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?