Arab women before and after Islam: Opening the door of pre-Islamic Arabian history

By S. B. Zaki

“Islamic civilization developed a construct of history that labeled the pre-Islamic period the Age of Ignorance and projected Islam as the sole source of all that was civilized – and used that construct so effectively in its rewriting of history that the peoples of Middle East lost all knowledge of the past civilizations of the region. Obviously, that construct was ideologically serviceable, successfully concealing, among other things, the fact that in some cultures of the Middle East women had been considerably better off before the rise of Islam than afterward” (Ahmed, 1992; p. 37).

In the quote provided above, Leila Ahmed, a Harvard Divinity School scholar of Islam, highlights the reasons for the filtered version of the history of women of pre-Islamic Arabia. If you try Googling ‘Status of Women in Islam’, unsurprisingly you will be offered millions of results. A more difficult task is to find out how women have been discussed in Islamic literature over the last 14 centuries (by men, to be precise). A pattern emerges. The words ‘Status of Women in Islam’ do not appear until the early 20th century.  Before that, Islamic scholars wrote on the ‘Duties of a Muslim Woman’ or ‘Roles of Muslim Women.’

These early scholars, writers and historians nonetheless, did often show through historical examples that Muslim women must not act like the women from ‘pre-Islamic time’ (pre-Islamic Age of Ignorance). For example, when a few years after Prophet Muhammad’s death, a young Muslim woman began sleeping with her male slave stating that “I thought that ownership by the right hand made lawful to me what it makes lawful to men”, Umar Ibn Khattab, who judged the ‘matter’, sternly rebuked her and announced that she had acted “in Ignorance” (i.e., like women did in pre-Islamic time) and deliberately misinterpreted the message of the Quran. In other words, Quran does not make lawful to women what it makes lawful to men; their rights are not the same. He then banned her from ever marrying a free man (Musannaf of `Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanani in Ali, 2010). This incident was recorded and used by early scholars to show that pre-Islamic women were wrong in exercising their sexual independence and freedom and that the Islamic model of patriarchal marriage and sex was licit and superior.

Fast-forward about eleven centuries, many parts of the world that were once colonised by Muslims (which shaped the Muslim narratives about women in Islam in those centuries) were being colonised by Europeans who scorned Muslims for their backwardness and seclusion of women. This was a time when Muslim scholars had to urgently show to the world that Islam actually “raised the status of women.” There was a shift from a more authoritative and pompous scholarly tone discussing Muslim women like al Ghazali’s, that dictated to Muslim women how they should behave and obey their husbands, and the more accusatory tone of the later scholars who made excuses for Islam’s treatment of women by claiming that women of pre-Islamic time were “mere chattel” and Quran was revealed for a Muslim woman to “rescue her from the gloomy injustice of Pre-Islamic darkness.[1]

These latter politically shaped narratives are the ones we are still reading and using. To show that Islam bettered the lives of Muslim women, a parallel history had to be created of women in pre-Islamic time where women: “were treated like slaves or property. Their personal consent concerning anything related to their well-being was considered unimportant and unnecessary to such an extent that they were never even treated as a party to a marriage contract. They had no independence, could not own property and were not allowed to inherit. In times of war, women were treated as part of the loot. Simply put, their plight was unspeakable…The practice of killing female children was rampant. The pagan Arabs used to bury alive their daughters with the fear that these girls will grow up and will get married to some men who will be called their sons-in-law.[2]

These narratives did not only cover the “plight of women” in Arabia before Islam, but justified the invasions of lands by Muslims by extending it to “all nations of the World[3]” which necessitated that the new Islamic law be accepted as the most just system since the “advent of Islam brought profound changes to the Arabian society in general and to women in particular[4].”  In doing so, these Muslim histories do exactly what contemporary war politicians do – justify their mission by stating that “Islam liberated women[5].”

History of pre-Islamic Arabian women

More recently, several Muslim women have begun to research the lives of women in pre-Islamic Arabia. This is by no means an easy task since as when Muslims spread from Medina they categorically destroyed the old ways of life: temples, pagan poetry written on animal skins, idols of gods and goddesses etc, and Islamic history has practically no records written by women. What little we know are reports in Islamic texts, which are narrated to establish the new order, and a few archeological finds. The result is that we have pamphlets, web links and books that preach women that “Islam truly liberated women” while there is no justification for the existence of women like Khadija bint Khuwalid, Hind bint Utbah, Asma Bint Marwan, Lubna bint Hajar, Arwa umm Jamil amongst others, if the general condition of Arab women was not more than mere chattel.

Reading all the sources now available, one can see that, in the absence of a single law before Islam, lives of men and women in Arabia depended on which tribe they belonged to. Islam did lay down comprehensive law and while some women may have enjoyed more rights under Islamic law, it is certainly true that the rights of others were severely curtailed. The resultant picture that emerges is that of a deeply patriarchal form of religious law rather than one that could have been more balanced, just and equal.  Like Leila Ahmed writes us in her book (1991, p. 60):

“That women felt Islam to be a somewhat depressing religion is suggested by a remark of Muhammad’s great-granddaughter Sukaina, who, when asked why she was so merry and her sister Fatima so solemn, replied that it was because she had been named after her pre-Islamic great-grandmother, whereas her sister has been named after her Islamic grandmother.”

Furthermore, it can be argued that the ‘status’ of all women in Islam is not equal either. Islamic jurisprudence supports classism and Quran differentiates between free and enslaved women as will be seen below.

There are several ways in which Islam could have established gender equality based on the practice already available in pre-Islamic time.  That women in pre-Islamic time were used to being treated equally with men can be inferred from Hind bint Utbah’s feisty comment to Muhammad, “By God, you ask us something that you didn’t ask men. In any case, we shall grant it to you![6]” when the latter asked Hind to take his oath of allegiance which is different for women. Muslim scholars point out that some “distinguished women converted to Islam prior to their husbands, a demonstration of Islam’s recognition of their capacity for independent action[7].” However, what this demonstrates is the independence of pre-Islamic women who would have never been able to convert independently without their male kin if their independent status was not already established.

Marriage

Hoyland gives several examples to illustrate that while Islamic law establishes ‘descent through the male line’, pre-Islamic Arabia also recognized ‘matrilineal arrangements’ which allowed women to choose who they wished to marry and have children with (2003, p.129-131). Muslims claim that ‘Islam gave women the right to choose their husband’, but there are instances where Muslim girls were married off by their guardians/fathers, examples of which include: Aisha being married off to Muhammad as a child (presumably without her knowledge), al-Musayyab ibn Najaba giving his newborn daughter’s hand in marriage to his cousin’s son, Muhammad arranging his cousin, Zainab bint Jahsh’s (apparently against her will prompting the revelation of 33:36, see tafsir of al Jalalayn[8]) marriage to his adopted Zayd ibn Harithah. Thus we see that if male guardians generally married off women in pre-Islamic time, the practice did not stop with the coming of Islam.

We also see Islamic law making it necessary for a woman (whether virgin or previously married) to have a male guardian give her away in marriage, for example we learn that when Muhammad married Umm Salamah she was an ‘older widow’ but what we hardly read is that she was “married to the Prophet” by her son, Salamah (Ibn Hisham, 2010, p. 793).  On the other hand, the pre-Islamic forms of unions, some of which gave authority to women in a marriage, were replaced by patriarchal order by Islam (see Ahmed, 1986, p. 667) scraping off marriages that assisted women like: uxorilocal marriage (according to Ahmed, Muhammad’s own mother had contracted this form of marriage with Abdullah ibn Abdul Muttalib), pre-Islamic form of mutah marriage (which according to Robertson in Kinship And Marriage in Early Arabia may have been the type contracted between Khadija and Muhammad since he remained monogamous), and even polyandry practiced by women belonging to matrilineal tribes.  In the words of Fatima Mernissi (2011), polyandry, which was banned by Islam, was degrading to men not women:

“Group sex marriages, where the woman could entertain relations either with a group of less than ten men or consume a limitless number of partners, degraded men to animal-like anonymity. Fatherhood, which implied that the woman limited her sexual desire to consuming only her husband’s body was a rare privilege, since children belonged to the mother’s tribe in general.”

Anonymity of the father meant a man’s role was that of a mere sperm donor and a temporary sexual object. Since the woman gave birth to a child and raised them, she took central stage position. According to Robertson (1907), polyandry as practiced in the pre-Islamic world is generally represented by Muslim writers as fornication however, he says, “where the children are not bastards, and the mothers are not disgraced or punished for their unchastity, this term is plainly in- appropriate.”

Divorce

Another area where Islam changed power balance between men and women is divorce. While generally men held the right to divorce women in pre-Islamic time, there are also records that indicate that women dismissed their husbands with an equal right:

‘The women in the pre-Islamic time, or some of them, had the right to dismiss their husbands, and the form of dismissal was this. If they lived in a tent they turned it round, so that if the door faced east it now faced west, and when the man saw this he knew that he was dismissed and did not enter.’”(Isfahani in Hoyland, p. 130).

The above report dismisses the claim that it was Islam that gave women the right to divorce, which is also factually untrue since a Muslim woman cannot divorce her husband, but has to ask to be divorced by him. An option of equality would have been to make ‘divorce through arbitration’ the law for both men and women. Instead men have the full right to dismiss a wife independently even through oral pronouncement, while a woman has to ‘ask’ her husband for divorce through third party intercession (called Khul):

“Islam further restricted women’s divorce rights by leaving it only to the husband to decide on divorce. Although the practice of foregoing one’s mahr for a divorce continues to exist in Muslim countries up to now, it no longer guarantees the wife a divorce: the husband has the right to refuse a divorce even if the wife is prepared to forego her mahr. Only very limited circumstances (such as disappearance of a husband over four years, or extreme physical deformities leading to sexual impotence) entitle a wife to ask an Islamic judge for a divorce. The final decision is left to the judge, however.[9]

This disparity has never been clearer than in modern time when Muslim men can divorce via text messages[10], while Muslim women have to wait for years to obtain a divorce[11] making it clear that changing the direction of the opening of a tent was unquestionably empowering for a pre-Islamic woman!

Bridal Price

Islam also continued the practice of ‘bridal price’ (called Mahr or Sadaq) making Islamic marriage a ‘marriage of authority.’ Mahr or Sadaq is explained in Islam (as was understood before Islam as well) as the price a man pays a woman to have sex with her (amusingly called ‘thaman al bud’a’ – ‘the vulva’s price’, by Imam Shafi; see Ali, 2006, p. 4). However, before Islam, some women were able to contract marriages with men who were obligated to live in the woman’s house. The offspring produced in such a marriage would remain with the woman and her family and the husband did not receive inheritance from the wife upon her death. Some early biographers of Muhammad claim that Khadija paid four thousand dinars to Muhammad upon their marriage which makes scholars like Robertson and Leila Ahmed to speculate that the pre-Islamic type of marriage between the two obligated Muhammad to live in Khadija’s house and remain monogamous as long as she was alive (he also received nothing in inheritance upon her death). After Islam, men were no longer required to be monogamous and allowed up to four wives and as many concubines as they can afford. Women, on the other hand, were banned from practicing polyandry. Muslim scholars explain that Islam allows men four wives (ignoring the countless concubines!) making it the only religious system in the world to restrict limitless polygyny for the first time. This we know is not true.  Over five hundred years before Islam, Hinduism had already laid down the law according to which the upper caste, Brâhmanas were allowed to four wives (Baudhayana Prasna I, Adhyay 8, Kandikka 16[12]).

Thus, there were other religious systems before Islam that restricted polygyny and similar models must have been available for Muslims to adopt including an equally satisfying monogamous model that could have been established as the preferred model for both sexes by ending the practice of  ‘thaman al bud’a’ which reduces the significance of a woman to that of purchased goods. This is not pointed out in modern Islamic discourses, which have started to call Mahr/Sadaq a ‘sweet gift’ rather than “vulva’s price.” Mahr is interchangeably used with Sadaq in Islamic discourses although the former was paid, in pre-Islamic time, to the male guardian of the bride, while the latter was given to the bride. After Islam, although it remains as the payment that gives a man “the right to enjoy the women’s private parts” (Sahih Bukhari – Volume 7, Book 62, Number 81), Mahr or Sadaq is directly given to the bride and becomes her property.  However, because a man buys a woman’s vulva through Mahr (Quran, 4:24), she must remain monogamous and faithful to her husband; if she is not, he can take the Mahr back (Quran, 4:19). If he no longer wants her, he may divorce her and let her keep the Mahr since he has already ‘gone into’ what he paid for (Quran, 4:20-21).  If a woman wants a divorce, she returns the Mahr so she can be “released/freed” (“tasrīḥun” – Quran, 2:229).  This is a clear model of patriarchal marriage of authority where the woman’s vulva is purchased and she must request to be “released”, which Islam established as the standardized model bringing it from pre-Islamic time while abolishing all other models, some of which placed women at an equal footing or in a more favourable position.

Social roles pre-Islamic women played

Being wives and mothers was not the only roles women played in pre-Islamic time.  Women commissioned inscriptions, made offerings to their gods in their own right, acted as administrative officers, took up their deceased husbands’ overloardship, and constructed public buildings and tombs (Hoyland, p. 132; also see Al Fassi, 2001, p. 48-55) leading historians to claim that the last activity indicates a ‘considerable degree of financial independence (Ibid).’  Ahmed also explains that, “Jahilia women were priests, soothsayers, prophets, participants in warfare, and nurses on the battlefield. They were fearlessly outspoken, defiant critics of men; authors of satirical verse aimed at formidable male opponents; keepers, in some unclear capacity, of the keys of the holiest shrine in Mecca; rebels and leaders of rebellions that included men; and individuals who initiated and terminated marriages at will, protested the limits Islam imposed on that freedom, and mingled freely with the men of their society until Islam banned such interaction” (1992, p. 62).

Furthermore, Muslims claim that in pre-Islamic time during “times of war, women were treated as part of the loot. Simply put, their plight was unspeakable[13].”  But that very well continued into Islam:

Narrated Buraida: The prophet sent Ali to Khalid to bring the Khumus ([one fifth] of the booty) and I hated Ali, and Ali had taken a bath (after a sexual act with a slave girl from the Khumus). I said to Khalid, “Don’t you see this (i.e. Ali)?” When we reached the prophet I mentioned that to him. He said, “O Buraida! Do you hate Ali?” I said, “Yes” He said, “Do you hate him, for he deserves more than that from the Khumus.” (Sahih Bukhari 5:59:637). Also see Sahih Bukhari 7:62:137; Sahih Bukhari 5:59:512; Sahih Bukhari 5:59:459.)

Inheritance

Similarly, “Muslim writers on the subject of inheritance often state that Islam instituted inheritance and property rights for women, something that they were presumably deprived of in pre-Islamic Arabia. This is simply false and in contradiction to many statements in the Muslim hadith itself[14] for we read about the wealth Khadija had inherited and owned. We even read about Sulafa and Hubba – two women who were entrusted with being the Keepers of the Key of Kaaba, something that never happened after Mecca was attacked and Muslims subsequently occupied Kaaba – women never became the successors who could become the Keepers of the Key. We now know (through the study of none other than a Meccan Muslim woman) that “women were able to inherit and also to bequeath inheritance to whom so ever they wish (sic). The fact that women were those who bestow rights to their close relatives demonstrates their legal power of ownership and inheritance” (Al Fassi, 2001, p. 55).

Veil

In modern Muslim circles, we also see assertions that veil is liberation from sexual attention, that it is a feminist choice that ‘dignifies a woman’ because before Islam women used to roam around naked. This is not entirely true. Classism existed in the pre-Islamic Arabian society. The upper class, free women would cover their bodies, even faces, because their “sexuality and reproductive capability belonged to one man” (Ahmed, 1992, p. 12) – this continued into Islam. Women belonging to the working class and those who were slaves did not cover themselves; in fact, slaves were not allowed to cover their bodies and were punished if they tried to behave like free women – this too continued into Islam:

Umar hit the slave women from the family of Anas ibn Malik, when he saw them covered and said, “Uncover your head, and do not resemble the free women.” – Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanani (d. 211 AH/826 CE) in Al-Musannaf

Based on such incidents “jurists in the following centuries allowed Muslim slave women to pray without a head covering, and walk topless in public. The slave woman’s awrah — the legally delineated area that must be covered in order to avoid sin — became the same as the man, from the navel to the knees.[15] Renowned historian, Ronald Segal’s book, ‘Islam’s Black Slaves’, gives specific details of how throughout Muslim history classism has existed with free women and slaves treated differently just like in pre-Islamic times (2001, p. 13-65).

Infanticide

Female infanticide in pre-Islamic times is another point Muslims use to claim that women were “rescued from the gloomy injustice of Pre-Islamic darkness.” It is certainly true that Quran categorically bans infanticide and ended the practice very quickly, at least in Arabia (Quran, 6:151: 17:31). However, the practice was never widespread anyway and Quran clearly bans the infanticide of boys and girls, not just girls. Tribes that practiced infanticide did not discriminate between sons and daughters. Some tribes killed their children as a way to appease their gods. Muhammad’s grandfather, Abdul Muttalib, had sworn to his highest god, Allah, that he would sacrifice a son if he had ten. He was then required to sacrifice Abdullah (Muhammad’s father) whose name was cast by divination arrows but was saved by a female soothsayer’s consultation (Ibn Ishaq, p.66-68). Poorer tribes would kill their children from fear of poverty.  There was one tribe, Tamim, in which some men would kill their daughters as they were always warring with other tribes and were afraid that their daughters would be captured and turned into concubines.  However, while Quran prohibits killing children and refers to the fear and sadness associated with the birth of a daughter (16:58-59), it never banned capture of women in wars and their subsequent enslavement and concubinage.  Strangely, renowned Muslim scholars like Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Sina justified capture of Africans as slaves commenting that “the Negro nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery” since they have characteristics that “are quite similar to those of dumb animals” (Ibn Khaldun cited in Segal, 2001: 49).  Similarly, al Idrisi is cited as commenting on a desirability of Nubian concubines: “Their women are of surpassing beauty. They are circumcised and fragrant-smelling…Of all the black women, they are the best for pleasures of the bed” (Ibid, p.50). Thus, we see that while degradation of women as enslaved concubines could have been banned by Islam, which was a fear out of which the Tamim tribe would kill their daughters, it not only continued the practice but was justified by the early Muslim scholars.

Conclusion

Two arguments are being made in this essay: 1] the condition of women in pre-Islamic Arabia depended on which tribe they belonged to – not all women were mistreated, in fact some were far more empowered before Islam than afterward…these reports all exist in Muslim sources; 2] Islam did not choose the more women-empowering pre-existing cultural mores to lay down laws regarding women. It appears that the Islamic laws related to women, while striving for some form of compassion for women, are consistently formed in ways to benefit men, and the focus of many of these laws has been to satisfy the almost obsessive interest of Islam in paternity. Muslim gender equality activists argue that early male scholars deliberately misinterpreted the Quran, but their entire premise is based on the belief that Islam universally improved the situation of women who lived in the gloomy, unjust, pre-Islamic darkness. Without this naïve supposition (that we have seen is a false belief), their entire argument crumbles to dust.  Some Muslims have already begun to realise this:

“I have become only further convinced that if Muslim women are to come fully to terms with cases in which the Qur’anic text lends itself to meanings that are detrimental to them, we must begin to confront those meanings more honestly, without resorting to apologetic explanations for them, or engaging in interpretive manipulations to force egalitarian meanings from the text. Furthermore, I have also come to believe firmly that we must begin to radically reimagine the nature of the Qur’an’s revelation and divinity.” – Hidayatullah (2014, p. viii).

As more and more historians reconsider the condition of pre-Islamic women, it will become exceedingly difficult for Muslim scholars to defend the supposed gender egalitarianism in Islam without radically reimagining the nature of the Qur’an’s revelation and divinity.

References

  • Ahmed, L. ( 1986). Women and the Advent of Islam. Signs, Vol. 11, No. 4, pp. 665-691. University of Chicago Press
  • Ahmed, L. (1992). Women and gender in Islam. New Haven and London: Yale University press
  • Al-Fassi, H.A. (2007). Women in Pre-Islamic Arabia, British Archaeological Reports (BAR) Archaeopress, Oxford
  • Ali, K. (2010). Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  • Ibn Ishaq. (2010). Sirat Rasul Allah – The Life of Muhammad. Translated by A. Guillaume. Karachi: Oxford University Press
  • Hidayatullah, A. A. (2014). Feminist Edges of the Qur’an. New York: Oxford University Press
  • Hoyland, R. G. (2001) Arabia and the Arabs – from the bronze age to the coming of Islam.  London and New York: Routledge
  • Mernissi, F. (2011). Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Muslim Society. London: Saqi
  • Robertson, S. W. (1907). Kinship And Marriage In Early Arabia. London: Adam and Charles Black
  • Segal, R. (2002). Islam’s Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux