Why do men think they are superior to women? 

  Dr Riffat Hassan, one of few women theologians in the world today, sees a glaring discrepancy between Islamic ideals and the reality that exists in many Muslims countries. To narrow the gap, she says, Muslims must read the Quran and return to the origins of lslam.

Why do men think they are superior to women? A simple though incomplete answer to these lies in a crooked rib on the left side of a man's body.

A more complex explanation, offered by Dr Riffat Hassan recently, includes the rib as well as the larger picture of Creation as it has been understood and interpreted by all three revealed religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

What is intriguing and perhaps even worrying is that the explanation that has filtered down through the ages contradicts the story of Creation in the Quran.

Yet, as Riffat, an American of Pakistani descent, pointed out, many Muslims continue to cling to the comforting fiction of the rib story.

But before Riffat embarked on the task of putting together a plausible reason for the unequal relationship between man and women in Islam she noted first, an absence of women's voices on the topic.

"I was tired of hearing Muslim men pontificate upon the position or status or role of women in Islam (and knew) that it was totally inconceivable that any woman could presume to speak about the position or status or role of men in Islam."

She also discovered that other than women such as Khadijah and Aishah (wives of the Prophet Muhammad) and Rabi'a al Basri (the outstanding woman Sufi) who figured significantly in early Islam, "the Islamic tradition has, by and large, remained rigidly patriarchal until the present time, prohibiting the growth of scholarship among women particularly in the realm of religious thought.

"This means that the sources on which the Islamic tradition is mainly based, namely, the Quran, the Sunnah, the Hadith literature and Fiqh have been interpreted only by Muslim men who have arrogated to themselves the task of defining the ontological, theological, sociological and eschatological status of Muslim women."

She said she found it profoundly discouraging to contemplate how few Muslim women there were today who possessed the competence, even if they had the courage and commitment, to engage in a scholarly study of Islam's primary sources in order to participate in theological discussions on women-related issues that are taking place in much of the contemporary Muslim world.

When Riffat examined the theological ground on which all the anti-woman arguments were rooted, she started with the Quran. Then she studied all the women-related hadiths in the Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim (considered by some to be. the two most authoritative books in Islam next to the Quran) and read the writing of Jewish and Christian feminist theologians who were attempting to trace the theological origins of antifeminist ideas and attitudes in their respective traditions.

Riffat discovered that in the Islamic as well as Jewish and Christian traditions there were three theological assumptions on which the superstructure of men's' alleged superiority to women - which implies the inequality of women to men - had been erected.

1.    That God's primary creation is man, not woman, since woman is believed to be created from man's rib, hence is derivative and secondary ontologically.

2.    That woman, not man, was the primary agent of what is customarily described as the "Fail" or man's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, hence all daughters of Eve are to be regarded with hatred, suspicion and contempt.

3.    That woman was created not only from man but also for man, which makes her existence merely instrumental and not of fundamental importance.

"This issue," she said, "is the more basic and important, philosophically and theologically, than any other in the context of woman-man equality because if man and woman have been created equally by God who is the ultimate arbiter of value, then they cannot become unequal, essentially, at a subsequent time.

If the Quran makes no distinction between the creation of man and woman, as it clearly does not, why do Muslims believe that Eve was created from the rib of Adam?

Riffat said she was certain they did not get this information from the Bible. What seemed more likely was that it became a part of the Muslim heritage through its assimilation in Hadith literature, which has been, in many ways, the lens through which the Quran has been seen since the early centuries of Islam.

She found Hadiths that were anti-women not only in the significant secondary sources of Islam but also in Shahih al Bukharai and Sahih Muslim and gave six examples, three from the former and the rest from the latter, that have had a formative influence upon the Muslim mind.

In all, they refer to the fact that woman was created from a rib, and that the most curved position of the rib was its upper position and that it would break if one tried to straighten it. So, one had to make do with it because the crookedness would remain.

All six were cited on the authority of Abu Hurairah, a Companion who was regarded as controversial by many early Muslims scholars, including lmam Abu Hanifah, founder of the largest Sunni school of law.

Riffat pointed out that everything suggested and stated in the six hadiths clashed with the teachings of the Quran which described all human beings as having been created most justly portioned and with the highest capabilities.

And she added, even though all Muslims agree that whenever a hadith conflicts with the Quran it must be rejected, the six hadiths discussed have not only been rejected, they have in fact remained overwhelmingly popular with Muslims through the ages.