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Q36: Why are men given preference over women in Islam?

There is a great misunderstanding regarding the issue of men and women’s equality in Islam with people quoting various verses or narrations but without giving details of the context and /or incomplete information. Therefore, there are many myths and misconceptions regarding this issue. I will try to make reference to some myths and why they are not true. There may be more:

 

  1. If a man is hungry, he is allowed to eat his wife!

 

This is probably the most outrageous myth that I have ever heard about Islam. I am by no means a scholar but I can assure you that Islam does not promote cannibalism in any shape or form! This fake news about a Saudi scholar did in fact reach popular news channels, which shows the lengths some people will go to fabricate evidence against Islam and Muslims. This does not help when people already have so much misunderstanding. You can read about what happened here.

 

  1. Men are given a “higher status” than women:

 

Some people have this misunderstanding due to the following verse:

 

الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍ وَبِمَا أَنفَقُوا مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ

Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. (Surah Al Nisa 4:34)

 

Some people misinterpret this and think that it suggests that men are given preference over women and are given a higher status. However, an explanation is given in the verse itself as men are given such a status as they are expected to earn and support their families financially and due to this additional responsibility they have a higher status. In some ways, this can happen not just from a religious point of view but even from a secular point of view. For example, an IT Technician who fixes computers and deals with user accounts will have many more privileges and access to computer systems than common users. However, they will be expected to do a lot more work with those extra privileges. In the end, what matters is how much effort they put into their jobs and how well they do them and not how much additional privilege they are given. Likewise, men might be given some additional privileges over women but that does not make them better than them. It is up to the individual men and women how well they perform their duties and how much effort they put and whether they do that with true sincerity or not.

 

  1. Women must always obey their husbands

 

This is not strictly true as there are cases where if the husband asks his wife to do something wrong, then she is not obliged to obey him. An example is the following narration:

 

Hind, the mother of Mu’awiyah, came to the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) and said: ‘Abu Sufyan is a stingy person. He does not give me as much (money) as suffices me and my children. Is there any harm to me if I take something from his property? He said: Take as much as suffices you and your children according to the custom. (Sunan Abi Dawud 3532). In fact, there is a narration by Omar, the second Caliph and great companion of the Prophet PBUH (Peace Be Upon Him) where he mentioned: “We, the people of Quraish used to have the upper hand over our wives, but when we came to the Ansar, we found that their women had the upper hand over their men, so our women also started learning the ways of the Ansari women. I shouted at my wife and she retorted against me and I disliked that she should answer me back. She said to me, ‘Why are you so surprised at my answering you back? By Allah, the wives of the Prophet answer him back and some of them may leave (does not speak to) him throughout the day till the night.’ The narration is quite long but you can read the whole narration from here.

 

These narrations (and others) show that women should not “blind follow” their husbands and that women can in fact have their own opinions and agree /disagree on various issues. Please note that this is a very general ruling. I am not a scholar and I am by no means endorsing the idea that wives should disobey and /or argue their husbands! For specific rulings on various situations, please check with Muslim scholars.

 

  1. Men are allowed to beat their wives:

 

Some people have this sort of misunderstanding perhaps due to the following verse:

 

وَاللَّاتِي تَخَافُونَ نُشُوزَهُنَّ فَعِظُوهُنَّ وَاهْجُرُوهُنَّ فِي الْمَضَاجِعِ وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ ۖ فَإِنْ أَطَعْنَكُمْ فَلَا تَبْغُوا عَلَيْهِنَّ سَبِيلًا ۗ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلِيًّا كَبِيرًا (34)

But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand. (Surah Al Nisa 4:34)

 

There are many synonyms for “strike” such as “beat”, “hit”, “blow”, “push” and many more. If you ever look at some sports such as boxing, you will find even more such as “(light) jab” and “knockout punch”. Also, there are cultural meanings as it can be a sign of respect in the UK if someone manages to “pat” someone on their back for their hard work and effort. This does not mean that it is respectful to “hit” someone. Based on this understanding, the “strike” in this context does not mean that husbands can beat their wives and put them in great pain but it is more of a symbolic beating. On the contrary, the Prophet PBUH gave an example of this by enjoining kind treatment and honouring of one’s wife, and he described the best of people as those who are best to their wives. He said: “The best of you are those who are the best to their wives, and I am the best of you to my wives.” (Narrated by al-Tirmidhi, 3895; Ibn Maajah, 1977; classed as saheeh by al-Albaani in Saheeh al-Tirmidhi). Having said that, there is no narration of the Prophet PBUH beating any of his wives under any circumstances.

 

  1. Men are allowed to give their wives “triple Talaq”:

 

Some Muslims perhaps due to lack of Islamic education seem to think that divorcing a woman means that they must simply say “Talaq! Talaq! Talaq! (i.e.: Divorce! Divorce! Divorce!)” and with this, they can end a marriage very easily within a matter of seconds. This has paved the way for people to suggest that preference is given to men in Islam but again this is purely a myth and has nothing to do with Islam. You can get a much better explanation of the Islamic rulings and procedure for divorce from here.

 

  1. Men are allowed to lead women in prayer but women are not allowed to lead men:

 

There is a misunderstanding that as there are officially no female Imams (person who leads the prayer) and some people have complained about this, suggesting that Islam gives preference to men over women. Something to think about however is that there is no female Pope, no female Jewish Rabbi, no female Dalai Lama, no female Hindu Baba and no female Sikh Guru. Why then should people simply focus on there being no female Imam? Something else to think about is that when people go for prayer, they stand in very close proximity to each other so that they are “shoulder to shoulder” and they stand in rows. Imagine if a man were to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with a woman and that he could look down closely at a female “Imam” as she kneels down in prayer in front of him, possibly touching her in such close proximity. Do you really think the man would be thinking much about the prayer then or would he be thinking about other things?

 

  1. Women cannot be leaders over men

 

This is somewhat similar to the previous myth but again is not true. There was a female companion of the Prophet PBUH, Umm Haram bint Milhan, who led a sea battle and is buried in Cyprus (there is a fairly long narration about this, which you can read from here). There are also many other women from Islamic history who were leaders such as Razia Sultana who was the leader over large parts of what is now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and coins were even minted with her name. Likewise, during the time of the Ottoman Empire in Europe, many women enjoyed high status in society and had a great influence, such as Roxelana /Harum Sultan, who was the wife of Sultan Suleman the Magnificent during the 16th century. Compare this to England for example, whereby women were not allowed to divorce their husbands until 1857 and were not allowed to own their property until 1882, which was much later.

 

  1. Men are given twice the inheritance as women:

 

This ruling does in fact exist but that does not mean that men are given preference over women as they are given double their inheritance. While this is true, it is also true that from an Islamic point of view, it is the man’s duty to provide for and support the family whereas women are not obliged to give any of their money to anyone. In the end, who gets more then?

 

  1. The Prophet PBUH mentioned that if people were allowed to bow down to others, he would have asked women to bow down to their husbands:

 

This narration is also true as there is a narration where the Prophet PBUH said: Had it been permissible that a person may prostrate himself before another, I would have ordered that a wife should prostrate herself before her husband. (Al-Tirmidhi Hadith 285 Narrated by Abu Hurayrah). While this might suggest that men are given preference to women, it is important not to look at narrations in isolation and to also look at other very important narrations. For example, Abu Huraira reported that a person came to the Prophet PBUH and said: Who among the people is most deserving of a fine treatment from my hand? He said: Your mother. He again said: Then who (is the next one)? He said: Again it is your mother (who deserves the best treatment from you). He said: Then who (is the next one)? He (the Holy Prophet) said: Again, it is your mother. He (again) said: Then who? Thereupon he said: Then it is your father. In the hadith transmitted on the authority of Qutalba, there is no mention of the word “the people”. (Book 32, Number 6180). The Prophet PBUH also said: “The Best Of You Are Those Who Are Best To Their Women.” (Sunan al-Tirmidhī 1162).

 

From the above, it can be seen that women have a very high status in Islam (sometimes they can be higher than men) but that does not undermine or lower the status of men. From the narration, it can be seen that men have in fact got a high status and are to be respected as well as they provide for and look after their families.

 

  1. Two female witnesses are equivalent to one male witness:

 

This refers to part of the longest verse in the Quran (Surah Baqara 2:282) where it is mentioned:

“…Let his guardian dictate faithfully, and get two witnesses, out of your own men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women, such as ye choose, for witnesses, so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her…”. (you can read the entire verse from here)

 

When reading this verse in context, it refers specifically to financial matters. From an Islamic point of view, men are expected to provide for the family so as a whole, they are more experienced in this regard. That does not mean that in all cases two female witnesses are equivalent to one male witness and /or that women are less able than men. A clear example of this was Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet PBUH. She was a successful business woman and the Prophet PBUH used to work for her before they were married.

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