He became the Khalifah of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community at the young age of 25 and steered and nourished it to its maturity for more than 50 years with his spiritual guidance, incredible wisdom, prayers and exceptional administrative acumen. A leader of innumerable qualities, he was also a brilliant orator and prolific writer. His scholarly excellence has been preserved in a 19 volume set known as Anwarul’ Ulum amounting to over 200 books, lectures and essays expounding on a vast array of subjects; both spiritual and secular. In his treatise, ‘Muhammad – The Liberator of Women’ he explains that before the advent of Islam no religion, people or community accorded women such freedoms which recognised their intrinsic rights and women throughout the world were bound to servitude. The Holy Prophet of Islamsa purged the world from a form of enslavement which had long since been a curse on humanity.
Each and every strand of Prophet Muhammad’ssa life appears so sublime that one is left amazed and it is impossible to focus on any one particular aspect of his character. However, in light of current circumstances, I have selected one of the most astonishing aspects of his life by discoursing on the manner in which the Prophetsa purged the world from a form of enslavement which had long since been a curse on humanity; by this I mean the subjugation of women.
Before his advent, women throughout the world were bound to servitude. This also had an adverse effect on the men at that time since those children who were born to women in subjugation could never truly comprehend the spirit of freedom.
Undoubtedly, there were women, who on account of their charm and the strength of their character, attained a position of ascendency over the men around them, but from this we cannot infer that they were truly free for the simple reason that this position was not theirs by right. Such cases were exceptions to the general rule and that which is merely an exception can hardly be perceived as the means forfulfilling true aspiration.
The advent of the Holy Prophetsa occurred almost 1350 years ago. Before his arrival no religion, people or community accorded women such freedoms which recognised their intrinsic rights. In places where there was no rule of law, of course a type of freedom prevailed, but this was a fictitious privilege which may perhaps be better described as a license. True liberty is that which emerges from civilisation and conforms to and is defined by statutes and laws. Freedom which is attained by breaking the bounds of the law is a fallacy because it is not conducive to human betterment.
At the time of the Holy Prophetsa and prior to his advent a woman could not own property; anything that belonged to her became the possession of her husband. She did not have a share in the property of her father, nor could she inherit from her husband’s estate. In certain cases a woman could administer or manage her husband’s assets, but only in his lifetime.
Once married, women became part of a man’s retinue. Men were able to divorce their wives but there were no means of separation which women could avail from, however afflicted they might be. There were no laws which prevented a husband from deserting his wife, nor did any kind of statutes exist to legislate in the event of a man not discharging his obligations to his spouse. Such women were thus compelled to resign to their fate and earn a living for both themselves and their children. It was considered the right of husbands to physically discipline their wives without any hindrance or dissent. In some parts of the world when the husband died, his wife would fall into the hands of his kith and kin who could marry her to whomsoever they pleased, often as a favour or to recompense a received benefit or a debt. The idea of a wife as little more than a commodity was so enshrined in certain societies that men were considered to be fully within their rights to merchandise their spouses or to stake them as a material asset in a gamble or a wager. Women had no rights over their children, either in their role as a wife or in circumstances where they had achieved separation from their husbands, nor did they enjoy a position of respect or honour in their domestic lives. They enjoyed no status even in matters of religion. They were, it was opined, to have no share in the spiritual blessings of the hereafter.
As a result, husbands were free to squander the property of their wives or to abandon them without care for their provision or welfare. Women could not even give alms from their own wealth or provide financial assistance to their kith and kin without the permission of their spouse, and those husbands who sought to control their wives’ estates could not be expected to give their consent.
Women were commonly disinherited from their parent’s estate even though all children are intrinsically bound to the property of their elders by deep emotional ties. Good sense would dictate that daughters should hold the same rights as sons. In older times, parents who possessed a sense of justice would, in their lifetime, give a portion of their property to their daughters. Unfortunately, this would often act as a catalyst for familial strife. Sons would not take into consideration that once their parents passed away they stood to inherit everything (therefore it would be proper and reasonable for them not to begrudge what their sisters received); instead the decision of their elders served only to stoke their anger for they could not tolerate, even for a moment, to see their sisters own more than what they had. Similarly, women were altogether deprived of their husbands’ property despite the complete nature of their union. Distant relatives were able to claim a share, but a wife could not, even though in her husband’s lifetime she was his confidant and life partner whose love and care, in no small way, contributed to his wealth and income. Elsewhere, even in instances where wives managed the property of their husbands they had no genuine right or claim over it; they could spend from it, but had no right to dispose of any part of it and so therefore could not properly participate in charitable pursuits.
No matter how much a husband oppressed his wife, she could not free herself from him. Even in those societies which permitted the termination of a marital union the conditions were so harsh that most dignified woman would prefer death than allow themselves to be subjected to the rigours of the separation process. For example, proof of misconduct by either party or evidence of cruelty on the part of the husband was often demanded before any proceedings could begin. Worse still, some societies would not let a woman fully separate from her husband even if their coexistence had become impossible. In such cases the woman was permitted only to live away from her spouse which was in itself a form of torment as she was compelled to endure an aimless existence. In other instances the husband was permitted to divorce his wife whenever he so willed, yet the wife had no right to seek separation from him. If the husband abandoned her and lost all contact with her even then she would be forced to spend the remainder of her life in a state of limbo in which she would have no right to devote herself to any useful pursuits.
The bonds of matrimony which should be source of comfort, became instead, a cause of distress. Women were merely expected to fulfil their obligations towards their husbands and attend to their needs. Indeed, in certain cases they were also expected to shoulder the responsibility of their husbands, namely to earn a living. Thus, they were not only psychologically discomfited, but they also had to undertake material responsibilities. All of this was tolerated.
Women were often beaten and considered as a lawful right of their husbands and when their husbands died widows were compelled to marry their kith and kin or otherwise sold into slavery. In fact, it was not uncommon for husbands themselves to sell their wives. The Indian Prandava princes are said have lost multiple wives in wagers and yet the customs of the time would not allow noble princesses like Draupadi to speak against such acts.
Mothers had no rights over their children. They were not consulted about their upbringing and in cases where husbands and wives separated the children almost invariably remained in the custody of their fathers. Women had little authority over their households both in the lifetime of their husband and after. A husband could expel his wife from her home at any time and thus make her derelict.
With the advent of the Holy Prophetsa these age old iniquities were swiftly laid to rest. The Holy Prophetsa readily announced that God had entrusted to him the task of safeguarding the rights of women. He declared in the name of God that men and women by virtue of their common humanity were equal to one another and in their coexistence both had rights over the other. Women could own property just like men and their husbands had no rights over their estates without their consent or permission. To seize a woman’s property by force was made unlawful, nor could a man exercise his right over a woman’s property if it was adjudged that she had only consented out of deference. Whatever a husband gave to his wife from his own free will became her property and he was not allowed to take it back from her. Women were given rights of inheritance over their parents and their brothers. However, in view of the fact that responsibility for the maintenance of a family usually rests with males, sons have double the share of daughters. Similarly women were given rights of inheritance over their sons. Here the amount of her inheritance as compared to her husband was dependent on the woman’s circumstances and the nature of her responsibilities. Again, women were given rights of inheritance over their husbands regardless of whether they had children or not. This insured that they would not become dependents of the state.
Marriage is undoubtedly a holy alliance and it is always hateful to terminate a relationship which has been cultivated through mutual intimacy. Yet despite this it must not be impossible for a husband and wife to sever their ties if their natures take a completely different course or if religious, physical, economic, social or psychological differences arise between them merely for the sake of preserving an alliance. This would ruin their lives and kill off the purpose of their existence. Thus [the Holy Prophetsa] taught that when such differences are born between a man and wife they ought to be able to revoke their alliance by mutual consent.
If a man seeks a divorce from his wife but she wants to remain with him; if the couple fail to reconcile their differences, their affairs ought to be considered by a committee of two members comprised of representatives of both parties. If the committee decides that the couple should seek reconciliation then they ought to attempt to settle their differences. However, if even after this the relationship is irretrievable the husband can divorce his wife, but will retain no rights over anything he gave to her during their marriage including the full value of the mahr. Conversely, if a woman seeks a divorce she is permitted to plead her case before a Qazi and if the Qazi decides that there is nothing unwarranted in her claim they should grant her a separation. In such circumstances her husband would have rights over any property he entrusted to her care and the full value of the mahr.
If a husband fails to discharge his marital obligations, ceases to speak to his wife, or sleeps apart from her, then his behaviour cannot be allowed to continue like this indefinitely. If his behaviour continues beyond a period of four months, he should either be compelled to reform his ways or seek a divorce from his spouse. In cases where a husband ceases to financially support his partner or goes way and completely severs ties with her then their marriage ought to be regarded as null and void. (In cases of abandonment Islamic jurists have proposed three years as the limit before a marriage be considered terminated). A woman is then free to remarry.
With the advent of the Holy Prophetsa the onus for the maintenance and care of a family was firmly placed on men. Men were admonished to be cautious in how they disciplined their spouses and any sort of punishment could only occur if there was witness testimony and sound evidence against the actions of a wife. Nor were men permitted to punish their wives in ways which would have permanent and lasting effects.
It was made clear that men did not own their spouses. They could not sell them or use them like domestic slaves. Their wives shared with them all the amenities of their house and husbands were expected to look after them in a manner equal to their own rank and status.
On the death of a man his family or relatives had no rights over his widow. She would be completely free, and if the opportunity arose, she would have every right to remarry. Nothing could prevent her from doing so. Nor was it permissible to compel or force a widow to live in a certain place or abode. However, it was made mandatory that for four months and ten days a widow remain in the home of her husband so that anything which might have a bearing on her future rights or those of her husband’s family might come to light. Moreover, apart from what else is due to her, a woman would have the right to live for at least a year in her husband’s home so that if needs be she could make arrangements for her future residence. In terms of a man’s property the Holy Prophetsa also taught that if the relationship between a husband and wife breaks down the former should leave the home even if it belongs to him because the running of a household is the responsibility of a woman.
Women were also accorded an important role in the upbringing of their children. They were to be consulted in all such affairs and their opinion or rights were not to be ignored. Matters like wet-nursing and general care of the children required a mother’s input. In cases where a couple would divorce or separate, the care of young children should be entrusted to the mother. When they grow older they could return to their fathers for the purposes of education. Even when the children are living with their mother the responsibility of their support and maintenance is to be placed on their father. The father should cover any other additional costs that a woman occurred on account of looking after her children.
In short, Islam gave women a status of independence. Moreover all spiritual awards and blessings were available to them. Islam decreed that they would not to be deprived of the excellences of the hereafter and even in this life they could participate in all walks of civil and civic life and the rights of women were to be as safely guarded as that of men.
Such was the teaching which the Holy Prophetsa brought with him at a time when the ideals of the world were diametrically opposed to it. With these injunctions, he reclaimed women from the enslavement they had endured in the world for thousands of years and also from the shackles with which previous religions had bound them. In a single moment, one man cut the chains of servitude at a stroke. He gave freedom to mothers and at the same time saved their progeny from servile inclinations. In this way he sowed the seed of great ambition and high resolve.
However, the world did not value his teachings and a great blessing was branded a tyranny. The idea of divorce and separation was seen as an unnecessary dilemma, Islamic inheritance laws were considered ruinous for the institution of the family and the independence of women was rejected as a disruption of domestic life.
For 1300 years the world blindly ridiculed the precepts which the Holy Prophetsa had taught for the betterment of humankind. It condemned his teaching as being opposed to the natural human state.
Then there came a time when the sublimity of the Word of God (as transmitted by the Holy Prophetsa) could no longer be gainsaid and it began to shine forth. Those same people who once viewed themselves as the custodians of civilisation began to obey the Prophet’ssa injunctions. Communities and nations undertook to change their laws in a manner which conformed to the principles of Islam.
[Listed below are numerous examples of this:]
The English Law which required misconduct, ill treatment and beating on the part of either party as essential conditions of divorce, was changed in 1923. Misconduct by itself was accepted by the new law as a sufficient reason for divorce.
In 1912 New Zealand decided that a marriage could be dissolved if a [man] or a woman were adjudged to be insane for a period of at least 7 years. Moreover, it was ruled that if a husband or wife failed to fulfil their marital obligations the aggrieved party could seek a divorce or separation. Again a period of three years neglect was established as sufficient grounds for divorce. This was an excellent imitation of Islamic jurisprudence except that it occurred after 1300 years of attacks on the Islamic teaching.
The Australian state of Queensland ruled that insanity of five years’ duration was sufficient reason for divorce.
Tasmania passed a law in 1919 which stated that misconduct, a period of four years abandonment, drunkenness, a period of three years neglect and indifference, imprisonment, violence and insanity were all reasonable grounds for divorce.
Victoria introduced a law in 1923 by which a wife could divorce her husband for reasons of neglect for 3 years, adultery, lack of financial support or ill-treatment. The ruling also stipulated that imprisonment, violence, adultery on the part of the wife, insanity and cruelty would, if proved, be sufficient to end a marriage.
Western Australia introduced divorce laws similar to the ones mentioned above, but here a marital union could also be terminated or annulled if a man found out after the marriage that his wife was pregnant at the time of their betrothal. (Islam also legislates for this).
In 1918 Cuba passed divorce laws which declared that misconduct, violence, abuse, criminal conviction, drunkenness, gambling, infectious disease and mutual agreement were all reasonable justifications for divorce.
In 1919, Italy established full property rights for women allowing them to spend their wealth in charity or however else they pleased (at a time when European laws did not consider the women as the rightful owner of her wealth)
In 1917 Mexico also enacted divorce laws which were very similar to other divorce laws mentioned above. Moreover, mutual consent was also stipulated as grounds for separation.
Portugal (1915), Norway (1909), Sweden (1920) and Switzerland (1912) have passed marriage acts which legislate for divorce and rights of separation. Further, Swedish law has declared fathers legally responsible for the maintenance and support of their children until the age of 18.
The laws of the United States of America still favour men in terms of their rights over their children. However, in practice judges are more inclined to take into consideration the sentiments of women in these situations and now fathers are being made to provide financial support even for those of their children who live with their mothers. Though the rights of men are more strictly guarded, changes are afoot and women are now slowly being granted rights over their own property. However in many US states the law still stipulates that if a man is made an invalid his wife is legally obliged to maintain and support him. Thus, matters there are still far from perfect.
Women are being granted the right to vote and are being provided a platform to raise their voice in matters of national concern. Yet all these changes have arrived 1300 years after the Holy Prophetsa gave the world his teaching. There is still much work to be done. In many parts of the world women still do not have inheritance rights over their husbands’ or parents’ wealth. Similarly, in several other matters the world could learn much from the guidance which Islam gives. A future in which all the teachings of the Holy Prophetsa are accepted as the norm is not too distant and the struggle which the Holy Prophetsa launched for the rights of women will soon bring forth its fruit.
1. A type of dowry which a groom pays to his wife and which become her legal property.
2. A judge who rules in accordance with the principles of Islamic law.