By Muhammad Yunus & Ashfaque Ullah Syed
21 August 2015
(Published Exclusively On New Age Islam with Permission of the Authors and Publishers)
31. Protection of Orphans / Orphaned Women
31.1. Qur’anic Laws Protecting Orphans and Women
The Qur'an evolves a set of laws to protect the interest of orphans and women, who were oppressed and exploited in pre-Islamic Arabia, as elsewhere in the contemporaneous world.
It asks men to honestly manage the property of the orphans, and by implication, of those under their lawful trust (2:220, 17:34) until they reached a matured, marriageable age (4:6, 17:34). It calls for the grooming of such orphans, and then handing them back their properties with due witnessing (4:5-6). It also warns men against absorbing any property under their trust, or exchanging any valuables under their trust with their own worthless assets (4:2, 4:10). It, however, authorizes the needy custodian of an orphan's property to claim reasonable charges (4:6).
“…(Thus does God clarify His messages, that you may reflect) on this life and the hereafter. They ask you (O Muhammad,) about orphans. Say: ‘Their welfare is the best, but if you mix up their affairs with yours, (remember,) they are your brethren; and God knows the corrupt from the benefactor. If God wished, He could have ruined you, for God is Almighty, Wise’” (2:220). [Bracketed qualification is from the lead verse 2:219/Ch. 26.1.]
“And restore their property to the orphans, without exchanging bad for good, and do not absorb their property into your wealth, for this will be a grave sin” (4:2).
“And do not hand over to the feeble minded, (their property in) your wealth, which God has assigned to you for (their) support, but provide them out of it, and clothe them, and speak to them kindly” (4:5).
“And test the orphans (in your charge) until they reach the marriageable age. If you then find them matured enough, hand over their property to them, but do not consume it wastefully or hastily before they grow up. If one [the guardian] is rich, let him abstain (from claiming charges). But as for one who is poor, let him take what is fair. And when you hand over their property to them, have it witnessed for them, though God is Sufficient in taking account” (4:6).
“Those who unjustly consume the property of orphans, devour fire into their bellies; and soon they will endure a blaze” (4:10).
“Do not approach the property of an orphan, except for (its) improvement, until he reaches maturity, and fulfill (your) commitments, for (every) commitment will be questioned.” (17:34).
In the course of the revelation, many men were killed in battles resulting in a disproportionate rise in the number of women, many of whom were orphaned. For the permanent settlement of these women, the Qur'an allows Muslim men to marry up to four orphaned women provided they could treat them with equity (‘adl)* and justice (qist)*, but otherwise only one of them, or a female under their lawful trust (4:3). *[See Ch. 21.1 for common usage of words]
“If you fear that you cannot do justice (qist) by the orphans, marry women who please your - two or three or four; but if you still fear that you cannot treat (them) equitably (‘adilu), then only one, or (marry) someone under your lawful trust. Then it is most likely that you will not act unjustly” (4:3).
In a later verse (4:127), the Qur’an admonishes the early Muslims for their selfish desire to marrying the orphaned women under their charge, and discourages them from marrying more than one woman, as they could never treat them equitably (4:129).
“They consult you about (the laws) concerning women. Say: ‘God enlightens you about (the laws) concerning them in what is (already) conveyed to you in this divine Writ (kitab) about female orphans (under your charge,) to whom you do not give as prescribed for them, though you desire to marry them; and about the helpless children; and that you must support the orphans justly (bi al-qiste).’ (Remember,) whatever good you do, surely God is Cognizant of it” (4:127).
“You will never be able to treat (more than one) wife equitably (‘adilu), however eager you may be; and so do not be completely partial, so as to leave her in suspense. But if you reconcile and are heedful (Tattaqu), God is Most Forgiving and Merciful” (4:129).
31.2. The Qur’an Recommends Monogamy as A Social Norm
The Qur’anic conditional clause of treating the wives (if more than one) equitably (4:3) coupled with the underlined stipulation of the verse (4:129) suggests that the primary recommendation of the Qur’an is for monogamy. The Qur’an furnishes further illustrations to fully clarify itself:
• Wherever it refers to the wives of other prophets, such as those of Abraham,1 Noah,2 Lot,3 Imran,4 Job,5 and Zakaria 6 it is suggestive of each Prophet having one living wife.
• The Qur’anic word Zauja for spouse denotes a pair: one each of opposite sex. Thus Adam’s spouse is referred to in the singular,7 and the two of them are referred to as a pair.8
• The Qur’an’s reference to the wives of its other characters, such as Pharaoh,9 the Egyptian nobleman who had bought Joseph,10 and Abu Lahab11 are suggestive of each having one living wife.
• The Qur’anic inheritance laws (Ch. 38) refer to the shares of sons and daughters (4:11), two or more daughters (4:11), brothers and sisters (4:176), two sisters (4:176), more than two brothers and sisters (4:12), implying the plurality of each of these family members. But in the case of a widow, the inheritance is reciprocal with the husband (4:12), which admits of a man leaving behind one widow as a social norm.
• The Qur’anic permission to a woman who just lost her husband, to avail of a year’s maintenance and lodging at her deceased husband’s home (2:240/Ch. 35.2) is suggestive of a man leaving behind one widow.
These Qur’anic illustrations clearly show that the Qur’an espouses a monogamous society as a social norm. This view was propounded as early as the third century of Islam and is shared by many eminent Islamic scholars, notably Yusuf Ali,12 and Ameer Ali.13 Muhammad Asad and Husayn Haykal refer to the conditional clause of the verse 4:3 and observe that such plural marriages are allowed only in ‘exceptional circumstances.’14,15
As the issue has been debated since early centuries of Islam, it merits further discussion as tabled in the footnote.16
1. 11:71, 51:29.
3. 11:81, 15:60, 29:33, 66:10.
6. 3:40, 21:90.
7. 2:35, 7:19, 20:117.
8. 2:36, 7:20-22, 20:121.
9. 28:9, 66:11.
10. 12:21, 12:23-26.
12. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an, Lahore 1934, reprinted, Maryland 1983, note 509.
13. Syed Ameer Ali, The Spirit of Islam, Delhi 1923, reprinted 1990, p. 229.
14. Muhammad Asad, Message of the Qur’an, Gibraltar 1980, Chap. 4, Note 4.
15. Muhammad Husayn Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, English translation by Ismail Ragi, 8th edition, Karachi 1989, p. 293.
16. The critics who insist on labelling Islam with polygamy may cite the example of the Prophet who had taken many wives. But the fact remains, the Prophet lived in monogamy with his first wife Khadija for about 25 years until her death, and his later marriages were the result of exceptional circumstances (Enc. 2). The critic may still question, if recommendation was ‘towards monogamy’, why wasn't it clearly spelled out? The answer is simple: Strict monogamy would have inevitably resulted in increased suffering and exploitation of women at the hands of the constitutionally lustful man:
In the context of the revelation, introduction of monogamy in a single stroke and without any other option would have required the new polygamous converts to part with all but one of their wives, leaving a good number of women without a protective husband. This would have created serious problems relating to the status, preoccupation, source of income and future of such an unprotected women, and the custody and maintenance of the children born to them after their separation from their former husbands.
In historical perspective, only menfolk took part in trading missions or other civil, political or military assignments leaving their wives behind, as journey to distant places was hazardous and took long. These men, living away from their wives for months and sometimes years, needed women to meet their physical, emotional and biological needs. Strict monogamy in such a setting would have inevitably led such travellers to use women without the bond of marriage resulting in gross exploitation of women and concomitant social vices.
As a universal fact of life, a man's wife may be permanently impaired from discharging her marital role because of ill health, accident etc. Strict monogamy would prevent any second marriage of such a man, and inevitably drive him either to divorce his incapacitated wife and remarry, or to keep a mistress with no marital responsibilities. In either case, the injustice to womenfolk, and to the society as a whole, would be far greater than if the man was to take a second wife, and maintain his first disabled wife as well.
The inveterate sceptic may still contend that as a man is allowed to take a second wife under certain circumstances, a woman should also be given the reciprocal option. The answer is simple: God has made men and women in different biological models: a man has the physiological constitution to impregnate and meet the sexual callings of more than one wife, but a woman’s long pregnancy period constrains her from bearing a child for more than one husband, and meeting the recurring sexual callings of even one husband. Moreover, there will be serious complications in determining the inheritance of children born to a woman who has several husbands. Hence, the notion of a woman having a number of husbands is contrary to her biological constitution and socially untenable.
32. Marriage Eligibility for Muslims
32.1. Wedlock with Polytheist Is Forbidden
The Qur'an declares (2:221):
“Do not marry (Tankihu)* women who associate (others with God), until they believe (in God). A believing maidservant (amah) is better than a woman, who associates (others with God,) even if she allures you. Do not marry (Tunkihu)* men who associate (others with God) until they believe (in God). A believing male-servant (‘abd)1 is better than a man who associates (others with God,) even if he allures you. They invite you to hellfire, whereas God invites you to the garden and to forgiveness by His Grace, and clarifies His messages to people, that they may be mindful” (2:221). *[Based on the technical meaning of Nikah as coupling, the verb also connotes an ongoing marriage bond]
In the context of the revelation, this verse was directed mainly towards the couples, either spouse of which had remained a pagan (polytheist). Thus the instruction, as phrased, is more of a prohibition against keeping a pagan spouse in wedlock, than an explicit permission to marry a believing person. This was to come later (5:5/32.3 below).
32.2. Muslim Men and Women to Choose Their Spouses
The Qur'an uses identical expression (2:221/32.1 above) in phrasing its permission to men and women regarding choosing a spouse and admiring a suitor. A Muslim woman’s prerogative to choose her own mate is also demonstrated by the absence of any reference to her father or guardian from practically all the Qur’anic verses on marriage and divorce. Traditionally, scholars have put additional words in bracket while rendering the verse, to imply that the father or guardian of a girl has the final say in choosing her spouse. This has been done, understandably to:
• protect the historically vulnerable girl from exploitation by any unscrupulous man who could force marriage upon her, if a guardian does not protect her.
• safeguard the interest of a simple and gullible girl, lest she may be cheated by an aggressive, but unworthy suitor.
32.3. Muslim Men to Marry Any Believing Women
Towards the concluding phase of revelation (5:5), the Qur’an gives explicit permission to Muslim men to marry from among the ‘People of the Book' (Jews and Christians), or those who believe in One God (Mu’minat).
“This day (all) good things are made lawful for you. The food of those to whom Scripture [Book] was given is lawful for you, and your food is lawful for them; and so are chaste believing women (Mu’minat), and chaste women from among those (who have been) given the Scripture [Book] before you - after you give them their dowers (and take them in wedlock) as chaste women, not in lewdness, nor as secret love-companions. Anyone who rejects faith (in God), his deed is in vain, and he will be among the lost ones in the hereafter” (5:5).
The verse does not require women from among the believers in One God (mu’minat), and the people ‘to whom Scripture was given’ (Jews and Christians in the context of the revelation) to embrace Islam while marrying Muslim men. Thus, there are plenty of examples in Islamic history of believing non-Muslim women marrying Muslim men and living together with their privileges enhanced, and religions unchanged, unless they opted to become Muslims.
The verse does not bar Muslim women from marrying believers in One God (mu’minin) or from among the ‘People of the Book’. But historically this has not happened obviously because a Muslim woman would have lost all her Qur’anic privileges as well as individual legal status by marrying a non-Muslim believer (Mu’min) – who could also compel her to adopt his faith. However with the permeation of Islamic values across the global multi-religious communities and the remoteness of the Qur’anic ideals from many Islamic societies, the table has turned and there have been cases of interfaith marriages between Muslim women and believing non-Muslim men.
32.4. The Qur’an Abolishes Incest
The Qur’an forbids marriage with a defined set of close relatives (4:22/23), as well as married women (4:24):
“And do not marry (tankihu) women whom your fathers had married, except what is already past. It is indeed abominable and abhorrent, and a sinful way (4:22). (Also) forbidden to you (in marriage) are your mothers, your daughters, your sisters, your paternal aunts, your maternal aunts, your brother's daughters, your sister's daughters, your foster-mothers, your foster sisters, your wives' mothers, your stepdaughters under your guardianship, (born) of your wives with whom you consumed marriage; (but there is) no blame if you did not consume marriage with them; and the wives of your own begotten sons; and two sisters (in wedlock) at the same time - unless it was a thing of the past. (Remember,) God is Most Forgiving and Merciful (4:23). Also (forbidden in marriage are) married woman - except those under your lawful trust. This is God’s ordinance for you. With the exception of these, all others are lawful provided you seek them (in wedlock), using your wealth, as chaste women, and not prostituting them. And give them their dowers as a duty to those with whom you seek enjoyment (by marrying them). There is no blame in what you mutually settle (regarding your affairs) after the duty (has been performed). Indeed God is All-Knowing and Wise” (4:24).
32.5. The Qur’an Forbids Extramarital Cohabitation
Read in isolation, and ignoring the elliptic language of the Qur’an, the verse 4:24 (32.4 above) may be misconstrued to imply Qur’anic sanction for extramarital cohabitation of a man with a woman under his lawful trust, even if she was a married bondmaid. The verse must be read in the context of the passage (4:22-4:25), which features root words of nikah (tankihu, yankih), in the opening and closing verses (4:22 and4:25/Ch. 30.1), making it absolutely clear that the marriage clause applies to the intermediate verse 4:24 as well. We have incorporated this in the above rendering by adding the underlined bracketed words, thus ruling out the notion of sexual relation with bondmaid or any other woman outside the wedlock. The Qur’an, in its immaculate consistency, drives home the point in the verses 4:3 (Ch. 31.1) and 4:25 (Ch. 30.1), and leaves a clear clue in 24:32 (Ch.30.1) on the requirement of marriage for single adults:
• The verse 4:3 asks men to marry women under their lawful trust, if they are not in a position to marry free orphan women.
• The verse 4:25 asks men to take permission from the families of those under their lawful trust, before taking them in wedlock.
• The verse 24:32 calls for marrying off ‘the singles’ among those under one’s lawful trust.
Thus, read together, the verses 4:3, 4:24/25 and 24:32 clearly and conclusively prohibit sexual relation of a man with any woman in his possession - be it a call girl or a hired maid in the present day context, or a bondmaid, slave girl, unmarried spouse etc. in historical perspective - except through honourable wedlock. In a word, as stressed by Muhammad Asad quoting al-Razi and al-Tabari2 the Qur’an prohibits sexual relation with any woman other than one’s lawful wife.
32.6. The Qur’an Does Not Support Marriage of Minors
The Qur’anic directive to men and women to choose their own mate (2:221/32.1 above) also implies that they should marry after reaching a matured age, when they should be in a position to take a decision on the choice of spouse. The Qur’anic injunctions on the obligations and privileges of men and women in conjugal bond (Ch. 33-34) also indicate that both men and women have to attain a level of maturity to comprehend and implement their respective roles. Finally, the opening injunction of the verse 4:6, “test the orphans until they reach marriageable age,” (Ch. 31.1), is explicit about the notion of a ‘marriageable age’ that is not supportive of marrying off minors. Thus, the Qur’anic illustrations are clear in support of a marriageable age for both the sexes.
1. In Qur’anic usage, the word ‘abd (pl. ‘ibad) normally means a servant, though the Qur’an also connotes it with slaves (female and male), such as in the verses 2:178 (Ch. 39.1) and 24:32 (Ch.30.1), and Yusuf.Ali, Marmaduke Pikthal and Shakir have rendered the word ‘abd in the verse 2:221 (Ch. 32.1) as slaves.
2. Muhammad Asad, Message of the Qur’an, Gibraltar, 1980, Chap. 4, Note 26.
33. Man, Woman, Sex and Marriage
33.1. Love and Mercy between the Sexes Is a ‘Sign’ Of God
“And among His signs is that He has created for you, of yourselves, spouses (Azwaj), that you may console yourselves with them, and (He) has set love and mercy between you. There are signs in this for a people who reflect” (30:21).
Historically, in most societies, love before marriage was condemned, while spouses in wedlock often concealed their love. This was because the feeling of love between man and woman was eyed with mute contempt or perhaps jealousy, while marriage was regarded as a purely biological necessity aimed primarily at procreation. The verse acknowledges the spiritual and emotional attachment between the opposite sexes, and asks humans to reflect on this. Furthermore, the etymology of the word azwaj, (spouses) is suggestive of a pair of the opposite sexes, which indicates monogamy as a social norm, as earlier reviewed (Ch. 31.2).
33.2. Sexual Relation between The Spouses
The Qur’an allows unqualified sexual freedom in wedlock (2:223).
“Your wives are a field of yours. So approach your field as you please, but take steps for yourselves, and heed God, and know that you will meet Him (on the Day of Judgment); and give good news to believers” (2:223).
This verse is a classical example of the uniqueness of Qur’anic vocabulary. Addressed to menfolk, it combines the sanction of freedom in physical conjugal relations with spiritual precept (heeding God) and concludes with a reminder of an ultimate meeting with God. However, as for the underlined statement, Abul Kalam Azad has interpreted it (rendered below from Urdu) as suggestive of containing family size:1
“…Take steps for yourselves (make necessary arrangements for the coming of your offspring)…”
The Qur’anic exhortations on giving ease, rather than hardship (2:185/Ch. 48), and against tasking any person beyond his or her capacity (2:233, 65:7/Ch. 34.5) provide further Qur’anic illustrations for curtailing family size on health and, or income grounds. Muhammad al-Ghazali, who lived almost a millennium ago, also held similar views.2
The Qur’an features two other verses on the subject:
• 2:187 (Ch. 48) allows conjugal intimacy after breaking the fast during the month of Ramadan.
• 2:222 (below) forbids conjugal intimacy when women are in their monthly courses.
33.3. Women during Their Menstruation
The Qur’an removes all taboos against menstruation. It refers to it as a mere inconvenience, a discomfort, and asks men not to approach women for conjugal relations during their menstruation.
“They ask you (O Muhammad) about menstruation. Say: ‘It is a discomfort (adha)*. So, do not approach them until they attain purity (yathurna). And when they have attained purity (tatahharna), you may approach them (freely) as God has ordained for you.’ Indeed God loves the penitent and loves those who purify themselves (Mutatahhirin)” (2:222). *[See the renderings of 33:53/Ch. 3.15 and 33:59/Ch. 28.6 for use of common root-words]
The verse uses THR root-words to denote a state of purity or fitness. This is different from physical cleanliness, as the Qur’an does not impose any cleanliness requirement on women in sexual matters (2:223, above). Furthermore, the pairing together of the concluding words Tawwabin (those who repent) and Mutatahhirin (those who are pure) lends the root THR, the broader connotation of purity of heart and faith. The verse thus concludes by giving a spiritual note to an otherwise mundane matter (women’s courses), as in the succeeding verse (2:223 above).
33.4. Men to Give Women Dower At the Time of Marriage
The Qur’an states:
“Give women their dower as a gift (saduquat), but if they voluntarily favor you with anything from it, take it and enjoy it in good spirit” (4:4).
The dower marks a man’s commitment to take the financial responsibility of his wife, and accordingly it should be of a substantive value, as underscored by the underlined waiver clause. There are traditions on marriage being contracted, in case of extreme scarcity, over the symbolic remittance of a Qur’anic memorized Sura,3 an iron ring,4 or gold equal to the weight of a date-stone.5 The Qur’an, however, cites the generous example of a fortune, (4:20/Ch. 34.2), that obviously reflects its concern for women.
33.5. Women Are Entitled To Independent Income
The Qur'an treats men and women in wedlock as separate individuals, with respective capabilities, and independent incomes.
“Do not desire what God has favoured in different measures to each of you (ba‘dakum ‘ala ba‘din):6 men are to have a portion of what they have earned, and women are to have a portion of what they have earned. Ask therefore God of His bounty, and (remember,) God is Cognizant of everything” (4:32).
The verse introduces a notion of corporate ownership of personal income by reminding men and women that they have a share in their own income and not the whole of it for themselves. The verse complements Qur’anic clear dictates on kindness to parents (Ch. 17.4) and on broader social responsibilities (Ch. 17.2), and thus requires either of the spouses in a conjugal relationship to share income, particularly with parents, and generally with personal relatives and the needy. The verse also legitimizes state taxation as a compulsory way of sharing of income with the community.
33.6. Role Of Men And Women In Wedlock
The Qur’an spells out the reciprocal role of men and women in wedlock (4:34):
“Men are the supporters (Qawwamah) of (their) wives because God has favoured each of them in different measures (ba'dahum ‘ala ba'din),6 and because of what they spend (for them) of their wealth. The righteous women are devout (qanitatun) and guard the unseen that God would have them guard. As for those (women), of whom you fear extramarital perversity (nushuz), counsel them, leave them (alone) in their beds and assert on them (wadribuhunna); but if they listen to you, do not seek a way against them. (Remember,) God is Sublime, Great” (4:34).
It is one of the most critical and important verses of the Qur’an. Most commentators have interpreted it in a manner that i) admits of a man’s superior and commanding role, and a woman’s inferior and subordinate role in marriage and ii) empowers a man to beat an allegedly wayward or disobedient wife. They interpret the critical words and phrases of the verse in the following traditional lines:
• qawwamah as ‘In charge’ (Marmaduke Pikthall), ‘Protectors and maintainers’ (Yusuf Ali).
• ba'dahum ‘ala ba'din as a preferential comparison.
• qania’tun as obedience (to husband).
• nushuz as disloyalty and ill-conduct.
• wadribu as beating (the wives).
Thus Marmaduke Pikthall’s rendition of this verse, which is typical of the traditional, reads as follows:
“Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High, Exalted, Great” (4:34).
Our rendition does not support a husband’s superiority or a wife’s obedience to, or being beating up by her husband regardless of cause, and is based on the interpretation of its critical words and phrases from Qur’anic illustrations. Since this is a somewhat exhaustive exercise, we have placed it in the footnote for those who may wish to verify it, or fully satisfy themselves.7
Let us now try to further probe this keynote verse from Qur’anic illustrations.
First, as the opening statement suggests, a man is expected to support his wife – financially and otherwise. In the context of the revelation, this gender-specific pronouncement was an historical necessity. Men left homes on trading missions without providing for their wives, who cohabited with strangers to sustain themselves (Note 7/Ch. 1.1). This needed correction and hence the gender-specific responsibility. However, the Qur’an connects the role of the man as a ‘supporter’ with his spending for his wife. Thus, in the event God favoured a woman with a higher level of earning than her man, she could also play the role of the ‘supporter (Qawwamah),’ as a joint Auliya’ (protector) of the family (9:71).
“The believing men (Mu’minin) and the believing women (Mu’minat) are protectors (Auliya’) of each other: they enjoin the good and restrain the evil; they keep up prayer and give charity, and obey God and His Messenger. They are those on whom God will have mercy. (Remember,) God is Almighty, Wise” (9:71)
The verse (4:34) is directed to the community at large and is not an injunction to be executed by the husband, and as such does not accord him any superior position over his woman.
Second, the linking together of the stipulations “devout (women) guard the unseen that God would have them guard,” with the exception clause, “As for those (women), of whom you fear extramarital perversity...”suggests that a devout woman is one who abstains from extramarital perversity, and therefore, the unseen (Ghaib) that she is asked to ‘guard’ is nothing but her chastity.
Third, regarding the highly controversial issue of wife beating, the concluding God’s attributes (Sublime, Great) rule out any notion of beating – even symbolically. Our rendition (‘to assert’) symbolizes a gesture of beating and is based on the Qur’anic use of this verb form in the verse 38:44, in which the Prophet Job is commanded to take a ‘tuft of grass’ in his hand and fadrib (his wife) rather than break his oath. While the Qur’an leaves it there enigmatically, Biblical accounts are accommodative of the classical Muslim commentators’ view that this simply meant flinging the tuft of grass towards his wife, as a symbolic gesture of beating.8 Some of the early scholars of Islam including al-Tabari, al-Razi, al-Shafi’i, also interpreted this verb form (Wadribu) in the verse 4:34 in similar manner, while the Prophet detested the idea of beating one’s wife and is reported to have said: “Never beat God’s handmaidens.” The English language does not have any suitable word for the symbolic gesture of beating to match this situation, and so the word ‘assert’ in our rendering may be more appropriate and less misleading than the traditional word, ‘beating’ to maintaining thematic continuity with the next verse and compatibility with the broader reciprocal and equitable role of men and women as the Auliya’ (protector) of one another as enjoined by the Qur’an (9:71 above).
This brings us to the concluding injunction of the verse: “but if they listen to you, do not seek a way against them.” This raises the question, what measure a man should take if his assertiveness fails, and a breach is established between a man and his wife and the community gets to know of it. This is answered in clear and simple terms in the very next verse (4:35).
“If you (the community) fear breach between the two, appoint an arbiter from his family and an arbiter from her family. If they wish reconciliation, God will unite them. Indeed God is All-Knowing and Informed” (4:35).
Thus, read together the verses 4:34 and 4:35 (the passage 4:34/35) spell out not only the roles of men and women in wedlock but also the measures to be taken if a woman continues to show marital infidelity, and recommends arbitration as the final option for settling conjugal disputes. In a later verse, the Qur’an prescribes the same ultimate course of action for the reverse situation, and declares:
“If a wife fears extramarital perversity (Nushuz) or desertion (i‘rad) from her husband, there is no blame on either of them if they mutually settle (the matter) amicably. Such settlement is best, though (our) souls are (drawn to) greed.9 But if you do good, and are heedful (Tattaqu), (remember,) God is Informed of what you do” (4:128).
If the breach persists and the peace and stability of the family is destroyed, the Qur’an allows for the termination of a marriage (4:130). Since this is an extremely painful decision that can also have serious financial implications for the financially dependent partner of the marriage, the Qur’an declares:
“And yet if they do separate, God will provide each out of His Abundance, for God is Boundless (in resources) and Wise” (4:130).
Under compelling circumstances however, the Qur’an also empowers women with unilateral right of separation (2:229/Ch. 34.2)
33.7. Qur’an’s Worldview on Women’s Role In Society
A deep-rooted misogynistic heritage (Note 10/Ch. 28), fostered by the dicta of some patently weak accounts, led the Muslim ‘Ulema to impose various restrictions on women. Any cataloguing of such restrictions will not serve any purpose, but it is sufficient to say that until very recent times, Muslim women were discouraged from pursuing higher education, working side by side with men in corporate offices, travelling by themselves, or even taking up a profession of their choice – just to cite some glaring examples. However, so far as the Qur’an is concerned, it does not impose any such restrictions on women. In fact, from the Qur’anic perspective, if men can travel by themselves or pursue studies, or work for a livelihood, so can women. However, it goes without saying that the choice of both men and women for taking part in any activity is conditioned by their external environment and by the facilities at their disposal. Thus today, a woman can travel around the world without the need of a protective guardian while just a century ago, she would need a male guard or companion to go to a neighbouring village to ensure her safety. In sum, the Qur’an does not invest men with the guardianship of women and expects them to live together as friends and protectors of one another (awliya’, 9:71/33.6 above).
33.8. The Qur’an Overrules Any Notion of Male Superiority
The Qur’an also offers the following clear and undeniable illustrations to overrule any notion of male superiority or female inferiority:
• It acknowledges the position of a head of state by a woman, ruling discretely by consultation through her chieftains, and later embracing the true faith.10
• It does not blame a woman for any of man’s infirmities, vices or misfortunes. Thus for example, it blames both Adam and his spouse (and not the latter alone, as mentioned in the Bible) for their temptation by Satan and their primordial fall from Paradise.11
In sum, the notion of male superiority has no Qur’anic basis, and the various demeaning accounts on women’s inferiority appearing in various theological literatures are no more than myth.12
33.9. Paradox of Linking Islam with Misogynistic Customs
Some Muslim communities have retained their pre-Islamic misogynistic customs, notably honour killing and female genital mutilation (FGM), legitimizing them by some weak traditions and controversial law school rulings. This is simply absurd. Neither any verse of the Qur’an, nor its collective message gives any basis whatsoever to support these inhuman practices. In fact, at an early stage of the revelation, the Qur’an condemned female infanticide (Note 1/Ch. 1.1). The Qur’an also prohibited the prevalent custom of killing the women who committed adultery, and introduced laws that paved the way for the dissolution of a marriage if a woman, or for that matter, a man betrayed any extramarital perversity. Therefore, there is no Qur’anic basis at all for FGM and honour killing, and they are no more than pre-Islamic customs that some communities have retained even after their conversion to Islam.
1. Abul Kalam Azad, Tarjuman al-Qur’an, 1931; reprint New Delhi 1989 , Vol.2, p. 182.
2. Muhammad al-Ghazali, Ihya ul-‘Ulum, Urdu translation by Ahsan Siddiqee, Karachi 1983, Vol.2, Chap. 2, p. 74.
3. Sahih al-Bukhari, English translation by Mohsin Khan, New Delhi, 1984, Vol.7, Acc. 24, 54, 58, 66, 72, 79.
4. Ibid., Vol.7, Acc. 80.
5. Ibid., Vol.7, Acc. 78, 85.
6. The Qur’an uses the expression ba‘dahum ‘ala ba‘din for a relative comparison as conveyed in our rendition. However, many scholars have connoted it with a preferential comparison between men and women, with men having been given more favor than the women. This is misleading as the Qur’an uses the connective clause fauqa and not ‘ala, where a preferential comparison is implied as illustrated below:
o 6:165, 43:32: God raised some people in rank over others.
o 24:40 layers of darkness in a see – darkness and yet more darkness until one can hardly see his own hand.
7. Meanings Of The Critical Words In 4:34 Based On Qur’anic Illustrations:
i. qawwamah (sing. qiwam, root QWM): The Qur’an uses QWM root-words with the broad connotation of protecting, establishing, and upholding something that needs to be protected, supported or upheld:
Establishing or performing prayer in a regular manner (aqim, yuqim) (over a hundred verses across the Qur’an).
To be upright (qawwamah) in justice (4:135, 5:8).
To uphold (aqim) (an evidence) (65:2).
To establish (aqim) (correct) weights (55:9).
More sound (aqwamu) (17:9) (guidance).
More valid (aqwamu) (as a testimony) (2:282).
An upright or straight forward (qayyimah) law, religion, or book (18:2, 98:5).
To be constant (qa’imah) (in following up) (3:75).
To be upright (qa’imah) (as a community) (3:113).
To support (qiyamah, taqumu) (the orphans) (4:5, 4:127).
Qur’anic common use of the word qawm for community, which is nothing but a group of people held together to protect and support each other.
Our choice of word (‘Supporters’) is consistent with this.
ii. ba'dahum ‘ala ba'din: See 6 above.
iii. qani’atun: In practically all (9) instances of its use, the Qur’an connotes this word and its other derivatives with obedience or devotion to God, or to God and the Prophet (2:238, 3:17, 3:43, 16:120, 30:26, 33:31,33:35, 39:9, 66:5).
iv. nushuz: Etymologically, the word features a combination of zina (adultery), and shahwat (sexual passion), and in the verses 4:34 and 4:128 (33.6 above) it connotes sexual or passionate relation with someone other than the lawful spouse. Hence our choice of the expression, ‘sexual perversity’.
v. wadribu: In a generic sense, the Qur’an uses the verb form daraba with two broad shades of meanings:
o Relating to expression, such as to coin a parable, to mention, propound, reiterate etc.
o Relating to traveling, such as to go forth in a civil or military campaign.
The Qur’an also uses it with the following specific meanings:
o To be covered with (humiliation, or clothing) (2:61, 24:31).
o To block or fully cover (the ear) (18:11).
o To slay (47:4) or knock down (Abraham knocking down the idols) (37:93).
o To symbolically ‘strike’: Moses ‘striking’ the rock or sea with his staff (2:60, 20:77, 26:63); angels ‘striking’ the souls of the disbelievers (8:50).
o To make a gesture (of striking) (38:44).
8. The Bible (the Book of Job, ii.9) relates that for a long time, Job lived in deep agony, as he was afflicted with sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. On one occasion, his wife reproached him for his perseverance in faith and said: ‘Curse God and die.’ Early Muslim commentators have suggested that Job took an oath to beating his wife a hundred stripes if God should restore him his health. As he regained health, he realized that his wife’s outburst only reflected her deep frustrations at his sufferings, and he bitterly regretted his oath. The verse 38:44 refers to the revelation Job received to fulfill his oath without hurting or beating his wife.
9. A man in the given situation would like to get his wife to divorce him and claim compensation while a woman would be tempted to get her husband to divorce her so that she could leave him with all the gifts he might have given her in addition to claiming the marriage dower.
10. 27:32/33, 27:44.
11. 2:36, 7:20-22.
12. Examples of such mythical accounts:
• Until morning, the angels curse a woman who refuses to come to the husband at night.
- Sahih al-Bukhari, English translation by Mohsin Khan, New Delhi, 1984, Vol.7, Acc. 121, 122.
• Until morning, the angels curse a woman who refuses to come to her husband at night; and (the Lord) who is in heaven remains angry until the man is pleased with his woman.
• The woman whose husband is satisfied at night and spends the night contentedly will enter Paradise.
- Sahih al-Muslim, Urdu translation by Wahiduz Zaman, Delhi 19…, Vol.4, Kitabun-Nikah, Acc. 43,44, p. 55.
Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. KhaledAbou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.