Women Before Islam

The condition of women in general before Islam was bad. The history of human civilization testifies that the woman, who gives birth to man as mother, was humiliated, treated harshly, and reduced to the position of being ‘a maid.’ Women were held in bondage to their husbands, who could keep them or divorce them at their will and pleasure. Women were viewed as the embodiment of sin, disgrace, and shame. They had no rights or position in society. In reality, society was confused about the very nature of women and even questioned whether God had granted them a soul.[1]

 Hence, they were deprived of all opportunities to develop their personalities and their individualities, and make full use of their abilities to the benefit of their society. Women in those societies were also denied all rights of inheritance and ownership. Rather, they were considered as objects of inheritance. A woman was classed not as a person but as a thing, divisible like property; she was an object of scorn and contempt.[2] These inhuman practices were prevalent at the time in most ancient societies.

However, in the Arabian peninsula - the birthplace of Islam - the situation of women prior to Islam was markedly worse.[3] Women in this time of ignorance before Islam (Jahiliyya) were in subjugation either to their relatives or their husbands. They were considered like chattel to be possessed, bought, sold or inherited. The Quran forbade this practice: 

‘O believers, it is unlawful for you to inherit the women of your deceased kinsmen against their will, or to bar them from re-marrying, in order that you may force them to give up a part of what you have given them’ (Quran 4:19)

 Men had absolute domination over them. They were not individuals themselves, they either belonged to their father or to their husband. The widow(s) of a man were very often inherited by his sons just like other property. After inheriting them from their father the sons could then easily marry them. Women had no independence or power over issues relating to their well-being and they were excluded from any active role in the social and political affairs of their society. It has been stated that ‘at annual gatherings and fairs women were made to dance naked and poets sat around composing poems on various parts of their body and movements’.9 In other words, they were treated as sex objects with no respect for their dignity.

 Women in pre-Islamic Arab times were also considered to be a burden on the family. The birth of the daughter was embarrassing for the father, who considered it a disgrace and a matter of shame. Therefore, the Arabs of that time practiced widely ‘female infanticide’: burying their female child alive. This custom was common among the Arabs and it was even viewed as a generous act.[4] The Quran described the mentality of ignorance underlying such a practice as such:

‘When the birth of a girl is announced to one of them, his face grows dark and he is filled with inward gloom. Because of the bad news, he hides himself from men: should he keep her with disgrace or bury her under the dust? How ill they judge!’

(Quran 16:56)

‘When the sun is folded up; when the stars fall down and the mountains are blown away; when camels big with their young are left untended and the wild beasts are brought together; when the seas are burning and men’s souls are reunited (with their bodies); when the infant girl, buried alive, is asked for what crime she was slain; when the records of men’s deeds are laid open and heaven is stripped bare; when Hell burns fiercely and Paradise is brought near: then each soul shall know what it has done.’

(Quran 81:1-10)

 One of the social reasons for such an attitude was that, in pre-Islamic times, there were often inter-tribal blood feuds, which demanded male members to defend their tribes. Hence, men were in much greater demand than women. In addition, in the tribal conflict, the enemy always aimed at capturing women and taking them as prisoners so that they could collect heavy ransoms. Failing to do so, they would keep them as slaves. In both cases women were considered a liability to their own tribes. For if they paid ransom, they would lose money, if not, then the chastity of their women as well as their honor were at stake.[5]

 ‘The Arabs did not welcome the birth of a baby girl, and this was so because of the nature of their society. Wars and invasions never ceased and taking revenge never stopped. All these things depended on the male, but a woman was unable to do any of these tasks, in addition to it, she was the desired loot for (the)

service (of the enemy) in the eyes of the enemy, or she was for his entertainment.’[6]

 For these reasons, the Arabs believed that their own daughters constituted a heavy burden on them and the easiest way to get rid of them was to kill them immediately after they were born.[7]

 Moreover, men in the Jahiliyya society enjoyed an absolute right over women in matters related to marriage and divorce. Men had unlimited rights of marriage and divorce, they could take as many wives as they wished and could discard a wife at will.[8] The idea of a fixed institution of marriage was absent from the pre-Islamic era. There were only different kinds of sexual union which were characterized by the looseness of marriage bonds and the lack of any defined legal system: ‘If one takes into consideration the preceding facts in conjunction with other factors such as the absence of any contract or legal guardian, the exclusion of the wife from her husband’s inheritance, the easy methods of divorce, the lack of a period of seclusion after divorce and widowhood – the idda (waiting time) – the conclusion must be reached that there was no fixed institution of marriage and that marriage ties were in no sense regarded as binding’ The result was that a man was at liberty to contract as many marriages as he wished. Men in Arabia before Islam used to marry four, five, six, or even ten women simultaneously and nobody could ever stop them from marrying more than that.[9]

‘Before Muhammad, the capacity of the Arab’s purse would appear to have provided the only limitation to the number of his wives, and though there were established conventions about the status of the women he married, there were neither conventions nor laws to dictate to him how many they should be.’[10] When Islam emerged, the issue of marriage was regulated. It encouraged men to have one wife, but reluctantly allowed them to have up to four wives under special circumstances.21 Men before Islam also used to force their women, especially their slave girls, into prostitution (zina). The Quran stopped this custom

(Quran 24:33).

With regard to divorce, there was no formula for severing the marriage relationship. The husband, in general, enjoyed absolute power over the divorce issue and this led to constant abuses. As there was no check on the powers of the husband to dissolve the marriage tie, Arab men used to divorce their women very often and for any reason, even if it was a trivial one such as, for example, speaking highly of their family or tribes.

However, the most obvious ones mentioned by the historians of the Jahiliyya were: the man could not find the love he was expecting in his wife; the couple were unable to establish friendship and intimacy or a man thought that he was marrying a young and beautiful woman who turned out to be otherwise.[11] The pagan Arabs also used to revoke the divorce and resume the marital relationship. A man, for example, would pronounce the formula ‘I divorce you’ many times and then take his wife back; he could then divorce her again and yet could still take her back. When women were divorced or widowed there was no fixed period for idda.[12] Some women had to wait for a year before they would be able to re-marry, others contracted marriages immediately after the separation.[13] Divorced women had no right to claim for maintenance, men were exempted from any financial responsibility and endured no legal punishment for their actions.[14] This inhuman treatment had contributed to the degradation of womanhood insofar as the woman herself believed that she should not be more than a servile and submissive creature, and had no right to expect any respect and honor in the world. Such a deplorable situation illustrated that the rights

and the liberties of women in those ancient societies were not only trampled upon, but were entirely denied them.

It must be stressed that some scholars have argued that women in pre-Islamic Arabia had some rights, citing the case of Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife, who was a highly successful business-woman. Our response is that Khadija was an exception, one among a small elite of that society, and we believe that her case does not genuinely reflect the general condition of women in that society, which was one of subjugation. This view is shared by B. Stowasser who writes,

‘we hear of publicly visible, independently wealthy women who are active in their own right. The best-known example here is, of course, Khadija, Muhammad’s first wife … (but) aside from such rare figures of public visibility, involvement and independence as Khadija, the majority of pre-Islamic urban women appear to have lived in a male-dominated society in which their status was low and their rights were negligible. Most women were subjugated to male domination, either that of a male relative, or that of the husband. The men’s rights over their women were as their rights over any property. This seems to have been so not only in marriages by capture, where the captured woman was completely under the authority of her captor, but also in marriages by purchase or contract. Here, the suitor paid a sum of money (the mahr) to the guardian of the bride-to-be (and possibly another sum, the sadaq, to the woman herself), thereby purchasing her and making her his exclusive property. The marriage contract, in other words, was a contract between husband and guardian, with the bride the sales object. Furthermore, neither conventions nor laws seem to have existed to put a limit to the number of wives that a man could have simultaneously, so that the only restrictive considerations were economic ones. As to divorce in the Jahiliyya, it was a matter entirely up to the will of the husband who, having purchased his wife, could discharge his total obligation to her by payment of any portion of the mahr that might remain due to her father or guardian, and be rid of her by pronouncement of the formula of dismissal. This formula, pronounced three times, was effective instantly. Finally, there is some indication that women in pre-Islamic Arabia were not allowed the holding, or in any case the uncontrolled disposal, of their possessions’.


[1] Al-Aqqad, al-Mara Fi al-Quran al-Kareem, Dar al-Hilal, Cairo, 1959, p. 87.

[2] S.A.A. Mawdudi, Purdah and the Status of Woman in Islam, Islamic Publications Ltd, Lahore, Pakistan, 1976, p. 2.

[3] For a discussion of the social, political, economic and religious background of Arabia before Islam see W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Mecca, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 979, pp. 1–23. Also, see Hammuda Abd al-Ati, The Family Structure in Islam, American Trust Publications, 1977, pp. 5–11.

[4] V.R. and L. Bevan Jones, Women in Islam, op. cit., p. 14.

[5] Malik Ram Baveja, Women in Islam, Advent Books, New York, 1981, pp. 1–2

[6] Said Abdullah Seif al-Hatimy, Women in Islam: A Comparative Study, op. cit., p. 18.

[7] R. Levy, The Social Structure of Islam, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1965, pp. 91–2

[8] John L. Esposito, ‘The Changing Role of Muslim Women’, Islam and the Modern Age, Vol. IV, No. 3, 1973, p. 54.

[9] Tafsir al-Tabari, Vol. 4, p. 233

[10] Reuben Levy, The Sociology of Islam, op. cit., p. 144

[11] Asghar Ali Engineer, The Rights of Women in Islam, C. Hurst and Company, London, 1992, p. 27

[12] Islam regulated the waiting time (idda) for women: A divorced woman has to wait for three months before she can re-marry, whilst a widow is required to wait four months and ten days before she is allowed to contract a new marriage. 2: 228 says, ‘Divorced women must wait, keeping themselves from men, three menstrual courses. It is unlawful for them, if they believe in Allah and the Last Day, to hide what He has created in their wombs: in which case their husbands would do well to take them back, should they desire reconciliation’. In addition, 2: 234 says, ‘And those of you who die and leave wives behind, such wives should keep in waiting for four months and ten days after their husband’s death. When they have reached the end of their waiting period, it shall be no offence for you to let them do whatever they choose for themselves, provided that it is lawful. Allah is cognizant of what you do’.

[13] See Asghar Ali Engineer, The Rights of Women in Islam, op. cit., p. 30.

[14] Abdur Rahman Doi, Women in Shariah, Ta-Ha Publishers Ltd, London,1989, p. 83.

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