Saturday, June 9, 2007

Islam, Culture and Women
by Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood

How can anyone justify Islam's treatment of women, when it imprisons Afghans under blue shuttlecock burqas and makes Pakistani girls marry strangers against their will?

How can you respect a religion that forces women into polygamous marriages, mutilates their genitals, forbids them to drive cars and subjects them to the humiliation of "instant" divorce? In fact, none of these practices are Islamic at all.

Anyone wishing to understand Islam must first separate the religion from the cultural norms and style of a society. Female genital mutilation is still practised in certain pockets of Africa and Egypt, but viewed as an inconceivable horror by the vast majority of Muslims. Forced marriages may still take place in certain Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, but would be anathema to Muslim women from other backgrounds.

Indeed, Islam insists on the free consent of both bride and groom, so such marriages could even be deemed illegal under religious law.

A woman forbidden from driving a car in Riyadh will cheerfully take the wheel when abroad, confident that her country's bizarre law has nothing to do with Islam. Afghan women educated before the Taliban rule know that banning girls from school is forbidden in Islam, which encourages all Muslims to seek knowledge from cradle to grave, from every source possible.

The Koran is addressed to all Muslims, and for the most part it does not differentiate between male and female. Man and woman, it says, "were created of a single soul," and are moral equals in the sight of God. Women have the right to divorce, to inherit property, to conduct business and to have access to knowledge.

Since women are under all the same obligations and rules of conduct as the men, differences emerge most strongly when it comes to pregnancy, child-bearing and rearing, menstruation and, to a certain extent, clothing.

Some of the commands are alien to Western tradition. Requirements of ritual purity may seem to restrict a woman's access to religious life, but are viewed as concessions. During menstruation or postpartum bleeding, she may not pray the ritual salah or touch the Koran and she does not have to fast; nor does she need to fast while pregnant or nursing.

The veiling of Muslim women is a more complex issue. Certainly, the Koran requires them to behave and dress modestly - but these strictures apply equally to men. Only one verse refers to the veiling of women, stating that the Prophet's wives should be behind a hijab when his male guests converse with them.

Some modernists, however, claim that this does not apply to women in general, and that the language used does not carry the textual stipulation that makes a verse obligatory. In practice, most modern Muslim women appreciate attractive and graceful clothes, but avoid dressing provocatively.

What about polygamy, which the Koran endorses up to the limit of four wives per man? The Prophet, of course, lived at a time when continual warfare produced large numbers of widows, who were left with little or no provision for themselves and their children.

In these circumstances, polygamy was encouraged as an act of charity. Needless to say, the widows were not necessarily sexy young women, but usually mothers of up to six children, who came as part of the deal.

Polygamy is no longer common, for various good reasons. The Koran states that wives need to be treated fairly and equally - a difficult requirement even for a rich man. Moreover, if a husband wishes to take a second wife, he should not do so if the marriage will be to the detriment of the first.

Sexual intimacy outside marriage is forbidden in Islam, including sex before marriage, adultery or homosexual relationships. However, within marriage, sexual intimacy should be raised from the animal level to sadaqah (a form of worship) so that each considers the happiness and satisfaction of the other, rather than mere self-gratification.

Contrary to Christianity, Islam does not regard marriages as "made in heaven" or "till death do us part". They are contracts, with conditions. If either side breaks the conditions, divorce is not only allowed, but usually expected. Nevertheless, a hadith makes it clear that: "Of all the things God has allowed, divorce is the most disliked."

A Muslim has a genuine reason for divorce only if a spouse's behaviour goes against the sunnah of Islam - in other words, if he or she has become cruel, vindictive, abusive, unfaithful, neglectful, selfish, sexually abusive, tyrannical, perverted - and so on.

In good Islamic practice, before divorce can be contemplated, all possible efforts should be made to solve a couple's problems. After an intention to divorce is announced, there is a three-month period during which more attempts are made at reconciliation.

If, by the end of each month, the couple have resumed sexual intimacy, the divorce should not proceed. The three-month rule ensures that a woman cannot remarry until three menstrual cycles have passed - so, if she happens to be pregnant, the child will be supported and paternity will not be in dispute.

When Muslims die, strict laws govern the shares of property and money they may leave to others; daughters usually inherit less than sons, but this is because the men in a family are supposed to provide for the entire household.

Any money or property owned by women is theirs to keep, and they are not obliged to share it. Similarly, in marriage, a woman's salary is hers and cannot be appropriated by her husband unless she consents.

A good Muslim woman, for her part, should always be trustworthy and kind. She should strive to be cheerful and encouraging towards her husband and family, and keep their home free from anything harmful (haram covers all aspects of harm, including bad behaviour, abuse and forbidden foods).

Regardless of her skills or intelligence, she is expected to accept her man as the head of her household - she must, therefore, take care to marry a man she can respect, and whose wishes she can carry out with a clear conscience. However, when a man expects his wife to do anything contrary to the will of God - in other words, any nasty, selfish, dishonest or cruel action - she has the right to refuse him.

Her husband is not her master; a Muslim woman has only one Master, and that is God. If her husband does not represent God's will in the home, the marriage contract is broken.

What should one make of the verse in the Koran that allows a man to punish his wife physically? There are important provisos: he may do so only if her ill-will is wrecking the marriage - but then only after he has exhausted all attempts at verbal communication and tried sleeping in a separate bed.

However, the Prophet never hit a woman, child or old person, and was emphatic that those who did could hardly regard themselves as the best of Muslims. Moreover, he also stated that a man should never hit "one of God's handmaidens". Nor, it must be said, should wives beat their husbands or become inveterate nags.

Finally, there is the issue of giving witness. Although the Koran says nothing explicit, other Islamic sources suggest that a woman's testimony in court is worth only half of that of a man. This ruling, however, should be applied only in circumstances where a woman is uneducated and has led a very restricted life: a woman equally qualified to a man will carry the same weight as a witness.

So, does Islam oppress women?

While the spirit of Islam is clearly patriarchal, it regards men and women as moral equals. Moreover, although a man is technically the head of the household, Islam encourages matriarchy in the home.

Women may not be equal in the manner defined by Western feminists, but their core differences from men are acknowledged, and they have rights of their own that do not apply to men
Women And Islam

By Tyseer Aboulnasr, Ph.D.


As a Muslim woman, I found myself thrown right into the controversy of women's role in today's society. Over and over I had to explain that what you see in a Hollywood movie about Islam has nothing to do with Islam. For years and years, the average western person has been subjected to one image of a Muslim woman: mysteriously veiled, heavily guarded, living in a harem with a brutal sex maniac for a husband. One can't really blame this person if he or she accepts this image as true especially if he or she never saw Muslim women in any other light.

So how can one start this preconceived image and get this person to see where a woman fits in a truly Muslim society? I can only try to highlight the status of women in the actual teachings of Islam as opposed to the practices of many so-called Muslim countries and the misrepresentation of Hollywood movies. Then, it would be up to the individual to pass a fair judgement on where women stand in a truly Muslim society.


Let us start right from the beginning, the creation of Adam and Eve as revealed by God in the Qur'an. Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat fruit from the tree but both were tempted by Satan to taste it. They both sinned and later regretted it. God repeatedly reprimanded them both. Thus, in no way was Eve and subsequently all women held responsible for the original sin nor was she considered as Satan's way to get to Adam and all his male descendants. That, to start with, breaks to pieces the general belief that women are the cause of men's sufferings on earth, that they are Satan's temptation, an evil to be avoided if at all possible. In Islam, men and women are created equal as human beings though obviously not identical. Throughout the Qur'an, it is repeated over and over that men and women are created as companions on earth to complement and comfort one another. They are both held accountable for their deeds, individually. Both are rewarded or punished equally for their deeds. Muslims have been spared the debate about whether a woman had a soul or whether she was a person or not. That was never questioned while it was a hot issue in western societies up to the 1930's when the Supreme Court of Canada passed a judgement that women really are persons! This was simply a fact asserted by a religion that was born in a society where burying newborn girls alive, out of shame, as common practice. Sons were a source of pride while girls brought along disgrace. Islam immediately prohibited such a brutal discrimination. It was spelled out clearly that one person, be it male or female, can be better than another by virtue of his or her piety alone, not sex, not origin.


However, Islam's regard for women is not simply giving her a chance to survive. Muslims, men and women, are told to seek knowledge and education wherever they find it and to use this knowledge to help fellow human beings. This is a duty about which they will be asked on Judgement Day. When the Prophet himself could not read or write, his wife Hafsa, taught others to read and write. History tells us about the immense contribution of women to the Islamic community. The first believer in the message of the Prophet Muhammad was a woman. She was his wife, Khadija, and his source of protection from the pagans of Mecca in the early years. The Prophet himself was later actually physically saved by a woman during one of the battles after having been isolated by the pagans. Later, after he died, many of his sayings and teachings were narrated by another woman, his second wife Aisha. These sayings are an essential part of Islamic teachings. So what does that say about how Islam views woman, to entrust her with these roles? The Muslim woman's active participation in community affairs was established from the earliest days. This includes the right to vote. She has always been a separate individual with a separate vote. She had to swear allegiance independently of her husband and father.
MARRIAGE AND DIVORCENow what happened if this Muslim woman got married. For starters, she couldn't be married against her will, her consent was essential. If she did accept, she did not give up her family name for her husband's name. She did not have to be a staunch feminist or proclaim I am not a property to be passed on from father to husband. She simply was never expected to change her name. Important as that may be symbolically, it is even more important, on a practical level, that she was always considered a separate financial entity. When she married, her property remained her own and her husband had no access to it without her consent. She wasn't even required to share in the family's expenses even if she were a lot richer than the man. She was entitled to an explicit share of inheritance from family members. That share might be less than her male counterpart but that was only fair considering that her money was hers to keep while his money belongs to his whole family including his wife and any other women in his family who need financial support. All this was established more than 1400 years ago even before people in Europe realized it was unfair to shut daughters out of their father's inheritance or for the man to automatically acquire his wife's wealth upon her marriage.
If the marriage relationship fails and a divorce becomes the only option, a woman's rights are protected. A Muslim woman is entitled to maintain the right to divorce her husband if she specifies that right in the marriage contract. Otherwise, he retains that right. In any case, whoever has this right does not change the fact that divorce is considered a last resort, highly discouraged and to be used only if attempts for reconciliation by family members and even the judge have failed.


As a mother, she is held in the highest regard. We are told that our mothers are the most worthy of our care, love and companionship. Fathers come in a distant second. Because God knows his own creation, he knows that men would be tempted to abuse their physical strength when dealing with women. Repeatedly, throughout the Qur'an and in the Prophet's sayings, men are reminded of their responsibility to be kind and compassionate to women. That was again stressed by the Prophet in his last public address where he highlighted the essentials of Islam. Men are told that the best among you are the kindest to the women in their families. They are often reminded not to take advantage of the woman's relative physical weakness since they will eventually have to answer to an even stronger Being, God himself.


All this seems to paint such a beautiful picture of women in Islam but what about the veil or, less romantic but more real, the Muslim dress code? Islam, as a whole, is described in the Qur'an as a religion of the centre balancing the needs and freedom of the individual with the good of the society. This is the general rule which also governs the relationship between men and women in society. They have the right to work and mix together as long as that right is not abused, hurting the society as a whole. This implies that the environment in which they see and talk to one another should be a clean respectable environment where sexual temptation is practically eliminated. Some westerners, and regrettably, some Muslims, take this to imply locking up the women or hiding them in veils. However, that contradicts the practices in the Prophet's life when women fought in battles, nursed the wounded, argued with the Caliph and even taught religion. The whole idea of modesty in dress is to ensure that both sides are not distracted by physical appearances. The dress code applies equally to men and women. Both should not look sexually inviting. That might not seem like too much fun, it certainly will not allow for Dallas-like episodes, but it would improve the chances for a better family-oriented society where men and women treat each other with mutual respect as human beings, rather than as sex objects. These are the general requirements for the Muslim dress code for men and women. How women actually dress in specific Muslim countries has a lot to do with the local culture and not just with Islam.


One can't help but wonder, if Islam is so good for women, how come what we see in countries with Muslim majorities is utterly different? If it makes things any easier to understand, without, justifying them, the same applies to all other religions. I am sure Jesus would be appalled to see how his teachings have been twisted around for ages to the extent of promoting slavery or tolerating exploitation through turning the other cheek.

Muslims, like people of other beliefs have done a super job of twisting their religion to suit the needs of the more powerful in their society by generalizing specific rules on the one hand and limiting general rules on the other as they find convenient. Add this to innovations added onto the religion to suit the local cultures and you get something that may or may not represent the original. If on top of that you have a media that is either too ignorant or too hostile then the end product that reaches the average unbiased non-Muslim definitely has nothing to do with the real teachings of Islam. The only hope lies in people realizing that before one judges anything, one has to separate fact from fiction, opinions from actual happenings, etc. . . The true image of a true Muslim woman in a true Muslim society may not be as fascinating as what we see in the movies. However, if given a choice between this image and any other alternative available to date, I doubt it will be a hard choice.


Women's rights in Islam

A Collection of References from the Quran and Hadeeth about the Rights of Women guaranteed by Islam

Spiritual Equality of Women and Men

Allah has got ready forgiveness and tremendous rewards for the Muslim men and women; the believing men and women; the devout men and women; the truthful men and women; the patiently suffering men and women; the humble men and women; the almsgiving men and women; the fasting men and women, the men and women who guard their chastity; and the men and women who are exceedingly mindful of Allah. (Al-Ahzab 33:35)

Attitudes towards women ye who believe!

Ye are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should ye treat them with harshness, that ye may take away part of the dower ye have given them,-except where they have been guilty of open lewdness; on the contrary live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If ye take a dislike to them it may be that ye dislike a thing, and Allah brings about through it a great deal of good. (An-Nisa 4:19)

Collaboration and consultation

The believing men and women, are associates and helpers of each other. They (collaborate) to promote all that is beneficial and discourage all that is evil; to establish prayers and give alms, and to obey Allah and his Messenger. Those are the people whom Allah would grant mercy. Indeed Allah is Mighty and Wise. (Al-Taubah 9:71)

Examples of Consensual Decision Making

If both spouses decide, by mutual consent and consultation, on weaning [their baby], there is no blame on either. If you want to have your babies breastfed by a foster mother you are not doing anything blame-worthy provided you pay to the fostermother what you had agreed to offer, in accordance with the established manner. Fear Allah and know that Allah is aware it what you are doing". (Al-Baqarah, 2:233)

Women's Right to Attend Mosques

Narrated Ibn Umar: The Prophet (p.b.u.h) said, "Allow women to go to the Mosques at night." (Bukhari Volume 2, Book 13, Number 22)

Narrated Ibn Umar: One of the wives of Umar (bin Al-Khattab) used to offer the Fajr and the 'Isha' prayer in congregation in the Mosque. She was asked why she had come out for the prayer as she knew that Umar disliked it, and he has great ghaira (self-respect). She replied, "What prevents him from stopping me from this act?" The other replied, "The statement of Allah's Apostle (p.b.u.h) : 'Do not stop Allah's women-slave from going to Allah s Mosques' prevents him." (Bukhari Volume 2, Book 13, Number 23)

Ibn 'Umar reported: Grant permission to women for going to the mosque in the night. His son who was called Waqid said: Then they would make mischief. He (the narrator) said: He thumped his (son's) chest and said: I am narrating to you the hadith of the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him), and you say: No! (Sahih Muslim Book 004, Number 0890)
Ibn Umar reported: The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: Do not deprive women of their share of the mosques, when they seek permission from you. Bilal said: By Allah, we would certainly prevent them. 'Abdullah said: I say that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said it and you say: We would certainly prevent them! (Sahih Muslim Book 004, Number 0891)

Yahya related to me from Malik from Yahya ibn Said that Atika bint Zayd ibn Amr ibn Nufayl, the wife of Umar ibn al-Khattab, used to ask Umar ibn al-Khattab for permission to go to the mosque. He would keep silent, so she would say, "By Allah, I will go out, unless you forbid me," and he would not forbid her. (Sunan Abu Dawud Book 14, Number 14.5.14)

The Common Performance of Ablutions

Narrated Ibn Umar: "It used to be that men and women would perform ablutions together in the time of the Messenger of Allah's assembly." (Bukhari: 1: Ch. 45, Book of Ablution)

Women's Right of Proposal

Narrated Sahl: A woman came to the Prophet, and presented herself to him (for marriage). He said, "I am not in need of women these days." Then a man said, "O Allah's Apostle! Marry her to me." The Prophet asked him, "What have you got?" He said, "I have got nothing." The Prophet said, "Give her something, even an iron ring." He said, "I have got nothing." The Prophet asked (him), "How much of the Quran do you know (by heart)?" He said, "So much and so much." The Prophet said, "I have married her to you for what you know of the Quran." (Bukhari Volume 7, Book 62, Number 72)

Women's Right of Permission

Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, "A matron should not be given in marriage except after consulting her; and a virgin should not be given in marriage except after her permission." The people asked, "O Allah's Apostle! How can we know her permission?" He said, "Her silence (indicates her permission)." (Bukhari Volume 7, Book 62, Number 67)

Narrated Khansa bint Khidam Al-Ansariya that her father gave her in marriage when she was a matron and she disliked that marriage. So she went to Allah's Apostle and he declared that marriage invalid. (Bukhari Volume 7, Book 62, Number 69)

The Right of Women not to be Forced

Narrated Ibn 'Abbas: Barira's husband was a slave called Mughith, as if I am seeing him now, going behind Barira and weeping with his tears flowing down his beard. The Prophet said to 'Abbas, "O 'Abbas ! are you not astonished at the love of Mughith for Barira and the hatred of Barira for Mughith?" The Prophet then said to Barira, "Why don't you return to him?" She said, "O Allah's Apostle! Do you order me to do so?" He said, "No, I only intercede for him." She said, "I am not in need of him." (Bukhari: Volume 7, Book 63, Number 206)

Asserting Women's Rights

Ibn Al-Jauzi narrated the virtues and merits of Umar bin Al-Khattab (Allah bless him) in the following words: Umar forbade the people from paying excessive dowries and addressed them saying: "Don't fix the dowries for women over forty ounces. If ever that is exceeded I shall deposit the excess amount in the public treasury". As he descended from the pulpit, a flat-nosed lady stood up from among the women audience, and said: "It is not within your right". Umar asked: "Why should this not be of my right?" she replied: "Because Allah has proclaimed: 'even if you had given one of them (wives) a whole treasure for dowry take not the least bit back. Would you take it by false claim and a manifest sin'". (Al Nisa, 20). When he heard this, Umar said: "The woman is right and the man (Umar) is wrong. It seems that all people have deeper insight and wisdom than Umar". Then he returned to the pulpit and declared: "O people, I had restricted the giving of more than four hundred dirhams in dowry. Whosoever of you wishes to give in dowry as much as he likes and finds satisfaction in so doing may do so". quoted in: "On the Position and Role of Women in Islam and Islamic Society"

Seeking advice and comfort

Narrated 'Aisha (the mother of the faithful believers): ... Then Allah's Apostle returned with the Inspiration and with his heart beating severely. Then he went to Khadija bint Khuwailid and said, "Cover me! Cover me!" They covered him till his fear was over and after that he told her everything that had happened and said, "I fear that something may happen to me." Khadija replied, "Never! By Allah, Allah will never disgrace you. You keep good relations with your kith and kin, help the poor and the destitute, serve your guests generously and assist the deserving calamity-afflicted ones." Khadija then accompanied him to her cousin Waraqa bin Naufal bin Asad bin 'Abdul 'Uzza ... (Bukhari Volume 1, Book 1, Number 3)

The Characteristics of a Believing Man

Narrated AbuHurayrah: Allah's Messenger (pbuh) said: a believing man should not hate a believing woman; if he dislikes one of her characteristics, he will be pleased with another. (Muslim Book 8, Number 3469)

The Education of Women

Narrated Abu Said: A woman came to Allah's Apostle and said, "O Allah's Apostle! Men (only) benefit by your teachings, so please devote to us from (some of) your time, a day on which we may come to you so that you may teach us of what Allah has taught you." Allah's Apostle said, "Gather on such-and-such a day at such-and-such a place." They gathered and Allah's Apostle came to them and taught them of what Allah had taught him. (Bukhari Volume 9, Book 92, Number 413)

On the Treatment of Women

Narrated Mu'awiyah al-Qushayri: I went to the Apostle of Allah (pbuh) and asked him: "What do you say (command) about our wives?" He replied: "Give them food what you have for yourself, and clothe them by which you clothe yourself, and do not beat them, and do not revile them." (Sunan Abu Dawud: Book 11, Number 2139) "The best of you is one who is best towards his family and I am best towards the family". (At-Tirmithy). "None but a noble man treats women in an honourable manner. And none but an ignoble treats women disgracefully". (At-Tirmithy).

A Husband must keep the Privacy of his Wife

Narrated AbuSa'id al-Khudri: Allah's Messenger (peace_be_upon_him) said: The most wicked among the people in the eye of Allah on the Day of Judgement is the man who goes to his wife and she comes to him, and then he divulges her secret. (Muslim Book 8, Number 3369)
A Husband's Attitude'Umar ibn al-Khattab (RA) said that a man came to his house to complain about his wife. On reaching the door of his house, he hears 'Umar's wife shouting at him and reviling him. Seeing this, he was about to go back, thinking that 'Umar himself was in the same position and, therefore, could hardly suggest any solution for his problem. 'Umar (RA) saw the man turn back, so he called him and enquired about the purpose of his visit. He said that he had come with a complaint against his wife, but turned back on seeing the Caliph in the same position. 'Umar (RA) told him that he tolerated the excesses of his wife for she had certain rights against him. He said, "Is it not true that she prepares food for me, washes clothes for me and suckles my children, thus saving me the expense of employing a cook, a washerman and a nurse, though she is not legally obliged in any way to do any of these things? Besides, I enjoy peace of mind because of her and am kept away from indecent acts on account of her. I therefore tolerate all her excesses on account of these benefits. It is right that you should also adopt the same attitude." quoted in Rahman, Role of Muslim Women page 149

The Prophet's Disapproval of Women Beaters

Patient behavior was the practice of the Prophet, even when his wife dared to address him harshly. Once his mother-in-law- saw her daughter strike him with her fist on his noble chest. When the enraged mother -in-law began to reproach her daughter, the Prophet smilingly said, "Leave her alone; they do worse than that." And once Abu Bakr, his father-in-law, was invited to settle some misunderstanding between him and Aishah. The Prophet said to her, "Will you speak, or shall I speak?" Aisha said, "You speak, but do not say except the truth." Abu Bakr was so outraged that he immediately struck her severely, forcing her to run and seek protection behind the back of the Prophet. Abu Bakr said, "O you the enemy of herself! Does the Messenger of Allah say but the truth?" The Prophet said, "O Abu Bakr, we did not invite you for this [harsh dealing with Aishah], nor did we anticipate it." quoted in: Mutual Rights and Obligations

And Allah (swt) knows best.

The Status of Women In Islam


The status of women in society is neither a new issue nor is it a fully settled one.

The position of Islam on this issue has been among the subjects presented to the Western reader with the least objectivity.

This paper is intended to provide a brief and authentic exposition of what Islam stands for in this regard. The teachings of Islam are based essentially on the Qur'an (God's revelation) and Hadeeth (elaboration by Prophet Muhammad).

The Qur'an and the Hadeeth, properly and unbiasedly understood, provide the basic source of authentication for any position or view which is attributed to Islam.

The paper starts with a brief survey of the status of women in the pre-Islamic era. It then focuses on these major questions: What is the position of Islam regarding the status of woman in society? How similar or different is that position from "the spirit of the time," which was dominant when Islam was revealed? How would this compare with the "rights" which were finally gained by woman in recent decades?



One major objective of this paper is to provide a fair evaluation of what Islam contributed (or failed to contribute) toward the restoration of woman's dignity and rights. In order to achieve this objective, it may be useful to review briefly how women were treated in general in previous civilizations and religions, especially those which preceded Islam (Pre-610 C.E.). Part of the information provided here, however, describes the status of woman as late as the nineteenth century, more than twelve centuries after Islam.

Women in Ancient Civilization

Describing the status of the Indian woman, Encyclopedia Britannica states:

In India, subjection was a cardinal principle. Day and night must women be held by their protectors in a state of dependence says Manu. The rule of inheritance was agnatic, that is descent traced through males to the exclusion of females.

In Hindu scriptures, the description of a good wife is as follows: "a woman whose mind, speech and body are kept in subjection, acquires high renown in this world, and, in the next, the same abode with her husband."

In Athens, women were not better off than either the Indian or the Roman women.

"Athenian women were always minors, subject to some male - to their father, to their brother, or to some of their male kin.

Her consent in marriage was not generally thought to be necessary and "she was obliged to submit to the wishes of her parents, and receive from them her husband and her lord, even though he were stranger to her."

A Roman wife was described by an historian as: "a babe, a minor, a ward, a person incapable of doing or acting anything according to her own individual taste, a person continually under the tutelage and guardianship of her husband."

In the Encyclopedia Britannica, we find a summary of the legal status of women in the Roman civilization:

In Roman Law a woman was even in historic times completely dependent. If married she and her property passed into the power of her husband . . . the wife was the purchased property of her husband, and like a slave acquired only for his benefit. A woman could not exercise any civil or public office . could not be a witness, surety, tutor, or curator; she could not adopt or be adopted, or make will or contract. Among the Scandinavian races women were:

under perpetual tutelage, whether married or unmarried. As late as the Code of Christian V, at the end of the 17th Century, it was enacted that if a woman married without the consent of her tutor he might have, if he wished, administration and usufruct of her goods during her life.

According to the English Common Law:

...all real property which a wife held at the time of a marriage became a possession of her husband. He was entitled to the rent from the land and to any profit which might be made from operating the estate during the joint life of the spouses. As time passed, the English courts devised means to forbid a husband's transferring real property without the consent of his wife, but he still retained the right to manage it and to receive the money which it produced. As to a wife's personal property, the husband's power was complete. He had the right to spend it as he saw fit.

Only by the late nineteenth Century did the situation start to improve. "By a series of acts starting with the Married women's Property Act in 1870, amended in 1882 and 1887, married women achieved the right to own property and to enter contracts on a par with spinsters, widows, and divorcees." As late as the Nineteenth Century an authority in ancient law, Sir Henry Maine, wrote: "No society which preserves any tincture of Christian institutions is likely to restore to married women the personal liberty conferred on them by the Middle Roman Law."

In his essay The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill wrote:

We are continually told that civilization and Christianity have restored to the woman her just rights. Meanwhile the wife is the actual bondservant of her husband; no less so, as far as the legal obligation goes, than slaves commonly so called.

Before moving on to the Qur'anic decrees concerning the status of woman, a few Biblical decrees may shed more light on the subject, thus providing a better basis for an impartial evaluation. In the Mosaic Law, the wife was betrothed. Explaining this concept, the Encyclopedia Biblica states: "To betroth a wife to oneself meant simply to acquire possession of her by payment of the purchase money; the betrothed is a girl for whom the purchase money has been paid." From the legal point of view, the consent of the girl was not necessary for the validation of her marriage. "The girl's consent is unnecessary and the need for it is nowhere suggested in the Law."

As to the right of divorce, we read in the Encyclopedia Biblica: "The woman being man's property, his right to divorce her follows as a matter of course." The right to divorce was held only by man. "In the Mosaic Law divorce was a privilege of the husband only .... "

The position of the Christian Church until recent centuries seems to have been influenced by both the Mosaic Law and by the streams of thought that were dominant in its contemporary cultures. In their book, Marriage East and West, David and Vera Mace wrote:

Let no one suppose, either, that our Christian heritage is free of such slighting judgments. It would be hard to find anywhere a collection of more degrading references to the female sex than the early Church Fathers provide. Lecky, the famous historian, speaks of (these fierce incentives which form so conspicuous and so grotesque a portion of the writing of the Fathers . . . woman was represented as the door of hell, as the mother of all human ills. She should be ashamed at the very thought that she is a woman. She should live in continual penance on account of the curses she has brought upon the world. She should be ashamed of her dress, for it is the memorial of her fall. She should be especially ashamed of her beauty, for it is the most potent instrument of the devil). One of the most scathing of these attacks on woman is that of Tertullian: Do you know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil's gateway: you are the unsealer of that forbidden tree; you are the first deserters of the divine law; you are she who persuades him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert - that is death - even the Sop of God had to die). Not only did the church affirm the inferior status of woman, it deprived her of legal rights she had previously enjoyed.



In the midst of the darkness that engulfed the world, the divine revelation echoed in the wide desert of Arabia with a fresh, noble, and universal message to humanity: "O Mankind, keep your duty to your Lord who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate (of same kind) and from them twain has spread a multitude of men and women" (Qur'an 4: 1).

A scholar who pondered about this verse states: "It is believed that there is no text, old or new, that deals with the humanity of the woman from all aspects with such amazing brevity, eloquence, depth, and originality as this divine decree."

Stressing this noble and natural conception, them Qur'an states:

He (God) it is who did create you from a single soul and therefrom did create his mate, that he might dwell with her (in love)...(Qur'an 7:189)

The Creator of heavens and earth: He has made for you pairs from among yourselves ...Qur'an 42:1 1

And Allah has given you mates of your own nature, and has given you from your mates, children and grandchildren, and has made provision of good things for you. Is it then in vanity that they believe and in the grace of God that they disbelieve? Qur'an 16:72

The rest of this paper outlines the position of Islam regarding the status of woman in society from its various aspects - spiritually, socially, economically and politically.

1. The Spiritual Aspect

The Qur'an provides clear-cut evidence that woman iscompletely equated with man in the sight of God interms of her rights and responsibilities. The Qur'an states:

"Every soul will be (held) in pledge for its deeds" (Qur'an 74:38). It also states:

...So their Lord accepted their prayers, (saying): I will not suffer to be lost the work of any of you whether male or female. You proceed one from another ...(Qur'an 3: 195).

Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has faith, verily to him will We give a new life that is good and pure, and We will bestow on such their reward according to the their actions. (Qur'an 16:97, see also 4:124).

Woman according to the Qur'an is not blamed for Adam's first mistake. Both were jointly wrong in their disobedience to God, both repented, and both were forgiven. (Qur'an 2:36, 7:20 - 24). In one verse in fact (20:121), Adam specifically, was blamed.

In terms of religious obligations, such as the Daily Prayers, Fasting, Poor-due, and Pilgrimage, woman is no different from man. In some cases indeed, woman has certain advantages over man. For example, the woman is exempted from the daily prayers and from fasting during her menstrual periods and forty days after childbirth. She is also exempted from fasting during her pregnancy and when she is nursing her baby if there is any threat to her health or her baby's. If the missed fasting is obligatory (during the month of Ramadan), she can make up for the missed days whenever she can. She does not have to make up for the prayers missed for any of the above reasons. Although women can and did go into the mosque during the days of the prophet and thereafter attendance et the Friday congregational prayers is optional for them while it is mandatory for men (on Friday).

This is clearly a tender touch of the Islamic teachings for they are considerate of the fact that a woman may be nursing her baby or caring for him, and thus may be unable to go out to the mosque at the time of the prayers. They also take into account the physiological and psychological changes associated with her natural female functions.

2. The Social Aspect

a) As a child and an adolescent

Despite the social acceptance of female infanticide among some Arabian tribes, the Qur'an forbade this custom, and considered it a crime like any other murder.

"And when the female (infant) buried alive - is questioned, for what crime she was killed." (Qur'an 81:8-9).

Criticizing the attitudes of such parents who reject their female children, the Qur'an states:

When news is brought to one of them, of (the Birth of) a female (child), his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief! With shame does he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he has had! Shall he retain her on (sufferance) and contempt, or bury her in the dust? Ah! What an evil (choice) they decide on? (Qur'an 16: 58-59).

Far from saving the girl's life so that she may later suffer injustice and inequality, Islam requires kind and just treatment for her. Among the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (P.) in this regard are the following:

Whosoever has a daughter and he does not bury her alive, does not insult her, and does not favor his son over her, God will enter him into Paradise. (Ibn Hanbal, No. 1957).

Whosoever supports two daughters till they mature, he and I will come in the day of judgment as this (and he pointed with his two fingers held together).

A similar Hadeeth deals in like manner with one who supports two sisters. (Ibn-Hanbal, No. 2104).

The right of females to seek knowledge is not different from that of males. Prophet Muhammad (P.) said:

"Seeking knowledge is mandatory for every Muslim". (AlBayhaqi). Muslim as used here including both males and females.

b) As a wife:

The Qur'an clearly indicates that marriage is sharing between the two halves of the society, and that its objectives, beside perpetuating human life, are emotional well-being and spiritual harmony. Its bases are love and mercy.

Among the most impressive verses in the Qur'an about marriage is the following.

"And among His signs is this: That He created mates for you from yourselves that you may find rest, peace of mind in them, and He ordained between you love and mercy. Lo, herein indeed are signs for people who reflect." (Qur'an 30:2 1).

According to Islamic Law, women cannot be forced to marry anyone without their consent.

Ibn Abbas reported that a girl came to the Messenger of God, Muhammad (P.), and she reported that her father had forced her to marry without her consent. The Messenger of God gave her the choice . . . (between accepting the marriage or invalidating it). (Ibn Hanbal No. 2469). In another version, the girl said: "Actually I accept this marriage but I wanted to let women know that parents have no right (to force a husband on them)" (Ibn Maja, No. 1873).

Besides all other provisions for her protection at the time of marriage, it was specifically decreed that woman has the full right to her Mahr, a marriage gift, which is presented to her by her husband and is included in the nuptial contract, and that such ownership does not transfer to her father or husband. The concept of Mahr in Islam is neither an actual or symbolic price for the woman, as was the case in certain cultures, but rather it is a gift symbolizing love and affection.

The rules for married life in Islam are clear and in harmony with upright human nature. In consideration of the physiological and psychological make-up of man and woman, both have equal rights and claims on one another, except for one responsibility, that of leadership. This is a matter which is natural in any collective life and which is consistent with the nature of man.

The Qur'an thus states:

"And they (women) have rights similar to those (of men) over them, and men are a degree above them." (Qur'an 2:228).

Such degree is Quiwama (maintenance and protection). This refers to that natural difference between the sexes which entitles the weaker sex to protection. It implies no superiority or advantage before the law. Yet, man's role of leadership in relation to his family does not mean the husband's dictatorship over his wife. Islam emphasizes the importance of taking counsel and mutual agreement in family decisions. The Qur'an gives us an example:

"...If they (husband wife) desire to wean the child by mutual consent and (after) consultation, there is no blame on them..." (Qur'an 2: 233).

Over and above her basic rights as a wife comes the right which is emphasized by the Qur'an and is strongly recommended by the Prophet (P); kind treatment and companionship.

The Qur'an states:

"...But consort with them in kindness, for if you hate them it may happen that you hate a thing wherein God has placed much good." (Qur'an 4: l9).

Prophet Muhammad. (P) said:

The best of you is the best to his family and I am the best among you to my family.

The most perfect believers are the best in conduct and best of you are those who are best to their wives. (Ibn-Hanbal, No. 7396)

Behold, many women came to Muhammad's wives complaining against their husbands (because they beat them) - - those (husbands) are not the best of you.

As the woman's right to decide about her marriage is recognized, so also her right to seek an end for an unsuccessful marriage is recognized. To provide for the stability of the family, however, and in order to protect it from hasty decisions under temporary emotional stress, certain steps and waiting periods should be observed by men and women seeking divorce. Considering the relatively more emotional nature of women, a good reason for asking for divorce should be brought before the judge. Like the man, however, the woman can divorce her husband with out resorting to the court, if the nuptial contract allows that.

More specifically, some aspects of Islamic Law concerning marriage and divorce are interesting and are worthy of separate treatment.

When the continuation of the marriage relationship is impossible for any reason, men are still taught to seek a gracious end for it.

The Qur'an states about such cases:

When you divorce women, and they reach their prescribed term, then retain them in kindness and retain them not for injury so that you transgress (the limits). (Qur'an 2:231). (See also Qur'an 2:229 and 33:49).

c) As a mother:

Islam considered kindness to parents next to the worship of God.

"And we have enjoined upon man (to be good) to his parents: His mother bears him in weakness upon weakness..." (Qur'an 31:14) (See also Qur'an 46:15, 29:8).

Moreover, the Qur'an has a special recommendation for the good treatment of mothers:

"Your Lord has decreed that you worship none save Him, and that you be kind to your parents. . ." (Qur'an 17:23).

A man came to Prophet Muhammad (P) asking:

O Messenger of God, who among the people is the most worthy of my good company? The Prophet (P) said, Your mother. The man said then who else: The Prophet (P) said, Your mother. The man asked, Then who else? Only then did the Prophet (P) say, Your father. (Al-Bukhari and Muslim).

A famous saying of The Prophet is "Paradise is at the feet of mothers." (In Al'Nisa'I, Ibn Majah, Ahmad).

"It is the generous (in character) who is good to women, and it is the wicked who insults them."

3. The Economic Aspect

Islam decreed a right of which woman was deprived both before Islam and after it (even as late as this century), the right of independent ownership. According to Islamic Law, woman's right to her money, real estate, or other properties is fully acknowledged. This right undergoes no change whether she is single or married. She retains her full rights to buy, sell, mortgage or lease any or all her properties. It is nowhere suggested in the Law that a woman is a minor simply because she is a female. It is also noteworthy that such right applies to her properties before marriage as well as to whatever she acquires thereafter.

With regard to the woman's right to seek employment it should be stated first that Islam regards her role in society as a mother and a wife as the most sacred and essential one. Neither maids nor baby-sitters can possibly take the mother's place as the educator of an upright, complex free, and carefully-reared children. Such a noble and vital role, which largely shapes the future of nations, cannot be regarded as "idleness".

However, there is no decree in Islam which forbids woman from seeking employment whenever there is a necessity for it, especially in positions which fit her nature and in which society needs her most. Examples of these professions are nursing, teaching (especially for children), and medicine. Moreover, there is no restriction on benefiting from woman's exceptional talent in any field. Even for the position of a judge, where there may be a tendency to doubt the woman's fitness for the post due to her more emotional nature, we find early Muslim scholars such as Abu-Hanifa and Al-Tabary holding there is nothing wrong with it. In addition, Islam restored to woman the right of inheritance, after she herself was an object of inheritance in some cultures. Her share is completely hers and no one can make any claim on it, including her father and her husband.

"Unto men (of the family) belongs a share of that which Parents and near kindred leave, and unto women a share of that which parents and near kindred leave, whether it be a little or much - a determinate share." ((Qur'an 4:7).

Her share in most cases is one-half the man's share, with no implication that she is worth half a man! It would seem grossly inconsistent after the overwhelming evidence of woman's equitable treatment in Islam, which was discussed in the preceding pages, to make such an inference. This variation in inheritance rights is only consistent with the variations in financial responsibilities of man and woman according to the Islamic Law. Man in Islam is fully responsible for the maintenance of his wife, his children, and in some cases of his needy relatives, especially the females. This responsibility is neither waived nor reduced because of his wife's wealth or because of her access to any personal income gained from work, rent, profit, or any other legal means.

Woman, on the other hand, is far more secure financially and is far less burdened with any claims on her possessions. Her possessions before marriage do not transfer to her husband and she even keeps her maiden name. She has no obligation to spend on her family out of such properties or out of her income after marriage. She is entitled to the "Mahr" which she takes from her husband at the time of marriage. If she is divorced, she may get an alimony from her ex-husband.

An examination of the inheritance law within the overall framework of the Islamic Law reveals not only justice but also an abundance of compassion for woman.

4. The Political Aspect

Any fair investigation of the teachings of Islam o~ into the history of the Islamic civilization will surely find a clear evidence of woman's equality with man in what we call today "political rights".
This includes the right of election as well as the nomination to political offices. It also includes woman's right to participate in public affairs. Both in the Qur'an and in Islamic history we find examples of women who participated in serious discussions and argued even with the Prophet (P) himself, (see Qur'an 58: 14 and 60: 10-12).

During the Caliphate of Omar Ibn al-Khattab, a woman argued with him in the mosque, proved her point, and caused him to declare in the presence of people: "A woman is right and Omar is wrong."

Although not mentioned in the Qur'an, one Hadeeth of the Prophet is interpreted to make woman ineligible for the position of head of state. The Hadeeth referred to is roughly translated: "A people will not prosper if they let a woman be their leader." This limitation, however, has nothing to do with the dignity of woman or with her rights. It is rather, related to the natural differences in the biological and psychological make-up of men and women.

According to Islam, the head of the state is no mere figurehead. He leads people in the prayers, especially on Fridays and festivities; he is continuously engaged in the process of decision-making pertaining to the security and well-being of his people. This demanding position, or any similar one, such as the Commander of the Army, is generally inconsistent with the physiological and psychological make-up of woman in general. It is a medical fact that during their monthly periods and during their pregnancies, women undergo various physiological and psychological changes. Such changes may occur during an emergency situation, thus affecting her decision, without considering the excessive strain which is produced. Moreover, some decisions require a maximum of rationality and a minimum of emotionality - a requirement which does not coincide with the instinctive nature of women.

Even in modern times, and in the most developed countries, it is rare to find a woman in the position of a head of state acting as more than a figurehead, a woman commander of the armed services, or even a proportionate number of women representatives in parliaments, or similar bodies. One can not possibly ascribe this to backwardness of various nations or to any constitutional limitation on woman's right to be in such a position as a head of state or as a member of the parliament. It is more logical to explain the present situation in terms of the natural and indisputable differences between man and woman, a difference which does not imply any "supremacy" of one over the other. The difference implies rather the "complementary" roles of both the sexes in life.



The first part of this paper deals briefly with the position of various religions and cultures on the issue under investigation. Part of this exposition extends to cover the general trend as late as the nineteenth century, nearly 1300 years after the Qur'an set forth the Islamic teachings.

In the second part of the paper, the status of women in Islam is briefly discussed. Emphasis in this part is placed on the original and authentic sources of Islam. This represents the standard according to which degree of adherence of Muslims can be judged. It is also a fact that during the downward cycle of Islamic Civilization, such teachings were not strictly adhered to by many people who profess to be Muslims.

Such deviations were unfairly exaggerated by some writers, and the worst of this, were superficially taken to represent the teachings of "Islam" to the Western reader without taking the trouble to make any original and unbiased study of the authentic sources of these teachings.

Even with such deviations three facts are worth mentioning:

1. The history of Muslims is rich with women of great achievements in all walks of life from as early as the seventh century (B.C.)

2. It is impossible for anyone to justify any mistreatment of woman by any decree of rule embodied in the Islamic Law, nor could anyone dare to cancel, reduce, or distort the clear-cut legal rights of women given in Islamic Law.

3. Throughout history, the reputation, chastity and maternal role of Muslim women were objects of admiration by impartial observers.

It is also worthwhile to state that the status which women reached during the present era was not achieved due to the kindness of men or due to natural progress. It was rather achieved through a long struggle and sacrifice on woman's part and only when society needed her contribution and work, more especial!; during the two world wars, and due to the escalation of technological change.

In the case of Islam such compassionate and dignified status was decreed, not because it reflects the environment of the seventh century, nor under the threat or pressure of women and their organizations, but rather because of its intrinsic truthfulness.

If this indicates anything, it would demonstrate the divine origin of the Qur'an and the truthfulness of the message of Islam, which, unlike human philosophies and ideologies, was far from proceeding from its human environment, a message which established such humane principles as neither grew obsolete during the course of time and after these many centuries, nor can become obsolete in the future. After all, this is the message of the All-Wise and all-knowing God whose wisdom and knowledge are far beyond the ultimate in human thought and progress.



The Holy, Qur'an: Translation of verses is heavily based on A. Yusuf Ali's translation, The Glorious Qur'an, text translation, and Commentary, The American Trust Publication, Plainfield, IN 46168, 1979.

Abd Al-Ati, Hammudah, Islam in Focus, The American Trust Publications, Plainfield, IN 46168, 1977.

Allen, E. A., History of Civilization, General Publishing House, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1889, Vol. 3.

Al Siba'i, Mustafa, Al-Alar'ah Baynal Fiqh Walqanoon (in Arabic), 2nd. ea., Al-Maktabah Al-Arabiah, Halab, Syria, 1966.

El-Khouli, Al-Bahiy, "Min Usus Kadiat Al-Mara'ah" (in Arabic), A 1- Waay A l-lslami, Ministry of Walcf, Kuwait, Vol.3 (No. 27), June 9, 1967, p.17.

Encyclopedia Americana (International Edition), American Corp., N.Y., 1969, Vol.29.

Encyclopedia Biblica (Rev.T.K.Cheynene and J.S.Black, editors), The Macmillan Co., London, England, 1902, Vol.3.

The Encyclopedia Britannica, (11 th ed.), University Press Cambridge, England, 191 1, Vol.28.

Encyclopedia Britannica, The Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, III., 1968, Vol.23.

Hadeeth. Most of the quoted Hadeeth were translated by the writer. They are quoted in various Arabic sources. Some of them, however, were translated directly from the original sources. Among the sources checked are Musnad Ahmad Ibn Hanbal Dar AlMa'aref, Cairo, U.A.R., 1950, and 1955, Vol.4 and 3,SunanIbnMajah, Dar Ihya'a Al-Kutub al-Arabiah, Cairo, U.A.R., 1952, Vol.l, Sunan al-Tirimidhi, Vol.3.

Mace, David and Vera, Marriage: East and West, Dolphin Books, Doubleday and Co., Inc., N.Y., 1960.


Urinary Stone Disease in Arabian Medicine

by: A M Dajani, F.R.C.S(Glas.)Consultant Urologist, Amman, Jordan

This is a brief abstract of the full article which can be read by clicking the resource link at the bottom of this page.


Urinary stone disease (urolithiasis) was discussed in great detail in Arabian Medicine. Explanations given by Ibn Qurrah, Al Razi, Ibn Sina and Al Zahrawi about the formation and growth of urinary stones do not basically differ from our modern concepts. Pain and findings on uroscopy were carefully discussed and explained. Differential diagnosis between colitis and kidney stone, and between kidney and bladder stones was very clearly made. Some operations on bladder stones were described and the first lithotriptor to break an obstructing urethral stone was invented by the great Muslim surgeon Al-Zahrawi.

To prevent recurrence of stones they advised diuretics and plenty of fluids, avoiding heavy foods and in particular dairy products.

Finally, Arabian Medicine pharmacology and pharmacopeia are rich in drugs and compounds prescribed for the treatment and breaking of urinary stones.

Read the full article which includes 2 figures, 3 tables and 12 references, please click on resources below.

by: A M Dajani, F.R.C.S(Glas.), Sat 31 August, 2002

Friday, June 8, 2007


The Earliest Paediatric Surgical Atlas: Cerrahiye-i Ilhaniye

By S. N. Cenk Buyukunal and Nil Sari*

The author of one of the earliest surgical books was Serafeddin Sabuncuoglu, who was born in one of the ancient cities of Central Anatolia. In 1465, he wrote a surgical book in Turkish. The aim of this study was to investigate the details of this book and compare it with the old classics. It was observed that the book of Sabuncuoglu did not contain only pictures or miniatures of paediatric surgical procedures, but there were many important and major new contributions to the surgical literature originally described by Sabuncuoglu himself. He based his contributions and techniques on formerly designed and described procedures, moreover, developing and nourishing paediatric surgical culture of that era. Thus a combination of Greek, Roman, Arabic, and Turkish paediatric surgery combined extraordinarily and influenced the development of European paediatric surgery.

Despite the rapid growth and dissemination of paediatric surgical knowledge, the historical aspect of paediatric surgery still has not been systematically explored. The author of one of the earliest surgical textbook was Serafeddin Sabuncuoglu, who was born in Amasya in the Northern part of Central Anatolia and practiced in an Amasya hospital for 14 years. In 1465, he wrote his original textbook. Cerrahiye-i Ilhaniye, in Turkish, describing surgical techniques, incisions and instruments. This book also contained many miniature drawings concerning the operative procedures. Some parts of this textbook include theoretical and practical points about paediatric surgery.[1]

In 1983, during the meeting of the Greek Association of Paediatric Surgeons in Chios, Montagnani of Rome it was declared that Sabuncuoglu made only a faithful translation of Abû Kâsim Al-Zahravî's[2] (Albucasis) Textbook of Surgery, the only additions being the miniatures designed by the surgical techniques.[3] In earlier times, there had been only two or three sources as reference books on surgery. Abû Kâsim Al-Zahravî's book was one of these source books.[4] Even minor additions to such a book were an important step for surgical literature. To investigate the differences and original aspects of Sabuncuoglu's textbook, we explored it and compared it with Zahravî's original text and translation of ancient surgical textbooks.


There are three original, handwritten copies of Sabuncuoglu's book. Two of these copies are in Istanbul, in the Istanbul National Library of Fatih and Capa Medical History Department of Istanbul University. The third is in the Paris National Library.[5] Cerrahiye-i Ilhaniye includes four major parts: Cauterisation Techniques: General Surgery including Paediatric and Plastic Surgery; Orthopaedics; and Medical Preparations innovated by Sabuncuoglu." The three different manuscripts of the book were translated into the modern Turkish language and compared with Zahravî's textbook and other ancient surgical textbooks. Sabuncuoglu's special contributions and original remarks were investigated.


The surgical modifications, special contributions, and original remarks of Sabuncuoglu were as follows.

On the Cure of Hydrocephalus (Chapter 2)

Sabuncuoglu's instruments for incision and operation are modified forms of Zahravî's and ancient physicians' instruments. The scalpel he illustrates (Fig 1) for the incision is wider and has a sharp, pointed end. Instead of a cross-type incision, he used a special type (reversed T) incision as Zahravî did.

Sabuncuoglu was one of the earliest surgeons to use different drainage techniques and materials for neurosurgical procedures in paediatric cases. He stressed the danger of hemorrhage during neurosurgical operations and believed that contact of cerebrospinal fluid and blood was associated with a fatal outcome.

On the Incising of Ligament "Ribat" Below the Tongue. Which is an Impediment to Speech (Short Fremdum) (Chapter 34)

Sabuncuoglu uses the term "Ribat' as Zahravî to describe short fraenulum. He used a special lenticular cautery called "adesi daglagu" (Fig 2). He advocated a long postoperative drainage period for prevention of haematoma and infection.

On the Treatment of Boys Born With Imperforate Urinary Meatus or With the Meatus Small or Not in the Proper Place (Chapter 55)

In treatment of imperforate urinary meatus, a fine scalpel called a "mibza" was used (Fig 3). It differed from Zahravî's scalpel in that it was straighter. Sabuncuoglu used a tin sound with an intact lumen in paediatric urologic procedures in the postoperative period. Galen and Zahravî used leaden sounds with obliterated lumen.[6] However, Sabuncuoglu recommended a different method, which was to use a sound with a canal in it (like a tube) so that the patient can urinate through. In the treatment of urethral stenosis. Sabuncuoglu used a solid tin dilating tube and removed the tube after the dilating procedure.

In Sabuncuoglu's manuscript, the description and classification of hypospadias was more informative. In particular, the localization of urethral meatus was described in detail.

On Circumcision of Boys and Correction of Their Erroneous Treatment (Chapter 57)

Sabuncuoglu describes the use of bent scissors rather than the straight ones of Zahravî. He advises circumcision of the preputium by a single cut. For the correction of erroneous circumcisions performed by unqualified people practicing surgery, different repair methods are described by Sabuncuoglu.

On the Treatment of Hermaphroditism (Chapter 70)

Centuries ago. Paulus of Aeginae and Zahravî had already described genital ambiguities. But Sabuncuoglu made a detailed description and classification of the subject. He commented on the appearance of perineal region and clitoris.

On the Treatment of Unperformed Female Pudenda (Chapter 72)

Sabuncuoglu was the first to describe the classical position for gynaecologic examination. During manual division of the synechia between the two labiae, he covered the thumbs with special gauze to make the manipulation easy and not hurt the child. He recommended an oiled vaginal tampon for prevention of adhesions and recurrence. Paulus of Aegine provided the source for this anomaly. Celsus and Soraneus recommended using forceps and specula for this examination. For these types of procedures. Sabuncuoglu mentioned the importance of female physicians rather than the midwives favoured by Zahravî. Sabuncuoglu illustrated a "tabîbe" female physician operating on a patient.

On the Treatment of Superfluous Finger and the Separation of Webbed Fingers (Chapter 89)

Sabuncuoglu studied this subject under the title "yarligan" and "yincilmek" and used the special terms "artuk parmak" and "bitevi parmak." In the treatment of a superfluous finger arising at the root of a finger. Sabuncuoglu advised a twisting manoeuvre for amputation (a special technique). After the division of webbed fingers, special gauze soaked in rose oil was put between the fingers to prevent adhesions and recurrence. Sabuncuoglu was the first to advise placing a wooden splint under the palmer side after hand surgery for immobilization to enhance wound healing.

On the Treatment of Intestinal Hernia (Chapter 65)

Sabuncuoglu commented that hernias could be bilateral. He also gave a detailed description of the etiology, classification, and clinical types of inguinal hernias. He described a special drainage procedure for the scrotal pouch and a cauterisation technique for the drainage incision.

Imperforate Anus (Chapter 79)

In high anorectal atresia. Sabuncuoglu stressed intervention by a master surgeon rather than an inexperienced midwife to decrease the risks related with the levator muscle complex! Zahravî and Paul of Aeginea described this anomaly and gave some details of the procedure.


It was observed that the book of Serafeddin Sabuncuoglu, as claimed by others,[7] [8]contains not only pictures or miniatures of surgical and paediatric surgical procedures but also many important and major new contributions to the surgical literature originally described by Sabuncuoglu himself.[9] This historic book could also be accepted as the first paediatric surgical atlas. Its colourful, descriptive pictures of various operations and surgical instruments make it a significant piece of work. This important textbook combines knowledge of Greek. Roman. Arabic, and Turkish surgery and nourishes the basic concepts with Sabuncuoglu's original contributions on surgical procedures, postoperative care, and surgical instruments. Thus Greek Roman Arabic, and Turkish surgery combined extraordinarily and influenced the development of European surgery.


Fig 1. Incision and evacuation of hydrocephalus. Note the reversed T-type incision and wide and sharp pointed scalpel (no. 79, f. 48b; reprinted with permission from the Fatih National Library, Istanbul, Turkey).

Fig 2. Special lenticular cautery for the treatment of short frenulum (f. 72a; reprinted with permission from the Fatih National Library, Istanbul, Turkey).

Fig 3. Fine scalpels for the treatment of meatal stenosis. (A) From the manuscript in Fatih National Library, Istanbul, Turkey (f. 90a; reprinted with permission). (B) From the manuscript in Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France.
Fig 4. Two types of scissors for circumcision (Fatih National Library, Istanbul, Turkey).
* From the Departments of Paediatric Surgery and History of Medicine. Cerrahpasa Medical Faculty. University of Istanbul. Istanbul. Turkey.
[1] Koker A H. Erdogan Y: Serafeddin Sabuncuoglu. Proceedings of the First Congress of Sabuncuoglu. Kayseri. Turkey. Erciyes University Publications. 1985. pp. 9-123; Numanoglu I: Cerrahiye-i Ilhaniye: The earliest known book containing paediatric surgical procedures. J Pediatr Surg 8:547-548, 1973; Numanoglu I: Cerrahiye-i Ilhaniye and paediatric surgery. Med Bull Ankara University, 26:841-850. 1974.
[2] Rosenfeld, B. A.-E. Ihsanoglu, Mathematicians, Astronomers and other Scholars of Islamic Civilisation and their works (7th -19th c.). Istanbul: Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture, 2003. p. 117.
[3] Montagnani CA: Paediatric surgery in Islamic medicine from the middle ages to the Renaissance. Prog Pediatr Surg 20:39-51. 1986.
[4] Spink MS. Lewis GL (eds): Albucasis: On surgery and Instruments. London. England. The Wellcome Institute of the Histroy of Medicine. 1973. pp 170-827.
[5] Sabuncuoalu S: Cerrahiye-i Ilhaniye. Paris. France. Bibliotheque National, Suppl Turc. 693 (2nd manuscript); Sabuncuoalu S: Cerrahiye-Ilhaniye. Istanbul. Turkey. Fatih National Library, no. 79 (1st manuscript); Sabuncuoglu Ilhaniye. Istanbul. Turkey. Capa Medical History Department. Istanbul University. (3rd manuscript).
[6] Montagnani CA: Paediatric surgery in Islamic medicine from the middle ages to the Renaissance. Prog Pediatr Surg 20:39-51. 1986; Spink MS. Lewis GL (eds): Albucasis: On surgery and Instruments. London. England. The Wellcome Institute of the Histroy of Medicine. 1973. pp 170-827.
[7] Montagnani CA: Paediatric surgery in Islamic medicine from the middle ages to the Renaissance. Prog Pediatr Surg 20:39-51. 1986.
[8] Huard P. Grmek MD: Le Premier Manuscript Chirurgical Turc. Paris. France. Les Editions Roger Dacosta. L960.
[9] Unver A.S.: Serafeddin Sabuncuoglu: Kitabul Cerrahiye-i Ilhanive (Cerrahname). Istanbul. T.C. I.U. Tip Tarihi Enstitusu. Adet 12: 870-1465, 1939.
by: S. N. Cenk Buyukunal and Nil Sari, Wed 07 September, 2005


Scientific Transfer and Scholarship in Medieval Arabic Pharmacology
Dr. Oliver Kahl*

Figure 1. Dr. O. Kahl during his speech at 1001 Inventions Conference.

The article is originally a talk presented at the international conference 1001 Inventions: Discover the Muslim Heritage in our World held at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester on the 8th of March 2006, on the occasion of the launch of the exhibition 1001 inventions. The conference proceedings are edited by Dr. Salim Ayduz and Dr. Saleema Kauser.

Pharmacology, perhaps more than any other science in the so-called Middle Ages of Islam, lies at the crossroads of various other scientific genres – medicine with its philosophical basis of humoralism; botany, zoology, and mineralogy; alchemy insofar as its chemical principles may be concerned; and even astrology as it was occasionally used for the purpose of medical prognostication. Arabic pharmacology, that is to say the branch of scientific literature which deals with the preparation and application of compound drugs as formulated in the Arabic language, is therefore by its very nature an interdisciplinary subject. And it is no surprise that this quality left a mark on the intellectual attitude of those who studied that subject.

But there is also a vertical dimension which meets the horizontal plane of intersecting disciplines, and which manifests itself in the realm of general history rather than science proper. The rise of Arabic pharmacology from truly humble origins as Bedouin herbal lore and its rapid development into a superior scientific structure is a most remarkable historical event which depended on the coincidence of different factors. First, there is the Arabic reception of foreign scientific traditions in the course of a translation movement which took place between the middle of the 8th and the end of the 10th centuries CE in Baghdad, and which acquainted the Arabs with the medical and pharmacological theories and practices notably of the Greeks and Indians – either by way of direct translations from the Greek and Sanskrit or via Syriac and Pahlavi intermediate translations; the translation movement also played a major role in the evolvement of Arabic into a language of science and philosophy. Then there are the commercial and to some extent cultural relations between the Muslim world and China, which brought the Arabs in contact with certain aspects of Chinese herbal medicine. And lastly there is the enormous geographical extension of the Arab empire with its network of transcontinental trade routes which made possible the acquisition and relatively safe transport of medicinal drugs, and many other things, from literally all corners of the known planet. The fact that the early pharmacologists were almost all deeply involved in the translation movement and therefore often bilingual if not multilingual individuals some of whom were neither Muslims nor indeed Arabs, certainly contributed to the formation of a rather cosmopolitan view of the world. As the Arabic share in the adaptation of foreign scientific traditions grew, the relevant literature became more and more refined.

In the following, we will take a look at the Greek, the Indian, and then the Chinese contributions to the development of scientific pharmacology among the Arabs, and where appropriate illustrate the multicultural character of Arabic pharmacology by examples taken from life.

Figure 2. Al-Razi (Rhazes) on the cover of a modern Persian book. Source: reproduced from the article "Al-Razi" in Wikipedia:

The transmission of Greek thought to the Arabs in the course of the translation movement had a huge impact on the development of Arabic science in its formative period. Insofar as Arabic pharmacology is concerned we must mention by name three important Greek texts which were available in Arabic translations by the middle of the 9th century CE: first, the book entitled On Medical Matters by Dioscorides, an army doctor who lived in the 1st century CE; second, the book entitled On the Mixing and the Properties of Simple Drugs by Galen, a physician who lived in the 2nd century CE; and third, the book entitled On the Composition of Medicinal Drugs by the same Galen. These texts not only broadened the horizon of the Arabs for their actual contents, they also provided patterns of formal arrangement and scientific organization. During this time the Arabs also became acquainted with the so-called Summaria Alexandrinorum, a summary of sixteen books of Galen compiled around the year 600 CE in the medical school of Alexandria – this summary of Galenic writings introduced to the Arabs the concept of humoralism, which was to dominate all later medical and pharmacological theories.

Turning to the transmission of Indian scientific texts to the Arabs, we must emphasize that we still know relatively little about this aspect of the translation movement. But we do know that the Arabs, as early as the beginning of the 9th century CE, possessed translations of important Sanskrit works on botany, pharmacology, and therapy, including the classical writings of the pre-Islamic Hindu physicians Sushruta, Charaka, and Vagbhata. Apart from providing the Arabs with a vast amount of practical knowledge, the Greek and Sanskrit texts thus translated also gave them, almost over night, a massive lexicon of technical terms. Incidentally, even the word for ‘pharmacy', as it is still used today in the Arab East, is of Sanskrit origin. There is a nice little anecdote in Arabic biographical literature involving the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, who is well-known also from the tales in the Arabian Nights. According to this story, Harun al-Rashid fell ill one day and none of his physicians was able to cure him; when somebody mentioned to him a famous Indian physician by the name of Mankah, the caliph dispatched an envoy to India to track him down, shower him with presents, and bring him to Baghdad; Mankah came, cured the caliph, and stayed on to translate Sanskrit medical and pharmacological writings into Persian and Arabic by commission [1].

As far as the Chinese influence on Arabic pharmacology is concerned, we have no records of any texts that would have been translated from Chinese into Arabic in the course of the translation movement. But there is ample evidence that the Arabs were in contact with the Chinese from at least the middle of the 8th century CE. The detailed geographical knowledge alone, which the Arabs had about China at the end of the 9th century CE, presupposes long-standing and well-established relations in more than one direction. Trade flourished, and both the land- and sea-routes between China and West Asia served the import and export of all kinds of goods, including medicinal drugs, and the exchange of medical knowledge. The early use of Chinese herbal medicine by Arab pharmacologists is well-attested already in manuals dating from the first half of the 9th century CE. There existed, around the year 800 CE, a sizeable Chinese community in Baghdad, made up of former prisoners of war who had decided to settle down in Iraq. But also in China itself things were not static. In his book entitled Miscellany of the Yu-Yang Mountain Cave, written in the year 860 CE, the Chinese scholar Tuan Ch'eng-shih recalls a discussion about medicinal drugs involving a Chinese, an Indian, and a Byzantine monk. In the year 923 CE, the Chinese botanist Li Hsün wrote a book entitled Medical Matters from the Countries beyond the Sea, in which he studied 121 medicinal drugs from the ‘West', that is Indo-Arabia, and made at least fifteen completely new entries to the Chinese lexicon.

Figure 3. Leaf from an Arabic translation of the Materia Medica of Dioscorides, dated 1224 CE in Iraq, preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Source:

And then there is this highly instructive and curiously overlooked account in Ibn al-Nadim's bibliographical work al-Fihrist [2], featuring the famous physician and alchemist Rhazes who lived in Baghdad for some time around the year 900 CE. In this account, Rhazes says: "A man from China came to seek me and lived with me for about one year. In five months of this time he learned to speak and write Arabic and developed a good understanding of the language. When he desired to return to his country, he said to me a month in advance, ‘I am about to leave and wish that someone would dictate to me the Arabic translation of the sixteen books of Galen, so that I can write them down'. I said, ‘Your time is short and you will not be able to copy more than a small part of it'. But the Chinese insisted, ‘Please devote yourself to me for the length of my stay and dictate to me as fast as you can – I will keep up with you in writing'. So I got some of my students to join in this project, and we dictated to him as fast as we could; but we did not have faith in the man until there was a chance for comparison and he showed us everything he had written. I questioned him about the matter and he said, ‘We have a form of shorthand known as grass-writing, which is what you see; if we need to write a great deal in a short time, we write it with this script; later, if we wish, we convert it into a script which is familiar and not abbreviated'. He thought that it takes 20 years to learn this". It is worth noting that the point of this story is not that a Chinese physician came to Baghdad around the year 900 CE, learned Arabic, and then wanted to take the books of Galen with him back to China – none of this was considered exceptional; what prompted the story is the possibility that anyone should be able to write that fast.
Figure 4. Sample from the Hyderabad edition of the Continens of Rhazes, showing a double column of a pharmacological table; the 'ideographs' are placed in the right-hand sides under the heading 'unknown', their common equivalents in the left-hand sides under the heading 'known'.
If we go a step further now and link this story to certain views which Rhazes held on the linguistic aspects of Arabic pharmacology, we will realize the full scale of intellectual exchange. In order to follow the plot one must remember that the Arabic script does not normally express vowels, that many consonants are only distinguished by little dots, and that an unusual word can therefore easily be misread and corrupted. When those Greek and Sanskrit pharmacological texts were translated into Arabic, it was found that a significant number of especially botanical terms had no equivalent in the Arabic language. So the translators decided to simply transliterate these terms, that is they replaced the letters of a foreign word by Arabic letters which roughly represented the same sounds. In the course of time, some of these new entries took on a specific and generally accepted form, but many escaped by constantly changing their forms under the hands of ignorant copyists, and began to lead an independent and for the specialist rather annoying existence – it was clear what they meant, but it was not at all clear how exactly they should be written and transmitted, let alone be pronounced. This is where Rhazes comes in again. In the 22nd volume of his medical encyclopedia known in the West by the title of Continens, Rhazes deals with precisely those awkward and elusive pharmacological terms [3]. He places them with all their variant forms in one column of a table, asserts their respective meanings in another column, and introduces this huge list by a brilliant suggestion, namely that these terms should neither be read nor pronounced at all but rather be treated as "pictorial images". A ghost-word thus becomes an ideograph, a symbol that represents the idea of a thing rather than its name – which is exactly the principle whereon the Chinese system of writing is based. Whether or not Rhazes got this flash of inspiration from his Chinese lodger is of course impossible to say, though I believe it is quite likely. In any case the true significance of Rhazes's move lies in the fact that with it he also anticipated by centuries the pharmaceutical system of generic naming.
End Notes
[1] See Manfred Ullmann, Die Medizin im Islam (Leiden-Köln 1970), p. 106 note 2.
[2] Ed. Gustav Flügel (Leipzig 1871), pp. 16ff.
[3] Ed. Hyderabad 1390H/1971, especially pp. 61-68.
* Dr. Oliver Kahl, Department of Middle Eastern Studies, School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures, University of Manchester.
by: Dr. Oliver Kahl, Sun 06 May, 2007