Women in Society
Prof. Abdur Rahman I. Doi Professor and Director, Center for Islamic Legal Studies, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaira, Nigeria.
The family in Islam is a unit in which a man and woman unite to share life together according to the rules and regulations laid down by the Shari'ah. They become as close to each other as a garment is to the body. The husband's honour becomes an integral part of his wife's honour, and vice versa. They share each other's prosperity and adversity. Thus in Islam the bridal couple are united as husband and wife in the presence of witnesses seeking Allah's blessings to increase in mutual love and compassion and agreeing to care for each other in sickness and adversity. This fundamental principle of Islamic marriage, understood and observed by the spouses, is the basis of the institution of Muslim marriage. In the family, the man is charged with the duty of being the leader of the family and the woman is assigned the duty of looking after the household. Even if the man has more responsibility than the woman and thereby has a degree over her, it does not make a husband inherently better than his wife. The Qur'an contains a verse which says:
Commenting on this verse Sheikh Muhammad 'Abduh says that it does not imply that every man is better than every woman or vice versa, but it emphasizes that: "each sex, in general, has some preferential advantage over the other, though men have a degree over women . " What is this "degree"? There are different views about it. One view is that it means the qualities of leadership, surveillance and maintenance which are bestowed on men. Another view is that it signifies the tolerance with which men must treat their wives even when in extremely bad moods. Yet another view is that it is man's natural gift from Allah for judging matters pertaining to his family and managing the problems affecting it. However, the consensus of the scholars is that the "degree" comprises the principle of guardianship and nothing more.
Muhammad 'Abduh feels that guardianship has four elements: protection, surveillance, custody, and maintenance. 'Abd al-'Ati considers that over and above these four elements is the element of obedience. According to 'Abd al-'Ati obedience consists of the following aspects:
Modesty is a virtue which Islam demands of Muslim men and women. The most powerful verses commanding the believers to be modest occur in Surah al-Nur and begin with the words:
The rule of modesty is equally applicable to men and women. A brazen stare by a man at a woman or another man is a breach of correct behaviour. The rule is meant not only to guard women, but is also meant to guard the spiritual good of men. Looking at the sexual anarchy that prevails in many parts of the world, and which Islam came to check, the need for modesty both in men and women is abundantly clear. However it is on account of the difference between men and women in nature, temperament, and social life, that a greater amount of veiling is required for women than for men, especially in the matter of dress. A complete code of modesty is laid down in the Qur'an as follows:
A key term in the above verse is zinat. It means both natural beauty and artificial ornaments. The word as used in the above verse seems to include both meanings. Women are asked not to make a display of their figures, not to wear tight clothing that reveals their shapeliness, nor to appear in such dress except to:
While Muslim men are required to cover the body between the navel and the knee, every Muslim woman is asked to cover her whole body excluding the face and hands from all men except her husband. The following traditions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) give us further guidance in the matter:
'A'isha reports that once she appeared got up in finery before her nephew, 'Abdullah ibn al-Tufail. The Prophet (peace be upon him) did not approve of it. "I said, 'O Apostle of Allah, he is my nephew.' The Prophet replied, 'When a woman reaches puberty it is not lawful for her to uncover any part of her body except the face and this and then he put his hand on the wrist joint as to leave only a little space between the place he gripped and the palm."
Asma', the sister of 'A'isha and daughter of Abu Bakr, came before the Prophet in a thin dress that showed her body. The Prophet turned his eyes away and said, "O Asma'! When a woman reaches puberty, it is not lawful that any part of her body be seen, except this and this" - and then he pointed to his face and the palms of his hands. Hafsah, daughter of 'Abdur-Rahman, once came before 'A'isha wearing a thin shawl over her head and shoulders. 'A'isha tore it up and put a thick shawl over her. The Messenger of Allah also said, "Allah has cursed those women who wear clothes yet still remain naked." The khalif, 'Umar, once said, "Do not clothe your women in clothes that are tight-fitting and reveal the shapeliness of the body." The above-mentioned traditions make it explicitly clear that the dress of Muslim women must cover the whole body, except for the face and hands, whether in the house or outside, even with her nearest relatives. She must not expose her body to anybody except her husband, and must not wear a dress that shows the curves of her body. Some scholars, like Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, are of the opinion that, because modern times are particularly full of fitnah (mischief), women should go as far as to cover their faces because even the face may attract sexual glances from men. Shaikh al-Albani says, "We admit that the face is not one of the parts of the body to be covered, but it is not permissible for us to hold to this taking into consideration the corruption of the modern age and the need to stop the means for further corruption."
It is respectfully submitted, however, that in the light of the Prophetic traditions it suffices to cover the body, leaving out the face and hands up to the wrist joints, since this is the specified Islamic covering and it may sometimes be essential for a woman to go about her lawful engagements with her face uncovered. However if a woman prefers to put on the veil (burqah), she should not be discouraged as this may be a sign of piety and God-consciousness (taqwah). The rules on dress are slightly relaxed when a woman reaches old age and her sexual attractions have faded. The Qur'an says:
However, if a woman is old but still has sexual desires, it is not lawful for her to take off her over- garments. Women at whom people are not possibly going to cast sexual glances but rather look at with respect and veneration are entitled to make use of the relaxation and go about in their houses without wearing an over-garment.
Islam requires its male and female adherents to avoid illicit sexual relations at all costs. Because the desire to have sexual relationships originates with the look that one person gives another, Islam prohibits a person from casting amorous glances towards another. This is the principle of ghadd al-basar (lowering the eyes). Since it is impossible for people to have their eyes fixed constantly to the ground and inconceivable that a man will never see a woman or a woman will never see a man, Islam absolves from blame the first chance look, but prohibits one from casting a second look or continuing to stare at a face which one finds attractive at first sight.
The following traditions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) offer us guidance in this regard: Jarir says,
However, there are certain circumstances in which it is permissible for a man to look at another woman. Such circumstances may arise when a woman is obliged to be treated by a male doctor, or has to appear before a judge as a witness, or when a woman is trapped inside a burning house, or is drowning, or when a woman's life or honour is in danger. In such cases, even the prohibited parts of the body of the woman may be seen or touched, and it is not only lawful but obligatory on a man to rescue her from danger, whatever physical contact it may entail. What is required by Islam in such a situation is that as far as possible the man should keep his intentions pure. But if in spite of that his emotions are a little excited naturally, it is not blameworthy for him to have looked at such a woman, since having contact with her body was not intentional but was necessitated by circumstances, and it is not possible for a man to suppress his natural urges completely.
The Shari'ah also allows a man to look at a woman with the object of reaching a decision about whether he should marry her or not. The following traditions explain the matter further: Mughirah ibn Shu'bah says,
Abu Hurairah says that he was sitting with the Prophet when a man came and said that he intended to marry a woman from among the Ansar (Helpers). The Prophet asked him if he had seen her. He replied in the negative. The Prophet told him to go and have a look at her because the Ansar often had a defect in their eyes. According to Jabir ibn 'Abdullah, the Prophet said that when a man sent a request to a woman for her hand in marriage, he should have a look at her to see if there was anything in her which made him inclined to marry her.
It is thus clear that no man is prohibited from having a look at a woman as such, but that the real idea behind the prohibition is to prevent the evil of illicit intercourse. Therefore what the Prophet has prohibited is only such casting of the eyes as is not essential, as does not serve any social purpose, and as is loaded with sexual motives. This command applies to both Muslim men and Muslim women and is not confined to only one sex.
Maulana Abu'l-A'la Maududi has made a fine psychological distinction, however, between women looking at men and men looking at women. The man, he says,
The Prophet (peace be upon him) told Fatimah, daughter of Qais, to pass her 'iddah (waiting term), in the house of Ibn Maktum, the same blind Companion from whom Umm Salamah had been instructed to observe purdah. Qadi Abu Bakr ibn al-'Arabi has related in his Ahkam al- Qur'an that Fatimah, daughter of Qais, wanted to pass her waiting term in the house of Umm Sharik. The Prophet did not approve of this for the reason that the house was visited by many people. Therefore he told her to stay in the house of Ibn Maktum who was blind, where she could stay without observing purdah.
This shows that the real object of the Prophet was to reduce the chances of any mischief occurring. That is why the lady was not allowed to stay in a house where the chances of possible mischief were greater but allowed to stay in a house where they were less. On the other hand, where there was no such need, women were prohibited from sitting in the same place face to face with other men.
The real object of ghadd al-basar (lowering the eyes) is to stop people with evil intentions from casting lewd looks at others. It is common knowlege that a person turns their eyes towards another person innocently in the beginning. If the latter is attractive, the former may go on casting glances and thus drift towards the precipice of sexual attraction and ultimately fornication or adultery. Islam encourages regulated love in order to build up happy family lives since it is healthy families that provide the blocks to construct a healthy society; but it abhors promiscuity which ruins people's family lives and seriously damages people through the ultimate disaster of illicit sexual relationships developing between its adherents. Islam blocks the path that finally leads to active temptation by prohibiting the casting of looks by one person at another except when they do so by chance.
The Shari'ah has placed restrictions on men meeting strange women privately. Similarly no man other than her husband is allowed to touch any part of a woman's body. The following traditions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) are worth noting in this connection:
According to 'Amr ibn al-'As, the Prophet forbade men to call on women without the permission of their husbands. (Tirmidhi)
The Prophet said,
'A'ishah says that the Prophet accepted the oath of allegiance from women only verbally, without taking their hands into his own hand. He never touched the hand of a woman who was not married to him (Bukhari). Umaimah, daughter of Ruqaiqah, said that she went to the Prophet in the company of some other women to take the oath of allegiance. He made them promise that they would abstain from idolatry, stealing, adultery, slander, and disobedience to the Prophet. When they had taken the oath, they requested that he take their hands as a mark of allegiance. The Prophet said, "I do not take the hands of women. Verbal affirmation is enough." (Nasa'i and Ibn Majah).
According to Maulana Maududi these commandments apply in respect of young women. He says, "It is lawful to sit with women of advanced age in privacy and touching them is also not prohibited. It has been reported that Sayyiduna Abu Bakr used to visit the clan where he had been suckled and shook hands with the old women. It has been reported that Sayyidina 'Abdullah ibn Zubair used to have his feet and head pressed gently for relief by an old woman. This distinction between old and young women itself shows that the real object is to prevent such mixing of the sexes as may lead to evil results.''
It is most unfortunate, however, that in spite of this guidance from the Prophet (peace be upon him) many Muslims have adopted the Western system of shaking hands with women, using these traditions in respect of old women as a justification. This is clearly an unreasonable extension of the permission. It is, therefore, submitted that the Muslims the world over, and 'ulama in particular, must pause to reflect and stop this un-Islamic practice which has crept into our society. There cannot be a better form of greeting than uttering 'as-salamu 'alaikum ' (peace be upon you) and greeting back with 'wa alaikum as-salam '(and peace be upon you too).
The Shari'ah wants people to live in their houses in peace and privacy. It therefore commands a Muslim, when visiting friends, relatives or strangers not to enter their houses without seeking their permission. The Qur'an particularly forbids him to enter their houses without alerting the women of the house so that he does not surprise them in a condition in which he would not normally see them. However, children do not have to seek such permission until they reach the age of puberty and sexual awareness stirs in them:
The Holy Qur'an also gives categories of people who should not enter anybody else's house without permission:
At the beginning of Islam, the Arabs could not grasp the real significance of these commands. Therefore they used to peep into houses from the outside. Once when the Prophet (peace be upon him) was in his room, a person peeped through the lattice. The Prophet said:
No matter how urgent the need is, no-one is allowed to enter anyone else's house without permission. The Qur'an says:
These restrictions also apply to household servants. Once Bilal or Anas asked Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet, to hand him her child. She handed it to him by stretching her hand from behind a curtain. It is noteworthy that both these men were the personal attendants of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and he used to affectionately address them as "Ya Bunayya" (O my son). The real purpose behind those restrictions is to safeguard men and women against evil inclinations. By keeping a safe distance between them, the Shari'ah ensures that they do not grow too familiar and free with one another which may make them drift towards sexual intimacy.
The Qur'an lays down the code of conduct for women in the following words:
Abu Bakr al-Jassas says in explaining this verse,
It was revealed when the Muslim ummah was being formed in Madina as an example for the coming generations of Muslims. It sought to put an end to the Jahiliyyah practices of the pagan Arabs. The khalif 'Umar remarked:
Under this apportionment women were given the role of making their own homes the centers of their attention rather than going about exhibiting their physical charms and worldly possessions. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said that the following type of women constitute one of the categories of the dwellers of Hell:
Islam, however, does not prohibit beautification (zinat) on the part of women as long as it is not done in a way that injuriously interferes with the limbs or the body. In ancient times there were many kinds of defacement practiced on the bodies of men and animals, partly on account of superstition or pagan custom and partly on account of the craze for fashion and display. Examples of this were tattooing, sharpening or spacing the teeth, shaving or plucking the hair, wearing hair pieces, etc. Many of these practices still survive and are, in fact, getting more and more refined.
Since all these practices change or seriously interfere with the natural creation of Allah, the Prophet (peace be upon him) cursed those who indulged in them for the purpose of mere beautification. One report says,
The Messenger of Allah cursed women who had spaces made between their teeth in order to increase their beauty, thus changing the creation of Allah. A third report says,
This method of beautification would include the modern practice of shaving the eyebrows and then painting on new ones, or shaving certain hair and leaving the eyebrows to look like two inverted crescents.
However, if a woman has some obtrusive hairs on her face which are a problem and embarrassment for her, she may remove them. When 'A'ishah was approached by the young wife of Abu Is'haq who wished to remove her facial hairs in order to look beautiful for her husband, she advised her to do so. (Reported by atTabarani) On this basis some Hanafi jurists are of the opinion that there is no harm in removing the hairs from a woman's face and applying cosmetics if it is done with the permission of the husband, in order to please him and with a good intention. But Imam alNawawi opposes even removing the hairs on a woman's face because he considers the practice similar to plucking hair.
A fourth report says:
This method of beautification would include the modern practice of wearing wigs. It consists of using a plait of one woman's hair or artificial hair and joining it to another woman's hair with the object of making the woman's hair appear very long and beautiful. Mu'awiyah, while holding a plait of such hair in his hands during his address to the Muslims, castigated the 'ulama:
The Shari'ah also requires women to abstain from displaying their "decorations" except to a restricted circle of people. The Qur'an says:
Thus, the following people fall in the exceptional category to whom decorations can be displayed by a woman:
It is noteworthy that the above verse of the Noble Qur'an does not mention uncle, but uncle is included in the exceptional category on the basis of a tradition of the Prophet (peace be upon him). The Prophet said, "The uncle (maternal or paternal) is of the same degree as one's father." (Muslim)
Let us here give a little more consideration to the women to whom another woman is permitted to display her finery. These are the women with whom she has blood or family relations. It should be borne in mind that the foregoing Qur'anic verse implies only women of good character. Other women who may not be well known to her or who are notorious for their evil ways or who may be of doubtful character are excluded from this permission, because contact with them might easily lead to disastrous results. That is why the khalif 'Umar wrote to Abu 'Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah, the Governor of Syria, to prohibit the Muslim women from going to the baths with the women of the Ahl al-Kitab (the People of the Book). (At-Tabari, Ibn Jazir) According to Ibn 'Abbas too:
This distinction between women on grounds of character and religion is intended to safeguard Muslim women against the influence of women whose moral and cultural background is either not known or is objectionable from the Islamic point of view. However, the Shari'ah allows Muslim women to mix freely with non- Muslim women who are of good character. It is important to note that permission to display zinat does not include permission to display those parts of the body which fall within the female satr. Thus zinat covers decorations, ornaments, clothing, hair- dos, etc. that women are by nature fond of showing in their houses. But tight jeans, short blouses, sleeveless dresses are not counted as zinat for they also reveal that satr.
The Shari'ah further requires a woman not to stamp on the ground while walking, lest her hidden decorations should be revealed by their jingle, and thus attract the attention of passers-by. Writing about these restrictions, Maulana Maududi says:
As against this view, the Egyptian scholars, notably 'Abbas Mahmud al-'Aqqad, are of the view that these restrictions were only imposed on the wives of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and other Muslim women are not bound by them. 'Aqqad says, "We should discuss this point in the light of the fact that the command to stay at home was merely addressed to the wives of the Prophet (peace be upon him) with particular reference to them without referring it to Muslim women in general. It is for this reason that the verse begins with the statement of Allah: O women of the Prophet, you are not like other women. (33:32)
It is respectfully submitted that this view of Al-'Aqqad needs reconsideration. There are a number of verses in the Qur'an which, though apparently laying down "dos" and "don'ts" for our Prophet and for the other Prophets (peace be upon all of them) preceding him, contain clear messages for Muslims in general, nay for all mankind. And Al-'Aqqad contradicts himself when he quotes the following verse of the Holy Qur'an:
This verse apparently lays down a code of manners for the believers when entering the house of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and taking food there. After quoting this verse, Al-'Aqqad says:
Hence we may conclude that no Muslim woman should display her zinat (decoration) before others intentionally, but she is not held responsible for something which cannot be helped e.g. her stature, physical build, gait. etc. nor for uncovering her hand or face when there is a genuine need to do so and without any intention of attracting men. In such cases it is the responsibility of Muslim men not to cast evil glances at women with the intention of drawing pleasure from them. The Qur'an ordains:
Very often, a man may receive male visitors and guests in his house. In such a situation the question may arise whether the wife of the host can come forward to serve food and drink to them. If a woman's husband is not present when his guests arrive, she should not serve them. However, if her husband is present and the guests are known friends, relatives and well-wishers, a woman may come forward to serve them with food and drink provided that she is properly dressed and her manners, movements and method of talking are such that they are not likely to encourage evil in them or arouse their passions and thereby become a source of fitnah (mischief).
We have a very good example in the following:
If a woman is not properly dressed, it is better that she does not come forward to serve guests. In this case she should pass out the food and drinks to her husband and he should entertain the guests and visitors on his own.
A Muslim woman should not use public baths (hammam) or swimming pools because these places are likely to be a cause of her exposing herself to evil influences. The following tradition treats this point:
If the public baths and swimming pools are mixed, with both men and women using them, it is all the more objectionable. At one stage the Prophet (peace be upon him) forbade both men and women to enter public oath- houses but later he allowed men to use them on the condition that they were never naked. "The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, forbade all men to enter public baths but later allowed them to enter them wearing waist-wrappers."
If a wealthy man builds a private pool on his own property there is no harm in him and his wife using it together. However, if he has more than one wife, he should not bathe with more than one at a time, and, if he has grown-up sons, they should not bathe together with their mothers or step-mothers.
Places in which men and women dance together are totally at odds with the ethos of Muslim society and the Shari'ah does not tolerate the participation of Muslim men and women in this activity because it may so easily prove the first step towards greater evils such as adultery and fornication. Dancing is most certainly not compatible with the simple, purposeful lives that all Muslims should lead. Mixed gymnasiums where women remove their clothes and wear skin- tight costumes for doing physical exercises are also against the dictates of the Shari'ah.
The Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him) granted permission to Muslim women to attend the mosque and pray standing behind the rows of men. He even advised the Companions: "Do not prevent the female servants of Allah from going to the mosque." And husbands were specifically told by him: "When your womenfolk ask you for permission to attend the mosque, do not prevent them."
Of course this permission to attend the mosques was on the condition that women strictly observed the various restrictions imposed upon them by the Shari'ah regarding dress, etc., and it is known that the Prophet (peace be upon him) considered it preferable for women to pray in their own homes rather than attend the mosques. This is borne out by the following incident.
Once the wife of Abu Hamid Sa'adi pleaded with the Prophet to be allowed to attend his mosque (the Prophet's Mosque in Madina) as she was very fond of offering prayers behind him. He told her,
There is a clear tradition of the Prophet (peace be upon him) encouraging women to offer their prayers inside their houses: "The best mosques for women are the inner parts of their houses."
Since the Prophet had not forbidden women to attend the mosques, they continued to come to the mosques. But after his death it became increasingly clear that it was not in keeping with the dignity and honour of Muslim women to come to the mosques for prayers, especially at night, because men, being what they were, would tease them. Therefore the Khalif 'Umar told women not to come to the mosques, but to offer their prayers inside their own houses. The women of Madina resented this prohibition and complained to 'A'isha. But they received a fitting reply from her: "If the Prophet knew what 'Umar knows, he would not have granted you permission to go out (to the mosque)."
'A'isha also prevented women from going to the mosques. When she was told that the Prophet (peace be upon him) had permitted them to attend the mosques, she replied:
Now, what 'A'isha said by way of admonition was in the context of what happened immediately after the death of the Prophet. But what is happening today 1350 years after his death is much more serious in the context of modern fashions and manners. It would probably have shocked 'A'isha beyond measure and she would have reinforced her admonition. Be that as it may, the fact remains that our Prophet did grant permission to women to attend the mosques. In the modern world a new situation has arisen. There are many Muslims living in Western countries, and Western culture and fashions have affected women, even in the East. In addition, the economic tyranny of today has forced many women to work in factories and offices to earn their living. These developments have largely contributed to making many Muslims neglectful of their prayers. We Muslims have to find ways and means of encouraging Muslim women to be particular about their prayers. With due respect to what the khalif, 'Umar, and the Mother of the Believers, 'A'isha, said, it appears to this humble writer that such a way can be found by reverting to the original Prophetic tradition, that is to say, permitting Muslim women to attend the mosques to offer their prayers, subject to all the restrictions laid down by the Prophet (peace be upon him) about their dress etc.
People generally learn by example. Therefore the chances are that, if women started coming to the mosque for prayer, a social pressure would start building up that would make Muslim women feel the urge to come to the mosque to offer their prayers and give up their neglectful attitude. However, it goes without saying that proper arrangements would have to be made for Muslim women to attend the mosques. They must not be allowed to mingle with the men, and their rows must be kept separate from those of the men, preferably behind them, because this is what was approved by the Prophet (peace be upon him).
It is reported by Abu Hurairah that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:
It is well known that, in the time of the Prophet, women were permitted to attend the mosques subject to the condition that they satisfied the various restrictions imposed on them by the Shari'ah, such as the putting on of a jalbab (a large sheet used for covering the entire body), wearing simple and dignified clothes, not using any perfume, avoiding ostentatious display of ornament, etc. Therefore, if the suggestion of this writer is accepted, efforts will have to be made to persuade Muslim women who want to attend the mosques to start complying with the traditional restrictions on dress, etc. But what has been suggested above should in no way be taken to mean that all women should be required to attend the mosque and indeed those who feel that their houses are as good as the mosque should be encouraged to offer their prayers there.