Edited for ease of reading comprehensibility.
I was going through Quran and Woman by Amina Wadud for my margin notes when I had a revelation that I thought I’d put down here so I remember when I am writing my dissertation.
Amina Wadud devotes 17 pages to explain the verse 34 of Surah Nisa. In short, Wadud accepts that men do have a degree (darajah) of preference above women in terms of divorce only (2:228) although she doesn’t point out that women have rights similar to men and not the same. She continues to call those rights equal (but they are similar, not equal). Therefore, she argues that the fadala (preference) in 4:34 does not mean that men have a higher darajah because that was only related to the verse on divorce.
Wadud asks if all men are preferred over all women. Her most significant argument is that ‘men are qawwamuna ‘ala women only if the following two conditions exist. The first condition is ‘preference’, and the other is that they support the women from their means. If either condition fails, then the man is not ‘qawwam’ over that woman.’ (Underlining mine).
Now here is when I had my revelation! The first point I noticed is that despite Wadud’s insistence that Quran addresses both men and women, the entire Surah Nisa addresses only men. In fact, this verse is so crucial to Muslim women, yet it is directly addressed only to men. It tells men that “good women” are obedient to God and that obedience is related to their being faithful in marriage by guarding their chastity like Allah would have liked them to guard.
Second, like Sayyid Qutb, whom Wadud has cited at length, I believe that the verse addresses a very narrow subject – that of a married relationship. Thus, all men are not in charge of all women, but I believe that only husbands are in charge of their wives. Let me explain.
I would have liked Wadud to mention the reason for the revelation of this verse. According to most classical sources, this verse was revealed when a woman came to the Prophet to complain that her husband had hit her (her face had turned green – the colour of her cloak, as mentioned by Aisha who said no kafir hits his wife like a Muslim man does). The Prophet instantly replied, “get even with him!” Then he hesitated and asked the woman to wait for a revelation. That is when this verse was revealed and the Prophet explained that he had wanted equal treatment for the husband from the wife but Allah ordered otherwise.
I think this reason for revelation is crucial to understand two points: 1) the correct meaning of the imperative verb ‘daraba’ as beat, and 2) the narrow focus of the verse as related to matrimonial hierarchical relationship only.
Hence it becomes important to understand the meaning of the words fadala (preference) and wabimaanfaqoo min amwalihim (and because they spend on them from their maal – material resources).
Unlike Wadud I think that the fadala in 4:34 is related to the daraja of 2:228. Husbands are in charge (as opposed to several non-native Arabic translations, I believe qawwam doesn’t mean ‘maintainers’ in this verse but means ‘in charge’) of their wives because:
1) They have been preferred (fadala) by Allah in terms of their higher (daraja) in the event of divorce whereby a husband can proclaim a divorce without arbitration but a wife can’t. Hence, the focus on matrimonial relationship is maintained.
2) They spend on them from their material resources as Mahr.
These are the only two conditions whereby a husband becomes ‘preferred’ to a wife. And these two conditions will always remain in the Islamic institution.
I believe that the phrase ‘wabimaanfaqoo min amwalihim’ refers to the institution of Mahr. There are several marriages in which the real breadwinner is the wife (like the Prophet’s marriage to Khadeejah who was his employer and financially ‘in charge’). There are marriages in which it is the husband’s family that essentially supports the married couple. But even in those marriages the wives must be salihat and qanitat (righteous and obedient). Wadud argues that in such marriages a husband is not in charge of the wife, but I think that a husband is always in charge in every marriage because a Muslim marriage is invalid without Mahr.
Mahr, according to hadith (See Volume 7, Book 62, Number 81 in link), is given to gain access to a woman’s “private parts.” I believe that Mahr is the price for access to the monogamous rights of a woman. When a woman accepts Mahr she vows that she will only have intercourse with the man who has paid her the Mahr. On the contrary, a man does not receive Mahr because his right is polygynous and he doesn’t need to make a vow to have intercourse with only one woman. He can own the monogamous rights of up to four free women through Mahr and as many concubines as he can afford.
Thus, if a woman breaks the marriage contract by being sexually dishonest to her husband when in fact she had promised to be monogamous, she has in fact broken the sanctity of the vow sealed by Mahr. It is not only her sexual promiscuity but also breaking of the contract for which she must be punished or disciplined depending on the degree of her ‘crime.’
No matter how rich or poor a man is, he must under all circumstances pay the Mahr to his wife before he has sex with her. Thus, no matter how rich or poor a man is, he is in charge of the marriage bond because he pays the Mahr and he owns the right to divorce. We know from sirah that the Prophet did not consummate his marriage to Aisha until Abu Bakr had given him 12 ounces of gold which he then paid Aisha and consequently had sex with her. This is how important Mahr is in an Islamic marriage. We also know that when there was rumour of Aisha’s adultery, the Prophet first talked with her and then removed himself from her. This he did because he thought she had broken the sanctity of the marital bond. Then there is the example of Hind who was reminded by the Prophet when she took the oath of allegiance not to commit adultery and she retorted, “Does a free woman commit adultery?” It is noteworthy that, like Fatima Mersini points out, Islam ended matrilineal and polyandrous marriages, making only a free woman entitled to Mahr under patriarchal (Islamic) marriage laws whereby her husband owns full and sole rights to her sexuality.
In short, I believe that 4:34 is related only to a married relationship in which husbands are in charge in the relationship since Allah has preferred them by giving them the right to divorce without arbitration and because they pay Mahr to their wives. Righteous and obedient women are those who guard their chastity like Allah wants it guarded. Mahr promises men monogamous right to their wives’ sexuality and if a wife breaks that contract she is liable to punishment from both social and religious points of view. We all want loyalty and devotion in a relationship and this is all the verse ensures.