The Qur’an enshrined a new status for women and gave them rights that they could have only dreamed of before in Arabia, so why the seeming disparity between what once was and what now appears to be? The answer lies in the deterioration of basic Islamic education that occurred in the Muslim world after the disasters of the Mongol invasions and the Crusades in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries. . . . Cultures that arose since that time have been characterized by customs and local cultural leanings more than genuine Islamic values. (Yahiya Emerick, Muhammad, 2002, p. 142)
The treatment of women in the Muslim world, then, is the result of the Crusades and the Mongol invasions. If it weren’t for Christians and Mongols, Muslim women would still be enjoying the prominent status given to them by Muhammad.
Muslim apologists have done an outstanding job convincing people that Muhammad was a champion of women’s rights. Indeed, arguments for Muhammad’s liberation of women have convinced some that "Muhammad was probably the greatest champion of women’s rights the world has ever seen" (Pierre Crabites, cited in Allama Sir Abdullah Al-Mamun Al-Suhrawardy, The Wisdom of Muhammad, p. 20). Descriptions of Muhammad’s improvements in the area of gender relations abound in Muslim writings:
So far back as the seventh century of the Christian era, Islam abolished the horrible practice of female infanticide prevalent among the pagan Arabs, gave clear directions leading to the restriction of polygamy, restrained the unlimited rights exercised by men over their wives, and gave woman both spiritual and material equality with man.(Ibid., p. 20)
Arab human rights were quite backward, even for the time. Women had precious few rights. A woman became the property of a man upon marriage, and no woman could refuse a match made by her father. Spousal abuse was rampant, with no recourse to any quarter for help. Upon the death of her husband, a woman could be inherited by her son and made her son’s wife. Female infanticide in which newborn baby girls were buried alive in the sand was quite common in a society that considered surplus females a burden. Women had no divorce or well-defined inheritance rights and certainly no political vote. A man could divorce without reason and leave a woman penniless, and there was no limit to the number of wives a man could have, nor rules for how each should be treated. . . . Arabian custom had always dictated that women should take no public role in religious or political activity. The superiority of men over women in all respects was also a widely accepted notion. Muhammad changed that notion by asserting that men and women were equals before God in every sphere. . . . To examine the record of Muhammad and his mission is to gain a new respect for the improvements he made in the lives of both men and women.(Emerick, pp. 8-9, 141, 142)
The Qur’an provided women with explicit rights to inheritance, to property, the obligation to testify in a court of law, and the right to divorce. It made explicit prohibitions on the use of violence against female children and women as well as on duress in marriage and community affairs. . . . Women were equally responsible for ensuring that all religious duties of the individual and society were fulfilled, in terms of punishment for social, criminal and moral infractions. They were also offered equal opportunities to attain the ultimate boon: paradise and proximity to Allah if they strove with all their means to ‘establish what is good and forbid what is evil’. (Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies, The No-Nonsense Guide to Islam, pp. 121, 122)
While it is true that Muhammad raised the status of certain women in some respects, we cannot let this fact cloud other issues, namely, (1) that Muhammad permitted husbands to beat their wives, (2) that he repeatedly proclaimed the inferiority of women’s intellectual abilities, (3) that he taught that women’s prospects for the afterlife are extremely bleak, and (4) that, according to Muhammad, it is acceptable for men to rape their female captives. When combined with the above passages describing Muhammad’s beneficial impact on society, these four facts allow us to arrive at a more accurate and well-rounded picture of Muhammad’s view of women.
FACT #1: The Qur’an allows (or, perhaps, commands) men to beat their wives into subservience. If a wife doesn’t listen to her husband, the husband should admonish her. If that doesn’t work, he is to make her sleep in a separate bed. However, if the wife still doesn’t respect her husband’s authority, the husband is told to physically punish her. Consider three translations of the following verse:
Qur'an 4:34 (Pickthall)—Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret what Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High Exalted, Great.
Qur'an 4:34 (Shakir)—Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great.
Qur'an 4:34 (Ali)—Men are the protectors And maintainers of women, Because Allah has given The one more (strength) Than the other, and because They support them From their means. Therefore the righteous women Are devoutly obedient, and guard In (the husband’s) absence What Allah would have them guard. As to those women On whose part ye fear Disloyalty and ill-conduct, Admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); But if they return to obedience, Seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, Great (above you all).
Muslim translators have struggled with this passage and have sought ways to water down its clear meaning. For instance, Ali adds the word "lightly" to his translation, which doesn’t occur in the original Arabic. However, even if we allow Ali to tone down the parts of the Qur’an he finds offensive, the verse still allows husbands to beat their wives. Hence, according to God’s last and greatest prophet, spousal abuse is permissible, and perhaps even required. Modern nations that have established laws against spousal abuse are therefore in direct violation of Allah’s command in the Qur’an.
FACT #2: According to Muhammad, women lack common sense because their minds are deficient. Of course, this declaration didn’t go unchallenged. To his credit, Muhammad allowed women to question him about their intellectual deficiencies. His response to these questions was illuminating:
Sahih Muslim 142—[Muhammad said]: O womenfolk, you should give charity and ask much forgiveness for I saw you in bulk amongst the dwellers of Hell. A wise lady among them said: Why is it, Messenger of Allah, that our folk is in bulk in Hell? Upon this the Holy Prophet observed: You curse too much and are ungrateful to your spouses. I have seen none lacking in common sense and failing in religion but (at the same time) robbing the wisdom of the wise, besides you. Upon this the woman remarked: What is wrong with our common sense and with religion? He (the Holy Prophet) observed: Your lack of common sense (can be well judged from the fact) that the evidence of two women is equal to one man, that is a proof of the lack of common sense.
Sahih Al-Bukhari 2658—The Prophet (the blessing and peace of Allah be upon him) 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 her mind."
Notice here that, in the first passage, Muhammad justifies his claim that women lack common sense by stating that their testimony is worth half that of a man. Yet, in the second passage, Muhammad justifies his claim that the testimony of women is half as good as men’s testimony by stating that women have deficient minds. This is a classic example of circular reasoning. We can imagine a conversation between Muhammad and a more critical questioner:
Questioner: "O Muhammad! Why is Hell full of women?"
Muhammad: "Because they lack common sense!"
Questioner: "How do you know they lack common sense?"
Muhammad: "Their lack of common sense can be seen from the fact that their testimony is only half as good as a man’s testimony."
Questioner: "But why is their testimony half as good as a man’s?"
Muhammad: "Because of the deficiency of their minds!"
Questioner: "How do you know that their minds are deficient?"
Muhammad: "The deficiency of their minds can be seen from the fact that their testimony is worth half the testimony of a man."
Questioner: "Again, why is their testimony half as good?"
Muhammad: "Because their minds are deficient!"
Questioner: "Maybe the only thing deficient here is your argument."
Notice also that Muhammad’s claims here are falsifiable. That is, they can be tested and, in theory, disproved. We could easily set up an experiment to see whether Muhammad’s statements about the inferiority of a woman’s intellect are correct. We could also set up an experiment in which a group of men and a group of women each witness the same accident. If the testimonies gathered from the male group are twice as accurate as the testimonies taken from the female group, Muhammad’s statements will have been vindicated. On the other hand, if the reports from the two groups are similar, we can dismiss Muhammad’s ideas as the sexist comments of a man affected by cultural biases.
FACT #3: Muhammad offered women little hope for the afterlife. Indeed, he clearly states that most of the inhabitants of hell are women who were ungrateful to their husbands (though he never suggests that ungrateful husbands will receive similar punishment). This means that, after being admonished, banished to a separate bed, and beaten by her husband, a willful woman can look forward to an eternity in hell:
Sahih Al-Bukhari 1052—The Prophet said: "I saw paradise and stretched my hands towards a bunch (of its fruits) and had I taken it, you would have eaten from it as long as the world remains. I also saw the Hell-fire and I had never seen such a horrible sight. I saw that most of the inhabitants were women." The people asked: "O Allah’s Apostle! Why is it so?" The Prophet said: "Because of their ungratefulness." It was asked whether they are ungrateful to Allah. The Prophet said: "They are ungrateful to their companions of life (husbands) and ungrateful to good deeds."
Sahih Al-Bukhari 1462—[Muhammad said], "O women! Give to charity, for I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-Fire were women." The women asked, "O Allah’s Apostle! What is the reason for it?" He said: "O women! You curse frequently, and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. O women, some of you can lead a cautious man astray."
However, even if these women were to stop cursing and to start thanking their husbands, their prospects for the afterlife would still leave much to be desired. According to Muhammad, Muslim women can look forward to an eternity of standing in corners, waiting for men to come and have sex with them:
Sahih Al-Bukhari 4879—Allah’s Apostle said: "In Paradise there is a pavilion 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."
Hence, good Muslim women who respect their husbands in this life will have the opportunity to continue their sexual service to their husbands in "Paradise." Apparently, Muhammad considered this to be an appropriate view of Paradise; many women would rightly disagree.
FACT #4: The Qur’an permits Muslims to have sex with their female captives and slaves (i.e. those "whom their right hands possess"). As the Muslim armies raided town after town, they captured many women, who would often be sold or traded. Yet, since the Muslim men were a long way from their wives, they needed wisdom from God to guide them in their treatment of their female captives:
Qur’an 23:1-6—The Believers must (Eventually) win through—Those who humble themselves In their prayers; Who avoid vain talk; Who are active in deeds Of charity; Who abstain from sex, Except with those joined To them in the marriage bond, Or (the captives) whom Their right hands possess—For (in their case) they are Free from blame.
Qur'an 70:22-30—Not so those devoted To Prayer—Those who remain steadfast To their prayer; And those in whose wealth Is a recognized right For the (needy) who asks And him who is prevented (For some reason from asking); And those who hold To the truth of the Day Of Judgement; And those who fear The displeasure of their Lord—For their Lord’s displeasure Is the opposite of Peace And Tranquility—And those who guard Their chastity, Except with their wives And the (captives) whom Their right hands possess—For (then) they are not To be blamed.
The Muslim practice of having sex with captured women is reported often in the Hadith, where we find Muslims perplexed about what to do with their captives. It wasn’t long before Allah sent a revelation allowing the confused soldiers to sleep with the women:
Sahih Muslim 3432—Allah’s Messenger sent an army to Autas and encountered the enemy and fought with them. Having overcome them and taken them captives, the Companions of Allah’s Messenger 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 (4:24)" (i.e. they were lawful for them when their Idda period came to an end).
Sahih Muslim 3371—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). 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 to be born up to the Day of Resurrection will be born.
Sahih Al-Bukhari 4138—We went out with Allah’s Apostle for the invasion of Bun 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 [same as "azl" above]. 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."
Sahih Muslim 3384—Jabir bin Abdullah (Allah be pleased with them) reported that a person asked Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) saying: I have a slave-girl and I practice azl with her, whereupon Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: This cannot prevent that which Allah has decreed. The person then came (after some time) and said: Messenger of Allah, the slave-girl about whom I talked to you has conceived, whereupon Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: I am the servant of Allah and His Messenger.
The Muslims had originally refrained from having sex with their captives because they were the wives of polytheists; nevertheless, God sent a message saying that they were free to have sex with the women. Modern Muslim apologists claim that this sexual intercourse would only have occurred after marriage, but this view is clearly false. Muhammad’s followers said that they wanted to have sex with the women but that they still wanted to sell them. They asked Muhammad about performing coitus interruptus, but Muhammad answered that it doesn’t really matter. All children who are destined to be born will be born, so it doesn’t matter if a man practices coitus interruptus or not.
Thus, the Qur’an permits men to have sex with their female captives (whose husbands were sometimes still alive), and the Hadith provides examples of when this was practiced. Yet we must follow this fact through to its logical conclusion. The Muslims decided to have sex with their captives, whom they were later going to sell. These captives were women whose husbands and families had been exterminated by the Muslims. Would these women gladly consent to sexual intercourse with the men who had killed their families? Probably not. But since the Qur’an and Muhammad authorized sex with these captives, it is highly probable that Muhammad allowed Muslims to rape their captives.
Muhammad improved the lives of certain women in Arabia in some ways. However, Muslims sometimes use this fact as evidence of Muhammad’s prophethood. Such an argument is absurd. All that is implied by the improvement in women’s lives is that Islam wasn’t as bad as the culture before it, which says more about the pagans than it does about the Muslims. For, as we have seen, Muhammad permitted spousal abuse, stated repeatedly that women have inferior minds, claimed that most of the people in hell are women, and allowed his men to have sex with their captives. This situation was still probably better than that of certain women prior to the rise of Islam; however, Muhammad was far from being "the greatest champion of women’s rights the world has ever seen."
In the West, the status of women has greatly improved over the past few centuries. We can all be thankful that people in some areas of the Muslim world are seeing the change and are trying to adopt similar policies, in spite of Muhammad’s low opinion of women. Yet many areas, intent on following Muhammad’s guidelines, are still in darkness. We can only hope that those who want to heed the Qur’an will one day pick up the Bible and read the words of the Apostle Paul:
Colossians 3:19—Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.
Ephesians 5:25—Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
Galatians 3:26-29—You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into the name of Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
To learn more about this topic, see Sam Shamoun's four-part "Women in Islam" series: [Part One], [Part Two], [Part Three], [Part Four].