Women had practically no rights in the ancient and medieval civilizations like that of Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, early Christians, Hindus, Chinese and Pagan Arabs. Before the advent of Islam, the women were no better than animals or chattels. In many countries of the world they were generally regarded as slaves or at the best as domestic servants whose chief duty was to serve the men and please them by satisfying their sexual appetite. Like a piece of property, a woman was a marketable commodity and subject of testamentary disposition. In the matters of marriage, divorce, ownership of property, inheritance, etc. the women were given hardly any rights. Polygamy was common in almost all societies with no restrictions as to the number of wives a man could have at a time. Birth of a daughter was considered a bad omen and a matter of shame in a family particularly among the pagan Arabs who preferred to dispose her by burying her alive. Such was the miserable plight of women at the time of the birth of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

            Islam elevated the status of women from the level of a mere chattel to the level of a human being. Al-Qur’an, the revealed book of Islam, declares that man and woman proceed from the same stock, they are the members of the same species, and they are born of the same parents. The Qur’an invariably calls man and woman as spouses of each other, companions and helpmates. Besides restoring her human dignity, Islam bestowed on the woman many rights in almost every field of human life. In terms of rights and status, what the modern western woman has achieved today by hectic struggle through agitations, demonstrations, processions, strikes and violent means, is nothing as compared to the rights Islam gave her fourteen centuries earlier without her asking or demanding for them.

            Let us see as to what are the rights which the great religion, Al-Islam, has bestowed on woman in her various positions and in various fields.

Rights as a mother

            In the position of a mother, a woman enjoys unique status of honour and respect in the Islamic society. Mother is the focus of attention for all the members of the family in a Muslim home and her opinions carry a lot of weight in all family matters. Apart from respect and esteem, a mother enjoys many legal rights. She is entitled to receive share in inheritance from her children (Al-Qur’an 4:11) and in case she does not posses any adequate means of livelihood her children are obliged by Islamic Shariah to provide her maintenance according to means.

            The Qur’an in its Verse 36 of Chapter 4, and 23 and 24 of Chapter 17 places duty to parents only next in priority after duty to God, the Almighty. Among parents, mother’s place in respect of obedience has been elevated much above that of father because the mother shares the major portion of privation and suffering in the bringing up of children. The Qur’an points to this fact in verse 14 of its Chapter 31 and verse 15 of Chapter 46. Prophet of Islam has assigned status to a mother at least three times higher than that of a father and is reported to have said that Paradise is at her feet as per following Ahadith: 

·        Muawiyah-b-Ja’hemah reported that Ja’hemah came to the Messenger of Allah and said: I intend to join a battle and have come to you for consultation. He enquired: have you got mother? ‘Yes’ replied he. He said: Then keep near her, because Paradise is at her feet.   (Ahmad, Nisai, Baihaqi)

·        Bahaj-b-Hakim reported from his father who from his grandfather who had reported: I asked: O Messenger of Allah! Who is to be most obeyed? He said: Your mother. I asked: Who is next? He said: Your mother. I asked: Who is next? He said: Your mother. I asked: Who is next? He said: Your father; and then your nearer relations and then your near relations.   (Tirmizi, Abu Daud)

Rights as a wife

God has created everything in pairs, and man and woman form a pair. The Qur’an says: He it is Who created you from a single soul and therefrom He did create his mate so that he might find comfort in her. (7:189) God has created relationship of love and affection between these two members of a human pair (Al-Qur’an 30:21) and God emphasizes close relationship between husband and wife by calling them garments of each other.   (Al-Qur’an) 2:187)

            The Qur’an therefore enjoins upon the believers to accord good and kind treatment to their women. The relevant injunction is: “…Live with them in kindness for, if you hate them it may be that you hate a thing while Allah has placed abundant good in it” (4:19). The Prophet of Islam is reported to have said: “Let no believing man hate a believing woman; If he hates one trait of her character, he shall be pleased with another that is within her” (Muslim). According to another tradition reported by Abu Hurairah, the Messenger of Allah said: “The most perfect of the believers in faith is he who is the best of them in conduct, and the best of you are those who are the best to their wives” (Tirmizi). A virtuous wife is a great blessing and a favour of God, and the Prophet of Islam has said: “Next to fear of Allah the believer finds nothing good for him than virtuous wife. If he bids her, she obeys him; if he looks at her she gives him pleasure; if he gives her a promise, she fulfills it, and if he is absent from her, she guards herself and his property.   (Ibn Majah).

            The woman enjoys many rights in Islam. The Qur’an, the revealed book of Islam says: “And woman shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable…..” (2:228). Her rights as a wife regarding marriage, dower, divorce, inheritance, maintenance, etc. have been guaranteed by Islam. These would be discussed under the relevant sub-heads.

Rights as a daughter

            The Qur’an in the verses 58 and 59 of its chapter 16, draws a very vivid picture of the pagan Arabs on the birth of a daughter. It reads: “And when the news of a female child is brought to any one of them, his face becomes dark and he is filled with gloom inwardly. He keeps hiding himself from the people because of the evil of that whereof he has been informed (thinking as to what he should do). Should he retain her in disgrace or bury her beneath the earth? Beware! Evil is the judgement they make”. As the practice of killing female children and burying them alive was prevailing in those days, the Qur’an not only condemned it but also abolished it. The Qur’an says: “Kill not your children for fear of want: We shall provide sustenance for them as well as for you: Verily the killing of them is a great sin.”(17:31). The daughters are entitled to get prescribed shares in the estate left by their deceased father or mother alongwith other legal heirs.   (Al-Qur’an 4:11)

            Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) promised high rewards to those who give kind treatment to them and bring them up properly. His traditions are:

·        Ibn Abbas reported that the Holy Prophet said: If one brings up three daughters or sisters, teaches them good manners and treats them kindly and lovingly till they no longer need his help, Allah will make Paradise obligatory for him. One man said: That if he has two? He replied: And he also. Ibn Abbas said that if the people had enquired about one, the Prophet would have said the same thing.   (Sharai Sunnah)

·        Ibn Abbas reported that the Messenger of Allah said: If anybody has got a female child, and he does neither bury her alive, nor treats her unjustly, nor prefers his children (meaning male children) to her, Allah will admit him in Paradise.   (Abu Daud)

Rights as a sister

            According to a tradition of the Prophet reported by Ibn Abbas (mentioned under “rights as a daughter”), if one brings up three sisters (or two), teaches them good manners and treats them kindly, Allah will make Paradise obligatory for him. Thus a sister has as good right as a daughter has in respect of one’s kind attention. In case of death of parents or the disability or old age of parents, the responsibility of bringing up a sister devolves upon her brother. And a brother is obliged to discharge his duty properly and according to his best ability. In case the brother dies and leaves neither children nor parents behind him, the sister would be eligible to get prescribed share in his estate.          (Al-Quran 4:12 and 176)

Rights regarding marriage

            Rights conferred on a Muslim woman pertaining to marriage are discussed in the light of the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH) as under:-

1)     A woman has got as much right to marry as a man has. The Qur’an says. “And get such of you married who are single”.   (24:32)

2)     The woman has been granted as much freedom in the choice of her husband as the man has been granted in choosing his wife. Nobody has any right to give her away in marriage without her consent.

3)     A minor girl, when given in marriage by her guardian, has the option to repudiate the marriage when she attains puberty if such a marriage is to her disliking. The Prophet of Islam annulled the marriage of a girl who had been given in marriage by her father, since she disliked it.   (Bukhari)

4)     Islam, unlike some other religions such as Hinduism, permits a divorcee or a widow to remarry. Al-Qur’an says: “And when you have divorced women and they have fulfilled the term of their prescribed period do not prevent them from marrying their husbands” (2:232). About the widow’s right of second marriage the Qur’an says: Such of you who die and leave widows behind, they shall wait with themselves four months and ten days. And when they have completed their term (Iddah), then there is no blame on you for that which they may do with themselves in reasonable manner.   (2:234)

5)     No Jehez or dowry is to be given by the family of the bride under compulsion. On the other hand the husband has to give Mahr or dower to the wife compulsorily.

6)     It is not obligatory on the family of the bride to provide luxurious feasts or meals to the groom and his party. On the other hand, it is obligatory on the bridegroom to host a feast for his friends and relations to celebrate his marriage.

Rights regarding dower

            Dower (Mahr) is a gift in cash or in the form of property which is compulsorily given by a Muslim bridegroom to his bride in consideration of marriage. Dower is essential in marriage, so much so that in case it is not fixed, even then the wife is entitled to its payment according to the standard in the family. Wife has the right to remit the dower or to accept the reduced amount or to postpone her demand for its payment. There is no upper limit on the amount of dower as a woman can demand as much dower as she likes at the time of contracting marriage. Please also see Chapter 11.

Rights regarding divorce

            Al-Qur’an has given the right of obtaining divorce to a wife (2:229) if she agrees to pay some consideration or compensation in the form of returning the Mahr (dower) in full or in part. This is called Khula.

            Islamic law permits a woman to secure right of divorce for herself as a stipulation of marriage when marriage contract is made. In that case she can exercise her right of divorce if she is forced by the situation to do so.

            There are many other situations in which a Muslim woman can get divorce from her husband through a court. Please see Chapter 11 sub-heading divorce.

Rights regarding maintenance

            The meaning of “Nafqah”, which is the Arabic equivalent of “maintenance”, is what a person spends on his family. Maintenance includes food, clothing and lodging.

            The husband is bound to maintain his wife according to his means. Her right to receive maintenance is absolute even if she is very rich and owns a lot of property. If the husband is poor and the wife supports the family, she is entitled to recover the amount expended by her from the husband when he is in easy circumstances. Dr. Hamidullah writes: “The notion of the maintenance goes so far in Islam that, according to the law, a wife is not obliged even to give her breast to suckling; it is the duty of the father of the child to procure for it a foster mother at his own expense, if the mother does not want to suckle it.”

            In addition to her entitlement as wife, a woman is also entitled to maintenance in her position as a mother, daughter and sister in some situations.

Protection of her rights in case of husband’s polygamy

            The Holy Qur’an, as it has been discussed earlier, gives right to a man, by its verse 3 of chapter 4, to marry up to maximum number of four women at a time. However, in this very verse some restrictions have also been placed on the exercise of this right by a man. The husband is obliged to do justice (‘Adl’) with all the wives and if he cannot do it then he is advised to marry only one.

            ‘Adl’ or justice used in this verse has not been defined. However all the commentators of the Qur’an unanimously hold that justice in this verse means equality of treatment in food, clothing and lodging. But some mu’tazilite doctors consider that in addition to food, clothing and lodging there must be equal treatment in love and affection also.

            Thus the concept of justice protects the rights of a wife in case of multiple marriages of her husband. Besides this a Muslim woman is also permitted by Islamic law to put a stipulation in marriage contract that her husband would not take another wife and if he does so then she would be entitled to get divorce or to get a stipulated sum or property from the husband.

Woman and Evidence

            Although a women has the right of giving evidence in all metters, but in its Verse no 282 of Chapter 2, the Qur’an equates evidence of two women to that of one man in the matters relating to contracts of debt and the reason given by the Qur’an for that is: if one of the two women forgets the other should remind her.

From this verse, it is generally contended by the critics of Islam that Islam has degraded a woman in matter of evidence and has rendered her to half of man.  However, this criticism is totally baseless and unfounded if judged by an unbiased mind. Firstly, this injunction of the Qur’an pertains to the business and commercial transactions only which are so often very complicated and ambiguous to understand even by an expert businessman. A woman being generally not involved in such difficult transactions has no knowledge or understanding of them and, therefore, she is likely to get confused. Secondly, from the words of the Qur’an it is clear that actually evidence would be given by one woman and the other would be present merely to remind her if she forgets. The atmosphere of courts being dominated by men – the judges, the lawyers, the litigants and the witnesses being generally men – a woman is likely to get confused and forget in such an awe-inspiring atmosphere.

In no other matters, except the commercial transactions of complicated nature referred to in verse No. 282 of chapter 2, does the Qur’an command its believers to equate the evidence of two women with one man. In the matter of Lian or imprecation where the husband charges his wife of adultery, the testimony of the wife would be equal to her husband (Al-Qur’an 24:6-9). Prophet of Islam punished a Jew guilty of grinding the head of a girl between two stones on the evidence of the girl alone; and in another case, on the evidence of a woman alone who had been raped, the Prophet (peace be upon him) punished the man who was guilty. In such matters which pertain to women like menses, child-birth, fosterage, wherein expert knowledge of a woman is needed, the evidence of a woman carries more weight than that of a man.

Rights regarding inheritance

            No woman had the right to inherit in pre-Islamic Arabia and only the male adults who could take up arms in a war had the right to inherit the estate. Islam conferred the rights of inheritance upon the woman in Arabia for the first time. The Qur’an says: “Men have share in what the parents and the near relatives leave and women have a share in what the parents and the near relatives leave (after their death), whether the property be large or small, a fixed share (4:7). Verse No 11, 12 and 176 of chapter 4 of the Qur’an elaborate the Islamic law of inheritance in detail discussing the shares of the legal heirs. According to the Qur’anic law, a woman is entitled to share the inheritance in different capacities as a daughter, mother, wife and a sister, etc. However, it is to be noted that her share is generally half that of a male in her own category. So an explanation of this inequality is necessary.

            Islam has placed the responsibility of earning livelihood for the family on the shoulders of the male members while the females have been exempted from this burden. A woman when she is unmarried lives with her parents and her father is responsible for providing all her expenses and in case of the death of her father, her brothers become responsible for her maintenance and also for meeting her marriage expenses. After marriage she is entitled to maintenance from her husband. In addition to food, clothing and residence, all her expenses are met by her husband. If the husband is poor and she spends out of her personal property for her family, she is entitled to get it back from her husband when the latter is in easy circumstances. Besides maintenance, the woman is also entitled to receive dower and she can demand any amount of dower while entering into a marriage contract. Amounts of dower are normally big in Muslim marriages and the contracted dower, how much it may be, has to be paid by the husband and in case of his death, from his estate as a debt. If her husband dies and she is unable to live on her share of the estate of the deceased, she can claim maintenance from her children. Thus it is seen that a woman has practically very few material needs to satisfy on her own account as compared with a man who has been saddled with very heavy economic obligations and liabilities. Morever, protection of family property from encroachments, trespass and illegal occupation by others, is the responsibility of a man. In this situation there is ample justification for giving a man greater share in inheritance.

Rights regarding property

            Islam does not make distinction between man and woman so far as their rights of property are concerned. The women enjoy equal rights in this field and their position is in no way inferior to that of men. Like a man, the woman can acquire property through inheritance, through will, through gift, or through purchase from her own earnings. She has an additional right to acquire property which is not available to man i.e. through Mahr or dower which she is entitled to receive from her husband.

            She can own the property, possess it, manage it and enjoy its income. Over her property she has the exclusive and absolute rights. Her father, her husband or her brother or her sons have no legal right over her property during her life.

            She has got full right regarding the alienation of her property. She can dispose it of by sale, transfer or settlement. She can gift it away to her husband, children or anybody else. She can arrange for its disposal (upto one third of it) through will.

Rights to earn livelihood

            Earning of livelihood for the family is basically a duty of the man. Islamic law makes the man responsible for providing bread and butter for his wife and children and for meeting their expenses. However, there may arise situations where the women have also to work for earning livelihood. So the Qur’an does not debar them from working. This right of earning income through lawful (Halal) means is granted to a woman by the Revealed Book when it says: “… for men is that what they earn, and for women what they earn” – (4:32). Earning signifies the reward of good deeds in the next world as well as earning of provision for the family in this world.

            According to some authentic Traditions of Prophet Muhammad (may Allah’s peace be upon him), the Prophet permitted the women to earn for themselves and for their family if needed. A Hadith quoted in Sahih Muslim states that the Prophet permitted a woman who had been divorced, to visit her garden and take her fruit. According to another Hadith reported by Umme Atiyyah, the Prophet allowed the women to render services in Jihad like preparing of food, nursing the wounded, etc. Hadrat Saudah, the wife of the Prophet (PBUH), was skilled in tanning the skins of the animals and used to make a considerable amount of earning from this vocation. Abdullah-bin-Mas’ud was mostly engaged in religious work and had no time to earn for the family. So his wife used to work as artisan to earn livelihood for the family. When the Prophet came to know about it, he assured her reward for this in the Hereafter.

            There are many other examples reported in the books of history which establish that the women used to work in the days of the Prophet to support their families and the Prophet never objected to their such engagements.


Rights to participate in socio-political life

            Right of a Muslim woman to participate in socio-political life of the Muslim community in an Islamic State are briefly discussed in the light of the Qur’an and the Sunnah as under:

1)     According to verse 71 of chapter 9 of the Qur’an, the Muslim men and women are friends and helpers of each other. They are severally and jointly responsible for enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong, and for establishing worship and paying Zakat. To cooperate with each other for the good of the community and to protect their common interests, is the duty of Muslim men and women. They can form political or social organizations for protection of their religious, social and political rights and for promotion and advancement of Islamic values regarding socio-economic and legal justice.

2)     One of the attributes of the believers, according to the Qur’an (42:38), is that their affairs are a matter of counsel. The believers, men as well as women, have equal rights to participate, to discuss and decide their matters regarding social, public and political issues. In the matters where the Prophet of Islam did not receive any guidance from Allah through revelation, he used to consult his companions. Matters regarding Jihad, social or political life of the community were decided with mutual consultations by the Prophet (may Allah’s peace be upon him). Men and women both were consulted and many such incidents have been reported in the compilations of Ahadith and books of Islamic history. When the Treaty of Hudaibiyah was signed with the Quraish and the depressed and disappointed companions were reluctant to sacrifice their animals, the Prophet (PBUH) consulted his wife Umme Salamah. On her advice, he offered his own sacrifice which had a salutary effect and adduced the response of the companions who followed suit. Once Caliph Umar wanted to fix the maximum amount of dower, but he dropped the idea on the advice of a woman who drew the attention of the caliph to verse 20 of chapter 4 of the Qur’an. The righteous Caliphs used to consult the wives of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and other eminent female scholars on many important issues of public interest.

3)     The Prophet of Islam, in a famous Hadith, has made acquiring of education compulsory for a Muslim male and female. Thus a woman has as much right to get education as a man has.

Criticism Answered

            Some critics generally raise the following objections with regards to rights of a woman as guranted by the Qur’an:

1.      Why the Qur’an does not give rights to a Muslim woman to contract more than one marriage at a time (Polyandry) when it gives this right to a Muslim man (polygamy) in verse 3 of its Chapter4?

            No reason for the above mentioned fact has been given either by the Qur’an or by the Prophet of Islam. However, the reason for non-permission to a woman to have more than one husband at a time lies in general abhorrence which is ingrained in human nature against this very idea. No human society, civilization or culture worth the name (except very ignorant and backward communities living in forests) has ever allowed or even tolerated the practice of polyandry. The common and obvious reason for the prohibition lies perhaps in the problem of legitimacy of the children. In a situation where a woman has more than one husband, it would be rather difficult to ascertain the father of a child when all the husbands of the woman dispute with each other.

2.   Why the Qur’an does not give right to a Muslim woman to marry a Jew or a Christian (called people of the scripture) when it gives right to a Muslim man to marry a Jew or a Christian woman in verse 5 of Surah 5?

            For the above mentioned fact, no reason has been given either by the Qur’an or by the Prophet of Islam. For not allowing the Muslim women to marry Jews and Christians, there are perhaps two obvious reasons: First is that by doing so, Islam protects the Muslim women from mental torture and injury to their feelings under which they are likely to go when their Jews and Christian husbands, who do not believe in and respect Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), would talk against their prophet and against their Holy book (the Qur’an). On the other hand, a Jew or Christian woman would not face such a situation because their Muslim husbands honour and believe in their Prophets and their Holy Books. So this step of Islam positively safeguards the rights of women. The second reason lies in human nature. Every community feels that its power and prestige lies, among other things, in its numerical strength. So the Muslims, like other communities, do not want to reduce their numerical strength by losing their women and expected children of such women to others. But they allow their men to marry non-muslim women as it adds to their numerical strength.

3.      Why the evidence of two women is equal to that of one man? Kindly see the answer to this question in sub-heading “woman and evidence” of this chapter.

4.      Why the share of two women is equal to that of one man in inheritance? Please find answer to this question under the sub-heading “Rights regarding Inheritance” of this chapter.


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