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Islam Does Not Imprison Women

A young Afghan woman shows her face in public for the first time after five years of Taliban rule in November 2001. Does the Koran really call for such standards of decency for women?
A young Afghan woman shows her face in public for the first time after five years of Taliban rule in November 2001. Does the Koran really call for such standards of decency for women?
Many of those who have not read the Koran (or who have read but misconstrued it) regard the word of God as conveyed to the Prophet Muhammad between 610-632 A.D. as sanctioning such practices as the mandatory wearing of the chador by women, as well as covering the face entirely, in the fashion dictated by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But this is emphatically not the case. The Koran expounds a gentle, moderate philosophy entirely in keeping with the Almighty's self-depiction as being the essence of graciousness, benevolence, and mercy.

At the time the Koran was revealed in Arabic, the condition of women in the Arabian Peninsula was pitiful. They had become the playthings of males, who would take possession of them in a predatory fashion, and deprive them of wealth, liberty, and very often, their lives. It was only after the Prophet Muhammad received the divine revelations that the condition of women improved substantially, and they were given rights for the first time.

It is therefore ironic that many Western commentators regard as "pure Islam" the Kharijite practices followed by groups such as the Taliban, who claim that Islam legitimizes their policy of forcing women indoors except when absolutely necessary; wearing a chador that covers even the face; depriving women and girls of access to education and employment; making them in effect the chattels of their menfolk. Contrast this with the example of the Prophet Muhammad, who did not hesitate to serve as the employee of a woman, and who gave considerable freedom to the womenfolk in his care.

'True Believers'

Indeed, in the section on women, the Koran is explicit in the moderation and mercy of its message. Consider these lines: "As for those from whom you apprehend infidelity, admonish them, then refuse to share their beds, and finally [if such admonitions do not cause a change in behavior] hit them [gently]. Then, if they obey you, take no further action against them." Contrast this gentle directive with the stoning to death practiced by those who claim to be following "pure" Islam, but in fact are deviating entirely from the word of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

The Koran teaches the believer to "be good to your parents, to relatives, to orphans, to the needy and the neighbor who is a kinsman and the neighbor who is not related to you," for "God does not like arrogant, boastful people who are miserly." Contrast such teachings with the arrogance of those who claim that they, and they alone, are the only true Muslims.

It is important to note that throughout the Koran, the word "believer" means those who believe in God, rather than more narrowly, those who accept the tenets revealed by Muhammad. Hence the significance of the command: "No believer should kill another believer, unless it be by mistake.... If anyone kills a believer deliberately, his reward shall be eternal hell." Those who are expecting a paradise filled with delights after they carry out acts that extinguish the lives of so many who are God-fearing will find that they have, instead, been sent to an entirely different place, for having ignored the teachings of the Koran.

The Prophet Muhammad was only the last in a series of more than 100,000 prophets who came before him, and whose teachings are therefore valid. Yes, the Koran talks of severe punishment, but only for the man "who denies God, His angels, His Scriptures, His messengers, and the Last Day." The plural form of "scriptures" and "messengers" need to be noted, as they show that the Koran referred to believers in God in general, rather than only to those who became known as Muslims.

If a contrary picture has emerged of the teachings of the Koran, the reason is the higher decibel level of those who seek to impose on the rest of the Muslim Umma a code of behavior drained of the divine qualities of benevolence, compassion, graciousness, and mercy. Why so many scholars in the West considered such misguided individuals to be votaries of a "pure" Islam is a mystery.

In what follows, the teachings of the Koran will be examined in the context of the efforts of some Kharijites to impose severe restrictions on the rights of women in the name of Islam. They claim that the dress code imposed by the Taliban in Afghanistan conforms to the teachings revealed by the Prophet Muhammad.

True Qualities Of Islam

However, the truth is quite different. All that the Koran enjoins is that women "should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments what [must ordinarily] appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty" to males, except to certain categories of close relatives.

There is not a single admonition to cover the face, or to drape the entire body from head to foot, as is the case when wearing a chador. The sole exception was the Prophet's own wives and daughters, who are enjoined to "cast their outer garments over their persons" so that "they should be known [as wives and daughters of the Prophet] and not molested." This is immediately followed by the words," God is oft-forgiving, most merciful." Indeed, mercy, compassion and benevolence suffuse the Koran.

For those who seek to condemn women to a single color and mode of dress, the Koran has this to say: "O Children of Adam, wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer," for "We have bestowed raiment upon you to cover your shame, as well as to be an adornment to you." Note that the words are "Children of Adam," and not simply males, as some have argued.

Also, it needs to be borne in mind that on several matters, the Koran is detailed, but not on the question of what precisely constitutes modesty. It is clear that flexibility has been given to the believer to adapt to the circumstances prevailing at different times and in different locations.

The stringent codes of dress and conduct imposed on some societies is alien to the spirit of democracy and enquiry taught in the Koran. A woman does not have to wear a chador to appear modest, nor is wearing one an infallible mark of purity. As for the face veil, it is totally alien to Islam, and harks back to primitive, pre-Islamic practices, as do other restrictions such as the denial of rights to women.

During the past two centuries, there has been a conscious effort to winnow out of the teachings of the Koran the very qualities that qualify the Almighty, whose 99 attributes include Ar-Rahman (The Most Compassionate, Beneficent and Gracious), As-Salam (The Bestower of Peace, the All-Peaceful), Al-Ghaffar (The Forgiver), Ar-Rauf (The Most Kind, The Clement) and Ar-Rahim (The Merciful).

Where are such qualities in the life, the teachings and the deeds of those who by their words and deeds seek to portray Islam as a compassionless faith? Who seek to justify the killing of innocents? For too long have the moderate majority shown indifference in the face of that Kharijite attempt to hijack a great faith. It is time for this majority to wrest back for all believers, male and female alike, the moderation and tolerance that is central to the teachings of Islam.

M. D. Nalapat holds the UNESCO Peace Chair at Manipal University, India. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL