What Would A Muslim Say:

Conversations, Questions, and Answers About Islam

Hierarchy without Patriarchy: PART 2

The Historical Roles of Women

The Early Muslim Era

It is important to note that even with Islam’s marriage regulations and stricter controls on gender interactions, these regulations were limited in scope to the domestic family life. Arab women participated actively in society, a habit that necessarily carried over into early Muslim society. Until the latter years of Muhammad’s (pbuh) mission, women mingled freely with men,[1] and among the early Muslims, women were active participants in the cohesive functioning of the society. Women expressed their opinions freely and their advice was actively sought. Women nursed the wounded during battles, and some even participated on the battlefield. Women traded openly in the marketplace, so much so that the second caliph, Umar, appointed a woman, Shaffa bint Abdullah, as the supervisor of the bazaar.[2]

The recorded habit of the Prophet (pbuh) to listen and give weight to women’s expressed opinions and ideas became part of the early Muslim society more broadly. This is apparent in the numerous contributions of women to the hadith corpus. Unlike later generations who would relegate a woman’s testimony to half that of a man’s, hadith scholars routinely accepted chains of narrations that included singular women in them. The first generation of Muslims and their immediate descendants had no difficulty in accepting women as authorities, even in matters of religious canon. As a result, many of the source texts were transmitted and taught by women, and women scholars were able to participate in various Islamic sciences.[3]

The Legal Formative Era

“All writers are hostage to the society in which they live.”Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

Even though women of the early Muslim society participated actively in trade, warfare, religious instruction, and dictated their own nuptial term, the understanding of gender norms and women’s participation in society underwent major changes in the generations thereafter. The Arab conquests did not just lead to the broad Arabization and Islamization of the population of Persia and the Levant. They also heralded the integration of Sasanian culture, customs, and institutions into the emergent Islamic civilization. It is due to this fusion of incoming Arab morals and existing Sasanian sensibilities that a new Muslim society arose in the seat of Abbasid rule. This new society directly influenced the founding principles of Islamic legal and religious thought, principles that defined normative Islamic law up to and including the present day.[4]

This new Abbasid Muslim society was not like the first Muslim community in Arabia; a key difference being the value and status of women and the normative relationship between men and women. The conquests had brought a great influx of wealth and slaves, the majority of which were women and children, and so sale of women as commodities and concubines became an everyday reality in Abbasid society. As a result of the banality of the sale of women for sexual use, women were objectified and dehumanized in that society, so unlike the early Muslim era, the interaction between the sexes became defined by the availability and easy acquisition of women as slaves and objects.[5]

It was in this society that the foundational texts and norms of Islamic civilization were codified and standardized. Because the men creating the literary and legal texts of the Abbasid age experienced and internalized the society’s valuations about women, they implicitly imposed the power structures that existed between the sexes and justified that they should exist. While it is clear that the Qur’an has gender-differentiated rules for husbands and wives in particular, it was this cultural milieu that biased the political, religious, and legal authorities in Islam’s formative period to expand the scope of androcentric marriage laws to encompass laws for men and women in general.[6] For this reason, Islamic civilization went down the path of emphasizing Islam’s legal regulations over its ethical and spiritual vision. More importantly, the texts created during this period are regarded as the core prescriptive texts of Islam.

The key concept of this argument is that broad-brush gender inequality is NOT intrinsic to Islamic teachings per se, rather such inequality is a historical by-product of the Abbasid society and its inherent misogyny. The inclusion of women in many aspects of social life in the early Muslim era lend proof to the idea that the patriarchy of that formative era can and should be isolated from the normative values and teachings of Islam. Therefore, according to this approach, any literal Qur’an or hadith interpretation that seems to contradict gender equality should be read historically and contextually rather than universally. We can use the ethical vision articulated in the Qur’anic to arrive at over-arching themes and values to modify or qualify the patriarchal assumptions inherited from the legal formative area. As Qasim Amin emphatically wrote in 1899:

nothing in the laws of Islam or in its intentions can account for the low status of Muslim women. The existing situation is contrary to law, because originally women in Islam were granted an equal place in human society … Unacceptable customs, traditions, and superstitions inherited from the countries in which Islam spread have been allowed to permeate this beautiful religion.[7]

The classical status of women should be seen as a foreign byproduct of customs against the Sharia; going back to a pure Islam should secure for Muslim women the status they deserve. In other words, Islam has all the concepts of equality and gender justice needed; Muslim society must simply embrace it and let go of parochial and patriarchal traditions that are not supported by his interpretation of Islam.


[1] (Ahmed 1992, 68)

[2] (WhyIslam 2014)

[3] (Ahmed 1992, 74)

[4] (Ahmed 1992, 19)

[5] (Ahmed 1992, 86)

[6] (Ahmed 1992, 67)

[7] (Amin 1992, 8)


Hierarchy without Patriarchy: PART 2
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