There are many misconceptions held by the Western community regarding Islam. Perhaps the most sensitive and significant of which is the way Islam seemingly promotes the ill-treatment of women in Muslim countries. The apparent lack of women’s rights are a constant source of consternation between the two cultures. This essay seeks to illustrate the difference between the positive Quranic teachings of Islam and the subsequent negative cultural practices that we see in the media. To do this, I will explore the teachings and laws specifically surrounding marriage in Islam. I will demonstrate that the rights afforded to women in Islamic marriages were for many centuries (and in some countries still are), far more progressive and equal than the laws in their Western counterparts. I will also seek to dispel the popular misconception that polygamy is encouraged in Islam and assert that on the contrary, monogamy is the norm. I wish to make clear a certain distinction – that the lack of women’s rights and the abuse of women in Muslim countries is not sanctioned by the Qur’an, that in fact, the Qur’an recognises the important role women play in the community and urge that they are treated with respect and kindness.
To fully understand the teachings of the Qur’an regarding marriage, it is important to briefly examine the marriage traditions and practices common in pre-Islamic Arabia. Women in pre-Islamic Arabia were nothing more than property, bought and sold at the whim of their male guardians. Men had the right to marry as many women as they wished and to divorce them at will (Esposito 2005: 94). Furthermore, women had no right whatsoever to any inheritance, property or income of her own. While a husband could divorce his wife at will, a women had no recourse or rights to divorce at all. So while the Qur’an can still at times sound patriarchal by our western contemporary standards, it is important to look at Islam in its proper historical context. In this view, the teachings of God as spoken through Mohammad sought to radically improve the rights and standing of women both at the time and for many centuries afterwards.
The Qur’an made several specific stipulations regarding marriage that significantly improved the rights of women. Marriage in Islam is, first and foremost, a civil contract legalising intercourse between two parties and the subsequent procreation of children (Esposito 2005: 94). It is seen as a sacred contract not just between the bride and groom, but between their two families. As such, arranged marriages in Muslim communities are the norm, as it is the family representatives that identify suitable partners and settle the contractual requirements. Although arranged marriages are the norm in Islam, the Qur’an makes it clear that both parties must be of marriageable age and enter into the agreement of their own free will (Esposito 2005: 95). The woman then, has the right to reject an offer of marriage and not be forced into any marriage against her will.
Through the marriage contract, the woman was also given the right to stipulate any special conditions relating to the marriage. Such conditions might include the right to be able to divorce her husband at any time without the requirement of going to court or even to stipulate that he cannot take on another wife (Abu-Saud 1983: 122). A woman may also decide to contractually preserve her right to continue her education or employment after marriage without interference from her husband (Abu-Saud 1983: 122).
Upon entering into marriage the groom is also required to give a dowry to the bride. In pre-Islamic times the dowry was a payment that went directly to the father or brother of the bride, thus emphasising the culture of viewing women as property to be bought and sold by men. The Qur’an however, changed this, clearly stipulating that the dowry must be given to the wife (Yaran 2007: 47). The dowry then belongs to the wife as her own independent source of money, to do with as she likes. She need not share it with her husband nor disclose to him what she does with her dowry. Through this, the Qur’an clearly recognised a woman’s right to have a decisive role in her marriage contract instead of simply being bought and sold by her male relatives. For the first time a woman was able to have her own source of wealth.
The Qur’an also stipulated that women were entitled to an inheritance (Esposito 2005: 98). Although they were not entitled to as much as the men, they were granted rights and were able to independently own their own property and wealth. Once married then, a woman was also entitled to an inheritance from her husband should he pass away.
The Qur’an stipulated rights and responsibilities for both men and women in marriage. Women have the right to receive a dowry and to also receive maintenance. A husband was responsible for the on-going financial support of his wife and ensuring that her material needs were met within the scope of his financial resources (Abu-Saud 1983: 123). The wife is also entitled to fair, kind and compassionate treatment from her husband. A Muslim wife also has the right to bear children and so is able to divorce her husband should he be found to be sterile or not want children (Abu-Saud 1983: 124). Although it is not easy, the Qur’an also gives a woman the right to divorce her husband.
The Qur’an does not sanction honour killings, beatings or the seclusion of women married or otherwise. If there are disagreements in a marriage then the Qur’an stipulates that an arbiter from each side of the family be requested to help the couple peacefully resolve their issues.
Contrary to popular belief, polygamy is not the norm in contemporary Islam. Polygamy was not encouraged by the Qur’an but actually restricted the practice in a time when men could marry as many wives as they liked (Muhammad Ali 1995: xxiii). The Qur’an limited this practice to a maximum of four wives per man and, in these instances advocated strict guidelines on when this was appropriate and how those wives must be treated. The Qur’an states that: “if you fear that you cannot deal justly (with so many wives), then one only (4:3). Reading onwards we also see that the Qur’an states that, “You will never be able to deal equally between (your) wives, however much you may desire (to do so)” (4:129 cited in Yaran 2007: 48).
The family unit in Islam is of great importance and central to the healthy functioning of a Muslim community. As such, marriage is seen as the responsibility and duty of every good Muslim who is physically and financially able to do so (Esposito 2005: 94). Marriage is seen as not only preserving the sanctity and strength of the Muslim community but also protecting the chastity and morality of its members. With regard to this the Prophet Muhammad said, “Young men, those of you who can support a wife should marry, for it keeps you from looking at strange women and preserves you from immorality” (al-Bukhari cited in Yaran 2007: 47).
The Qur’an indicates that a marriage between a man and a woman should be a joyous and much anticipated event joining two families and strengthening communities. According to the Qur’an, a woman can own any property that comes into her possession, she can enter into contracts, receive inheritance and decline marriage proposals. Women and men in Islam then, seem to have been afforded far more equality than most other religions and have done it long before other nations even thought of such concepts. So why then, is the condition of women in many Muslim countries so much worse than their Western counterparts? Why are there female child brides when according to Islam, she must be of marriageable age and have given her consent? Why are there honour killings and why are some Muslim women treated as slaves rather than the partners of their husbands? These questions are serious ones and need to be examined. However, it is equally important to recognise the positive teachings of Islam so as to be able to recognise the difference between true Islam and patriarchal tribal practices. All religions have certain members that will twist and interpret teachings to suit their own ends – Islam is no different. A Muslim marriage that is carried out with the full consent of both parties, in the spirit of respect and compassion that is afforded to both parties, is just as happy and joyous union as any western marriage.
This is a very interesting website containing all sorts of information regarding Muslim marriage: http://www.zawaj.com/articles.html#weddings
In particular is this article (‘Women’s Rights in the Islamic Prenuptial Agreement: Use Them or Lose Them’) concerning the legal rights of Muslim women when drafting their marriage contract: http://www.zawaj.com/articles/prenup_mills.html
Esposito, John. 2005. Islam: The Straight Path. Oxford University Press: New York.
Maulana Muhammad Ali. 1995. The Holy Qur’an: With English Translation and Commentary. Ahmadiyyah Anjuman Ishaat Islam: Lahore USA.
Mansoor Moaddel and Kamran Talattof (eds). 2002. Modernist and Fundamentalist Debates in Islam: A Reader. Palgrave Macmillan: New York.
Cafer S. Yaran. 2007. Understanding Islam. Dunedin Academic Press Ltd: Scotland.
Mamoud Abu-Saud. 1983. Concept of Islam. American Trust Publications: Indiana USA