الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَى بَعْضٍ وَبِمَا أَنفَقُوا مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِم فَالصَّالِحَاتُ قَانِتَاتٌ حَافِظَاتٌ لِلْغَيْبِ بِمَا حَفِظَ اللَّهُ وَاللَّاتِي تَخَافُونَ نُشُوزَهُنَّ فَعِظُوهُنَّ وَاهْجُرُوهُنَّ فِي الْمَضَاجِعِ وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ فَإِنْ أَطَعْنَكُمْ فَلَا تَبْغُوا عَلَيْهِنَّ سَبِيلًا إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلِيًّا كَبِيرًا(34:4)
Men are the guardians of women, because God has given the one more preference than the other, and because they support them. Consequently, pious women are obedient [to their husbands] and keep their secrets for Allah also keeps secrets. And as for those from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them [first] and [next] refuse to share their beds and [even then if they do not listen] punish them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. Indeed Allah is Exalted and Mighty. (4:34)
In the preceding verses, the Almighty has made it clear that the real sphere in which one should strive in outdoing others is not the sphere of inborn abilities and characteristics because in this sphere some have been ordained to hold preference over others. The Almighty has created some superior to the others as regards their mental, physical, economic and social status. Similar is the case between a man and a woman. They have been created as counterparts such that one is by nature the active member and the other the passive. While the former trait needs domination, vigor and force the latter needs gentleness, subtlety and acquiescence. Viewed thus, each possesses relative superiority to the other. These are inborn characteristics and any effort to surpass one another in this area would be tantamount to war against nature. This would of course only leave them to mourn their own misfortune.
The Almighty has pointed out that in contrast to this sphere, there is another sphere in which people should strive to outdo one another. This is the sphere of earning reward for oneself through good deeds, high character and virtue. The Qur'an at various places has referred to this sphere by the comprehensive words 'faith' and 'righteous deeds' There is no restriction on anyone in striving to outdo others in this sphere; in fact, trying to surpass others in this sphere is as desired as it is condemnable in the sphere of innate abilities. Both a man and a woman will earn great reward if they strive and exert themselves in this area. It is open for every person whether a bondsman or a free man, a person of high social status or low, good-looking or ugly, blind or blessed with the faculty of sight. If a person does want to become superior to others, it is this sphere that he should select for all his efforts and endeavors. Wasting one's effort in the wrong sphere only brings into existence clashes and disputes which are of no avail. Consequently, if he really wants to test his mettle and expend his energies, he must select the sphere of piety and virtue. The Qur'an says:
وَلَا تَتَمَنَّوْا مَا فَضَّلَ اللَّهُ بِهِ بَعْضَكُمْ عَلَى بَعْضٍ لِلرِّجَالِ نَصِيبٌ مِمَّا اكْتَسَبُوا وَلِلنِّسَاءِ نَصِيبٌ مِمَّا اكْتَسَبْنَ وَاسْأَلُوا اللَّهَ مِنْ فَضْلِهِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمًا 0(4: 32)
And in no way covet those things in which God has bestowed His favors on some of you than on others: to men is allotted what they earn, and to women what they earn. And ask God of His bounty. For God has full knowledge of all things. (4:32)
This verse pinpoints the above stated premise as the guiding principle in the organization of a family set-up. A family is like a small state. Just as every state requires a ruler for its establishment and survival, this small state also requires someone to take charge of its helm. Either the husband could have been bestowed with this responsibility or the wife. The Qur'an informs us that the husband has been entrusted with this responsibility. The expression 'قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ' has been used by the Qur'an to convey this purport. In Arabic, when the preposition 'عَلَى' is used after the verb 'قَامَ', the meanings of 'protection' and 'financial dependency' are incorporated in the verb. A person who is in charge is actually the protector and bread runner of the members that are entrusted in his responsibility. The Qur'an has given two reasons for this choice. While explaining these reasons, ImamAmin Ahsan Islahiwrites:
First, men have been granted superiority over women. There are certain innate abilities and traits in men which are more pronounced in him and because of which he has been made the head of a family unit. For example, a man is much more gifted innately to protect and to defend himself and to earn livelihood and to take the initiative than a woman. It should be appreciated here that the superiority men have over women is not absolute: it is only in certain spheres – spheres which entitle men to become head of the family unit. There are certain other spheres in which women are more superior than men but they do not entitle them to become the head of family. For example, the extent of ability a woman has to take care of household affairs and the ability to look after children, a man does not have. That is why the superiority which is mentioned in the verse is alluded to in an implicit manner such that it can be concluded that both men and women are superior to one another in different spheres1; however, a man is superior to the woman as far as becoming the head of family is concerned.
Second, a husband bears financial responsibility for the wife. It is his obligation to earn and fulfill the needs of his wife and children. Obviously, this responsibility has not been assumed as a coincidence or as a favor, but because of the fact that only he is fully capable of doing so. It is therefore befitting that he take this responsibility.2
After declaring that the husband should head a family, the Qur'an goes on to point out certain things to the wife for the smooth functioning of the institution of family. They are:
1. Wives should be obedient and adaptable to their husbands.
2. They should keep the secrets of their husbands and protect their honor and integrity.
The first of these things does not require elaboration. Without obedience and adjustment, no system can work whether it be a state or any other institution. This is the natural requirement of any system. In the absence of these attitudes, no system can function and will ultimately disintegrate by giving way to indiscipline and anarchy.
The expression 'حَافِظَات لِلْغَيْبِ' has been adopted for the second of these things. Generally, this expression has been taken to imply 'guarding in absentia'. This writer has taken it to imply 'keeping of secrets', as this in his opinion is the correct connotation of the expression. While explaining the meaning of this expression ImamAmin Ahsan Islahiwrites:
One reason for adopting this meaning is that the word 'غَيْب' is very commonly used to imply 'secrets'. Second, here the nature of the expression is such that it cannot be taken to mean 'guarding in absentia'. Third, guarding of secrets is one of the most important issues between a husband and wife. They are the natural protectors of one another in this regard. The position of the wife is more important in this regard. She has full knowledge of her husband's weaknesses and strengths. She has acute knowledge of what ensues in the house as well has full knowledge of the extent and nature of her husband's wealth and property. His honor and integrity rest with her. If she decides to reveal all his secrets, she can totally disgrace him. For this reason, the Qur'an has specially mentioned this attribute of a wife. The addition of the words 'حَفِظَ اللَّهُ' is very meaningful and refers to the exalted status of this attribute: it is in fact a manifestation of a divine attribute in man. The Almighty also keeps secrets of His creatures. If He starts revealing their secrets every one would be totally humiliated.3
Thus the above verse outlines the attitude of pious wives. As a natural outcome of this directive, wives who adopt a rebellious attitude or reveal household secrets are not pious in the eyes of the Almighty.
The question arises whether a husband can punish a wife who becomes rebellious and persists to be so. The Qur'an has replied to this question in the affirmative. The verse refers to the rebellion of a wife by the word 'نُشُوْز'. Literally it means 'to defy authority'; however it is predominantly used for the utter defiance of authority a wife shows for the husband. Obviously, the word is not used for a blemish or for some instance of indifference by the wife. Similarly, it does not imply that a wife cannot express her opinion, taste or the various traits of her personality. It implies the behavior which a wife adopts when she seems inclined to challenge the authority of the husband and disrupt the discipline of the house. If the situation reaches this extent, the Almighty has given a husband three options:
First, he should urge his wife to mend her ways. The word used by the Qur'an is 'وَعَظ' which means that she can be admonished and also scolded to some extent in this regard.
Secondly, intimate marital relations with her should be suspended in order to communicate that if she does not mend her ways she might have to face severe repercussions.
Third, she should be punished physically. This punishment should obviously be similar to the one a teacher gives to a student or that a father gives to his children. The Prophet (sws) has used the words 'غَيْرَ مُبَرِّح' (mild) for such punishment (see Abu Da'ud, No: 1878).
It is evident from the style of the verse that a gradual sequence should be adopted in exercising these options. In other words, the second step after the first and the third after the second should only be adopted if the husband is convinced that there is no other option but to go on to the next step. These measures point to the utmost limit to which a husband can go regarding admonishing his wife. The Qur'an says that if the wife mends her ways through these measures a husband should not look for revenge and vengeance. He is warned thus: 'إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلِيًّا كَبِيرًا' (Indeed God is Exalted and Mighty). The implication being that if the Lord of the heavens and the earth forgoes the arrogance of His creatures and forgives them if they repent, His creatures should also not misuse their authority over others.
يَاأَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا يَحِلُّ لَكُمْ أَنْ تَرِثُوا النِّسَاءَ كَرْهًا وَلَا تَعْضُلُوهُنَّ لِتَذْهَبُوا بِبَعْضِ مَا آتَيْتُمُوهُنَّ إِلَّا أَنْ يَأْتِينَ بِفَاحِشَةٍ مُبَيِّنَةٍ وَعَاشِرُوهُنَّ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ فَإِنْ كَرِهْتُمُوهُنَّ فَعَسَى أَنْ تَكْرَهُوا شَيْئًا وَيَجْعَلَ اللَّهُ فِيهِ خَيْرًا كَثِيرًا(19:4)
O you who believe! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should you treat them with harshness that you may take away part of the dower you have given them – except where they have been guilty of open lewdness; on the contrary, live with them according to the norms [of the society]. If you take a dislike to them it may be that you dislike a thing, and Allah brings about through it a great deal of good. (4:19)
These verses mention the rights of women and instruct the society regarding the correct behavior to be adopted with them.
The first thing pointed out is that women are not animals which a person may inherit and then use them the way he likes. They too are human beings who have an independent personality. They are given free will which they can exercise in the limits set forth by the Almighty. The background of giving this directive is that in certain sections of pre-Islamic Arabia, the wives of a person were also transferred to his heirs like his wealth and animals would be, and if he had sons, they would even establish sexual relations with these step mothers without any hesitation. The Qur'an sought to put an end to this ignominious custom and stressed that women are fully free to make their decisions. Nothing can be imposed upon them without their consent.
The second thing stressed here is that even if a believer dislikes his wife he should not subject her to harsh treatment in order to recover any wealth or property that he has gifted her. Such an attitude can only be accepted if the wife is guilty of open sexual transgressions. If the wife is not guilty of such behavior and is living as a faithful and obedient lady leading a virtuous life, it is totally against justice and decency for the husband to harass her merely because he dislikes her. No doubt if a wife shows moral misconduct then this is a detestable thing, but no husband is allowed to deprive her of a decent living because he does not like her face or because her temperament is different from his.
The third thing emphasized here is that a husband who does not like his wife should still deal with her in accordance with the norms of justice and equity, graciousness and decency – to which his own nature testifies. The words used in the verse to convey this meaning are 'وَعَاشِرُوهُنَّ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ'. The word 'َمَعْرُوف' implies good conventions and traditions of a society. In other words, the Qur'an instructs a husband to adopt a befitting attitude with his wife in accordance with the good traditions of the society whether he likes her or not. He is told that if he treats her nicely in spite of his aversion for her, he might win the blessings of the Almighty both in this world and in the Hereafter.
While explaining the words used to convey the above mentioned meaning, ImamAmin Ahsan Islahiwrites:
Although the word used here is 'عَسَى' which in Arabic implies hope and expectation, those who are aware of the delicacies of the language know that when used on occasions such as this, it implies a promise from the Almighty. The fact to which this reference points is that those who give priority to higher human traits and values instead of appearance are promised great rewards from the Almighty for this sacrifice. Those who have actually embarked upon this track have borne witness to the veracity of this fact, and none other than God is the most truthful.4
It is obvious from the above discussion that if a husband is required to behave decently even if he dislikes the wife, he is all the more required to be decent when there is no cause for this dislike. A wrong attitude in this regard would earn great displeasure of the Almighty.
In the sermon of the last Hajj, the Prophet (sws) is reported to have said:
استوصوا بالنساء خيرا فإنهن عندكم عوان ليس تملكون منهن شيئا غير ذلك إلا أن يأتين بفاحشة مبينة فإن فعلن فاهجروهن في المضاجع واضربوهن ضربا غير مبرح فإن أطعنكم فلا تبغوا عليهن سبيلا إن لكم من نسائكم حقا ولنسائكم عليكم حقا فأما حقكم على نسائكم فلا يوطئن فرشكم من تكرهون ولا يأذن في بيوتكم لمن تكرهون ألا وحقهن عليكم أن تحسنوا إليهن في كسوتهن وطعامهن(ابن ماجه رقم: 1851)
O people! Accept the advice regarding good treatment of women and [accept it] because they are duty bound [to fulfill your marital rights]. You have no other authority on them except this. And if they commit open sexual misconduct you have the right to leave them alone in their beds and [if even then, they do not listen] beat them such that this should not leave any mark on them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. Indeed you have rights over women and they also have rights over you. You have the right that they do not permit into your homes nor sleep with anyone you dislike. Listen! their right upon you is that you feed and clothe them in the best way [you are able to]. (Ibn Majah, No: 1841)
(Translated from 'Mizan' by Shehzad Saleem)