Status of Women in Islam
December 1991 / January 1992
(This article is excerpted by permission of the author, from his essay in al Islam (Summer 1991) Dr. M.I.E, President of the K-W Islamic Association, also a professor of ECE and director of the VSLI Project at the University of Waterloo
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The status of women still seems to be an important issue in the public conscience in the 1990’s.
Issues of equality, role of motherhood, women’s rights, lack of women in the field of sciences and engineering are constantly discussed. The subject was an important one for thousands of years and it appears that it will stay with us as long as men and women constitute the two basic building blocks of any society.
As a Muslim Canadian, I would like to put to rest the stereotyping by presenting how Islam deals with the status of women, it is an integral part of the Islamic world view, value system and the rights and duties of men and women.
Over 1400 years ago, Islam established spiritual equality by categorically stating that men and women will receive equal reward for their efforts.
Islam also teaches that men and women are born free from sin. Adam committed the first sin, his wife is not blamed for his sin.
Intellectual equality comes next. “The search for knowledge is a duty for every Muslim, male or female”. Knowledge is not divided into sacred and secular, it is comprehensive; making a living is a byproduct not an objective. Man and woman should pursue his or her education as far and as long as it is possible “from the cradle to the grave”. As a result of this teaching, throughout history, many Muslim women became famous religious scholars, writers, poets, doctors and teachers. Today, in many Muslim countries women are half of the university student population in most areas of study, including medicine, sciences, engineering and law. Women can take any career they choose, as long as it is moral. This also applies to men; no double standard. Thus women were given the independence to learn and to work.
Women’s relationship with men in Islam is one of interdependence. Both men and women have rights and duties; his or her obligation to be kind, to love, to cherish: is first, second and thirdly towards the mother, fourthly to the father, and then to the wife/husband, and so on. As a result, a Muslim mother has a great feeling of fulfillment and considers that being a full-time mother is a great blessing. She feels secure about the care she can expect from her children when she reaches old age.
The relationship between women (as wives) and men (as husbands) within marriage is one of mutual care, consideration, respect and affection. It is one of co-operation, not of confrontation.
The rights and duties of the husband and wife is aimed at preserving the family unit in such a way that the atmosphere of tranquillity, love and mercy can develop to the benefit of husband and wife, their children and society at large. A Muslim woman keeps her legal identity and maintains her surname after marriage. Anything a wife earns is her own, either to use it herself or to contribute it to the family budget in all or in part, if she wishes. The man has full responsibility for the maintenance of the family. Meanwhile, the wife is responsible for the welfare of the family and management of the household.
The husband is the head of the family unit and should consult his wife in all matters to reach a consensus; If consensus cannot be reached, he is responsible for making a decision, and his wife has an obligation to follow that decision for the harmony of the marriage relationship.
More than 1400 years ago, Islam advanced the rights of women, giving them political rights: to vote, to nominate and to run for public office. Women were also given full rights to refute the legitimacy and constitutionality of the laws, to own property, to be full partners in trade and commerce, to sell and buy and to sign legal documents .. all without referring to any man. Women in Islam are entitled to inherit, without a will, half of the share given to a male counterpart. This may appear to be unfair, if taken in isolation. However, it must be remembered that men in Islam have moral and legal responsibilities towards the maintenance of all the women in their families. The half share that a woman inherits is her own without any financial obligation at all, moral or legal.
Now what is the relationship between women and men, other than their husbands and close relatives? Islam teaches men to look upon women as sisters, and sex outside marriage is not only a sin but a crime against society; both men and women held accountable.
Dissolution of marriages through divorce is allowed only when all methods of reconciliation have been exhausted. Some types of divorce are husband-instigated, others wife-instigated, still others are the result of mutual agreement or judicial process.
Islam allows man to have more than one wife, up to four, requiring full equal treatment between wives and their knowledge and consent as necessary conditions for the marriage to continue, allowing the marriage to end in divorce if equality is not fulfilled. Thus monogamy is the norm and polygamy is the exception. (Polygamy, or more precisely polygyny or plurality of wives was practised long before Islam but without limits or assurances). Although the practice has been abused, it may be considered as the lesser of two evils.
If Muslim women’s status has been compromised in any Islamic society, for any period of time, it is because that society has not followed the Islamic teachings.
Fasting of Ramadan
April / May 1992
(This article is excerpted by permission of the author, from Extracts published by the Toronto Star, April 25,1987)
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Canadian Muslims, and Muslims worldwide, are presently fasting the month of Ramadan. For 29-30 days they fast during the daylight hours of each day (from one hour before sunrise until sunset). The keynote to all observances is self-discipline, self-restraint and flexibility. It is not an ascetic or self-mortifying practice.
On the material level, the fasting – during the fasting hours – involves total abstinence from all food, drink, tobacco and marital intercourse. On the behavioral level, abstinence from quarreling or engaging in angry talk, and wrong behavior of any sort. It is a time for reconciliation.
Fasting is in no sense an excuse for neglect of work or obligations, idleness irritability or outbursts of temper, but, on the contrary, should be a totally inner state leading to patience and inner peace. Muslims must carry on their work and other activities even though they may be hungry, thirsty and tired.
The basic rules of fasting are quite simple: every day of Ramadan is a fasting day. The very elderly, the very young, and the insane are permanently exempt from fasting; while travelling or sick persons, women during menstruation and up to 40 days following childbirth, pregnant and nursing mothers, and any other condition where fasting could cause harm, are temporarily exempt. Instead, he or she would feed a needy person or give a sum equivalent to the meal.
Ramadan is the 9th month of the Islamic Hijra Calendar, and is followed by Eid al Fitr, the festival of Fast-Breaking.
It should be noted that because Islam uses a lunar rather than a solar calendar, any given date falls 12 days earlier each year than in the preceding one. Consequently, Ramadan, (and all other dates), rotates throughout the seasons, completing the cycle of 12 months in about 33 years. So Ramadan can be in the spring, summer, fall or winter.
Fasting is naturally quite easy during the short days of winter, but can be extremely taxing in the heat of tropical summers. Under such conditions the fasting Muslims learn that food and drink are indeed precious gifts to be accepted with thankfulness and not taken for granted. They also learn to feel with the poor who are frequently in the same state of hunger they are now experiencing, and become even more charitable during Ramadan.
The most difficult time is the first 3 days, when the body is adapting to the new system of no food, no drink, and no smoking for so many hours. The body learns to survive, and spends its time cleaning up and putting its internal functions in order without the daily duties of consuming food. It possesses fantastic mechanisms whereby it can deposit and store fuel during periods of availability and it possesses the ability to mobilize this fuel at times of need. During fasting for example, the liver must provide glucose for tissues requiring this fuel, primarily the brain; This it does mainly by synthesizing new glucose from glycogenic amino acids released into the circulation from the muscles. This results in a fast rate of fat breakdown.
Does one lose weight during Ramadan? Yes, if one does not indulge at the time of breaking the fast!
In spite of the apparent hardship of fasting, Ramadan is a very enjoyable period to which Muslims look forward year after year, when a special family and social atmosphere prevails throughout.
Eid al Adha
June / July 1992
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On Thursday June 11th, Canadian Muslims join their fellow Muslims worldwide in the celebration of Eid al Adha: The Feast of Sacrifice, commemorating Abraham’s obedience to sacrifice his son Ishmael, and the offering of the lamb to replace Ishmael – thus signalling an end to human sacrifice and holding human life at the highest level.
Families celebrate by sacrificing farm animals to feed the poor and the needy.
The day starts with an early morning prayer followed by festive activities that include visiting relatives and friends and enjoying a Canadian summer day outdoors. Children wear their best traditional clothes and enjoy games, sweets and cake; and would probably receive a present or two from parents and grandparents.
Close to two million Muslims, on that day, will have just finished assembling in a state of devotion, on a mountain top near the city of Mekka in Saudi Arabia. The assembly occurs at the end of the annual Islamic Pilgrimage to Mekka : al Hajj.
The Hajj at least once in a life time, is required of every Muslim, if he/she is financially and physically able.
The Ka’bah itself, the focus of this act of worship was built by the prophets Abraham and his son Ishmael; It is a cube-like building measuring about 35 feet on each side and is 50 feet high, and stands today in the centre of Al Haram mosque, the largest in the world, accommodating more than 600,000 people at a time.
Hajj is a spiritual experience, when Muslim men and women, rich and poor, from all races, gather from across the globe, clad in simple dress of white. The men wear two white sheets, the women are dressed in a simple light colour dress mostly white. Every member of this great assembly sets out from home, on the journey of Hajj, concentrating his or her devotion on the Creator, not in solitude, but in the company of others.