In Islam there is no distinction or separation between the sacred and the secular. For Muslims, Islam covers every aspect of life: religion and society. Even the minutest details of public and private life are ventured to, such as the family, business, food, personal etiquette and hygiene. As a result Islam has its prying eyes targeted into the private and public life of her members, especially the life of her female members.
A study of the three major sources of Islam: The Koran, The Hadith, and their biological, legal and theological interpretations shows that Islam was very much influenced by the patriarchal Arabian culture. Inspite of the efforts by Islam to reform the sexist tendencies in this culture, her best efforts have been seen to be hardly good enough for women
In our age when society is breaking all barriers that separate people from each other, it is pertinent for us to explore the perception of Islam about women. We shall first of all look into the Holy Book of Islam to see what was originally enshrined in that book of guidance of Moslems. We shall then study the points of transference of culture into the original tenets of Islam.
The Sharia is the Islamic legal code, which stipulates the way a Muslim should live within the Islamic legal jurisprudence. We shall therefore consult the relevant passages of the sharia for more illumination on women from the perspective of Islam. Finally we shall ventilate our ideas with the critique and commentaries of writers in the field.
According to Mbiti John, Introduction to African Religion, Islam is:
The religion that the Prophet Muhammad
founded in Arabia early in the seventh century. His followers were persecuted, and some fled across the Red Sea into Africa where they were given shelter.
Islam is generally considered a religion; but for Moslems, Islam is a total way of life: as far as the European is concerned; but for Muslims, Islam is a total way of life’: Islam encompasses for the Muslim every aspect of life: politics, social life, economics and civilization. There is no distinction in Islam between the sacred and the secular. According to Alford Welch, (Hinnells 1991:123).
For Muslims Islam has been from the beginning much more than what is usually meant by the western concept ‘ religion ’. Islam meaning in Arabic ‘ submission (to God) ’ is at the same time a religious tradition, a civilization, and as Muslims are fond of saying, a ‘ total way of life ’. Islam proclaims a religious faith and sets forth certain rituals, but it also prescribes patterns of order for society such matters as family life, civil and criminal law, business, etiquette, food, dress and even personal hygiene. The western distinction between the sacred and the secular is thus foreign to traditional Islam.
Unlike Christianity where there is a distinction between the secular and the sacred, Islam is a complete, complex civilization in which the individuals, societies and governments should all reflect the will of God. Islam regulates every aspect of the faithful’s life even to the minute details of private and public life. As John Mbiti (1975:185) would have it:
Another major problem is legalism. Islam has many laws which originated from the Arab society where it was founded. These laws are a major part of Islam, and though modifications and attempts to modernize them are made, Islamic law continues to exert influence on the life of Muslims throughout the world.
Our goal in this discussion would be to prove that the laws good as they may be are always tilted in favor of men. There are three major sources of Islam: The first is the Koran; the second is the Hadith and the third are the biographical, historical, legal and theological interpretations on the first two sources:
Among the innumerable works on Islam in classical Arabic the one that all consider to be the first source ’ for Islam is the Islamic scripture, the Qur ’ an (Arabic, al-qur ’ an, ‘ the recitation ’ ). The Qur ’ an is divided into 114 independent liturgical units of widely varying lengths called suras (from the Arabic, sura, ‘ Unit ’ ).
Next to the Qur ’ an stand the Hadith works, multi- volume collections of accounts called hadiths (from the Arabic, hadith, ‘ story ’ ‘ tradition ’ ) that report or allege to report the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. These hadiths provide an official guide for all aspects of Muslim daily life …
John Hinnels (1991:124).
In addition to the Qur’an and the Hadith, the primary sources for the study of Islam include biographical studies of Muhammad and other Muslim leaders, historical works on the development of Islam in various parts of the world.
As regards Islamic customs and traditions, there are majorly five essential Islamic practices, otherwise known as the Pillars of Islam: the shahada which is a recitation of the profession of faith ( ‘ There is no god but God ’ and Mohammed is his prophet); the daily prayer
ritual called the salat; zakat (almsgiving); saum lasting; and Hajj (pilgrimage). There are also regulations on such practices as marriage, inheritance, divorce, and food. This contention is corroborated by Alford Welch (1991, 148 - 149):
In addition to the five Pillars of Islam other practices and customs are commonly observed throughout the Islamic world. The Qur ’ an is explicit in its regulations on such matters as marriage, divorce, inheritance and food laws 2:228, 4.3, 11/12- 14/18, 22/26, 5.1, 96/97 etc), and in prohibitions against usury, gambling, drinking, wine, eating pork etc 2.173/169; 3.130/124, 5.3, 90/92 etc). There are distinctively Islamic customs involving wedding, circumcision and funerals, which vary in details in different countries.
In all of the above spiritual and socio-political practices and beliefs, Muslim women are convinced that they are strongly marginalized. Most Muslim men do disagree with them, but objectively speaking one could observe some ambivalence and disparity in the way women are treated in Islam. Alford Welch (1991:149) captures the scenario best:
Religiously men and women are equal in Islam. Muslim women are required to keep the Pillars of Islam and other religious and moral duties, and basic education, especially in religious matters, is a right and duty for women as well as for men. In other respects, however, the Qur ’ an and Islamic laws and customs place men above women, for instance, in the man ’ s responsibility to provide for his wife and children. For this reason a higher percentage of inheritance goes to male heirs.
Alford Welch goes further by stressing that most of the segregatory practices against women in Islam may not have been enjoined by the primary sources of Islam:
The extent to which the lives of men and women are kept separate and women ’ s lives are restricted varies from country to country. The custom of keeping women in partial seclusion in some Muslim societies seems just as oppressive to modernist Muslims as it does to most Westerners, but it is seen by other Muslims as a way of being respectful and protective of women.
The stand of the Koran (Sura ANNISA) on Women
The fourth chapter of the Koran dwelt in detail on guidance about gender relations, especially as they concern women. Between the end of the third year and the end of the fifth year of the Prophet’s reign at Al Medinah, many Muslims were killed at the battle of Uhud. Hence there was need to take care of the multitudes of widows and orphans that is women and their children. This led to a consideration of the rights of women and orphans. The prophet himself was an orphan. Muslims were then enjoined to take care of the orphans; and if they cannot do this, they should marry their mothers, those that appealed to them. Doi Rahman (1981:47) corroborates this point when he writes:
And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you; two, three or four …
Such marriages were to be finalized by the payment of dowries which Moslems were enjoined to allow their wives to keep their own shares. In the distribution of inheritance, the woman takes half of what the male child receives.
The chapter then dealt on morality: four witnesses suffice for the conviction of a woman caught in adultery, incest was forbidden, just as adultery. Doi Rahman (1981:11-15).
As regards equality of gender as proposed by feminists, Islam says that men are in charge of women because Allah has made the one of them to excel the other and because they spend of their property for the support of the women. Doi Rahman (1981:24). Finally on rewards of eternal life, the Koran notes that anyone who does good works whether man or woman, if he or she is a believer, will go to Heaven.