Spiritual Equality of Men and Women

Umm Salamah asked the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), “Why is it that men are mentioned in the Qur’an, but we women are not mentioned?” In response, Allah sent down a verse1.

“Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so – for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.” (Qur’an, 33:35)

This is one of several Qur’anic verses that establishes the essential spiritual equality of men and women. Other verses tell us that believers – men and women – will receive light on the Day of Judgment, will enter Paradise, will not be wronged in the least, will be rewarded according to the best of their actions, and will be given provision without account. (See: Qur’an, 3:195, 4:124, 16:97. 40:40, 57:12).

Hence, Muslim scholars often mention a general principle:

النساء شقائق الرجال

Women are the counterparts of men.”2

This means that every right and obligation that applies to men applies equally to women, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. Remember that, given the societal setup and norms of 7th-century Arabia, the Prophet (s) was, naturally, spending more time with men than with women, and so the wording of his statements would nomally be addressed in the male gender. Hence, when we find hadiths about marying for beauty, or desiring to have children, or remaining faithful to one’s spouse, even though many of these hadiths are addressed to men, we are entitled to deduce a similar, reciprocal ruling for women.

Notwithstanding the essential spiritual equality of men and women, there are areas in which they are not identical, and some of these (like childbearing) are physiological and (in a sense) inevitable.

“And do not wish for that by which Allah has made some of you exceed others. For men is a share of what they have earned, and for women is a share of what they have earned. And ask Allah of his bounty. Indeed Allah is ever, of all things, Knowing.” (Qur’an, 4:32)

These differences do not mean men are superior, nor that women are superior. According to a report from Qatadah and al-Suddi (tafsir scholars of the Tabi`in, the above verse was revealed in response to some men who thought that they were entitled to double reward due to their gender, and some women who thought the punishment for their sins would be half that of men’s. 

Allah has made each gender unique and special in its own way, and we are expected to realize and accept this. 

To be continued — Part 2 examines three Quranic verses that are sometimes cited in support of an inherent male superiority, and shows how the verses do not support that conclusion.

— Suheil Laher


1Ibn Kathir judged its chain of transmission as good (hasan) in Tuhfat al-Talib, as did Ibn Hajar in Muwafaqat al-Khabar. Tabari mentions several similar narrations in his exegesis (tafsir).

2 These words are also contained in a hadith, narrated by Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi and others, but there is disagreement over one of the narrators, `Abd-Allah ibn `Umar al-`Umari, who was an upright man, but whom some critics judged to have poor memory. Nevertheless, Ibn al-Qattan apparently judged it as a sound hadith. And Allah knows best.

Chivalric Glory and Extremist Ignominy

By Suheil Laher

Chivalry and bravery have long been valued as noble human qualities. I remember a picture book in the library of my Kindergarten 2 class (at St Margaret’s Kindergarten School) about King Arthur’s knights, who are often regarded as emblematic of such ideals in the West. Jihad in Islam includes not only an inner dimension of spiritual struggle, but also an external dimension of helping the weak and striving against injustice. Extremist jihadi groups like ISIS appeal to Muslim youth (and others) on the basis of the latter, but by selective, decontextualized citations from an amalgam of history, medieval law and Islamic sacred texts, they bypass the honorable chivalrous teachings, higher objectives and profound vision of sacred law that are held to by mainstream Muslim scholars.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 drew widespread international condemnation, including a resolution by the UN General Assembly. In accordance with both the UN Charter[1] and the Islamic understanding of self-defence against aggression, Afghans as well as many non-Afghan Muslims rallied against the Soviet intervention. The liberation effort was widely recognized in the Muslim world as a glorious jihad, and the United States government (among other Western and Eastern non-Muslim nations) was openly and actively providing financial, material, and moral support to the mujahideen. Naturally, many American Muslims also either supported the Afghan jihad or looked upon it favorably.

It was a euphoric time, but it was not to last. After the departure of the Soviets from Afghanistan in 1989, and the toppling of the Soviet-backed president in 1992, things took  a darker turn. Civil war broke out among the mujahideen in Afghanistan, and some of the foreign mujahideen were left grappling with post-war trauma, along with the difficulty of reintegration into civilian life, compounded by their being unwelcome in some of their home countries due to fears that they would harness popular grievances to foment revolution against those Middle Eastern governments.

It was in such circumstances that some of the former mujahideen began to move in a new direction: away from the honorable chivalry of true jihad towards an ignominous extremist ideology. Al-Qaeda, and eventually ISIS were born. Extremists might capitalize on the acclaimedly glorious status of the Afghan jihad, to present themselves as its heirs and perpetuators. But in Islam, actions are validated by sacred texts, not by appeals to charismatic lineage. A religious rhetoric, similar to that which was once used to enthuse Muslims with the noble spirit of just resistance against Soviets, has now been subverted and perverted to call towards extremism and terrorism. The rhetoric is similar, and might appeal to some of the same principles (such as resisting oppression) and sacred texts, but the big difference is that it is now out of touch with the noble chivalry of true jihad that we find in the Qur’an and Sunna.

I advise Muslims (including, but not limited to, Muslim youth) not to be duped by half-baked religious rhetoric. To realize that while injustices exist in the world, and jihad continues until the day of Judgment, nevertheless true jihad must be carried out through legitimate and honorable means. Radical ISIS-style extremism is a crude and dangerous caricature of jihad. Exercise caution in your charitable giving, and don’t be deceived into thinking that you are helping Islam by supporting groups that are actually hurting the cause of Islam and Muslims. Do not capitulate to a cult mentality, where you take religious teaching from a limited set of scholars, who use emotions to make you feel that you would be betraying faith and justice if you listen to those who condemn terrorist acts. If you are not willing to listen to the other side, how can you be so sure you are correct? Did not the Prophet (peace be upon him) warn of people who would recite the Qur’an, and zealously worship and strive, and yet be a liability to Islam because of their lack of deeper understanding? Truth prevails, and Allah has given you a conscience and a mind that allow you to think for yourself. Islam is a profound religion that seeks to actualize lofty and noble objectives in both individual and society. If you refuse to think about and to see the bigger picture, and content yourself with a narrow tunnel-vision of Islam, I think you are short-changing yourself.

أما الخيام فإنها كخيامهم ** وأرى نساء الحي غير نساءها
(A poet describing with anguish how, in desparate search of the nomadic tribe of his fiancee, he discovers tents that look like their tents, only to discover that the people inhabiting them are different people.)

[1] “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations” Chapter VII, Article 51.

Non-Muslim Minorities and Religious Tolerance

The arrival of Islamic rule marked an end to the persecution to which non-Zoroastrian minorities had been subjected in pre-Islamic Persia.[1] It is sadly strange then, that fourteen centuries later, Islam is now being invoked and interpreted in an attempt to exterminate such populations, and moreover to do so in grisly and inhumane ways that are themselves incongruous with Islam’s central values of kindness and compassion.

I was incredulous when I first read recent reports of members of the non-Muslim Yazidi minority in Iraq being killed and enslaved in the name of Islam. The reported actions troubled my conscience, and furthermore, for historical and theological reasons, did not sit right with my understanding of Islam. Yet, I was aware of statements in medieval books of Islamic law that might be produced as partial justification of the actions, and so I felt the need to articulate a coherent response to questions such as the following: As a Muslim, am I required to agree with such killing and enslavement? If they are correct, then how can it be that these religious minorities have survived fourteen centuries in the heart of the Islamic lands without yet having been exterminated?

The majority opinion among Muslim jurists, and the dominant operative view across Muslim history has been that of tolerance to all non-Muslim religious communities.  After explaining this to be the case, I will show how this view is also in line with a general Qur’anic principle backed by common sense.

Muslim scholars, across sects and the various legal schools, are in agreement that Jews and Christians, being People of Scripture, can live as subjects of the Islamic state, and are not forced to convert to Islam (although they are welcome and encouraged to do so). They are subject to a tax called the jizyah, which was paid, as British Orientalist Thomas Arnold Walker explains, “by those whose religion precluded them from serving in the army, in return for the protection secured for them by the armies of the Musulmans.”[2] Muslim scholars are further agreed that Zoroastrians can similarly live as subjects of the Islamic state, even though they are not decisively People of Scripture, because the Prophet Muhammad himself afforded them such treatment. Jurists of the Maliki school (which dominates North and West Africa), and the Zaydi Shi`ite school, along with Imam al-Awza`i (whose school was widely followed in the Levant and across North Africa before being displaced by the Malikis and Shafi`is), generalized from this to conclude that the same courtesy is extended to people of all religions. The Hanafi school (geographically and historically the school with the widest following among the public and the most implemented by rulers) concluded similarly, making an exception only for idolators of Arabia which is actually a moot point given that idolatry did not survive there following the large-scale conversions to Islam during the Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime. When the Muslims ruled Mogul India, the (idolatrous) Hindus remained tolerated under Hanafi legal doctrine.[3]

Reframing the preceding breakdown of views, we realize that the earliest schools of Islamic law and the most widely followed (Hanafi, Maliki and Awza`i), allow and tolerate non-Muslim minorities of any religion within the Islamic lands (i.e. the “Islamic state”). Given the status of these schools and their adoption by Muslim governments across the centuries (until the Muslim world was largely secularized in early modernity), this view has also been the operative view across the overwhelming bulk of Muslim history. The dissenting view (of the (later) Shafi`is and Hanbalis, along with the Imamis), for practical purposes, persisted as little more than hypothetical juristic cogitations, and perhaps as reminders of the more stark era of war in the Hebrew Bible, where for example we read that the city of Jericho (including even the women, children and beasts) was put to the sword apparently for idolatry.[4] That tolerance of all religious groups was the norm in Muslim history is reflected in the fact that the Mandaeans, Yazidis and others have survived and maintained a presence in Islamic lands to this day.

It is worthwhile to note that the dominant Islamic view, of tolerance towards other religious communities, is also backed by general Qur’anic principle, and by common sense. The Qur’anic principle is that, “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of the] religion” (Qur’an, 2:256), and common sense confirms that a forced conversion is unlikely to be genuine. How can it be reasonable to suddenly expect Yazidis, who have been raised in their own religion all their lives, to suddenly give it up at the point of a sword or rifle? Thomas Jefferson wrote, “that if there be but one right [religion], and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free enquiry must be indulged.”[5] The Qur’an foreshadows these wise words of Jefferson’s:

“Then, [O Muhammad], would you compel the people in order that they become believers? And it is not for a soul to believe except by permission of Allah , and He will place defilement upon those who will not use reason.” (Qur’an, 10:99-100)

“[U]pon you is only the [duty of] notification, and upon Us is the account.” (Qur’an, 13:40)

“Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best. Indeed, your Lord is most knowing of who has strayed from His way, and He is most knowing of who is [rightly] guided.” [Qur’an, 16:125]

Further Considerations

So far, we have established that the majority and operative position across history has been tolerance of all non-Muslim religious communities. This is sufficient to refute the notion that the killing and enslavement of non-Muslims represents the majority of Muslims, and to dispel the idea that those actions are a clear and immutable Islamic teaching. But what if a Muslim claims that he wants to follow a minority position on religious tolerance, and to revive the practices of enslavement and concubinage? In what follows, I explain how such actions are actually inconsistent with several broader Islamic principles:

(i) The Qur’anic principle (backed by common-sense) of non-coercion in faith, already mentioned earlier (above).

(ii) The importance of priorities. Even if someone truly believes it justified to target the non-Muslim minorities, they should ask themselves: If these minorities were not exterminated by the Prophet, nor by the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, then how can a Muslim group today consider it their prerogative and priority to undertake such a genocide?

(iii) Categorical imperative: If we as Muslims are to exterminate or expel indigenous non-Muslims who have been living in a country for centuries, how are we better than the Zionists who attempt to do the same to indigenous Palestinians?

(iv) The use of inhumane techniques (such as attempting to inflict forced starvation on people because of their religion) contradict the Prophet Muhammad’s code of ethics in war and peace. When Thumama ibn Athal, a South Arabian chief, imposed a wheat embargo on the idolatrous Makkans to punish them for their mistreatment of the Muslims, Prophet Muhammad asked him to lift the embargo to prevent the starvation of the Makkan idolators and especially of their women and children.[6]

(v) The Prophetic paradigm calls for wisdom, which includes recognition of people’s sensibilities and thinking. The Prophet Muhammad once remarked to his wife that he would have liked to demolish the Ka`bah[7], and then to rebuild it according to the original pattern on which Prophet Abraham had built it. However, he refrained from this, citing as a reason the fact that people had only recently come out the state of idolatrous ignorance (and would therefore misconstrue his action as sacrilegous).[8] The fourth Caliph, the Prophet’s son-in-law `Ali, drawing attention to the importance of sensitivity in engaging people, said, “Speak to people with what they can relate to. Would you like for God and His Messenger to be considered liars?”[9] The renowned 19th century Hanafi Muslim jurist Ibn `Abidin wrote, in his didactic poem Rasm al-Mufti, “Customary norms are to be given consideration in the Sacred Law, and hence the legal determination may hinge upon it.” Actions such as forced conversions and enslavement surely have a bigger impact on the public than mere words, and taking a human life is clearly more drastic than demolishing a brick-structure. Even if (hypothetically) someone’s conscience is genuinely not troubled in the least by such actions as enslavement, they should ponder deeply the consequences of their actions on the image and perception of Islam among non-Muslims, and remind themselves that Islam’s mission is to be a source of blessing to all.

“We have not sent you [Muhammad], except as a blessing to all creatures.” [Qur’an, 21:107]

[1] “The followers of all those varied forms of faith could breathe again under a rule that granted them religious freedom and exemption from military service, on payment of a light tribute.” Thomas Arnold Walker, The Preaching of Islam: a history of the Propagation of the Muslim Faith, (Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co., 1896), 177.

[2] Walker, The Preaching of Islam, 55-57.

[3] See, for example, the following medieval references of Islamic law: Ibn `Abidin, Radd al-Muhtar; al-Qurtubi, Al-Jami` li-Ahkam al-Qur’an; Ahmad ibn Yahya al-Murtada, al-Azhar fi FIqh al-A’immahal-Athar.

[4] See: Joshua, 6:21.

[5] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1982) 160.

[6] See: Ibn Hisham, Al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah.

[7] The building, in Makkah, that Muslims believe was the first house of pure monotheistic worship on earth, built by Prophet Abraham.

[8] Narrated by Bukhari and Muslim.

[9] Narrated by Bukhari.

On Celebrating Mawlid/Milad

By Suheil  Laher

Prophet Muhammad (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) was a wonderful and exemplary human being who was concerned for the spiritual welfare of humankind, and endured great hardship to convey and explain God’s final message. Every Muslim loves him, and indeed love for him necessarily follows from belief in God. I have personally seen signs of deep love for him among various flavors of Muslim, across sectarian and ideological spectra: Sunni, Shi`i, Sufi, Salafi and others, and this is one of numerous central teachings that unite us as Muslims. I feel it is important to keep this in mind, at this time of year in which controversies emerge — sometimes even rage — over whether (and if so how) to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet (peace and blessings upon him).  If we consider the situation carefully, I am confident we can greatly reduce, hopefully even eliminate, stereotyping and condemning other Muslims with whom we happen to disagree on this matter.

If you don’t celebrate, then realize that those celebrating the occasion are moved by love for the beloved Prophet, even if you disagree with some of the specifics of how they are celebrating. You might believe they are wrong or mistaken in those details, but you cannot cast aspersions on their sincerity. Give them the benefit of the doubt as far as possible if you see or hear something objectionable from them[1]. If you do celebrate, then avoid the temptation to think that those not celebrating are lacking in love for the beloved Prophet[2]. Whatever your view, realize that the Muslim holding the opposing view on Mawlid might be better than you (overall and in the final analysis), and perhaps even love the Prophet more. In our world, we need more dialogue, tolerance and unity between Muslims, and we positively want to avoid entrenching ourselves into narrow, exclusive moulds. We may note that when Hindus in India were objecting to Shi`ite Muharram processions (which are generally considered a heretical practice by Sunnis), a prominent Sunni (Hanafi Deboandi) scholar, Moulana Asraf Ali Thanwi, told Sunni Muslims in India to support the Shi`ites in this matter.[3]

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Lost in Translation: Friendships with Non-Muslims

A closer analysis of Qur’an, 5:51

By Suheil Laher

Are Muslims allowed have non-Muslim friends? If not, then what should be our stance towards others?! Anyone who thinks that Muslims must take all non-Muslims as enemies is ignorant of the Qur’an and the life and teachings of Prophet Muhammad, and ignorant of the centuries of friendly co-existence between Muslims and others across history, not mention that such a person is blind to the decency and goodness to be found and appreciated in many other human beings. The Prophet’s own example clearly illustrates that the attitude of the Muslim toward the non-Muslim is not one of bigotry or unconditional animosity. For example, “when Makkah was in the grip of famine, [the Prophet Muhammad] personally went out to help his enemies. When non-Muslim prisoners of war were presented before him, he treated them with such tenderness [as] many cannot even claim to have done in respect to their children. A delegation from Banu Thaqif who had not yet embraced Islam upto that time came to visit him. They were given the honor of staying in the Mosque of the Prophet. Umar [the second Caliph] gave allowances to needy dhimmis (non-Muslim subjects) [rather than obliging them to pay the jizyah tax.” [see: Muhammad Shafi`’s (erstwhile Grand-Mufti of Pakistan) Ma`ariful-Qur’an, 2/57-58.]

Nor can it be that Muslims are supposed to just pretend to be nice to others while hating and cursing them among themselves in private, for the Prophet has denounced duplicity:

You will find the worst person to be the two-faced one, who comes to [one people] with one face, and to [another people] with another face.” [Bukhari]

In the Qur’an, the common origin (and hence essential oneness) of the human race is stressed:

O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” [Qur’an, 49:13]

And basic values and decency are not to be reserved only for fellow Muslims:

God does not prohibit you from being kind and just to those who have not fought you on account of religion, nor expelled you from your homes. Allah loves those who are just.” Q[60:8]

We may note that the word used in the verse for ‘kindness’ (al-birr) is the same word used in some hadiths for loving, kind treatment of one’s parents.

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Perverted Priorities : Who Is and Isn’t a Muslim?

concepts,courts,decisions,gavels,government,judgment,law,metaphors,silhouettesBy Suheil Laher


“If you don’t convert to (my sect) you might as well not convert to Islam!” exclaimed the ‘uncle’ to the young Christian lady. The lady’s husband, a Muslim, had requested his elder friend (despite his different school of thought in Islam) to come and help explain to her why Islam is so important to her husband, and why he’d like her, too, to share in its joy. The husband was startled by this narrow-minded bombshell. The shocking words of the ‘uncle’ highlight a lack of priorities plaguing some of those who profess themselves to be Muslim.


More specifically, some Muslims are sometimes (and any frequency is too often for something this important) too quick to declare someone to be outside the fold of Islam due to (i) imperfect practice, or (ii) disagreement on a non-core belief (e.g. whether and when capital punishment is mandated for apostasy, or stoning for adultery)

Read full article on MuslimMatters.orgMuslimmatters.org

Justice : A Taxonomy

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Justice involves putting everything in its appropriate place, and giving each his/her/its due right.

“God commands you that you restore deposits to their owners, and, when you judge between mankind, that you judge justly. How excellent is the teaching that God gives you! Surely, God is All-Hearing, All-Seeing.” [Qur’an 4:58]

“The just ones will be, before God, on pulpits of light….those who are just in their judgment, their families, and what they are in charge of.’ [Muslim]

For convenience, we can subdivide justice into the following categories:

1.      Justice to God

“I hate ingratitude more in a person; than lying, vainness, babbling, drunkenness, or, any taint of vice whose strong corruption inhabits our frail blood.” [Shakespeare, Twelfth Night] Read more

On Justice

Below are some brief notes on Justice in Islam. Neither the list of points, nor the scriptural texts quoted, are intended to be exhaustive. The topic is clearly more vast than to be encompassed in a brief note such as this.

·                     Justice is a central value – if not the central value – in Islam

“Verily, Allah commands justice, kindness and giving to relatives, and prohibits shamefulness, wrong and transgression. He instructs you that you might take heed.” [Qur’an, 16:90]

`Abdullah ibn Mas`ud, the Companion, held this verse to the most comprehensive verse of the Qur’an.

The themes of divine justice, particularly in the Hereafter, and of the imperative for human justice, can be found in a large number of verses.

·                     Justice is also one of the attributes of Allah

“Allah does not do injustice [even to the extent] of an atom’s weight.” [Qur’an, 4:40] Read more

A Case of Framing

We know that the Prophet, along with many of the early Muslims, emigrated from Makkah to Madinah to escape persecution. The early phases of life in Madinah were difficult, due to the pressure of the large influx of émigrés on the city’s economy (not to mention the military aggression which the Makkan polytheists began against Madinah). Food was sometimes scarce, and typically comprised barley flour and dates. Wheat flour was a rare commodity, only occasionally being brought in, in small quantities, from the Levant. Rifa`ah, one of the Companions, once obtained a quantity of this wheat flour, and stashed it in a room of his house, with some weapons placed over it. A man – outwardly a Muslim, but actually a hypocrite – from the family of Banu Ubayriq (he was named Bashir, or Tu`mah, according to different narrations) came to know of this, and that night stole the flour as well as the weapons. The following day, Rifa`ah discovered that the items were gone, and publicized the unfortunate news. Some people told him that they had seen smoke emanating from the house of Banu Ubayriq the previous night, and that it was likely that they were the culprits and had been cooking their ill-gotten acquisition. When the thief from Banu Ubayriq came to know of these developments, he started rumors that Labid ibn Sahl was actually the thief. Labid, however, was a trustworthy man, and so these rumors did not gain currency, and hence – according to some of the narrations – it appears that the thief then implemented a more devious strategy of framing someone else. He craftily laid a trail of flour from the house of Rifa`ah to the house of a Jew, and also deposited the stolen weapons with the same unsuspecting man, under the pretext of asking him to hold onto them for safekeeping. Upon discovering the trail of flour, people became suspicious of the Jew, and when he was found to have the stolen weapons in his house, their suspicion against him increased, despite his earnest remonstrations that the weapons had been entrusted to him by Ibn Ubayriq. Read more

Pluralism and Tolerance

“Why should there be more than one religion? Are all religions true? Are some truer than others? Can religion aspire to function as a positive force in the world?”[1] Thus does a leading contemporary academic identify some of the major questions posed by human curiosity. The relationship between religions is something that has long drawn the attention of theologians, scholars and historians, and in today’s global context of increased mutual awareness of and interaction between religions, the subject is of still greater practical relevance. Without detracting from this, I will assert that it behooves every individual to ponder upon such questions in the context of their own spiritual quest, and that indeed, that is ultimately the more important dimension of such enquiry.

Humility is an essential attitude in anyone claiming to be religious; so too in the seeker, and even, I proffer, in the skeptic. We must be humble before God (or at least before truth and reality, for one who has not yet acknowledged God), realizing our frailty, our own limitations of knowledge, our shortcomings and the uncertainty of our final state. We must also exhibit humility toward our fellow human beings, and not be so presumptuous as to regard ourselves as absolute judges (let alone assume the roles of judge, jury and executioner) over other individuals. Read more

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