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Was Islam a "unique new deal" for women in the 7th century?

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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3]

In reality, the Genesis account records that, while Eve was deceived by the snake, Adam rebelled knowingly against the command of God.[4] 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.[5]

Second, Wadud sees some significance in the Qur’anic Creation account’s refusal to specify which human was created first.[6] 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).[7]

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.[8] In the Judeo-Biblical account, ‘women was made by God to meet man’s deficiency.’[9]

As conservative commentator John MacArthur says, ‘the words of this verse emphasise man’s need for a companion, a helper, and an equal.’[10] This leads to the second point: Eve was created as one ‘comparable to Adam’.[11] More literally, ‘a helper corresponding to him’ and completing him.[12]

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.[13] 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).[14]

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.[15]

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.[16]

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.[17] 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.[18]

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’.[19]

More orthodox scholars interpret it to mean that the beating of women is acceptable when other avenues for reconciliation are exhausted.[20] Other verses seem to teach, contrary to equality before Allah taught elsewhere, that man was created superior to women.[21]

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.[22]

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.[23]

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.’[24] Her children and husband are said to ‘rise up and call her blessed’ and ‘praise her’.[25]

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: