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Women in the Qur'an

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Women in the Qur'an

    Muhammad allegedly stated that “Of worldly things, women and perfume are dearest to me…. “ The Qur'an is the only world scripture that has an entire chapter entitled “Women.” Concern for the welfare of women is a distinctive feature of the Qur'an, and the book refers to prominent figures such as the Queen of Sheba, the wife of an Egyptian Pharaoh, and Mary, who has a whole chapter named after her. The Qur'an also recognizes the spiritual equality of men and women. A verse in surah 33 states:

    For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women,For devout men and women, for truthful men and womenFor men and women who are patient and constant, for menand women who humble themselves, for men and womenwho give in charity, for men and women who fast(and restrain themselves), for men and women who guardtheir chastity, and for men and women,who engage much in God's praise,For them has God prepared forgiveness and a great reward.

    Unlike the Hebrew Bible, the Qur'an does not single out Eve as the cause of humankind's fall. In one version of the Qur'an, Adam receives blame for giving in to temptation, and in another, he and his wife are both held accountable. The Qur'an depicts both sexes as pure at birth, equally capable of achieving moral perfection.

    The Qur'an grants specific legal and civil rights to women, many of them unprecedented in both Eastern and Western societies of the time. In pre-Islamic societies in the Near East, men treated women largely as their property. Most women had no say in choosing their marriage partners. They had to give all their belongings to their husbands, and they lacked financial security, unless they had inherited wealth. Female infanticide (the killing of baby girls at birth) was common. The Qur'an abolished these practices, requiring that women inherit property from their male relatives, have a say in their marriage, and have the right to initiate divorce in specific circumstances.

    The Qur'an requires that wives obey their husbands and stipulates that men have more rights than women because they are financially responsible for them. In Islamic law, however, women are treated as social inferiors in some ways. For example, a woman's testimony in court has half the value of a man's, men may divorce their wives at any time by making a simple statement, women do not have custody rights over their children after a certain age, and men may have up to four wives if they provide for them equally. Nevertheless, marriage relationships are supposed to be mutually supportive.

    Most controversial, however, is a passage in surah 4 stating that men with disobedient wives should “admonish them, then banish them to beds apart and strike them.” Scholars suggest that this striking refers only to a single blow, as the word takes the singular form. They argue that the verse actually intends to restrict violence against women, which occurred freely in pre-Islamic times. Various hadith caution against causing wives pain or harm when striking them, and the Qur'an commands men to live with their wives on a “footing of kindness and quality.” Some Muslims, however, have cited the verse on striking to justify domestic violence.

    The Qur'an specifically requires women to “lower their gaze and be modest … and to draw veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands and [male relatives and servants].” Of the seven Qur'anic verses in which the word hijab appears, only one refers specifically to women, describing the need for Muhammad's wives to cover themselves while the Prophet converses with male guests. Some modern scholars maintain that this verse does not concern Muslim women in general. Others, however, argue that the rules that apply to the Prophet's wives apply to all Muslim women.

    The Qur'an does not prescribe seclusion for women, and many women played prominent roles in the early Muslim society. Muhammad's wife A'ishah , for example, was a scholar of many subjects and an influential teacher. Historical evidence seems to indicate that veiling and seclusion became common in the Muslim world after the Islamic conquests of Iran and Byzantium, where high-born women wore veils and lived in harems. Muslim men began to hide and cover their women as a sign of status and wealth. Islamic scholars argued that Qur'anic requirements of modesty supported these practices.

    Cultural practices in conquered areas have often influenced the ways in which Muslims interpret Qur'anic writings on women. Although the Qur'an requires the consent of women in marriage transactions, local customs override this requirement in some Muslim societies, allowing the male guardian exclusive authority in this matter. Many scholars have interpreted the Qur'an in ways that limit the rights promised to women. Some researchers even suggest that later Muslim authorities made up hadith denouncing women as incapable of leadership.

    Female Muslim scholars and activists increasingly rely on egalitarian interpretations of the Qur'an to empower themselves politically and socially and to promote gender equality in their societies. Islamic women participate in such organizations as the Sisters in Islam (Malaysia) and the Muslim Women's League (United States). Some write for feminist journals such as the Iranian Zanan . Muslim feminist scholars in the West include Azizah al-Hibri , Amina Wadud , and Asma Barlas . See also A'ishah ; Divorce; Harem; Hijab; Marriage; Women; Women and Reform.

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