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Revisiting a Difficult Verse

Q. 4:34, as witnessed in the preceding chapter on Wadud, is arguably the most challenging passage for Qur’anic commentators reading for gender justice. This subsection will explore core aspects of this verse, analysing how exactly Barlas grapples with them hermeneutically, beginning with the opening section, which reads: ‘Men are the guardians (qawwamun) of women, because of the advantage God has granted some of them over others and by virtue of their spending out of their wealth.’ Interpreters of the Qur’an, critiques Barlas, have read sexual differentiation into this statement, insisting that men are guardians because they have greater physical strength, rationality, even virtue than women.177 Yet this passage does not make any claims about the innate superiority of men. Echoing Wadud,178 Barlas foregrounds the historical context of this verse, pointing out the explicit connection drawn between male authority and financial resources: that is, the husband’s role as family breadwinner.[1] But since the society that we live in today is drastically different, she concludes, with women becoming financial earners next to men, the husband’s guardianship is effectively nullified. In addition to historical criticism, Barlas uses textual holism as an interpretive strategy, arguing that a patriarchal reading of men as guardians is at variance with other gender-egalitarian verses in the Qur’an, such as Q. 9:71, describing men and women as each other’s protectors (awliya’):[2]

The believing men and the believing women are protectors (awliya’) of one another: they enjoin what is right and prohibit what is wrong. They maintain the prayer, give the poor rate, and obey God and His Messenger. It is they to whom God will soon bestow His mercy. Indeed, God is all-Mighty, all-Wise.

Alongside Q. 4:34, there is another verse that conservative Muslims routinely reference when making sweeping claims of male superiority: specifically, Q. 2:228, which refers to men as having a ‘degree’ (daraja) over women. Paralleling Wadud yet again,[3] Barlas reads this passage in its entirety, demonstrating that the word daraja is not used to signify ‘male ontological superiority’ but a husband’s rights in divorce.[4] The verse reads:

The divorced women shall undergo, without remarrying, a waiting period of three monthly courses: for it is not lawful for them to conceal what God may have created in their wombs, if they believe in God and the Last Day. And during this period their husbands are fully entitled to take them back, if they desire reconciliation. The wives have rights similar to the obligations upon them, in accordance with honorable norms, and men have a degree (daraja) over them. And God is All-Mighty, All-Wise.

However, whereas Wadud interprets the husband’s right as being able to pronounce a divorce without outside arbitration, as opposed to the wife who requires the mediation of a judge,[3] Barlas writes that the husband’s right is being able to rescind the divorce.[6] Here, she draws upon the explanatory notes of Asad, the English translator of the Qur’an introduced earlier on. Asad argues that because the husband is the maintainer of the family, he exercises the right to revoke a divorce first.185 So just as male guardianship is negated in a new context wherein women are no longer confined to the home so, too, is male privilege in divorce proceedings. Q. 4:34 and 2:228, then, cannot be divorced from their original revelatory setting. And herein lies a key argument in Barlas’ commentary: namely, that difference does not necessarily entail inequality, for the Qur’an’s sometimes different treatment of men and women, as exemplified by these two verses, is not rooted in wider biological claims of men as being the superior sex and women the inferior one, but rather reflect the existing division of labour in a patriarchal society.186

The wife’s obedience to her husband is another contentious aspect of Q. 4:34, or, to be more precise, of mainstream understandings of it. The passage, including the first part on male guardianship, reads:

Men are the guardians of women, because of the advantage God has granted some of them over others and by virtue of their spending out of their wealth.

So righteous women are obedient (qanitatun), safeguarding what is unseen (hafizatun lil-ghaybi) of what God has enjoined them to guard.

Citing Wadud, Barlas argues that although the vast majority of interpretations of qanitat (literally, obedient women) assert that the husband is the object of obedience, it is God, and God alone, who is worthy of obedience.187 In order to substantiate this argument, Wadud undertook a holistic approach, exploring how the same term is used in other parts of the Qur’an. In so doing, she showed that other occurrences of qanitat and its linguistic derivatives are used solely to denote (male and female) obedience to God (Q. 3:17; 33:35; 66:12).188 Hafizatun lil-ghayb (literally, safeguarding what is unseen) is another hotly disputed term in this verse. Gender egalitarian female readers have argued that this phrase refers to women ‘who fulfil their religious obligations and protect their faith, as God has guarded it.’189 [7] [8] [9] [10] [11]

Yet most commentators have understood this phrase as being women who, in the absence of their husbands, protect their chastity and their husband’s property—an interpretation that was influenced by a widely circulated and inauthentic hadith report:[12]

The Messenger of God said: ‘The best of women is the one who pleases you if you look at her, obeys you if you order her, and if you are away from her, she guards herself and your property.’ Then the Prophet recited verse 34 of Surat al-Nisa’ [‘Chapter of the Women’, Chapter 4].[13]

Though Barlas does not make an original contribution to this discussion, reiterating the ideas of Wadud, she could have advanced a gender-just reading of qanitat and hafizatun lil-ghayb. For while Wadud relied on a textual argument, analysing how such terms are employed in other parts of scripture, Barlas could have made a theological one, reinterpreting them in light of her earlier thesis that the Qur’an is at loggerheads with traditional patriarchy, refusing to portray men as earthly surrogates of a Heavenly Father. Because divine self-disclosure categorically rejects any representation of God as a father figure, and because men can never partake in God’s sovereignty and undivided unity, a theologically sound interpretation of qanitat and hafizatun lil-ghayb must necessarily direct women’s obedience and loyalty to God, alone.

The most controversial aspect of Q. 4:34 is the final segment of the verse, a literal rendering of which (as we have seen previously) gives a man license to beat his wife. The verse, in its entirety, reads:

Men are the guardians of women, because of the advantage God has granted some of them over others and by virtue of their spending out of their wealth. So righteous women are obedient, safeguarding what is unseen of what God has enjoined them to guard. As for those wives whose misconduct you fear, (first) advise them, and (if ineffective) keep away from them in the bed, and (as a last resort) beat them (idribuhunna). Then if they obey you, do not seek any course (of action) against them. Indeed, God is all-Exalted, all-Great.

Barlas grapples with this last portion using two signature hermeneutical moves. Firstly, she reads this passage extratextually, underscoring the patriarchal setting of revelation, in which violence against women was widespread. As she puts it:

At a time and in a society in which a man would inherit his father’s wives, bury his new-born daughter alive in the sand, and beat a woman at will, verse 4:34, even if read as permission to strike a wife in specific circumstances, could not have seemed like a license or unethical.[14]

Secondly, she reads this verse intratextually, arguing that an interpretation that mandates wife-beating violates wider Qur’anic principles pertaining to marriage, such as its call for ‘love and mercy’ (mawaddatan wa rahma) between spouses (Q. 30:21), even instructing partners who are in the midst of divorce to act graciously with one another (Q. 2:237).[15] As discussed in the preceding chapter, Wadud initially came to terms with Q. 4:34, taking into account the original context of revelation and concluding that this verse constituted a severe restriction on male violence against women.[16] This reading was unable to satisfy Wadud, however, leading her to later ‘say “no” outright to the literal implementation of this passage.’[17] Yet literalism, interjects Barlas, is a hermeneutical impossibility, for ‘so long as a word can have more than one meaning there is no such thing as a literal reading.’[18] In other words, whereas Wadud eventually rejects this last part of the verse, Barlas questions why ‘beat them’ is privileged as the literal translation of idribuhunna? She departs from Wadud, then, by analysing the term idribuhunna holistically, exploring how it is employed elsewhere in the text. Citing Q. 38:44, she shows that this term is also used in a distinctly symbolic fashion.[19] Referring to Prophet Job, the verse reads:

We told him: ‘Take a small bunch of grass in your hand and then with it strike (idribbihi) your wife, but do not break your oath.’ Indeed, We found him to be patient. What an excellent servant and one who would always turn unto Us!

According to classical commentators, Job vowed to beat his wife with a hundred lashes, as she had cursed God on account of his painful tribulations.198 When he was healed, God instructed him to take ‘a small bunch of grass’ and to symbolically strike his wife with it once (idribbihi), thereby fulfilling his promise without physically harming her.199 But ‘the best’ reading of idribuhunna insofar as Q. 4:34 is concerned, concludes Barlas, is not symbolic hitting but ‘confinement’ (that is, restricting the wife to her home) as the Qur’an prescribes this action when discussing how husbands should deal with adulterous wives (Q. 4:15).200 This specific rendering of idribuhunna is questionable, however, since Q. 4:15 uses a different word altogether: amsikuhunna (confine them).

  • [1] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 186.
  • [2] Barlas, ‘The Qur’an and Hermeneutics’, 18.
  • [3] Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 68.
  • [4] Barlas, ‘The Qur’an and Hermeneutics’, 16-17.
  • [5] Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 68.
  • [6] Barlas, ‘The Qur’an and Hermeneutics’, 17.
  • [7] Asad, The Message of the Qur’an, 61.
  • [8] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 198-9.
  • [9] Barlas, ‘Women’s Readings of the Qur’an’, 263.
  • [10] Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 74. Although Wadud does not include Q. 16:120here, it is interesting to note that this verse, which we cited earlier when discussingAbraham’s rebellion against his father, describes Abraham as a qanit (an obedientone).
  • [11] Ali, Sexual Ethics and Islam, 119.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] The earliest appearance of this report can be found in the musnad (hadithcollection) of Abu Dawud al-Tayalisi (d. 819), which is significant, as the report doesnot appear in the sahihayn, or the two ‘authentic’ hadith collections of Bukhari andMuslim. This hadith has resurfaced in classical and medieval Qur’anic exegesis, mostnotably in the Great Commentary (al-Tafsir al-Kabir) of Abu Ja‘far al-Tabari (d. 923).I am grateful to Mustafa Abu Sway of al-Quds University for providing the text andcitations of this report.
  • [14] Asma Barlas, Re-Understanding Islam: A Double Critique, Spinoza Lecturespresented by the University of Amsterdam (Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 2008), 16.
  • [15] Barlas, ‘Women’s Readings of the Qur’an’, 264.
  • [16] Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 76.
  • [17] Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 200. Upon making this statement, Wadud putforth a textually holistic argument that parallels that of Barlas, arguing that anyphysical strike against women would run counter to such core Qur’anic values as‘justice’ and ‘human dignity’ (203).
  • [18] Barlas, Re-Understanding Islam, 23.
  • [19] Barlas, ‘Believing Women’ in Islam, 188. The legal scholar Azizah al-Hibri alsocites Q. 38:44 when dealing with domestic violence. See Azizah Y. al-Hibri, ‘Muslim
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