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Women in Arabia before Islam

By Karen Garst ~

I have written extensively about the worship of female deities prior to the advent of monotheism. Many historians will agree there was likely a notion of a Mother Goddess or Mother Earth early in the lives of humans. Everyone knows about the later pantheon of Roman and Greeks gods and goddesses… unless you were sleeping in high school. Many other cultures had goddesses as well. Furthermore, Judaism was not the only culture to get rid of the goddesses and opt for a single male deity. Enuma Elish, the Babylonian myth, predates the Jewish tradition by at least 1,000 years. In this story, Marduk, one of the male deities, asks his fellow gods to make him the head god. If they consent, he will kill Tiamet, the goddess of the sea. Yup, they agreed and she was cut in half to separate the skies and the earth. But we often hear that females in the area where Islam started, the Arabian Peninsula, were disadvantaged, couldn’t own property, and couldn’t choose whom they could marry. These writers maintain that Islam improved their lives.

Hibah Ch[1], who has written an essay about women and Islam for my next book, quickly disabuses us of this characterization. First, the wife of Mohammed, the founder of Islam, was married to Khadija bint Khuwaylid for 25 years until her death. She had been married previously and was a very successful merchant in the Quraysh tribe. It is said that her caravan “equaled the caravans of all other traders of the Quraysh put together.”[2] Doesn’t sound like an oppressed, disadvantaged woman to me.

Even more importantly, there were women leaders of some of the tribes in the area. Examples include:

Zabibi the Assyrian queen of a kingdom in north eastern Arabia called Doumatoa, the Nabatean empress Julia Domna (170-217AD), the queen of Palmyra Zenobia (240-270 AD), the queens of the kingdom of Himyar in South Arabia, the Kingdom of Kindah in central Arabia, the Ghassanids in Syria and the Lakhmids of Hirah all between 300 AD and 500 AD.[3]

In addition to women leaders as well as women warriors (one led a war against Mohammed), Hibah tells us there were female deities as well. The society which preceded Mohammed was polytheistic. Three of the female deities that were worshipped were Al Lat, Al'uzza, and Manat. Just as the Jewish Tanakh railed against the “Queen of Heaven” (Jeremiah 44:18), the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, railed against these female deities as well.

 So have you considered Lat and ‘Uzza? And Manat, the third—the other one? Is the male for you and for Him the female? That, then, is an unjust division. (Qur’an 53:19-22)

It undoubtedly took Islam a while to suppress the reverence for these female deities just as happened in Judaism. Karen Armstrong, a well-known writer about religion, states that it probably took 600 years to fully create the monotheistic religion that Judaism became.[4]

Unfortunately, after Islam was fully established, much of the evidence regarding the worship of these female deities was destroyed including all the temples of Al Lat in Taif (current day Saudi Arabia) as well as other sites in the Islamic world. There were statues and shrines to previous deities even in the Kaaba itself which became the holiest site of Islam.

Just as the laws of Judaism devalued women and established a male patriarchy, Islam also made women subservient to men in its holy writings.

Men are guardians over women because Allah has made some of them (men) excel others (women), and because they (men) spend of their wealth. So virtuous women are those who are obedient, and guard the secrets of their husbands with Allah’s protection. (Qur’an 4:34)

Allah instructs you concerning your children: for the male, what is equal to the share of two females. (Qur’an 4:11)

Just as I wrote in last week’s blog post about menstruation, Islam’s holy book also sees women as unclean. Men have to undergo a ritual cleaning prior to prayer.

O you who have believed, do not approach prayer while you are intoxicated until you know what you are saying or in a state of janabah, except those passing through [a place of prayer], until you have washed [your whole body]. And if you are ill or on a journey or one of you comes from the place of relieving himself or you have contacted women and find no water, then seek clean earth and wipe over your faces and your hands [with it]. Indeed, Allah is ever Pardoning and Forgiving. (Qur’an 4:43)

Mohammed obviously learned from what was happening around him. Both Jews and Christians had a holy book. Mohammed wrote the Qur’an to serve the same purposes. And Christianity had spread rapidly after the fall of the Roman empire. By the late 6th century, when Mohammed was born, Christianity was evident in most of the geographical areas bordering the Mediterranean.  

This is just a small portion of the history of Islam and its impact on women that Hibah outlines in her essay. Stay tuned for the book!

Karen L. Garst, The Faithless Feminist






[1] Hibah Ch is a Syrian Expatriate woman living currently in the United States, born and raised in Aleppo. She is from a conservative Muslim family. She left Islam in her mid-twenties to follow the school of liberalism. The information for this post is drawn from her essay and her references are cited.
[2] Muhammad ibn Saad, Tabaqat vol. 8. Translated by Bewley, A. (1995). The Women of Madina, p. 10. London: Ta-Ha Publishers. Accessed at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khadija_bint_Khuwaylid.
[3] Nabia Abbott, “Pre-Islamic Arab Queens,” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, 58:1 (Jan. 1941): 1-22. http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/370586
[4] Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions (New York, NY: Knopf, 2006), 45.


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