Women's participation in the work of Islam and Muslims has so far been very limited. Most of our sisters spend their spare time reading novels or watching video movies or making telephone calls and social visits to each other, during which they indulge in idle gossip and talk about who has more and better material possessions (TV's, stereo and video sets, cars, houses, etc.), unmindful of the words of God:
"You are occupied with competing for more and more until you go down to your graves. But nay, you will soon know (the reality)..." (102:1-3)
One reason that our sisters do not spend part of their spare time for the work of Islam and Muslims, apart from their own love of the life of this world, is the idea, held in various religious circles with varying degrees of intensity, that women should concern themselves exclusively with the work at home and that the community work is the responsibility of men only. Naturally this attitude either completely discourages Muslim women from any social participation or it leads them to find social participation in circles where Islamic values are not respected.
Participating in Congregational Prayers
The idea about women's role being limited to housework is, however, a creation of our own minds and is not based on what God and His messenger have given us. Thus, for example, mosques are meant to be the centers of Muslim participation and even though some Muslims oppose women going to the mosques, the Qur'an and Hadith leave no doubt that it is as desirable for women to visit the house of Allah and pray there in congregation as it is for men. One of the Qur'anic verses where reference is made to congregational prayers reads:
"And establish regular prayer and practice regular charity and bow down with those who bow down." ()
Here the verb "bow down" ('arka'u) is in the masculine plural, but it is a well-known rule of Qur'anic tafsir (and indeed of interpreting most pieces of writings) that unless otherwise indicated all recommendations, commandments, etc. delivered in the masculine plural are applicable to both men and women. In this verse there is no indication of any kind that women are excluded: just as the words "establish regular prayer", "practice regular charity" are meant for both men and women, so also the words "bow down with those who bow down" (i.e. pray in congregation) are addressed to both.
A further proof of this is found in where one of the most saintly women of all history is told:
"O Mary! Worship your Lord devoutly; prostrate yourself and bow down with those who bow down."
Interesting to note that God does not command Mary to "bow down with those women who bow down" but rather uses the masculine plural which, as we said earlier, includes both men and women. God's command to Mary thus means: "bow down (in prayer) with those fellow human beings, men and women, who bow down." The fact that this command is to Mary who lived before Islam does not mean that it has no relevance to us. Nothing that the Qur'an says about earlier men and women is without relevance for us, for the Qur'an does not relate the stories of earlier people just for our amusement. These stories are related for some moral and spiritual lessons but unless there are indications to the contrary they also form the basis of Islamic Shariah, as is widely recognized by Muslim scholars(1)
Consistent with these indications in the Qur'an, we find that in the time of the Prophet men and women alike used to go to the mosque for their daily prayers, including fajr (morning) and isha (night) prayers. This is one of the few facts about the Sunnah in the days of the Prophet that has never been doubted in the past fourteen centuries of Islamic history. Even those who oppose women going to the house of Allah admit this. But they, despite this admission, stop or discourage women from going to the mosques because they think that Hadhrat 'Umar, after noticing that women on their way to the mosques were no longer safe, stopped the practice. But we cannot base our conduct on this reported decision of Hadhrat 'Umar because in some ahadith the Prophet specifically tells Muslims not to stop women from going to the houses of Allah. Thus in Muwatta of Imam Malik, the Prophet is reported to have said:
"Do not stop the maid servants of Allah from going to the mosques of Allah."
Later, in the third century, Imam Bukhari (born 194 A.H.), included in his sahih a similar command of the Messenger of God:
"When the wife of one of you asks about going to the mosque, DO NOT STOP HER."
If Hadhrat 'Umar stopped women from going to the mosques, as he is reported to have done, then he did exactly what the Messenger asked Muslims NOT to do. The question is, did Hadhrat 'Umar violate the teachings of the Prophet, perhaps because he was not aware of the ahadith found in Muwatta and Bukhari?(2) Or are these ahadith themselves not authentic?(3) Or is it that the report about Hadhrat 'Umar stopping women from going to the mosques is a false report?(4) It is hard to say anything with certainty but one thing is crystal clear: If on the one hand we have some explicit sayings of the Prophet and on the other hand an equally reliable or unreliable report about a suhabi's (companion of the Prophet) view, we have no choice but to go by the sayings of the Prophet, especially when the Qur'an also points in the same direction as the sayings of the Prophet.
Let therefore Muslim sisters visit the houses of Allah whenever they can. And as they do, they should also take interest in the affairs of the mosques. In particular, they should raise their voices against position-clinging people who are trying to control some mosques of Allah.
Participation in Other Areas
In addition to participation in congregational prayers and mosque affairs, Muslim women can and should also involve themselves in other affairs of Islam and Muslims according to their abilities, availability of time and energy. Islam puts absolutely no limit to the level of women's involvement in the affairs of Islam and Muslims. In the days of the Prophet and the rightly guided caliphs, we see women taking part in jihad, not only as water carriers and nurses but also as actual combatants. In the battle of 'Uhad, for example, the Prophet was at one point facing alone the attacks of the unbelievers. At that time a woman, Umm 'Ammara, along with other members of her family successfully defended the Prophet. The first martyr in Islam was a woman, Hadhrat Summayyah. In the caliphate of Hadhrat 'Umar, Muslims came under attack from the Roman army at a place called Marj as-Safar. A newly wed bride among the Muslims, Umm al-Hakim, after her husband was martyred by the Romans, fought all day alongside with other Muslims. Before the day was finished, Umm al-Hakim had killed seven of the enemy soldiers. Muslims paid their tribute to their heroine by renaming Marj as-Safar as Qantara Umm al-Hakim.
In the days of the Prophet we also see women running businesses or engaged in farming. The Prophet's first wife, Khadijah, and Hadhrat Abu Bakr's daughter, Asma, were among them. We see women holding administrative positions. After the Muslim conquest of Makkah, the Prophet entrusted Umm Hani with the task of deciding who should be given asylum. Hadhrat 'Umar appointed Shifa' bint 'Abd Allah as market supervisor who had the job of checking corruption in the market. Probably on this basis Imam Abu Hanifah held that women are entitled to be appointed as finance officers and al-Tabari, quite logically, went further and held that every administrative job can be entrusted to women.
In the days of the Prophet at least one woman acted as imam in prayer, at least for people of her household that included some slave males. Christian churches are still arguing whether women should be allowed to become priests, but more than a thousand years ago some Muslim jurists had already accepted that women can be imams without exception.
It is true that the level of participation of women in the affairs of Islam and Muslims was extremely small compared to men, but that was not because Islam puts any hurdles in the way of their participation. There are some natural factors that keep the level of women's involvement lower than that of men. Thus once women get married and have children, they naturally get tied, for sometime at least, with the care of children. Also, because in general they are physically more delicate than men, women are less capable of withstanding the pressures of the rough world outside. Then there is also the unfortunate tendency on the part of many men to keep women out of the life of the society, a tendency that existed even in the early days of Islam. But the point is that as far as Islam itself is concerned, it would like to see women participate in the affairs of Islam and Muslims as much as it is possible for them to do within the limits of their abilities and without neglecting their obligations as mothers, wives, etc., just as it would like men to involve in those affairs as far as is possible within their abilities and without neglecting their duties as fathers, husbands, etc.
What we are saying here is different from what some other writers say on the subject. Their attitude can be summed up as follows: "Yes, women can participate in every area of the collective life of the Ummah, but it is better if they don't." What we are saying here is that it is positively desirable and sometimes obligatory that women, like men, participate in the collective affairs of the Ummah whenever they can. This is because in accordance with the principle of Qur'anic tafsir (interpretation) alluded to earlier, the injunctions in the Qur'an and Hadith about jihad, about acquiring and propagating knowledge of Islam, about calling people to God, truth and justice are not meant for men only but all Muslims whether men or women. Just as commandments about such personal aspects of religion as prayer, fasting, hajj, etc. are meant for both men and women (with some adjustments regarding dress, etc.), so also the teachings of Islam about these other social matters are meant for them both.
(1) Thus, for example, Ibn Kathir, who speaks for a majority of scholars of earlier times, says in his commentary on another verse about Mary ():
"(When the mother of Mary delivered her child she said), 'I name her Mary.' This shows that it is permissible to name a child on the same day that it is born. For a rule of an earlier shari'ah is also (a part of) our shari'ah when it is stated (in the Qur'an) and not contradicted."
By the same reasoning God's words to Mary about praying in congregation should form part of the basis of Islamic shari'ah.
Incidentally, the story of Mary teaches us another point and that is that a woman can dedicate herself full-time to the service of God and for this purpose live in a mosque. When Mary's mother was pregnant with her, she, unmindful of whether she is carrying a boy or a girl vowed to God:
"O my Lord! I dedicate to You what is in my womb for Your service, so accept this from me." ()
What she had in mind was probably to free her child when it came of age to live in the Solomon Temple (Masjid al-Aqsa) and serve God and His sacred house. According to the man-made customs of the Jews, in general only men devoted themselves to God and His house in this way.
So when she saw a girl, Mary's mother said with a mixture of joy and irony:
"O my Lord! I have delivered a girl" ().
"God was well aware of what she delivered" ().
He purposefully gave her a girl in response to her vow, so that the world may know that God accepts for His service both men and women. He therefore "accepted (Mary) with a gracious acceptance."
(2) This is not impossible since there are other cases in which Hadhrat 'Umar reportedly held a view that was later found to be against a sahih hadith. Thus Bukhari and Muslim report that Hadhrat 'Umar used to think that a person in the state of junub cannot do tayammum when water is not available for bath. Ammar bin Yasir mentioned to Hadhrat 'Umar that the Prophet had in fact permitted him tayammum when he was once in need of a bath. But Hadhrat 'Umar for some reason considered Ammar's report weak. Later, however, Ammar's report was found sound and people began to act upon it, and still do, despite Hadhrat 'Umar's rejection of it.
(3) This is also possible, since Muwatta and Bukhari were compiled about 150 and 200 years after the death of the Prophet and this is a long enough time for all kinds of false reports to find widespread acceptance and end up even in the most carefully produced books of Hadith.
(4) In our view this is the most likely possibility.