Revisiting Prophet Muhammad’s Quest for Empowered Women | Naved Ashrafi

James Garrison in October last of this year wrote Muhammad was A Feminist, a bold piece on HuffPost. Comparing various founders of world religions, Garrison puts, ‘Muhammad was easily the most radical and empowering in his treatment of women. Arguably he was history’s first feminist’.

Feminism, every now and then, has wrongly been understood even by literate people in the society as a quest towards misbalance of society that empowering the women would bring ! This is the case more with Muslim community in Indian subcontinent. But Garrison talks on Muhammad’s feminism by taking in to consideration Muhammad’s approach of ‘radical equality of men and women’.

The Quran is blindingly categorical on this radical equality when it says, ‘We created you in pairs’ (Quran 78:08). There is a ‘clause of complementariness’ between two ‘non-identical’ individuals of a pair. Being non-identical must not be taken as unequal as done by many who adhere to patriarchal notions. As far as biological differences of male and female are concerned, they must be considered as differential privileges bestowed by nature upon one gender over the other just for one biological purpose i.e. to sustain life on earth in perpetuity. All cells arise from pre-existing cells—this is what we all learnt in Cell Theory of Schleiden and Schwaan. But how do things get perversely translated in the society –is both non-scientific and un-Islamic.

There always exists a Pandora’s box on internet when anything is under discussion and debate with respect to Islam and its tenets. When such debates touch women, there situation turns in to graver hodge-podge. For, those who discuss or debate are equally deficient and incompetent in knowledge of Modern Feminism and Classical Islam.

Putting all those trivialities aside, I wish to concentrate here how Muhammad was docile, harmonic, compassionate to every woman in society in whatever decent relation or gesture she came to him.

On Education of Women and their initiative towards Education

Women who were being buried alive in their infant-hood before Muhammad’s arrival in ignorant Arab, were brought on platform of education and learning by him. In times of Muhammad, he himself used to teach his companions, both male and female, on various discourses. There would be lessons on theology, law, administration, governance, medicine, rights, duties, social dynamics etc. When women would get lesser time with their teacher, Muhammad, they decided to convey it to the Prophet. A women said to the Prophet, ‘the men have greater access and more time with you than we have! Appoint a day for us with you exclusively’. So Prophet promised to meet them at an appointed time in which he would exhort them and command them in their learning. [Bukhari, As-Sahih; Chapter: Are Women to be Given Specific Day for Lessons; Narration: 101]

Today, girls are devoid of their rights of ‘basic’ education and they are not allowed to make even a tiny request for their education. Thanks to ignorance and patriarchy of minds! How Muslims are doing in modern world !

Responsibilities towards Family and Kinship

In modern socio-political discourses, family is considered as the basic unit of human organization which culminates in to State. Our quotidian affairs revolves around our families. What do Muhammad have to tell people in general and his followers in particular regarding family relations !

Al-Aswad, one of the companions of Muhammad asked Aisha, the wife of Muhammad, ‘What would Prophet do at his home?’ She replied, ‘He would be in the service of his family, and when the time for prayer began, he would go out to attend the prayer” [Bukhari, As-Sahih; Chapter: Service of a Man towards his Family- Narration: 5048 | Chapter: On how a Man should treat his Family- Narration: 5692]

In another narration Aisha said that Muhammad said, ‘The best of you is who is best towards his family’. [Ibn Majah, Al-Sunan; Chapter: On Living Kindly with Women; Narration: 1977 | Tirmidhi, Al-Sunan; Book of the Exemplary Qualities; Narration: 3895 ]

Today, one may find people even on the highest of the highest posts in India but how do they discharge their responsibilities towards their families, especially wives, is quite discouraging!

On Careful Upbringing of Daughters

Indian families are son-seekers and son-wishers because of their so called notion of waris (heir). There exists a great deal of repugnancy towards a female child, her upbringing, education, nutrition etc. This is contrary to what Muhammad said and wished.

The Prophet said, ‘whoever cares for two young girls until they both reach the age of maturity, I will arrive on the Day of Resurrection with him like this.’ And then the Prophet joined his fingers together. [Muslim, As-Sahih; The Virtues of Kindness towards Daughters; Narration: 2631 | Tirmidhi, Al-Sunan; Concerning expenditures on Daughters and Sisters; Narration: 1914]

Two here in ‘two young girls’ indicated multitude of girl child in a family who must be earnestly taken care of by parents. And ‘care’ here means all dimensions including child’s first breast feeding after her birth, education, health, nutrition, equal opportunities to progress etc.

Being Dutiful and Affable To Wife

Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah, had a Persian neighbor who would make a tasty broth, and so he once made for Allah’s messenger and called him over to invite him.

Allah’s Messenger asked him, ‘Is this batch for Aisha?’ The man said, ‘no’. Allah’s Messenger then said, ‘No, thank you’.

Then man invited Him once more and He asked him, ‘Is this batch for Aisha?’ The man said, ‘no’. Allah’s Messenger then said, ‘No, thank you’.

The man invited Him once more and He asked him, ‘Is this batch for Aisha?’ Finally the man replied, ‘Yes !’. Then Allah’s Messenger and Aisha walked together until they arrived at man’s house [to partake of the broth] [Muslim, As-Sahih; Narration: 2037 | Hanbal, Al-Musnad; Narration: 12265]

Thus, we find that Muhammad would not accept a neighbour’s broth invite until he is not willing to invite Muhammad’s wife Aisha with Muhammad. This is how Muhammad cared about his marital relations.

Once Muawiyah bin Hayda asked Muhammad, ‘O Messenger of Allah ! what rights do our wives have over us? He replied, ‘that you feed her when you eat, clothe her when you clothe yourself and you should not strike in the face, should not use odious words for her and should not avoid your wife. [Abu Dawood, As-Sunan; Chapter: On Woman’s Right Over Her Husband; Narration: 2142]

Unfortunately, in most of Muslim families those things are common which Muhammad wanted Muawiyah bin Hayda to refrain from !

Muhammad said to his companion Saad bin Abi Waqqas, ‘Never shall you spend anything, seeking thereby the pleasure of Allah, save that you will be rewarded for it—even that food which you put into your wife’s mouth’. [Bukhari, As Sahih; Chapter: On Actions and Intentions; Narration: 56 | Muslim, As-Sahih; Chapter: The Bequests; Narration: 1628]

Duties towards Mother

It was narrated by Abu Hurayra, the Prophet’s companion that a man came to the Prophet and said, ‘O Messenger of Allah ! Who among the people has the most right to my kind treatment?

He replied, ‘your mother’.

Then the man said, ‘then who? He replied, ‘your mother’.

Then the man said, ‘then who? He replied, ‘your mother’.

Then the man said, ‘then who? He then responded, ‘your father’.

[Bukari, As-Sahih; Chapter: Who among the People have Most Right to Kind Treatment; Narration: 5626 | Muslim, As-Sahih; On Kindness towards One’s Parents who are Most Deserving of it; Narration: 2548]

Though a person is duty-bound towards his both parents but their duties are manifold towards Mother. One should rule out the weird reasons why old age homes should exist on earth !

Duties towards other Women in Society

If some slave-woman from the slave women of Medina wanted, she would take Allah’s Messenger by his hand and take him wherever she wished to go pertaining to resolve any matter. [Bukhari, As-Sahih; Chapter: On Pride; Narration: 5724]

Once a women came to Prophet and said, ‘O Messenger of Allah! I have a need for you to fulfil’. He said, O mother of so-and-so! consider which route you wish so I can fulfil your need’. He went with her on one of the footpaths until she had her need fulfilled. [Muslim, As-Sahih; Chapter: Prophet’s closness with the People; Narration: 2326]

About Muhammad, Khwaja Altaf Husain Hali rightly said in his Musaddas:

Muraden Gharibon ki bar lanay wala

Museebat mein ghairon kay kaam aanay wala

Woh apnay paraye ka gham khanay wala

Muhammad’s radical feminism was unprecedented and sublime. Concept of equality in modern world actually arose from French revolution. Since centuries women in both the East and the West were frowned upon and were taken as curse on humanity.

Knowing this reality very much, I am not astonished with the fact that for thousands of years classical texts of Islam were guiding humanity by traditions of Muhammad with glorious titles of chapters like: On Living Kindly with Women, Concerning expenditures on Daughters and Sisters , On Woman’s Right Over Her Husband, Are Women to be Given Specific Day for Lessons, Service of a Man towards his Family, On how a Man should treat his Family, On Kindness towards One’s Parents who are Most Deserving of it, Prophet’s closness with the People etc.

I am not astonished, I am rather shocked, that Muslims despite having strong foundation of what constitutes a beautiful society are still living in that dark and ignorant zone in which both East and West remained drowned for ages !

Naved Ashrafi

Naved Ashrafi

Naved Ashrafi is doctoral fellow at the Department of Political Science, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh