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Muhammad and Woman

‘Abd al-Qadir al-Maghribi
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Muhammad and Woman

‘Abd al-Qadir al-Maghribi


‘Abd al-Qadir al-Maghribi (Lebanon, 1867–1956) contributed to the development of modernist journalism in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria during the late Ottoman and early French Mandate periods. The son of a religious law court official, he studied at a school established in Tripoli, Syria, by Shaykh Husayn al-Jisr (Lebanon, 1845–1909), a cautious advocate of reconciling natural sciences with Islamic theology. Inspired by the work of Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (chapter 11), Maghribi left Ottoman Syria for Egypt in 1905, where he began his journalistic career. He returned to Lebanon after the Ottoman Young Turk of 1908 and published a modernist periodical, al-Burhan (The Proof). In 1914, he went to Medina to participate in the establishment of an Islamic college, but the outbreak of World War I abruptly ended that effort. While many other Arab modernists supported Arab separation from the Ottoman Empire, Maghribi remained loyal to Istanbul. He spent the war years teaching at an Islamic college in Jerusalem and writing for a pro- Ottoman newspaper in Damascus. Later, Maghribi worked on behalf of Arabic language reform at academies in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. He is best known for emphasizing moral reform as the key to resolving social and economic problems. In this selection, Maghribi cites evidence from the Prophet's relationship with his wet nurse and two of his wives to argue that Islam allows women to maintain active roles in society. In addition, he elaborates a common modernist position on the standing of women in Islamic law regarding divorce, polygamy, inheritance, and legal testimony.1 Muhammad Farid ‘Abd Allah, ‘Abd al-Qadir al- Maghribi wa-ara’uhu fi al-lugha wa-al-nahw (‘Abd al-Qadir al-Maghribi and His Views on Language and Grammar) (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Mawasim, 1997); Sami al-Dahhan, al-Qudama’ wa-mu‘asirun (People of the Past and Present) (Egypt: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1961); Muhammad As‘ad Talas, Muhadarat ‘an ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Maghribi (Lectures on ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Maghribi) (Cairo, Egypt: League of Arab States, 1958).

There are many possible topics for speeches, and many speech parties. These parties are made successful by their hosts, but they should also be made so by the proper choice of topic and by their pleasant atmosphere. Where, my sirs, can I find a topic [for my speech] as superior as this party? Truly, to take into consideration the suitability of the topic to the party is the most difficult task.

One day, I explained the word “women” in the presence of an educated girl. I said that it means “shunning,” “expulsion,” and “delay,” and from the word comes “al-minsa’h,” which is a stick—because the shepherd expels his sheep with it. The girl got angry and said: “Then the Arabs called women ‘women’ because they are excluded, shunned and expelled?!!” I wondered about her conclusion, and I prayed to God to guard me against her stubbornness, and I answered her objection with what I believed would please her on the whole.

And then, after I was invited to speak at this party, one day I saw the same girl reading a book with great interest. So I asked her: “What is this book?” She said: “al-Zubaydi.”

[Ahmad ibn Ahmad] al-Zubaydi [circa 1409–1488], sirs, is [author of] a religious book summarizing all the hadiths [narratives of the Prophet] collected by [Muhammad ibn Isma‘il] al-Bukhari [the foremost compiler of hadith, 810–870].

So I encouraged her to read it, and I praised her choice of that book to read, instead of those books that girls are usually fond of. The girl finished reading al-Zubaydi. As she was about to lay it down, she turned to those around her and said: “I did not find in all the hadiths that I read in this book anything that would make you feel that the Prophet, peace be upon him, had any disdain towards woman. On the contrary, I saw him honor her and put her on equal footing with men in [religious] commandments and duties. So where did the accusation that our shari‘a [Islamic law] degrades woman or teaches any lowering of her standing come from?!!”

I do not hide from you, sirs, that my happiness about her deduction this time made me forget my disappointment with her conclusion the first time. I became even happier when I realized that I had found the topic for my speech for this party. And I called out: “I found it. I found it!” Just like Archimedes: “I found it. I found it.”

Yes, I found the topic, sirs, but I didn’t find the time needed to give it its due, because the Education Association—I thank it anyway—did not give me time for a speech at a party. It gave me time only for a phone call. So forgive me if I hasten or if I gloss over certain aspects.

The Arabs, due to the nature of their countries and the constitution of their temperaments, saw in woman their delight and their comfort, so they loved her and almost worshiped her. And due to the nature of their social relations and their customary system of raid and capture, they saw woman as both a cause of their pleasure and their affliction with shame. So they perceived her as an evil omen; so much so that female babies were sometimes buried alive. So the Arabs were caught between two forces: pulled by the nature of their region and their temperament, which attracted them to woman, and pulled the other way by their social system and their wars, which distanced them from her.

Muhammad, peace be upon him, was born in the Arabian peninsula, the people of which, as we have described, were given to these two tendencies. He confirmed the first instance, affection toward woman, and blessed it by announcing: “Another of His signs is that He created mates of your own kin of yourselves, so that you may get peace of mind from them, and has put love and compassion between you.” [Qur'an, Sura 30, Verse 21]

And he denounced the second case, the case of disfavor toward woman. He elevated her standing, returned her to the throne of her domain, and called out, saying: “The woman is the mistress of her abode.” “The woman is the guardian of her husband's abode and she is responsible for her flock.” The purpose of Muhammad's prophecy is not only to proclaim the oneness of God, but also to preach on behalf of woman and to celebrate her return to the throne of her domain.

‘Umar ibn al-Khattab [the second caliph, 634– 644] said: “By God, in pre-Islamic ignorance we did not consider women, until God revealed about them what He revealed and foreordained what He foreordained for them.”

And for those who follow the stages of the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him, they realize the causes that made is noble spirit receptive to this female revelation.

His father died, and then his mother, when he was only a few years of age. So his nursing was taken over by an Abyssinian girl named Baraka, nicknamed “Umm Ayman.” And this girl worked to raise him and serve him until he turned twenty-five. So he was happy with what he saw from his nurse in terms of affection and care. And he felt the first of women's functions in this existence: woman as woman, even if she was an Abyssinian and a slave, and did not belong to the blood line of the Arabs, nor was of noble descent.

And then the Divine Providence willed to move Muhammad to live close by the most eminent woman among the Quraysh [the dominant tribe of Mecca]. So he married the lady Khadija bint Khuwaylid [554–619]. Something new in the life of Muhammad: he moved on to another phase of knowing woman, and of examining her roles. And he was no longer the youth who was served by his humble nurse. So he honored her; but the youth who is loved by a noble woman also loves her in return. He was a youth of twenty-five, and she was a middle-aged woman in her forties. As if the Divine Providence saw that in his youth he still needed the affection of a woman who had age, experience, and wealth, so was his marriage to Khadija facilitated.

Her first husband had died, so many eminent Quraysh men asked for her hand in marriage. But she had refused them all, preferring to keep her independence and to tend to the business of her trade. She was looking for a trustworthy man, to make him her business agent. So she found Muhammad. She not only found him honest with her money, but also with her heart, so she entrusted him with all.

All those who saw Muhammad, peace be upon him, and heard his speech felt that he would play a role in the renaissance of the Arabs, and their salvation from ignorance. And this was not hidden from Khadija; she believed that her fiancé was going to be a great man, and an educator of nations and generations, so her fondness for him increased, and so too her desire for his affection.

Anas [ibn Malik, servant of the Prophet, circa 612–709] said: “The Prophet, peace be upon him, was with his uncle, Abu Talib, so he took his permission to go to his fiancée Khadija, so he gave him permission. And he [Abu Talib] sent a slave-girl called Naba‘a to follow him [the Prophet], telling her, ‘See what Khadija says to my nephew Muhammad.’

“Naba‘a said, ‘I saw something strange. The moment Khadija heard him, she went out the door and took his hand and held it to her chest and neck. Then she said to him, “I swear by my father and mother, I cannot do this thing (that you have barred me from doing). But I hope that you are the Prophet that will be revealed. If it is you, then recognize my rights and my standing and pray to the God that reveals you that he would reveal you to me.” Muhammad answered her: “By God, if I am he, I will never forget what you have done for me. And if it is somebody else, the God you have served will never neglect you.”’”

Muhammad didn’t have money or property, and he lacked the means for comfortable living, but this became available when he married Khadija. So what does he do? Does he use the money and the prosperity of his wife for play, repose, and delight?

No. The youthful Muhammad used his wife's money to free his heart from worries about the family, as he used her affection and her obedience to dedicate his time to worshiping his Creator, and to performing the great work that preoccupied him.

Here is Muhammad secluding himself from people and taking refuge in a cave in Mount Hira,’ talking to his God and asking Him to guide His people. Here is Khadija his wife, encouraging him and giving him confidence, patience, and certainty in himself. Here she is preparing food for him to eat during his long seclusion. Here is Muhammad's Magdalene in vigil at the foot of the mountain where her husband has isolated himself, and her heart is filled up with anticipation, faith, and confidence in the future.

In this way we see how the prophecy was born in the hand of a woman, Khadija, whereas its birth was not witnessed by any of the men. Neither Abu Bakr nor ‘Umar [two of the Prophet's closest male followers] heard it, nor did ‘Ali [the Prophet's son-in-law] or Mu‘awiyya [caliph, 661–680].

Then Khadija died. Abu Bakr, the oldest of the companions of Muhammad, peace be upon him, wished to have the honor of his kinship, so he married his daughter ‘A’isha [circa 614–678] to him. ‘A’isha was not only [the Prophet's] wife, but also his student. And that is the third of Muhammad's stages with woman: Baraka the Abyssinian cares for him in his childhood, and the elder Khadija embraces him and encourages him in his youth, and ‘A’isha the faithful makes him happy and becomes his disciple in his old age.

Muhammad experienced woman in all of his life's stages, and he exchanged affection with her as a child, as a youth, and as an elder. And she had enough influence in his life to make him elevate her standing, and declare her freedom, and put her on an equal footing with men.

And one of the strangest coincidences is that the Makun council convened during the time of Muhammad, in the year 586, and discussed Is woman a human being? [The council] stated that she is a human being but was created to serve man.2 [This reference is unclear. No major Christian council was held in 586, though the Council in Trullo of 692, a century later, did decree that women should be silent in church, as they are “to be in subjection, as the law also saith” (Canon 70, quoting the Bible, 1 Corinthians, chapter 14, verse 34).—Ed.]s As soon as this verdict was reached in Europe, Muhammad contradicted it in the Hijaz and raised his voice saying:

“Women are sisters to men.”

But he said to men: Are you not eager to enter paradise? This paradise that you are so desirous of is “under the feet of mothers,” and every woman is a mother, if not in fact then in her female power.

Nobody has said so much to honor woman as this saying given by Muhammad. If people thought of woman as the devil, Muhammad saw her as a protective charm against the devil.

He asked one youth among his companions, who was called Mu‘adh ibn Jabal [died 627]:

“O Mu‘adh, do you have a wife?”


“You are then a brother to the devils.”

In other words, you should have protected yourself from the devils by marrying a woman. And

Muhammad, peace be upon him, wanted, by honoring woman and elevating her standing in the eyes of men in this way, to make them understand that their new renaissance is built on the shoulders of both sexes together—men and women—just like the great universal renaissances. And when the Arab women saw this renaissance that Muhammad raised them into, they were extremely happy with it, and were active to enrich themselves with it, to such an extent that when they saw themselves cheated in some of their rights they gathered in a meeting and decided to tell the Prophet about their demands through a representative among them, one of the companions of the Prophet, Asma’ bint Yazid [died 693].

Asma’ came to the Prophet and said to him: “I am a messenger; behind me is a group of women, and all of them say what I say and are of the same opinion.”

So she presented to the Prophet the demands of the women who sent her. The Prophet satisfied their demands, and declared his happiness with her discourse and her courage, and turned to the companions around him and said: “Have you heard a woman's speech better than this woman asking about her religion?”

This statement is enough [to show] that he encouraged woman and emphasized the importance of her standing. The Prophet, peace be upon him, did not like to be autocratic in matters related to woman's marriage; he gave her the right to marry whomever she chooses and prefers to live with, on condition that this marriage does not degrade the honor of her clan.

One woman, Barira, was a slave of noble ‘A’isha, so she freed her. Barira was married to a man called Mughith. So when she had her freedom she had the right to choose to remain married to Mughith or not. And it appears that Barira was not comfortable living with Mughith. So she declared that she did not want him as her husband. This was difficult for Mughith to handle, as he loved her a great deal. So he tried to win her favor, but she refused. Here is Barira walking in the roads of Medina, and poor Mughith walks behind her. Tears fall on his cheeks, and people look at him, and have pity on him. Yet Barira does not have compassion and does not have mercy.

“O Barira, have mercy on him. Have sympathy for his situation. Have pity for him.”

“No! I don’t want him.”

They told the Prophet about Barira and Mughith. So he called her to him, and talked to her about him, so she said to him: “Are you giving me an order, O Messenger of God?”

[The Prophet said:] “No, but I am mediating for him.”

“No, I do not want him.”

So the Prophet did not contradict her and did not blame her for using her freedom thusly, despite the fact that she was the freed slave of his wife; rather he turned to his uncle ‘Abbas [ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib, died 652] and said to him: “O ‘Abbas, don’t you wonder about Mughith's love for Barira, and about Barira's hatred towards Mughith?”

And just as the Prophet, peace be upon him, acknowledged a woman's right to independence in her private affairs, he considered it her right also to participate along with men in public service. The most important of these public services in this era was giving support to the expansion of Islam, and resisting those who opposed it. Women made great contributions in this domain. And a group of the Prophet's companions’ women used to accompany the army and serve the warriors.

Umm ‘Atiyya said: “I used to make food for the warriors, and keep their tents, and tend their wounds, and take care of their sick.”

And Umm Sinan said that when the Prophet wanted to go to Khaybar, she came to him and told him: “Shall I accompany you in this voyage? I can supply the water bag, and heal the sick and the wounded and take care of the men.”

[The Prophet responded:] “Come along with God's blessing. You have friends who asked to accompany me, and I gave them permission. Be with my wife Umm Salama [died 679].” As for Umm Kabsha, when she asked his permission to accompany him, he told her no. So she told him: “I medicate the sick and take care of the wounded.”

“Sit down, I don’t want people to say that Muhammad's invasion is accompanied by a woman.”

So you see, sirs, how the Prophet explained not taking her with him by his concern that it would spread among the tribes that Muhammad had no men nor heroes, for he fights with those who have anklets. He did not tell her, “Sit down, accompanying warriors is not your business.”

And Anas said: “In the battle of U’hud [in 625], I saw ‘A’isha, the wife of the Prophet, and with her my mother Umm Salim, [their garments] rolled up. I could see their anklets as they jumped with water bags on their backs, emptying them in the mouths of the thirsty and then coming back to fill up and returning to empty them in their mouths again.”

Here is another woman, Rafida the Muslim. She did not accompany the army but had pitched her tent in the mosque of the Prophet and would heal the wounded and medicate the sick. And when the leader of the companions of the Prophet, Sa‘d ibn Mu‘adh, was wounded in the Battle of the Ditch [in 627], the Prophet, peace be upon him, told them: “Take him to Rafida's tent.” This was Rafida's role in time of war. As for the time of peace, she used to bring the handicapped and the unfortunate to her tent to take care of them and alleviate their suffering. The tent, Rafida's tent, was a blessing: It was a military hospital during war and a shelter for the handicapped during peace.

A heathen warrior came to Umm Hani’ [bint Abi Talib] and asked her for protection, so she gave it to him. When some of the Prophet's companions objected and wanted to nullify it, she got angry and complained to the Prophet, who told her: “We give protection to whomever you have given protection, O Umm Hani’.” This act was an interference in military and political affairs, and the Prophet acknowledged that she had the right to do what she did. He did not tell her: “This is not your business, [restrict yourself rather to] taking care of cooking, adorning your self, and raising children.”

But in spite of that, my ladies, Muhammad saw that adornment and household management were the most elevated of women's functions. As he was proud of the Quraysh woman who protects her husband's money and takes care of raising her children —at the same time, he liked the woman who did not forget her femininity and did not ignore her adornment, and did not hinder her maternity in one way or another, to the extent that he hated to see no trace of dye in a woman's palms (dye was the most beautiful adornment in past eras).

Umm Sinan said: “I pledged Islam to the Prophet, so he looked at my hands with no traces of dye, and said, ‘None of you should change her nails; but tie her hand even with a belt.’” So he encouraged them to use dye and to wear a bracelet, even one made of leather, on her wrist.

Muhammad, peace be upon him, knew that woman's psychology3 [Maghribi uses the word nafisa, derived from nafs (psyche), as a neologism for “psychology.”—Trans.] and instincts related to her sex, so he treated her according to what he learned about her: he was always accommodating and kind and talked to her tenderly.

Many of the ways he used to treat his wives we see today as inappropriate and unsuitable: among these are taking them on his travels. And if one of them wanted to ride, he gave her his knee to step on and mount her saddle. Whenever he was in the desert with her, he would race her great distances for sport and to entertain her. On a feast day in Abyssinia, he let her enter the mosque to watch their games with spears, similar to today's games with sword and shield.

The Prophet, peace be upon him, used to have a neighbor from Persia. This Persian invited him for food, but did not invite his wife, the noble ‘A’isha. The Prophet did not accept the invitation without ‘A’isha, so he invited her. It is as if the Prophet saw that failing to invite her was a humiliation to her, and that is why he refused the invitation if she was not invited also.

He prohibited a man from beating his wife and noted that beating her was not appropriate for the marital relationship between them: he beat her at midday and then praised her at night, and insisted on winning her favor. A man cannot do both!

English laws still, today, allow the husband to beat his wife, albeit with a stick that is not thicker than a finger.

And the Prophet, peace be upon him, used to honor his nurse, Baraka the Abyssinian, and used to say to the companions: This is my mother, after my mother. He used to joke with her sometimes. She asked him for a camel to ride. So he promised to give her the offspring of his she-camel. She shouted, “And what should I do with the offspring of a she-camel, will it be able to carry me? I want a camel.” The companion laughed and said to her, “O Baraka, woe unto you, and aren’t all camels just the offspring of a shecamel?” And one morning the Prophet saw [some] women coming back from a wedding accompanied by their sons. So he stood up and called out, saying: “O God, you are among the most beloved people to me. O God, you are among the most beloved people to me.”

Yes, sirs, he loved women because they raise men just as Baraka raised him in his orphanhood. They help men in their great renaissances, as Khadija helped him in his renaissance. And they spread culture and science as ‘A’isha did by spreading his culture and delivering to his umma the rules of his shari‘a.

Muhammad's preaching on woman and his liberation of her from her old slavery is not hidden from European scholars, even those who are unfair. The Orientalist André Servier [France, flourished 1890s–1920s] said the following in a book he called L’Islam et la psychologie du musulman [Islam and the Psychology of the Muslim, 1923]:

Muhammad creates the conditions that make the woman join his camp and does not speak about her except with all kindness, and strives to improve her situation. The women and children before him did not inherit. Previously, the closest [male] kin to the deceased inherited the dead man's women, along with what he inherited as a whole in money and slaves. With Muhammad's renaissance, he gave woman the right to inherit. And made it a duty to be positive towards her.

Then Servier said:

Those who want to confirm Muhammad's extreme care for woman should read his speech in Mecca, in which he admonished his audience to take care of women. Muhammad is not ignorant of the fact that if the woman is a captive during the day, she is mistress in the night, and her power is ever great.

This is what André Servier said, and despite his attack on Muhammad he could not help but state that Muhammad liberated woman.

The German scholar Driesman [possibly Heinrich Driesmans, German racial ideologist, 1863–1927] declared that Muhammad's giving the woman her freedom is the sole reason for the renaissance of the Arabs and the rise of their civilization. And for that reason, when his followers took away this freedom, they degenerated and their civilizations declined.

The statement of André Servier that “Muhammad is not ignorant of the fact that the woman is a captive during the day” mocks and casts aspersion on Islam, and we have the right to criticize him for it: We do not know the reasons that made André Servier and his colleagues claim that the Muslim woman is a captive or like a captive.

What are the issues they refer to, I wonder: the veil, divorce, polygamy, classification of inheritance, and qualification for [legal] testimony? We cannot speak of these five issues at length because of the limited amount of time on one hand, and because these issues have received lengthy arguments among Muslims and others, so that talking about them has become boring. In spite of this, I will say a few telephonic words about them:

The first of these issues is the veil. My word about it is that human beings, since the day they reached this social stage, have aristocratic classes that consider it in their interest to distinguish themselves, to veil themselves or reduce interaction with other classes, and it is the same with kings and queens and also high people and their women even today.

The prophecy of Muhammad, peace be upon him, has nothing to do with what is aristocratic. He did not institute a veil between himself and the mass of people. They used to enter his house to receive knowledge as students enter their teachers’ schools. But some of these students overstayed their welcome. ‘Umar advised him to prevent people from coming to his house, but the Prophet did not agree with him, preferring to exercise what we call today “democracy,” and to avoid royal behavior. Then the situation got worse, so a revelation was revealed that [the Prophet's wives] should be veiled, and people should be prevented from coming to [the Prophet's] house except under special circumstances. This is the only aristocratic element that Muhammad was forced by extreme necessity to adopt.

Then the Muslims began to imitate their Prophet, following the precept: “The people follow the religion of their kings.” So they veiled their women until every Muslim woman became a veiled queen and every Muslim house a royal court. But how bad is the future of a nation with no working women, and only veiled queens! The Islamic veil, ladies and gentlemen, is a remnant of the traces of aristocracy of woman and her royalty in Islam, and not a remnant of her humiliation and her slavery.

My word on the veil is complete. I now move on to my second word, about the inheritance of a daughter being half that of her brother.

This is the Islamic shari‘a rule that everybody in England seems to know about, by which inheritance does not pass to daughters, and their father's wealth is given only to the eldest of the sons. That is because the eldest son is the head of the family, bearer of its title, and keeper of the tradition of its glory. This is very similar to the common Islamic view of male offspring in the family. Since the sons are following their fathers in his family, they need more money than their sisters, who get incorporated into other families, where they are not financially responsible. So then the issue is not one of preferring men to women, but rather a social and economic issue.

Lately it has become apparent to factory managers that the average capacity of a woman is less than half the average of a man's capacity, and that is why they doubled his wage.

The third among the five issues is that the [legal] testimony of a woman is viewed as half a man's testimony. And my word in answering is that the reason behind the rule is not that Muhammad believed that the woman is lowly or that she lies in her testimony. But he sees that the woman is far away from the battleground of the work that men do, in which there are many tricks and treacheries. That is in addition to the woman's weak self-confidence, gullibility, and lack of discipline. They might trick her by calling her beautiful. Imagine if they use other words of flattery and praise?!!

This is the psychology of the woman that Muhammad, peace be upon him, recognized, so he saw to it that she be backed up by one of her sex when she testifies in court. Each would remind the other, and they would cooperate to confirm the issue they are testifying about. The classification of testimony then is a reflection of the belief that women are angelically naïve, and not a belief in their baseness or dishonesty. However, Muhammad, peace be upon him, preferred woman to man in some aspects of testimony: in matters concerning women, the testimony of a man is not accepted by itself, whereas her testimony alone is accepted.

This is indication enough about popular trust in women and its belief in her propriety.

Among the issues on which the civilized world casts aspersions about Muhammad, peace be upon him, is religious law of divorce. But this atrocity they now share with us, on a much wider scale.

Muhammad knew that no matter how much we try to investigate to make the couple compatible in their ethics and temperament, there will always be the possibility of mistakes in this investigation. The disparity between the couple's character many times leads to a souring of marital affection and reducing the happiness of the family. So they resort then to separation. In many cases this separation is in the interest of the woman, as she gets rid of her evil husband.

Despite that, Muhammad hated divorce and decreed patience. In the Qur'an: “Live with them with tolerance and justice, even if you do not care for them. For it may well be that you may not like a thing, yet God may have endowed it with much goodness.” [Sura 4, Verse 19]

The Muhammadan revelation encouraged the man to act contrary to his feelings in consideration for the woman, so he said to man: If you feel hatred towards your wife, who says that this hatred does not have a lot of goodness in it? Be patient with her then.

To that extent Muhammad encouraged people to avoid divorce. But his followers did not follow his shari‘a, so calamity befell them. And this cannot be blamed on him. Don’t you see that with natural laws themselves, such as the laws of health and sickness, for example, people don’t follow them, so misery befalls them? This is not the fault of physicians, nor the Divine Providence that created those laws. The fault is with those who contradicted them. Cicero [Roman orator, 106–43 B.C.] said: “Whoever is unhappy, it is his fault.”

The Muslims used divorce to excess. They divorced with no limit or condition. The Christians were also excessive [in the opposite direction]: they did not divorce at all, even when it was necessary. Both groups ended up miserable, so the Muslims in Turkey went back to limiting the parameters of divorce, and the Christians in America and England expanded the parameters. The result should be a balanced, reasonable medium in divorce, and that is what Muhammad wanted in codifying divorce.

Now to the last of the five issues that Muslims are faulted with: polygamy. My word on this subject requires a bit of courage in stating. And despite that, I will do my best to avoid insinuations and imputations. I would say first that Muhammad, peace be upon him, did not address only one class of people with his laws, as other lawmakers did. He addressed all classes and all nations, among them the barbaric nation, the half-civilized nation, and the civilized nation.

Muhammad, peace be upon him, says to each nation with regard to polygamy: Take from my flexible laws what is appropriate to your milieu and your social situation.

So if one class of people said, “We don’t acknowledge multiple wives,” Muhammad would tell them: “Good work, because in my shari‘a, polygamy is permissible and not a duty.” But there would be another group, in Africa or China for example, constrained by their social situation or the disposition of their temperament to adopt polygamy. So when Muhammad invites these people to his religion, he does not force their temperament to his preference, and doesn’t ask them to renounce polygamy, so as not to make it difficult for them as long as they are in this stage in their social evolution. Therefore he allowed them to practice polygamy, particularly if one of the couple is barren, or that the number of women has increased due to the demand for men in war, as happened in Europe [during World War I], or for any other reason.

But we come back and say, Why should we concern ourselves with the nations that Muhammad has allowed to have polygamy due to their milieu and temperaments? These civilized nations themselves have multiple wives in actual practice and deny it in words, and insult those who allow polygamy.

Muhammad knew the temperament of human beings and studied the nature of their masculinity deeply, for he struggled with this nature face to face and told them, “Are you in fact not impatient with one type of food? Are you not driven by your nature and temperament, or by other causes, to know a second woman other than your legal wife? Wipe this nature from your souls, and I will wipe polygamy from my laws.”

And how is denial useful in this issue? If we do not see, don’t we have ears to hear?

These men that want to know women other than their legal wives are not told by Muhammad: “Know them against the law [haram]. And put your offspring in the homes for abandoned and orphaned children.” On the contrary, he tells them: “If you have to do it, know the second woman through religious tolerance. Know her through a religious official, and don’t know her at the hands of Satan.”

In the law of Muhammad, allowing a second wife thus fulfills a need in rebellious human nature, which cannot be resisted in some persons.

All who expect polygamy to pose a danger to the family should also expect the same from taking mistresses. The family is exposed to dangers in non-Islamic milieus, just as it is in Islamic milieus.

We have learned that some lawmakers in Europe are currently thinking of promulgating a law concerning secret multiple cohabitation, in order to limit the scope of its evil, and to save the family from the misery that it causes.

This is, ladies and gentlemen, what I wanted to say on the subject of Muhammad and woman.

And you have seen that Muhammad came to preach in favor of woman and to give her freedom. And that divorce and the other of the five issues [just discussed] do not taint this freedom in any way. Rather, if Muhammad, peace be upon him, wanted woman to be free in a judicial sense, he also wanted her to be free in an ethical sense.

The free woman who is not free makes life bitter. As for the truly free woman, she becomes the source of comfort, a pearl in the heart of gatherings, and a star on the forehead of her nation.4 [A white blaze on the forehead of a horse has long been a prized mark of beauty in Arab culture.—Trans.]

Bibliography references:

‘Abd al-Qadir al-Maghribi, Muhammad wa al- mar’a (Muhammad and Woman) (Damascus, Syria: no publisher indicated, 1928). The essay was first presented as a speech to the Syrian Association for the Education of Youth in Beirut, on January 11, 1928. Translation from Arabic by Hager El Hadidi. Introduction by David D. Commins.


1. Muhammad Farid ‘Abd Allah, ‘Abd al-Qadir al- Maghribi wa-ara’uhu fi al-lugha wa-al-nahw (‘Abd al-Qadir al-Maghribi and His Views on Language and Grammar) (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Mawasim, 1997); Sami al-Dahhan, al-Qudama’ wa-mu‘asirun (People of the Past and Present) (Egypt: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1961); Muhammad As‘ad Talas, Muhadarat ‘an ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Maghribi (Lectures on ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Maghribi) (Cairo, Egypt: League of Arab States, 1958).

2. [This reference is unclear. No major Christian council was held in 586, though the Council in Trullo of 692, a century later, did decree that women should be silent in church, as they are “to be in subjection, as the law also saith” (Canon 70, quoting the Bible, 1 Corinthians, chapter 14, verse 34).—Ed.]

3. [Maghribi uses the word nafisa, derived from nafs (psyche), as a neologism for “psychology.”—Trans.]

4. [A white blaze on the forehead of a horse has long been a prized mark of beauty in Arab culture.—Trans.]

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