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Tafseer of Surah an-Nisa, Ayah 34

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

(1984, Revised 2000)


Of all the Qur'anic passages about men and women perhaps the one most often misunderstood or misused by both Muslims and non-Muslims is verse 34 of Surah an-Nisa. The English translation of this verse reads as follows:

"Men are (meant to be righteous and kind) guardians of women because God has favored some more than others and because they (i.e. men) spend out of their wealth. (In their turn) righteous women are (meant to be) devoted and to guard what God has (willed to be) guarded even though out of sight (of the husband). As for those (women) on whose part you fear ill-will and nasty conduct, admonish them (first), (next) leave them alone in beds (and last) beat or separate them (from you). But if they obey you, then seek nothing against them. Behold, God is most high and great. (4:34)

The purpose of this article is to give a detailed commentary on the verse in order to make it better understood.

The verse begins with the statement that "men are qawwamun over women". The root of the key word, qawwamun (pl. of qawwam), is qama which means "to stand or to make something stand or to establish something". It is often used in the Holy Qur'an in the sense of establishing religion or prayer. A related word is qa'im which means "one who stands or makes something stand". Qawwam is an intensive form of qa'im and has a sense of continuity in the action involved. So it means one who is continuously standing over something (as, for example, a guard or caretaker) or one who is continuously making something stand, i.e. is maintaining it. In the Qur'anic usage of qawwam and related words there is almost always present an idea of propriety. For example, aqamah of salah is not only praying but also praying properly. The function of qawwam is also understood in the Qur'an to be characterized by fairness. Thus in 4:134 and 5:8, the only other passages in the Qur'an where the word is used, the believers are told:

"O you who believe! Be qawwamin with fairness..."

"O you who believe! Be qawwamin for God as witnesses to fairness..."

Thus to be a qawwam over something or someone is to guard, maintain or take care of that something or someone in a proper and fair manner. If there is any single word in English that can convey the meaning of the word as used in the present word it is probably the one used by Muhammad Pickthal, namely, guardian.

After stating that men are qawwamun over women the verse goes on to say why this is so. Two reasons are given:

1) "Because God has favored some of them more than others". It is not explicitly stated here who is favored more than whom but in view of the context it is probable that men are understood in some way to be favored more than women. But in what way? Again no answer is given in the verse under consideration or elsewhere in the Qur'an. But we can justifiably take the reference to physical strength and energy in which men generally excel women and which enables men to guard women against some of the dangers to which they may be exposed in society and to take care of some of their needs.

From the statement that God has favored men more than women in some ways we should not conclude, as many careless readers of the Qur'an do, that Islam views men superior to women. For this statement does not exclude the possibility that in some other ways women may be favored more than men. Indeed observation shows that women are in general more patient, caring and have a more developed intuition than men.

Moreover, the Holy Qur'an makes it clear that while there are many favors of God that He bestows on His creatures in different measures, there is only one favor which determines the superiority of one member of the human species over another and that is taqwa or God consciousness. Thus wealth, strength, health, intelligence, position, education, etc. are all favors of God but we cannot say that a wealthier person is superior to a poorer person, a stronger person is superior is superior to a physically feeble person and so on. we can say only that a more muttaqi person is superior to a less muttaqi person. In the words of the Holy Qur'an:

"The nobler among you in the sight of God is the more muttaqi (righteous) among you." (49:13)

Taqwa (righteousness, God consciousness) is that divine favor of God on which the right use of all other favors of God depends. The more of this quality of taqwa a person has the more the other favors of God benefit him.

Thus the fact that man has been favored in some ways more than woman does not automatically make him superior to her. It is only when his taqwa is more than hers that he can from the Qur'anic point of view be considered superior to her. And when a person's taqwa increases to a worthwhile level the question of his superiority does not interest him, for he or she realizes that all praises are due to God.

2) The first reason then why men are qawwamun over women is their physical ability to protect women. The second is that "they (i.e. men) spend out of their wealth." Although the Holy Qur'an permits women to earn and own wealth, it expects that men will generally be able to earn more than women because of the natural differences between them. This means that they will generally be responsible for the economic needs of women and this responsibility also makes them qawwamun.

In thinking of men as qawwamun over women we should not limit their role to mere protectors and providers. Properly taking care of women requires more than ensuring their physical security and providing food and shelter. It also requires looking after their psychological and emotional needs which can be summed up in terms of the need for love (30:21). Thus man's role in the relationship between men and women (as husbands and wives) generally consists of three things: protecting the woman, looking after her economic needs and giving her love.

What is the woman's role in this relationship? A brief statement follows about this in the verse:

"The righteous women are devout (qanitat) and guard what Allah has willed to be guarded even though out of sight."

Qanit means one who is devoted to someone and out of love and devotion obeys him or her. Outside of the present verse the word in its various forms, occurs seven times and is used of both men and women. In six out of these seven places, the object of devotion and obedience is understood to be God, in one place it is God and His Messenger. For this reason qanitat may simply mean "devoted to God". In view of the context, the idea of devotion and obedience to the husband may also be read into the word.

Since men are qawwamun over their wives, they must have some authority to make decisions, for a person cannot be an effective guardian or maintainer of someone without having some decision making authority. And whenever there is legitimate decision-making authority on one side, there is some necessity of obedience from the other. In Hadith there are many traditions which encourage women to be obedient to their husbands. Some of these traditions are no doubt forged, being attempts by later Muslims to subjugate their women(1), but others look authentic(2). Thus the Qur'an and Hadith do teach that women should obey their husbands. But this "should" is not a "should" of moral or religious obligation. The Qur'an and authentic ahadith do not command women to be obedient to their husbands, so that it is not a sin on their part if they sometime do not listen to their husbands. The Qur'an and Hadith consider obedience to the husband as simply a desirable quality of the wife.

In connection with the decision-making authority of the husband and the wife's obedience to him, the following further points should also be noted:

i) The "authority" on the husband should not be thought of in terms of the authority of a ruler or a boss. The very personal nature of the relationship between husband and wife and the love and affection which must characterize that relationship (30:21) should be reflected in the way the husband exercises his authority. In particular, he should always fully take into account her feelings on every matter. In Islam, even rulers and bosses are ordered to take into account the views of those in their charge; in case of husbands this is all the more necessary and natural. Likewise, the obedience of the wife to the husband should also reflect the personal and tender nature of their relationship. In particular, it should not be a forced obedience but rather should come naturally out of her love and respect for the husband.

ii) If a wife cannot sufficiently love and respect the husband to give him the obedience he expects, then she can, if she so chooses, seek a divorce which will necessarily be granted to her.

iii) The decision-making "authority" of the husband should be restricted to the area of responsibility (i.e. dealings with the society at large, family budget, etc.) and should not become all-pervasive.

iv) The obedience of the wife to the husband, like all obedience in Islam, is only in what is right and proper. The wife can and indeed should disobey any improper, un-Islamic, command of the husband, e.g., if he commands her not to wear hijab.

"Guarding what God has (willed to be) guarded" means guarding the husband's honor and property as well as wife's own loyalty towards him. "Even though out of sight" (li al-ghayb) refers to the husband's honor and property when he is absent as well as to the wife's secret feelings and thoughts which the husband cannot perceive even if he is present. Thus in return for love, security and financial support the husbands should give their wives, righteous wives should give their husbands love, loyalty and obedience and look after their interests with complete faithfulness.

This, however, describes an ideal situation: a strong loving husband taking full care of the wife and the wife giving him her faithful love, obedience and support. In this situation the couple needs no marriage laws. The husband, for example, does not need to be told to take care of the wife, for it comes naturally out of his love for her. Likewise, the wife does not need to be told to obey her husband and to be faithful to him because all this is the natural result of the love and respect she has for him. It is noteworthy that up to this point the Qur'anic verse does not give any commands. It rather uses a descriptive language: "men are qawwamun...", "righteous women are qanitat...". In other words, the verse simply describes the relationship between husband and wife as nature has meant it to be.

Unfortunately, in a great many cases the relationship between husband and wife, because of weaknesses on one or both sides, falls short of the ideal described above. In many cases, the husband and wife successfully make some adjustments between themselves. In many other cases, however, an adjustment becomes difficult. The remaining part of the verse under consideration concerns such cases.

"As for those women on whose part you fear nushuz..." Before we go any further with the translation, it is important to explain the meaning of the key word nushuz. The literal meaning of the word is "rebellion". But rebellion against whom and in what sense? We should certainly not think of this in terms the rebellion of the ruled against a ruler in a sultanate or dictatorship and conclude that it consists of the wife disobeying some of the husband's commands. This is because the same word nushuz is used in case of a husband in verse 128 of the same surah 4, where it is said: "If a woman fears nushuz on her husband's part..." So nushuz is something that can be feared by the husband on the wife's part or by the wife on her husband's part. It cannot therefore be understood in terms of the ruler-ruled relationship. To correctly understand the meaning of the word, it must be noted that both in the verse under consideration and in verse 128 the reference to nushuz is followed by a reference to the break-up of the marriage (see vv. 35, 130). If this context is kept in mind, then it becomes evident that nushuz means the type of behavior on the part of the husband or the wife which is so disturbing for the other that their living together becomes difficult.

Now the behavior of a marriage partner can become disturbing for the other in one of the following two ways:

1) There is no ill-will on the part of the offending party. It is simply because of some incompatibility between the two or the failure on the part of one to understand the other that one of them finds some aspect of the other's behavior disturbing.

2) One partner knowingly behaves or continues to behave in a way which seriously disturbs the other partner. In this case there is obviously an ill-will on the part of the first partner towards the second.

Nushuz is only this second type of behavior, for only a deliberate ill-conduct based on ill-will can be described as "rebellion".

There is also a measure of relativeness about nushuz in the sense that what constitutes nushuz in the eyes of one person may not be so viewed by another. For this reason, the judgment that one's spouse has been guilty of nushuz is partly a subjective and personal one. That is why the verse says: "If you fear nushuz..." instead of for example, "if you find nushuz...". In the Holy Qur'an "fearing" signifies subjective but certain, knowledge or judgment about something.

In short, nushuz is a behavior on the part of one marriage partner which comes out of ill-will and seriously disturbs the other partner.

Let us now proceed further with the verse and see what does it suggest in case of "those women on whose part you fear nushuz".(3) Three steps are recommended: "Admonish them (first), (next) leave them alone in beds (and last) beat them or separate them (from you)."

When there is no ill-will on the part of the wife towards the husband and he finds her behavior hard to live with, he can, of course, divorce her. But marriage difficulties often start with a stage when neither partner really wants a break-up of the marriage and yet, at least from the point of view of one of the partners, the situation is unacceptable. The three steps suggested in the verse pertain to such circumstances.

"Admonish them". In this step the husband can say a great variety of things to the wife. He can bring to her attention some relevant teachings from the Qur'an and Hadith. He can remind her of the adverse effects of a possible break-up of marriage on all concerned - she herself, the children, if any, and he himself. Such admonition however, will be effective only if the husband has a good character, at least in comparison with the wife. Otherwise, the wife can say to him, either in her heart or aloud, "look who is talking".

The husband must practice what he preaches to his wife, for the Qur'an condemns preaching to others what we do not practice ourselves (2:44).

"leave them alone in beds". There is a lot that a husband can achieve by talking to the wife in the right way. But if he fails, he should try leaving the wife alone in bed and take other steps that go with such an action, e.g. avoiding to talk to her. If there had ever been any love between the two, this separation while living together, may help that love to return or come to the forefront. The wife may, as a result, become more willing to change her ways and the husband too may begin to see some of the things in a different light. For this suggestion of suspending sexual relations to work it is clear that the husband should have sufficient control over his sexual urges. For, otherwise he may be driven to end the separation in bed before it had any positive effect on the wife.

"beat them or separate them (from you)". If even suspension of sexual relations fails to work, then it is suggested that men use dharb. This word has almost universally been translated here as "beating". Such a translation is supported by some passages in the Qur'an where the word does mean smiting or striking (2:60, 61, 73, 8:12, 50, 7:160 etc). But in many other Qur'anic passages there are other meanings of the word. Thus the word can mean constructing or coining something such as coining mathal or similitude (14:24, 16:75-76, 30:28, 36:27 etc). The word is also used to separate two things. In 20:77 it is used of the splitting of the sea to make a way for the children of Israel to escape and in 57:13 it is used of making a wall to separate the two groups of people in the hereafter. Leaving, withdrawing or taking away is the meaning in 43:5. In 13:17 the word is used of separating truth and falsehood. The word can also mean campaigning or traveling in the land, e.g., for the purpose of trade (2:273, 73:20). 

In the present context, the Qur'anic usage allows two meanings: 1) separating from the wives in the sense of living apart from them, 2) beating them. The Arabic language also allows a third meaning: 3) have sex with them. The first meaning fits the context well, for some kind of physical separation is a very understandable step after suspension of sexual relations does not work. The second meaning is more natural from a linguistic point of view and has the support of a strong consensus among the commentators. The third meaning has no support in the Qur'anic usage. In the rest of this commentary, we consider the question: how is "beating", if that is what is intended in the verse, is to be interpreted in the light of the passage as a whole and the general teaching of the Qur'an.

In this connection, it must be immediately noted that there is no warrant here in this verse for wife battering. The suggestion to use beating is made specifically to deal with nushuz on the part of the wife, that is, to deal with her deliberately nasty behavior that poses a threat to the marriage. Beating is to be done after due admonition and suspension of sexual relations and therefore by husbands who have some moral standards and have sufficient control over their sexual passions. Moreover, this beating is not to go on and on but is to be tried as a last step to save the marriage. Once it is clear that it is not working it is to be abandoned in favor of some other steps involving relatives of the husband and the wife mentioned in the next verse (4:35). There is therefore, absolutely no license here for the type of regular and continual wife beating that goes on in some homes, where each time the husband is angry with his wife or with someone else he turns against her and beats her up. In most such cases, the husband has no moral superiority over the wife: the only rule of Shari'ah that he cares about is this suggestion about beating. He also does not have the kind of control over his sexual passions needed to separate the wife in bed and often beats her the day before or the day after making love to her, an action specifically condemned by the Prophet.(4)

In regard to the suggestion about beating, the following further points should also be noted:

a) According to some traditions the Prophet said in his famous and well-attended speech on the occasion of his farewell pilgrimage that the beating done according to the present verse should be ghayr mubarrih, i.e. in such a way that it should not cause injury, bruise or serious hurt. On this basis some scholars like Tabari and Razi say that the beating should be largely symbolic and should be administered "with a folded scarf" or "with a miswak or some such thing". However, it is not clear how such a beating can help overcome nushuz  of the wife, a point that supports the first meaning of dharb. If dharb is translated as "beating", as most commentators do, then "beating" should  be effective in its purpose of shaking the wife out of her nushuz. This means that it should provide an energetic demonstration of the anger, frustration and love of the husband. In other words, it should neither seriously hurt the wife nor reduce it to a set of meaningless motions devoid of emotions. As for the argument that the Prophet intensely disliked beating, we can say that his intense dislike was for the type of beating done outside the limits set down by God. 

b) The wife has no religious obligation to take the beating. She can ask for and get divorce any time. The suggestion applies only in the case when the husband is seriously disturbed by a prolonged nasty behavior on the part of the wife but neither he nor the wife is as yet seriously thinking of breaking up.

c) If the husband beats a wife without respecting the limits set down by the Qur'an and Hadith, then she can take him to court and if ruled in favor has the right to apply the law of retaliation and beat the husband as he beat her. In our view the saying attributed to the Prophet on the authority of `Umar that a husband will not be asked on the day of judgment about why he beat his wife is not a part of the authentic teaching of Islam.

d) Some Muslim jurists are of the opinion that beating is permissible but not advisable. They base their view on the fact that the Prophet intensely disliked the action. But to say that beating is only permissible but never advisable is to say that there is never any good in it but the husband can nevertheless resort to it if he wants to; in other words he can beat up his wife without any good reason. This, however, is a view that cannot possibly be attributed to the Book of God. We can expect the Holy Qur'an to mention beating only if there was some wisdom in that mention. Therefore, if we translate dharb as "beating" we must not be apologetic but ask what is the wisdom behind the Qur'anic suggestion. There could be, it seems, two possible points of wisdom in the suggestion of dhard in the sense of "beating". 

First, the beating done within the limits defined by the Qur'an may indeed bring the husband and wife to some kind of understanding. This is not because of the pain involved, which in any case cannot be too much if the guidance in the Qur'an and Hadith are to be observed. Rather, the husband and wife may come closer together after beating because of the emotions involved. The wife may experience the depth of hurt and disturbance her nushuz is causing and if there is any love left among them may decide for that reason to change her conduct. It seems from observations of human behavior that a show of male physical energy can sometimes bring a woman out of a prolonged bad mood (5) even though this energy may be seemingly directed against her in the form of angry words or a slap, provided in this manifestation of energy there is an undercurrent of love and desire for the woman and no real harm is done to the woman. In the situation with which the present verse is dealing, it is understood that in his heart the husband does have some love and desire for the wife. For, he has the option of divorcing her but he is not taking that option. Of course, there are husbands who neither love their wives nor divorce them, but keep them to punish them or exploit them. But we are not dealing with this situation here, since the assumption is that ill-will (nushuz) is from the wife's side. 

Second, the mention of beating may have the wisdom, ironically, to protect wives against what is called wife battering. The Qur'an does not always combat undesirable behavior by legal prohibition but by some other means. Experience also shows that legal prohibition of an action may not always be the most effective method to stop it. The Qur'an by requiring that before any beating there should be admonishing and suspension of sexual relations is providing a more effective measure against wife battering, since battering is the result of uncontrollable anger or aggression and this anger or aggression can be tamed during admonishing and suspension of sexual relations. No statistics exist, but I feel confident that if we research the behavior of men in different religious groups over a long enough period and a vast enough area of the globe, we will find that the incidents of cases of wife battering and other forms of cruelty to women have been less, both in terms of numbers and seriousness, among Muslims than in other groups.

"But if they obey you, then seek nothing against them". Here obey means that the wife accepts the husband's fair and justified demands or expectations. "Seek nothing against them" means that after the wife has abandoned nushuz and returned to the decent way one partner in marriage should behave towards the other, the husband should forgive and forget the past and start a new page.

"Behold, God is most high and great". These words are meant for both the husband and the wife. Above them both is God in whose name they were joined in marriage. The husband should not forget that the greater physical strength and the superior earning power which give him a certain advantage in marriage comes from God. He should not, therefore, try to push this advantage to unjustified limits. In particular, he should not expect to be the lord and master of the wife.

At the same time the wife should realize that her nasty behavior is causing a lot of unhappiness to all the family, to herself, to the husband and to the children and other close relatives. She cannot do this to the near ones without displeasing God and without paying for it in some way.


Notes

(1)To the category of forged traditions encouraging women to be obedient to their husbands may safely be relegated the hadith in which the Prophet is reported to have said: "If I were to order anyone to prostrate himself before another, I would order a woman to prostrate herself before her husband" (Tirmidhi, Ahmad). This hadith stands in marked contrast to the whole of the Qur'an and most other ahadith. To be sure the Qur'an and Hadith recognize that in the marriage relationship men have greater responsibilities and therefore also a degree of greater rights, but they do not see this degree in terms that can translate into the kind of subservience of women to their husbands implied in this particular hadith. In fact, masters have greater rights over their slaves than husbands over their wives, as also parents (especially mothers) over their children and yet the Qur'an and Hadith nowhere say that masters or parents are like majazi (figurative, metaphorical) Gods for their slaves or children. How then can husbands be majazi Gods for their wives?

(2)A hadith which talks about the obedience of the husband by the wife and against whose authenticity there seems to be no strong arguments is quoted by Nasa'i and Bayhaqi on the authority of Abu Hurayra. It reads:

"The best wife is the one who pleases (her husband) when he looks at her, obeys him when he gives a command, and does not go against his wishes regarding her person or property by doing anything of which he disapproves."

Notice that this hadith is consistent with the Qur'an in that it does not command women to be obedient to their husbands but simply considers such obedience a desirable quality of a wife.

(3)When a husband dislikes something about the wife without the wife having any nushuz or ill-will towards him, he should continue the marriage relationship in a maruf way as far as possible, remembering that

"if you dislike them (i.e. your wives), it may be that you dislike something and God brings about through it a great deal of good." (4:19)

(4)The Prophet said: "(How odd it is that) one of you should whip his wife as a slave is whipped and then sleep with her at the end of the day". (Bukhari and Muslim, on the authority of `Abdallah bin Zam'a)

(5)In movies, for example, one often sees the following type of scene: a man and a woman love each other but in some matter the woman simply does not want to listen to the man even though she realizes deep down that he is thinking for the good of both of them. The man tries all the tender ways to bring the woman around to his point of view without any success. Frustrated, the man at last bursts into anger and gives the woman a slap. This shakes the woman out of her mood and she falls on his shoulders, with both happier than before. Of course, movies are no guide for us but sometimes they do represent human nature and life as it is.

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