We are discussing Islam’s view on the position of women. This is not a question that can be asked about any topic per say, because Islam – or what is claimed to be Islam – has the ability to be implemented in every time and place, alongside it being the last Sharī’ah from the last Prophet (p).
However, this question requires one to first answer an even more pressing question: What Islam are we referring to? Which Islam? Is Islam one thing or multiple? In our discussion, we definitely do not mean Islam in the general sense which is inclusive of all past religions as well and their laws. We are referring to the Islam of Muḥammad (p) and his Sharī’ah – and the question still remains, is this one thing or is it more than one thing? When we use the word Islam, we could be referring to three possible things: 1) Religious literature – the Qur’ān and the Ḥadīth, 2) What the scholars understood from religious literature, their works, and 3) Islam of the Muslims – those who practice while claiming to be Muslims (for example, if there is obligatory covering prescribed in the religion, is this covering supposed to be black or white? This is something the people choose base on their customs and norms, and is dictated by them)
Don’t forget that under each of these “Islams” there are a tremendous amount of differences of opinions. Let me give you a few examples: Is the Islam of the philosophers correct, or the theologians or the jurists? The jurists consider the philosophers and mystics as heretics, and the philosophers and mystics consider the jurists ignorant. Is the Islam of Ashā’irah correct or the Imāmis, or the Mu’tazalis? Is the Islam of the Ḥanbalīs correct, or the Ḥanafis? You find attacks being hurled even amongst the jurists, one calling another an innovator, or a polytheist and so on. Which Islam are we talking about?
Look at this work by Georges Tarabichi, titled Min Islam al-qur’ān ilā Islam al-ḥadīth, where he lists out out 83 works all describing different types of Islams. Look at the difference between the Islam of the Arabs and the Islam of the Persians – is there a difference between how these two ethnicities understand and manifest Islam or not?
So now when we ask the question, what is Islam’s position on women, which Islam are we referring to? You as a researcher and a scholar need to first clarify what you mean by Islam. In our case, we do not intend the third meaning which is that of the Muslims, and neither the view of the scholars. We only intend the first meaning, which is Islam as it has come to us in the texts. Then you need to determine whether you will take a Qur’ān-centric approach or a Ḥadīth-centric approach?
There is another discussion we could also do which is when we say the word Ummah, do we mean Ummah of Islam or Ummah of humans? What does the Qur’ān say?
كَانَ النَّاسُ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً فَبَعَثَ اللَّهُ النَّبِيِّينَ
[2:213] Mankind was one nation; then Allah sent the prophets as bringers of good tidings
The Qur’ān says mankind is supposed to be one nation, but instead we limit this to just Muslims, and then the Shi’ī limit it to just themselves and the Sunnis limit it to just themselves.
All in all, the position we are taking in our discussion is, what is the Qur’ān’s take on the position of women. This does not mean that I am discarding the narrations. I do not believe that the narrations have no value, rather they do have value, but through the lens of the Qur’ān. I am not discussing the view and position scholars have taken on this issue – some may come and say that consensus of the scholars if ḥujjah (binding and has probative force), this may be their opinion and it is ḥujjah on them, but it is not my opinion.
We already described the first example. The narrations say a woman was the first to make a mistake, whereas the Qur’ān says Satan whispered to Ādam and made him slip. You can predicate this mistake on whatever you want to reconcile it with the view of infallibility – that is a theological discussion and has nothing to do with my discussion here, all I am saying is that the apparent and explicit verse of the Qur’ān says Ādam was the first one to make a mistake, not his wife. Also do not forget, I am saying this on the basis that this was actually a real incident, even though my own personal view is that this is a symbolic incident mentioned in the Qur’ān which indicates that the first individual to make a mistake amongst the humans was a male.
Second example was regarding the perfection of the intellect. The narrations mentioned how it is a woman who is deficient, and thus ontologically speaking a male must be superior to her. Let us see what the Qur’ān has to say about this.
وَلَسَوْفَ يُعْطِيكَ رَبُّكَ فَتَرْضَىٰ
[93:5] Soon your Lord will give you [that with which] you will be pleased
The greatest position the Messenger (p) had reached in the arc of ascent, is this position. Allah (swt) is doing something so that his slave will be pleased with Him (swt). According to theological principles, it is the slave who should be ensuring that Allah (swt) is pleased by him, but in this verse we see Allah (swt) ensuring that His (swt) slave is pleased by Him (swt).
There is no other verse in the Qur’ān that explains what is it that Allah (swt) will give. In fact, the verb coined from ‘aṭa is not used in any other verse except in Inna A’ṭaynāka al-Kawther. Meaning, in order for the Prophet (p) to be pleased, Allah (swt) has given him Kawther. I am not suggesting the Kawther here is Lady Fāṭimah (sa), but rather the greatest instance of Kawther is the lineage and progeny that was born through Fāṭimah (sa). We know this verse is related to progeny due to the last verse of Sūrah al-Kawther.
This was in a society where a woman was considered a source of shame, to such an extent that she would be buried and killed. Allah (swt) decides to place the progeny of the Prophet (p) in the lineage of his daughter. Some may say this is just restricted to the personality of Fāṭimah (s), but who says? Yes, she may be the best of them all, but in reality this is showing the significance and greatness of women. God could have extended the progeny of the Prophet (p) through a male, like it is the case in general, but His Wisdom necessitated it to be through a female.
This is why you find Fakhr al-Rāzi saying in his Tafsīr, when he reaches this verse:
الكوثر أولاده قالوا: لأن هذه السورة إنما نزلت ردا على من عابه عليه السلام بعدم الأولاد، فالمعنى أنه يعطيه نسلا يبقون على مر الزمان، فانظر كم قتل من أهل البيت، ثم العالم ممتلئ منهم، و لم يبق من بني أمية في الدنيا أحد يعبأ به، ثم انظر كم كان فيهم من الأكابر من العلماء كالباقر و الصادق و الكاظم و الرضا عليهم السلام و النفس الزكية و أمثالهم
You may ask, Sayyid how do you know this? Isn’t this a qaḍiyya fi al-wāqi’ah (something specific only to lady Fāṭimah)?
إِذْ قَالَتِ امْرَأَتُ عِمْرَانَ رَبِّ إِنِّي نَذَرْتُ لَكَ مَا فِي بَطْنِي مُحَرَّرًا فَتَقَبَّلْ مِنِّي ۖ إِنَّكَ أَنتَ السَّمِيعُ الْعَلِيمُ
فَلَمَّا وَضَعَتْهَا قَالَتْ رَبِّ إِنِّي وَضَعْتُهَا أُنثَىٰ وَاللَّهُ أَعْلَمُ بِمَا وَضَعَتْ وَلَيْسَ الذَّكَرُ كَالْأُنثَىٰ ۖ وَإِنِّي سَمَّيْتُهَا مَرْيَمَ وَإِنِّي أُعِيذُهَا بِكَ وَذُرِّيَّتَهَا مِنَ الشَّيْطَانِ الرَّجِيمِ
[3:35] When a woman of Imran said: My Lord! surely I vow to Thee what is in my womb, to be devoted (to Thy service); accept therefore from me, surely Thou art the Hearing, the Knowing.
[3:36] So when she brought forth, she said: My Lord! Surely I have brought it forth a female– and Allah knew best what she brought forth– and the male is not like the female, and I have named it Maryam, and I commend her and her offspring into Thy protection from the accursed Shaitan.
This statement ‘and Allah knew best what she brought forth’ is a statement in between the quote of the wife of ‘Imrān. However, there is a serious difference of opinion on this matter amongst the exegetes, because some say that this statement till the end of the verse are the words of Allah (swt) – and I accept this view. My reason is because when the mother of Maryam was grieving the birth of a daughter, she says I gave birth to a female, and if she wanted to grieve over this matter, she would have said ‘and the female is not like the male’, instead of saying ‘and the male is not like the female’.
Thus this is Allah’s (swt) statement, because he is responding to the grief of the mother of Maryam for not having given birth to a boy. He (swt) says, a male is not like the female, and even the narrations say that the blessings a daughter brings are such that even a boy does not possess them. Unfortunately, these narrations are generally cast aside.
Why do some try so hard to come up with weird interpretations? They say this is a reference to Maryam only – meaning she is not like any other male. Where does it say this is specific to Maryam only in this verse? It says a female is not like a male, not that Maryam is not like a male. The Qur’ān speaks of general principles, even in Sūrah al-Masad. Do Abu Lahabs not exist today? There are thousands of them. Are there no Pharaohs today? Are there no Yazīds today? Look at the words of Sayyid Shahīd al-Ṣadr, who said we are living in a time where we need a Ḥusayn – why? Because there was a Yazīd present during his time as well.