There is a common belief that Islam gives a higher status to men in comparison to women. This is misconception in the truest sense of the word.

Contrary to the common misconception that Islam holds men superior to women, Islam actually gives equal status to women as that of men. The Quran says:

"You are members, one of another." (3:195)

This means that there is no difference between the two as regards status, rights and blessings both in this world and in the Hereafter.

The following Hadith gives an apt description of the role of women:

Men and women are two equal halves of a single unit. (Al Tirmizi)

We see that both the sacred scriptures of Islam make it clear that neither sex is inferior or superior to the other. However, studies in biology and psychology show that the sexes are different in nature, each being designed for a different purpose. So, the Islamic maxim runs:

Equal in respect, but different in role.

Each being equal has a different sphere of action. That is, in making their contribution to social activity, the men undertake whatever is harder, while the women deal with whatever is lighter.

The Quran says that men are in charge of, that is, they are 'maintainers' of women (4:34). This leads to a common misconception that Islam gives a higher status to men then women. According to this verse of the Quran, it does not mean that men have a distinctive status over women - being maintainers of women has never been intended as a form of discriminatory treatment, it rather concerns the practical management of the home, for which the man is held responsible. However, this does not mean that a woman will never be allowed to shoulder these responsibilities. If she finds that she can bear this burden, no objection will be raised from any quarter. One example of this can be found in the Quran with reference to the people of Sheba. They lived in Yemen. The famous dam of Marib made their country very prosperous and enabled it to attain a high degree of civilization. The Quran tells us that they were ruled by a woman (27:23) without disapproving of her rule. Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba was very wise and sagacious, even more so than the men in her court. She did not want to embroil her country in war, while the men advised her to confront her enemies, namely, Solomon's army. Abdullah Yusuf Ali writes:

"In Bilqis we have a picture of womanhood, gentle, prudent, and able to tame the wilder passions of her subjects."

It is an accepted principle with the commentators of the Quran that when the Quran reports something without any disapproval, that means that has been approved of by the Quran.

So when we look at this incident in the light of the Quran, we find the status of woman even higher than that of men. A woman is in charge of men and she has shouldered this responsibility with greater efficacy.

Thus the example of the Queen of Sheba having found mention in the Quran shows that rulership is not man's monopoly. A woman can be a 'qawwam' over a man and the Quran has itself testified to it.

In fact, in the early period of Islam, both the sexes were fully active in different fields of life, from housework to agriculture and horticulture; and from worship in the mosque to the battleground. Everywhere women were visible and active. Gradually there came about a division of labour, which is justifiable not only biologically and physiologically, but also in terms of the ensuing social benefits. One such important benefit is that they can see each other's lives objectively, without that personal involvement which tends to cloud their judgment and lead to a damaging emotionalism. They are better able to counsel each other coolly and wisely, to give moral support at critical moments, and to offer the daily encouragement with which every successful union should be marked.

In Islamic history, there are many examples of women giving invaluable help to their husbands in critical situations. One of the most notable was Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet of Islam who successfully brought the Prophet back from a state of fear and trembling to a state of normalcy after his receiving the first divine revelation in the solitude of the Cave of Hira from the Archangel Gabriel. She was able to reassure him that his life was not, as he feared, in danger, as she herself was emotionally detached from the incident. She observed: "God will surely never forsake you. You are kind to your kin; you always help the weak; you take care of whoever crosses your threshold; you solace the weary; you speak the truth." The reassurance that Khadijah gave to the Prophet of Islam on this occasion was one of the most significant contributions to the furtherance of Islam.

Then it occurred to Khadijah that she had best make enquiries of some learned Christians, who, well versed as they were in the scriptures, were bound to have knowledge of revelation and prophethood. She went first to a rahib (hermit) who lived near Mecca. On seeing her, the priest asked, "O noble lady of the Quraysh, what has brought you here?" Khadijah replied, "I have come here to ask you about Gabriel." To this the rahib said, "Glory be to God, he is God's pure angel. He visits prophets: he came to Jesus and Moses." Then Khadijah went to another Christian called Addas. She put the same question to him, and he too told her that Gabriel was an angel of God, the very same who had been with Moses when God drowned the Pharaoh. He had also come to Jesus, and through him God had helped Jesus.

Then Khadijah hastened to Waraqah ibn Nawfal, a Christian convert who had translated part of the Bible into Arabic. When she had finished telling him of what Muhammad had seen and heard, Waraqah exclaimed, "Holy, holy! By the Master of my soul, if your report be true, O Khadijah, this must be the great spirit who spoke to Moses. This means that Muhammad must be the Prophet of this nation." On a subsequent visit, Khadijah brought Muhammad to meet Waraqah ibn Nawfal. Muhammad related the events exactly as they had taken place and, when he had finished, Waraqah said, "By the Master of my soul, I swear that you are the same Prophet whose coming was foretold by Jesus, son of Mary." But then Waraqah sounded a note of warning: "You will be denied and you will be hurt. You will be abused and you will be pursued." He nevertheless immediately pledged himself to the Prophet: "If I should ever live to see that day, I should surely help you."

Thus we can say that Islam does not hold women inferior to men. Islam considers men and women as equal in respect, but different in role.

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When the Prophet emigrated to Madinah, Abdullah ibn Ubayy and his followers put all kinds of obstacles in the Prophet's path, doing all they could to sabotage his mission. Then came the Battle of Badr, when the great leaders of the Quraysh were slain. "There is no stopping Islam now," agreed Abdullah ibn Ubayy and his companions. They then put up a facade of entering Islam, but, insincere in their path, they soon took to plotting against Islam.

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Material attainments should be done for fulfilling needs and not for providing luxury. Man must know the difference between need, comfort and luxury. Sufis prescribe complete abstinence. I do not subscribe to complete abstinence. According to my understanding, materialism should be adopted so long as it fulfils the need.

Attaining luxurious living should not be the goal of striving for materialism. Here I would also like to clarify that comfort and luxury are not haraam (prohibited by religion) but they kills time, energy and money. Therefore, one who makes comfort and luxury his goal will do so at the cost of his intellectual development.

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Traditional religion means form-based religion. Form-based religion cannot lead to the required result. According to me, we need is to revive the spirit of religion, rather than the form of the religion. Rituals are a relative part of the religion and spirit is its real form.

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Taqwa means piety, that is, leading a life of caution and restraint in this world.

Umar Farooq, the second Caliph once asked a companion of the Prophet what taqwa was? He replied, "O leader of the believers, have you ever crossed a path which has thorny shrubs, on both sides?" But the companion instead of replying asked another question, "What did you do on such an occasion?" Umar Farooq replied, "I gathered my clothes close to me and moved ahead cautiously." The companion said, "This is the stuff of taqwa."

The present world is a testing ground. Here, various kinds of thorns have been scattered for the purpose of testing man, such as negativity, false issues raised by non-serious people, the lure of worldly things. Besides these, there are many unpleasant occurrences, which disturb people's minds and lead them away from the path of virtue.

All these things are like thorny shrubs lining both sides of the path of life. At any moment it is feared that man may embroil himself in these thorns and then instead of going forward, remain entrapped in these snares of life.

In such a state of affairs the wise man is one who travels the paths of life by gathering up his clothes to avoid becoming, entangled in these unpleasant snares. In this way, he is able to continue his journey unhampered. Yet at all times he must remain conscious of the fact that he must protect himself. He has to adopt the path of avoidance, not of entanglement.

Man has been created with an upright nature. If no hindrance comes in the way, then every man will, on his own, take the right course. That is why; the utmost precaution must be taken against allowing unnatural obstacles to come in the way.

Then, guided by this upright nature, man will continue to walk along the right path until he meets his Lord.

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Speaking Tree| TOI | April 2, 2011

Spend a part of your money for your material needs and spend the rest for spiritual uplift. Use it for acquiring knowledge. Money is a great asset. It is not meant just for fulfilling desires; Put it to better use. Spend it for a higher cause. Manage your desires and then you will find you have enough money to achieve higher goals.

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Man is an eternal creature. However, his life-span has been divided by God into two parts. A very tiny part of it has been placed in this world, while all of the remainder has been placed in the Hereafter or the Akhirat. The present world is the world of action, while the world of the Hereafter is the place for reaping the harvest of actions. The present world is imperfect, but the world of the Hereafter is perfect in every respect. The Hereafter is a limitless world where all things have been provided in their ideal state.

God has placed His heaven-full of all kinds of blessings-in that world of the Hereafter. Those who prove to be God-fearing and pious in this world will enter into that world to find the gates of heaven eternally open for them.

But those who are oblivious of God in this present world or who opt for the path of contumacy in regard to God's matters are criminals in God's eyes. All such people will be deprived of the blessings of the Hereafter.

God is invisible in this present world, and will appear in all His power and majesty only in the world of the Hereafter. Then all human beings will bow low before Him. But at that time, surrendering will be of no avail. Self-abnegation and acceptance of God is desired only while God is still invisible. Surrendering before God after seeing Him in the Hereafter will not benefit anyone.

Death is not the end of a person's life. It is only the beginning of the next stage of life. Death is that interim stage when man leaves this temporary world of today for the eternal world of tomorrow. He goes out of the temporary accommodation of the world to enter the eternal resting place of the Hereafter. The coming of this stage in the Hereafter is the greatest certainty in one's life. No one can save himself from this fate in the Hereafter.

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Jihad means struggle. Any sincere effort for the cause of religion will be called Jihad. Man's self leads him to evil. So waging war with the self is jihad. Sometimes friends or acquaintances pressurize you into engaging in activities, which are not right from the moral standpoint. At that time, refusing to yield such pressure and sticking firmly to an upright attitude are forms of jihad.

Exhorting people to goodness and making them refrain from indecency are tasks entailing a great struggle. Continuing the dawah campaign whilst bearing all hardship is also jihad.

If having been treated with bitterness by neighbours or acquaintances, or after suffering any other kind of provocation, one refrains from reaction and retaliation and maintains pleasant relations unilaterally; this will also be a form of jihad.

There is another kind of jihad which is called 'qital' that is, engaging in war at God's behest at the time of aggression on the part of the enemies. This jihad is purely in self-defence in order to counter aggression. The literal meaning of jihad is not war. But to fight in self-defence in accordance with God's commandments also involves a struggle; that is why it is also called jihad.

Jihad, meaning war, is however a temporary and circumstantial matter. If in the real sense any need for defence arises only then will armed jihad be launched. If no such severe urgency arises, no armed jihad will take place.

Just calling an action 'jihad' will not morally validate it. The only true jihad is that which is carried out in accordance with Islam. Islamic jihad is, in actual fact, another name for peaceful struggle. This peaceful struggle is sometimes an inward-looking thing, like waging jihad with the self when it takes place at the level of feeling; sometimes it is desired externally, and manifests itself at the physical level through gestures (like kneeling, prostrating oneself before God).

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There is a common belief about Islam that it teaches its adherents to be close-minded. In actual fact, Islam teaches the spirit of enquiry and asks its adherents to remove their ignorance by seeking answers to questions.

According to a tradition, the Prophet of Islam once remarked: "The remedy for ignorance is asking questions." If the ignorant man does not inquire, his ignorance will stay with him. But if he has a questioning mind, some knowledgeable person will answer him, and he will no longer remain ignorant.

There is a saying in Arabic to the same effect: To know that you do not know is half knowledge itself. If an ignorant person is not aware of his ignorance, he will continue to remain in the same state. But when he becomes aware of his ignorance, he sets about seeking for knowledge. He will try to turn his ignorance into knowledge. In this way his awareness of his ignorance will become the stepping-stone leading towards full knowledge.

In ancient times the phenomena of nature were considered to be manifestations of God. The sight of the manifestations of nature, therefore, aroused in man the spirit of worship. It was only when these natural phenomena were divested of their divinity that the spirit of inquiry could be aroused in man. As a result, many of the mysteries of nature now lie unraveled.

An inquisitive mind is a sine qua non for the acquisition of knowledge. Only those who are possessed of this quality will achieve great success in intellectual and academic fields. Those devoid of this spirit will remain static, and will fail to climb to the top of the ladder of success.

It is this spirit, which is the foundation of all scientific progress.

Knowledge is of two distinct kinds: that which we have been blessed with in the Qur'an and the Hadith, and that which we acquire as a result of our own research and endeavour. The first kind acquaints us with our Lord, and makes plain the issues to be faced in the everlasting world, which awaits us after death. More important, it shows us how, in the course of our present life, we may prepare ourselves to meet those issues. The second kind of knowledge provides solutions to the social and economic problems, which we encounter in everyday life.

It is imperative that Muslims should seek both forms of knowledge, but they should never lose sight of the fact that they vary considerably in importance. Their primary aim in life should be knowledge of the Qur'an and the Hadith, while the acquisition of knowledge of the other sciences should come about as a matter of worldly necessity. Without a knowledge of religion, what must be done in this world to earn an everlasting reward, will constantly elude one's understanding, and it goes without saying that one can never then consider oneself a Muslim in the true sense of the word.

The secular sciences guide us only in worldly matters, giving us instruction in the agricultural, industrial and civic practicalities of life. But it is the Qur'an and Hadith, which set our feet on the path to eternal development. Clearly, it is just as important for Muslims as it is for anyone else to study various branches of knowledge, but they must distinguish between ultimate objectives and adventitious necessity. Muslims must not only study the Qur'an and the Hadith, but must be keenly aware that the real reasons for studying them are very different from those which prompt them to seek worldly knowledge: they must constantly bear in mind also that religious knowledge take moral priority over all other forms of knowledge.

The emphasis of Islam on learning and teaching was not confined to the Quran or the teachings of the Prophet. The Quran, in fact, has given a new outlook, a new perspective or paradigm as coined by Thomas Kahn (The Structure of Scientific Revolution, 1955). According to this Quranic paradigm, man's most important activity being intellectual contemplation or reflection, he was not supposed to blindly follow any idea or notion just because it was attributed to his ancestors or some other authority. He had to ponder on it critically and realistically. That is why we find that the Quran is replete with hundreds of inspirational and motivational verses that invite man to reflect on the wonderful creatures of God.

For example: In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are signs for people with intelligence, those who remember God standing, sitting, and lying on their sides, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth, (saying) Our Lord! You have not created all this in vain (without purpose), Glory be to You. (3:190-91, 7:176, 10:24, 13:3, 16:11).

This, we can say, was the intellectual seed, which is called in academic circles the spirit of enquiry. It is this spirit of inquiry, which has played the greatest role in bringing about the age of science. It is the zeal to discover which has led man to knowledge.

According to Toynbee and other world historians, this spirit of enquiry was the first and foremost prerequisite for the inauguration of the scientific era and the elimination of a superstitious outlook on nature and life. So it would not be an exaggeration to say that it is the Quran that has laid down the foundation of modern science. On the other hand, the Prophet himself has dealt with day-to-day problems of life in accordance with this realistic approach taught by the Quran. Consequently the same realistic approach became an integral part of the frame of mind of his companions. They all became curious, inquisitive and realistic in all matters of life.

For example, once the Prophet passed by an oasis where he found the farmers, who were date planters at work. When he asked what they were doing, he was told that they were pollinating the clusters of dates in order to produce a better yield. The Prophet expressed his disapproval of this process. Knowing this, the farmers immediately stopped it. But later on the Prophet was told that due to lack of proper pollination the yield had been very low as compared to the previous years. On hearing this, the Prophet replied. "You know your worldly matters better." (Sahih Bukhari) In other words, experiment and observation should be the final criteria in such worldly matters.

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Contrary to the common misconception that Islam denies religious freedom to others, Islam enjoins religious freedom to others.

Religious freedom is the basic human right whose violation has caused conflicts, wars and bloodshed in both ancient and modern societies. The Quran, therefore, has declared for the first time in human history:

'There shall be no coercion in matters of religion.' (2:256).

The Quran also states clearly, "To you your religion and to me mine." (109:6).

The principle that we obtain from the above verses of the Quran is generally referred to, in today's context, as religious freedom.

In view of this prohibition of coercion (Ikrah), all Islamic jurists (Fuqaha) without any exception hold that forcible conversion is under all circumstances null and void. Any attempt to coerce a non-believer to accept Islam is a grievous sin, (Ahkam al-Quran, al-Jassas). According to this principle of 'non-coercion', it is not permissible to exploit or manipulate personal weaknesses or calamities (e.g. poverty, sickness, famine, etc.) for religious conversion. That is why old and downtrodden non-Muslims were exempted from taxes and given all monetary support by the Islamic state without ever being asked to embrace Islam just for the advantages it would give them.

Once a Jewish widow came to the Caliph Umar asking for some financial aid. Umar tried to persuade her to accept Islam. He promised to take care of all her needs if she embraced Islam. But the lady refused. Umar then gave her more than she had asked for. When she departed, Umar raised his hands towards heaven and said:

"O God, bear witness that I have not exercised any coercion on this lady." (Tarikh Umar ibn Khattab, Ibn al-Jawzi)

The principle of non-coercion mentioned the Quran (2:256) has not been confined to religious freedom alone. Rather, it has been extensively elaborated upon and widely applied to all social, cultural, and political spheres of society. This has led to the development of a new culture in which individuals enjoy freedom of expression, dissent and criticism without any fear or restriction. Two examples may suffice to explain to what extent this essential human right was observed in earlier Muslim societies.

Once Caliph Umar came to a well of the Banu Harithah where he met an outspoken person named Muhammad ibn Maslama. "How do you find me?" he asked Muhammad, "By God, I find you just as I would like you to be and just as it would please any well-wisher to see you. You are good at accumulating money, I see, but you keep your hands clean of it yourself, distributing it equitably to others." "But," went on Muhammad ibn Maslama, "If you adopt a crooked course, we will straighten you, just as we straighten swords by placing them in a vice." At these aggressively critical words, Umar, the second Muslim Caliph, exclaimed:

"Praise be to God, who has put me among a people who will straighten me when I become crooked." (Kanz al-Ummal)

When Muslims at Madinah, with their increasing affluence, began to settle huge dowers (mahr) on their daughters, Umar, in his capacity as caliph, ordered that no one should demand or pay a dower that exceeded four hundred dirhams, and that anything in excess of this amount would be confiscated and deposited in the public treasury (Baitul-Mal).

After the proclamation of this ordinance, when he came down from the pulpit, an old woman stood up and confidently said:

'The Quran has set no restrictions on this matter: Umar has no right to set an upper limit to the dowers."

To back up her contention, she loudly recited this verse of the Quran:

"If you decide to take one wife in place of another, do not take back from her the dower you have given her, even if it be a talent of gold.' (4:20).

Umar's immediate reaction on hearing this was to say:

"A woman has quarreled with Umar and has bested him."

According to another account, Umar said:

"May God, forgive me, everyone knows better than Umar, even this old lady." (Tirmidhi/Ahmad)

With the advent of Islam in the seventh century, however, it was declared for the benefit of mankind that all greatness was the exclusive prerogative of God, and that in the eyes of God, all human beings were equal. The Prophet Muhammad declared not once, but on many occasions that all were alike, all were brothers.

"The Prophet not only stated the truth but also made it a reality by bringing about a total revolution based on the idea of human equality. On achieving political domination in Arabia, he was able to put this theory into practice in his capacity as ruler of a state. In this way, Islam put an end to discrimination between human beings on the basis of race, colour, status, etc. People were assigned a high or low status according to their moral worth."

(Islam, the Creator of the Modern Age, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan)

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