Updated: Dec 21, 2022
As Rana Kabbani has pointed out, Islam is often presented as the religion which has done the most to diminish women’s rights and liberties. More recently, efforts have been made by Islamic scholars and apologists to restore respect for Islam’s teachings on women by returning to and reemphasising the original teachings of the Qur’an. Some have even gone so far as to claim that Islam set a precedent in the level of protection and status awarded to women.
This essay examines the proposition that, comparatively speaking, Islam (as taught in the Qur’an and practised in its early years) presented a unique new opportunity in terms of position and freedom for women in the 7th century.
To begin, it will establish whether the Qur’an’s Creation and Fall accounts present an ideal for gender equality when compared with earlier Judeo-Christian teaching. It will also compare several Qur’anic prescriptions and teachings with earlier passages from the scriptures of the other monotheistic faiths.
Finally, using early Christianity and Jahiliyya society as case-studies, this article will try to establish whether earlier cultures in Arabia and Europe were more favourable toward women than Qur’anic society.
To varying degrees, it can be shown that some areas of earlier culture were more advanced in their treatment and view of women. It is also evident that the teachings of the Qur’an in this regard were not unprecedented. Therefore, it cannot be rightly claimed that women enjoyed a ‘unique new deal’ under Islam in the 7th century.
Creation in the Qur'an versus the Bible
While the non-gendered, Qur’anic accounts of Creation and the Fall are sometimes cited to be a unique ideal of gender equality when compared with the ‘negative’ accounts found in the Tanakh and the Bible, a careful reading of the Judeo-Biblical text shows that this is not entirely the case.
Unlike the Jewish and Christian accounts (found in the book of Bereshith, or Genesis), the Islamic record generally shows Adam and Eve acting jointly during the Temptation and Fall and can be interpreted to make no clear distinction as to the order of Creation. Wadud argues that the Qur’anic description never singles out woman ‘as the initiator or temptress of evil’, unlike the ‘negative’ teaching implied in Judeo-Biblical literature: that the woman was the one to bring sin and ‘damnation’ into the world.
In reality, the Genesis account records that, while Eve was deceived by the snake, Adam rebelled knowingly against the command of God. Rather than the significant being in the order of sin, it is in the kind of sin, as alluded to in other passages which, although assigning Eve the first sin chronologically, point to Adam as the one who in knowing rebellion brought sin and death into the world.
Second, Wadud sees some significance in the Qur’anic Creation account’s refusal to specify which human was created first. This is again in contrast to the Judeo-Biblical account that records a more detailed Creation story in which Adam is created first and Eve is taken from his side (possibly implying that man is the prime creation).
A more thorough contextual investigation reveals two things. Firstly, Adam cannot be the prime and perfect creation in the Biblical account, as God is believed to have said that creation was ‘not good’ without woman. In the Judeo-Biblical account, ‘women was made by God to meet man’s deficiency.’
As conservative commentator John MacArthur says, ‘the words of this verse emphasise man’s need for a companion, a helper, and an equal.’ This leads to the second point: Eve was created as one ‘comparable to Adam’. More literally, ‘a helper corresponding to him’ and completing him.
As is the case in Wadud’s interpretation of the Qur’an, in the Genesis/Bereshith account, Eve is equal to Adam in nature, value and worth, although created after him and with a distinct role. Thus, the Qur’anic account of the Creation and Temptation is not uniquely favourable in its treatment of the place of women when compared with the accounts found in the Jewish Tanakh and Christian Bible.
The Qur'an's Teachings on Women: Unique?
A careful study of wider Qur’anic passages regarding women’s rights and status can produce somewhat mixed results, but overall their outlook is positive, although once again not uniquely so. If one looks at Surah 4, a passage dealing traditionally with the topic of women, it is clear that a Muslim man is permitted more than one – in fact, up to four – wives (provided he can care for and treat them appropriately).
At first glance, this permission seems unjust as women were not permitted this same right. However, Qur’anic prescription in this area was still an improvement on previous practice for two reasons.
First, it restricted to some extent the practices of Jahiliyya men, who often took a multitude of wives without the capacity to provide for them or treat them justly.
Second, this prescription allowed for men with the financial ability to provide for more than one wife, thus, reducing the likelihood of women lacking financial support from anyone.
Generally, Muslim marriage was legally favourable to women, who had significant protections, were able to outline the terms of their marriages and were also entitled to receive their marriage dowry. Further, numerous forms of incest were made illegal under Qur’anic law, considerably restraining the uncontrolled authority of men in marriage and progressing women’s marriage rights when contrasted with more libertarian Jahiliyya practices.
While, largely, the outlook for women in the Qur’an is positive, there are several particularly controversial passages. For example, even particularly sympathetic interpreters of Qur’anic texts, like Amina Wadud, have difficulty explaining the apparent Qur’anic permission for husbands to strike their wives when they are not ‘obedient’.
More orthodox scholars interpret it to mean that the beating of women is acceptable when other avenues for reconciliation are exhausted. Other verses seem to teach, contrary to equality before Allah taught elsewhere, that man was created superior to women.
There is an ongoing debate over the interpretation of various controversial Qur’anic passages, but the significance of the generally favourable view of women’s station, protections and rights cannot be ignored.
As optimistic as these teachings are, they do not appear unique or original when compared with prescriptions and values taught in earlier Judeo-Christian Scriptures. Jewish teachings, like those in Islam, forbade incest, protected the family by outlawing adultery (although on stricter penalties) and made prostitution illegal.
In the book of Mishlei Shlomo (the Christian ‘Proverbs’), an alphabetical acrostic lays out the surprisingly modern-sounding virtues of an ideal, godly wife, which include capably buying and selling, strengthening ‘her arms’ and ‘opening her mouth with wisdom.’ Her children and husband are said to ‘rise up and call her blessed’ and ‘praise her’.
The Christian New Testament emphasises prescriptions and rules less and spends more time teaching values and principles. While it is not without its own controversial passages regarding the role of women in church assemblies, it is quite clear as to the ultimate worth and status of women:
‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’
Of course, Jesus’ own treatment of women was extremely radical for his day, and the Christian message attracted many female converts. Thus, while the Qur’anic teachings on women are considerably positive, Judeo-Christian teachings of similar content existed many centuries before the revelations to Muhammad.
Women in Arabia Before the Arrival of Islam
Contrary to what is often claimed by Muslim apologists, historical evidence suggests that the rise of Islam may have been somewhat detrimental to the position and certain rights of women in Arabia. In her influential apologetics work, Qur’an and Women, Amina Wadud repeats an often-used claim that Islam generally improved the ‘status’ and ‘consideration’ of women in Arabia. However, several scholars have pointed to historical evidence that suggests otherwise.
For example, Serhzer explains that there is evidence of ‘both matriarchal and patriarchal systems’ before the rise of Islam. In fact, while there was a transition underway from a matriarchal to a patriarchal culture underway at the time, Arabia, where Muhammad’s teachings took root, still ‘formed an island in the Middle East, the last remaining region in which patrilineal, patriarchal marriage had not yet been instituted’ by the sixth century.
In her book Women and Gender in Islam, women’s scholar Leila Ahmed states that Islam may have even caused a curtailing of women’s autonomy and status. This view is supported by Jane Smith in her contribution to Women, Religion and Social Change. In response, Muslim apologists like Wadud often argue that original – or ‘true’ – Islam, based on the Qur’an, was favourable toward women, and only after Muhammad’s death did their conditions deteriorate. However, the evidence can be interpreted in a vastly different manner.
More likely, Ahmed contends, early Islamic society was more agreeable to women due to the remaining influence of Jahiliyya culture, and it was only due to Qur’anic (and later Hadith) teachings that women lost many freedoms available to them during the pre-Islamic society. She points to the difference between Khadija, Muhammad’s first wife, and A’isha, his second wife, as an example of this.
Shaped by pre-Islamic ideas and culture, Khadija was a wealthy, independent business owner who proposed to Muhammad when she was twenty-five and he was forty and remained his only wife her entire life.
In contrast, A’isha is considered a more typical Islamic woman: married at age nine or ten, and strictly veiled and secluded from then on. While not categorical, historical evidence can be read to suggest that, rather than presenting a new deal for women, Islam may have decreased the rights and freedoms available to women in Arabia.
Early Christianity's Treatment of Women
Not only did some aspects of early Arabic society seemingly exceed Islam in the level of rights and freedoms it gave to women, but the Christian revolution of centuries earlier had also achieved impressive heights in the regard.
As mentioned above, the fact that the Christian message was very attractive to women is well documented. In the early church, women were accorded total spiritual equality with men. Even prominent church leaders (such as Gregory of Nyssa and Basil of Caesarea) praised the spiritual virtues of women and held female piety as a sort of model of ideal faith.
This sort of female spiritual equality and piety is taught in the Qur’an and was particularly applauded in more mystic branches of Islam. Further, as writer and theologian David Bentley Hart notes,
‘one might even argue that the virtues that Christianity chiefly valued – compassion, humility, gentleness and so forth – were virtues in which women had generally had better training.’
Even feminist author Leila Ahmed acknowledges that ‘fundamental’ Christian ideas (i.e. ‘the equal spiritual worth of men and women,’ and ‘the superiority of virginity to wifely obedience’) had ‘subverted ideas fundamental to the reigning patriarchies of the ages’.
Centuries before Islamic reforms, Christian communities forbade infanticide and abortion (all practices vastly disproportionately affecting females) and insisted on communal financial provision for widows.
Concerning marriage, husbands were expected to be ‘as faithful to their wives as they’ were required to be in return. They were not permitted to divorce or abandon their wives; they were commanded to treat them kindly as their wives were no longer considered ‘chattels’ but ‘sisters in Christ’. Many, although not all, of these reforms mirrored those laid out later in the Qur’an.
Even as it grew, Christianity transformed many aspects of law affecting women long before the rise of Islam. Christian Emperors took numerous reforms into the legal arena. Among other changes, Constantine improved the plight of widows, prohibited divorce on trivial grounds, and reformed laws regarding public prosecution and public accusations of adultery.
Theodosius, Justinian and subsequent emperors took changes further. In the Code of Theodosius II, for example, many of the laws disadvantaging women in divorce proceedings were done away with and men were prohibited from squandering their wives’ dowries (reforms codified in Arabic society via the Qur’an many years later). And, after death, the wife’s dowry passed to her estate, not to the husband.
Additionally, after a divorce, women were allowed to remarry after a year, while men were obliged to remain a bachelor permanently (if he did remarry, he needed to give his first wife the dowry and betrothal gifts from his new marriage). Slaves and young girls were also protected from prostitution: a master or father who prostituted his slave or daughter automatically lost charge of her.
As these examples have demonstrated, Islamic practice did not set a precedent for women in their standing, protections and privileges as Christian practice and reforms predated it by several centuries.
Islam Was Not a "Unique New Deal" for Women
As this short study has concluded, it is inaccurate to suggest that women’s rights and status under early Islam and Qur’anic prescription and teachings presented a new ideal in the 7th century.
Many centuries earlier, Christian communities had proved immensely favourable toward (and therefore appealing to) women. Some reputable scholars even suggest that the so-called ‘Age of Ignorance’ awarded women greater freedom than that available under Islam. Certainly, this is the case in some respects.
Further, Qur’anic laws regarding divorce, marriage rights and inheritance were either equalled or surpassed in Judeo-Christian scripture or early Christian practice. While women were generally treated favourably and had many rights and protections under Islam, it is untrue to claim that Islam presented a ‘unique new deal’ for women in the seventh-century world.
 Amida Wadud, Qur’an and Women, New York, 1999, p. 25.  The Qur’an, 4.1; 7.21-22; 20.115-121 (shows Adam as the one who fell); 51.44, J.M. Rodwell translation (contrast with Wadud’s interpretation of these passages – particularly the keywords nafs and zawj – in Wadud, Qur’an, pp. 15-27).  Wadud, Qur’an, p. 25.  The Bible, Genesis, 3:1-7, New King James version; William McDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary, Nashville, 1995, p. 36.  The Bible, Romans 5:12,18-19; New King James version (cf. John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary, Nashville, 2005, p. 1520); The Bible, 1 Timothy 2:14, New King James version.  The Qur’an, 4.1; 38.71-72; 95.4, J.M. Rodwell translation (again, see also Wadud, Qur’an, p. 20-21 for her translations of the words nafs and zawj).  The Bible, Genesis 3:18-24, New King James version.  The Bible, Genesis, 2:18, New King James version.  MacArthur, Bible Commentary, p. 14.  Ibid, p. 14.  The Bible, Genesis, 3:18, New King James version.  John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (eds.) The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, Colorado Springs, 1985, p. 31.  Ibid, p. 31.  The Qur’an, 4.3, J.M. Rodwell translation.  Denise Lardner Carmody, Women and World Religions, Upper Saddle River, 1989, p. 189-190 and 205-206.  Ibid, p. 192.  Ibid.  Ibid.  The Qur’an, 4.34, J.M. Rodwell translation; Wadud, Qur’an, p. 75-76: Wadud argues that the command is to be obedient and submissive to Allah, rather than to their husbands (as is interpreted by more orthodox scholars).  Abul A'la Maududi, Purdah and the Status of Women in Islam, n.p., 1991, p. 64; The Qur’an, 4.34, J.M. Rodwell translation.  The Qur’an, 2.228; 4.34, J.M. Rodwell translation.  The Qur’an, 2.228; 4.19 (four witnesses were required to accuse a woman of unfaithfulness); 4.32; 4.124, J.M. Rodwell translation.  The Bible, Leviticus, 18:6-18; 19:29; 20:10-11, New King James version.  The Bible, Proverbs 31:16,24; 31:17,25; 31:26, New King James version.  The Bible, Proverbs 31:27-28, New King James version.  The Bible, Galatians, 3:28, New King James version.  The Bible, Romans 16:1-15, New King James version.  Wadud, Qur’an, pp. 40-41 and p. 101.  Jeri Altneu Sechzer, ‘Islam and woman: Where tradition meets modernity’, Sex Roles, vol. 51, 2004, p. 267.  Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam, New Haven and London, 1992, p. 41.  Ibid, pp. 41-43 (see also, Jane I. Smith, ‘Women, religion and social change in early Islam’, in Women, Religion and Social Change, Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Ellison Banks Findly (eds.), Albany, 1985, p. 34.).  Ibid, pp. 19-35.  Wadud, pp. 81-82 and p. 101.  Ahmed, Women and Gender, pp. 1-7 (esp. 6-7).  Ibid, p. 42.  Ibid. (see also, Smith, ‘Women, religion and social change’, p. 26).  Ahmed, Women and Gender, p. 42.  Rodney Stark, ‘Reconstructing the rise of Christianity: the role of women’, Sociology of Religion, vol. 56, 1995, pp. 231-233; The Bible, Romans 16:1-15, New King James version.  W. C. Wright (trans.) Julian the Apostate, Letters, no. 22, The Tertullian Project, unpaginated, http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/ julian_apostate_letters_1_trans.htm, accessed 25 July 2019; Anon., Gregory of Nyssa, Life of St. Macrina, The Tertullian Project, unpaginated, http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/gregory_macrina_1_life.htm, accessed 25 July 2019; William Moore and Henry Austin Wilson (trans.), Gregory of Nyssa, ‘On the Soul and the Resurrection’, New Advent, unpaginated, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2915.htm, accessed 25 July 2019; Blomfield Jackson (trans.) and Kevin Knight (ed.) Basil of Caesarea, ‘Letter 204: To the Neocæsareans’, New Advent, unpaginated, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3202204.htm, accessed 25 July 2019.  The Qur’an, 4.17,32; 49.13, J.M. Rodwell translation; Carmody, Women and World, pp. 197-198.  David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, New Haven and London, 2009, p. 160.  Ahmed, Women and Gender, pp. 25-26.  Hart, Atheist Delusions, p. 161.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Smith, ‘Women, religion and social change’, pp. 33-34.
Anon., Gregory of Nyssa Life of St. Macrina, The Tertullian Project, unpaginated, http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/gregory_macrina_1_life.htm, accessed 25 July 2019.
Jackson, Blomfield (trans.) and Knight, Kevin (ed.) Basil of Caesarea, ‘Letter 204: To the Neocæsareans’, New Advent, unpaginated, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3202204.htm, accessed 25 July 2019.
Moore, William and Wilson, Henry Austin (trans.) Gregory of Nyssa, ‘On the Soul and the Resurrection’, New Advent, unpaginated, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2915.htm, accessed 25 July 2019.
The Bible, New King James version.
The Qur’an, J.M. Rodwell translation.
Wright, W. C. (trans.) Julian the Apostate, Letters, no. 22, The Tertullian Project, unpaginated, http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/ julian_apostate_letters_1_trans.htm, accessed 25 July 2019.
Ahmed, Leila, Women and Gender in Islam, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1992.
Ahmed, Leila, ‘Women and the advent of Islam,’ Signs, vol. 11, 1986, pp. 665-691, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3174138, accessed 15 July 2019.
Carmody, Denise Lardner, Women and World Religions, Upper Saddle River, Prentice Hall, 1989.
Hart, David Bentley, Atheist Delusions, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2009.
MacArthur, John, The MacArthur Bible Commentary, Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2005.
Maududi, Abul A'la, Purdah and the Status of Women in Islam, n.p., Kazi Publications, 1991.
McDonald, William, Believer’s Bible Commentary, Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 1995.
Smith, Jane I. ‘Women, religion and social change in early Islam’, in Women, Religion and Social Change, Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Findly, Ellison Banks (eds.), Albany, State University of New York Press, 1985.
Stark, Rodney, ‘Reconstructing the rise of Christianity: the role of women’, Sociology of Religion, vol. 56, 1995, pp. 229-244, https://doi.org/10.2307/3711820, accessed 26 July 2019
Stowasser, Barbara, ‘The status of women in early Islam,’ in Muslim Women, Freda Hussain (ed.), London, Croom Helm, 1984.
Wadud, Amina, Qur’an and Women, New York, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Walvoord, John F. and Zuck, Roy B. (eds.) The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, Colorado Springs, David C. Cook, 1985.
Image from LumenLearning.com.