Q: In a question to Arab News about the percentage of her husband's salary, income, or property that a woman is entitled to and other rights, the answer stated that Islam treats both men and women on an equal basis. Furthermore, men and women each have the right of ownership, and what each of them owns remains his / her own property, without having to share any of it with the other. Additionally, while indicating that men and women are entitled to hoard what belongs to them except what they feel they freely want to share with each other, the men have the responsibility of taking care of the women, even if the women may be much wealthier than the men. However, the conclusion was that both men and women needed to look after each other. What is your view on this matter?

A: In general, I agree with the answer, but there are certain things that bother me. They have to do with the problem that the late great Fazlur Rahman spoke about: we have mired ourselves in the legalistic, medieval interpretations, absolutely forgetting the philosophy of the Qur'an. The early Muslims never viewed the Qur'an as immutable, which is why they came up with the concept of naskh. And while we have mired ourselves in the morass of arcane and misogynous thought, many non-Islamic governments have in fact accepted the Islamic ethical viewpoint. The sharing of property in Islam is one that we have to consider carefully when considering contemporary norms. A wife who has to work outside of the home to contribute to the financial upkeep of the home is certainly entitled to joint ownership of the said home even if it is in her husband's name. Most jurists will agree with this -- that is, if they "allow" the woman to work outside the home.

Our question then is about the woman who stays at home while the husband works outside. Erroneous thinking has conditioned us to see such a "housewife" as a non-contributing partner to the financial and property matters of the family. The fact is that such a person is better described as a homemaker, for it is she whose stay at home allows the husband to go outside and work, and it is her support in other ways that allows him the time to work outside of the home. If her husband is receiving a large salary, is it not her Islamic / legal right to maintenance in a way commensurate with the husband's income? If he purchases a home, and then, for whatever reason, seeks a divorce, is she not entitled to share in that home or its price, if it is sold? Classical Islamic law says no. But our ethical and intellectual, as well as our Islamic view of human and spousal rights, dictate that she is.

In like manner too, if a wife is extremely rich, either by inheritance or her own labor, and marries a husband who is not as well off as she is, shall we insist it is her legal right to withhold support for him? Or, as some jurists say, that she can take all her money for herself, since she does not have to financially contribute to the home? On the face of it, this sounds like a very good argument for those who argue for the "honor and respect" in which classical Islam holds women. I argue differently. By denying her a duty of financial contribution, we are relegating her to a subordinate position, because the Qur'an says that the reason why men are "qawwammun" over women is because of what God has favored one over the other with, and because the men spend of their money. The understanding then is that if the women spend of their money in the family expenses, the man's "qiwwama" is thus negated (the other aspect of preference is not specified).

For more material on this, please read Dr. Amina Wadud's "Quran and Woman." In such a scenario, i.e. where the woman is deemed as not legally having to support the man, she is basically being seen as a sex provider and a baby maker. Our modern and hopefully developed intellect should take us out of this retrogressive viewpoint: marriage is a meeting of two mates (zawjayn), each supporting the other in the norm of our times, and thus giving full meaning to the Arabic "zawj". The norms can vary from culture to culture, but in the U.S, our laws regarding property division in terms of divorce seem more in harmony with the Islamic spirit. May God guide to that which is righteous.

Posted December 8, 2005