The myth of inadaptability


How flexible is Islam when it comes to women’s rights

Changes in the rights of women

The absence of rights for women in Islamic countries is usually taken as the most solid example of Islam’s incompatibility with modernism. This fact appears so obvious that even many of those who vehemently oppose the view that  Islam is singularly rigid, admit this religion’s particular inflexibility when it comes to women [1].

There can be little doubt that the superiority of men to women in Islamic sharia’ - at least when it comes to social relations - is an indisputable fact [2]. But this male centrality is not particular to Islam nor a reason to think Islam singularly inflexible. All the traditional major religions preach female inferiority as a self-evident principle. This is because in pre-capitalist societies, especially where land was the defining measure of wealth, one of religion’s main tasks was to defend the effective land ownership and family stability by helping to inferiorise women [3].  In this capacity Islam was no more severe than other religions, including Christianity. Moreover Islam  had to openly revise some of its own rules in order to pursue this role [see below].

Pre-Islamic degradation

We must remember that Islam took form in an environment where on the one hand women were savagely degraded, and on the other hand, had significant sexual freedom. These two apparently contrary elements were present together, and  effected Islam’s earlier laws on women in ways that would be important to bear in mind in order to understand the question under discussion. Let me reiterate this point for the umpteenth time that Islam took form in a society without a state and it was through the creation and spread of Islam that the first government of the Mozar tribes took shape.

In the preceding years, the spread of commerce along the commercial route by the Red Sea, which linked the commercial centres of Eastern Mediterranean to the East African coast, had created conditions for the grand alliance of Arab tribes and the birth of the Arabic government. Early Islam was in reality an ideological umbrella which provided the necessary conditions for this alliance. In other words Islam took shape in conditions where the spread of commerce was breaking up tribal relations and severely weakening the inner ties of the tribes [4]. Some tribes became more privileged and within tribes the gulf between the rich and poor was widening at an ever faster rate.

Since commerce and military prowess were complementary, the spread of commerce increased the importance of military skills more and more, boosting the social position of the warrior. The increased standing of warriors fanned inter-tribal wars. Battles and plunder became an important source of wealth and power. As a consequence women, especially women coming from poorer families and weaker tribes, became more defenceless and a source of weakness for the tribe.

Women prisoners became a valuable booty in these tribal wars. Marriage through capture or sale of women was spreading. In such marriages the wife was under the complete jurisdiction of the husband, and in practice was part of his possessions. To force captive women to sell their bodies was apparently a common pursuit and one with considerable income [5]. It is probable that in his period women could not own significant personal property [6]. Moreover with tribal solidarity weakening, warrior individuality intensifying and the rich separating out, the dependence of women to their husband, father or brother increased.

We must recall that these developments were taking place in the midst of a culture where traces of matrilineage was still visible and matrilocal marriages were still common occurrences. Following WR Smith [7] many researchers have used Arab-Islamic sources to argue that before the appearance of Islam a form of polyandry or even matriarchy existed among some Arab tribes.

For example, according to tradition, even Mohammad was the progeny of a matrilocal marriage and lived with his mother’s tribe until the death of her mother Ameneh bent- Wahab when he was six. Similarly ‘Abd al-Muttaleb, Mohammad’s grandfather, was also the progeny of a matrilocal marriage [8]. Even today the Arabic language bears traces of its pre-Islamic matrilineal heritage. For example rahem means both womb and kinship. Batn is both the abdomen and the tribe; umma which means community is rooted in umm = mother [9].

It should be noted that matrilineage is not synonymous with matriarchy or even high respect for women. In this system of kinship, although the mothers lineage is important, power is usually with the men. The woman is under the control of her brothers. The husband is the stranger who is brought in from outside and except for sexual relations, has no other rights on his wife. The children are brought up in the mother’s tribe and under the tutelage of  the brother and the male relations of the mother [10].

Wherever the remains of matrilineage was more manifest, the crisis of the tribal system was more acute and destructive. The tribe was more vulnerable to its rivals. The richer and more powerful rival tribes exploded the internal cohesion of weaker tribes, and crushed their pride, by taking captive their women. There is strong evidence that during this period prostitution had become a widespread affair and brothels were an inseparable component of all commercial centres.

Women prostitutes were a source of disgrace and did not live with their tribes. They covered themselves in front of men from their own tribe only receiving strange men [11]. Prostitution was essentially because of poverty. Evidence points to the fact that women from richer families, or those with a “pedigree” did not sell their bodies. That is it was the poorer defenceless women who were the source of shame for their tribe and family. It was under these conditions that the practice of female infanticide surfaced, a practice mostly seen among poor and defenceless families [12].

Islam a revolution

A brief contemplation of the teachings of early Islam on women is enough to make clear that the appearance of Islam was a veritable revolution for the women of this society. Mohammad confronted female infanticide right at the start of his preaching with a passionate decisiveness [13]. He tried to counter this view, prevalent in most traditional cultures and religions, that a woman is by nature a devilish and cursed creature [14].

One must realise that although the Qur’an quotes the story of the creation of Adam and Eve, and the story of original sin, in a version very similar to that in the Torah [15], it does not present woman as the source of Adam’s misbehaviour. In he Torah woman is the assistant of the snake (the Devil) and Adam takes the forbidden fruit goaded by their conspiracy. For this reason both are victims of the divine curse. The pain of childbirth is the sign of this eternal curse on women [16]. In the Qur’anic version there is no special relationship between the Devil and Eve; both man and woman eat of the forbidden fruit, and both are driven from heaven.

Redefining the family

Since the formation of the Islamic state was impossible without the alliance of Arab tribes, one of  Mohammad’s priorities in his call to Islam was to remove the sources of friction and enmity between Arab tribes. An important tool for this task was to  reorganise the family, define the position of women within it and protect her security. For this reason Qur’anic directives in this sphere was particularly detailed and specific. Mohammad’s most important reforms were:

a. He forbid the capture and slavery of Arabs, and therefore annulled the practice of marriage through taking women captive [17].

b. By establishing such taxation as zakat [alms] and emphasising the importance of supporting the weak and poor it created conditions that reduced the vulnerability of women - especially women who were destitute or widowed. It must be remembered that according to the Qur’an zakat is the most important duty of every Muslim, second only to daily prayer. Almost everywhere prayer is mentioned it is followed immediately by an exhortation to pay zakat. And where it mentions the used to which zakat should be put there is always mention of orphans and [poor] relatives. The extent of the crisis enveloping the tribal order, and the important role Mohammad’s invitation to Islam had in pulling that society out of its crisis is also revealed by these directives.

c. Mohammad put a definite end to martilineage, which since the sixth century had been on the decline. In the midst of the crisis of the tribal order, matrilineage contributed  in the vulnerability of women. The Qur’an’s emphasis on eddeh [prescribed waiting time] after divorce and eddeh after death was to clarify the paternity of the child, and shows that Mohammad saw a patrilineage and a patrilineal family as one of the most important ways of escaping the crisis enveloping the tribal order.

This move undoubtedly sanctioned the control of men over women and had an important role in reinforcing the patriarchal system. However, seen in the context of its time, it did not worsen conditions for women, and even in practice lessened their vulnerability. In the patrilineal family system, which was finalised with the appearance of Islam in Arabian society, the nafagheh of women [the cost of her livelihood] was the most important material commitment of the husband

d. Islam limited the practice of polygamy. In pre-Islamic Arabian society neither sex was bound by monogamy. In its process of finalising patrilineage, Islam totally banned polygamy for women and limited it for men. There is little doubt that in the specific historic context, this move had an important role on raising the social standing of women and reducing their material insecurity. The Qur’an limits polygamy for men to four wives on condition they are treated equally. On this point it says “if you fear that you cannot maintain equality among them, marry one only or any slave girl you may own”. [18]

e. Islam allowed women to own property independent of the husband and the husband’s family. The Qur’an clearly and repeatedly emphasises the payment of “mahr” to women at the time of marriage and makes it clear that this belongs entirely to the women. Any pressure on the woman to forgo mahr or her wealth is a major sin. Like men women are permitted to inherit from their relation and relation by marriage albeit half that of the man at all levels.

I  have argued that Islam is a religion, that like all religions. Compared to other traditional religions its attitude towards women is not necessarily worse. On the contrary, because of its historic setting, Islam actually paid particular attention to protecting women. With this introduction we can now turn to the topic under dissuasion: examples of changes in the legal rights of women since early Islam.


Clear changes in inheritance

As mentioned above early Islam gave women, as it has men, the right to inherit property from their relations by blood and marriage.  Although it is everywhere half that of the man she can inherit from everyone and everything a man inherits. In this the Qur’an is explicit. “Men shall have a share in what their parents and kinsmen leave; women shall have a share in what their parents and kinsmen leave; whether it be little or much, they are legally entitled to their share” [19]. And in explaining the share of the husband from his wife and the wife from her husband it goes on: “you shall inherit half your wives’ estate if they die childless. If they have children, a quarter of their estate shall be yours after payment of their debts and any legacies they may have bequeathed. Your wives shall inherit one quarter of your estate if you die childless. If you leave children, they shall inherit one-eighth, after payment of your debts and any legacies you may have bequeathed” [19].

After Islam spread beyond the Arabian Peninsula this clear and unequivocal statement by the Qur’an was ignored by almost all the influential feqh madhabs (schools of Islamic jurisdiction) - the four main Sunni madhabs and the Ja’afari Shi’i [see iran bulletin no ]. All are in near agreement that women cannot inherit all their husband’s wealth. All agree that women cannot inherit land. Most say that some of the man’s property, which can have a role in perpetuating his family, is also not inheritable by the woman but goes to his male off spring (or even, in some religious schools the first son) [20].

It must be noted that in pre-capitalist societies land was a determining wealth, and the limitation of women ownership of land was a big blow on the economic independence of women vis a vis the husband’s family. Moreover, the Sunni schools of Islamic law went even further and under various guises deprived women further of inheritance. Thus on occasions they reduced the share of the wife’s inheritance from the husband to below one eighth. On other occasions, by insisting on the primacy of male inheritors and the father’s relatives, they disinherited the female inheritors and the maternal relatives of the deceased.

Primacy of land ownership

While it may be astonishing that the clear unequivocal directives of the Qur’an have been ignored by the religious authorities from almost all the Islamic religious schools, the social explanation for this moving away from early Islam is not difficult to see.

In pre-capitalist agricultural communities the political and economic unity of the dominant class is secured by handing down wealth through rewarding sons, and particularly by stressing the right of primogeniture, in the context of a patriarchal family. Since in such communities the ideological convictions of the dominant class (and not only the dominant class) was ordered predominantly under the umbrella of religion, the provision of the right ideological conditions to ensure the transfer of wealth under the patriarchal family became one of main tasks of the dominant religion [21].

From this perspective, the position of early Islam on inheritance was anomalous, as it had been formed during a time of tribal unity and the formation of the state, in a community where agriculture had a subsidiary role in the economy. It became problematic when Islam spread to more advanced communities based on an agricultural economy.

Obviously the different religious schools could not, and did not, give identical answers to this problem. Yet all the answers took the logic of the survival of a paternalistic family as self evident and followed its requirements. In pointing to this difference between the Qur’an and feqh Levi observes: “in most Islamic lands, despite the guidance of the Qur’an, inheritance of daughters is an exception rather than the rule” [22].

2. Adultery

Punishment of adultery is another sphere where Islamic feqh put aside the Qur’an. On this point the Qur’an is clear and detailed. There are two different and even conflicting commandments.

The first (Chapter 4, verses 15/16) says: “If any of your women commits fornication, call in four witnesses from among yourselves against them; if they testify to their guilt confine them to their houses till death overtakes them or till Allah finds another way for them. If two men among you commit indecency punish them both. If they repent and mend their ways, let them be. Allah is forgiving and merciful.”

The second commandment (Chapter 24:2-9) is as follows: “The adulterer and the adulteress shall each be given a hundred lashes. Let no pity for them cause you to disobey Allah, if you truly believe in Allah and the Last Day; and let the punishment be witnessed by a number of believers. The adulterer may marry only an adulterer or as idolatress; and the idolatress may marry only an adulterer or an idolater. True believers are forbidden such marriages. Those who defame honourable women and cannot produce four witnesses shall be given eighty lashes. No testimony of theirs shall be admissible, for they are great transgressors - except those among them that afterwards repent and mend their ways. Allah is forgiving and merciful. If a man accuses his wife but has no witnesses except himself, he shall swear four times by Allah that his charge is true, calling down upon himself the curse of Allah if he is lying. But if his wife swears four times by Allah that his charge is false and calls down Allah’s curse upon herself if it be true, she shall receive no punishment.”

Qur’anic commentators differ on their interpretations of these two commandments and their undoubted difference. Some believe that the first commandment is on homosexual men and women. Others believe that the first commandment is about married women (mohseneh).

Yet whatever our views on these two points, in neither is adultery punishable by death. Even if we accept the first commandment as being directed to adultery, the maximum penalty one can deduce from this is a life imprisonment. Yet all the most influential Islamic religious schools (madhab)   prescribe death by stoning for adultery within marriage (zenaye mohseneh). Furthermore almost all of these give the “droit d’honeur” to the man to kill his wife, sister or mother in a illicit relationship with a stranger without undergoing punishment. Clearly this view is totally at odds with the verses in Chapter 24.

Firstly in these verses there is no difference between adultery inside and outside marriage and the punishment for any proven adultery is 100 lashes. Secondly, there is little doubt that the above punishment is in the first instance for “mohseneh” adultery (within marriage) because even if ignore the context in which these verses appeared [23] the content of verses 6 to 9 show that the talk, before all else, is over “mohseneh adultery”. Note that the verses speak of the a man accusing his wife. Thirdly these verses leave no doubt that even if a man sees with his own eyes his wife sleeping with another, not only has he no right to kill her, but if he cannot summon four witnesses, the woman cannot even be whipped. Fourth to remark on the punishment of the accusers immediately after citing the penalty for adultery, and to emphasise the necessity for four witnesses, shows that the Qur’an is aware of the importance of confronting false accusations - whose victims are usually women.

Attempts by the various Qur’anic commentators and Islamic faqihs (jurists) to explain away this obvious discrepancy between the Qur’an and Islamic lay (feqh) is so contradictory and unconvincing that one is amazed at the terrifying power of blind obedience. Interestingly in their illogicality they follow the logic which they consider unarguable and unassailable: the logic of defending the stability of the patriarchal family.

One of the key obligations of the paternalistic family in all pre-capitalist communities was to reinforce the unconditional control of men on the body and soul and sexual conduct of women. As discussed above the central role in this task falls on the dominant religion.

Early Islam took important steps in putting a decisive end to matrilineage and dug the foundations of a patrilineal and patriarchal family in Arabian society [24]. However, for variety of reasons early Islam could not enact laws harsh enough to bind women in the patriarchal family. This task was left to later interpreters.

To understand this point it is enough to compare the laws of the Qur’an and the Bible on adultery. Unlike the Qur’an the Bible, firstly, clearly differentiates between adultery (zenay’e mohseneh) and fornication [25] and secondly, clearly prescribes death and stoning for adultery within marriage [26]. Therefore Islamic feqh - which took shape in the period when Islam became an empire - simply ignored the original laws of  Islam on adultery and in practice adopted the laws taken from the Torah, giving it an Islamic colouring.

3. Temporary marriage

Here again Qur’anic commandments are side-stepped at a later date. Temporary marriage or mott’ eh  is a form of agreement between men and women in which for a defined time in which the man, in exchange for sexual favours from a woman, pays her in cash or kind. Temporary marriage is only recognised in Shi’i feqh. Ii is forbidden (haram) by  all Sunni schools of feqh. The point of interest is that Shi’i  faqihs (religious jurists) justify this practice, above all, by referring to the Qur’an. Through this interpretation Shi’i feqh extends the possibility of unlimited polygamy to men.

I explained above that matrilineage in pre-Islamic days did not limit either sex to one partner. One of the forms of polygamy was for both sides to agree to be married for a defined period of time. During this agreement the man usually joined the wife’s tribe and stayed in her house. This form of marriage was called mott’ eh, which meant seeking after sexual gratification [27]. It was thus a form of matrilocal marriage. The man would leave the women, and any children born of this relationship, after the contract was over. A form of polyandry was also allowed. The woman had no obligation after the contract was over, and could take up with another man.

Islam finalised the decline of matrilineage. Polyandry was forbidden and polygamy was limited to four wives. The Qur’an allowed men to take an unlimited number of sexual partners from their slaves (in the same chapters quoted above).

Shi’i feqh has added a new category, an unlimited number of temporary wives. Shi’i feqh therefore ignored the direct commandments of the Qur’an. To make their point, Shi’i jurisprudents not only refer to numerous hadiths (action or quote from the Prophet or the Imams) but insist that the Qur’an itself permits mott’ eh. They refer to Chapter 4:24 which after citing women with whom marriage is prohibited goes on: “All women other than these are lawful to you, provided you seek them with your wealth in modest conduct, not in fornication. From whichever of them you have gained benefit [estemta’] give them their dowry [ajr] that has been decided; but if after you decided [on mahr] you make other agreements among yourselves it shall be no offence. Allah is wise and all-knowing.” [28]

A little attention to this and the verses before and after it, as well as similar ones elsewhere in the Qur’an make clear how baseless the Shi’i scholars’ justification for mott’ eh is. Firstly there is no mention of  a time limit (which is at the core of a mott’ eh contract) in these verses. The absence of even a hint is so obvious that some Shi’ite faqihs have claimed that the words referring to this have been removed [29].

Secondly while the word estemta’   in this verse means sexual enjoyment and has the same linguistic root as mott’ eh but there is no reason to equate the two. Neither is estemta’ limited to sexual enjoyment (considering its other uses in the Qur’an) nor is sexual enjoyment limited solely to mott’ eh.

Thirdly the word “ajr” considering its other uses in the Qur’an almost certainly means “dowry” (mahr) and not “rental” which is what is exchanged in mott’ eh [30]. Fourth the Qur’an repeatedly uses marriage with slave girls (which had no limitations) as the only substitute in contrast and besides permanent marriage, without any mention of a temporary marriage. A look at the verses on either side of this verse shows that the two alternatives are mentioned here too. Indeed if verse 24, Chapter 4, which sets out to define who a believer can marry, is interpreted as pointing to mott’ eh, then there would be no mention in this verse of permanent marriage, which would be patently absurd.

Finally the Qur’an repeatedly emphasises the importance of observing a three month waiting period (eddeh), that is three menstrual cycles, after divorce and four months and ten days waiting period after death in order to be sure of the paternity of a potential pregnancy [31]. In this light the waiting period designated by Shi’i faqihs for mott’ eh - one and a half months - is contrary to the logic of the Qur’an. 

The problem is that some Sunni commentators and faqihs also interpret this same verse (Chapter 4:24) as being about “mott’ eh” . They believe mott’ eh was also permitted at the time of Mohammad and was only banned at the time of the second Caliph Umar (AD 634-44). This increases the confusion and helps the Shi’i faqihs justify their conclusions.

In general an investigation of the hadiths [authenticated historical accounts] relating to mott’ eh, some of which are quoted from Sunni sources, shows that in the second decade in the Muslim calendar there was a significant move to resurrect mott’ eh without much success among the main Sunni schools of feqh, the only success being in Shi’ism [32].

Thus despite clear instructions to the contrary in the Qur’an one of the main Islamic schools of feqh permits mott’ eh and presents it as a godly institution.

There is no doubt that today where slavery is impossible (even though some faqihs continue to believe in it and defend it) and the choice of unlimited bedmates from among slave girls has become an impossible dream, temporary marriages becomes the only way to sanction limitless polygamy. Its role in making women defenceless in front of men is disastrous [33]. What permits Islamic fiqh to “correct” the Qur’an (or at least offer an amazing interpretation of it ) is the power of paternalistic institutions.


q Islam is no different from all the major traditional religions in taking for granted the superiority of men over women and guarding the institutions of paternalism. It would have been odd if it was any different. The idea of gender equality (like all other ideas) is not a truth divorced from space and time, self-determined in a permanent void. The idea can only be born with the social awakening of women themselves, which in turn takes shape in certain social and material conditions. It is precisely for this reason that Islam and other traditional religions could not publicise such an idea - unless of course one accept their own assertion that they are the bearers of the eternally valid teachings of an all-knowing and all-powerful God.

q In its approach to women Islam is neither harsher nor more rigid than the other great traditional religions. If in Islam there is a “scriptural prison” [1] for women, which even in today’s world ties their hands and feet, the other traditional religions too have similar prisons. If the Qur’an explicitly speaks of the inferiority of women, the Torah insist on her devilish and damned nature. If in Western societies women (and men) have managed to crack the walls of this “scriptural prison”, despite the Bible continuing to enjoy the respect and worship of these very same societies, why should such a move be thought impossible in Islamic societies. Why should Islamic communities be expected to wait for the agnosticism of the majority of the people of these countries (in an unknowable and certainly remote tomorrow!) to crack these and other walls.

q The vulnerability of women to men increased in comparison to early Islam when Islam became an empire and feqh developed[33]. I am not echoing Ighbal Lahuri: that “Islam has no faults in its essence. What faults are there is in our Muslimhood.” What I want to emphasis is that even pious and active believers can, with regards to this reality, come to a modern, equality-seeking and  open-minded reading of the “holy text” and reduce the authority of obscurantism.



1. Olivier Carr e , a well known opponent of the inflexibility of Islam, calls the unequivocal directness of the Qur’an on the superiority of men to women as the prison scriptuaire (scriptural prison) which is difficult to escape. Carre O. Islam Laique  Paris 1993 pp114-5

2. Under pressure from the spreading women’s movement, many dogmatic Islamists refer to some Qur’anic verses to stress that Islam, unlike other religions, accepts gender equality in matters of “spirit and intellect”. The pressures are so intense that an arch conservative such as Ayatollah Khamenei’i the leader of the Islamic Republic is forced to say that Islam “rejects any differences between men and women in the field of growth and development of the spirit and intellect, and also in the field of social activity” (Speech in Ahwaz March 10 1997 - quoted in Hamshahri, March 11). The truth is that neither Islam nor the Qur’an accept equality even in spirit or intellect, nor can either have any meaning without social equality.

3. See for example Religion and social theory. Bryan Turner London 1991

4. See Montgomery Whatt, Mohammad at Mecca and Mohammad at Medina London 1953.

5. This activity was so common that the Qur’an explicitly forbids it: “You shall not force your slave-girls into prostitution in order to make money, if they wish to preserve their chastity”. Qur’an chapter 24 verse 33.

6. There are evidence that the considerable wealth of Khadijeh, Mohammad’s first and wealthy wife, was passed on to her brothers and cousins after her death and Mohammad suffered severe financial difficulties after she died. Levy R, The social structure of Islam, London 1969, p 96

7. Smith WR. Kinship and marriage in early Arabia, Cambridge 1885

8. Mernissi, F. Beyond the veil, London 1985 pp68-9

9. See Mernissi ibid who refers to Smith WR ibid.

10. Holey L. Strategies and norms in a changing matrilineal society. Cambridge 1985.

11. The best sources on this score are: Ketab al-Aghani by Abolfaraj Esfahani; Ayoun al-Akhbar by Ibn Quotibeh; Kamel by Ezzeddin Ibn Athir.

12. It is known that, at least on the eve of the emergence of Islam, a female offspring was usually a source of shame for the family. The Qur’an says on this point: “When the birth of  girl is announced to one of them, his face grows dark and he is filled with inward gloom. Because of the bad news he hides himself from men: should he keep her with disgrace or bury her under the dust? How ill they judge!” Chapter 16:57-8. Elsewhere the Qur’an refers to the poverty as a cause of female infanticide: “you shall not kill your children because of want. We will provide for them and you. To kill them is a great sin”. Chapter 17:31.

13. In Chapter 81 which is one of the Meccan chapters belonging to the beginning of his preaching, the Qur’an describes the frightful spectacle of female infanticide in a moving tableaux depicting the fearful day of judgement: “When the sun ceases to shine; when the stars fall down and the mountains are blown away; when camels big and young are left untended and the wild beasts brought together; when the seas are set alight and men’s souls are reunited; when the infant girl, buried alive, is asked for what crime she was slain; when the records of men’s deeds are laid open and the heaven is stripped bare; when Hell burns fiercely and Paradise is brought near: then each soul shall know what it has done.

14. Some authorities place the belief in the diabolical and cursed nature of women as being peculiar to “Semitic” thought. Among these are Frederick Nietzsche. B Turner (in Religion and social theory) alludes to the position of woman in fable of “the original sin” to argue that “Abrahamian religions” are specifically paternalistic in their theology and practice. This view is incorrect. Moreover it feeds those who propagate the theory of the superiority of “Aryan culture”. Neither the idea of original sin is exclusive to Semitic or even Abrahamnian religions nor the diabolical role of women. In the Greek legends Pandora has the same devilish role as Eve in the Hebrew legends. If we accept that the legend of original sin or original curse reflects the break-up and decline of the primitive collective society, and the cursed condition of women a reflection of the decline of matriarchal society, one can understand better how such legends cannot have only a Hebrew or Semitic origin.

15. Some believe that Islam had no vision of original sin. See for example Olivier Roy, The failure of political Islam. London 1994. This is a mistake. Islam has a firm belief in original, though it gives it less importance than does Christianity.  See for example in Chapters 2:36-7, 7:19-27 and 20:115-123. The important point is that in the Qur’anic narratives on this issue women do not play a special role.

16. According to the Torah God says to Eve: “I shall greatly increase the pain of your pregnancy; in birth pangs you will bring forth children, and your craving will be for your husband, and he will dominate you” Genesis:3,16

17. Levy R. ibid page 92

18. Chapter 4:3. On the whole the tone of the Qur’an on polygamy is not encouraging and even cautioning. In verse 129 of the same chapter (4:Women) it says: “Try as you may you cannot treat all your wives impartially. Do not set yourself altogether against any of them, heaving her, as it were, in suspense. If you do what is right and guard yourself against evil, you will find Allah forgiving and merciful.” Noting such a tone some Islamic thinkers believe that the Qur’an bans polygamy in spirit, and it was specific historical considerations that prevented Mohammad from coming outright against. Among Islamic religions, the Ismaili and the Druze reject polygamy (Carre in l’Islam laique, page 118). Sheikh Mohammad Abduh and his influential student Mohammad Rashid Reza have also claimed that polygamy is forbidden (haram) in today’s world. See Rashid Reza, Tafsir al-Menar, a commentary on these same verses from Qur’an chapter 4 (Women).

19. Chapter 4 verses 7 and 12 respectively.

20. For sources see: Bedayat al-Mojtahid va Qayat al-Moqtaqed by Ibn Rushd the Andelusian which summarises Sunni feqh views and was written in the 12th C AD; Sharay’ al-Islam by Ja’afar Bin al-Hassan El-Helli written in the 13th C outlining Ja’fari Shi’i views; Al-Feqh al-Almadahib al-Khamseh by Mohammad Javad Moqnieh a Shi’i Lebanese faqih published in 1960 who summarises the views of the four Sunni and the Ja’fari Shi’i feqh.

21. See Turner B ibid pages 8 and 146, and Engels F,  The origin of the family, private property and the state, chapter 2.

22. Levy R ibid p 245

23. All important Qur’anic commentators accept that the event that provoked these verses is the accusation of adultery to Aysheh, Mohammad’s wife. This suggests that the reason for the appearance of these verses is adultery within marriage. Verses 11 to 20 of the same chapter allude to the same event and confirms this interpretation.

24. The elements which probably made the harsh control of women, adopted in later times, impossible when Islam appeared on the scene were: the remains of matrilineage, matrilocal marriages, several forms of polyandry and hence the considerable sexual freedom of women in Arabia.

25. See the Bible, Mathew; chapter15:verse 19 which speaks of adultery and fornication separately.

26. See Levitus chapter 20:10 “and the man that commiteth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that commiteth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” Ezkiel Chapter 23:verse 47 also speaks of the need to stone adulterers.

27. Some Arab-Islamic sources also call it nekah al-estebza’. Estebza’ means sexual gratification seeking. For example Sahih Bokhari quotes a legend about Aysheh, the Prophet’s wife, in which he regards nekah al-estebza’ as one form of sexual relations in the pre-Islamic times (jahelia’). See F. Mernissi, Beyond the veil, page 75.

28. In translating this verse I have departed from the Penguin English edition which has been used throughout these series of articles. This is because the Penguin edition is ambiguous in this verse and uses the word “enjoyment you have had of them as a duty” for estemta’. See text for explanation. The Koran, Penguin Press, translated by NJ Dawood. England 1956. 

29. They claim that the verse was as follows: “for the enjoyment you have had of them for a defined period...” see “Majma’ al-Bayan” by Abu Alai Tabrasi which is one of Shi’i most important classic Qur’anic commentaries.

30. The Qur’an chapters 5:5,  33:50 and 60:10 uses the same word “ajr” to mean dowry in the context of a permanent marriage.

31. See Qur’an chapter 2 verses 228 and 234 and chapter 65:1-4.

32. This attempt was so widespread that according to Ibn Khallikan, al-Ma’mun, the Abbasid Caliph (AD 813-33), legalised mott’ eh but had to retract his proclamation under pressure of public opinion. See Levy R. ibid  p117.

33. In order to understand the social implication of this phenomenon in Iran today see Shahla Haeri’s valuable book: Law of desire, New York 1989.

33. One can observe the same difference in early Christianity and church-led Christianity. In the story of the birth and death of Christ two women, the two Mary’s, played a very important role. The Virgin Mary, outside wedlock, gave birth to the Son of Man or Son of God and was accused of loss of chastity to having an extramarital pregnancy. In reality Mary the mother, in the beautiful interpretation of Jesse Jackson was a single parent of the same ilk as those who the “Christian Coalition” in the USA and their “conscientious” allies paint as the embodiment of the Devil. And Mary Magdalene was the first person to witness the resurrection of Christ and give glad tidings to others. Yet she had a history of prostitution, was rescued from stoning to death through Christ’s intervention and converted to Christianity. Yet even today the church opposes the ordination of women. Pope Paul’s decisive logic is that if women could be priests why were there no women among the disciples!

May 1997

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