Qur’an 3: Was Muhammed a feminist?

I’m a British humanist reading The Qur’an (Tarif Khalidi’s translation) and blogging about it as I go. I’m doing my best not to make assumptions, apart from assuming it was written – not necessarily in the order given – by a man (or men) in Arabia in the 7th century. I realise that some Muslims will consider the whole exercise blasphemous, and some anti-theists will say it’s not critical enough. The aim is not to be offensive, but simply to share a personal, non-scholarly, view of one of the most influential texts of our time. [More…]

Chapter 4: “Women”. Getting used to the jumble of topics in each chapter now. This one has a focus on women, but also covers apostasy, male homosexuality and a lot of other items.

It’s clear that the author (or authors) lived in a society that took for granted that men and women are not equal. In common with most men, and presumably many women, in most parts of the world up until the 20th century, it probably never occurred to him to question that premise. It’s worth remembering that wives were legally their husbands’ possessions in England until late in the 19th century (and in Ireland until 1981).

Of course, our 21st century premise is that men and women are essentially equal, so it’s not surprising that some of his strictures are shocking. I’m no moral relativist: equality is better than inequality. But, for its time, the rules and guidance in this chapter may well have been a big advance in women’s rights. [Update: This academic article on Arab Women Before & After Islam indicates that, while women’s status and rights varied according to their tribe, it is incorrect to assume that the dawn of Islam marked an improvement over what was there before.]

Interestingly, he begins with a gender-neutral creation story “Fear your Lord who created you from a single soul and created from it its spouse, and propagated from both many men and women.” No mention of ribs.

There’s a lot of detail about inheritance. I knew the rule that “God commands you regarding your children: to the male what equals the share of two females”. But it gets more complex with various family compositions. Parents and siblings are also entitled to some inheritance.  And there are strictures about not spending money on yourself that has been entrusted to you for orphans.

Women have a right to their own earnings: “Men have a share of what they earned and women have a share of what they earned”. And they have a degree of control over who inherits their wealth: “To you belongs half of what your wives leave, provided they have no children. If they have a child, your portion is a quarter of what they leave, after deducting any bequests they have made or debts.”

For a man to prove that his wife has committed adultery, he needs four male witnesses. (How likely is that?) The punishment is to “confine them to their homes until death overtakes them or else God provides another way for them” (It’s tempting to speculate what that means – probably not good for the wife.) There’s nothing here about stoning to death, maybe that comes later, and nothing about the other man.

It’s then a big surprise to read in the same section: “And if two males among you commit indecency, rebuke them harshly. If they repent and make amends, leave them alone.” Wow! Male homosexuality is bad, but not that bad. (I can sense an inconsistency coming up….)

There’s a long list of the women who are “forbidden to you”, not only the obvious ones – mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, nieces – but also: wet nurses, “milk sisters”, mothers of your wives, step-daughters where you’ve consummated marriage with their mothers (otherwise it’s ok), “legal” wives of your sons (implying that there are “not legal” wives), your father’s wives (unless that was an “act that belongs to the past”) and sisters of your wives. You’re not allowed to “inherit” – presumably in the sense of ‘from their fathers…’- women against their will, nor to coerce them, provided they don’t cheat on you. “Live with them in kindness.”

Marriage is basically a financial contract: you must “use your wealth to contract legal marriage, not fornication.” (Ah, that’s where the non-legal variety comes from.) If you can’t afford to marry “free, chaste and believing women”, then you’re allowed female slaves who are “believing maidens”, provided you get their owner’s consent. You then “render them their dowries in kindness” and treat them as legal wives, “not lovers or prostitutes”.

Sustaining polygamous marriage can’t be easy. However hard you try he warns “you will not be able to act equitably with your women”, but you must do your best not to leave one of your wives in limbo. If you really go off one of them, be careful: “perhaps you may loathe something in which God places abundant good.” If you decide to “substitute” her with another wife, then you’re not allowed to take back any “riches” you’ve given her. And “if a wife fears antipathy or aversion from her husband, no blame attaches to them both if they arrive at an amicable settlement between them: such a settlement is best.”

If you’re worried that someone’s marriage is in trouble, then “send forth an arbiter” from each of their families in the hope there can be a reconciliation.

But, the premise of God-given male dominance eventually leads to a very worrying conclusion: “Men are legally responsible for women, inasmuch as God has preferred some over others in bounty, and because of what they spend from their wealth. Thus virtuous women are obedient, and preserve their trusts, such as God wishes them to be preserved. And those you fear may rebel, admonish, and abandon them in their beds, and smack them. If they obey you, seek no other way against them.” A degree of violence against women is ok with God.

Taking the text so far at face value, it encourages kindness and fairness in marriage, and acknowledges that women have property of their own, but it also sanctions hitting disobedient wives and the need for wives always to be sexually available (ref Chapter 2). Women have some rights, but limited say.

The assumption throughout this section is that the normal marriage is polygamous. That would imply a lot of ‘spare’ men. At the same time, the inheritance rules emphasise what happens when a man dies. I wonder if it worked that way because so many men were killed in battle? On the other hand, presumably a lot of women died in childbirth.

Alongside the verses on women and marriage, and the injunctions against unbelievers, the some other important points emerge from the jumble:

  • The author urges honesty in business dealings, justice, fairness – even if you have to bear witness against yourself or your family – and kindness, not only to wives, but also to parents, relatives, orphans, the needy, neighbours – whether related or not – friends, travellers and slaves. “God loves not the swaggering and the conceited” and He “wrongs no-one” (I guess eternal flames for unbelievers and blasphemers – “whenever their skins are charred, We replace them with new skins” – doesn’t count).
  • He’s clear that his own authority is God-given “O believers, obey God and obey the Prophet and those set in authority over you.”
  • And he also sees differences in wealth as God-given: “Covet not that by which God preferred some of you over others in bounty.”
  • Here’s a surprise: I thought the abrogation loophole was introduced in Chapter 2 to deal with inconsistencies. But here we have: “Do they not ponder the Qur’an? Had it been from other than God, they would have found much inconsistency therein.” The proof for the divinity of the text is it’s consistency. 

He covers apostates but in the rather special sense of the Hypocrites – the group who were refusing to follow his military leadership. It seems they’re repeat offenders: “Those who believed then disbelieved then believed then disbelieved, then increased in disbelief – God shall not forgive them nor guide them upon the way. Give tidings to the Hypocrites that a painful torment awaits them.”

Where he urges his followers to kill Hypocrites, it’s only when they insist on actually fighting against his forces. Even if they blaspheme, all that believers are supposed to do is move away till they change the subject: “..if you hear the verses of God blasphemed or mocked, do not sit with them until they broach another subject…God shall herd all Hypocrites and blasphemers into hell.”

There’s no edict here to kill apostates or blasphemers. Punishment lies with God. Maybe the draconian “hudud” punishments come in a later chapter.

There’s no way Muhammed can be described as a feminist in modern terms. But in 7th century Arabian terms, he seems to have been be pushing things in the right direction. If the text is taken literally and applied now, it’s pretty awful. But if the direction of travel is the main thing, then maybe it’s not so bad.




Author: HumanistJ

I'm a humanist - someone who thinks you can live a good life without believing in anything supernatural. I'm active in Humanism in the UK, both through Humanists UK and as chair of South West London Humanists. This blog is purely my personal view.

11 thoughts on “Qur’an 3: Was Muhammed a feminist?”

  1. Side note, Muhammad never once beat any of his wives. This makes me question the exact meaning of the “strike” verse. Think about it, if Allah truly gave Muhammad clearance to beat women, would he not beat his wives? Especially since his wives tested him on many occasions. Instead of “following the Quran” he settled matters amicably with his wives. Aisha said: “Allaah’s Messenger never hit anything with his hand ever, except when fighting in the path of Allaah. Nor did he ever hit a servant or a woman.” [Recorded In Ibn Majah. Al-Albani graded it Sahih.]

    John Louis Esposito who is a professor in Islamic Studies states in his work “What everyone needs to know about Islam” : “Neither the Quran nor the hadith record Muhammad as ever mistreating or losing temper with any of his wives, even when he was unhappy or dissatisfied”

    It’s a logical and very important question, if the “example” for all Muslim men never hit his wives – did he simply “ignore” or “dislike” this verse revealed to him? Or has it been misunderstood?



    1. There is nothing in the Qur’an (as far as I’ve read it) to say a man MUST beat his wife is she’s disobedient. But it clearly says that, if she remains disobedient and the other measures listed fail to make her change, that’s what he CAN do. So I don’t see that reports about Muhammed’s life mitigate the unpleasant conclusion that the use of a degree of violence towards disobedient wives is supported by the Qur’an, at least if read as it stands. (If on the other hand it’s read as indicating a direction or intent, then maybe the injunction can be overlooked.)

      In any case, unless there is more to come in later chapters, the Qur’an emphasises that its author is “only” a messenger with exactly the same status as previous messengers (Jesus and the Jewish prophets). It doesn’t suggest that any or all of these men led perfect lives. Unlike Christianity, where Jesus has “Son Of God” status, as I read it, in the Qur’an these men are all human. Being human must mean that – in common with all humans – they had flaws.


      1. Humanist I have some knowledge of Arabic and I ask myself if there is another meaning for the used word ‘edreboohon’ other than beating. ‘darab’ is otherwised used in the quran in the context of ‘setting an example’, i.e. ‘darab allaho mathalan’. That’s the most complicated thing about arabic, that the same word can be used in different contexts with different meanings and it can have more than one meaning even in the same context. And even if my knowledge of Arabic is fairly good for someone with Egyptian roots who didn’t study Arabic literature, to know all those different meanings etc is really really hard and it is a science by itself. I will try to look on the internet though.
        PS: Although I do not believe in religions anymore I do still think that there was lot of kindness in the quran and that most of the evil made in the name of Islam is not coming from the quran but from what people made out of it


      2. Mo – thanks for your comment. In common with the majority of present-day Muslims, I don’t understand Arabic. As I explained in the introduction, I am using a fairly new English translation by a scholar, Tarif Khalidi, which was well-reviewed by another current scholar, Ziauddin Sardar. But I am aware that this verse about handling a diobedient wife has received a lot of attention. It is even easy to find sermons where preachers explain that it only means to “beat lightly”. This Wikipedia entry gives several translations: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An-Nisa,_34 I have also attended a seminar in which it was discussed. The majority view seems to be that it means “strike”, but some indeed seem to refer also to separation.


      3. I did some quick reasearch and the verb ‘daraba’ used here and generally interpreted as hitting can also mean to separate or roaming in the earth. So the verse can be interpreted as just leave the women and kind of ignore them.

        For example it is used in verse 2:273:
        “[..] and who are hindered from ‘moving about’ (darban) the earth in search of their livelihood”

        The same verb daraba is used in the passive form (doreb) in 57:13
        “Then a wall shall be erected between them with a door in it. On the inside of it there will be mercy, and on the outside of it there will be chastisement.”

        Literally it says: Then ‘doreb’ between them with a wall having a door, i.e. they were separated by a wall

        So the verb can mean ‘separate’, ‘strike’, ‘move away’ etc. Or in other contexts like giving examples the word is also used. Although I don’t know how the word would mean by itself in that context, ‘doreba mathalan’ means an example is given, but as it is obvious that ‘mathal’ means example, I do not know what the ‘doreb’ stands for in that context. You can’t really hit an example or separate it or can you?

        Anyway as the verse talks about admonishing and abandoning them in their beds so it makes more sense to be talking about leaving them altogether, get away from them or keep distance from them altogether instead of as a further measure after just not sleeping with them. It makes more sense than hitting.


  2. “There’s nothing here about stoning to death, maybe that comes later, and nothing about the other man.”

    Note that in later chapters, groups that want to stone/stone people are considered unbelievers.


  3. “For a man to prove that his wife has committed adultery, he needs four male witnesses. (How likely is that?)” – Probably very very unlikely! I think that’s the point. Those who accept God should also trust in God to dispense justice on the Day of Judgment.


  4. “Men are legally responsible for women, inasmuch as God has preferred some over others in bounty, and because of what they spend from their wealth. Thus virtuous women are obedient, and preserve their trusts, such as God wishes them to be preserved. And those you fear may rebel, admonish, and abandon them in their beds, and smack them. If they obey you, seek no other way against them.” A degree of violence against women is ok with God.

    The part that says “God has preferred some over others” seems to point that women are preferred, as men have the legal responsibility to provide for women. But “some” may mean Arabic masculine exclusively, Arabic feminine exclusively, or Arabic either genders. Definitely worth exploring.

    Additionally, it states pretty clearly that the violence can be ok against women who are: not virtuous (= not obedient, = not preserve their trusts [whatever that means] such as God wishes them to be preserved) and/or rebellious. But of course, there are quite a lot of things men have to do prior to resorting to violence.


    1. Indeed. But however that’s read, it condones violence against women who, in the man’s view, have transgressed. I’m trying to see the good and the bad here. But this is really bad. Of course, the same is true of the Bible and I guess other venerated books. Christians and Jews simply ignore the difficult bits or focus on verses that contradict them. I assume non-literalist Muslims do the same.


  5. “There’s no edict here to kill apostates or blasphemers. Punishment lies with God. Maybe the draconian “hudud” punishments come in a later chapter.”

    Not sure I’ve found this in the Qur’an, from the times I’ve read it. Please let me know if you do find this! 🙂


    1. Hi Tracy,
      I used to be a Moslem but I don’t believe in ‘religions’ anymore. However, I have some rather good knowledge of Arabic and have read the quran many times. There is no punishment for apostates in the quran. That has been invented by scholars later. There is no punishment for drinking wine either.


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