Was the Prophet a feminist?

The short answer is, personally I think that the Prophet Muhammad was a feminist. He was not a feminist in the modern and militant sense of the word but he looked after the interests of women very well.

I think it was natural for him to be a feminist and it would have been surprising if he didn’t look into the interests of women because he was surrounded by women all his life. In infancy his universe was his wet nurse with whom he lived outside Mecca. When she left him with his mother, the Prophet was solely cared for by his mother as his father had died before his birth. When his mother passed away as well he was looked after by his paternal grandfather and then his uncle. These men were his guardians but he was cared for by the women of their households. He married Khadeejah at the age of 25 and had four daughters from her. Khadeejah was his mentor, his guide, nurturer, helper and employer. After her death he married several times and was again surrounded by women.

In a culture that largely valued sons, he had four daughters. He valued his children – the sons that didn’t survive beyond infancy and the daughters – unlike some tribes that practiced infanticide. He taught his followers to raise their daughters with kindness because daughters were their key to paradise. Having an independent first wife and only surviving daughters himself, he understood very well that women needed rights: the right to education, property, and inheritance.

There are countless narrations which show the Prophet as a husband who took part in household chores and often only smiled silently when his wives fought with him or with each other. While modern people may like to highlight the ‘tragedy’ of his marriage with Aisha, traditions that describe their relationship are hardly tragic in tone. While Aisha may have not realised when she was getting married to the Prophet, after marriage he never gave her the reason to regret their marriage.

One incident I personally like from the Prophet’s life is when he married a woman who was tricked by his other wives to seek refuge from him when he entered her room after the wedding. Without allowing his ego to be humiliated (he was a prophet and the head of the state), he quietly left the room and asked his servant to send her back home with gifts from him.

Muhammad had also learned from his life experiences that the women in his life offered him sound advice. Thus, he often consulted his wives; Khadeejah and Umm Salamah being his smartest counselors. In fact it was Umm Salamah who insisted that the Quran address women like it addresses men and not only her husband liked this suggestion, even Allah granted her wish.

According to a couple of ahadith the Prophet became very emotional when Ali asked his permission to marry again. However, he didn’t prohibit Ali from remarrying since it would have been making haraam what was made halal by Allah, but he told Ali that the latter would have to divorce Fatimah first since what “hurt her heart, hurt (the Prophet’s) heart and what brought tears in her eyes, brought tears in his.” Those are the words and emotions of a loving father in an era when many tribes sold off their daughters never to care for them again.

Skeptics argue that the Quran encourages wife-beating, gives women lesser rights than men in testimony and inheritance etc. However, even in the most stressful moments of his life (like the incident of Ifk), the Prophet didn’t hit his wives. If “he lived the Quran”, as Aisha claimed once, that is what Quran teaches. There are guidelines offered in the Quran, but they are only that – guidelines. A man may wish to give more to his daughters in inheritance than his sons and there is nothing in Islam that would prohibit him from doing so.

With this in mind, I don’t think that Islam and feminism is an oxymoron. Surely we can’t just stop with the rights given to women in the 7th century, but the question is ‘is giving Muslim women more rights today then those given by the Prophet in the 7th century, unIslamic?’ In the modern world, is it wrong to allow Muslim women to: rule countries, work outside their homes, pray in mosques, gain an education, and establish a career? How can this be wrong when even the women in the 7th century Arabia, both before and after the coming of Islam, did all this – and more?!

So what exactly is unIslamic about Islamic feminism? What is it that makes some Muslims defensive and snub Islamic feminism like it is the one thing that would destroy Islam?

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24 thoughts on “Was the Prophet a feminist?

  1. susanne430 says:

    Nice article on Muhammad’s good treatment of his wives and children. I smiled reading how he loved his daughters because I, too, have a father who loves his daughters.

    Maybe some Muslims think of feminism in a negative light because they see western feminism and how women became “more like men” in ways they deem unflattering. Perhaps, in their minds, they are trying to preserve femininity from feminists (who are like masculine women to them. :)) Also they may equate feminism with wearing fewer clothes and they see this as against the cultural traditions at the very least…maybe they see this as against religious teachings which is even worse.

    Then again it could be simply men find powerful women threatening and opposing women’s rights is their way of trying to keep the status quo.

    • Metis says:

      My father always gave the Prophet’s examples when discussing how much he loved us. I grew up listening to these stories about the Prophet’s life. I’m glad it brought a smile to your face.

      I think Western and secular feminism scares Muslims generally but what word can we use to replace feminism? It is not a bad thing – always.

  2. hakucygnus says:

    A number of Muslims seem to have the misconception that Feminism (let alone Islamic Feminism) is a purely non-Muslim construct that was established because of how non-Muslim women were treated by non-Muslim men; before going on to say that because they are Muslim and follow Islam that they don’t need Feminism (which they then dismiss as rigid and assume that “men and women should be equal” means “men and women should be automatically the same”).

    Add to the tendency of some to jump on to any anti-Feminist comments to back up their views, and you pretty much get the idea.

    The problem with such attitudes is that like you’ve said, it ignores that the Prophet qualifies as a Feminist because of his interest in women’s rights and is thus taken as an icon for a number of Islamic Feminists even today as they engage in academic and political issues wherever they live. Furthermore, that Islam today has become entangled with misogynistic cultural traditions and chauvinist concepts of what practicing Muslim women should wear, do or how they should be subservient to their husbands because chauvinist imams or “scholars” say so is a matter that a certain portion of Islamic Feminism’s detractors tend to overlook.

    I’ve experienced this myself, and it frustrates me to no end that a number of Muslims are far too quick to dismiss Feminism as wrong and a “bad idea” when it comes to looking at gender relations and issues of women’s rights. Saying “it’s an honour to have respect as a mother, wife, sister, etc.” doesn’t take into account the various ways in which these roles become manipulated at the expense of women; regardless of what they originally meant back in the time when the Prophet was alive and he advised people to be kind to their mothers. Whether some like it or not, focusing on these roles as a means to rubbish the purpose of Feminism (including MODERN Feminism with its many waves and even conflicting branches of thought) doesn’t mean that you can sweep the problem of addressing gender inequalities in today’s or yesterday’s climate under the rug.

    Wow, that was a long comment and I’ve probably spoken in circles there; but I just wanted to get my own thoughts out of my mind.

    • Metis says:

      Hakucygnus, Welcome to Metis and thanks for your comment. I loved reading every sentence you wrote here. It makes a lot of sense and enjoyed your thoughts thoroughly.

      “Whether some like it or not, focusing on these roles as a means to rubbish the purpose of Feminism (including MODERN Feminism with its many waves and even conflicting branches of thought) doesn’t mean that you can sweep the problem of addressing gender inequalities in today’s or yesterday’s climate under the rug.”

      This is the best thing I have read in a long, long time. You are absolutely right, Islamic feminism is asking for women’s rights, asking for fairness and justice – in the light of Quran and hadith/sunnah. It is nothing more or less. MFs are not asking to burn their hajbs, so to speak.

  3. Zuhura says:

    I’m surprised to see you call the Prophet a feminist since in comments on your “Famous Muslim feminists” page you were hesitant to label anyone a feminist unless s/he had claimed that label personally. I agree with you that he was a feminist, though—or as close to being one as he could have been given cultural constraints.

    • Metis says:

      That is the kind of liberties one takes with people who are not alive to sue you for labeling them wrongly! I put Qasim Amin’s name on the list too even though he never called himself a feminist and indeed Leila Ahmed argues that he was not one, but only because he is called the “Father of Egyptian feminism” by others and is not alive to contradict either way.

  4. sana says:

    I have always admired his relationship with khadija and fatima, and also his patience with his other wives. I too believe he wanted women to be treated with love and respect, but not sure that ‘feminist’ would be the word to describe him.
    Well, it reminds me once my SIL said that sons make us proud while daughters make you lower your head. That really hurt me, but then my mother explained that daughters make a man more humble and nurturing, caring, while sons rarely evoke those qualities in a man. That is what the women in prophet’s life made him.
    This was such a beautiful post:)

    • Metis says:

      I have admired them too. I have said before many times that I think in Islam – at least in the Quran – there may not be gender equality in social roles, but there is equity, and in religion men and women are definitely seen as equal. This has to be a result of some ancient type of feminism.

      Your SIL’s comment is sad :( This is not how at least a woman, a mother, should speak. Shameful, really!

  5. Sumera says:

    I think because the term feminism is heavily loaded with images of women “trying to be men”, burning their bra’s and everything else that Western feminism portrayed it is hard to understand how you can have a feminism that is something other than this.

  6. mezba says:

    I think the Prophet was a big supporter of women’s rights and rights of the oppressed in general (and women were heavily oppressed by some accounts in those days).

    I find this incident of Aisha ( R)and the Prophet (pbuh) very endearing (Snippet 4 from the post) – indeed it should be a model on how to behave with each other all times.

  7. Serenity says:

    Oh, I think he was certainly a feminist! For his time, at least. I’m not sure if he’d do today much of what he did back then (marriage-wise and treatment of Aisha at certain times, for example), but for his own time — he’s the best example of a feminist we have.

    • Metis says:

      That is right – the closest example of feminist. I think he was more of a believer in justice. I am currently reading a book on Jesus as a feminist and will share what that book says about Jesus. It is written by a feminist who thinks Jesus was not particularly interested in feminism. It could help me think about Muhammad Vs Feminism.

      “I’m not sure if he’d do today much of what he did back then (marriage-wise and treatment of Aisha at certain times, for example)”

      Would you mind elaborating on this, please. It is making me curious :)

  8. Coolred38 says:

    The fact that he didn’t out right condemn his men and forbid them to beat their wives…but just gave a lacklaster, if you beat your wife your not a very good man…sort of response…tells me he was rather on the fence about feminism. Beating ones wife was a male privelidge…and the prophet wasn’t about to take that from them fullstop. Some of them were already rather upset with him for including women in inheritance etc.

  9. wafa' says:

    i came to read this article skeptical but now i am optimist about the outcome , thank you :)

    This is the second thing i read that brings back my hope of a better Islam, the first was a book about the freedom of religion .

  10. Lat says:

    “.. the question is ‘is giving Muslim women more rights today then those given by the Prophet in the 7th century, unIslamic?” No.We should consider it as an improvement from the one put forth by the prophet and early Muslims.A improvement that’s very natural and not something to be feared.We will not be eroding the rights of early Muslim women but actually building upon them and realizing the goals that they may have wanted to achieve.We should look at the present and see how it can affect the future of muslim women living now and in future.And let the options open for them as well.

    “So what exactly is unIslamic about Islamic feminism?” Maybe because the concept came from the west.Because it didn’t start from within the muslim ummah or rather it was never allowed to start in the ummah to begin with.It was a new concept, branded as innovation because muslim women aren’t considered as equal partners to muslim men and therefore the defensiveness and snub.Not everyone are happy to give up their higher than thou status to make the other be equal to them.

  11. Sara says:

    What a beautiful post :) I absolutely love it! I’m going to print it out and hang it somewhere :)
    There’s nothing unIslamic about Islamic feminism, unless of course we take interpretation into account.

  12. anon says:

    hello metis,
    Is it possible to be a feminist without being a male hater. not hater actually but that is what people think and accuse me of being.lol
    of course there is no smoke without fire and i must have done or said something that gives off that impression. i know people can be bad and evil regardless of gender. Why do people immediately think feminism is male hating?

    • Metis says:

      There are feminists who hate men but every feminist doesn’t. I don’t think any of the feminists I read are men-haters. I think many men get unnecessarily defensive when they hear the word “feminism” :)

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