Islam and Feminism | Pergas Blog

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Islam and Feminism

15 November 2018 9:43 am // Written by Norhanna Yumi Ibrahim;

Islam came at a time when moral reformation was in desperate need as obscenity [1], corruption and abuse of women were rife across civilizations. An extract of The Roman Law on women states that, “The wife was the purchased property of her husband, and, like a slave acquired only for his benefit. A woman could not exercise any civil or public office [2].” The pagan Arabs used to divorce and revoke the divorce as many times as they liked [3] and deny their financial obligations as husbands; while the following describes how the Greeks treated women in the early years [4]:

‘If a child was born, to a woman in an unnatural position, they killed her. In Sparta, the unfortunate woman who could not give birth to a soldier was put to death. When a woman delivered a child, she was in the national interest, temporarily lent to serve another person to beget child from his seed (race). The Greeks did not respect their women even in the most civilized times, except at the time of circumambulation. By instilling iman [5], taqwa [6] and ihsan [7] in the mostly illiterate Bedouins through the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad’s s.a.w footsteps [8], Islam eradicated such ignorant thinking and bigoted behaviour amongst Muslims within the prophethood of Muhammad s.a.w. Numerous Qur’anic revelations sought to protect females [9] and reiterate that men and women are to complement one another [10], share the same moral responsibilities [11] and have equal accountability [12].

As Islam went on to revolutionize societies after the demise of Prophet Muhammad s.a.w, Muslim women too achieved success in multiple fields [13]. Islam’s centres of intellectual activity [14] during its Golden Age [15] attracted the Europeans who were trapped in the Dark Ages where scientific thought was suppressed by the Church. Soon enough, the Europeans experienced the Age of Reason which supplanted traditional values with rationalism. The propagation of secularism, where religion is not to interfere with the state, then ensued as a lesson from their prior stagnation.

Feminism, an offshoot of rationalism, started in Europe in 1792 when Mary Wollstonecraft [16] criticized philosopher’s lowly perception of women [17]. Initially a demand to remove gender inequality [18], feminism later developed into a myriad of forms that incorporated various philosophical schools of thought [19] that make it so ambiguous and challenging to understand it as a single connotation. From liberal feminism which insisted that women work to raise family income [20] without giving recommendations on how that can be balanced with housework [21] to radical feminism where Shulamith Firestone [22] argued that biological gender differences should be exterminated and that ‘pregnancy is basically “barbaric” [23], feminism challenged the institution of marriage, ignored women’s maternal instincts and propelled women into being solely material beings. Feminists contradict themselves after finding that their approaches have backfired in benefitting women. Can the broad stroke of feminism still be understood as the advancement of women’s interests [24]?

How does feminism sit in Islam then? Similar to other Western ideologies, feminist notions crept into the Muslim world through European industrialization and colonization [25]. Cultural imperialism engendered the imposition of feminists’ worldview on other societies [26]. Islam has been a convenient means to advance their agenda. A popular example is the politicisation of the veil in many parts of the world [27]. Although the West had viewed ‘feminism and Islam’ as an oxymoron [28], two versions of feminism have emerged in the Islamic world – secular feminism and Islamic feminism.

Secular feminism, focused on gender complementarity, calls for revisions to the family law that is deemed to inhibit women’s economic and political participation [29]. Partly promoted by Islamic modernists [30] towards the end of the 19th century, secular feminism perpetuates modernism and Western hegemony thereby downplaying the spiritual essence of the Shari’ah and threatening family dynamics in a bid for worldly prosperity. This is at odds with the Islamic approach of a balanced fulfilment between various facets of life [31]. Such a wholesale transfer of paradigm is in itself a disrespect of local social systems and a manifestation of superior mentality.

Islamic feminism on the other hand, centres on its proponents’ [32] reinterpretation of the Qur’an and Hadith using their own ijtihad to promote gender equality. Islamic feminist, Amina Wadud’s [33] approach taken by rationalists and philosophers alike emphasizes the role of reason and is akin to feminists who advocate the importance of individual rights. The stringent requirements however, on who can exercise ijtihad [34], while should not send scholars abandoning ijtihad altogether, are to show that not anyone can qualify as a mujtahid [35]. How far can one go in deliberating the meaning of the Qur’an to justify one’s perceived prerogative? The ability to rationalize, freedom of choice and will are no doubt God’s gift to humankind but what differentiates a man from another in his/her decisions is taqwa felt by the heart [36]. Many Qur’anic verses admonish us to think and reflect [37] yet the heart is oft-cited [38] as the flesh of the body that receives guidance [39]. In addition, individualism does not suit our purpose to be Allah swt’s vicegerents [40] who ensure justice amongst all of God’s creations.

Islam has undoubtedly uplifted women’s standing by ascribing them rights and certainly does not need feminism to boost it. It is the Absolute Truth, sufficient to render the obligatory submission of mankind to God’s commands and prohibitions. Feminism, contrarily, are man-made theories that even feminists shy away from defining to avoid inadvertently undermining their interests, is inconsistent, flawed and goes against the irreversible natural order of the Divine system. Muslims, who believe in the Oneness of God and in His Divine Reward in the Hereafter upon their obedience and patience displayed in this world, should not be swept by seemingly appealing philosophies driven by the desires of this temporary life and those who simply do not share their worldview. Both Muslim men and women without a holistic understanding of true Islamic knowledge and the spirit of ihsan remain highly susceptible to the inevitable secular and liberal influences made ever more far-reaching in this post-modern age with technology and globalization.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are of the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of any institutions that the writer is affiliated to.


[1] The Holy Qur’an 7:28

[2] The Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed. (1911). Vol.28, p 782.

[3] Abdur Rahman I. Doi (1989( Women in Shari’ah (Islamic Law), A. S. Nordeen, p 83.

[4] Muhammad Saeed Siddiqi, 1991, The Modest Status of Women In Islam, KAZI Publications, p 7.

[5] Means faith. The 6 tenets of iman are: Faith in Allah swt, His Angels, His Books, His Messengers, The Day of Judgement and the supremacy of God’s Will (predestination).

[6] Means God-consciousness. To protect oneself against the harmful or evil consequences of one’s conduct in this world or the Hereafter due to the fear of God. Fazlur Rahman, 1999, Major Themes of the Qur’an, Islamic Book Trust, p. 12, 29.

[7] Means excellence. ‘Excellence is to work for God as though you see Him; for if you see Him not, He assuredly sees you’ Narrated by Imam Ahmad in his Musnad, 1/314, no. 184.

[8] Prophet Muhammad s Farewell Sermon, Muhammad Husayn Haykal, 2005, The Life of Muhammad, American Trust Publications, p. 468-469.

[9] The Holy Qur’an 4:19, 58:1-3, 81:8

[10] Ibid, 2:187, 30:21

[11] Ibid, 4:1, 4:32 16:97, 33:35-36, 65:2-5, 65:7

[12] Ibid 9:72, 17:15

[13] Examples are Umm al Darda who was a jurist and scholar in 7th century, Fatima Muhammad Al-Firhi who started the first university in 859 in Fez, Morocco and Raziya al-Din who ruled Delhi of India in 1236.

[14] Karen Armstrong (2002). Islam: A Short History, Modern Library, p. 128.

[15] Masoumeh Banitalebi, Kamaruzaman Yusoff and Mohd Roslan Mohd Nor, 2012, The Impact of Islamic Civilization and Culture in Europe During the Crusades, World Journal of Islamic History and Civilization.

[16] A liberal feminist in the late 18th century and one of the first proponents of women’s rights. Chris Beasley (2006). Gender and Sexuality: Critical Theories, Critical Thinkers. Sage, p 31.

[17] In her book ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’.

[18] Sylvia Walby (2011). The Future of Feminism, Polity Press, p 4.

[19] Examples are liberalism, Marxism, socialism, Gynocentricism, radicalism and postmodernism amongst others. Chris Beasley, (1999) What is Feminism?, Sage, p 15.

[20] Harriet Taylor, author of Enfranchisement of Women (1851) Zeenath Kausar, 1995, Women in Feminism: New Directions Towards Islamization, Women’s Affairs Secretariat, International Islamic University Malaysia, p 34.

[21] Betty Friedan. Ibid, p35.

[22] A radical feminist.

[23] Kausar, Women in Feminism: New Directions Towards Islamization, p 44.

[24] Walby, The Future of Feminism, p 4.

[25] Doi, Women in Shari’ah, p 169.

[26] Aihwa Ong (1988). Colonialism and Modernity: Feminist Re-Presentations of Women in Non-Western Societies. Inscriptions 3-4, p 79.

[27] Doi, Women in Shari’ah, p 172-180.

[28] Margot Badran (2009). Feminism in Islam. Oneworld Publications, p 1.

[29] Badran, Feminism in Islam, p 4.

[30] Examples are Muhammad ‘Ali, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad ‘Abduh and Qasim Amin.

[31] Kurshid Ahmad (2000). Islamic Approach to Development, in Zeenath Kausar (ed.) Political Development – An Islamic Perspective, A.S. Nordeen, p 12.

[32] Examples are Amina Wadud, Fatima Mernissi and Riffat Hassan.

[33] Author of Qur’an and Woman and first led a mixed congregation Jumuah (Friday) prayer in the United States in 2005.

[34] Requirements of a mujtahid: i) The person is pious and ii) The person has knowledge of the Arabic language, iii) the Qur’an including abrogated verses and asbab al-nuzul (historical reasons why a verse was revealed), iv) the Sunnah with legal commentary on the laws of the Qur’an, v) Maqasid al-Shari’ah, vi) Fiqh sciences, legal reasoning and the schools, vii) ijma’ as well as viii) contemporary needs. ix) The person must also have an aptitude for ijtihad, x) is accepted by the people and xii) well-acquainted with the community. Anwar Ahmad Qadri (1986). Islamic Jurisprudence in the Modern World, Delhi: Taj Company, p 256. Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee, 2000, Islamic Jurisprudence, Islamabad, p 270-272.

[35] A person who performs ijtihad

[36] ‘The Messenger of Allah, said, “Taqwa is here,” and he pointed to his chest.’ Muslim, 16/120, 121 in al-Birr

[37] The Holy Qur’an 3:190-192, 30:8, 38:29, 45:13

[38] Ibid, 2:7, 16:106, 50:37

[39] “There is a piece of flesh in the body if it becomes good (reformed) the whole body becomes good but if it gets spoiled, the whole body gets spoiled – and that is the heart.” Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 2, Number 49, Narrated by An-Nu’man bin Bashir

[40] The Holy Qur’an, 2:30


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