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Marriage as Mutual Guardianship

From authority to equanimity 

It is widely believed that Islam is a fundamentally patriarchal religion which systematically disempowers women. One of the contributing factors to this is the view, commonly held within Islam, that the Islamic family system advocates the male as possessing 'authority' over females, as well as possessing the right to control her movements, including potentially the right to 'discipline' wives physically.

These common interpretations which can be traced even to orthodox classical commentaries are, however, deeply questionable on the basis of careful analysis of the linguistics and lexicology of the relevant verses, along with examination of relevant evidence from hadith.

Perhaps the most pivotal verse in this regard is as follows:

"Men are in charge of (qawwamun) women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient (qanitat), guarding (hafith) in the unseen what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance (nushuz) - [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and finally, beat (idribohun) them. But if they obey (ataa) you, seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand." (4:34)

At first glance, this appears quite clear-cut. In reality, there are significant problems of translation here that have been passed on due to centuries of accumulated patriarchal interpretations. The key Arabic words of the verse that require further elucidation are bracketed above.

 

Qawwamun

The word qawwamun, translated here as meaning 'in charge of', is linked to the concept of qiwamah, which is also mentioned in several other Qur'anic verses (4:135 and 5:8). The latter provide an internal indication within the Qur'anic text of the correct meaning of the concept - it is used to call on believing men and women to recognise their obligation to work for justice and fairness in society. 

The word qawwamum is the plural of qawwam, whose root word is qama, which means "to stand or to make something stand or established." Qawwam is also an intensive form of the word qa'im, which means "one who stands or makes something stand", or a form of "guardianship."  Qawwamun suggests a form of qa'im that is ongoing, that is, a continual standing for something. 

Professor Muhammed Abdul Haleem in his widely-lauded attempt at a more accurate English translation of the Qur'an, asserts that the term means simply "should take care of." Linda Bogaert of the Centre for Islam in Europe at the University of Ghent, Belgium, agrees with this more accurate translation, offering the equivalent "to take care of, to look after."

As the rest of the verse specifically concerns the relationship between husband and wife, the implication of "taking care of" specifically concerns marital relations. Qawwum, therefore, does not at all imply a position of superiority within the marriage, nor does it grant the husband a patriarchal position of authority or power. It simply indicates the importance of his role in "standing for" his wife and providing support to her from his means, which includes material provision.

 

Qanitat

The next word, qanitat, has been widely interpreted in orthodox commentaries as implying "obedience" to the husband. In tandem with the narrow, somewhat misleading rendering of qawwamun as "in charge of", this gives a meaning suggesting that a man is in charge of his wife, who must be obedient to him. 

However, this rendering of the term qanitat is antithetical to the Qur'an's own frequent use of the term. The word qanitat is a feminine plural of the word qanit, derived from the root q-n-t. Numerous verses of the Qur'an (e.g. 2:116; 3:17; 30:26; 33:31; 39:9) deploy this term. In all cases, the term is used exclusively in the sense of being "obedient to God" - not to any human being, or any other entity for that matter.

Therefore, the interpretation of the term qanitat here to mean "obedient (to her husband)" is arbitrary, departing from the meaning of the term as deployed by the Qur'an. The same meaning as applied throughout the Qur'an should of course apply here, so that the meaning is simply "obedience (to God)."

 

Hafitha

It is often overlooked that the verse then goes on to ascribe to the woman, too, a duty of "guardianship" over that which God prescribes. The word used is hafitha, which is the feminine of a term usually used by Muslims as "hafiz" as a title of respect to refer to someone who memorises the entire Qur'an, but literally means "custodian" or "guardian."

Thus, just as the man is duty-bound on behalf of God to "stand for", support and provide for his wife, the woman is in turn to act as his custodian and guardian on behalf of God. Thus, far from suggesting a form of one-sided patriarchy, the Qur'an establishes a framework of mutuality within marriage, through man and woman providing different forms of guardianship to each other, and overlapping fields of complementary authority by which they care for and protect each other.

 

Nushuz

The term nushuz has been translated above as "arrogance", but this is an inaccurate translation. More accurately, nushuz literally means to rise, protude or stick out, and in this context implies "discord, hostility, dissonance." 

According to the eleventh century expert in Qur'anic exegesis Imam Raghib al-Isfahani, the term nushuz entails a form of extreme rebellion against the husband by way of developing an illegitimate relationship with another man. This view is seconded by Imam al-Tabari, who sees nushuz as rising in hostility against the husband with "sinful intent", once again hinting at an illegitimate relationship. Imam Zamakhshari similarly saw nushuz as essentially "sinning" against one's husband.

Nushuz does not, therefore, mean 'arrogance' or 'disobedience,' but implies a far more serious level of marital difficulties.

 

IDRIBOHUN

The verse is commonly seen as stating that if a wife is 'disobedient' or 'arrogant', her husband is entitled to beat her. 

The term idrobohun derives from the word daraba (d-r-b), which has several meanings including "to strike" or "to hit", as well as "to forsake, to shun, to turn away, to separate."

However, the latter meaning only comes into effect with the additional preposition 'an' (i.e. daraba an) which is missing from this verse (see Hans Weir, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, 1976, p. 538).

Orthodox commentators for the most part argued that the term does mean "beat", but there is a problem with this view - namely that modern Arabic lexicons do not account for the nuances of the classical Arabic, which orthodox commentators appear to have missed.

The Arabic-English lexicon of Edward Lanes (1968, Vol. 5, p. 1779) draws on several earlier authorities on classical Arabic, TA (Taj-ul Urus), S (The Sihah), Msb (The misbah of El Feiyumi) and the K (The Kamoos), which show that the preposition 'an' is not necessarily required for 'Idribohunna' to mean turn away, shun, avoid or separate. This means that a reading of the daraba verse rooted in classical Arabic is perfectly consistent with rendering its meaning as "turning away" or "separating", rather than "beat."

The writer Joseph A. Islam, an expert in classical Arabic, points out that the use of the imperative verb 'midrib' elsewhere throughout the Qur'an to denote "striking" or "hitting" is consistently distinct from its use in this particular verse:

"Whenever the imperative verb 'idrib' is used in the Quran to denote ‘strike’, whether idiomatically or otherwise, the Quran always qualifies it by making it clear by either one or both of the following:

(1)          What object to use to strike with, and / or

(2)          What part of the body or 'object' to strike.

002:060        Strike the rock (2) with your staff (1)

002:073        Strike him (2) with a part of it (heifer) (1)

007:160        Strike the rock (2) with your staff (1)

008:012        Strike off their heads (2) and strike off every fingertip (2) of them

008:012        Strike off every fingertip (2) of them.

020:077        Strike for them a dry path in the sea (See 26:63 - elaborated - Strike the sea (2) with your staff (1))

038:044        Take in your hand a bundle of rushes (1), and strike with it

However, only in verse 4:34 do we notice that the imperative verb 'idrib' neither tells us (1) what object to use to strike with nor (2) what part of the body to strike."

Therefore, the wider linguistic context of the Qur'an shows that the daraba verse is being applied in a way that is different here, providing a compelling basis to favours the alternative reading. This distinction in the way the Qur'an mobilises the term provides decisive internal evidence from within the text that the meaning of the word in the context of this verse does not denote 'beating' but 'parting'. In Joseph Islam's words:

"Therefore, verse 4:34 does not fit the Quran's usual qualification of 'idrib' when rendered to 'strike/beat'... Without qualification, it would be difficult to conclude that the intention of the verb was ever to ‘strike.’" 

Further support for this interpretation comes from both the Qur'an and the Prophet. Several verses prohibit harming one's wife, or treating her unkindly or harshly - none of which of course are consistent with domestic violence of any kind. In one verse addressing the matter of divorce, the Qur'an enjoins the husband:

"... Do not retain them (i.e., your wives) to harm them or transgress their rights. Whoever does that, surely he has wronged himself." (2:231)

Similarly:

"Lodge them (in a section) of where you dwell out of your means and do not harm them in order to oppress them." (65:6)

Elsewhere within the same chapter, Al-Nisa, containing the daraba verse, the Qur'an says:

"O you who believe! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should you treat them with harshness, that you may take away part of the dowry you have given them, except where they have been guilty of open lewdness; on the contrary live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If you take a dislike to them it may be that you dislike a thing, and God brings about through it a great deal of good."  (4:19)

These verses urge patience and kindness, rather than violence.

Finally, a range of Prophetic traditions provide arguably the first exegeses of the daraba verse and its context:  

Narrated Mu'awiyah al-Qushayri: "I went to the Apostle of Allah (pbuh) and asked him: What do you say (command) about our wives? He replied: Give them food what you have for yourself, and clothe them by which you clothe yourself, and do not beat them, and do not revile them."  (Sunan Abu-Dawud, Book 11, Kitab Al-Nikah, Number 2139)

"Approach your tilth when or how you will, give her (your wife) food when you take food, clothe when you clothe yourself, do not revile her face, and do not beat her." (Sunan Abu-Dawud, Book 11, Kitab Al-Nikah, Number 2138)

“How does anyone of you beat his wife as he beats the stallion camel and then embrace (sleep with) her?” (Sahih Bukhari, vol. 8, Hadith 68)

In one sahih (sound) narration, the Prophet showed that he considered beating one's wife grounds for divorce:

"Habeeba bint Sahl was the wife of Thabit ibn Qais ibn Shammas and it was mentioned to the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, that Thabit had struck her so she appeared at the door of the Messenger of Allah, and said: 'Thabit and I can no longer be married.' The Prophet said to Thabit: 'Take your dowry and let her go.'" (Sunan al-Darimi, 2200)

The Prophet himself also never once beat his wives. As noted by John Esposito, a Professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University: 

"Muhammad’s wife Aisha narrated that Muhammad never hit any servant or woman and never physically struck anyone with his own hand. Neither the Quran nor the hadith record Muhammad as ever mistreating or losing temper with any of his wives, even when he was unhappy or dissatisfied." (John Esposito, What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam, 2011, pp. 114-6)

The Prophet also explicitly warned that anyone who strikes another person, unless in self-defence, would be punished for doing so after death:

"Whoever strikes someone will receive retribution for it on the Day of Resurrection." (Al-Adab Al-Mufrad, 185)

Taken together, these other Qur'anic verses, along with explicit and direct Prophetic narrations, buttress the preceding linguistic analysis of the Qur'an which points to daraba meaning exerting some distance from his wife, rather than granting licence to beat her.

The existence of some hadith that contradict this consistent theme is perhaps a key reason why so many classical commentators found difficulty in reconciling the Qur'anic and Prophetic prohibitions against harming one's wife, with certain narrations that appeared to, instead, justify wife-beating. Simultaneously, these classical commentators operated in highly patriarchal and misogynistic cultural environments in which domestic violence against women was neither condemned, nor rejected. 

For this reason, the commentators often came up with somewhat inconsistent approaches - interpreting the daraba verse to imply a licence to "beat" one's wife, and then rendering that interpretation mute by prohibiting forms of "beating" that could cause any pain or injury. Imam al-Tabari, for instance, quoted several authorities who used the phrase "beating without causing pain", and the action should consist of a light, symbolic tap. 

One likely explanation for this is that the hadith which legitimise wife-beating are simply a cultural relic of the Arabian past, and contradict the overwhelming tenure of the Qur'an and Prophetic practice.

As Joseph Islam suggests

"It is possible that at the Prophet's time, this verse was understood in a non-aggressive manner and the term 'idribohunna' was understood as to 'shun them'. However, over the passage of time, many early Arabs used this word to find justifications with regards to their approach taking the most aggressive rendering of the word to justify their actions and to pander to their pre-Islamic cultural sensitivities. Once this aggressive rendition was proliferated, many traditions were formulated in the name of the Prophet to counter it."

 

Ataa

Finally, the verse closes with "when they ataa [translated as 'obey'] you, seek no means against them." Once again, the common translation of ataa is misleading, as while one meaning of ataa is 'obey', it also means "comply, comply with, accommodate, give in to." In the context of this discussion, a more sensible rendering would be "when they accommodate or comply with your efforts, seek no means against them."

It should be noted that later in the same chapter, the Qur'an suggests that the wife can adopt a similar response if her husband engages in nushuz:

"And if a woman fears from her husband cruelty or rebellion (nushuz), there is no sin upon them if they make terms of settlement between them - and settlement is best." (4:128)

The use of the term nushuz here once again supports the conclusion that nushuz does not refer to "disobedience" but to a form of hostility and discord that can be initiated by either side with great detriment to marital relations.