The Status of Women in Arabia before Islam

While researching the social and literary milieu of pre-Islamic Arabia, I happened upon Robert Hoyland's Arabia and the Arabs from the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam. Hoyland is an excellent scholar, currently a research fellow and professor of Islamic history at Oxford. Of note is his section discussing women in pre-Islamic Arabia (128-134) where he surveys pre-Islamic records and early Islamic records of pre-Islamic times.



Being a former Muslim, I have been told since birth that Islam brought freedom and rights to women who had none. This claim is normally made when Islam's injunctions concerning women are brought under scrutiny. When asked why Muhammad considered women intellectually deficient, why a Muslim woman's testimony is worth half that of a Muslim man's, why Muslim women have far more stringent procedures to acquire divorces than men, etc., the answer has often been "Arab women had no rights before Muhammad. Girls were often buried alive as soon as they were born! Islam vindicated women from brutal oppression."

That Islam abolished the practice of female infanticide may very well be true (although evidence seems to indicate that infanticide was practiced on both sexes). But the claim that Arab women had no rights before Muhammad is wholly untenable. The records show that there was great diversity among Arab tribes, and that the rights of women before Islam often exceeded those accorded to them by Islam. 

The following are facts regarding the status of women in various Arabian tribes before Islam:
  • There is evidence of matrilineal tribes, where lineage was determined through women. Children were reckoned as belonging to their mothers, and not a male progenitor. (129)
  • Women had the right to easily divorce their husbands such that their husbands had to leave the homes, and not the women. A woman could achieve this simply by turning her tent around. (130)
  • Women were able to:
    • Marry multiple men;
    • Contract men in temporary marriage for the sake of producing offspring; (131)
    • Commission inscriptions;
    • Make offerings to their deities;
    • Act as administrative officers;
    • Construct public buildings;
    • Erect tombs;
    • Maintain considerable financial independence;
    • Be the subjects of statues and funerary reliefs;
    • Become overlords (132)
    • And become the guardians of religious confederations. (133)
I'm not commenting on the propriety of these rights and privileges, nor am I insinuating that they are better than what Islam brought. I'm making an observation of simple fact: these are instances of Arab women having privileges and rights, often far greater than those accorded by Islam.

Also, one could argue that Islam provides a better social system than those that existed in pre-Islamic Arabia; such a position is untouched by these facts. However, to argue that Islam rescued women from a universal state of oppression would be to ignore the available evidence.

Assessment: Contrary to a great deal of polemics, pre-Islamic Arabia, a socially diverse climate, often accorded women greater rights and privileges than those they have under Islam.

22 comments:

  1. the very best single source on the topic of how islam affected women is leila ahmed's excellent article "women and the advent of islam" which appeared in signs, volume 11 number four 1986.

    everyone dedicated to speaking truth about islam must read this article.

    here is a link to the first page on jstor: http://www.jstor.org/pss/3174138

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  2. I always wondered why Muhammad's first wife, Khadijah, was a very wealthy woman if women before the advent of Islam had no rights and freedom.

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    1. Yes. Khadija may Allah be pleased with her was very rich but she is an exception. Only women from high class societies can work and seek knowledge but when Islam comes, it makes knowledge a duty upon every Muslim, man or woman.

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  3. Thats really intresting... So u claim that Women before Islam had much more rights in Arab world before Islam than after Islam?? :-)
    And Really I find it more intresting that u studied only this book and concluded with facts that are not even known and accepted by Christian scholars themselves..Waiting for ur answer... Thanks

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  4. Contrary to ur blog Nabeel wanna show people here some more facts... About women status....
    History of Disgrace

    From the annals of disgrace that humanity has seen is a woman being treated like she was not even human.
    The Greeks said regarding a woman: She is like a poisonous tree and she is evil from the Satan. She may be sold like any merchandise.
    The Romans said: She does not have a soul. They would torture women by pouring boiling oil on them, or dragging them using horses.
    The Chinese said: She is cursed water that washes away good fortune. A Chinese man would have the right to bury his wife alive. If a man were to die his wife would be passed on as inheritance.
    The Indians said: A woman is worse than death, hell, and fire. A woman doesn’t have the right to live after her death, but she was required to be burned along with his corpse.
    The Persians deemed it permissible to marry female relatives without exception. A Persian husband could command his wife to die.
    The Jews said: A woman is a curse because she is the cause of sin and temptation. She is impure during her menses. It is permissible for her father to sell her.
    The Christians: The French held a discussion in the year 568 A.D. some of the issues discussed were; Is a woman a human or not? Does she have soul or not? If she has a soul is it a human soul or an animal soul? And if it is a human soul then is it equal to a man’s soul or is it below a man’s soul?

    Finally after deliberation they came to the conclusion that she is human, but she was created to serve man.

    The Parliament at the time of Henry VIII (King of England) decided that it is unlawful for women to read the New Testament (Bible) because she is impure.
    The Arabs before Islam: hated women more than death. They were buried alive or thrown into an abandoned well.

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  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Arab_societies#Economic_role
    Just for enriching ur knowledge brother I suggest u must atleast consult other historicans and study about this through wikipedia and other articles and books.... U will find things different....Sincerely

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    1. brother he is selling him in the name of quarashi---but abu jehel was a quarashi.he is selling his past,selling his soul for the money.nice go on

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  6. last thing that nobody says or said that before ISLAM women were not permitted to live... there were womens living good and having some rights as u mentioned but there number was lower then nothing... So u can' count them as a status of women at that time... As u said there were cases of women having rights u mentioned but when we say status it means a vast number...NoT FEW... Thanks

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  7. I suggest people go and see the last slide from this slideshow
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/slideshow.cfm?id=forgotten-history-muslim-scientists

    to know that the first operating university in the world was established by muslim women, and for your info before islam arabs used to kill female at their birth

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Arab_societies#Arab_women_before_Islam

    Thank you @OmranAntar

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  8. What an amazing post about women in the pre-Islamic era! This is a subject so rarely written about, and one very deserving of public and in particular, Western attention.

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  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  11. Followers of Muhammad are utterly prejudiced and biased calling pre-islamic as "jahaliya" ignorance.
    Khadijas financial independence came from the Jahaliya period, and in fact post-Islam no other female had this.

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  12. Followers of Muhammad are utterly prejudiced and biased calling pre-islamic as "jahaliya" ignorance.
    Khadijas financial independence came from the Jahaliya period, and in fact post-Islam no other female had this.

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  15. Mister Imran. The thesis that pre-Islamic were worse off than their current state now is ideologically untenable. The fact that women are a repeated issue of contention when talking about Islam is based on the fact that Islam itself has and appalling record in relation to women and slavery.
    You don't the buddhists having to defend themselves from scrutiny in relation to the opposite sex because there is not enough blaring problems between the sexes as their is within Islam. Typically within the inception of Islam the rights of women were severely curtailed within the centuries of its expansion. It was far easier to negate the power of women under the auspices of the authoritarian and patriarchal paradigm of Islam.
    Especially pertinent to this argument is the prevalence of powerful warrior queens of persia and arabian descent, the women rulers of the berber and tuaregs such as Tin Hanan, and the undisputable fact that though the rights of women varied according to class and tribe within several and I mean several of these tribes was an atmosphere for either the advancement of a woman's status and greater control over their destiny. This situation was broader for people of the pesantry and higher classes. In comparison with Islam, the wholesale abnegation of this privileges were not relegated to only a few tribes but impinged as far as possible within the Muslim World with areas such as the Tuaregs, Indonesia, and the fringes of the Islamic sphere practicing the equality of women in the way they should.
    The fact is that I can list the number of prominent powerful warrior queens of Persia and pre-Islamic Arabia, the number of goddesses worshipped beforehand, yet the point that I am making is that in wake of these elements of the social, economic and political authority that these women and lower class women exerted was substantial enough to make it harder to justify the attack and depreciation of rights that the jihads brought.
    In Saudi Arabia, women aren't allowed to drive, I have heard accounts of women being forced to ride in the truck of the car for cab services in Egypt...the fact is that you have severe issues with women pure, plain, and simple and if the religion was such a saviour and bastion of female rights as you proclaim then we wouldn't be here discussing what millions of people are saying about your culture. I love persia I love Arabia and North Africa and I say this in love is that we all must confront the nasty negative features within ourselves in order to move forward. Abrahamic religions are typically religions of peace to "infidels" ...ask black slaves, middle-eastern victims of the Crusades, and Native Americans whom I have only seen one in my life if Christianity is a religion of peace, ask the victims of the genocidal wars of annihilation in the conquest of the "Promised Land" if Judaism is a religion of peace, ask victims of the frequent jihads at the onset of the Ummayyad and Rashidun Caliphate, the black and white and arab slaves of the Arab slave Trade, and the many thousands of raped women in harems if Islam is a religion of peace. All of these religions are guilty of it and rather than trying to hide it or defend the indenfensible "humanity" of slavery in any form, we need to confront and acknowledge these truths and work for a better tomorrow. Religion is doctrine, but a true spiritual covenant with God as a parent with child is what needs to be sought.

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  16. The tired and old excuses and defense that proponents of the religion as a woman's best friend and the evidence of people burying women and female infants alive fails to accounts that these instances were few and far between and not substantial enough to be the pandemic that apologists believe. The problem with the rights of women and the detriment to speaking about female issues in Islam comes from the same issues as the delineation of rights given by the prophet muhammad: Men speaking for women, not women speaking for themselves. That is the whole problem. We not attacking the beliefs, but you have to acknowledge that true equality of the sexes in every sphere of life is better and that women as free and independent human beings have a right to decide their own issues, forge their own destiny, and create their own destiny. God/Goddess created two sexes for a reason.

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