The word "Islam" derives from Arabic characters meaning "to be in peace." Worldwide there are roughly a billion Muslims, or practioners of Islam. Muslims trace their faith back to the spiritual experiences of Prophet Muhammad (570-622 C.E.), an inhabitant of Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia. While meditating, Muhammad was visited by the angel Jibrail (Gabriel, in the Jewish and Christian Bibles). Jibrail entrusted Muhammad with a series of direct revelations from Allah, the Supreme Being. These were written down in Arabic and called the Qur'an (sometimes spelled Koran). Muslims consider the Qur'an and the Hadith--the sayings, actions, and commentary of Prophet Muhammad told in narrative form--to be their essential guides for living.

Muhammad is the last in a series of prophets that begins with Adam and includes Abraham, Noah, Moses, and Jesus: all of them human messengers of the Unique, Infinite, Transcendent Creator and Sustainer of all that exists. Because of this theological and historical common ground, there is a tradition within Islam of respecting Jews and Christians as brother and sister "People of the Book." Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Buddhists have also been identified as such.

In the area of feminist spirituality, the common ground between Islam and other faiths is readily apparent. Just like contemporary women in the other world religions, a growing number of Muslim women are calling for a deeper faithfulness to their spiritual tradition than has been realized under centuries of male domination. At the heart of Islam, they assert, is the message that human beings are equal to one another and called by Allah to live together peaceably. Men and women must seek a loving mutuality. Because the lives of unborn children too are sacred, solutions other than abortion must be found for difficult pregnancies.

The Muslim Women's League USA eloquently voices the transformative message of Islamic feminism in the following essays. -- Editor

Issues of Concern for Muslim Women (September 1995)

Renewed interest in and enthusiasm for Islam as a means of change is emerging in many parts of the world. By implementing Islamic principles, Muslims are hoping to improve their condition on many fronts, be they social, political, economic or other. The Muslim world is comprised of people of a variety of nationalities and ethnicities which, combined with geographical realities, determine priorities of action for improving the lives of women.

Most Muslims are taught that Islam liberated women by giving them rights not previously enjoyed. Some examples include rights of ownership, decision-making in marriage, divorce and so on. Indeed, when reviewing primary Muslim sources of Qur'an and authentic Hadith (words and deeds of Prophet Muhammed), one is impressed by an overall image of men and women as equal partners as those who are expected by God to "enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong" in all spheres of life, and to act as His vicegerents in ensuring justice, freedom, and equality for all.(1)

The importance of developing a strong family as the major building block of a strong society is clearly expressed in Islamic literature. The family unit is solidified by mutual respect, understanding and compassion that applies within the family and among all members of society in general.

Unfortunately, over time, many of the original principles have been abandoned or modified to suit political agendas, thus presenting Muslims with laws and images that hardly resembled the original Islamic community led by Muhammad. Many of these laws were generated between the tenth and twelfth centuries, long after the death of Muhammad, and are particularly reflected in legislation today related to marriage and divorce which often places women at a distinct disadvantage.

Muslims who live as minorities in non-Islamic countries are also affected by the sexist and authoritarian attitudes that pervade many communities and impact behavior in terms of marriage, divorce, abuse, exclusion of women from the mosques and decision-making bodies, double standards applied to male and female children and so on.

Because of a belief in a liberated, equitable and dignified position of women outlined in the Qur'an, many Muslims, men and women alike, are calling for reevaluation of attitudes and practices that, although done in the name of Islam, are actually contrary to the basic messages found in the primary sources. To question and possibly oppose entrenched positions that are based on archaic laws, weak Hadith, or cultural trends, requires courage and conviction on the part of religious leaders. But this is necessary and worth any risks in order to enable women to achieve liberation through Islam as originally intended.

Major problem areas that need to be addressed include the following:

Until recently, because of a pervasive sexist and oppressive presentation of women in Islam, Muslim women often felt the only way to be liberated intellectually, socially, politically and economically was by abandoning Islam. There appears to be a growing movement of Islamist women who are demanding that the rights guaranteed by Islam must be applied in their communities. In addition, women are joining the ranks of Islamic scholars, thus providing alternative points of view to what has heretofore been addressed by men. Reviewing Islamic history from an egalitarian perspective, recalling contributions of Muslim women over the centuries, exploring current practices and laws and criticizing them from an Islamic point of view, examining texts as they pertain to women specifically--these are a few examples of some areas addressed by women scholars today.

Muslims today are facing great challenges from within and without. Oftentimes, calls for change are seen as tools of an outside power seeking to undermine the efforts of Islam and Muslims. Certain geopolitical realities lend credence to this view. However, the current desire for change on the part of Muslim women is perhaps more borne out of the fervent belief in the image of the Muslim woman, as communicated by God in the Qur'an, of a liberated, vital human being who can work in cooperation with men on many levels to contribute to the betterment of society. They seek to expose this concept which has been buried by the persistence of attitudes that focus on competition and subsequent subjugation of one sex over the other in direct conflict with the spirit of the Qur'anic verse, "And thus does their Lord answer their prayer: I shall not lose sight of the work of any of you who works (in My way) be it man or woman: You are members, one of another." (2)

Gender Equality in Islam (September 1995)

...Spiritual equality, responsibility and accountability for both men and women is a well-developed theme in the Qur'an. Spiritual equality between men and women in the sight of God is not limited to purely spiritual and religious issues, but is the basis for equality in all temporal aspects of human endeavor.

The concept of gender equality is best exemplified in the Qur'anic rendition of Adam and Eve. The Qur'an states that both sexes were deliberate and independent and there is no mention of Eve being created out of Adam's rib or anything else. Even the issue of which sex was created first is not specified, implying that for our purpose in this world, it may not matter.

O mankind! Be conscious of your Sustainer, who has created you out of one living entity (nafs), and out of it created its mate, and out of the two spread abroad a multitude of men and women. And remain conscious of God, in whose name you demand your rights from one another, and of these ties of kinship. Verily, God is ever watchful over you! (3)

Qur'anic translators disagree on the meaning of nafs in the above verse which Muhammad Asad translates as "living entity." Many claim that nafs translates as "person," that is, Adam. But according to Asad and other scholars, God created humankind and its sexual counterpart out of its own kind. The Arabic word referring to mate (zawj) in the above Qur'anic verse is grammatically neutral and can be applied both to male and female interchangeably. So it is not clear, nor should we conjecture, that Adam was created first, Eve was created out of Adam, or that Eve/woman is innately subservient to Adam/man. The fact that this Qur'anic verse does not specify one specific sex over the other is proof of gender non-bias and equality. It is commonly (and mistakenly) argued that Adam was created first, and that by this gesture God finds the male dominant and superior to the female; however, the wording of the Qur'an in the aforementioned verse does not support this claim.

The Qur'an describes how Adam and Eve were told to avoid a specific tree, which they both approached. For this act of disobedience to God, they were consequently banished from the garden; however, both later repented and were forgiven by God. The Qur'an does not allude to Eve tempting Adam to eat from the tree and being responsible for their downfall. In the Qur'anic version, both were held accountable and both paid the price for their choices, proving that gender equality is an intrinsic part of Islamic belief. (4)

Women are independent individuals, as exemplified by the fact that all human beings will be accountable for their own intentions and deeds on the Day of Judgment when "no human being shall be of the least avail to another human being" (5) If men were ultimately responsiile for women (fathers for their daughters, husbands for their wives, etc.), then this accountability would be solely on men's shoulders to bear until the Day of Judgment. But this is not the case: "And whatever wrong any human being commits rests upon himself alone; and no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another's burden." (6)

Consequently, we cannot be judged according to our own deeds unless we have the freedom of choice to do so. This free choice carries with it the responsibility to make the right choices or paying the consequence for wrong ones, best exemplified by Adam and Eve.

In the Qur'an, reference to men and women is through attributes and deeds, by which we will be judged. The most pious of us, or those who follow God's commands, are referred to as believers or mu'mineen (pl.) in the Qur'an. In many references, in fact, the Qur'an resonates this equality by eloquently repeating "men and women" with ethical and practical qualities throughout the verses, and even emphasizes this ten times in the following verse:

Verily for all men and women who have surrendered themselves unto God, and all believing men and believing women, and all truly devout men and truly devout women, and all men and women who are true to their word, and all men and women who are patient in adversity, and all men and women who humble themselves before God, and all men and women who give in charity, and all self-denying men and self-denying women, and all men and women who are mindful of their chastity, and all men and women who remember God unceasingly: for all of them has God readied forgiveness of sins and a mighty reward. (7)

It is paramount to understand that the Qur'an equates being a mu'min (sing.) with actual practice, so that it is not enough just to have faith in principle; we must put our faith into practice. The same applies to our belief in the equality of men and women; gender equality as outlined in the Qur'an must also be put into practice. In reference to the above verse, modern scholar Leila Ahmed in Women and Gender in Islam says that "the implications are far-reaching. Ethical qualities, including those invoked here--charity, chastity, truthfulness, patience, piety--also have political and social dimensions." (8)

An Islamic Perspective on Violence against Women (March 1995)

While women in many parts of the world have made advances in areas previously closed to them, the problem of violence against women remains pervasive. Unfortunately, this violence takes many forms and occurs across national, cultural, racial, and religious borders.

Islam condemns all forms of violence against women. The basic Islamic premise of equality between women and men cannot be achieved so long as violence against women persists.

In pre-Islamic Arabia, violence against women began at birth in the form of female infanticide. Islam prohibited the practice of female infanticide. Not only does the Qur'an prohibit this practice, it also mocks those who view the birth of a girl child with contempt. (9)

Another common form of violence against women is that committed by husbands against their wives. Islam requires that husbands treat their wives with respect and it prohibits any form of physical or emotional abuse. The Qur'an requires that spouses treat each other with love and mercy. (10) Moreover, the Qur'an repeatedly warns against the use of injurious statements by a husband against his wife. (11)

Rape, unfortunately, remains a common form of violence against women. In addition, the woman is often blamed for being the victim of rape. Islam views rape as a violent crime against the victim, against society, and against God. The perpetrator has committed a crime and hence is morally and legally responsible. The victim is an unwilling partner in the sex act and thus bears neither blame nor stigma. To either ostracize or condemn the victim because she was compelled to engage in sexual intercourse is against the laws of Islam as the victim was an unwilling, and therefore a blameless, participant.

In addition to the violence that women are subjected to during times of peace, women are particularly vulnerable during times of war. Islam condemns violence against women no matter what the circumstances. War is no exception. Prophet Muhammad was strict in ensuring that noncombatants, primarily women and children, were not harmed during wartime.

Female genital mutilation, another form of violence against women, has no basis in Islam. Rather, it is a cultural practice which must be eliminated through education and the empowerment of women.

Likewise, forced prostitution is another form of violence against women which has no basis in Islam and which must be eradicated through the empowerment of women.

Islam's mandate of equality between women and men necessitates that all forms of violence against women be eradicated, for so long as women suffer abuses, women cannot achieve their full potential as free and equal members of society.

An Islamic Perspective on Sexuality (September 1995)

In Islam, sexuality is considered part of our identity as human beings. In His creation of humankind, God distinguished us from other animals by giving us reason and will such that we can control behavior that, in other species, is governed solely by instinct. So, although sexual relations ultimately can result in the reproduction and survival of the human race, an instinctual concept, our capacity for self-control allows us to regulate this behavior. Also, the mere fact that human beings are the only creatures who engage in sexual relations once they are beyond the physical capacity for reproduction sets us apart from all other species, which engage in sex for the sole purpose of reproduction.

For Muslims, based on an understanding of Qur'an and Hadith, sexual relations are confined to marriage between a wife and husband. Within this context, the role of a healthy sexual relationship is extremely important. Having and raising children are encouraged among Muslims. Once a child is born, the parents are expected to care for, nurture and prepare the child for adulthood, with a goal of imparting Islam so that the individual is equipped with knowledge and willingness to accept and practice Islam and thus become a productive member of society.

Beyond childbearing, sexual relations assume a prominent role in the overall well-being of the marriage. In reading Hadith, one is impressed with the Prophet's ability to discuss all issues, including those dealing with human sexuality. The topics range from menstruation to orgasm. He apparently was not embarassed by such inquiries, but strove to adequately guide and inform the Muslims who asked. Both Qur'an and Hadith allude to the nature of sexual relations as a means of attaining mutual satisfaction, closeness and compassion between a wife and husband. "Permitted to you on the night of the Fasts is the approach to your wives. They are your garments and you are their garments." (12) Also, Muslims are advised to avoid sexual intercourse during menses so as not to cause discomfort to the woman. (13)

The goal of marriage is to create tenderness between two individuals and satisfy the very basic human need for companionship. "And among His signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between you; in this are signs for those who think."(14) The hadith which address this issue are numerous. The Prophet himself, while not divulging all aspects of his own sexual life, was known for his nature as a loving husband who was sensitive and physically demonstrative. In several hadith, he speaks about the importance of foreplay and speaking in loving terms during sexual relations. Again, the concept of mutual satisfaction is elucidated in a hadith advising husbands to engage in acts that enable a woman to achieve orgasm first. (15) Sexual dissatisfaction is considered legitimate grounds for divorce on the part of either wife or husband.

Naturally, attraction between individuals is necessary to initiate a relationship that leads to marriage. But sexual relations can obviously take place between any couple, consenting or not. Because of the far-reaching ramifications of sexual relations outside marriage, Muslims are prohibited by God from such behavior. And because the process that leads to physical attraction and ultimately intimacy is part of human nature, Muslims are advised to behave in a way and avoid circumstances that could potentially result in extra- or premarital sex. Modesty in dress and behavior between women and men figures prominently as a means of exhibiting self-control. Similarly, unmarried couples are admonished against spending time alone in isolated places where they would be more likely to act on their feelings and thus be less inhibited.

Some of the negative results of sex outside marriage include the potential for unwanted pregnancies, transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, disruption of the family and marriage (in cases of adultery), and emotional and psychological difficulties resulting from the lack of commitment associated with most relationships outside of marriage. As in other religions, extra- and premarital sex are considered major sins. Muslims believe that God does not simply forbid or allow behavior whimsically, but does so with our best interest at heart, guiding us away from potentially destructive behavior and toward behavior that allows us to achieve our most fulfilling potentials as human beings. For a similar reason, Muslims give up the consumption of alcohol because of faith in God's wisdom that the negative effects outweigh the positive for individuals and society at large. "Whoever submits his whole self to God, and is a doer of good, has grasped indeed the most trustworthy handhold..." (16)

Although Muslims are encouraged to have children, contraception is not prohibited. The method used during the time of the Prophet was coitus interruptus ('azl), about which several hadith exist. His basic response when asked if such a practice was lawful was that individuals can do as they will, but if God intends for a child to be born, s/he will be born. Some interpreted this to mean that preventing pregnancy is not recommended because child-bearing is preferred; yet the act is not specifically prohibited. Also, other hadith stipulate that 'azl could not be practiced without the wife's consent, as it might interfere with her sexual satisfaction or desire to bear children.

By analogy, the methods that exist today as contraceptives are lawful for Muslims to use at their discretion. Basically, it is our position that any method that does not involve pregnancy termination is permissible. Imam al-Ghazzali lists a number of legitimate reasons for practicing contraception, including financial difficulty, emotional or psychological hardship of having many children, and even the preservation of beauty and health. (17)

It should be clear from this discussion that, since sexual relations should be confined to marriage, contraception is so limited. It is not considered a means of easing the difficulties associated with sexual relations outside marriage.

Abortion is viewed in the same context as having relevance only regarding pregnancies occurring in marriage, again, not as a response to conception as a result of extra- or pre-marital relationships. Early Muslim jurists considered abortion lawful for a variety of reasons until 40 -120 days after conception (first trimester). This was based on interpretation of Qur'an and hadith that implied that ensoulment or "life" did not exist until after that time. (18) Contemporary thinkers, considering available technology that allows visualization of the embryonic heartbeat at four weeks of gestation, are of the position that life begins much earlier than previously thought, and therefore to terminate would be to take a life illegally.

The majority of Muslims today believe that abortion is allowed only if the mother's life is significantly endangered by the pregnancy. Some also feel that the presence of certain congenital anomalies (particularly those that are lethal) make abortion lawful. Also, some scholars consider abortion appropriate in pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.

Human beings are capable of many forms of sexual expression, orientation and identification. The existence of such a variety again is not found in any other species and thus further demonstrates our uniqueness among God's creations. The potential for behavior, such as homosexuality, does not mean that its practice is lawful in the eyes of God. Therefore, individuals are expected to control themselves and not act on their desires if such action is contrary to the guidelines of Islam. Homosexuality, like other forms of sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage, is thus prohibited.

In any discussion of prohibited acts follows the question of what happens if they nevertheless occur. The Qur'an and hadith are explicit regarding severe punishment by the State if a person is convicted of such a crime. However, in order for conviction to take place, the individuals must confess or be accused by at least four eyewitnesses of the act of actual intercourse. Obviously, the likelihood of these criteria being met is small which means that most couples who engage in unlawful acts will not be punished by the State. They will then deal with the consequences of their behavior in this life and will be accountable to God on the Day of Judgment. How He ultimately judges is known only by Him.

Clearly, from the above discussion, Islam is explicit about many aspects of human sexuality. Also, based on the numerous hadith showing the Prophet's willingness to discuss these matters openly, it should be obvious that education about matters related to sex is acceptable. Muslims may disagree about the age at which sex education begins; some do not discuss the subject at all. Explaining anatomy and the changes one's body experiences during puberty is essential for enabling young people to grow up with a healthy self-image. Also, in an age when sexual activity in many countries begins at an early age, Muslim adolescents must be informed to better enable them to deal with peer pressure. Sex education can be taught in a way that informs young people about sexuality in scientific and moral terms. In countries with very diverse populations, such as the United States, the main limitation in developing sex-education curricula, particularly in public schools, is the inability to select a universally acceptable moral position. Therefore, young people are given facts and information and advised that, if they choose to engage in sexual relationships, they should take measures to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The moral and religious aspects of sexuality can be incorporated either in schools of a particular religious denomination or in adjunctive coursework offered by religious institutions. Regardless of the challenges of each society, young people must be adequately informed. Also, in some Muslim communities, individuals are encouraged to marry at young ages. They need to be educated regarding sexuality prior to the marriage such that they know what to expect and can consider their options for birth control prior to consummating the marriage.

The practice of clitoridectomy preceded the introduction of Islam in Arabia and in different parts of Africa. This results in severe sexual debilitation of women who cannot possibly achieve sexual fulfillment, which is their right as Muslims. Therefore, this practice is totally unIslamic because it is in direct violation of both Qur'an and Hadith, which clearly stress the importance of sexual satisfaction for both the husband and wife.

Muslim Women Call for Critical Review of UN Document on Population Control and Development (press release, September 1, 1994)

On September 5, 1994 the United Nations is sponsoring the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt. Before the Conference has begun, heated debates are taking place and several countries are refusing to participate. The Muslim Women's League would like to clarify its position on some of the issues discussed in the document, Programme of Action of the Conference.

Islam calls for the liberation of women. In a revolutionary fashion, women were declared equal to men in the eyes of God. By using the tools provided to us by our religion, we can achieve strength and freedom in order to improve the conditions of ourselves and our communities throughout the world. Unfortunately, many of the guiding principles have been abandoned and women, in many instances, live in circumstances akin to those which predated Islam.

We are encouraged to see that the UN document addresses a variety of issues that are embraced by Islam, namely, focusing on the crucial role of the mother in the family and thus ensuring access to adequate pre- and post-natal care to reduce the high rate of maternal mortality associated with childbearing; encouraging prolonged breast-feeding as one way of decreasing infant mortality; improving access to health care and education as a means of enhancing the life of the girl child and thus ultimately empower her as a woman; calling for increased responsibility among men to curb the spread of sexually transmitted diseases; encouraging abstinence from sex until marriage; providing access to birth control so married couples can have some influence on the size of their families; condemning rape and abhorring it as an instrument of ethnic cleansing; and calling for an end to the practice of female genital mutilation which has no foundation in Islam.

As Muslims, we believe that the life of the fetus is sacred and that abortions are allowed only under extreme circumstances, namely when the life of the mother is endangered. By avoiding pre- and extramarital contact and by using contraceptives in marriage appropriately, we hope that the need for abortions throughout the world will dramatically decrease. The document in its current edition does not demand that countries legalize abortions, but that where it is legal, it should be practiced safely. The ambiguity in the document, particularly the references to "reproductive health services," has been a source of controversy and confusion. The U.S. should commence a dialogue with American Muslim groups to avoid such ambiguity and disproportionate negative reactions in the future.

The positive features of the document have been tainted by the manner in which they have been introduced. The document claims that a major goal is to improve the quality of life for all people. We believe that development is a prerequisite for controlling birth rates, not vice versa. Security, economic and political self-determination, and freedom are cries that for too long have been met with deaf ears by our leaders in the U.S. government. Consequently, these legitimate grievances have now prevented people from examining the U.S.-led conference and document in a clear and objective manner. Countries should decide on population control individually based on their needs and their beliefs.

We condemn any use of violence as an expression of protest to the Cairo Conference. No group can claim to be struggling for religion and the noble cause of the sanctity of life when that claim is tarnished by unjustifiable acts of violence that result in the loss of innocent life.

(C) Copyright 1994, 1995, 1996 Muslim Women's League USA. All rights, including electronic rights, reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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