Women in Islam and Muslim Society

by Hassan Al-Turabi

Editorial from the American Muslim Magazine: Dr. Hassan Al-Turabi is leading figure of the International Islamic Movement, and may even be the leading figure and one of its most influential thinkers. He is an expert in Islamic thought and jurisprudence. He has been a leader in the Sudanese Islamic Movement's struggle to establish an Islamic government and to implement Shari`a since the 1960's, and during the 60's and 70's was imprisoned several times for his Islamic activities. In 1989, the National Salvation Revolution came to power in Sudan, and since then Dr. Al-Turabi has continued to work to complete the process of Islamization, education, and implementation of Shari`a.

He is currently the Secretary General of the Arab and Islamic Congress, and was elected to that post at a conference in April 1991 by leaders of Islamic and Nationalist parties from 55 countries.

Dr. Al-Turabi received a degree in law from the University of Khartoum in 1955. He received his Masters Degree in law in 1957 in London, and his Ph.D. from the Sorbonne in 1964, after which he was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Khartoum.

Last year, Dr. Al-Turabi visited the U.S. and Canada and met with groups from many different communities. When he was crossing the border between the U.S. and Canada, he was attacked by an individual from a Sudanese anti-Islamic group and seriously injured. He was hospitalized for three weeks and his family came from Sudan to be with him. Thank God, the assassination attempt failed and Dr. Al-Turabi is back in the Sudan working for the cause of Islam and in excellent health. 

I was fortunate to be able to visit Sudan to attend the 2nd annual conference of the International Organization of Muslim Women in December, 1992, and had the opportunity to hear Dr. Al-Turabi speak at the conference and in his home. He is a forceful, inspirational and dynamic speaker, and I was very pleased that the topic of his talks was "Women's Rights," and that in 1993, after the Revolution and the establishment of Shari`a, he has not changed his position on this subject from the position he (courageously) first took in the early 1970's. 

The pamphlet on "Women in Islam and Muslim Society" was first published in 1973 and has been very influential in encouraging Sudanese Muslim women to actively and enthusiastically participate in the Islamic movement. When I was in Sudan, I was impressed by the active Muslim women that I met. 

This essay has also had a profound effect on my own thinking and motivated me to do a lot of research. I believe it to be a significant document that should be widely read, thought about, discussed and put into practice. We have obtained permission to reprint the entire text, and hope that our readers will also find it thought provoking.

Women in Muslim Society

Throughout history, Muslims have experienced a significant deviation from the general ideals of life as taught by Islam. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that their loss is equally great in the area of social guidance which Islam offered regarding women. Whenever weakness creeps into the faith of Muslim men, they tend to treat women oppressively and seek to exploit them. This is a natural tendency, and is amply demonstrated by the fact that most of the rulings of the Qur'an regarding women were sent down as restrictions on men - to prevent them from transgressing against women, as is their natural disposition and their actual practice in most societies. Only a few of the Qur'anic injunctions impose restrictions on women.

We quote here some of those rulings that guarantee a fair deal for women.

"When you divorce women and they fulfill the term of their Iddat, then retain them in kindness or release them in kindness. But do not retain them to prejudice them or to take undue advantage. Do not take the revelations of God as a laughing matter. Remember God's grace towards you in that which He has revealed to you of the scripture and of wisdom to exhort you. Be pious and know that God is aware of all things. When you divorce women and they fulfill their term, do not prevent them from marrying their former husbands, if they agree on equitable terms. This is an admonition for him among you who believes in God and the Day of Judgment, and God knows, but you do not know." (Al-Baqarah:231)

"O you who believe, it is not lawful for you to inherit women against their will (by maliciously retaining them captive in formal marriage until death), nor to put constraint upon them to take away part of what you have given them unless they be guilty of flagrant lewdness. Consort with them in kindness, for if you hate them, it may happen that you hate something wherein God has placed much good." (Al-Nisa:19

"When they have fulfilled their term, there is no blame on you if they (women) dispose of themselves in a decent and reasonable manner. And God is well aware of what you do." (Al-Baqarah:234)

Most, if not all of the verses of the Qur'an regarding oaths (of abstinence from sex), divorce and Iddat (term of transition), were revealed to bring an end to the oppressive traditions and customs of the day. According to these customs, a woman could be retained in formal marital captivity, and for long periods of time, while her fate remained in suspense. The same is true of the verses concerning inheritance, which restored rights that had been denied to women by guaranteeing them a definite share. Other verses were revealed which criticized the pessimism and dejection that used to attend a female birth, and the abominable practice of female infanticide. The Qur'an says:

"When any of them receives the tiding of the birth of a female, his face becomes dark and he is filled with sulkiness. He keeps hiding from people because of the unfortunate news, (wondering) whether to hold on to it as a contemptible thing or just bury it in the soil. O! What a foul judgment." (Al-Nahal:58-59)

"When the (female) buried alive will be questioned: for what fault was she murdered?" (Al-Takwir:8-9)

There are many traditions of the Prophet which warn menfolk against ill treatment of women (e.g. beating or detaining them). The Prophet said: "None of you will flog his wife like a donkey and later, toward the end of the day have intercourse with her." (Bukhari)

He once warned: "A large number of women have come to me complaining about their husbands. Those husbands are not the best amongst you." (Riad Us-Saliheen)

The Prophet's traditions encourage the Muslim to care for the good upbringing and education of women, and for their well being in general: "The best of you is the one who is best towards his family, and I am best towards my family." (Tirmidhi)

"None but a noble man treats women in an honorable manner. And none but an ignoble man treats women disgracefully." (Tirmidhi)

Weak commitment to religion tends to cultivate unjust, oppressive treatment of women. Men purposefully attempt to keep women weak, and the jealousy which they entertain in respect to women, induces them to multiply the means for restraining and monopolizing them. They dominate the property and fife of women out of vanity and arrogance.

Male jealousy is just one aspect of masculine capricious tendencies (which only godly men are immune from) which inculcate the myth that women, by nature, suffer from excessive incapacity. Men use that fantasy as an excuse to ban women from active participation in the broad spectrum of human life and to deprive them of experience and training - thereby devitalizing and debilitating them in fact, and creating a reason for further ill-treatment and prejudice. These male tendencies, and the customs and cultural patterns growing out of them, are manifest in many societies, where male arbitrariness runs amuck with no religious or human limitation.

Take for instance, the Arab, Persian, and Indian societies. Although the message of Islam spread in these societies from early times, the teaching and inculcation of Islamic cultural values was not coextensive with the horizontal expansion. Consequently, some pre-Islamic values and prejudices have continued to persist, despite the domination of Islamic forms. In some cases, there was a clear historical religious decline and a relapse to pre-Islamic social ethos and mores.

This phenomenon has sometimes occasioned an even more serious development. New or degenerate Muslim societies would sometimes, out of ignorance, attribute their un-Islamic legacy or custom to Islam itself. By attaching an Islamic value to these practices, they sought to give them legitimacy and sanctity, because the values of Islam were accepted as sacred and supreme. This explains the unabated influence on the minds of many otherwise good Muslims, of attitudes abhorrent to Islam. This is especially true in the sensitive area of sex relations, where passion is strong and custom sacrosanct.

Many later juristic rules and stratagems have been adopted to qualify the Shari`a to suit cherished customs and traditions. For instance, express provisions of the Shari`a are sometimes compared and contrasted, not to give relative effect to all, but to claim the abrogation of provisions purporting to extend rights, immunities or liberties to women, or to restrict their general scope almost to the vanishing point. Another tricky approach is to read liberally and broaden the scope of rules granting authority to men, while reading literally and strictly those rules which impose limitations on women. This discriminatory attitude of interpretation is very widespread. Yet another aspect of this tendentious jurisprudence is to generalize the provisions of the Qur'an and the Sunna that were meant to apply exclusively to the Prophet or his wives, due to their unique position.

The most popular anti-feminist argument derives from the abuse of the juristic principle that "means and preliminaries assume the value of their ends and results." Thus, the maximum precautionary prohibitions have to be observed to bar approaches to sexual temptation and avoid its undesired consequences. But the proper jurisprudential judgement, in the absence of an express provision, is to balance (in consideration) the risks of temptation with the positive merits of the integration of men and women in Muslim society; not to forfeit all freedom for some necessary reserve in social intercourse.

The traditional Muslim society, which is over-impressed by its historical decline, has developed a general preference for circumspection and cautiousness over the demands of positive pursuits. Muslim society has subsequently become unduly conservative for fear that freedom of thought will lead astray and divide the community; and that freedom of women will degenerate into licentious promiscuity. This fear is so prevalent that the basic religious rights and duties of women have been forsaken, and the fundamentals of equality and fairness in the structure of Muslim society, as enshrined in the Shari`a, have been completely overlooked.

Pseudo-religious arguments have been advanced for justifying a complete metamorphosis of the pattern of social life initiated by the Prophet himself, under the guidance of the Qur'an. The most popular is the claim that the magnificent Qur'anic and Sunnic regulations had relevance for the virtuous society which prevailed during the Prophet's own life. Later however, it is argued that people have changed, and corruption has become the order of succeeding societies and latter days. Hence, the necessity to correct this degenerative tendency by adjusting the norms of social conduct in the direction of greater circumspection. This is a liberal manner of interpretation that underlines the spirit and purpose rather than the letter of the law, and allows for a progressive application thereof. But this is not the prevailing manner of thinking among Muslims who advance conservative views on female affairs. They are normally very literal in their understanding of texts, but they tendentiously opt for an understanding that suits their prejudice. Islam is not a matter of a single rule that can be flexibly understood; it is a whole order of norms that establish the entire way of life or social structure of Islam, and is not liable to variation.

Furthermore, the claim is based on a pious but excessive overvaluation of the society of Madina. In fact, not all its members were like the rightly guided companions of the Prophet; some elements were hypocrites or new converts not yet free of Jewish or pre-Islamic Arabic influences and manners. The very verses of the Qur'an that prescribe proper dress for ladies refer to the presence of hypocrites and rumor mongers (Al-Ahzab:59-60). Whatever the comparative character of our present-day society, the proper reform policy is to reshape it after the example of the Sunni society, by changing its deviant ways and reestablishing Islamic social practices and institutions now in disuse. It is not sound social policy to submit to the dominant way of the de facto historical society, and then to forsake Islamic institutions in an attempt to save some of the ideals within that alien social context.

The thought and practice of Muslims has come to misrepresent most of the doctrinal and normative teachings of Islam on female affairs. The female is hardly ever religiously addressed except through the mediation of the male, and as an addendum to him. In the fallen society of Muslims, a woman has little freedom to marry the person she likes, or to separate from a husband she loathes. Nor is she, as a wife, entitled to full consultation and gracious companionship by her husband. In many cases she hardly enjoys an equal opportunity to earn and own property, or the full capacity to manage or dispose of her property. All sorts of subterfuges are employed to deny her inheritance. Her role in private life has been reduced to that of a housewife, chosen not for her personal merit, for she was denied the education or the opportunity to acquire merit, but for the merit of her men-folk.

In the domain of public life, she is not allowed to make any original contribution to the promotion of the religious quality of life. Whenever she is allowed to work towards the material development of life, it is likely to be in a context of exploitation or as mundane work with little spiritual satisfaction or significance.

The greatest injustice visited upon women, is their segregation and isolation from the general society. Sometimes the slightest aspect of her public appearance is considered a form of obscene exhibitionism. Even her voice is bracketed in the same category. Her mere presence at a place where men are also present is considered shameful promiscuity. She is confined to her home in a manner prescribed in Islam only as a penal sanction for an act of adultery. She is so isolated on the pretext that she should devote herself exclusively to the care of her children and the service of her husband. But how can she qualify for attending to domestic family affairs or for the rearing of children in a satisfactory manner, without being herself versed through education or experience in the moral and functional culture of the wider society?

The Resurgence of Women

The traditional customs and practices developed by the historical Muslim society could not endure long in the face of challenges, posed by alien cultures and unconventional patterns of life. These external influences are represented mainly in the ideological inroads of Western civilization, which has swept through the Muslim world. The cultural domination of Muslims by the West has shattered their confidence in almost the whole legacy of ideas - Islamic and traditional. Muslims have assimilated cultural attitudes and modes toward women, which appear very liberal. This trend of women's liberation constitutes a serious temptation for the downtrodden Muslim women, especially those who are unaware of the actual teaching of Qur'an and Sunna.

The Western liberal tendency has itself been a revolt against a sickly religious tradition, which maltreated women in ways that closely resembled the aberrant traditional ways of the Muslims. In early European society, women were not equated with men in humanity or religion, in fundamental rights or obligations, or in legal capacity or social consideration. The revolt of the new European society against religion and convention was universal. It was in particular a complete departure from the absolute homogeneous and monotheistic order that once prevailed under the authority of the Church. Society became secular and humanistic in its values, and therefore heterogeneous and "free," pursuing no single ultimate end in life and tending to non-conformism and libertarianism. Thus politics, economics, science and arts - all became free and autonomous.

Likewise, the petrified traditional forms of social life relating to sex relations and conduct broke down towards promiscuity, permissiveness, and sexual indulgence. Like power, pleasure, knowledge, and beauty, sex became almost an object of total uninhabited devotion. As a consequence, women once again began to lose primacy and autonomy as human beings, and became objects for physical pleasure and commercial promotion. A woman's purpose in life was to realize her femininity rather than to fulfill her humanity. Natural physical attributes were augmented by all sorts of artificiality and cosmetic treatment or surgery. Energy, wealth, and time were wasted simply to maximize a woman's seductiveness in the eyes of men. They would dress up and go out simply to attract, charm, and excite, by tempting nudity, beautiful form, sweet scent, delightful colors, and sex appeal. The idea was to invite the fixed attention of men, and to entice some to seek her privacy. Similarly the man, when overcome by the wanton pursuits of carnal pleasure, would relate to women only as male, and would affect looks and conduct simply to attract them. A man might waste all energy and wealth in satisfaction of his base desires. The privacy of sex was thereby shattered, matrimonial relations subverted, and the institution of the family undermined as the special stable milieu for nursing, rearing and educating children.

This way of life has now become almost universal in the West. Some aspects of it have swept over most of the "modern" sectors of our Islamic societies, just as much as economic materialism and political secularism have spread to break some Muslims loose of their solid religious moorings, and to weaken the norms of social control in their life. This has been brought about by the political dominance of western culture, and the debility of Muslim society that has become prone to adulteration and blind imitation.

On the other hand, economic and social developments in Muslim lands have precipitated the destruction of the old social order. That order, with all its conventions and traditions, was rooted in the past and could not withstand the change of circumstances. Neither man nor woman was holding on to the values of the past consciously, it was merely a legacy received from historical custom, giving way to practices and developments of new times. Religion was hardly present in people's minds, and then only as a cultural value to sanctify custom. Anyway, religious values were waning as religious institutions, which used to promote them, date and die away.

As consciousness of the growing economic needs spread in the impoverished society of Muslims, and as they became less resistant to material temptation and more deprived of the close social ties of economic solidarity, the strong pressures for a better life swept away the reservation of the past. Fathers and husbands came to encourage daughters and spouses to go out not in pursuit of knowledge or good works, but to earn a living and supplement the family income. Women took advantage of this newfound experience and power to assert their freedom from the vanity and authority of men. This was not so much a full choice of a new and better way of life; but a liberation from the old order, a revolt against control, and a fancy of the permissive model of the west.

Furthermore, increased urbanization brought more people into a new and impersonal social context with few of the close community ties of acquaintance, kinship and solidarity, that used to cultivate regard for the norms of public decency and family honor. These were a deterrent to acts of indecency and ignominy. The crowded urban conditions brought about much more direct contact and, as a result, many occasions for temptation between men and women. The old-time institution of "harem," the barrier of female privacy, was dismantled for practical considerations, with no compensating development of personal piety or moral barriers. The new urban attitude was one of indifference and emancipation, in lieu of the previous considerate, reserved attitude.

Under the impact of cultural change and alien domination, the traditional society of Muslims is falling apart. No lamentations by conservatives over the changing time or tenacious clinging to the past will save much. The fate of the traditional way of Muslims will not be different from that of the European "old order," when its theoretical and material foundations collapsed, and new social values and structures were ushered in by the revolution. If conservatives hold on to the rigid, customary forms of the past, and fail to direct the process of change according to Islamic guidance, the change will come to pass anyway. The change may be even faster and more tragic than in the case of Europe, if only because the European example has become so compelling.

A revolution against the condition of women in the traditional Muslim societies is inevitable. The Islamists are urged by their own ideals to reform the traditional society, and to close the gap between the fallen historical reality and the desired model of ideal Islam.

This is even more urgent with respect to the present state of women. Contemporary social trends in an ever-closer world require an early initiative to take the direction of change in hand, before it takes its free course. When alien trends take root and are assimilated, it may be too late to undertake right-guided Islamic reform. The Islamists should beware of an attitude that seeks refuge from the invading "liberating" Western culture in the indigenous past (as a lesser evil that should be preserved with some accommodation). Conservation is a wasted effort. The Islamists are worthy to lead the movement of women's liberation from the traditional quagmire of historical Islam, to a resurgence in the heights of ideal Islam. They should not leave their society at the mercy of the advocates of Westernization, who exploit the urgency of reform to deform society and lead it astray. The teachings of their own religion call upon Islamists to be the right-guided leaders for the salvation of men and women, emancipating them from the shackles of history and convention, and steering their life clear of the aberrations of mutative change.

The Verdict of Jurisprudence

The verdicts of Islamic jurisprudence are simply practical expressions of the dictates of the faith. Women, according to the Shari`a, are counterparts of men. In Islamic jurisprudence, there is no separate order of regulations for women. There are, however, a few limited secondary regulations where a distinction is drawn between the two sexes. But the Shari`a (or Islamic law) is essentially the same, and its general rules are common for both sexes. It is addressed to both without any distinction. The underlying presumption in the Shari`a is that gender is immaterial, except where a clear text makes the distinction, or where proof can be adduced to that effect. Thus, personal religious obligations (prayer, pilgrimage, etc.) for instance, are the same for women as for men.

Women and men have to observe the general religious standards relating to personal conduct, social dealings and moral behavior (e.g. honesty, integrity, generosity, righteousness, etc.). Islam does not provide different moral codes for men and women. Even in matters of public life, women are expected to do their part and endure the sufferings of life as patiently as men are supposed to do. They too are expected to show solidarity with the community of believers and to forsake the comforts of their homes to migrate to Dar al Islam (the State of the Muslims), to wage jihad, and to promote the well being of their society. In all these matters, there is no distinction between Muslim men and women.

"And the believers, men and women, are allies of each other, enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong, establishing prayer, giving alms, and obeying God and His Messenger. As for these, God will have mercy on them, God is Mighty and Wise." (Tawba:71)

Women have an equal opportunity and incentive to share in every aspect of religious virtue:

"God has got ready forgiveness and tremendous rewards for the Muslim men and women; the believing men and women; the devout men and women; the humble men and women; the almsgiving men and women; the fasting men and women, the men and women who guard their chastity; and the men and women who are exceedingly mindful of God." (Al-Ahzab:35)

Islam assigns all Muslims (men and women) a due role to play in discharging collective responsibilities, which preserve the essence of the religious society in general. If all Muslims neglect to discharge these collective responsibilities, then each Muslim (man and woman) will have to answer for that default. Some special obligations like financial maintenance of the family, compulsory attendance at group prayers, and general conscription for war, are too onerous for most women because of their child rearing responsibilities. Islam has relieved women from these responsibilities as long as Muslim men can sufficiently attend to them. That does not mean that a woman is barred from doing any of these things. She may very well participate in all such activities even when there is no shortage of capable men to do them. However, if men are not fulfilling, or are incapable of fulfilling their due obligations in this regard, women become duty bound to compensate their default or complement their efforts.

No one and nothing in Islam may stand in the way of a woman contributing to the general good and competing for religious achievement. The equal personal responsibilities of women in Islam are evident and clearly established. That collective duties are commonly born by men and women is clear from the Qur'an and Sunna. The Prophet commanded women to act charitably and give for the sake of God.

After the Prophet had delivered an Eid-ul-Fitr sermon, he moved through the assembled people accompanied by Bilal. When they reached the women, the Prophet recited the following verse:

"O Prophet, when believing women come to you to offer their oath of allegiance that they will not associate anything with God, nor will they commit theft, nor indulge in fornication, nor murder their children, nor slander anyone, nor disobey you in whatever that is fair, do accept their oath of allegiance and beseech God to forgive them. Indeed, God is the most Forgiving and most Kind." (Al-Mumtahanah:12)

"The Prophet then asked the women to donate. Bilal spread out his shirt and the women gave their rings and jewelry." (Bukhari on the authority of Ibn-Abbas)

Throughout the period of the Prophet's ministry, women used to offer their prayers, even the early morning and late evening prayers, along with the congregation of Muslims in general.

"The Prophet liked to prolong the prayer, but when he heard a child weeping, he shortened the prayer so as not to inconvenience the child's mother." (Bukhari)  

"If your women as for permission to visit the mosques, allow them to do so." (Muslim)

On the authority of a report by the Prophet's wife, Aisha, it is stated that: "The Prophet used to offer the morning prayer after which the ladies would disperse, completely covered in their dresses, and they could not be recognized in the darkness." (Bukhari)

Muslim women also used to participate in military expeditions - bringing water to thirsty combatants, treating the wounded, and carrying them to safety, and sometimes engaging in active warfare. The Qur'an refers to this and other exploits of men and women:

"And their Lord responded to them: I suffer not the work of any worker male or female to be lost. You proceed one from another. So those who fled and were driven forth from their homes and suffered harm for My cause and fought or were slain, verily I shall remit their evil deeds and shall bring them into gardens underneath which rivers flow as a reward from God, and God offers the fairest of rewards." (Al-Imran:195)

Even the Prophet's own wife, Aisha, actively participated in such military services.

"In the battle of Uhud when the Muslims were routed and put to flight from the Prophet, I saw how Aisha bint Abu Bakr and Umm-Saleem were extremely busy carrying waterskins on their backs and emptying them in the mouths of the Muslims." (Bukhari)

"Umm-Sinan Al-Aslamyiah and Ummyah bint Qais actively participated in the war effort." (Tabaqat)

"Hamnah bint Jahash was one of those ladies who pledged allegiance to Islam and participated in the battle of Uhud, bringing water to the thirsty, transporting the wounded to safety and giving them the necessary treatment." (Al-Isabah)

"Al-Rabee bint Mua'weth, also known as Laila al-Ghifariah, used to accompany the Prophet in his military campaigns, treating the wounded and looking after the sick." (Al-Isabah and Bukhari)

"Umm-Dhahhak bint Masoud also accompanied the Prophet in his military campaign of Khaiber. The Prophet gave her the same share of spoils there as he gave to men." (Al-Isabah) 

"When the people took off for the military campaign of Al-Khandaq, the Prophet placed his women in a small fortress called Fari, and Hassan bin Thabit was also left with them. Later, a Jew came and climbed up the fortress till he was in a position to command a full view of all. Safiya bint Abdul Muttalib belted herself around the waist, took a pole and descended upon him striking him with the pole till he died." (Al-Isabah) 

"Nusaybah bint Ka'b witnessed the battle of Uhud. She intended to bring water to the wounded, but she in fact took an active part in the fighting, and on that day wounded twelve of the enemy severely. When the Muslims pulled back and exposed the Prophet, she stood her ground firmly in his defense." (Tabaqat) 

"The Prophet appreciated her much and praised her. When she heard the news that her son Habib was killed in battle, she swore either she would die in front of Musailamah, or kill him. She participated in the battle of Al-Yamamah along with Khalid bin Al-Waleed. Her son Abdullah was killed in this battle, and she lost one of her arms." (Al-Isabah)

"The Prophet prayed that Umm-Haran bint-Malhan might have her wish to be among those Muslims who would one day sail on the Green Sea (the Mediterranean)." (Bukhari)

"In the battle of Junain, she had a dagger which she carried about." (Muslim)

From the preceding exposition, it is evident that in defense as well as other collective duties and obligations of public life, Muslim women may participate. But they are not duty-bound to do so, except when the urgency is such that their participation becomes mandatory. The Mother of Believers, Aisha, is reported to have requested the Prophet's permission to participate in Jihad (fighting). The Prophet said to her, "Hajj is your Jihad." According to Ibn-Batal, this proves that participation in fighting is not binding on women, but the statement that Hajj is their Jihad does not bar them from volunteering for Jihad. Bukhari seems to express the same opinion.

On the basis of the uniform principles of Islamic jurisprudence, a Muslim woman enjoys the same capacity and freedom enjoyed by a man. A woman can propose marriage to a man, orally or in writing. A woman can freely choose her spouse, reject a suitor she does not like, or obtain divorce from an estranged husband against his will. However, a male relative normally formalizes the marriage contract, and marriage dissolution or divorce on a woman's initiative is only granted by a judge.

"Umamah bint Abil-As, a lady companion of the Prophet, proposed marriage by sending a message to Al-Mughirah bin Naufal. He then sought her hand in marriage from Al-Hasan, her cousin, who duly solemnized the marriage." (Al-Isabah) 

"An account about Sahal bin Saad Al-Saidi tells about a Muslim woman who proposed verbally to the Prophet himself." (All six reporters of hadith)

Regarding a woman's freedom of marital choice, one may read the provisions of the Qur'an regarding preventing a woman, by force, from marrying:

"And when you divorce women, and they fulfill the term of their Iddat, either take them back on equitable terms or set them free on equitable terms. But do not take them back to prejudice them or to take undue advantage thereof. Whosoever does that, indeed he harms his own soul." (Al-Baqarah 232)

A case in point is the famous story of Mughith, who used to go after his ex-wife Burairah through the streets of Madina.

"He would try to appease her with tears flowing from his eyes in order to bring her back, but she refused to do so. The Prophet himself tried to intercede, but the girl declined as long as the Prophet did not order her to reconcile." (Tirmidhi)

The Prophet ordered that a woman should not be married except with her own authority and consent. He said: "Do not marry a non-virgin except on her instruction, nor marry a virgin except with her permission." (Bukhari)

Whether a girl was a virgin or not, the Prophet would not allow her marriage under compulsion.

"Ibn-Abbas stated that a virgin girl came to the Prophet and told him that her father had got her married without her approval. The Prophet gave her complete freedom to choose whichever course pleased her." (Reported by Abu Dawoud, Ahmed & Ibn Majah)

Another girl came to the Prophet and complained that her father had married her to his nephew against her wish. The Prophet gave her the choice of rejecting the marriage, but she said to the Prophet: "I endorse what my father did, but I wanted to show women that parents have nothing to do in the matter." (Ibn Majah)

The dissolution of marriage and the granting of divorce by a judge on the wife's application are normal practice in personal law. A wife can hold any creed of scriptural religion at variance with her Muslim husband without any compulsion. A woman can and should acquire education without any limit or hindrance.

It is reported that the Prophet strongly recommended the good education of girls. Abu Bardah Ibn-Abu Musa quoted his father as saying that the Prophet said: "Three people will be doubly rewarded by God. Any one from among the people of the scriptures who believes in his own Prophet as well as in Prophet Muhammad, a slave who endeavors to meet his obligation towards God as well as his master, and anyone who has a slave girl and educates her and teaches her well, and then grants her freedom and marries her." (All six reporters of tradition)

It is worthy of note that women attended the general assemblies for learning held by the Prophet. Women are entitled to full freedom of expression of their proper views. Aisha is famous for being outspoken in advancing her juristic opinion. Muslim ladies used to state their views in the presence of the Prophet as well as his successors.

Ibn Al-Jauzi narrated that Umar addressed the people in the mosque and stated that mahar should not exceed a fixed amount. A woman stood up and said: "It is not within your right!" Umar asked: "Why should this not be my right?" She replied: "Because God has proclaimed: Even if you had given one of them (wives) a whole treasure for dower, take not the least bit back. Would you take it by false claim and a manifest sin." (Al-Nisa:20)

According to Islamic jurisprudence, a woman is competent to own property and dispose of it in any manner. The Shari`a generally provides for an equitable and fair role for women in the economic life of Muslim society. Just as much as they share in the management of family affairs, they can contribute to the support of the family, although they are not legally bound to provide maintenance. A woman can share outdoor work with the man to earn a common living.

"Asma bint Abu Bakr used to help her husband feed his animals, draw water, and she walked to a piece of land that they owned that was about 13 farsakhs (10 miles) away to get wheat for baking bread. One day she was walking home with a load on her head and met the Prophet and a group of Ansar. The Prophet offered her a ride, which she refused." (Bukhari)

Muslim couples are supposed to cooperate and consult over matters relating to their family, even after divorce.

"Mothers shall breast feed their babies for two complete years, if a father desires that the term be completed. The father of the baby shall provide them food and clothes in the established manner. None shall be charged more than his capacity. No mother shall be prejudiced with respect to her child, nor father with respect to his. The same is the responsibility of them. If both spouses decide, by mutual consent and consultation on weaning, there is no blame on either. If you want to have your babies breast fed by a foster mother, you are not doing anything blame-worthy, provided you pay to the foster mother what you had agreed to offer, in accordance with the established manner. Fear God and know that God is aware of what you are doing." (Al-Baqarah:233)

In an Islamic Society, women also take part in the appointment of officers responsible for the public affairs of society. This may be done either through the process of election or consultation. The account of the Shura process following Umar's death, firmly establishes this matter. Muslim ladies participated in the general consultation.

"Ibn Katheer reported that Abdur Rahman bin Auf undertook to consult the people about (the candidates). He collected and collated the general opinion of the Muslims. He consulted them singly as well as collectively; privately as well as publicly. He even reached those Muslim ladies in privacy." (Al-Bidaayah Wa-'Nihayah).

The tradition of early Muslim society was for A-omen to attend all public meetings and festivals. Authentic reports about life with the Prophet give accounts of women going to attend the two Eid prayers. Even those who were excused from prayer, would also come to attend the congregation.

"Hafsah, the Prophet's wife reported that a woman had come to visit with her sister who had participated in six military campaigns of the Prophet, and treated the wounded and looked after the sick. She did not have a jilbab to wear and the Eid festivities were coming up. Hafsah asked the Prophet if there would be any harm in not going out since they did not have jilbabs (wide, loose gowns). He replied that someone should lend her clothing so that she could participate and that all women (young, screened, or in their monthly period) should go out to attend the Eid congregation. The menstruating ladies should, however, stand by during the prayer." (Bukhari) 

Aisha attended a spectacle of the Ethiopians: "By God, the Prophet was by my chamber door while the Ethiopians were showing their spear games in Al-Haram. The Prophet covered me with his shawl so that I too could watch their feats. I was watching them from behind his shoulder. He would pose there for my sake till I chose to break off." (Bukhari)

Excepting those specific tasks of public life which are obligatory for men and only voluntary for women, male Muslims in an Islamic society have no exclusive prerogative or specialization. They have no power or authority over women except in the context of the conjugal relationship. That relationship itself is established and dissolved with the consent of the female party, and should be conducted in a spirit of mutual respect, consultation and conciliation. The man is in charge of the family, but that amounts only to responsibility for financial maintenance, and authority for direction and discipline, exercised in a reasonable manner. Both spouses should share in the management of family affairs, and have equal authority over their sons and daughters.

Public life is no stage where men alone can play. There is no segregation of the sexes in the public domain, which calls for joint effort. Thus, both men and women are supposed to participate in congregational prayers.

The Prophet is reported to have said: "Don't stop women from going to mosques at night." A son of Abdullah bin Umar, on hearing this statement, said to his father: "We would not allow women to go out of the house at night for fear of any abuses." Ibn Umar reprimanded his son: "I say the Prophet said so, and you still say you won't allow it?" (Muslim)

From the foregoing, it is clear that the Prophet's directive is for women to go out publicly, to frequent mosques, even at night, and to attend and offer Eid prayer. It is also recognized that pilgrimage (Hajj), despite the jostling and thick crowds, is a function performed in common by men and women. Some over-scrupulous Muslim rulers tried to introduce some modifications in order to segregate men and women in the Tawaf (going round the Holy Kabah). But scholars who upheld the Sunna and favored strict adherence to Tradition, opposed any change in the practice current in the Prophet's own times. Consequently, the traditional practice of Tawaf in common remained established.

Muhammad bin Hisham, the governor of Makkah, stopped ladies performing tawaf alongside men. Ata, the famous scholar of the tradition objected: "How do you stop them when the Prophet's own wives did tawaf of Kabah alongside men?" The practice had continued without any change even after the introduction of the restrictive regime imposed on the Prophet's wives, although they used to steer clear of the men around them, while all other women used to mix with men and huddle to touch and kiss the Black Stone in the wall of the Kabah. (Bukhari).

In the Prophet's day, educational assemblies were attended by men and women jointly. The Prophet used to address men and women together even when he was giving instruction relating to conjugal matters.

Once he was lecturing Muslims after prayer about tales they would tell him in the morning following their conjugal activities. Abu Hurayrah is quoted to have reported this as follows: "The Prophet had just finished his prayer with us, when he directly turned and asked us to keep sitting." He then asked: "Is there amongst you any who would shut doors and draw curtains when he approached his wife, but would later go out and tell everybody how he did so and so?" All men present kept silent. Then the Prophet turned to the ladies and said: "Does any one of you openly discuss her conjugal matters with other women?" A young lady in the audience, when she heard this, knelt up on one knee and craned her neck so that the Prophet might see her and hear her speak. She said: "Yes, by God, all men discuss these matters among themselves and so do all women too." The Prophet said: "Do you know whom does one doing that compare to? Indeed it is like two satanic couples who meet on a high street and indulge their sexual desire in full view of the people." (Reported by Ahmed, Abu Dawoud, and Al-Bazar)

Separate meetings exclusively for ladies were sometimes convened, in addition to the joint meetings, due to the inability of women sitting behind the men to hear the Prophet well.

Bukhari narrated in a chapter titled "Is a day set aside exclusively for the education of women?" that women told the Prophet: "Men have dominated us around you." The Prophet promised to give them a separate day. He would meet them on the scheduled day and deliver his lecture and instruction. (Bukhari)

A woman is entitled to go out for any need. She may go to the market to do business or otherwise; even though this may entail someone inconveniencing her. After the Prophet's wives were curtained away and segregated, the Prophet would still permit them to go out of their houses for their needs.

Aisha is quoted as saying that after the introduction of segregation, Sauda had gone out of her house on some errand, and Umar stopped her and questioned her about it. Later the Prophet told her: "God has permitted you to go out of your house for your needs." (Bukhari)

The following verse of the Qur'an clearly bears out that ladies can go out of their houses:

"O Prophet! Tell your wives and daughters and the women of the believers to lower their outer garments on their persons. That is likely to allow them to be recognized and by consequence, not be molested. And God is most Forgiving and most Kind." (Al-Ahzab:59)

The occasion for the revelation of these verses of the Qur'an was the fact that some rogue individuals would inconvenience ladies in the streets of Madina. Explaining the meaning of: "To lower their outer garments on their persons," Mujahid (a famous early authority on the exegeses of the Qur'an) said: "They covered themselves with their outer garments so that it was known that they were free-born women of good social standing, and no depraved person would level at them undue words or suspicions."

"The Prophet taught Muslims that it was better to avoid sitting by the road, but that if they had to sit by the road, then they should lower their gaze as women passed by." (Muslim)

Women can engage in business and commerce.

"Qailah Umm-Bani Atmar was a merchant who bought and sold." (Al-Isabah) 

"Umar bin Al-Khattab entrusted the supervision of administrative market affairs to Shaff'a bint Abdullah bin Abd Shams. Umar used to seek her counsel, pay due regard to her and hold her in the highest esteem." (Al-Isabah)

"In this regard, the dialogue between Abu Al-Yasar and a woman who came to purchase dates from him, is also significant because it shows how women went about shopping." (Tirmidhi)

Islam does not call for segregation between men and women. A woman may, therefore, receive the family guests, serve and entertain them.

Consider the story of Ibraheem (Abraham), when he received the angels in the guise of human guests who told him: "We were sent to the folk of Lot. And his wife, standing by, laughed. They gave her good tidings of the birth of Isaac, and after Isaac of Jacob." She said: "O woe to me, shall I bear a child when I am an old woman and this is my husband, an old man? This is a strange thing!" (Hud:70-72)

There were some elderly ladies whom the Prophet used to visit regularly. He took meals in their homes and prayed there, and when they fell sick he would call upon them to console them.

"Umm-Aimaan migrated from Makkah to Madina, walking all the way on foot with none to keep her company and in extremely hot weather. The Prophet used to honor her with his social visits." (Seerat Ibn-Hisham)

Khaulah bint Qais is another such lady. According to Al-Tabrani, Ibn-Harith heard Khaulah bint Qais say: "The Prophet and I took meals in the same dish." (Al-Isabah) 

"Al-Shaffa bint Abdullah was one of the wise and prominent ladies of Madina. The Prophet used to visit her and took his midday nap in her house. She arranged a bed and a sheet for him to sleep in." (Al-Isabah)

Al-Shaykhan (i.e. Bukhari & Muslim) give an account of Maleekah Al-Ansariah on the authority of Anas who said that his grandmother Maleekah invited the Prophet to meals, which she herself had prepared. The same tradition relates how the Prophet offered his prayers in their houses. Anas said: "An orphan and I would stand behind him, and the old lady behind us." (Al-Isabah)

"Lubabah bint Al-Harith, it is stated, was one of the first ladies after Sayyedah Khadijah, to embrace Islam. The Prophet used to visit her and take his midday nap in her house. Umm-Waraqa was a lady that the Prophet used to visit. The Prophet allowed her to pray at home and to lead her staff, male and female, in prayer." (Abu Dawoud) 

"It was she who, when the Prophet conducted the battle of Badr, requested him to allow her to accompany him so that she might treat the patients, and that perhaps God might bless her with martyrdom." (Al-Isabah)

"Fatimah bint Asad bin Hashim was a very pious lady. The Prophet used to visit her and take his midday nap in her house." (Tabaqat)

"Umm Al-Fadhl bint Al-Harith was the first woman to embrace Islam after Sayyedah Khadijah. The Prophet used to visit her and take his midday nap in her house." (Tabaqat)

Even a bride may undertake to serve guests personally.

Sahal bin S'as Al-Ansari stated that Abu Saeed invited the Prophet to his wedding feast. His bride Umm-Saeed was the one who prepared the meals and served the guests too. She put some dates in a stone vessel to soak in water. When the Prophet had finished the meal, she crushed the dates with her own hand and gave the Prophet to drink, as a special favor. (The Shaykhan, Bhukari and Muslim)

The practice of family visits was also common in the early period of Islam.

The Prophet used to visit Al-Rabee bint Muawiz and her husband Ilyas bin Al-Kabeer. (Abu Dawoud, At-Tirmidhi and Ibn-Aqeel)

Al-Rabee bint Muawiz gives a description of the Prophet's ablution. She said that the Prophet used to come to them and say: "Please pour water so that I may do the ablution (wudu)." (Al-Isabah)

So far as the familiar hijab is concerned, it refers to the special regulations pertaining to the Prophet's wives due to their status and situation. They occupied a position different from all other women, and their responsibility was therefore stiffened. God ordained that their reward, as well as their punishment would be double that for any other woman. (See Al-Ahzab:30-31).

The verses of the same Sura ordained that the wives of the Prophet draw a curtain (to ensure privacy in the Prophet's room, which naturally attracted many visitors of all sorts), and that they dress up completely without showing any part of their bodies, including the face and hands to any man; though all other Muslim women were exempted from these restrictions. (See Al-Ahzab:52)

The text of this commandment is evidently restricted to the Prophet's household, dialogue with his wives, and the impermissibility of their remarriage after his death. The circumstances surrounding the revelation of the commandment confirm that the provisions of the commandment are so confined. An authentic tradition demonstrates that this commandment vindicated a specific suggestion advanced by Umar bin Al-Khattab.

Aisha is quoted as saying that Umar bin Al-Khattab asked the Prophet to confine his wives. She said: "But the Prophet did not do so, then God sent down the verses relating to confinement." (Bukhari, Musnad Al-Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal).

A further confirmation of the foregoing conclusion in respect to the scope of the confinement rule is that those women who were separated from the Prophet before consummation of marriage, were not given the title of Mothers of the Believers, nor was confinement imposed on them. Some did in fact remarry after Prophet's death. Take for instance, Asmaa bin Al-Numan. There is consensus over the fact that the Prophet did marry her, but there is some controversy about the circumstances surrounding his separation from her. Some said that she remarked:

"I seek refuge in God from you." The Prophet said: "You sought sure refuge and God has granted you protection from me." He therefore divorced her. (Al-Isabah)

Another example is the case of Qeelah bint Qais, whom the Prophet married in the tenth year A.H. shortly before his death.

It is reported that the Prophet’s instructions were that if she wished, she might be confined and abstain from remarriage. Otherwise, she might marry whomsoever she liked. She opted to marry Ikrimah bin Hadramaut. When the news of the remarriage reached Abu Bakr, he threatened to burn their house, but Umar told him that she was not reckoned among the Mothers of the Believers, and the Prophet did not consummate his marriage with her, nor was she confined. (Al-Isabah)

The commandments regarding confinement were sent down in the month of Dhul-Qaidah in the fifth year of the Hijrah. They did not affect the positions of the generality of Muslim ladies.

Life in Islam is oriented towards God. If Islam allows men to come into contact with women, that is indeed a test. A Muslim man should make such association an opportunity for furthering the alms of worship and gratitude to God. At least, he should observe the limits of what is permissible in that association. There can be no legitimacy in exploiting the relations between persons of the opposite sexes as an occasion for illicit sexual enjoyment (in contravention of God's commands), and in deviation from the proper system for conjugal relations. There is no scope in religion for licentious sexual pleasure, which reduces man to a situation of slavery to passions, instead of to God, or to which man dedicates his time and exploits his total energies as the ultimate purpose in life. There is no room for unbridled and uncontrolled passions outside the bounds of marriage.

Fornication therefore, is strictly forbidden; and as commanded by the Qur'an, no man is allowed to approach a woman with that intention.

"Don’t get close to fornication, it is indeed atrocious and a bad way." (Al-Isra:32)

One should even avoid any perverse sight or touch that may excite sexual desires.

Abu Saeed Al-Khudri reported that the Prophet said: "No man should look at another man’s private parts, nor a woman at another woman’s. No man or woman shall rub skin with another in the same dress." (Abu Dawoud, Al-Tirmidhi, Muslim).

It is not permissible for a man and a woman not tied by marriage to seek privacy - the two of them alone, hidden from the view of other people. Indeed in such a situation, the temptation of sex would be dominant and would engross one's thoughts, whereas in a larger group one is more likely to be oblivious of sex, and preoccupied by the pursuits and affairs of the community.

Ibn-Abbas reported that the Prophet said: "Keep it in mind that in the absence of a mahram (real father, real brothers, real uncles, etc. to whom a woman cannot be lawfully married), no man should be alone with a woman." (Bukhari and Muslim)

The Prophet ascended the pulpit and said: "In the absence of her man, no woman shall meet a man but in the presence of another man or two." (Muslim)

In public, however, men and women can confer privately at a distance from others.

Anas reports that a woman requested to talk with the Prophet and he went with her a little way along a path, so that others could not hear and spoke with her. (Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawoud)

The story of Moses and the two daughters of Shuaib, as narrated by the Qur'an is very instructive:

"And when he came to the water of Madian, he found there a group of people watering, and he found apart from them a group of women holding back." He said: "What is the matter?" They replied: "We cannot water until all the shepherds leave, and our father is an old man." He watered for them and withdrew to the shade…shortly afterwards, one of the two maidens came to him and said: "My father calls you that he might reward you for watering for us…" One said: "O my father hire him, for the best you can hire is one who is strong and trustworthy." (Al-Qasas:22-28) 

A man should not gaze at a woman nor a woman at a man so fixedly that temptation is stimulated. Instead, whenever any such thing strikes the mind, one must desist from looking on.

"Tell the believers to lower their looks and guard their private organs. This is purer for them. God is fully aware of what they are doing. And ask believing women to lower their looks and to guard their private organs…" (An-Nur:30-31)

In the traditions, Jabir bin Abdullah is reported to have said: "I asked the Prophet about looking at some woman by chance, and the Prophet told me to divert my looks." The Prophet advised Ali: "O Ali, you must not gaze at a woman. You are allowed the first look but not the subsequent."

But Ali's report does not mean that looking at a person of the opposite sex is absolutely forbidden. It is only when one seeks sexual pleasure or relishes it. Indeed, in the model society of Islam, Muslims used to assemble freely and frequently; they were mostly acquainted with each other, men and women; they conversed and interacted intensively. But all those activities were undertaken in a spirit of innocence and in the context of a virtuous society.

The meaning behind the prohibition of some looks at women is born out by the correlation between such looks and sexual intercourse:

"Allah decreed for every human being his unavoidable share of sexual intercourse. The eye partakes of that by looks, the tongue by speech, the soul aspires and craves, and the genital organs fulfill or deny the final act." (Bukhari and Abu Dawoud)

Similarly, Abdullah bin Abbas reports that the Prophet was riding a camel with Al-Fadhl, Abdullah’s brother, behind him. A beautiful came to ask the Prophet about the Hajj of her father. Al-Fadhl began to stare at her, and the Prophet took his hand and turned Al-Fadhl’s face away from her. Al-Abbas said to the Prophet: "You are twisting the neck of your nephew!" The Prophet replied: "Both the boy and the girl are young and I fear that Satan may intervene." (Al-Tirmidhi and Bukhari)

When assembled, men and women must not be crammed together in such a manner that bodies are very close to each other. If the practical exigencies demand, they may, however, get closer than normal, as for instance during Hajj. And wherever there are men and women in homes, streets, meetings or public occasions, it is advisable that some distance between the two sexes be maintained. It is on the basis of the same principle that men and women occupy conspicuously separate rows in prayers. During the prayer, sitting or standing, people take up their position in a very compact manner; and while praying one should be completely detached from everything that may divert one from attending fully to God. The Prophet designated a door exclusively for ladies to enter and leave the mosque.

Ibn-Umar reports that the Prophet said: "May we restrict this door for ladies only." (Abu Dawoud)

Similarly, on the highway men and women must maintain some distance.

Hamza bin Sayyed Al-Ansari cited his father as saying that he heard the Prophet ask the ladies to walk at the sides of the road. (Abu Dawoud)

The Prophet used to defer his departure so that the ladies might leave the mosque first. (Bukhari).

The dress of a man or a woman should be modest. By no gesture, word or appearance should a man or woman deliberately tempt the other. (See An-Nur:31 and Al-Ahzab:59)

The Prophet directed that excepting face hands and feet, no other part of a woman's body should be exhibited.

Aisha is said to have reported that Asma bint Abu Bakr came to the Prophet wearing a dress of thin cloth. The Prophet turned his face way and said to her: "When a girl matures, it is not appropriate for her to show but such and such." - pointing towards his face and hands. (Abu Dawoud)

The majority of Muslims have accepted this tradition in practice. Temptation is the basic criterion on which these rulings rest.

"For women of advanced age who do not expect to be married, there is no harm if they set aside their outer garments, provided they do not play up their charms. But it is better for them if they abstain from doing so. And God is All-seeing and All-knowing." (An-Nur:60)

The Prophet prohibited women from passing by men after perfuming themselves.

"After using scents, no lady should attend Isha prayer with us." (Muslim)

Abu Musa Al-Ashari reports that the Prophet said: "Any woman who, after perfuming herself, passes by the people so that they may find her smell, is a fallen woman." (Musnad Imam Ahmed)

The Prophet warned against women who walked swinging ostentatiously and temptingly." (Muslim)

Any relationship or situation, which may lead to temptation or illegal sexual contact between men and women, is thus not permissible.

"Don’t approach fornication. It is indeed a vile deed and what an evil practice it is." (Al-Isra:32)

That is the standard, which determines each case. Islam tolerates greeting women or talking to them in decent and chaste language, and with good intent. The Prophet used to do so.

Asma bint Yazeed reported that one day, the Prophet passed through the mosque where a group of women were sitting. He greeted them by waving his hand." (At-Tirmidhi).

In the chapter Kitab-ul-Adab of his collection of traditions, Abu Dawoud gave the following account on the authority of Asma: "The Prophet passed by us and greeted us." 

Imam Bukhari has given a chapter in his collection of authentic traditions under the title "Greeting Women by Men." Ibn-Hazim reported that his father cited Sahal saying that: "An aged lady used to send me some goods. She would take the root of salaq (a salad) and put them in a pan, and then prepare some barley bread. After offering Jumu`a prayer, we would go and greet her and she would serve us those dishes, which gave us a lot of joy. On Fridays, we always took our meal and midday nap after offering Jumu`a prayer." (Bukhari) 

Asma bint Yazeed narrated that: "The Prophet passed by us, the women, and greeted us." (At-Tirmidhi)

When greeting a lady, shaking hands in a spontaneous manner may be permissible, especially if it is a customary practice and the individuals are in a chaste setting. One may find in Islamic texts strong admonitions against touching strange women, but the word 'TOUCH" or the like is, in this context, a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Whenever women came to the Prophet for the oath of allegiance, it is reported that he would not shake hands with them. This is obviously a reservation unique to him.

It is quoted by Al-Bukhari that the Prophet said: "I don’t shake hands with women." Other reports say that the Prophet did shake hands with ladies covering the hand with a garment. (Abu Dawoud cited this on the authority of Al-Shaabi and Abdul Razzaq) Sometimes the Prophet would deputize Umar for this function. (Al-Tabari)

As long as the conditions already mentioned are observed, family gatherings and joint meals, both at home and elsewhere, are permissible.

Abu Hurayrah narrated that a man came to the Prophet and said: "I am completely exhausted with hunger." The Prophet sent a message to each of his wives in turn to prepare food, but none of them had anything except water. The Prophet then said: "Whosoever takes this man as his guest, God will grant him mercy." An Ansar of Madina stood up and said: "O Messenger of God, I shall take him as my guest." And he took him to his home where his wife fed the guest. The next day when the Ansar went to the Prophet, the latter said to him: "God appreciated so much the treatment that you extended to your guest last night." (Muslim)

More than anybody else, it is permissible for those who are seeking each other's hand in marriage, to see or talk to each other.

Mughirah bin Shubah stated that when he proposed to a woman for marriage, the Prophet told him: "Have a look at her, so that some affection might develop between you two." Mughirah said: "I saw her and married her." (Ahmed, Ibn-Majah, At-Tirmidhi, Ibn-Habban and Al-Darimi)

The application of the standard of temptation depends subjectively on what a person finds in his soul - this is what he experiences by way of feeling in the case. This is naturally a product of his religious education and integrity. Objectively, it would depend on the seriousness of the affair in any association of men and women such as would distract them from thinking of sex, and partly on the innocence of the particular social context.

The juridical principle is sound: that the avenues and approaches to wrong-doing should be closed by barring acts innocent in themselves for fear of what might ensue. But over-caution may inhibit legitimate conduct on the pretext that it may expose some individuals to the risk of temptation and vice. This may lead to the distortion of the general social system of Islam, which is based on the full participation of men and women in everyday life with piety and chastity. Indeed, segregation and isolation may well protect women from temptation, but it essentially denies them the benefits of the communal life of Muslims. It denies and abrogates the legitimate role of women in the social process of cooperation, and the promotion of knowledge and good work. It also prevents the mutual counseling of Muslims to do all that is beneficial and discourage all that is evil, in establishing prayer and giving alms, and in obeying God and his Messenger.

The benefits drawn from the communal life of Muslims more than outweigh any preventive considerations in the segregation of sexes in ways not ordained or clearly implied in the formal text of the Shari`a.

The Verdict of Faith

In the religion of Islam, a woman is an independent entity, and thus a fully responsible human being. Islam addresses her directly and does not approach her through the agency of Muslim males. A woman would assume full capacity and liability once she has attained maturity and has received the message of Islam.

Moreover, no woman is said to have truly accepted the message of Islam unless she does so out of original and independent will. Admission to faith is entirely a personal matter; indeed, faith cannot be adopted by proxy. Nor does a woman become a Muslim merely because of her relationship to her father, husband or any other mate. All Muslims used to present their oath of allegiance to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) personally and independently. Women, just like men, would come to the Prophet and pledge their own allegiance to Islam and the Prophet.

God Almighty commanded the Prophet in the following words:

"O Prophet! When women believers come to you to make a covenant with you that they will not associate anything with God, nor steal, nor disobey you in any fair matter, then make a covenant with them and seek God’s forgiveness in their favor. Indeed, God is extremely Forgiving and most Merciful." (Al-Mumtahanah:12)

Male and female relatives may assume different stands over the religious option. For instance, a woman like Fatima, the daughter of Al-Khattab, embraced Islam although her brother Umar was still an unbeliever. Ibn Abbas is reported to have asked Umar about the manner in which he embraced Islam.

Umar said: "Three days after Hamza had embraced Islam, I went out of my house to meet by chance, a man of the Makhzumi tribe whom I asked: "Do you prefer Muhammad’s faith over that of your own fore-fathers?" The Makhzumi said: "One who is more closely related to you than myself has also done so."" I asked him who it was. "Your sister and brother-in-law," replied the Makhzumi. I hurried back and found the door of my sister’s house bolted from within; and I heard some humming inside. Later when the door was opened, I entered the house and asked: "What is it that I was hearing?" My sister replied: "you heard nothing." We were exchanging words when I struck her on the head, whereupon she stated defiantly: "We do that whether you like it or not." I was filled with remorse when I saw her bleeding, and said to her: "Show me the scripture." Umar narrated the whole incident. (Al-Isabah fi Taymeez Al-Sahaba, by Ibn-Hajar Al-Asqalani, hereafter cited as Al-Isabah)

Similarly a woman, like Umm-Habiba, the daughter of Abu Sufiyan, embraced Islam, though her father was still a pagan. When Sufiyan went to Madina, he visited his daughter, Umm-Habiba, then wife to the Prophet Muhammad. He was about to sit on the Prophet's bed, but his daughter did not allow him to do so and rolled up the mattress. Abu Sufiyan, who felt grieved at her attitude, said to her: "Was it that the mattress is not worthy of me or that I am not worthy thereof?" Umm-Habiba curtly replied to her father, Abu Sufiyan: "But this is the Prophet’s mattress, and you are an impure polytheist, I did not want you to sit on it." When he heard that, Abu Sufiyan felt annoyed and reprimanded her: "During my absence, something has gone wrong with you." (Tabaqat Ibn-Saad)

A Muslim woman might have a husband who was still an atheist. Take for instance Zainab, the daughter of the Prophet himself. She was married to her maternal cousin Abu Al-Aas bin Al-Rabee. She entered the fold of Islam though her husband held on to his original religion. In the battle of Badr, he fell prisoner of war. Zainab, however, offered a ransom for his release. He was allowed to go free on the engagement that on his return, he would let her free. Consequently, when he returned to Makkah, Zainab migrated to Madina. Her husband, Abu Al-Aas, however, once again fell in the hands of the Muslims as a prisoner of war. On this occasion, Zainab provided him with asylum, and took him under her own protection. He finally returned to Makkah to settle his business and then embraced Islam.

Umm-Saleem bint Aahan was another such lady. She married Malik bin Al-Nadir before the advent of Islam, but was among the earliest converts to Islam. Her husband Malik, disapproved of that rather furiously, and went to Syria to die there. (Al-Isabah) 

Umm-Hani bint Abu Talib was married to Hubairah bin Amr. She was the daughter of the Prophet's uncle, Abu Talib, and embraced Islam on the occasion of the conquest of Makkah. This change of religion separated her from her husband, Hubairah, who fled to Najran. (Al-Isabah)

Hawa bint Yazeed was yet another woman who acceded to Islam and patiently endured distress and torture at the hands of her husband, Qays bin Al-Hateem, who was also a well known poet. The Prophet happened to meet him in the market (Souq dhi'l-Majaz) and asked him to embrace Islam. He claimed that since he was too busy with war, he had little tune to consider the proposal. The Prophet said to him: "I have been told that you are not treating your wife Hawa nicely, ever since she renounced your religion. So fear God and in this matter, keep me too in regard, don’t bother her." He promised to oblige, then went to his wife and said to her: "O Hawa, I met your fellow Muhammad, who asked me to bear him in mind in matters concerning you. I swear by God I shall do so, I would leave you alone and do you no harm." She then declared her faith, which she had so far kept secret. People talked to him about the matter, but he refused to do her any wrong. (Tabaqat)

Another woman, Umm-Kulthum embraced Islam, though her whole family were still holding on to their original polytheistic religion. She migrated to Madina.

Ibn Ishaq, a well-known historian, said that Umm-Kulthum migrated with the Prophet to Madina while the peace settlement of Hudaybia was still operative. In fact, she was the first lady to follow the Prophet to Madina. She left Makkah unaccompanied by anyone. Her brothers, Amara and Al-Waleed, went to the Prophet and asked him for her repatriation as provided in the agreement between the Prophet and the Quraysh at Hudaybia. But the Prophet refused to extend the terms of the agreement to women. (Tabaqat).

A woman could singly adopt Islam and suffer from torture for that. Harithah bint Al-Muzammil, the sister of Umm-Ubais, who was known as Zunairah Al-Rumiyah, was a slave girl. She was among the earliest believers in Islam, and was one of those women who were tortured for their faith. Abu Jahal used to beat her severely, so did Umar before he embraced Islam. After embracing Islam, the poor woman suffered so much torture that she lost her sight. The Makkan polytheists used that misfortune as an excuse for stigmatizing her for embracing Islam.           They used to say: "Al-Lat and Al-Uzza (two deities which the Makkans used to worship in the Holy Kabah) have rendered you blind." But she would always say: "They are lying, by the truth of God, these idols bring no benefit or harm." She ultimately recovered her sight.

Sumayah bint Khubat, a martyr, was the mother of Ammar bin Yasir, and was the seventh person to embrace Islam. The Al-Mughira clan used to torture her. People used to pass by and witness her being tortured by the side of her son and husband in the hot sands of Makkah. The Prophet would console her by saying: "O Yasirs, bear this suffering patiently, for God has given you the promise of heaven." She was aged and weak too. Abu Jahl was also among those who used to torture her. She succumbed to the excessive torture and died to become the first person ever to suffer martyrdom in Islam. (Al-Isabah)

Umm-Habibah, the daughter of Abu Sufiyan, was a lady who in exile firmly held on to Islam while her husband had converted to Christianity. Her husband, Ubaid-Ullah bin Jahash migrated to Abyssinia, along with his wife to escape persecution for their Islam. But there he renounced Islam and adopted Christianity, the religion of the Abyssinians. He tried to persuade her to do the same, but she steadfastly held on to Islam on top of all the suffering, which as an exile she had to bear. (Tareekh Al-Tabari)

Muslim women, on the strength of their unshakable personal faith, used to work for the propagation of Islam. Many of them helped to promote the cause of Islam within their respective family circles, through discussion and debate.

Arwa bint Abdul Muttalib was one such lady, who used to support the Prophet and argue in his favor. She always urged her son to help the Prophet and to do whatever he asked him to do. Another such lady was Umm-Shuraik, who used to move secretly among the ladies of Quraysh to solicit and convert them to Islam. She had converted many before she was exposed. The people of Makkah warned her that she would have suffered but for her kin. (Al-Isabah)

Among Muslim ladies were some who invited their suitors to embrace Islam, and made that a precondition for marriage.

Umm-Saleem was one such lady. She said to Abu Talha, who asked her hand in marriage: "By God, one like you cannot be rejected, but you are a polytheist and I am a Muslim woman. It is not at all lawful for me to marry you. If you embrace Islam, I would take that as my dowry from you." Anas bin Malik is reported to have said that Abu Talha had proposed to Umm-Saleem before embracing Islam. So she said to him: "Abu Talha, don’t you know that the gods you worship grew from the earth?" Abu Talha replied: "Yes, indeed." She would then say: "Don’t you feel ashamed to worship them? But if you embrace Islam, I won’t ask you anything else in dowry." Abu Talha asked her to wait until he looked into the matter, and went away. Later he returned and proclaimed: "There is no deity but God and Muhammad is His Messenger." Thereupon Umm-Saleem cried out: "O Anas, arrange the marriage of Abu Talha." And he married her. (Al-Isabah)

If embracing Islam by a woman is an entirely personal matter in the Islamic tradition and cannot be done through proxy, so are all obligations and duties, which Islam enjoins on her. No one else can do them on her behalf. She performs her acts of worship purely on the basis of her own intention, and as such these are treated in Islam as her personal achievements.

For God has proclaimed: "I do not allow the achievements of a worker from amongst you, whether male or female, to go to waste. You all belong to one another." (Al-Imran:195)

"A male or female, who is a believer and performs good deeds, We shall give him a goodly life. And ultimately a fine reward for what they had been doing." (Al-Nahal:97)

On the basis of her own action, a woman earns reward or punishment. No man is allowed to plead or intercede for a woman, nor is he held responsible for her actions and their consequences. The doctrine of ultimate accountability does not take the family as a unity for collective responsibility; rather, each individual male or female, is an autonomous unit of reckoning in front of God, and is held directly responsible for his or her actions or his or her share in joint acts.

"For on the Day of Judgment, every one of them will come to Him singly." (Maryam:96)

The judgement in the Hereafter may not necessarily bracket husband and wife together; neither could relieve the other of his charge or appropriate his due. Nor will a believer be treated unfairly merely for his sex. God treats all mankind on an equal basis.

"The day a man will run away from his own brother, his own father, his own wife and his children. On that day, everyone will be in a state which will engross him completely." (Abasa:35-38)

The individuality of a woman is a principle of religion. For the disbelievers, God gave the example of Noah's wife and Lot's wife.

"Both of them were under two of Our righteous bondmen. Both acted disloyally towards them, but (their esteemed husbands) could in no way protect them from God. And both were commanded to enter the fire (of hell) along with all others following the same course. And for those who believed, God gave the example of Pharaoh’s wife, when she prayed: "O Lord, put up for me a home in heaven, and save me from the Pharaoh and his practices, and save me from the transgressing people. And Mary, the daughter of Imram, who guarded her chastity, wherein We breathed Our Spirit. And she attested to the commandments of her Lord as well as His scriptures, and was one of the truly devout." (Al-Tahreem:10-12)

Posted October 26, 1998. This article was published in the April - June 1993 issue of "The American Muslim" magazine.