Women in Islam

There are numerous factors which determine the position of women in Islam; given the immense geographical and cultural diversity of the world's Muslim population. Nevertheless, there are certain texts, laws and cultural influences which are common throughout most of the Islamic world and which play a vital role in defining the social, spiritual and cosmological significance of women. These include Islam's sacred text, the Qu'ran; the Ḥadīths, which are traditions relating to the deeds and aphorisms of the Prophet Muḥammad;[1] ijmā', which is a consensus, expressed or tacit, on a question of law;[2] qiyās, the principle by which the laws of the Qu'ran and the Sunnah or Prophetic custom are applied to situations not explicitly covered by these two sources of legislation;[3] and fatwas, non-binding published opinions or decisions regarding religious doctrine or points of law. Additional influences include pre-Islamic cultural traditions; secular laws, which are fully accepted in Islam so long as they do not directly contradict Islamic precepts;[4] religious authorities, including government-controlled agencies such as the Indonesian Ulema Council and Turkey's Diyanet;[5] and spiritual teachers, which are particularly prominent in Islamic mysticism or Sufism. Many of the latter – including perhaps most famously, Ibn al-'Arabī – have themselves produced texts that have elucidated the metaphysical symbolism of the feminine principle in Islam.[6]

There is considerable variation as to how the above sources are interpreted by Orthodox Muslims, both Sunni and Shi‘a – approximately 90% of the world's Muslim population – and ideological fundamentalists, most notably those subscribing to Wahhabism or Salafism, who comprise roughly 9% of the total.[7] In particular, Wahhabis and Salafists tend to reject mysticism and theology outright; this has profound implications for the way that women are perceived within these ideological sects.[8] Conversely, within Islamic Orthodoxy, both the established theological schools and Sufism are at least somewhat influential;[9] accordingly, women are accorded a greater social and cosmological role.

As is the case with other religious paths, the lived experience of women in the Islamic tradition varies enormously according to their particular circumstances, such as historical era, social class and location. Islam's enormous size, over a millennium of history, and geographical and cultural spread makes contextual knowledge essential to understanding this topic.

Sources of influence

There are four sources of influence under Islam for Muslim women. The first two, the Quran and Hadiths, are considered primary sources, while the other two are secondary and derived sources that differ between various Muslim sects and schools of Islamic jurisprudence. The secondary sources of influence include ijma, qiyas and, in forms such as fatwa, ijtihad.[10][11][12]


A fragment of Sūrat an-Nisāʼ – a chapter of Islam's sacred text entitled 'Women' – featuring the Persian, Arabic and Kufic scripts. Islam views men and women as equal before God, and the Qu'ran underlines that man and woman were "created of a single soul" (4:1, 39:6 and elsewhere).[13]

Women in Islam are provided a number of guidelines under Quran and hadiths, as understood by fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) as well as of the interpretations derived from the hadith that were agreed upon by majority of Sunni scholars as authentic beyond doubt based on hadith studies.[14][15] These interpretations and their application were shaped by the historical context of the Muslim world at the time they were written.[14]

During his life, Muhammad married nine or eleven women depending upon the differing accounts of who were his wives. In Arabian culture, marriage was generally contracted in accordance with the larger needs of the tribe and was based on the need to form alliances within the tribe and with other tribes. Virginity at the time of marriage was emphasised as a tribal honour.[16] William Montgomery Watt states that all of Muhammad's marriages had the political aspect of strengthening friendly relationships and were based on the Arabian custom.[17]


Main article: An-Nisa

Women or Sūrat an-Nisāʼ[18] is the fourth chapter of the Quran. The title of the sura derives from the numerous references to women throughout the chapter, including verses 3-4 and 127-130.[19]


The above primary sources of influence on women of Islam do not deal with every conceivable situation over time. This led to the development of jurisprudence and religious schools with Islamic scholars that referred to resources such as identifying authentic documents, internal discussions and establishing a consensus to find the correct religiously approved course of action for Muslims.[10][11] These formed the secondary sources of influence for women. Among them are ijma, qiya, ijtihad and others depending on sect and the school of Islamic law. Included in secondary sources are fatwas, which are often widely distributed, orally or in writing by Muslim clerics, to the masses, in local language and describe behavior, roles and rights of women that conforms with religious requirements. Fatwas are theoretically non-binding, but seriously considered and have often been practiced by most Muslim believers. The secondary sources typically fall into five types of influence: the declared role or behavior for Muslims, both women and men, is considered obligatory, commendable, permissible, despised or prohibited. There is considerable controversy, change over time, and conflict between the secondary sources.[20][21][22]

Gender roles

Main article: Gender roles in Islam
A fifteenth-century Persian miniature depiciting the Battle of the Camel, the decisive encounter of the victorious army of the Caliph, 'Alī, and an army of rebels featuring the Prophet Muḥammad's wife, Āʿisha. Āʿisha was captured, but ultimately she was allowed to retire Medina without sanctions.[23] Because of her wit, intelligence, eloquence, scholarship and political participation – in addition to her status as a religious authority – Āʿisha is cited as a role model within the Islamic tradition.[13]

Gender roles in Islam are simultaneously coloured by two Qur'anic precepts: (i) spiritual equality between women and men; and (ii) the idea that women are meant to exemplify femininity, and men masculinity.[24]

Spiritual equality between women and men is detailed in Sūrat al-Aḥzāb (33:35):

Verily, men who surrender unto God, and women who surrender, and men who believe and women who believe, and men who obey and women who obey, and men who speak the truth and women who speak the truth...and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their modesty and women who guard (their modesty), and men who remember God much and women who remember – God hath prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward.[25]
—Verse 33 of the Qu'ran, 'The Coalition'

Islam's basic view of women and men postulates a complementarity of functions: like everything else in the universe, humanity has been created in a pair (Sūrat al-Dhāriyāt, 51:49) – neither can be complete without the other.[26] In Islamic cosmological thinking, the universe is perceived as an equilibrium built on harmonious polar relationships between the pairs that make up all things.[26] Moreover, all outward phenomena are reflections of inward noumena and ultimately of God.[26]

The emphasis which Islam places upon the feminine/masculine polarity (and therefore complementarity) results, quite logically, in a separation of social functions.[27] In general, a woman's sphere of operation is the home – in which she is the dominant figure – and a man's corresponding sphere is the outside world.[28] However, this separation is not, in practice, as rigid as it appears.[27] There are many examples – both in the early history of Islam and in the contemporary world – of Muslim women who have played prominent roles in public life, including being sultanas, queens, elected heads of state and wealthy businesswomen. Moreover, it is important to recognise that in Islam, home and family are firmly situated at the centre of life in this world and of society: a man's work cannot take precedence over the private realm.[28]

The Quran dedicates numerous verses to Muslim women, their role, duties and rights, in addition to Sura 4 with 176 verses named "An-Nisa" ("Women").[29]

Islam differentiates the gender role of women who believe in Islam and those who do not. The Muslim male's right to own slave women, seized during military campaigns and jihad against non-believing pagans and infidels from Southern Europe to Africa to India to Central Asia, was considered natural.[30][31] Slave women could be sold without their consent, expected to provide concubinage, required permission from their owner to marry; and children born to them were automatically considered Muslim under Islamic law if the father was a Muslim.[32][33][34]

Female education

The University of al-Qarawiyyin (Université Al Quaraouiyine) in the Moroccan city of Fes was founded as a madrasa-mosque complex by a Muslim woman – Fatima al-Fihri, the educated daughter of a wealthy merchant – in 859. According to UNESCO, it is the oldest university in the world which is still operational,[35] as well as being the first such institution to award degrees. This university was historically one of the leading spiritual and educational centres in the Islamic world. It was incorporated into Morocco's modern state university system in 1963.

The classical position

Both the Qu'ran – Islam's sacred text – and the spoken or acted example of the Prophet Muḥammad (Sunnah) advocate the rights of women and men equally to seek knowledge.[36] The Qu'ran commands all Muslims to exert effort in the pursuit of knowledge, irrespective of their biological sex: it constantly encourages Muslims to read, think, contemplate and learn from the signs of God in nature.[36] Moreover, Muḥammad encouraged education for both males and females: he declared that seeking knowledge was a religious duty binding upon every Muslim man and woman.[37] Like her male counterpart, each woman is under a moral and religious obligation to seek knowledge, develop her intellect, broaden her outlook, cultivate her talents and then utilise her potential to the benefit of her soul and her society.[38]

The interest of the Prophet Muḥammad in female education was manifest in the fact that he himself used to teach women along with men.[38] Muḥammad's teachings were widely sought by both sexes, and accordingly at the time of his death it was reported that there were many female scholars of Islam.[37] Additionally, the wives of the Prophet Muḥammad – particularly Aisha – also taught both women and men; many of Muḥammad's companions and followers learned the Qu'ran, ḥadīth and Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) from Aisha.[39] Notably, there was no restriction placed on the type of knowledge acquired: a woman was free to choose any field of knowledge that interested her.[40] Because Islam recognises that women are in principle wives and mothers, the acquisition of knowledge in fields which are complementary to these social roles was specially emphasised.[41]

Historical religious education

Islam encouraged religious education of Muslim women.[42] According to a hadith in Saḥih Muslim variously attributed to 'Ā'isha and Muhammad, the women of the ansar were praiseworthy because shame did not prevent them from asking detailed questions about Islamic law.[42][43]

While it was not common for women to enroll as students in formal religious schools, it was common for women to attend informal lectures and study sessions at mosques, madrasat and other public places. For example, the attendance of women at the Fatimid Caliphate's "sessions of wisdom" (majālis al-ḥikma) was noted by various historians, including Ibn al-Tuwayr, al-Muṣabbiḥī and Imam.[44] Historically, some Muslim women played an important role in the foundation of many religious educational institutions, such as Fatima al-Fihri's founding of the University of al-Karaouine in 859 CE.[45]:274 According to the 12th-century Sunni scholar Ibn 'Asakir, there were various opportunities for female education in what is known as the Islamic Golden Age. He writes that women could study, earn ijazahs (religious degrees) and qualify as ulama and Islamic teachers.[45]:196, 198 Similarly, al-Sakhawi devotes one of the twelve volumes of his biographical dictionary Daw al-Lami to female religious scholars between 700 and 1800 CE, giving information on 1,075 of them. [46]

During the colonial era, until the early 20th century, there was a gender struggle among Muslims in the British empire; educating women was viewed as a prelude to social chaos, a threat to the moral order, and man's world was viewed as a source of Muslim identity.[47] Muslim women in British India, nevertheless, pressed for their rights independent of men; by the 1930s, 2.5 million girls had entered schools of which 0.5 million were Muslims.[47]

Pakistani school girls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Modern secular education

In a 2013 statement, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation noted that many Islamic member nations restrict education opportunities for girls.[48] UNICEF notes that out of 24 nations with less than 60% female primary enrollment rates, 17 were Islamic nations; more than half the adult population is illiterate in several Islamic countries, and the proportion reaches 70% among Muslim women.[49] Other scholars[50][51] claim Islamic nations have the world's highest gender gap in education. The 2012 World Economic Forum annual gender gap study finds the 17 out of 18 worst performing nations, out of a total of 135 nations, are the following members of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation: Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, (Nepal[52]), Turkey, Oman, Egypt, Iran, Mali, Morocco, Côte d'Ivoire, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Chad, Pakistan and Yemen.[53]

The gender gap at universities is not universal among Muslim-majority nations. In Turkey, the proportion of female university researchers is slightly higher (36%) than the average for the 27-member European Union as of 2012 (33%).[54] At the University of Jordan, which is Jordan's largest and oldest university, 65% of students were female in 2013.[55] In Kazakhstan, there were 115 female students for every 100 male students in tertiary education in 1999; according to the World Bank, this ratio had increased to 144:100 by 2008.[56] Similarly, in Malaysia,[57] Algeria,[58] and in Saudi Arabia,[59] the majority of university students have been female in recent years. Other estimates suggest this rising presence of women in education may be limited to universities. For example, a 2005 study[60] reports that even while literacy has been improving since the 1970s, the overall female literacy rate in Saudi Arabia is 50% compared to male literacy of 72%. UNESCO estimates many Muslim-majority nations had about 50% or less literacy rate in its adult women population in 2010; examples include Morocco, Yemen, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Niger, Mali, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Chad.[61] Egypt had a women literacy rate of 64% in 2010, Iraq of 71% and Indonesia of 90%.[61]

Female employment

Some scholars[62][63] refer to verse 28:23 in the Quran and to Khadijah, Muhammad's first wife, a merchant before and after converting to Islam, as indications that Muslim women may undertake employment outside their homes.

And when he came to the water of Madyan, he found on it a group of men watering, and he found besides them two women keeping back (their flocks). He said: What is the matter with you? They said: We cannot water until the shepherds take away (their sheep) from the water, and our father is a very old man.
Qur'an, [Quran 28:23]

Traditional interpretations of Islam require a woman to have her husband's permission to leave the house and take up employment.[64][65][66]


During medieval times, the labor force in Spanish Caliphate included women in diverse occupations and economic activities such as farming, construction workers, textile workers, managing slave girls, collecting taxes from prostitutes, as well as presidents of guilds, creditors, religious scholars.[67]

In the 12th century, Ibn Rushd, claimed that women were equal to men in all respects and possessed equal capacities to shine, citing examples of female warriors among the Arabs, Greeks and Africans to support his case.[68] In the early history of Islam, examples of notable female Muslims who fought during the Muslim conquests and Fitna (civil wars) as soldiers or generals included Nusaybah bint Ka'ab[69] a.k.a. Umm Amarah, Aisha,[70] Kahula and Wafeira.[71]

Medieval bimarestan or hospitals included female staff as female nurses. Muslim hospitals were also the first to employ female physicians, such as Banu Zuhr family who served the Almohad caliph ruler Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur in the 12th century.[72] This was necessary due to the segregation of male and female patients in Islamic hospitals. Later in the 15th century, female surgeons were employed at Şerafeddin Sabuncuoğlu's Cerrahiyyetu'l-Haniyye (Imperial Surgery).[73]

Islamic women at work in a garment factory in Bangladesh. Majority of garment workers are women in Bangladesh, and it is the world's second largest exporter of garments.[74][75][76]

Modern era

Patterns of women's employment vary throughout the Muslim world: as of 2005, 16% of Pakistani women were "economically active" (either employed, or unemployed but available to furnish labor), whereas 52% of Indonesian women were.[77] According to a 2012 World Economic Forum report[78] and other recent reports,[79] Islamic nations in the Middle East and North Africa region are increasing their creation of economic and employment opportunities for women; compared, however, to every other region in the world, the Middle East and North African region ranks lowest on economic participation, employment opportunity and the political empowerment of women. Ten countries with the lowest women labour force participation in the world  Jordan, Oman, Morocco, Iran, Turkey, Algeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Syria  are Islamic countries, as are the four countries that have no female parliamentarians.[78]

Women are allowed to work in Islam, subject to certain conditions, such as if a woman is in financial need and her employment does not cause her to neglect her important role as a mother and wife.[62][80] It has been claimed that it is the responsibility of the Muslim community to organize work for women, so that she can do so in a Muslim cultural atmosphere, where her rights (as set out in the Quran) are respected.[62] Islamic law however, permits women to work in Islamic conditions,[62] such as the work not requiring the woman to violate Islamic law (e.g., serving alcohol), and that she maintain her modesty while she performs any work outside her home.

In some cases, when women have the right to work and are educated, women's job opportunities may in practice be unequal to those of men. In Egypt for example, women have limited opportunities to work in the private sector because women are still expected to put their role in the family first, which causes men to be seen as more reliable in the long term.[81] In Saudi Arabia, it is illegal for Saudi women to drive, serve in military and other professions with men.[82] It is becoming more common for Saudi Arabian women to procure driving licences from other Gulf Cooperation Council states such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.[83]

According to the International Business Report (2014) published by global accounting network Grant Thornton, Indonesia – which is the world's largest Muslim country by population – has ≥40% of senior business management positions occupied by women, a greater proportion than the United States (22%) and Denmark (14%).[84] Prominent female business executives in the Islamic world include Güler Sabancı, the CEO of the industrial and financial conglomerate Sabancı Holding;[85] Ümit Boyner, a non-executive director at Boyner Holding who was the chairwoman of TÜSİAD, the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen Association, from 2010 to 2013;[86] Bernadette Ruth Irawati Setiady, the CEO of PT Kalbe Farma Tbk., the largest pharmaceutical company in the ASEAN trade bloc;[87] Atiek Nur Wahyuni, the director of Trans TV, a major free-to-air television station in Indonesia;[88] and Elissa Freiha, a founding partner of the UAE-based investment platform WOMENA.[89][90]

Use, by country, of Sharia for legal matters relating to women:
  Sharia plays no role in the judicial system
  Sharia applies to Muslims in personal status issues only
  Sharia applies in full, including criminal law
  Regional variations in the application of sharia

According to all schools of Islamic law, the injunctions of the sharī'ah of Islam apply to all Muslims, male and female, who have reached the age of majority – and only to them.[25] All Muslims are in principle equal before the law.[91] The Qu'ran especially emphasises that its injunctions concern both men and women in several verses where both are addressed clearly and in a distinct manner, such as in Sūrat al-Aḥzāb at 33:35 ('Verily, men who surrender unto God, and women who surrender...').

Most Muslim majority countries, and some Muslim minority countries, follow a mixed legal system, with positive laws and state courts, as well as sharia-based religious laws and religious courts.[92] Those countries that use Sharia for legal matters involving women, adopt it mostly for personal law; however, a few Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen apply the entire sharia code in legal matters for Muslim women.[93]

In some Islamic areas, practices such as jirga, vani, Ba'ad and "honor" killing remain an integral part of the customary legal processes involving Muslim women.[94][95] These have been traced to diyya ("blood money") and qisas ("eye for an eye") principles of Islamic law.[96] Diyya was established in pre-Islamic Arabia.[97][98] Sharia affirmed the practice of diyya, and the compensation paid to women victims have historically varied based on her gender and her religion.[99][100] Typically, women victims have been, and are compensated at half the rate as Muslim male victims for an equivalent case, while non-Muslim women compensation rates have varied between one sixteenth to half of a Muslim women, for an equivalent case.[101][102][103]

Islamic law treats intentional homicide, unintentional homicide and all forms of personal injury as a civil dispute between Muslims.[104][105] In all cases of murder, unintentional homicide, bodily injury and property damage suffered by a woman or her heirs, under sharia, the prosecutor is not the state, but the victim or the victim's heir.[104][106]

Other than applicable laws to Muslim women, there is gender-based variation in the process of testimony and acceptable forms of evidence in legal matters.[107][108] Some Islamic jurists have held that certain types of testimony by women may not be accepted. In other cases, the testimony of two women equals that of one man.[107][108]

According to verse 4:31 of Islam's sacred text, both men and women have an independent economic position: 'For men is a portion of what they earn, and for women is a portion of what they earn. Ask God for His grace. God has knowledge of all things.'[109] Women therefore are at liberty to buy, sell, mortgage, lease, borrow or lend, and sign contracts and legal documents.[109] Additionally, women can donate money, act as trustees and set up a business or company.[109] These rights cannot be altered, irrespective of marital status.[109] When a woman is married, she legally has total control over the dower – the mahr or bridal gift, usually financial in nature, while the groom pays to the bride upon marriage – and retains this control in the event of divorce.[109][110]

Qu'ranic principles, especially the teaching of zakāh or purification of wealth, encourage women to own, invest, save and distribute their earnings and savings according to their discretion.[109] These also acknowledge and enforce the right of women to participate in various economic activities.[109]

In contrast to many other cultures, a woman in Islam has always been entitled as per sharī'ah law to keep her family name and not take her husband's name.[111] Therefore, a Muslim woman has traditionally always been known by the name of her family as an indication of her individuality and her own legal identity: there is no historically practiced process of changing the names of women be they married, divorced or widowed.[111] With the spread of modern, western-style state bureaucracies across the Islamic world from the nineteenth century onwards, this latter convention has come under increasing pressure, and it is now commonplace for Muslim women to change their names upon marriage.

Property rights

Hijab clad female members of a Bangladeshi family seen in Makkah, Saudi Arabia amid pilgrimage.

Quran states:

"For men is a share from what the parents and near relatives leave, and for women is a share from what the parents and near relative leave from less from it or more, a legal share."

(Al-Quran 4:7)

Bernard Lewis says that classical Islamic civilization granted free Muslim women relatively more property rights than women in the West, even as it sanctified three basic inequalities between master and slave, man and woman, believer and unbeliever.[112] Even in cases where property rights were granted in the West, they were very limited and covered only upper class women.[113] Over time, while women's rights have improved elsewhere, those in many Muslim-dominated countries have remained comparatively restricted.[114][115]

Women's property rights in the Quran are from parents and near relatives. A woman, according to Islamic tradition, does not have to give her pre-marriage possessions to her husband and receive a mahr (dower) which she then owns.[116] Furthermore, any earnings that a woman receives through employment or business, after marriage, is hers to keep and need not contribute towards family expenses. This is because, once the marriage is consummated, in exchange for ‘‘tamkin’’ (sexual submission), a woman is entitled to nafaqa – namely, the financial responsibility for reasonable housing, food and other household expenses for the family, including the spouse, falls entirely on the husband.[64][65] In traditional Islamic law, a woman is also not responsible for the upkeep of the home and may demand payment for any work she does in the domestic sphere.[117]

Property rights enabled some Muslim women to possess substantial assets and fund charitable endowments. In mid-sixteenth century Istanbul, 36.8% of charitable endowments (awqāf) were founded by women.[118] In eighteenth century Cairo, 126 out of 496 charitable foundations (25.4%) were endowed by women.[119] Between 1770 and 1840, 241 out of 468 or 51% of charitable endowments in Aleppo were founded by women.[120]

The Qur'an grants inheritance rights to wife, daughter, and sisters of the deceased.[121] However, women's inheritance rights to her father's property are unequal to her male siblings, and varies based on number of sisters, step sisters, step brothers, if mother is surviving, and other claimants. The rules of inheritance are specified by a number of Qur'an verses, including Surah "Baqarah" (chapter 2) verses 180 and 240; Surah "Nisa(h)" (chapter 4) verses 7–11, 19 and 33; and Surah "Maidah" (chapter 5), verses 106–108. Three verses in Surah "Nisah" (chapter 4), verses 11, 12 and 176, describe the share of close relatives. The religious inheritance laws for women in Islam are different from inheritance laws for non-Muslim women under common laws.[122]

Sexual crimes

And those who commit lewdness out of your women; ask four witness out of you; if they witness confine them in homes until death completes them or God make another resource for them.

(Al-Quran 4:15)


See also: Zina (Arabic)

In Islam, sexual intercourse between a woman and any man to whom she is not married is zina, a religious crime.[123][124] This includes extramarital sex, premarital sex and rape. It is listed as a hadd crime, i.e. a crime against God ( theft ; zina; Qadhf; and Hiraba);[125][126] however, in the case of rape, the adult male perpetrator (i.e. rapist) of such an act is to receive the ḥadd zinā, but the non-consenting or invalidly consenting female (i.e. rape victim) is to be regarded as innocent of zinā and relieved of the ḥadd punishment.[127]

According to Surat An-Nur – the twenty-fourth verse of the Qu'ran – adultery can be punished by up to one hundred lashes (24:2), though this is not binding in nature and the final decision will always be in the hands of a judge appointed by the state or community.[128] There is no reference to stoning in the Qu'ran.[129] In practice, punishments for fornication and adultery – notwithstanding the fact that both are regarded as grave sins – have been regarded as something which Islamic law has put beyond the scope of society's punishment.[130]

Sharī'ah law makes a distinction between adultery and rape and applies different rules.[131] According to the Qu'ran (24:4), the proof that adultery has occurred requires four eyewitnesses to the act, which must have been committed by a man and a woman not validly married to one another, and the act must have been wilfully committed by consenting adults.[131] Proof can also be determined by a confession.[131] But this confession must be voluntary, and based on legal counsel; it must be repeated on four separate occasions, and made by a person who is sane.[132] Otherwise, the accuser is then accorded a sentence for defamation (which means flogging or a prison sentence), and his or her testimony is excluded in all future court cases.[133][Quran 24:4]


Zina cannot be alleged by any person without 4 male witnesses against or without confession in court by the woman who committed zina.[123][124][134] Some contend that this sharia requirement of four eyewitnesses severely limits a man's ability to prove zina charges against women, a crime often committed without eyewitnesses.[123][135][136] However, according to Professor Oliver Leaman – Professor of Philosophy and Zantker Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Kentucky, and the author of several seminal works on Islamic and Jewish philosophy – the required testimony of four male witnesses having seen the actual penetration applies to illicit sexual relations (i.e. adultery and fornication), not to rape.[133] The requirements for proof of rape are less stringent:

'Rape charges can be brought and a case proven based on the sole testimony of the victim, providing that circumstantial evidence supports the allegations. It is these strict criteria of proof which lead to the frequent observation that where injustice against women does occur, it is not because of Islamic law. It happens either due to misinterpretation of the intricacies of the Sharia laws governing these matters, or cultural traditions; or due to corruption and blatant disregard of the law, or indeed some combination of these phenomena.'[133]

Sex with non-Muslim slave women is not considered adultery.[137] This principle of religious crime only applies for unlawful sex between free Muslim men and free Muslim women.[138][139]

The crime of rape, according to Sunni Ḥanafī and Mālikī jurists, is as an act of zinā. If the consent was granted under coercion or in a defective legal capacity such as by a mentally impaired person, it is considered non-consent or invalid consent.[140] While a sunnah suggests that a woman should not be punished for having been coerced into having sex,[141] it is the burden of the victim to establish coercion with eyewitnesses. If a man does confess to zina, eyewitnesses are not required.[142] Such a confession may, however, be withdrawn and the need for four male Muslim eyewitnesses reinstated. Failure to provide evidence is treated as a crime of false accusation, punishable with flogging.[143] Currently, it is common for a Muslim woman who makes a claim of rape not only to be denied justice but to be charged with fornication or adultery.[144][145][146][147]

Several Islamic countries, such as Morocco (Penal Code Article 475), allow rapists to avoid criminal prosecution if they marry their victim. In 2012, a 16-year-old Moroccan girl, having been forced by her family and the government prosecutor to marry her rapist  and, subsequently, having endured the rapist's abuse  committed suicide by swallowing rat poison.[148] Morocco's parliament proposed to revise its Article 475 in 2013. Other Islamic nations with similar laws that protect the rapist in this manner include Lebanon (Article 514), Algeria, Jordan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.[149][150][151][152] There is a disagreement whether this practice is sanctioned by Islam or part of local custom.[153][154]

Witness of woman

In Qur'an, surah 2:182 equates two women as substitute for one man, in matters requiring witnesses.[155]

O ye who believe! When ye contract debt with each other for a fixed period of time, reduce them to writing. Let a scribe write down faithfully as between the parties: let not the scribe refuse to write: as Allah has taught him, so let him write. Let him who incurs the liability dictate, but let him fear His Lord Allah, and not diminish aught of what he owes. If they party liable is mentally deficient, or weak, or unable himself to dictate, let his guardian dictate faithfully, and get two witnesses, out of your own men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women, such as ye choose, for witnesses, so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her. The witnesses should not refuse when they are called on (For evidence). Disdain not to reduce to writing (your contract) for a future period, whether it be small or big: it is juster in the sight of Allah, More suitable as evidence, and more convenient to prevent doubts among yourselves but if it be a transaction which ye carry out on the spot among yourselves, there is no blame on you if ye reduce it not to writing.
Qur'an, [Quran 2:282]
And those who accuse chaste women then do not bring four witnesses, flog them eighty strips and don't accept their testimony forever. Indeed, they themselves are disobedient.
Qur'an, [Quran 24:4]

Muḥammad favoured women to men in some aspects of testimony: in matters concerning women, the testimony of a man is not accepted by itself, whereas a woman's testimony alone is accepted.[156]

Historically, this principle that the testimony of a man had twice the strength of a woman, was applied in financial, civil as well as criminal matters such as rape (Zina).[107][108] In modern practice, several Islamic countries presently treat a woman's testimony as half of a man's, in their Sharia courts. Arab countries gives a woman's testimony half the weight of a man's.[157]

Domestic breach

Acceptance of domestic violence by women in some Islamic countries, according to UNICEF (2013).[158]

Discussions on the topic of domestic violence and Islam tend to centre on part of a single verse of the Qu'ran – the thirty-fourth ayat of Sūrat an-Nisāʼ (4:34) – which has been claimed to permit mild physical discipline of a wife as a last resort in the event of 'disloyalty', such as an extra-marital affair or similar phenomenon. However, this claim is seen as problematic on at least two important levels.

Men have authority over women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband's] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance - [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand. If you fear a breach between them then appoint an arbiter from his folks and an arbiter from her folks; if they desire reconciliation God will affect between them; indeed God is All-knowing All-aware (Al-Quran, An-Nisa, 34-35)

Firstly, the word 'strike' in this verse which is understood as 'beating' or 'hitting' in English – 'w’aḍribūhunna – is derived from the Arabic root word ḍaraba, which has over fifty derivations and definitions, including 'to separate', 'to oscillate' and 'to play music'.[159] Even within the Qu'ran itself, the most common use of this word is not with the definition 'to beat', but as verb phrases which provide a number of other meanings, including several which are more plausible within the context of 4:34, such as 'to leave [your wife in the event of disloyalty]', and 'to draw them lovingly towards you [following temporarily not sleeping with them in protest at their disloyal behaviour]'.[160]

Secondly, accepting physical violence – no matter how symbolic – as a legitimate marital disciplinary tool is perceived as being contradictory to the ethos of marriage as described in the Qu'ran: (i) according to 30:21, one of God's signs is the creation of the 'love and mercy' between married couples which is meant to characterise this type of relationship; and (ii) at 4:19, men are exhorted to 'consort with their wives in kindness'.

Sharī'ah law addresses domestic violence through the concept of darar or harm that encompasses several types of abuse against a spouse, including physical abuse. The laws concerning darar state that if a woman is being harmed in her marriage, she can have it annulled: physically assaulting a wife violates the marriage contract and is grounds for immediate divorce.[161]

Sharī'ah court records from the Ottoman period illustrate the ability of women to seek justice when subject to physical abuse: as a notable 1687 case from Aleppo demonstrates, courts gave out penalties such as corporal punishment to abusive husbands.[161]

A sixteenth-century fatwa issued by the Şeyhülislam (Shaykh al-Islam, the highest religious authority in the jurisdiction) of the Ottoman Empire stated that in the event of a judge becoming aware of serious spousal abuse, he has the legal authority to prevent the husband hurting his wife 'by whatever means possible', including ordering their separation (at the request of the wife).[161]

In recent years, numerous prominent scholars in the tradition of Orthodox Islam have issued fatwas (legal opinions) against domestic violence. These include the Shī'ite scholar Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who promulgated a fatwa on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 2007 which states that Islam forbids men from exercising any form of violence against women;[162] and Shakyh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, the Chairman of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, who co-authored The Prohibition of Domestic Violence in Islam (2011) with Dr. Homayra Ziad.[163]

Some scholars[164][165] claim Islamic law, such as verse 4:34 of Quran, allows and encourages domestic violence against women, when a husband suspects nushuz (disobedience, disloyalty, rebellion, ill conduct) in his wife.[166] Other scholars claim wife beating, for nashizah, is not consistent with modern perspectives of Quran,.[167]

Some conservative translations suggest Muslim husbands are permitted to use ’’light force’’ on their wives, and others claim permissibility to strike, hit, chastise, or beat.[168][169] The relationship between Islam and domestic violence is disputed by some Islamic scholars.[168][170]

The Lebanese educator and journalist 'Abd al-Qadir al-Maghribi argued that perpetrating acts of domestic violence goes against Muḥammad's own example and injunction. In his 1928 essay, Muḥammad and Woman, al-Maghribi said: 'He [Muḥammad] prohibited a man from beating his wife and noted that beating was not appropriate for the marital relationship between them'.[171] Muḥammad underlined the moral and logical inconsistency in beating one's wife during the day and then praising her at night as a prelude to conjugal relations.[171] The Austrian scholar and translator of the Qu'ran Muhammad Asad (Leopold Weiss) said: 'It is evident from many authentic traditions that the Prophet himself intensely detested the idea of beating one's wife...According to another tradition, he forbade the beating of any woman with the words, "Never beat God's handmaidens."'[172]

In practice, the legal doctrine of many Islamic nations, in deference to Sharia law, have refused to include, consider or prosecute cases of domestic violence, limiting legal protections available to Muslim women.[173][174][175][176] In 2010, for example, the highest court of United Arab Emirates (Federal Supreme Court) considered a lower court's ruling, and upheld a husband's right to "chastise" his wife and children with physical violence. Article 53 of the United Arab Emirates' penal code acknowledges the right of a "chastisement by a husband to his wife and the chastisement of minor children" so long as the assault does not exceed the limits prescribed by Sharia.[177] In Lebanon, as many as three-quarters of all Lebanese women have suffered physical abuse at the hands of husbands or male relatives at some point in their lives.[178][179] In Afghanistan, over 85% of women report domestic violence;[180] other nations with very high rates of domestic violence and limited legal rights include Syria, Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.[181] In some Islamic countries such as Turkey, where legal protections against domestic violence have been enacted, serial domestic violence by husband and other male members of her family is mostly ignored by witnesses and accepted by women without her getting legal help, according to a Government of Turkey report.[182]

Turkey was the first country in Europe to ratify (on 14 March 2012) the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence,[183] which is known as the Istanbul Convention because it was first opened for signature in Turkey's largest city (on 11 May 2011).[184] Three other European countries with a significant (≥c.20%) Muslim population – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro – have also ratified the convention, while Macedonia is a signatory to the document.[185] The aim of the convention is to create a Europe free from violence against women and domestic violence.[186]

Romantic Love and Love of Women

Romantic Love

There is a long and rich tradition of romantic love in Islamic culture. In traditional Islamic societies, love between men and women was widely celebrated,[187] and both the popular and classical literature of the Muslim world is permeated with works on this theme. The Arab love story of Lāyla and Majnūn was arguably more widely known amongst Muslims than that of Romeo and Juliet in (Northern) Europe,[187] while Jāmī's Yusuf (Joseph) and Zulaykhā – which is based upon the narrative in Surah Yusuf, the twelfth surah of the Qu'ran – is a seminal text in the Persian, Urdu and Bengali literary canons. The theme of romantic love continues to suffuse modern and even postmodern fiction from the Islamic world: the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Orhan Pamuk's signature novel The Black Book (1990) is a nominal detective story with extensive meditations on mysticism and obsessive love, while another feted Turkish writer, Elif Şafak, intertwines romantic love and Sufism in 2010's The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi.[188]

In Islamic mysticism or Sufism, romantic love is viewed as a metaphysical metaphor for the love of God. However, the importance of love extends beyond the metaphorical: ibnʿArabī, who is widely recognised as the 'greatest of spiritual masters [of Sufism]', posited that for a man, sex with a woman is the occasion for experiencing God's 'greatest self-disclosure' (the position is similar vice versa):[189]

'The most intense and perfect contemplation of God is through women, and the most intense union is the conjugal act.'[190]

This emphasis on the sublimity of the conjugal act holds true for both this world and the next: the fact that Islam considers sexual relationships one of the ultimate pleasures of paradise is well-known; moreover, there is no suggestion that this is for the sake of producing children.[191] Accordingly, (and in common with civilisations such as the Chinese, Indian and Japanese), the Islamic world has historically generated significant works of erotic literature and technique, and many centuries before such a genre became culturally acceptable in the West: Richard Burton's substantially ersatz 1886 translation of The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight, a fifteenth-century sex manual authored by Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Nafzawi, was labelled as being 'for private circulation only' owing to the puritanical mores and corresponding censorship laws of Victorian England.[192]

Love of Women

Particularly within the context of religion – a domain which is often associated with sexual asceticism – Muḥammad is notable for emphasising the importance of loving women. According to a famous ḥadīth, Muḥammad stated: "Three things of this world of yours were made lovable to me: women, perfume – and the coolness of my eye was placed in the ritual prayer".[193] This is enormously significant because in the Islamic faith, Muḥammad is by definition the most perfect human being and the most perfect male: his love for women shows that the perfection of the human state is connected with love for other human beings, not simply with love for God.[193] More specifically, it illustrates that male perfection lies in women and, by implication, female perfection in men.[193] Consequently, the love Muḥammad had for women is obligatory on all men, since he is the model of perfection that must be emulated.[194]

There is a Hadith quoting,

"There is nothing better for two who love each other than marriage."[195]

Prominent figures in Islamic mysticism have elaborated on this theme. Ibn 'Arabī reflected on the above ḥadīth as follows: "….he [Muḥammad] mentioned women [as one of three things from God's world made lovable to him]. Do you think that which would take him far from his Lord was made lovable to him? Of course not. That which would bring him near to his Lord was made lovable to him.

"He who knows the measure of women and their mystery will not renounce love for them. On the contrary, one of the perfections of the gnostic is love for them, for this is a prophetic heritage and a divine love. For the Prophet said, '[women] were made lovable to me.' Hence he ascribed his love for them only to God. Ponder this chapter – you will see wonders!"[194]

Ibn 'Arabī held that witnessing God in the female human form is the most perfect mode of witnessing: if the Prophet Muḥammad was made to love women, it is because women reflect God.[196] Rūmī came to a similar conclusion: "She [woman] is the radiance of God, she is not your beloved. She is the Creator – you could say that she is not created."[196][197]

Additionally, there are several other ḥadīths on the same theme which underline Muḥammad's teaching on the importance of loving women:


A bride signing the Nikah, the Muslim marriage contract. In Islam, there is no legal concept of marital property. Mahr defines the right of woman in case of divorce or death of her husband.

Metaphysical and Cosmological Significance of Marriage

The metaphysical and cosmological significance of marriage within Islam – particularly within Sufism or Islamic mysticism – is difficult to overstate. The relationship and interplay between male and female is viewed as nothing less than that between heaven (represented by the husband) and earth (symbolised by the wife).[201] Because of her beauty and virtue, the earth is eminently lovable: heaven marries her not simply out of duty, but for pleasure and joy.[201] Marriage and sexual intercourse are not merely human phenomena, but the universal power of productivity found within every level of existence: sex within marriage is the supreme instance of witnessing God in the full splendour of His self-disclosure.[202]

Marriage is the central institution of family life and society, and therefore the central institution of Islam.[203] On a technical level, it is accomplished through a contract which is confirmed by the bride's reception of a dowry or mahr, and by the witnessing of the bride's consent to the marriage.[204] A woman has the freedom to propose to a man of her liking, either orally or in writing.[205] The Prophet Muḥammad himself was the subject of a spoken marriage proposal from a Muslim lady which was worded "I present myself to you", although ultimately Muḥammad solemnized her marriage to another man.[206]

Within the marriage contract itself, the bride has the right to stipulate her own conditions.[207] These conditions usually pertain to such issues as marriage terms (e.g. that her husband may not take another wife), and divorce terms (e.g. that she may dissolve the union at her own initiative if she deems it necessary).[207] In addition, dowries – one on marriage, and another deferred in case of divorce – must be specified and written down; they should also be of substance.[207] The dowry is the exclusive property of the wife and should not be given away, neither to her family nor her relatives.[207] According to the Qu'ran (at 4:2), the wife may freely choose to give part of their dowry to the husband.[207]

Marriage Ceremony and Celebrations

When agreement to the marriage has been expressed and witnessed, those present recite the fātiḥah prayer (the opening chapter of the Qu'ran).[204] Normally, marriages are not contracted in mosques but in private homes or at the offices of a judge (qāḍi).[204] The format and content of the ceremony (if there is one) is often defined by national or tribal customs, as are the celebrations ('urs) that accompany it.[204] In some parts of the Islamic world these may include processions in which the bride gift is put on display; receptions where the bride is seen adorned in elaborate costumes and jewellery; and ceremonial installation of the bride in the new house to which she may be carried in a litter (a type of carriage).[204] The groom may ride through the streets on a horse, followed by his friends and well-wishers, and there is always a feast called the walīmah.[204]

Historical Commonality of Divorce

In contrast to the Western and Orient world where divorce was relatively uncommon until modern times, divorce was a more common occurrence in certain parts of the late medieval Muslim world. In the Mamluk Sultanate and Ottoman Empire, the rate of divorce was high.[208][209] In medieval Egypt, Al-Sakhawi recorded the marital history of 500 women, the largest sample of married women in the Middle Ages, and found that at least a third of all women in the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and Syria married more than once, with many marrying three or more times. According to Al-Sakhawi, as many as three out of ten marriages in 15th century Cairo ended in divorce.[210] In the early 20th century, some villages in western Java and the Malay peninsula had divorce rates as high as 70%.[208]


Marriage customs vary in Muslim dominated countries. Islamic law allows polygamy where a Muslim man can be married to four wives at the same time, under restricted conditions,[211] but it is not widespread.[212] As the Sharia demands that polygamous men treat all wives equally, classical Islamic scholars opined that it is preferable to avoid polygyny altogether, so one does not even come near the chance of committing the forbidden deed of dealing unjustly between the wives.[213] Most modern Muslims view the practice of polygyny as allowed, but unusual and not recommended.[214] In some countries, polygamy is restricted by new family codes, for example the Moudawwana in Morocco.[215] Some countries allow Muslim men to enter into additional temporary marriages, beyond the four allowed marriages, such as the practice of sigheh marriages in Iran,[216] and Nikah Mut'ah elsewhere in some Middle East countries.[217][218]

A marriage of pleasure, where a man pays a sum of money to a woman or her family in exchange for a temporary spousal relationship, is found and considered legal among Shia sect of Islam, for example in Iran after 1979. Temporary marriages are forbidden among Sunni sect of Islam.[219] Among Shia, the number of temporary marriages can be unlimited, for a duration that is less than an hour to few months, recognized with an official temporary marriage certificate, and divorce is unnecessary because the temporary marriage automatically expires on the date and time specified on the certificate.[220] Payment to the woman by the man is mandatory, in every temporary marriage and considered as mahr.[221][222] Its practitioners cite sharia law as permitting the practise. Women's rights groups have condemned it as a form of legalized prostitution.[223][224]


Polyandry, the practice of a woman having more than one husband (even temporarily, after payment of a sum of money to the man or the man's family), by contrast, is not permitted.[225][226]


Consanguineous endogamous marriages are common for women in Islam.[227] Over 250 million women of Islamic faith are in endogamous consanguineous marriages, typically with first cousin marriages.[228][229] Over 65% of all marriages in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are endogamous and consanguineous arranged marriages; more than 40% of all marriages are endogamous and consanguineous in Mauritania, Libya, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Syria, Yemen, Kuwait, UAE and Oman.[228][230]

Endogamy is common in Islamic countries. The observed endogamy is primarily consanguineous marriages, where the bride and the groom share a biological grandparent or other near ancestor.[231][232] The most common observed marriages are first cousin marriages, followed by second cousin marriages. Consanguineous endogamous marriages are most common for women in Muslim communities in the Middle East, North Africa and Islamic Central Asia.[233][234] About 1 in 3 of all marriages in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan are first cousin marriages; while overall consanguineous endogamous marriages exceed 65 to 80% in various Islamic populations of the Middle East, North Africa and Islamic Central Asia.[232][235]

Forbidden Marriages

Do not marry women your fathers married to except that has passed; Indeed it was lewdness, disobedience and bad way. Prohibited to you are your mothers, your daughters, your sisters, your paternal aunts, your maternal aunts, brother's daughters, sister's daughters, your suckling-mothers, your sisters from suckling, mothers of your women, your step-daughters in your guardianship from your women you have entered into them but if you have not entered into them then there is no blame on you, women of your sons from your loins and that you add two sisters (in a wedlock) except that has passed; surely God is All-forgiving and all-merciful.
Quran, [Quran 4:22]

Some marriages are forbidden between Muslim women and Muslim men, according to sharia.[236] In the Quran, Surah An-Nisa gives a list of forbidden marriages.[Quran 4:22] Examples include marrying one's biological father, biological son, biological brother, biological sister's son, milk son or milk brother she has nursed, husband of her biological daughter, and a step father who has had sexual relations with her biological mother.[237][238] There are disputes between Hanafis, Malikis, Shafi'is and Hanabalis schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence on whether and which such marriages are irregular but not void if already in place (fasid), and which are void (batil) marriages.[239]

Age of marriage

The age of marriage in Islam for women varies with country. Traditionally, Islam has permitted marriage of girls below the age of 10, because Sharia considers practices of Muhammad as a basis for Islamic law. According to Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, the two Sunni hadiths, Muhammed married Aisha, his third wife when she was 6, and consummated the marriage be when she reached the age of 9 or 10.(this version of events is rejected by Shia Muslims).[240][241]

Narrated 'Aisha: that the Prophet married her when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old, and then she remained with him for nine years (i.e., till his passing away).

There is a debate among Islamic scholars what the above sunnah means. Some scholars suggest that it is not the calendar age that matters, rather it is the biological age of the girl that determines when she can be married under Islamic law. According to these Islamic scholars, marriageable age in Islam is when a girl has reached sexual maturity, as determined by her nearest male guardian; this age can be, claim these Islamic scholars, less than 10 years, or 12, or another age depending on each girl. There is a strong belief among most Muslims and scholars, based on Sharia, that marrying a girl less than 15, or 12 years old is an acceptable practice for Muslims.[242][243] Muslim communities in Yemen,[244][245] Saudi Arabia,[246] India,[247][248] Bangladesh, Pakistan,[249] Indonesia,[250] Egypt,[251] Nigeria[252] and elsewhere have insisted that it is their Islamic right to marry girls below age 15.[253]

According to Islamic law (sharia), marriage cannot be forced.

"Ibni `Abbaas reported that a girl came to the Messenger of God, Muhammad (sws), and she reported that her father had forced her to marry without her consent. The Messenger of God gave her the choice [between accepting the marriage and invalidating it ,...., the girl said: "Actually I accept this marriage but I wanted to let women know that parents have no right [to force a husband on them]"

Other scholars suggest that all child marriages are implicitly forced marriages.[254][255]

Interfaith marriages and Muslim women

According to sharī'ah law, it is legal for a Muslim man to marry a Christian or Jewish woman, or a woman of any of the divinely-revealed religions.[204] A female does not have to convert from Christianity or Judaism to Islam in order to marry a Muslim male.[256] While sharī'ah law does not allow a Muslim woman to marry outside her religion,[204] a significant number of non-Muslim men have entered into the Islamic faith in order to satisfy this aspect of the religious law where it is in force.[204] With deepening globalisation, it has become more common for Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men who remain outside Islam.[204][257] These marriages meet with varying degrees of social approval, depending on the milieu.[204] However, conversions of non-Muslim men to Islam for the purpose of marriage are still numerous, in part because the procedure for converting to Islam is relatively expeditious.[258]

Behaviour and rights within marriage

Islamic law and practice recognize gender disparity, in part, by assigning separate rights and obligations to a woman in married life. A woman's space is in the private sphere of the home, and a man's is in the public sphere.[259][260] Women must primarily fulfill marital and maternal responsibilities,[261] whereas men are financial and administrative stewards of their families.[259][262] According to Sayyid Qutb, the Qur'an "gives the man the right of guardianship or superiority over the family structure in order to prevent dissension and friction between the spouses. The equity of this system lies in the fact that God both favoured the man with the necessary qualities and skills for the 'guardianship' and also charged him with the duty to provide for the structure's upkeep."[263]

Despite a primary position given to the men and women, Islam never binds the women by her position but binds the man by his. The women in Islam have the right to decline as well as accept work. Women can also support families on their own and will not be in any form of violation by the doctrine of Islam.

The Quran considers the love between men and women to be a Sign of God.[Quran 30:21] This said, the Quran also permits men to first admonish, then lightly tap or push and even beat her, if he suspects nushuz (disobedience, disloyalty, rebellion, ill conduct) in his wife.[166][Quran 4:34][264]

In Islam, there is no coverture, an idea central in European, American as well as in non-Islamic Asian common law, and the legal basis for the principle of marital property. An Islamic marriage is a contract between a man and a woman. A Muslim man and woman do not merge their legal identity upon marriage, and do not have rights over any shared marital property. The assets of the man before the marriage, and earned by him after the marriage, remain his during marriage and in case of a divorce.[265] A divorce under Islamic law does not require redistribution of property. Rather, each spouse walks away from the marriage with his or her individual property. Divorcing Muslim women who did not work outside their home after marriage do not have a claim on the collective wealth of the couple under Islamic law, except for deferred mahr – an amount of money or property the man agrees to pay her before the woman signs the marriage contract.[80][266]

Quran states

And for you is half of what your wives left, if they do not have child; and if they have child yours is one-fourth of what they left; after the will they have bequeteth or debt. And for them is one fourth of what you leave, if you do not have child; but if you have child theirs is one-eighth; after the will you have bequeteth or debt. And if the man or woman, inherited from, is Kalalah(childless) and; he has brother or sister, for each of them is one-sixth; And if they are more than it they will share one-third; after the will he bequetteth or untroubling debt. It is ordianance from God; and God is All-knowing and Allbearing.

{Al-Quran 4:12}

In case of husband's death, a portion of his property is inherited by his wife/wives according to a combination of sharia laws. If the man did not leave any children, his permanent wives will share a quarter of the movable property and the remaining three quarters is shared by the blood relatives of the husband (for example, parents, siblings).[267] If he had children from any of his wives, his wife/wives share an eighth of the property and the rest is for his surviving children and blood relatives.[267] The wives share as inheritance a part of movable property of her late husband, but they do not share anything from immovable property such as land, real estate, farm or such value. A woman's deferred mahr and the dead husband's outstanding debts are paid before any inheritance is applied.[268] Sharia mandates that inheritance include male relatives of the dead person, that a daughter receive half the inheritance as a son, and a widow receives less than her daughters.[268][269]


In Islam, a Muslim woman can only have sex after her "nikah" - a proper marriage contract – with one Muslim man; sex is permitted to her only with her husband.[123][137][270] The woman's husband, may however, marry and have sex with more than one Muslim woman, as well as have sex with non-Muslim slaves.[124][137][271] According to Quran and Sahih Muslim, two primary sources of Sharia, Islam permits only vaginal sex.[272]

(…) "If he likes he may (have intercourse) being on the back or in front of her, but it should be through one opening (vagina)."

There is disagreement among Islamic scholars on proper interpretation of Islamic law on permissible sex between a husband and wife, with claims that non-vaginal sex within a marriage is disapproved but not forbidden.[272][273][274] Anal intercourse and sex during menstruation are prohibited, as is violence and force against a partner's will.[275] However, these are the only restrictions; as the Qu'ran says at 2:224 (Sūratu l-Baqarah): 'Your women are your fields; go to your women as you wish'.[275]

After sex, as well as menstruation, Islam requires men and women to do ghusl (major ritual washing with water, ablutions), and in some Islamic communities xoslay (prayers seeking forgiveness and purification), as sex and menstruation are considered some of the causes that makes men and women religiously impure (najis).[276][277] Some Islamic jurists suggest touching and foreplay, without any penetration, may qualify wudu (minor ritual washing) as sufficient form of religiously required ablution.[278] A Muslim men and woman must also abstain from sex during a ritual fast, and during all times while on a pilgrimage to Mecca, as sexual act, touching of sexual parts and emission of sexual bodily fluids are considered ritually dirty.[279]

Sexual intercourse is not allowed to a Muslim woman during menstruation, postpartum period, during fasting and certain religious activities, disability and in iddah after divorce or widowhood. Homosexual relations and same sex marriages are forbidden to women in Islam.[273] In vitro fertilization (IVF) is acceptable in Islam; but ovum donation along with sperm donation, embryo donation and child adoption are prohibited by Islam.[272] These marriages meet with varying degrees of social approval, depending on the milieu./>[280][281] Some debated fatwas from Shia sect of Islam, however, allow third party participation.[282][283]

Islam requires both husband and wife/wives to meet their conjugal duties. Religious qadis (judges) have admonished the man or women who fail to meet these duties.[284]

A high value is placed on female chastity and exhibitionism is prohibited.[285]

Female genital mutilation

A poster for a campaign against female genital mutilation ('FGM') in Christian-majority Uganda. In the African states of Tanzania, Nigeria and Niger, FGM is more prevalent amongst Christians than Muslims.[286][287]

The Classical Position

There is no mention of female circumcision – let alone other forms of female genital mutilation – in the Qu'ran. Furthermore, Muḥammad did not subject any of his daughters to this practice, which is itself of real significance as it does not form part of his spoken or acted example.[288] Moreover, the origins of female circumcision are not Islamic: it is first thought to have been practiced in ancient Egypt.[289] Alternatively, it has been suggested that the practice may be an old African puberty rite that was passed on to Egypt by cultural diffusion.[290]

Notwithstanding these facts, there is a belief amongst some Muslims – particularly though not entirely exclusively in (sub-Saharan) Africa – that female circumcision (specifically the cutting of the prepuce or hood of the clitoris) is religiously vindicated by the existence of a handful of ḥadīths which apparently recommend it.[289] However, these ḥadīths are generally regarded as inauthentic, unreliable and weak, and therefore as having no legislative foundation and/or practical application.[291]

Notable Islamic perspectives on FGM

In answering the question of how "Islamic" female circumcision is, Haifaa A. Jawad – an academic specialising in Islamic thought and the author of The Rights of Women in Islam: An Authentic Approach – has concluded that "the practice has no Islamic foundation whatsoever. It is nothing more than an ancient custom which has been falsely assimilated to the Islamic tradition, and with the passage of time it has been presented and accepted (in some Muslim countries) as an Islamic injunction."[292] Jawad notes that the argument which states that there is an indirect correlation between Islam and female circumcision fails to explain why female circumcision is not practiced in much of the Islamic world, and conversely is practiced in Latin American countries such as Brazil, Mexico and Peru.[293][294]

The French intellectual, journalist and translator Renée Saurel observed that female circumcision and FGM more generally directly contradict Islam's sacred text: "The Koran, contrary to Christianity and Judaism, permits and recommends that the woman be given physical and psychological pleasure, pleasure found by both partners during the act of love. Forcibly split, torn, and severed tissues are neither conducive to sensuality nor to the blessed feeling given and shared when participating in the quest for pleasure and the escape from pain."[295]

The Egyptian feminist Nawal El-Saadawi reasons that the creation of the clitoris per se is a direct Islamic argument against female circumcision: "If religion comes from God, how can it order man to cut off an organ created by Him as long as that organ is not diseased or deformed? God does not create the organs of the body haphazardly without a plan. It is not possible that He should have created the clitoris in woman's body only in order that it be cut off at an early stage in life. This is a contradiction into which neither true religion nor the Creator could possibly fall. If God has created the clitoris as a sexually sensitive organ, whose sole function seems to be the procurement of sexual pleasure for women, it follows that He also considers such pleasure for women as normal and legitimate, and therefore as an integral part of mental health."[296]

Sheikh Abbas el Hocine Bencheikh, a diplomat and Rector of the L'institut Musulman at the Grande Mosquée de Paris, pointed to the total lack of Islamic theological justification for female circumcision: "If circumcision for the man (though not compulsory) has an aesthetic and hygienic purpose, there is no existing religious Islamic text of value to be considered in favour of female excision, as proven by the fact that this practice is totally non-existent in most of the Islamic countries."[291]

Mahmud Shaltut, the former Sheikh of Al-Azhar in Cairo – one of the most important religious offices in Sunni Islam – also stated that female circumcision has no theological basis: "Islamic legislation provides a general principle, namely that should meticulous and careful examination of certain issues prove that it is definitely harmful or immoral, then it should be legitimately stopped to put an end to this damage or immorality. Therefore, since the harm of excision has been established, excision of the clitoris of females is not a mandatory obligation, nor is it a Sunnah."[296]

Initiatives to end FGM in the OIC

In the twenty-first century, a number of high-ranking religious offices within the OIC have urged the cessation of all forms of FGM:

  1. A 2006 international conference convened by Egypt's Dar al ifta – an influential body which issues legal opinions on Islamic law and jurisprudence – concluded "that the [female genital] mutilation presently practised in some parts of Egypt, Africa and elsewhere represents a deplorable custom which finds no justification in the authoritative sources of Islam, the Qur'an and the practice of the Prophet Muḥammad...all measures must be taken to put a halt to this unacceptable tradition."[297]
  2. A November 2006 conference at Al-Azhar University in Cairo held under the auspices of the Grand Mufti of Egypt passed a resolution – with the same legal weight as fatwa – that FGM was to be considered a punishable offence, because it constitutes "an act of aggression and a crime against humanity".[298]
  3. In 2007 the Cairo-based Al-Azhar Supreme Council of Islamic Research, an entity belonging to what is generally regarded as one of the most significant theological universities in the OIC, ruled that female genital mutilation has no basis in Islamic law.[299]
  4. In 2012, Professor Dr. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu – the then Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – urged countries to abolish female genital mutilation (FGM), saying the practice was against Islam and human rights: "This practice is a ritual that has survived over centuries and must be stopped as Islam does not support it."[300]
  5. In 2016, the OIC Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations reaffirmed its determination to eliminate FGM/C by 2030,[301] in accordance with a global target set by the UN in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Recorded prevalence of FGM in the OIC

According to UNICEF (2014), twenty-six of the twenty-nine countries in which female genital mutilation is classified as 'concentrated' are in sub-Saharan Africa: there is no recorded prevalence in any non-African OIC member state outside Yemen (19% prevalence) and Iraq (8%).[302]


From very early times various methods of contraception have been practiced in Islam,[275] and Muslim jurists of the two major sects of Islam, Sunni and Shia, generally agree that contraception and family planning are not forbidden by Sharia; the use of contraceptive devices is permitted if the marital partners agree.[275][303] Some fatwas such as from Egypt and Turkey[304] claim contraception is permitted, while others such as from Saudi Arabia discourage or forbid it. A large family is considered an asset for a Muslim woman. Islamic scholars who oppose birth control cite al-An’am (Sura 6:151), al-Isra' (Sura 17:31), al Takwir (Sura 81:8,9), and al-Mumtahana (Sura 60:12) to argue that even al-Azl (coitus interruptus) is infanticide.[303] Islamic scholars who support birth control quote hadiths where al-Azl was practiced by companions of Muhammad with women who they had seized as captives of war, and with their female slaves.[305] Muslim children are highly valued by Islam, and are considered gifts from God. (al-Nahl, Sura 16:72).[306] In practice, several Islamic nations such as Saudi Arabia forbid birth control for Muslim women, with contraception inaccessible; in some nations such as Qatar, the husband decides if his wife can use birth control.[307][308]

Female infanticide

Islam condemns female infanticide.[309]

When the female (infant), buried alive, is questioned – For what crime she was killed;
Qur'an, [Quran 81:8]

In some Islamic populations, sex selective female infanticide is of concern because of abnormally high boy to girl ratio at birth.[310] In Islamic Azerbaijan, for example, the birth sex ratio was in the 105 to 108 range, before the collapse of Soviet Union in the early 1990s. After the collapse, the birth sex ratios in Azerbaijan has sharply climbed to over 115 and remained high for the last 20 years.[310] The persistently observed 115 boys for every 100 girls born suggests sex-selective abortion of females in Azerbaijan in last 20 years.[311][312][313] Other Muslim majority countries with high birth sex ratio, implying[314][315] female sex selective abortion include Albania (112)[316] and Pakistan (111).[317][318]


Main article: Divorce (Islamic)

In Islam, a woman may only divorce her husband under certain conditions. These are many and include neglect, not being supported financially, the husband's impotence, apostasy, madness, dangerous illness or some other defect in the marriage.[319][320] Divorce by mutual consent has only to be agreed upon by both parties to become effective.[320] If a Muslim woman wishes to divorce her husband she has two options under Sharia law: seek a tafriq, or seek a khul. A tafriq is a divorce for certain allowable reasons. This divorce is granted by a qadi, a religious judge, in cases where the qadi accepts her claims of abuse or abandonment. If a tafriq is denied by the qadi, she cannot divorce. If a tafriq is granted, the marriage is dissolved and the husband is obligated to pay her the deferred mahr in their marriage contract. The second method, by far more common in wife-initiated divorces, khul is a divorce without cause, by mutual consent. This divorce requires a husband's consent and it must be supported by consideration that passes from the wife to the husband. Often, this consideration almost always consists of the wife relinquishing her claim to the deferred mahr. In actual practice and outside of Islamic judicial theory, a woman's right to divorce is often extremely limited compared with that of men in the Middle East.[321]

In contrast to the comparatively limited methods of divorce available to a woman, Islam allows a Muslim husband to unilaterally divorce his wife, as talaq, with no requirement to show cause; however, in practice there is variance by country as to whether there are any additional legal processes when a husband divorces his wife by this method. For example, the Tunisian Law of Personal Status (1957) makes repudiation by a husband invalid until it has been ratified by a court, and provides for further financial compensation to the wife.[320] Similar laws have been enacted elsewhere, both within an interpretive framework of traditional sharī'ah law, and through the operation of civil codes not based upon the sharī'ah.[320] However, upon talaq, the husband must pay the wife her deferred mahr.[322] Some Muslim-majority countries mandate additional financial contributions to be made to the wife on top of the mahr: for example, the Syrian Law of Personal Status (1953) makes the payment of maintenance to the wife by the husband obligatory for one year after the divorce, which is thus a legal recourse of the wife against the husband.[320] The husband is free to marry again immediately after a divorce, but the woman must observe iddah, that is wait for 3 lunar months[323] before she can remarry after divorce, to establish paternity, in case she discovers she is pregnant. In case of death of her husband, the iddah period is 4 lunar months and 10 days before she can start conjugal relations with another Muslim man.[324][325][326]

Obligations during divorce

A key verse relating to obligation of women during divorce is 2:228:[327]

Divorced women remain in waiting for three periods, and it is not lawful for them to conceal what Allah has created in their wombs if they believe in Allah and the Last Day. And their husbands have more right to take them back in this [period] if they want reconciliation. And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable. But the men have a degree over them [in responsibility and authority]. And Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.

(Al-Quran 2:228)

This verse not only explains the divorce rights of women in Islam, it sets out iddah to prevent illegal custody of divorcing husband's child by a woman, specifies that each gender has divorce rights, and that men are a degree above women.[327][328][329]

Movement and travel

Indonesian women in Hong Kong

Although no limitation or prohibition against women's travelling alone is mentioned in the Quran, there is a debate in some Islamic sects, especially Salafis, regarding whether women may travel without a mahram (unmarriageable relative).[330] Some scholars state that a woman may not travel by herself on a journey that takes longer than three days (equivalent to 77 kilometres or 48 miles in medieval Islam).[331] According to the European Council for Fatwa and Research, this prohibition arose from fears for women's safety when travel was more dangerous.[330] Some scholars relax this prohibition for journeys likely to be safe, such as travel with a trustworthy group of men or men and women, or travel via a modern train or plane when the woman will be met upon arrival.[330]

Saudi Driving Ban

Saudi Arabia is currently the only Muslim country that bans women from driving as per a 1990 fatwa (religious ruling).[332][333][334] Sheikh Ayed Al-Qarni, a Saudi Islamic scholar, has said that neither the Quran nor the sunnah prohibits women from driving and that it is better for a woman to drive herself than to be driven by a stranger without a legal escort.[335] He also stated, however, that he "personally will not allow [his] wife or daughters or sisters to drive."[335] John Esposito, professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, has argued that these restrictions originate from cultural customs and not Islam.[336]

Cleanliness and travel restrictions

A Muslim woman may not move in a mosque, or perform salat, while she is menstruating or during postpartum period, because bodily fluids are considered ritually impure in Islam. Some Muslim scholars suggest that the woman should stay in her house, or near her house, during this state.[279][337][338] Some Islamic jurists claim that this is an incorrect interpretation of sharia, and suggest the Islamic intent was about hygiene, not about religious ritual cleanliness.[279]

Dress code

Early costumes of Arab women.

Modesty is a religious prescription in Islam: the Qu'ran commands both men and women to dress modestly and not display their bodies, and Muḥammad asserted that modesty is a central character trait in Islam.[339]

In the specific context of women, the Qu'ran at 24:31 speaks of covering women's "ornaments" from strangers outside the family.[340] This latter verse of the Qu'ran represents the institution of a new public modesty: when the pre-Islamic Arabs went to battle, Arab women seeing the men off to war would bare their breasts to encourage them to fight; or they would do so at the battle itself, as in the case of the Meccan women led by Hind at the Battle of Uḥud.[340] This type of behaviour is commonly seen by Islamic scholars and the broader Muslim public alike as emblematic of a state of spiritual ignorance (al-Jāhiliyyah).

All the orthodox schools of sharī'ah law prescribe covering the body in public: specifically, to the neck, the ankles, and below the elbow.[340] However, it should be noted that none of the traditional legal systems actually stipulate that women must wear a veil:[340] it is only the wives of Muḥammad who are instructed to wear this article of clothing (33:59).[340]

On the basis of the injunction to be modest, various forms of dress were developed in different parts of the Islamic world, but some forms of dress were carryovers from earlier, pre-Islamic Near Eastern societies: the practice of women covering their hair was the norm in the earlier communities of Jews and Christians.[339] The iconography of the Virgin Mary in Christian art always shows her with her hair covered, and this convention was followed into the modern era by both Georgian and Armenian Christians, in addition to Oriental Jewish women; Catholic women would not go to church without covering their heads until well into the twentieth century.[339] The covering of the hair was taken by women to be a natural part of life as a sign of modesty and especially as a sign of respect before God.[339]

In the twenty-first century, there continues to be tremendous variance in how Muslim women dress, not least because the Islamic world is so geographically and culturally diverse. Laws passed in states (such as laïcist Turkey and Tunisia) with twentieth century Westernisation campaigns – which mandated that women wear "modern", western-style clothing – have been relaxed in recent years;[341][342] similarly, the end of communism in Albania and the Yugoslav republics also meant an end to highly restrictive secular apparel legislation.[343] As a result, it is now legal for women in these countries to wear clothes suggesting a (post-)modern Islamic identity – such as the headscarf colloquially known as the ḥijāb – in public, though not necessarily in all public institutions or offices of state.[344][345]

Conversely, in a handful of states – notably Iran and Saudi Arabia – with modernist fundamentalist regimes, dress codes stipulating that women wear exclusively "religious" garments (as opposed to "secular" ones) in public which became mandatory in the latter part of the twentieth century are still in force.[346] However, these countries are both theologically and culturally atypical within the Islamic world: Iran is the world's only shī'a revolutionary state, while Saudi Arabia is one of only a handful of Wahhabi countries;[347] in none of the others do the same restrictions on women's clothing in public apply. The overwhelming majority of Muslim-majority countries do not have laws mandating the public wearing of either secular or religious apparel, and the full spectrum of female clothing – from bikinis to face veils – can be seen across most of the OIC bloc.[348][349][350]

Public versus private appearance

A very important point that is routinely overlooked by many modern commentators is that even those Muslim women who wear what has come to be regarded as stereotypically Islamic clothing – ḥijābs, chādors and burqas – typically wear these in public only. In private, it is common for women to wear Western-style clothing, and the proliferation within OIC member states of global fashion retail chains from Zara to Victoria's Secret – both of which have branches even in Wahabbi Saudi Arabia –[351][352] is testament to this.

Ironically, this public-private dichotomy – which is also a feature of other non-Western cultures, such as the Chinese and Japanese –[353][354] was better recognised by nineteenth-century Western commentators who then nevertheless proceeded to distort it beyond recognition: in their imagination, women were covered head to toe in public while harems of naked women reclined by indoor pools; the latter image was depicted in many "orientalist" paintings in Europe.[355] These depictions had much more to do with rebellion in the West against the restraints of the Victorian era going back to the sexual paradigm of Christianity, but they nevertheless introduced to Western society a completely false image of Muslim women.[355]

Effect of globalisation on Muslim women's couture

Deepening globalisation has resulted in a number of developments pertaining to clothing customs in Muslim-majority countries. Firstly, retail outlets for Western fashion labels are now commonly found in OIC member states: to give but one example, Calvin Klein has stores from the Citypark shopping mall in Tirana, Albania to the Plaza Indonesia mall in Jakarta. Secondly, fashion labels specialising in modest attire (particularly but not exclusively the hijab or headscarf worn by some Muslim women) have sprung up in a number of OIC states and observer countries: examples include Armine Moda of Istanbul,[356] Bella Karéema by Dilara Sadriyeva (based in Kazan, Russia)[357] and Dubai's Annah Hariri.[358]

Thirdly, in addition to the many already existing fashion schools in Islamic world, branches of international fashion schools have opened across the OIC: most notably, the Paris-based École supérieure des arts et techniques de la mode or ESMOD has branch campuses in Beirut (established in 1999),[359] Damascus (1995),[360] Dubai (2006),[361] Istanbul (2010),[362] Kuala Lumpur (2012),[363] Jakarta (1996),[364] Sousse (1989) and Tunis (1989).[365][366] Fourthly, numerous fashion weeks have been inaugurated in many Muslim-majority countries: some of the more prestigious ones include Cairo (first run in 2015), Jakarta (2008), Kuala Lumpur (2013), the Pakistan Fashion Design Council Fashion Week (2010), Fashion Week Dubai (2005, Arab Fashion Week as of 2015), and Fashion Week Istanbul (2009).[367]

Fifthly, the fashion media sector within the Muslim world for both Western and Islamic fashion has grown tremendously from the 1990s onwards. Local editions of magazines from Marie Claire to Cosmopolitan are now published in a wide range of OIC member states, including Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Indonesia, while fashion magazines specifically targeted at more overtly religious demographics are flourishing: the Turkish title Âlâ is reportedly outselling both Vogue and Elle within its home market,[368] while Aquila Style has a purported total circulation of 30,000 in three ASEAN states.[369]

The New York City-based Islamic Fashion and Design Council ('IFDC') was launched in Dubai in 2014. The CEO of this organisation has noted that there is a significant niche market for Islamic fashion, including Christian women who wish to purchase appropriate clothes in which to attend church.[370]

The 2014–15 Thomson Reuters State of the Global Islamic Economy Report forecasts that expenditure on clothing in OIC member states will reach US$484 billion by 2019.[371]

Shrines and Mosques

From the earliest centuries of Islam, Muslims have visited shrines and mosques to pray, meditate, ask forgiveness, seek cures for ailments, and seek grace – a blessing or spiritual influence (barakah) sent down by God.[372] Many of these structures are named after women, and female worshippers often report having a special connection with them.

The Virgin Mary

The Meryemana or wishing wall at the House of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus, Turkey. Pilgrims' most frequent wishes include those for good health, peace and happiness.[373] This devotional site is one of many that is sacred to both Christians and Muslims.[374]

The Virgin Mary ('Maryam' in Arabic) has a particularly exalted position within the Islamic tradition, extolled as she is for being the mother of Jesus, whom Muslims revere as a prophet.[375] Maryam is the only woman mentioned by name in Islam's sacred text; an entire chapter or sūra of the Qu'ran – the nineteenth, Sūrat Maryam – bears her name.

Accordingly, the Virgin Mary is synonymous with numerous holy sites in the Islamic faith:

  1. The House of the Virgin Mary near Selçuk, Turkey. This is a shrine frequented by both Christians and Muslims. It is known as Panaya Kapulu ("the Doorway to the Virgin") in Turkish. Pilgrims drink water from a spring under her house which is believed to have healing properties. Perhaps the shrine's most distinctive feature is the Mereyemana or wishing wall on which visitors attach their written wishes; because the House of the Virgin Mary is increasingly famous internationally, these messages are composed in English, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, French and Spanish, as well as Turkish.[376][377] A giant statue of the Virgin Mary – similar in dimensions to that of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro – is planned to be erected in the vicinity of the shrine.[378][379][380]
  2. The Virgin Mary Monastery in the province of Giresun, Turkey. This is one of the oldest monasteries in the area and has been active since the fourth century A.D.[381][382]
  3. The Virgin Mary Mosque in Tartous, Syria. This was officially inaugurated in June 2015 as a symbol of peace and religious tolerance. Antoine Deeb – the representative of the Tartous and Lattakia Patriarchate – stated that naming the mosque after the Virgin Mary 'shows that Islam and Christianity share the messages of peace and love.'[383]
  4. The Virgin Mary Mosque in Melbourne, Australia.[384]
  5. Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina. This site is associated with a number of Marian apparitions forecast by a Muslim mystic by the name of Hasan Shushud that were reported in the late twentieth century by local Catholics.[385] It has since become a pilgrimage site of global repute; many Muslims from Bosnia and Herzegovina and beyond have visited it.
  6. Fatima, Portugal. This town is named after Fatima, the daughter of a Muslim nobleman who herself was named after the daughter of the Prophet Muḥammad. In the last days of Islamic rule in Portugal, a Catholic boy fell in love with the beautiful Fatima, and she stayed with him even as her co-religionists left this part of the Iberian peninsula. Despite apparently converting to Catholicism and taking the name Oureana, her young husband loved her so much that he renamed the town after his wife's Islamic name. This shrine attracts a substantial number of tourists from across the Muslim world.

Hala Sultan

Hala Sultan Tekke, Larnaca, Cyprus. This ancient site is revered because it contains the burial place of the Prophet Muḥammad's paternal aunt Hala Sultan (Umm Haram in Arabic), although other scholars believe that she was in fact Muḥammad's wet nurse.[386][387]

According to legend, Hala Sultan died after falling off her mule and breaking her neck during the first Arab incursions into Cyprus around 647 A.D.[386] The same night, a divine power supposedly placed three giant stones where she lay.[386]

In 1760, Hala Sultan's grave was discovered by Sheikh Hasan; he began spreading the word about her healing powers, and a tomb was built there.[386] The complex – comprising a mosque, mausoleum, minaret, cemetery and living quarters for men and women – was constructed in its present form while the island was still under Ottoman rule, and completed in around 1816.[386]

According to the archaeologist Tuncer Bağışkan, during the Ottoman period in Cyprus, Ottoman-flagged ships used to fly their flags at half-mast when off the shores of Larnaca, and salute Hala Sultan with cannon shots.[388]

This tekke is also notable for being the burial place of the grandmother of the late King Hussein of Jordan.[386]

Hala Sultan Tekke is an important place for both Muslims and (Eastern Orthodox) Christians; it is the fourth holiest site in Islam. Similar to the Mereyemana at the House of the Virgin Mary, pilgrims write wishes – usually, though not exclusively, on paper – and then attach them to a tree within the shrine complex.

Sayeda Zainab

The granddaughter of the Prophet Muḥammad is the patron saint of Cairo, the Arab world's largest city and a regional cultural hub. She also has the following mosques named for her:

  1. The Sayeda Zainab mosque in Cairo, Egypt. The original structure was built in 1549; the modern mosque dates back to 1884.[389] In 1898, the square in front of the mosque also took her name.[390] The mosque was expanded in 1942 and renovated in 1999 following an earthquake seven years earlier.[391] There is an annual feast dedicated to Sayeda Zainab which celebrates her birth; the celebration features ecstatic mystical whirling inside the shrine, while outside there are fairground attractions such as merry-go-round rides.[391][392] Historically, the coffee shops around the square and the mosque were places where some of Egypt's most notable writers and journalists met and exchanged ideas.[391] There is a notable silver shrine inside the mosque.[393] According to Sunni Muslim tradition, this mosque houses the tomb of Sayeda Zainab.
  2. The Sayeda Zainab Mosque in the city of Sayeda Zainab, a southern suburb of Damascus, Syria. According to Shia Muslim tradition, it is in fact this mosque which contains the tomb of the Prophet Muḥammad's granddaughter. It has been a destination of mass pilgrimage for Shia Muslims since the 1980s. The dome is gold-leafed. Miracles have been ascribed to Zainab's shrine.

Fātimah al-Ma‘sūmah

Fātimah al-Ma‘sūmah was the sister of the eighth Imam and the daughter of the seventh Imam in 'Twelver' Shī'ism. Her shrine – located in Qom, a city which is one of the most important Shī'ah centres of theology – is nevertheless affiliated with both the Shī'ah and Sunni schools of Islam. It is claimed that there are ḥadīths both praising the veneration of Fātimah al-Ma‘sūmah and claiming a heavenly status for those who pay a visit to her shrine. Many notable members of the Persian royal family, political figures and clerics are interred within the shrine complex.

Ruqayyah bint Ali

Ruqayyah bint Ali was the daughter-in-law of the Prophet Muḥammad's cousin and son-in-law 'Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib. The Bibi Pak Daman (lit. 'the chaste lady') mausoleum – located in Lahore, Pakistan – named after her contains not just her grave but those of five other ladies from Muḥammad's household. These females were amongst the most important women who brough Islam to South Asia. It is said that the great Sufi saint Data Ganj Bakhsh was a devotee of this shrine. People from across the Indian subcontinent visit this mausoleum.

Rabi'āh al-'Adawiyyah

One of the most famous saints in Islam, Rabi'āh al-'Adawiyyah ('Rabi'āh') extolled the way of maḥabbah ('divine love') and uns ('Intimacy with God'). Her mystical sayings are noted for their pith and clarity; some have become proverbs throughout the Islamic world. The famous mosque in Cairo, Egypt which is named in Rabi'āh's honour is notable for being the burial site of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. The mosque was badly damaged during the 2013 post-military coup unrest in Egypt.[394] It has since been rebuilt.

Religious life

A women-only mosque in Byblos, Lebanon.

According to a saying attributed to Muhammad in the hadith Sahih Bukhari, women are allowed to go to mosques.[395] However, as Islam spread, Muslim authorities stressed the fears of unchastity from interaction between sexes outside their home, including the mosque. By pre-modern period it was unusual for women to pray at a mosque.[396] By the late 1960s, women in urban areas of the Middle East increasingly began praying in the mosque, but men and women generally worship separately.[397] (Muslims explain this by citing the need to avoid distraction during prayer prostrations that raise the buttocks while the forehead touches the ground.[398]) Separation between sexes ranges from men and women on opposite sides of an aisle, to men in front of women (as was the case in the time of Muhammad), to women in second-floor balconies or separate rooms accessible by a door for women only.[398] Women in the state of ritual impurity, such as menstruation, are forbidden from entering the prayer hall of the mosque.[399]

Female religious scholars were relatively common from early Islamic history throughout the 16th century.[400] Mohammad Akram Nadwi, a Sunni religious scholar, has listed 8,000 female jurists, and orientalist Ignaz Goldziher estimates 15 percent of medieval hadith scholars were women.[401] Women, during early history of Islam, primarily obtained their knowledge through community study groups, ribat retreats and during hajj when the usual restrictions imposed on female education were more lenient.[402] After the 16th century, however, female scholars became fewer.[401] In the modern era, while female activists and writers are relatively common, there has not been a significant female jurist in over 200 years.[403] Opportunities for women's religious education exist, but cultural barriers often keep women from pursuing such a vocation.[401]

Women's right to become imams, however, is disputed by many. A fundamental role of an imam (religious leader) in a mosque is to lead the salat (congregational prayers). Generally, women are not allowed to lead mixed prayers. However, some argue that Muhammad gave permission to Ume Warqa to lead a mixed prayer at the mosque of Dar.[404][405]

Hui women are self-aware of their relative freedom as Chinese women in contrast to the status of Arab women in countries like Saudi Arabia where Arab women are restricted and forced to wear encompassing clothing. Hui women point out these restrictions as "low status", and feel better to be Chinese than to be Arab, claiming that it is Chinese women's advanced knowledge of the Quran which enables them to have equality between men and women.[406]

Sufi female mystics

Sufi Islam teaches the doctrine of tariqa, meaning following a spiritual path in daily living habits. To support followers of this concept, separate institutions for men (ta'ifa, hizb, rabita) and women (khanqa, rabita, derga) were created. Initiates to these groups pursued a progression of seven stages of spiritual discipline, called makamat (stations) or ahwal (spiritual states).[407]

Rabiah al-Basri is an important figure in Islamic Mysticism called Sufism. She upheld the doctrine of "disinterested love of God".[408]

Current female religious scholars

There are a number of prominent female Islamic scholars. They generally focus on questioning gender-based interpretations of the Quran, the traditions of Muhammad and early Islamic history. Some notable Muslim women scholars are: Azizah al-Hibri, Amina Wadud, Fatima Mernissi, Riffat Hassan, Laila Ahmad, Amatul Rahman Omar,[409] Farhat Hashmi, Aisha Abdul-Rahman, and Merryl Wyn Davies.[410]


Benazir Bhutto was the first elected female head of state in a Muslim-majority country, serving as the Prime Minister of Pakistan twice (1988-1990, 1993-1996). Despite leading the centre-left Pakistan People's Party, her second term was associated with neoliberal policies. A charismatic leader who was nicknamed the "Iron Lady",[411] her December 2007 assassination was symbolic of Pakistan's early twenty-first century descent into chronic instability.[412] Numerous Pakistani structures - including the first international airport at Islamabad and multiple universities - have been named in her honour.
The coins issued during the rule of Razia Sultana. She inherited and ruled the Sultanate of Delhi for 3 years in the early 13th century.[413]

Many classical Islamic scholars, such as al-Tabari, supported female leadership.[414] In early Islamic history, women including Aisha, Ume Warqa, and Samra Binte Wahaib took part in political activities.[404] Abdurrahman ibn `Awf consulted with women in their rooms when he was charged of choosing `Uthman or Ali as the third caliphate after the death of Umar.[415] The Caliph Umar appointed Samra Bint Nuhayk Al-Asadiyya as a market inspector in Mecca and Ash-Shifa bint Abdullah as an administrator in Medina. Ash-Shifa would later on become the head of Health and Safety in Basra, Iraq.[416] Other historical Muslim female leaders include Shajarat ad-Durr, who ruled Egypt from 1250 to 1257,[417] Razia Sultana, who ruled the Sultanate of Delhi from 1236 to 1239,[413][418] and Taj ul-Alam, who ruled Aceh Sultanate from 1641 to 1675.

Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah, an Islamic institute that advises Egypt's ministry of justice, had said women can both be rulers and judges in an Islamic state.[419]

Female heads of state in Muslim-majority countries during the modern era

In the modern era, Pakistan became the first Muslim-majority state with an elected female head of government (1988).[420] Following verse is considered to allow female rulers.

Lo! I found a women ruling over them and she hath given everything and hers is a mighty throne.(Al-Quran 27:23)

In the past several decades, a number of countries in which Muslims are a majority, including Indonesia (President Megawati Sukarnoputri, 2001),[421] Kosovo (President Atifete Jahjaga, 2011),[422] Pakistan,[423] Bangladesh (prime ministers Begum Khaleda Zia (1991, 2001) and Sheikh Hasina (1996, 2009, 2014),[424] Turkey (Prime Minister Tansu Çiller, 1993),[425] and Kyrgyzstan (President Roza Otunbayeva, 2010) have been led by women.[426]

Female legislators in Muslim-majority countries in the twenty-first century

According to Sheikh Zoubir Bouchikhi, Imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston's Southeast Mosque, nothing in Islam specifically allows or disallows voting by women.[427] Until recently most Muslim nations were non-democratic, but most today allow their citizens to have some level of voting and control over their government. However, some Muslim countries gave women suffrage in the early 20th century. For example, Azerbaijan extended voting rights to women in 1918,[428] two years before it became part of Soviet Union. Females in Turkey similarly gained the right to vote in municipal and parliamentary elections in 1930 and 1934 respectively.[429][430]

Several Muslim-majority nations have passed laws to incorporate more women in their parliaments and political processes. For example, Indonesia passed a law in 2013 that required political parties to field at least 30% women candidates in elections or pay penalty;[431][432] Tunisia's mandated electoral lists composed of 50% women in both the 2011 and 2014 legislative elections;[433][434] and in 2012, Algeria set a minimum parliamentary female membership requirement of 30%.[435] Following the May 2012 legislative elections, women constitute 31.6% of Algerian MPs.[435] In Senegal, 50% of local and national electoral lists have to be female as of 2012.[436][437]

In 2012, among all regions of the world, the Gulf Arab region had the lowest overall percentage of women in parliament, and no women in the parliaments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.[438] However, since 2012 Saudi women have been allowed to vote in some elections.[439][440] The Shura Council of Saudi Arabia now includes female members after a January 2013 decree by the Saudi King that created reserved parliamentary seats for women.[441] Kuwait granted its women the right to vote in the first half of the 1980s;[442] this right was later rescinded, and then reintroduced in 2005.[443]


Taekwondo medalists at the 2016 Olympic Games, including two hijabi Muslim women.
Main article: Muslim women in sport

In the Islamic conception, every human being has a responsibility towards oneself. Since human life is sacred and initially created by divine rather than human agency, people are responsible for trying to keep their bodies and souls healthy, and not causing themselves spiritual or physical harm.[444] Consequently, sport has obvious attractions in Islam: traditions record that Muḥammad raced with his wife 'Ā'ishah, and that he encouraged parents to teach their children swimming, riding and archery.[445] Persian miniatures show Muslim women jointly playing polo with men in the same field.[445] In the twenty-first century, some Muslim sociologists even argue that it should be obligatory for Muslim females to participate in sport of some kind.[446]

Muslim women have achieved significant success in athletic arenas. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, women's club volleyball has come to be dominated by teams from two OIC member states: Turkey and Azerbaijan. The Turkish women's national volleyball team has also enjoyed significant success in the twenty-first century. Notable female tennis players from the OIC and its observer and applicant states include Dinara Safina, who was ranked no. 1 in 2009; Sania Mirza, who was India's best female singles player for ten years straight (2003-2013); and Indonesian Yayuk Basuki, who won four Asian Games gold medals in the 1980s and 1990s. Women's football has significantly increased its profile within the OIC bloc in the twenty-first century. A number of Muslim female footballers have been or are presently prominent players for various UEFA national teams in Western Europe, including Fatmire Alushi, Louisa Nécib, and Kosovare Asllani.

At the same time, many Muslim women experience significant barriers to sports participation. These barriers include bans on the Islamic headscarf, commonly known as the hijab, cultural and familial barriers, and the lack of appropriate sports programs and facilities.[447] Many Muslim female athletes have overcome these obstacles and used sports to empower themselves and others, such as through education, health and wellbeing, and a push for women's rights.[448][449][450]

Comparison with other religions

The Marxist writer Valentine Moghadam argues that the position of Muslim women is mostly influenced by the extent of urbanization, industrialization, proletarization and political ploys of the state managers rather than culture or intrinsic properties of Islam; Islam, per Moghadam, is neither more nor less patriarchal than other world religions, such as Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism.[451][452] William Montgomery Watt claims that Muhammad, in the historical context of his time, can be seen as a figure who improved women's rights among those who were free and Muslim.[453]

In contrast, for slave women who accepted Islam and women who refused to accept Islam, women's rights were severely limiting. Slaves are mentioned in at least twenty-nine verses of the Quran.[454] including references to slave women, slave concubinage, and when to free slaves. Quran and hadiths recommended the institution of slavery, using the words 'abd' (slave) and the phrase ma malakat aymanukum ("that which your right hands own") to refer to women slaves, seized as captives of war. The Qur'an recognizes the basic inequality between master and women slave, between free women and slave women, as well as their unequal rights.[455][456] According to Muslim theologians, it has been lawful[457][458] for male masters to have sexual relations with female captives and slaves without her consent; the purchase of female slaves for sex was lawful from the perspective of Islamic law, and this was a motive for the purchase of slaves throughout Islamic history.[459][460] Slave women did not have a right to free movement or consent, nor did they have a right to bride price or property such as a ‘‘mahr’’.[461][462] Sikainga claims women slavery was widespread and "female slaves in many Muslim societies were prey for members of their owners' household, their neighbors, and their guests."[461]

Eve's Role in the Fall

In contrast with the biblical account of the Fall, in Islamic tradition Eve (Ḥawwā) did not tempt Adam (Ādam) to eat the forbidden fruit; instead, they were tempted together by the Devil. This means that Eve was not the cause of Adam's expulsion from paradise: he was also responsible, and therefore both men and women are faced equally with its consequences. This has a number of important implications for the Islamic understanding of womanhood and women's roles in both religious and social life.[463] For one, in Islam, women are not seen as a source of evil as a result of the Fall.[464]

Moreover, the Biblical statement that Eve was created from Adam's rib (the famous 'third rib') finds no echo in the Qur'anic account: both male and female were created 'from one soul' (Sūrah 4:1).[464] Similarly, the concept that (as per Genesis 3:16) the pains of childbirth are a punishment for Eve's sin is alien to the Qu'ran.[464]

The Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary (Maryām) is considered by the Qu'ran to hold the most exalted spiritual position amongst women. A chapter of the Qu'ran (Sūrat Maryam, the nineteenth sura) is named after her, and she is the only woman mentioned by name Islam's sacred scripture; Maryām is mentioned more times in the Qu'ran than in the New Testament.[465] Furthermore, the miraculous birth of Christ from a virgin mother is recognised in the Qu'ran.[466]

Notable women in Islam

Saints, scholars and spiritual teachers

Women have played an integral part in the development and spiritual life of Islam since the inception of Islamic civilisation in the seventh century AD. Khadijah, a businesswoman who became Muhammad's employer and first wife,[467] was also the first Muslim.[468] There have been a large number of female saints throughout the Islamic world spanning the highest social classes (a famous example being Princess Jahānārā, the daughter of the Moghul emperor Shāh Jahān) and the lowest (such as Lallā Mīmūna in Morocco);[469] some of them, such as Rābi'a of Basra (who is cited reverentially in Muḥammad al-Ghazālī's classic The Revival of Religious Sciences) and Fāṭima of Cordoba (who deeply influenced the young Ibn 'Arabī) have been pivotal to the conceptualisation of Islamic mysticism.[469]

Today, some notable personalities of the Islamic world include the Turkish Sufi teacher Cemalnur Sargut – a disciple of the novelist and mystic Samiha Ayverdi (1905–1993),[470] Amatul Rahman Omar, the first woman to translate the Qu'ran into English,[471] and Shaykha Fariha al Jerrahi, the guide of the Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi Order.[472]

The Hala Sultan Tekke complex in Larnaca, Cyprus – a shrine to Muḥammad's wet nurse, who according to Sunni tradition is buried there – is deemed to be the third or fourth most significant Islamic holy site in the world.

Female converts to Islam

Notable recent female converts to Islam include the German former MTV VJ and author Kristiane Backer,[473] American singer and cultural icon Janet Jackson,[474] Malaysian model Felixia Yeap,[475] Malaysian VJ Marion Caunter, Czech model Markéta Kořínková,[476] the Belgian model and former Miss Belgium candidate Lindsey van Gele,[477] and Lithuanian model-turned-actress Karolina 'Kerry' Demirci;[478] the Serbian model and fashion designer Ivana Sert stated her intention to become a Muslim in 2014 after she read the Qur'an in English.[479] Notable recent women born in a Muslim family who became atheist or converted to another religion include Dutch feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali,[480] Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin,[481] Indian actress Nakhat Khan and Iranian-American women's right activist Parvin Darabi.[482][483] The Turkish actress, author and model (Miss Turkey 2001) Tuğçe Kazaz converted from Islam to Eastern Orthodox Christianity in 2005, and then converted back to Islam in 2008.[484]

Women make up a disproportionately large and/or rising share of converts to Islam in numerous Western countries. According to researchers based at Swansea University, of the approximately 100,000 people who entered the Muslim faith in the United Kingdom between 2001 and 2011, 75% were women.[485] In the United States, more Hispanic women convert to Islam than Hispanic men;[486] the share of overall female converts to Islam in the USA rose from 32% in 2000 to 41% in 2011.[487] Young females constitute an estimated 80% of converts to Islam in Lithuania.[488] According to Susanne Leuenberger of the Institute of Advanced Study in the Humanities and the Social Sciences at the University of Bern, females make up around 60-70% of conversions to Islam in Europe.[489]

Modern debate on the status of women in Islam

Within the Muslim community, conservatives and Islamic feminists have used Islamic doctrine as the basis for discussion of women's rights, drawing on the Quran, the hadith, and the lives of prominent women in the early period of Muslim history as evidence.[490] Where conservatives have seen evidence that existing gender asymmetries are divinely ordained, feminists have seen more egalitarian ideals in early Islam.[490] Still others have argued that this discourse is essentialist and ahistorical, and have urged that Islamic doctrine not be the only framework within which discussion occurs.[490]

Conservatives and the Islamic movement

Main articles: Islamic revival and Islamism

Conservatives reject the assertion that different laws prescribed for men and women imply that men are more valuable than women. Ali ibn Musa Al-reza reasoned that at the time of marriage a man has to pay something to his prospective bride, and that men are responsible for both their wives' and their own expenses but women have no such responsibility.[491]

The nebulous revivalist movement termed Islamism is one of the most dynamic movements within Islam in the 20th and 21st centuries. The experience of women in Islamist states has been varied. Women in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan faced treatment condemned by the international community.[492] Women were forced to wear the burqa in public,[493] not allowed to work,[494] not allowed to be educated after the age of eight,[495] and faced public flogging and execution for violations of the Taliban's laws.[496][497] The position of women in Iran, which has been a theocracy since its 1979 revolution, is more complex. Iranian Islamists are ideologically in favour of allowing female legislators in Iran's parliament[498] and 60% of university students are women.[499]

Liberal Islam, Islamic feminism, and other progressive criticism

Liberal Muslims have urged that ijtihad, a form of critical thinking, be used to develop a more progressive form of Islam with respect to the status of women.[500] In addition, Islamic feminists have advocated for women's rights, gender equality, and social justice grounded in an Islamic framework. Although rooted in Islam, pioneers of Islamic feminism have also used secular and western feminist discourses and have sought to include Islamic feminism in the larger global feminist movement. Islamic feminists seek to highlight the teachings of equality in Islam to question patriarchal interpretations of Islamic teachings.[501] Others point out the incredible amount of flexibility of shariah law, which can offer greater protections for women if the political will to do so is present.[502][503]

After the September 11, 2001, attacks, international attention was focused on the condition of women in the Muslim world.[504] Critics asserted that women are not treated as equal members of Muslim societies[505][506] and criticized Muslim societies for condoning this treatment.[505] Some critics have gone so far as to make allegations of gender apartheid due to women's status.[507] Phyllis Chesler has alleged that Western academics, especially feminists, have ignored the plight of Muslim women in order to be considered politically correct.[508] However, one survey has found that most Muslim women do not see themselves as oppressed.[509]

The Indonesian Islamic professor Nasaruddin Umar is at the forefront of a reform movement from within Islam that aims at giving women equal status. Among his works is a book The Qur'an for Women, which provides a new feminist interpretation.

Some Muslim women exposed to the growth in civil rights accessible to secular or non-Muslim women have protested to strengthen their own rights within Islamic communities. One example is Malaysia, where 60% of the population is Muslim, and where there are separate parallel legal systems for secular law and sharia law. In 2006, Marina Mahathir, the daughter of Malaysia's former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, published an editorial in the Malaysia Star newspaper to denounce what she termed "a growing form of apartheid" for Malaysia's Muslim women:

Non-Muslim Malaysian women have benefited from more progressive laws over the years while the opposite has happened for Muslim women.

She pointed out that polygamy was illegal in Malaysia for non-Muslims but not for Muslims, and that child custody arrangements for Muslims were biased towards fathers as opposed to the shared-custody arrangements of non-Muslim parents.[510] Women's groups in Malaysia began campaigning in the 1990s to have female sharia judges appointed to the sharia legal system in the country, and in 2010 two female judges were appointed.[511]

In March 2016 an Australian Tribunal determined that separate male and female seating arrangements contravened section 33 of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act. The Tribunal ordered that all future publicity materials for public events hosted by Hizb ut-Tahrir must clearly inform attendees that segregated seating arrangements are not compulsory.[512][513][514]

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