With the revelation of Islam in seventh century century Arabia came the insistence that the value of a female life is no less than that of a male life. This was exemplified most prominently in the prohibition on female infanticide. According to societal custom at the time, some female infants were left to die after birth, because they were considered to be a vulnerable liability in a warring tribal society. God expresses strong disapproval of this practice in the Quran.
"For, whenever any of them is given the glad tiding of [the birth of] a girl, his face darkens, and he is filled with suppressed anger, avoiding all people because of the [alleged ] evil of the glad tiding which he has received, [and debating within himself:] Shell he keep this [child] despite the contempt [which he feels for it] - or shall he bury it in the dust? Oh, evil indeed is whatever they decide!" (Surah al Nahl - The Bee, 16:58-59)
The verse ends by posing a rhetorical question, since both are evil choices - treating female children with contempt or killing them. The larger evil that is being condemned is the low esteem in which daughters were held in Arab society of that time.
This condemnation is articulated again in Surah al Takwir - Shrouding in Darkness, (Quran 81:8-9), which refers to Judgment Day, "and when the girl-child that was buried alive is made to ask for what crime she had been slain". The verse refers to the fact that God will hold everyone accountable for their actions on Judgment Day. In this context, it is not the female child who is responsible for her own death. It is the parent who killed his/her daughter who will be held accountable, based on the testimony of the female infant. Thus, parents are strongly enjoined to be God-fearing and to treat their daughters with the same esteem that they do their sons.1
A hadith, attributed to the Prophet (pbuh), stresses the the equality of male and female children. It states "one who has two daughters and no son, and spends his life in their proper upbringing and education will be closest to me in Heaven."2
All life is equally honored, and all beings are equal in rights and obligations as the creation of God. The equality of man and woman is mentioned in Surah An Nisaa - Women, (Quran 4:1), "O Mankind! Be conscious of your Sustainer, who has created you out of one living entity, and out of it created its mate, and out of the two spread abroad a multitude of men and women. And remain conscious of God, in whose name you demand [your rights] from one another, and of those ties of kinship. Verily, God is ever watchful over you!".
The first part of this verse discussed the fact that human beings all originate from similar circumstances. In a general sense, this implies common descent of the human race from Adam and Eve. But it also refers to the fact that the granting of life is an act of God, and He does not distinguish between man and women. The second part of the verse enjoins people to remember their mutual rights and duties that have been granted to them, as a part of their awareness of God. In particular, this includes respect for women, as mothers and wives, since they are the ones that bear children.
From a more biological perspective, the origins of both men and women are also the same. Surah al Qiyamah, (Quran 75:37-39) states, "Was he not once a [mere] drop of sperm that had been split, and thereafter became a germ-cell - whereupon He created and formed [it] in accordance with what [it] was meant to be, and fashioned out of it the two sexes, the male and the female? "There is no pre-judgment as to the value of creating a male or a female in the process of conception. Both are equal.
The same theme of unity of origin and subsequent equality of status is echoed in Surah al Hujurat - The Private Apartments, (Quran 49:13), "O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is all-knowing , all-aware".
Differences based on gender, race, ethnicity, among others, exist merely to allow for greater cooperation and harmony among individuals. It does not necessarily mean that there is a hierarchy, of Muslims over non-Muslims, or men over women, or vice versa. In addition, this verse highlights the fact that the moral and spiritual standing of all is equal before God. The only valid distinctions arise from the degree of righteousness that an individual achieves, not from any biologically-determined characteristic. Thus, a righteous woman would be more honored in the eyes of God, then a relatively less righteous man. The ultimate judgment is, of course, made by God.
Similarly, all of mankind has been favored by God, and bestowed inherent dignity. "Now, Indeed, We have conferred dignity on the children of Adam, and borne them ever land and sea, and provided for them sustenance out of the good things of life, and favored them far above most of Our creation" (Surah al Isra - The Night Journey, Quran 17:70). Men are not necessarily more favored then women, or vice versa, in the "provision of good things." The entire human race enjoys that privilege.
Excerpted from the book "In Pursuit of Justice".
IN PURSUIT OF JUSTICE
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1. Asma Barlas, "Believeing Women" in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Quran, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), p.181.
2. Tahir Mahmood, ed., "The Islamic Law on Human Rights," Human Rights in Islamic Law (New Delhi: Institute of Objective Studies, 1993) p.39.
*162-164 In Pursuit of Justice