Islam and Women


Lil' Kim, wearing the traditional garb of the hip-hop provocateur

As I have mentioned before in this space, a great many of Islam’s problems with modernity are self-inflicted, and most are structural—if not foundational.  A prime example would be its attitude toward women, which begets aesthetic nightmares like the burqa, and jurisprudential nightmares like punishing a rape victim for having the temerity to get raped.  It can be difficult for those of us who were born and raised in Western secular democracies to really grasp that large chunks of the world live under these beliefs.  They are so very alien from the rhetoric and pop culture we are saturated with from an early age.  But understanding how Islam views its women is to understand how it will always and forever be at war with human nature itself.

A woman’s subordinate status is well-defined in Islamic texts.  Men are superior to women because they have are appointed so by Allah, and have greater economic clout; and if a Muslim husband suspects rebellion from his wives, he should admonish them, refuse sex, and finally administer corporal punishment [Quran 4:34].  Islamic men enjoy greater rights than women [Quran 2:228], women are worth only half of men [Quran 2:282] and they will inherit only half of that given to men (i.e. brother, husband) [Quran 4:11 and 4:176].  Even the timing and frequency of sex is left at a husband’s discretion [Quran 2:223].

Perhaps most illuminating is Mohammed’s warnings about women in extra-Koranic writings (the Hadith, still considered to be divinely inspired).  Take this passage [Sahih Muslim 8.3240]:

Jabir reported that Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) saw a woman, and so he came to his wife, Zainab, as she was tanning a leather and had sexual intercourse with her. He then went to his Companions and told them: The woman advances and retires in the shape of a devil, so when one of you sees a woman, he should come to his wife, for that will repel what he feels in his heart.

It is the woman’s fault, in other words, that the desires of man are inflamed.  The idea that Mohammed ought to have turned his mind to other, less sensual thoughts, or have tried to proceed with the day’s business, are not considered.  He must rush home and have sex once the thought has been planted in his mind.  His wife Zainab, meanwhile, was tanning leather—the ancient practice involved urine and animal feces, among other delightful ingredients—and had to drop her odoriferous business to get it on.  Sounds like a nice, romantic setting for a quickie.

This is without considering the slaves/concubines that Mohammed took; such as Rayhana, pretty survivor of the exterminated Jewish tribe Banu Qurayza.  And 17-year-old Safiyah, whose father and brothers were among the dead Banu Qurayza, and whose husband Mohammed tortured and executed after taking Khaybar.  Lest the monstrosity of these situations escape you, ask your wife or girlfriend if she would be ready to bed your murderer two or three hours after you died howling in agony.  Let us not be deceived that there was anything even remotely consensual about these pairings.

Taken in the aggregate, we can see that Mohammed was a man of enormous sexual appetites, and these appetites are factored into the very fibre of Islamic law.  Wife Zaynab bint Jahsh, mentioned above, was previously Mohammed’s daughter-in-law.  Pre-Islamic Arab customs deemed it improper for a father-in-law to marry his daughter-in-law upon the death of his son; it would have been considered akin to incest.  Mohammed explicitly went out of his way to change this in Islamic law, claiming divine blessing for that change.  Similarly while Mohammed promulgated an edict for his followers, limiting them to just four wives, he himself had nine (and many concubines beside).  Later Islamic theologians justified such polygyny this way:

It is preferable for a person with temperament so overcome by desire that one woman cannot curb it to have more than one woman, up to four. For God will grant him love and mercy, and will appease his heart by them [women]; if not, replacing them is recommended. Seven nights after the death of Fatimah, ‘Ali got married. It is said that al-Hasan, the son of ‘Ali, was a great lover having married more than two hundred women. Perhaps he would marry four at a time, and perhaps he would divorce four at a time replacing them with others. The Prophet said to al-Hasan, “You resemble me in appearance and in char­acter.”  He also said, “Hasan takes after me and Husayn takes after Ali.”  It was said that his indulgence in marriage is one of the characteristics in which he resembled the Messenger of God as well as al-Mughirah Ibn Shu’bah who married eighty women.”  Among the companions were those who had three and four [wives] while those who had two cannot be counted.

No matter how well known the inducement, the cure should be in proportion to the ailment; for the aim is tranquilizing one’s self, and therefore this must be taken into consideration in de­ciding how many wives one should have.

— al-Ghazali, Imam Abu Hamid.  “Advantages and Disadvantages of Marriage.”  Book XII: On the Etiquette of Marriage. Ihya Ulum al-Din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences).  c. 1050-1100 A.D.  Translated by Madelain Farah. [Emphasis mine]

As we see, one of the justifications of Islamic marriage and polygyny is to satiate or tranquilise the male sex drive.  Satiating the female sex drive is somewhat of a lower priority.  Furthermore, while formless, baggy female garb (abaya and burqa) are portrayed here in the West as a safeguard against inflaming male passion, it is more properly understood to be a safeguard against unleashing the base sexual desires of the female:

As a royal princess in an Islamic country (Malaysia), and originally hailing from Australia, I was required, after my marriage, to undertake four years of Islamic study under the tutelage of the Royal Household’s Iman and religious teacher.  We used text books primarily sourced from Pakistan and Egypt which had been specially printed in English for converts to Islam, as well as long tracts of the Koran and my tutor’s own knowledge and interpretations as he was a respected scholar nationally.

These twice weekly classes over four years, were never undertaken between myself and my teacher without the presence of my servants, or another royal lady who acted as chaperones – not for my chastity or purity, but, as the Iman explained to me, for his!  He truly believed that I, or any woman, could not be trusted in the lone company of a male without the baser instincts of the female gender coming to the fore.

…I was taught scores of things by the Royal Iman, the beauty of many tracts of the Koran, the cadence of the Arabic language; but much of the teachings, as opposed to the Koran itself, were strictly cultural and archaic, rather than the pure religious teachings of the Koran.  I learnt that the primary reason women are required by Islamic societies (the majority of which are patriarchal) to swathe themselves in fabrics and cover their collar bones, necks, arms, legs, ankles, calves, chests, elbows, shoulders, throats, thighs, ears, napes of necks, hair and in some cases, faces, is that women are culturally condemned to the roll (sic) of seductress and are considered untrustworthy, immoral humans, driven to tempt men and bring down the bastions of male self-control. The fine shape of an ankle, or a tendril of hair – a glimpse of which can send a mere male into a sexual frenzy, are the tools of seduction.  In essence and to outline it crudely – the veil, much lauded by so called Islamic teachings, is a protection for men against we voracious vixens of the mortal world. Not, as so many pundits state, a protection for women against men.

— Pascarl, Jacqueline.  “The truth behind the burqa.The Punch, 25 June 2009. [Emphasis mine]

I would offer that Ms. Pascarl’s observations seem to be borne out by Islamic tracts, especially al-Ghazali’s Revival of the Religious Sciences.  The upshot is that Islamic thought deems human beings of both sexes incapable of sexual self-control.  The unshrouded woman will inevitably fall into come-hither movements of her neck, arms, legs, ankles, et cetera.  Women, in Islamic cosmology, are always “asking for it”.  Men, in contrast, are minding their own business and going about Allah’s work until they see the telltales of female desire—exposed face and extremities—and are cast into the throes of sexual passion.

Qatadah said, in interpreting the words of the Almighty, “Impose not on us that which we have not the strength to bear”: that is, lust. It is said that ‘Akramah and Mujahid interpreted the Almighty’s words “for man was created weak” [Qur’an  4:28] by saying, “He cannot refrain from women.” Fay­yad b. Najih said that “When the male experiences an erection, he loses two-thirds of his mind”; others say “He loses a third of his religion.”  One of the rare interpretations rendered by Ibn ‘Abbas of the verse “From the evil of the darkness when it is intense” [Qur’an 113:3] is to the male erection, which is an over­powering catastrophe should it rage, as no mind or religion can resist it; for, although it can become an impetus for the two lives as was mentioned earlier, it is the devil’s strongest instrument against the sons of Adam.  To this he referred in these words: “Among those who are deficient in intelligence and religion, I have never seen any who are more successful than you [women] in prevailing over those [men] of intelligence.”  And that is because of the rage of desire.  The Prophet said in his invocation, “O God! I seek refuge in Thee from the evils of my hearing, my seeing, my heart, and the evils of my semen.” He also said, “I ask you to purify my heart and safeguard my genitals”; so how can there be laxity for others wherefrom the Messenger of God seeks refuge.

— al-Ghazali, Imam Abu Hamid.  “Advantages and Disadvantages of Marriage.”  Book XII: On the Etiquette of Marriage. Ihya Ulum al-Din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences).  c. 1050-1100 A.D.  Translated by Madelain Farah.

Now a sane person can recognise that all women are not constantly, unconsciously beckoning for sex.  And likewise all men will not be seized with sexual desire when sighting the nape of a woman’s neck.  But this is the heart of Islam’s off-kilter gender relations; a construct which is not only at odds with modernity, but at odds with human nature itself.  Logic says that the devout Muslim women ought to be considered the ones capable of wandering around without a body-shroud, as they are presumably less likely to fall into sexual sin.  But in many Islamic nations women are required to don formless sacks when venturing out in public.  Not to prevent men from molesting them, but to prevent them from seducing a male to molestation.  A small but crucial difference.  One may justifiably ask what is the point of Islamic devotion if even the devout are perceived to be a hair-trigger away from having unbridled, unauthorised sex with each other?

This warped view of gender roles is foundational—it is built into the example of Mohammed himself.  To excise it will cast doubt on the entire enterprise of Islam, because Mohammed is its penultimate prophet and literal “perfect man”.  To chip away at his deeds begs the question of why, and if Mohammed was in error, then he cannot very well have been a perfect man after all.  This defining feature of its founder is why Islam is uniquely resistant to the importation of gentler humanist thought.  Having already defined perfection in a hideously imperfect exemplar, it will never be able to evolve beyond it.

SEMI-RELATED: Attorney Rafia Zakaria, writing in the Daily Times (Pakistan), laments the laughable state of public morality in many Muslim nations, leading authorities to punish women for the heinous crimes of wearing pants in public, and drinking beer.  Somewhat less comprehensible is the apprehension that, given the proclivities of Mohammed himself, Islam can ever fully divest itself of its misogyny.  One gets the impression that, like many other faith communities, an awful lot of Muslims don’t actually know the life of their founder terribly well.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
2 Responses
  1. Nathan B. says:

    A fantastic post. I also appreciate the fact that you used a measured and neutral tone throughout; I wish that these kinds of arguments would get the attention they deserve.

  2. Chris Taylor says:

    My objective is to tackle a virulent but widespread ideology philosophically. If we cannot explain why, in concrete terms, that ideology is faulty, then we lack the tools to combat it.

    We have all worked alongside Muslims and I know as well as anyone they can be just as welcoming, hospitable and generous as Christians. But Christ does not have warfare and rapine built into his example, and this is what makes the promulgation of a universally accepted “moderate Islam” problematic. So I am trying to explain it in ways which points out the fault of the exemplar without also spreading it around to his flock.

    This is the kind of thing that, in a better age, we would be spreading via popular media, especially with troops engaged in a struggle for the terrain and soul of two countries. But since the politicians and fifth estate are reluctant to do so, it falls to others.