GOATMILK continues its original and exclusive month long series entitled “The Contemporary Muslim Woman” featuring diverse Muslim women writers from around the world discussing a gamut of topics in their own unique, honest and eclectic voices.
Syeda Shagufta Ahmad, Qadri
Islam and Women
Perhaps the greatest modern day stereotype against Islam is its alleged treatment of women. The media portrays images of black burqa clad figures whose voices are not to be heard let alone seen by the public eye; considered second class citizens with no rights to education, health or safety; oppressed with no opportunities; born simply to serve her husband and bear children with no consideration for her feelings, thoughts and opinions. However, is this the reality of the matter as seen through the eyes of the 1.4 billion Muslims around the world who are an integral component of our global village?
Before we talk about what rights Islam has given women, let us talk about Islam. Not only is it the world’s second largest religion, it is also the fastest growing religion in the world. Contrary to popular belief, Islam is not a new or alien tradition. It is the culmination of the timeless message from our Creator to humanity to teach us through the institution of Prophethood about who we are, why we are, and where we are headed. Whether we call upon God Almighty, Our Creator in Arabic as Allah, or in Hebrew as Elohim / Yahweh, or in Hindi as Bhagvaan / Parmeshwar, we are ultimately calling upon That Source of all things who is the First without beginning, the Last without end, Who is All-Present, All-Knowing, All-Loving, All-Merciful and All-Just. There is nothing like unto Him, Our Creator. Furthermore, in creation, Islam teaches us of the centrality and ultimate excellence of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), who although was the last and final Prophet from God Almighty to guide humanity, he (Peace Be Upon Him) was the first Light of creation from which God created everything else. The Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) is the sweetness and the light of the hearts of the believers. He (Peace Be Upon Him) taught us who God is and who all the previous Prophets were whom he (Peace Be Upon Him) referred to as “Brothers”. Muslims believe in and love dearly all the Prophets of God Almighty including Prophets Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus (peace be upon them all).
Islam arrived in Arabia through the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) over 1400 years ago at a time when it was steeped in the depths of oppression and shackles of abuse, especially of women. Baby girls were buried alive; women were treated like property with no inherent rights and considered second class citizens. However with the advent of Islam, women’s safety, dignity and inherent rights to their property and name were not just restored but women were given the honor of being the “committed and equal partners of men” in their service to God Almighty. The Holy Quran, which is the Divine Text that Muslims believe in as the final revelation from God Almighty to all of creation, says:
“O mankind! Fear your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its spouse and from them both has spread the multitude of men and women” [4:1]
This verse emphasizes the noble origin of the souls of all the men and women in the world, clearly indicating the spiritual equality of men and women. The Holy Quran furthermore says:
“Indeed the Muslim men and Muslim women, and the believing men and the believing women, and the men who obey and the women who obey, and the truthful men and the truthful women, and the patient men and the patient women, and the humble men and the humble women, and charitable men and the charitable women, and the fasting men and the fasting women, and the men who guard their chastity and the women who guard their chastity, and the men who profusely remember Allah and the women who profusely remember Allah – for all of them, Allah has kept prepared forgiveness and an immense reward.” [33:35]
This verse further indicates the spiritual equality of men and women. The soul is genderless. It is our bodies that make us men or women with different roles to perform in society. The modern world struggles with questions of the role of men and women. Islam on the other hand emphasizes the goal of men and women. This goal is the same – to worship our Creator. In order to worship Him from the depths of our hearts, we must love Him. In order to truly love Him, we must know Him. In order to know Him we must seek the means of the last Prophet from God Almighty: the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) and through his (Peace Be Upon Him) love and knowledge learn about our Creator.
The Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) said that God Almighty made three things beloved to him (Peace Be Upon Him): prayer, perfume, and women. What is it about the woman that puts us in the category of the prayer and the perfume? Upon reflection one can conclude that the prayer is the tranquillity of the spirit, and the perfume is the tranquillity of the senses. The woman in a similar manner is the tranquillity of the home and the society if she is allowed to flourish and be all that she has been given the God-given potential to be. The annals of Islamic history shine bright with stellar examples of Muslim women who were scholars, teachers, warriors, businesswomen, guides, and mentors to their communities. The lives and contributions of these shining female luminaries are role models to the modern day woman who struggles with notions of self esteem and her role in society. The contributions of these great women are immense and warrant attention in the modern age as a source of inspiration, guidance, and healing to women both within and outside the fold of the Islamic faith and practice. Amongst the most distinguished women in Islam are those of the Blessed Household (may God be pleased with them all) of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) as they drank directly from the spiritual and intellectual waters of his Blessed Company and Teachings.
Four female personalities are considered “perfect” in the Islamic tradition. Two are from the Blessed Family of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him and His Family): his daughter Syeda Fatima Zahra (may Allah Almighty be well pleased with her); and his wife Syeda Khadija (may Allah Almighty be well pleased with her). The third is Hazrat Asiya (may Allah have mercy on her), the wife of the Pharaoh; and last but not least, the Pure Virgin Hazrat Maryam (Mary), the blessed mother of Prophet Jesus (peace be upon them both). May God Almighty’s prayers and blessings be upon them all. There is an entire chapter named after Mother Mary (peace be upon her) in the Holy Quran. She is known to Muslims for her piety and devotion to God Almighty. Syeda Fatima (may God be well pleased with her) is considered by Muslims to be the leader of women in Heaven. She is known for her patience and love for humanity.
The Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) said that the best of us are those who are best to our family and he (Peace Be Upon Him) was the best to his (Peace Be Upon Him) family. This comprehensive statement and advice sums up the rights of a Muslim woman in her home – the right to be respected, loved, cared for and cherished. He (Peace Be Upon Him) also said that Paradise lies under the feet of the mother. The Islamic tradition teaches that the mother has a rank three times higher than the father. This of course is connected to the immense pain and burden she bears for nine months in her womb and the pain of delivering that miracle of a child and then spending nights and days and all of her being in raising that child to be a productive citizen of the world. The institution of motherhood is held in the highest regard by Islam. As a matter of fact, the Arabic word for womb is rahm which shares its roots with two of God Almighty’s Most Blessed Names: Ar-Rahman and Ar-Raheem – “The Most Beneficent and The Most Merciful”. It is interesting to note that of the infinite Names that God Almighty has, 113 out of the 114 chapters of the Holy Quran begin with these two Names related to mercy. The woman therefore is a symbol of mercy on this earth. She also shares this trait with one of Holy Prophet Muhammad’s (Peace Be Upon Him) titles: Rahmatul-lil-Alameen – “Mercy to the worlds”. Therefore any society that values the institution of motherhood and the trait of mercy will value its women. Furthermore, the Arabic word for woman is Nisa and the Arabic word for humanity is Insan – again showing the integral connection between the woman and humanity. There is an entire chapter titled Nisa in the Holy Quran outlining the rights of women.
Islam does not limit the woman’s role to the home. Given her circumstances she can pursue any field that serves humanity and is a means to get closer to her Creator and His Beloved Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him). The Holy Prophet Muhammad’s (Peace Be Upon Him) wife Syeda Khadija (may Allah be well pleased with her) was a famous businesswoman. His youngest wife Syeda Aisha (may Allah be well pleased with her) was a scholar, teacher, orator, and poetess. Syeda Zaynab (may Allah be well pleased with her) was a great orator and warrior. Hazrat Nusayba (may Allah be well pleased with her) was also a great warrior. Hazrat Rabia Basri (may Allah have mercy on her) was a great ascetic and worshipper of God Almighty.
Islam seeks not to confine but to liberate the spirit of the woman through its various injunctions to protect her. The outward veil or hijab is a prime example. Although grossly misunderstood and misinterpreted as a symbol of oppression, this icon of modesty in reality is a statement of dignity for the woman. It is a stop sign for her onlookers to judge her for who she is and not what she looks like, to judge her for her mind and spirit and not her body. The woman in Islam is encouraged to develop herself to her highest potential – to gain knowledge even if she has to go to far off lands. The woman is the spirit of the society. In Islamic Sufi tradition, she is akin to the flesh of the fruit whereas the man is the outer core to protect her. So even though the inner flesh of any fruit is “hidden” or under a “veil”, it is the true essence of the fruit. The man even though he is in positions of leadership outwardly, is in reality the protector and caretaker of the woman. In Islam leadership is not about authority, it is about responsibility and accountability. The man will be accountable in front of God Almighty on the Day of Judgment as to how well he took care of this trust (i.e. women) God has put in his reign.
Unfortunately Muslims today have become distant from these essential teachings of Islam as a result of which the Muslim world is found to be in much disarray in general and for women in particular. To make matters worse, the media has done much disservice in promoting the misdeeds of the powerful but ignorant few and not making known the voices of the silent majority who know Islam to be a peaceful, loving religion especially to its women. It behooves each mature individual to take responsibility as being part of the global community to learn, in the spirit of getting to know one another, who our neighbors are and not fall into the traps of vested interest groups. It is every woman’s duty to take back what is rightfully ours, given to us by Our Creator – the right to equality, justice, freedom, safety, health, education, opportunity and above all the right to seek knowledge and spirituality so we can truly be the servants of God Almighty and His Beloved Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him). May God Almighty grant us women the strength to step up to the pedestal and take on the daunting task of educating ourselves and our children and inspiring everyone towards continuous self-improvement. Ameen.
Syeda Shagufta Ahmad, Qadri
Islamic Educational and Cultural Research Center