“Those people are easily swayed by their emotions.” “They are illogical creatures.” “Those people can never reach the status of my people.” Imagine that you are told these things your whole life. Imagine you are told that your capacity is inferior. Now imagine that those who tell you all this also claim that they say so only because God says so.
How would you see yourself? How would you react to those passing this judgment on you? How would you view a faith that tells you that you are inferior? The quotes above are from a prominent Islamic question and answer website. I have only changed the words “women” and “men” to more ambiguous words or phrases, which could refer to various groups of people, more generally.
Women are the target of this kind of humiliation. Because of these and similar belittling remarks from scholars and lay people alike, Muslim women are experiencing a crisis of identity and faith.
Those who understand Islam and know it to be an egalitarian religion will brush these claims off as a cultural misunderstanding and distortions of Islam. And that is certainly part of the problem. But the other part of the problem is that even if these claims are brushed off, they still impact the lives, psyches, and faith of Muslim men and women.
How Did We Get to this Point?
There are a handful of Prophetic traditions and Qur’anic verses to which those seeking to view women as inferior cling, ignoring all context as well as the overarching and foundational Islamic principles.
On one such Prophetic tradition that claims women are deficient in intellect and religion, Zainab bint Younus writes, “these words, quoted from a famous hadith, have been gleefully used by many Muslim men to demean and belittle women, implying that they are, by nature, inferior.”
Bint Younus goes on to write about how the many narrations, translations, and interpretations of this hadith have been flagrantly abused and woefully misunderstood.
Similarly, one verse to which some men look to validate their perceived superiority is in the second chapter of the Quran:
And they (women) have rights similar to those (of men) over them in kindness, and men are a degree above them. Allah is Mighty, Wise. [Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:228]
Some men use this verse to tell themselves what they want to hear: that they are literally a degree better than women in all ways, simply by virtue of their sex.
However, according to many Muslim scholars, in this verse “a degree above” refers to men having a degree of more responsibility in marriage, in terms of providing for one’s wife. And any claim that this ambiguous verse is about overall superiority of men can be countered with several specific and foundational verses.
What are the Egalitarian Principles of Islam?
Dr. Jasser Auda, a PhD in the philosophy of Islamic law, writes, “Men and women are equal in Islam: before God, in Islamic Law, and in terms of their humanity and value. This is the Islamic basic principle according to a large number of Islamic sources. Any isolated narration or interpretation that contradicts this principle should be reinterpreted or rejected according to the weakness of its content.”[i]
Allah tells us in the Quran what makes one better than another and it has nothing to do with gender:
O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted. [Surat Al-Hujurat, 49:13 – emphasis added]
Allah states clearly what makes one superior and that is righteousness. This basis of value is absolutely equal opportunity. And thankfully, we will never be able to determine this for ourselves, because the true state of one’s righteousness is Allah’s knowledge alone.
So how can some set up an entirely different system of judging human beings based on something other than what Allah has revealed, based on something a human being has no control over? If we are better by virtue of something we have no control over, such as our gender, then this is a manifest injustice. And Allah never does injustice to any.
Indeed, God wrongs none, [not even] an atom’s weight. Yet, if there is a good deed, He multiplies it and gives, moreover, from His own bounty a magnificent reward [in the Hereafter]. [Surah Al-Nisâ’, 4:40]
Moreover, Kamal Badr, an expert in International Law & Shari‘ah, writes that the entire system of Islamic law is meant as a protection of human beings. Islamic law was revealed to protect the interests of people: religion, life, the mind, property, and dignity.[ii]
Calling women inferior, illogical, and emotional beings flies in the face of these basic protections which Shari‘ah affords to human beings. Being insulted, humiliated, and demeaned harms the minds of women, limits the religion of women, and refuses dignity to women.
Gaslighting is a noun that means the manipulation of someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity. And the claim that women are inferior, illogical, and overly emotional is what this boils down to.
The evil “genius” of calling someone inferior in intellect, illogical, or emotional is that any response to this charge can also fall into that category. If you protest that you are actually a logical and reasonable being, the retort is always: How would you know that when you can’t think rationally about it in the first place? In this way, an emotional reaction to such an insult is manipulated and possibly forestalled; and this leads the victim to possibly believe the validity of the claim made about their irrationality.
The irony here is that using this kind of manipulation shows a weakness in the accuser’s logic-logical fallacies of circular argument and ad hominem, both of which are at play here.
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. This is such a serious matter that Allah says in the Quran:
And those who harm believing men and believing women for [something] other than what they have earned have certainly born upon themselves a slander and manifest sin. [Surat Al-Ahzab, 33:58]
Seeing Difference as Inferiority
The male is not like the female. [Surat Al ‘Imran, 3:36]
Mary’s mother, Hina, said these words when she gave birth to Mary. Hina had prayed for a child so that she could dedicate him (she assumed it would be a boy) to the service of God. But instead she gave birth to a girl.
Even though Mary was a girl and “the male is not like the female,” she was still dedicated in worship to God. But more than that, Mary had to be female to be able to do something men are not capable of.
The verse above (3:36) is not ambiguous. The way the sentence is set up, the female is set as the standard and the statement says that the male does not measure up to her [in whatever way is intended]. But —based on cultural expectation—some will read superiority of men into it. (Nor does the verse mean that the female is better than the male!) Different does not mean one is better than the other. This was the mistake Iblis made when he refused to obey Allah, “claiming that he was better than Adam, because he was created from fire while Adam was created from clay, and fire was better than clay, or so he said.”[iii] To see difference as superiority vs. inferiority was arrogance on Iblis’ part and it was the cause of his downfall.
The reality is that men and women are different, complementary to one another, not better or worse. Allah has created us as helpers to one another, actually to see things differently so we can work together and have a holistic view of things, and to benefit from each other’s perspectives. Not to decide who is better. Not to follow in Iblis’ footsteps.
Being demeaned, insulted, and told that you are less than someone else is damaging. And this damage is not restricted to women. It seeps into the very fabric of society, causing grave injustices and oppression. Misogynistic readings of Islam have very real and detrimental impact on the lives of Muslims, both men and women. It does real damage to our Ummah by leading our brothers to arrogance and robbing our sisters of their human right to dignity.