Prophet Muhammad laid great emphasis on the protection of women. But as Quranic commentaries became the domain of men, they weakened the position of the fairer sex
By Murad Ali Baig
Marriage in Islam was a very sacred rite and women were given unprecedented importance by Prophet Muhammad. The old Arab tribal traditions continued substantially unchanged in the Quran and a man had to pay a bride price to the family of his future wife for depriving them of a valuable working member. The dowry, given by the groom in a contract before a mullah, was the property of the bride alone and she had a right to it even in the event of a divorce. Prophet Muhammad laid great emphasis on the fair treatment of women and children and of family values, frequently emphasizing kindness and love.
Divorce was not difficult but the Prophet prescribed severe limitations to control its abuse and protect women from exploitation. A pregnant woman could not be divorced and a man had to provide maintenance to a divorced wife unless she had been unfaithful.
According to the Quran and Hadis (written 200 years later), the pronouncement of talaq (notice of divorce) had to be uttered three times with intervals of three periods corresponding to three menstrual cycles. This was meant to allow time for mediation or reconciliation.
Another safeguard was that in the nikah, or marriage contract, the groom had to provide a substantial settlement that provided lifetime security for the bride.
Today, many boys in Islamic countries cannot get married as they can’t afford the “bride price”. Few know that women also had the right to initiate divorce called khula under which she could retain all the mehr, jewelry and gifts given in marriage.
The Omayyad Khalifs, however, found these rules too restrictive for their indulgences and their clerics conveniently allowed Muslims to believe that the pronouncement of triple talaq had been allowed by the Prophet, thus greatly lowering the status of women. In recent times, some nondescript mullahs even permit instant talaq to be pronounced over the telephone. Later on, some clerics further corrupted Islamic marriage practices and even allowed Muta marriages, valid for just one day, to enable men to fornicate at will while sanctimoniously claiming to be good Muslims.
The Quran even mentions veils and when they can be used. Arab women, like most women in ancient societies, used to modestly hide their faces when in the presence of strangers. But there was no religious requirement in the Quran for them to be completely veiled. The Quran says in Sura 24:30 – 3: “Enjoin believing women to turn their eyes from temptation and preserve their chastity… to cover their adornments and draw their veils over their bosoms and not reveal their finery except to their husbands…close relations… and slave girls.”
For 14 centuries, all Quranic commentaries had been the exclusive domain of Muslim men, with the result that many changing commentaries over the centuries weakened the position that the Prophet had prescribed for Muslim women.
In the Hadis, it had, however, been noted that the women in Prophet Muhammad’s household used to cover or veil their faces whenever they passed the throngs which had gathered to listen to the Prophet at his house in Madina. Over the years, some chauvinistic clerics chose to use this example to force all women to wear veils, hijabs or be clad from head to toe in an ugly tent-like burqa.
Incidentally, the story of Prophet Muhammad, and thus the traditions of early Islam, was recorded by the earliest biographers—Ibn Ishaq (d 768 CE), Ibn Hisham (d 833), al-Baladhuri (d 892) and al-Tabari (d 922). These records were, therefore, written 136 to 290 years or roughly 6 to 12 generations after the death of his companions of Mecca and his helpers (Ansars) of Madina.
As in all religions, many other commentators and clerics were to add their own contributions to create the myths about Prophet Muhammad and his words and these were not in full conformity with the earliest historical sources. The authenticity of Muhammad’s utterances are, therefore, dubious.
Lead picture: As per the Quran, a man had to pay a bride price to the family of his future wife for depriving them of a valuable working member. Photo: UNI