Does Islam hold women to be inferior to men?

There is a common belief that Islam gives a higher status to men in comparison to women. This is misconception in the truest sense of the word.

Contrary to the common misconception that Islam holds men superior to women, Islam actually gives equal status to women as that of men. The Quran says:

“You are members, one of another.” (3:195)

This means that there is no difference between the two as regards status, rights and blessings both in this world and in the Hereafter.

The following Hadith gives an apt description of the role of women:

Men and women are two equal halves of a single unit. (Al Tirmizi)

We see that both the sacred scriptures of Islam make it clear that neither sex is inferior or superior to the other. However, studies in biology and psychology show that the sexes are different in nature, each being designed for a different purpose. So, the Islamic maxim runs:

Equal in respect, but different in role.

Each being equal has a different sphere of action. That is, in making their contribution to social activity, the men undertake whatever is harder, while the women deal with whatever is lighter.

The Quran says that men are in charge of, that is, they are ‘maintainers’ of women (4:34). This leads to a common misconception that Islam gives a higher status to men then women. According to this verse of the Quran, it does not mean that men have a distinctive status over women – being maintainers of women has never been intended as a form of discriminatory treatment, it rather concerns the practical management of the home, for which the man is held responsible. However, this does not mean that a woman will never be allowed to shoulder these responsibilities. If she finds that she can bear this burden, no objection will be raised from any quarter. One example of this can be found in the Quran with reference to the people of Sheba. They lived in Yemen. The famous dam of Marib made their country very prosperous and enabled it to attain a high degree of civilization. The Quran tells us that they were ruled by a woman (27:23) without disapproving of her rule. Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba was very wise and sagacious, even more so than the men in her court. She did not want to embroil her country in war, while the men advised her to confront her enemies, namely, Solomon’s army. Abdullah Yusuf Ali writes:

“In Bilqis we have a picture of womanhood, gentle, prudent, and able to tame the wilder passions of her subjects.”

It is an accepted principle with the commentators of the Quran that when the Quran reports something without any disapproval, that means that has been approved of by the Quran.

So when we look at this incident in the light of the Quran, we find the status of woman even higher than that of men. A woman is in charge of men and she has shouldered this responsibility with greater efficacy.

Thus the example of the Queen of Sheba having found mention in the Quran shows that rulership is not man’s monopoly. A woman can be a ‘qawwam’ over a man and the Quran has itself testified to it.

In fact, in the early period of Islam, both the sexes were fully active in different fields of life, from housework to agriculture and horticulture; and from worship in the mosque to the battleground. Everywhere women were visible and active. Gradually there came about a division of labour, which is justifiable not only biologically and physiologically, but also in terms of the ensuing social benefits. One such important benefit is that they can see each other’s lives objectively, without that personal involvement which tends to cloud their judgment and lead to a damaging emotionalism. They are better able to counsel each other coolly and wisely, to give moral support at critical moments, and to offer the daily encouragement with which every successful union should be marked.

In Islamic history, there are many examples of women giving invaluable help to their husbands in critical situations. One of the most notable was Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet of Islam who successfully brought the Prophet back from a state of fear and trembling to a state of normalcy after his receiving the first divine revelation in the solitude of the Cave of Hira from the Archangel Gabriel. She was able to reassure him that his life was not, as he feared, in danger, as she herself was emotionally detached from the incident. She observed: “God will surely never forsake you. You are kind to your kin; you always help the weak; you take care of whoever crosses your threshold; you solace the weary; you speak the truth.” The reassurance that Khadijah gave to the Prophet of Islam on this occasion was one of the most significant contributions to the furtherance of Islam.

Then it occurred to Khadijah that she had best make enquiries of some learned Christians, who, well versed as they were in the scriptures, were bound to have knowledge of revelation and prophethood. She went first to a rahib (hermit) who lived near Mecca. On seeing her, the priest asked, “O noble lady of the Quraysh, what has brought you here?” Khadijah replied, “I have come here to ask you about Gabriel.” To this the rahib said, “Glory be to God, he is God’s pure angel. He visits prophets: he came to Jesus and Moses.” Then Khadijah went to another Christian called Addas. She put the same question to him, and he too told her that Gabriel was an angel of God, the very same who had been with Moses when God drowned the Pharaoh. He had also come to Jesus, and through him God had helped Jesus.

Then Khadijah hastened to Waraqah ibn Nawfal, a Christian convert who had translated part of the Bible into Arabic. When she had finished telling him of what Muhammad had seen and heard, Waraqah exclaimed, “Holy, holy! By the Master of my soul, if your report be true, O Khadijah, this must be the great spirit who spoke to Moses. This means that Muhammad must be the Prophet of this nation.” On a subsequent visit, Khadijah brought Muhammad to meet Waraqah ibn Nawfal. Muhammad related the events exactly as they had taken place and, when he had finished, Waraqah said, “By the Master of my soul, I swear that you are the same Prophet whose coming was foretold by Jesus, son of Mary.” But then Waraqah sounded a note of warning: “You will be denied and you will be hurt. You will be abused and you will be pursued.” He nevertheless immediately pledged himself to the Prophet: “If I should ever live to see that day, I should surely help you.”

Thus we can say that Islam does not hold women inferior to men. Islam considers men and women as equal in respect, but different in role.

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