Lecture 17 in the Ramadaan series:
UNPACKING THE MOST INTRIGUING QUESTIONS IN THE QURAN
Monday 11 May 2020 (17 Ramadaan 1441)
Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town
Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider
الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍ وَبِمَا أَنْفَقُوا مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ ۚ فَالصَّالِحَاتُ قَانِتَاتٌ حَافِظَاتٌ لِلْغَيْبِ بِمَا حَفِظَ اللَّهُ ۚ وَاللَّاتِي تَخَافُونَ نُشُوزَهُنَّ فَعِظُوهُنَّ وَاهْجُرُوهُنَّ فِي الْمَضَاجِعِ وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ ۖ فَإِنْ أَطَعْنَكُمْ فَلَا تَبْغُوا عَلَيْهِنَّ سَبِيلًا ۗ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلِيًّا كَبِيرًا
“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore, the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all).”
The above verse 34 of Surah Nisaa (chapter 4 of the Holy Quran) is the reference for this frequently asked question, regarding the position of the Holy Quran towards women.
This verse establishes on the onset, that men are the maintainers of women. Now, this attracts all kinds of questions and inaccurate conclusions, saying that the Holy Quran gives authority to men over women, to control them and run their life, and have full say over their life without them having any say on their own destiny.
We will unpack this objection in this discussion, to present a coherent response.
QURANIC REFERENCES WHICH CREATE THE INCORRECT PERCEPTION OF GENDER BIAS
Fundamentally, there are 3 places in the Holy Quran, which stimulates heated debate regarding the rights and position of women. The first reference is verse 34 of Surah Nisaa cited above, which starts with establishing men’s authority over women. The second reference is also in the same verse, which is also very, very controversial, allowing men to beat women. The third reference is the below excerpt from verse 228 of Surah Baqarah (chapter 2 of the Holy Quran) which says that men have a degree over women:
وَلِلرِّجَالِ عَلَيْهِنَّ دَرَجَةٌ ۗ
“but men have a degree (of advantage) over them.”
I would like to clarify upfront, that we are not going to elaborate on the status of women in Islam or the rights of women in Islam and its related discussions. The focus of today’s discussion is confined to the question asked in the title: “Why does the Quran consider men to be the maintainers of women?”
The substance of this question is whether it is not the basic right of women to be equal in managing her life and having authority over her life, because men have now been granted authority and preference over women, such that they have control.
This is what we want to understand today, but there are further important questions to unpack as well, such as:
- What does it mean when the Quran says that men can beat women?
- What does it mean when the Quran says that men have a degree over women?
THE CONTEXT OF QURANIC REVELATION IN THE ERA OF ANTI-WOMEN
I need to first sketch the background before responding to the question of today’s discussion, namely, why does the Quran consider men to be the maintainers of women?
I mentioned a moment ago the 3 places in the Holy Quran which is the main target of attack by feminists and those who want to present a different doctrine on women’s rights. The problem is that they do not understand the whole picture. We will address this, together with these “hotspots” in the Quran, where it appears to be that women do not enjoy the same rights as men.
Let us now delve deeper into the background in which the Holy Quran was revealed. Women were regarded as absolutely nothing in the Arabian Jahiliyyah society before Islam. Leave equality aside for a minute…the point to be clear on is that women were regarded in society as having no worth at that time. It was a source of shame when a baby girl was born, to the point where they would even be buried alive, out of shame for the parents.
We can go into great amount of details in describing that Jahiliyyah society of mass ignorance. The global scene regarding women in that particular era, and in fact, I can say much later was extremely degrading towards women, where they were disregarded with great contempt and seen as a liability.
We also see this theme in other religions, like Christianity, addressing the spirituality of women and their position in society. Amazingly, against this backdrop, we see that the Holy Quran came to do the best service to women, liberating them by providing them with the best of rights and position in society.
MEN AND WOMEN HAVE EQUAL HUMAN RIGHTS AS THEY ARE BOTH HUMAN BEINGS!
The Holy Quran clarified this question of creation of women, saying that men and women have both been created from a single source. Hence, there is no gender bias. Surah Nisaa, which name means “The Women” starts with this verse:
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ اتَّقُوا رَبَّكُمُ الَّذِي خَلَقَكُمْ مِنْ نَفْسٍ وَاحِدَةٍ وَخَلَقَ مِنْهَا زَوْجَهَا وَبَثَّ مِنْهُمَا رِجَالًا كَثِيرًا وَنِسَاءً ۚ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ الَّذِي تَسَاءَلُونَ بِهِ وَالْأَرْحَامَ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلَيْكُمْ رَقِيبًا
“O people! be careful of (your duty to) your Lord, Who created you from a single being and created its mate of the same (kind) and spread from these two, many men and women; and be careful of (your duty to) Allah, by Whom you demand one of another (your rights), and (to) the ties of relationship; surely Allah ever watches over you.”
Another example in the Holy Quran where any semblance of thought on gender bias is negated is in verse 13 of Surah Hujraat (chapter 49 of the Holy Quran), where Almighty Allah (SWT) says that the most honourable in His eyes are the most righteous amongst us:
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُمْ مِنْ ذَكَرٍ وَأُنْثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا ۚ إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ
“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).”
Now, what can be more explicit than this verse, which establishes the equality of men and women in its real sense, on the level of humanity and spirituality. This verse explains clearly that men and women are equal shareholders in the creation of Almighty Allah (SWT), and that the priority is only for people with Taqwa.
Another example to illustrate the point of Islam being merit based, rather than having gender bias is verse 97 of Surah Nahl (chapter 16 of the Holy Quran):
مَنْ عَمِلَ صَالِحًا مِنْ ذَكَرٍ أَوْ أُنْثَىٰ وَهُوَ مُؤْمِنٌ فَلَنُحْيِيَنَّهُ حَيَاةً طَيِّبَةً ۖ وَلَنَجْزِيَنَّهُمْ أَجْرَهُمْ بِأَحْسَنِ مَا كَانُوا يَعْمَلُونَ
“Whoever does good whether male or female and he is a believer, We will most certainly make him live a happy life, and We will most certainly give them their reward for the best of what they did.”
The same point is basically repeated in verse 40 of Surah Ghaafir (chapter 40 of the Holy Quran):
مَنْ عَمِلَ سَيِّئَةً فَلَا يُجْزَىٰ إِلَّا مِثْلَهَا ۖ وَمَنْ عَمِلَ صَالِحًا مِنْ ذَكَرٍ أَوْ أُنْثَىٰ وَهُوَ مُؤْمِنٌ فَأُولَٰئِكَ يَدْخُلُونَ الْجَنَّةَ يُرْزَقُونَ فِيهَا بِغَيْرِ حِسَابٍ
“Whoever does an evil, he shall not be recompensed (with aught) but the like of it, and whoever does good, whether male or female, and he is a believer, these shall enter the garden, in which they shall be given sustenance without measure.”
Similarly, we see this point repeated in verse 195 of Surah Aal-Imraan as well (chapter 3 of the Holy Quran):
فَاسْتَجَابَ لَهُمْ رَبُّهُمْ أَنِّي لَا أُضِيعُ عَمَلَ عَامِلٍ مِنْكُمْ مِنْ ذَكَرٍ أَوْ أُنْثَىٰ ۖ بَعْضُكُمْ مِنْ بَعْضٍ ۖ
“So their Lord accepted their prayer: That I will not waste the work of a worker among you, whether male or female, the one of you being from the other.”
Verse 124 of Surah Nisaa (chapter 4 of the Holy Quran) conveys the same message:
وَمَنْ يَعْمَلْ مِنَ الصَّالِحَاتِ مِنْ ذَكَرٍ أَوْ أُنْثَىٰ وَهُوَ مُؤْمِنٌ فَأُولَٰئِكَ يَدْخُلُونَ الْجَنَّةَ وَلَا يُظْلَمُونَ نَقِيرًا
“And whoever does good deeds whether male or female and he (or she) is a believer– these shall enter the garden, and they shall not be dealt with a jot unjustly.”
I have only selected a few verses here, but there are many more with the same explicit message of there being no difference between male and female, in the sense of creation, spiritual rewards, development etc.
HOLISTIC POSITIVE APPROACH OF QURAN TOWARDS WOMEN IS BEYOND COMPARE
The principle is that any verse which appears to be in conflict with the rights of women needs to be understood against the background of so many other explicit verses in the Quran like those cited above.
Then, those verses which appear to be problematic, like verse 34 of Surah Nisaa cited at the beginning of this discussion, are not explicit at all as far as possibly degrading women. They have different meanings, as can be seen when we read different commentaries of the Holy Quran, where the various commentators have interpreted this against the backdrop of their society, culture, conditions. There is a natural influence from this in their analysis.
In all honesty, we cannot take these few verses, which appear controversial, in isolation. One needs to get holistic perspective by looking at this in conjunction with the huge number of verses in the Quran which speak explicitly about equality between men and women.
We cannot look at these verses without considering the uncompromising principle of justice of Almighty Allah (SWT). We cannot look at these verses without considering our belief that Almighty Allah (SWT) has created everything. Against this foundation, we understand that it is not possible for Almighty Allah (SWT) to create something which is defective or by its nature evil.
The substance of the objections that feminists and their ilk ascribe to these verses are in conflict with our Islamic aqeedah (ideology), specifically on Tauheed and the attributes of Almighty Allah (SWT).
So, in summary, the point I want to repeatedly crystalize is that we need to understand these supposedly controversial verses against the foundation laid out in the other verses noted above.
THE SACRED INSTITUTION OF THE FAMILY UNIT IN ISLAM
With this background, let us now unpack the question for this lecture, which is drawn from the start of verse 34 of Surah Nisaa (referenced at the start of this lecture) which says that men are managers/supporters/maintainers/in charge/authority of women.
These are some of the words used by different translators of the Holy Quran, but what does this really mean, in the light of other verses of the Holy Quran and the practical life of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) and the teachings of the Ahlul Bait (a.s)?
In responding to this question, I would like to take you to another bit of background, namely the value system in Islam. Certain things are values in the Islamic system and certain things are anti-values. Example, in Islam, family is a value on a great level. Contrast this to the Western culture, where the concept of family does not really have much value. It does not really exist, and even if it does exist, it is not given the greatest priority.
So, we already have a serious problem with this, in principle, because in Islam, the family unit is a crucial structure in society and key to the success of society. If this family unit is unstable, then the whole society is unstable. Hence, in principle, great importance is given to the family unit in Islam.
If we believe in the family unit, then naturally, this unit requires administration and management. It clearly requires leadership to function properly.
Let us now be frank, the Islamic position, established in the Holy Quran, the Prophetic Sunnah and teachings of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) believe that the administration and management in a family unit is the responsibility of men, by default. That is what the start of verse 34 of Surah Nisaa is saying.
This verse is not making a broad-based principle that men will have superiority over women in the whole society, whether you are a family or not. NOT AT ALL!
That being said, I will not disagree, there are certain commentators of the Holy Quran who have concluded that this verse grants men a broad-based authority or superiority of men over women. They conclude that this verse establishes the superiority of men over women. However, according to the great commentator of the Quran of the 20th century, Allama Tabataba’i, and others of his stature, they disagree with this conclusion, saying that it is inaccurate and is inconsistent with the context in which this verse was revealed.
MEN AND WOMEN HAVE BEEN CREATED WITH DIFFERENT PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL COMPOSITION
This verse 34 of Surah Nisaa is speaking about the family. The verses preceding and following are all connected to family matters. Issues of family discipline, divorce and associated matters of the family are discussed.
It is important to understand that the term “qowwamoon” does not refer to full authority or superiority. Different translators of the Holy Quran have provided different translations. That is why some of them have translated it to mean maintainers. In fact, “qowwaam” refers to someone who has responsibility on a matter. In the context of this verse, “qowwaam” means that men are managers of the matters over the women in the family unit.
The family unit requires leadership to run properly. It requires an administrator, not a confused management of multiple leaders! The position of the Holy Quran is that this responsibility of leading the family falls on the man, by default. The reasons for this are also explained in the same verse as being due to “the advantage which Allah (SWT) has granted some over others”.
Now, who is “some” and who is “others”? Some of the scholars have translated it to refer to the advantage given to men over women. Other scholars have translated it differently, saying that the advantage goes both ways. According to them, men have some advantages which women do not, and vice versa.
What are these advantages? They are somehow physical and somehow psychological. There is absolutely no doubt, men and women are two different creations from Almighty Allah (SWT). The physical capacity of men and women are different and so is the emotional and psychological capacity of men versus women.
The way that men and women deal with emotions are very different. I don’t think there is any debate about this reality!
Despite this, many people still try to argue about the physical and emotional differences between genders, trying to present that women are as physically powerful as men etc. While this may be the case, their natural areas of capacity are different.
The same people who wish to advocate that there is no difference between men and women are activists against gender-based violence. Why call it gender-based violence then, if they are equal? If they are equal, then why are women victims of abuse at the hands of men in most cases? If they are equal, then why are women the subject of oppression, injustice and violence based upon their gender? This proves that gender is a reality.
LEADERSHIP OF THE HOUSEHOLD IS THE MAN’S RESPONSIBILITY
In reflecting on these realities, the Holy Quran believes that the position of administration in the family belongs to men. It is suitable with its God-given physical and psychological capacities. This is the primary important reason, and on this basis, we understand that this verse does not establish the authority of men over women.
It is simply a matter of responsibility. There are responsibilities bestowed upon women which men can never, ever perform. Similarly, there are responsibilities bestowed upon men which normally women cannot perform. That said, sometimes women can also perform the male responsibilities.
Another reason which the Holy Quran provides in this same verse 34 of Surah Nisaa is that due to the fact “that men support them from their money”. Here there is no difference amongst the commentators of the Holy Quran. They are unanimous in their interpretation that this refers to the responsibility of men when it comes to Nafaqa – financial support a husband must provide his wife. This is what Islam proposes, that the living expenses of the family is in principle the responsibility of the man, by default.
Ayatollah Nasir Makarim Shirazi says very beautifully in his Tafsir (commentary) that people completely misunderstood this verse into believing it is a disservice to women, when in fact it is a service to women! We are talking here within the sacred family construct, and not the Western culture where men and women float independently.
In the family unit, this verse has taken the great burden of financial responsibility of the family from the shoulders of women and placed it on the shoulders of men. Now, by taking this responsibility, the man achieves a leading role to manage the family. However, it does not give him any superiority, nor does it prove anything.
This matter is only limited to the family. Allama Tabataba’i was asked whether we can conclude from this verse of the Holy Quran that administrative, managerial and leadership positions cannot be granted to women? His detailed reply was that it is very difficult to extract this meaning from this verse, that men have an all-round, broad based, generalized authority over women. It is not the case clearly.
Numerous other scholars, such as Ayatollah Fadlullah and Ayatollah Saana’i and others came with a strong response against this argument which says that because of this verse, women cannot hold any managerial position or administrative position or any leadership position.
There is nothing in the Quran which stops us from offering leadership, administrative and managerial positions to women. Again, the spirit of verse 34 of Surah Nisaa is very much limited to the family circle.
WHAT IF THE MAN DOES NOT FULFIL HIS RESPONSIBILITIES AS THE BREADWINNER?
Of course, a question comes in the mind. This position of leading the family unit is given to men due to his physical capacity and due to his responsibility of taking care of maintenance and living expenses (nafaqa). In response to this responsibility, Almighty Allah (SWT) has given certain rights to men, including the managerial role, women should surrender to the needs of men, also selection of the residence is in the hands of men.
Now, the question is, what happens when the man is not performing his duty as the leader of the family? We see cases like this in today’s society, where men are sitting at home, while the wives are hard at work as the breadwinners.
Does the authority described earlier for men fall away or does it remain? In principle, from a fiqh (jurisprudence) standpoint, it does very much fall away. Our grand spiritual authorities/jurists conclude that a wife can refuse certain requests which a man would otherwise have a right over her on.
If the man deliberately does not fulfil his responsibility as the breadwinner and does not put any effort to provide for the family and fulfil his responsibility, our religious jurists say that the wife has the right to demand separation or divorce. She is not obligated to remain in a marriage under this strain.
RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN KEEP THE FAMILY FUNCTIONAL
There is a very deep point to understand here in the Islamic philosophy, and that is the deep connection between rights and responsibility. If there are rights, then there are responsibilities too, and vice versa. As noted earlier, verse 34 of Surah Nisaa which we are studying, establishes that men and women both have rights and responsibilities over each other. It is not one-way driven.
To summarize, the question is not about superiority, nor is it one of virtue, of one gender over the other. Nor is it a case of administrative superiority either. What it is establishing is the roles and responsibilities of men.
I would like to conclude this discussion with a Hadith narration from our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA), where he was asked this question about the superiority of men over women. He replied by saying that the priority of men over women is like that of water on earth! The earth becomes alive due to the water. Similarly, women become productive with men. Rasulullah (SAWA) then recited this verse 34 of Surah Nisaa, which we have discussed at length here.
Now, in this example, can water do anything without the ground? In the same way that the ground cannot come to life without water, similarly, water has no purpose on its own, without the earth. There is a deep relationship between them with each party having its own role. Therefore, this command from Almighty Allah (SWT) in the Holy Quran, is to establish a happy and successful family unit, which will be the foundation of a happy and successful society and community.