In considering the teaching of the Qur’an about women we must bear in mind the situation in Arabia just before the rise of Islam in the first part of the seventh century A. D. Arabia was rapidly changing from a polytheistic and animistic society dominated by women to a society in which men had more authority. Such rapid social change was mainly caused by the demands of trade and town life.


When Islam came it stressed the male line. Succession and inheritance were from father to son. Wives went to live with their husbands instead of staying with their families and receiving visits from their husbands from time to time. In seventh century Arabia, Islam and the stress on patrilineal (male line) ideals brought reform and improvement to the position of women and children. Against this background we should consider the Quranic teaching about women and the family. The Qur’an contains quite a number of instructions about inheritance which lawyers have harmonized. The fortune left following a death can be divided into inheritance and legacy. Inheritance is the most important part. It is divided according to well-defined proportions fixed by the parental decision ahead of time, according to the Qur’an. Legacy is left by the will of the testator, but in any case, he is not to bypass the legitimate inheritors. It is left by will to this or that person whom the testator has freely chosen. (Q 2:180). For the dividing of the inheritance, Islamic law applies, among others, the following principles. (Q 4:11). The man receives double the wife’s amount, because he has direct responsibility for the children. He ought to meet all the material needs of his family in case of necessity. The woman is not held responsible for her father, mother, brothers, sisters, children and other near relatives (Q 4:12). A woman who is not a Muslim does not inherit the normal inheritance of a widow, unless she converts to Islam. A child who has renounced Islam does not inherit.

Marriage is one of God’s signs

According to the Qur’an one of the signs or ayat of God’s power and mercy is that he created mankind: “And one of his signs it is that he has created wives for you of your own species, that you may dwell with them, and has put love and tenderness between you. Here truly are signs for those who reflect.” (Q 30:21). Marriage is represented as a gift of God (Q 16:72) and the normal condition (Q 4:25). Men and women are required to remain chaste before marriage (Q 24:30-33) and to avoid adultery (Q 17:32). The punishment for adultery is one hundred stripes (Q 24:2) not stoning as in the Traditions. The punishment for accusing honourable women without producing four witnesses is eighty stripes. A Muslim man may marry a woman from the People of the Book (i.e. a Jewess or a Christian), but not an idolatress or atheist (Q 5:5, 2:221 and Q 60:10). A Muslim woman may only marry a Muslim. We can note that Muhammad had a Coptic Christian concubine Marie and a Jewish wife Safiya Bint Huayy. It is a great sin to marry any of those listed in Q 4:21-23 including foster-sisters. “Forbidden unto you are your mothers, and your daughters and your sisters, and your father’s sisters, and your mother’s sisters, and your brother’s daughters, and your sister’s daughters, and your foster-mothers, and your foster-sisters, and your mothers-in-law, and your step-daughters who are born under your protection…” (part of Q 4:23).

Spiritually, men and women are equal

In Q 16:97 we read: “Whoso doeth that which is right, whether male or female, if a believer, him will we surely quicken to a happy life, and recompense them with a reward meet for their best deeds.” Both men and women are to keep the five main religious duties — the five pillars – as far as possible. Women are more restricted in this. Practice varies in many parts of the world as to whether a woman may attend mosque prayers. In mosques that I have attended in the U.S.A. men sit in the front and women behind for the Friday prayers. Maulana Maududi, who founded in 1941 the Jama‘at-i Islami, a fundamentalist equivalent for the Indian subcontinent of the Muslim Brotherhood, stated that menstruating women should not engage in ritual prayers or fasting. These women try to make up the days of fasting at some later time. Menstruation is regarded as a major pollution and for this reason among others a woman should not pray in public in a mosque according to Maududi. At a time of ritual uncleanness prayer and fasting are rendered invalid. In some new mosques like the Kowloon Mosque in Hong Kong there are special arrangements for women to pray and be present for Friday prayers in the upper part of the mosque where they are completely separate from the men but can see all that is taking place and participate in the ritual prayers. Another limitation for a woman is that she cannot go on pilgrimage to Mecca unless she is escorted by a male relative or guardian.

roles in society

Although men and women are spiritually equal before God they have different functions and responsibilities. There are four ways in which the primacy of men over women is affirmed in the Qur’an:  (1) man is physically stronger (Q 2:228); (2) men may discipline their wives (Q 4:34); (3) in a legal situation. In the 1980s there was much debate in Pakistan as to whether in a court of law the testimony of one man is equaled by the testimony of two women or of one woman. In the end it was decided that in each case the judge would decide – a solution which pleased neither the fundamentalists nor the liberals. The question of evidence in court stems from one particular Quranic verse ( 2:282). However, Muslims put a very high store on the Hadith or Traditions. Some hadith raise interesting questions about the position of women. Aisha, one of Muhammad’s wives, was not happy about being categorized with dogs. Bukhari, in his collection of Hadith (Vol.2, 135) records that Muhammad said that “Prayer is annulled by a dog, a donkey and a woman (if they pass in front of the praying people). I said you have made us (i.e. women) dogs.” (4) Finally, in the matter of inheritance (Q 4:11). Generally a daughter inherits half of what would come to her brother. The rationale is that the son has greater economic responsibilities. “Men are superior to women on account of the qualities with which God has gifted the one above the other, and on account of the outlay they make of their substance for them” (Q 4:34).

The Quranic view of the family

Children are a gift of God (Q 16:72). In pre-Islamic society the birth of a girl was of less honour (Q 16:58-59; 43:16; 81:8). Obedience to parents is like that due to God (Q 37:102 cf. Q 12:80; 2:83; 46:15 and 4:36). The approval of God reveals itself in the approval of parents and the anger of God reveals itself in the anger of parents (Q 64:14-15). Looking after elderly parents is implicit in the worship of God (Q 6:152). Being faithful to Islam comes before obeying one’s parents (Q 31:15). Children are to be gracious to elderly parents (Q 17:23-24), not insolent. More importance is given to the mother than to the father (Q 46:15). One hadith states: “Whoever believes in God and in the last day maintains his family claims.” See Q 2:124 about the claims of parents and Q 17:26 about the claims of kinsmen. Before Abraham the ‘father of believers’ was called to leave his father and his tribe, he prayed for forgiveness from his father (Q 9:114).

Polygamy or monogamy?

Muslims interpret variously the Quranic verse that a man may have up to four wives provided he treats them equally (Q 4:3). Some claim that no man can treat two, three or four women equally so this is really an argument for monogamy. The main arguments in favour of polygamy are that the physiological needs of the man are more compelling than those of the woman and last to an advanced age. Barrenness, illness or long menstruation hinder relationships (Q 2:222). To guard from the sin of adultery and to protect women in immoral societies, the Qur’an proposes polygamy (Q 36:6 cf. 70:29-31).

The Special Situation of the Prophet

He was not an ordinary man (Q 4:80; 59:7; 4:59). The title Prophet carries with it special privileges explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an, which exempts him from the maximum of four wives. Also, the fact that the Prophet had nine (or eleven) wives, who were of different tribal and religious origins is considered by Muslims as a work of unification, done with the sole aim of uniting different tribes.


While the Qur’an allows divorce, it is considered “the most detestable of permitted things.” For divorce before the marriage is consummated, see Q 2:237. Men and women do not generally have equal rights in these matters. Only the man is free to send his wife away. It is commonly thought that if the wife had the same possibilities she would be less concerned with preserving her home. The right of asking for divorce can always be granted to the wife if it has been written into the marriage contract and if the prevailing school of law permits it. The first quarrel in the life of the couple will not necessarily lead to divorce. The Qur’an outlines several steps towards reconciliation — the husband should begin by admonishing his wife. If she does not respond he should abandon the conjugal bed; he can beat her if she persists in disobedience (Q 4:34). If she obeys they can be reconciled. If these possibilities are exhausted the husband can appeal to two arbitrators — one from his family and the other from his wife’s family (Q 4:35). Divorce will only be pronounced if all these efforts fail. Otherwise the divorce will take effect after four months. During that time the wife will join her parents’ family. At the end of this period the husband will again have the chance for reversing his decision. In the case of divorce or widowhood, the woman has to wait three menstrual cycles before remarrying, lest there be any doubt about the paternity of the new-born child (Q 2:226). During this delay and, if she is pregnant, until the birth and the end of weaning (which lasts for two years), the divorcing husband is bound to provide for the woman and child (Q 2:233). Note that divorce is only irrevocable after two pronouncements (Q 2:226-7). If, after divorcing his wife, a husband wants to marry her again, he can only do this after she has married someone else and been divorced (Q 2:230). The third pronouncement finalizes the matter (Q 2:229). Once the divorce is finalized, the ex-husband has to guarantee to his ex-wife a suitable pension so that she does not become an expense for her family or society until she marries someone else. In the case of death, a man who wishes to marry a widow, has to respect the waiting time. During this period, he must not propose marriage nor make a secret promise (Q 2:235). During the year following the death of her husband, the widow ought to have been provided for (Q 2:240).

Singleness in Islam

One hadith states that “marriage is half the faith,” (Arabic: al-zawaj nisf al-iman). Muslims have often questioned single Christian women working in Muslim lands about their single state. However, Muslims are well aware of singleness. Rabi‘a, one of the most famous Muslim mystics, held in the highest regard, was single. It seems that she had made a vow of consecration to God so that she could have closer union with him. Some Sufi orders encourage celibacy for religious reasons. In fact, the early Sufis often exhorted their students to remain celibate. Al-Ghazali commends celibacy if one cannot cope with the expenses and burdens of family life. Those Muslims who do not see Sufism as an authentic expression of Islam could consider Jamal al-Din al-Afghani the highly respected orthodox reformer of the nineteenth century and the teacher of Muhammad Abduh who laid the foundations of modern Islamic reform in Egypt and beyond. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani never married although on his travels throughout the Muslim world he had many offers. Whenever an admiring disciple offered his daughter in marriage his answer was always the same: “The ummah (Islamic community) is my spouse.” Fatima Jinnah, sister of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was single. Jesus Christ, one of the six main prophets of Islam, who features prominently in the Qur’an, never married. His mother Mary or Mariam is the greatest woman both in the Bible and the Qur’an. The Qur’an recognizes her chastity and sees her as the perfect example of virginity (Q 21:91 and 66:12). John the Baptist, Yahya in the Qur’an, was called hasur or chaste, and never married (Q 3:39). Both Islam and Christianity see the celibate life as the exception. Voluntary celibacy for certain causes is increasing among Muslims, for example, among those who are involved in the liberation of Palestine.

For more on this topic, see Muslim Women: 7 Things that Might Suprise You.