Are the sources of inequality in life derived from social customs and traditions, and does Islam condone and strengthen this inequality?

Fethullah Gülen

This question was asked in order to obtain and understand Fethullah Gülen’s viewpoint regarding the widespread conviction in our society, as well as in the world, that Islam recognizes a lower status to women compared to men. Here is a vision of a society which is based on peace, tolerance, solidarity and “understanding the other.” Can it then also espouse gender inequality? If it does, is this contradictory attitude implicit in the foundational principles of the religion or does it stem from life practices, which reflect the culture and history of the Arabian Peninsula?

Equipped with the lofty inner drives, the woman is a monument of compassion; and her compassion is the end product of her creation and nature. If this pleasant nature is not defiled by faulty interferences, she always thinks compassion, says compassion, sits and stands up with compassion; for whole lifetime, she gazes those around her with compassion and makes everyone drink compassion, glass after glass. At the same moment she embraces everyone with compassion, and presents compassion to drink, as a corollary of her decency and refinement, she always chuckles with pain and suffering, and gulps in suppressing her emotions. When she sees the worry and sorrow in their mood, she fades like yellow leaves and she moans and groans with melancholy, grief, and sadness…

In terms of her spiritual horizon, the woman who found her counterpart and quenched her thirst through her children is not different from the Heavenly Maidens and her nest is not different from Paradise. We can surmise that the children raised under the shade of such a person of Paradise, always sipping compassion, would not be different from the spiritual beings. In this kind of a nest, even if the bodies appear separately, the soul which dominates everything and gives life to everybody is only one. This soul which always gushes out of the woman and envelops the nest, metaphorically speaking, like a magic, a spirit, makes itself felt always on everybody and, in a sense, it directs them toward somewhere. A blessed woman who did not darken horizon of her heart, whose road ahead is clear is just like a North Star in the family system. She stays still, she revolves around herself; the other members of the system always shape their existence around her and would march on to their goals, loyal to her. Yes, everyone’s relations with the nest are temporary, limited, and relative. The woman on the other hand, whether she has a chore, a work to do or not, constantly stands upright in the middle of her kitchen where the mixture of mercy, compassion and love have been boiling and have been offering … so much to our senses!

In our opinion, especially with the dimension of motherhood, the woman is a ball of emotions and thoughts, effervescent in her heart, as deep as the heavens and as many as the number of stars… Especially … a fortunate, lucky woman has such a bright position as beyond imagination at a magical point, where we might call the mixture and unification of the material and the spiritual, concrete body and the souls meet, a point beyond which were any status or position we could assign to her, would look like dim candles, compared to her real value, shining like the sun.

In our world of ideas and the atlas of values, the woman is the most important color of the event of creation, the most blessed and magical pillar in the realm of humanity, a faultless, perfect projection of Paradise, in our homes the firmest security of our existence and continuity. Before she was created, Prophet Adam was alone, eco-system was soulless, the conceived human beings were subject to ending, the nest was a small cottage, not different from a cave in a tree and the humans were the inmates of their own cage. With her, a second pillar was formed and the pillars were bound together. The existence shouted with a different voice, and became joyful with a different appearance, the creation entered into the stage of completion, and the lonely human was transformed into species.[1]

We can summarize his thoughts as follows:

1. The woman is valuable. Her value is the phenomenon of her creation in complementing the man which transformed humanity into species. The formation of humanity was realized through Prophet Adam, but the birth of humanity was possible through the creation of woman.

2. Woman is compassionate, giving, and if she finds her place in marriage, there would be no limit to the love, interest, and positive contributions she can make to her children, her husband, and the other members of the family. Because of her, the firm families can be established and children are raised in an atmosphere of love and compassion. These kinds of people become a vehicle of goodness for others because they look at the world with love and compassion. In summary, as a good and happy spouse and a mother, the woman is important for the health and peace of the society. With this role, the woman presents a great service which is not always recognized and rewarded.

Fethullah Gülen further states:

The woman is not inferior to the man. If we are to think of the man and the woman like nitrogen and oxygen, both of them with their attributes and their special places are rather important and they are in need of each other to the same extent. To indulge in a comparing of man and woman in terms of superiority would be silly act and absurd. In terms of their mission in this world and their creation they are not different from each other and they are like parts of the same whole or different faces of the same coin.[2]

After these statements, he reminds us that in many parts of the world the perception of a woman is negative, far from his own assessments; women are often characterized in a state, close to inequality and even exclusion. When an evaluation is made of several centuries, what one sees is inequality and even discrimination. For instance, Nietzsche was a representative of an age when he says: “When you are about to speak with a woman, do not forget to prepare your whip.”

Tolstoy, in his diary book regarding marriage, had jotted down, “I am happy that I am married, the happiness of the nest is enlightening my soul like the sun.” These were proper and truthful words. But after a while he wrote a novel in which the hero of the novel was made to say: “Lo! Beware, do not marry, your spouse would prevent you from displaying a good work. She would suppress your interests and make you into a common, ordinary being. Since she is a lowly being, she would desire to make the spirit of her husband also lowly.” Thus he had made an exposition of what he had thought of women clearly.[3]

In the Arabian Peninsula where Islam first emerged, during the Period of Ignorance the state of the affairs was the same. It was a complete tragedy as far as the birth of women, growing up and their upbringings, and later their marriages, were concerned. On one hand the girls were considered as a burden on the family, on the other, even their existence was considered as a matter of dishonor and in some regions they were buried alive.[4]

Fethullah Gülen, pointing out that this Dark Age had come to an end with the coming of Islam, notes that women’s rights have been secured by decisive legal injunctions:

The Qur’an stresses this fact unequivocally by the declaration, “Women have rights similar to those against them (that men have)” (Al-Baqarah 2:228) and elevates the woman to equal position intended in the plan of creation. In his farewell speech, it was stated: “I advise you to respect the rights of women and to fear God in this matter; the women are the trust of God to you.” In that inauspicious period, when women were bought and sold like merchandise in the entire world, elevating them to a respectable position, is an event with an historical proportion in the world of women. The position and the rights of woman are emphasized in the Qur’an so much so that it would not be an exaggeration to say that she was emancipated from the slavery.[5]

Yes, not for anything else, God created woman as a partner and a spouse for man. Adam could not be without Eve; and Eve could not be without Adam. This first couple was given the task of, in the name of God, as well as in the name of creatures, being a mirror and a speaker on his behalf. They were like two bodies and one soul, and they represented two different faces of the same truth. Over time rudeness in understanding and in conduct broke this unity. By the corruption of it, both the family as well as the social life was corrupted.[6]

According to Fethullah Gülen, the right and the status of a woman do not depend on the man’s decision (or “kindness and favor”) and she is not at his disposal. Her right and equality come from birth. By uniting with man and establishing the family of “humanity,” there can be no relationship of superior and inferior between man and woman.

Nevertheless, because of the woman’s delicacy which originates from creation, the Prophet Muhammad had given the task of her protection to man. Man’s transforming this task into oppression and domination is not something related to religion, but it is a historical and de facto matter.

He establishes the bridge between women’s rights and the human rights as follows:

The human is the sole creature on the face of the earth, deserving the title halifatullah [the vice-regent of God on Earth]. In Islamic religion humans are made into a sultan, vice-regent of God. He was given the right to interfere with things. He was equipped with the rights like the right to defend himself, the right to protect his progeny, the freedom to live and work the freedom of enterprise.[7]

As for the rights of women, in Islam the man and the woman makes up a perfectly running system like teeth of a wheel. Therefore we should not understand different creation of the woman as her shortcoming. First of all, it should be accepted that these things were created in nature, to a certain extent, in different ways. In terms of the tasks that they can perform, and at the same time some responsibilities they are under, and even in terms of some other things they are subjected to, there are some differences. As a corollary or as a consequence of their nature, they will have their share in the division of labor, and the other side will have their own share.[8]

Recognizing the possibility of being misinterpreted on the point that the natural differences he mentions could be used as a barrier for women’s participation in social life and the work force, Fethullah Gülen adds:

Woman can work in normal regular jobs. Nothing can be demonstrated from Islam which prevents women from working. But in the issue of giving her a load of work which is beyond her capacity, the Messenger of God had opposed it. For instance, at one place he says: It would be unfair to give her weapons and send her to the front … to let her undertake heavy work.[9]

Fethullah Gülen’s interpretation is inspired by the Prophet’s interpretation: Both the man and the woman should not be forced to work in a field that is not consonant with their traits, which he refers to as “creation.” For example, instead of caring for the child in pre-education, it is more appropriate for a man to work outside and in heavy work, where conditions are difficult.

The woman, on the other hand, in the home setting and where compassion is required, would be more productive and beneficial to nurture and guide her children. But, in the words of Fethullah Gülen, “The woman would also help her husband to shed the stress he was afflicted outside the home, she would have mutual exchange of ideas with him.”[10] Thus, although the woman has the right to work both in- and outside of the home, her load should not exceed her capacity. In other words, the woman should not be over exhausted, as a firm family structure can only be realized through the efforts of a woman who is not worn down and happy. He believes that healthy societies are the products of this sort of family.

This view might be found too traditional in some circles but Fethullah Gülen believes that when a division of labor is established appropriate to the nature of the genders, it is beneficial for the family, as well as for the society.

He moves from here to several themes that have been offered as examples of discrimination in Islam against women. First is the issue that two women are required as witnesses in the place of one man in the courts. Fethullah Gülen states:

Some women are employed as officials of the state, some work in the fields. But most of women are at home and have taking to their shoulders the family responsibility. This state of affairs was more realistic in the ancient times when the views and principles concerning the social roles of women were constituted.

For this reason, the women outside home might not be following closely what is happening outside home. Then if we say that the testimony of a woman who is not involved with legal matters, as much as a man does, is valid just like that of a man, I wonder if we would not have based legal rulings on the minority view. In terms of philosophy of law, I wonder if this would be acceptable.

God had equipped the women with different things. ... To be equipped with compassion … maybe negative in the process of a trial. In testimony, the compassion might take priority… the woman might not be objective there. … But what should be important there is fairness. Therefore, the compassion of women was assessed as a weakness there. For that reason, the Qur’an in that verse approached the matter from that perspective.[11]

Fethullah Gülen continues:

Constantly taking the women from their homes … bringing them constantly to the courthouses … it is worth to dwell on this matter in my opinion, even in the name of women, and on behalf of feminism.[12]

Fethullah Gülen believes that the relationship between men and women should be assessed within the framework of the institution of family. He again refers to the Qur’an and hadiths of the Prophet: “The Qur’an calls people to family life and points out many reasons and benefits of marriage.” After this, he provides the following examples:

If you fear that you will not be able to observe their rights with exact fairness when you marry the orphan girls (in your custody), you can marry, from among other women (who are permitted to you in marriage and) who seem good to you, two, or three, or four. However, if you fear that (in your marital obligations) you will not be able to observe justice among them, then content yourselves with only one, or the captives that your right hands possess. Doing so, it is more likely that you will not act rebelliously. (An-Nisa 4:3);

According to customary good and religiously approvable practice, women have rights similar to those against them (that men have), but men (in respect of their heavier duty and responsibility) have a degree above them (which they must not abuse). And God is All-Glorious with irresistible might, All-Wise. (Al-Baqarah 2:228);

Mothers (whether married or divorced) are to suckle their children for two complete years if the fathers wish that the period be completed. It is incumbent upon him who fathered the child to provide the mothers (during this period) with sustenance and clothing according to customary good and religiously approvable practice. (Al-Baqarah 2:233);

Give to the women (whom you marry) their bridal-due (mahr) willingly and for good (i.e. without expecting a return); however, if of their own accord, they remit any part of it to you, then you are welcome to enjoy it gladly. (An-Nisa 4:4);

But if you still decide to dispense with a wife and marry another, and you have given the former (even so much as amounts to) a treasure, do not take back anything thereof. Would you take it back by slandering (for the purpose of contriving the kind of divorce that allows you to take it back), and so committing a flagrant sin? (An-Nisa 4:20);

O (most illustrious) Prophet! When you (Muslims) intend to divorce women, divorce them considering their waiting-period (as appointed in Law), and reckon the period (with due care), keeping from disobedience to God, your Lord, in reverence for Him and piety. (While the divorce is taking effect, during their waiting-period) do not drive them out from their houses (where they have lived with their husbands), nor shall they themselves leave, except in case they have committed an open indecency. (At-Talaq 65:1);

House them (the divorced women during their waiting-period in a part of the house) where you dwell and provide for them, according to your means; and do not harass them so as to straiten conditions for them (thus forcing them to leave). If they are pregnant, maintain them until they deliver their burden; and if (after the delivery and the waiting-period has ended,) they suckle (the baby) for you, give them their due payment. (At-Talaq: 65:6)

As a man of religion, Fethullah Gülen expresses that in every injunction found in the Qur’an there is wisdom. It is evident that some of the examples that he mentions are taken from the Arab society and the social relationships in those times. Naturally, the question arises whether they are still valid for today’s lifestyles and social relations. Fethullah Gülen is aware of this issue as well and advises to take cognizance of the spirit of these precepts:

The Qur’an, as in many cases in this matter, in addition to reminding spouses about their duties towards one another, emphasizes the main principles of human morality, and invites individuals to be respectful to God and virtuous towards each other. Such an atmosphere of respect is necessary for the continuation of humane and legal relations. That is because institutions such as marriage with a unique aspect of privacy can hardly be controlled by outsiders. As a matter of fact, it is a considerable issue to refer to a judge or a referee in the case of disagreement between spouses. Yet, the fundamental issue is to prevent the problems from the very beginning, or to solve them at the very time of occurrence.[13]

In short, Fethullah Gülen aims at protecting and preserving the family institution and believes that it is the foundation of healthy social relationships and a social structure. He states that Islam’s principles and values are not behind the West, but even ahead of it on many issues:

Until recently, it was not possible in the West to talk of women’s rights. In our day, on the other hand, going into various extremities and deviations, as it were a reaction to the previous periods has been displayed. As a matter of fact, all of these remain in theoretical plane. How many female presidents are there in the whole world? In how many places are female officers are serving at the higher echelon of the armies? I wonder if women whose proportion is equal to that of men are represented in the parliaments proportionate to their numbers. How many women are there among the spiritual leaders of the world? We can add to that the justice departments, security organizations, secret services.

Even today, there are ardent supporters in the West, of the position that it is supposed to be that way. We have never encountered in our realm such a thing. The French sociologist Gaston Bouthoul [1896–1980] talks about how women, because of their psychological aspects and with their particular logic and reasoning, could not undertake some heavy tasks and therefore in the days ahead the matters like the art of war will still be left to men.

According to him, it would be wrong to consider women to be equal to men in political matters, as well. In summary, he makes some advices considering the physical structure of women that the numbers of those who share his views are not inconsiderable.

Although it would not be an appropriate method to express the issues Islam has brought about by contrasting them to others, no doubt it would be more enlightening to explain some issues by comparisons.

In the ancient Indian religions, the woman is a dirty, lowly creature with a weak character. In any case, at the beginning Buddha was not accepting the initiation of women into his religion. The law of the time did not recognize any right to women. In Hebrew tradition, the father, if need be, could sell his daughter, and if there was a male progeny, the female could not have any share from the inheritance. In the ancient Greece, the woman could be handed over to someone else. In China the women was not considered a human being, she could not appropriate even a personal name. It must have been due to the alterations in both Christianity and Judaism, since Eve caused Adam to eat from the forbidden fruit by way of deception, the woman was considered the originator of this first sin. In a most civilized nation of the West, only in the 16th century, the woman was allowed to touch a copy of the Bible.

In Asia, too, the situation was not different from this. If he had the means, a man could marry as many as he wished; it used to be considered legitimate without any objection for the son to marry any step mother with the exception of the biological mother.

In the Arabian Peninsula, the situation was dismal. When the situation suited, she used to change hands like a merchant’s good; as far as some tribes were concerned, due to the consideration of the difficulties of earning the livelihood, the female children used to cease from the beginning and they were buried alive. Even if she could manage to live, she used to be denigrated to the lowest of the low. The adultery was equal to that of our epoch. The immoral games played on women were, for those who still remained sane, who did not lose humanity, to an extent to drive them insane.

Islam marched on all these problems altogether. It took women as well as men as its addressee and at one thrust forward ... providing a new status; it has exalted her to a position of a blessed creature. Freeing her from being a door of profit honored her with giving the position of mother under whose feet lays Paradise. From now on, this exceptional being was not going to be forced into fornication, adultery, unchaste behaviors and never ever to be lowered to a position of a merchandise to be sold and bought. They would not be subject to unfriendly looks, no slander or degrading would be implied in words: “Those who accuse chaste, honorable women (of illicit sexual relations) but do not produce four male witnesses (who will witness that they personally saw the act being committed): Flog them with eighty stripes, and do not accept from them any testimony ever after. They are indeed transgressors, except those of them who repent thereafter and mend their ways. For surely God is All-Forgiving, All-Compassionate. As for those who accuse their own wives of adultery but have no witnesses except themselves, such a person must testify four times swearing by God in each oath that he is indeed speaking the truth, and the fifth time, that God’s curse be upon him if he is lying.” (An-Nur 24:4–7).

The daughters would not be taken lightly, and the murdering them would altogether be banned: Come, let me recite what your Lord has made unlawful for you: that you associate nothing with Him; and (do not offend against but, rather) treat your parents in the best way possible; and that you do not kill your children for fear of poverty; it is We Who provide for you as well as for them; and that you do not draw near to any shameful thing (like adultery, fornication, and homosexuality), whether committed openly or secretly; and that you do not kill any soul, which God has made sacred and forbidden, except in just cause. All this He has enjoined upon you, that you may use your reason (and so believe, know right from wrong, and follow His way). (Al-An’am 6:151).

What is narrated in the Qur’an is the creation of Adam first and then from his ferment or essence the creation of Eve. This picture is aimed at reminding that both of them are human beings, without making any discrimination. If we look at this matter from the perspective of the Qur’an’s descriptions, it would be quickly understood that these two creatures are important phenomena complementing each other. Even if there is a difference between them, it is being a special design for many divine purposes; it is not an ontological difference at all. The verses in the Qur’an which gives the sense that man is superior over woman are the verses revealed… with the aim of expressing different talents and capabilities. “(People differ from each other in capacity and means of livelihood, and it is not in your hands to be born male or female. Therefore) do not covet that in which God has made some of you excel others (thus envying others in such things as status or wealth, or physical charms, and so objecting to God’s distribution). Men shall have a share according to what they have earned (in both material and spiritual terms), and women shall have a share according to what they have earned. (On the other hand, do not refuse effort and aspiration; instead of envying others,) ask God (to give you more) of His bounty (through lawful labor and through prayer). Assuredly, God has full knowledge of everything.” (An-Nisa 4:32). In terms of the relationship between the servant and God, the worship to Him, there is absolutely no difference whatsoever between man and woman. Everyone’s earning is to oneself. Everyone is the king or queen of his or her own knowledge and moral beat, and the considerations outside this have no value.

As in Islam it is out of the question to talk about a difference between man and woman in terms of being a human and being a servant to God in worship, in terms of basic rights and responsibilities, again there is no difference between these two genders. The women are not different from men in the fields of freedom of religion and thought, freedom of life, the rights of property and possession, to be treated with justice and equality before the law, the right to marriage and family, the right to privacy of individual life and inviolability. Just like those of men, her property, life, honor are under protection and for those who infringe on them there is a proper punishment. Yes, the woman is also free and independent person. Her being a woman is not a cause for restricting or destroying any of her qualifications.

Whenever any of the rights belonging to her is violated, just like man, she can address the grievances. If she has something rightfully belonging to her but in charge of someone else, she can recover it. In the religion of Islam, some legal regulations were enacted, by taking into consideration some traits and attributes of men and women separately. For instance, the woman was considered as exempt from army duty, war, and the burden of taking care of close relatives, the responsibility to pay for the blood money in the face of a murder perpetrated by a relative. When it is added to these, the fact that the woman does not participate in different burdens of life due to her special private conditions, it would be evident that, compared to man, she would have less expenditures. For this reason, her taking half share of certain things in inheritance would offset the lesser debts she owes. When the antipathy which might arise in mother’s home, due to the feeling that she is taking the property from the father’s home, is added to that it would be obvious how this distribution is right and fair.[14]

Fethullah Gülen explains the philosophy behind the legal system which was shaped in the Arab society where Islam first emerged and spread. Of course, he is aware that there is no corresponding environment today and stresses the necessity of retaining the spirit of it. According to Fethullah Gülen, “The fundamental issue here is the realization of justice.”[15]

When concluding this topic, Fethullah Gülen discusses the following about the limitless and unprincipled sexuality which threatens the healthy life (which he refers to as the “moral” life) of the family and its protection:

Islam has not prohibited one to fulfill the bodily and material desires at all. It considered having the pleasures within the legitimate boundaries as sufficient to enjoy life, and it discourages not to go into the illegitimate pleasures, in one drop of which there is a pain that could be measured in tons.[16]

[1] Fethullah Gülen 2000.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid
[7] Fethullah Gülen 2009b, 94.
[8] The interview given to the NMO (Dutch Muslims Broadcast), 19 October 1995.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Sarıtoprak and Ünal 2005, 463.
[14] Akademi Araştırma Heyeti 2006, 174–178.
[15] Sarıtoprak and Ünal 2005, 465.
[16] Ibid., 180.

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