Asalamu Alaikum Rawa,
I would like to thank you for such an important question. It is much needed nowadays, as Islam is facing a fierce campaign aimed at smearing it and damaging its image.
One of the main targets of this campaign is the sunnah (traditions of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him-(PBUH)).
And since women’s status in Islam has always been a subject that Orientalists distort and then criticize, they also criticize the status of women in the sunnah.
Context Is King
It is unfortunate that—because of the lack of proper understanding of the sunnah, the contexts of the hadiths and the true meaning of them—some Muslims take an apologetic attitude, while others tend to declare such hadiths as weak or inauthentic.
Both attitudes are defective and lack scholastic integrity.
The first one demonstrates a lack of understanding of the sunnah and an attempt to justify it. The second one is a quick and easy way of dropping authenticity, without legal basis, from authentic narrations.
With these two approaches, there will always be a problem and we will never get out of the labyrinth.
This is because we approach of the sunnah as if they are individual texts, not realizing that they relate to each other closely and judge each other precisely.
Even the most perfect texts or beneficial things in the world can be very problematic and harmful if they are handled in the wrong way.
If you give a child a computer, and he or she does not know how to use it, he of she will simply destroy it or even cause harm to him or herself.
A Practical Step-by-step Approach
Amidst all these confusions, I believe that the following method should be applied when looking to the sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH):
First: Verify the authenticity of the hadith and realize what scholars of authentication have said about it;Read the hadith in its historical context and understand the purpose for which it was said.
Next, try to get a close-to-original understanding of the text. That is, attempt to understand it in the way the Companions of the Prophet (PBUH) understood it;
Then, discover if the hadith is general or specific, as this makes a big difference in understanding the hadith itself. This will be based on the historical context and purpose of the hadith;
Next, you’ll need to take into account all other hadiths that relate or serve as an explanation of the hadith;
Be sure you do all this with an objective attitude, as fault-finders will end up causing more damage to themselves and the texts they are dealing with;
Lastly, trust the fact that the sunnah of our beloved Prophet (PBUH) is perfect and preserved, as it is an explanation of the Quran.
Therefore, we should not be apologetic or ashamed of anything in it; rather, we should be proud and show its beauty to others.
Now, if we would like to talk about women’s status as depicted in the hadiths of the Prophet (PBUH), we have to apply the above-mentioned procedures to the texts that are apparently “problematic”.
If applied well, we will find that the problem will vanish, simply because we will be dealing with such texts in the correct and proper way.
Remembering Prophet Muhammad’s Sunnah
We should mention that the sayings about women are not the only things that help in drawing an image of how Islam looks at women because the Prophet’s (PBUH) practice and behavior with his wives are actual, practical guides to how a Muslim should treat his wife.
Furthermore, the Prophet’s (PBUH) treatment of other women, ranging from close relatives to strangers or members of the then emerging Muslim community, gives guidelines as well on the status and treatment of women.
Literary Tactics: Hyperbole
The Prophet (PBUH) never commanded any of his wives to prostrate to him, or anyone to prostrate to anyone or anything other than Allah Almighty.
What he was talking about in the hadith in question was a well-known idiom the Arabs used at his time. It was a hyperbole.
Let me give an example of this: when a person, for instance, wants to say that there were so many people around him, he can simply depict this number by saying something like, “There were a hundred thousand people!”
In which case, the listener will understand that he refers to a great number of people rather than an exact number.
Therefore, by means of metaphor, the Prophet (PBUH) wanted to show how strong the relationship between a husband and his wife is; and that each should be committed to the other and their relationship should be based on love and dedication.
To exemplify how strong this relationship is, the Prophet (PBUH) used this metaphor. If it was possible for someone, out of love, to prostrate in front of someone, it would have been the woman.
This does not mean that a woman should be prostrating; rather, it is a way of showing how strong the relationship of the couple is.
And definitely a man also metaphorically prostrates to his wife by dedicating his whole being to supporting her, taking care of her, and protecting her against life’s ups and downs.
If their love is strong and deep, the husband and the wife will love to sacrifice his or her life and whole being for the other (within the limits set by Allah Almighty), so prostration will not even be mentioned because it is too small.
And again: We need to look at how the Prophet (PBUH) was with his family and bring this into focus again. When a man treats his family like this, I do not think we will care about who is prostrating to whom, but we will realize that it is more than this. When love is deep, anything is easy.
I hope this answers your question.
Walaikum Asalam and please keep in touch.
(Originally published in December 2016)