Five things you might not know about women in Islam

Ruqayya Khan, professor of religion and the Malas Chair of Islamic Studies at Claremont Graduate University. Photo/courtesy of CGU

By Tim Lynch | Special to the Courier

Ruqayya Khan is a professor of religion and the Malas Chair of Islamic Studies at Claremont Graduate University. Her research interests include Arabic literary studies, Qur’anic studies, women and gender studies, and the digital age and religion. For Women’s History Month, we asked her to share her expertise on the influence of women in Islam.

Women are often overlooked in Western media depictions of Islam. How would you characterize the modern Islamic woman?

It depends on where she lives, and maybe there is also a generational dimension to consider here. Very generally, I would say the modern Islamic or Muslim woman is today far more likely to have a voice, pursue an education, and have a role in the workforce. However, modern Muslim women face a double bind: In the West, it is possible that they are targets of an Orientalized, racial bias or prejudice especially if they wear a headscarf (hijab) out in public, and it is possible that in their family life at home and or in the mosque, they also face certain patriarchal constraints and barriers.

Are Western feminism and Islam complementary or contradictory?

Western feminism is not monolithic. Second-wave Western feminism, which is informed by contributions from women of color, is more complementary to Islam. Western feminism has not been immune from Western stereotypes of Islam. There is much in Islam that empowers women that is not known or recognized in the West. For example, the Prophet Muhammad granted women property rights in the 7th century. Instead of being treated like property, they could own, transact, and inherit property. In the United States, women gained property rights in all states more than a thousand years later. Furthermore, in Islam, marriage is considered a contract, and a woman can stipulate certain conditions in the contract when she marries.

How is the digital age informing Islam — in particular women in Islam?

The digital age has permitted online platforms for Muslims generally to discuss, debate, and evaluate aspects of their religion and religious life, and Muslim women are putting the Internet to full use in producing female-centered interpretations of their religion. But the digital age and the Internet continue to enable Islamophobia and Islamophilia. Islamophobes and anti-Muslim elements demonize or vilify Islam, Muslims, or the Prophet Muhammad, whereas Islamophiles over-idealize their religion and yearn for its “Golden Age.”

Last year, you wrote an article titled “Was a woman the first editor of the Qur’an?” Please briefly explain your thesis.

It is a provocative title, but the main thing to note is that the woman referenced in the title, Hafsa bint Umar, was one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad. She also was a daughter of one of his most important companions, Umar, who later became caliph. She was smart, curious about much, and appears to have come from a literate family. Sources suggest that she may have taken dictation from Muhammad (perhaps at the behest of her father, Umar) regarding the Qur’anic Revelation. Given that most scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim, agree that the Qur’an was written down soon after the death of Muhammad, it is not surprising that his wives, including Hafsa and ‘Aisha, who outlived him also played custodial roles in guarding the earliest Qur’anic manuscript before it was made into the official Qur’an.

This is the holy month of Ramadan. What should non-Muslims know that might give them a deeper appreciation of the Muslim experience?

Ramadan is a special month for Muslims around the world in which prayer, fasting, and charitable giving are paramount. Each day of fasting (no food or drink) begins with sunrise and concludes with sunset. It is a holy month and one in which some Muslims come together joyfully at sunset to break the fast (iftar) at the local mosque and to pray communally and recite/read the Qur’an. The Prophet Muhammad set a precedent when he nibbled on dates to break his daily fast, and Muslims everywhere follow that today. Islamic community members of means host and pay for the food for entire Muslim congregations during Ramadan. This year, Lent and Ramadan overlap.


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