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Book Summary: Islam Faith and History by Mahmoud M. Ayoub

Updated on March 5, 2012

In Islam Faith and History, Mahmoud Ayoub discusses the role of men and women in the society as individuals and as part of a larger community called Ummah. In his book, Mahmoud Ayoub first relate the social and cultural norms in pre-Islamic Arabia, followed by a discussion on how Islam affected these laws, and an analysis on how the interpretation of Islamic laws are still influenced by pre-Islamic Culture.

Bedouin women
Bedouin women | Source

The role of men in the tribe or haay is crucial because they are seen as the provider and protector. Women on the other hand are deemed as liability because the tribes’ honor hinges on the honor of its women.

Pre-Islamic Arabia

During pre-Islamic Arabia, there was no strong cultural concept of family as the basic unit of society. Rather, the concept of nuclear family is interpreted on the concept of an extended family or clan living together to form a haay, tribe. The haay is where a man or woman belongs to and not ‘family.’ Thus, child-rearing, indoctrination to culture, and gender roles are the responsibility of the haay. This is due partly to survival since most societies lived a nomadic lifestyle. Thus, it is crucial that families band together for mutual interests.

The role of men in the tribe or haay is crucial because they are seen as the provider and protector. Women on the other hand are deemed as liability because the tribes’ honor hinges on the honor of its women. And because there is high value placed on female honor, it is a necessity to employ force protection. This is done through--one, infanticide. The tribe would burry one or several of its female infants alive. And second, provide force protection against capture and forced concubinage. Ergo, women are not just burdens but are liabilities to the tribe as well.

Another way women are ensured of protection is through marriage. Marriage in pre-Islamic society has two types—Sadiqah and Ba’l. Sadiqah marriages are based on female kinship. As such, the man could either pay a Sadaq which is given to the bride during the time of marriage or a mahr which is a negotiated gift between the man and the bride’s tribe that would be given to her parents or closest relative. Once the bride price is settled, the woman has to consent on the marriage before it could take effect. There are two types of Sadiqah marriages: the mut’anor temporary marriage which is undertaken solely for the purpose of desire or pleasure and bina which is a permanent union. In bina, the bride remains under the protection of her tribe and the husband would only come for conjugal visits but is free from the liability of taking care of his wife and children. As such children of Sadiqah unions are the responsibility of the mother’s tribe.

The ba’l marriage on the other hand is based on male domination. It could either be imposed by a man to a female captive or a transaction between the man and the woman’s tribe. In either case, women are deemed as if they are commodities and are treated as such—property of their husband. Children of ba’l marriages are the responsibility of the husband’s tribe.

Islamic Community

When the greater Arabia turned to Islam, the concept of marriage and family changed. Marriage must be undertaken with the consent of both the bride and groom. However it maintained the concept of mahr or bride price which became the exclusive property of women that she could dispose off as she pleases. Moreover, the bride’s custodian is no longer her tribe but her father or nearest male kin who acts on the best of her interest. Moreover, there were new responsibilities placed to the husbands—as sole protector and provider of his wife and children. Islam transformed the family as an institution. Marriage became the foundation of a family. As such adoption is prohibited to maintain the integrity of paternity.

Paternity is crucial because if the husband is incapacitated or deceased, it is the responsibility of his male relatives to take care of his family. Thus, female chastity is also valued. Polyandry becomes tantamount to adultery. However, Polygyny is acceptable but is limited to four wives at a time. This is again a response to the social responsibility of men to take care of orphans and widows by making them his wives so that these women are provided with security and shelter. If he cannot treat them equally, then it is best that he only takes one wife for himself.

To further safeguard the rights of women, Islam also provided sanctions on divorce. It limits revocable divorce to two times. Women are also dictated to abstain from sex to maintain the integrity of paternity through iddah. The iddah dictates the period to which a woman must abstain from sexual intercourse—three menstrual cycles to ensure that she does not carry her former husband’s child; if she is pregnant she should abstain from sex till after the baby is born. This would also give them time for the possibility of reconciliation.


Fusion of Culture and Religious Dogma

Despite the strict and explicit rules Islam regarding the responsibilities and expectation of the society from men and women, pre-Islamic Arabic culture still plays a huge role in their interpretation and practice of the rules of Islam. For instance, though Islam eradicated social status as one of the basis for marriage, it still plays a major role in bride selection despite the Qur’an’s warning that a man should opt to a fateful slave as opposed to a wealthy woman who is a rejecter of faith.

The conditions and duration of iddah, or waiting period, is also being questioned. Since it is instituted for the protection of the women, sometimes the prolonged duration of iddah as in the case of the speculation of death of a husband leaves a woman vulnerable because her husband can’t protect her and mostly leave the woman to suffer from financial hardship.

Islam covers not just the religious aspect but provides sanctions in terms of social and moral obligations of both men and women. As such, the practice of Islam and the adherence to Qur’an laws are not just for their spiritual edification but of moral responsibility.


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