Women as prophets in the Quran

You, Volume 3, No.22; The News International. 1993

A few months back an interesting opinion was published by the team of scholars who edit ‘Our dialogue’, the religious column in the Arab News [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Saudi Arabia]. A reader had asked if any woman had been given prophethood by Allah. The editors replied without any qualms: “Many religious scholars have believed that Bibi Maryam, Bibi Sarah, the mother of Hazrat Musa and many others were prophets.”

Yet in our society people are shocked when asked this question. Many of the men who were interviewed for this article said they had never heard anything like it. Some admitted confusion. Three female teachers of Islamiat started with a firm “No” but found themselves moderating their answers as the conversation went on.

Tasneem – one of them – said: “I put this question to my teachers when I was doing my B.Ed. But they were all very sure that no woman has been a prophet.” Nusrat, when confronted with the question of compatibility between the Islamic ideals of equality and the idea that a woman was not considered worthy of prophethood, admitted that she does have queries which are brushed under the carpet. Naseem thought that more indepth and unbiased research on this issue was needed. “It is something that our minds are so terribly perplexed about, and about which we all need a confirmed answer; It will be wonderful if more research is conducted on the subject…”

Other scholars of religious studies have aired different but interesting opinions in this regard. Neelofar Ahmed, who belongs to the Daughters of Islam, an NGO for educated Muslim women, says: “In the Quran or Hadith we do not find as such that women were appointed prophets. But some scholars have pointed towards the fact that the Quran mentions some women having been addressed by God through angels, just as other prophets were addressed. Hence the possibility that some women might have been prophets. Also there were 1,24,000 prophets and the Quran mentions only 26. We may well assume that the others, who haven’t been named, included women…”

Perhaps the editors of ‘Our Dialogue’ and Neelofar Ahmed are referring to scholars like Ibn-e-Ishaq (704-767AD), Qurtubi, Ibn-e-Hazm (994 -1064 AD) and Abul Hasan Ash’ari (d.935). The first was the famous biographer of the Beloved Prophet – and among the most authentic ones – while Ibn-e-Hazm was a renowned Muslim genius from Spain, universally respected for his enlightened work on comparative religion as well as his literary writings. The last name is the most remarkable to appear in this list for he is the person who played a central role in the codification of the Sunni school of thought followed by so many Muslims today. In fact the very words in which many Muslim children are introduced to their faiths ‘Amantubillahi wa malaikalihi’ (Iman-e-Mujammil and Iman-e-Mufassil) were phrased by this same person! The opinions of such scholars cannot be turned down without thorough consideration.

Their verdict was quoted in more recent times by Moulana Hifzur Rahman Sewharvi in the 4th volume of his classic work Qasas-ul-Quran. He has summarised it in the following words (translated): “Those who favour the idea of woman’s prophethood point to the fact that events from the lives of Hazrat Sarah, the mother of Hazrat Musa and Hazrat Mariam (peace be upon them) as narrated in the Quran clearly mention that these women received angels from God bringing them wahi (revelation). They were honoured with prophecies from Allah Almighty … Hence the events of Sarah in Surah Houd and Zariat, of the mother of Hazrat Musa in Qasas and of Bibi Mariam in Aal-e-lmran and Surah Maryam all prove the revelation upon them.”

Yet when a religious scholar from a popular Darul Uloom was consulted in this regard, we got a written fatwa beginning with the seemingly historical verse from the Quran: ‘And we have not sent before thee any prophets but men unto the people of the city.’ (012:109) This verse and the other two occurrences in surahs Nahl and Anbiya are general verses referring to the trials and tribulations faced by all prophets, and may easily be seen as being a source of solace in their spirit. The fatwa continues with the well-known attributes of prophethood: ‘the one upon whom God bestows the office; invariably a person born free of all evil traits: free from anything despicable in his genealogy, physique, word, deed, action or mannerism. Such a person is given the perfect intellect which is incomparably greater than other men’s and no philosopher’s or thinker’s wisdom comes up to the millionth of that.’ The fatwa states that women are by definition unworthy of these attributes, and concludes that women could never have been prophets because they are defective in intellect [naqis-ul-aql] and because they menstruate! A fine illustration of the line of argument that our clergy prefers to follow in the matters relating to women: derogatory and simply closed to logic! To be fair, he does say that the spiritual perfection of the women of the Prophet’s Household, viz. that of Hazrat Fatima Zahra and Hazrat Ayesha Siddiqua is not to be compared to millions of “men like us.”

From a different, more liberal milieu but still on the same side of the argument are scholars like Professor Hasnain Kazmi, facilitator of Tafheem-e-Deen, the religious program on PTV. Speaking exclusively for this article, he said: “The Quran does not give us the concept of women prophets. Of course there are references of women who were intimated (by Allah) but then intimations from Allah are extended to all creation, even non-human forms of life – the honey bee has received wahi. But while there is one type of wahi which is the qualification of prophethood, there is also another type which is momentary and just meant for the consolation of the recipient. There is the case of Hazrat Musa’s mother. Something was given to her for her peace of mind. But she could not claim prophethood on the basis of that. Actual prophethood is a responsibility to be assigned by Allah Almighty. Unless He himself says that I have made you a prophet, prophethood is not possible.”

What Prof. Kazmi is saying is also in the tradition of such classical Muslim figures as Hasan Basri (d.726), Ibn-e-Kaseer and Sheikh Abdul Aziz: they have disagreed with the idea of women’s prophethood. Ibn-e-Hazm considered their objection and replied: “You cannot say that the wahi mentioned with reference to these women is the same as that mentioned with reference to the honey bee – for that is instinct or mere intimation which is different from ilm-ul-yaqeen (knowledge of certainty). The mother of Musa could not have been applauded for throwing her child into the river if she had only followed a hunch. That we consider her act sane in the first place is due to the reason that she did it from the knowledge of certainty about God’s will. That in turn proves that her revelation was of the prophetic type.”

This of course opens the argument to the meta-question “If women were prophets then why did not God proclaim so in His book in indisputable words especially when He is so keen on His prophets’ recognition?”

Ibn-e-Hazm attempts to answer this question too: “women’s prophethood was rather personal: they were not sent out preaching in the same manner as male prophets were. The reason God announces the prophethood of the prophets is that others may accept the guidance sent through them. Since the prophethood of the women belonged to that category which is meant for the guidance of the prophets themselves, it was considered enough to mention the revelations alone – there was even reason for the proclamation of their prophethood to be different from that of the men.”

Subtle though the argument sounds, it cannot be called mere sophism. It clearly illustrates the fact that the question has always remained open to debate in the best times of our history. How surprising is it then, that a common Muslim in the subcontinent today seems so sure about this point that even the question itself appears as somewhat blasphemous. “After all, it is difficult to change traditions and ideas rooted in the unconscious, especially the collective unconscious,” Neelofar says. “Now, woman, in the whole world at some time was treated as a piece of property. Our society itself is based on Hindu society and from them we have inherited the inferior image of woman.” But a woman in the Hindu religion has also been placed on a pedestal [i.e. the Hindu goddesses], so why haven’t we learnt the glorification from them instead? “Islam has done away with the goddesses. That leaves in front of us the question, what is a woman? As our preachers, moulvis or ulemas did not want to give a woman the same superior position that Islam had granted her so they concentrated on everything that could create the inferior image of woman in society.” On a personal note she added: “I realise now that I have wasted most of my life by studying or being interested in other things but not in Islam or religion – now when I sit down and read hadith I come across new things which really surprise me. I say, ‘I have never heard this before – I have never heard this!’ Because the maulana or the aalim who is writing articles is giving me summaries, selecting only those ahadith which suit his purpose.”

Not all men are alike, however. There are some like Mr Anis-ur-Rehman (Advocate),  author of several articles for the press and books on women’s issues vis-a-vis Islam, and other topics. He ventures to place woman at a superior position in the divine plan of creation: “The historical revelation of the Quran began with Surah Alaq. Alaq, i.e. embryo, can only be conceived in the uterus.” For Anis, the idea of women’s prophethood is not surprising at all: “A characteristic of the prophethood is intimacy with God. This was granted to women. If God spoke to Hazrat Musa, He had also spoken to his mother. Women received wahi too. Then how can you say that He did not make any woman His prophet? The other attribute of the prophet is that you have to follow her/his example. Now see if you don’t follow any of the female recipients of wahi. You will see that sa’i, which is the sunnat of Bibi Hajira, has to be followed during the Hajj. In a sense it is more important than zabeeha (sacrifice), which is one of the sunnats of Hazrat Ibrahim: you are exempted from the latter if you do not have the means, but there is no exemption from the former. Therefore how can you say that the status of Hajira is less than equal to lbrahim?” Anis blames men for creating a social environment where women, right from their childhood, undergo a process of “objectification” that transforms many of them into “ornamental pieces” – and that is how the society wants to look at them. “It was due to these social factors that God, who knows best about each person’s capabilities under any circumstances, did not ask women to go out preaching like the men prophets. The social environment would just not let it be. But He did make women his prophets by granting them the intimacy just like many male prophets, and by setting their actions as examples to be followed.”

An interesting debate took place at the office of Abbas Husain, the author of a series of Islamiat textbooks for secondary classes and Senior Language Advisor in an educational organisation. Having encountered such discussions before, Mr Abbas Husain had his own view to bring to light. According to him, “the discussion goes by the sifat (attributes). If receiving the wahi is the attribute, and that whether the guidance received through wahi is accepted and followed, then one can see that the Quran names three women as having been the possessors of these attributes. They are Hazrat Sarah, Hazrat Mariam and the mother of Hazrat Musa. These are three women who received guidance from God directly, who believed in it and who behaved according to it – that is what ‘risalat’ (prophethood) is.”

But what about the next logical question that nowhere has the Quran emphasized that a woman was a prophet. To this question, Mr Abbas Husain answers thus: “When you use the word ’emphasise’ or other such words you are than talking about value judgement – you are talking about selective reading (and we are all forced to do selective reading). The Quran as a whole cannot be in anyone’s mind completely – hafiz or not: they cannot pay attention to the whole of it at one time. So by definition, inevitably you select. And then to argue that ‘the piece I have selected is the issue worth talking about more than the one you have’ is to be intellectually unjust. But if you argue that the whole picture is one of justice then the problem is solved. Then you say: ‘Fine, I choose to pay emphasis, however, I am not in favour of injustice.’ The fact will remain that we would always choose details that appeal in our mindset – which is what this issue really is all about: what do you select?

A question arising in the minds of the readers might be that the era of prophets is a bygone one, so what could be achieved from all this debate whatever the conclusion maybe? Neelofar answers that. “What I say is the immediate achievement is that nowadays when you meet somebody who has very orthodox views – I mean in particular the belief that a woman is inferior to man – he thinks that his orthodox views can be justified by one sweeping statement that a woman can never be a prophet, therefore there must he something which is inferior. I think if this debate is opened then people will start thinking that if this is possible then where is the inferiority?”It does remain a metaphysical issue, but one which can have radical implications on the social, economic and judiciary affairs of women – and men too! “You see, everything of this kind filters down to the normal, everyday, practical life of the people in a society such as ours.”

This articles is part of the series “Women Studies”: Let’s say no to a peurile feminism | Women and cinema in Pakistan | Women as prophets in the Quran | A woman’s Islam? | Gender roles in education | Women’s right to divorce in Islam | Liberty, equality, fraternity | In religion’s wake | ‘Men are from Mars, women are from Venus … no more’ | ‘History, she wrote’ | ‘Debunking myths‘ | Women in the Quran | Portrayal of women in the stories of Sadat Hasan Manto


1 thought on “Women as prophets in the Quran”

  1. Interesting discussion…. but to seek “fatwaas” from ulema is not required here…The answer does not affect the life or livelihood of a muslim. Such academic debates , in my opinion, should only be held within a closed group members of which know each other personally.. written discussions in an open fora have their perils and pitfalls.

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