Islamic teaching itself is not the source of discrimination against women, this writer argues.
There are no expressions of sexual discrimination, such as that women were created from men,
in Islamic human creationism.
At the moment, the specter of intolerance is sweeping through the Western world. In the local communities of Christian countries, a backlash has emerged against local Muslims and their Muslim communities, whose presence is being more strongly felt due to their population growth. Suspicion and mistrust are rampant. That intolerance merely breeds intolerance on the other side, regardless of time or place, is a universal truth that can be learned from history. As numerous tragic situations have taught us, attempting to protect tolerance with intolerance brings about hatred and enmity, destruction, and slaughter.
Banning the Wearing of the Burqa and Niqab
The anti-Islamic adverse reaction that can be observed in Christian countries is not just negative responses simply to physical facilities such as new mosques or minaret construction; it reaches into the personal lives of Islamic women, their customs and manners. Already, in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Spain, women are prohibited by law or ordinance from wearing the burqa or niqab.
The donning of veils such as the burqa or niqab that the anti-Islamic bloc criticizes loudly as a symbol of discrimination against women actually just follows the admonition in the Qur'an for women to be discreet and cover important parts of the body for the sake of modesty. "And tell believing women to cast down their eyes and guard their private parts and not show their finery, except the outward part of it. And let them drape their bosoms with their veils and not show their finery except to their husbands, their fathers" (24:31).
In the Islamic world, the social function and role of females wearing the veil have changed over time and also change with different peoples and regions. Yet the wearing of the veil, if we follow the basic principles of Islamic teaching, has always been to show that women have taken their honor to heart with modesty, grace, and discretion; it is not evidence of anything other than this. Seeing the veil as a symbol of backwardness is a Eurocentric point of view that thinks of Western dress as the universal global standard.
Islam and the Position of Women in the Islamic World
I believe that the image that women have become subservient to male control through the institution of segregating women (purdah) and the "four wives system" (whereby a Muslim man may have up to four wives) is what is behind the anti-Islamic movement in the Christian world, where some countries have prohibited even the personal customs of native dress of women. To be sure, the Islamic world, as with other cultures, has had various community traditions of discrimination against women that have been deep-rooted in the past and that exist even today. But should we view Islamic teaching itself as the source of such discrimination against women?
As far as reading the original Islamic texts, Islamic teaching itself is not the source of discrimination against women. Muhammad Asad, who at one time was called "the ambassador of Islam" by the international community, sounded the alarm to Muslims, as a Muslim, in The Road to Mecca. "It was not the Muslims that had made Islam great: it was Islam that had made the Muslims great." "The decline of the Muslims was not due to any shortcomings in Islam but rather in their own failure to live up to it." Needless to say, with any religion, it is necessary to carefully compare the religious doctrines underlying a certain custom with the actual reality of the custom in the society in which it exists.
Islam as the Religion of Taw?id
Islam is said to be the teaching of taw?id. Taw?id means the reduction of all phenomena to One, in other words, unification. When this principle of unification is applied to the existence of an Absolute God, the result is "the one and only God"; this applies to all monotheistic faiths. For that reason, the revealed religions of Judaism and Christianity are also taw?id faiths. Why, then, is Islam said to be more of a taw?id faith than the others?
An intrinsic feature of Islam is that it does not restrict this principle to God alone but applies it to the existence of all of God's creations in the universe and even the social behavior within that existence. In the case of social behavior, all are ranked equally as one indivisible whole - the sacred and the profane, individuals and the community, the spirit and the flesh, the present world and the world to come. As to all Creation, because the Creator is entirely the source of all things in nature, humans, the earth, animals, plants, and minerals are all God's creations and in their existence they all have equal value, even if they have differing and disparate natures, faculties, or functions.
Taw?id strongly denies that any existence or being holds a higher or lower place in a vertical hierarchy and places all of these in horizontal relationships that are equal. The life principle of equality can be derived from this taw?id ontology and its thoroughly horizontal treatment, which on the other hand also attaches great importance to the fact that there is disparity between separate existences as they stand, and respects the identity inherent in that disparity.
The Androgynous Nature of Human Creation in the Qur'an
In the Qur'an the following words of God are written: "O people, fear your Lord who created you from a single soul, and from it He created its mate, and from both He scattered abroad many men and women" (4:1).
The distinctive thing about this revelation of human creation is the androgyny or asexuality of Creation. What is first created is neither male nor female, but a single soul (nafs wa?idah), and from that soul a mate (zawj) is created. Both nafs and zawj are terms that are either androgynous, indicating both male and female characteristics, or asexual, indicating neither characteristic. It is only after this soul obtains a mate that, for the first time and from that entity, specific men (rijal) and women (nisa') appear on the scene.
There are no expressions of sexual discrimination, such as that women were created from men, in Islamic human creationism. First, a soul (nafs also can mean "person" in English) was created, followed by the creation of a mate, after which these souls (human beings) came to possess the inherent sexual roles of male and female. This signifies that it is human nature that essentially provides what a human is and that the distinction between male and female is merely attributive.
This Islamic understanding of people leads, by necessity, to a disavowal of such things as racial discrimination, discrimination based on family background or wealth, and gender discrimination. The clearest expression of this is in "the Last Sermon of the Holy Prophet of Islam" given by the prophet Muhammad shortly before his death. After saying, "O mankind, We have created you male and female and made you nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another" (49:13), he elaborates, "There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab and for non-Arab over an Arab, nor for the white over the black nor for the black over the white except in God-consciousness. All mankind is the progeny of Adam, and Adam was fashioned out of clay. Behold, every claim of privilege whether that of blood or property is under my heels."
The Essential Equality of the Sexes and the Division of Roles
This sermon forcefully proclaims that all humans are equal, regardless of lineage, skin color, disparity in wealth, or gender, and that their relative merit as humans will be decided by their devoutness. Islam firmly rejects sexual discrimination wherein women are treated as inferior to men. "As to the believers, males and females, they are friends of one another. They enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil, perform the prayers, give the alms and obey Allah and His Apostle. It is those on whom Allah will have mercy" (9:71).
Humans are social beings, however, and it is impossible for them to exist without social relationships. Men are men, and likewise, women are women. Specifically, men are husbands, fathers, and sons, and women are wives, mothers, and daughters, and they each assume their social roles.
In the worldview of Islam's taw?id, while men and women are perceived as being essentially equal, differences between men and women are directly acknowledged, and in light of those differences men and women help each other in a mutually complementary status. "[The All-Mighty, the All-Knowing] created all the pairs" (43:12). "They are a raiment for you, and you are a raiment for them" (2:187). Here, men and women (husbands and wives) differ from each other but protect and complete each other like clothing that fits perfectly; both are considered the "pairs" that become the basic units of society.
Equality of Men and Women in Social Life and Women's Social Participation
It is well known from the ?adith that in early Muslim societal tradition women participated in the collective obligations of the public life of society, including jihad for defense, as well as discussing, deciding, and managing public affairs. Muslims, men and women alike, are expected to fulfill their collective responsibilities toward the Muslim community and exert themselves so that the community will thrive. There is no disparity between men and women in the public sector of a society that requires joint effort.
Indeed, there are those who assert that Islam discriminates against women, citing the passages from the Qur'an that state, "Women have rights equal to what is incumbent upon them according to what is just, although men are one degree above them" (2:228), and "Men are in charge of women, because Allah has made some of them excel the others, and because they spend some of their wealth" (4:34). But the problematic parts - "just one degree above" and "some of them excel the others" - must not be interpreted alone without their overall context. These words refer to nothing more than the financial matters having to do with support, and have no relevance to other matters. Indeed, men are in a better position than women to bear the responsibilities of supporting and maintaining the material aspects of the life of a family, but nothing more than that. Take away the one matter of supporting the family, and a husband has no more power or authority than a wife.
The Path to Tolerance
Emotionally charged tales about the position of women in Islam are rampant, tales that never seem to change and that are based on prejudice and misunderstanding. There is all the more reason now, when cultural friction has intensified and the spirit of tolerance is being lost, to call for a close understanding based on Islamic teaching and for reliable observations made in the context of the actual conditions of life, and most of all for fair and objective introspection that is not caught up with irresponsible tales.
All quotations from the Qur'an in this essay are from The Qur'an: A Modern English Version, trans. Majid Fakhry (Reading: Garnet Publishing, 1997).
Until March 2007, Yoshiaki Sanada served as a professor of law at Chuo University in Tokyo, where he is now professor emeritus. He has also been a guest professor at the Institute of Comparative Law of the China University of Politics and Law in Beijing. He is director of the Peace Research Institute of the Japanese Committee of the World Conference of Religions for Peace.