Early Islam’s Feminist Air

The founders of three great religions, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed (in order of appearance) were remarkably feminist in their leanings. In the month of Ramadan I would like to explore the feminist air of early Islam.

For centuries Muslim women enjoyed greater rights than most women in the world. The Koran gives women the right to work and to own property. Mohammed abolished female infanticide, slavery, and a widow’s obligation to marry her husband’s brother. Indeed, women were given the right to give their consent to marry.

Some things that look sexist today were a great step forward at the time. Women could become heir to one third of what a male inherited. (Since men’s role was to support women they were given extra help.) Muslim women were able to inherit much sooner than their Western sisters.

Islamic men are also allowed to marry up to four wives, and each wife must be treated equally. Doesn’t sound too heavenly to our ears, but this was progress from a time when men could marry as many women as they wanted.

Even the most problematic scripture in the Koran was an improvement. Chapter 4 verse 34 reads, “As for those women whose rebellion you justly fear, admonish them first; then leave their beds; then beat them.” This scripture actually gave women some protection against abuse in that men were cautioned against battering as the first response.

Some Islamic feminists note that there are other definitions for the word “daraba,” than “to beat,” one of which is “to go away.” Something to think about.

With early feminist beginnings it is not surprising that one of the largest, most egalitarian and peaceful societies is West Sumatra, Indonesia.

Yet over time the religion has become increasingly patriarchal in most corners of the world.

In what is claimed “countering Westernization,” Islamic states have kept busy restricting women’s rights, sometimes going against the Koran, as when the Taliban took away women’s right to work, or when the right to consent to marriage is ignored.

As one Islamic feminist put it, “Islam needs to go back to its progressive 7th century roots if it is to move forward into the 21st century.”


Asra Q. Nomani. “A Gender Jihad for Islam’s Future.” The Washington Post. November 6, 2005

Neil MacFarquhar. “Translation of Koran Verse Spurs Debate.” San Jose Mercury News. March 25, 2007. (Originally published in the New York Times.)

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on September 2, 2010, in feminism, gender, race/ethnicity, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. This article is interesting and so controversial to what I thought Islam treated women. Since they have so many restrictions on appearances and behaviors, it is hard to see the little bit of feminist progress that there is. Isn’t weird though that they are more strict now than the earlier days? I wish the women could have stood up to the movement to the way that it is now as the Quran still seems pretty male dominant.

  2. hannah crockett

    I found it interesting to contrast the early years of Islam (in which women enjoyed MORE freedom and rights than they do now) to the earlier years of our own culture (when women were far more oppressed than they are now). In regards to women and their particular history, I feel like we usually think that women are progressively becoming more equal and more powerful, meaning that, as time goes on, things just “get better”. In this particular case with Islam, it’s clear that that’s not the case.

  3. At least the early traces of feminism give Islamic feminists something to work with. They can call back to that feminist intention and work to make it a bigger part of Islam. Most of the sexism in the Muslim world is cultural, not religious, and as such is a bit easier to change.

  4. While I don’t find it to be as high a rung as I would rank it – it sure is a lot higher up the ladder toward feminism than the prophet allowed them.

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