Islam and Women’s Rights

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The Qur’an indicates that Consciousness is female (Al-Nisaa; 1, Al-Nahl: 72-73); And from Consciousness all Life proceeds. It states further, “Ó mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other). Verily, the most honored of you in the sight of God is the most God-conscious of you (Atqaakum)…” (Al-Hujaraat: 13). From the perspective of these verses of the Quran, what follows is a synthesis of my views regarding women’s rights in Islam.

There is much said about Islam being the bastion of women’s rights and liberation. Yet, too often, apologetic literature struggles, and seldom succeeds, to reconcile the gross abuse of women in many Muslim-majority societies with claims that Islam provides for and upholds the rights of women. One need only think about the March 11, 2002, fire in a Mecca girls’ school that left some 15 female students dead because they were not deemed properly covered by the “religious” police; the numerous accounts of “honor killings” in Pakistan; and female genital mutilation (FGM) in Somalia and other Muslim communities to be familiar with this contradiction.

Nevertheless, Islam does uphold the rights of women. This has been true since the religion’s beginnings with Muhammad, who demonstrated deep respect and love for women. Principles divorced from practice, however, do humanity no good. In this respect, the principles and rights Islam provides women (and humanity) is of no value in the face of repeated and continued abuse and denigration of women.

Politicians and patriarchs proclaim: “do as I say and not as I do” to explain the blatant mismatch between what they promise and what they actually deliver or uphold. Likewise, every abusive man who calls himself a Muslim offers the pathetic explanation that the Qur’an and Muhammad describe and exhibit extraordinary human conduct, and then separates himself from these exemplary examples by excusing himself as human, weak, and imperfect. This is a feeble justification of abusive behavior towards other human beings who stand equal to him in Allah.

In fact, Muhammad was human and fallible, as indicated in several incidences that occurred during his lifetime, which are recorded in passages of the Qur’an. Some incidents include: when he refused to allow Zayd to divorce Zaynab for fear of public opinion, and when he suspected the infidelity of Aisha despite her valiant attempt to assert her fidelity (Al-Ahzab and Al-Tahreem). From these examples, one learns to be forgiving and compassionate of one’s own imperfections, but only as long as that imperfection is not projected onto others as abuse, denigration, and denial of another’s God-given inviolable human rights.

The sad truth, however, is that a common characteristic of human existence is a fraught internal relationship with one’s self. Quite often, the inner turmoil endured in one’s life results in a fragmented state of consciousness. Unfortunately, living in that fragmentation makes it nearly impossible not to project one’s inner brokenness and conflict onto others. This fragmentation causes us to live, perpetually, in conflict in and with one’s self. Too often this dissonance results in the inflicting of harm on others.

The profundity of the illusory sense of separation between the abuser and abused is that it disguises the fact that the abuser is the abused; that one is what one condemns in the other. In this one sees the profound wisdom in seeking out good in another however and whenever one can, because the good in others is equally the good in one’s self. Thus, when one subjects the other to abuse and denigration, that person is also subjected to abuse and denigration. Likewise, when one elevates and alleviates the condition of another, one is equally elevated and alleviated in condition. This is the patent miracle of existence.

The fact is: Islam teaches that no human being is superior to another and certainly no one can condemn another to abuse at his or her discretion, least of all because of race, gender, wealth, sexuality, or religious beliefs. Muhammad condemned and dismantled every single manifestation of abuse present in the society in which he lived. With regard to women, he even went against his closest companions, like Umar, who were among the harshest to women and the staunchest in their patriarchal attitudes. He vehemently condemned and put an end to abusive practices by propagating the principle that human beings are all equal and each an indivisible part of the whole regardless of one’s faith, creed, or any physical or outward manifestation.

There are several examples of where Muhammad put this belief into practice. First, there was the adoption of Zayd, an Abyssinian slave, as the Prophet’s son. In matters of war, he sought the advice of a woman, Ummu Salama. Regarding interfaith marriage, Muhammad married a Coptic Christian woman by the name of Maryam. In marrying Khadija, a divorcée, he lifted the stigma of divorce and reinforced that again, later, when Zaynab binti Jahsh sought divorce from Zayd, Muhammad’s adopted son. Each of these is an instance of Muhammad’s efforts to establish equality.

The one distinction between human beings that the Qur’an points out is that of God Consciousness (taqwa). One who achieves taqwa is granted an elevated state of being. However, this is not worn as a badge of superiority over any other human being. Rather, those who attain God consciousness, as exemplified by the masters and messengers of the Divine, are characterized by humility, love for all beings, and compassion toward the indigent and outcasts in their societies. One must be of high consciousness to perceive God and, therefore, taqwa is literally an elevated state of being that distinguishes those who embody it from those who do not.[1]

The human being that possesses taqwa engages in a non-temporal relationship with consciousness, for one recognizes one’s self as One with that consciousness. In this state, the ego is defeated, separation ceases to exist, and transcendence of the self or ego becomes the natural state of being. A person existing in a state of taqwa cannot, by definition, be superior to anything or anyone else, for one exists in a state of unity or oneness with all things. In this, one gleans what Jesus meant when he indicated that he was the least among the people (by washing his disciples’ feet for instance) though those around him honored him as the messiah and “son of God.” Likewise, one can understand Muhammad’s kind and gentle manner toward the poor, indigent, orphans, and women (all of whom Arab society denigrated), for he not only identified with them but he also saw himself as one with them.

Importantly, the elevation accorded to those in the state of taqwa is not a moral superiority. In God, morality is not an issue and superiority is non-existent. The elevation in being is in the perception of Truth, in the Oneness of Consciousness, and the Oneness of all Humanity that the Quran speaks of repeatedly.[2] This is the purpose of life on Earth in different forms, genders, and guise—to realize that the separation of form is illusory and false. One who is in essence elevated in consciousness, having perceived the Truth of Oneness, would never pass judgment on another unless absolutely compelled. In so doing, he or she would lean toward caution and leniency lest one acts in error.

Of course, it can only be human beings—blind, deaf, and dumb—to the Truth of Oneness, who would act in a derogatory manner toward any other human being. Though they see, hear, and speak in the physical sense, they are beguiled by the illusion of separation sustained by the mind, which is misled by the ego. In such a deceptive state one acts against the other on the false premise that the other is separate from one’s self and thus that one is separate from the hurt and suffering inflicted on the other. Notice however that the pleasure of hurting another is short-lived at best, and if one is true to one’s self, the hurt inflicted on the other is felt by the inflictor. For instance, a man who denigrates his wife or wives may later experience the pain of their daughter being demeaned by her husband in a self-perpetuating cycle of abuse ingrained through culture and conduct.

The only variable factor between human beings is those who perceive and realize this Truth in their lives and those who live in ignorance of this Truth. The Truth, however, operates equally on all, just as gravity or energy does, regardless of one’s perception of its existence and nature.

We return, then, to the issue of the need to fight for women’s rights and realize that the very fact that women’s rights are neither respected nor a given today is indicative of the barbarism of our present-day civilization. Human beings were created, and are, equal. The fact that we have abused and subjected one half of the whole to discrimination and denigration speaks of our ignorance of who we are and the nature of the consciousness residing equally within each one of us.

Women were treated better in the wake of Muhammad’s message in the seventh century of the Common Era than they have been for the past 10 centuries at the hands of those of us who call ourselves Muslims and proclaim the ideal perfection of the Qur’an and Muhammad’s example. This begs the questions: What use is ideal perfectionism in a text and a man long dead if we act contrary and in contradiction to that perfection? What good is the image we put on a pedestal to pat our ego in superiority to others whilst being barbaric? What is the good in proclaimed principles in light of the harm and suffering they inflict on those they are intended to serve? And how do we call ourselves Muslims while being completely ignorant of the essence of Islam and thus of what it means to be a Muslim?

If we truly were Muslims, we would embody the principles we proclaim. The Qur’an admonishes us—“why do you say that which ye do not?” (61:2) and “Do you order the people to do good and forget yourselves?” (2:44). As Muslims, we would not have to live in the nostalgia of past images of persons and places in an apologetic attempt to explain the barbarism that we embody and project outwardly onto others. We would simply be the embodiment of that ideal.

To be Muslim, in essence, is to perceive and thus embody a higher consciousness of reality, the reality of Oneness (Tawheed) through which one necessarily moves from a state of fragmentation to that of Oneness. In Tawheed, one sees one’s self in all “others” and naturally acts towards the other as one would towards one’s self. In Oneness, abusing that other, be it in the name of religion, gender, status, or creed, is no longer tenable. The essence of Islam is that All is One, not only that God is One. This is Tawheed.

[1] Qur’an, 49:13.
[2] Qur’an, 49:13; and 5;8.