Sarah had heard many negative characterizations of Islam, especially that the religion oppressed women. She didn’t spend much time thinking about these things, one way or the other. It remained a subliminal awareness until the day she met a Muslim woman in her chemistry class during her sophomore year. Aisha and Sarah (names and details have been changed to protect privacy) began spending a lot of time together and over the months, Sarah’s view of Islam and Muslims began to form. Aisha explained that women are honored in Islam, that the status given to the female gender was revolutionary at the time of the Prophet, peace be upon him (pbuh), and that the Qur’an speaks of males and females as partners who support and protect one another and are both charged with the responsibility to enjoin the right and forbid the wrong (9:71). She also shared with Sarah the many beautiful verses about marriage, conveying that husband and wife are imbued with love and mercy so that they incline to live with each other in tranquility (30:21). When Aisha told Sarah about the verse describing the spouses as garments for each other(2:187), Sarah was stunned at how profound and elegant a metaphor this was for a basis of friendship, partnership, and intimacy in marriage. Aisha also shared with her the verses indicating that all human beings are created from a single entity (4:1); that both male and female are given the responsibility as trustees of the earth (17:70 and 2:30); that woman is not blamed for Adam and Eve eating from the forbidden tree but that each is held responsible for their sin (7:19-22); and that males and females are “members, one of another” ( 3:195).
Men and women are equal in their worth as human beings, and equal in their moral and spiritual responsibility. They are equal as well in their potential to strive for taqwa. In their personal endowments they are variable as individuals, but any individual’s greater talent, beauty, intelligence, strength, or wealth does not render him or her superior.
The only true superiority is taqwa.
Especially riveting for Sarah was the verse that clearly showed the equality of men and women before God: “For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah’s praise — for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward” (Qur’an 33:35).
But then it got even better! Sarah was persuaded that Islam really did honor women and grant them their rights, placing them side by side with men in the endeavor to worship God and create a just and compassionate society. And that the only thing that in a real and enduring way brought an individual distinction was his or her piety. This understanding was decisive when Sarah read the verse: “O humankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (one who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted” (Qur’an 49:13).
Living in a society that placed so much emphasis on material gain and vain pursuits, Sarah treasured these Divine values. Rather than individuals being highly regarded because of their wealth or their good looks or their celebrity, Islam proclaimed in no uncertain terms that the only true honor, the only genuine superiority is taqwa (righteousness, piety). Sarah was ready to take the next step and declare her surrender to God. Now she understood why Muslims felt discriminated against and thought that some non-Muslims had an agenda to delegitimize Islam and castigate Muslims.
Since taqwa is the only true standard of superiority, it contradicts the teachings of Islam to infer man’s superiority as a gender from verse 4:34. Superiority through the attaining of taqwa is attainable by any man or woman. We were created precisely for that!
After taking her shehadah (declaration of faith), a sister invited Sarah to a halaqa (study group) which met once a week. Sarah attended the next get-together and was so happy to meet Muslim women from her community. The group began and a sister who appeared to be the most knowledgeable among them talked about verse 4:34, calling it the qawam verse. She said to the group, “Men and women, according to Islam, are given rights and responsibilities in line with the nature that Allah SWT has given them. But we know from the qawam verse that Allah SWT prefers men and that they are superior to women. This is because of man’s greater strength, and he rules over the woman because he is better than the woman. And this should not….”
Sarah’s head was spinning. She could barely breathe. This was totally contradictory to what she thought Islam taught about the status of men and women. Sarah had stopped believing in Catholicism years before, when she was sixteen, because she couldn’t believe in a monotheistic God but at the same time believe that He is three parts, the father, the son, and the Holy Ghost. Believing that Jesus is God in the flesh, the second person of the Trinity was just not possible for her. Neither was it possible for her to believe that when given Eucharist, the bread and the wine become the substance of the flesh and the blood of Jesus. She had been told by her parents and her priest countless times that she just had to believe based on faith, and that her reason was subject to error or being misled by Satan. Now she was being asked to believe that God says that the only true honor and superior distinction is taqwa, but at the same time men, men as a gender, all men, are superior to all women, to the female gender.
We will return to Sarah’s story shortly.
Only Superiority is Taqwa
In Gender Equity in Islam, Dr. Jamal Badawi notes, “Nowhere does the Qur’an state that one gender is superior to the other. Some interpreters of the Qur’an mistakenly translate the Arabic word qiwamah (responsibility for the family) with the English word ‘superiority.’ The Qur’an makes it clear that the sole basis for superiority of any person over another is piety and righteousness, not gender, color or nationality.”
So men and women are equal in their worth as human beings, and equal in their moral and spiritual responsibility. They are equal as well in their potential to strive for taqwa. In their personal endowments they are variable as individuals, but any individual’s greater talent, beauty, intelligence, strength, or wealth does not render him or her superior. The only true superiority is taqwa. In the verse that stipulates the criterion for superiority, we are told “…and the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is he with the most taqwa [piety]” (49:13).In addition to the verse, we are told the same by the Prophet (pbuh)in the Farewell address: “All mankind is from Adam and Eve; an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab or a non-Arab over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black or a black over a white, except by piety and good action.” The beautiful thing is that taqwa — the true honor and distinction, ipso facto the only genuine superiority — carries with it no arrogance, no sense of or desire for privilege, and no impulse to control or suppress others.
Men and women, the two complementary and interdependent halves of humanity, together form a consummate and balanced whole, each part being incomplete in itself without its partner
It is important to note that equality does not mean the sameness of men and women. While the nature and essential qualities of men and women have more in common than in differentiation, they are, nonetheless, not exactly alike. Shaikh Abdul-Majeed Subh says in his book, Good Argumentation with the Doubters of Islam from the Qur’an, the Torah, the Gospels, and Science, “Equality and sameness are two quite different things. This difference is understandable because man and woman are not identical, but they are created equals.” He goes on to say, “Equality is desirable, just, fair; but sameness is not. People are not created identical – rather – they are created equals.”
Allah Prefers Some Over Others
Keeping in mind that taqwa is the true measure of honor and superior distinction, we consider that the man has been designated by Allah SWT as the head (ameer) of the family. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “The man is the guardian of the family and the woman is the guardian of her household” (Bukhari and Muslim). Some Muslims have understood man’s guardianship, as noted above by Dr. Badawi, as indication of his gender superiority; but we can look at a number of points to either support or rebut that understanding.
The Qur’an says, “Men shall be the protectors and maintainers of women, in that Allah prefers some over others, and in that they support them from their means…” (Qur’an 4:34). Verse 4:32 adds some clarification to this, “Do not envy one another in what Allah has bestowed more on some than on others. To men is a benefit from what they earn and to women is a benefit from what they earn…” (Qur’an 4:32). In both verse 4:32 and 4:34, it says literally that “Allah prefers some over others.” This is a phrase that is used many times in the Qur’an and is variously translated into English as “Allah has bestowed more on some than on others” or “Allah has made some to excel others.” The literal statement “Allah prefers some over others” conveys that each person is endowed by Allah SWT with some gift or gifts more than others. However, each individual must earn his or her merit through putting these gifts to good use, striving with their strengths and talents, their wealth or other resources, to earn Allah’s pleasure. Verse 4:32 stresses this point.
We should note that there is also some variability of endowment by gender, such as relative greater physical strength and assertiveness in males, and relative greater compassion and emotional intelligence of females. Verse 4:34, as cited above, instructs us that given the particular endowment of men as a gender, they are designated as ameer of the family and commanded to maintain and protect women. A man’s natural endowment of physical strength and assertiveness in no way renders him more meritorious than the woman. In fact, brute strength (strength not refined by a moral and spiritual imperative) and brutish aggression (assertiveness not refined by a moral and spiritual imperative) have been the driving forces of tyranny and oppression throughout human history. Only when these traits are refined, do they serve the divinely decreed purpose of engendering and safeguarding individual, family, and humanity’s rights and responsibilities and well-being.
The predominant local cultural practices and the actions of some Muslims tend to reinforce erroneous perceptions of the Islamic perspective
The phrase “Allah prefers some over others,” nevertheless, has been interpreted by some as a general statement of male superiority, as if Allah SWT has a special liking for men, favoring them over women. Those who understand it this way need then to reconcile their view with the following: The phrase “Allah prefers some over others” and its linguistic variants are mentioned many times in the Qur’an, sometimes referring to the prophets, to some individuals over others, or to one group over others. In one such verse Allah SWT says, “O Children of Israel! Remember the favor which I bestowed upon you, and that I preferred you to all others” (Qur’an 2:122).
Were the Children of Israel preferred by Allah SWT because of some innate superiority? Did Allah SWT like the Children of Israel better than other tribes or nations? Or was that “preferring” for a purpose that was to be put to the test? In fact, Allah SWT will ask each soul on the Day of Accountability about the favors He bestowed on them, “What did you do about them (the favors)?” Being chosen or preferred as the recipient of Allah’s favor does not indicate any intrinsic superiority or merit. When Allah SWT “preferred” the Bani Isra’il to all others, He was choosing that community to have prophets raised up within its midst. This was, indeed, an honor from Allah, but at the same time, on the human side, it was a test and a challenge. “It is He who has made you [human beings] the vicegerents of the earth. He has raised you in ranks, some above others, that He may try you in the gifts He has given you. For your Lord is quick in punishment; yet He is indeed Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful” (Qur’an 6:165). The “preferring” of the Bani Isra’il was not to be taken by the Hebrew people as grounds for a sense of superiority. But this desire to be superior has gripped the egos of so many individuals, groups, and cultures throughout history — white supremacists believing they are superior based on their skin color; Hindus believing that the Brahman or priestly caste is superior to other castes; Nazis and neo-Nazis believing that the Aryan race is superior to all other races; aristocrats believing themselves to be superior to the masses based on their class and wealth, and so on. In fact, social psychology studies the human tendency to overestimate one’s own positive qualities and abilities and underestimate the negative qualities, relative to others, calling this phenomenon “illusory superiority.”
The Qur’an, however, declares the proper criterion, making it exceptionally clear the “preferring” of an individual or a group to be the recipient of some divine gift is meant as a blessing and a test — strength, beauty, intelligence, wisdom, talent, wealth or any other gifted attribute or resource that might be used for good, or is necessary to fulfill a particular task or responsibility, is to be seen as a province for gratitude, striving, testing, and accountability. That is the case with regard to the husband being the leader of the family and the maintainer and protector of his wife. To repeat, verse 4:32 cited above advises us that we are not to envy those freely bestowed gifts because we deserve no praise for them. The benefit in the form of merit, well-being, or reward results from using those gifts to do good. We have to earn the merit. And by utilizing the resources that Allah SWT bestows upon an individual, he or she can do good deeds and strive for taqwa, thus earning the only distinction of true honor and superior rank.
Another notable point about the phrase “Allah prefers some over others” is a grammatical one. The statement does not say that Allah prefers men over women; in fact, the male plural form is used for both words “some” and “others.” The male plural form can indicate plural males or plural humans, i.e., males and females. So if we take the phrase literally rather than idiomatically, it would mean that Allah prefers some males over other males, or that He prefers some humans (males and females) over other humans (males and females). Since neither of these meanings fits with the inference that Allah prefers men over women, this accords perfectly with the idea that this phrase is idiomatic, conveying that Allah bestows His gifts and bounties upon human beings, variously and in different degrees, according to His Will; but we are not to envy these as whatever we have been gifted with requires our good intention and effort to put that bounty to beneficial use and thus earn a reward.
Within this framework, men as a gender have been given certain bounties and women as a gender have been given certain bounties. Since taqwa is the only true standard of superiority, it contradicts the teachings of Islam to infer man’s superiority as a gender from verse 4:34. Superiority through the attaining of taqwa is attainable by any man or woman. We were created precisely for that! “O humankind! Worship your Guardian Lord, who created you and those who came before you that you may attain taqwa” (Qur’an 2:21).
Men and Women as Guardians
The qawam verse, when interpreted to mean the superiority of men, is understood to convey that men must manage the affairs of women because women are “inferior” to men. Isn’t it much more balanced to understand that men are charged with the responsibility to support and protect women given that women have been given the role of childbearing and childrearing. This is a division of labor that makes perfect sense and has been naturally enacted in most human cultures throughout history. A male-centric interpretation of qawam renders the woman as inferior and thus needing someone to guard and manage her affairs because she is incapable of doing so herself. Let’s consider a female-centric interpretation just for the sake of balance. Perhaps the wife and children are so precious, so valuable to the husband/father, so integral to the ongoing propagation and success of the society, that she (and by extension, the children) should be supported and protected. Rather than seeing the woman as inferior, we can see her as greatly treasured, beloved, held in high regard, and charged with the task of raising children, and therefore worthy of support and protection. In fact, that interpretation corresponds perfectly with the practical sunnah (the actions and behaviors witnessed by others) of the Prophet(pbuh), his high regard for women and his sensitivity to the burdens they shoulder. It is reported that he said, “When I begin the prayer, I intend to prolong it. Then I hear the crying of a child, so I shorten it knowing the distress of the child’s mother” (Bukhari). It is reported that when the Prophet (pbuh) saw women and children he would stand upright with joy and walk toward them and say, “By Allah, you are the most beloved people to me.”
The image of twin halves fits perfectly with the verse that states that males and females are “members, one of another” ( 3:195)
Another example of the Prophet’s high regard for women is indicated when the companions inquired of the him, saying, “Guide us to a treasure so we can invest in it.” The Prophet (pbuh) answered, “Invest in a righteous woman” (Ibn Majah). Seeing women as greatly valued, beloved, held in high regard (as opposed to seeing her as inferior) also accords perfectly with the verses in the Qur’an that have been cited previously. The beautiful balance of gender relations is further indicated in verse 4:34 which goes on to say that the righteous women “guard al-ghayb (the unseen).” Shaikh Abdullah Adhami says, “Most exegetes understood this as protecting the privacy of the husband or father or brothers. This is not how the prophet described it.” Shaikh Adhami indicates that protecting al-ghayb has to do with protecting the realm that is not material (the husband takes care of that); the non-material realm is the domain of nurturance, of kinship, of human relations. He says, “The man protects the physical and the woman protects the metaphysical which [is a domain that] is much larger. The man is defending the castle while women are entrusted with the metaphysical dimension.” We can say that the man’s guardianship of the family applies primarily to the outward, practical functionalities of survival and success of the family unit, particularly as it relates to the family existing and thriving in relation to the outside world. The woman’s guardianship of her household is applied primarily to the nurturing, expressive harmonies of survival and success within the family itself, and its various bonds of kinship. These spheres of authority and influence are not mutually exclusive, but overlapping and complementary. These are interdependent spheres of responsibility that are mutually enhancing.
Shaikh Adhami supports the understanding of “guarding al-ghayb” as being more than the narrow understanding of protecting the privacy of males in the household by pointing out that “some women live in all female households, no father or brother, or husband. No males. Does this mean that we [they, the women] have to await the coming of a human being with masculine genes to fulfill this role?” [the role of guarding al-ghayb]. He also mentions the hadith that tells us that one will never enter Jannah until he or she believes, and that true belief requires loving one another. Shaikh Adhami indicates that this is about the spiritual kinship between believers. And this is the realm that women guard and nurture. In fact, he calls women the spiritual anchor of society.
A Degree Over Women
Some commentators have also cited the “degree” verse as evidence of Allah’s preference for men, of their superiority: “And the divorced women shall undergo, without remarrying, a waiting-period of three monthly courses: for it is not lawful for them to conceal what God may have created in their wombs, if they believe in God and the Last Day. And during this period their husbands are fully entitled to take them back, if they desire reconciliation; but, in accordance with justice, the rights of the wives [with regard to their husbands] are equal to the [husbands’] rights with regard to them, although men have precedence over them [in this respect]. And God is almighty, wise” (2:228).
This reference to a degree or step over women (in the above translation “precedence over them”) is mentioned with regard to divorce. However, many commentators take the degree as a generalized degree of precedence or right of men over women. But even if we take the generalized meaning, it does not confer some innate and meritorious ranking of men in general over women in general. In the commentary of Al-Qurtubi, he quotes Ibn Abbas(RAA), the companion for whom the Prophet (pbuh) would often make du’a, supplicating, “O Lord, make him acquire a deep understanding of the religion of Islam and instruct him in the meaning and interpretation of things.” Al-Qurtubi quotes Ibn Abbas as saying, “The degree is an indication for a man to live with his wife in the best manner of companionship, to be generous in his financial provision, to treat her with the best of kindness, respect, and so on. The degree is a motivation for bearing the burdens of responsibility.” Al-Qurtubi further commented by mentioning that Ibn-Attiah (RAA)said about Ibn-Abbas’ comment that he concurs with his understanding of the degree and that “indeed this is an excellent and outstanding commentary.”
Does a Greater Degree of Right/Responsibility Confer Superiority?
Those who view the qawam verse and the degree verse as conferring superiority of men over women, do so based on the husband’s greater right/responsibility (role of qawam) as regards his wife. We are disregarding for a moment the criterion of taqwa as the measure superiority. Then we can look at the meaning of superiority and see that it indicates something being higher in station, rank, degree, or importance than some other thing. In the case under consideration, according to those who see men as superior to women, men would have a higher station, rank, degree, or importance than women due to some greater right tied to a greater responsibility, even burden, that men bear. But we have to reconcile that with a sound hadith in which it is reported that the Prophet (pbuh) was asked, “Who has the most rights over the woman?” The Prophet (pbuh) answered, “the husband.” Then he was asked “Who has the most rights over the man?” The Prophet answered, “the mother” (Al-Hakim in Al-Mustadrak). This means that the husband (a man) has the most rights over the wife (a woman); and a mother (a woman) has the most rights over her son (a man). In a graphic depiction of that statement we would see a male individual in station or rank above a woman (his wife), and below a woman (his mother).
The rank or station of an individual in the social structure of family serves a function, creating the greatest efficacy in survival and thriving of that family unit. If we stretch that functionality, for (the male-centric) argument’s sake, to imply superiority in some innate way, then we end up with mothers (women) being of the highest superiority, based on the above hadith. Is it not best that we do away with the mindset that links a station — and the rights and responsibilities it carries — with any indication of superiority? In fact, the social configuration pointed to in the above hadith, rather than making a case for superiority of some human beings based on their gender, ties men and women in a unified partnership; this is a cooperative human endeavor to worship Allah SWT and attain to peace individually and societally; this is a fellowship that highlights bonds of kinship, common belief, and mutual gratitude and respect. To repeat: Is it not best that we do away with the mindset that links a station — and the rights and responsibilities it carries — with any indication of superiority?
The Superlative Islamic Model for Gender Relations – Complementary Halves
Dr. Badawi writes in Gender Equity in Islam, “According to Prophet Muhammad’s saying, ‘Women are but shaqa’iq (sisters or twin halves) of men.’ This hadith is a profound statement that directly relates to the issue of human equality between the genders. If the first meaning of shaqa’iq is adopted, it means that a male is worth one half (of society), with the female worth the other half. Can ‘one half’ be better or bigger than the other half? Is there a more simple but profound physical image of equality? If the second meaning, ‘sisters’ is adopted, it implies the same. The term ‘sister’ is different from ‘slave’ or ‘master.’”
The image of twin halves fits perfectly with the verse that states that males and females are “members, one of another” ( 3:195). Using the image of twin halves conveys that women and men have equal status as human beings and as spiritual aspirants. Again, the role of leader is contractual and functional, to allow for the greatest efficiency and success in the family, a division of labor and interdependence of roles that makes perfect sense. And at the core of that relationship is a surrendering of hearts. Consider the hadith of Umm Zara’.
Aisha (RAA) related to the Prophet (pbuh) about eleven women who were sitting and sharing details about their husbands during the pre-Islamic days. Umm Zara’ praised her husband eloquently and included the following points: She said that “When I am with him, whatever I say I am not made to feel humiliated or embarrassed. My faults are always covered by him.” She went on to say, “He surrendered to me so much in the heart that I loved myself.” At the end of the narration, the Prophet said to Aisha, “I am to you like Abu Zara’ was to his wife Umm Zara’.” (Bukhari, Muslim, and others) Abu Zara’ honored his wife in such a noble way that she loved herself. And the Prophet (pbuh) validated this honoring of a spouse in this fashion by telling A’isha that he was to her as Abu Zara’ was to his wife.
Twin halves, spouses surrendering hearts to each other, husband and wife being garments for each other, men and women as proceeding from one another, as being friends and supporters of one another, the living, practical sunnah of the Prophet and how he interacted with and perceived women generally and, in particular, his wives — all this points to men and women being the two complementary and interdependent halves of humanity. They together form a consummate and balanced whole, each part being incomplete in itself without its partner. And each partner offering to the family and to society some resource, some capabilities, some assets that the other partner does not naturally or readily possess.
We should ask ourselves: would Allah SWT designate women as the first teachers of every human child if she is weak, inferior, and deficient? Is it just coincidental that the first person to declare shahadah was Khadijah (RAA), a woman; that when the Prophet married Khadijah, she was fifteen years older than him, a businesswoman who had hired him and used her resources to facilitate his success in business and then his divine mission; is it just coincidence that the first martyr was Sumayyah Bint Khabbab (RAA), a woman; that Aisha (RAA), the Prophet’s beloved wife after Khadijah, was a learned, strong woman, narrator of the second largest number of hadith — is all of this just coincidental? Could not the crucial and strong part that women played in the first years of the Islamic venture be a message that women are not to be pushed to the side or diminished in their status and role?
Sarah spoke at length with Aisha about her confusion after attending the study group. She was reassured of her original understanding of the equal standing of women in the sight of Allah SWT. Not too long after she married a man named Ali (names and some details have been changed to protect privacy) who she had been introduced to at the mosque. She felt like the luckiest woman in the world as he was gentle, understanding, and kind while being a strong, manly man at the same time. Three years later Sarah and her husband ended up in the office of a Muslim marriage counselor. Sarah related that she felt unloved, that her husband provided well and had the very best character that she could ever want in a husband. But she felt that there was some wedge between them, that he never fully considered her a true life-partner and peer, that he never made himself vulnerable to her, that he withdrew emotionally when she offered her opinion any time they were making a decision related to the marriage or household.
In a private session with the counselor, Ali dug deep within his capacity for self-examination and offered the counselor the following explanation for the wedge that Sarah felt. He said, “I realized after a lot of reflection about this that my father’s perception of my mother and of women in general has prevented me from really committing to Sarah and being the kind of partner and companion that she wants so badly…and that I should be and want to be. Whenever my dad got frustrated or annoyed with my mom, which was very, very often, he would say things like “a woman can lead even a good man astray” or “ I should have known this would happen, women are just bad luck” or “you are ungrateful just like every other woman” or “what do you know, you are deficient in your thinking” and other things like that. I know there are hadith that express these notions about women but I really have a problem putting those things out of my mind in my daily interactions and my overall relationship with Sarah. Maybe other men can do that – put those things out of their minds – but I have not been able to do that. I find it difficult to ask for her opinion… or to trust her completely..or to ever really let my guard down with her. It’s a problem for me and it’s a problem for Sarah.
Dr. Jamal Badawai wrote, “The issue of gender equity is important, relevant and current. Debates and writings on the subject are increasing and are diverse in their perspectives. The Islamic perspective on the issue is the least understood and most misrepresented by non-Muslims and, at times, by some Muslims as well. The predominant local cultural practices in different parts of the world and the actions of some Muslims tend to reinforce erroneous perceptions of the Islamic perspective. These problems are enhanced by the tendency to treat some juristic interpretations as if they were identical with Islam. As such, there is a pressing need to re-examine this issue in the light of the primary sources of Islam. …In identifying what is ‘Islamic’ it is necessary to make a clear distinction between the primary sources of Islam — the Qur’an and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (s) — and legal opinions derived from them by scholars in regard to specific issues. The process of extracting laws from the primary sources is a human function. The surmise of legal practitioners may therefore vary considerably and be influenced by their specific times, circumstances, and cultures. Obviously, opinions and verdicts of human beings do not enjoy the authority or the finality accorded to the primary sources, which God revealed.”
The Qur’an and the sunnah constitute Islam, but in the final analysis, all things must be judged by and accord with the Criterion, which is the Qur’an. We can rightfully expect that words and actions attributed to the Prophet (pbuh) will not depart, as Ibn Khaldun wrote, from “the common sense meaning of the Quran, from the recognized principles of Shariah, the rules of logic, the evidence of sense, or any other self-evident truth.”
Jeffrey Lang, who converted to Islam in the 1980s, wrote in Struggling to Surrender – Some Impressions of an American Convert to Islam, “…I needed a better understanding of the place of hadith (the Prophetic traditions) in the life of my new community. I was about to enter a maze of confusion, distortion, suspicion, and dogma, a field to be explored only submissively and superficially, in which there is little room for misgiving. It is to this science that orientalism directs its most formidable criticism. Unfortunately, the literature written by Muslim scholars, whether originally in English or translated from other languages, to counteract this attack has been an entirely inadequate response. And the need for an effective response is urgent for Muslims living in the West, because this subject plays an important role in directing and binding the community, and in meeting the challenge of self-maintenance in a radically foreign environment. A convert to Islam quickly discovers the need to adopt a position on the role of the Sunnah and the hadith in his or her life. The problem is that the options presented are so extreme that many converts soon come to feel estranged from the community they have joined. In my opinion, this situation could be avoided if there were a real chance for honest and open discussion on this subject. “
In between the orthodox position that the corpus of ahadith is sacrosanct and that every hadith designated as sahihis indisputable, without any possibility of contradiction or error, and the opposite extreme position of those who reject the ahadith entirely, is a middle way. Revisiting the issue of the status of women and gender relations and those ahadith that are pertinent to the endeavor, that have troubled so many Muslim women, some Muslim men, and too many inquiring non-Muslims, it might be found that some one or more of the ahadith that appear to demean women have resolutions that are not esoteric or complex. For example, in Sahih Bukhari and Muslim is the hadith that Abu Hurayrah reported the Prophet (pbuh) as saying, “Bad omens are in a woman, a house and a horse.” There are many scholastic explanations that try to reconcile this with the hadith found in Ahmad, Abu Dawood, Al-Tirmidhi, and Ibn Majah that states, “Tiyarah (belief in evil omens) is shirk.” However, a very simple resolution is found in a hadith in the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, in which Abu-Hassan (RAA) reports that two people came to Aisha and said to her that Abu Hurayrah (RAA) narrates that the Prophet used to say that bad luck is to be found only in women, horses, and houses. At this Aisha replied, “By the God who revealed the Qur’an to the Prophet! The Prophet never said this; what he did say was that the people of the jahilliyyah hold this opinion.”
How many Muslim women have suffered from believing that the Prophet (pbuh) of Allah declared that in a woman may be a portending of evil or disaster or unhappiness! And how many Muslims have been troubled by the obvious contradiction of the Prophet declaring the belief in omens to be shirk and then him stating that in women, horses, and houses might be bad omens! And how simple is the solution when we find the statement of Aisha that the Prophet never said this but rather that the people of the time of ignorance used to say this. That version accords with the spirit and guidance of the Qur’an. It also accords with the practical sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh) in how he perceived and treated women. Is this not a common sense resolution? What other faith-enhancing resolutions might be found by a scholarly re-examining of ahadith that appear to demean women?
There is no doubt that the devotional and meticulous efforts made by the great compilers of ahadith will stand in an enduring way throughout time. Our gratitude for their extraordinary accomplishments cannot be overstated. Nonetheless, they were human beings who were not invulnerable to error. We do no damage to their contribution, their legacy, and their honor by having reputable scholars look with discerning eye at the ahadith collections with the tools and knowledge of our times, circumstances, and retrospective understanding.
May Allah SWT grant this ummah ever greater numbers of surpassing scholars, including female scholars of Islam, who are willing to revisit the issue of the status of woman and gender relations with courage, truthfulness, and piety. May our and their intention be solely to strive for the pleasure of Allah SWT; to do honor to His Message and the truthful representation of the esteemed Prophet (pbuh) of Islam in his mastery of living, in his embodiment of goodness, wisdom, and compassion; and to adhere to the paradigm of gender relations as provided by Allah SWT. In that way, men and women may be drawn in, brought together optimally in a contract to live in love, mercy, and tranquility — with nothing blocking or dividing their affiliation and affection, all under the auspices of their Covenant with Allah SWT. “And who is truer to his covenant than Allah? Then rejoice in the bargain which you have concluded. That is the supreme success” (Qur’an 9:111).
“O humankind! We created you from a single [pair] of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is [one who is] the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted” (Qur’an 49:13).