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


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:

‘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.’[26]

Of course, Jesus’ own treatment of women was extremely radical for his day, and the Christian message attracted many female converts.[27] 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.[28] 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.[29] 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.[30]

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.[31] This view is supported by Jane Smith in her contribution to Women, Religion and Social Change.[32] 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.[33] 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.[34] She points to the difference between Khadija, Muhammad’s first wife, and A’isha, his second wife, as an example of this.[35]

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.[36]

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.[37] 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.[38] 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.[39]

This sort of female spiritual equality and piety is taught in the Qur’an and was particularly applauded in more mystic branches of Islam.[40] Further, as writer and theologian David Bentley Hart notes,