The Dynamics of Male-Female Relationships: A Contemporary Analysis (Qur’an 4:34) *

Amina Wadud-Muhsin

Posted Feb 24, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share

The Dynamics of Male-Female Relationships: A Contemporary Analysis *

Qur’an - Sura Al-Nisaa (Ayah 34) 4:34

by Amina Wadud-Muhsin

The conscious or unconscious core of the relationship between males and females in Islam is the centuries-old interpretations for the following verse:

Men are qawwamuna over women, (on the basis) of what Allah has [faddala] preferred some of them over others and (on the basis) of what they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are qanitat, guarding in secret that which Allah has guarded. As for those from whom you fear nushuz, admonish them, banish them to beds apart, and strike them. If they obey you, seek not a way against them. (4:34).

In this paper, I will briefly consider the fallacies that have been drawn from this verse:

I. Men have authority over women.
2. All men are superior to all women.
3. A wife must obey her husband.
4. If she does not obey, he can beat her.

1) In the beginning of this verse the Qur’an establishes that men are qawwamuna over women. What is this qiwamah? This does not mean that women are incapable of handling their own affairs, controlling themselves or of being leaders: whether among women, men among women, or even of nations—as has been assumed. Rather, it intends to establish a responsibility of men for the protection and maintenance of women in a restricted social context. Biologically, only women can bear the future generations of Muslims. The Qur’an creates a harmonious balance in society by establishing a functional responsibility for males to facilitate this biological function of females. This verse does not organize an inherent superiority of men rather it a functional relationship between women and men which represents their ideal mutual responsibility in the social order.

In the Qur’an, responsibility and privileges are linked. Whoever has greater privileges, and other advantages, has greater responsibility (l) (and vice versa). The material responsibility of men in the Qur’an: they are invested with the responsibility of spending; for women’s support, has corresponding advantages (like a greater portion of inheritance).

2. The Qur’an does not say that ‘all men are superior to or better than all women’. Nor even that all men are preferred by Allah over all women. Advantages are explicitly specified in the Qur’an. Men have a certain advantage materially, resulting in certain responsibilities (or vice versa). When the Qur’an says that “SOME (unspecified) are preferred by Allah** over others”, it uses general language which corresponds directly with the observable reality in creation: some creatures have some advantages over others—even some humans over others. All men do not always have an advantage over all women, nor all women always over all men.
This description of the universal organization in creation is significant in our discussion of the relationship between advantages and responsibilities. Some are more advantaged than some others, which increases their responsibility. Men have an advantage materially, and an increased responsibility: spending “for the support of women”.

It is important to restrict this verse to the particulars mentioned for two reasons: a) only then would it remain consistent with the Qur’anic criterion of evaluation in humankind: “the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the one with the most taqwa” (49: 13). and b) the resulting arbitrary discrimination can (and has) create(d) disharmony between the two genders. Finally, these two reasons can have negative consequences on the spiritual well being of men. If they are falsely led to believe that they are inherently better than women, without exerting any effort on their part, they might not strive to develop the level of taqwa necessary to truly be seen as noble in the sight of Allah.

3. The Qur’anic discussion of nushuz is not restricted to this verse. It is used for both women (4:34) and men (4: 128). So it cannot mean “a woman’s disobedience to her husband”. That is a derived meaning. According to Sayyid Qutb, it means a disruption of marital harmony. In the event that there is a disruption of the marital harmony the Qur’an suggests mechanisms for regaining that harmony. Let us consider all of the suggestions (from this verse and from 4: 128) They are as follows: consultation, “time out” and a strike.

The preferred mechanism suggested for regaining marital harmony is the same mechanism discussed in the Qur’an for the coordination of affairs between all groups of people: consultation. Consultation can be between the two parties (as here 4:34) or between the two parties with the help of arbitrators (as in 4: 128).

If consultation does not achieve the desired results (return to marital harmony) we have a second less preferred) suggestion: “time out”. “Time out” is a phrase used in sports and psychology to denote a separation in time and/or space between two people (or two groups). It can be for an immediate cooling off only, or could presumably continue indefinitely (which in the context of marriage Call only mean divorce).

4. If these two methods are used in their preferred hierarchy to their fullest extent we can assume that we would never get to the third mechanism. However, the inclusion of this “strike” in the Qur’an warrants special psychological and historical attention. In anger and frustration (as the verse says, “if you FEAR”) men have been known to strike women (and vice versa). However, the preferential order of the Qur’an’s suggested mechanisms is meant to curtail the expression of anger in the form of violence. Violence usually occurs before the first and the second methods have been used to their farthest extent. Thus we have the course of domestic violence. This is clearly not the Qur’anic intent.

Historically, the case of pre-Islamic practices with females (like infanticide) demonstrate the uncontrolled expressions of violence against the rights and bodies of females. That the Qur’an uses the word daraba (which incidentally, is first defined in Lisan-al-Arab as being a SINGLE blow, means that the Qur’an is attempting; to RESTRICT the extent of the use of violence. (2) Here we have a limitation defined, not a recommendation.

5. Finally, we must take a closer look at the presumption that women must obey men—or at least wives must obey husbands. The Qur’an says that good women are qanitat (have qunut). The Qur’an also uses this word with good men (3: 17; 33:35) [and with non-humans (39:9; 2: 117)]. It does not refer to the obedience of one human to another—no matter what gender. It refers to the spirit of humility before Allah.

When the verse goes on to say, “If they obey you”, it uses the term ta’a which, in fact, means to follow orders—from one human to another (not just women to men, but for men to follow orders as well (4:59)). It is not used here as a commandment for women, rather the Qur’an places a firm admonishment on the men. “If they (female) obey you (male)” the males are COMMANDED “not to seek a way against (the women)”. Again the focus is on the responsibility of men in how they treat women, especially in the event that she is following their suggestions.

Thus we see that the universal Truth, wisdom and beauty of the Qur’an continues to shed a guiding light not only on our daily affairs but even on the problems that have resulted from misunderstanding its noble message. The solution to the problems that have arisen in the relationship between women and men lies in a closer look at that noble message to unveil the ultimate spirit of the book with regard to relationships of such intimacy: to develop “love and mercy” (30:21) between them.


1. So the wealthy have more responsibilities than the poor; the free have more responsibilities than the slave; the prophets have more responsibilities than the people; etc.

2. Such a restriction of an existing pre-Islamic practice is the verse on polygamy which RESTRICTS the permissible number of wives from unlimited to a maximum of 4.

Originally published in the print edition of

The American Muslim

Winter 1995