Sunday, June 19, 2016

S. B. Zaki - Arab women before and after Islam: Opening the door of pre-Islamic Arabian history

“Islamic civilization developed a construct of history that labeled the pre-Islamic period the Age of Ignorance and projected Islam as the sole source of all that was civilized – and used that construct so effectively in its rewriting of history that the peoples of Middle East lost all knowledge of the past civilizations of the region. Obviously, that construct was ideologically serviceable, successfully concealing, among other things, the fact that in some cultures of the Middle East women had been considerably better off before the rise of Islam than afterward” (Ahmed, 1992; p. 37).

In the quote provided above, Leila Ahmed, a Harvard Divinity School scholar of Islam, highlights the reasons for the filtered version of the history of women of pre-Islamic Arabia. If you try Googling ‘Status of Women in Islam’, unsurprisingly you will be offered millions of results. A more difficult task is to find out how women have been discussed in Islamic literature over the last 14 centuries (by men, to be precise). A pattern emerges. The words ‘Status of Women in Islam’ do not appear until the early 20th century.  Before that, Islamic scholars wrote on the ‘Duties of a Muslim Woman’ or ‘Roles of Muslim Women.’

These early scholars, writers and historians nonetheless, did often show through historical examples that Muslim women must not act like the women from ‘pre-Islamic time’ (pre-Islamic Age of Ignorance). For example, when a few years after Prophet Muhammad’s death, a young Muslim woman began sleeping with her male slave stating that “I thought that ownership by the right hand made lawful to me what it makes lawful to men”, Umar Ibn Khattab, who judged the ‘matter’, sternly rebuked her and announced that she had acted “in Ignorance” (i.e., like women did in pre-Islamic time) and deliberately misinterpreted the message of the Quran. 

In other words, Quran does not make lawful to women what it makes lawful to men; their rights are not the same. He then banned her from ever marrying a free man (Musannaf of `Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanani in Ali, 2010). This incident was recorded and used by early scholars to show that pre-Islamic women were wrong in exercising their sexual independence and freedom and that the Islamic model of patriarchal marriage and sex was licit and superior.

Fast-forward about eleven centuries, many parts of the world that were once colonised by Muslims (which shaped the Muslim narratives about women in Islam in those centuries) were being colonised by Europeans who scorned Muslims for their backwardness and seclusion of women. This was a time when Muslim scholars had to urgently show to the world that Islam actually “raised the status of women.” There was a shift from a more authoritative and pompous scholarly tone discussing Muslim women like al Ghazali’s, that dictated to Muslim women how they should behave and obey their husbands, and the more accusatory tone of the later scholars who made excuses for Islam’s treatment of women by claiming that women of pre-Islamic time were “mere chattel” and Quran was revealed for a Muslim woman to “rescue her from the gloomy injustice of Pre-Islamic darkness.”

These latter politically shaped narratives are the ones we are still reading and using. To show that Islam bettered the lives of Muslim women, a parallel history had to be created of women in pre-Islamic time where women: “were treated like slaves or property. Their personal consent concerning anything related to their well-being was considered unimportant and unnecessary to such an extent that they were never even treated as a party to a marriage contract. They had no independence, could not own property and were not allowed to inherit. In times of war, women were treated as part of the loot. Simply put, their plight was unspeakable…The practice of killing female children was rampant. The pagan Arabs used to bury alive their daughters with the fear that these girls will grow up and will get married to some men who will be called their sons-in-law.”

These narratives did not only cover the “plight of women” in Arabia before Islam, but justified the invasions of lands by Muslims by extending it to “all nations of the World” which necessitated that the new Islamic law be accepted as the most just system since the “advent of Islam brought profound changes to the Arabian society in general and to women in particular.”  In doing so, these Muslim histories do exactly what contemporary war politicians do – justify their mission by stating that “Islam liberated women.”

History of pre-Islamic Arabian women
More recently, several Muslim women have begun to research the lives of women in pre-Islamic Arabia. This is by no means an easy task since as when Muslims spread from Medina they categorically destroyed the old ways of life: temples, pagan poetry written on animal skins, idols of gods and goddesses etc, and Islamic history has practically no records written by women. What little we know are reports in Islamic texts, which are narrated to establish the new order, and a few archeological finds. The result is that we have pamphlets, web links and books that preach women that “Islam truly liberated women” while there is no justification for the existence of women like Khadija bint Khuwalid, Hind bint Utbah, Asma Bint Marwan, Lubna bint Hajar, Arwa umm Jamil amongst others, if the general condition of Arab women was not more than mere chattel.

Reading all the sources now available, one can see that, in the absence of a single law before Islam, lives of men and women in Arabia depended on which tribe they belonged to. Islam did lay down comprehensive law and while some women may have enjoyed more rights under Islamic law, it is certainly true that the rights of others were severely curtailed. The resultant picture that emerges is that of a deeply patriarchal form of religious law rather than one that could have been more balanced, just and equal.  Like Leila Ahmed writes us in her book (1991, p. 60):

“That women felt Islam to be a somewhat depressing religion is suggested by a remark of Muhammad’s great-granddaughter Sukaina, who, when asked why she was so merry and her sister Fatima so solemn, replied that it was because she had been named after her pre-Islamic great-grandmother, whereas her sister has been named after her Islamic grandmother.”

Furthermore, it can be argued that the ‘status’ of all women in Islam is not equal either. Islamic jurisprudence supports classism and Quran differentiates between free and enslaved women as will be seen below.

There are several ways in which Islam could have established gender equality based on the practice already available in pre-Islamic time. .. read more:


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