History,  Human Rights,  Religion

Women’s Rights: Inspired by Muhammad?

This article by Edmund Standing is cross-posted from Butterflies & Wheels.

A new Islamic propaganda campaign called ‘Inspired by Muhammad’ [1] has been launched, and advertising posters are now going up in London featuring slogans such as ‘I believe in social justice. So did Muhammad’ and ‘I believe in women’s rights. So did Muhammad’.[2] It’s hard to tell if this campaign is run by sadly deluded people who actually believe the slogans are accurate or if this is an example of dissimulation for a kufr audience.

Either way, the idea that Muhammad ‘believed in women’s rights’ in the sense in which we in the 21st Century understand that concept is utterly absurd, as anyone who has taken an honest look at the Qur’an should be aware.

The readership of the Qur’an is clearly presupposed to be male, and this is a book for men, by men. We find numerous examples of the audience being given information and instructions about women, in texts that speak of women in the third person.[3] Women are not directly addressed, but rather men are directed as to what they should tell their wives (plural).

While men and women are said to have equal rights in Islam, looking at the Qur’an we find that men are still presented as being superior to them: ‘And women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable; but men have a degree (of advantage) over them’ (2:228).

The testimony of a woman is worth only half that of a man: ‘get two witnesses, out of your own men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women’ (2:282).

Men are in charge of women and women should be ‘obedient’ to men. If they are not, they must be beaten (2:223).

Men may have multiple wives, but women can only marry one man.

Women are ‘as a tilth’ (a piece of land) to men, and husbands may have sex with their ‘wives’ whenever they want to, including on the ‘night of the fasts’, when a man may still have sex with his ‘wives’ (2:187). The only exception is when a woman is menstruating, which is presented as a ‘pollution’. Once menstruation is over, and the woman has ‘purified’ herself, her husband may once again ‘approach [her] in any manner, time, or place’ (2:222-223).

Even women who are not menstruating ritually pollute a man and if men ‘have been in contact with women’ prior to prayer, they must first cleanse themselves (4:43; 5:6).

Women must be veiled and should not ‘display their beauty’ to anyone other than close family members, slaves, ‘or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex’. Women are forbidden to ‘strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments’ (24:31). When they leave the house, women ‘should cast their outer garments over their persons’ (33:59).

Male children are to receive twice the inheritance of females: ‘to the male, a portion equal to that of two females’ (4:11); ‘if there are brothers and sisters, (they share), the male having twice the share of the female’ (4:176).

Muhammad’s wives are ‘not like any of the (other) women’ and are commanded to ‘stay quietly in your houses’ (33:32-33). While there is ‘no blame’ on Muhammad’s wives if they ‘appear before’ close family members (33:55), men from outside the family may only address them ‘before a screen’ (33:53). If a wife of Muhammad is found guilty of ‘lewdness’ or ‘unseemly conduct’, their punishment will be double that of other women (33:30).

Muslim men will be rewarded in heaven by being given female virgins ‘whom no man or Jinn [genie] before them has touched’ (55:56; 55:71-74). In other words, for men, the afterlife will be a kind of orgy. For women, no equivalent to this male ‘reward’ is offered.

Professor Andrew Rippin accurately sums up the Qur’anic view of male-female relations in this passage from Volume 2 of his Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices:

The male rules the house in all matters: the religion of the male is presumed to be the religion of the entire household; thus a Muslim male may marry a Jewish or Christian woman, but a Muslim female may marry only another Muslim. A man may marry up to four wives at a time, but a woman may marry only one husband. Discipline and sex are the prerogatives of the male to which the female is subject.

There is a sense conveyed in the Qur’anic statements which suggests that women will not wish to cooperate in society and will need to be coerced.[4]

Now, all this is very far from the notion that ‘Muhammad believed in women’s rights’ in any meaningful sense, given the way we in the 21st Century West conceptualise the rights of women. That this is the case should be clear from the fact that non-Muslim feminists do not see any need to turn to the pages of the Qur’an when working for the furtherance of women’s rights. Modern ideas about the rights of women are vastly superior to the primitive ideas found in the Qur’an. Put simply, Muhammad and the Qur’an are of no value in the modern context when looking at women’s rights, or any other social issue for that matter.

But still, perhaps Muhammad was a revolutionary in his time? This is an argument also put forward by the ‘Inspired by Muhammad’ campaign, which speaks of the ‘controversial and groundbreaking ideas that Muhammad promoted for women in a seventh century society that regarded women as mere possessions’. Such an argument strikes me as being similar to that put forward by some ‘Christian feminists’ who play highly dubious hermeneutical games in order to ‘prove’ that Jesus and early Christianity were somehow radical in their approach to women.[5] In both cases, even if the claims are true – that Jesus and/or Muhammad had revolutionary ideas about the status of women in their time – so what? We do not live in their time, but rather centuries ahead of their time, in a world that has very little in common with the worlds they lived in.

Looking at the history of ideas regarding the status and rights of women, to fetishise the views of a seventh century man as opposed to looking at more recent icons of women’s rights for inspiration seems arbitrary and bizarre. The only reason Muslim women insist on claiming that Muhammad has some relevance to the debate is because of their a priori belief in his status as the final messenger of the creator of the universe. Otherwise – if we’re delving way back into history for inspiration – why pick Muhammad, instead of, for example, Musonius Rufus?

Rufus (30-101 CE) was a First Century Roman Stoic philosopher who argued that ‘Women have received from the gods the same ability to reason that men have’ and believed that both men and women should engage in the practice of philosophy.[6] Rufus argued:

We men employ reasoning in our relations with others and so far as possible in everything we do, whether it is good or bad, or noble or shameful. Likewise women have the same senses as men, sight, hearing, smell, and all the rest. Likewise each has the same parts of the body, and neither sex has more than the other. In addition, it is not men alone who possess eagerness and a natural inclination towards virtue, but women also. Women are pleased no less than men by noble and just deeds, and reject the opposite of such actions.

Consequently, women should be educated, just as men are:

Surely it follows that an educated woman would be more courageous than an uneducated woman and a woman who practises philosophy than a woman who is self-taught, since neither fear of death nor any apprehension about suffering would lead her to endure a disgrace, nor would she be afraid of anyone because he was well born or powerful or rich or indeed because he was – by Zeus – a tyrant.

Female dogs are trained to hunt just like male dogs, and if you expect female horses to carry out a horse’s job effectively, you must see that they have the same training as the male horses.

In the case of human beings it would seem that males should have something in their education and upbringing distinctive in contrast to the females, as if a man and a woman were not required to have the same virtues, or as if they could aspire to the same virtues through different rather than similar educations.

But it is easy to apprehend that there are not different sets of virtues for men and women.

While, unsurprisingly given the historical period in question, Rufus saw men and women as having different roles in life, he was nonetheless open to the view that ‘nothing is necessarily prescribed for one sex or the other’.

Women were not seen to men’s intellectual or social inferior, but rather, for Rufus, there are practical reasons for their different roles:

Gymnastics are more appropriate for men than for women, and outdoor work likewise. Nonetheless, some men might appropriately undertake some of the lighter work and work thought more appropriate to women, when the conditions of their body or necessity or time demand it. For all human work is a common responsibility for men and women, and nothing is necessarily prescribed for one sex or the other. Some tasks are more appropriate for one nature, others for the other. For that reason some jobs are called men’s work, and others women’s.

On marriage, Rufus again espoused a practical and rational view, which strongly emphasised equality:

He said that a husband and wife come together in order to lead their lives in common and to produce children, and that they should consider all their property to be common, and nothing private, not even their bodies. For the birth of a human being that such a union produces is a significant event, but it is not sufficient for the husband, because it could have come about without marriage, from some other conjunction, as in the case of animals. In marriage there must be complete companionship and concern for each other on the part of both husband and wife, in health and in sickness and at all times, because they entered upon the marriage for this reason as well as to produce offspring.

How does this rational philosophical outlook, which is based on reason and argument, as opposed to supposed divine revelation, compare with the writings on women found in the Qur’an, a book written 500 years later? Clearly, in terms of holding enlightened views on male-female relations, Rufus was far more progressive and was a far better thinker and writer than Muhammad, despite the fact he lived centuries before Muhammad.

Rufus is interesting as a figure to study as part of the history of philosophical ideas regarding men and women. He is not, however, a man whose writings are of any practical importance to the issues facing men and women today. And if Rufus is not in any way essential to modern conceptualisations and actualisations of women’s rights, then the ‘argument’ that Muhammad is is patently absurd.

I believe in women’s rights. Muhammad is irrelevant.


[1] Inspired by Muhammad: Women’s Rights.

[2] Inspired by Muhammad: The Campaign

[3] See ‘The intended readership of the Qur’an – universal or localised?’ in Edmund Standing (2009) ‘A Critical Examination of the Qur’an’, Butterflies & Wheels.

[4] Andrew Rippin (1997) Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. Volume 2: The Contemporary Period (London: Routledge): 119.

[5] See Edmund Standing (2004) ‘”Christian Feminist” Biblical Exegesis: Ideologically Motivated Pseudo-Scholarship’, Butterflies & Wheels.

[6] Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant (1992) ‘A Roman philosopher advocates women’s education. Rome, 1st cent. A.D.’, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome.


See also:

How to lose the argument against Islamism