Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Women in the Qur’an

By Dallas M. Roark, PhD

The life of women in Muslim countries today cannot be understood apart from reflecting on the Qur’an first, and then hadiths (traditions) and laws that have been created due to the influence of the Qur’an.

There are many passages dealing with men and women, and they are scattered throughout the Qur’an, but there are a number declaring that God created man and woman. At first this implies some equality, but on a closer study, women are not equal in any important sense. They are equal when it comes to faith and believing, but then the result of this believing does not bring equality in life. Sura 4:124 declares "And whosoever does deeds of righteousness, be it male or female, believing–they shall enter Paradise and not be wronged a single date-spot."1 The same thought is expressed in Sura 16:97, with a slightly different emphasis, "And whosoever does a righteous deed, be it male or female, believing, We shall assuredly give him to live a goodly life; and We shall recompense them their wage, according to the best of what they did." The repetition of this is again expressed in Sura 40:40, and almost similarly in Sura 53:45, when it is declared that God created male and female. (See also Sura 92:3 and 75:39 for the same thought.)

There are a variety of passages that suggest a bit different analysis regarding the status of women in the Qur’an. Wives on earth are still wives in Paradise with an exception that their impurity is gone. (Sura 2:25) Being no longer subject to the menstrual cycle is one bit of good news in the Qur’an. Now in natural living the cycle is gone when a woman reaches middle age or thereabouts, but wives in Paradise are believed to be always the same age as their husbands. The tradition states that wives and husbands would be about 30 or 33 years of age forever. To declare that a woman would be without impurity at age 30 or 33 would make sense, since that is a threatening time for women on earth who may not want to be pregnant. (The repetition of the passage is seen in 3:15 and 4:57.)

Although women may well read this as good news for themselves, in the overall context of the Qur’an which will emerge later in this article, it seems more likely intended to be good news to the men, because women who do not have menstrual bleeding anymore will always be available for sex, i.e. women will loose their only valid excuse to refuse their husband's demand for intercourse. Moreover, it is not even so clear whether these pure companions promised to the believers in 2:25, 3:15, and 4:57 are actually their earthly wives (in ‘purified form’) or whether they are not rather a reference to the houris that will be given to the male Muslim who enter paradise. (See the article, Did Allah forget the wives?)

There is another strain of thought running through the Qur’an and it involves paradise through the eyes of the male, rather than the female being there on her own right and because of her own faith. Paradise is described as a man’s world where he shall eat and drink with easy digestion. "Reclining upon couches ranged in rows; and We shall espouse them to wide-eyed houris," (52:20) or as Sales translated it, "virgins having large black eyes." (p. 506)

In Sura 37:44 the faithful have waiting for them fruits and high honor where they recline on couches face to face with spring water passed around to them "and with them wide-eyes maidens restraining their glances."

In Sura 38:52, the description is similar with an additional qualifier that the maidens are of equal age to the males. The men recline, are given abundant fruits, and the maidens are around them restraining their glances. Sale translated the additional description of maidens "refraining their looks from beholding any besides their spouses." (p. 447) In Sura 44:51 a little different emphasis is made. The Qur’an says, "Surely the god-fearing shall be in a station secure among gardens and fountains, robed in silk and brocade, set face to face. Even so, and We shall espouse them to wide-eyed houris, therein calling for every fruit, secure."

In Sura 56:23 Paradise is described with the fruit, couches, and "maidens restraining their glances, untouched before them by any men or jinn...lovely as rubies, beautiful as coral."

A paragraph later the maidens are said to be "good and comely...houris, cloister in cool pavilions...untouched before them by any man or jinn." Sura 56:10-25 describes the same scene in paradise with the couches, reclining face to face, with immortal youths going round about them with goblets, and ewers, and a cup from a spring (no brows throbbing, no intoxication) and such fruits as they shall choose, and such flesh of fowl as they desire, and wide-eyed houris as the likeness of hidden pearls, a recompense for that they labored." The Sura continues to underscore the fact that God created the spotless virgins, "chastely amorous, like of age for the Companions of the Right." Sura 78:32-33 confirms again the reward of the god-fearing who will be given a place of security, "gardens and vineyards and maidens with swelling breasts, like of age, and a cup overflowing."

The non-Muslims can read these statements and a number of questions arise.

First, what is the reward for faithful women? They are promised paradise, but at best they are ignored in the reward system. Second, the men seemed to be rewarded the beautiful damsels of like age, and since there is no explanation in the Qur’an, it would seem that the female believers lose out on things. On the one hand it seems that they are equal to the men in being welcomed to Paradise in some of the passages, but on the other hand, appear to be replaced by the dark eyed houris. Third, whatever the solution to this question, paradise is clearly the reward for the men rather than the women.

These are issues about Paradise for the female. Down on earth things are quite different but not much better in many ways. Men’s wives are compared to a garden, their tillage, "so come unto your tillage as you wish." (Sura 2:223) But in spite of this general attitude toward a husband’s sexuality, there are some limitations. When one is going on the Pilgrimage a man should "not go into his womenfolk, nor indulge in ungodliness and disputing in the Pilgrimage." (Sura 2:197) Women are not to engage in sex with their husbands during their monthly course. They are not to have sex until the wives are "clean." (Sura 2:222)

The Day of Judgment is the basis for purity for the man and woman. Because of their "chastisement none feels secure and guard their private parts save from their wives and what their right hand owns...." (Sura 70:29-31) Sale translated this as abstaining from "carnal knowledge of women other than their wives, or the slaves which their right hands posses (for as to them they shall be blameless; but whoever coveteth any women besides these, they are transgressors.)" (Sale, p. 552)

We have observed many Muslim cultures in which women cover themselves almost completely. The inspiration for this is in the Qur’an. Sura 33:59 declares, "O Prophet, say to thy wives and daughters and the believing women, that they draw their veils close to them; so it is likelier they will be known, and not hurt." Sale gave a more detailed interpretation translation, women are to "cast their outer garments over them when they walk abroad; this will be more proper, that they may be known to be matrons of reputation, and may not be affronted by unseemly words or actions." (p. 417)

Greater detail is given concerning the covering of women in Sura 24:30-31. The Qur’an says, "Say to the believers, that they cast down their eyes and guard their private parts; that is purer for them. God is aware of the things they work, and say to the believing women, that they cast down their eyes and guard their private parts, and reveal not their adornment save such as is outward and let them cast their veils over their bosoms, and not reveal their adornment save to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husband’s father, or their sons, or their husband’s son, or their sister’s sons, or their women, or what their right hands own, or such men as attend them, not having sexual desire, or children who have not yet attained knowledge of women’s private parts; nor let them stamp their feet, so that their hidden ornaments may be known."

The subordinate position of women in society is reinforced in other contexts. Sura 2:228 states, "Women have such honorable rights as obligations, but their men have a degree above them." Sale is more to the point in declaring that "the women ought also to behave towards their husbands in like manner as their husbands should behave toward them, according to what is just; but the men ought to have a superiority over them. God is mighty and wise." (p. 32) The superiority is expressed in another fashion toward their wives. "Men are the managers of the affairs of women for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another, and for that they have expended of their property. Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for God’s guarding. And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them. If they then obey you, look not for any way against them." (Sura 4:34) Moreover, the Qur’an declares that God "created for you, of yourselves, spouses, that you might repose in them." (Sura 30:20)

The inferior position of woman in the Qur’an is further seen in regulations regarding some ordinary matters of life. Women are supposedly more prone to err in matters of witnessing. In matters of contracts, "two men should witness, but if not two men, then one man, and two women so that if one of the two women should err, the other will remind her." (Sura 2:282)

There are other comments made about women in the Qur’an, many of them in an occasional context. In the Sura on women, it appears that the fear of God and respect for women are in the same sentence. Sale translates, "fear God and respect women," but notes that the word "women" is literally "the wombs." Arberry translates it directly, "and fear God by whom you demand of one another, and the wombs." (4:1) Immediately following this passage comes direction concerning orphans, mostly female orphans. "If you fear that you will not act justly toward the orphans, marry such women as seem good to you, two, three, four." (Sura 4:3)

Orphans should be tested to make sure they are worthy of receiving their endowments. If a man could not afford free women he could have slaves for sexual purposes as well. (Sale, p. 71)

The Qur’an improves on the pagan practices regarding inheritance for women. A woman should not have any part of her husband’s or father’s estate. Sura 4:11 declares that a woman shall share of what parents and kinsmen leave. A man shall inherit twice as much as a female. (Sale, p. 72)

If a woman is guilty of "indecency" (Arberry) "whoredom" (Sale) and four witnesses can be produced against them, they are to be detained in their houses until "death take them or God appoints for them a way." (Sura 4:15) The passage continues, "And when two of you commit indecency," implying the possibility of either fornication or sodomy. Sura 24:2 is more detailed in punishment. The whore and the whoremonger are to be scourged with 100 stripes, and this judgment was not to be hedged by compassion. This sin had the consequences of restricting the people one could marry. The man could only marry a harlot, and the woman could only marry a whoremonger. Neither of them could marry true believers. (24:3)

The Qur’an declares that a man shall purify himself before prayer, and among those polluting sources are women. (Sura 5:6) It may be worth noting explicitly here that men apparently are not similarly a source of pollution for women. Apparently women are inherently more unclean than men if the one is stated and not the other. While there are inequalities in many ways between men and women, crime is treated differently in regard to punishment.. Women are treated equally here. Sura 5:38 declares, "And the thief, male and female; cut off the hands of both, as a recompense for what they have earned and a punishment exemplary from God."

Women appear to be the natural object of sex in the Qur’an. In three passages recalling the story of Lot in the Old Testament, the charge is made that a great indecency was committed: "See, you approach men lustfully instead of women." (Sura 7:81, 27:55 and 29:29)

Coveting other women than one’s wives and what "one’s right hand owns" is to become a transgressor. Men are to guard "their private parts save from their wives." (Sura 23:5)

We have seen that four witnesses are important for charging someone with adultery. If someone charged another with adultery without four witnesses, they are not to be believed, and should be scourged with eighty stripes. (Sura 24:4) This passage is important for Muhammad’s own personal life. On one expedition Muhammad took his wife Aisha to accompany him. On their return to Medina the army was moving by night and Aisha alighted from the camel to relieve herself. On her return she discovered that she had dropped a necklace and returned to search for it. The attendant, thinking she was in the curtained carriage on the camel, moved on. She expected that they would return quickly to find her, and she fell asleep. Early in the morning, Safwan Ebn al Moattel, who had stayed behind to rest, came upon Aisha, and put her on his camel and following the army they found it at noon. Her reputation was called into question, and Muhammad did not know what to think. Aisha’s enemies spread malicious rumors. This Sura seemed to put a stop to false rumors.

Another improvement from Muhammad was the prohibition of using one’s slave girls for prostitution and their owners collecting their fees. Sura 24:33 states, "And constrain not your slave girls to prostitution, if they desire to live in chastity, that you may seek the chance goods of the present life." The question may be raised if they don’t desire to live in chastity, is prostitution then okay? How much freedom did a slave girl have to express to their masters what they really want or do not want? What is the effect of this command if the person did not have the full freedom to go against the wish of the owner?

There is a rather unusual characterization about one woman in the Qur’an. It refers to Lot’s wife. The story of Lot is referred to a number of times in the Qur’an but in two of them Lot’s wife is described in a degrading way. The fact that the city of Sodom is judged is true, but among the unbelievers was Lot’s wife, "An old woman among those that tarried." (Sura 26:171). Similarly, in Sura 37:135, the Qur’an states that Lot was delivered and his people together, save an old woman among those that tarried.

This description may only be stating a fact, but with the tendency on the part of polygamist to be attracted to younger women as the man grows older, as was true in Muhammad’s case, the question can only be raised whether this was a slur on older women. The age of a woman has little to do with her faith or lack of faith.

Muhammad’s attitude toward his wives is rather interesting. He regarded his wives as "mothers" of the believing. (Sura 33:6) But the prophet’s wives needed to be an example in their lifestyle. Allah is supposed to have said to the wives through Muhammad that if they desire adornments in this life, then Muhammad could divorce them. They were given the choice of living with Muhammad on his terms or being divorced. If his wives should commit a "flagrant indecency, for her the chastisement shall be doubled." (Sura 33:30) Greater responsibility has the greater punishment. It seems strange that Allah would command this regarding women’s transgressions but not for the prophet himself. The wife of the prophet would also find double reward for her obedience, one measure for her faith, and the other measure for her obedient behavior to Muhammad.

This obedience is reflected in the words to be "god-fearing, be not abject in your speech, so that he in whose heart is sickness may be lustful; but speak honorable words. Remain in your houses, and display not your finery, as did the pagans of old. And perform the prayer, and pay the alms, and obey God and His messenger." (Sura 33:32)

The obedience to Muhammad as prophet is stressed in an unusual situation. Sura 33:36 notes, "It is not for any believer, man or woman, when God and His Messenger have decreed a matter, to have the choice in the affair. Whoever disobeys God and His Messenger has gone astray into manifest error." Muhammad intended to marry his cousin Zainab bint Jash to Zaid, his freed slave and adopted son. Zainab and her family refused this proposal at first, but after this revelation had come they could no longer resist, and the two were married.

The story of Zainab has further development. Sale recounts the story of how Muhammad went to Zaid’s house on some business, but he was not home. Muhammad did cast his eyes accidentally on Zainab, "who was then in a dress which discovered her beauty to advantage, and was so smitten at the sight, that he could not forswear crying out, ‘God be praised, who turneth the hearts of men as he pleaseth!" Zainab was flattered by the remark of Muhammad and conveyed the comment to her husband, Zaid. After reflecting on this, Zaid determined to divorce her so that Muhammad could marry her. This revelation seems designed to give Allah’s approval so that no scandal would arise out of the situation. Hence the Qur’an states regarding this episode, "There is no fault in the Prophet, touching what God has ordained for him." (Sura 33:38)

The Qur’an gives great latitude to Muhammad concerning wives. It says, "O Prophet, We have made lawful for thee thy wives whom thou hast given their wages and what thy right hand owns, spoils of war that God has given thee, and the daughters of thy uncles paternal and aunts paternal, thy uncles maternal and aunts maternal, who have emigrated with thee, and any woman believer, if she gives herself to the Prophet and if the Prophet desire to take her in marriage, for thee exclusively, apart from the believers–We know what we have imposed upon them touching their wives and what their right hands own–that there may be no fault in thee." (Sura 33:50) Sale translates the last thought by these words: "This is a peculiar privilege granted unto thee, above the rest of the true believers." (p. 415)

Muhammad’s wives were to be secluded from his followers. Sura 33:53 also declares that the followers were to speak to his wives with them behind a curtain "that is cleaner for your hearts and theirs." Not only were they not to be seen or touched by other men, other men were not "to marry his wives after him, ever...." On the matter of touching, this particular sura seems to have come about after Muhammad was disturbed by one of his companions accidentally touching Aisha.

Divorce appears to be fairly easy in the Qur’an, but there are guidelines for it. If a man has not touched his wife (sexually) there is little involved in divorcing her especially if no dowry has been established. Sura 2:228 indicates that if divorce is made, the woman should wait by herself without sexual relations for three of her periods to indicate that there is nothing in her womb. Following this time the husband could restore her. But at any event he can divorce her only twice. The paragraph on this appears ambiguous about the finality of the divorce. It says, "If he divorces her finally, she shall not be lawful to him after that, until she marries another husband. If he divorces her, then it is no fault in them to return to each other, if they suppose that they will maintain God’s bounds." (2:230) A wife whose husband has died should not marry again until four months and ten nights go by presumably to certify that there are no heirs of the deceased husband.

There were husbands who divorced their wives rejecting them declaring, "be as my mother’s back." Sura 58:2 says "Those of you who say, regarding their wives, ‘Be as my mother’s back’" are uttering a falsehood. This was apparently a pagan way of divorce, then current in Arabia, and mostly at the petition of a woman who had small children and was rejected by her husband, Muhammad proclaimed this Sura in condemnation of that practice.

In Sura 65:1 Muhammad is told to count the period of the women to be divorced. They are not to be put out until the time has expired. If a woman is pregnant, she is not to be put out until she delivers and in some case agreement is made for nursing. But if there is a problem between them, then another woman may be secured for suckling the child. The obvious implication is that the child belongs to the man, not the woman. The Qur’an does not give the traditional formula for divorce, i.e., I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you.

In summary, with regard to the Qur’an, and the issues of women and marriage, these have become normative for Muslim cultures. Muhammad defended himself at one point against his opponents by declaring what Allah told him to say, "If I go astray, I go astray only to my own loss; if I am guided, it is by what my Lord reveals to me." (34:50) There is a more serious issue here than Muhammad admits. If he went astray he has led astray countless generations. To him goes the authority of what marriage is like in Muslim cultures, as well as divorce. A westerner looks at the view of women in the Qur’an and laments that it takes a slice of time and history and makes it normative for all generations of Muslims thereafter.

Most westerns are curious about the matter of polygamy. Muslim writers tend to defend polygamy on the following lines. First, war has devastated the male population and there are more women then men. Second, argument is made that the western pattern of monogamy has failed because of many divorces, affairs, and permissiveness. Third, polygamy has been the custom in all ages and this proves to the Muslim "that it is natural to man."2 Fourth, "If a wife, owing to biological factors, is unable to give birth to a child, or satisfy her husband’s sexual urges, the man may safely opt for polygamy." This saves the first wife from divorce and from being "homeless and shelter-less."

The author states, "The basic aim of the married life is the satisfaction of the sexual desire within the bounds of legality....The man is always sexually active provided he is healthy and normal, while even a perfectly healthy woman is not always inclined to sex."3 The menstrual course keeps her from being able to engage in sexual relations. Fifth, normal sexual attraction requires the possibility of polygamy. "Is it not natural that a person having one wife may be attracted towards another woman so much so that this attraction may demand fulfillment?" One may well ask how it is possible to be attracted to a woman who is all covered up. Since you are not supposed to see the woman, and she is not supposed to talk to men other than her family, how is one supposed to learn to know a woman?

Should one ask about the opposite situation, many husbands, and one wife, the answer is that nature does not allow 28 days of sex a month. Moreover, the "primary aim behind espousing a woman is to impregnate her."4

Polygamy is defended on the grounds that a woman can object to a second wife. This can be the grounds of divorcing him. But it is claimed that "no home has been destroyed by polygamy."5

In summary, one can see the discrepancy of equality in the matter of faith before Allah, and the inequality in this world of men. The article on polygamy is written from a very male point of view. The woman is regarded as a womb and the function of a woman is to have sex. If she cannot, she must face the prospect of a competitor in marriage in a second or third wife. While polygamy may be the story of sinful man, we must observe the model of creation–God made only man and woman, not Adam and four wives.

Further reading: Women in Islam


1 All quotes from the Qur’an are from two sources: 1) A. J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, New York: The Macmillan Co., 1967, and 2) George Sales, The Koran. London: Frederick Warne and Co. Unless indicated otherwise, the quotations are from Arberry’s translation.

2 Shahnaz Begum, "Islam and Polygamy," The Muslim World League Journal, June-July, 1983, no. 9, p. 17

3  Ibid.

4  Ibid., p. 19

5  Ibid., p. 20

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