Women and the Koran

Who Gets What

Women and the KoranWhich came first: the divine instructions that led to the seclusion of believing women, or the divine instructions that made it easier for men to accumulate wealth at the expense of believing women? An argument could be made that the first made the second inevitable.

The Invisible Woman

Allah’s instructions on how women should dress, with whom they can be seen in public, and how they should behave at all times have been traditionally interpreted as meaning believing women should be invisible except to their immediate family, their husband and, with certain restrictions, his family. A good wife will not invite anyone into her husband’s home of whom he would not approve.

In keeping with God's commands, traditional Islamic societies require that post-pubescent girls (teenagers, sometimes children) and women remain secluded in their father’s or husband’s house. If they must go out in public they are required to be accompanied by their father, husband or a close male relative while covered head to toe in a voluminous, sack-like garment with a mesh grid over the eyes (the burqa) or a shapeless black robe and black gloves with a face-covering black veil with a slit for the eyes (the niqab).

Traditional Islamic societies guided by God’s ideal of the perfect woman see the post-pubescent female’s role in simple terms: baby-making machine, stay-at-home mother, housekeeper, religious indoctrinator, and object of sexual gratification. Daughters are married off as soon as they start menstruating, if not sooner.

In Tahrir al-Wasilah, a monumental collection of commentaries on Islamic jurisprudence and morality, Ayatollah Khomeini claims it is better in the eyes of God if a girl starts menstruating in the home of her husband instead of that of her father, and that any father marrying his daughter so young will have a permanent place in heaven.

Believing mothers are expected to raise their daughters until a husband can arrange an advantageous, ideally profitable marriage. Wedding a relative is preferable, usually an uncle or a nephew, so as to keep wealth and strengthen ties within the family, clan, or tribe. Mothers are also responsible for raising sons up until the age of seven, when the proud father will take over their upbringing.

Considering the onerous restrictions placed on women in traditional Islamic societies and a limited role in their children’s education—which consists mostly of having them mouth the Koran and familiarizing them with Islamic laws and traditions—it is understandable, only reasonable, that educating girls beyond reading would be seen as a luxury by many in the ummah, the community of believers.

The severe dress code, denial of an education equal to a man’s, and the restrictions placed on women’s freedom of movement in traditional Islamic societies makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for women to work in a well-remunerated job outside the home that will earn their independence. The lion’s share of any wealth they accumulate must, under Allah’s inheritance and property laws, sooner rather than later, end up in the pockets of their husband, his brothers and parents, and their male offspring. The net result is that it is next to impossible for believing women to earn an income of their own or accumulate any real wealth, rendering them subservient and beholden to men with the means to provide them with the basic necessities of life and, if they’re lucky, some of its simple luxuries.

I suspect that Muhammad’s first wife, an independent, wealthy woman in her own right, would not have been pleased. Muhammad, we are told, loved and respected his first wife, which is why I believe the forced seclusion of girls and women with all the ills that it entails may have had nothing to do with God wishing to condemn them to a prisoner-like, subsistence existence at best. This forced seclusion may just have been God’s way of helping His middle-aged Messenger manage his burgeoning household of beautiful young wives, concubines and slave-girls. Some of His revelations pertaining to the close supervision of females may also have been meant to ensure that Muhammad was never again embarrassed by rumours such as those that circulated when the youngest of his fourteen wives, Aisha, got lost in the desert and was returned the next day by a young man, as well as to stop his wives from gossiping about what went on behind closed doors.

While the seclusion of women may have been an unintentional consequence of God aiding His Messenger, He effectively closed a number of loopholes in pre-Islamic laws and traditions that could have led women to accidentally accumulate more wealth than a man, for example, from an inheritance. To avoid such an eventuality, Muhammad received a number of revelations on the disposition of the deceased’s wealth.

Wills and Witnesses

5:106 O believers, when death approaches any of you, let two just men from among you act as witnesses at the time of testament; or two other from another folk if you happen to be travelling abroad and are overtaken by the calamity of death. You will detain them (the two others) after the prayer and they will swear by Allah if you are in doubt: “We will not sell Him [Allah] for any price, even if a near kinsman is involved and we will not keep secret the Testimony of Allah (the testimony which Allah enjoins); for then we would surely be sinners.”

On first reading of Revelation 5:106, it would appear that only men can bear witness to a will. Allah’s inclusion of “another folk” may have given Islamic scholars a way of allowing women to bear witness without running afoul of God’s men-only decree. Where Islamic law is permitted, or it is the law of the land, an attempt must be made to find two believing men to witness a will. If two male believers cannot be found, one or two male non-believers may be sought out. If no more than one man can be found, up to four women may be called upon in keeping with Allah’s observation in Revelation 2:282: “And call to witness two witnesses of your men; if not two men, then one man and two women from such witnesses you approve of, so that if one of them (the two women) fails to remember, the other will remind her.” The witnesses should, of course, be sinless and swear to that effect.

5:107 If, however, it is discovered that they have committed a sin, then two others shall take their places from among those against whom the first two had sinned. Whereupon they shall swear by Allah: “Our testimony is more truthful than their testimony and we have not transgressed, or else we would surely be evildoers.”

5:108 Thus, it is likelier that they will bear witness properly, or fear that other oaths will contradict their own oaths. Fear Allah and listen well; for Allah does not guide the wicked people.

Another revelation details what to do when death approaches which, “According to some classical commentators,” writes Fakhry in a footnote, “was abrogated by the law of inheritance.”

2:180 It is prescribed for you that when death is imminent for one of you and he leaves wealth, he should equitably make a testament in favour of the parents and the near of kin. This in incumbent upon the righteous.

A self-evident revelation about falsifying a will is followed by what should be an equally manifest revealed truth: that helping a dying man and his kin come to an understanding as to the fair dispossession of his estate is not a sin.

2:181 Whoever then changes it after he had heard it, the sin committed is that of those who change it. Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing. 2:182 Should anyone, however, fear any inequity or offence from a testator and reconciles them (the testator and the beneficiary), he shall incur no sin. Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

Husband Dies

The following revelations pertain to the disposition of a recently deceased male's property. As you may already be aware, male offspring get the lion’s share. Sisters are entitled to half the share of a brother and, if there are more than two females, the male is entitled to one-third, with the rest divided equally among the females (I assume sisters), whatever their number.

4:11 Allah commands you, with respect to your children, that the male shall inherit the equivalent of the share of two females. If there be more than two females, then they should receive two-thirds of what he (the deceased father) leaves; but if there is only one female, she is entitled to one-half…

If he did not father any children and he has no brothers.

4:11 … To each of his parents, one-sixth of what he leaves, if he has any children; but if he has no children, then his parents will inherit him, the mother receiving one third…

If he has brothers and dies childless, the formula changes. No mention is made of sisters of the deceased being entitled to anything.

4:11 … But if he has any brothers, then his mother receives one-sixth, after any will he had made or any debt he had incurred [is taken care of]…

The verse ends with God’s acknowledgement that it is difficult to choose the better investment, fathers or sons (no mention is made of daughters or mothers), when it comes to the proceeds of an inheritance and finishes with the usual praise for the rule maker.

4:11 … Your fathers and sons – you know not who of them is of greater advantage to you. This is a law from Allah; Allah surely is All-Knowing, Forbearing.

Lest they missed it the first time, God reminds the believers of His two-for-one rule when addressing the disposition of an inheritance should the only beneficiaries be brothers and sisters of the deceased.

4:176 [If] they consult you, say: “Allah enjoins you regarding him who dies leaving neither children nor parents. If he leaves a sister; she is entitled to half of what he leaves behind; and he inherits her if she has no children. If he leaves two sisters, they are entitled to two-thirds of what he leaves behind; but if they are brothers and sisters the male will have the equivalent of the share of two females. Allah makes it clear to you lest you go astray. Allah has full knowledge of everything!”

What about the family home? The following would suggest that former wives of the dearly departed are permitted to remain in the family home for up to a year before the deceased’s relatives move in and they have to move out.

2:240 Those of you who die leaving wives behind should bequeath to them a year’s provision without turning [them] out (from their homes). If however, they leave [their homes], then you (the relatives of the dead) incur no offence for what they do in a rightful way to themselves. Allah is Mighty, Wise.

Wife Dies

Allah’s instructions as to the dispositions of a deceased wife’s property, as far as I can tell, are all contained in Verse 4:12. The key provision here again is that the husband who has lost his spouse is entitled to more than a wife who has lost hers. The two-for-one rule appears to still apply. I will let you do the math.

4:12 You are entitled to half of what your wives leave, if they have no children; but if they have any children, then you are entitled to one-quarter of what they leave, after any will they had made or any loan they had incurred [is taken care of]. And they are entitled to one-quarter of what you leave, if you have no children; but if you have any children, then they are entitled to one-eighth of what you leave, after any will you had made or loan you had incurred [is taken care of]. And if a man or a woman dies having no children or parents, but has a brother or sister, then each shall have one-sixth; if they are more than that, then they shall share one-third, after any will made or debt incurred [is taken care of] without prejudice. This is a Commandment from Allah, and Allah is All-Knowing, Forbearing.

Islamic scholars like writer and American convert Yahiya Emerick dismiss this double standard because “in Islam only the man is compelled to spend money in support of his family therefore he should be entitled to a bigger share of the inheritance.” How convenient. A woman, under a system that has made her less wealthy than her partner, is denied her fair share because she is less wealthy than her partner. Divine circular reasoning! Accept this decreed, biased distribution of inherited wealth and you will be amply rewarded in the hereafter; don’t, and the Fire will be waiting.

4:13 These are the Ordinances from Allah, and whoever obeys Allah and His Messenger, He will admit into Gardens beneath which rivers flow, abiding therein forever. That is the great victory!

4:14 But whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger and transgresses His bounds, He will admit into the Fire, wherein he shall abide forever, and his will be a demeaning punishment.

Since God's ordinances pertaining to wills overwhelmingly favour men, they are unlikely to transgress, therefore the promise of eternal pain is probably meant for women who would seek a more equitable share. Remember, the pronouns he, him and his are considered the default, regardless of gender.

Parents Die

Allah’s revelations briefly consider bequests from deceased parents or relatives, though the details are hazy.

4:7 Men should have a share of what parents and kinsmen leave behind; and women a share of what parents and kinsmen leave, whether big or small, as an obligatory portion.

4:8 And if the division is attended by kinsmen, orphans or poor men, then give them a share of it and speak to them kindly.


4:33 To every one We have appointed heirs to inherit part of what the parents or the kinsmen bequeath. Those with whom you made a compact, give them their share. Surely Allah is witness to everything.


Allah said you should be kind to your slave-girls, but the following revelation reminds that kindness must not extend to sharing with them the favour that God may have given you. This may explain why there are no revelations about what slave-girls were entitled to upon the death of their owners.

16:71 Allah has favoured some of you over others in provision; but those favoured will not give their provision to those whom their right hands possess so as to be equal therein. Will they then deny Allah’s blessings?

A Vicious Circle

Allah’s revelations regarding the disposition of an inheritance are part of a vicious circle of self-serving regulations that favour men and ensure that Muslim women will always have difficulty accumulating the resources to look after themselves. Should they succeed in accumulating any wealth, upon their death the lion’s share must go, by order of God, to the male members of her husband’s family and their male offspring; their daughters, and their daughter’s daughters… doomed in perpetuity to begin their adult life at a disadvantage.

It is a vicious circle that ensures wealth, and the power it conveys, will invariably accumulate in the pockets of men. And what can a Muslim man do with the wealth so generously provided by Allah? Purchase the object of his affection. The woman—or girl—dares not oppose the transaction; her very survival depends on the buyer’s beneficence, God having denied her the means to look after herself. In most societies, and Islamic society is no different, whoever pays the piper calls the tune. Whoever pays is in charge.

4:34 Men are in charge of women, because Allah has made some of them excel the others, and because they spend some of their wealth. Hence righteous women are obedient, guarding the unseen which Allah has guarded. And those of them that you fear might rebel, admonish them and abandon them in their beds and beat them. Should they obey you, do not seek a way of harming them; for Allah is Sublime and Great!

It really is a clever set-up worthy of a god. Making women dependent and beholden to the very men who, because of a divine ordinance, legally deprive them of what is rightfully theirs and would give them the freedom to make their own choices about how they wish to live their lives.