WOMEN IN ISLAMIC SOCIETY DURING THE MIDDLE AGES
The rise and expansion of Islam, after the foundation by Mohammed, is an amazing story. Ultimately, the Muslims, as the believers of Islam are called, started a world-wide faith that today makes up the world’s second largest religious group after Christians. The role and status of women within Islam is one of essential contribution to its origins and continuation, but ever-changing roles.
Mohammed could not have founded Islam alone. Marriage to his employer, the wealthy widow Khadija, allowed him the leisure and financial backing to pursue his new religious journey. Born in Mecca, Mohammed was raised by his grandfather and uncle when his parents died. At the age of twenty-five he married Khadija. Mecca was an important trading center for caravan trade between Medina, the Near East and India. An integral part of this caravan and commercial trade was raiding, and the Arabs were excellent warriors. These characteristics facilitated Islam to spread via the Muslim’s holy war or Jihad within a few decades beyond the Arabian Peninsula, first to the Near East, and then Northern Africa and parts of southern Europe, including Spain. As Islam came in contact with other societies, both monotheistic and polytheistic, there was much cultural integration. Consequentially, there was room for confusion and conflict as to the expectations and responsibilities of women’s lives. As in Christianity and the Bible, so too in Islam and the Koran (the Muslims’ holy book), the interpretation of the written versus the exegesis explanations of succeeding centuries confounded the historical record and oral transmissions.
Mohammed’s marriage to Khadija took place when he was twenty-five and she was forty. As his employer, Khadija hired Mohammed to oversee her caravan trade between Mecca and Syria. She then proposed to him, and she was his only wife until her death about twenty-five years later. After about fifteen years of marriage to Khadija Mohammed no longer needed to work regularly, and he was free to lead a life of contemplation. While meditating in surrounding caves, Mohammed was visited by the angel Gabriel, who informed him that he was to be the messenger of Allah, the Arabic word for God. This meeting with Gabriel occurred in the year 610, and thereafter Mohammed continued to experience similar visions with specific religious instructions from Allah. Convinced that he was now the prophet of Allah, Khadija became his first convert. In general, however, Mohammed’s ideas met with general skepticism by the people of Mecca. This turned into active persecution after Mohammed denounced polytheistic worship, centered at the Kaaba, as idolatry, and he and Khadija were forced to flee Mecca for Medina.1 Welcomed in Medina, Mohammed established his tenets and practices for Islam. The five pillars of Islam were straight forward, facilitating people’s conversion: 1. Announcing there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his Prophet; 2. Prayer five times per day; 3. Fasting during the month of Ramadan; 4. Alms to the poor and ill; and 5. if one could afford it, pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a person’s lifetime. Mohammed did not claim his ideas to be a new religion, but a culmination of beliefs from Judaism and Christianity. Muslims always called Jews and Christians as people of the same book. In other words, the Koran, compiled by Mohammed’s followers after his death, recorded the messages he had received from Allah, and stated that they were the final words of Allah.
After Khadija’s death, the vision came from Allah that it was acceptable to have more than one wife. His next spouse was Aisha, a child bride of nine or ten. She was immediately succeeded by many more wives, usually widows or daughters, whose husbands and fathers had lost their lives in the course of spreading Islam. The Quranic (Koranic) verse detailing this is “Marry other women as may be agreeable to you, two or three or four.” At the time of Mohammed’s polygamy, disapproval of this was espoused by women from Medina, but it is thought that as Islam spread and encountered polygamy acceptance in other cultures, then multiple wives became an accepted practice for Muslims.
Veiling and seclusion are two other practices that were added after Khadija’s death. Apparently, after Mohammed married Aisha and others, guests would stay too long in his wife or wives’ rooms at a wedding feast or other occasions, leading to Mohammed’s revelation from Allah that veiling for women was necessary. Veiling, a custom from ancient times, was prevalent in the higher classes in the Near East dating back to the ancient Assyrians or even Mesopotamians. The ancient Greeks and Romans had adopted this custom too. Then when Christianity was established and starting spreading, veiling was deemed mandatory for respectable women. Muslims say that Koranic verses justify veiling, but it only tells women to veil their bosoms and hide their ornaments, not language specific to the head. As in other cultures and religions, interpretations vary throughout the Muslim world, and today there are different degrees of veiling.
Mohammed died in his wife Aisha’s room in Medina, where he is buried. This is now the second most sacred spot in Islam after the Kaaba in Mecca.
Over time as Islam won new followers, certain customs concerning women were established and written down in the Hadith, a further elucidation of the Koran. Mohammed’s second wife, Aisha, is given much credit for many of these writings, even those not pertaining to women. Aisha is credited with 2,210 traditions in the Hadith, and as she lived about forty years beyond Mohammed’s death, she was in a position to transmit events and words from the Prophet. Aisha was not alone in becoming one of the major sources for the Hadith. Mohammed’s other wives were important too, and indicates the high esteem in which his wives were held.
Arab marriage practices before Islam were both polyandrous and polygamous. Matrilineal marriages were common. A wife remained with her tribe after marriage, and the husband would visit or reside with her. The children belonged to the mother’s tribe. When polygamy was practiced, the husband still visited his wives, not vice versa. Before Islam, adultery by women was not seen as serious, and it was not a crime. In one case, a prominent woman of the same tribe as Mohammed’s, was divorced by one of her husbands on a charge of adultery. While embarrassing for her, her life was not in danger. Her father referred the matter to a soothsayer, who proclaimed her innocent of any wrongdoing. This was the common custom at the time.
When Islam came into being, many of these positive practices for women in marriage were slowly eroded, but it was always stated that Islam was an improvement for women. Mohammed himself sought to improve the treatment of women, but he thought that women were to be obedient to men. Muslim women in general though were clearly perceived as subordinate to men. Several examples will elucidate this improvement versus subordination of women in Islam. With the establishment of Islam, polyandry was now prohibited. Outlawing of female infanticide was clearly spelled out in the Koran. Apparently before Islam, infanticide on baby girls was practiced even as late as five or six years of age. The inscription in the Koran states “When the buried infant shall be asked for what sin she was slain.”
A significant bride-price was paid to the bride’s family or the bride herself, part of the arranged marriage procedures. As Mohammed had daughters, it is thought this last part supports that. If a man could not afford the brideprice, then he was allowed to marry a slave to keep from engaging in wrongful acts. Husbands were made responsible for financial support of their wife or wives, but wives were not obligated to share their wealth with their husbands. In Islam, divorce was restricted generally to husbands only, although divorced was not taken lightly, and the Koran encouraged reconciliation. Upon the divorce, the husband had to return the full bridal gift and any other goods his wife brought to the marriage. Since it was expensive for men to marry, polygamy was often favored over divorce to avoid repaying the bride-price. Divorce did not interfere with remarriage for women. After Mohammed’s death, one of his successors, Umar (reigned 634-44), many harsh customs regarding women were inaugurated in both public and private lives. Apparently Umar was physically abusive to his own wives. Stoning for adultery was begun according to the Shariah, (the Muslim law) although it is not specified in the Koran. In the Koran, which bans adultery, it orders that offenders be whipped one hundred lashes. To prove adultery or fornication, the Koran is most clear. Four eyewitnesses are necessary, although this is rarely followed. After Umar’s death, some lessening of onerous restrictions on women were invoked, but ultimately the direction of a more restrictive life for women was occurring. Although in the Koran it stated that a husband in exchange for his financial support of his wife, was allowed to punish a disobedient wife by admonishing her, sleeping in a separate bed, or beating her. Keeping apart from his wife, is an indication that Islam accepted women’s sexual needs, so different from the ideas of Christianity.
As Islam conquests brought in more wealth, slavery was increased as well. It is thought that the majority of Muslim slaves were women and children. Many women were placed in the harems of rulers, and the ever-increasing number of slaves and concubines will become legendary. As in ancient Greece, where the courtesans or hetaerae came from the slave class, so too in Islam. Some of the best education and training in music, singing, and literature were reserved for the female slaves, who would command the highest prices. Even philosophical discourse was open to these slaves. For Abassid times, Khayzuran was the most celebrated slave, who eventually became the beloved wife of the caliph al-Mahdi (775-785), Two of her sons became caliphs. It is thought that she was active in affairs of state for both her husband and sons. One of her sons was the illustrious Harun al-Rashid, a contemporary of Charlemagne’s. When a female slave give birth to a child by her master, she then could secure her freedom during her master’s lifetime or after his death. Supposedly Aisha’s brother-in-law left one thousand slaves and one thousand concubines when he died in 656. Guarded by eunuchs, as Islam spread to the Persians and Indians, large harems were popular. Jealousy and intrigue in harems became commonplace, leading to the idea of harem politics, whereby women resorted to poison and other intrigues to ensure their own son’s political birthright. Consequently, throughout history harem politics as played out by women have been used against women to prove their instability and ineptitude for any positive change to their lives.
While women could neither inherit nor claim a share of the spoils won on the battlefield, they could own and inherit property. Inheritance laws in the Koran stipulate that female children receive half that of male children.
During the Abbasid Caliphate 750-1250, public appearances and clothing of women were increasingly regulated by government decrees. Part of this change was signaled when, Caliph Mansour 754-775, ordered a separate bridge built for women over the Euphrates River in his new capital of Baghdad. Women were to be kept separate from men. Whatever were the original tenets of Islam, as it spread to other societies, local cultural conventions were interwoven with Muslim beliefs and there alterations became accepted as orthodox. The development of the Shariah acted as a guide to proper lifestyles for Muslims in these new surroundings. While women in Mecca and Medina had not been veiled, seclusion of women in the Middle East was linked to the development of urban life, not the nomadic culture of Arabia. As economic growth made it possible for domestic female slaves to be hired, this made it easier for middle and upperclass women to become increasingly confined to their homes. As in ancient Greece and Rome, only domestic servants went to market. Respectable women stayed at home or went out in secluded litters, fully veiled. Gradually veiling spread to the countryside, but it is not known when this occurred.
Muslim women participated in a wide range of cultural and intellectual pursuits. During the Umayyad Caliphate 661-750), women provided salons where scholars, poets and other educated people could gather, centuries before the famous female salonniers of Enlightenment times in France. Prominent among such women was the great granddaughter of Mohammed, Sukaina. As in pre-Islamic society, women continued to write poetry, and professionally sing elegies at funerals, which they probably composed. Women were not only students at schools, they taught as well as the men. Law, theology, and medicine were studied by women. When Islam came to Spain, women were professors at the universities of Cordoba and Valencia.
The political role of women in medieval Islam varied substantially. Some played active part in politics2 Mohammed’s daughter Fatimah, was the wife of the Caliph who succeeded when Mohammed died. Subsequent successors to Mohammed through his daughter are followers of Islam called the Shites or Shias. The followers of the other branch of Islam which allows the most promising person to be a successor of Mohammed’s, are called Sunnis. The Sunnis make up the majority of the Muslims today. Wife get name of Ummayad Caliph Al Walid I (705-715) encouraged her husband to build large mosques, and acted as political advisor. One of the greatest of the Abbasid Caliphs, Harum Al-Rashid (786-809), apparently owed his position to his wealthy mother, Khayzuran. She was a former slave, who intrigued to gain the throne for Harum at the expense of her other son. It is thought that Khayzuran was the model for Scharezad in the Arabain Nights Tales. Harum’s wife, Zubaydah, was a prominent patron for the urban communities of Mecca and Baghdad (check this out for right town She sponsored hospitals, schools, aqueducts, and she was a major role model for other aristocratic women’s civic contributions.
Women’s role in the religion of Islam is still being researched, although during Mohammed’s lifetime, communal religious activities were undertaken by women. At first Meccans were not receptive to Mohammed and the Muslim faith. Many battles were fought to keep Islam out and later to bring Islam in. Women were on the battlefield as well, both for and against Islam. This was a continuation of the pre-Islamic practice of women accompanying their menfolk on military campaigns. Compared to Christianity, where the first martyr was a man, St. Stephen, in Islam it was a woman, a slave named Sumayyah bint Khubbat, who was killed for her faith. Hind bint Utbah, a prominent woman in the region, became known as the “liver-eater,” when she avenged her father’s death. At the battle of Uhud in 625, when the Prophet’s uncle Hamz was killed, Hind ripped open his chest, pulled out his liver, and bit into it. Finally, three years later she converted to the Muslim faith. As the Koran accepts the tenets of the Old Testament, Eve was their ancestor too. However, her eating of the forbidden fruit was not an original sin, but the acquisition of knowledge. Mohammed’s granddaughter, Zaynab displayed enormous courage on the battlefield in the 7th century. Revolutionary women’s groups in Iran use Zaynab as their role model.
Women transmitted hadiths, which were statements relating to the Prophet’s actions and sayings. Difficult passages of the Koran were elucidated in the hadiths. Theology and law utilized these hadiths continually. Women’s role in this transmission is so different than in the early centuries of Christianity, where men dominated. Women as well as men collected and memorized the Koran, still an important part of the religious belief for Muslims today. Women attended the mosques and participated in religious festivals. Umar, political and religious head of Islam, ruling in the first half of the 7th century, sought to prevent women from attending prayers at mosques, but while he was not able to accomplish this extremely restrictive measure, he was able to institute segregated prayers, which have remained the standard today. We do know that as in other religions, a mystic element of Islam arose in the 8th century, entitled Sufism. Women were prominent in these observances as they were in Christian mysticism. Sufi Muslim saints emerged as in Christianity, and one of the foremost sufi saints was a slave woman, Rabiah. Veneration of sufi saints was not limited to ones that had died. Pilgrimages to the tombs of these saints were popular and still is among women and men. Sufis sought to seek union with Allah, by leading a simple life of devotion. As in Christianity, sufism developed into particular schools that descended from individual sufi masters. While most sufis were celibate, many married. Both convents and monasteries were established to support their spiritual life. When a woman converted to sufism, this allowed her freedom from domestic and social obligations. Many women rose to prominence as spiritual guides.
During Mohammed’s lifetime and in the decades after his death, women’s status was much higher than it was later. As the Muslims conquered and converted cultures of different areas, profound changes occurred for women. In the crusading mentality of a new faith, Islam like Christianity, practices were allowed that did not always keep faith with the Koran and the traditions and commentaries regarding Mohammed’s beliefs and sanctions. When the Abbasids came to power in 750, this date is usually seen as the pivotal point of change for women. As its capital was located in ancient Mesopotamia or modern-day Iraq, local guidelines were used and sanctioned through the Shariah or traditions. Over time the Shariah came to have almost the same religious regulations as the Koran, and it was thought to be inspired by Allah too. It is therefore necessary to explore what these middle eastern cultures were like to see why women’s status was becoming more restrictive.
1 perhaps serendipity or maybe factual is the black stone inside the Kaaba. This represented the various deities that the polytheistic Arabs worshiped. When Mohammed espoused monotheism, then he said the black stone was given to Abraham by God and then passed on through the centuries to the other prophets, culminating with Mohammed, the last prophet of God or Allah. Cybele, the mother goddess from Anatolia, was represented by a black stone too. Scholars believe this stone is a meteorite.
2 fascinating book entitled The Forgotten Queens of Islam