Islam’s position on gender equality is clearer than most realise. Numerous verses of the Qur’an establish without ambiguity that male and female are completely equal in their existence, in their capacity for self-actualisation, and in their ability to surrender to the Divine Reality.
“O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you a single soul and from it made its mate and from pair of them scattered abroad many men and women.” (4:1)
Here, the Qur’an states that the gender pair originates from the primordial reality of “a single soul”, and that therefore all human beings, male and female, are members of one human family. This confirms the ontological unity not only of all human beings, but of male and female.
As Professor Seyyed Hossain Nasr of George Washington University shows in an extensive paper drawing on Islamic sources, masculine represents the Absolute, the Outward, Majesty, or the Transcendent attributes of the Divine, while feminine manifests the Infinite, the Inward, Beauty, and the Immanent. Thus, sexual attraction between male and female is a sacred magnetism that represents and manifests the innate Unity between these attributes that within Reality.
In other words, the male and female polarities in the created universe constitute a symbol of the Unity of Reality. The masculine pole represents the Majesty of the Absolute, while the feminine represents the Beauty of the Infinite. Allah is the Unity that these are attributes of, and love and compassion between male and female must therefore represent this Unity.
In the Divine Unity, all attributes are indivisible and co-extensive with one another, so that actually the Absolute is synonymous with the Infinite. Thus, in the realm of manifestation, the masculine pole, representing the Outward Transcendent Majesty of the Absolute, contains inwardly and implicitly the possibility of the other pole, while the feminine pole, representing the Inward Immanent Beauty of the Infinite, contains inwardly and implicitly the possibilities of the masculine pole (for more on this analysis from Islamic sources see Sachiko Murata, The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender Relationships in Islamic Thought, State University of New York Press, 1992).
Equality and Fraternity
Because of this, it is precisely through the union of man and woman, or rather, the love between man and woman - physically, psychologically and spiritually – that they each gender is able to discover the hidden principle of the opposite polarity within themselves, through their relationship. This is what is alluded to in the verse:
“And among His signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that ye may find rest in them, and He has put love and mercy between your hearts: Verily in that are signs for those who reflect.” (30:21)
Several verses of the Qur’an thus establish the equality of the genders in terms of their existential value and potential in no uncertain terms:
“For men who submit [to God] and for women who submit [to God], for believing men and believing women, for devout men and devout women, for truthful men and truthful women, for steadfast men and steadfast women, for humble men and humble women, for charitable men and charitable women, for men who fast and women who fast, for men who guard their chastity and women who guard, for men who remember God much and for women who remember - for them God has prepared forgiveness and a mighty reward.” (33:35)
“Whoever performs good deeds, whether male or female and is a believer, We shall surely make him live a good life and We will certainly reward them for the best of what they did.” (16:97)
“Their Lord hath accepted their prayer and answered: Never will I suffer the work of anyone one of you, male or female, to be lost. Ye are complimentary to each other.” (3:195)
In this context of fundamental equality in humanity, the Qur’an puts forward the foundation of gender relations as a form of fraternity, describing male and female “believers” – those who accept the truth when it comes to them – as “friends” who act to protect each other:
“And the believers, men and women, are protecting friends of one another.” (9:71)
This notion of a human fraternity encompassing both men and women undermines the idea that the Qur’an advocates the dominance or inferiority of any particular gender.
The Qur’an also lays the foundation for how male and female ought to relate to one another through marriage, once again emphasising a fundamental equality and reciprocity in the nature of the relationship.
“They (women) are raiment (comfort embellishment and protection) for you, and you (men) are raiment for them.” (2:187)
“Wife and husband, women and men, have reciprocal and commensurable rights according to what is equitable.” (2:228)
The Qur’an was undoubtedly ahead of its time on these issues, and this is especially evident in the way it addresses some of the sociological implications of its philosophy of gender.
Equity and reciprocity
The Qur’an, for instance, decreed woman’s right to own and dispose of property, to conduct business, trade and all transactions concerning their profit and loss, including the execution of deeds of gift, regardless of anyone else:
“In no wise covet gifts bestowed by Allah seemingly more freely on some others. Whatsoever a man earns is his own. Whatsoever a woman earns is her own.” (4:33)
This verse in one concise declaration very simply prohibits men from assuming that they have a right over the property, wages or profit earned by a woman, and establishes a woman’s absolute economic autonomy.
In Women in a Qur’anic Society, Lois Lamya al-Faruqi writes:
“In addition to these rights, the Qur’an grants woman a share in the inheritance of the family (4:7-11), warns against depriving her of that inheritance (4:19), specifies that the dower (mahr) of her marriage should belong to her alone and never be taken by her husband (2:229; 4:19-21,25) unless offered by the woman as a free gift (4:44). As with any privilege, these rights of women carry corresponding responsibilities. If she commits a civil offence, the Qur’an tells us, woman’s penalty is no less or no more than that of a man in a similar case (5:41; 24:2).”
In the context of 7th century Arabia, these were highly significant, if not revolutionary, changes. The injunctions of the Qur’an can be seen as seeking to protect both male and female in the context of the pressures of society at the time. While stipulating that a husband has an obligation to provide for all his wife’s material needs, it simultaneously denies him any ownership of her income from her own economic activities. It should be understood that it is only in this context that the Qur’an has elsewhere stipulated a smaller share of inheritance for women.
These disparate injunctions need to be understood holistically in terms of their interrelationships in achieving the Qur’an’s higher maqasid (ethical objectives). In this case, the maqasid entails ensuring fairness and equality within wider society between male and female – hence, given the economic dependence of women and men in 7th century Arabia, the reduction of women’s inheritance to half that of men is not an indication of her inferiority, but of the differing material burdens between men and women at the time.
Of course, societies change. Modern societies, whatever their inequalities and ills, bear no resemblance to the highly patriarchal and misogynist structures of the past. This means that, in order to ensure the Qur’anic maqasid of gender equality that is clearly established by the numerous verses cited above, these injunctions cannot simply be applied without any recognition of the fundamentally different circumstances today. For this reason, Islamic jurists recognise that the guidelines established by the Qur’an in addressing gender roles in the past must be applied with respect to their ultimate intent, with a view to ensure they meet the goals of the Qur’anic maqasid.
Female testimony is another area where it is commonly assumed that Islamic criminal law promotes gender inequality, based on a verse that is interpreted by some Islamic commentators as implying that female testimony is equivalent to half that of men's:
"O you who believe! When you deal with each other, in transactions involving future obligations in a fixed period of time reduce them to writing. And get two witnesses, out of your own men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women, such as you choose, for witnesses, so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her." (2:282)
The text, however, is unequivocal - it specifies that bringing two women for one is relevant exclusively to "transactions involving future obligations in a fixed period of time", that is, a particular type of economic transaction. Further, the purpose of doing so is also specified in the verse - only one of the female witnesses is expected to testify, and only if she has difficulty recollecting does she call on the other to "remind her."
As noted by Amina Wadud, Professor Emeritus of Religion and Philosophy at Virginia Commonwealth University, the context of the verse was the prevailing condition facing women at the time in 7th century Arabia, where men dealt with financial affairs, while women handled domestic issues. Although the Qur'an itself put forward major injunctions to challenge this situation, the obvious reason for stipulating two female witnesses for certain financial transactions is simply that most women at that time had no dealings at all with such matters.
Wadud thus concludes that the verse is "significant to a particular circumstance which can and has become obsolete", given that such circumstances are no longer relevant. (Amina Wadud, Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacret Text from a Woman's Perspective).
She refers to the work of pioneering modern Islamic commentator Fazlur Rahman, who observed that since this stipulation was "dependent upon her weaker power of memory concerning financial matters, when women become conversant with such matters - with which there is not only nothing wrong but which is for the betterment of society - their evidence can equal that of men" for such financial contracts.
The importance here is not simply following rules for the sake of the rules, but ensuring that the goals of the Qur’an’s guidelines are met. It is for this reason that it is recognised within Islamic jurisprudence that injunctions cannot be implemented selectively - for doing so can create injustice. A well-known example is with regard to Caliph Umar's suspension of the hudud punishments for theft during a period of famine. Under Islamic principles, the right to food and water is a inalienable. The inability of Muslim society at the time to guarantee that right meant that applying the punishment for theft according to the literal 'letter of the law' would have been unjust, and at odds with its intent, as well as a selective application of Islamic principles (applying punishments without guaranteeing rights). Caliph Umar's suspension of the hudud was thus a response to ensure justice in fulfilling the Qur'anic maqasid.
The same principle applies to injunctions concerning gender roles. For instance, if in the current context women only receive half the inheritance of men despite contributing equally to household expenditures, this would be unjust, and would breach the Qur’an’s primary goal of ensuring equity between male and female in their economic rights and opportunities.
Therefore, it is critical that the higher maqasid of Qur’anic injunctions on gender relations be understood first and foremost, so that those injunctions can be interpreted and applied fairly through a process of ijtihad, the dynamic principle of Islamic jurisprudence to advance Islamic legal opinions in the light of new challenges and circumstances.
In the same way that this implies that circumstances in modern societies may require the systematic suspension of hudud punishments, for instance, they may also require considerable flexibility in gender roles, rather than assuming that the Qur'an's specific injunctions in the context of 7th century Arabian society are universally applicable today in vastly different socio-political and economic contexts.
The upshot is that Qur'anic precepts on gender relations should be taken as baseline parameters for ethical conduct between the genders, and the achievement of the maqasid of marital and societal justice and harmony. Within those Qur'anic parameters, Muslims are enjoined by the Qur'an to use their aql (intelligence) and to account for the ayat (signs) revealed through the historical, social and environmental sciences, in determining their approach to gender roles.