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An open reading on Islamic women

18May 2012
An open reading on Islamic women

The time of the Prophet (saw) was one where the “might is right” philosophy was the mentality amongst the paternalist and tribal Jahiliyya (pre-Islamic) culture. Such was the backwardness of the people that girls were buried alive[1] and

“…when news is brought to one of them, of (the birth of) a female (child), his face darkens, and he is filled with inward grief” (Quran 16:58)

This is the context in which Islam was revealed, and must not be forgotten when trying to understand the history of women in the early Islamic period.
But let’s take one moment and think about how positively the Quran, whilst being revealed in such a dark time in Arab history, talks about women, in sharp contrast to the prevailing customs. Other than obviously condemning these abhorrent practices, the Quran does not talk down to women. In fact, when women approached the Prophet (saw) and complained that they were not mentioned in the Quran[2], Allah (swt) did not tell them to go home and not worry because they just need to be there for their husbands (!) – rather, Allah (swt) revealed the famous verse of equality:

“Indeed the Muslim men and women, – for believing men and women – for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in Charity, for men and women who fast (and deny themselves), for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in God’s praise for them has God prepared forgiveness and great reward.” (Quran 33:35)

We are all aware about this idea of equality, but how can we learn from the believing men and women without role models to emulate.
Let us first look at role models who are not infallible – the Quran does not relate many such examples, but one example of a leader that it does mention is Queen Bilqis. As the leader of a society, the Queen is praised for how she deals with the letter of Sulayman. Rather than act based on the advice of her (male) chiefs, which was to attack him, she responds in kindness with a gift; and rather than act in arrogance and pride, when she hears the truth, she submits to Allah (swt)[3].

What better lessons can we learn than the lessons that should resonate with us today – from the Quran itself? We see here that the Quran chooses to tell us the story of a woman leading a society – why is this? On top of that, the example is one of a woman whose rational intellect supersedes the men in her society; her strength and insight are to be admired and her method of solving problems to be praised! Where else in the Quran is any fallible male leader of a community praised in this way – yet we still insist on not following the Quranic teachings?

What about infallibles? We are so lucky to have the daughter of the Prophet (saw), the wife of the rightful successor, to the Prophet, Ali (as) and the mother of our Holy Imams (as) – the infallible Fatima (as) to be the role model for men and women. So what do we see in her life, remembering the society she was living in? We hear in lectures about her status as a part of the Prophet[4], the most faithful wife and a truthful believer whose worship surpassed that of men throughout time. But in this one example of an infallible woman, what else does Allah (swt) show us?
Despite her time being one in which women’s rights were trampled upon, in which Sayyida Fatima (as) did not receive her rights for Fadak, and Imam Ali (as) was not made the rightful caliph, did she sit down and do nothing? Or did she stand up like a “revolutionary or opposition activist, giving voice to her side of arguments in sermons … offering rebuke when strong rebuke could emphasize the meaning of truth” in her famous sermon? Was she cowardly not willing to deal with the leaders in society, or did she rebuke the caliph of the time in public?


In contemporary language, she “was the person who practised political work in the strongest manner: she stood alone in front of a new ruling power” – even whilst Imam Ali (as) did not confront the matter in such a direct way (because of other circumstances). By her actions, “she legitimised Muslim woman’s participation in politics as an orator, as a dynamic force of opposition, with all the effort and energy that that role would call for”.[5]

So in a Jahiliyya society, where women are treated as second-class citizens, where women are treated like property and where unveiled women on the street are considered prey by hungry men, Allah (swt) chooses to talk about things in an entirely different light. Whilst being constrained by the society of the time, the Quran still is able to give us things that we in the “enlightened” age, still are unable to accept. And rather than men and women emulating the Quranic teachings, we have men monopolising power in our countries and in our communities, with nobody (from either gender) standing up like Sayyida Fatima (as) to demand their rights.

[1] Quran: Surah Takwir 81:8

[2] The sabab al-nuzul in Tabatabai’s Al-Mizan comes from Majma’ al-Bayan, volume 4, Page 463

[3] Quran: Surah Naml, 27: 29-44

[4] Probably quoting from Bihar al-Anwar, vol 43, ch 8, p220

[5] “The Infallible Fatimah (AS) – a role model for men and women “– by Ayatollah Fadlullah, pages 53-62

Credits: flickr user : Jim Boud

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