Early Islam & Intersectional Feminism: A Comparative Analysis

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“I believe in a man who used to be so full of love and harmony. He fought for peace and liberty and never would he hurt anything. He was a mercy for mankind. A teacher till the end of time. No creature could be compared with him.So full of light and blessings. You’re always in our hearts and minds. Your name is mentioned every day. I’ll follow you no matter what If God wills we’ll meet one day.”- Maher Zain

First-wave feminists were criticized of being overly concerned with the issues of white middle-class women, while ignoring the plight of black women[1]. This led to the creation of black feminism, which was created by Aurde Lorde and bell hooks, among others. Black feminists see the patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism as oppressive social systems that must be combated via an “intersectional” approach. This involved addressing all of these systems simultaneously, rather than attempting to dismantle one at a time.

As Audre Lorde said, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives[2].”Black feminists are not the only group to use this intersectional approach to fighting oppression. In seventh-century Arabia, there lived a man who we now call the Prophet Muhammad Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam. When Muhammad proclaimed his prophethood, his teachers were associated with social justice. Because of this, many weak and oppressed members of society were attracted to his teachings. In his struggles against sexism, racism, and class-based oppression, he used an intersectional approach.

While the works of Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and other feminists were magnificent, they are largely confined to an ivory tower academy; in contrast, the Prophet Muhammad led an actual revolution that changed Arabia’s paradigm of social structure and roles forever.In Muhammad’s day, it was common practice to bury female infants alive—which, sadly, is still an issue in China and India today. At the time, females were not valued at all by society and most people desired to have a son. Muhammad spoke out against these injustices and eventually outlawed the practice of infanticide. The Qu’ran called upon men participating in such activities to contemplate the magnitude of their actions in terms of judgment day: “When the female (infant), buried alive, is questioned, for what crime she was killed.”[3]

In addition, Muhammad said, “Anyone who brings up two daughters properly will be very close to me on the day of Judgment.”In this manner, Muhammad gave the people spiritual motivation to take good care of their daughters. This promotion of women’s rights served as a direct threat to the Pagan ideology of the elite in Arabia; many began persecuting Muslims due to this social advancement. Yet, women still converted to Islam rapidly because the Prophet Muhammad was working to improve their place in society and protect them.The first martyr in Islam was Sumayyah bint Khayyat a woman. Arab polytheists spoke with Sumayyah and her family, saying,

“We have heard that you swore allegiance to Muhammad.”

Sumayyah said, “Yes, we did.”“Don’t you know that he insults our idols, degrades our beliefs, and criticizes our ancestors?” they asked.“

We know,” said Sumayyah.

The Arab polytheists then grabbed Sumayyah and dragged her to the desert before whipping, kicking, and torturing her. They gave her the opportunity to denounce her beliefs in exchange for the torture to cease, but she refused, as she was willing to die for the things that Muhammad had taught. Sumayyah was consequently killed, becoming a martyr for Islam.[4] As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remarked, “A man [or woman] who does not have something for which he [or she] is willing to die is not fit to live.”[5]Sumayyah’s willingness to sacrifice her life demonstrates that Islam is not as oppressive to women as Femen claims; if it were, Sumayyah would not have given up her life for its teachings. Islam was associated with liberating women from the shackles of the cultural misogyny allowed by the Pagan Arabs, and as a result, women were willing to die for the ideals that Muhammad taught.

Muhammad was devoted to furthering women’s rights; one author writes this about his social efforts: “The right to vote, to inheritance, education, a role in politics and civic society were controversial and groundbreaking ideas that Muhammad promoted for women in a seventh century society that regarded them as mere possessions. Considering women in Britain received the right to vote, inherit and own property thirteen centuries later, Muhammad’s campaigns were both radical and revolutionary.”In this way, Muhammad challenged sexism and encouraged positive social change. In contrast, first-wave feminism, which also challenged sexism, did so in a racist, negative manner.[6]

What some Black feminists sought to do, however, was challenge racism and sexism, the action that the Prophet Muhammad took, did just this. Umm Ayman, also known as Barakah, was a black Muslim who was the first person to hold Muhammad in her arms when he was born, and the only person who knew him throughout the course of his entire life. She was one of the few Muslims who the Prophet had assured of a place in Paradise. He considered her to be a mother figure in his life, and spoke highly of her. In “A Notable Muslim African Woman,” the author writes this about Umm Ayman:“If you’re looking for an important Muslim African woman to talk about during Black History month, look no further than the Seerah of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), and the woman he described as his ‘mother after my own mother.’ She is the rest of my family.”God’s last prophet was raised, fed, and taken care of by a black woman. This illustrates the fact that, unlike early feminists, Muhammad was not racist towards black people. [7]

One hadith in Sahih Bukhari reads:“A black woman used to sweep the mosque and she died. The Prophet asked about her. He was told that she had died. He said, ‘Why did you not inform me? Show me her grave.’ So he went to her grave and offered her funeral prayer.”The Prophet Muhammad was the head of state, and his duty was to manage the daily affairs of an entire nation. Yet, he took the time to pray for a black woman who had had the simple task of sweeping the mosque; he had been deeply troubled by her death and wished to pray for her. This is in sharp contrast to the first-wave feminists, who would not even allow black women to attend their meetings.Many events in the Prophet Muhammad’s life display his belief in racial tolerance and equality. He elected a former black slave Bilal who had been emancipated by the Muslims to perform the call of prayers, which is a prestigious position in Islam. There was also another slave named Zayd whom Muhammad freed and adopted as a son. Zayd’s son, Usama, would then be chosen by Muhammad as a military general at the age of 19.

In a biography about Muhammad, the author Tariq Ramadan writes:“In the presence of God, nothing could justify discrimination, social injustice, or racism. In the Muslim community, a black man called the believers to prayer, and a slave’s son commanded the army; faith had freed the believers from judgments based on deceptive appearance linked to origins and social status that simulate unwise passions and dehumanize them.”[8] Early feminists, including Josephine Daskam Bacon, did not share this view of openness towards black people. In response to whether women should be given the ability to choose who they will marry, Josephine Daskam Bacon wrote in one of her publications the derogatory rhetorical question, “Do you want your daughter to marry a nigger?”[9] In contrast, the Prophet Muhammad encouraged Zayd ibn Haritha a black man who was an ex-slave, to marry Zaynab bint Jahsh, who was an Arab woman of high noble lineage. Marriages such as these were part of the Prophet Muhammad’s plan to eliminate bigotry and bring people together.

Though she claimed to be promoting women’s rights, Josephine Daskam Bacon believed that unlike gender differences, racial differences demanded their own political rights. She fought for feminism using racist language, writing things such as, “African is a separate race from the Caucasian, with its own ambitions and tradition.” In ‘Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape,” a white feminist by the name of Susan Brown Miller portrays black men as violent rapists.The Prophet Muhammad, in contrast, made it clear in his final farewell speech before dying that: “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.”

Because of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings, long before Audre Lorde and bell hooks, a black woman named Nana Asma’u led an educational campaign for black women in Nigeria. When her father first formalized the Sokoto Calphiate, there were many non-Muslim pagans in rural areas who had no exposure to reading or writing. Her mission was to integrate these people into society and educate them. She formed female study groups and was successful in her mission. In addition, she formalized mnemonic devices to memorize surahs in the Qu’ran.

Posthumously labeled a feminist by modern historians, Nana Asma’u was motivated the ideology of Islam. She wrote this poem about the Prophet Muhammad:“As for bravery, no warrior has ever matched the courage shown by Ahmada

The perfume emitted by the body of Muhammad.

As for his beauty and physique, he surpassed all

For nowhere is there the like of Muhammad.” [10]

Nana Asma’u is the perfect example of a Muslim inspired by the Prophet Muhammad and his legacy of furthering women’s rights. No matter how much religion is criticized by feminists, the fact remains that a religious leader spurred the most progressive revolution for women’s rights in all of human history.

Islam also addresses classism. When discussing the ideal society, the Qu’ran poses the rhetorical question,” And what will make you comprehend what the uphill road is?’   It goes on to say,”It is to free the slaves…. or giving food on a day of hunger the poverty-stricken destitute who is completely rundown.”  In today’s society, poor people are  harassed and mistreated. The overwhelming amounts of poor people in America are African-Americans, Native-Americans and other minority populations. Observing the privilege among white middle-class feminists, LaRue observed “Is there any logical comparison between the oppression of the black woman on welfare who has difficulty feeding her children and the discontent of the suburban mother who has the luxury to protest the washing of the dishes on which her family full meal was consumed.” [[11] In this society, wealth is increasingly being concentrated in the hands of a few elite. The Prophet Muhammad said, “He is not a believer, he who eats to his fill, whilst his neighbor besides him goes hungry.” [Saheeh al-Bukharee (112]  He frequently gave to the poor and instituted a wealth distribution system known as zakat to ensure they were fed.

The Prophet Muhammad addressed issues of classism, racism and sexism. First-wave feminists were unable to tackle so many social issues simultaneously, and feminism has evolved throughout various eras as a way to compensate. It is clear that Femen is undergoing an intellectual famine. Eco-feminism, socialist feminism, and other brands of feminism are egalitarian ideologies formulated as academic theories. However, what the Prophet Muhammad Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam accomplished was much more than just an academic theory: his revolutionary ideas were practical, and the magnitude of his accomplishments in Arabia—as well as the rate at which his reforms improved women’s status in society—is unparalleled in the whole of human history.


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Hakeem Muhammad is public speaker, researcher, aspiring public intellectual, activist, and writer. Visit his blog at HakeemMuhammad.com


1) A History of Black Feminism, http://www.mit.edu/~thistle/v9/9.01/6blackf.html


Audre Lorde, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/181970-there-is-no-thing-as-a-single-issue-struggle-because-we

3)Islam and Female Infantcide, http://www.islamawareness.net/FamilyPlanning/Infanticide/fit_article001.html

4) Islam’s First Martyrs, http://www.islambasics.com/view.php?bkID=176&chapter=16


6) Inspired by Muhammad, http://www.inspiredbymuhammad.com/womens_rights.php

7) http://www.soundvision.com/info/history/bkayman.asp, A notable African Woman

8) In the Footsteps of the Prophet by Tariq Ramadan

9)White Women’s Rights : The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States …

10)One Woman’s Jihad, By Beverly Blow Mack, Jean Boy

11) http://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/scriptorium/wlm/blkmanif/, Third World Alliance


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