Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Qur'an and Islamic scholars on women

In this post, I want to consider some Islamic commentaries on Qur'an 4.34, a verse which is often seen as problematic from the perspective of western ideas about women's rights.  I have collected material from three classic Sunni commentaries, one modern Sunni Islamist commentary and one Shi'a commentary.

Here is the verse in the Sahih International translation:
Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband's] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance - [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.
Below are excerpts from the following works of Qur'anic exegesis (tafsir):

1.  Jami' al-bayan 'an ta'wil ay al-Qur'an by the Persian scholar Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (838-923).

2.  Kitab Asbab al-Nuzul by Abul Hasan Ali ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Ali al Wahidi (d. 1075/6).

3.  Tafsir al-Jalalayn by Jalal al-Din al-Mahalli (d. 1459) and Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 1505).

4.  Tafhim ul-Qur’an by the Pakistani Islamist writer Syed Abul A'la Maududi (1903-1979).

5.  Tafsir Al-Mizan by the Iranian Shi'a scholar Muhammad Husayn Tabatabaei (1892-1981).

1.  Tafsir al-Tabari

Allah said, Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, meaning, the man is responsible for the woman, and he is her maintainer, caretaker and leader who disciplines her if she deviates.

because Allah has made one of them to excel the other, meaning, because men excel over women and are better than them for certain tasks. This is why Prophethood was exclusive of men, as well as other important positions of leadership.  The Prophet said, "People who appoint a woman to be their leader, will never achieve success."  Al-Bukhari recorded this Hadith.  Such is the case with appointing women as judges or on other positions of leadership.

and because they spend from their means, meaning the dowry, expenditures and various expenses that Allah ordained in His Book and the Sunnah of His Messenger for men to spend on women. For these reasons it is suitable that he is appointed her maintainer, just as Allah said, But men have a degree (of responsibility) over them [2:228].

Allah said, Therefore, the righteous (women) are Qanitat, obedient to their husbands, as Ibn Abbas and others stated.

and guard in the husband's absence.  As-Suddi and others said that it means she protects her honor and her husband's property when he is absent; and Allah's statement, what Allah orders them to guard means, the protected (husband) is the one whom Allah protects.  Ibn Jarir recorded that Abu Hurayrah said that the Messenger of Allah said, "The best woman is she who, when you look at her, she pleases you, when you command her, she obeys you, and when you are absent, she protects her honor and your property."  Then, the Messenger of Allah recited the Ayah, Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, until its end.  Imam Ahmad recorded that Abdur-Rahman bin 'Awf said that the Messenger of Allah said, "If the woman prayed her five daily prayers, fasted her month, protected her chastity and obeyed her husband, she will be told, 'Enter Paradise from any of its doors you wish.'"

Allah said, As to those women on whose part you see ill conduct, meaning, the woman from whom you see ill conduct with her husband, such as when she acts as if she is above her husband, disobeys him, ignores him, dislikes him, and so forth. When these signs appear in a woman, her husband should advise her and remind her of Allah's torment if she disobeys him. Indeed, Allah ordered the wife to obey her husband and prohibited her from disobeying him, because of the enormity of his rights and all that he does for her.  The Messenger of Allah said, "If I were to command anyone to prostrate before anyone, I would have commanded the wife to prostrate before her husband, because of the enormity of his right upon her."  Al-Bukhari recorded that Abu Hurayrah said that the Messenger of Allah said, "If the man asks his wife to come to his bed and she declines, the angels will keep cursing her until the morning."  Muslim recorded it with the wording, "If the wife goes to sleep while ignoring her husband's bed, the angels will keep cursing her until the morning."  This is why Allah said, As to those women on whose part you see ill conduct, admonish them (first).

Allah's statement, abandon them in their beds: Ali bin Abi Talhah reported that Ibn Abbas said, "The abandonment refers to not having intercourse with her, to lie on her bed with his back to her.''  Several others said similarly.  As-Suddi, Ad-Dahhak, Ikrimah, and Ibn Abbas, in another narration, added, "Not to speak with her or talk to her.''  The Sunan and Musnad compilers recorded that Muawiyah bin Haydah Al-Qushayri said, "O Allah's Messenger! What is the right that the wife of one of us has on him?"  The Prophet said, "To feed her when you eat, clothe her when you buy clothes for yourself, refrain from striking her face or cursing her, and to not abandon her, except in the house."

Allah's statement, beat them, means, if advice and ignoring her in the bed do not produce the desired results, you are allowed to discipline the wife, without severe beating.  Muslim recorded that Jabir said that during the Farewell Hajj, the Prophet said: "Fear Allah regarding women, for they are your assistants. You have the right on them that they do not allow any person whom you dislike to step on your mat. However, if they do that, you are allowed to discipline them lightly. They have a right on you that you provide them with their provision and clothes, in a reasonable manner."  Ibn Abbas and several others said that "the Ayah refers to a beating that is not violent".  Al-Hasan Al-Basri said that "it means, a beating that is not severe".

Allah said, but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance), meaning, when the wife obeys her husband in all that Allah has allowed, then no means of annoyance from the husband are allowed against his wife. Therefore, in this case, the husband does not have the right to beat her or shun her bed.

Allah's statement, Surely, Allah is Ever Most High, Most Great reminds men that if they transgress against their wives without justification, then Allah, the Ever Most High, Most Great, is their Protector, and He will exert revenge on those who transgress against their wives and deal with them unjustly. 

2.  Asbab Al-Nuzul by Al-Wahidi

Said Muqatil: “This verse was revealed about Sa'd ibn al-Rabi', who was one of the leaders of the Helpers (nuqaba'), and his wife Habibah bint Zayd ibn Abi Zuhayr, both of whom from the Helpers. It happened Sa'd hit his wife on the face because she rebelled against him. Then her father went with her to see the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace. He said to him: ‘I gave him my daughter in marriage and he slapped her’. The Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said: ‘Let her have retaliation against her husband’. As she was leaving with her father to execute retaliation, the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, called them and said: ‘Come back; Gabriel has come to me’, and Allah, exalted is He, revealed this verse. The Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, said: ‘We wanted something while Allah wanted something else, and that which Allah wants is good’. Retaliation was then suspended”.

Sa'id ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Zahid informed us > Zahir ibn Ahmad > Ahmad ibn al-Husayn ibn Junayd > Ziyad ibn Ayyub > Hushaym > Yunus ibn al-Hasan who reported that a man slapped his wife and she complained about him to the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace. Her family who went with her said: “O Messenger of Allah! So-and-so has slapped our girl”. The Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, kept saying: “Retaliation! Retaliation! And there is no other judgement to be held”. But then this verse was revealed and the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said: “We wanted something and Allah wanted something else”.

Abu Bakr al-Harithi informed us > Abu'l-Shaykh al-Hafiz > Abu Yahya al-Razi > Sahl al-'Askari > 'Ali ibn Hashim > Isma'il > al-Hasan who said: “Around the time when the verse on retaliation was revealed amongst the Muslims, a man had slapped his wife. She went to the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace and said: ‘My husband has slapped me and I want retaliation’. So he said: ‘Let there be retaliation’. As he was still dealing with her, Allah, exalted is He, revealed "Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other…". Upon which the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said: ‘We wanted something and my Lord wanted something different. O man, take your wife by the hand’ ”.

3.  Tafsir al-Jalalayn

Men are in charge of, they have authority over, women, disciplining them and keeping them in check, because of that with which God has preferred the one over the other, that is, because God has given them the advantage over women, in knowledge, reason, authority and otherwise, and because of what they expend, on them [the women], of their property. Therefore righteous women, among them, are obedient, to their husbands, guarding in the unseen, that is, [guarding] their private parts and otherwise during their spouses’ absence, because of what God has guarded, for them, when He enjoined their male spouses to look after them well. And those you fear may be rebellious, disobedient to you, when such signs appear, admonish them, make them fear God, and share not beds with them, retire to other beds if they manifest such disobedience, and strike them, but not violently, if they refuse to desist [from their rebellion] after leaving them [in separate beds]. If they then obey you, in what is desired from them, do not seek a way against them, a reason to strike them unjustly. God is ever High, Great, so beware of Him, lest He punish you for treating them unjustly.

4.  Maududi

Men are superior to women in the sense that they have been endowed with certain natural qualities and powers that have not been given to women or have been given in a less degree, and not in the sense that they are above them in honor and excellence. Man has been made qawam (governor) of the family because of his natural qualities and woman has been made his dependent for her own safety and protection because of her natural drawbacks.

A tradition of the Holy Prophet is the best commentary on this, He said, "The best wife is the one who pleases you when you see her; who obeys your orders and who guards your property and her own honor when you are not at home."

In this connection, it is necessary to give a warning. Obedience to Allah is of far greater importance than obedience to the husband and has precedence over it. Therefore, it is the duty of the wife to refuse to obey her husband, if and when he orders her to do a thing which amounts to Allah's disobedience. In that case it shall be a sin to obey him. On the contrary, if the husband orders her not to observe a certain voluntary religious devotion, she must obey him, otherwise her devotion will not be accepted.

If the wife is defiant and does not obey her husband or does not guard his rights, three measures have been mentioned, but it does not mean that all the three are to be taken at one and the same time. Though these have been permitted, they are to be administered with a sense of proportion according to the nature and extent of the offense. if a mere light admonition proves effective, there is no need to resort to a severer step. As to a beating, the Holy Prophet allowed it very reluctantly and even then did not like it. But the fact is that there are certain women who do not mend their ways without a beating. In such a case, the Holy Prophet has instructed that she would not be beaten on the face, or cruelly, or with anything which might leave a mark on the body.

5.  Tafsir Al-Mizan

Men are the maintainers of women because of that with which Allah has made some of them to excel the others and be­cause of what they spend out of their property.... The clause, "that with which Allah has made some of them to excel the others", refers to the natural characteristics of man in which he excels the woman; men have much greater judicious prudence than women, and consequently they are much stronger and braver and more capable of performing strenuous tasks requiring intrepidity and forbearance; while women's life is dominated by feelings and emotions and based on gracefulness and delicateness. The next phrase, "what they spend out of their property", refers to the wealth which men spend on women's dower and maintenance.

The generality of these causes shows that the resulting principle, "Men are the maintainers of women", is not confined to the husbands. In other words, it does not say that man is the maintainer of his wife; rather it gives authority to the men, as a group, over the whole group of women, in the common affairs which effect lives of both sexes on the whole. The general social aspects which are related to man's excellence as, for example, rulership and judiciary, are the things on which a society depends for its continuence. It is because of the prudence and judiciousness which are found in men in a higher degree than in women. Likewise, the fight and defense depend on strength and far-reaching strategic planning. In such affairs men have authority over women.

Consequently, the order, Men are the maintainers of women, is totally unrestricted and comprehensive, while the next sentence, the good women are therefore obedient..., is apparently restricted to the relationship between a man and his wife, as will be explained later on. This next declaration has branched out from the above general principle; but it does not restrict its generality in any way.

the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the un­seen as Allah has guarded.... "the good women" means good wives... it is applied to them during continuance of matrimony, not before or after that... the sentence, "the good women are therefore obedient..." which gives an order in the form of praise... is an order related to matrimonial affairs and domestic life. Even so, it is a command whose scope of jurisdiction depends on its basic cause - the man's maintaining the woman by virtue of marriage. It is therefore incumbent upon her to obey him and guard their mutual or conjugal affairs.

Let us explain it further. Men as a group have authority over women as a group in those common affairs which have more affin­ity with man's enhanced prudence and hardiness, i.e., rulership, judiciary and war; but it does not negate the independence of woman in her individual will and activities, she decides what she wants and acts as she wishes and man has no right to interfere in any way - except when she intends to do something unlawful. In short, there is no restriction on them in whatever they want to do for themselves in a proper way. In the same way, husband's authority over the wife does not mean that she has lost control over her own self or property or is restricted in her will or action regarding its management; nor does it mean that woman is not free and independent in safeguarding and protecting her personal and social rights, nor is she hindered from adopting suitable means to achieve those rights. Rather it means that when the husband spends his wealth on her in return for conjugal rights, then she must obey and submit to him in all things connected with sexual intercourse (when he is present), and protect him in his absence - she should not betray him behind his back by having unlawful affairs with another man. Also she should not deceive him concerning the property which he gives her by virtue of matrimony as a partner in domestic life.

The sentence, "the good women are therefore obedient..." means that they should achieve goodness for themselves; then inevitably they would be obedient. In other words, they are obliged to submit to their husbands and obey them without fail in all matters pertaining to conjugal relations. Also they must safeguard their interest in all their rights during their absence.


and (as to) those on whose part you fear recalcitrance, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping places, and beat them.... It is in order that the man should keep the admonition at the level suitable at a particular stage....

The three remedies - admonition, leaving them alone in the sleeping places and beating - have to be applied one after another in that sequence, although they have been mentioned together, joined with the conjunctive 'and'. First comes admonition; if that fails, then leaving her alone in the sleeping place; if that too proves ineffective, then the beating. This gradual process is inferred from the sequence wherein these remedies are increasing in intensity from leniency to severity....

It appears from the words, "leave them alone in the sleeping places", that he is not asked to sleep in a separate bed, but he should show his displeasure by turning away from her and not touching her, etc. It is far-fetched to believe that it means leaving her bed altogether....

then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them: That is, if they are obedient to you, then do not be on look out for excuses to trouble them. Why? Because surely Allah is High, Great. Greatness and grandeur is reserved for your Lord; do not be deceived by your power and strength nor use it in oppressing your wives, thinking yourselves too high and superior.

For further information on this subject, see here.