Competence and Leadership (AL-QIWAMA)
What is frequently forgotten in debates about women in Islam is that the Book of Allah does not privilege one sex over the other. Nowhere does it claim superiority for either sex. Numerous verses address both male and female believers as well as male and female Muslims in an ungendered way, indicating equal status in the eyes of the Lord, and absolute and indiscriminate equality socially and religiously.
The following study aims to prove this point against the claim of traditional exegetes, often made solely on the basis of a few isolated verses, that women are inferior to men and that women are ‘deficient in reason and religion’. They argue that the verses of inheritance and (male) guardianship support their view that God does indeed differentiate between men and women and that He favors the former over the latter.
However, reality has it that the views of medieval scholarship were clouded by an ideology of male dominance and patriarchal hegemony that characterized their entire exegesis and overshadowed their interpretations of the authoritative texts of Islam.
Today, in the Islam of the twenty-first century, such forms of sexism and male chauvinism have no credibility any longer, and it is our aim to show that such male-centered interpretations can be fully contradicted by alternative readings which argue for equality and an end to sex discrimination.
Before we analyze the verses of guardianship in detail, we first outline our position on the relationship between men and women.
We believe in a relationship of love, kindness, and mutual respect, to the effect that men are like a garment (libas) for women and women are like a garment (libas) for men. The Arabic term we use here, libas, means ‘being intertwined’ or ‘blended together’, referring to a symbiosis between your body and the garment you wear. It is taken from verse 187 of Surat Baqara:
Permitted to you, on the night of the fasts, is the approach to your wives. They are your garments [libasun] and you are their garments [libasun] (Baqara:187)
A relationship of love, kindness, and mutual respect is a relationship of equality and equivalence (mutakafi”a) as to how both partners feel, think, and respond to each other. To talk about women as a kind of commodity for men or, less likely, about men as a commodity for women, is the opposite of what we intend by our concept of equivalence.
Let us now turn to the so-called verse of guardianship: [al-rijal] are the [qawwamun] of [al-nisa”], because God has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means… (Nisa”:34)
Also, let us listen to the Book on the issue of the neglect of responsibility (nushuz) on the part of the woman, that is, at times when she upholds the duty of qiwama: If you fear a breach between them twain, appoint (two) arbiters, one
from his family, and the other from hers; if they wish for peace, God will cause their reconciliation—for God has full knowledge, and is acquainted with all things. (Nisa”:35) Concerning the neglect of responsibility (nushuz) on the part of the man, that is, when he is holding the qiwama, the Book says: If a [woman] [imra”a] fears cruelty or desertion [nushuz] on her husband’s part [min ba’liha], there is no blame on them if they arrange an amicable settlement between themselves; and such settlement is best, even though men’s souls are swayed by greed.
But if you do good and practice self-restraint, God is well-acquainted with all that you do. (Nisa”:128) Verse 34 of Surat Nisa” begins with a definition of al-qiwama, which means ‘to take care of ’, ‘to be responsible’, or ‘to be in charge’
It implies that if you take care of something you want to improve it. In verse 34, al-rijal take care of al-nisa”, that is, the former are responsible for the latter. This has often been understood as ‘men take care of women’. For some naïve people it even expresses a biological superiority that is forever engrained in the constitution of the male sex, and since Allah created both sexes in this way they usually jump to the conclusion that Allah wanted women to be essentially deficient in reason and religion and that He preferred men to women (‘because God has given the one more (strength) than the other’, 4:34).
But if Allah had really wanted to make such an essentialist and sexist claim on the basis of people’s gender, why did He not say: ‘All males [i.e., using a different word than rijal, e.g. dhukur] are the guardian over all females [i.e., again, using a different word, not nisa” but inath]’?
Defining the Term ‘Men’ ( al-rijal )
Conventional wisdom tells us that ‘men’ are defined by their masculine sexuality. But if masculinity was the only marker of manhood, the two terms ‘male’ and ‘men’ would be synonymous, interchangeable, and, hence, absolutely identical. This, of course, is out of the question since ‘men’ are not exclusively defined by their sex. The Arabic term ‘man’ (rajul ) has the same root as the noun rijl, which refers to that part of the body which enables people to move, to walk, or to stand.
People are called ‘pedestrians’ if they walk with their legs and feet (arjul), and a woman who walks per pedes is called ‘a woman going on foot’ ( al-rajila). Many verses in the Book use the term rijal in exactly this way: to denote ‘movement’ regardless of the mover’s sex:
– ‘If you fear (an enemy), pray on foot (rijalan), or riding…’
(Baqara:239). If rijal in this context only meant male sex, it would imply that women never go on foot!
– ‘“And proclaim the pilgrimage among men: they will come to
you on foot (rijalan)…”’ (Hajj:27). Again, if rijal meant only male pilgrims, would this not exclude women from making the pilgrimage on foot? Of course, women also perform their pilgrimage on foot. Rijalan in this context implies that those who perform the hajj have to be strong enough to walk long distances; it addresses the stronger and healthier people among the believers (men and women).
– ‘By [the al-rijal] whom neither traffic nor merchandise can divert from the remembrance of God, nor from regular prayer…’ (Nur:37). Can only men, in their prayers, not be distracted by traffic and trade? Does this mean, by logical inference, that women are constantly distracted by these things and thus cannot pray properly? Of course not! rijal in this context again includes both male and female believers!
– [ al-rijal] are the [qawwamun] of women [ al-nisa”]. Given the above examples of an ungendered usage of rijal, we maintain that the same term, used in 4:34, must refer to both sexes.
In contrast, other verses of the Book do have a gendered meaning;
the term rijal refers to male adults and the term nisa” to female adults, as we can see in the following three examples:
–…and if there are not two men, then a man [ fa-rajul] and two women [imra”atan]… (Baqara:282)
–…Had there not been believing men [rijal] and believing women [nisa”] … (Fat-h:25)
–Would you really approach men [ al-rijal] in your lusts rather than women [al-nisa”]?… (Naml:55).
The point we want to make is that the terms rajul-rijal (sing.-pl.) are semantically not exclusively restricted to denote maleness. The generic sense of the term is ‘to walk’ or ‘to go on foot’ which is in neither case a prerogative of the male sex. As we have seen in the verses quoted above, the context will tell us whether rajul-rijal is used in the generic, ungendered sense of ‘walking’ / ‘going on foot’ or whether its derivative, gendered sense ‘male adult’ is implied.
The fact that in public life in the past men did all the walking to earn their living for family and wife (who stayed at home or did not walk when on travel), might explain why the generic sense (on foot) is almost always associated with the derivative sense (men). And yet to claim that this is the only sense of the term would mean, as we have seen, to amputate its meaning by half.