Muhammad Was (not) A Feminist

One of the most common types of pro-Islamic apologia one reads these days revolve around the idea that “Islam is feminist” or that “Muhammad was a feminist.”  It’s an essential part of dawah in the West. Although not supported by solid research, it is generally believed that more women than men convert to Islam (studies do show that overall, women are more religious than men).

For me, it’s more intolerable when non-Muslims get involved in this nonsense, and doubly so when that person is a man.  So along comes Huffington Post with “Muhammad was a Feminist” by Jim Garrison.  It puts even the  most earnest Islamic dawah to shame.  No doubt daiyees everywhere will link to it and copy/paste it to their sites soon.  “Look! A non-Muslim white man has said this about our religion, so it must be true!”

First, one cannot ascribe 19th/20th c CE ideas and concepts to a man who lived 1400 years ago. There was no conception of feminism in his time. The idea that anyone, women or men, should exist outside of the boundaries of the patriarchal system was completely unheard of. That women should be given legal status equal to that of men was a  nascent concept in the 19th c, not the 7th c.  One can say that Muhammad’s religion gave women some greater latitude than the religions of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism or Confucianism before it, but one can also look at the timeline of history and see it as part of the evolution of human thoughts and the development of different legal frameworks within patriarchal societies. In no way are the societal rules of Madinah in the 7th century comparable to the laws that protect women’s rights now in, say, the United States or France or Morocco or Turkey.

The prophet Muhammad would be appalled by how current Islamic Fundamentalists are treating women under their control. This suppression is done in the name of Islamic Law, known as Sharia. But the current suppression of women is shaped by cultural and history. It has little basis in the Quran and it is certainly not consistent with anything we know about what Muhammad taught or how he treated women.

What poppycock. First of all, it’s a very vague sentiment – what “Islamic Fundamentalists?” Everyone has a different definition. Do you mean IS-S? Do you mean the MB? Do you mean the government of Iran or Saudi Arabia? Do you mean the Shariah councils in the UK and Canada? To some people, al Azhar is fundamentalist, and yet nothing that comes out of those guys touches the sort of rules that IS-S or Taliban has come up with.

Second, there is no proof at all that Muhammad would be appalled by any of this.  After all, this is a man who said, “If I were to command anyone to prostrate to anyone other than Allah, I would have commanded women to prostrate to their husbands.” (Ibn Majah, Tirmidhi). If one knows the importance of the sujud in Islam and it’s meaning, one knows that Muhammad is saying here that men are second only to the god. This is a man who said that if a woman was cooking on a hot stove or traveling, and her husband demands sex of her right then and there, well she better leave the stove or service him while she’s on the camel (Tirmidhi & Ibn Majah). If she doesn’t, he taught that angels curse her all day and all night (ie, she incurs spiritual punishment), as is narrated by Bukhari.

This is a man who said that the majority of inhabitants in hell were women and that they were put there for disobeying their husbands (Bukhari). Would a man who told his people, “By the One in Whose hand is my soul, if a man were covered from head to foot with weeping sores oozing pus, and his wife were to come to him and lick his sores (to clean them), this would not fulfill the rights he has over her” (Ahmad) really have views in line with those of a liberal 21st century Westerner?

Moses was thoroughly patriarchal and there is virtually nothing in the Torah that indicates specific concern about women’s rights.

Muhammad was fundamentally different. He both explicitly taught the radical equality of women and men as a fundamental tenet of true spirituality

Muhammad was not different.  He taught a religion that was as thoroughly patriarchal as what Musa taught – after all, he saw himself as the inheritor of Musa and Ibrahim, not someone breaking their mold.

Muhammad was sensitized to the plight of women because he was born poor and orphaned at a very early age. He was also illiterate. He knew as few did what poverty and social exclusion meant.

No.  Although he was orphaned at birth, he was a member of the most prominent tribe in the Arabian Peninsula. He was a trader (employed by a woman) and had an income, although he was not as wealthy as Abu Sufyan or Khadijah (his employer and later, his wife). In addition to that, being poor, orphaned and/or illiterate  (the last of which was common in the world at that time) does not correlate to understanding or being remotely sensitive to the plight of women and girls.  This is a man who said,”I have not left any affliction more harmful to men than women.” (Bukhari)

During seventh century Arabia, female infanticide was commonplace. Muhammad abolished it.

Men give credit to other men for fulfilling the bare minimum of human decency and then expect or demand women to fall over themselves with gratitude and praise. It is not radical or feminist to say “Baby girls shouldn’t be murdered because of their sex.”  It’s the bare standard of human decency.  No cookies for Mo.

Women in Arabia at that time were essentially considered property and had absolutely no civil rights. Muhammad gave them the right to own property and they were extended very important marital and inheritance rights.

Women were property with no rights, yet Khadijah was a prominent woman who owned her own business. You can’t have both.  Additionally, the main source of the notion that pre-Islamic Arabian women had no rights comes are Muslims themselves. Since the entirety of Arab history prior to Islam is labeled “The Ignorance” by Muslims, perhaps Muslim historians are not necessarily unbiased.  A woman’s pre-Islamic status depended on the tribe she belonged to.

Prior to Muhammad, the dowry paid by a man for his bride was given to her father as part of the contract between the two men. Women had no say in the matter. Muhammad declared that women needed to assent to the marriage and that the dowry should go to the bride, not the father; furthermore, she could keep the dowry even after marriage.

While it is true that, ideally, the mahr (dowry) is to be paid to the woman, one must be aware that the mahr is intended as payment by the man to the woman for access to her vagina.  The word nikah refers to the act of sexual intercourse. (The term zawaj is closer to what contemporary English speakers would define as marriage). The marriage contract is one in which the woman (or her guardian, actually – this was also decreed by the Quran and Sunnah, but I guess our friend doesn’t know about that) grants permission to the man to engage in sexual intercourse with her in exchange for upholding her rights – according to the sahih hadith, that is that he must provide her with food, clothing and not beat her. Much feminism!

She gets to keep the mahr after marriage or if the marriage ends because he has accessed her sexually. In addition to this, economics and other class indicators (orphan, family background, etc) are to be taken into account when deciding on a mahr.  Among the mahrs that were given by the prophet or his companions are: marrying her in exchange for freeing her from being his slave a day after killing her husband and tribesmen (Safiyah), a piece of gold the size of the stone in a date, some verses of the Quran, and some flour. If a woman was divorced or asked for a divorce, she was required to give back a portion of the mahr. If the woman left belief in Islam, she was required to pay back the mahr.

Here’s an example from Sahih Bukhari of how amazing feminist Muhammad decreed that the woman was to keep the mahr:

A man from the Ansar called Basrah said: I married a virgin woman in her veil. When I entered upon her, I found her pregnant. (I mentioned this to the Prophet). The Prophet said: She will get the dower, for you made her vagina lawful for you. The child will be your slave. When she has begotten (a child), flog her.

The revolutionary feminism is astounding.

Women were extended inheritance rights as well. They were only given half as much as their brothers because the men had more financial responsibilities for family expenses, but with Muhammad, women became inheritors of property and family assets for the first time in Arabia. At the time, this was considered revolutionary.

If women couldn’t inherit family assets and property before Muhammad, how is it that Khadijah inherited from her father and her first two husbands? I also notice the brushing off of the women inheriting up to 1/2 what a man inherits.  That’s a line straight out of a dawah pamphlet!

After Khadija’s death, Muhammad married 12 wives. One was Aisha, the daughter of his closest friend and ally Abu Baker. The rest were nearly all widows, divorced women, or captives. He preached consistently that it was the responsibility of men to protect those women who had met with misfortune.

One was Aisha, who was six at the time of the contract and 9 at the time of consummation.

Another was the aforementioned Safiyah bint Huyyay, a Jewish widow who met with misfortune when Muhammad and the Muslims killed her husband and all of the men of her tribe during and after the Battle of Khaybar (her father had been killed earlier at the Battle of the Trench – so she met misfortune at least twice from Muhammad himself).  Muhammad spotted her among the females who had been taken slaves, found her desirable, and proposed that he free her from being someone else’s slave by marrying her – the day after her husband had been killed. She accepted – that was her dowry. A good thing he was there to rescue her from misfortunes!

Another was Rayhana bint Zayd, also a Jewish captive, although some people say she was his concubine (literally, sex slave) and not his wife.   The same with the Christian mother of his son Ibrahim, Mariya al Qubtiya.

Another was his daughter in law, Zaynab bint Jahsh. He saw her and thought she was so pretty. Unfortunately, she was already married to his adopted son Zayd, although, naturally, Muslim historians say they didn’t get along well and they divorced. Thankfully, the god then revealed 33:37, which gave the divine seal of approval on a marriage that went totally against the cultural traditions of Arabia at the time (a tradition that said that marrying your son’s ex-wife was akin to incest and completely taboo).

So yes, he did marry widows of his own age. He also married his son’s wife, a 9 yr old girl, a woman who his followers had taken as a slave after killing her husband, and had sex slaves on top of it.  It’s insane that groups like IS-S would take sex slaves. It’s completely out of left field that child marriage would not be uncommon among Muslims. It’s so not in the mold and pattern of Muhammad himself.

Wow, he really did radically elevate the status of women and buck the system, didn’t he?

Finally, there is nothing in the Quran about women wearing the veil, the Hejab. That was certainly the custom in Arabia at that time and Muhammad’s wives wore the Hejab to designate their special status as “Mothers of the Believers,” but the only thing the Quran says directly is that women should dress “modestly.

1438 years of Islamic scholarship disagree with you about this one.  While we can dispute exactly what the meanings of 24:31 and 33:59 mean (and 33:59 specifically says “jalabibihinna”), and what is meant by the ahadith that have been the foundation of the rules for hijab, to say that there’s nothing in the Quran about it is disingenuous, at best.  It’s patronizing, for who is this person to come along and say that 1438 years of Islamic scholarship got it wrong? Even though I obviously do not agree with hijab and I don’t wear it anymore, it grates on me when people who haven’t spent their entire life immersed in the study of Islamic law tell Muslims what our/their own tradition teaches.

Thank heaven that Muslim women, particularly those who are compelled by law, tradition, community and/or family to wear hijab have this non-Muslim white American to come along and tell them there’s nothing in the quran about hijab.

So radical were Muhammad’s reforms that the status of women in Arabia and early Islam was higher than any other society in the world at that time.

Citation? None. Except for maybe that Jamal Badawi book from back in the day.

Women in 7th century Arabia had rights not extended to most women in the West till recent centuries over 1,000 years later.

Yes. For example, if a woman is called as a witness, she needs to have another woman testify to the same thing, because her testimony is only weighed as half of that of a man.  In addition, the Quran gives permission to men to beat their wives if they are disobedient.  Perhaps they did not lick the pus on his hands, or abandon the food they’re cooking on a hot stove to open their legs to him as the prophet Muhammad, Original Feminist, ordered them to.

The prophet Muhammad, World’s First Radical Feminist, told a group of women, “I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you.” The women asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?” He said, “Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?” They replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn’t it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?” The women replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her religion.” (Bukhari)  It’s amazing how far he was willing to go in the 7th century to show such respect for women, respect that had never, ever been shown to women before. He was the first.

Muhammad also said, as recorded in Bukhari, “Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler,” which is the exact justification that Muslim governments use to prohibit women from sitting for political office or even voting. That’s not “culture and history” that has nothing to do with the original teachings of Islam – that is an original teaching of Islam.

The prophet also said, according to hadith narrated in both Muslim and Bukhari, that women were not allowed to travel without a guardian. This teaching of his is the basis of the Saudi government’s system of male guardianship over women that prevents them working, going to school, traveling, marrying, or even being freed from prison without a male relative giving his permission. This is the basis for the restriction of Muslim women getting passports or traveling without male permission in other Muslim countries as well.

To say that Muhammad was “The World’s First Feminist” is insulting to women. The goal of feminism is to liberate women and girls from the oppression of patriarchy. Muhammad was literally a patriarch who in teachings and deeds, upheld existing patriarchal systems and commanded his followers to do the same. To say that Muhammad, the Quran and some nebulous “true Islam” contain the genesis of true liberation for women is insulting to the millions of Muslim women and girls (and non-Muslim women and girls) who have suffered physically, financially, spiritually and emotionally under Islamic traditions and laws. It erases or denies the very real struggle of formerly Muslim, secular Muslim and progressive Muslim women to push for secular reforms in the face of the last 30 years of rapid Islamization. The last thing women and girls of Muslim backgrounds (this includes ex-Muslims) need is for some non-Muslim guy to come along and mansplain our own traditions to us.

For Additional Reading:

Thousands Sign Petition to End Male Guardianship in Saudi Arabia

Women in pre-Islamic Arabia, from the Muslim Women’s League

Arab Women Before and After Islam by S.B. Zaki

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