Mother Pelican
A Journal of Sustainable Human Development

Vol. 7, No. 6, June 2011
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
Home Page


Gender Equity in Islam
Part 1: Foundations of Spiritual and Human Equity

Jamal Badawi
Professor Emeritus of Religious (Islamic) Studies
Saint Mary's University, Halifax, Canada

Originally published in
Islam Online - 29 March 2011

When writing or speaking about the Islamic position on any issue, one ought to clearly differentiate between the normative teachings of Islam and the diversity of cultural practices prevalent among its adherents that may or may not be consistent with those teachings. Dr. Jamal Badawi in this paper discusses the normative teachings of Islam with regard to the standing and role of women in society as the criteria by which to judge the practice of Muslims and to evaluate their compliance with Islam.

Men and women have the same religious and moral duties and responsibilities.

Introduction and Methodology

Primary Sources of Islam

In identifying what is "Islamic" it is necessary to make a clear distinction between the primary sources of Islam – the Quran and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) – and the legal opinions derived from them by scholars in regard to specific issues.

Factors in Interpretation

The process of extracting laws from the primary sources is a human function. The surmise of legal practitioners may therefore vary considerably and be influenced by their specific times, circumstances and cultures. Obviously, opinions and verdicts of human beings do not enjoy the authority or the finality accorded to the primary sources, which God revealed.

Furthermore, interpretation of the primary sources should consider, among other things:

1. The context of any statement or commandment in the Quran and the Sunnah. In the case of the Quran, this includes both the context of the chapter and the verses under examination, as well as the general perspective of Islam, its teachings, and its worldview. As for the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad the same applies to its texts.

2. The occasion of revelation, that is, the historical background providing the primary reasons or causes underlying revelation of a Quranic portion or verse to the Prophet which may help to better elucidate its meaning; and, with regard to the Sunnah, the event or the incident that occasioned the statement or action of the Prophet.

3. The role of Sunnah in explaining and defining the meaning of the Quranic text.

To Muslims, Sunnah is a form of revelation as is the case with the Quran. As such, authentic Sunnah is the second primary source of Islamic teachings, after the Quran. It plays the important roles of defining, explaining and elaborating the Quranic text. For example, the second "pillar" of Islam, prayer, is mentioned in the Quran but without details about how it should be performed. Such details were left for Prophet Muhammad to explain based on the instructions of Angel Gabriel.

Disregard or ignorance of Sunnah may lead to serious errors of interpretation. At times, the literal or lexical meaning of a term used in the Quran may not be its correct meaning if the Prophet qualified or specified what is meant by it. Errors are multiplied when an erroneous literal meaning is translated from the original Arabic text of the Quran into another language, which, in turn may have its own connotations for the translated words used.

Following the above methodology, and for the reader's convenience, the issue of gender equity is discussed under four broad headings:

Chapter 1: The Spiritual Aspect

Chapter 2: The Economic Aspect

Chapter 3: The Social Aspect

Chapter 4: The Political and Legal Aspect

It is hoped that, God willing, this humble contribution may help in providing a basic frame of reference for more detailed treatments of this vital topic, from an Islamic perspective.

Chapter 1 - The Spiritual Aspect

Foundations of Spiritual and Human Equity

1. According to the Quran, men and women have the same human spiritual nature.

{O mankind! reverence your Guardian-Lord, Who created you from a single person, created, of like nature, his mate, and from them two scattered (like seeds) countless men and women; reverence Allah through Whom you demand your mutual (rights) and (reverence) the wombs (that bore you): for Allah ever watches over you…} (An-Nisa’ 4: 1)

{It is He Who created you from a single person and made his mate of like nature, in order that he might dwell with her (in love). When they are united, she bears a light burden and carries it about (unnoticed). When she grows heavy, they both pray to Allah, their Lord (saying) "If You give us a goodly child, we vow we shall (ever) be grateful} (Al-A’raf 7: 189)

{(He is) the Creator of the heavens and the earth: He has made for you pairs from among yourselves and pairs among cattle: by this means does He multiply you! There is nothing whatever like unto Him, and He is the one that hears and sees (all things)} (Ash-Shura 42: 11)

The Quran does not blame woman for the "fall of man"

2. Both men and women alike are recipients of the "divine breath" because they are created with the same human spiritual nature. Indeed, as the Quran states, God originated them both from a single person or "one soul".

Reflecting the magnitude of this universal divine gift, the Quran states:

{But He fashioned him (the human) in due proportion and breathed into him something of His spirit. And He gave you (the faculties of) hearing and sight and understanding: Little thanks do you give!} (As-Sajdah 32: 9)

Referring to Adam, the father of both men and women, the Quran relates that God commanded the angels to bow down (in respect) to him:

{So if I have fashioned him (in due proportion) and breathed into him of My spirit, fall down in obeisance unto him} (Al-Hijr 15: 29)

3. God has invested both genders with inherent dignity and has made men and women, collectively, the trustees of God on earth.

{We have honored the children of Adam, provided them with transport on land and sea, given them for sustenance things good and pure, and conferred on them special favors above a great part of Our Creation} (Al-Isra’ 17: 70)

{Behold, your Lord said to the angels: "I will create a vicegerent on earth." They said "Will you place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood? While we celebrate Your praises and glorify Your holy (name)?" He said: "I know what you know not."} (Al-Baqarah 2: 30)

4. The Quran does not blame woman for the "fall of man," nor does it view pregnancy and childbirth as punishments for "eating from the forbidden tree." On the contrary, the Quran depicts Adam and Eve as equally responsible for their sin in the Garden, never singling out Eve for blame. It also esteems pregnancy and childbirth as sufficient reasons for the love and respect due to mothers from their children.

{O Adam! You and your wife dwell in the garden and enjoy (its good things) as you (both) wish: but approach not this tree or you (both) run into harm and transgression. Then Satan began to whisper suggestions to them, bringing openly before their minds all their shame that was hidden from them (before): he said, "Your Lord only forbade you this tree lest you (both) should become angels or such beings as live forever. "And he swore to them both that he was their sincere adviser. So by deceit he brought about their fall. When they tasted of the tree, their shame became manifest to them and they began to sew together the leaves of the garden over their bodies. And their Lord called unto them: "Did I not forbid you that tree and tell you that Satan was an avowed enemy unto you?" They said: "Our Lord! we have wronged our own souls: If You forgive us not and bestow not upon us Your mercy, we shall certainly be lost. (Allah) said: "Get you (both) down with enmity between yourselves. On earth will be your dwelling place and your means of livelihood for a time." He said: "Therein shall you (both) live and therein shall you (both) die; and from it shall you (both) be taken out (at last)..." O you children of Adam! Let not Satan seduce you in the same manner as he got your parents out of the garden, stripping them of their raiment to expose their shame: for he and his tribe watch you from a position where you cannot see them: We made the evil ones friends (only) to those without faith.} (Al-A’raf 7: 19-27)

The Quran is quite clear about the issue of the claimed superiority or inferiority of any human.
Regarding pregnancy and childbirth, the Quran states:

{And We have enjoined on (every) person (to be good) to his/her parents: in travail upon travail did his/her mother bear him/her and in years twain was his/her weaning: (hear the command) show gratitude to Me and to your parents: to Me is (your final) Goal."} (Luqman 31: 14)

{We have enjoined on (every) person kindness to his/her parents: in pain did his/her mother bear him/her and in pain did she give him/her birth. The carrying of the (child) to his/her weaning is (a period of) thirty months. At length, when he/she reaches the age of full strength and attains forty years, he/she says "O my Lord! grant that I may be grateful for Your favor which You have bestowed upon me and upon both my parents and that I may work righteousness such as You may approve; and be gracious to me in my issue. Truly have I turned to You and truly do I bow (to You) in Islam (submission)."} (Al-Ahqaf 46: 15)

5. Men and women have the same religious and moral duties and responsibilities:

God says in the Quran: {Each human being shall face the consequences of his or her deeds. And their Lord has accepted of them and answered them: "Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, be he/she male or female: you are members one of another...} (Al-Imran 3: 195)

{If any do deeds of righteousness, be they male or female, and have faith, they will enter paradise and not the least injustice will be done to them.} (An-Nisa’ 4: 124)

{For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast (and deny themselves), for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah's praise for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward} (Al-Ahzab 33: 35)

{One Day you shall see the believing men and the believing women, how their Light runs forward before them and by their right hands. (Their greeting will be): "Good News for you this Day! Gardens beneath which flow rivers! To dwell therein forever! This is indeed the highest Achievement!"} (Al-Hadid 57: 12)

Criterion For "Superiority"

The Quran is quite clear about the issue of the claimed superiority or inferiority of any human:

{O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (one who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things)} (Al-Hujurat 49: 13)

A few observations about this verse may be helpful in tracing the foundation of spiritual and human equality before God:

a. It begins by addressing not only Muslims but the whole of mankind, irrespective of their gender and their national or religious backgrounds. As such, it is a universal declaration to all made by the Creator of all.

b. It states that there is only one Creator of all mankind. As such there is no room for arguments of superiority based on one's having been created by a "superior" God, as there is only one God (Allah). Nor is there any basis for a caste system based on some having been created in a way which is "different" from others or is superior. As Prophet Muhammad explained: " . . . You all belong to Adam, and Adam was created from dust." (Abu Dawud) In the process of human reproduction, there is no superiority or inferiority; kings and paupers, males and females, are created from what the Quran describes as "despised fluid."

Our having been created by the one and only Creator implies our basic equality before Him; He is just to all.

c. Being a faithful creature, servant and worshipper of the one God is at the heart of one's real spirituality and humanness. In this, the essence of gender equality finds its most profound basis.

Nowhere does the Quran state that one gender is superior to the other.

d. The verse states that all human beings are created of male and female. This means in pairs, as the Quran explicitly mentions elsewhere for example: {And created you in pairs} (An-Naba’ 78: 8) Each component of the pair is as necessary and as important as the other and hence is equal to him or her. The wording of this verse has been commonly translated also as "from a (single pair of) a male and a female," referring to Adam and Eve. This serves as a reminder to all mankind that they belong to the same family, with one common set of parents. As such they are all equal, as brothers and sisters in that broad and "very extended" family.

e. Variations in gender, languages, ethnic backgrounds and, by implication, religious claims, do not provide any basis for superiority or inferiority. The implication of {that you may know each other} (Al-Hujurat 49: 13) is that such variations constitute a deliberate mosaic that God created, which is more interesting and more beautiful than a single "color" or a "unisex. "

f. Most significant and relevant to the topic at hand is the clear categorical statement that the most honored person in the sight of God is the one who is most pious and righteous. This precludes any other basis for superiority, including gender.

6. Nowhere does the Quran state that one gender is superior to the other. Some interpreters of the Quran mistakenly translate the Arabic word qiwamah (responsibility for the family) with the English word "superiority." The Quran makes it clear that the sole basis for the superiority of any person over another is piety and righteousness, not gender, color or nationality.

7. The absence of women as prophets or "messengers of Allah" in prophetic history is because of the demands and physical suffering associated with the role of messengers and prophets and not because of any spiritual inferiority attributed to women. Societies, to which prophets were sent, including the Israelites, pre-Islamic Arabs and others, were largely patriarchal societies. They probably would have been less responsive to the ministry of female messengers of God. In fact, they made things extremely difficult for male messengers.


From this chapter, it is clear that in terms of spirituality and humanness, both genders stand on equal footing before God. It is clear also that nowhere in the primary sources of Islam (the Quran and Sunnah) do we find any basis for the superiority of one gender over the other. Human misinterpretations, culturally-bound opinions or manipulations are not congruent with what Islam teaches. The full equality of all human beings before God is beyond doubt. This equality differentiation in the spirit of cooperation and complimentarity. This is why equity is a more accurate term than equality.

The next part will discuss the economic aspect and the right to possess property.

About the Author: Dr. Jamal Badawi was Professor of both Management and Religious Studies at St. Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Now retired, he is still associated with the university as "Professor Emeritus" and continues to teach courses on Islam on a part time basis. He completed his undergraduate studies in Cairo, Egypt, and his Masters and Ph.D. degrees at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. Dr. Badawi is the author of several works on Islam, including books, chapters in books and articles. In addition to his participation in lectures, seminars and interfaith dialogues in North America, Dr. Badawi has been frequently invited as guest speaker on Islam in nearly 40 other countries. He is a member of the Islamic Juridical [Fiqh] Council of North America, The European Council of Fatwa and Research and the International Union of Islamic Scholars. He has been serving as a volunteer Imam of the local Muslim community in Halifax, Canada since 1970.

The article in this page is based on his book, Gender Equity in Islam, American Trust Publications, 1 July 1995. This is Part 1 of the following series:

Parts 2, 3, and 4 will be reprinted in the issues for July, August, and September. Readers who want to read the entire series now can click on the links to Islam Online.

|Back to TITLE|

Page 1      Page 2      Page 3      Page 4      Page 5      Page 6      Page 7      Page 8      Page 9

Supplement 1      Supplement 2      Supplement 3      Supplement 4      Supplement 5

PelicanWeb Home Page

Bookmark and Share

"The part cannot be well until the whole is well."

Plato, 428-348 BCE


Write to the Editor
Send email to Subscribe
Send email to Unsubscribe
Link to the Google Groups Website
Link to the PelicanWeb Home Page


Creative Commons License

Page 9      



Subscribe to the
Mother Pelican Journal
via the Solidarity-Sustainability Group

Enter your email address: