We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more Islam in Transition Muslim Perspectives Second Edition - Rights and Roles of Woman - Rights and Roles of Woman - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."
:
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result

Rights and Roles of Woman

Amina Wadud

Commentary

An expert on the Quran and Islam, Amina Wadud was trained at the University of Michigan, taught at the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur, and is currently a professor of Islamic studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Amina Wadud’s purpose is to reinterpret Islamic tradition in accordance with the contemporary requirements of Muslims. In this piece from 1999, her topic is the role of women. The Qurānic verses bearing on this topic are reconsidered within the framework of contextual factors (asbab al-nuzul, literally “circumstantial causes for scriptural revelations”). Wadud generally holds that passages in the Qurān that appear to endorse male superiority were revealed to address the specific requirements for survival of the early Muslims. Because of this contingent quality, they should not be considered categorical imperatives meant to apply at all times and places. She believes that apparently discriminatory texts should be placed in the framework of the Qurān’s overall message of the emancipation of the human being from ignorance and the acknowledgment that God has created both men and women to be His trustees on earth. Within that framework, verses apparently diminishing the stature of women relative to men—or enhancing the stature of men relative to women—must be viewed as overridden by God’s overall design to make men and women prosper equally on earth. Any distinctions between them would thus be made in terms of their piety and not in terms of their sex.

It would be impossible to have a discussion on any topic in the Qur'an which would exhaust the material covered in the text itself. Nor would it be possible to conclude in definitive terms the significance of all the material in the Qur'an concerning humankind on earth. The text was revealed to the inhabitants of the earth, while they inhabited the earth, and we are all on the earth as we read and discuss the text. As such, our earthly existence transforms our perceptions of the text and is equally potentially transformed by the text. More importantly, because of the Qur'an's intention to guide the affairs of humans, a certain emphasis is placed on understanding and applying the text while we are here on earth.

In my consideration of woman on earth from the Qur'anic perspective, there are certain problems inherent in our understanding of what the Qur'an depicts. Our operations on the earth are shaped by our world-view (and vice versa). We have not yet attained the Qur'anic utopia. Whenever Qur'anic support is given for conflicting opinions on how to operate in this world, controversies arise. Many popular or dominant ideas about the role of woman do not have sanction from the Qur'an. Pointing these out causes problems, not so much with logical analysis of the text, but with appli-cation of the new analysis in the context in which Muslim societies operate.

Hermeneutics of any text must confront three different aspects in order to support its conclusions: 1. the context in which the text was written (in the case of the Qur'an, in which it was revealed); 2. the grammatical composition of the text (how it says what it says); and 3. the whole text, its Weltanschauung or world-view. Often, differences of opinion can be traced to variations in emphasis between these three aspects.

I will discuss selected concepts, terms or verses from these perspectives: 1. There is no inherent value placed on man or woman. In fact, there is no arbitrary, pre-ordained and eternal system of hierarchy. 2. The Qur'an does not strictly delineate the roles of woman and the roles of man to such an extent as to propose only a single possibility for each gender (that is, women must fulfil this role, and only this one, while men must fulfil that role and only men can fulfil it).

To demonstrate these points, I will make a detailed analysis of Qur'anic passages which have been interpreted to imply the superiority of males over females. In doing this, I will demonstrate a more integrated communal perspective on the rights and responsibilities of the individual in society using certain Qur'anic concepts.

Overall, my analysis tends to restrict the meaning of many passages to a particular subject, event, or context. These restrictions are based on the context of the verses or on application of general Qur'anic concepts of justice towards humankind, human dignity, equal rights before the law and before Allah, mutual responsibility, and equitable relations between humans. . . .

Functional distinctions on earth

The Qur'an treats woman as an individual in the same manner as it treats man as an individual. Their only distinction is on the basis of taqwa (God-conscious piety). Taqwa is not determined by gender. The Qur'an also focuses on how we function in society. It acknowledges that we operate in social systems with certain functional distinctions. The relationship that the Qur'an shows between these worldly distinctions and taqwa is important in my consideration of equity among people. More importantly, functional distinctions included in the Qur'an have been used to support the idea of inherent superiority of men over women.

Functional distinctions are indicators of roles and role expectations. To what extent does the Qur'an delineate functions for each gender? Are there certain exceptions and exclusions for males or females? Does the Qur'an value certain functions above others?

Woman is not just Biology

Because woman's primary distinction is on the basis of her child-bearing ability, it is seen as her primary function. The use of ‘primary’ has had negative connotations in that it has been held to imply that women can only be mothers. Therefore, women's entire upbringing must be to cultivate devoted wives and ideal mothers in preparation for this function.

There is no term in the Qur'an which indicates that child-bearing is ‘primary’ to a woman. No indication is given that mothering is her exclusive role. It demonstrates the fact a woman (though certainly not all women) is the exclusive human capable of bearing children. This capacity is essential to the continuation of human existence. This function becomes primary only with regard to the continuity of the human race. In other words, since only the woman can bear children, it is of primary importance that she does.

Although it does not restrict the female to functioning as a mother, the Qur'an is emphatic about the reverence, sympathy, and responsibility due to the female procreator. ‘O humankind . . . have taqwa towards Allah in Whom you claim your rights of one another, and (have taqwa) towards the wombs (that bore you)’ (4:1). This verse is often interpreted as indicating respect for women in general. I specify this verse as indicating respect for the needed procreative capacity of women. I do not diminish respect from women as a class, but I do specify, from the Qur'anic perspective, the significance of the function of child-bearing, which is exclusively performed by women. The reverence given to the fulfilment of this function helps to explain how the Qur'an explicitly delineates a function for males which creates a balance in human relations.

No other function is similarly exclusive to one gender or the other. This brings to mind the popular misconception that since only males have had the responsibility of risalah, it indicates something special about that class. Both men and women have been included in divine communication as the recipients of wahy, but there is no Qur'anic example of a woman with the responsibility of risalah. However, all those chosen for this responsibility were exceptional.

This is not a biological association with males representing their primary function and expressing a universal norm for all men. In fact, given the difficulty they have faced in getting others to accept the message when these exceptional men have come from poor classes, the likelihood of failure for the message might have been greater if women, who are given so little regard in most societies, were selected to deliver the message. It is a strategy for effectiveness, not a statement of divine preference.

Besides the two functions discussed above, every other function has real or potential participation by both males and females. However, there is still a wide range of functional distinctions between individuals considered in the Qur'an. The questions that must be asked then are: What is the value of the functional distinctions between individuals? Do these functional distinctions and the values placed on them delineate specific values for males and females in society? Are these values intra-Qur'anic or extra-Qur'anic?

In particular, several verses from the Qur'an have frequently been used to support the claims of the inherent superiority of males over females. These verses contain two terms which have been used to indicate value in the functional distinctions between individuals and groups on earth. I will review these terms, how they have been used in the Qur'an, and in the overall context of Qur'anic justice.

The first term is darajah (pl. darajat), ‘step, degree or level’. A darajah exists not only here on earth between people but also between the Hereafter and earth, between levels in Heaven and in Hell. The other term, faddala is often used in conjunction with darajat. I have translated faddala ‘to prefer’, with a verbal noun (tafdil) meaning ‘preference’. Often the preference given is spoken of in terms of fadl, which I translate as (Allah's) ‘benevolence’.

Darajah

An individual or group can earn or be granted a darajah over another. The Qur'an specifies, for example, that by striving in the way of Allah with one's wealth and one's person (4:95) or by immigrating for Allah (9:20), one can obtain a darajah. However, most often the darajah is obtained through an unspecified category of doing ‘good’ deeds (20:75, 6:132, 46:19).

Distinguishing between individuals or groups on the basis of ‘deeds’ involves problems with regard to the value of women in society and as individuals. Although the Qur'an distinguishes on the basis of deeds, it does not set values for particular deeds. This leaves each social system to determine the value of different kinds of deeds at will. They have always done this and ‘every society has distinguished men's work from women's work’. The problem is that ‘Men's work is usually regarded as more valuable than women's work, no matter how arbitrary the division of labor’.

On the one hand, the Qur'an supports distinctions on the basis of deeds, but on the other hand, it does not determine the actual value of specific deeds. This leads to the interpretation that the Qur'an supports values of deeds as determined by individual societies. Actually, the Qur'an's neu-trality allows for the natural variations that exist.

With regard to the darajah obtained through deeds, however, the Qur'an has stipulated several points which should affect evaluation in society. First, all deeds performed with taqwa are more valuable. Second, ‘Unto men a fortune from that which they have earned and unto women a fortune from that which they have earned’ (4:32). The deeds may be different, but recompense is given based on what one does. It does not matter how the deeds are divided between the males and the females in a particular social context.

Another implication of a ‘fortune from what one earns’ is that whenever anyone performs tasks normally attributed to the other gender in addition to his or her own normal tasks, he or she will earn an additional reward. For example, Moses meets two women from Madyan, where ordinarily the males tended the animals. However, because there was no able-bodied male in the family to perform this task according to the norm (the father being an old man), the women were required to be extraordinarily useful.

There is no indication that these women were immoral in their perform-ance of this task, because fulfiling the tasks needed for survival takes precedence over socially determined roles. Similarly, in post-slavery America, the Black female was given employment instead of the Black male. In many families, she became the sole supporter. This necessity, in addition to her fulfilment of the ordinary tasks of bearing and rearing children, should have given her more. A flexible perspective on the fulfilment of necessity would have benefited her. Instead, she was subject to a double burden and, often, violence at home from a husband who felt displaced.

Each social context divides the labour between the male and the female in such a way as to allow for the optimal function of that society. The Qur'an does not divide the labour and establish a monolithic order for every social system which completely disregards the natural variations in society. On the contrary, it acknowledges the need for variations when it states that the human race is divided ‘into nations and tribes that you might know one another’ (49:13). Then it gives each group, and each member of the group—the males and the females—recompense in accordance to deeds performed.

This is an important social universal in the Qur'an. It allows and encourages each individual social context to determine its functional distinctions between members, but applies a single system of equitable recompense which can be adopted in every social context. This is also one reason why certain social systems have remained stagnant in their con-sideration of the potential roles of women. The Qur'an does not specifically determine the roles, and the individual nations have not considered all the possibilities.

As for the darajah which is ‘given’ by Allah, it is even more illusive than the darajah for unspecified deeds. There is a distinction on the basis of knowledge: ‘Allah will exalt those who believe among you, and those who have knowledge, to high ranks [darajat]’ (58:11). ‘We raised by grades [darajat] (of mercy) whom We will, and over all endued with knowledge there is one more knowing’ (12:76).

There are also social and economic distinctions: ‘We have apportioned among them their livelihood in the life of the world, and raised some of them above others in ranks [darajat] that some of them may take labour from others; and the mercy of Allah is better than (the wealth) that they amass’ (43:32). It is also clear, however, that wealth is not a ‘real’ distinguishing characteristic, but a functional distinction apparent to humankind and valued within society.

The darajah given by Allah serves another significant function—to test the inhabitants of the earth: ‘He it is Who has placed you as viceroys of the earth and has exalted some of you in ranks [darajat] above others, that He may try you by (the test of) that which He has given you’ (6:165).

Finally, it is necessary to discuss the one verse which distinguishes a darajah between men and women:

Women who are divorced shall wait, keeping themselves apart, three (monthly) courses. And it is not lawful for them that they conceal that which Allah has created in their wombs if they believe in Allah and the Last Day. And their husbands would do better to take them back in that case if they desire a reconciliation. And [(the rights) due to the women are similar to (the rights) against them, (or responsibilities they owe) with regard to] the ma‘ruf, and men have a degree [darajah] above them (feminine plural). Allah is Mighty. Wise (2:228).

This verse has been taken to mean that a darajah exists between all men and all women, in every context. However, the context of the discussion is clearly with regard to divorce: men have an advantage over women. In the Qur'an the advantage men have is that of being individually able to pronounce divorce against their wives without arbitration or assistance. Divorce is granted to a woman, on the other hand, only after intervention of an authority (for example, a judge).

Considering the details given, darajah in this verse must be restricted to the subject at hand. To attribute an unrestricted value to one gender over another contradicts the equity established throughout the Qur'an with regard to the individual: each nafs shall have in accordance to what it earns. Yet, the verse is presumed to state what men have believed and wanted others to believe: that society operates hierarchically with the male on top.

Finally, this verse states: ‘[(the rights) due to the women are similar to (the rights) against them, (or responsibilities they owe) with regard to] the ma’ruf.’ The term ma’ruf occurs in other instances with regard to the treatment of women in society. Pickthall translates it as ‘kindness’, but its implications are much wider than that. It is a passive participle of the verbal root ‘to know’, and as such indicates something ‘obvious’, ‘well known’ or ‘conventionally accepted’. However, with regard to treatment, it also has dimensions of equitable, courteous and beneficial.

In this verse (2:228), it precedes the darajah statement to indicate its precedence. In other words, the basis for equitable treatment is con-ventionally agreed upon in society. With regard to this, the rights and the responsibilities of the woman and the man are the same. Again, the ex-pression places a limitation rather than a universal perspective on this issue because convention is relative to time and place.

Faddala

As with darajah, the Qur'an states explicitly that Allah has preferred [faddala] some of creation over others. Like darajah, this preference is also discussed in specific terms. First, humankind is preferred over the rest of creation (17:70). Then, occasionally, one group of people have been preferred over another. Finally, some of the prophets are preferred over others (2:253, 6:86, 17:55). It is interesting to note, however, that ‘preference’ is not absolute. Although the Qur'an states that some prophets are preferred over others, it also states that no distinction is made between them (2:285). This indicates that, in the Qur'anic usage, preference is relative.

Like darajah,faddala is also given to test the one to whom it is given. Unlike darajah, however, faddala cannot be earned by performing certain deeds. It can only be given by Allah, Who has it and grants it to whom He wishes and in the form He wishes. Others do not have it and cannot give it. They can only be recipients of His fadl.

With regard to faddala, men and women, the following verse is central:

Men are [qawwamuna ‘ala] women, [on the basis] of what Allah has [preferred] (faddala) some of them over others, and [on the basis] of what they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are [qanitat], guarding in secret that which Allah has guarded. As for those from whom you fear [nushuz], admonish them, banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then, if they obey you, seek not a way against them (4:34).

Needless to say, this verse covers a great deal more than just preference. This is classically viewed as the single most important verse with regard to the relationship between men and women: ‘men are qawwamuna ‘ala women’. Before discussing this, however, I want to point out that this correlation is determined on the basis of two things: 1. what ‘preference’ has been given, and 2. ‘what they spend of their property (for support of women),’ i.e. a socioeconomic norm and ideal.

The translation I have inserted, ‘on the basis of,’ comes from the bi used in this verse. In a sentence, it implies that the characteristics or contents before bi are determined ‘on the basis’ of what comes after bi. In this verse it means that men are qawwamuna ‘ala women only if the following two conditions exist. The first condition is ‘preference’, and the other is that they support the women from their means. ‘If either condition fails, then the man is not ‘qawwam’ over that woman’.

My first concern then is faddala. The verse says the position between men and women is based on ‘what’ Allah has preferred. With regard to material preference, there is only one Qur'anic reference which specifies that Allah has determined for men a portion greater than for women: inheritance. The share for a male is twice that for the female (4:7) within a single family. The absolute inheritance for all men will not always be more than that for all women. The exact amount left depends on the family's wealth in the first place.

In addition, if verse 4:34 refers to a preference demonstrated in inheritance, then such a materialistic preference is also not absolute. This connection is often favoured because the other condition for qiwamah is that ‘they spend of their property (for the support of women)’. Thus, there is a reciprocity between privileges and responsibilities. Men have the responsibility of paying out of their wealth for the support of women, and they are consequently granted a double share of inheritance.

However, it cannot be overlooked that ‘Many men interpret the above passage’ as an unconditional indication of the preference of men over women. They assert that ‘men were created by God superior to women (in strength and reason)’.

However, this interpretation, . . . is (i) unwarranted and (ii) inconsistent with other Islamic teachings . . . the interpretation is unwarranted because there is no reference in the passage to male physical or intellectual superiority.

Faddala cannot be unconditional because verse 4:34 does not read ‘they (masculine plural) are preferred over them (feminine plural)’. It reads ‘ba‘d (some) of them over ba‘d (others)’. The use of ba‘d relates to what obviously has been observed in the human context. All men do not excel over all women in all manners. Some men excel over some women in some manners. Likewise, some women excel over some men in some manners. So, whatever Allah has preferred, it is still not absolute.

If ‘what’ Allah has preferred is restricted to the material (and specifically inheritance), then the extent and nature of the preference is explained by the Qur'an. Even if ‘what’ Allah has preferred is more than just the preference given in inheritance, it is, nevertheless, still restricted to ‘some of them’ over ‘some others’ by the wording in this context:

‘men are ‘qawwamun’ over women in matters where God gave some of the men more than some of the women, and in what the men spend of their money, then clearly men as a class are not ‘qawwamun’ over women as a class.

However, further understanding of this distinction requires further explanation of qawwamuna ‘ala. What does it mean, and what are the parameters of its application?

As for the meaning, Pickthall translates this as ‘in charge of’. Al-Zamakhshari says it means that ‘men are in charge of the affairs of women’. Maududi says ‘Men are the managers of the affairs of women because Allah has made the one superior to the other. . . .’ Azizah al-Hibri objects to any translation which implies that men are protectors or maintainers because ‘The basic notion here is one of moral guidance and caring’ and also because:

only under extreme condition, (for example, insanity) does the Muslim woman lose her right to self-determination. . . . Yet men have used this passage to exercise absolute authority over women. They also use it to argue for the male's divinely ordained and inherent superiority.

Some questions beg asking concerning the parameters of application: Are all men qawwamuna ‘ala all women? Is it restricted to the family, such that the men of a family are qawwumuna ‘ala the women of that family? Or, is it even more restricted, to the marital tie, such that only husbands are qawwumuna ‘ala wives? All of these possibilities have been given.

Generally, an individual scholar who considers faddala an uncon-ditional preference of males over females does not restrict qiwamah to the family relationship but applies it to society at large. Men, the superior beings, are qawwamuna ‘ala women, the dependent, inferior beings.

Sayyid Qutb, whose discussion I will consider at length, considers qiwamah an issue of concern for the family within society. He restricts verse 4:34, in some ways, then, to the relationship between the husband and the wife. He believes that providing for the females gives the male the privilege of being qawwamuna ‘ala the female.

He gives qiwamah a decided dimension of material maintenance. The rationale behind restricting this verse to the context of husband and wife is partly due to the fact that the remainder of the verse discusses other details of concern to the marital relationship. In addition, the following verse uses the dual, indicating that it is concerned with the context between the two: the husband and wife. However, preceding verses discuss terms of relations between male members of society and female members of society.

I apply this verse to society at large—but not on the basis of inherent superiority of men over women, or of Allah's preference of men over women. Rather, I extend the functional relationship, which Sayyid Qutb proposes between the husband and the wife, towards the collective good concerning the relationship between men and women in society at large. My main consideration is the responsibility and right of women to bear children.

Sayyid Qutb says. ‘The man and the woman are both from Allah's creation and Allah . . . never intends to oppress anyone from His creation. Both the man and the woman are members of the most significant insti-tution of society, the family. The family is initiated by marriage between one man and one woman. Within the family, each member has certain responsibilities. For obvious biological reasons, a primary responsibility for the woman is child-bearing.

The child-bearing responsibility is of grave importance: human exist-ence depends upon it. This responsibility requires a great deal of physical strength, stamina, intelligence, and deep personal commitment. Yet, while this responsibility is so obvious and important, what is the responsibility of the male in this family and society at large? For simple balance and justice in creation, and to avoid oppression, his responsibility must be equally significant to the continuation of the human race. The Qur'an establishes his responsibility as qiwamah: seeing to it that the woman is not burdened with additional responsibilities which jeopardize that primary demanding responsibility that only she can fulfil.

Ideally, everything she needs to fulfil her primary responsibility comfortably should be supplied in society, by the male: this means physical protection as well as material sustenance. Otherwise, ‘it would be a serious oppression against the woman’.

This ideal scenario establishes an equitable and mutually dependent relationship. However, it does not allow for many of today's realities. What happens in societies experiencing a population overload, such as China and India? What happens in capitalistic societies like America, where a single income is no longer sufficient to maintain a reasonably comfortable life-style? What happens when a woman is barren? Does she still deserve qiwamah like other women? What happens to the balance of responsibility when the man cannot provide materially, as was often the case during slavery and post-slavery US?

All of these issues cannot be resolved if we look narrowly at verse 4:34. Therefore, the Qur'an must eternally be reviewed with regard to human exchange and mutual responsibility between males and females. This verse establishes an ideal obligation for men with regard to women to create a balanced and shared society. This responsibility is neither biological nor inherent, but it is valuable. An attitude inclined towards responsibility must be cultivated. It is easy enough to see the cases in which it has not been acquired.

However, such an attitude should not be restricted to mere material qiwamah. In broader terms, it should apply to the spiritual, moral, intellectual, and psychological dimensions as well. Such a perspective on qiwamah will allow men to truly fulfil their khilafah (trusteeship) on the earth, as ordained by Allah upon human creation. Such an attitude will overcome the competitive and hierarchical thinking which destroys rather than nurtures.

Men are encouraged to fulfil their trusteeship of the earth—especially in relationships with women, the child-bearers and traditional caretakers. What women have learned through bearing and caring for children, men can begin to experience, starting with their attitudes to and treatment of women.

Nushuz: Disruption of marital harmony

Finally, with regard to this verse, I will discuss whether this portion,

So good women are qanitat, guarding in secret that which Allah has guarded. As for those from whom you fear (nushuz), admonish them, banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then, if they obey you, seek not a way against them.

means that a woman must obey her husband, and if she does not, he can beat her (here translated ‘scourge’). I believe the passage intends to provide a means for resolving disharmony between husband and wife.

First, the word qanitat, used here to describe ‘good’ women, is too often falsely translated to mean ‘obedient’, and then assumed to mean ‘obedient to the husband’. In the context of the whole Qur'an, this word is used with regard to both males (2:238, 3:17, 33:35) and females (4:34, 33:34, 66:5, 66:12). It describes a characteristic or personality trait of believers towards Allah. They are inclined towards being co-operative with one another and subservient before Allah. This is clearly distinguished from mere obedience between created beings which the word ta‘a indicates.

Sayyid Qutb points out that this choice of words indicates that the Qur'an intends there to be a personal emotional response rather than the external ‘following of orders’ which the ta‘a (obey) would suggest. As for the use of that word ta‘a and the remainder of the verse, ‘As for those (feminine plural) from whom you fear nushuz . . .’, it should first be noted that the word nushuz likewise is used with both males (4:128) and females (4:34), although it has been defined differently for each. When applied to the wife, the term is usually defined as ‘disobedience to the husband’. With the use of ta‘a that follows. Others have said this verse indicates that the wife must obey the husband.

However, since the Qur'an uses nushuz for both the male and the female, it cannot mean ‘disobedience to the husband’. Sayyid Qutb explains it as a state of disorder between the married couple. In case of disorder, what suggestions does the Qur'an give as possible solutions? There is 1. A verbal solution: whether between the husband and wife (as here in verse 4:34) or between the husband and wife with the help of arbiters (as in 4:35, 128). If open discussion fails, then a more drastic solution: 2. separation is indicated. Only in extreme cases a final measure: 3. the ‘scourge’ is permitted.

With regard to regaining marital harmony, the following points need to be raised. First, the Qur'an gives precedence to the state of order and emphasizes the importance of regaining it. In other words, it is not a disciplinary measure to be used for disagreement between spouses. Second, if the steps are followed in the sequential manner suggested by the Qur'an, it would seem possible to regain order before the final step. Third, even if the third solution is reached, the nature of the ‘scourge’ cannot be such as to create conjugal violence or a struggle between the couple because that is ‘un-Islamic’.

It appears that the first measure is the best solution offered and the one preferred by the Qur'an, because it is discussed in both instances of the word nushuz. It is also in line with the general Qur'anic principle of mutual consultation, or shura, being the best method for resolving matters between two parties. It is obvious that the Qur'an intends a resolution of the difficult-ies and a return to peace and harmony between the couple when it states: ‘. . . it is no sin for the two of them if they make terms of peace between themselves. Peace is better’ (4:128). It is peace and ‘making amends’ (4:128) that are the goals, not violence and forced obedience.

The second solution is, literally, to ‘banish them to beds apart’. First, the significance of ‘beds apart’ is possible only when the couple continually shares a bed (unlike polygamy when husband and one wife do not), otherwise, this would not be a meaningful measure. In addition, ‘beds apart’ indicates that at least one night should pass in such a state. Therefore, it is a cooling-off period which would allow both the man and the woman, separately, to reflect on the problem at hand. As such, this measure also has equally mutual implications.

As one night apart can lead to many nights apart before any resolution is made, this separation could go on indefinitely. This does not indicate that a man should then begin to physically abuse his wife. Rather, it allows for a mutually found peaceable solution, or a continued separation—divorce. Divorce also requires a waiting period, and beds apart is characteristic of that waiting. Thus, this measure can be taken as part of the overall context of irreconcilable differences between the married couple.

It cannot be overlooked, however, that verse 4:34 does state the third suggestion using the word daraba, ‘to strike’. According to Lisan al-‘Arab and Lanes's Lexicon, daraba does not necessarily indicate force or violence. It is used in the Qur'an, for example, in the phrase ‘daraba Allah mathalan . . .’ (‘Allah gives or sets as an example . . .’). It is also used when someone leaves, or ‘strikes out’ on a journey.

It is, however, strongly contrasted to the second form, the intensive, of this verb—darraba: to strike repeatedly or intensely. In the light of the excessive violence towards women indicated in the biographies of the Companions and by practices condemned in the Qur'an (like female infanticide), this verse should be taken as prohibiting unchecked violence against females. Thus, this is not permission, but a severe restriction of existing practices.

Finally, the problem of domestic violence among Muslims today is not rooted in this Qur'anic passage. A few men strike their wives after completely following the Qur'anic suggestions for regaining marital harmony. The goal of such men is harm, not harmony. As such, after the fact, they cannot refer to verse 4:34 to justify their action.

Finally, the word ta’a in this verse needs a contextual consideration. It says ‘if they obey (ta‘a) you do not seek a way against them.’ For the women, it is a conditional sentence, not a command. In the case of marriages of subjugation—the norm for Muslims and non-Muslims at the time of the revelation—wives were obedient to husbands. The husbands are commanded ‘not so seek a way against’ wives who are obedient. The emphasis is on the male's treatment of the female.

The Qur'an never orders a woman to obey her husband. It never states that obedience to their husbands is a characteristic of the ‘better women’ (66:5), nor is it a prerequisite for women to enter the community of Islam (in the Bay‘ah of the women: 60:12). However, in marriages of subju-gation, wives did obey their husbands, usually because they believed that a husband who materially maintains his family, including the wife, deserves to be obeyed. Even in such cases, the norm at the time of the revelation, no correlation is made that a husband should beat his wife into obedience. Such an interpretation has no universal potential, and contradicts the essence of the Qur'an and the established practices of the Prophet. It involves a severe misreading of the Qur'an to support the lack of self-constraint in some men.

With regard to the relationship between maintenance and obedience, it can be observed that even husbands who are unable or unwilling to provide for their wives believe they should be obeyed. In fact, this widespread characteristic of Muslim marriage is only one example of the association of men as natural leaders deserving obedience.

This belief in the need to obey the husband is remnant of marriages of subjugation and is not exclusive to Muslim history. It has not progressed, although today couples seek partners for mutual emotional, intellectual, economic, and spiritual enhancement. Their compatibility is based on mutual respect and honour, not on the subservience of the female to the male. The family is seen as a unit of mutual support and social propriety, not an institution to enslave a woman to the man who buys her at the highest price and then sustains her material and physical needs only, with no concern for the higher aspects of human development.

If the Qur'an was only relevant to this single marriage type, it would fail to present a compatible model to the changing needs and requirements of developing civilizations worldwide. Instead, the Qur'anic text focuses on the marital norm at the time of revelation, and applies constraints on the actions of the husbands with regard to wives. In the broader context, it develops a mechanism for resolving difficulties through mutual or extended consultation and arbitration.

In conclusion, the Qur'an prefers that men and women marry (4:25). Within marriage, there should be harmony (4:128) mutually built with love and mercy (30:21). The marriage tie is considered a protection for both the male and the female: ‘They (feminine plural) are raiment for you (masculine plural) and you are raiment for them’ (2:187). However, the Qur'an does not rule out the possibility of difficulty, which it suggests can be resolved. If all else fails, it also permits equitable divorce.

Bibliography references:

From Amina Wadud, Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 62–91.

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2018. All Rights Reserved. Privacy policy and legal notice