Revision 4.12 “The Treatment of Women”

Revision 4.12 “The Treatment of Women” August 30, 2020


Malaysian woman
A Muslim woman in Malaysia   (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


In terms of their prospects for going to either heaven or hell, there is no distinction between men and women in Islam. “All human beings are equal,” the Prophet Muhammad taught, “equal as the teeth of a comb. There is no superiority of a white over a black nor of any male over the female.” “Men as well as women,” declares the Qur’an, “shall be rewarded for their labours.”[1] “The believers who do good works, whether men or women, shall enter the gardens of paradise.”[2] (It must be noted, however, that there seems to be no male equivalent to the paradisiacal houris.)

But, it may be objected, whatever its claims with regard to the life to come, Islam plainly discriminates against women in this life. Indeed, one of the most frequently heard complaints against Islam concerns the treatment of women. But one issue needs to be addressed up front. “Islam,” as such, does not “treat” women in any way, good or bad. Islam is simply a body of beliefs and practices; it is individual Muslims who behave in good or bad ways. And, just as among Christians and others, there are good and bad Muslims, kind and unkind, fair and unfair. Evil treatment of women such as has been featured in several successful Hollywood films and in best-selling books often seems to have more to do with the pathological character of certain personalities than with the core values of Islam itself. (In one popular movie, for instance, an abusive Muslim husband is shown repeatedly striking his American wife in the face. No doubt many in the audience saw this as just one more indication of the evils of Islam. But hitting one’s wife in the face is expressly forbidden by Islamic law.) What is more, cultures inclined to the oppression of women have often twisted and abused Islam—and not only Islam—to justify such behavior, but Islam should not be blamed for this. And certainly Latter-day Saints will understand that the values encouraged or tol­erated by one’s society and culture are not always those at the heart of one’s religion.

As a matter of fact, Islam often treats men and women equally in this world. For instance, adulterers and adulteresses are each given 100 lashes.[3] There is no double standard. Furthermore, the Qur’an makes it difficult to accuse a married woman of adultery— which was a common way of getting rid of a spouse. Those who make false accusations of adultery, or even those who cannot pro­duce four witnesses in order to confirm a charge of adultery, get 80 lashes.[4]  We should not forget the context in which the Qur’an came to be: In pre-Islamic Arabia, female infanticide was common. Men could have an unlimited number of wives and could divorce them for any reason whatsoever, or for no reason at all. Inheritance always went to adult males, even if the closest surviving relative was a female. Muhammad and the Qur’an abolished female infanticide, permitted women to inherit, and required that men pay a dowry to their wives that could not be taken away even by divorce. Men were required to sign prenuptial and marriage contracts that guaran­teed certain rights and conditions to their wives. Women were given the right to initiate divorce and to have final approval on any mar­riage partner selected by their parents. Widows were granted the right to remarry and were, in fact, encouraged to do so. Muham­mad’s high opinion of women is reflected in a famous saying ascribed to him: “Paradise,” he is reported to have said, “lies at the feet of mothers.”  “”The best of you are those who are best in treatment to their wives.”[5]

However, we cannot avoid the fact that Islam does make dis­tinctions between men and women. The Qur’an makes one point rather bluntly: “Good women are obedient,” it declares.[6] Such language is hardly fashionable in the twenty-first century.[7]And there is more. “Women shall with justice have rights similar to those exercised against them, although men have a status above women.”[8]  Under Islamic rules of inheritance, males inherit twice as much as females do.[9]  This apparent inequity is justified, Mus­lims say, because men need extra income in order to support their families, an obligation that women do not have: “Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they [men] spend their wealth to maintain them.”[10]

One practice notably denounced in most of the Christian West as an obvious injustice against women is the practice of polygamy (or, more precisely, of polygyny). Although it is probably dying out in most of the Muslim world, the Qur’an does explicitly permit as many as four wives: “You may marry other women who seem good to you: two, three, or four of them. But if you fear that you cannot maintain equality among them, marry one only.”[11] It is this last phrase that has led many contemporary Muslims to think that God desired the believers to discontinue the practice. He was not explicit about prohibiting polygamy because He wanted to be gentle to the people and not ask of them something that they were not yet in a position to fulfill. But the Qur’an later observes that “try as you may, you cannot treat all your wives impartially.”[12]

Another issue that should be mentioned is that of veiling. Many outside the Muslim world see this as an obvious instance of Muslim oppression of women. But the Qur’an really has very little to say about veils. Mostly, it speaks of female modesty, in terms not so different from those that Latter-day Saints might employ. And not a few Muslim women respond to the claim that they are oppressed by the veil with the insistence that, in fact, they feel pre­cisely the opposite: Modestly dressed and veiled, they say, they are free from the offensive leers and comments of crude males passing by. They are no longer mere sexual objects in a world dominated by and for men.

We should always be careful, it seems to me, not to evaluate other cultures by the (usually uninspired) standard of our own; things may look very different to our neighbors than they appear to us. Western critics of Islam say that Muslim women suffer from rules imposed upon them by males. Most Muslim women appear to believe, rather, that those rules have been given to them by God, and they often resent efforts made to “liberate” them because they do not want to be liberated from their religion. In this regard, perhaps Latter-day Saints can understand them a bit better than most.


[1] 4:32.

[2] 4:124.

[3] 24:2.

[4] 24:4-9.

[5] Or “to their women.”

[6] 4:34. It is, perhaps, worth noting that, at the time that I wrote the first edition of the book of which this one is a substantial revision, the prime ministers of both Tur­key and Pakistan were Muslim women.

[7] Compare Ephesians 5:22-24.

[8] 2:228.

[9] Qur’anic inheritance rules are laid out at 4:11-12.

[10] 4:34.

[11] 4:3.

[12] 4:129.



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