By Muhammad Yunus
(Joint Author), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009.
The caption may shock most Muslim men who believe that God has raised their ranks over women and given them the right to beat up a ‘rebellious’ or ‘disobedient’ wife. Any Qur’anic translation in Urdu, Hindi, English or any other language for that matter, of the verses 4:34 and 2:229 will support such notions. However, the traditional translations are drawn on the tafsir works of the early commentators (mufassirin). These pioneering works were produced in an era (the third century of Islam onwards) when oppressive patriarchy characterized all major civilizations  and impacted Islam as it shared boundaries with those civilizations through conversions, and thus inevitably informed scholarship of the era. Down the centuries, the captioned notions, as interpreted guardedly by the early mufassirin offered a far better deal to the Muslim women than their counterparts in other civilizations and there was no need to put them to any form of scrutiny. However, with the empowerment of women in recent times, these notions and those connected with several other gender related verses, appear gender biased and call for a fresh reading. Moreover, “the early commentators presented several optional arguments while interpreting the critical verses of the Qur’an. The later interpreters often chose the weakest of these arguments. Thus, in later periods, only those tafsir gained popularity for education and adoption, which totally lacked the beauty of those (advocated by the) ancients” . This suggests that even traditional scholarship of Islam admits of the need for a fresh reading of the Qur’an. Since no scholar can claim any authority to overrule the works of the early mufassisrin, the only way to re-interpret the gender sensitive and other critical verses of the Qur’an is to explain the given verses using the diction and illustrations of the Qur’an and by cross referencing verses of common theme from across the Qur’anic text, that is, explaining the Qur’an primarily through the Qur’an – a methodology known as the best source of tafsir .
A recent publication  that adopts this methodology interprets the cited verses as follows:
“Men are the supporters (qawwamah) of (their) wives because God has favored each of them in different measures (ba'dahum ‘ala ba'din), 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 adulterous behavior (nushuz), counsel them, leave them (alone) in their beds and assert (wadribu) on them; but if they listen to you, do not seek a way against them. (Remember,) God is Sublime, Great” (4:34).
Most commentators have interpreted the verse 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 – God bestowing greater favor on men than on women.
qania’tun as obedience (to husband).
nushuz as disloyalty and ill-conduct.
wadribu as beating (the wives).
Thus, Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s rendition  of this verse, which is typical of the traditional works, reads as follows:
“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God 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 God 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 God is Most High, great (above you all)” (4:34).
The fresh rendition tabled above does not support a husband’s superiority or a wife’s subordination, or being beating up by her husband regardless of cause, and is based on the interpretation of its critical words and phrases from the Qur’anic illustrations the detail of which can be seen in the referenced publication , avoided from this essay because of their technical nature and bulk.
Qur’anic further illustrations refuting the captioned notions.
i) The verse 4:35 immediately following 4:34 advocates an arbitration if the conjugal issue remains unresolved:
“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 persuasive and morally assertive – but not coercive measures to be taken if a woman continues to show marital infidelity.
ii) The verse 9:71 from the concluding phase of the revelation describes men and women as guardians (awliya’) of one another and that being so, it is not for the Qur’an to give a decisive upper hand to men folk in conjugal matters.
“The believing men (mu’minin) and the believing women (mu’minat) are protectors (awliya’) 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).
iii) It entitles a woman (wife) an independent income and thus does not rule out her role as the qawwamah (a co-equal supporter) in the family:
“Do not desire what God has favored in different measures to each of you (ba‘dakum ‘ala ba‘din): 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).
iv) It empowers a woman to take similar action against a man from whom she fears adultery or desertion:
“If a wife fears adulterous behavior (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 . But if you do good, and are heedful, (remember,) God is Informed of what you do” (4:128).
v) It venerates a woman and not a man as an agent in the procreative process after God:
“O Humankind! Heed your Lord who created you from a single self and created from it its spouse and scattered from the two countless men and women. Heed God (attaqu al-Lah) through whom you demand (your mutual rights) and (heed) the wombs (arham)” (4:1).
Note: God begins the process of creation from a drop (35:11, 40:67, 53:46, 75:37, 76:2, 80:19), but the creative process takes place in a secured resting place within three layers of darkness (23:13), that is, a woman’s womb.
Fresh reading as tabled in the referenced book :
“Divorced women shall wait by themselves for three monthly periods, for it is not lawful for them, if they believe in God and the Last Day, to conceal what God has created in their wombs. (During this period,) their husbands will be obliged (ahaqqu) to take them back if they want reconciliation, while they (the women) have similar honorable (obligations) as them (men); but men have (a higher) degree (of obligation) towards them. (Remember,) God is Almighty, Wise” (2:228).
Traditionally, commentators connote the word ‘ahaqqu’ with ‘right’, rather than ‘obligation’ and offer the following typical rendition for the underlined part of the verse (quoted from Yusuf Ali):
“…And their husbands have the better right (ahaqqu) to take them back in that period, if they wish for reconciliation. And women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable; but men have a degree (of advantage) over them. And God is Exalted in Power, Wise.
The traditional rendition is patriarchic. It accords men a higher degree of right or advantage over women. If we are living a hundred years or more ago, no one would question this at all – as women were then subjected to a far greater measure of male domination outside of Islamic world than within it - as discussed under the review of 4:34 above. Today, the Qur’anic universal notion gender equitability (4:1, 4:32, 9:71) pervades the global human society, except in the Islamic world. Hence, the fresh reading tabled above is far more tenable than the traditional rendition. This is no window dressing, and bears with the following Qur’anic tenets and illustrations:
i) Verse 4:34 commands a man to be supportive to his wife, and 9:71 entrusts him with her guardianship in a mutual capacity; therefore if a woman is carrying his child, it should be her husband’s duty (ahaqqu) to seek reconciliation and take her back.
ii) 2:233 commands a man to bear the expenses of his divorced wife and the child she bears him after the divorce, through to the nursing period of two years. Therefore, it should also be his responsibility or obligation to provide the emotional support to the mother during the period, which he can best do by keeping the marriage.
iii) Since the verse relates to a divorce initiated by a man, he has full right to take his wife back regardless of her pregnancy and the Qur’an does not need to spell it out.
iv) Since a personal ‘right’ makes it optional for a husband to take back a pregnant wife under divorce notice, he may decline it, as this could be to his inconvenience and give relief to his estranged wife. But if this is a duty, it becomes imperative for the husband to oblige.
Hence the verb ahaqqu in 2:229 merits to be interpreted as a ‘duty’, and not a ‘right’. The Qur’an offers instances of the use of this verb to connoting duty in the verses 2:180, 2:236, 2:241, rendered by Yusuf Ali as follows:
“It is prescribed, when death approaches any of you, if he leave any goods that he make a bequest to parents and next of kin, according to reasonable usage; this is due (haqqan) from the God-fearing” (2:180).
“There is no blame on you if ye divorce women before consummation or the fixation of their dower; but bestow on them (A suitable gift), the wealthy according to his means, and the poor according to his means; A gift of a reasonable amount is due from (haqqan) those who wish to do the right thing” (2:236).
“For divorced women Maintenance (should be provided) on a reasonable (scale). This is a duty on (haqqan) the righteous” (2:241).
Conclusion: In view of a quantum change in gender dynamics in the recent times, there is an overriding need to bring the translation / interpretation of the verses 4:34 and 2:229 in line with the universal message of the Qur’an as captured in the tabled fresh readings. If the Muslim Ulama fail to do this, and to apply the same principle to other gender related verses, what was beautiful in Islam until recent times – say a hundred years ago, will become ugly in the modern era and the Muslim women will be liable to suffer far greater hardships in conjugal life than their non-Muslim counterparts, and Islam will be condemned as a misogynist faith as being already labelled. No wonder Allama Iqbal exclaimed- le gay taslis kay farzand miraase Khalil – khashte buniyade kalisa bun gaee khake Hijaz. (taswire dard, Bange dara)
1. An illustration of how women were treated in the major civilizations in the pre-Islamic world through the medieval ages: The Zoroastrians (Persians) kept their women in confinement, guarded by eunuchs. The Greek followed their example and kept their women in gynaeceum, often under lock and key. The Hindus burnt their widows alive on funeral pyres of their husband’s bodies - a practice continued until recent centuries. The Chinese bound their women’s feet in iron shoes as a cultural norm, obviously, to restrict their movement. The Christian Church placed women under total domination of men. (The Bible, Genesis 3.16). Roman male citizens could kill their women by law, if they found them committing adultery.
2. Abul Kalam Azad, Tarjuman al-Qur’an, 1931, reprint New Delhi 1989, Vol.1. p. 43.
3. Ahmad Von Denffer, Ulum al-Qur’an, Islamic Foundation, UK 1983, p. 126.
4. Muhammad Yunus and Ashfaque Ullah Syed, Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, Maryland 2009
5. A. Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an, Amana Corp. Maryland, 1983.
6. 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.
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. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009