The status of women in Islam is a subject enshrouded in controversy. According to many Muslims, Muhammad was a champion of women’s rights, bestowing upon the women in his community privileges and rights that they did not have previously. The notion that women in pre-Islamic Arabia had no rights, however, is demonstrably untrue. Former Muslim Nabeel Qureshi lists some of the rights that women had in pre-Islamic Arabia, which included ease of divorce, the ability to marry multiple men, and become overlords. Women were even able to propose for marriage, as in fact was the case with respect to Khadija’s marriage to Muhammad.
To outsiders, the hijab is often viewed as a symbol of oppression. Since April 2011, wearing of head coverings (including hijabs) in public places has even been outlawed in France. Muslims, by contrast, point out that the tradition of veiling and seclusion was present in pre-Islamic Arabia, and also Syria and Iran, since long prior to Muhammad, and was even seen as an emblem of social status, only affordable by women who didn’t need to work out in the fields.
The first alleged revelation concerning veiling occurred in 627 A.D. This is found in Surah Al-Ahzab (33) 53:
Believers, do not enter the Prophet’s house … unless asked. And if you are invited … do not linger. And when you ask something from the Prophet’s wives, do so from behind a hijab. This will assure the purity of your hearts as well as theirs.
Surprisingly, this verse does not prescribe the veil for all women but only Muhammad’s wives. Reza Aslan, in his book No God But God, points out that the term, darabat al-hijab, used for putting on the veil, was used interchangeably with “becoming Muhammad’s wife” and suggests that the hijab was adopted by other Muslim women only after the death of Muhammad -- possibly as a means of emulating Muhammad’s wives -- and that the veil didn’t become compulsory or even generally adopted until much later. Reza's interpretation, however, is disputed by other scholars.
The Hijab should not be regarded as the primary issue in the debate concerning the status of women in Islam. There are many far more concerning issues that need to be addressed.
In this article, I want to draw attention to some of these issues relating to Muhammad’s view of women.
Women Are Mentally Deficient?
According to the Qur’an, the testimony of one man is as good as the testimony of two women. We read in Surah Al-Baqara (2) 282 in the context of writing receipts for paid debt:
Have two witnesses from among your men, and if two men are not there, then one man and two women from those witnesses whom you like, so that if one of the two women errs, the other women may remind her.
Why is the testimony of a woman only worth half that of a man? Muhammad himself informs us in Sahih al-Bukhari (Volume 3, Book 48, no. 826):
Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri: The Prophet said, “Isn’t the witness of a woman equal to half of that of a man?” The women said, “Yes.” He said, “This is because of the deficiency of a woman’s mind.”
This is further stated in volume 1, book 6, no. 301, of Sahih al-Bukhari. Muhammad is reported to have said,
O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women).” They asked, “Why is it so, O Allah’s Apostle?” He replied, “You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you.” The women asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?” He said, “Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?” They replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn’t it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses? The women replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her religion.”
Muhammad, thus, does not seem to take a particularly high view of the intellect of women.
The Majority of Hell’s Inhabitants Are Women?
In Sahih Al-Bukhari volume 1, book 2, number 28 Muhammad again asserts that he saw that “the majority of [Hell’s] dwellers were women who were ungrateful.” After being asked whether this ungratefulness was directed towards Allah, Muhammad answered that “They are ungrateful to their husbands and are ungrateful for the favors and the charitable good (charitable deeds) done to them.” In Sahih Muslim book 36 (no. 6600), Muhammad is reported to have said “Amongst the inmates of Paradise the women would form a minority.”
What if, however, the Muslim women start being grateful to their husbands? What awaits them in Paradise? Well, according to Sahih Al-Bukhari, they get to stand in corners of a pavillion in paradise awaiting men to come and have sex with them. We read in volume 6, book 60, no. 402,
Narrated Abdullah bin Qais: Allah’s Apostle said, “In Paradise, there is a pavillion made of a single hollow pearl sixty miles wide. In each corner of which there are wives who will not see those in the other corners; and the believers will visit and enjoy them…”
Beating Your Wife Into Subservience
According to the Qur’an, Surah An-Nisa (4) 34,
Men are caretakers of women, since Allah has made some of them excel the others, and because of the wealth they have spent. So, the righteous women are obedient, (and) guard (the property and honor of their husbands) in (their) absence with the protection given by Allah. As for women of whom you fear rebellion, convince them, and leave them apart in beds, and beat them. Then, if they obey you, do not seek a way against them. Surely, Allah is the Highest, the Greatest.
Women are here viewed as the property of their male caretakers, and men are permitted to beat their wives in cases where they “fear rebellion”.
Muhammad’s favorite wife, Aisha (to whom he was betrothed to be married when she was six and he fifty-one, a marriage that was consummated when she turned nine and before she had reached the age of puberty), makes an observation that is recorded in Sahih al-Bukhari volume 7, book 72, no. 715:
Narrated Ikrima: Rita’a divorced his wife whereupon Abdur-Rahman bin Az-Zubair Al-Qurazi married her. Aisha said that the lady (came), wearing a green veil (and complaining to her (Aisha) of her husband and showed her a green spot on her skin caused by beating. It was the habit of ladies to support each other, so when Allah’s Apostle came, Aisha said, “I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women. Look! Her skin is greener than her clothes.”
Even during the lifetime of Muhammad, Aisha observed that nobody suffered so much as the believing, i.e. Muslim, women — in other words, Muslim women were being treated worse than pagan women. Rather than rebuke the man for beating his wife until her skin turned green, as one might expect of the champion of woman’s rights that Muhammad is supposed to have been, Muhammad instead took the side of the husband and rebuked the woman.
Aisha’s father, Abu Bakr, a close companion of Muhammad and the first of the four rightly-guided caliphs, also seems to have abused Aisha. According to Sahih al-Bukhari volume 8, book 82, no. 828.
Narrated Aisha: Abu Bakr came towards me and struck me violently with his fist and said, “You have detained the people because of your necklace.” But I remained motionless as if I was dead lest I should awake Allah’s Apostle although that hit was very painful.”
Muhammad is even reported to have said (according to Sunan Abu Dawud book 11 no. 2142), “A man will not be asked as to why he beat his wife.”
The Qur’an Permits Rape Of Female Captives
According to Surah An-Nisa (4) 24, “Also prohibited are the women already bound in marriage, except the bondwomen you come to own.”
Surah Al-Mumenoon (23) 1-6 says the same thing:
Success is really attained by the believers who concentrate their attention in humbleness when offering Salah (prayers) and who keep themselves away from vain things, and who are performers of Zakah and who guard their private parts except from their wives or from those (bondwomen who are) owned by their hands, as they are not to be blamed.
A similar instruction is given in Surah Al-Maarij (70) 30. What is the historical context of these verses? We need only go to the Hadith sources to find out.
We read in Sunan Abu Dawud 2150,
The Apostle of Allah sent a military expedition to Autas on the occasion of the battle of Hunain. They met their enemy and fought with them. They defeated them and took them captives. Some of the companions onf the Apostle of Allah were reluctant to have intercourse with the female captives in the presence of their husbands who were unbelievers. So Allah, the Exalted, sent down the Qur’anic verse: “And all married women are forbidden unto you save those (captives) whom your right hands possess.” That is to say, they are lawful for them when they complete their waiting period.
Another report is given by Sahih Muslim book 8, no. 3432,
Abu Sa’id al-Khudri (Allah be pleased with him) reported that at the Battle of Hanain, Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) sent an army in Autas and encountered the enemy and fought with them. Having overcome them and taken them captives, the companions of Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) seemed to refrain from having intercourse with captive women because of their husbands being polytheists. Then Allah, Most High, sent down regarding that: “And women already married, except those whom your right hands possess.”
In Sahih Muslim book 8, no. 3371, we read,
Abu Sirma said to Abu Sa’id al Khadri (Allah be pleased with him): O Abu Sa’id, did you hear Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) mentioning al- ‘azl? He said: Yes, and added: We went out with Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) on the expedition to the Bi’l-Mustaliq and took captive some excellent Arab women; and we desired them, for we were suffering from the absence of our wives, (but at the same time) we also desired ransom for them. So we decided to have sexual intercourse with them but by observing ‘azl (withdrawing the male sexual organ before emission of semen to avoid conception, also known as coitus interruptus). But we said: We are doing an act whereas Allah’s Messenger is amongst us; why not ask him? So we asked Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him), and he said: It does not matter if you do not do it, for every soul that is born up to the Day of Resurrection will be born.”
Sahih al-Bukhari volume 5,book 59, no. 459, says,
Narrated ibn Muhairiz: I entered the Mosque and saw Abu Said Al-Khudri and sat beside him and asked him about Al-Azl. Abu Said said, “We went out with Allah’s Apostle for the Ghazwa of Banu Al-Mustaliq and we received captives from among the Arab captives and we desired women and celibacy became hard on us and we loved to do coitus interruptus. So when we intended to do coitus interruptus, we said, “How can we do coitus interruptus before asking Allah’s Apostle who is present among us?” We asked (him) about it and he said, “It is better for you not to do so, for if any soul (till the Day of Resurrection) is predestined to exist, it will exist.
Muslims sometimes try to argue that this would have taken place only after marriage to these captive women. But this is clearly not the case, since the men wanted to fetch a ransom price for them afterwards.
Muhammad permitted temporary marriage contracts whereby one could contract with a woman for a temporary marriage. According to Surah An-Nisa (4) 24,
…to those of them whose company you have enjoyed, give their dues (dower) as obligated. There is no sin on you in what you mutually agree upon after the (initial) agreement.
We also read in Sahih Bukhari Volume 6, Book 60, Number 139,
Narrated Abdullah: We used to participate in the holy wars carried on by the Prophet and we had no women (wives) with us. So we said to the Prophet “Shall we castrate ourselves?” But the Prophet forbade us to do that and thenceforth he allowed us to marry a woman temporarily by giving her even a garment and then he recited “O you who believe! Do not make unlawful the good things which Allah has made lawful for you.”
Here, Muhammad gives permission to Muslims to offer a woman clothing in exchange for access to her body. A further reference to this practice is given in Sahih Muslim, book 8, number 3252:
Sabra Juhanni reported: Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) permitted temporary marriage for us. So I and another person went out and saw a woman of Bana Amir, who was like a young long-necked she-camel. We presented ourselves to her (for contracting temporary marriage), whereupon she said: What dower would you give me? I said: My cloak. And my companion also said: My cloak. And the cloak of my companion was superior to my clock, but I was younger than he. So when she looked at the cloak of my companion she liked it, and when she cast a glance at me I looked more attractive to her. She then said: Well, you and your cloak are sufficient for me. I remained with her for three nights, and then Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: He who has any such woman with whom he has contracted temporary marriage, he should let her off.
The items raised above represent just a few of the many issues that could be raised in relation to Muhammad’s view of women. The bottom line is that the assertion that Muhammad was a champion of women’s rights is historically untenable. By contrast, the Bible has a very progressive view of women, certainly for its day. According to Paul, although the sexes may have different roles in marriage and ecclesiology, men and women are ultimately equal in the sight of God, all being one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). Jesus Himself forgave a woman caught in the act of adultery and saved her from being stoned to death (John 8:1-11), spoke to a Samaritan woman about the way of salvation (John 4:1-42), allowed his feet to be anointed by Mary Magdalene, and tasks John the Apostle with looking after his mother Mary (John 19:26-27). Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearances are even to women. Many women are also key players in the book of Acts, as well as the Old Testament — for example, the story of Esther is about a woman who saves her people, the Hebrews, from being exterminated.
When one examines and compares the Qur’an and the Bible, the stark contrast in view of women becomes very apparent.