The rise of Islam: What did happen to women? - Azar Tabari

The rise of Islam: What did happen to women? - Azar Tabari

Iranian feminist Azar Tabari subjects to critical examination the widespread view that the rise of Islam improved the lot of Middle-Eastern women compared with their situation in pre-Islamic Arabia.

This article was written several years ago, as a discussion paper. Since then, a lot more literature on the same topic has come to my attention and new works have been published. I am nevertheless submitting it for publication without any updating, because I believe that some of what it contains may still serve as a starting point for further discussion and clarification.


The recent emergence of Islamic movements in the Middle East, particularly during the Iranian events, has led among other things to new interest in historical investigations into Islam. Such investigations are long overdue, but are particularly important now, when prevailing mystifications and falsifications regarding the history of Islam serve to consolidate the ideological grip of a very reactionary political movement. Of no other single social issue is this more true than the situation of women under Islam. Not only do the present-day proponents of Islamic governments propose a most reactionary and retrogressive set of norms, values and rules of human behaviour as the sole salvation of women, but they also claim that Islam has already proved once before the validity of its emancipating mission by liberating Arab women from the oppressive circumstances prevalent in pre-Islamic Arabia, in the dark period of so-called Jahiliya (ignorance). To be sure, the proponents of Islam do not claim that it granted women equal rights; neither do they propose to do so today. They argue that equality of rights, as understood and interpreted by Western thinkers and their followers in the Muslim world, is but a diversion from a real emancipation of women, because in this context equality has come to mean identity of rights. This, they argue, is both unnatural and unjust. Islam has offered the proper solution by assigning suitable responsibilities and rights to the two sexes. And in the recognition of these rights and responsibilities lies the only road to the emancipation of women.1

Even on the Marxist left, although most agree on the reactionary character of Islamic codes for women today, there is often an unspoken acceptance that perhaps Islam did carry some positive gains for women as women when it originally arose almost fourteen centuries ago. As a universalist religion, Islam provided the basis for the emergence and consolidation of a centralised state that, no matter how one may judge its role today, served to propel Arabia forwards from its tribal pre-state conditions to a world empire.

How valid are such claims concerning the emancipatory role of Islam for women, either as argued by proponents of Islam today, or accepted almost as an article of a faith in historical progress by many on the Marxist left? What was the real status of women in pre-Islamic Arabia and how did it change as the Islamic community shaped itself? Did pre-Islamic Arabs really bury alive their female infants? Were pre-Islamic Arab women deprived of property rights? What were the rights of fathers, brothers and husbands over women and how did Islam modify these traditional norms and customs?

In attempting to answer some of these questions and open a discussion on others, two caveats have to be made. First, it is not the task of this essay to give an analysis of Islam in general. Therefore, statements related to this general question, the conditions of the rise of Islam and its subsequent impact and development, will be asserted rather than demonstrated. One justification for this choice is the already existing literature on this topic.2

The second caveat is more problematic: I am referring to the problem of sources and documentation. As Rodinson has summarised the problem, ‘There is nothing [in Muslim literature and sources] of which we can say for certain that it incontestably dates back to the time of the Prophet.’3 The Qur’an itself, the only text over which there is almost general agreement amongst all Muslim schools and sects, was not committed to writing during Muhammad’s lifetime. It is said to have been collated during ‘Uthman’s caliphate, some twenty years after Muhammad’s death. Being accepted as the word of God, it remains to this very day closed to scrutiny and not in any need of documentation and historiography as far as Muslims are concerned. The hadith, the body of oral tradition that is supposed to go back to the time of Muhammad himself, was collected in the second and third centuries of Islam, and the Shi’i version only in the fourth century. The Abbasids in particular, in their attempt to run a vast empire on Islamic precepts, needed a thorough codification of laws, social and political guidelines to run the state. This had to be developed through formulations of precedents and interpretations of the Qur’an set by the Propet himself, as in Islam the legislative powers belong solely to God, and His laws were conveyed only through the Prophet.4 The hadith, therefore, cannot be depended upon for factual and historical documentation. As Goldziher has aptly noted, the common formula that opens each hadith, ‘the Prophet said’, simply means that the matter as explained further is correct from a religious point of view, or more often that the matter as explained by the hadith is the right way of handling the given problem, and perhaps the Prophet would have also agreed to this.5 Nonetheless, the hadith is not without historical value of a different kind. Apart from facts that can be extracted from the stories told, they reflect what the emerging Muslim community and state legislated, thought, and attributed to a previous period. Here I tend to agree with W. Robertson Smith’s evaluation of the hadith and other such literary sources: the stories could be purely fictitious, but the hypothetical social settings could not be invented arbitrarily.6

The anthropological data on the period under discussion are also meagre and uncertain. Despite these difficulties, one can attempt to project certain logical and historical hypotheses, which – due to the difficulties just mentioned – must remain open to further documentation and challenge, and serve only to initiate a long-overdue historical investigation.

The historical setting

The emergence of Islam as a universalist religion and a centralising political movement led to and necessitated three inter related social developments in early Islamic society (as compared to pre-IslamicArabian society), which are relevant to our discussion of the situation of women.

First, the emergence of a centralised state, demanding total loyalty from all its subjects instead of the old traditional tribal loyalties, required the universalisation of all norms throughout the Islamic community. One unified code had to replace the multiplicity of norms, customs and arrangements that varied from one tribe to the next.

Second, this disintegration of the tribal system and the emergence of the larger community, while dissolving the tribal networks, responsibilities and mutual contracts, consolidated the smaller patriarchal family unit (composed of husband, wife and children). As against the larger and much looser kinship network, the individual family was now defined, delineated and consolidated through a whole series of regulations. Perhaps this affected the lot of women more than any other part of Islamic legislation.

Third, the individual was emphasised as against the tribe or other kinship networks. It was the individual that was responsible for his own salvation through conversion to the faith. It was the individual, and not the tribe, as was the custom of pre-Islamic Arabia, that was to be punished for any contravention of the social code.7

It was this combination of the emergence of the larger community of Muslims, coupled with the consolidation of the smaller family unit and the emphasis on individuality, all against the background of a disintegrating tribal system and the breaking-up of the larger kinship networks, which explains the changes that occurred in the situation of women. To examine these changes we shall start from a discussion of the family and the various legislations and codifications surrounding it. This will cover most of the points related to women. Other issues, such as female infanticide, will be dealt with at the end.

Tribe, family and individual

There has been a long-standing discussion about the existence or otherwise of a matriarchal period in Arabia. W. Robertson Smith, whose book Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia remains to this day the.single most valuable source on the topic, makes a strong case for the predominance of the matriarchal family in Arabia. However, much of the evidence that is marshalled in support of the matriarchal theory could be explained even more convincingly in other and simpler ways. For example, one need not adhere to a matriarchal theory to explain the factually established pattern of women staying with their own tribe )rather than moving to the husband’s tribe) after marriage. One only has to remember that a very large number of young and middle-aged men spent prolonged periods (measured in years) away from their place of residence with trade caravans. Under these circumstances it would seem quite natural for the woman to stay with her own tribe to enjoy their protection and help, rather than move into an alien tribe. It seems more likely that at the time of the emergence of Islam, the Arabian peninsula was not going through a transition from matriarchal to patriarchal family. Rather, it was going through a period of consolidation of the family unit (which was patriarchal, to be sure) at the expense of the larger kinship networks and tribal fluidity.8 The earlier, tribal norms were in some ways more favourable to women, accepting a laxer attitude to sexual and marital relations. In certain cases they gave women de facto rights to divorce, and even allowed polyandrous practices. This may have been connected with the long periods during which aman was away from home, making it acceptable for a woman to take another husband.) Let us look more closely at some of these pre-Islamic customs.

There seems to be sufficient evidence that in pre-Islamic Arabia there existed three types of marriage, which differed from each other in the arrangements for the residence of the wife and children. (It should be pointed out that, in the eyes of contemporary society, the main issue was the eventual tribal affiliation of the children rather than the location of the wife.)

First, the woman could leave her own tribe and join the husband’s, in which case all the children would automatically belong to the husband’s tribe, unless the wife’s tribe had stipulated conditions to the contrary.

Second, the wife could stay with her own tribe and the husband would pay her occasional visits. In this case the children would belong to their mother’s tribe, or join their father’s tribe after the first few years of infancy. It is apparently this mode of marriage that provided the basis for the later Islamic legislation, according to which the mother has guardianship of her sons and daughters up to the ages of two and six respectively.

Third, the woman could stay with her tribe and the husband would join her. Here the children would belong to the mother’s tribe.9 W. Robertson Smith cites many examples from different sources to illustrate these different types of marriage. Here is one such story:

‘An illustration of this kind of union as it was practised before Islam is given in the story of Salma bint ‘Amr, one of the Najjar clan at Medina Ibn Hisham, p88). Salma, we are told, on account of her noble birth )the reason given by Moslem historians in other cases also for a privilege they did not comprehend), would not marry anyone except on condition that she should be her own mistress and separate from him when she pleased. She was for a time the wife of Hashim the Meccan, during a sojourn he made at Medina, and bore him a son, afterwards famous as ‘Abd al-Mottalib, who remained with his mother’s people. The story goes on to tell how the father’s kin ultimately prevailed on the mother to give up the boy to them. But even after this, according to a tradition in Tabari, 1:1086, the lad had to appeal to his mother’s kin against injustice he had suffered from his father’s people. . . The same conditions underlie other legends of ancient Arabia, e.g., the story of Omm Kharija, who contracted marriages in more than twenty tribes, and is represented as living among her sons, who, therefore, had not followed their respective fathers.’10

Amina, Muhammad’s mother, is said to have stayed with her tribe, and ‘Abdallah, Muhammad’s father, paid her a visit. Muhammad himself is said to have lived with his mother until her death, at which time his father’s kin took charge of him.

More interestingly, it seems that it was acceptable for a woman to ask for sexual intercourse (outside any formal union), or to reject her husband’s demand for sexual intercourse, without incurring any shameor guilt. Again the stories implying such norms are post-Islamic; but regardless of their factual value – which is often not very great – they show that even several centuries after Islam the Muslim historians did not find it necessary to associate shame or guilt or scorn with these pre-Islamic customs. Robertson Smith quotes from Aghani (16:106) a story related to the marriage of Hatim and Mawiya: ‘The women in the Jahiliya, or some of them, had the right to dismiss their husbands, and the form of dismissal was this. If they lived in a tent they turned it round, so that if the door faced east it now faced west, and when the man saw this he knew that he was dismissed and did not enter.’ He later summarises the three features characteristic of the marriage of Mawiya as follows: ‘She was free to choose her husband, received him in her own tent, and dismissed him at pleasure.’11 We must add parenthetically that the same story and many similar ones also show that the later Muslim theologians’ boast that in Islam women cannot be married off against their wishes, unlike the Jahiliya period when women are supposed to have been treated like cattle, is unfounded. At least in some parts of Arabia, a woman would only marry the man she chose. It is likely that Muhammad, as in many other cases that will be discussed later, selected among the existing customs those that were most suited to the general development of a universalist religion with emphasis on the individual.

The story associated with the conception of Muhammad himself contains at once a case of rejection and demand on the part of a woman of nobility:

‘Taking ‘Abdullah by the hand ‘Abdu ‘I-Muttalib went away and they passed – so it is alleged – . . . the sister of Waraqa b. Naufal. . . When she looked at him she asked, “Where are you going Abdullah?” He replied, “With my father.” She said: “If you will take me you can have as many camels as were sacrificed in your stead.” “I am with my father and I cannot act against his wishes and leave him,” he replied.

‘Abdul-Muttalib brought him to Wahb… and he married him to his daughter Amina…

‘It is alleged that ‘Abdullah consummated his marriage immediately and his wife conceived the apostle of God. Then he left her presence and met the woman who had proposed to him. He asked her why she did not make the proposal that she made to him the day before; to which she replied that the light that was with him the day before had left him…

‘My father Ishaq b. Yasar told me that he was told that ‘Abdullah went in to a woman that he had beside Arnina b. Wahb when he had been working in clay and the marks of the clay were on him. She put him off when he made a suggestion to her because of the dirt that was on him. He then left her and washed and bathed himself, and as he madehis way to Amina he passed her and she invited him to come to her. He refused and went to Amina who conceived Muhammad.’12

Note, by the way, that according to the story Waraqa’s sister was not only very rich (she offered to give ‘Abdallah 100 camels for his sexual favours) but also had the power to dispose of her property as she wished.

Marriage and sexual codes under Islam

Muhammad, in his attempts to ban all forms of marriage except those regarded as proper in Islam and to strengthen the family headed by the husband, had to impose very severe punishments for zina‘ (sexual intercourse outside marriage or concubinage): 100 lashes to each partner if the woman is unmarried, death if the woman is married. And the husband of a disobedient wife is recommended to take recourse to a whole range of punishments, ranging from cutting off her allowance to beating. It seems unlikely that such strict punishments would have been necessary if extra-marital sexual relations and rejection by the wife of her husband’s sexual advances were very unusual or were already stigmatised as socially unacceptable and subject to scorn and contempt.

Numerous Qur’anic verses (I have located 15 at one count) describe in amusing detail what sexual relations are permitted, which ones are prohibited, and whom one can or cannot marry. In pre-Islamic Arabia, a whole range of marriages existed and were acceptable. Some, such as the musha‘ marriage where several men shared a common wife, were acceptable and existed only amongst the poorer members of the tribes, those who could not each afford a bride-price. Other marriages, such as istibdha‘, where a husband would send his wife to a strong man in order to get strong offspring, were short-termed and had a specific goal. Many marriages, particularly among the heads of tribes, were political acts. One source lists ten different types of marriage, most of which were later explicitly banned in Islam.13 Apart from musha‘ and istibdha‘, which we have already mentioned, he cites the following: istibdal, where two men would temporarily swap their wives – banned in the Qur’an (4:20-21); maqt, that is, the automatic right of a son to inherit his father’s wives – banned in the Qur’an (4:19); mut’a, temporary marriages that are automatically annulled at the end of the specified period – still prevalent amongst Shi’is and Malikis, but banned in all other Islamic sects; shighar, an arrangement between two families where each marriage would count as the mahr (the bride-price) for the other, so that no bride-price would be paid – banned under Islam by the ruling that the bride-price must be paid to the woman herself; sifah, basically amounting to prostitution – banned in many Qur’anic verses (along with khiddan, that is taking free lovers), e.g., 4:25, 5:5. There seems to have also existed a custom of offering one’s wife’s sexual services to another man in exchange for certain favours. Several verses in the Qur’an forbid husbands to prostitute their wives.One’s female slaves were also not to be forced into prostitution against their wishes, though otherwise it was not banned.

A word must also be said here about polygamy. Muslim apologists have offered various justifications and interpretations of this topic. Some hail it as the proper solution for correcting the supposed arithmetical imbalance between men and women. There are always, they argue, more women than men – especially in times of war, and Arabia at the time of Muhammad was certainly a war-ridden zone. Others claim that the famous Qur’anic verse (4:3) which commands men to be just to all their wives practically outlaws polygamy, as it is impossible for a manto practice such justice. More pragmatic theoreticians accept that Islam neither invented nor banned polygamy. But they claim that by restricting the number of wives to four and by commanding the practice of fairness towards all wives, Islam improved the status of wives. Mutahhari devotes almost a quarter of his aforementioned book to the discussion of polygamy and insists that Muhammad strictly enforced the ‘four wives only’ law to the extent that if men with more than four wives were converted to Islam, he would force them to abandon their extra wives.14 He cites several hadith in support of his argument – none of which stops him from also recognising without the slightest hint of any moral or religious qualm that Muhammad himself in the last ten years of his life had ten wives and many more concubines.15 Shari’ati, on the other hand, who does not like portraying a Muhammad who does not practice what he preaches, dates the revelation of verse 3 of sura 4 to the eighth year after hijra, that is, when Muhammad already had all his ten wives and it would have been unfair and inhuman to abandon any of them.16 The generally accepted date of the marriage legislations in sura 4 is shortly after the battle of Uhud, in the third year after hijra.

But there are several problems with this whole line of justifications and interpretations of sura 4, verse 3.

First, as Rodinson has noted,

‘It is, in fact, by no means certain that polygamy was so widespread in pre-Islamic Arabia. It is hard to see how an encouragement to take concubines if one is afraid of not acting fairly towards a number of wives can be a move in the direction of the supposedly more moral ideal of monogamy. Moreover, the Koranic text is clearly not a restriction but an exhortation, somewhat vaguely (for us) connected with fairness to orphans. Probably, as a result of battles and other factors, the community of Medina included more women than men. Those who had lost their fathers, and women especially, were not always well treated by their guardians, who took advantage of their position to rob them. Muslim widows and orphans had to be married off as soon as possible. Once again, in order to understand a phenomenon, it is necessary to set it in its historical context before allocating praise or blame in the name of supposedly eternal moral, religious or political dogmas.’17

Second, the verse in question is not only highly exhortative; it is by no means restrictive. The numbers two, three, four, are used in the verse merely as numerical examples and in no way can one take the verse to mean no more than four. Other verses in the Qur’an, e.g. 4:24, encourage men to take as many wives as they can afford. What does in fact call for a historical explanation – something that has never been offered, and which I am myself unable to provide – is why the later Muslim theologians took sura 4, verse 3 to be a restrictive clause at all.

As already mentioned, Islam banned some of the previously practised forms of marriage in an attempt to universalise norms and customs across the Muslim community and to supersede varying tribal practices. Some legislation clearly aimed at eliminating what was considered spurious sexual relations and at consolidating the family unit (e.g., banning sifah, khiddan, and istibdha‘). Other prohibitions would both strengthen the family and establish the primacy of individual over tribal and kinship rights – an important element in all universalist religions, which call for individual conversions and responsibilities, and promise individual salvation (as opposed to group rights and responsibilities). The ban against shighar and maqt would seem to emphasise the importance of woman as an individual. The same observation goes for the insistence on paying the bride-price to the woman herself rather than to her father. This practice, however, was already becoming dominant before the emergence of Islam.18

Closely related to the consolidation of the family and the new emphasis on individualism was Islam’s insistence on the certainty of fatherhood, clearly a problem with practices such as musha‘, istibdal, or offering one’s wife’s sexual services in exchange for favours. Strict observation of a waiting period for a woman prior to a new marriage was also imposed to the same end (3 periods after a divorce – Qur’an ,2:228 – and four months and ten days after the death of the husband –2:234 – the extra forty days are presumed to be for respect of the dead Man).

Correspondingly, divorce became more restricted and was regarded unfavourably. In pre-Islamic Arabia, at least in those parts where women stayed with their own tribes and retained their own tent, it seems that they had the right to discontinue the marriage at any time; so had the men, of course. The only constraint seems to have been that the woman’s tribe would have to pay back the bride-price to the man’s tribe. Moreover, if a man divorced his wife but did not claim back the mahr he had paid, he would retain the right to go back and claim the wife again.19 Islam outlawed this practice by discouraging men from keeping women ‘suspended’, as it was called; it limited the time within which a man could go back and seek reconciliation to the three-period waiting time of the divorced wife; and it prohibited remarriage with the same woman after three consecutive divorces, unless the woman was first married to another man (Qur’an 2:230).

In mut’a marriage, the contract was automatically terminated after a prescribed period. This was a very common practice, considering the ‘mobile’ life style of many men. Rodinson quotes Ammianus Marcellinus saying of the Arabs in the fourth century AD:

‘Their life is always on the move, and they have mercenary wives, hired under a temporary contract. But in order that there may be some semblance of matrimony,the future wife, by way of dower, offers her husband a spear and a tent, with the right to leave him after a stipulated time, if she so elects.’20

Robertson Smith considers the mut’a already a restriction on the previous rights of women, where they could divorce their husbands at any time.21

Apart from mut’a, Islam further restricted women’s divorce rights by leaving it only to the husband to decide on divorce. Although the practice of foregoing one’s mahr for a divorce continues to exist in Muslim countries up to now, it no longer guarantees the wife a divorce: the husband has the right to refuse a divorce even if the wife is prepared to forego her mahr. Only very limited circumstances (such as disappearance of a husband over four years, or extreme physical deformities leading to sexual impotence) entitle a wife to ask an Islamic judge for a divorce. The final decision is left to the judge, however.

Honour, shame and the veil

Along with these elaborate and restrictive rules of marriage and divorce, new concepts of honour, chastity and modesty for women began to emerge. We have already noted that in many stories on pre- Islamic Arabia, in poetry and in hadith (related to the circumstances of Muhammad’s conception) – regardless of the factual value of such stories – no concept of shame or dishonour comes through regarding women’s lax sexual relations and frequent marriages. We have argued that the severe punishment against zina‘ was aimed at uprooting these practices. The question of the veil itself also makes sense in this context of trying to create a new image of modesty in women. The origin of the veil (the large scarves that women wore in Arabia) remains in dispute. What is clear, however, is that, regardless of its pre-Islamic functions, in the Qur’an women are urged to cover their bosoms, to conceal their ornaments, and to avoid making noises with their ankle ornament kalkhal) as a sign of modesty and to show these only to their husband or to those with whom they could or should not have sexual relations.

Here is the full text of sura 24, verse 31:22

‘And say to the believing women, that they cast down their eyes and guard their private parts, and reveal not their adornment save such as is outward; and let them cast their veils over their bosoms, and not reveal their adornment save to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husbands’ fathers, or their sons, or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or what their right hand owns, or such men as attend them, not having sexual desire, or children who have not yet attained knowledge of women’s private parts; nor let them stamp their feet, so that their hidden ornament may be known. And turn all together to God, O you believers; haply so you will prosper.’

That is, women are commanded not simply to cover themselves, but to cover themselves for a specific purpose: to keep men’s eyes off them, not to try to attract men through physical display and sensuous games.

Muhammad’s wives are ordered even more severe restrictions – these are presumed commendable for all Muslim women to abide by:

‘Wives of the Prophet, you are not as other women. If you are god- fearing, be not abject in your speech, so that he in whose heart is sickness may be lustful; but speak honourable words. Remain in your houses; and display not your finery, as did the pagans of old. . . ‘(33:33-34) –

And further in the same sura:

‘O believers, enter not the houses of the Prophet, except leave is given you for a meal, without watching for its hour. But when you are invited, then enter; and when you have had the meal, disperse, neither lingering for idle talk; that is hurtful to the Prophet, and he is ashamed before you; but God is not ashamed before the truth. And when you ask his wives for any object, ask them from behind a curtain; that is cleaner for your hearts and theirs. It is not for you to hurt God’s Messenger, neither to marry his wives after him, ever; surely that would be, in God’s sight a monstrous thing.’ (33:53).

Up to this day, any physical contact between a man or a woman who may be sexually attracted to each other is forbidden in Islam. Mutahhari recommends that women working in modern offices or going to universities must wear gloves at all times to avoid possible accidents of touch. Even touching through gloves or other clothes is permissible only if there is no intention of enjoyment or games.23

The last two issues to be discussed are that of inheritance and female infanticide. Muslim writers on the subject of inheritance often state that Islam instituted inheritance and property rights for women, something that they were presumably deprived of in pre-Islamic Arabia.24 This is simply false and in contradiction to many statements in the Muslim hadith itself. For example, if women had no property rights, it becomes inexplicable how a woman such as Khadija (Muhammad’s future wife) is supposed to have had large fortunes and sent off sizeable trade caravans, several of which were led by Muhammad. Presumably she had inherited the wealth either from her father or from a previous husband. The story of Waraqa’s sister cited before is also testimony to the existence of women with considerable property and complete right over its disposal. There are numerous examples to the same effect.

What the historical evidence points to is that in some cities, such as Madina, where an established patriarchal culture had taken root )possibly under the influence of Judaism from which Islam took over a vast number of its civil codes and religious practices) women do not seem to have had a share in inheritance; while in other cities, in particular Muhammad’s own town of Mecca, they did have a traditional share, half that of a man.25 Similar provisions existed concerning blood-money (at the time of Muhammad 100 camels for an adult male and fifty for an adult female) and in witnessing procedure (where the testimony of two women could replace that of one man).26 These Meccan customs Muhammad institutionalised across the Muslim community.

The practice of female infanticide seems to have existed in some areas, but not at all to the extent that has been generally alleged later. Robertson Smith refers to one source indicating ‘that the practice had once been general, but before the time of the Prophet had nearly gone out, except among the Tamim.’27 He, along with most other writers, tends to attribute the occasional practice to poverty. He cites several examples where it seems that the practice of infanticide had appeared again only after long periods of severe drought. The practice seems to have affected both male and female children, but more the latter. As men were more mobile and more vital to the continuing of the traditional trade and possibly pastural life and defence of the tribe, sons were taken care of, while female infants were seen as useless burdens upon already meagre resources.28

The Qur’anic verses concerning infanticide refer to general infanticide in three places (6:141, 152; 17:33) and to female infanticide only once (81:8).


So what can we conclude from this survey? I think the most general observation that can be made today remains roughly the same as was made about a century ago by Robertson Smith regarding the Islamic system of marriage:

‘Though Islam softened some of the harshest features of the old law, it yet has set a permanent seal of subjugation on the female sex by stereotyping a system of marriage which at bottom is nothing else than the old marriage of dominion.

‘It is very remarkable that in spite of Mohammed’s humane ordinances the place of woman in the family and in society has steadily declined under his law. In ancient Arabia we find, side by side with such instances of oppression as are recorded at Medina, many proofs that women moved more freely and asserted themselves more strongly than in the modern East.’29

Remarkable though this verdict may be, it is nevertheless not surprising or illogical. No matter what the impact of Islam may have been in other aspects of social life in Arabia and elsewhere as it spread through countries and continents, it invariably had the effect of institutionalising the subjugation of women. The disintegration of tribal ties and emergence of the community of Muslims may have given the general community new strength in the face of outsiders, but it lost women a source of protection they had enjoyed, that of their tribal solidarity.

This, along with the consolidation and rigid institutionalisation of the patriarchal family, put women in a weaker position within the family. In the face of undesirable marriages they could no longer ask for a divorce or enjoy the support of their tribe in such a dispute, and had to abide by newly instituted norms of modesty and be more and more secluded ‘behind a curtain’, as Muhammad’s wives were advised. That Islam became from its inception a state religion par excellence – in the words of Rodinson, Muhammad combined Jesus Christ and Charlemagne in a single person – has contributed to the consolidation of this subjugation in a particular way: throughout the centuries the forces backing the perpetuation of this subjugation were not limited to economic and social factors, customs and cultural pressures, families, etc.30 It was directly the state itself, its laws, its ideology, and the culture it regenerated, that at every level reproduced and enforced the subjugation of women in Muslim societies. To this day this remains the distinguishing feature of the subjugation of Muslim women.

  • 1. An exhaustive coverage of these arguments is given in Murteza Mutahhari’s book, Nizam-e Huquq-e Zan dar Islam (Persian text, The System of Women’s Rights in Islam), Qum, 1974, particularly Chapter 5, entitled, ‘The Human Status of Women in the Qur’an’, pp107-142.
  • 2. Amongst such works, to mention only a few contemporary sources, are: Marshal Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, three volumes, Chicago, 1974; Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History, London, 1950; and Maxime Rodinson, Mohammed, London, 1971
  • 3. See Rodinson, op cit, pp x-xii.
  • 4. See Ignaz Goldziher, Darsha’i dar baray Islam (Persian text, Studies on Islam), Tehran, 1979, pp90-102. This is a Persian translation of Golziher’s book Vorlesungen Über den Islam, Heidelberg, 1910
  • 5. Goldziher, op cit, p89
  • 6. W. Robertson Smith, Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, Cambridge, 1885, (Beirut edition, 1973) p86
  • 7. For a fuller discussion of these points, see I. Goldziher, op cit, pp14-19; M. Rodinson, op cit, pp25-37, 140-152; and M. Hodgson, op cit, vol. 1, pp130-135
  • 8. For this discussion see also Hodgson, op cit, vol. 1, p181; and Rodinson, op cit, pp229-232
  • 9. See W. Robertson Smith, op cit, pp76-79; Rodinson, op cit, p230
  • 10. W. Robertson Smith, op cit, pp85-86
  • 11. Ibid, pp80-81
  • 12. A. Guillaume, trans., The Life of Muhammad (English translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sira as edited by Ibn Hisham), Oxford, 1955, pp68-69
  • 13. Hesam Noqaba’i, Sayr-e Takamol-e Huquq-e Zan dar Tarikh va Sharaye’ (Persian text, The Development of Women’s Rights in History and Religions), Tehran, 1963, pp47-48
  • 14. M. Mutahhari, op cit, pp413-414
  • 15. Ibid, p416
  • 16. Shari’ati, Zan dar Chashm-o Del-e Muhammad (Persian text, Women in Muhammad’s Eyes and Heart), p32
  • 17. Rodinson, op cit, p232
  • 18. See Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1961, p447: ‘But even before Islam it had already become generally usual for the bridal gift to be given to the woman herself and not to the guardian.’
  • 19. Robertson Smith, op cit, p87, ppl12-113
  • 20. Rodinson, op cit, p15
  • 21. Robertson Smith, op cit, p83
  • 22. English translation from A.J. Arberry’s version, New York, 1955, vol. 2, pp49-50
  • 23. Mutahhari, Mas’alay Hijab (Persian text, The Problem of the Veil), Qum, pp243-244
  • 24. See, for example, Mutahhari, Nizam, p247
  • 25. See Rodinson, op cit, p232; Robertson Smith, op cit, ppI16-117
  • 26. W. Montgomery Watt, Islamic Political Thought, Edinburgh, 1968, p7
  • 27. Robertson Smith, op cit, p292
  • 28. Ibid, pp292-294
  • 29. Ibid, pp121-122
  • 30. Rodinson, op cit, p293


Dan Radnika
Feb 25 2018 21:04

For future reference, Azar Tabari is a pseudonym, adopted, unsurprisingly, because she didn't want the new Iranian regime to know what she was up to in the 1980s. Her real name is Afsaneh Najmabadi, and she's currently a professor at Harvard.