The Fallacy of absolute equality

Introduction

Critics of Islam have always attempted to paint the religion in a very negative light. From the plethora of allegations, a section consists of those surrounding gender equality – more specifically, the rights of women. The narrative suggests that Islam is a misogynistic religion, in which women do not enjoy equal opportunities and freedom.

This is the notion that needs scrutiny, alongside the answer to a very common allegation: If women are equal in Islam, why can they not become Imams? First and foremost, what is the idea of absolute equality between both genders? Only then can we address the question at hand and attempt to rebut this allegation.

Are men & women actually the same?

The fact is, men and women are simply not the same. Physically, and mentally, both genders are very different. This is a point which is universally accepted, even by the most ardent of feminists. Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), a pioneering figure of modern feminism, acknowledges this major difference between both genders in her book ‘The Second Sex,’ which has been referred to as the ‘feminist bible.’ She writes:

“Woman is weaker than man; she has less muscular strength, fewer red blood cells, a lesser respiratory capacity; she runs less quickly, lifts less heavy weights — there is practically no sport in which she can compete with him; she cannot enter into a fight with the male… Her grasp of the world is thus more limited… In truth these facts cannot be denied.”

She also goes on to highlight the emotional instability of women in comparison to men:

“More instability and less control make them more emotional, which is directly linked to vascular variations: palpitations, redness, and so on; and they are thus subject to convulsive attacks: tears, nervous laughter, and hysterics.”

Islam is a religion which acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses of both genders, and accordingly distributes rights and responsibilities. Men, generally being physically stronger, have the responsibility of safeguarding the family unit and providing for the whole family:

الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَى بَعْضٍ وَبِمَا أَنْفَقُوا مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ

“Men are guardians over women because Allah has made some of them excel others, and because they [men] spend of their wealth.”

The Holy Quran [4:35]

Therefore, the wealth of the man is not just his, rather it belongs to the entire family. In contrast, the wealth of the woman is solely her’s (including inheritance), and she is not required to spend on anyone else.

Also, if we take a glance through world history, we find that the wars which have taken place were predominantly fought by men in order to defend those back home (women, children and the elderly). Maybe in some rare cases, women may have taken part; however, generally men are expected to defend their country. Women are given the privilege to stay at home and take care of domestic matters.

The upbringing of children

This being said, in no way does this mean that the male gender is superior. The responsibilities of the female gender are equally, if not more, important. It is a woman who carries the child for nine months and gives birth, after which she feeds the child and nurtures it. The upbringing of children is a task which is paramount, without which society cannot prosper. In the words of Hazrat Khalifatul Masih II raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them":

“Nations cannot be reformed without the reformation of the youth.”

The importance of motherhood is such, that the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" is reported to have said that Paradise is beneath the feet of mothers. Likewise, when the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" was asked who was entitled to best treatment out of all people, this was his response:

“The Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" said, ‘Your mother.’ The man said. ‘Who is next?’ The Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" said, ‘Your mother.’ The man further said, ‘Who is next?’ The Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" said, ‘Your mother.’ The man asked for the fourth time, ‘Who is next?’ The Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" said, ‘Your father.’”

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests that during the first weeks of lockdown in 2020, women were carrying out an average of two-thirds more childcare duties per day than men. Also, that women spent 77% more time on childcare than men overall. Hence, women are more superior to men in this field – there is no doubt about it.

Equity over equality

Islam promotes equity – fairness of treatment for women and men, according to their respective needs. This can either be through equal treatment, or treatment that is different but considered equivalent in terms of rights, benefits, obligations and opportunities.

Hazrat Khalifatul Masih V abaabbreviation for "May Allah be his helper" was asked regarding this very issue on his tour of Europe in 2019, to which he commented:

“Islam has mandated a division of labour between the sexes. Men are taught to earn and provide for their families, whilst women are responsible for running the home and raising their children. However, at the same time, Islam stipulates that every girl should be educated and those who have the aptitude and ability can certainly pursue worthwhile professions.”

The German interviewer, who happened to be woman, also asked the reason why the events of our community are segregated between men and women. Huzoor abaabbreviation for "May Allah be his helper" said:

“We believe women can flourish better without the shade of men! If they are separate, they are free… At the same time, women have equal rights to men in Islam. They have the right of divorce, inheritance and many others, all of which were denied in the West even until some decades ago.”

Regarding the rights of husband and wife, Allah the Almighty says in the Holy Qur’an:

ولھنّ مثل الذی علیھنّ بالمعروف

“And they (the women) have rights similar to those (of men) over them in equity.”

Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IV rhabbreviation for "May Allah have mercy on him/her/them", commenting on this verse, stated:

“There is thus total equality and there is no difference whatsoever between the fundamental human rights of women and men.”

Expanding on this point, Hazrat Mirza Bashir Ahmad M.A. raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" explains that in the matter of rights and responsibilities, husband and wife are equal. As such, husbands have been made responsible for certain obligations while wives have also been made responsible for certain obligations. Both will be questioned about their responsibilities accordingly.

One gender is not superior over the other. Different roles have been assigned to each gender depending on the strengths of the gender.

Spiritual equality

Islam teaches that in the striving for good deeds, and in the results which are attained by doing good, men and women are totally equal. Allah the Almighty states:

فَاسْتَجَابَ لَهُمْ رَبُّهُمْ أَنِّي لَا أُضِيعُ عَمَلَ عَامِلٍ مِنْكُمْ مِنْ ذَكَرٍ أَوْ أُنْثَى بَعْضُكُمْ مِنْ بَعْضٍ

“So, their Lord answered their prayers, saying, ‘I will allow not the work of any worker from among you, whether male or female, to be lost. You are from one another.”

The Holy Quran [3:196]

Similarly, there are many other verses in the Holy Qur’an that prove that spiritual rewards are equal for both men and women, one of which is the following:

وَمَنْ يَعْمَلْ مِنَ الصَّالِحَاتِ مِنْ ذَكَرٍ أَوْ أُنْثَى وَهُوَ مُؤْمِنٌ فَأُولَئِكَ يَدْخُلُونَ الْجَنَّةَ

“But whosoever does good works, whether male or female, and is a believer, such shall enter Heaven.”

The Holy Quran [4:125]

In Surah Tahrim of the Holy Qur’an, all believing men and women are compared to two women – Hazrat Asiya asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" who was the wife of Pharoah, and Hazrat Maryam asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" who was the mother of Jesus asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him". If Islam really looked down on women, Allah would not say that all believing men are spiritually akin to one of these two women. No doubt Islam recognises spiritual equality, however naturally it gives social and religious responsibilities accordingly.

Having briefly discussed the Islamic stance on equality between both genders, I will now move on to attempt to demystify the following claim: women should have the freedom to become Imams.

Women as imams

This is an issue which is often highlighted in the media. ‘Why does Islam not give women the freedom to become Imams? Are they not capable to lead? If a man can become an Imam, why can’t a woman? Are men and women therefore not equal?’

The reality is that such claims make Islam seem harsh at first glance; however, once an attempt is made to understand the underlying wisdom behind such decisions, things quickly begin to make sense.

We witnessed Emma Barnett, host of BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour, raise this issue on 6 February 2021 during her interview with Zara Mohammed, the first female secretary general – the highest position – of the Muslim Council of Britain.

Emma continuously asked Zara “How many female Imams are there in the UK?” Flustered, Zara asked for clarification: “are you referring to chaplains, are you referring to women who lead the prayer? What are you referring to?”, to which she was met with “you tell me.”

Despite Zara’s clear reluctance of being drawn into such theological debate, Emma continued to berate her in her attempt to pressure Islam, explaining how there are now female priests and rabbis in the UK.

Such allegations are not something new. Due to hearing similar objections, many Muslims become apologetic and influenced, and think that Islam has to be changed to integrate with the ever-changing ideals and liberal values of modern society.

Despite the fact that women are not allowed to be Imams in the strictest sense of the word, some decide to overlook this and take this liberty.

Examples of this have been seen in recent history. Female Imams have existed since the nineteenth century in China and in South Africa since 1995; In 2008, Amina Wadud led mixed prayers in Oxford, and in 2015, the Women’s Mosque of America was opened in Los Angeles. Simply the fact that women Imams can be found, does not give permissibility to this practice.

The reason why more women are wanting to become Imams, links directly to the rise of feminism – the idea that gender roles should be equal and women should have the same job opportunities, pay and access to any position a man can occupy. This is very different to the Islamic paradigm, where due to the natural differences between both genders, certain different responsibilities are given to each gender on account of being good at different things, as mentioned earlier.

I will now explore as to why women are not given the responsibility of being Imams and religious leaders in Islam.

A woman may lead other women in prayer, but not men

First of all, it is important to clarify in what context the word ‘Imam’ is being used. In the Arabic language, an ‘Imam’ can mean different things – the simplest definition is anyone who leads the prayer. In this case, anyone can be an Imam in their own capacity, even women and children.

In a Hadith, we find mention of the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" asking Hazrat Umme Waraqah raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them", a female companion, to lead other women in prayer:

“The Messenger of Allah saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" used to visit her at her house. He appointed a mu’adhdhin to call adhan for her; and he commanded her to lead the inmates of her house in prayer. Hazrat Abdul Rahman raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" said: I saw her mu’adhdhin who was an old man.”

In such case, the woman must stand in the middle of the row and not in front of the row like the male Imam is required to stand. This however is only in a rare case, and is not a general practise, as mentioned in Fiqh-e-Ahmadiyya.

Therefore, under special circumstances, women can be Imams, however they are only allowed to lead women in prayer, not men.

The scope of a man is wider and is allowed to lead both genders in prayer. This is why men are given the responsibility of being Imams of the community (religious leaders). As for why women are not given this responsibility, we will now discuss this in detail.

Women are required to stand behind the men in the prayer. There is no doubt that the body of men and women are different, and God has placed much beauty and attraction in certain body parts of a woman, which are different to a man. Even a feminist must admit to this fact.

The Islamic prayer consists of many postures that require the person praying or leading to bend over and prostrate. Doing this in front of the opposite gender can naturally be uncomfortable and distract one from worship. There is no doubt that a man going through these postures is very different to a woman going through these very stages.

This is why in the ideal scenario, prayer areas are generally separate. Both genders can focus better and concentrate solely on their worship in this way. Where it is hard to separate the mosques, women are made to stand behind the man to safeguard them, and also to safeguard the man from being put to trial. It should not be thought however that praying behind men make the women any less. The Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" said:

“The best rows for men are the front rows and the worst rows are the back rows, and the best rows for women are the back rows and the worst are the front rows.”

The best rows for women are the back rows, the same way the best rows for men are the front rows, meaning that the reward is equal. Women do not get any less reward either by praying behind men.

Leading the community – imam as a profession

Nevertheless, this was regarding simply leading the prayers. However, now we must discuss ‘Imam’ as an occupation and a religious community leader. For example, after studying for seven years in Jamia Ahmadiyya, one is awarded his Shahid degree and officially becomes a missionary of the Jama’at, and also an Imam. In this context, it is impermissible for a woman to be an Imam, and for very good reason.

We have just discussed the complications that arise when a woman leads in prayer. Simply put, if a woman can only lead other women in prayer and cannot lead men, then how is a woman supposed to be the Imam of the community, where men are also present and readily come to the mosque?

Women are not even required to come to the mosque; they get the same reward for praying at home. So due to this, there would be no point in having a woman as an Imam, as the scope of who she can lead in prayer is limited.

A significant reason however, is that all women have a cycle during the month during which they are exempt from praying, and that is while they are menstruating. A woman is not required to pray during this period – whereas an Imam is required to lead the people in all prayers (men are not exempt).

Hence, if a woman was an Imam, she would be absent from the prayer for certain days in each month, and during these days it would become apparent to the men that she is going through her menstrual cycle – there is no need for this information, especially owing to modesty. Islam is a religion which facilitates ease and does not want hardship for the believer:

يُرِيدُ اللَّهُ بِكُمُ الْيُسْرَ وَلَا يُرِيدُ بِكُمُ الْعُسْرَ

“Allah desires to give you ease and He desires not hardship for you.”

The Holy Quran [2:186]

It is for this reason that women have been given the ease of not having to pray whilst they are going through their menstrual cycle, as they go through much pain during this time. It is proven through research that commonly, menstruation has a considerable physical impact on the body; weakness, fatigue, hormonal changes, lethargy and even nausea.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 29.9% of all women in reproductive age (15-49) are affected by anaemia, a large portion of them being non-pregnant women (29.6%).

Had Islam not wanted ease for the believer, women would have been required to make up their missed prayers, however this is not the case. Essential pillars of Islam are annulled for them during this period as part of God’s mercy. Also, during the time in which the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" brought Islam into the world, there was absolutely no concept of tampons at the time. This is a very new invention, and even now, not everyone in the world has access to this facility.

Thus, had women been commanded to pray even during this cycle, it would cause a hindrance in their personal hygiene – a prerequisite of prayer – and in that of places of worship. Hence, in order to avoid all these complications, there is more wisdom for a man to lead the worship.

The noble responsibility of motherhood

Another major reason in women not being given this responsibility to be the Imam, is because they have already been given a huge responsibility since the beginning of time – the noble responsibility of motherhood. This is such a responsibility which takes over a woman’s life and most of her time is spent in this. Firstly, to carry the baby for nine months, going through the physical challenges that come with pregnancy, giving birth to the baby, then caring for it and feeding it; all this can take up to two years.

This is the foremost focus and responsibility of the mother, and with such an intense responsibility already given to her, it would be extremely hard to balance the job of being an Imam at the same time, near impossible.

Hence for this reason Islam has kept the wellbeing of women into consideration and not burdened them with more than they can handle:

لَا يُكَلِّفُ اللَّهُ نَفْسًا إِلَّا وُسْعَهَا

“Allah burdens not any soul beyond its capacity.”

The Holy Quran [2:287]

Having established that women have no choice but to bear this responsibility, as they are naturally the ones who give birth and breastfeed the baby, it comes as no surprise that they develop a very strong attachment of love with the child – more so than the father. This means that in any family unit, if the mother is investing the majority of her time in taking care of the child, it is the responsibility of the man to look after her, take care of her and provide for the family.

In many parts of the Western world, even if the woman works, she will be off of work for long periods of time for her maternal duty. Women receive 52 weeks of maternity leave, whereas men only receive up to 2 weeks. It would be obscene for a man to argue to have an equal amount of leave in the name of equality.

Women can still be leaders

Women can still be leaders in their own capacity, and we find so many examples of such if we take a look at Islamic history. Hazrat Ayesha raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" was someone about whom the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" said that half of religion can be learnt from. Even male companions would come to her as an authority, and seek knowledge from her.

Then we have the example of Hazrat Umme Ammarah raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them", who courageously took part in the Battle of Uhud and protected the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" from onslaughts of the enemies. In her own words she said that at the time, there were less than ten men to protect the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him", as many had run away due to cowardice. She therefore stood up to the task with her family, and displayed such bravery, that the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" said regarding her: “O Umme Ammarah! No one has the strength you possess!”

Amongst the many auxiliary organisations of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, one is Lajna Imaillah. This can be quite literally translated to handmaidens of Allah. This is the female body of the community, and just like the men, they hold their own programmes and functions throughout the year, as well as publishing their own magazines and much more. This whole body is entirely run by the women of the community, for the women of the community – with no male interference.

Among the events that are held, is the three-day convention which takes place once a year, called the National Ijtema. Women from all around the country travel for this, with many sleeping overnight in the countryside, and take part in competitions (such as recitation of the Holy Qur’an and speeches), events and just overall have a good time. The entire event is planned, executed and attended by only women of the community, which is a very liberating experience. This just goes to show how Islam promotes the growth of women, and that they are not considered any less.

Conclusion

To conclude, yes, a woman can be a leader, however only amongst women. When both genders come together, however it is the man who has been made the guardian and are given the responsibility to take lead.

Being an Imam as the missionary of an entire mixed community is a very heavy responsibility which requires the person to be on standby at absolutely all times to tend to the needs of the community.

If women cannot be ready at all times, due to a menstruation cycle throughout the month and the responsibility of motherhood which a woman may receive multiple times, then women will not be able to truly fulfil this role, making it only right to be fulfilled by a man.

This said, it must be remembered that an Imam is a title and role, and by no means is it a spiritual rank. The Promised Messiah asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" said:

‘No other religion has safeguarded the rights of women as Islam has done. It lays down the injunction so succinctly: Just as men have rights upon women, so do women have rights upon men.’

Keeping this quote in mind, we can attest that women can attain the exact same levels of spirituality as men can, if not even higher. All that Islam has done is exempted them from the responsibility of public leadership. This has been done in the best interest of women, and they have been relieved of carrying such responsibility.

Disclaimer

This article was originally published in the Annual Printed Edition of Majallatul Jamia

Romaan Basit

Romaan Basit

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