Islam emerged in an Arabian social order that was already grappling with these broad trends on the status of women. In the pre-Islamic Arabia, many people worshipped female deities and goddesses as well as angels with female names such as al-Lat, al-Uzza and Manat, etc. In spite of such religious practices, like many other patriarchal societies around the world at that time and later, in pre-Islamic Arabia, the dominant male gaze betrayed a contempt for women- reflective in their preference for male progeny and regarding daughters as no more than a necessary evil. While the gender of the child should make no difference in the flow of parental love, it is the decadent social order that hinders the true appreciation of, and gratitude towards God, for the miracle of life in their midst. Indeed, to expound on its progressive outlook on women’s role and function in the social order of the believers, the Qur’an condemns the manifest contradictions in the pre-Islamic Arab attitudes on the question of women:
‘They ascribe daughters unto God, who is limitless in His glory- whereas for themselves (they would choose, if they could , only) what they desire (male issue): for, whenever any of them is given the glad tiding of (the birth of) a girl, his face darkens, and he is filled with suppressed anger, avoiding all people because of the (alleged) evil of the glad tiding which he has received (and debating within himself:) Shall he keep this (child) despite the contempt (which he feels for it)- or shall he bury it in the dust? Oh, evil indeed is whatever they decide!’ (16: 58-60).
‘Why for yourselves (you would choose only) male offspring, whereas to Him (you assign) female: that, lo and behold, is an unfair division!’ (53: 22-23).
Hence, the Qur’an utterly condemns the pre-Islamic male attitudes towards the suppression of women. Female infanticide and foeticide are among the evil practices that continue to exist even in our times. The pre-Islamic practice of burying girls alive may or may not be happening on a larger scale now. However, its modern equivalents such as denying girls’ access to opportunities for developing their qualities and potentials continue to be a bane of several societies. For instance, it was only recently that the Taliban regime wanted to close down women’s education in Afghanistan. It is ironic that Muslim communities privilege pre-Islamic practices that ignore or evade or seek to bend Islamic teachings to suit their social conservatism. In the name of religion and customary practices, women are being denied ‘an equal sky’.
It is also instructive to note that one of the prophecies of the Qur'an concerns the ideational discrediting of the evil practice as well as the advent of an age in which the rights of the girl child shall gain wider recognition in society through accountability mechanisms: “And when different classes of people are brought together, when the baby-girl buried alive is asked, ‘for what crime was she killed?’, when the records of deeds are spread open..” (81: 8-11).
Equal Status for Women
In the Qur’anic worldview, the humankind- comprising of both men and women- has a common origin and a shared destiny: ‘O people! Be conscious of your Lord who created you out of one living entity, and from the same essence created its mate, and from the pair of them spread countless men and women far and wide; be mindful of God, in whose name you make requests of one another, and of these ties of kinship. Verily, God is ever-watchful over you!’ (4:2).
According to the Qur’an, both men and women have an equal responsibility to nurture and develop within themselves fine qualities of head and heart. Indeed, it is the virtues that elevate a human into the rank of true believers, and Allah (swt) wishes us- men and women- to possess the following ten virtues: Islam (submission to God), Faith in God, obedience, truthfulness, patience, sincerity, charity, fasting, chastity and remembrance of God. The Qur’an says:
“Surely, for men and women who have surrendered [to God]—believing men and believing women, obedient men and obedient women, truthful men and truthful women, patient men and patient women, humble men and humble women, charitable men and charitable women, fasting men and fasting women, men and women who guard their chastity, men and women who are ever mindful of God—God is ready with forgiveness and an immense reward.”----(33:36)
Speaking about the afore-mentioned virtues that virtually encompass almost all aspects of the Islamic faith and Islamic character, Maulana Wahid-ud-din Khan once noted: “...one who hopes to receive God’s pardon and His rewards should bow to His injunctions, thus showing his total belief in God. There should be no contradiction between his words and his deeds. He should stand firm, regardless of the circumstances. The realization of God’s greatness should have made him modest and he should consider the meeting of others’ needs as his own responsibility. He must fast regularly and, in the context of sexual desires, he is chaste and pure. His days and nights are spent in the remembrance of God.”
In the human quest for gaining Divine communion and spiritual rewards, Allah (swt) does not discriminate against women because they are women. Indeed, gender-based discrimination is a social practice, and not a Sunnat Allah. The world judges by appearances, instead of judging appearances- whereas Allah (swt) is concerned with the intention and sincerity of the hearts (Taqwah), rather than the formats and rituals that people display (22:38). Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) himself clarifies, “Allah does not look to your appearance or your colors, but He looks to your hearts and deeds.” The Prophet (sa) also said, “on the Day of Judgement, mankind will be raised up according to their intentions.” The Qur’an testifies to the gender-neutral approach of the Lord to the conferment of spiritual rewards based on good conduct and faith of the believers: “To whoever, man or woman, does good deeds, and has faith, We shall give a good life; and reward them according to the best of their actions.” ----(16: 98).
Moreover, it is a historic fact that women companions of the Holy Prophet (sa), especially Hazrat A’esha (ra), played a vital role in the transmission of Islamic teachings after the times of the Holy Prophet (sa) to the men and women of the Ummah, teaching them the foundational norms of the Faith.
Women and Divine Communion
Like the Prophets and other servants of God, pious women in the past had aspired to be accepted in the presence of God through leading a life of utter devotion and piety. For instance, the Qur’an makes it a point to mention the piety of a woman from the house of Imran- the mother of Maryam. The pious circumstances of Hazrat Maryam’s birth and the Divine acceptance of her parent’s dedication of the daughter for religious services are chronicled in the Book of God:
"God chose Adam, Noah, Abraham’s family, and the family of Imran, over all other people, in one line of descent- God hears and knows all. Imran’s wife said, Lord, I have dedicated what is growing in my womb entirely to You; so accept this from me.You are the One who hears and knows all’, but when she gave birth, she said, ‘My Lord! I have given birth to a girl’- God knew best what she had given birth to: the male is not like the female- I name her Maryam and I commend her and her offspring to Your protection from the rejected Satan.’ Her Lord graciously accepted her and made her grow in goodness, and entrusted her to the charge of Zachariah...’ --(3: 34-38)
Hazrat Maryam was chosen by Allah (swt) from among all the women of her times in the society and when she became a recipient of Divine revelations, she was specifically reminded of a life in utter devotion to God: ‘be devout to your Lord, prostrate yourself in worship, bow down with those who pray’. (3: 44)
By providing the life sketches of the wife of Pharoah as well as that of Hazrat Maryam bint Imran in the Qur’an, Allah (swt) encourages all believers to adopt a life of piety, prayer and giving. According to the Promised Massih (as), when a believer adopts the qualities and virtues of Hazrat Maryam, s/he becomes like a true believer who could potentially find acceptance for spiritual communion, with the infinite Grace and Blessings and Mercy of Allah. (66: 12-13).
Hazrat Bibi Rabia Basri (ra)
Indeed, the Qur'an promises the same great prospects of Divine communion for true believers, whether men or women- who recognizes the original Covenant of man with God, and follow the path of His Elects, the Divine messengers of their times. Several verses in the Qur’an points to the prospects of growing closer to God Almighty by following His commandments as shown by His messengers and Elects:
‘And when thy Lord took from the Children of Adam, from their loins, their seed, and made them testify touching themselves, “Am I not your Lord?” They said, “Yes, we testify.” (7:171).
“We indeed created man; and We know what his soul whispers within him, and We are nearer to him than the jugular vein.” (50: 5I). “All that dwells upon the earth is perishing, yet still abides the Face of your Lord, majestic, splendid”. (55: 26).
“And when My servants question you concerning Me—I am near to answer the call of the caller, when he calls to Me; so let them respond to Me, and let them believe in Me: haply so they will go aright.” (2:I82).
'Say: 'If you love Allah, follow me, and Allah will love you, and forgive you your sins; Allah is All-forgiving, All-compassionate.' (3:32)
"The Auliah of Allah should have no fear and no grief. They have faith, and act piously (by abstaining from evil deeds and sins, and by doing good deeds). They shall have good news in this world's life and in the Hereafter; there is no changing the promises of Allah; that is the mighty achievement." (10:63-65).
In the centuries after the Holy Prophet (sa), countless men and women have followed in the footsteps of the great Prophet, and they achieved Divine reunion and communion in this very world. Alhamdulillah, Summa Alhamdulillah; history has preserved to this day the records of the pious deeds and words of the friends of God who followed in the footsteps of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa). For instance, the medieval Persian polymath Sheikh Farid-ud-Din Attar's Tadhkiratul Auliah (Memorial of God's Friends: Lives and Sayings of Sufis) gives a fascinating account of the rich inner world of mystical Islam. The name of Hazrat Bibi Rabia Al Adawiyya (717-801), a woman who walked on the path of the Lord as ably as any man could ever do, comes up prominently in the sacred memory of the Muslims, and her soulful and intense prayers ring in the minds of all those who believe in Ishq-e-Habibi (Divine Love):
O God, whatsoever You have apportioned to me of worldly, things, do You give that to Your enemies; and whatsoever, You have apportioned to me in the world to come, give that to Your friends; for You suffice me.
O God, if I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise; but if I worship You for Your own sake, grudge me not Your everlasting beauty.
O God, my whole occupation and all my desire in this world of all worldly things, is to remember You, and in the world to come, of all things of the world to come, is to meet You. This is on my side, as I have stated; now do You whatsoever You will...'