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Last Updated: 2009/07/19
Summary of question
How can the dominance of men over women in the family that the Quran mentions be justified?
How can the dominance of men over women in the family that the Quran mentions be justified?
Concise answer

Verse 34 of surah Nisa, “الرجال قوامون علی النساء” doesn’t say that men are dominant over women and can be forceful to them; what it is really saying, as word experts and commentators of the Quran have said, is that men are the guardians and protectors of women. This is because “قوام”, which is the root for the word “قوامون” that has been mentioned in the verse, means guardianship and protection. Since the family can be called a “small society”, just like in big societies, it is in need of a leader and one to make the decisions and manage affairs. This responsibility has been placed on the shoulders of men because of certain attributes they exclusively possess: 1- Their intellectual side takes over and dominates their feelings, unlike women 2- They bear greater physical strength that can be used for protecting the family 3- Because they are the ones responsible for sustaining the family and earning a living, so they have to be ones making pivotal decisions.

In Allah’s (swt) eyes, what matters when it comes to having high spiritual ranks, is taqwa, not gender. According to the Quran, the responsibilities that men have regarding their families has nothing to do with them being higher than women and the Quran in no way allows men to do the least injustice and transgression to them. The perception that this verse is allowing such a thing is probably because the term “قوام” hasn’t thoroughly and correctly been explained in Quranic researches.

Detailed Answer

Before engaging in this issue (the meaning of dominance), a few points need to be mentioned to enlighten what the true status of the woman is in Islam.

1- Making up half of the world’s population, an active member of the human society and remaining one of the two pillars of the foundation of the family, the woman has experienced many different judgments and has been looked at variously throughout history. A quick look at history tells us that the woman has somewhat suffered from deprivation in most societies and that the continuation of this suffering has extended till today. Burying daughters alive during the Jahiliyyah times and the murder of women at the hands of men in the someri society or selling them in order to pay off debts[1] are all examples of this suffering. Listing all of the transgression that has been done to women throughout history till today, both by those who believed that men are the absolute masters in the home, and by radical movements that insisted on the total freedom of women, is something that can't be done in this concise response. What we are aiming for here is to briefly describe the true status of the woman in Islam and how she repossessed her true worth as a result of it.

2- After the emergence of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula, and with the help of the teachings of Islam and the traditions of the prophet (pbuh) and the Ahlul-Bayt, the woman was able to regain her true status and worth.

The founder of the Islamic revolution in Iran, Imam Khomeini says: “Islam wants both the man and woman to grow and develop. Islam has freed the woman, from the things that were in the time of the Jahiliyyah, God knows that Islam has done more good and service to the woman than it has the man.[2] Islam has placed the woman next to the man, making them equal. Of course, there are some rulings in Islam that suit men and belong to them, just like there are rulings that belong only to women and suit them, and this doesn’t mean that Islam has discriminated against women.[3]

3- Equality in creation: The Holy Quran considers men and women two groups of humans which have been created from one spirit. According to the Quran, humanity and being human is something that both men and women equally share. The Quran says: “خلقکم من نفس واحدة ثم جعل منها زوجها[4] (He created you from a single soul, then made from it its mate) and “هوالذی خلقکم من نفس واحدة و جعل منها زوجها[5] (created you from a single soul, and created its mate from it).

4- Also, men and women both equally share what separates them from other creatures, which is the intellect and mind and the power of thought: “قل هو الذی أنشاکم و جعل لکم السمع و الابصار و الأفئده[6] (It is He who created you, and made for you hearing, eyesight, and hearts).

Commentators of the Quran and Islamic scholars have interpreted the word “hearts” in the abovementioned verse to mean “thought” and “pondering” which separates man from other creatures.[7]

5- Equal rights in a married life: The same amount of glory, respect and dominance that the Quran considers for men it considers for women as well, although there might be a difference in instances, such as the fact that the expenditures and sustenance of the family is a responsibility of the man of the house, while the woman is to follow him in where to stay and live. This is because the Quran says: “و لهن مثل الذی علیهن[8], meaning that women have as many rights as men do. Commentators believe this verse is implying the equality of men and women’s rights.[9]

Concerning spiritual degrees, the truth of the matter is that in the Quran, anything that is out of the control of man and isn't in his hands isn't called “Darajah” or degree. Only ranks that are reached out of making the right choice and willingly have this title[10], and the Quran says: “لکل درجات مما عملوا[11], which means that both men and women have degrees as a result of their actions; and in other words, the only thing that brings true superiority is our actions, not gender.

6- Literally, “Qivam” means to take care of and protect and that is what is meant by the verse that says: “الرجال قوامون علی النساء[12] (Men are overseers and maintainers of Women)[13]. When it is said that a man had “qivam” regarding a woman, it means that he looked into her affairs and took care of and protected her.[14]

Most commentators of the Quran also have this viewpoint regarding the meaning of qivam and have interpreted it in the verse as overseeing and taking care of.

7- Therefore, keeping in mind the status and rank of the woman in Islam, and also the true meaning of qivam (قوام) which was mentioned earlier, the verse “الرجال قوامون علی النساء” is speaking of the leadership and guardianship of the man in the family and isn't saying that men can do anything they like to their wives even if it means oppressing and acting unjustly and unfairly with them.[15]

Just like how a big society calls for the leadership of someone, the family, which is a smaller society and a building block of the greater one, necessitates that someone be leader and the rest follow. And since men bear certain traits that women don’t, such as the fact that their intellectual dimension is dominant over their feelings, helping them make the right decisions in critical situations, and that they are physically stronger the responsibility of leading the family and protecting, taking care of and sustaining it rests on their shoulders.

Of course there are always women out there who possess all of the things listed above sometimes even more than some men do, but rules and regulations never take into consideration minor exceptions and are always general, and without a doubt, in general, men are more qualified to take this responsibility.

The prophet of Islam (pbuh) was asked about the superiority of men to women, he answered: “[The superiority of men to women is] is like that of water to the earth; it is by virtue of water that the earth lives, and it is by virtue of men that women live.”, then he recited this verse: “الرجال قوامون علی النساء[16]. Concerning this subject, Imam Sadiq (as) says: “Being the leader and guardian of the family is of a man’s salvation”[17].

According to these two traditions, if the responsibility of taking care of and leading the family rests on the right shoulders, it brings liveliness, health and joy into life.

8- There are two viewpoints on the issue of the guardianship of men regarding women:

a) Some believe that the responsibilities that each of the man and woman have is because of their gender; in other words, men have been given some abilities by Allah (swt) and women have also been granted some exclusive abilities; each of them needs to accept responsibilities that are in correspondence with those abilities, hence the men being the guardians of the family.[18]

Allah (swt) has created all people with different abilities and talents and if it wasn’t to be so and all were to be totally equal in everything, the order of creation would perish, giving its place to hardship and disorder, because there are so many different jobs in this world, each of those jobs calling for a certain talent and ability, hence the difference in abilities. The difference between men and women is for the same reason. Of course, this difference clearly isn't in any way in favor of or against the status and rank of people in Allah’s (swt) eyes. So these differences aren't what makes the difference in Allah’s (swt) eyes, and what makes the difference definitely aren't these differences! Therefore, from this perspective, what verse 34 of surah Nisa is speaking of, is a responsibility that rests on the shoulders of men regarding their families, not an advantage that makes them higher than women.[19]

b) Another view is that men in whole are prior to women, and this has nothing to do with husbands and wives, it has to do with men and women in general. What this view says is that in important matters that society depends on in order to remain, such as governing and judging, men have to do the job; this is because of the intellectual power they possess which is stronger and more than that of women.[20] Of course, this doesn’t mean that women are to be deprived of their freedom and personal and social rights.

9- To sum it all up: When it is said that men are superior to women, what is meant is that they have to manage the affairs of their wives and families. It means they bear a very important responsibility which is the guardianship and sustenance of their families. This responsibility is because of some abilities they have, and in no way means that because of such responsibilities and abilities, they are higher than women in the eyes of Allah (swt), because Islam puts no difference between men and women when it comes to spiritual and otherworldly development and perfection, because such can only be accomplished through thought and good actions and the only thing that matters when it comes to this is taqwa, not gender.

Therefore, from the Quran’s point of view, dominance, oppression and transgression have no place and the perception that this verse is allowing such a thing for men stems from not understanding the true meaning of the verse and what it is trying to say as a result of not explaining it thoroughly in Quranic researches.

For further information, see:

1- The duties of women regarding men, Question 850 (website: 925)

2- The equality of men and women, Question 531 (website: 579)

3- The restriction of women, Question 416 (website: 435)

[1] Pajouheshhaye Qurani, nos. 25-26, Spring and Summer of 1380, quoted from Ahmad Hamrani, Al-Mar’atu fil-Ta’rikhi wal-Shariah, pg. 20.

[2] Sahifeye Nour, vol. 3, pg. 82.

[3] Ibid, vol. 4, pg. 60.

[4] Zumar:6.

[5] A’raf:189.

[6] Mulk:23.

[7] Abdul-Rahman Ibn Khaldun, Introduction of Ibn Khaldun, vol. 2, pg. 860.

[8] Baqarah:228.

[9] In his tafsir of Al-Mizan, Allamah Tabatabai says: “What true social justice calls for and the thing that defines equality, is for every person in society to have his/her rights, and that every person be allowed to move ahead as much as his/her capacity allows, not more. Therefore, equality between people and social classes are only for reaching this goal; so that every person who has a right is allowed to exercise it, without any rights interfering with other ones, or any rights being taken away as a result of enmity or any other reason and without them being disregarded and revoked, and this is what the verse: “و لهن مثل الذى علیهن بالمعروف و للرجال علیهن درجة” is saying (keeping in mind the way we explained it). That is because although the verse is accepting the fact that there are physical differences between men and women, it is explicitly saying that they are equal in rights. (Translation of Al-Mizan, vol. 2, pg. 415); for information on the viewpoints of Sunni scholars on this subject, see: Ibn Kathir, Tafsiril-Quranil-Adhim, vol. 3, pg. 506; Rashid Ridha, Tafsiril-Minar, vol. 2, pp. 268-297.

[10] Pajouheshhaye Qurani, nos. 25-26, year 1380, pg. 153.

[11] An’am:132.

[12] Nisa:34.

[13] Ibn Mandhur, Lisanul-Arab, vol. 11, under the root word “قوم”.

[14] Saeed Al-Khuwari, Aqrabul-Mawarid, root word of “قوم

[15] Tafsir Nemouneh, vol. 3, pp. 411-416.

[16] Fayz Kashani, Tafsir Safi, vol. 1, pg. 251.

[17] Wasa’elul-Shia, vol. 15, pg. 251.

[18] Tafsir Nemouneh, vol. 3, pp. 370-371.

[19] Abdullah Javadi Amoli, Zan dar A’ineye Jalal va Jamal, pp. 364-369.

[20] Seyyid Mohammad Husain Tabatabai, Al-Mizan, vol. 4, under verse 34 of surah Nisa, pp. 343-347.

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