The Issue

Revisiting Quran 4:34: Dismantling the Concept of Male Superiority in Islam

It is dishonest to deny that the noble Prophet (PBUH) did not encourage equality between men and women for a society as traditional as a bedoiun Arab society in the 7th century.

Qur’an 4:34 remains one of the most weaponised verses of the Qur’an. Traditional Muslims use it to justify the subjugation of Muslim women. Opponents of Islam also weaponise it to defend their claim that Islam is indeed unfriendly to women. This verse has been on the hot plate of many from within and outside the Muslim community, who attempt to interpret it in line with their various objectives. But one common agreement even amongst Muslims is that the word of Allah, written in classic Arabic, is subject to interpretation – as only God alone knows perfectly what he meant. A partial literal translation of the verse goes thus:

“Men are the Qawwam of women because Allah has given the one more than the other and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are Qanitat, and guard in their husbands’ absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part you fear Nushuz, admonish them first, then refuse to share their beds, and finally, adriboo them; but when they ataa to you, then seek not against them means of annoyance; For Allah is most High, great above you all.”

Noble Qur’an 4:34

The Historical Context of Qur’an 4:34

The majority of Tafsir scholars narrate the incident which led to the revelation of Qur’an 4:34. During the time, women came to report cases of ill-treatment from their spouses. The most commonly cited version is that of Habibah, the wife of Sa’d bin Rabi’ who came to complain to the Prophet (PBUH) about the slap she received from her husband, in the Tafsir by Ibn Kathir. Faced with this situation, the Prophet (PBUH) who was known for his aversion to all forms of violence reacted sternly by telling women that they have the right to retaliate based on the principle of Qisas – an eye for an eye. The Prophet (PBUH) permitted the women to punish their husbands’ mistreatment by any treatment of the same magnitude. Undeniably, this appears to be a revolutionary response by the standards of that time and even today! It is dishonest, judging from this incident, to deny that the noble Prophet (PBUH) did not encourage equality between men and women for a society as traditional as a bedoiun Arab society in the 7th century.

One can easily imagine the discomfort and dissatisfaction that the men of the time would have felt at the Prophet (PBUH)’s judgement. They felt stripped of their authority and superiority. Deeply hurt by what the Prophet (PBUH) had said, the men went to the Prophet (PBUH) en masse to complain that his ruling would incite the women to rebel against their husbands. The Prophet (PBUH) then received the revelation of Qur’an 4:34 as a response to this issue. When he announced the revelation of this verse to the companions, he said; “Muhammad decided one thing, and God decided another“.

At first glance, this revelation would appear to contradict the prophet (PBUH)’s initial decision, but a careful study of the verse as well as a similar verse addressing women in Qur’an 4:128, shows that the intent of the Qur’an was to provide a framework for mutual understanding devoid of violence and animosity.

Qawwam: A Privilege or A Responsibility?

Qur’an 4:34 starts with the phrase “men are the Qawwam of women“. The word Qawwam is just one of the five controversial words used in this verse. The arabic word “Qawwam” is an intensive form of the word “Qaim” which means “to take care of“. Therefore Qawwam simply means “caretaker“. This word simply implies a responsibility towards women; a duty of care. It does not symbolise superiority, neither does it denote privilege. Men are the caretakers of women because Allah has given the one more than the other. The question which begs to be asked is “What has Allah given one more than the other?”

God has blessed men with more physical strength than women. With such privilege comes responsibility. The physically stronger person is responsible for caring for and protecting the one who is physically weaker. The Prophet (PBUH)’s ruling that women should return their husbands’ mistreatment would have been problematic since men are physically stronger than women and would always have the upper hand. Allah is stating in this verse, that the advantage of physical strength should be used to care for and protect women, rather than maltreat them. One must then wonder how this translates to superiority?

Qanitat: Obedient to the Husband or Devoutly Pious?

Right after the description of Qawwam comes the phrase “Therefore the righteous women are Qanitat, and guard in their husbands’ absence what Allah would have them guard“. The majority of scholars interpret the word “Qanitat” as meaning “obedient to the husband“. However, Qanitat, which is a feminine plural of the word “Qanit” which stems from the root word “Qa-na-ta” appears in several other verses in the Qur’an to mean those who are devoutly pious. Allah uses the words Qaniteen and Qanitat to describe men and women who are devoutly pious and obedient to Allah. Therefore, Qur’an 4:34 contains no basis at all for a departure from the original meaning. One is left to wonder why this word suddenly took on the meaning of “obedience to the husband“, when in reality, Allah is simply saying that the women who are devoutly pious are those who guard in their husband’s absence what Allah would have them guard. There should be no ambiguity in this.

Nushuz: Disobedience or Hostility?

Qur’an 4:34 then goes on to mention that “As to those women on whose part you fear Nushuz“… The most widespread interpretation of the word “Nushuz” in this context is disobedience or misbehaviour. However, the word, which stems from the root word “na-sha-za” literally means “to rise” or “to raise up“. The word appears five times in the Qur’an. In Qur’an 2:259, Allah uses this word to mean that God can “resurrect” a dead animal. Whereas, in Qur’an 58:11, God uses this word to mean that He will “raise” the position of the believers when we ‘arise‘, or challenge ourselves to be better people who become more knowledgeable, better in character and more beneficial to society. God will gradually ‘raise‘ us to become such people, because God knows the efforts we put in.

In Chapter 4 (Al-Nisa): nushuz is something that both wives and husbands can do. When it comes to the “Nushuz” of the husband in Qur’an 4:128… “And if a woman fears Nushuz from her husband”, the tafsir scholars interpret the word as contempt, cruelty, desertion or hostility. But when it comes to the “Nushuz” of the wife in Qur’an 4:34, one is left to wonder why the word takes on a different meaning as ‘disobedience, arrogance or misbehaviour“. In the context of marital discord, Nushuz literally means “to rise up against virtue“, and it carries the same meaning for both men and women. Thus, in Qur’an 4:34, it implies “marital discord”.

Adriboo: To Beat or To Abandon

The Qur’an states that if men fear Nushuz on the part of women, they should first “admonish them”, then “refuse to share their beds” and finally, “adriboo” them; all of these with the goal of pursuing a reconciliation. The Arabic word “Adriboo” which stems from the root word “da-ra-ba” has several meanings among which are to beat, to separate from, to ignore, to change, to seal (Quran 18;11), to abandon, to cover (Qur’an 24:31), to take as an example, amongst others.

How do we know which meaning fits the context of Qur’an 4:34? One way to find out is to compare the usage of the word “daraba” in this verse to its usage in other verses of the Qur’an.

Assuming the word “adriboo” in this context means “to beat“, it would then mean that after a husband has admonished and forsaken his wife’s bed, the next course of action would be to beat her with the goal of a reconciliation. On an emotional level, this course of action would be counterproductive and would only make things worse. It also doesn’t make sense that after women had complained to the Prophet (PBUH) about their husbands beating them, Allah would then instruct men to protect and take care of them, but also beat them when there’s a discord.

Assuming the word “adriboo” means “to abandon or to forsake or to avoid” as Muhammad Abdul Malek suggests, it would mean that when a wife causes discord in the marriage, the husband should first admonish her, then leave her bed (deny her sexual satisfaction), then abandon or avoid her (not talking to her anymore or even leaving the house for a while) in order to stop things from getting worse and create enough space for reflection on the part of the wife. This sounds like a more logical sequence of events and would be in line with the goal of reconciliation that Allah has in mind.

Understanding “Adriboo” as to gradually avoid or abandon clearly makes sense when looking at the bigger picture or goal of reconciliation. Beating a wife contradicts the sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH) and the hadith that tells Muslims “do not beat believing women“. Therefore, interpreting the word “adriboo” as “to beat” would be in conflict with meanings of other Qur’anic verses and hadiths. Understanding it to mean “abandoning” or “gradually forsaking” is a more logical interpretation and is consistent with other rulings in the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH) who was entirely opposed to all forms of restrictions or violence towards women, be it physical or verbal. The interpretation of “adriboo” as to beat is also consistent with the action of the Prophet (PBUH) who, following a marital discord with his wives, left them and isolated himself for a period of one month.

It makes no sense that a verse of the Qur’an instructing men to look after their wives, then goes ahead to tell them to beat them. What seems logical is that this verse instructs men to look after their wives and when such wives create discord in the marriage, such men should first talk to them, then avoid them in the marital bed, then forsake their presence even more by avoiding their company altogether, and possibly leave the house for a while, with the goal of making the wives sober.

Ataa: Returning to Obedience or Giving In To Reconciliation?

Finally, Qur’an 4:34 states that “but when they ataa to you, then seek not against them means of annoyance; For Allah is most High, great above you all“. This means that when the marital problem has been resolved, then the husband should not use the incident against her and consider the problem solved. The arabic word used in this verse is “Ataa” which has several meanings such as “to come”, “come back”, “retrace”, “backtrack”, “bring”, “come home”, “comply” “accommodate”, “give in” or “agree”. In the context of this verse, the word can be understood to mean “giving in to reconciliation” or “retracing their steps”. Linguistically, there’s no compelling necessity to translate the word “ataa” as “obedient to the husband“. As earlier established, there’s no reason to translate “Qanitat” as women who are obedient to their husbands, so this verse doesn’t imply that a wife who had hitherto disobeyed her husband has now returned to the obedience of her husband. It is not a matter of disobedience and obedience. It is, rather, a matter of “nushuz” marital discord and reconciliation. And Allah alone knows best.

Mohammed Abdul Malek interprets the latter part of Qur’an 4:34 as follows:

“As for those women whose animosity or ill-will you have reason to fear, first admonish them, then leave them alone in bed, and then separate from them; and if thereupon they pay you heed, do not seek a way against them”

Conclusively, Qur’an 4:34 does not enforce male superiority over women. It only seeks to create an understanding on the nature of the relationship between men and women and to provide a solution for marital discord.

References

  1. Noble Qur’an 4:34, 4:128, 18:11, 24:31
  2. does the quran sanction the beating of women (archive.org)
  3. Asma Lanrabet, Women in the Qur’an, Translated by Myriam Francois-Cerrah, Published in England by Square View.


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