What Would A Muslim Say:

Conversations, Questions, and Answers About Islam

Hierarchy without Patriarchy: PART 1


Women are the twin halves of men. –Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

Muslim modernists proudly claim the Qur’an declares women are independent agents, accountable for their own deeds, whether good or bad. They have the same responsibilities to worship God and obey His commandments. Islam granted women rights to contract, to work and earn money, to inherit, and to own property independently of men. Wives keep their identity and are not expected to adopt their husband’s name. Islam also stipulates rights for their maintenance, inheritance, and protection — rights that were not present in the pre-Islamic period.[1]

However, a gap exists between the ideals espoused by these modernists and the prevalent reality for women in the Muslim world. In many Muslim-majority countries, a woman still requires the permission of her father or grandfather to get married, a woman still needs her husband’s permission to travel outside the country, a woman’s court testimony is either not acceptable or not equal with a man’s, and her life is less worthy because her blood money is half that of a man.[2] These obstacles to expecting and allowing women to contribute to a healthy and productive society, have raised the questions of whether discriminatory laws against women actually originate from Islam and whether Islam can ever be compatible with modern concepts of gender equality.[3]

Much ink has been spent in the defense and critique of such feminist and modernist attempts to harmonize Islam with contemporary concepts of justice and human rights. After summarizing and critiquing various forms of feminist exegesis and the difficulties in reconciling the Qur’an with modern notions of gender equality, Aysha Hidayatullah wrote: 

What would it mean if we, as feminist, believing Muslims, eventually found that the text of the Qur’an does sanction gender hierarchy and male authority over women? What would happen if we were forced to concede that this is the case — would feminist exegesis of the Qur’an come to an end? What would that do to our relationship to the Qur’an? What would that do to our relationship to God?[4]

We start our discussion with this line of thinking and explore the ethical vision of Islamic teachings and its pragmatic regulations for society. Then we compare the historical roles of women during the early Muslim era with the roles during the formative years. Finally, we make the case for complementary gender roles, and argue that the existence of gender hierarchy and male authority in the Qur’an does NOT preclude women from roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege, and control of property. This inclusion of women is exemplified by how the Prophet (pbuh) treated his own wives and how the women Companions acted after his death.

The Two “Voices” of Islamic Teachings

The Articulation of an Ethical Vision

Consider these two verses from the Qur’an:

Muslim men and Muslim women, believing men and believing women, obedient men and obedient women, truthful men and truthful women, patient men and patient women, humble men and humble women, charitable men and charitable women, fasting men and fasting women, men who guard their chastity and women who guard, men who remember Allah frequently and women who remember—Allah has prepared for them a pardon, and an immense reward. (33:35)

And their Lord answered them: “I will not waste the work of any worker among you, whether male or female. You are one of another. For those who emigrated, and were expelled from their homes, and were persecuted because of Me, and fought and were killed—I will remit for them their sins and will admit them into gardens beneath which rivers flow—a reward from Allah. With Allah is the ultimate reward.” (3:195)

These verses show identical spiritual and moral obligations and rewards for all individuals regardless of sex. Both make clear statements about the equality of men and women when it comes to spiritual conditions and moral obligations. They balance the virtues and ethical qualities and resultant rewards of one sex with those of the other.[5]

O people! Truly We created you from a male and a female, and We made you peoples and tribes that you may come to know one another. Surely the most noble of you before God are the most reverent of you. Truly God is Knowing, Aware. (49:13)

This verse shows that piety – not biological sex or ethnic origin – is the criterion for human differentiation.[6]

And among His signs is that He created spouses for you from among yourselves that you might find rest in them, and He established affection and mercy between you. Truly in that are signs for a people who reflect. (30:21)

While some translations and interpretations restrict the meaning of this verse to husbands finding rest in wives, there is no linguistic or stylistic reason for that. Rather, the verse can and should be read (and translated) as a reference to spouses mutually finding rest in each other.[7]

The consistent theme of ethical egalitarianism explains why Muslim women often claim that Islam is not sexist. They read in the Qur’an an ethical vision, which is a very different “voice” from the pragmatic regulations of orthodox Islam.[8] The rulers and lawmakers relied on the sexual hierarchy prescribed by Islamic marriage norms to elaborate a body of legal and political thought that to this day constitute the technical understanding of Islam. Despite the motivating force of spiritual and ethical equality among ordinary believing Muslims, it is the legalistic voice that has been the most influential in building the intellectual heritage of Islam.

The Pragmatic Regulations for Society

The ethical vision of Islam exists in tension with the hierarchy encoded in the Islamic marriage structure. The hierarchy rules relate to concept of qawama or guardianship, and the essence of this guardianship was that it vested the proprietary rights of female sexuality and offspring to the husband. In order to understand this, we must understand how marriage was practiced in tribal, pre-Islamic Arabia.

Before the advent of Islam, the tribe was the building block of Arabian society. Men of the tribe worked and fought to earn their living, and they supported the tribe with their swords if necessary. The motivation for marrying was not for family, but primarily for increasing the tribe’s number and therefore its strength. The tribe overshadowed the family, so family formation and marriage customs were flexible and loose, not a uniform institution. If the husband was from another tribe, the woman often left her family and dwelt in her husband’s tribe. In this case, the children belonged to the father’s tribe and grew up under their protection unless there was a special contract to restore the children to the mother’s people. The children were, therefore, of the tribe’s kin and not of the mother’s. In some other tribes, it was the woman stayed in her own tribe and her husband moved in or periodically visited her tent. In this case, the children belonged to the mother’s tribe and grew up under their protection. The women of these tribes tended to have more freedom and could dismiss their husbands at will.[9]

Islam regulated and standardized all these different marriage customs into one common form. Instead of communal tribalism that accommodated unrestricted polygyny and polyandry, Islam instituted monogamous or limited polygynous marriages. To achieve this, Islam selectively sanctioned some customs already found among the Arab tribes while prohibiting others. Of central importance was establishing the preeminence of paternity and vesting the proprietary rights of a woman’s sexuality and offspring to the husband instead of the tribal collective.[10] This in turn brought the nuclear family to the forefront in place of the tribe. Therefore, children were attributed to the father and mother specifically instead of the tribe communally.

In the pre-Islamic period, there was no provision for the spouses to inherit from each other and heirs were restricted to agnatic male descendants, ascendants, and collaterals in that order.  Whereas before a man’s offspring and wealth were the property of the tribe, they now were his own, which meant that inheritance was expected to stay within the immediate family rather than be absorbed by the tribe of the deceased. According to this new paradigm of societal regulation, the Qur’an endorsed hierarchical and gender-differentiated regulations for husbands and wives[11] and fixed entitlements for wives and daughters where before there were none.[12]

[1] (Rashed 2018, 37)

[2] (Bakhshizadeh 2018, 12)

[3] (Bakhshizadeh 2018, 11)

[4] (HidayatuIIah 2014, 147)

[5] (Ahmed 1992, 65)

[6] (Ibrahim 2020, 21)

[7] (Ibrahim 2020, 24)

[8] (Ahmed 1992, 66)

[9] (Smith 1903, 80)

[10] (Ahmed 1992, 45)

[11] (Ali 2016, 196)

[12] (Powers 2014, 8-11)

Hierarchy without Patriarchy: PART 1
Scroll to top