In my view, women issues are the real test for current Islamic reform. The reason behind this is that groundless and unfair differentiation between men and women is deeply embedded in many popular narrations and opinions that we inherited and considered to be part of our religion, while they are not. They are against what Islam itself is about, which is mercy, justice and equality of all humans.
To put my answer in a more organized framework, I find it necessary to make the following differentiations, especially in the area of women in Islam:
between a "popular" narration and an "authentic" narration of a hadith.between "Islam" and "Muslims".between Islamic "Shari`ah" and Islamic "madhhabs" (schools of jurisprudence).between the "scripts" and the "interpretation of the scripts."First, there are popular narrations that say that "Most occupiers of Hell are women," "Women are deficient in the mind and in their faith," "Women are crooked," "Your bad omen is in your woman," and so on.
Some of these narrations seem to contradict other narrations. Some others are either weak or were not transmitted accurately, i.e. the narrator transmitted the part that is at odds with other established narrations. Still, there are narrations that are misinterpreted by people.
Let me take one of these narrations and analyze its authenticity, as an example. Abu Hurairah (one of the Companions) reported that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, "Your bad omen is in your woman, your animal, and your house" (Al-Bukhari). However, it is reported that `A'ishah, the Prophet's wife, refused Abu Hurairah's narration and said that the Prophet had said instead, "People during the jahiliyya (era of pre-Islamic ignorance) used to say that bad omens are in women, animals, and houses." (Al-Bukhari)
In terms of the Science of Hadith, `A'ishah rejected Abu Hurairah's narration on the basis of its content rather than its chain of narrators. Abu Hurairah is a great Companion, but he simply made a mistake in this narration, apparently he did not hear the full sentence, and he thought he did.
Here, we have two narrations honestly and accurately narrated by Al-Bukhari. However, they are clearly at odds and one of them should be rejected, no doubt about that. It is quite telling that most commentators rejected `A'ishah's narration and accepted Abu Hurairah's, even though she supported the meaning of her narration with a verse from the Qur'an, which says what means,
(No evil befalls on the earth nor in your own souls, but it is in a book before We bring it into existence; surely that is easy to Allah.) (Al-Hadid 57:22)
What is more is that another Companion, Mikhmar, supported `A'ishah's narration with a similar narration that says, "There is no such thing as bad omens." But Ibn Al-Jawzi (a great scholar of Hadith in the sixth century died in 597/1200), surprisingly, commented, "How can `A'ishah reject an authentic narration?" And Ibn Al-`Arabi (a scholar from Andalusia who died in 1148 CE), shockingly commented, "`A'ishah's rejection of the narration is nonsense." (Abu Bakr Al-Maliki ibn Al-Arabi, `Aridat Al-Ahwadhi (Cairo: Dar Al-Wahy Al-Muhammadi, vol.10, n.d. p. 264.)
The great scholar Badruddin Al-Zarkashi wrote a book dedicated to `A'ishah's critiques to the other Companions' narrations. For further information, refer to Badruddin Al-Zarkashi's Al-Ijabah li 'irad Ma Istadrakathu `A'ishah `ala Al-Sahabah (The Answer that Cites `A'ishah's Amendments to the Companions' Narrations), ed. Saeed Al-Afghani, 2nd ed. Beirut: Al-Maktab Al-Islami, 1970.
Then, we should differentiate between Islam and Muslims. This is not necessarily meant to be in a negative sense. But it is crucial that we separate (as much as we possibly could) between the religion, Islam, and its followers, Muslims.
What Muslims did, or currently do, is not necessarily what Islam is about. Islam has a core that every Muslim must embrace. However, in addition to this core, the same religion, Islam, could manifest, and had manifested, in a variety of shapes and forms in various cultures. Some of these cultures had social structures that were generally bigoted against women, and truly sincere scholars have struggled to implement the Islamic values of justice and equality of human beings.
One example is the ban of Muslim women from entering mosques, despite the clear instruction from Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): "Do not ban the (female) creations of God from the mosques of God," (Al-Bukhari) and despite the fact that the Prophet lead the Prayers for many men and many women in his own mosque.
Another contemporary example is banning women from driving cars in some Islamic countries, despite centuries of similar practices by Muslim women starting with the Prophet's wife `A'ishah, who actually lead a whole battle over her camel (The Battle of the Camel). There are numerous examples on this area.
Similarly, it is also important to differentiate between Islam and the history of the Islamic world that could have its positive as well as its negative sides when it comes to women.
We, Muslims, have to admit that there is a lot of bigotry against women in the history of the Islamic world, which is simply un-Islamic, according to Islam's references and sources of legislation.
One example is the concept of "harem," in which a rich or powerful man basically imprisons a large number of women for his own convenience, in the name of concubines. We thank God that such non-Islamic customs no longer exist.
Another contemporary example is honor killings that are still taking place, sometimes "in the name of Islam," in some areas (like in nowadays Pakistan, Nigeria, and Jordan), despite being clearly against Islam and having no precedent in the Islamic law.
Additionally, it is necessary to differentiate between Islam and the politics of Muslims. Islam is a way of life that, naturally, includes politics and governance. However, political positions, even if they are taken based on certain Islamic values, are not necessarily part of "Islam" that every Muslim has to embrace. When it comes to women, there is a subtle but very strong link between many of the anti-women fatwas and certain political agendas.
The second important differentiation is between the Shari`ah and Islamic schools of law (Arabic: madhahib al-fiqh). The word Shari`ah has negative connotations in the English language because it is commonly used to refer to various corporal punishments used in some countries in the name of the Islamic law, which are usually, and unfortunately, applied to the weak and poor in these societies and do not apply to the rich or the politically powerful.
However, the word Shari`ah is used in the Qur'an only to mean a "revealed heavenly path or way of life" (Al-Ma'idah 5:48, Al-Jathiyah 45:18). So, everything about Islam is Shari`ah. It is supposed to be the Islamic "way of life."
Regarding the schools of fiqh, the word fiqh is used in the Qur'an and Hadith in various forms to refer to understanding, comprehension, and gaining knowledge of the religion in general (for example, An-Nisaa' 4:78, Al-Ma'idah 6:25, At-Tawbah 9:122). However, in Islamic schools of law, the word fiqh has been typically defined as, "the knowledge of practical rulings."
It is crucial to know that Shari`ah is revealed but fiqh is not. Shari`ah is what Allah said in the Qur'an and what the Prophet instructed every Muslim to do, but fiqh is the understanding of scholars, in various eras and geographical locations, of the revealed knowledge and their opinions in their attempts to apply the Shari`ah to (their) real life.
So, generally speaking, fiqh is subject to the society and circumstances that it was applied in, and does not (necessarily) represent Allah's commands, nor (necessarily) what we should apply in our current circumstances.
Of course, there are issues in Islam that are universal and every Muslim, regardless of where and how, should apply. We should consult the scholars of fiqh in these areas.
But I am talking here about the issues that concern changing circumstances and, especially, issues related to women, who, in my view, had suffered a lot of discrimination from a number of scholars — in contrast to the Islamic Shari`ah or revealed way of life.
The second related and important differentiation is between the Scriptures and the interpretation of the Scriptures. The Scriptures are universal, but their interpretations change with the change of time and circumstances.
However, there are limits on what could be valid interpretation. A valid interpretation, for example, cannot alter the meaning until it ends up implying something that is radically different from the obvious meaning of the script or the obvious tradition of Prophet Muhammad.
In this regard, it is necessary to understand how certain historical interpretations shaped the topic of women in Islam in the minds of many Muslims, without necessarily being true interpretations.
Therefore, especially in the area of women in Islam, it is important to make these differentiations between popular narrations and authentic narrations, between Islam and Muslims, between Islamic Shari`ah and Islamic madhabs, and between the scripts and the interpretation of the scripts.
Brother Mohsen Haredy, Reading Islam Consultant, added the following:
As for the hadith you quoted, it was narrated from `Imraan ibn Husain (a Companion of the Prophet) that the Prophet said, "I looked into Paradise and I saw that the majority of its people were the poor. And I looked into Hell and I saw that the majority of its people are women." (Al-Bukhari)
The Prophet was asked about the reason and he explained it, saying:
The Messenger of Allah said, "I was shown Hell and I have never seen anything more terrifying than it. And I saw that the majority of its people are women." They (the Companions ) said, "Why, O Messenger of Allah?" He said, "Because of their ingratitude." It was said, "Are they ungrateful to Allah?" He said, "They are ungrateful to their husbands and ungrateful for good treatment. If you are kind to one of them for a lifetime then she sees one (undesirable) thing in you, she will say, 'I have never had anything good from you.'" (Al-Bukhari)
Therefore, the reason explained in this hadith for their being in Hell is not that they are women, but the point is that they are ungrateful, a state in which men can also fall into.
Reading this hadith, there is a fundamental message that confirms that it is an obligation on the husband to take care of his wife and to treat her well. This kindness in treatment should be mutual, and just as the husband should be grateful for his wife's love, kindness, and companionship, the wife should also be thankful to her husband for his kindness and his efforts in looking after her. Each of them should acknowledge the efforts of the other, show gratitude, and repay in kindness.