Equality between Man and Woman from the Perspective of Al-Imam Muhammad 'Abdu

  • | Sunday, 24 May, 2015
Equality between Man and Woman from the Perspective of Al-Imam Muhammad 'Abdu

Edited by Dr Muhammad Emarah


Imam Muhammad Abdu examined the relationship between a husband and his wife starting from the point of view, which asserts that Islam deals with man and woman on an equal footing concerning their rights and duties, in the full sense of the word. This equality has to be applied according to the customs, which are determined by the degree that the Muslim community has developed.


He dealt with this problem in his commentary on the verses of the Glorious Qur’ān, which obviously discussed or referred to it.  Moreover, he explained the verses that appeared to privilege men more than women and gave them a degree over women manifested in their guardianship. Throughout his presentation, he offered a new perspective and contributed to the Muslim thought of Mujtahids in modern times.

He considered equality, which was acknowledged in the Glorious Qur’ān between man and woman as a way of bringing the society back to the sound fitrah (human pur nature) and development. Allāh created this fitrah as a “covenant” between both sexes. Due to this covenant, woman leaves her family and relatives to live with a strange man, and gives him what she did not give to anyone in her family among whom she was brought up. Equality is a means to return to the original sound fitrah , by which mankind can be elevated above corruption, that results from the oppression of the strong over the weak in human life.


Sheikh Muhammad Abdu believes that the Glorious Qur’ān summarized the issue of equality between man and woman within the framework of this verse, “And due to them [i.e., the wives] is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable” (al-Baqarah, 2: 228). Commenting on this verse, he said, “Though it is brief, the glorious verse included great meanings that require a large volume to be expressed in detail. It is a comprehensive, expressive rule which asserts the equality between man and woman in all rights except for one matter that was expressed by saying, “But the men have a degree over them [in responsibility and authority]” (al-Baqarah, 2: 228), this will be explained later. Allāh, the Almighty, based the knowledge of women’s rights and obligations on the customs prevailing among people. This is because people’s customs usually follow their legislation, creed, manners and habits. This statement provides man with a parameter upon which to judge his treatment of his wife in all affairs and conditions, so, when asking her for something, he remembers at once that he should do the same for her. Thus, Ibn ‘Abbas said, “I adorn myself for my wife as she does for me.”


“Similarity” here does not mean to be identical. It means that rights and obligations between man and women are interchangeable and that they are equal. Anything a woman does for her husband corresponds to another he does for her. If neither are identical, they will be similar. They are equal in rights and duties as well as feelings, emotions and mentality; and this means that both of them are human beings with a mind to manage their interests, and a heart to love what is fit and pleasant and hate what is unfit and thus avoids it.


Therefore, it is not fair when one of them dominates the other or enslaves his mate in order to fulfil his interests, especially after concluding the contract of marriage and beginning a mutual life which cannot be happy unless each one of them respects the other and observes his/her rights.”


Then, he went on to explain the meaning of the word “degree” which Allāh has given to men over women. According to his view the word “degree” means the leadership which is indispensable to every society whether big or small; a family, or a village, a city or a nation. It is a necessity in the task of distribution concerning people; he said, “As for Allāh’s saying, ‘But the men have a degree over them [in responsibility and authority],’ it means that Allāh ordains women with one thing, and in return He ordains men with several things; as this “degree” is that of leadership and undertaking the responsibilities of the family which are interpreted in His saying, ‘Men are in charge of women by [right of] what [qualities] Allāh has given one over the other and what they spend [in support] from their wealth (an-Nisā’, 4: 34).’


Marital life is a social affair and every society should have a leader. Just like people within the society differ in their opinions and desires in some matters, their life cannot continue without a leader whose opinion is sought in case of disagreement, which prevents any breach in their unity and bonds and prevents the system to be imbalanced. The man is more deserving of leadership because he is more acquainted with their interests, and more capable to carry out the responsibilities of the family with his money and strength. Therefore, he was entitled by Shari‘ah to protect the woman and to pay for her expenses. On the other hand, she was commanded to obey him in all that is reasonable.”[1]


On reviewing the Imam’s commentary on, “Men are in charge of women,” we find that he repeats the same meaning again; that Qiyam means “leadership.” Yet, he added a very important contribution when he discussed “the innate and acquired” qualifications that distinguish man from woman and give him the right to discipline her, which is one of the tasks of leadership. He said that if a woman has all these qualifications, then it is meaningless to limit this right to man only.


In other subtle and clear words: the Imam divides women into two groups: a group that has not reached the required average of mental faculties and abilities, so man has this right over them. Whereas, the other group has attained the required mental faculties and abilities, so men have nothing to do with them. His words are: Qiyam here means “leadership” in which the subject behaves freely and willingly; it does not mean oppressing the subject, so that she cannot do anything except what he orders her. Being a guardian over someone means directing and guiding him, as well as observing his work and education.


The relation between a man and a woman and vice-versa is the same as the relation between the organs of the whole body; the man represents the head and the woman represents the body.”


Starting from this perception which treats man and woman equally, the Imam emphasized the necessity of educating woman, not only how to manage her house, but also to know all that is necessary and important for the renaissance of the nation and the religion. We should not just regard education as her right only, but it is incumbent on her, and the man should facilitate it for her. He stated, “If Allāh gave women some rights over men similar to those of men over them, except for what He has privileged men with of leadership, accordingly men should teach women that which enables them to undertake their duties and facilitate their way. Man, according to his nature, respects whoever is good and well acquainted with his duties, and who is not likely to be humiliated and if he did something wrong, in which case he would blame himself for doing such a thing.


Allāh has ordained women with faith, knowledge and righteous deeds in worship and transactions just the same as men. He mentioned their names together with those of men in several verses of the Qur’ān. Moreover, the believing women gave the Prophet the Pledge of allegiance the same as the believing men did, and he ordered them both to learn the Glorious Qur’ān and wisdom. All Muslim scholars unanimously agree that women are rewarded for their deeds in this worldly life and the hereafter and this is in accordance with the teachings of the Qur’ān and the Sunnah of the Prophet.


After all this is it permissible to be deprived from education with all the rights and duties they have towards Allāh, their husbands, children, family, nation and religion?

Once a person is acquainted with what is required from him, it is a condition that he be willing to do it, as it is impossible to be willing to do something that is ambiguous. Moreover, detailed knowledge that shows the benefits and harms of a thing causes the person to be curious to undertake it. Then, how can women fulfil their duties and rights despite being ignorant of them both generally and in detail? And how can a nation prosper when half of it is like animals that do not fulfil their duties towards their Lord, themselves, their families or people? The stronger sex is nearly like that; they do not fulfil their duties except a little and neglect the rest, such as aiding the fairer sex to do their work or ordering them to do it by authority and leadership they have over them.


Concerning the problem of educating woman, the Imam introduced a case which I do not think any religious thinkers in general preceded him in discussing. It is well known that thinkers have concentrated on the necessity of teaching woman religious matters first and foremost, and afterwards she can learn some worldly matters, which they differed in determining its range and scope.


On the other hand, the Imam emphasized that the range of the women’s religious education is limited, whereas teaching her about worldly affairs is unlimited. He stated in his own words, “What a woman should learn of her religion, its teachings and rulings is limited, whereas, what is required from her for her household system, bringing up her children and other worldly affairs is unlimited, such as the rules of transactions that differ according to time, place and circumstances exactly like the duties of men differ. The verse shows that each one of the spouses should take customs into consideration when dealing with each other and customs differ according to the people and the time.”[2]

I have mentioned above that the Imam considered equality between man and woman as a practical application to this instinctive “covenant” that was held with man and was also given to woman. He spoke about this covenant when interpreting this glorious verse, “And how could you take it while you have gone in unto each other and they have taken from you a solemn covenant?” (an-Nisā’, 4: 21)


He stated, “The covenant that women took from men should coincide with righteous instinctive matters, as was mentioned in this glorious verse, “And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquillity in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy. Indeed in that are signs for a people who give thought” (ar-Rūm, 30: 21).


This divine verse is the strongest thing a woman depends on when leaving her parents and family to live with a strange man, sharing him in all that is good or bad. One of Allāh’s signs in man is that the woman accepts to leave her family so as to live with a strange man, to be his wife and to feel tranquility with each other, in addition to the strong love and mercy between them.


It is as if He wanted to say, “A woman does not accept marriage and to leave her family and relatives for her husband unless she is fully sure that their relation will be stronger than any other, and that her life with him will be better than her pervious life. This intuitive covenant is one of the most subtle and strongest covenants; no one can realize this meaning except a sensitive man who can feel the emotions of others. Whoever considers this state that Allāh has settled between a man and his wife, will find that the woman is weaker than the man and that she approaches him although she knows well that he is able to oppress her, so what does she depend on when approaching him? And what guarantee does she have or what covenant does she take from him?


What effect would fall on a woman if she were told, “You will be the wife of that person?” The first thing she thinks of at the moment, even if she knows nothing about him, is that she will be in a better state with him, due to something established in her natural disposition. It is a gift from Allāh that this feeling settled in her as a tendency to a special relationship that she had not been engaged in before, and a special trust she never had with any of her family. In addition there is a special compassion that she will not find except with her husband. The outcome of all these, is the strong covenant she took from the man according to the intuitive system that documents what contracts can never record.”[3]


Through this covenant, a woman thinks that the happiness she feels in marriage cannot be felt in anything else in this life. This happens as she feels even without seeing or hearing the words of the man she accepted as her husband, and this is what Allāh, the Almighty, has taught us, reminded us of and what is deeply rooted in our hearts. Allāh says what means that women have taken from men a solemn covenant through marriage. Then, what is the value of those who did not keep his covenant? And what is their stand in the face of humanity.


Yes, with this enlightened mind, the Imam regarded the glorious verses that dealt with or mentioned the relationship between man and woman. From this intellectual starting point, he determined that equality in the Qur’ān between the man and woman is considered the cornerstone of human reformation. Using many texts found in his intellectual heritage, he shaped one of the most progressive endeavours in modern Ijtihād.


[1] Ibid, p. 630-635

[2] Ibid, vol. 4, p. 631-632

[3]  Ibid, vol. 5, p. 193-194