Once the Prophet was with a man whose young son came to him, and the man kissed his son and lifted him onto his lap. Then the man’s daughter came and he sat her in front of him. The Prophet asked, “Why did you not treat them equally?” (al-Haythami)
Even for something as minor as this, the Prophet preached equality. And yet it is this most basic gesture of righteousness that has been forgotten in the Islamic community: in many families the differences in affection are not so inconsequential; in fact, the inequities extend to girls receiving fewer necessities than boys, receiving less food than boys, and—disastrously—girls receiving less of an education with the presumption that learning is not as serious for girls, even though the Prophet asserted that both men and women and all believers must be educated, and he established a legacy of tradition in which women were both taught rigorous material and married to men based on how much knowledge the men had acquired (rather than the men’s wealth.) Again and again, the more we know of history, the more we realize that so-called “traditionalists” are anything but traditional.
I want to point out that although there was a great deal of resistance against Islam’s empowerment of women—and this empowerment and establishment of women’s rights against the resistance of a patriarchy that sought to replace God is indeed proof that Islam is a feminist religion—the greatest scholars who were truly pious embraced the new religion and its empowerment of women. Many scholars of the past were so dedicated to ensuring that their daughters continue to pursue knowledge after marriage that they married them to other scholars. Among them was Imam Ala’ al-Din al-Samarqandi, who rejected all proposals for his famously beautiful daughter from wealthy men with high titles, because his daughter was a scholar who had memorized important texts. Instead he married her to one of his most outstanding students, al-Kasani, who was an expert in the ethics and applications of law and who later became a famous jurist, to ensure that her talents would not be stifled by the demands of marriage or a careless husband who failed to value knowledge.
Shaykh al-Qurra initially taught his daughter himself, then took her to highly prestigious teachers, and when she had finished her education, he married her to a young man who was virtuous and poor and good in his studies. (Ibn al-Abbar) Isa ibn Miskin would call his daughters, granddaughters, and nieces to teach them. Sa’id ibn al-Musayyab, Abu Hanifah, and Ahmad ibn Hanbal were diligent in teaching their daughters. Sidi Abu Muhammad and Ibn Hajar among others taught their wives. Women taught both men and women. Men and women who sought education were indiscriminately fulfilled at once, as equals. And women were driven to absorb this information by their own desires, anxious to learn. Needless to say, many of the greatest scholars were once female, and they once independently interpreted as they saw fit and freely lived by their interpretations.
It is clear from the hadith at the beginning that the Prophet tolerated no degree of inequality, and it is clear from history that his Companions and Successors had taken this to heart, not only with education, but the involved manner in which they educated: men would take the familial duties that are today regulated solely to women regardless of how busy they were. Ibn al-Hutayah’s daughter learned from her father seven recitations of the Qur’an and several books of hadith, but he never saw her because ever since she was an infant he would be away teaching until she fell asleep—and for this he faced harsh disapproval from Imam al-Dhahabi, who said, ‘There is no praise in something like this; rather the Sunnah is the opposite of it. For the master of mankind—peace be upon him—used to carry his granddaughter Umamah, while he did prayer.’
He is of course referring to the Prophet, who himself took the role of caring for children, even while he was the imam leading prayer. When the Prophet’s granddaughter Umamah bint Abi I-As ibn al-Rabi was a small child, the Prophet would carry her and lead prayer with her on his shoulder. When bowing, he would set her down on the ground, and as he rose he would pick her up again and place her on his shoulder. He continued this until the end of the prayer. (Ibn Sa’ad) If anyone did this now, there would be disapproval and outrage and the child would be made to sit quietly with a strict stranger as the imam led prayer, or be handed to the mother to be cared for while the men—whose salvation is suddenly now much more important than women’s—would pray, even despite the legacy set by the Prophet according to which men must care for children even in the chaos of religious duties. Equality was so fundamental, and familial duties were so important, that all events were scheduled around the family and to the convenience of women.
Additionally (for example), the Prophet never forbade women from bringing their children to the mosque or breastfeeding them there; in fact, they were expected. Out of consideration of the children’s comfort and the mothers who attend them, he would shorten prayers, reciting concise sur’ahs. Mothers and their children were so respected that the community was built around them. The Messenger of God said: ‘I enter upon prayer meaning to make it long, then I hear the crying of a baby and I lighten the prayer for the sake of the child’s mother’s yearning to attend to the baby.’ (Muslim) But today, mothers are the ones expected to leave the prayer area if their children cry, and are exiled to other rooms to breastfeed or attend fussy children. Men have become so pretentiously pious that they treat the duties to their community almost in a manner of jealousy.
This showy piety has luckily not gone unnoticed. Mezba wrote an excellent piece of satire last month titled “Are You More Pious Than the Prophet?” in which he explores the various (darkly humorous) ways that Muslims have become more pious than the Prophet and in their sense of importance place themselves above the Messenger. Do read that post, because it is EXCELLENT.
Men do this indulging in their own arrogance as they unironically police the modesty of women, and then they place their salvation above that of women’s–which, mind you, does not prevent them from annoyingly preaching to other non-Muslims and lecturing about how kafirs will go to Hell (what happened to attending to your own salvation now?) They don’t care, of course, unless it is a means of seizing power and policing and marginalizing women.
But the ambition toward equality is demonstrated throughout the teachings of the Prophet and the precedent set by him in his legacy. His emphasis on the importance of women and girls is clear: The Prophet said, ‘God has disliked three things from you: being disobedient to mothers, burying girls alive, and the habit of taking and not giving.’ (al-Tabarian) His emphasis on the importance of men to take on the roles caring for their daughters is clear: Anas ibn Malik narrates that the Messenger of God said, ‘Whoever brings up two girls until they become adult, he and I will come close to one other like this’ and he brought his fingers together to indicate closeness. (Muslim) His emphasis on respecting women is clear: Abu Sa’id al-Khudri narrates that the Messenger of God said, ‘Whoever has three daughters or three sisters or two daughters or two sisters and then he is good company for them and is wary of God in regard to them, he will have Paradise.’ (al-Tirmidhi)
This establishment and enforcement of the principle of equality in education, and in the domains to which it both consequentially and deliberately extended—like familial duties—was significant in not only expecting men (even when things were hectic) to take on the responsibilities unfairly regulated to solely women, but was significant in elevating these feminine roles to be equivalent and sometimes even seemingly greater in value than traditionally masculine roles. This emphasis on greater value was essential and practical to balance the intense power of patriarchy that existed against which we are still fighting today. But the precedent has been set by the Prophet, and we must respect his legacy, his application of the Qur’an, and recognize that patriarchal men who claim to follow in his footsteps–who deceptively name themselves “traditionalists”–are wrongfully depriving of us practicing the rights given to us by God and enforced by God’s Last Messenger.