On October 9, 2012, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban as she was returning home from school; three days later fifty Islamic clerics issued a fatwa (religious opinion) condemning the attack. On July 12, 2013, after a long, arduous recovery, Yousafzai spoke at the United Nations, calling for a worldwide increase in access to education. She accused the Taliban of “misusing the name of Islam . . . for their own personal benefit.”

Such episodes of violence and discrimination raise a perennial question for Islamic and Middle Eastern scholars: does Islam denigrate women?

This question has generated endless debate, and there is no unified answer. In this essay, I first examine the historical changes brought about by Islam, and then analyze the ways in which the Quran and hadith (the sayings and reported doings of Muhammad) can shed light on the role of women within Islam.

A polarized “yes-or-no” approach to studying Islam’s effect on women only serves to obscure the complexity of the issue, because it does not account for the intricate connections between accepted cultural mores and religion, which can contradict, reinforce, and transform each other. As Jennifer Bryson insists here on Public Discourse, it is often difficult to tell who or what speaks for Islam. In large part, this is because Islam does not have a definitive teaching authority that can objectively distinguish what is a core belief from what is merely cultural. As a result, Islam can be equally supportive of discrimination or of loving respect toward women depending on the cultural context.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

One must consider Islam and the Quran holistically in order to comprehend the complex relationship between culture and Islam and to understand Islam’s impact on women. Thus, engaging the question of whether Islam denigrates women ought to begin with an historical examination of the jahilyya (pre-Islamic Arabia).

How did the rights and status of women in the jahilyya compare with the Muslim society and the Islamic faith that followed? Some Muslim scholars, such as Chiragh Ali and Mahjabeen Islam-Husain, have argued that women were treated as mere chattel and that polygamy and divorce were rampant. Leila Ahmed, however, argues that such a view of the jahilyya is simplistic and inaccurate. Though jahilyya wife-centered marriage practices did not necessarily give women much power, they do indicate that women enjoyed considerable sexual autonomy.

The life of Khadija, Muhammad’s first wife, exemplifies the positive aspects of pre-Islamic Arabian culture. Khadija was a wealthy widow, nearly twice the prophet’s age, who hired him as part of her caravan operations; her behavior and rights would have been dictated by the jahilyya rather than Islam. Khadija’s prominent social position demonstrates that women in the jahilyya participated actively in many communal activities, including warfare and religion. It is possible, then, that Islam’s establishment of patriarchal marriage may have curtailed women’s involvement in public life.

While it is true that Islam abolished infanticide and perverse divorce methods, cemented women’s inheritance and property rights, established spiritual equality between the sexes, and secured the wife’s sole right to the mahr (bride-price), its positive impact with respect to the jahilyya must not be exaggerated. As Ahmed indicates, Islam placed male-female relations on a new footing by transferring the rights to women’s sexuality and offspring from herself and her tribe to men, specifically her husband. Implicit in this new relationship was the male prerogative to control women’s relationships with other men. Later, the Abbasids would interpret Islam in ways that explicitly condoned men’s rule over women and the inferiority of the female sex.

What new relationship did Islam establish between men and women? And how do the Quran and the hadith depict it?

Start with marriage. In Islam, marriage is analogous to a business contract: the man pays the mahr and maintenance to the woman in exchange for complete obedience and exclusive sexual rights to her. This concept of obedience is borne out in the second part of Sura 4:34, in which a man is permitted to beat his wife for disobedience.

Unfortunately, when this contractual analogy is combined with other verses extolling God for putting love between men and women, one is left with an ambiguous conception of marriage. It seems that marriage involves a man keeping a favorite courtesan or mistress (albeit with deeper formal ties), not a relationship with an equal, beloved spouse. At best, the messages seem contradictory, leaving the reader unsure of how the verses fit together.

Scholars interpret Sura 4:34 differently, which contributes to confusion about its true meaning. Amina Wadud-Muhsin, an Islamic feminist scholar, retranslates and neuters the formerly gendered words of the passage based on the assumption that all masculine plurals refer to both men and women, which would suggest that men and women alike have reciprocal rights in marriage. Ibn Warraq, on the other hand, sees the passage as inherently misogynistic.

The difficulty of interpreting this passage points to a more fundamental problem. As Muhsin admits, no Quranic exegesis can be fully objective. Since there is no final exegetical authority, only the members of a particular social context can interpret how the principles of the Quran should be applied. Even a renowned Islamic cleric, who favors an egalitarian, non-violent interpretation of Sura 4:34, admits that it “takes an expert in linguistics to understand all the meanings in a verse, both explicit and inferred.” This underscores the dire need for a dogmatic interpretive voice in Islam if all Muslim women’s rights are to be upheld.

Unfortunately, the Quran often provides two sets of principles that seem to conflict (e.g., Sura 4:34 and Sura 33:35). Moreover, each scholar can apply the principles to particulars according to his or her own best judgment. Although many Muslims may choose to follow the interpretations of a particular imam or scholar, the lack of a single interpretive authority allows for some cultural relativism within Islam.

To see how this ambiguity causes problems, take the controversial issue of concubinage. The practice of theoretically unlimited concubinage was long believed to be halal (permissible) according to the Quran in Sura 4:3 and Sura 23:5-6. Ambiguity, however, plagues the passage, since it can be read either as an injunction to marry concubines or as an indulgence granted to men by God. Some scholars simply ignore the passage; while others explain it as a temporary byproduct of the seventh century Arabian culture, or say it remains permissible but impractical and unnecessary in today’s world.

It is not clear who possesses the authority to resolve such controversies. The literature of Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh, is extremely varied regarding women’s status. Some may argue that fiqh promoting concubinage as permanent was merely a product of cultural misogyny. Yet it could also be argued in reverse that anti-concubinage fiqh is nothing but a modern cultural reading that easily could be reversed if cultural consensus shifts.

Other controversial passages include Sura 24:4-13, which has implications for rape testimony, and Sura 2:228, which deals with divorce. Sura 24:4-13 is often considered good for women, since it demands that a man bring four witnesses (typically males) to confirm a case of adultery or pre-marital sex, a measure designed to protect the woman from wrongful accusations. However, these same stringent standards hurt women by making it nearly impossible for them to defend themselves in rape cases, since a woman must have witnesses to prove that a man sexually penetrated her. The problem is further compounded by the fact that the Quran only gives a woman’s testimony half the weight of a man’s.

To get a sense of the practical importance of this text, consider the modern example of Pakistan. There one woman is raped every three hours and one in two rape victims is a juvenile. Seventy-five percent of all women in jail in Pakistan are there under charges of zina (unlawful or extramarital sexual intercourse) and are subsequently sexually abused while in prison.

Sura 2:228 is even more controversial. Islam-Husain selectively quotes it to justify equal rights for men and women by leaving out the portion that grants men a higher status than women. Similarly, Muhsin attempts to negate an androcentric interpretation by explaining that the verse is situated in the context of a discussion on divorce and that the higher status men enjoy is only with respect to divorce. This contextual explanation, however, should invite skepticism, because Muhsin’s application of it seems somewhat arbitrary. For example, Muhsin, in another section, expands Sura 4:34 to encapsulate all of society instead of limiting it to the family, which is the context in which it is being discussed. Why one passage is interpreted contextually and another is not is never fully explained.

These excerpts from the Quran show that we cannot simply attribute any misogynistic tendencies within Islamic societies to cultural distortions and permutations of Islam, since sections of the Quran can explicitly justify denigrating women. The second source of religious guidance in Islam, the hadith, also confirms this.

According to most scholars, the hadith are more explicitly misogynistic than the Quran. Some hadith claim that women are the primary occupants of hell or that they are bad omens on par with horses. One hadith even condemns a people to failure if they are led by a woman.

Yet as Moroccan Islamic scholar Fatima Mernissi notes, it is hard to know which hadith are authentic statements or actions of Muhammad. Mernissi argues that many of the misogynistic hadith are inauthentic or are the product of outdated cultural norms. Yet Mernissi’s argument cannot answer why the most rigorously authenticated set of hadith by al-Bukhari contains the same hadith she claims are inauthentic. Nor does she try to deconstruct the hadith about women in hell, which comes from the highly aesthetic and spiritual ‘Abdallah ibn ‘Umar.

Even Mernissi, then, seems to concede that at least some authentic hadith are indeed misogynistic. This leaves the scholar in her original dilemma: trying to reconcile the androcentric hadith and ambiguous Quranic verses with belief in the equality of the sexes.

So where does this historical and textual overview leave us in regard to my opening question?

First, Islam did improve the lives of women to a measurable extent. Islam cemented women’s rights to inheritance and property; it recognized their spiritual equality with men; it abolished female infanticide; it enjoined modesty upon both men and women; and it set a basis for judging men and women morally as individuals.

Yet Islam does contain some endorsements of patriarchy or misogyny. Not every misogynistic or androcentric expression in Muslim societies is a direct result of Islam; cultural attitudes (e.g. honor, shame, patriarchy) often instigate actions that shari’a condemns, such as murderous honor crimes. Still, some of the fundamental androcentric attitudes that lie at the basis of multiple Muslim societies today are either explicitly endorsed or ambiguously addressed in the Quran and hadith, leaving the meaning of the text at the whim of scholars.

There is no clear consensus among Muslim scholars, partly because there is no single exegetical authority. The fact that Islamic texts do not send a clear message about women’s status helps to explain why women are treated so differently across Muslim countries. Until more Muslims and non-Muslims admit this, it will remain difficult to pursue meaningful and principled discussions on women in Islam.