The Islamic Emancipation of Women
Islam brought with it great emancipation for women, who were severely persecuted in the pagan era. Prof. Bernard Lewis, known as one of the greatest Western experts on the history of Islam and the Middle East, makes the following comment: As the verses make clear, Islam brings justice to male-female relations and puts an end to harmful practices resulting from customs and traditions of pre-Islamic societies. One example is the situation of women in pre-Islamic Arab society. The pagan Arabs regarded women as inferior and having a daughter was something to be ashamed of. Fathers of daughters sometimes preferred to bury them alive rather than announce their birth. Using the Qur’an, Allah prohibited this evil tradition and warned that on Judgment Day such people will have to account for their actions.
In general, the advent of Islam brought an enormous improvement in the position of women in ancient Arabia, endowing them with property and some other rights, and giving them a measure of protection against ill-treatment by their husbands or owners. The killing of female infants, sanctioned by the custom in Pagan Arabia, was outlawed by Islam. But the position of women remained poor and worsened when, in this as in so many other respects, the original message of Islam lost its impetus and was modified under the influence of pre-existing attitudes and customs. 1
Karen Armstrong, another Western expert on Islam, makes the following comment:
We must remember what life had been like for women in the pre-Islamic period when female infanticide was the norm and when women had no rights at all. Like slaves, women were treated as an inferior species, who had no legal existence. In such a primitive world, what Muhammad achieved for women was extraordinary. The very idea that a woman could be a witness or could inherit anything at all in her own right was astonishing. 2
In fact, during the many centuries that followed Prophet Muhammad, women of the Islamic societies had a much higher social position than the women of Christendom. Karen Armstrong emphasizes that during the Middle Ages;
… the Muslims were horrified to see the way Western Christians treated their women in the Crusader states, and Christian scholars denounced Islam for giving too much power to menials like slaves and women. 3
Anna King, a modern Muslim woman, and a converter, better to say, a revert – to Islam, explains the Islamic emancipation of women as follows:
Islam first gave women their rights in a time when women were nothing but the property of men. Islam gave women the right to buy and sell on their own, own businesses, and express their views politically. These were all basic rights that the American woman was not granted until relatively recently! It also encouraged women to study and learn Islamic knowledge, breaking a ban which several religions had stipulated, which forbid women to acquire any religious knowledge or touch religious texts… It also abolished the practice of marrying a woman without her consent. Thus, one would have to be very stubborn indeed to refuse such obvious facts and proof that Islam was women’s first liberator.
The tendencies to see women as “an inferior species” who has no right to education and that must be secluded from the society arose much later in the Islamic world, as a result of deviations from the right Qur’anic path.
Thus we can say that the mentality that despises women, excludes them from society, and regards them as second-class citizens is a wicked pagan attitude that has no place in Islam.
Devout women are depicted as good examples for mankind in the Qur’an. One is Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Another is the wife of the Egyptian Pharaoh who, despite her husband’s wickedness, is also described as an ideal Muslim. (see, 66:11-12) The Qur’an also describes very gentle conversations between the Prophet Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (27:42-44), and between Moses and two young ladies (28:23-26), which symbolize the civilized social relationship between the two genders.
Therefore, a Muslim can’t have a bigoted approach to women. In a society where true Islamic morals are practiced, immense respect and sympathy will be shown to women, and it will be ensured that they can live in freedom and comfort.
The fundamental rule in Qur’anic exegesis is ensuring that the derived meaning conforms with the integrity of the Qur’an. When this is considered, it is seen that all the rules mentioned to us by Allah regarding women form a social structure allowing them to live most comfortably and happily. In a society where all the moral values mentioned by Islam are practiced comprehensively, the social position of women becomes even more exalted than in societies that we today regard as modern.