Shariah Laws and Women: Interpretations and Misinterpretations

By Dr. Jasser Auda

Women’s issues are the real test for the current Islamic reform. The reason is that groundless and unfair differentiation between men and women is deeply embedded in many popular opinions that we inherited from the eras of decline of the Islamic civilization.

First of all, it is necessary to make the following distinctions:

1. Between Islam and Muslims

2. Between Shariah and schools of jurisprudence

3. Between the Scriptures and the interpretation of the Scriptures

The Distinction Between Islam and Muslims

First, we should differentiate between Islam and Muslims. This is not necessarily meant to be in a negative sense. But it is crucial that we distinguish (as much as we possibly can) between the religion, Islam, and its followers, Muslims. The way of living and cultural traditions of Muslims, past and present, are not necessarily representative of, or in accordance with, Islam.

Islam has a core that every Muslim must embrace. However, in addition to this core, the religion manifests in a variety of forms according to local cultures. Some of these cultures have social structures that are generally anti-women, and true scholars have struggled to implement the Islamic values of justice and equality of all human beings.

One example is the practical ban of Muslim women from entering the mosques, despite the clear instruction from Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him): “Do not stop Allah’s women-slaves from going to Allah’s mosques” and despite the fact that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) led the prayer for both men and women in his own mosque.

Another contemporary example is banning women from driving cars in some Islamic countries, despite the full inclusion and mobility of Muslim women starting with the Prophet’s wife `A’ishah, who actually led a battle on her camel (The Battle of the Camel). Throughout the history of the Muslim world, there have been both positive and negative perceptions and treatment of women. As Muslims, we have to admit that there has been, and continues to be, a lot of misogyny in the Muslim world which is simply un-Islamic, contrary to Islam’s references and sources of legislation.

One example is the harem, in which a rich or powerful man imprisons a number of women for his own pleasure, in concubine age. We thank God that such non-Islamic customs no longer exist. Another example is honor killings which still take place, sometimes “in the name of Islam,” in areas such as Pakistan, Nigeria, and Jordan, despite being clearly contrary to Islam and having no precedence in Islamic law.

Additionally, it is necessary to differentiate between Islam and the politics of Muslims. Islam is a way of life that naturally includes politics and governance. However, political positions, even if they are taken based on certain Islamic values, are not necessarily part of Islam. When it comes to women, there is a subtle but very strong link between many of the anti-women fatwas (like the ones I referred to above) and certain political agendas.

The Distinction Between Shari’ah and Schools of Jurisprudence

The second important differentiation is between the Shariah and Islamic schools of jurisprudence. The word Shariah has taken on negative connotations in the minds of many non-Muslims because it is commonly associated with various corporal punishments used in some countries in the name of Islamic law. These punishments are usually, and unfortunately, applied to the weak and poor in these societies, with the rich or politically powerful or well-connected being exempted.

However, the word Shariah is used in the Quran only to mean “the revealed heavenly path” or
“way of life” (5:48, 45:18). So, everything about Islam is Shariah, referring to the Islamic “way of life.”

Regarding the schools of jurisprudence (fiqh), the word “jurisprudence” used in the Quran and Hadith in various forms to refer to understanding, comprehension, and gaining knowledge of the religion in general (for example, Quran, 4:78, 6:25, 9:122). However, in Islamic schools of law, the term fiqh has been typically defined as, “the knowledge of practical rulings.”

It is crucial to know that Shariah is revealed but fiqh is not! Shariah includes what is ordained by Allah in the Quran and the instructions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him); but fiqh is the understanding of scholars, in various eras and geographical locations, of the revealed knowledge, and their derived opinions and rulings in their attempts to apply the Shariah to the exigencies of daily life.

So generally speaking, fiqh is relative to the society and circumstances in which it is applied, in contrast to the rules and values in Islam that are universal and which every Muslim, regardless of time or place, should apply. The issues of fiqh related to women have especially, in my view, been subject to discrimination by some scholars who do not take into account historical era, geographical location, and cultural milieu.

The Scriptures and the Scriptures’ Interpretation

The third related and important differentiation is between the Scriptures and the interpretation of the Scriptures. The Scriptures are absolute and universal, but the interpretations by human beings change with the change of time, circumstance, and expanding knowledge.

However, there are limits on what constitutes a valid interpretation. A valid interpretation, for example, cannot alter the meaning or make inferences which end up implying something radically different from the obvious meaning of the Scripture or the obvious tradition of the Prophet of Islam (peace and blessings be upon him).

In this regard, it is necessary to understand how certain historical interpretations shaped Islam in the minds of Muslims, without necessarily being the only true way of interpretation. Let me mention one example here, which is verse 33:53. This verse has come to be named “The Verse of the Barrier.” It states:

“And when you ask of them (the wives of the Prophet) anything, ask it of them from behind a curtain/barrier. That is purer for your hearts and for their hearts.”

The context of the verse (both in the chapter and in a historical sense) refers to specific rulings that the Companions of the Prophet were to follow when they visited the Prophet’s home. And the verse was revealed after `Umar ibn Al-Khattab, one of the Companion, had cautioned the Prophet that some of his visitors did not deal respectfully with his wives.

Yet, this verse was claimed by some scholars to have abrogated (i.e., cancelled and annulled) numerous narrations that allow Muslim women to lead normal lives in society. Based on this interpretation, which has no basis from the Quran or the Hadith of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), the following rulings were given:

Based on this abrogation, Ibn Hajar banned Muslim women, in general, from leaving their homes. This is contrary to thousands of narrations and a large number of verses, which were all interpreted as “legally abrogated.”

Al-Qadi ‘Iyad banned Muslim women, in general, from talking with men. This is also contrary to thousands of narrations and a large number of verses, which were all interpreted as “legally abrogated.”

Al-Mubarkafuri banned Muslim women from narrating Hadith. This ban is obviously counter to the tens of thousands of narrations that female Companions related with regard to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), without which our knowledge about Islam itself would have been quite incomplete.

Abadi banned women from visiting men or being visited by men, also contrary to many verses and authentic narrations.

Ibn Taymiyah, based on the same verse, banned Muslim women from showing their faces in public. He also interpreted the narrations that imply otherwise as abrogated by the same verse.

In conclusion, it is important to make these differentiations between Islam and Muslims, between Islamic Shariah and Islamic fiqh, and between the Scriptures and the interpretation of the Scriptures.