This is an intriguing concept, at least because how one answers tends to reveal a lot about what one thinks of women in general. It also shows one’s level of knowledge (or lack thereof).
Among Muslims nowadays it’s generally accepted that there were no female prophets, prophetesses. This position prevails among both laypersons & scholars, open-minded & closed-minded alike. There are various reasons given for this, among them being:
- Women inherently lack the necessary psychological endurance/ focus/ stamina necessary to carry a message to the people. They’re more emotional & therefore less logical,
- Muslim women in history had other roles to fulfil, ie. motherhood & wifehood. They weren’t prophets but they were mothers & wives of prophets (which is a damn good status so shut up & stop moaning!!!), and their unique physiological functions of pregnancy, childbirth, menstruation, etc. make them less physically capable of doing prophetic duties,
- Men are corporeally stronger & therefore more suited for the labour-intensive functions of prophethood, eg. leading people, debating with dissidents, travelling to only-God-knows-where, even preparing & leading armies,
- Women in Islam are forbidden from certain duties that would’ve been incumbent on prophets, such as meeting people in public & in private,
- Most if not all human societies have historically been very antagonistic toward women, seeing them as “the weaker sex”/ sex objects/ just generally inferior to men. If Allah had allowed women to send HIS message to the people under such conditions most simply wouldn’t have taken them seriously, and maybe even sexually assaulted them to make them stop preaching,
- There’s no evidence from Islamic texts (Qur-ān & aḥādiyth) that there were female prophets.
And that’s it.
Except that it’s not. Most people, even most Muslims, don’t know that the existence of prophetesses in Islam has always been up for debate. There has never been a unanimous consensus, especially not among scholars. There are and have been scholars who opine that Islam does accept the existence of female prophets. Some of the points to show this include:
- The general spirit of Islam, as well as the Qur-ān, doesn’t exclude the possibility. Admittedly there are some aḥādiyth that do, but their authenticity is under scrutiny, and the Qur-ān does explicitly mention that some women (ie. Moses’s mother Yuhanz, Jesus’s mother Mary, Abraham’s wife Sarah, and others) received revelation from Allah and/ or communicated with angels,
- Maryam (Mary, daughter of Imran, mother of Jesus) is named among a list of prophets in the Qur-ān. When I find the verse I’ll add it here,
- In the aḥādiyth it’s mentioned that there have been 124,000 prophets (this is debatable too; some say 224,000 but Allah knows for sure). The Qur-ān only names 25 so it’s almost ridiculous to think that absolutely none of the rest were women.
However, among those who support this position it’s argued as to exactly how many & which women were prophets. Some say just Mary, while others include Sarah, Yuhanz, Asiya (the Pharaoh’s wife) & Eve (yes, the 1st woman, Adam’s wife Eve). Others include more.
The entire question of who in history was and wasn’t an Islamic prophet (who aren’t mentioned in the Qur-ān), male or female, isn’t set in stone. The Qur-ān very clearly states that all nations & peoples had at least 1 prophet at some point in their history. Some even reckon other figures like Siddartha Gautama (Buddha), Krishna, Rama, Confucius and others may have been prophets. Although we can’t prove they were, at the same time we can’t prove they weren’t.
I have a few further points to add. These are my personal gripes & opinions:
- Regarding the point about women being prophets’ mothers & wives, these seem to be the first and foremost roles Muslim women are praised for and judged by. When it comes to Muslim men, though, everything about them is highly valued except for their roles as husbands & fathers. Isn’t that a double standard? Do women have to be mothers & wives to gain importance? Don’t they have intrinsic value & personalities apart from that?
- On the same point, how does being a mother & wife impede the ability to perform prophetic duties? Most if not all male prophets were husbands & fathers (including the last and newest example for us to follow, Muhammad) yet they still juggled that with prophethood.
- Yes women are emotional and men are logical. What does this prove? Men are emotional and women are logical too! It’s a very common misconception that emotion & reason/ logic are enemies*. Not only are they intimately interrelated, it can be argued that emotion is the root of logic & reason! And when it’s said women are more emotional, what emotions are being referred to – love, anger, excitement, grief, calmness, what? Can it be objectively proven that women experience any/ all of these to a greater degree than men?
* as is the other underlying assumption: that feelings can’t be controlled therefore being more emotional means having less self-discipline.
- Regarding the people’s reaction to a woman as a prophet, this doesn’t seem significantly different from male prophets. They typically were ridiculed, disbelieved, abused, hated, accused of being mad/ liars, etc. What would’ve made that risk acceptable for men and not for women?
- On the same point, if women weren’t taken seriously in history, shouldn’t their message win people over in some way or another the same way it did from men? Wouldn’t it disprove the myth of women as weaker & inferior? As for those who argue prophetesses didn’t exist, your reasoning perpetuates the myth BUT what makes it worse in your case is when you say Islam respects & honours women you simultaneously expect people to believe you! Yes the religion values women as men’s equals but you, supposed promoters of the faith, don’t! Huh?
- Why don’t contemporary scholars make this belief in prophetesses well-known? Back in history this opinion, while not mainstream, wasn’t taboo, hidden or denied as it is today. It used to be just accepted that some people believed it, and those who disagreed didn’t consider them apostates or blasphemers. The problem now is that many Muslims come from nations who’ve had highly misogynistic cultures in their pre-Islamic past (eg. south Asians – Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indians; and Arabs & Middle Easterners in general), and not all of them gave that up wholesale. Worse, many of them are now in positions to influence whole swathes & nations of Muslims all over the world so their opinions get spread… and others sidelined, even extirpated. Non-belief in prophetesses is one such case.
For deeper explanation see <http://www.therepublicofrumi.com/khurram/womenprophets.htm>, <http://www.onislam.net/english/ask-about-islam/society-and-family/interfaith-issues/166362-female-prophets.html>, <http://globalwebpost.com/farooqm/study_res/islam/gender/women_prophethood.html>, and just Google the term islam female prophets.