The Supremacy Myth
The bogus arguments and "proofs" on the basis of which the better
half of Godís finest creation is kept
under subjugation and servility is both shameful and sinful
BY MAULVI MUMTAZ ALI
In these pages, I propose to put forward my ideas on the rights of
women which I have held for long. Although many of my other ideas have
changed over time, I have had no reason to change or alter any of my ideas
in this regard. If anything, I find myself holding on to them even more
firmly with the passage of time. I hope that the articulation of these
ideas and acting on them will bring about much- needed reform that will
pull my community out of its current state of decline and despair.
I am well aware that I will be charged with aping the British and
worse. And that many of my fierce opponents will go into overdrive to
contradict, ridicule me. Abuses too will be hurled. But those to who
sincerely believe in the majesty and grandeur of Shariah laws, those whose
notions of dignity, self-worth and self-respect will not deter them from
taking inspiration from the life and times of Prophet Mohammed and his
family and the values they promoted, will have no hesitation in responding
positively. Nor will they be discouraged by the criticisms of individuals
and organizations, or the scorn and ridicule that they too would be
subjected to by the ignorant and the rogues.
If this humble effort of mine results in the protection of the rights
of even a single old woman in the entire country I would consider my
effort to have been worthwhile.
Male Supremacy Myth
Men and women are both part of the human species. Neither is superior
to the other but in each there are some distinctive qualities which makes
them different from the other. These distinctive characteristics call for
a corresponding set of different responsibilities and duties for men and
women but beyond that there must be no differentiation between the two
sexes. Apart from the distinctions based on their innate, God-created
differences, any attempt to widen the divide or to prove the superiority
of one over the other is nothing but personal prejudice and gender bias.
It is but obvious that these differences are merely circumstantial,
ephemeral and non-durable, the product of different environments, age and
cultural background. We will show that the differences that are sought to
explain and justify the differing status and rights of men and women go
way beyond what is explicable or justified on the basis of the inherent
differences between them. These are based on nothing but the presumptions,
prejudices and ignorance of men. The consequences of such aberrant modes
of thinking and being are the decline of culture, the ruination of the
world and the continuance of the barbarism of ancient times in the name of
Most of our cultural constructs are rooted in the false notion that men
are sovereign and women are their subjects, in the belief that women have
been created with the sole purpose of placing herself in the service of
men. Because of such a belief, men assert their rights over women just as
they claim ownership rights over other forms of property and claim that
women cannot have rights equal to that of men. If such false and baseless
notions were merely the product of male prejudice and self-centeredness
and there was no attempt to justify their claims with logic, reason and
religious belief it would have been one thing. But the tragedy is that the
claims of male supremacy are sought to be premised on sound reason, lofty
principles and divine edict. The purpose of writing this piece is to
expose the hollowness of their claim and the shamefulness of their
To the best of our knowledge the arguments which are forwarded to prove
male supremacy are the following:
1. God has given men more physical strength than women. Therefore men
claim full rights over all that is gained with the use of superior
strength and hard labour. That is why the right to rule or govern, which
includes the use of force, is both natural and divine right of men.
2. In addition to physical prowess men also have a superior mental
capacity. That is why in every age and in every country women have been
considered to be of low intellect, inherently gullible, ill-informed,
lacking in conceptual ability, unreliable, treacherous.
3. Just as sovereignty over others is the most prestigious thing in
worldly affairs, being bestowed with the mantle of a prophet or messenger
is the greatest gift from God. Throughout human history Allah, has
bestowed prophethood only on men. No woman has ever been sent to preach
the divine message.
4. Theologically speaking, the Quranic verse, "al rejala qawwamoona
alan nisa" is frequently quoted in support of menís superiority. The
verse is taken to mean that men are rulers over women.
5. Another bogus argument presented is that Allah first created Adam
and Eve was created subsequently only for his benefit. Therefore, it is
the divine intent that women remain servile to men and be a source of his
happiness and well-being.
6. In the Quran, the evidence of two women is treated as equal to that
of one man. This and the fact that in inheritance the share of a woman has
been stipulated as half that of a man is also proof of menís superiority.
7. The fact that men are permitted to marry four wives while the
reverse is prohibited further proves that God has given man a more
8. Virtuous men have been promised beautiful wives in paradise while
even virtuous women have been given no such promise.
Call them fanciful, philosophical, logical or theological: such is the
evidence and the proofs we are offered on the basis of which half the
world is kept under subjugation, forced to live like slaves of men and
even worse. Thus is the better half of Godís finest creation forced to
satisfy the lust of the basest among men, cater to every demand of the
even the most worthless and vile among self-serving men.
We will now examine these claims one by one and see whether they stand
the test of logical scrutiny or whether they are false and baseless views
manufactured by self-centered men. Anyone who is capable of shedding his
cultural prejudices, prepared to examine arguments on merit, not consumed
by anxiety about the implications of embracing a new idea for their own
future conduct, will see that all the male supremacy arguments are
baseless and worthless. Whatís more, these are gross violation of Godís
edicts and Shariah laws.
The first claim about menís greater physical prowess is a mere
assertion pretending to being a logical argument. Admitted, men are
physically stronger than women. So what? How does this prove that physical
strength is a legitimate basis for the claim that men are superior to
women? It is but obvious that those who are physically stronger are
expected to undertake more difficult, arduous and hazardous tasks than
those who are less strong. Whoever said that men should not be asked to
handle tasks that require greater strength, are more arduous or hazardous?
Men are most welcome to them: breaking boulders, chopping trees, slitting
throats and all such jobs that are hard to do or which only the heartless
can do. But the question remains: how does their physical ability to do
such tasks makes them superior or more cultured? How is superior to be
defined and where is the argument or evidence for that?
The absurdity of this argument will be immediately apparent if instead
of comparing men with women, we compare men with four-legged animals.
Suppose we argued that because God has given greater physical strength to
them than men, animals are superior and sovereign over men? If you stick
to your warped logic, how can you run away from our claim? Are we not
being true to the logical method? If men are superior (your definition)
over women, by that very logic if follows that donkeys are superior to
men. If the fact that a donkey can carry a far greater load than a man
does not establish the formerís supremacy over the latter, how does a man
become superior to a woman merely owing because he is capable of
withstanding greater physical hardship?
To simplify the point further and to nail the bogus claim, let us
analyze the basis on which men are women are/ought to be compared? There
is no doubt that men and women are a part of the animal world. Surely this
animalism is not what constitutes their identity but it is their human
qualities and capacities which qualify both as being humans. A human being
is a special animal endowed with common sense, logic and wisdom. It is
these qualities and the evolutionary possibilities inherent in them that
elevate a mere animal to the lofty level of humanity. Therefore, any
comparison between them will make sense only if we examine the extent to
which they have evolved from their animal existence.
But all that the superiority argument tells us is that men are of a
heavier build, their bones are stronger, their legs more powerful. These
characteristics are not part of that special quality that elevates the
status of humans over animals. As it happens, all the traits
referred to are related to animalism and a comparison between man and
woman on that basis is nonsensical. Everyone knows that men and women are
from the animal species. God in his infinite wisdom and power reduced the
bestial qualities in human beings by diminishing their ferocity, predatory
instincts and brutality and added some angelic qualities to create a new
species: humans. Therefore, the comparison between man and woman ought to
be based on these angelic qualities, as opposed to animal traits.
Establishing manís superiority or development on the basis of bestial
qualities is, in effect, to prove their baseness.
Apart from what has been said above, even if we were to agree that men
are superior to women owing to physical strength, it should be evident
that this is the result of social evolution and not the result of divine
intent. As far as perceptible causes are concerned, it seems that the
excess or lack of physical strength in men and women are not inherent.
Instead, various cultures and societies have over countless centuries
brought about gender differences similar to the difference between men and
men generated over time across nations. Why is it that the Afridis of
Kabul are burly and strong, while the Babus of Kolkata are lean and puny
in appearance? Why are the Sikhs of Punjab referred to as the lions of
Punjab, while the Baniyas of Hindustan are said to be meek? It should not
be difficult to understand that what explains the Sikhs of Punjab being
physically stronger than the Bengalis and Baniyas also explains men being
stronger than women. The only difference is that the historical process
that culminated in the different physical capacities of the two sexes
started eons before than it did in case of Bengalis and Baniyas.
That more or less physical strength in men and women is not inherent
but the result of socially governed causes can be demonstrated in another
way too. Even though women in different parts of the world live under more
or less similar conditions and do comparable work, due to cultural and
other differences their physique and strength are different. If you
compare the build of women living in Ghazni and Herat with the genteel
ladies of Delhi and Lucknow you will come to know that the difference is
not innate or God-given. This only means that the reason why women are
physically less strong than men is because they were forced to live in a
manner that their corporal capacity gradually diminished through underuse.
The second part, or a corollary, of the first claim about brawn-power
based superiority of men is even more pathetic and utterly baseless. In
the early period of human civilization, when barbarism and ignorance was
rife and rights and the principles of society had not been defined, every
controversial and contentious issue was resolved on the basis of the
"Might is Right" principle. However, even then no single person was
powerful enough to grab whatever he wanted without the active support of
allies. By the time people evolved even the most rudimentary form of rule
or governance, they had left far behind the ancient mode of life and
progressed to a level where systems were in place and laws were laid down
for their self-preservation. In other words, people had come to appreciate
the importance of laying down customs, norms and laws and begun compelling
others to abide by them. The head of state did not depend solely on his
corporal might to govern, but rather on the support of his loyal friends
and devoted allies. To this day, all kinds of governments are run on these
Now no form of government can exclude women entirely and forever. Men
have always been conscious of their superiority and have denied women
opportunity and rights. Despite this, they have not managed to evolve any
form of government that excluded women entirely. Hence, in all states and
nations, at some time or another, the reign of government fell in the
hands of women. And some of them ruled so skillfully that it is difficult
to find a sovereign of their caliber in the ranks of men. In Hindustan,
though the reign of Razia Begum was very brief, with regard to peace and
posterity, it was better than the rule of many an emperor. The era of
Jahangir saw Noor Jehan Begum as the power behind the throne. For its
unparalleled peace, posterity and organization of state affairs, this
period will always shine through the history of Hindustan as its golden
age. Consider the present age and see how efficiently Her Majesty, the
sovereign of the British Empire is governing, ensuring law and order,
Can it still be said that sovereignty by right is for men only? The
continuing belief that government is the result of sheer power is entirely
erroneous. The progress of knowledge, promotion of culture and British
rule over our country has made it clear that knowledge and learning are
the greatest force in the world. Today, only the more educated and the
knowledgeable can lay legitimate claim to superiority over others. So we
hope that in future, men taking pride in their heavy build and big bones
will not claim superiority over women but look elsewhere to buttress their
The second assertion is again a mere claim without proof. Scientists of
the present time have established a marginal difference in the structure
of male and female bodies and have described some bones in the female body
as being delicate compared to male bones. Yet, to this day no clear
distinction has ever been detected in the brain and in the development of
those sections of the brain that determine various nuances of intellectual
potency. Despite the fact that cultural norms have made womenís corporal
strength lesser than that of men Ė so much so that a difference in the
makeup of their bones can now be established Ė their mental capacity is by
no means lesser than that of men. If anything, this shows that if
traditional norms had allowed women equal opportunity for physical
development, maybe, in fact undoubtedly, their mental faculties would have
been more sophisticated than those of men.
As in the first case, a big flaw in this second assertion is that the
difference resulting from prevalent social norms is considered to be
inherent. In fact, even if the brainpower of women were in future to be
found to be somewhat lower than that of men, why should it not be seen as
the obvious result of womenís present cultural state, where their physical
health is greatly neglected which so affects their nervous system that
there is always a risk of diminished mental abilities, of making them what
is described as impatient, impulsive, unpredictable, petulant, and
Since men and women have not been treated as equals, since they have
been denied a level playing field in the pursuit of knowledge and
development of their mental faculty, how can men claim their own relative
advancement as a result of some innate quality? Using such logic, since at
present the Zulus are deep in the throes of barbarism and ignorance while
in the field of knowledge the British have left the intellectuals of
Greece behind, would it be justified to deduce that there is some innate
difference between the mental abilities of the British and the Zulus?
Thus, even if some difference were to be found in the mental prowess of
men and women, it cannot be a verdict against the latter. In fact, there
is no doubt that despite centuries of neglect in the intellectual
development of women, despite the minds of countless generations of women
being kept inactive, we still do not find them lacking in anything when
compared to men. If anything, this clearly shows that the mental abilities
of women are inherently superior to that of men.
All prophets were male?
The third proof of the superiority of men is based on the claim that no
woman has ever been blessed with the mantle of a prophet. This is
questionable on three grounds. Firstly, Muslims believe that through the
ages God has sent 1,24,000 messengers or prophets to the world for the
guidance of human beings. In all our holy books we find accounts of only
10 to 15 of these prophets, while all the other prophets from the ancient
times probably do not exceed 30. This means that we know nothing of the
lives of 123,970 prophets. Therefore, it cannot be said with any certainty
whether they were all men, all women or that some were men and some women.
To arrive at a verdict or to make jibes at half of humanity on the basis
of limited information is nonsensical. Until we know about all the
prophets, it is not appropriate to discourse on the basis of mere
Secondly, the nature of a womanís creation demands that she should not
be assigned any task that requires long years of continuous struggle and
hard work, which also necessitates complete separation from home and
family. Keeping women free of such demanding activity, if anything,
indicates Godís concern for her well-being. This should remind men that
just as they derive serenity and comfort from women, so do women from men.
They should also know that the well-being of women is of greater concern
Thirdly, we most definitely do not believe in the equality of all men
and all women even as we affirm that there is no intrinsic difference
between man and woman. It is on account of circumstances that at times
some women gain superiority over other women, some men gain superiority
over other men and some men leave other women behind, while at other
times, women prevail over men in the pursuit of excellence. Hence, the
success of a handful of people over others is no proof of the superiority
of one gender over another.
Of course, the superiority of some men who were ordained prophets over
all men and women is evident. But this in itself does not prove any
difference between the vast majority of men and women who are not
prophets; this is no evidence of the superiority of the entire breed of
men over women. Can any other woman lay claim to the eminence and respect
enjoyed by Hazrat Amina who gave birth to Prophet Muhammad or mothers of
other prophets? Absolutely not! It was an honor that God had reserved
since the beginning of time for these fortunate ladies, and hence,
they became its beneficiaries. So what if all the women in the world
belong to the same gender as them? Likewise, would it be proper to assume
that all the men of the world possess some part of the God-given esteem
that prophets have only because they are part of the same gender?
Scriptural Claims Men rulers over women?
After the above-mentioned logical assertions and claims, we come to the
scripture-based claims. But these are equally erroneous as they are based
on a complete misunderstanding of the meaning of the Quran. The foremost
proof that they derive from the Holy Quran comes from the Quranic verse
which is generally translated as: Men are qawwamun (the protectors
and maintainers) of/over (ala) women because God has faddala
(preferred) some of them over some others and because they support them
from their means. The theologians explaining this verse expound that men
have been endowed with two types of higher qualities. One is the capacity
to think and act and the other is the fact that men provide for the
various needs of women, like food, clothing, shelter, etc.
I do not agree with this explanation because, first of all, translating
qawwamun literally as "master" is in my opinion not correct. In
fact, except for Maulana Shah Abdul Qadir no one else has translated it as
such. Shah Rafi-ud-Din has translated qawwamun as "someone who is
ready to move or is on the go," while his father, Shah Wali Ullah,
translated it as "counsel, manager." In another Persian translation, known
as the Sheikh Saíadi Translation, qawwamun has been translated as a
"manager", "in-charge." Maulana Qadir does not clarify what according to
him is the meaning of "some have been ranked superior over some others" in
the verse. If the first "some" stands for some men and the
second for some women, how does it establish the superiority
of all men over all women? If on the other hand in
both instances "some" refers to men, then how does saying that some men
are superior to other men prove all menís superiority over all women? And
if the verse is addressing all human beings, even if the first "some"
implies all men and the second "some" implies all women it still does not
establish the inherent natural or God-given superiority of all men over
Besides, it is not at all clear from the verse in what sense
superiority is implied. If one were to assume that in the first part of
the verse what is being referred to is menís superior capacity for thought
and action while the latter refers to the superiority arising owing to the
fact that men pay for the maintenance of women it can be argued that the
latter distinction does not arise from any God-given difference between
men and women. That is why we cannot accept this as an argument for
superiority. Menís superiority over women that may be achieved through
pursuit of knowledge, excellence of character or other qualities that are
an outcome of education and good upbringing is quite a different thing
from the claim that men are superior to women by the mere fact of being
men. The first is self-acquired or self-created while the second is
intrinsic. There are many women who possess these self-acquired qualities
of intellect and conduct more than men and in such cases they would
obviously be superior to men.
Can anybody claim that Abu Jehalís (uncle of Prophet Mohammed who
remained opposed to Islam throughout his life) ability to think and act
was superior to that of Hazrat Khadija (first wife of the prophet? Or that
Abu Laheb (another uncle, who was similarly opposed to Islam) was superior
to Hazrat Fatima (daughter of the prophet)? Or that all men or a majority
of them have more knowledge and love of God than Hazrat Rabia Basry (a
renowned female sufi saint from Basra, Iraq)? A father also spends money
on his children and pays wages to his servants. Can one conclude from this
that the master is intrinsically superior to the servant? Absolutely not!
If due to some quirk of fate the master-servant relation gets reversed
wonít the superior-inferior relation also get reversed, even though this
contradicts the notion of inherent superiority?
Thus this much-quoted verse cannot in any way be
considered proof of the superiority of men over women. In fact, the
meaning of the verse is straightforward and obvious. The word
qawwamun here is used as a form of hyperbole and must not be
taken literally. A person who does not find much time to sit and rest due
to his hectic schedule and business, a person who is on the go most of the
time, is referred to as qawwam. Since men have to travel to far off
lands to earn a living and provide for his family, men have been declared
qawwam or managers and caretakers of women. Since the world is full
of all types of people, rich or poor, weak or strong, generous or miserly,
God states that He has granted distinction to one over the other. Men are
being asked to take care, look after their wives in keeping with their
status, position and economic condition. This verse does not talk
of sovereignty and servility. If at all it does, even a cursory reflection
shows that men need to be careful as they have a religious duty towards
Unequal: Testimony and Shares?
The second spurious logic is based on the fact that the Quran has
declared the testimony of two women equal to the testimony of one man and
a womanís share in inheritance has been pronounced as half that of a man.
But even this does not prove any real or inherent superiority. We need to
consider several aspects here. Firstly, the cultural condition under which
women have been kept leaves them ignorant, illiterate and inexperienced.
Given the consequent difference of understanding and experience, if the
testimony of men and women were treated on par in all manner of issues and
trials, it could result in miscarriage of justice.
The Quranic verse in which the testimony of two women is declared equal
to that of one man concerns loan agreements. In traditional societies,
women are given little opportunity to engage in data gathering,
documentation, account-keeping and court matters. Lack of education,
awareness and experience in such matters are outside the realm of womenís
everyday experience. Men on the other hand routinely deal with such
matters and therefore have no such handicap. That is why, instead of one
woman, the testimony of two women is considered necessary, so that, in
case, one woman forgets the details of the case, the other woman can help
her recall. This in fact is the rationale given by the Quran itself: "Two
women should be present, so that if one woman forgets, the other may help
her recall." If the Quran cites this difference arising out of social
circumstance as the rationale for two women being present during a
testimony and does not say that womenís testimony is worth half that of a
man, who are petty theologians with fanciful notions and faulty logic to
pass such judgment against half of humankind?
Secondly, the decree of the Quran regarding such testimony is an
enabling provision, the observance of which has not been declared
obligatory on Muslims. Latching on to an enabling provision elevating it
to the status of an obligatory edict and feeding that into the male
supremacy argument shows the insularity and sterility of the male mind.
Thirdly, as we have stated earlier, the reason for the testimony of two
women equaling that of one man is due to social circumstances and not
because of the superiority or inferiority of men and women. It is not
difficult to appreciate this for apart from the context of loans-related
disputes, in matters familiar to women such as nikah (marriage),
talaq (divorce), hudood-o-qisas (crime and punishment), where
too testimony is involved, God makes no distinction between men and women.
Fourthly, there is an account from the life of the Prophet which
actually establishes preference to a single womanís testimony over others.
Sahi Bukhari (the collection of sayings of the Prophet considered
to be among the most authentic) narrates the account of Aqba bin Haris,
who had married some girl. A woman later objected to this wedding saying
that the marriage was not legitimate as she had breastfed both the bride
and the groom. Aqba told the woman he did not believe her since she had
never before mentioned breast feeding him. He later asked his in-laws and
they too said that to the best of their knowledge, the woman had never
breastfed their daughter either. Eventually, Aqba went to the Prophet and
narrated the story. The testimony of just one woman was enough for the
Prophet to nullify the nikah thus terminating the marriage.
Now, can the learned fuqha (jurists) quote even a single example
where such a verdict was given on the basis of a single manís testimony?
Yet, it is well known that every now and then, however reluctantly, the
fuqha are compelled to rely on the testimony of a single woman to give
their ruling. Fifthly, it is possible that the primary reason behind
recognizing two womenís testimony as equal to that of one man is that
women sometimes are unable to appear before the court due to physical
constraints. In such a situation, the advantage of having two women
present is that if one is invalid, the other woman would be able to
testify. If anything, granting women the option of being able to have her
testimony placed on record by another woman affirms the primacy rather the
diminishing of womenís rights.
As for share in inheritance, declaring unequal share for men and women
does not prove the superiority of men at all. The burden of looking after
all of a womanís financial needs lie entirely on the man, while women bear
the easier task of housework. Since a man was charged with the
responsibility of providing not only for himself but also his wife and
children, how would it be appropriate to grant a woman Ė who receives
wedding-time gifts from her parents, mehr from the husband, is
entitled to be adequately taken care of by her husband alimony on divorce,
and unlike man has no obligation to spend what is hers on anyone else Ė a
share equal to that of the man in the distribution of inheritance?
This in itself should be a clear and indisputable proof that God is
more compassionate and generous towards women. How else can one explain
the fact that in spite of being fully entitled to her due share in her
husbandís income, she is also entitled to receive a separate share from
her fatherís inheritance, and has the right to alimony? Hence, in the
distribution of inheritance, her share in accordance with Islamic laws
does not establish the superiority of men. In fact, it validates the
primacy of women.
Adam came first?
The male supremacy claim based on the fact that Adam was created first
is nothing but childish. To begin with, we are tempted to assert that this
is so because it was not acceptable to God that a woman is left without a
companion for even a second. Therefore, it is for her sake that He created
Adam first. But as a matter of fact, the belief that Adam was created
first and then came Eve is part of the Christian and Jewish faith. This is
not at all part of the Islamic creed. There is no mention in the Quran
about who was created first, Adam or Eve.
Men allowed multiple wives?
The permission to men to marry four women at a time while women are
prohibited from marrying more than one man is a false claim. The problem
is that people are literalists who look for the meaning of words in
isolation instead of striving to grasp their real meaning and thus
unraveling the divine intent. Men gloat over the fact that a Quranic verse
clearly entitles men to marry more than one wife: "You may marry
two or three or four women whom you choose". But a little reflection will
show that there is no such clear-cut license in the Quran. In fact, having
more than one wife at a time is virtually forbidden and those who violate
it could be guilty of adultery.
Firstly, some effort is needed to understand this verse in its
true perspective. It is not at all clear whether the divine injunction
permits a man to have four wives at the same time or whether all that is
being said is that a man is permitted to marry sequentially up to four
wives. Is it Godís command that on the death of the first wife a man is
permitted to remarry and so on, but only one wife at a time is permitted
and no marriage fifth time is permitted. Or is it being said that if for
some health reasons the first wife is unable to meet her marital
obligations, a man is permitted a second wife, even a third or fourth wife
for similar reasons? Or are men being told that a man may remarry after
divorcing his first wife, and similarly remarry following a second, third
and fourth divorce but never after that? Or is it the divine command that
no marriage after the first is permitted except with the permission of his
current wife or her relations?
Since the verse under consideration is not such whose meaning is
clear and unambiguous, we consider it to be among the non-explicit verses
of the Quran which theologically speaking cannot be used to assert the
veracity of a particular interpretation. For this reason this verse
cannot be a basis for Shariah law.
Whether the ulema agree or not, the most likely interpretation in my
view is that the permission for subsequent marriage is strictly subject to
the willing consent of the first wife or her family members. Our
conviction is based on the life of none other than Prophet Mohammed.
According to a Hadith in Sahih Bukhari, Hazrat Ali intended to
marry Abu Jehalís daughter who had converted to Islam even though he was
already married to Hazrat Fatima. Hence the relatives of the prospective
bride requested permission from the Holy Prophet. On hearing this, the
Holy Prophet became very angry. Ascending the pulpit to deliver a sermon
he announced: these people are asking for my permission as father to allow
them to marry off their daughter to Ali even when my daughter is already
married to him. But I will not allow it, I will not allow it, I will not
allow it. If Ali really wants to do this, then he must divorce my daughter
and only then take another wife. Fatima is very close to my heart,
whosoever does her wrong, does me wrong and whosoever hurts her, hurts me.
This Hadith supports the interpretation of the Quranic verse under
discussion that permission is a must for the second marriage. The
unequivocal opposition from the Prophet proves that it is up to the
current wife and her relatives to give or refuse permission. If
contracting the second marriage had been permitted by God without consent
of the first wife or her relatives, then the Prophetís conduct would be
considered against the will of God, something that is inconceivable for a
As we will discuss in the section on marriage (this is a separate
chapter in Huqooq Niswan which is not reproduced here) that our
ulema and religious leaders have given women the right to stipulate at
the time of nikah itself that the husband will not contract a
second marriage. Making this condition part of the marriage contract also
shows that the second marriage depends on the permission of the first
wife. If this consent was not mandatory, placing a condition in this
regard at the time of nikah would not have been considered legal
and neither would it be religiously binding afterwards. In other words,
contrary to widespread perception, there is no blanket permission in the
Quran for men to marry up to four vies.
Thirdly, and most importantly, in the verse under discussion,
there is a clear-cut directive and an almost impossible-to-meet
pre-condition for bigamy. A husband is permitted more than one wife on the
strict condition that he ensures justice to all. It is further stipulated
that if you are afraid that you will not be able to ensure this, stick to
one wife. Now the question is: what are the requirements for justice? Is
it possible for the average man to be able to observe it in practice? Most
ulema contend that in a marriage, meeting the wifeís daily expenditures,
paying her maintenance allowance, providing housing, spending time with
the wife and discharging of conjugal duties as a husband are the various
requirements of justice. However, we believe that true love and
companionship are the paramount consideration in marriage and therefore
the essential criteria for fair play and just treatment. And we firmly
believe that in a bigamous or polygamous situation, this condition is
virtually impossible for a man to meet.
Our adversariesí object saying there is no point in contemplating
something that is practically impossible. If there is nothing to be gained
by such discourse, Godís directive is rendered devoid of any practical
implication, they say. Our answer to this proposition is that we believe
that the real purpose of marriage is to find a lifelong companion, friend
and comrade who shares with the spouse the ups and downs of life, is the
source of solace and comfort at the end of the daily grind. When referring
to the creation of Eve and commendation of marriage God says, "We have
placed the love of women in your hearts so that you receive comfort and
solace from them." Therefore, if this aspect is excluded from the marital
bond, the relationship gets limited to the satisfaction of male lust.
At another place in the Quran, God asserts, "You will not be able to do
justice to your women (wives) even if you strive for it." It is a basic
axiom in Quranic elucidation that for internal consistency and coherence,
to the extent possible you search for, unravel the meaning of any verse
through other verses. The meaning of justice, for example, must
remain uniform throughout the Quran. Now if the justice-to-all command in
the verse quoted above is limited to what the ulema who oppose us
claim it to be, then the same meaning of justice must apply to the second
verse above. Why then does God proclaim that it is impossible for you to
treat your wives justly? Why is God categorically and unambiguously
asserting that you will not be able to render equal justice to your wives?
God Almighty firmly states that you will never be able to do justice but
the ulema who support polygamy assert: No, we can do justice! If this is
not daring God what is?
However, one might legitimately ask: if God knows that man cannot do
justice and says so in plain words in the Quran, why grant permission for
up to four wives? Does this impossible to meet criteria not render the
permission meaningless? To this we reiterate that, firstly, whatever the
Quran says is simple and clear as we have already explained. You ask God
what the use of this meaningless permission is. For our part, to the
extent that we are able to comprehend the Holy Book, we do not find any
difficulty understanding it. Clearly, the way God has granted permission
for more than one wife is virtually impossible to achieve. In our view,
the granting of permission in this circuitous manner is in fact a severe
admonition to desist from misogyny. If a person consumed by greed is told
that if he finds the phoenix he will also be able to achieve alchemy, it
does not imply a belief on anyoneís part in the actual existence of the
phoenix. Or a belief on the addresseeís part that he is quite hopeful of
its possession and that the day he finds the phoenix alchemy is sure to
Another good example in this regard could be presented from a Quranic
verse in Surah Aaraaf. It reads: "No infidel will enter
Paradise until such time as a camel passes through the eye of a needle."
To conclude from this that there will indeed come a time when a camel will
pass through the eye of a needle is to present a distorted picture of
divine intent. Interestingly, under cover of poetic license a poet taking
this statement on face value presents a very comical thought: "Had the
miseries which befell me fallen on the camel, infidels would enter
paradise." What the poet means to say is that the camel would become so
lean due to grief that it would be able to pass through the eye of the
needle. And since their entry in paradise was subject to this condition,
infidels would then gain easy access to paradise! Godís edict concerning
the taking of more than one wife is similar, when He warns that with
multiple wives there is great danger of injustice.
Of course, if there exists a man who is confident that he would never
do any injustice, then he may marry as many women as he likes: two, three,
or four. In fact, it is only a figure of speech to say marry as many women
as you want: there is no special sanctity to the number four. Trying to
establish divine permission for multiple wives from this verse is
no different from the above mentioned poetic imagination concerning the
admission of infidels in paradise.
Keeping Fiqh and Tafseer principles in mind, this verse should
be deliberated upon from another angle which has not been done
sufficiently hitherto. In my opinion, deriving an edict concerning
nikah from this verse is in itself a big mistake. The
fact is that this verse is concerned with only a certain form of
marriage. During the pre-Islamic period of ignorance (jahiliyah),
Arab men used to indulge in an extremely vile and heartless practice. They
would adopt orphan girls, bring them up, and when they matured, they would
marry them with devious intent. Since the orphans had no family,
the men would seize all the property of the orphans after marriage. The
sole reason for adopting and later marrying these girls was to grab their
possessions, just like even nowadays some men marry dance girls only with
the intention of getting access to their riches. There are others who
despite being married to a good woman are forever on the lookout for some
wealthy woman to marry.
The obvious message of this verse is Godís warning to men
against the then prevalent deceitful practice. The Quran forbids cruelty
towards these orphan girls, commanding men to be judicious as to the
rights of orphans. It is also made very clear that if you have any doubt
about your ability to do justice, fear that if you marry such helpless
orphans you will commit some wrong, by no means must you marry such
girls. Instead marry other women with parents or guardians who can hold
you accountable for your treatment of them. But even then justice remains
a non-negotiable requirement, for that is the true principle behind
marriage. If you can do justice, then you can contract up to four
marriages; if not, limit yourself to only one wife.
It should be abundantly clear from what has been said above that the
verse in question was not a general decree on marriage. Rather it
was aimed at warning against the fraudulent dispossession of helpless
orphan girls. So even today if there are such people who are guardians of
orphan girls they must not marry them if they have any misgivings of
unjust conduct on their own part later. Apart from the context of orphans,
the Quran is silent on nikah. Perhaps, the issue has been left to
both parties intending to marry according to their social status, cultural
circumstances and preferences. Consequently, this verse in the
Quran is no evidence of a blanket license to men to marry up to four
women. And that is why this edict can be no argument in support of menís
Male right to divorce
As for divorce, the right of divorce that men have been granted is such
that they should be extremely cautious about exercising it. In fact the
only way men can lay claim to be decent and civilized is by not exercising
this right outside exceptional circumstances. Divorce is such a sour
medicine that the only ailment it should be administered for is that which
has no other cure. Husband-wife relations are so delicate and private that
going to courts and divulging them before others can only add to their
grief and sorrow. It is true that nikah is an agreement like any
other civil contract. After the covenant is signed, each party reserves
the right to force his/her partner who is bent on violating the contract
to abide by it and not strain the relationship. But it is also the case
that only broken hearts think of terminating the contract. And when that
stage is reached even if one is forced to continue with the contract, it
can only be under duress. The relationship then will be a sham rather than
the product of mutual love and respect.
The marital contract is after all premised on a meeting of hearts and
when that no longer holds true what is left is a spiritless, physical
proximity. In such circumstances both parties need to consider the worth
of continuing such a relationship merely on the strength of a court decree
although emotionally they are already distant from each other. Under such
circumstances it is best that they part ways by mutual consent.
As to the question: who has been/should be given this right? In my
opinion, if hostility between husband and wife is the reason for divorce,
no matter who is bestowed with the right the result will be the same. It
is not generally the case that a man says to his wife that he does not
want her any longer, but the wife is still full of love for the husband
and reluctant to end the relationship. We are of the opinion that in such
a situation they should part ways irrespective of whether the man demands
it or the woman.
No one can deny the fact that women are imbued with greater modesty,
decency and desire to protect their dignity and honor as compared to men.
It seems as if modesty and decorum are part of their genetic makeup and
all those elements that bring out the gentleness which nature has
conferred upon women, are apparent in abundant measure. Kindness,
compassion, God-fear, empathy and love are innate qualities in women. A
separation through divorce no matter how genuine the reasons would
understandably be far more painful for one whose basic nature is
constituted of love and kindness. Divorce for women Ė the personification
of love Ė whoís every fiber is imbued with sincerity, would obviously be a
most undesirable thing.
That is why God has protected women against precipitating an act. The
Prophet declared divorce as being the worst act amongst all acts
acceptable to God. Protect women, he preached to his followers. What an
irony that something which has been termed the worst practice by God is
touted as an argument for male superiority. In any case, we need to
examine whether in fact men alone have the right to divorce. It is quite
possible that men having lost interest in their wives refuse to divorce
with the sole purpose of torturing them. In such situations, women have
been given the right to unilaterally seek divorce through a court
of law. This right of the women is called Ďkhulaí. In this way, she
has the right to initiative separation proceedings. But even in such
situations God protects her from any blame because on the face of it she
is merely asking the court for justice.
Women can choose to terminate a marriage for other reasons too. It is
reported in Akhbar-e-Sahiha that a very beautiful woman, Hafza
binte Sahal, lived in Medina during the time of the Prophet. Her husband
who was ugly loved his wife very much but the woman hated him. They would
quarrel every day. At last, Hafza told the Prophet that she hated her
husband very much and feared that she might be held accountable by God for
not fulfilling her responsibilities as a wife. Therefore, she requested
the Prophet to separate her from her husband. The Prophet tried to
convince the woman but when he saw that harmony between the two was
difficult, he asked the man to divorce her.
The husband told the Prophet that he had gifted precious land to his
wife. Since she now wanted a divorce for no fault of his, his land should
be returned to him. Hafza said he was welcome to the estate and anything
else he may want as long as he let her go. In the end, the Prophet asked
the land to be returned and ended their marriage.
What better right could be granted to women to protect them from the
excesses of their husbands than the rights which have already been given
to them under the Islamic law?
For men, houris in paradise
When all worldly logic fails to prove manís superiority over women, he
turns to the Hereafter to establish his case. It is claimed that men have
been promised very beautiful women ó houris ó in paradise. But this claim
is as shameful and worthless as are the rest of them. The words of the
Quran on which this imaginary superiority is based are: "Walahum feeha
azwaaj motaharra" ("For them there will be virtuous partners in
paradise"). They conclude from this verse that "hum"
which is a masculine pronoun means men and azwaaj refers to the
virgin maidens of paradise. However, this interpretation of the verse
shows total ignorance of the special Quranic style of discourse.
The Quran has a distinctive style. Wherever the reference is to
humanity at large, the masculine gender is used to convey its message.
Look at the very first surah (chapter of the Quran) of the Quran,
where God says: "Hudayyil muttaqeenallazina youmenoona bil ghaibe wa
yaqeemun al salawath") ("Believers who have faith in the Day of
Judgment and the unseen and who establish prayers"). Here only the
masculine pronoun has been used but that surely does not mean that
the Quran is only for the guidance of those pious men who have faith in
the unseen and who pray regularly. Obviously women too are being
addressed. In hundreds of places, the Quran refers to "aqueemul
salwatah wa utu al zakaah" (those who pray regularly and pay the
religious tax) using the masculine pronoun. Would it be right then to
believe that the edict regarding prayers and payment of the
obligatory tax is only for men while women have been exempted from
these obligations? Certainly not!
Similarly, the Quranic edict concerning prayers and fasting, "mun
shahada minkum al shahada faleesummha", read literally means:
"Those (men) among you who have cited the moon must start fasting". Were
we to believe that here women are excluded from fasting during Ramzaan,
women will be altogether free of this obligation since we do not find any
separate mention of this obligation for women elsewhere in the Quran.
To repeat, in numerous places in the Quran though the masculine
pronoun is used, the reference is obviously to both men and women.
Incidentally, such usage is not uncommon in Urdu. For example, Bura
karnay wale ka anjaam bura hota hai ("those who commit evil deeds will
be meet their just ends"). As we all know, "wale" is masculine and
walee feminine. Obviously it does not mean that "bura karne
walee" women have nothing to worry about.
Similarly, it is not correct to take the word zouj to mean Ďa
womaní. In Arabic, zouj means "partner". A woman is zouj of
a man while a man is zouj of a woman. The expression "huqooq
zoujain" ("the rights of partners") well illustrates the point of
gender equality. Thus, the verse simply means that those who carry
out righteous deeds will enter paradise and will have virtuous partners
for companionship. That is, for men there will be women and for women
there will be men.
This interpretation might seem surprising and elicit the question: we
know, men will have houris, but who will be womenís partners? This
confusion arises only because to pamper their own egos, men have decided
to read certain passages of the Quran in a way that suits them and have
convinced themselves that they have the right interpretation. Though they
seem to accept the right interpretation when it is pointed out to them and
claim to have jettisoned their earlier understanding, the fact is that
they unconsciously stick to old ideas which linger in the mind. Old habits
die hard and they find it difficult to internalize the new understanding
even after apparently having come around to accepting them.
Muslim men have for long held the firm conviction that come the Day of
Reckoning and there will be houris lying in wait for them in
paradise. We explain to them that this is a mistaken view, so dislodge it
from your mind and understand the real meaning of the Quran. Alright, they
say, we accept what you say. But tell us: men will have houris as
partners, but who will be womenís partners? Clearly with the thought of
houris still has a strong hold on their imagination. They have not really
accepted what they claim to have and this is a big folly.
The fact is that there is not a single verse in the Quran to
indicate that the houris of paradise are a separate creation
intended as reward for pious men. In the Arabic language all
fair-complexioned woman with black eyes are called "hoor" (houri).
The Quran clearly states that on the day of reckoning all human beings
will be resurrected, all young in age. There is no further detail
concerning men. But about women God specifically states that when
resurrected all women be virgin and of marriageable age just like the
It is these very women who are variously described in the Quran as "houris"
(black-eyed), "qaaserat ul fitrat" (of modest disposition), "khairaat"
(good wives), "azwaaj" (wives). Referring to certain verses
in the Quran and sayings of the Prophet, some of his Companions (Ibn Abbas
for example,) have clearly taken the view that all the words in the Quran
which are taken to imply that houris are a species apart from human
beings in fact refer to none other than the women inhabitants of planet
earth. When it is said that they are virgins it only means that this is so
since their resurrection.
It is clear then that the beautiful women who are being referred to in
the Quran are the very wives who once inhabited the earth but who will be
resurrected as very beautiful and loving companions. In paradise where no
one will ever age the pious women will provide companionship forever to
their pious husbands. In Surah Hadd, Allah says that those who are
rewarded with life eternal in paradise will get to meet their near and
dear ones: parents, wives, children. In Surah Toor also it is
mentioned that Allah will bring together in paradise those who are
virtuous and whose children too are virtuous. In Surah Zakhraf it
is stated: enter paradise with your wives and roam about freely. There are
several other verses where it is reiterated that the virtuous who
enter paradise will meet their virtuous relations there.
From all that has been said above it should be evident that it is
neither the case that men have special mental faculties nor has the Quran
given any elevated status to men because of which they should be
considered superior. A close study of Shariah clearly establishes that men
and women have equal rights. Surah Nisa, the one that contains many
verses concerning women begins as follows: "O people, fear your
Creator who has created you all of the same kind and created your partners
from the same". The surah spells out the rights of heirs, orphans
and women and anyone who might do injustice towards them is dealt a severe
warning. It is asserted that men and women are created from a single
nafs (self), with similar thoughts and feelings. Be it men or women,
anyone who is oppressed or victimized feels pain just like you would in
their place because you have all been made alike. So fear Allah and beware
of committing any injustice against anyone.
In this surah, even though the husband has been given the
responsibility of looking after all his wifeís needs, she has been granted
a share in her fatherís property equal to half of the manís share. Whatís
more, in certain situations a womanís share has been made the same as that
of manís. For example, if the deceased leaves behind parents and children,
each parent is entitled to a sixth of the total property, that is, the
mother and the father get the same amount. In a situation where the
deceased leaves behind neither parents nor children but only brothers and
sisters, the share of the sisters are to be equal to that of the brothers.
In addition to the above, the wife is entitled to mehr (dower)
from the husband at the time of marriage. In the event of divorce, however
large the amount, the husband is not entitled to demand the return of even
a penny. Before Islam there was a cruel practice in Arabia whereby when a
husband lost interest in the wife he would mistreat her to the point that
she would ask for divorce and return the dower amount. Declaring this to
be an evil practice, Allah has warned Muslim men from misbehaving with
their wives with the intent of recovering the dower amount from her.
At the same time, men have been commanded to behave decently with their
wives. The Quran goes on to say that even if you dislike your wife for
some reason you must still treat her well for it is possible that Allah
may intend some good for you from the very thing you dislike. The
principle of gender parity is reiterated, saying that men have a right to
a portion of what they earn and women have a right to a portion of what
they earn. In other words, both are equal, neither is superior to the
other. To each there is a reward for his or her good deeds.
The womanís right to divorce through the khula system has been
stated as follows: "If a woman fears misbehavior on the part of her
husband, there is no harm if the two of them resolved matters amicably.
But if they decide to separate, Allah will be equally generous with both".
In the event of domestic conflict, the way prescribed for attempting
resolution is equally gender just: If there is a misunderstanding between
husband and wife, appoint two arbitrators, one from the manís family, the
other from the womanís. No doubt, the more you reflect on the verses
of the Quran, the more you will realize that the gender justice principle
comes through clear and consistent.
The only difference between men and women has to do with their
reproductive organs and there is no physical or mental prowess involved
here. That woman are the "weaker sex" has only one implication: women give
birth to children and bring them up, so men should perform arduous tasks
and earn for the upkeep of the entire family.
Some medical experts claim to have recently detected a small disparity
in the brain capacity of men and women. It is claimed that men have the
capacity for totalizing, comprehensive thought, for analyzing things in
intricate detail while women find it difficult to move conceptually from
the particular to the general. Firstly, this proposition appears to be
hypothetical and whimsical, and the same has yet to be established
scientifically. If per chance, it were to be conclusively proved in the
future, it would at best mean that men have a capacity that women lack
relatively speaking and vice versa. For the moment the fact remains that
until the present there has never arisen an issue, problem or challenge in
the intellectual domain which men are able to address or comprehend but
In fact, as far as some of my friendsí and my own experience are
concerned, we find that compared to boys girls are sharper, more
intelligent, more conscientious. I have been very pleasantly surprised to
learn of many girls who never got to attend a madrasa and yet have
learnt to read and write on their own. In most cases, they neither had
access to formal education, nor to anyone at home who assumed the
responsibility of tutoring them. They simply picked up some words from a
sister, some from a brother, a few things now and then from the mother.
They learnt to write by simply watching their siblings do the same.
Gradually, through such self-learning they became educated enough to start
teaching their younger brothers. But we have yet to come across a single
example of a boy who is self-taught in similar fashion. Parents or elder
brothers, who have taught a boy and a girl of the same age, would know
that boys are relatively speaking dense and dim-witted, a dead loss as
compared to girls.
As far as moral values are concerned, women are by far in the lead.
Modesty, humility and decency are virtues you find in abundance in women;
you wonít find even a tenth of the same in men. Some men are so prejudiced
against women that if a widow opts for a second marriage after the death
of her husband, it becomes a proof of their supposed treachery. But the
same men have no qualms practicing polygamy and ignoring their obligations
towards any of the wives Ė both contrary to the teachings of Islam. They
remarry no sooner than the death of the wife, with not a momentís thought
on how the step-mother will behave with the children from the earlier
marriage. None of this ever invokes the betrayal charge against men while
poor helpless, God-fearing widows who, to escape their desperate
circumstances, look for succor through remarriage in keeping with the
teachings of Allah and his prophet are immediately rendered unfaithful.
If remarriage per se is proof of treachery why are men, who practice
polygamy merely to satisfy their lust, who violate Shariah laws, who sow
thorns in the path of their children not declared the worst betrayers the
most untrustworthy of all? Should not such hypocrites who pour scorn over
widows who remarry have some shame?
It is not a practice among Muslims but consider the extraordinary
devotion and commitment of Hindu women to their husbands. Granted, the
sati system a repugnant practice. But think of what it involves and ask
yourself honestly: is there an example anywhere in the world, from men of
any race or religion, that could come even remotely close to such an
example, of men are prepared to unhesitatingly sacrifice their life for
the love of their wives?
Apart from all that has been said above which goes to show that women
are superior beings, it is also worth noting that though God has no visage
or features, yet for believers from all spiritual traditions Beauty is
among His attributes. Muslims believe that God is the bestower of beauty
and all beauty is dear to Him. Who can doubt that He has blessed women
with a greater share of this divine attribute, that in every nation and
country women are more beautiful than men? Does this not indicate that God
is more well-disposed towards women?
Quite understandably, women blessed with this radiant gift, this
amazing magnetic quality are more than able to hold their own against the
most powerful, the mightiest and the most sagely amongst men. Who does not
know that the most lion-hearted among men who never yielded before the
worldís greatest misfortunes or calamities, who never cowered before the
deadliest of weapons get mesmerized by one darting glance from a beautiful
woman? Which is that lightning power whose single spark can ignite the
senses of the bravest and the self-control of the most sagely amongst the
hermits? Who does not know that one alluring feminine look is sufficient
to melt the resolve of many a sage, or bring the iron-willed to their
Who can deny that the beauty that so entrances is but a speck of
divine splendor, a spark of the sun that illuminates the world? Why then
should women not proclaim with pride:
"Garche khurdeem nisbate sat buzurg
zarra aftaab ta baaneem"
(A speck of dust Sire, to you may be
The sun is where I am coming from).
(See edit on page 3 for more on the writer. )
(Translated for Urdu by Javed Anand).