From 40 Questions About Islam
When considering how the Qur’an presents women, it is necessary to consider how men and women are to relate within marriage. One aspect that immediately presents itself is in the realm of sexual intercourse. Male priority in sexual fulfillment is reinforced by Qur’an 2:223, wherein the Qur’an appears to grant husbands the right to engage in sexual relations with their wives at any time they desire, comparing their women to a plot of land they own.
Second, according to Qur’an 4:34, husbands are given permission to punish their wives physically if they suspect that their wives are rebellious. While some contemporary writers attempt to soften this passage, few deny that it clearly permits corporeal punishment for mere suspicion of disloyalty or rebellion. These injunctions can lead to an understanding of the Qur’an as a document that reinforces the inferiority of women and the priority of men in Islam.
The greatest problems for male-female equality in Islam emerge from studying the Sunnah. Where some construe the teaching of the Qur’an as offering a progressive vision of gender relationships in seventh-century Arabia, the Sunnah is significantly less flexible. For example, in Sahih al-Bukhari, one reads that Muhammad understood hell to be mostly filled with women who were ungrateful to their husbands and that he believed women are of inferior intelligence.
At the same time, the Sunnah records many hadith that instruct men to highly revere and protect their wives and the women in their community. The same collection of hadith that records Muhammad’s estimation that hell is mostly filled with women includes a clear statement from Muhammad saying, “Treat women nicely.” Likewise, despite narratives to the contrary, other hadith state that Muhammad disapproved of the killing of women and children in battle. In many Muslim marriages, then, one finds husbands heeding these instructions rather than taking advantage of the permission given elsewhere in Islamic texts to seek self-satisfaction without regard for their wives.
As the first chapter in this book argued, we do well to recognize that it is unhelpful to speak about Islam as if it were monolithic. Islam does not exhibit a single perspective on women. Instead, a growing number of contemporary feminist Muslims argue for an understanding of the teachings of Islam that are egalitarian, and which run contrary to traditional interpretations. Likewise, the hijab and polygamy—two subjects often attacked as inherently misogynistic—can be explained as means of honoring and protecting rather than oppressing and subjugating women.
Ultimately, however, the Qur’an and the Sunnah do exhibit evidence that seems to prioritize male perspective, value, and desires over and against their female counterparts. Thus, the roots of injustice and inequality pervasive among certain traditional expressions of Islam do trace back to the authoritative texts of the faith. The heavier burden of proof lies on the shoulders of contemporary feminist authors who challenge such traditional Islamic practice.
While one can find evidence to support a more progressive approach to male-female relationships, such evidence requires selecting and prioritizing certain texts over others. In the end, culture and worldview often predispose a reader to highlight certain passages while obscuring or reinterpreting others. Therefore, it is far more important to engage individual Muslims on the issues pertaining to women rather than expecting to discern a singular Islamic view.
. Nicholas Awde, ed. and trans., Women in Islam: An Anthology from the Qur’an and Hadiths (New York: Hippocrene, 2005), 204.
. Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, https://sunnah.com/bukhari/6/9, book 6 (§9).
. Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, https://sunnah.com/bukhari/60/6, book 60 (§6).
. Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, https://sunnah.com/bukhari/56/223, book 56 (§223).
This post is adapted from 40 Questions About Islam by Matthew Aaron Bennett. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
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