In the Koran, as in the Talmud, law and morals are one; the secular is included in the religious, and every commandment is of God. Here are rules not only for manners and hygiene, marriage and divorce, and the treatment of children, slaves, and animals, but also for commerce and politics, interest and debts, contracts and wills, industry and finance, crime and punishment, war and peace.
Mohammed did not disdain commerce—he was its graduate; even in his sovereign Medina days, says a tradition, he bought wholesale, sold retail, and made profit without qualm; sometimes he acted as auctioneer.7 His language was rich in commercial metaphors; he promised worldly success to good Moslems (ii, 5), and offered heaven as a bargain for a little belief. He threatened hell to lying or cheating merchants; denounced monopolists, and speculators who “keep back grain to sell at a high rate”;8 and bade the employer “give the laborer his wage before his perspiration dries.”9 He prohibited the taking or giving of interest (ii, 275; iii, 130). No reformer ever more actively taxed the rich to help the poor. Every will was expected to leave something to the poor; if a man died intestate his natural heirs were directed to give a part of their inheritance to charity (iv, 8). Like his religious contemporaries he accepted slavery as a law of nature, but did what he could to mitigate its burdens and its sting.10
In like manner he improved the position of woman in Arabia while accepting her legal subjection with equanimity. We find in him the usual quips of the male resenting his enslavement to desire; almost like a Father of the Church he speaks of women as man’s supreme calamity, and suspects that most of them will go to hell.11 He made his own Salic law against women rulers.12 He allowed women to come to the mosque, but believed that “their homes are better for them”;13 yet when they came to his services he treated them kindly, even if they brought suckling babes; if, says an amiable tradition, he heard a child cry, he would shorten his sermon lest the mother be inconvenienced.14 He put an end to the Arab practice of infanticide (xvii, 31). He placed woman on the same footing with man in legal processes and in financial independence; she might follow any legitimate profession, keep her earnings, inherit property, and dispose of her belongings at will (iv, 4, 32). He abolished the Arab custom of transmitting women as property from father to son. Women were to inherit half as much as the male heirs, and were not to be disposed of against their will.15 A verse in the Koran (xxxiii, 33) seemed to establish purdah: “Stay in your houses, and do not display your finery”; but the emphasis here was on modesty of dress; and a tradition quotes the Prophet as saying to women, “It is permitted you to go out for your needs.”16 With regard to his own wives he asked his followers to speak to them only from behind a curtain.17 Subject to these restrictions, we find Moslem women moving about freely and unveiled in the Islam of his time, and a century thereafter.
Morals are in part a function of climate: probably the heat of Arabia intensified sexual passion and precocity, and some allowance should be made for men in perpetual heat. Moslem laws were designed to reduce temptation outside of marriage, and increase opportunity within. Premarital continence was strictly enjoined (xxiv, 33), and fasting was recommended as an aid.18 The consent of both parties was required for marriage; that agreement, duly witnessed, and sealed with a dowry from bridegroom to bride, sufficed for legal marriage, whether the parents consented or not.19 A Moslem male was allowed to marry a Jewish or Christian woman, but not an idolatress—i.e., a non-Christian polytheist. As in Judaism, celibacy was considered sinful, marriage obligatory and pleasing to God (xxiv, 32). Mohammed accepted polygamy to balance a high death rate in both sexes, the length of maternal nursing, and the early waning of reproductive powers in hot climes; but he limited the number of permitted wives to four, allowing himself a special dispensation. He forbade concubinage (lxx, 29-31), but held it preferable to marriage with an idolatress (ii, 221).
Having allowed the male so many outlets for desire, the Koran punished adultery with a hundred stripes on each sinner (xxiv, 2). But when, on flimsy grounds, Mohammed’s favorite wife, Aisha, was suspected of adultery, and gossip persistently besmirched her name, he had a trance and issued a revelation requiring four witnesses to prove adultery; moreover, “those who accuse honorable women, but bring not four witnesses, shall be scourged with eighty stripes, and their testimony shall never again be accepted” (xxiv, 4). Accusations of adultery were thereafter rare.
Divorce was permitted to the male by the Koran, as by the Talmud, on almost any ground; the wife might divorce her husband by returning her dowry to him (ii, 229). While accepting the pre-Islamic liberty of divorce for the male, Mohammed discouraged it, saying that nothing was so displeasing to God; arbiters should be appointed “one from his folk and one from hers,” and every effort made at reconciliation (iv, 35). Three successive declarations, at monthly intervals, were required to make a divorce legal; and to compel careful thought about it, the husband was not allowed to remarry his divorced wife until after she had been married and divorced by another man.20 The husband must not go in to his wife during her periods; she was not to be considered “unclean” at that time, but she must purify herself ritually before resuming cohabitation. Women are “a tilth” to man—a field to be cultivated; it is an obligation of the man to beget children. The wife should recognize the superior intelligence and therefore superior authority of the male; she must obey her husband; if she rebels he should “banish her to a bed apart, and scourge her” (iv, 34). “Every woman who dieth, and her husband is pleased with her, shall enter paradise” (iv, 35).
Here as elsewhere the legal disabilities of women barely matched the power of their eloquence, their tenderness, and their charms. Omar, the future caliph, rebuked his wife for speaking to him in a tone that he considered disrespectful. She assured him that this was the tone in which his daughter Hafsa, and the other wives of Mohammed, spoke to the Prophet of Allah. Omar went at once and remonstrated with Hafsa and another of Mohammed’s wives; he was told to mind his business, and he retired in dismay. Hearing of all this, Mohammed laughed heartily.21 Like other Moslems he quarreled now and then with his wives, but he did not cease to be fond of them, or to speak of women with becoming sentiment. “The most valuable thing in the world,” he is reported to have said, “is a virtuous woman.”22 Twice in the Koran he reminded Moslems that their mothers had carried them with pain, brought them forth with pain, nursed them for twenty-four or thirty months.23 “Paradise,” he said, “is at the foot of the mother.”24