Was the Prophet Muhammad (s) a feminist? Is Islam a feminist religion?
In 2017, Merriam-Webster declared feminism to be the “Word of the Year”. 2017 was the year of the Women’s March, which was the largest single-day protest in American history. The march was co-chaired by Linda Sarsour, an American Muslim activist and feminist. The event’s popularity was heightened in part because of the inauguration of Donald Trump, which occurred the day before. Many attendees were concerned about the new administration’s plans to restrict the rights of women, the LGBT community, Muslims, and illegal immigrants.
But the irony of a hijab-clad woman leading such a movement had some folks confused. The Woman’s March was (1) funded by Planned Parenthood and NARAL, organizations that have terminated millions of unborn children and even sold body parts to pharmaceutical companies, (2) encouraging the wearing of pink hats that represented female genitals, (3) telling women to be “nasty” , and (4) promoting transsexual rights and late-term abortion. The march chose to feature Donna Hylton – an activist that tortured an elderly man to death in 1985, and Madonna, who seemingly (jokingly?) threatened to blow up the White House. Whilst it is important to oppose the injustice of governments, it is also incumbent upon us to be ethical in our activism.
The stark, aggressive imagery of the march brings us to the question: can feminism be reconciled with a commitment to Islamic ethics? Can one be a practicing Muslim and an avid feminist at the same time? The growing popularity of the feminist movement requires us to take a step back and investigate its congruence (or lack thereof) with the Islamic paradigm.
Feminism began as a movement among Anglo-Saxon women in the late 18th century. Mary Wollstonecraft (d. 1797), the foremother of the feminist movement, famously argued that women were not intellectually inferior to men, but rather lacked the educational opportunities that men had at the time. A victim of parental abuse, Wollstonecraft had a tumultuous life of romantic friendships and affairs. She eventually married William Godwin, the forefather of the anarchist movement, and died after giving birth to Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Of course, feminism does not have a doctrinal attachment to a single figure – it is subject to periodic transformations.
The feminist movement evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries by addressing the political rights of women and their place in society. In the early 1900s, the suffragettes pushed for the right for white women to vote. In doing so, however, they excluded minority women and men. Some countries, like Canada, accepted women’s suffrage only because it would allow them to conscript more men into World War 1. These First-Wave Feminists also lobbied for the rights of women to own property. By the 1960s, feminism grew into its Second Wave: giving women equal rights in the workplace, pushing for abortion and access to birth control, drawing attention to rape and domestic violence, and fighting cultural biases that have preferred men historically. In the 1990s and 2000s, feminism entered its Third Wave, which saw the emergence of sexual freedom, intersectionality (which combined other struggles related to social and political identity with the feminist struggle), anti-patriarchism, and the transsexual movement. The issues and ideas of feminism evolve based on what is perceived as gender-based oppression.
At first look, one may be sympathetic to the achievements of this movement. After all, women in the West endured the Witch Hunts, were denied the ability to own property and pursue an education, and were deprived of any power over their own lives. It would also be wrong to deny the injustices toward women in Muslim cultures, even if they are uncommon: forced marriages, crimes of passion, and domestic violence. How do we navigate this series of issues without compromising the ethics of Islam?
One must first ask: was the Prophet Muhammad (s) a feminist? Some have argued that he was, because his revelation certainly condemned female infanticide (Quran 81:8-9), forbade the ugly practice of zihar (Quran 58:1-4), abolished the sons’ right to inherit their fathers’ wives, gave women the right to inherit from their parents and husbands, gave women the right to marry outside of their tribe, enshrined certain rights for women in marriage; and he adored and honoured the women in his life.
However, this must be balanced with the fact that the Prophet Muhammad (s) also introduced new restrictions on women that weren’t there in Jahiliyya: he forbade polyamory and free love, dissolved institutionalized prostitution, forbade lesbianism, mandated the khimar, restricted abortion, and produced a dimorphic tradition that gave different rights and responsibilities to the two sexes. Although the Quran says that all things were created in pairs (51:49), it also says that males and females, like day and night, are different (92:3-4). All of this runs totally against the feminist advocacy of freedom and complete equality. The Prophet Muhammad (s) came to a society that worshiped goddesses (53:19-22), deemed the angels as God’s daughters (17:40), and had female royalty and prophetesses — and yet, he set out to restructure everything.
This brings us to a discussion on the operational logic of feminism vs. that of Islam. Two people could come to the same conclusion on a matter for different reasons. Five people may feed a beggar in the streets – the first person says, “I fed the beggar for the sake of God!”, the second person says, “I fed the beggar to feel better about myself!”, the third person says, “I fed the beggar because the beggar is a proletarian victim of the bourgeois class!”, the fourth person says, “I fed the beggar because he is a fellow countryman!”, and the fifth person says, “I fed the beggar because I saw my parents do this before me!” In all five cases, the action is the same, but the motivation is different. The second person would not have fed the beggar if they were already feeling good about themselves. The third person would not feed the beggar if the beggar were from a different economic class. The fourth person would not feed the beggar if the beggar were a migrant. The fifth person would not feed the beggar if the beggar had no interest in emulating good parents.
What, then, is the philosophical background of feminism? Feminism is really just a branch of European Enlightenment Individualism (also called “Liberalism”, but not to be mistaken with left-wing “Liberal” parties). Individualism is an intellectual and philosophical movement that has dominated the Western world’s ideas and values since the 18th century. Individualism’s central thesis is that societies thrive best when the freedom and agency of the individual is maximized. However, the central thesis of Islam is to submit to God and know Him (51:56). In some areas, we may find overlap – we believe women are entitled to property and education too. But, Islam and feminism are ultimately using different methodologies with different priorities that come from different motivations and produce different results. Not only are these two paradigms different, but we believe that Islam is correct, and more in tune with reality and morality than feminism ever can be.
The emphasis of the Quran is not on freedom, but on duty – establishing prayer, giving charity, fighting injustice, goodness to one’s parents, abstaining from harmful substances, and more. The emphasis of feminism, however, is to cut women from all that restricts them – even if it is God Himself, He must be set aside.
The reality is that Islam has gendered laws. Whilst Muslim reformists take aim at the Quran’s stance on female witnessing (2:282) and female inheritance (4:11-14), they ignore that, for example, men must pay a dowry to a woman when they marry (while women do not). Men are also obligated to provide for their families, engage in jihad when attacked, and follow many arduous rulings. The double standard here is that Muslim feminists believe that women must be absolved of their sex’s prescribed restrictions, but that men are to maintain all their duties. It is simply illogical to drop a few laws that pertain to women yet retain other aspects of the shari’a, because the way we derive our laws on ablution, prayer, fasting, Hajj, and charity is the same way we derive our gendered laws – it is all one package.
Islam is a religion that encourages the seeking of knowledge. Because of this, it is necessary to highlight some of feminism’s inherent challenges; as a Muslim should not be cognitively dissonant of reality:
- Feminism’s moral standards are constantly subject to change. Many Second-Wave Feminists opposed pornography because it objectifies women. However, just two or three decades later, Third-Wave Feminists (and before them, Lipstick Feminists) argued for free love, for the normalization of female nudity and sexuality, and against “slut-shaming”. As an ideology that is subject to such unguided change, it is not fit to make moral judgments against traditional Islamic values. Similarly, feminists would push for inclusion in male spaces; then they argued for segregated spaces; now intersectional feminists argue in favour of gender-neutral or gender-inclusive bathrooms. Stretchy rulers cannot be used to measure solid objects – likewise, liberalism cannot be the moral standard by which all other paradigms are judged.
- Feminism assumes that pre-modern women were weak and stupid. Feminists argue that the patriarchy was able to dominate the realms of marriage, religion, culture, business, and the arts in every major civilization for many millennia. This means that the women of those societies were collectively either too weak or too foolish to resist their male oppressors. The only exceptions to this would be the few scattered matriarchies, which were all very poor, small, isolated, and often overcome by bigger patriarchal societies. It is preposterous to say that half the population (or more) of every major civilization had no agency, as women were the ones raising their sons and daughters, imbuing them with their values. The feminist view only reinforces the idea that women are fragile and naïve, which is not true.
- Feminism today relies too much on discredited narratives. While feminists argue that there is a wage gap between the sexes in America today, this is not true. Once one factors in profession, work hours, raise requests, and other variables, the wage gap all but disappears. An insistence on pseudoscientific claims, including “rape culture” and the “pink tax”, shows a pathology not rooted in reason.
- Feminism cannot be “reclaimed” from its Western context. Feminists of colour often state that their intended goal is to reclaim feminism from its historically white context. However, since feminism is rooted in Western liberalism, it was cultivated in its milieu. The creators of the three waves of feminism are largely white men and women, who then exported it to the rest of the world through hard power (colonialism and imperialism) and soft power (Western media and popular culture). The terms and vocabulary of feminism are based in a dialectic of history that is naturalistic, individualistic, and driven by nation-states and markets. A decolonized feminism would require a return to the ancient authorities, which feminists circularly claim to be sexist.
- Some of feminism’s most principal thinkers were anti-family. Gloria Steinem described marriage as “an arrangement for one and a half people.” Andrea Dworkin believed that “marriage as an institution developed from rape as a practice.” Sally Miller Gearhart, in her essay “The Future – if there is one – is Female” (a popular feminist maxim today) argued that the proportion of men must be reduced to and maintained at approximately ten percent of the human race.” Feminist literature is replete with the deprecation of motherhood and the promotion of abortion. One may correctly argue that not all of feminism’s major thinkers were necessarily anti-family, misandrist, or anti-motherhood. However, gender studies departments and feminist institutions have become places where radical views and misandry are tolerated, normalized, published, or even emphatically promoted, with little costs.
- The “male privilege” narrative is dangerous and untrue. Men are the biggest victims of suicide, conflict, gang violence, workplace injuries, homelessness, addiction, premature death, and dropping out of school. Both sexes share a set of common and unique challenges that are not to be dismissed with generalizing labels of privilege. Promoting these melodramatic readings of society only sows further division and tension, and does not solve any problems.
Can we promote women’s rights without being feminists?
Yes. We are in a world full of femicide, human trafficking, gender-specific abortion, prostitution, honour killings, forced marriages, domestic violence, and sexual assault – both in Muslim and non-Muslim countries. We should seek to uplift and honour women in accordance with the prescriptions of the revelation. The Prophet Muhammad (s) famously told us to be dutiful to “your mother, your mother, your mother, [then] your father.” He said that Paradise is beneath the feet of mothers. He said that “the best of you are those who are best to your women.” He was a man that helped around in the house, displayed love and patience in his marriages, and commanded the good treatment of women.
One does not need to subscribe to a whimsical, fallacious, radical, selfish, and antagonistic ideology to establish the rights of women. We can fight the evils that unjustly harm women by using orthodox principles and practical ideas that aren’t rooted in a juxtaposing paradigm.
As a community, we should remove the existing hurdles and barriers that prevent women from seeking knowledge. By facilitating more women’s educational programs, we can have more female role models that offer a woman’s perspective and voice. Without traditional role models, many of our sisters will naturally gravitate toward female role models outside of the Islamic sphere – including politicians, secular academics, celebrities, and influencers.
We should not tolerate the objectification of women, even if said in jest. We should remind one another that such lewd talk is beneath us.
Our leaders, mosques, and committees should prevent private meetings between a man and woman, where grooming, flirting, harassment, and abuses of power could take place.
We should establish shelters and support networks for victims of violence and poverty. Otherwise, these victims will seek the support of feminist-run institutions.
We should emphasize that crimes of passion are heinous and have no place in the world.
There is much to be done, but we cannot support that which is antithetical to our tradition. We cannot lend credence to ideologies that cast doubt on Islam and become gateways to apostasy.
May Allah guide us to the best way to worship Him.