Plenary:  Women's Rights and Islamic Law

  Azizah Y. Al-Hibri

University of Richmond


  For the last two decades, the state of Muslim women's rights in the Third World has raised a great deal of concern among various NGOs, especially American ones.  The assumption was that the situation of Muslim women in the U.S. is basically fine.  Research, as well as day-to-day experience, reveal a different fact.  The situation of immigrant Muslim women in the U. S. is often rooted in the laws and practices of their country of origin.  Dealing with these problems requires cultural and legal knowledge of that country.  Further, there are specificities to the American social and judicial systems that, combined with the other factors, often result in the resolution of issues in ways that are unfair towards women.  The presentation will point these problems out and suggest ways to improve the status of Muslim women in the community and within the American court system.  


  I.  Introduction to the State of American Muslim Women

            A.  General overview

                        (i)  ethnic distributions and historical background

                        (ii) types of problems facing Muslim women


B.  Background information

                        (i)  Islamic law

                                    a.  Basic Islamic texts

                                    b.  The role of interpretation in the formulation of the law

(ii) Relevant aspects of the laws of various countries from which immigrants have        arrived.


II. Problem Areas

            A.  Pre- 9/11 type of problems.

            B.  The impact of 9/11 on Muslim women

(i)  within the family      

                        (ii) other problems (CLEAR ACT, NSEER, raids, detentions, etc...)


III.  Family Law

            A.  An overview of Islamic family law

            B.  Three areas of concern and the various interpretations

                        (i) The marriage contract

                                    a. Case law in the US

                                    b. Recurring problems under American law

                                                1.  The effect of the separation of Church and State

                                                2.  The case of the unqualified witness

                                                3.  Unequal access to the legal system

                                                4. Understanding the terms of the marriage ...................................................... contract

                                                5.  What is a mahr?

                                      c. Recurring problems under Islamic law as applied in the ...................................................... US

                                                1.  Determining the governing school of thought

                                                2.  The impact of changed circumstances on the ...................................................... law     

                                                3.  The effect of the Muslims' minority status on the ....................................................... law


                        (ii) The law of khul' as used in the US

                                    a.  History of the khul' laws

                                    b.  The impact of Egyptian developments on the U.S. Muslim ................................................ community

                                    c.  The problem of enforcement


                        (iii) Domestic violence

                                    a.  Rise in incidence since 9/11

                                    b.  Islamic law on the matter

                                    c.  Cultural views and practices


IV.  Conclusion — Solving the problems



 Ayah: (plural. Ayat) a Qur'anic verse.

Fatwa: a thoughtful opinion given by a qualified scholar, a mufti, concerning a legal/religious issue.

Fiqh: Islamic law as developed by Muslim jurists.  The term is often confused  with Shari'ah, however, they are different.  Shari'ah refers to the divine revelation contained in the Qur'an and hadith, whereas fiqh is human interpretation of Shari'ah.

Hadith: literally, conversation or narration.  In the Islamic law context it refers to the collected sayings and reported deeds of the Prophet Muhammad; and it is sometimes extended to cover his silent tacit approvals.  It was passed down through a sophisticated oral tradition based on chains of narrators and later on compiled and classified by Muslim scholars into major books of hadith.

Ijtihad: jurisprudential interpretations.

‘Illah: the cause or “raison d'etre”

Khul': a form of divorce in which the wife returns the mahr to the husband in order to end the marriage.

Madhahib: (plural form of Madhab) schools of thought/jurisprudence in Islam.

Maslahah: public interest.

Mahr: tangible or intangible symbol of commitment and gesture of good will given by a Muslim man to a Muslim woman upon entering into marriage.

Nikah: Islamic Legal marriage contract.

Qiwamah: Usually interpreted as meaning the state of being “guardian” or “head of the family.”

Qur'an: The holy book of Islam revealed  to the Prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel.

Shari'ah:  Islamic canon law as revealed in the Qur'an and through the Sunnah.

Shart: (plural. shurut) stipulation in a contract.

Sunnah: the example of the Prophet's life, his sayings, his deeds, and his silent approvals. It is the second source of Shari'ah.

Shi'ah (or Shiite): one of the five major schools of thought/ jurisprudence in Islam. The Shi'ah divided from the Sunnis on the issue of the right of Ali (the Prophet's cousin and son in law) and his descendants to the leadership of the Muslim community.

Shura: consultative democracy.

Sunni: the major division of Islam, comprised in four schools of thought/jurisprudence; the Maliki, the Hanafi, the Shafi'i, and the Hanbali.

Surah: (plural. Suwar) a chapter of the Qur'an.

Tafseer: A commentary on the Qur'an, explaining what the exegete thinks is the meaning of its verses.

Talaq: repudiation, divorce initiated by the husband.

Tawhid: the belief in one God, the central doctrine in Islam.

Wilayah: authority, guardianship. In this context, a form of guardianship that a father (or one who stands in his shoes)has over his daughter in matters of marriage. It is compulsory under some jurisprudential theories but merely advisory under others.


Select Bibliography

Asma Afsaruddin, Ed., Hermeneutics and Honor (Hcmes, Harvard University, 1999

Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam (Yale University Press, 1992)

Taha Jabir Al-'Alwani, 'Usul Al- fiqh al-islami: Source Methodology in Islamic Jurisprudence (International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1990)

N. J. Coulson, A History of Islamic Law (Edinburgh, 1964)

Dawoud Sudqi El Alami and Doreen Hinchcliffe, Islamic Marriage and Divorce Laws in  the Arab World (London: Cimel and Kluwer Law International, 1998)

Obaidul Huq Chowdhury's Hand Book of Muslim Family Laws (Dhaka: Al Afsar Press, 1997)

Isma'il Al Faruqi, Al-tawhid (The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1992)

----------------------, Islam (International Graphics, 1984)

Nicholas Heer, Islamic Law and Jurisprudence (University of  Washington Press, 1990)

Azizah Al-Hibri, Ed., Special Issue on Islam, Journal of Law and Religion (Fall, 2001)

---------------------, Ed., Women and Islam (Pergamon, 1982); Variety of Articles

Keith Hodkinson, Muslim Family Law: a Sourcebook (London: Croom Helm, 1984)

Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence (Cambridge, Islamic Texts Society, 1991)                   

Fatima Mernissi, Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World (Addison-wesley Publishing Co., 1992).

Tariq Ramadan, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (Oxford University Press,  2003)

Joseph Schacht, an Introduction to Islamic Law (Clarendon Press, 1986)

George Sfeir, Modernization of the Law in Arab States (Austin & Winfield, 1998)

Barbara Freyer Stowasser, Women in the Qur'an, Traditions, and Interpretation (Oxford, 1994).         

Amina Wadud, Qur'an and Woman (Oxford University Press, 1999)   

Gisela Webb, Ed.,  Windows of Faith (Syracuse, 2000)

Selections from <>


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