An-Nisa · Juz 5 · Qur'an Tafseer

Commentary on Surah an-Nisa Ayah 34

Ayaat 34 – 35

Under commands concerning women, appearing earlier, discrimination against them by withholding or wasting their rights was prohibited. Now, the present ayaat describe the rights of men.

Commentary

Ayah 34 opens with an important statement which has been translated as ‘men are in-charge of women’. Qawwam, qayyam or qayyim in Arabic denotes a person who holds the responsibility or has the duty and charge to manage a job or run a system or take care of what has to be done about something, controlling all related factors therein.

The standard role of a man, with regard to women, has been mentioned in this ayah through the word, qawwam which has been translated in various ways, the most common being in the sense of hakim or one who rules, governs, or decides. Other alternates used are guardians, custodians, overseers and protectors. When taken in the sense of a carer, a functional head, and not in the political sense of a ruler or dictator, the qawwam or hakim of the Qur’an offers a base of understanding from common experience.

It is obvious that, for any group-living, big or small, or for any organized system, it is rationally and customarily necessary that the group or system have some head or chief or authority so that he can arbitrate in the event of a difference and take decisions to run affairs smoothly. That such authority is needed in the running of countries, governments and states is universally accepted and practiced. This need, as felt in modern times, was also felt in the older tribal social organizations where the chief of a tribe was taken as the authority for that tribe. Why would a family organization, a micro-sample of the large organizations not need someone to head, maintain and run the system? Of course, the need is there and Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala, in His infinite wisdom, elected men for this responsibility because their natural capabilities are more pronounced than those of women and children.

This is such an open and obvious fact of human life that no sane human being, man or woman, can say no to it; and its denial does not change reality.

The gist of the matter is that, as seen from

 وَلِلرِّجَالِ عَلَيْهِنَّ دَرَجَة 

and for men, over them is a degree [al-Baqarah: 228] and from

الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَآءِ 

men stand caretakers of women [an-Nisa:34]

the message is that the rights of women are as incumbent upon men as the rights of men are upon women, and the rights of both are similar to each other, with only one exception that men have a certain precedence in functional authority, although this too is hemmed with other balancing factors. As explained in other ayaat of the Qur’an, this mantle of authority placed on the shoulders of men is not that of a dictator and a tyrant. While exercising this authority, man is bound by the supreme law of Islam, the Shariah. He must act on the principle of consultation and follow good counsel. He just cannot act at the spur of his whim or his wild instincts. The command given to him is

وَعَاشِرُوهُنَّ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ

It means, and live with them honorably [an-Nisa:19].

This aspect of having mutual consultation appears in another ayah [2:233] where it was said

عَن تَرَاضٍ مِّنْهُمَا وَتَشَاوُرٍ

Here men have been instructed to act in consultation with wives in family affairs.

After this clarification, the technical authority of man should not be a source of heart-burning for women. Still, in view of the probability that women may take this arrangement unhappily, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala did not restrict the text on proclaiming the authority of man, but explained two reasons for this authority. One reason relates to the wisdom of creation which is beyond the control of any human being, and the other refers to a factor which comes through one’s efforts and endeavor.

The first reason has been mentioned in the words

بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَى بَعْضٍ

It means that Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala has made some excel the others (in some qualities) under His exclusive wisdom and consideration. This is like the sacred environs of Makkah where a particular House of Worship was declared by Allah as His House and Qiblah (the orientation), and in Jerusalem, a special honor was given to the Bayt al-Madqis. Similar is the case with the precedence of men. This is a God-given grace. Men have done nothing to get it and there is nothing wrong with women that they do not have it. It is simply based on the wisdom of creation, an exclusive privilege of the Creator.

The second reason relates to what is achieved with effort. This reason is pointed out by the words

وَبِمَآ أَنفَقُواْ مِنْ أَمْوَلِهِمْ

which mean that men spend their money, pay dower and take the responsibility of meeting all needs of women. Hence, the precedence.

At this point, a comment from Ibn Hibban in al-Bahr al-muhit, is worth attention. He says, these two reasons in support of the authority of men also prove that the right to authority does not get to be established simply by force. Rather, this right can be deserved on the basis of one’s competence and capability.

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