What does the religion teach about how men and women should
relate to each other?
by John Kaltner
of the most controversial aspects of Islam for non-Muslims is its
view of relations between men and women. The common perception is
it is a religion that endorses male superiority at the expense of
women, who are the victims of oppression and subjugation. The
Muslim woman’s plight is often represented by a disturbing
image: she is nothing but a face—sometimes just a pair of
eyes—peering out from a long head covering. The
rest of her is covered in a dark, loose-fitting garment that further
conceals her identity and personhood.
is the experience of some women in the Muslim world, but it does
not reflect the reality of the majority of them. In some places,
as in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, women are denied their rights
and forced to dress this way. This is a very important issue that
Muslims must address and respond to. But it is a mistake for non-Muslims
to consider it to be representative of the state of affairs in Islam
as a whole. There are many other places, like North Africa and Southeast
Asia, where men treat women as their equals.
Qur’an reflects that ambiguity regarding gender relations.
On the one hand, many commentators have noted an egalitarian message
that is central to the book. According to this perspective, Islam’s
sacred text recognizes that equality between the sexes was present
from the beginning and is an inherent part of creation. “It
is God who created you from a single cell, and from it created its
mate, so that he might rely upon her” (7:189). Similarly,
Qur’an 4:124 says there is no distinction between men and
women, who will be rewarded equally if they act rightly. “Whoever
does good works, whether male or female, and is a believer—they
will enter heaven.” Women also have the right to a dowry upon
marriage (4:4), and they can inherit money and property from deceased
other passages seem to promote a more male-centered, patriarchal
view of things. For example, the number of witnesses required to
testify in a court of law is two men or one man and two women (2:282).
Elsewhere, male superiority is understood to be due in part to the
divine will. “Men are over women because God has given some
more than others and because they spend from their wealth”
(4:34). That same verse continues on in a way that appears to allow
a man to physically abuse his wife under certain conditions.
are we to do in the face of such conflicting statements? The key
is to keep in mind the context out of which the text emerged. There
are passages that clearly privilege the male perspective, and there
is no denying the fact that certain verses put women in an inferior
position. Such texts reflect
the norms and practices of seventh-century Arabia, which was a male-dominated
society. Should passages that are intended for that context become
relevant or normative for later times and places?
is where the issue of interpretation becomes critical. How one reads
and applies these texts determines whether they are interpreted
literally or dismissed as irrelevant for our day and age, as many
Jews and Christians understand certain biblical passages. This is
a critical issue that the Islamic community needs to address, but
there is something that further complicates that task.
lacks a centralized authority or hierarchy that can make decisions
on important issues and speak on behalf of the ummah as
a whole. There is no single figure or body
that has the authority to determine which parts of the Qur’an
should be relied upon to inform the community about what Islam teaches
on male/female relations. This is why we see such
a range of responses to the issue. How the classical Islamic sources
are interpreted is one of the most important problems facing Islam
today because there is so much at stake in it.
divorce, and women’s dress are three aspects of Muslim male/female
relations that have often attracted the attention of non-Muslims.
Muslim men are permitted to have up to four wives according to the
Qur’an (4:4), but in many Islamic countries it is illegal
to be married to more than one woman at a time. Even in those places
where it is permissible it is not very common. Divorce is allowed
in Islam—either the woman or the man can initiate it—but
there is a hadith in which Muhammad declares that among the things
that are allowed divorce is the most abominable in God’s eyes.
only thing the Qur’an says about women’s clothing is
that they should dress modestly (24:31), and a very similar thing
is said to men in the preceding verse. Wearing a veil on the head
or completely covering the body is not endorsed or mentioned in
the text. Such practices are usually due to cultural norms that
have nothing to do with religion, or they are supported by interpretations
of other passage that do not speak specifically about how women
©2006 John Kaltner
Kaltner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies
at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses
in Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Islam:
What Non-Muslims Should Know (2003); Inquiring
of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qu’ran
Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers
(Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).
from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on
Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra
Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John
Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for
purchase in December 2006.