In the first article of this series, we provided a brief biography of Muhammad. There it was noted that at 25 years of age he was taken as husband (she was the dominant personality in the relationship) by a 40 year-old wealthy widow, to whom he remained faithful until her death at 65. After that, Muhammad was urged to secure alliances through marriage and took some 11 to 13 wives, at least one of whom was already married. In spite of the number of his wives, he evidently fathered only two daughters. His personal situation is no doubt reflected in the Qur’an, both in his treatment of women and his justification of multiple wives.
In today’s world, we often hear of the harsh treatment of women in Islamic society (witness the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan). Such practices can be justified from the Qur’an in passages allowing for beating of wives, divorce laws which give a great advantage to the husband, and the permitted treatment of female slaves.
Same spiritual standards and eternal end
In 33:35 the Qur’an stresses men and women are treated alike in spiritual is- sues:
“For 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 Allah’s praise — for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and great reward.”
The foregoing illustrates both points — the similarity of behavior required of men and women as well as the equality of reward that is promised.
This equality of women with respect to their eternal end comes up several times: in heaven the righteous…
“…enter the Garden, you and your wives… to them will be passed round, dishes and goblets of gold” (43:70,71).
“If any do deeds of righteousness — be they male or female — and have faith, they will enter Heaven” (4:124; also 3:195; 9:72; 40:40, etc.).
Of course, if there is equality of reward, the Qur’an states there will be equality of punishment:
“He (Allah) may admit the men and women who believe, to Gardens be- neath which rivers flow… and that He may punish the Hypocrites, men and women, and the Polytheists, men and women who imagine an evil opinion of Allah. On them is a round of Evil: the Wrath of Allah is on them: He has cursed them and got Hell ready for them” (48:5,6; note also 66:10).
Virgins given to men
It has been rather memorably reported that those who kill themselves (such as suicide bombers) in the service of Allah go straight to heaven and receive 70 virgins as a reward. While there is no mention of a specific number of virgins, the Qur’an does promise the assurance of heaven for such “devotion” and does promise virgins for companions:
“For those Foremost in faith… we have created (their Companions) of spe- cial creation. And made them virgin-pure (and undefiled)” (56:10,35,36).
“As to the Righteous… We shall join them to companions, with beautiful, big and lustrous eyes. And those who believe and whose families follow them in Faith — to them We shall join their families… They shall exchange there one with another, a (loving) cup free of frivolity, free of all taint of ill” (52:17,20,21).
This scene provokes some obvious questions about the carnal rewards provided to men in heaven. The Qur’an itself makes no attempt to explain the picture as figurative or to reconcile the association of family with the complications of a harem scene.
Other areas of equality
Marriage to unbelievers is forbidden for both men and women:
“Do not marry unbelieving women… Nor marry (your girls) to unbelievers until they believe” (2:221).
Lewd behavior is punished the same for men or women:
“The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication — flog each of them with a hundred stripes: let not compassion move you in their case… Let no man guilty of adultery or fornication marry any but a woman simi- larly guilty, or an Unbeliever: nor let any but such a man or an Unbeliever marry such a woman” (24:2,3).
Both men and women are to respect the purity of the other:
“Women impure are for men impure, and men impure for women impure, and women of purity are for men of purity, and men of purity are for women of purity” (24:26).
In matters of infidelity, the word of the wife is equal in validity to the word of the husband:
“And for those who launch a charge against their spouses, and have (in sup- port) no evidence but their own — their solitary evidence (can be received) if they bear witness four times (with an oath) by Allah that they are solemnly telling the truth… But it would avert the punishment from the wife, if she bears witness four times (with an oath) by Allah, that (her husband) is telling a lie” (24:6-8).
So the word of the wife has the same requirements for validity as the word of the husband.
The modesty issue
Most of us are familiar with the head covering worn by many Islamic women. This is not a specific requirement of the Qur’an. But the Qur’an is more detailed on the matter of women’s modesty than is the Bible:
“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments ex- cept what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to… their husbands, fathers, husbands’ fathers, sons, brothers, nephews, eunuchs, small children, etc. [listing all close relatives and household servants]” (24:31).
This same chapter expresses specific lenience for…
“…such elderly women as are past the prospect of marriage — there is no blame on them if they lay aside their (outer) garments, provided they make not a wanton display of their beauty: but it is best for them to be modest” (24:60).
Evidently any specific application of these dress restrictions is the product of later rulings and custom rather than the word of the Qur’an.
Inequality in marriage
Wives are to obey their husbands as the husbands are to be the supporters of their wives:
“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard.”
This section continues on to specify the punishment the husband is permitted to mete out if he feels his wife is not acting appropriately:
“As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next) refuse to share their bed, (and last) beat them; but if they return to obedience, do not seek against them means (of annoyance)” (4:34).
Since a “beating” is subject to wide interpretation, the Qur’an here opens the door to approving male brutality.
Evidently seeking to offset this potential for brutality is the instruction:
“O you who believe! you are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should you treat them with harshness, that you take away part of the dower you have given them — except where they have been guilty of open lewdness; on the contrary live with them on a footing of kindness and equity” (4:19).
The brutality which exists toward women in some Muslim societies today is clearly beyond the overall spirit of the Qur’an.
Further protecting women
The Qur’an provides further protection to wives in that they can accumulate their own money and can initiate a divorce if they feel mistreated. Their own money would come from several sources, including the dowry, an inheritance, and their own earnings:
(1) Dowry: Under the Qur’an, the dowry is paid to the wife: “And give the women (on marriage) their dower as a free gift” (4:4). “Seeing that you derive benefit from them, give them their dowers (at least) as prescribed” (4:24).
(2) Inheritance: “Allah (thus) directs you as regards your children’s (inheritance): to the male, a portion equal to that of two females” (4:11). The instruction continues with detailed percentages depending on family circumstances. The male consistently gets a larger share but the female does get a portion of the inheritance.
(3) Earnings: “And in no wise covet those things in which Allah has bestowed His gifts more freely on some of you than on others: to men is allotted what they earn, and to women what they earn” (4:32).
Women can divorce
Under the Qur’an, it is evident women can seek a divorce as well as men:
“If a wife fears cruelty or desertion on her husband’s part, there is no blame on them if they arrange an amicable settlement between themselves; and such settlement is best” (4:128).
It is recognized, however, that in most cases men have the advantage:
“Divorced women shall wait concerning themselves for three monthly peri- ods. Nor is it lawful for them to hide what Allah has created in their wombs, if they have faith in Allah and the Last Day. And their husbands have the better right to take them back in that period, if they wish for reconciliation. And women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according
to what is equitable; but men have a degree (of advantage) over them. And Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise” (2:228).
Further protecting the women are restrictions upon divorce and remarriage to the same person, a requirement that the man supply two years of support for a divorced wife, and the classification as a great sin any slander of a chaste wife (2:229,230,233; 24:23). It is noteworthy that there are similarities to the Law of Moses in the regulation, not prohibition, of divorce, and the specific legislation designed to prevent trivial divorces on the part of the man.
Solving domestic problems
An interesting provision of the Qur’an is a suggestion for settling domestic dis- putes:
“If you fear a breach between them twain (husband and wife), appoint (two) arbiters, one from his family, and the other from hers; if they wish for peace, Allah will cause their reconciliation: for Allah has full knowledge, and is acquainted with all things” (4:35).
There are a number of places where the Qur’an alludes to men having multiple wives as well as slave wives. According to the Qur’an, multiple wives can be re- quired when a man takes on the responsibility of caring for orphaned children. However, even in such a case the additional wives must be limited to the number the man can treat “justly”:
“If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two, or three, or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice” (4:3).
The harsh treatment of women in several of today’s Muslim societies has basis in the Qur’an. At the same time, the Qur’an offsets brutality with several references to the just and fair treatment of women. A balanced application of the book would no doubt lead to a male-dominated but tolerably civilized domestic structure. One notable omission, however, is “love”. Husbands are nowhere instructed to love their wives. In fact, the Qur’an is not big on “love”, as will become a topic of a future article, Lord willing.
Don Styles (Ann Arbor, MI)
Let woman certainly be modest, but let her not be reduced to a cipher, which God never intended. She is intended as a comrade and a help, which she greatly is, when enlightened and treated rightly. We ought to be thankful when women turn up who are able to help with wise suggestions.