Women and the Quran

Just a paper I wrote a long time ago for political science class.  Its kinda long but thought it was an interesting enough topic to post.

It is believed by many that the oppression and lowly status of women under the rule of Islamic governments such as Saudi Arabia and more famously, the Taliban, is based upon the Islamic scriptures and what is written in the Quran.  That assertion is, in fact, wholly untrue.  For centuries the Quran, the holy book of Islam, has been interpreted primarily by men.  Their interpretations or rather manipulations of certain phrases and important series of texts in the Muslim holy book have engendered a false view of the Quran as a patriarchal text of gender prejudice.  The Quran, as opposed to its widely accepted view  as a book advocating the limitations of women’s rights, is actually a wonderful text that preaches mutual respect and concert between men and women.

David Ghanim, author of the book entitled Gender and Violence in the Middle East,  utilizes a misinterpreted translation  of the Quran, to support his assertion that the Muslim holy book stands as one of the sources of gender inequality and the patriarchal social structure in the Middle East.  He utilizes N.J. Dawood’s translation of the Qu’ran, the fourth revised edition of The Koran.  Probably the most pivotal one regarding women reads,

Men have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the others, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them.  Good women are obedient.  They guard their unseen parts because Allah has guarded them.  As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them.  Then if they obey you, take no further action against them.  Allah is high, supreme. (qtd. In Ghanim 54  Q 4:34).

This translation of this particular Quranic verse is contained in the book, Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s perspective, by Amina Wadud.

Men are [qawwamuna ala] women, [on the basis] of what Allah [preferred] (faddala) some of them over others and [on the basis] of what they spend of their property (for the support of women).  So good women are [qanitat], guarding in secret that which Allah has guarded.  As for those from whom you fear [Nushuz], admonish them, banish them to beds apart, and scourge them.  Then, if they obey you, seek not a way against them. (qtd.  In Wadud 72  4:34).

Wadud uses translations from both A. Yusuf Ali’s The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation, and commentary and Muhammed Marmaduke Pickthall’s The Glorious Quran: Text and Translation, as well as inserting her own translations from time to time especially regarding important terms and phrases nec essary to understand and rightly interpret certain verses such as this one.  Now, Dawood’s translation omits many terms, phrases, and concepts that are key to correctly translating and understanding this verse.  Firstly, the term, qawwamuna, is an Arabic word that means “responsible for”, so the phrase reads “Men are responsible for women on the basis of what Allah has preferred”.   By contrast, Dawood’s translation translates qawwamuna as meaning “authority” which establishes a false dominance of men over women.  The phrase “on the basis of” is a conditional statement which Wadud inserted and comes from the word bi used in this verse, so the sentence says that men are responsible on the basis of these two conditions.  Faddala or preference must exist, and the man must support the woman from his property or means.  Well, within the Quran, inheritance is the only concrete preference in which Allah has granted men a greater share than women, so what exactly Allah prefers in this passage is rather unclear.  Nonetheless, Wadud comments, “Many men interpret the above passage as an unconditional indication of the preference of men over women.  They assert that men were created by God superior to women.”  (Wadud 71).  What Wadud describe here is exactly what Dawood does in his translation, “Men have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the others, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them.” (qtd. In Ghanim 54  Q 4:34).  Ghanim even says, “Yet it is clear from the above verse taken from the Qur’an that there is a strong relationship between Islam and the patriarchal notion that men are superior to women (Ghanim 55).  By contrast, Wadud argues that Allah’s preference, whatever it is, can not be unconditional, because the verse does not say “they (masculine plural) are preferred over them (feminine plural).  Rather it says (ba’d) some of them over (ba’d) some others. (Wadud 71).  The use of the word some (ba’d) clearly repudiates the all-inclusive, blanket statement by Ghanim that this verse indicates that all men are intellectually and physically superior to all women.   Nowhere in this verse does it mention that men have a degree over women in terms of brain power or physical strength.  Wadud, instead asserts that the meaning behind this statement is rather basic and, in the writer’s opinion, almost nonsensical and unnecessary, that some men are more proficient than some women at certain things and vice versa.

As with the first section of this verse, the latter part is also misinterpreted by N.J. Dawood and consequently utilized by David Ghanim to support his incorrect argument that the Qur’an supports patriarchy and gender inequality.  Again, as with the first section of this verse, Dawood’s translation omits several important meanings of Arabic words that are essential to gaining a true understanding of the text.  One of these terms is the word, qanitat, which is an adjective utilized to describe “good women”.  As is done in Dawood’s translation, “the word qanitat is too often falsely translated to mean “obedient”, and then assumed to mean “obedient to the husband” (Wadud 74).  However, qanitat, is utilized throughout the Qur’an  in various, scattered verses describing both males and females so its translation to “obedient to the husband” with regards to just this particular verse can not be correct.  One such verse is verse 33:35,

Lo! men who surrender unto Allah, and women who surrender, and men who  believe and women who believe, and men who obey and women who obey, and men who speak the truth and women who speak the truth, and men who persevere (in  righteousness) and women who persevere, and men who are humble and women who  are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast  and women who fast, and men who guard their modesty and women who guard (their modesty), and men who remember Allah much and women who remember – Allah  hath prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward. (Pickthall 33:35).

The word, qanitat, is, in fact utilized in the Arabic translation of this verse, but is not shown here in Pickthall’s translation.  As indicated by the brackets surrounding qanitat in Wadud’s translation, she inserted the word into either Pickthall’s or Ali’s translation to make her clarification about its definition.  In the case of this verse as well as verse 4:34, qanitat describes the extreme subservience and devotion to Allah and to eachother that any follower of Allah should possess .  Verse 33:35 mentions a number of characteristics that all followers of Allah, men and women, should possess such as righteousness, fasting, modesty, humbleness, and strong belief.  Qanitat encompasses all of these characteristics.  Consequently, what verse 4:34 is actually saying is that good women are devoted to Allah and work in cooperation and concert with their husbands.  This definition completely clashes and disproves Dawood’s translation, that is “Good women are obedient”. (qtd. In Ghanim 4:34)  In turn, the true definition of Qanitat and its consequent effect on the meaning of verse 4:34 also disproves Ghanim’s assertion that the husband-wife relationship based on obedience in the Quran is a proverbial door-opener to domestic violence.  Ghanim utilizes this statement made by Soryana Al-Torki in her book, Women in Saudi Arabia: Ideology and Behavior Among the Elite, “The Islamic view equates obedience to a husband with obedience to Allah.  She must obey her husband and observe his wishes, as a religious duty that is backed by the value system of the community.” (Ghanim 55).  Well, according to the true definition of qanitat and its use in verse 4:34 of the Qur’an, the true Islamic view does not equate obedience to a husband with obedience to Allah, but rather likens cooperation and mutual respect and concert between husband and wife with obedience to Allah because that is what He truly desires.   The term, Nushuz, used in the sentence, “As for those from whom you fear [nushuz], admonish them, banish them to beds apart, and scourge them,” (qtd. In Wadud 4:34) has also been  misinterpreted by Ghanim as meaning disobedience to the husband.  However, just as with qanitat, throughout the Qur’an, Nushuz is used to refer to both males and females, so that definition translated by Dawood and used by Ghanim is incorrect.  In fact, the true Arab definition of the term is “disruption of marital harmony.” (Wadud XXVI).  Consequently what the Qur’an is actually describing in the latter part of this verse is not a disobedient wife but merely a strained and discordant relationship between husband and wife.  Wadud argues that if one looks at this verse in terms of one of the overall themes of the Qur’an which stipulates that order, peace, and harmony are of utmost importance in human relationships, than one would recognize the pure innocence of this verse.  A succession of measures is then offered to the husband to resolve the conflict.  The first solution is to admonish them or scold them in a proper and good-willed manner.  However, the writer does find this first measure rather puzzling since the Qur’an does not present it as a mutual effort, but infers that the source of disharmony lies with the wife, and that the husband needs to correct it.  This solution to resolving Nushuz differs starkly from what is presented in verse 4:128, the only other instance where the term is used except in this case to describe the husband,

If a woman feareth ill treatment from her husband, or desertion, it is no sin  for them twain if they make terms of peace between themselves. Peace is better. But  greed hath been made present in the minds (of men). If ye do good and keep from  evil, lo! Allah is ever Informed of what ye do. (Pickthall 4:128)

Here Nushuz is also used to refer to a discordant marriage but it would appear that only the husband is at fault and that the only solution is a peaceful resolution.  Now this might be the only point in the Qur’an where it favors the husband over the wife.  Wadud comments, “It is obvious that the Qur’an intends a resolution of the difficulties and a return to peace and harmony between the couple when it states: ‘…it is no sin for the two of them if they make terms of peace between themselves.  Peace is better.” (Wadud 75).  However, one has to question why mutual peace is better when the husband is the source of Nushuz, but when it is the woman the husband is immediately directed to correct it by first scolding her, then by separating from her indefinitely, and if that does not work out to lightly beat her.  The woman is expressly told by the Qur’an to try to find peace with her husband while the husband is given many options.  Indeed this is a quagmire, but nonetheless the verse 4:34 is far from advocating domestic violence.  Even with this quagmire the overall message of these two verses is still that mutual peace and harmony between husband and wife is is favored in the Qur’an.  The true fault here lies with David Ghanim’s misuse of verse 4:34 to support his biased and incorrect viewpoint.  What is truly amazing about Ghanim, is that, to a certain degree, he even invalidates himself without realizing it when he says, “While it is true that Islam, like any religion, has become more conservative and misogynist, discussing this important debate and the merits and limitations of reforms within the Islamic thinking goes beyond the limited scope of this book.  However, a less controversial issue is the fact that religion, and Islam as it is understood and practiced by Muslims in the present-day Middle East, supports patriarchy, violence against women, and authoritarian order in society.” (Ghanim 57-58)  Firstly, his second statement completely nullifies the basic premise of the chapter, Islam, Gender, and Violence, that Islam as it is espoused by the Qur’an supports gender inequality and patriarchy in Middle-Eastern society by demonstrating a clear divide between what “the Islam as it is understood and practiced by Muslims in the present-day Middle East” and Qur’anic teachings.  Regarding his first statement, the fact that Islam has been transformed from an egalitarian religion into the conservative, misogynist, and politicized Islam that is practiced by modern-day Islamic countries is rather important and should be mentioned in his book because that would actually make his argument valid.  Ghanim contradicts his use of Dawood’s poor Quranic exegesis yet again when he says, “The rise of political Islam in the Middle East is more an indication of authoritarianism’s failure than it is a revival of religious beliefs in the region.  The failure of the authoritarian regimes to deliver on its promises and to create a decent and dignified life for citizens has led to the rise of political Islam in the region.”  (Ghanim 58).  Again he makes the distinction between modern politicized Islam and original Islam set forth in the Qur’an.  As much as Ghanim wants to, he can not help but separate the two thereby nullifying his original viewpoint and also nullifying Dawood’s patriarchal, misogynistic translation of the Qur’an.  His contradictions and inaccuracies are a testament to the fact that the Qur’an has absolutely no place in enforcing gender inequality and violence in the Islamic world today.

The writer’s inability to find any patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an and and relatively easy time finding egalitarian and feminine intepretations of the Qur’an, even by men, also speaks to the difference between political Islam and Islam in its most original and pure form.

Despite the contradictory and erratic nature of David Ghanim’s Gender and Violence in the Middle East, there is still one point he makes that resonates so true with regard to modern-day Islamic regimes, “The rise of political Islam in the Middle East is more an indication of authoritarianism’s failure than it is a revival of religious beliefs in the region.” (Ghanim 58)  As has already been established, Islam as a religion as espoused in the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammed, is not at fault when considering the oppressive and dictatorial governance of regimes  such as that of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and most notably the Taliban in Afghanistan.  Rather, the faults lies in the deliberate misinterpretation of Islam by these countries to suit their own conservative, politcal agendas.  The politiicized version of Islam pays particular attention to women.   When asked why the regime restricts women to their homes an unidentified Afghan Taliban leader skirted the question with a bullish response, “There are only two places for Afghan women- in her husband’s, and in the graveyard.” (Goodwin 80)  The former minister of education of the Taliban prefers to paint women in more idyllic terms albeit no less descipable, “It’s like having a flower, or a rose.  You water it and keep it at home for yourself, to look at it and smell it.  It is not supposed to be taken out of the house to be smelled.” (Goodwin 79)  Notice that these Taliban officials, these supposed followers of Islam gave no real answers to the question imposed upon them.  They provided no Qur’anic  verse, no Islamic tenets as justifications for the Taliban’s treatment of women, because there are none.  Religion is a mere excuse, a cover-up, for what is really just a patriarchal, brutal, and authoritarian political system that seeks to undermine basic human rights and control every aspect of society particularly in regards to women.  Political Islam is not a religion, but rather a destructive,sadistic, and dictatorial contemporary culture based upon nothing but the desire for power as exemplified by the two Taliban officials previously mentioned.  This culture is characterized by horrible practices prevalent all across the Islamic world such as domestic abuse, marital rape, rape, mutilation, stoning, honor killing and even female genital mutilation.  Under this system, women are transformed from human beings into mere objects, imprisoned in their homes, forbidden from education and work.   The restrictions even extend to their political rights which all citizens of any country should be able enjoy.  As a result of biased Constitutions and repressive laws, men and women are not viewed as equal under the law in these countries.  But why does this happen?  Why are individual women not granted natural political rights as citizens of their countries?  According to Azam Kamguian, an Iranian writer and women’s rights activist, it is because “unlike in the West,  where the individual is the basic unit of the state, it is the family that is the basis of Arab states.  This means that the state is primarily concerned with the protection of the family rather than the family’s individual members.” (Kamguian  79)  Consequently within the framework of the law, women are merely seen as housewives and nothing more with regard to their individuality. (Kamguian 79)  They are subject to gender-biased family laws that deny them an equivalent access to divorce and child custody, and even freedom of movement.  In Saudi Arabia women are not permitted to travel without first getting the consent of a male guardian. (Saudi Judge: It’s Okay to Beat your Wife)  Under the Taliban, women could not leave their homes unless covered by the Burqa veil from head to toe and accompanied by a male relative.  This view of the family as being more important than the individual is the reason why the practice of honor killing is so entrenched in Islamic society and is largely ignored and even indirectly sanctioned by  Islamic governments.  The perpetrators of these honor killings  are often given very permissive punishments that do not at all fit the terrible crimes that they committed.  The maximum incarceration period for these criminals is merely a few months, and, as a result they are released with no sense of having done any wrong. (Ghanim 44)  The various crimes against humanity committed in a myriad of these “cultured” countries across the globe can, unfortunately extend long enough to write a book of just personal sccounts, but that is not the purpose here.  The purpose here is to draw the dividing line between this “culture” and the Islamic religion,and the Deputy Health Minister, Sher Abbas Stanakzai can not draw this line any darker.  According to the chair of the Women’s alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan, based in Washington D.C. Islam not only allows for female education but mandates it.  Through the dealings and relationships of the Prophet with the women in his time one could see that he viewed them as equal beings.  They were not only employed but often employed men as with the Prophet and his first wife.  (Goodwin 83)  In addition women were put in such high esteem, that their value was even demonstrated in the battlefield in active combat.  Not only that, but they were also involved in the political affairs of the time, negotiating treaties and working in high level positions of government such as the judge’s chair. (Goodwin 83)  When queried why, if the Prophet allowed women such as sphere of influence in Islamic society than why not the Taliban, Stanakzai responds, “Our current restrictions are necessary in order to bring the Afghan people under control.  We need these restrictions until people learn to obey the government.” (Goodwin 83-84)  Political Islam represents a culture of control, authoritarianism, represssion, and oppression whil true Islam as founded by the Prophet Muhammed and written in the Qur’an many centuries ago preaches mutual respect and peace between men and women.




Ghanim, David. Gender and Violence in the Middle East. 1st ed. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2009. Print.

Goodwin, Jane. “Buried Alive.” Terrorism and 9/11: A Reader. (2002): (73-84). Print.

Maqsood, Ruqaiyyah. “Islam Does not Oppress Women.” Islamic Fundamentalism. (2008): (83-88). Print.

“Saudi Judge: It’s Okay to Beat Your Wife.” Middle East Quarterly 16.4 (2009): 80. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 10 Dec. 2009.

Wadud, Amina. Qur’an and Woman; Redreading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press Inc. , 1999. Print.