I wonder how many men and women nowadays can digest the idea of calling Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) a "feminist".
That is, a feminist in the sense of one who always stood for the rights of women. In fact, he was just that, though the term applied to the Prophet could sound a bit quaint or anachronistic.
In a cultural milieu where baby girls were buried alive and wives were treated no better than chattel, the Prophet courageously liberated them and raised their status to equal that of men.
Muslims see Muhammad as living up to his God-appointed mission as the final messenger of God, standing up like a titan towering above the barbaric influences of the time to become the spiritual leader of the whole Muslim nation in Arabia as well as everywhere else Islam reached.
"The most valuable thing in the world is a virtuous woman."
- Prophet Muhammad
Literally, he rose to the high standards of leadership set by his own tradition: He was humble enough to listen to the complaints of his people and always hastened to meet their needs.
To the weakest among the people, he was compassionate, and considering the condition of women in those days, he was very responsive to their thoughts, feelings, and needs. He was particularly gentle, kind, and considerate toward them.
In this respect, he was very much unlike some of his Companions.
Umar ibn Al-Khattab once said:
One day I went to the Prophet and saw him smiling. "May God make you smile forever, O Messenger of God," I said and asked why he was smiling. "I smile at those women. They were chatting in front of me before you came. When they heard your voice, they all vanished," he answered, still smiling. On hearing this answer, I raised my voice and told them, "O enemies of your own selves, you are scared of me, but you are not scared of the Messenger of God, and you do not show respect to him." On hearing that, the women said, "You [Umar] are hard-hearted and strict." (Al-Bukhari )
Twin Halves of Men
The Prophet always listened to women with consideration and compassion as he valued their views and opinions not only about affairs that specifically concerned them, but also about matters of wider significance.
It was because the Prophet gave such encouragement to women that there were well-known instances in early Muslim history of some of them freely speaking out for their rights.
Following the injunctions in the Qur'an, the Prophet gave women the right to education and freedom in matters related to marriage, divorce, and property rights.
"Women are your mothers, daughters, aunts."
- Prophet Muhammad
The Prophet described women as "the twin halves of men," which emphasized the idea that their role in society is complementary to that of men. He declared that "the most valuable thing in the world is a virtuous woman."
He taught his followers that it is God's commandment to treat women with gentleness and affection because, he said, "they are your mothers, daughters, aunts."
Women Are Not the Devil
One typical Western criticism of the Prophet is about his marriages. Compared to the Christian conception of Jesus as the "Son of God", Muhammad (peace be upon him) appears so down-to-earth and human.
If Christianity celebrates celibacy, Islam definitely celebrates marriage. And the final prophet, like the Old Testament prophets such as Abraham, Moses, and David, has proved through his own example that women do not defile men.
Indeed, Islamic spirituality is not weakened by the body, as it transcends far above the demands of the body. Also Islam, unlike Christianity, does not view the woman as the cause of the fall of man.
The respect given to women as mothers is another aspect of "the Prophetic vision, in which kindness and loyalty to the mother, a rahmah (= mercy) to reciprocate the rahmah they themselves dispensed, is seen as an almost sacramental act" (Murad).
The Prophet said, "Paradise lies beneath the feet of mothers" (Ahmad).
"He always joined in household work and would at times mend his clothes, repair his shoes, and sweep the floor."
- Lady Aishah
Once a man came to Prophet Muhammad and asked, "O Messenger of God, which person of all the people is best entitled to kind treatment and good companionship from me?" He answered, "Your mother." The man asked, "And then?" He said, "Your mother."
The man asked again, "And after her?" He said, "Your mother." The man asked for a fourth time, "And after her?" The Prophet said, "Your father" (Al-Bukhari).
The Perfect Husband
The Prophet was a perfect model for humankind in every aspect of our life. He was the kindest husband and the most loving and caring partner to his wives.
"The best among you is the one who is best toward his wife"
- Prophet Muhammad
According to Aishah, the Prophet used to help his wives with domestic chores: "He always joined in household work and would at times mend his clothes, repair his shoes, and sweep the floor. He would milk, tether, and feed his animals and do the household shopping."
He taught his followers: "The best among you is the one who is best toward his wife" (At-Tirmidhi).
We should remember that those were the days when women were treated like slaves and were punished for the silliest mistakes. The Prophet stopped all that and gave women the rights equal to those of men.
For instance, Islam gave a wife the right to acquire and possess wealth and keep it for herself, and she had no responsibility to share the family expenses with her husband. And the husband had no legal right to any of her belongings.
The Plight of Women
In ancient times when a man died, his widow was often denied all rights to his property and she was subjected to terrible humiliation and maltreatment.
Islam believes that the one who works for widows and orphans is like one who strives in the way of God.
In certain societies, there was a tradition of immolation of the widow on the funeral pyre of her husband. Even if she was permitted to live, she was denied the right to remarry and lead a normal life.
But the Prophet himself set the example of marrying widows and divorcees; his first wife was Khadijah, a widow 15 years senior to him. And after her death, he married only widows and divorcees with the exception of Aishah.
Islam believes that the one who works for widows and orphans is like one who strives in the way of God. And we must remember that in those primitive times, a woman who did not have the support of a man was lost and ruined.
The Prophet's mercy toward women was not surprising, because Almighty God had appointed him as a mercy for the whole of creation.
A Revolutionary Man
In the Madinah society after the emigration of Muslims from Makkah established by the Prophet, women were guaranteed personal respect, the right to education, the right to enter into legal contracts, and the political right to express their views concerning public affairs.
They were also given the right to choose a husband of their liking and to reject a marriage they did not like. At the time of marriage, a woman is entitled to a suitable present (in Arabic: mahr) from her bridegroom, and she is declared free of all domestic financial responsibilities, which are the responsibility of the husband.
The husband is not to keep his wife in a state of suspense, whether at home or abroad, for a long period of time except with her consent.
It is the duty of the husband to provide his wife and children with food, clothes, a home, and medical treatment according to his financial position and income. Muslim scholars have said that if a man does not support his wife financially, then she is entitled to get a divorce.
The Prophet said that the best charity (in Arabic: sadaqah) is that spent on one's wife: forgiveness in the case of disagreement, good manners, sweet words, a smiling face, a pleasing playfulness, and an amusing mien are but some facets of this "charity."
The Prophet said, "The world is delightful, and its greatest treasure is a good woman" (Muslim).
The husband is not to stay away from his wife or keep his wife in a state of suspense, whether at home or abroad, for a long period of time except with her consent. Unreasonably long separation on the part of the husband without prior arrangement with the wife is sufficient grounds for her to obtain divorce through a judge.
Indeed, the Prophet allowed women to engage in suitable work for earning an income like men, so long as such jobs did not infringe on their dignity. He permitted them even to participate in battles: specifically to nurse the wounded soldiers and to fight alongside men.
All this was indeed revolutionary, considering the prevailing socio-cultural paradigms defining the Arabs of the time. So it was not surprising that so soon after the Prophet's time, the vestiges of the pre-Islamic era, traditions from pre-Islamic Arabia slowly returned and gained somewhat of a foothold among Muslims.
Consequently something of the misogyny that previously existed returned, which reminds us of the need for reaffirming the noble example of the Prophet, whose compassion to his wives, daughters, and women companions cannot be forgotten.
Pickthall, Marmaduke. "Social Degradation of Women a Crime and a Libel on Islam: The Un-Islamic Indian-Style Purdah System." Accessed 5 Nov. 2007.
Syed, Ibrahim B. "Women in Islam: Hijab." Islamic Research Foundation International. Accessed 5 Nov. 2007.
Professor Shahul Hameed is a consultant to the Reading Islam Website. He also held the position of the President of the Kerala Islamic Mission, Calicut, India. He is the author of three books on Islam published in the Malayalam language. His books are on comparative religion, the status of women, and science and human values.