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Gender Construction

Fadwa El Guindi, Adis Duderija
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women What is This? A single source for accurate overview articles covering the major topics of scholarly interest within the study of women and Islam.

    Gender Construction

    [This entry includes three subentries:

    Early Islam

    Images of women and gender roles in early Islam were based on the Qurʾān, ḥadīth, and traditions and legal literature (fiqh), which tended to construct ideal images of, a protective stance toward, and acceptable (halal) and unacceptable (haram) activities for women. The most prominent examples of individual females were the Prophet's wives and family members, including daughters and granddaughters, although other women are also present in the historical record in roles such as warriors, businesswomen, and slaves. Muḥammad's wives, in particular, as the “Mothers of the Believers,” were considered the exemplars for proper behavior for Muslim women, albeit with an emphasis on particular aspects of their conduct as determined by the male recorders of ḥadīth and male elaborators of jurisprudence. These writings tend to be prescriptive, rather than descriptive, reflecting an idealized vision, rather than lived reality. Walther (1995) has observed that one of the challenges this approach presents to gender construction is that it creates the illusion of the exclusion of women from initiating or contributing to decision-making processes in early Islam, resulting in the misleading impression that they played no important role in society and did not make important contributions.

    Muslims generally assert that the Qurʾān improved the status of women by guaranteeing their right to life through the prohibition of female infanticide, affirming women's right to own and control property, assigning women inheritance rights, and limiting the number of wives a man could have. However, scholars, such as Leila Ahmed, have noted a concomitant limitation on female empowerment and sexual autonomy, particularly with respect to agency in marriage and divorce and assertion of a single type of legally acceptable marriage—patrilineal, patriarchal—in contrast to the prior surrounding environment of a diversity of marriage practices. Because such concern was placed on controlling women's sexuality, women's public activities, including participation and leadership in warfare, business, and religion, also came to be curtailed. The examples of Khadījah (Muḥammad's first wife) and ʿĀʾishah (Muḥammad's favorite and highly influential wife) become particularly instructive in this regard, with Khadījah representing pre-Islamic society through her economic independence as a businesswoman and marriage proposal to Muḥammad, and ʿĀʾishah representing Islam through her seclusion, veiling, and more limited public life.

    Veiling and seclusion were commanded for Muḥammad's wives in the Qurʾān as a sign of his status, and to emphasize that they were set apart from the rest of society. Yet, there were preceding pressures on Muḥammad that led him to insist that his wives veil and seclude themselves, most notably from ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, who thought it unseemly for Muḥammad's wives to appear in public. Additionally, veiling in surrounding societies served as a symbol of elitism and male power and prerogative. Veiling nevertheless had an impact on non-elite women as well, as veiling was reserved for free women. Slave women had to remain unveiled as a public symbol of their status.

    Ali ( 2010) points to the ongoing institution of slavery as critical to the development of gender roles, as elaborated in the law during the early centuries of Islam, drawing a parallel between enslavement and femaleness as legal disabilities and slave ownership and marriage as legal institutions. She posits that the analogy between marriage and slavery is key to understanding Muslim marriage law, as the strict gender differentiation of marital rights, the importance of women's sexual exclusivity, and the imposition of rules about unilateral divorce were all derived from the central idea that licit sex requires male control or dominion. The sexual commodification of women in general thus became a matter of cultural production in which the status of wives and slaves, as well as husbands and masters, upheld perceptions of the religious necessity of male agency and female passivity in matters of marriage and sexuality. In Ali's analysis, a woman is rendered perpetually like a slave in certain matters in the eyes of the law, because she cannot contract marriage for herself or others, her sexuality is only licit when it is under the exclusive dominion of a particular man, and her movements and visitors can be restricted by her husband, even if this interferes with her God-given rights and prerogatives, such as managing her own property, although women always have recourse to the courts, at least in theory.

    The most prominent practices that became obligatory for Muslim women, based on the example of the Prophet's wives, relegated women to the private space of the home. Although this was ostensibly done to offer women protection, it nevertheless served to cement the powerful role of the patriarchal male in controlling women. The main role assigned to the “Mothers of the Believers” came to be that of impeccable morality and manners: segregation, quiet domesticity, modest comportment, public invisibility via veiling, ascetic frugality, and devout obedience to God and the Prophet, including in his role as a husband—examples that all Muslim women thereafter were expected to strive to follow. Assigning roles centered on the provision of domestic comfort and privacy to the first female elite of Islam meant that domesticity came to define the core of female social righteousness and became the critical criterion of the Muslim woman's true citizenship in the community of faith. In the process, other roles played by Muḥammad's wives—such as being his helpmates, supporters in his mission, and, in the cases of ʿĀʾishah and Umm Salama, people with whom he enjoyed an intellectual relationship—are often overlooked or downplayed.

    Yet, even the Prophet's wives are not always portrayed as perfect exemplars in the ḥadīth and fiqh; in some instances, they act as embodiments of female emotionalism, irrationality, greed, and rebelliousness. The purpose of these portrayals was often to place limitations on female roles in religion and society by asserting scripturalist proof of “women's nature.” They were also sometimes used to enhance or disparage particular tribes or families by praising or denouncing a particular female's behavior, which was understood to reflect the family's honor or lack thereof. Thus, the application of Qurʾānic revelations of restriction that were originally directed at Muḥammad's wives to all women came to symbolize all that early Islamic society asserted was “wrong” with the female sex, including tendencies toward petty jealousies, envy, and domestic squabbles.

    Furthermore, these idealized or demonized representations do not present a complete picture of women's roles and agency, particularly during the Prophet's lifetime. Women of the Prophet's generation, especially ʿĀʾishah, played important roles as transmitters of ḥadīth. The first convert to Islam was a woman—Khadījah. The text of the Qurʾān was placed into the safekeeping of a woman, Hafsa bint Umar. Muḥammad himself appointed a woman, Umm Waraqa, as imam for her entire household. After Muḥammad's death, his wives ʿĀʾishah and Umm Salama, acted as imams for other women. Women during the Prophet's lifetime often converted to Islam without the approval of their families and husbands, or even with their direct disapproval, including, most famously, Umm Habiba, the daughter of Muḥammad's fiercest enemy, Abū Sufyān. Women emigrated to both Abyssinia and Medina. Women also actively participated in warfare, such as in the Battle of Uhud, fighting, carrying water, nursing the injured, and removing the dead and wounded from the battlefield. Women even dared to question Muḥammad, such as in the famous case of Hind bint Utayba, Abū Sufyān's wife, after a loss in battle, when she and other women were called to take an oath of allegiance to Muḥammad, showing that the women of the Qurashī aristocracy were considered highly enough esteemed not only to take the oath, but also to participate in the negotiations with the new military leader. There is nothing in early Islamic literature to suggest that any of these activities were considered inappropriate or wrong, thus opening the door to using these early Islamic examples to reconstruct gender roles in ways that encourage women's access to public space and participation in decision-making processes.

    Additionally, scholars have challenged certain practices affiliated with these constructed gender roles, such as veiling and seclusion, as overemphasizing legalistic practices at the expense of the spiritual equality proclaimed by the Qurʾān and demonstrated by Muḥammad's example. Ahmed (1992), for example, observes the presence of two messages in the Qurʾān that have come to be contradictory in practice: one that portrays an ethical-moral vision in which men and women are each other's equals, and another that focuses on the regulation of society, in which men seem to enjoy a superior status to women. Historically, more attention has been given to the latter than the former, even though the regulatory approach is clearly tied to a particular context, while the ethical-moral vision is more universal in nature. Wadud (1992) argues that these differences are due to the time periods in which they were revealed: the universal, generic message for humanity appears in the Makkan verses, while particular social reforms appropriate to a given context were outlined in the Medinan verses. Stowasser ( 1994) also observes that all of the Qurʾānic legislation related to the Prophet's wives dates to the last six or seven years of his life, when he served as head of state in Medina, suggesting that these regulations had more to do with the establishment of a state hierarchy and elite status than with spirituality per se. Although the result was increasing levels of restraints on women, male interpreters posited this as symbolic of the “perfecting” of Islamic society.

    Many Qurʾānic passages address equality and reciprocity between husbands and wives, such as 2:229, which asserts that husbands and wives have equal rights over each other, and assures the right of women to economic independence. Passage 33:35 further establishes the absolute moral and spiritual equality of men and women, and their equal responsibilities, with respect to matters of faith and ethics. Wadud (1992) notes that the Qurʾān teaches that women and men are both given spiritual potential and free will, and that both women and men are held responsible for surrendering themselves to God, for believing in God and Revelation, and for fulfilling the requirements of worship and observing modesty. Thus, in Wadud's analysis, the purpose of the Qurʾān is not to permanently or universally assign gender roles (which she argues are culturally specific, rather than religiously mandated), but to be descriptive of conceptual ideas, which both women and men are then responsible for implementing in society. Wadud posits that, rather than projecting women as “inherently” evil, the Qurʾān posits woman as possessing “inherent good,” as a potential child-bearer and primary nurturer and as one who is placed on an “absolute par” with man in terms of spiritual potential and the potential to reach Paradise.

    Stowasser (1994) has further observed that the Qurʾān's message about female characters is not necessarily monolithic. Some—such as Pharaoh's wife and Mary, the mother of Jesus—serve as examples to emulate, given their embodiment of the virtues of obedience to God, purity, modesty, and motherly love. Others, such as Zulaykha and the wives of Lot and Noah, exemplify rebellion against God, unbelief, disobedience toward a righteous husband, sexual misconduct, cunning, aggression, and, ultimately, a threat to social stability. What these examples therefore make most clear, according to Stowasser, is that a woman's faith and righteousness—or lack thereof—depend on her own will and actions, rather than on a relationship with a man, whether righteous or sinful. What should matter is the woman's commitment to God (Stowasser, 21).

    Despite such powerful support from scripture and from Muḥammad's own example, the reality of non-Arab men interpreting and developing Islamic law after the first century of Islam meant the adoption of older cultural systems in which women's roles were limited to the domestic sphere, and emphasis was placed on the promotion of a patrilineal, patriarchal order, rather than on the egalitarian vision of the Qurʾān. Walther (1995) notes an increasing tendency toward strict prescriptions and punishments with respect to veiling and adultery, respectively, by the ninth-century writings of Al-Shafiʾi (d. 824), and a tendency to cite ḥadīth of less certain chains of transmission that emphasized men's superiority. Mernissi (1991) has also commented on the manipulation of sacred texts as a “structural characteristic of the practice of power in Muslim societies” (p. 9), seeing, on the one hand, the desire of male politicians to manipulate the sacred, and, on the other, the fierce determination of scholars to oppose them through the elaboration of fiqh with its concepts and methods of verification and counter-verification. Perhaps nowhere are the battles of ḥadīth transmissions with respect to gender roles more prevalent than in the cases of ḥadīth transmitted on the authority of ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb and Abu Hurayra versus those transmitted by ʿĀʾishah. Mernissi has noted the tendency historically to give more weight to the former, despite their misogynist tendencies and the fact that ʿĀʾishah arguably would have known more about how the Prophet treated women.

    Indeed, many major Islamic institutions, including those restricting women, came into existence only after Muḥammad's death, during the reign of the second caliph, ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, who was known for his harsh treatment of women in both private and public life. The historical record mentions him being ill-tempered with his wives and physically assaulting them, as well as recording that Muḥammad rebuked him for this behavior. It was ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb who tried to confine women to their homes and prevent them from attending prayers at the mosque. When this was unsuccessful, he instituted segregation during prayers and appointed a separate imam for each sex, albeit always a male imam, even though this departed from Prophetic precedent. ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb further forbade the Prophet's wives from going on pilgrimage—a ban that remained in place until the last year of his reign. Ahmed notes that the historical record does not mention any protest by Muḥammad's wives about these restrictions, but attributes this to the “guardians of Islam” erasing female rebellion from history as a matter of duty in presenting a particular image of the Islamic past. The only recorded rebellion was that of ʿĀʾishah in opposition to ʿAlī's succession to the caliphate—a rebellion that culminated in the Battle of the Camel, in which ʿĀʾishah's forces lost decisively to ʿAlī's. This incident became a paradigm in legal and theological literature for keeping women out of politics and for vindicating the seclusion of women.

    The early history of the construction of gender roles in Islamic societies has become an important topic of research today with respect to women's rights and status, because of their proximity to the primary sources of Islam and their potential implications for reinterpretation and reconstruction of both values and roles.


    • Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.
    • Ali, Kecia. Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.
    • Esposito, John L., and Natana J. DeLong-Bas. Women in Muslim Family Law. 2d ed. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2001.
    • Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1991.
    • Stowasser, Barbara Freyer. Women in the Qurʾān, Traditions, and Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
    • Wadud, Amina. Qurʾān and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
    • Walther, Wiebke. Women in Islam: From Medieval to Modern Times. 2d ed. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1995.

    Natana J. DeLong-Bas


    Anthropological studies have shown that the nature of gender—that is, the meaning of being men and women and the content of relations between them in society—is grounded in underlying cultural models that guide the institutionalization of traditions and generate social constructions of reality. In the Arab and Islamic East, centuries of the Islamic tradition accommodating diverse historical practices have woven a construction of gender that is identifiably, often uniquely, Islamic.

    This construction begins with the Islamic imagery of the primordial beginnings of humankind, which tells the story of gender against a conceptual tapestry weaving dress, morality, and kinship with notions of space, privacy, and temporal rhythm into one meaningful cultural whole. (For a full discussion of the innovative idea of rhythm for the study of Islam, see El Guindi, 2008.) This sacred Islamic imagination of human beginnings does not associate shame with sexuality, link religiousness with asexuality, or confine sin to a single gender. Nor does it situate gender primacy in the creation process. This establishes an ideational foundation about gender and sexuality. Gender is formulated in terms of a complementarity of male and female, and sexuality is considered a normal aspect of the human character that is not in conflict with gender, religion, or religiousness. The imagery of Prophet Muḥammad, founder and messenger of Islam, is of a man candid about sexual matters in the emerging seventh-century community, the ummah. This finds support in the most sacred, divinely revealed source in Islam, the Qurʾān. The following citations concern gendered beginnings, and explicitly express these premises: verse 51:49 states: “All things we created in zawjayn [pairs]”; verse 49:13 states: “we have created you a thakarun [male] and untha [female]”; and verse 2:187, using the metaphor of dress, states: “They [feminine gender] are libas [dress] to you [masculine plural] and you [masculine plural] are libas [dress] to them [feminine gender].” This expression of a simultaneous creation of two gendered humans is also an ideational basis for the construction of gender complementarity. This premise finds characteristic correlates in the various cultural traditions of the Arab and Islamic region of the Middle East to this day.

    The Islamic model of the social world (mostly compatible with Arab culture) translates socially as two dominant worlds: a dual-gendered world and a world of kinship. This model interweaves the two worlds to shape a general vision about gender, while also scripting the identity of individual men and women. Experientially, a person is born into a separate men's or a women's world and, at the same time, into a world of kinfolk that brings the sexes together. At the level of traditional manifestations of culture, this can be seen empirically through exploring cultural practices—especially birth ceremonies that mark the beginning point in individual life cycles, such as the Egyptian one El Sebouʾ (a birth ceremony held on the seventh day after the biological birth of individuals of either sex). The Islamic birth ceremony, also celebrated on the seventh day after birth, is called al-ʿAqiqa. The two sociocultural worlds of gender and kin determine and, in many ways, control the identity and the behavior of Muslim men and women.

    The World of Kinfolk.

    A Muslim woman's birth as a kinswoman assures her entry into a world of kinsfolk related to her in one or all three interrelated categories of kin relations: consanguinity (perceived biological relatives); affinity (marital relatives); and suckling (relations developed through suckling by non-procreative mothers). The latter exists in the Arabo-Islamic region and has been recently empirically studied in Qatar (El Guindi, 2010; 2011; April 2012; July 2012). This circle of relatives is socially and legally bound to meet obligations toward a woman throughout her lifetime, after marriage, at death, and continuing after her death. It is bound to provide financial, social, moral, and behavioral support, protection, and security. Both sexes are bound by such obligations, which are enforced socially by the constraints of family reputation and by law. Focusing on the study of women only diminishes understanding and is conceptually flawed, as the classic study on veiling has clearly shown (El Guindi, 1999).

    Kin bonding is reflected in naming rules and patterns, which apply to both sexes, and is particularly vivid in the Arabian and Gulf region of the Arab world, where family names are preceded by al (pertaining to family of), ibn (son of), bin (children of), bint (daughter of), bani (sons of), or awlad (descendants of). These and other variants represent singular, plural, and gendered forms meaning “offspring of.” Arabians in particular see their social worlds as ascending upwards from remote kin roots traceable in the form of genealogical trees (El Guindi, 2012). Both sexes are bound in terms of identity, responsibility, obligation, and reputation by these kin roots and extended family relations. Kinship is interconnected with gender construction.

    A World of Women, A World of Men.

    In the Arab-Islamic tradition, gender is constructed in terms of two unambiguous sexes: male and female. Other forms, such as khanith (cross-gendered individuals) in Oman, are accepted within this dual model without transforming it. There is a strong separateness between the two, even without enforced physical separation, expressed symbolically, ritually, and behaviorally. In some cases, such as in Arabian and Gulf societies, partial or total sexual segregation exists in physical space, evident in architecture, and in institutions of learning and places of employment. But even with little or no public physical separation, an autonomous gender identity (especially economic) is pervasive. At Qatar University, for example, in which students are segregated on campus and in the classroom, a distinct difference exists (recognized by Qataris themselves) between the two sexes, to the extent that one can argue they constitute two strongly different cultural sub-traditions, which, in some respects, are as different in attitudes, behaviors, responses, and outlooks as a Qatari person from a Jordanian, for example. Publicly, women feel and behave as though they are entitled to gender privacy, and vigorously protect their sexual space from male intrusion. Gender and family privacy constitute a quality supported by the culture and by men in the society. As a result, women's attitudes and expectations of entitlement extend to acting privileged, which is often unsustainable both socially and economically. But, at the same time, this builds a strong self-image among women. The comfortable environment of same-sex interactions also builds strong self-images and self-assurance, particularly among the women. Underlying the conceptual division between the two sexes is Islam's acceptance of sexuality as human, while nevertheless recognizing its potential disruptive nature to society, which drives a need for regulations and controls for cross-sex public behavior. It is postulated that Islam's acceptance of the reality of the strong nature of human sexuality underlies public measures of control between the sexes. Significantly, a conceptual gender complementarity brings together gendered autonomous selves through mechanisms of kinship relations.


    • El Guindi, Fadwa. By Noon Prayer: The Rhythm of Islam. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2008.
    • El Guindi, Fadwa. “The Cognitive Path through Kinship.” Journal of Behavior and Brain Sciences 33 (2010): 384–385.
    • El Guindi, Fadwa. El Sebouʾ: Egyptian Birth Ritual. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources, 1986. Film.
    • El Guindi, Fadwa. “Kinship by Suckling: Extending Limits on Alliance.” Anthropologicheskii Forum (Forum for Anthropology and Culture), Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera), Russian Academy of Sciences, Special Forum on Kinship, Forum 15 (2011): 381–384.
    • El Guindi, Fadwa. “Milk and Blood: Kinship among Muslim Arabs in Qatar.” Anthropos 107 (July 2012): 545–555.
    • El Guindi, Fadwa. “Suckling as Kinship.” Anthropology Newsletter 53, no. 1 (April 2012):. www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2012/04/02/suckling-as-kinship.
    • El Guindi, Fadwa. Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance. Oxford U.K.: Berg Publishers, 1999.

    Fadwa El Guindi

    Contemporary Practices

    Contemporary gender construction practices among Muslims are diverse and are, in many ways, both a continuation of and a departure from those of the past. This entry discusses how one contemporary community of interpretation, here termed Progressive Muslims (PM), constructs the concept of a religiously ideal Muslim woman by examining their views of a) the nature of female and male sexuality; b) the role and function of women (and, by implication, men) in broader society and the public sphere, especially the purpose and function of seclusion and veiling for women; and c) gender roles in the context of marriage.

    First and foremost, Progressive Muslim thought rejects a number of presuppositions that underpin premodern (embedded) Muslim thought on gender that have been described variously in the literature as the gender dualism or the gender complementarity thesis. This theory is premised on supra-cultural generalizations regarding the biological and mental functions and capacities that differentiate the sexes. In a nutshell, the gender dualism thesis presupposes that men are rationally superior to women, who, in turn, are highly emotional beings with weak or deficient rational faculties—a thesis that Progressive Muslim thought rejects. Progressive Muslims also do not subscribe to another aspect of the gender dualism thesis, which is premised on the assumption of the artificial separation between body and mind, sexuality and spirituality, and which identifies women with the “irreligious” realm of sexual passion and as repositories of all “lower” aspects of human nature, and thus as the very antithesis of the “illuminated” sphere of male (religious) knowledge, so that males are the sole sources of religious authority. Furthermore, Progressive Muslim thought considers that the premodern Muslim scholars’ frequent conceptual linking of women with the notion of socio-moral chaos (fitnah) is based on flawed assumptions concerning the nature of women and, by implication, female sexuality.

    Progressive Muslims reject the active concept of female sexuality to which traditional Muslim thought subscribes, according to which the nature of woman's aggression is sexual in nature, and men are irresistibly attracted to it. This view of female and male sexuality constructs women as a threat to a healthy social order, which in turn, is constructed as entirely belonging to males. Progressive Muslim thought does not consider the female (or male) body to be sexually corrupting or pudendal per se, as does traditional Muslim thought, but as erotic. It also disagrees with another element of the gender dualism thesis, which is premised on the idea that the male sexual nature is pervasive and aberrant and is aroused beyond control by the mere sight, smell, or voice of a woman.

    Some ḥadīth reflect a misogynist vision of women, and thus they have been used historically to construct this premodern (embedded) view of female and male sexuality, particularly those transmitted by Abu Hurayra (although by no means do all ḥadīth fall into this category). Progressive Muslims tend to dismiss this select group of ḥadīth as remnants of the patriarchal nature of the traditional, male-dominated interpretative communities of the past.

    Asma Barlas (2002) provides a detailed and systematic discussion of the issue of the nature of female sexuality and gender from the Progressive Muslim perspective. Employing the full array of Progressive Muslim methodological tools—such as comprehensive contextualization, thematic and holistic approach to interpretation, and the notion of an ethico-religious values-based approach to interpretation of the Qurʾān and sunnah as the most hermeneutically powerful tool—Barlas argues that the Qurʾān does not fix the nature of either gender, but it considers males and females to have essentially the same sexual natures. Barlas emphasizes the Qurʾān's and sunnah's principle of the ethico-moral equality of the sexes before God to argue that the normative sources of Islam do not distinguish between the moral and social praxis of men and women; that they do not ascribe a particular type of sexual identity for certain types of behaviors to either sex; and that they do not advocate that sex or sexual differences are a determinant of moral personality, gender roles, or inequality.

    Progressive Muslims consider that the theory of gender dualism and the above described natures of male and female sexualities serve as an ideational foundation to justify a particular construction of a religiously “normative” male and female gender. In premodern Muslim (embedded) thought, they are embodied in a number of practices that are employed to regulate female and male sexual instincts, including the veiling of women, female seclusion, surveillance, and gender segregation. Progressive Muslim thought interprets the Qurʾān- and ḥadīth-based evidence regarding these practices quite differently on the basis of the comprehensively contextual, holistic, and aims-based methodology and, on this basis, do not consider the character of all of these practices as being religiously normative.

    Progressive Muslims also reject a number of conceptual assumptions that inform premodern Muslim thought concerning marriage, which is based on the construction of a highly interdependent and gender-based nature of the rights and responsibilities for husbands and wives. For example, the Progressive Muslims disagree with premodern Muslim law's conceptualization and rationale behind the marriage contract, which was likened to that of a slave contract or an exchange (bay’) according to which, in essence, a woman's sexual and reproductive rights are exchanged for her entitlement to be materially/financially maintained. Progressive Muslim thought furthermore emphasizes that this understanding of the purpose of the marriage contract fundamentally shaped questions pertaining to the wife's rights to her reproductive organs (and, therefore, sexual gratification), mobility, custody rights, and divorce, rendering them under the complete authority (ʿiṣmah) of her husband.

    Based on the approach outlined above, Progressive Muslims argue that the Qurʾān merely reflects, rather than advocates, the patriarchal values and gender constructs prevalent among its direct recipients. Progressive Muslims consider that the Qurʾān's approach to issues of women's rights, when interpreted from a holistic, historical, and comprehensively contextual vantage point, permits (if not demands) mitigation of the entrenched patriarchal practices, and that its ultimate goal (maqāṣid) is a completely gender-egalitarian society, the laws of which do not discriminate on the basis of gender.

    As far as the relation of the patriarchal and misogynist ḥadīth-based evidence to the above-mentioned gender construction criteria is concerned, one methodological tool that is used by Progressive Muslim theoreticians to dismiss their sunnah compliance is the fact that Progressive Muslims consider sunnah and ḥadīth not to be conceptually and epistemologically identical bodies of knowledge. They argue that the ʿibādah/’amal elements of sunnah were, in the early period of Islamic thought, ultimately derived from a particular Qurʾān-sunnah hermeneutic, rather than the later developed ulum al-ḥadīth sciences. According to this view, the sunnah compliance of a particular ḥadīth is not merely established on the basis of epistemological and methodological constraints and weaknesses inherent in the classical ulum al-ḥadīth, but on overall considerations stemming primarily from the uṣūl al-fiqh sciences and overall teachings, as evident in and intellectualized by the Ṣūfī version of Islamic ethics.

    In summary, Progressive Muslim thought constructs the normative male and female gender concepts by subscribing to the view that females are fully autonomous human beings inherently equal to men, and that women's religious identity is solely based upon their level of taqwā (reverence of God), and no other considerations.


    • Barlas, Asma. Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qurʾān. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.
    • Duderija, Adis. Constructing A Religiously Ideal “Beli-ever” and “Woman” in Islam: Neo-Traditional Salafī and Progressive Muslims’ Methods of Interpretation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
    • Hidayatullah, Aysha. “Women Trustees of Allah: Methods, Limits, and Possibilities of ‘Feminist Theology’ in Islam.” PhD diss., University of California–Santa Barbara, 2009.
    • Shaikh, Sadiyya. “Knowledge, Women and Gender in the ḥadīth: A Feminist Interpretation.” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 15, no. 1 (2004): 99–108.

    Adis Duderija

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