Ironically, the Prophetic precedent, in spite of its beauty and perfection, is often abused to promote negative treatment of women. Quite often Friday sermons and evening lectures are interlaced with decontextualized hadith
that imply the inferiority of women and impede women from becoming full participants in their own communities. Take for example the hadith
that ostensibly declares that women are nāqiṣāt ʿaql wa-dīn
, or “deficient in intellect and religion.”
It is easy to lose count of the number of times this hadith
has been used with a pointed finger to remind the audience that men are superior and more fit to lead in every situation. Yet, often missing is the specific context of this saying of the Prophet ﷺ, which actually was not a sermon on the topic of gender, but was instead about charity.
He said it on Eid day as he ﷺ was preaching to the men and women after prayer. He turned to the men and called out to them to spend in charity for the sake of Allah (swt). He then turned to the women, and by way of encouragement, reminded them to increase in their charity as well, alluding to the fact that during their menstruation and the like, they were not responsible for prayer and fasting. Thus, by advising them to increase their donations, the Prophet ﷺ was pointing them to other opportunities for coming closer to Allah (swt). The intention behind his words was immediately understood by those who were there to actually witness them. Zaynab b. Abu Muawiyah immediately ran back to her home after the Eid prayer, rushing to adhere to the counsel of the Prophet ﷺ and give from her wealth in charity. This crucial context to the hadith
illustrates that the Prophet ﷺwas not making any kind of ontological declaration about the relative worth or capacity of women in relation to men, nor was he delineating some kind of cosmological hierarchy of gender with men occupying a rank above women; rather, he ﷺ was making an exhortation in that particular situation to women to take the lead in charity in light of their lessened responsibilities in other domains and their tremendous influence on men.
Now imagine that your average imam or religious teacher led his congregation with the assumption that women are just as capable of being scholars and leaders in their communities. Imagine that your average mosque or organizational leadership not only held this assumption, but actively implemented it by constituting itself of both men and women and valuing the voices and concerns of all members equally. We are far from this reality. Calling out “the patriarchy” is often representative of the frustration of women who do not see their concerns taken seriously, and do not see themselves reflected as integral to their own communities. Waging war against feminism may unintentionally enable those in our communities who seek to discredit and silence women by labeling every complaint they raise as due to feminism.
When the Prophet ﷺ received complaints from female companions, he listened to them attentively and took them very seriously. Take, for instance, the story of Khawla bint Tha‘labah (ra) who complained of her husband’s unjust actions towards her. The response to her complaint came from none other than God Himself, to be preserved in the Quran as an example until the end of time: “God has heard the words of the woman who disputed with you [Prophet] about her husband and complained to God: God has heard what you both had to say” [Quran 58:1]. In this verse and those that follow, Allah (swt) sets the best of examples by not only acknowledging the concerns of Khawla (ra), but also legitimizing them and providing a solution through an entire chapter in the Quran named after her.
The reality of the matter is that Muslim women throughout history
have been leaders in scholarship and luminaries in various fields. From Aishah (ra), the wife of the Prophet ﷺ, who corrected her male counterparts in matters of hadith
jurisprudence and Nusayba bint Kaab (ra) who fought alongside the Prophet ﷺ in battle, to Sutayta al-Mahamli who found solutions to some of the most complicated mathematical equations of her time and Queen Amina of Zaria who protected her kingdom, Muslim women have set unparalleled standards in serving their communities. Yet, despite this rich history, we have managed to erase our memories of their contributions and rewrite their stories to fall in line with our own expectations of women as marginal figures. It is up to us to revive these precedents and instill strength and motivation in our women, young and old, in order to empower the current generation and those to come to achieve their full potential in serving others and serving God.