(WOMENSENEWS)–The Prophet Mohamed received his revelations from God in the 7th century in the Arabian peninsula, modern-day Saudi Arabia.

A first glance at a handful of passages in the Koran that represent a response to specific issues that arose in ancient Mecca or Medina are often hard to reconcile with modern values.

Progressive Muslims say that as circumstances change, so should Islamic law. They are interpreting Islam’s holy book in a way that makes it compatible with modern notions of gender equality.

On Polygamy

“Marry such women as seem good to you, two, or three, or four,” says the Koran (4:3). “But if you fear that you will not do justice, then marry only one.”

Thus the Koran appears to clearly sanction polygamy, up to four wives. However, it also states that the man must deal justly, both materially and emotionally, with all four. A separate Koranic verse states this is humanly impossible: “And you cannot do justice between wives, even though you wish it.” (4:129) Tunisia banned polygamy on these grounds.

On Domestic Violence

The Koranic chapter on women has a verse that reads: “For those (women) that you fear might rebel, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, and beat them.” (Princeton translation by Ahmed Ali). But as Reza Aslan points out in his 2005 book on Islam “No God but God,” the Arabic word used for “beat them” can also mean “turn away from them,” “go along with them” and even, “have consensual sex with them.” Thus, a translation by Majid Fakhry, and published by New York University, reads, “As for women you feel are averse, talk to them persuasively; then leave them alone in bed (without molesting them), and go to bed with them (when they are willing).”

Few traditional Muslims accept that latter translation as valid. But progressives argue that even Islam’s most revered leaders have rejected particularly harsh punishments from the Koran.

Omar Ibn al Khitab, the second Caliph to succeed Mohamed, a man universally referred to by Muslims as one of the “rightly guided Caliphs,” reversed the Koranic ruling to amputate the hands of thieves. And slavery, sanctioned by dozens of Koranic passages, is universally prohibited in the modern Islamic world. Thus, some argue, there is no reason that modern Islamic scholars cannot similarly forbid men from hitting their wives, because 1,300 years later times have changed.


“Allah enjoins you concerning your children: The male shall have the equal of the portion of two females,” says the Koran (4:11). Thus, Islamic scholars to this day declare that daughters inherit half that of their brothers.

Not so fast. To understand a Koranic ruling, one must understand the conditions that prompted the ruling. Some modern scholars say the rationale behind this verse was that, in 7th century Arabia men were responsible for providing for extended families. Women didn’t work for pay and didn’t bear the same level of responsibility, thus they inherited less.

That’s not the case for the millions of Muslim women who have earnings and help support their families today. In countries such as Egypt, women’s work-force participation is comparable to that of men. Even in Saudi Arabia women are working outside the home. So, as conditions change, Islamic law must adapt.

An alternate explanation says the reason for this verse is that in 7th century Arabia, women usually married into other tribes. Thus limiting women’s inheritance would preserve the wealth of the tribe. This situation has also become moot in the 21st century.

Charles Levinson is the news editor for Cairo Magazine and a freelance journalist. His articles have appeared in the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor, the Dallas Morning News, the Guardian and elsewhere.

For more information:

Islam for Today–
“Women in Islam”:

Three opinions on using Sharia to advance women’s rights in Nigeria

Working within Nigeria’s Sharia Courts
Human Rights Dialogue 2.10 (Fall 2003): “Violence Against Women”:

Working within Sharia Takes You Only So Far
Human Rights Dialogue 2.10 (Fall 2003): “Violence Against Women”:

Small Victories, but the War Rages On
Human Rights Dialogue 2.10 (Fall 2003): “Violence Against Women”:

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