crisis of man-sharing in the
African American community strongly recommend consensual polygamy as a temporary answer to
the shortage of black males until more comprehensive reforms in the American society at
large are undertaken [Kilbride, op. cit.,
p. 95]. By consensual polygamy they mean a polygamy that is sanctioned
by the community and to which all the parties involved have agreed, as opposed to the
usually secret man-sharing which is detrimental both to the wife and to the community in
general. The problem of man-sharing in the African American community was the topic of a
panel discussion held at Temple University in Philadelphia on January 27, 1993 [Kilbride, op.
cit., pp. 95-99.]. Some
of the speakers recommended polygamy as one potential remedy for the crisis. They also
suggested that polygamy should not be banned by law, particularly in a society that
tolerates prostitution and mistresses. The comment of one woman from the audience that
African Americans needed to learn from Africa where polygamy was responsibly practised
elicited enthusiastic applause.
Philip Kilbride, an American anthropologist of Roman Catholic heritage, in his
provocative book, Plural marriage for our time, proposes polygamy as a solution to some of
the ills of the American society at large. He argues that plural marriage may serve as a
potential alternative for divorce in many cases in order to obviate the damaging impact of
divorce on many children. He maintains that many divorces are caused by the rampant
extramarital affairs in the American society. According to Kilbride, ending an
extramarital affair in a polygamous marriage, rather than in a divorce, is better for the
children, "Children would be better served if family augmentation rather than only
separation and dissolution were seen as options." Moreover, he suggests that other
groups will also benefit from plural marriage such as: elderly women who face a chronic
shortage of men and the African Americans who are involved in man-sharing [Kilbride, op.
cit., p. 118.].
In 1987, a poll conducted by the student newspaper at the university of California at
Berkeley asked the students whether they agreed that men should be allowed by law to have
more than one wife in response to a perceived shortage of male marriage candidates in
California. Almost all of the students polled approved of the idea. One female student
even stated that a polyganous marriage would fulfil her emotional and physical needs while
giving her greater freedom than a monogamous union [Lang, op. cit., p. 172.]. In fact, this same argument is
also used by the few remaining fundamentalist Mormon women who still practise polygamy in
the U.S. They believe that polygamy is an ideal way for a woman to have both a career and
children since the wives help each other care for the children [Kilbride, op. cit., pp. 72-73.].
It has to be added that polygamy in Islam is a matter of mutual consent. No one can
force a woman to marry a married man. Besides, the wife has the right to stipulate
that her husband must not marry any other woman as a second wife [Sabiq, op. cit., pp. 187-188.]. The Bible, on the
other hand, sometimes resorts to forcible polygamy. A childless widow must marry her
husband's brother, even if he is already married (see the "Plight of Widows"
section),regardless of her consent (Genesis 38:8-10).
It should be noted that in many Muslim societies today the practice of polygamy is rare
since the gap between the numbers of both sexes is not huge. One can, safely, say that the
rate of polygamous marriages in the Muslim world is much less than the rate of
extramarital affairs in the West. In other words, men in the Muslim world today are far
more strictly monogamous than men in the Western world.
Billy Graham, the eminent Christian evangelist has recognized this fact:
"Christianity cannot compromise on the question of polygamy. If present-day
Christianity cannot do so, it is to its own detriment. Islam has permitted polygamy as a
solution to social ills and has allowed a certain degree of latitude to human nature but
only within the strictly defined framework of the law. Christian countries make a great
show of monogamy, but actually they practise polygamy. No one is unaware of the part
mistresses play in Western society. In this respect Islam is a fundamentally honest
religion, and permits a Muslim to marry a second wife if he must, but strictly forbids all
clandestine amatory associations in order to safeguard the moral probity of the
community." [Abdul Rahman Doi, Woman in Shari'ah (London: Ta-Ha Publishers, 1994) p. 76.]
It is of interest to note that many, non-Muslim as well as Muslim, countries in the
world today have outlawed polygamy. Taking a second wife, even with the free consent of
the first wife, is a violation of the law. On the other hand, cheating on the wife,
without her knowledge or consent, is perfectly legitimate as far as the law is concerned!
What is the legal wisdom behind such a contradiction? Is the law designed to reward
deception and punish honesty? It is one of the unfathomable paradoxes of our modern
Finally, let us shed some light on what is considered in the West as the greatest
symbol of women's oppression and servitude, the veil or the head cover. Is it true that
there is no such thing as the veil in the Judaeo-Christian tradition? Let us set the
According to Rabbi Dr. Menachem M. Brayer (Professor of Biblical Literature at Yeshiva
University) in his book, The Jewish woman in Rabbinic literature, it was the custom of
Jewish women to go out in public with a head covering which, sometimes, even covered the
whole face leaving one eye free [Menachem M. Brayer, The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature: A Psychosocial Perspective
(Hoboken, N.J: Ktav Publishing House, 1986) p. 239.]. He quotes some famous ancient Rabbis saying,
" It is not like the daughters of Israel to walk out with heads
uncovered" and "Cursed be the man who lets the hair of his wife be seen....a
woman who exposes her hair for self-adornment brings poverty."
Rabbinic law forbids the recitation of blessings or prayers in the presence of a
bareheaded married woman since uncovering the woman's hair is considered "nudity"
[Menachem M. Brayer, The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature: A Psychosocial Perspective
(Hoboken, N.J: Ktav Publishing House, 1986), pp. 316-317. Also see Swidler, op. cit., pp. 121-123.]. Dr. Brayer also mentions that "During the Tannaitic period the Jewish
woman's failure to cover her head was considered an affront to her modesty. When her head
was uncovered she might be fined four hundred zuzim for this offense." Dr. Brayer
also explains that veil of the Jewish woman was not always considered a sign of modesty.
Sometimes, the veil symbolized a state of distinction and luxury rather than modesty. The
veil personified the dignity and superiority of noble women. It also represented a woman's
inaccessibility as a sanctified possession of her husband [Menachem M. Brayer, The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature: A Psychosocial Perspective
(Hoboken, N.J: Ktav Publishing House, 1986), p. 139.].
The veil signified a woman's self-respect and social status. Women of lower classes
would often wear the veil to give the impression of a higher standing. The fact that the
veil was the sign of nobility was the reason why prostitutes were not permitted to cover
their hair in the old Jewish society. However, prostitutes often wore a special headscarf
in order to look respectable [Susan W. Schneider, Jewish and Female (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984) p. 237.]. Jewish women in Europe continued to wear veils until
the nineteenth century when their lives became more intermingled with the surrounding
secular culture. The external pressures of the European life in the nineteenth century
forced many of them to go out bare-headed. Some Jewish women found it more convenient to
replace their traditional veil with a wig as another form of hair covering. Today, most
pious Jewish women do not cover their hair except in the synagogue [Susan W. Schneider, Jewish and Female (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), pp. 238-239.]. Some of them,
such as the Hasidic sects, still use the wig [Alexandra Wright, "Judaism", in Holm and Bowker, ed., op. cit., pp. 128-129].
What about the Christian tradition? It is well known that Catholic Nuns have
been covering their heads for hundreds of years, but that is not all. St. Paul in the New
Testament made some very interesting statements about the veil:
"Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head
of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with
his head covered dishonours his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her
head uncovered dishonours her head - it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman
does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a
woman to have her hair cut off or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not
to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of
man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for
woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to
have a sign of authority on her head" (I Corinthians 11:3-10).
St. Paul's rationale for veiling women is that the veil represents a sign of the
authority of the man, who is the image and glory of God, over the woman who was created
from and for man. St. Tertullian in his famous treatise 'On The Veiling Of Virgins' wrote,
"Young women, you wear your veils out on the streets, so you should wear them in the
church, you wear them when you are among strangers, then wear them among your
brothers..." Among the Canon laws of the Catholic church today, there is a law
that requires women to cover their heads in church [Clara M. Henning, "Cannon Law and the Battle of the Sexes" in Rosemary R.
Ruether, ed., Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974) p. 272.]. Some Christian denominations,
such as the Amish and the Mennonites for example, keep their women veiled to the present
day. The reason for the veil, as offered by their Church leaders, is that "The
head covering is a symbol of woman's subjection to the man and to God", which is
the same logic introduced by St. Paul in the New Testament [Donald B. Kraybill, The riddle of the Amish Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1989) p. 56.].
From all the above evidence, it is obvious that Islam did not invent the head cover.
However, Islam did endorse it. The Quran urges the believing men and women to lower
their gaze and guard their modesty and then urges the believing women to extend their head
covers to cover the neck and the bosom:
"Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their
modesty......And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard
their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what
ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms...."
(24:30,31). The Quran is quite clear that the veil is essential for modesty, but why is
modesty important? The Quran is still clear: "O Prophet, tell your wives and
daughters and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their
bodies (when abroad) so that they should be known and not molested" (33:59).
This is the whole point, modesty is prescribed to protect women from molestation or
simply, modesty is protection.
Thus, the only purpose of the veil in Islam is protection. The Islamic veil,
unlike the veil of the Christian tradition, is not a sign of man's authority over woman
nor is it a sign of woman's subjection to man. The Islamic veil, unlike the veil in the
Jewish tradition, is not a sign of luxury and distinction of some noble married
Islamic veil is only a sign of modesty with the purpose of protecting women, all women.
The Islamic philosophy is that it is always better to be safe than sorry. In fact, the
Quran is so concerned with protecting women's bodies and women's reputation that a man who
dares to falsely accuse a woman of unchastity will be severely punished:
"And those who launch a charge against chaste women, and produce not four
witnesses (to support their allegations)- Flog them with eighty stripes; and reject their
evidence ever after: for such men are wicked transgressors" (24:4)
Compare this strict Quranic attitude with the extremely lax punishment for rape in the
" If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes
her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl's father fifty shekels of silver. He
must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he
lives" (Deut. 22:28-30)
One must ask a simple question here, who is really punished? The man who only paid a
fine for rape, or the girl who is forced to marry the man who raped her and live with him
until he dies? Another question that also should be asked is this: which is more
protective of women, the Quranic strict attitude or the Biblical lax attitude?
Some people, especially in the West, would tend to ridicule the whole argument of
modesty for protection. Their argument is that the best protection is the spread of
education, civilised behaviour, and self restraint. We would say: fine but not enough. If 'civilization'
is enough protection, then why is it that women in North America dare not walk alone in a
dark street - or even across an empty parking lot ? If Education is the solution, then why
is it that a respected university like Queen's has a 'walk home service' mainly for female
students on campus? If self restraint is the answer, then why are cases of sexual
harassment in the workplace reported on the news media every day? A sample of those
accused of sexual harassment, in the last few years, includes: Navy officers, Managers,
University professors, Senators, Supreme Court Justices, and the President of the United
States! I could not believe my eyes when I read the following statistics, written in a
pamphlet issued by the Dean of Women's office at Queen's University:
In Canada, a woman is sexually assaulted every 6 minutes", 1 in 3 women in
Canada will be sexually assaulted at some time in their lives", 1 in 4 women are at
the risk of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime", 1 in 8 women will be sexually
assaulted while attending college or university, and A study found 60% of Canadian
university-aged males said they would commit sexual assault if they were certain they
wouldn't get caught."
Something is fundamentally wrong in the society we live in. A radical change in the
society's life style and culture is absolutely necessary. A culture of modesty is badly
needed, modesty in dress, in speech, and in manners of both men and women. Otherwise, the
grim statistics will grow even worse day after day and, unfortunately, women alone will be
paying the price. Actually, we all suffer but as K. Gibran has said, "...for the
person who receives the blows is not like the one who counts them." [Khalil Gibran, Thoughts and Meditations (New York: Bantam Books, 1960) p. 28.]
society like France which expels young women from schools because of their modest dress
is, in the end, simply harming itself.
It is one of the great ironies of our world today that the very same headscarf revered
as a sign of 'holiness' when worn for the purpose of showing the authority of man by
Catholic Nuns, is reviled as a sign of 'oppression' when worn for the purpose of
protection by Muslim women.
The one question all the non-Muslims, who had read an earlier version of this study,
had in common was: do Muslim women in the Muslim world today receive this noble treatment
described here ? The answer, unfortunately, is: No. Since this question is inevitable in
any discussion concerning the status of women in Islam, we have to elaborate on the answer
in order to provide the reader with the complete picture.
It has to be made clear first that the vast differences among Muslim societies make
most generalizations too simplistic. There is a wide spectrum of attitudes towards women
in the Muslim world today. These attitudes differ from one society to another and within
each individual society. Nevertheless, certain general trends are discernible. Almost all
Muslim societies have, to one degree or another, deviated from the ideals of Islam with
respect to the status of women. These deviations have, for the most part, been in one of
two opposite directions. The first direction is more conservative, restrictive, and
traditions-oriented, while the second is more liberal and Western-oriented.
The societies that have digressed in the first direction treat women according to the
customs and traditions inherited from their forebears. These traditions usually deprive
women of many rights granted to them by Islam. Besides, women are treated according to
standards far different from those applied to men. This discrimination pervades the life
of any female: she is received with less joy at birth than a boy; she is less likely to go
to school; she might be deprived any share of her family's inheritance; she is under
continuous surveillance in order not to behave immodestly while her brother's immodest
acts are tolerated; she might even be killed for committing what her male family members
usually boast of doing; she has very little say in family affairs or community interests;
she might not have full control over her property and her marriage gifts; and finally as a
mother she herself would prefer to produce boys so that she can attain a higher status in
On the other hand, there are Muslim societies (or certain classes within some
societies) that have been swept over by the Western culture and way of life. These
societies often imitate unthinkingly whatever they receive from the West and usually end
up adopting the worst fruits of Western civilization. In these societies, a typical
"modern" woman's top priority in life is to enhance her physical beauty.
Therefore, she is often obsessed with her body's shape, size, and weight. She tends to
care more about her body than her mind and more about her charms than her intellect. Her
ability to charm, attract, and excite is more valued in the society than her educational
achievements, intellectual pursuits, and social work. One is not expected to find a copy
of the Quran in her purse since it is full of cosmetics that accompany her wherever she
goes. Her spirituality has no room in a society preoccupied with her attractiveness.
Therefore, she would spend her life striving more to realize her femininity than to fulfil
Why did Muslim societies deviate from the ideals of Islam? There is no easy answer. A
penetrating explanation of the reasons why Muslims have not adhered to the Quranic
guidance with respect to women would be beyond the scope of this study. It has to be made
clear, however, that Muslim societies have deviated from the Islamic precepts concerning
so many aspects of their lives for so long. There is a wide gap between what Muslims are
supposed to believe in and what they actually practise. This gap is not a recent
phenomenon. It has been there for centuries and has been widening day after day. This ever
widening gap has had disastrous consequences on the Muslim world manifested in almost all
aspects of life: political tyranny and fragmentation, economic backwardness, social
injustice, scientific bankruptcy, intellectual stagnation, etc. The non-Islamic status of
women in the Muslim world today is merely a symptom of a deeper malady. Any reform in the
current status of Muslim women is not expected to be fruitful if not accompanied with more
comprehensive reforms of the Muslim societies' whole way of life. The Muslim world is in
need for a renaissance that will bring it closer to the ideals of Islam and not further
from them. To sum up, the notion that the poor status of Muslim women today is because of
Islam is an utter misconception. The problems of Muslims in general are not due to too
much attachment to Islam, they are the culmination of a long and deep detachment from it.
It has, also, to be re-emphasized that the purpose behind this comparative study is
not, by any means, to defame Judaism or Christianity. The position of women in the
Judaeo-Christian tradition might seem frightening by our late twentieth century standards.
Nevertheless, it has to be viewed within the proper historical context. In other words,
any objective assessment of the position of women in the Judaeo-Christian tradition has to
take into account the historical circumstances in which this tradition developed. There
can be no doubt that the views of the Rabbis and the Church Fathers regarding women were
influenced by the prevalent attitudes towards women in their societies. The Bible itself
was written by different authors at different times. These authors could not have been
impervious to the values and the way of life of the people around them. For example, the
adultery laws of the Old Testament are so biased against women that they defy rational
explanation by our mentality. However, if we consider the fact that the early Jewish
tribes were obsessed with their genetic homogeneity and extremely eager to define
themselves apart from the surrounding tribes and that only sexual misconduct by the
married females of the tribes could threaten these cherished aspirations, we should then
be able to understand, but not necessarily sympathize with, the reasons for this bias.
Also, the diatribes of the Church Fathers against women should not be detached from the
context of the misogynist Greco-Roman culture in which they lived. It would be unfair to
evaluate the Judaeo-Christian legacy without giving any consideration to the relevant
In fact, a proper understanding of the Judaeo-Christian historical context is also
crucial for understanding the significance of the contributions of Islam to world history
and human civilization. The Judaeo-Christian tradition had been influenced and shaped by
the environments, conditions, and cultures in which it had existed. By the seventh century
C.E., this influence had distorted the original divine message revealed to Moses and Jesus
beyond recognition. The poor status of women in the Judaeo-Christian world by the seventh
century is just one case in point. Therefore, there was a great need for a new divine
message that would guide humanity back to the straight path. The Quran described the
mission of the new Messenger as a release for Jews and Christians from the heavy burdens
that had been upon them:
"Those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find
mentioned in their own Scriptures--In the Law and the Gospel-- For he commands them what
is just and forbids them what is evil; he allows them as lawful what is good and prohibits
them from what is bad; He releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that
are upon them" (7:157).
Therefore, Islam should not be viewed as a rival tradition to Judaism or Christianity.
It has to be regarded as the consummation, completion, and perfection of the divine
messages that had been revealed before it.
At the end of this study, I would like to offer the following advice to the global
Muslim community. So many Muslim women have been denied their basic Islamic rights for so
long. The mistakes of the past have to be corrected. To do that is not a favor, it is a
duty incumbent upon all Muslims. The worldwide Muslim community have to issue a charter of
Muslim women's rights based on the instructions of the Quran and the teachings of the
Prophet of Islam. This charter must give Muslim women all the rights endowed to them by
their Creator. Then, all the necessary means have to be developed in order to ensure the
proper implementation of the charter. This charter is long overdue, but it is better late
than never. If Muslims worldwide will not guarantee the full Islamic rights of their
mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters, who else will ?
Furthermore, we must have the courage to confront our past and reject outright the
traditions and customs of our forefathers whenever they contravene the precepts of Islam.
Did the Quran not severely criticize the pagan Arabs for blindly following the traditions
of their ancestors? On the other hand, we have to develop a critical attitude towards
whatever we receive from the West or from any other culture. Interaction with and learning
from other cultures is an invaluable experience. The Quran has succinctly considered this
interaction as one of the purposes of creation: " O mankind We created you from a
single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may
know each other" (49:13). It goes without saying, however, that blind imitation of
others is a sure sign of an utter lack of self-esteem.
It is to the non-Muslim reader, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise, that these final words
are dedicated. It is bewildering why the religion that had revolutionized the status of
women is being singled out and denigrated as so repressive of women. This perception about
Islam is one of the most widespread myths in our world today. This myth is being
perpetuated by a ceaseless barrage of sensational books, articles, media images, and
Hollywood movies. The inevitable outcome of these incessant misleading images has been
total misunderstanding and fear of anything related to Islam. This negative portrayal of
Islam in the world media has to end if we are to live in a world free from all traces of
discrimination, prejudice, and misunderstanding. Non-Muslims ought to realize the
existence of a wide gap between Muslims' beliefs and practices and the simple fact that
the actions of Muslims do not necessarily represent Islam. To label the status of women in
the Muslim world today as "Islamic" is as far from the truth as labelling the
position of women in the West today as "Judaeo-Christian". With this
understanding in mind, Muslims and non-Muslims should start a process of communication and
dialogue in order to remove all misconceptions, suspicions, and fears. A peaceful future
for the human family necessitates such a dialogue.
Islam should be viewed as a religion that had immensely improved the status of women
and had granted them many rights that the modern world has recognized only this century.
Islam still has so much to offer today's woman: dignity, respect, and protection in all
aspects and all stages of her life from birth until death in addition to the recognition,
the balance, and means for the fulfilment of all her spiritual, intellectual, physical,
and emotional needs. No wonder most of those who choose to become Muslims in a country
like Britain are women. In the U.S. women converts to Islam outnumber male converts 4
to 1 [The Times, Nov. 18, 1993.]. Islam has so much to offer our world which is in great need of moral
guidance and leadership. Ambassador Herman Eilts, in a testimony in front of the committee
on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives of the United States Congress on June
24th, 1985, said, "The Muslim community of the globe today is in the neighbourhood of
one billion. That is an impressive figure. But what to me is equally impressive is that
Islam today is the fastest growing monotheistic religion. This is something we have to
take into account. Something is right about Islam. It is attracting a good many
people." Yes, something is right about Islam and it is time to find that out. I hope
this study is a step on this direction.