A Woman Under Sharia: 8 Reasons Why Islamic Law Endangers Women

An essential, scholarly comparison of the rights of women under Sharia and in the West.

BY Immanuel Al-Manteeqi · @Al_Manteeqi | September 6, 2016

Women in the West are viewed as being equal to men from both an ontological and juridical perspective. Now, that is not to say that women have never been unjustly discriminated against in the West. On the contrary, it is a sad truth of history that throughout the centuries women in Western societies were often discriminated against.

Indeed, suffrage was only granted to American women in 1920, with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which states that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” But for at least the past few decades in the West, the predominant idea is that men and women are equal, and that women are entitled to the same basic rights that men enjoy.

Nowadays there are many principles that are enshrined in Western law to protect the rights of women. For example, in the West, the testimony of a woman is universally held—including in courts—to have the same value as the testimony of a man. Domestic violence against wives in the West is strictly prohibited, though unfortunately it is still practiced by some husbands. Furthermore, divorce is just as easy for a wife as it is for a husband to file for.

In addition, there is no discrimination against women when it comes to inheritance. Women are not disenfranchised of their fair share of inheritance just because they happen to be women. In the West women can also, for the most part, dress in any way that they desire without great social repercussions—and certainly not any legal repercussions.

The practice of polygamy is strictly prohibited in Western countries. The codification of monogamy into law goes at least as far back as Greco-Roman times. As a matter of fact, polygamy is seen in the West not only as an immoral practice but also as a practice that disenfranchises women. Moreover, Western countries take a strict stance on sexual exploitation and prohibit men from marrying or having sexual relations with pre-pubescent girls. And it goes without saying that Western countries strictly prohibit their soldiers from taking female sex slaves in times of war.

In sum, Western countries today treat women overall as equal to men, and there is no question that Western women enjoy individual freedoms. Western countries are the best places for women to live, where they can ascend to the highest seats of power in the land (think of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) through democratic processes, and where this is no theoretical obstacle to female leaders.

1. Under Sharia, Wives Can Be Beaten.

Whereas under Western laws women and men are equal, under Sharia women are not equal to men, but are considered inferior. Women are the object of many disparaging remarks in the earliest Islamic source texts, which form the basis for Sharia. For example, according to Q 4:34, husbands are allowed to beat their wives if they “fear disobedience” (which implies that actual disobedience need not occur for the beating to be justified):

Men are the managers of the affairs of women for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another, and for that they have expended of their property. Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for God’s guarding. And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them. If they then obey you, look not for any way against them; God is All-high, All-great.

That wife-beating is permissible given (imagined or real) behavioral misconduct on the part of the wife is also found in Muḥammad’s so-called “Farewell Address” or “Last Sermon,” which has been preserved in Ibn Isḥāq’s Sīra, the oldest and most reliable biography of Muḥammad that we possess.[1]

2. Under Sharia, Females Enjoy Fewer Rights than Males.

According to Q 2:282, the testimony of a woman is worth only half that of a man’s:

And bring to witness two witnesses from among your men. And if there are not two men [available], then a man and two women from those whom you accept as witnesses – so that if one of the women errs, then the other can remind her.

According to Q 4:11 and Q 4:176, a woman may inherit only half as much as her male brother does. Furthermore, as Professor Samīr Khalīl Samīr, a native Arabic speaker with two doctorates and the former adviser to Pope Benedict XVI on Islam and the Middle East, explains,  under Sharia “in a [religiously] mixed marriage [where the wife is non-Muslim], the wife legally loses the right to her husband’s inheritance if she does not convert to Islam.”[2]

3. Under Sharia, Marriage and Sexual Intercourse with Pre-Pubescent Girls is Permissible.

According to Q 65:4, sexual relations with females who have not yet had their menstrual cycle (i.e., pre-pubescent girls) are permissible. The verse is found in the sixty-fifth chapter of al-Talāq (Divorce), which begins by stating that “when you divorce women, divorce them when they have reached (the end of) their waiting period (ʿidda); a waiting period or ʿidda is a certain amount of time that a Muslim man is supposed to wait before marrying a divorced woman, so as to make sure that she is not pregnant from her previous husband.”[3] It is in this context that we are to read Q 65:4, which states the following:

(As for) those of your women who have no hope of (further) menstruation: if you are in doubt, their waiting period is three months, and (also for) those who have not (yet) menstruated” [emphasis added].

Sayyid Qutb, the late prominent theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood, explains in his renowned commentary on the Qur’ān (In the Shadow of the Qur’ān) that [Q 65:4] is referring to “women who are past the menopause and those who do not as yet have a menstrual cycle because they have not attained puberty or because of a malfunction in their system” [emphasis added].[4]

Thus, in the context of this Qur’ānic chapter on divorce, it seems that this verse is stating that Muslim men (or husbands) are to wait three months before divorcing pre-pubescent girls (for the reason of making sure that young and apparently borderline post-pubescent girls are not pregnant; cf. Q 2:228). This is not just some interpretation that modern Islamists like Sayyid Qutb came up with; rather, such an interpretation of Q 65:4 is mentioned at least as far back as al-Tabarī (839 – 923), one of our oldest and most important sources of early Islam.

Furthermore, the Andalusian Malikī jurisprudent and philosopher, Ibn Rushd (1126 – 1198), known to the West as “Averroes,” confirms the permissibility of having sexual relations with pre-pubescent girls in his legal handbook, Bidāyat al-Mujtahid wa Nihāyat al-Muqtaṣid (literally, “the beginning for him who interprets the sources independently and the end for him who wishes to limit himself”). In this work, and under the section entitled “the Waiting Period for Wives,” he states the following: “the divorced woman whose marriage stands consummated may or may not be one who menstruates. If she does not menstruate, she may be a minor or beyond the age of menstruation.[5]

It should be noted here that  one of the most renowned Muslim figures of all times  is unequivocally implying that marriage and sexual relations with pre-pubescent girls in Islam are licit.

4. Under Sharia, Wives do not Share the Same Divorce Rights as Their Husbands.

Under Sharia, a husband can divorce his wife  simply by stating, “you are divorced” three times in the presence of two adult mentally sound males, without even having to justify his decision, and he will retain custody of any children. In this connection, Professor Samir  states that “the most absurd thing is that if the husband later repents of his decision [of divorce] and wants to ‘recover’ his wife [for the third time], she must first marry another man who in his turn will repudiate her (Q 2:229-30).”[6] By contrast, no such power is given to the wife.

5. Under Sharia, Female Rulers are Frowned Upon.

Sharia frowns upon female rulers. This originates from a ḥadīth  in Sahih al-Bukhari, the most trusted Muslim aḥadīth , where Muhammad, upon hearing the news that the people of  Persia had made the daughter of Khosrau their Queen, states: “Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler.”[7] Indeed, this is one of the reasons that is often cited for why women cannot be caliphs.[8] Although this is what Sharia teaches in theory, the practicalities of life give rise to some exceptions. In the Muslim world you did occasionally have female rulers like Shajarat al-Durr (d. 1257) who ruled Egypt in Medieval times. In more recent times, Benazir Bhutto won the elections in Pakistan and became Prime Minister of that country for two non-consecutive terms (1988-90, and 1993-96). So did Shikha Hasina, who won elections three times and is currently the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.

6. Under Sharia, Wives Should be Subservient to their Husbands.

Under Sharia, a husband has absolute authority over his wife. As Professor Samir remarks: “A man can forbid his wife to go out from the home, even to go to the mosque, since in a ḥadīth Muḥammad tells a woman that her prayer has no value if it is done without her husband’s permission.”[9] This is confirmed by The Reliance of the Traveler, an authoritative fourteenth-century Shafiʿī legal manual written by Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misrī (1302 – 1367). The manual states that “a woman may not leave the city without her husband or a member of her unmarriageable kin….accompanying her, unless the journey is obligatory, like the hajj. It is unlawful for her to travel otherwise, and unlawful for her husband to allow her.”[10]

Furthermore, under Sharia, polygyny is allowed, for Q 4:3 explicitly permits Muslim men to marry “what seems good to you of the women: two, or three, or four.”[11] Because of this verse, till this day in many Muslim countries it is permissible for a man to marry more than one wife.

Regardless of whether this custom was deemed to be socially acceptable by the seventh-century standards of Arabia, today only the very rare wife would find it permissible for her husband to marry another woman, let alone two or three more, even if she keeps her status as first wife.

7. Under Sharia, Women are Deemed Lacking in Faith and Intelligence.

As students of Islam know very well, Sharia does not just draw from Qur’ānic verses for its oppressive view of women. For it also draws on the aḥadīth (the so-called sayings of Muḥammad). In one such  hadīth from Sahīh Al-Bukhārī, the most authoritative Sunni collection of ahādīth, Muḥammad states that the majority of the dwellers of hellfire are women, that women curse frequently and are ungrateful to their husbands, and, famously, that women are “deficient in intelligence and religion.” The full hadīth is as follows:

Once Allah’s Messenger [i.e., Muḥammad] went out to the Muṣalla [place of prayer] (to offer the prayer) of `Id-al-Adha or Al-Fitr prayer. Then he passed by the women and said, “O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women).” They asked, “Why is it so, O Allah’s Messenger?” He replied, “You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you.” The women asked, “O Allah’s Messenger! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?” He said, “Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?” They replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn’t it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?” The women replied in the affirmative. He said, “This is the deficiency in her religion [emphases added].”

Fundamentalist Muslims the world over insist on accepting this ḥadīth, which is virtually universally accepted as authentic or ṣahīh by even moderate Muslim scholars (who generally view just about everything in the collection of al-Bukahrī as authentic). Such aḥadīth have been a source of great injustice to women living in majority-Muslim countries.

8. Under Sharia, Raping Female Captives is Permissible.

What is particularly egregious in Sharia is that warriors are permitted to capture the women of “infidels” and use them for their sexual gratification. According to Q 4:3, Q 4:24, Q 23:5-6, Q 70:22-30, having female slaves, “those whom your right hand possess” (ما ملكت ايمانكم, transliterated as ma malikat aymānikum), is permissible.

Furthermore, interpreting ma malikat aymānikum as “female slaves” is not something that, pace Western-Muslim apologists, is only advanced by so-called Islamophobes. Our earliest tafsīr (Qur’ānic exegesis), the tafsīr of Muqātil Ibn Sulaymān, states that ma malikat aymānikum means walā’id (ولائد), which denotes female slaves.[12] This view has been held by many mufasirīn (exegetes) since medieval times, and A.J. Droge’s recent 2013 scholarly translation of the Qur’ān, which is, in my opinion, the best English translation around, explains the phrase “those whom your right hand possess” as straightforwardly referring to female slaves.

Having female slaves, Droge explains, is permissible even when the (Muslim) male is married.[13] Indeed, the Qur’ān contrasts female slaves with married women a few times, clearly demonstrating female slaves were not considered to be wives.  There can be no doubt that in using the term ma malikat aymānikum, the Qur’ān is here referring to females who have been captured during war for the sexual gratification of their male captors. Indeed, reading Ibn Iṣhāq’s Sīrat Rasūl Allāh, we can discern that Muhammad himself took female concubines and permitted his warriors to do likewise as well.

Ibn Iṣhāq tells us that after Muhammad had 600 to 900 adult Jewish men of the tribe of Banu Qurayẓa beheaded and thrown into trenches for alleged treason, he “divided the property, wives, and children of b. Qurayẓa among the Muslims.” Ibn Iṣhāq further relates that “the apostle sent Saʿd b. Zayd al-Anṣār brother of ‘Abdu’l-Ashhal with some of the captive women of B. Qurayẓa to Najd and he sold them for horses and weapons [emphasis added].”[14]

Hence, according to Ibn Isḥāq, Muhammad enslaved women and sanctioned their being sold off (not much different from what ISIS militants are doing today with Yazidi women, no doubt modeling themselves after the Muhammad of the early Islamic sources). Furthermore, Ibn Iṣhāq tells us that “the apostle had chosen one of [the women of the tribe of B. Qurayẓa] for himself.”[15] In other words, Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was himself  taking female captives for his own sexual gratification.

We also read in the Sīra about what is ostensibly Muḥammad’s aggressive attack against the Jews of Khaybar (a Jewish-settled oasis about ninety-five miles north of Medina).[16] Ibn Iṣhāq reports on the authority of one ʿAbdullah b. Abū Najīḥ that on the day of the conquest of Khaybar, Muḥammad prohibited his fighters from having “carnal intercourse with pregnant women who were captured.”[17] The implicature of this prohibition is that carnal intercourse with non-pregnant women who were captured was permissible.

Furthermore, we read in Ibn Iṣhāq that “the women of Khaybar were distributed among the Muslims.”[18] That is, according to our earliest and best source on Muḥammad’s life, Muhammad  sanctioned the sexual use of female slaves, or “those who you right hand possess,” to use Qur’ānic terminology.

In addition, when one reads the relatively early Islamic sources, one gleans that in the battle of Khaybar, Muḥammad himself had sexual intercourse with a captured woman, Ṣafiyyah bint Huyyay (Safiyyah, daughter of Huyyay), whose father Muḥammad had ordered killed, either the same night that he had her husband killed at Khaybar, or shortly thereafter on the way to Wādī al-Qurā (a “valley” which is located close to Khaybar).[19]

From Sahih al-Bukhari we learn that Suffiya, the “chief mistress of the tribes of Qurayza and An-Nadir” was originally considered by the Muslim victors as a slave woman or jārīya (جَارِيَةً), but that Muhammad manumitted her and subsequently “married” her (al-Ṭabarī tells us that this occurred after she accepted Islam).[20]

Ibn Isḥāq relates that when Muhammad first engaged in sexual relations with Ṣafiyyah (when he “married” her) in his tent (the same day or just a few days after killing her male folks), one Abū Ayyūb, Khālid b. Zayn,

passed the night girt with his sword, guarding the apostle [i.e., Muhammad] and going around the tent until the morning the apostle saw him there and asked him what he meant by his action. He replied, “I was afraid for you with this woman for you have killed her father, her husband, and her people, and till recently she was in unbelief, so I was afraid on your account.”[21]

The above excerpt makes it abundantly clear that the guard wanted to guard Muhammad because he perceived him to be forcefully having sex with someone who must have harbored deep resentment and hatred for him because of his slaughter of her kin, particularly her father and her husband.

Indeed, ʾAḥmad Ibn Yaḥyā al-Baladhūri (d. circa 892), one of earliest writers of Islamic history (particularly of the early Arab-Islamic conquests), relates that Ṣafiyya said the following:

Of all men the Prophet was the one I hated the most, for he had killed my husband, father and brother. But he kept saying “your father excited the Arabs to unite against me and he did this and that,” until the hatred [for Muhammad] was gone from me.[22]

So, if our earliest sources on Islam are to be trusted, Muhammad, after he conquered the oasis of Khaybar, claimed Ṣafiyya bint Huyyay as his sexual captive.[23] Indeed, if the earliest sources on Islam are to be trusted, then one must accept the commonsensical conclusion that Muhammad raped Ṣafiyya,[24] and allowed his followers to similarly rape women who were captured during battle.[25]

Typically Westernized Muslims, if they are even aware of the existence of such stories in the earliest and most reliable biography of Muhammad, will dismiss them as ahistorical, and as having nothing whatsoever to do with pure and unadulterated Islam. However, there is no non-ad hoc reason to believe that these unpleasant events are not historical, whilst at the same time affirming that records more consonant with Western sensibilities are.

Furthermore, bracketing the question of historicity, there is much less reason to believe that contemporary actions that are consonant with what is recounted in these stories are “unislamic”—for these stories come from sources that form the very heart and soul of Islam.[26] Certainly Islamists are not going to buy the idea that such stories are unislamic or ahistorical just because they are contrary to Western sensibilities.

The fact is that ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria, who are notorious for raping Yazidī women who they capture (sometimes shortly after killing their families and neighbors), are clearly acting within the interpretive parameters of traditional Islam and following the example of the Muhammad of the earliest Islamic sources.

In his legal handbook, Bidāyat al-Mujtahid wa Nihāyat al-Muqtaṣid,[27]the Malikī jurisprudent and philosopher Ibn Rushd confirms the permissibility of enslaving women after battle. In the section “Identification of the harm permitted to be inflicted upon the enemy,” Ibn Rushd states in no equivocal terms that Muhammad “enslaved women.”[28] Ostensibly the implication is that enslaving women after battle is justified, following the example of Muhammad.

There is no question that taking female captives in warfare is a practice that is sanctioned in the earliest Islamic sources; this practice or tradition is not just an innovation of groups like ISIS. And this is not just something that only so-called Islamophobic Westerners point out.

Indeed, Dr. Suʿad Ṣālih, former Dean of the Women’s College of Islamic and Arabic Studies at al-Azhar University in Egypt (the seat of Sunni learning), very explicitly and nonchalantly states that taking female slaves (milk al-yamīn) is Islamically permissible in a war against Muslim enemies. She gives an example involving Israelis, stating that were Israel to fall, it would be permissible to take Israeli women as captives and use them for sexual gratification in order to humiliate them.[29]

The irony that Dr. Suʿad Ṣālih, herself a woman, is sanctioning the sexual enslavement of female war captives, is completely lost on the former Azharī dean. But the irony is lost presumably because the former dean is utterly convinced that using female captives for sexual gratification is not something that is inhumane—after all, from her perspective, the flawless religion of Islam and the ideal for all mankind, Muhammad, sanction the practice.

Conclusion and a Possible Pathway for Reform.

Other examples of Islam’s inferior view of women can be cited. However, the above accounts are sufficient to conclude that under Sharia, “men are superior to women” (Q 2:228) and that “Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they [men] spend their wealth to maintain them [women]” (Q 34:4). Sharia then enjoins upon its adherents a profoundly un-egalitarian ethic, whereby women are deemed inferior to men.[30]

People who are endeared to the egalitarian-Western principles, particularly those who are Europeans, must fight the proliferation of Sharia ideas in their homeland. But in order to fight a fascistic and misogynistic ideology like Islamism, it is necessary for adherents of egalitarian-Western principles to first understand the motivations of Islamists.

And, make no mistake, the reasons that Islamists advance for just about everything they do, including their oppression of women, are based almost exclusively on their religious ideology. None of the sources cited above are exclusively political or social in nature—they are religious Islamic sources.

As was made explicit in the fifteenth issue of ISIS’s Dabiq magazine, ISIS members and their Islamist cohorts are not nihilists who just have an innate and brute desire to oppress non-Muslims. Their actions are “cold and calculated,” and they are acting out on what they believe, and what appear to be, relatively plausible interpretations of the Islamic source texts. Until this is exposed, challenged, and confronted by non-Muslim societies and reformist Muslims as well, there can be no victory against ISIS’ oppressive ideology.

Now, the job of Western leaders and those in the intelligence community is to educate themselves about the underlying religious motivations of Islamists (and not censor talk about Islam in willful blindness). Muslim reformers, on the other hand, are tasked with the more difficult job of reforming Islam,and rejecting interpretations or Islamic source texts that are at odds with contemporary Western and egalitarian values.

Muslim reformers need to focus on cultivating a peaceful and tolerant Islam, one that bestows a much higher place to women than traditional Islam, and one which is not a prisoner to the above- interpretations or source texts.

However, as mentioned above, Muslim reformers should not just dismiss problematic stories like that of Ṣafiyya as ahistorical or unislamic whilst simultaneously accepting other material in the same earliest sources as being historical and Islamic. This is unlikely to convince any Muslim with a proclivity to the less palatable interpretations of Islam, and certainly not those who are intimately familiar with the source texts.

These Muslims, especially the non-Western  ones, will immediately indict the Muslim reformer as succumbing to Westernizing influences in his/her understanding of Islam. They will challenge the reformer to explain why what he/she happens to find unpalatable in the sources is ahistorical or unislamic, and why what he/she finds palatable is historical or Islamic. The reformer will very likely be unable to provide a satisfactory answer here.

So Muslim reformers need a way to reform Islam without playing fast and loose with the source texts, an endeavor which is bound to fail (the proof of this is that so far it has failed miserably). Now, the reformation of Islam is a burden that moderate Muslims must carry themselves—reform cannot be imposed from outside the Muslim umma, but must arise naturally and organically within it. In a word,  it is for Muslims themselves to go about the very difficult task of reforming Islam.

That being said, I suggest that one promising pathway of reform, at least one that is much more promising than cherry-picking what to believe in the early sources, is the methodology that is advocated by Ahmad Ṣubḥī Manṣūr, an Egyptian graduate of al-Azhar. Manṣūr is a prominent Muslim reformist who is a former Azharī PhD graduate and Azharī professor.

His reformist agenda is very simple: Islam should be based on the Qur’ān alone. To this end, he has written a whole book entitled al-Qur’ān wa Kafa (“the Qur’ān is Sufficient”) wherein he defends the Qur’ān-only view, of which he is currently and incontrovertibly the number-one proponent.

Manṣūr believes that the extra-Qur’ānic Islamic sources, written as they were many generations after Muhammad’s death, are historically unreliable, and are a byproduct of a later sectarian milieu with concerns that were alien to the time of Muhammad and the Qur’ān.[31] Indeed, he describes much of the unpalatable material found in the ahādīth as “garbage.”

An upshot of his view is that many of the unpalatable teachings in mainstream Islam are not found in the Qur’ān, but in the extra-Qur’ānic sources, and so will be eliminated from his version of Islam. Examples of unpalatable doctrines or events that are not found in the Qur’ān but are present in the extra-Qur’ānic sources are as follows: the view that women make up most of hellfire and are lacking in faith and intelligence; the view that apostates should be killed; the stories that Muhammad enslaved women and had (ostensibly non-consensual) sexual relations with some female captives; the view that Muhammad wanted Jews and Christians expelled from the Arabian peninsula; the view that people should be fought until they believe in Allah and Muhammad’s prophethood, etc.

It must be noted that the view that Islam should be based solely on the Qur’ān and not on the extra-Qur’ānic sources is not something that is completely without intellectual merit. The extra-Qur’ānic sources of Islam are in fact written long after Muhammad’s death and contradict each other on many important points. That a ḥadīth in Sahih al-Bukhari has Muhammad saying that whoever changes his (Islamic) religion should be killed is hardly good evidence that Muhammad said such a thing.

Furthermore, eminent Western (non-Muslim) scholars of Islam, like Gabriel Said Reynolds of the University of Notre Dame, consider the extra-Qur’ānic Islamic sources, viz., the sīyar (plural of sīra), tafasīr (plural of tafsīr), and aḥadīth (plural of ḥadīth), to be historically unreliable for constructing the context of the Qur’ān, or giving us accurate information about Muhammad.[32] He views many of the extra-Qur’ānic stories as being Midrashic interpretations of enigmatic Qur’ānic verses that should be read as secondary literature rather than as historical accounts.

All this being said, the putative reformist pathway of Manṣūr is not without its demerits. First, the Sunna (or way of Muhammad) is firmly entrenched in early Islam and many Muslims would see a Qur’ān-only Islam as being very foreign from their understanding of the religion. And they would be correct. Qur’ān-only Islam is an alien form of Islam, after all, most of Islamic praxis today is based not on the Qur’ān but  on the extra-Qur’ānic sources (particularly the aḥadīth); for example, the obligation to pray five times a day is not something that is taught in the Qur’ān, but in the extra-Qur’ānic source materials.[33] So in one sense, a Qur’ān-only Islam is arguably a different religion than the mainstream Islam that is practiced today.

Second, most scholars of Islam, whether Muslim scholars in Muslim countries, orientalist scholars, or otherwise, do believe that while the earliest extra-Qur’ānic Islamic sources are embellished, even to a high degree, they nevertheless retain a solid core of historical truth. Scholars like Reynolds are, as he himself notes, in the minority here. Orientalists still follow the methodology of the great Islamicist, Theodore Noldeke (1836 – 1930), which is different from the traditional Muslim approach to the sources only insofar as it utilizes a more critical approach.[34]

Third, while the Qur’ān-only approach does eliminate many things that are unpalatable to a Western audience, one is still left with apparently unpalatable verses in the Qur’ān. Some Qur’ānic verses, like the ones mentioned earlier in this article, will need to be explained by Muslim reformers. However, given that the Qur’ān is, as the Islamicist F.E., Peters notes, “a text without a context,”[35] there is much room for interpretive maneuvering.[36]

All things being equal, the less that is known about the context of an ancient text, the greater the plausible interpretations of the text. This gives Qur’ān-only Muslims much greater leeway in explaining the prima facie unpalatable verses than Christians and Jews have in explaining away the violent or unpalatable elements in the Old Testament (the context of which are quite clearly stated in the text itself).

This is just one of a few putative approaches that Muslim reformers can adopt in order to combat certain religious doctrines that are not compatible with an egalitarian and Western ethic. Whatever the path that Muslim reformers take, it will certainly be an uphill battle for them. Manṣūr himself was tried by an Azharī tribunal and expelled from the University in 1987. And after being on the receiving end of many death threats for his unorthodox views, he sought political asylum in the United States and was granted it in 2002.

More recently, a young reformist, Islam al-Buhayrī, was imprisoned by ʿAbd al-Fatah al-Sisi’s “secular” Egyptian government for his vociferous efforts to reject much of what is unpalatable in the mainstream Islamic tradition. Likewise, Sayyid Al-Qumni is currently being taken to court in Egypt for his allegedly blasphemous reformist views. These courageous reformers are leading the drive towards reforming Islam, but when it comes to women under sharia, Muslim women themselves should be more proactive and they should take the lead in demanding equal treatment.

As can be seen from the above, there is much in the Islamic source texts that is not compatible with contemporary Western conceptions of the equality of man and woman. However, there are possible pathways for reforming these elements of Islam. And reformists who apply an intellectually consistent methodology, people like Dr. Manṣūr, should be encouraged.


[1] That being said, it should be noted that most commentators are in agreement that the beating should not be severe (ghayr mubarraḥ). That the beating should be ghayr mubarrah is found in both the earliest tafsīr of the Qur’ān, as well as in the so-called Farewell Sermon, which is recorded in Ibn Isḥāq’s Sīra. See Muqātil b. Sulaymān, Tafsīr Muqātil b. Sulaymān, ed. ʿAbdallah Muhammad Shahāta (Beirut: Mu’assasit al-Tarīkh al-Arabī, 2002), 371. For the “Farewell Sermon,” see the original Arabic in Ferdinand Wüstenfeld ed., Das Leben Muhammeds nach Muhammad Ibn Isḥāq (Göttingen: Dieterich, 1858–60), 969, and the corresponding English translation in ʻAbd al-Malik Ibn Hishām, Muḥammad Ibn Isḥāq, and Alfred Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Isḥāq’s Sīrat Rasūl Allāh (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1955), 651.

[2] Samīr Khalīl Samīr, 111 Questions on Islam: Samīr Khalīl Samīr, S.J. on Islam and the West: A Series of Interviews Conducted by Giorgio Paolucci and Camille Eid, ed. Wafik Nasry, trans. Wafik Nasry and Camille Eid (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 118.

[3] Sahih (correct) ahādīth also state that Muhammad married A’isha, the daughter of “the first rightly guided caliph” Abu Bakr, when she was just six years old, and consummated the marriage with her when she was just nine years old. See, e.g., Sahīh Al-Bukharī, Vol. 5, Book 58, Hadīth 236.

[4] Sayyid Qutb, In the Shade of the Qur’ān, trans. Adil Salhi and A. Shamis (Markfield, Leicester: Islamic Foundation), 82.

[5] Ibn Rushd, The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer (vol.1), ed. Ahsan Khan Nyzazee (Reading: Garnet Publishing, n.d.), 106.

[6] Samīr Khalīl Samīr, 111 Questions on Islam, 111-12. Also see Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misrī, The Reliance of the Traveler (Umdat al-Sālik), trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller (Beltsville, MD: Amana Publications, 1997), Book N (Divorce), sec. 7.7, 565. Q 2:229 states that “divorce (may take place) twice.” A.J Droge explains that  this is “usually taken to mean that a husband may divorce his wife twice and marry her; but if he divorces her for a third time, it is not lawful for them to remarry, until she has been married to another man and been divorced by him [cf. Q 2:320].” See A.J Droge, trans., The Qur’ān: A New Annotated Translation (Croydon: Equinox Publishing, 2013), 24.

[7] Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 9, Book 88, ḥadīth  219.

[8] See, e.g., Ṣalāh Ṣāwī, al-Wajīz fī Hikm al-Khilāfa (n.p.:Dar al-ʿAlām al-Dowla, n.d.), 24.

[9] Samīr Khalīl Samīr, 111 Questions on Islam, 113.

[10] Ibid., Book M, sec, 10.3.

[11] Although the verse does frown upon taking more than one wife if the husband will not treat them fairly. And since it is practically impossible for husbands to treat more than one wife equally, some Muslim reformists have taken this to mean that polygyny is almost never permissible. The only exception to this rule is Muhammad himself, who  had more than four wives. Q 33:50 is generally appealed to by Muslims as endowing Muhammad with this prophetic charism.

[12] A.J. Droge, trans., The Qur’ān: A New Annotated Translation, 47. The translation is unique in that it departs from the practice of other translators of interpreting the Qur’ān through the lens of later Islamic tradition, tradition which was penned down some generations after the Qur’ān was written. Edward W. Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon (vol.2), ed. Stanley Lane Poole (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1984), 2967.

[13] A.J Droge, trans., The Qur’ān: A New Annotated Translation, 49 .

[14] Ibid., 466.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibn Iṣhāq, Sīra Rasūl Allāh, 510-19. There are several lines of evidence that point to this being an aggressive conquest  and not one done out of self-defense. For example, the people of Khaybar were clearly not expecting any attack, as they would if this were indeed an attack done out of self-defense. Indeed, Ibn Isḥāq tells us that “when the apostle raided a people he waited until the morning. If he heard a call to prayer he held back; if he did not hear he attacked,” and that “when morning came [but Muḥammad] did not hear a call to prayer” he rode out to attack. Indeed, Muhammad and his warriors  came upon the early-morning famers of Khaybar who were “coming out with their spades and baskets (Sirat Rasūl Allāh, 511).” Further evidence that that was not an exercise in self-defense was that , as Ibn Isḥāq tells us,  when the people of Ghaṭafan heard that Muḥammad was moving his forces towards Khaybar, the men hurried to defend their brothers in Khaybar, only to reneg because of rumors that their families and properties were attacked during their absence. If this were an act of self-defense, the people of Ghatafan would likely have already joined the people of Khaybar prior to Muhammad’s military movement (ibid.).

[17] Ibid., 512.

[18] Ibid., 511.

[19] Sahih Al-Bukhari,  Vol. 1, Book 8, ḥadīth  367; Sahih Al-Bukhari, Vol. 5, Book 59, ḥadīth  522; Al-Ṭabarī, The History of al-Ṭabari: Biographies of the Prophet’s Companions and Their Successors, vol. 9, trans. Ismaʿīl K. Poonawala (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 134-35. Al-Ṭabarī, The History al-Tabari, vol. 39, trans. Ella Landau-Tasseron (Albany: SUNY Press, 1998), 185. We say “relatively early” because, absolutely speaking, the extra-Qur’ānic sources of Islam are quite late. For example, the oldest biography of Muhammad, Sirat Rasūl Allah by Ibn Isḥāq, was written at least around 120 years after Muhammad’s death, and only comes down to us in rescinded versions (e.g., in the versions of al-Ṭabarī and Ibn Hishām). Ibn Isḥāq’s biography of Muhammad gives us further details about how Ṣaffiya’s husband, Kināna ibn al-Rabīʿ ibn Abī al-Huqayq, was killed. Ibn Isḥāq relates that Muhammad tortured Kināna by kindling fire with flint and steel on his chest until he was near dead, prior to ordering Muhammad ibn Maslama to behead him. Ibn Isḥāq relates that Muhammad did this because Kināna would not disclose to Muhammad where the treasure of the Jewish tribe of Banu Naḍir was hidden. See ʻAbd al-Mālik Ibn Hishām, Muḥammad Ibn Isḥāq, and Alfred Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Isḥāq’s Sīrat Rasūl Allāh (Karachi; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 51.

[20] Sahih Al-Bukhari, Vol. 1, Book 8, ḥadīth  367. Al-Ṭabarī, The History of al-Ṭabari: Biographies of the Prophet’s Companions and Their Successors, vol. 9, trans. Ismaʿīl K. Poonawala,134.

[21] Al-Tabarī, in his prominent Tarīkh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk (the Annals of the Prophets and the Kings), also relates this story (though he seems to have been relying on a copy of Ibn Isḥāq’s Sira) on the authority of al-Wāqidī, adding that after Muhammad’s guard told him this, “the apostle laughed.” Al-Ṭabarī also adds that Ṣafiyya was just seventeen years of age when Muhammad had sexual relations with her. Cf. Al-Ṭabarī, The History al-Ṭabarī, vol. 39, 185.

[22] ʾAḥmad Ibn Yaḥyā al-Balādhurī, Futūh al-Buldan, ed. ʿAmr Anīs al-Ṭabā (Beirut: Mu’assasit al-Ma’ārif, n.d.), 32.

[23] Indeed, Ibn Isḥāq tells us that Muhammad picked Ṣafiya for himself on account of her beauty (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 5, Book 59, ḥadīth  522). She was, the sources tell us, originally picked out by Diḥya al-Kalbī, one of Muḥammad’s subordinates (cf., e.g., Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 1, Book 8, ḥadīth  367; Vol. 3, Book 34, ḥadīth  431; Vol. 5, Book 59, ḥadīth  512). However, her youthful beauty ostensibly caught Muhammad’s eye and he wanted her for himself. So he gave Diḥya other captured women in exchange for Ṣafiyya. A ḥadīth in Sunan Ibn Majah states that Muḥammad gave Diḥya seven female slaves in exchange for Ṣafiyya (Vol. 3, Book 12, ḥadīth  2272).

[24] The conclusion that it was rape, though politically incorrect, seems to me to be inescapable, unless one wants to admit the absurd proposition that a young woman would willingly have sex with someone she hates very shortly after he had killed her friends, tortured and killed her husband, and previously killed her father (the sources do not specify that her brother and father were killed at Khaybar, only that her husband was). Indeed, clearly Ṣaffiya was traumatized from witnessing the killing of her people prior to Muhammad’s raping her. For Ibn Isḥāq reports how when a Jewish woman who was taken captive along with Ṣaffiya was led past the “[male] Jews that were slain,” the woman “shrieked and slapped her face and poured dust on her head,” after which Muḥammad said, “take this she-devil away from me.” It is extremely likely that Ṣaffiya shared her fellow Jewess’ very natural sentiments here. Ṣaffiya certainly was in no mood to sleep with the person who was ultimately responsible for this macabre deed, and the death of her father, husband, and wider community. See Ibn Isḥāq, Sīrat Rasūl Allāh, 515.

[25] An interesting note in the context of this article is that Muhammad apparently did not wait for Ṣaffiya’s three-month idda or waiting period to expire before  he “married” her and had sexual relations with her. Just as he marks an exception to the “no-more-than-four-wives” rule so he marks an exception to the waiting-period rule. After all, in traditional Islam, Muhammad is considered to be al-insān al-kāmil, i.e., the perfect man. (Al-Ṭabarī states that he had married a total of fifteen women, consummated the marriage with thirteen, and was married to eleven at one time; cf. Al-Ṭabarī, The History of al-Ṭabari: Biographies of the Prophet’s Companions and Their Successors, vol. 9, trans. Ismaʿīl K. Poonawala,126-7.)

[26] I give a suggestion for how Muslim reformers can approach these thorny issues in the conclusion of the article.

[27] See Ibn Rushd, Bidāyat al-Mujtahid wa Nihāyat al-Muqtaṣid , vol.1-4 (Cairo: Maktabat Ibn Taymiyya, 1995 A.D./1415 hijrī). The work has been translated in The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer (vol.1-2), trans. Ahsan Khan Nyzazee (Reading: Garnet Publishing, n.d.).

[28] Ibn Rushd, The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer (vol.1), trans. Ahsan Khan Nyzazee, 456.

[29] “برنامج فقه المرأة – د.سعاد صالح -المقصود بملك اليمين – Fiqh Al-maraa,” YouTube video, 3:37, posted by “AlHayah TV Network,” Sept. 12, 2014. She literally says that that a  Muslim man can “yastimtʿ bīhim kama yastimtʿ bi zawjātihī” – i.e., he can” enjoy” female slaves or “those who his right hand posses” just like he “enjoys” his wives.

[30] As the Islamicist Samir Khalil Samir notes, although the Qur’ān clearly teaches the superiority of men over women, the male duty to provide for women is also explicitly stated. See Samir Khalil Samir, 111 Questions on Islam, 96.

[31] For example, in an interview with the prominent Muslim turned trenchant critic of Islam Brother Rachid, he boldly states that Mālik Ibn Annas and Ibn Isḥāq wrote the Muwatta and Sirā, respectively  “min dimāghihīm” (literally meaning “from their  brain”), implying that Ibn Isḥāq simply plucked the “historical facts” for his biography out of thin air. See “سؤال جرئ 378 لقاء خاص مع الدكتور احمد صبحي منصور: الجزء الأول”, YouTube video, 15:17, posted by “Daring Question,” Oct. 1, 2014.

[32] Regarding the tafāsīr, after Reynolds demonstrates that they reflect “both confusion and creative speculation” with respect to the mysterious letters (al-ahruf al-muqaṭṭaʿa) that begin twenty-nine sūras (or chapters) of the Qur’ān, he states that “it seems to me unlikely, to say the least, that the mufassirun (Qur’ānic exegetes) are reliable preservers of an unbroken chain of Qurānic interpretation, or that they remember perfectly the time and place and reason why individual verses were revealed, and yet at the same time totally fail to understand these letters.” Cf. Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qur’ān in its Biblical Subtext, (London; New York: Routledge, 2010), 19-20. With respect to the ahadīth, he states that “the ḥadīth  come from collections written down only in the ninth century and have many legendary, tendentious, exegetical, and anachronistic features.” Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Emergence of Islam (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 70. For a critical examination of the ḥadīth literature, see Igńac Goldziher’s pioneering Muslim Studies, trans. S.M. Stern and C.R. Barber (Chicago: Aldine Atherton, 1971); Goldziher’s German original, Mohammedanische Studien, was published in 1889-90. Also see Joseph Schacht’s seminal work, The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950).

[33] The earliest mention of the obligation to pray five times a day comes from the account of Muhammad’s ascent into heaven, found in the Sīra of Ibn Isḥāq (p.186-7). In the account, which is reminiscent of Abraham’s plea with God to spare the just inhabitants of Sodom and Gomarrah, Muḥammad ascends into heaven and is told that the number of daily prayers that are obligatory is fifty. Moses then convinces Muḥammad to ask God to lower it to ten, and then finally to five, after which Muhammad is too ashamed to ask for a lesser obligation.

[34] Gabriel Reynolds, The Qur’ān in its Biblical Subtext, 8.    

[35] Francis Edward Peters, Muhammad and the Origins of Islam (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 259.

[36] As the late Islamicist Richard Bell in his Introduction to the Qur’an (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1963), 100,  states: “In the great bulk of the Quran there is either no reference to historical events, or the events and circumstances to which reference is made are not otherwise known. In regard to such passages there are often differing traditions, and as often as not the stories related to explain them turn out, when critically examined, to be imagined from the passages themselves.”



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