The Muslim Wife’s Obedience

The Muslim Wife’s Obedience

The question of the Muslim wife’s obedience and the husband’s authority has been viewed from what seems to be a limited perspective. It is taken by most writers to be based almost entirely on two statements in the Qur’an and some supplementary Traditions of the Prophet. The Qur’an (2:228) states that women have rights even as they have duties in an equitable manner, but men have a degree above women. Again, it states (4:34) that men are the guardians, protectors, or custodians of women because God has made some of them excel others and because men expend of their means to maintain women. This is the range within which the problem has been discussed by those who are interested mainly in admiration or condemnation of Islamic law. Students of the Muslim family have made little use of the sociological insights into role differentiation, power structure, and division of labor within the family. Since our objective is neither admiration nor condemnation, certain observations may be highly suggestive and therefore noteworthy in this connection.

First, as Gordon Allport has pointed out, the problems suggested by the concepts of status, power, authority, etc. “run through all human and animal relationships. . . . Sociologists find superordination and subordination in all the groups they study. The social psychologist sees ascendance-submission or dominance-compliance wherever two persons are in contact with each other.”

Secondly, Bernard and others have observed that “practically universally the status of wives as measured by rights and privileges is, according to the institutional pattern, inferior to that of husbands.” This is true even of the so-called equalitarian family system of the United States and is traceable to the instructions of Paul, who “commanded wives to submit to their husbands . . .” Such observations seem to lend support to the contemporary view that, “In virtually all societies, children and women are subject to the authority of the man who lives with them . . .”

Thirdly, it has been argued by Parsons and others that in the family there are actually multiple power structures independent of each other. While the husband might be more influential in some decisions, the wife would be in others. One of the structural requirements which the family has to meet is that of leadership; and like any enduring group, the family has to differentiate roles on the power axis. This leadership is of two types, normally not combined in the same person. They are: instrumental leadership, which deals with the “external system,” and expressive leadership, which deals with the “internal system.” As Zelditch has shown, “in all but a very few societies, instrumental roles, which include political and economic-leadership, are played by the husband-father, while expressive roles are played by the wife-mother.”

These observations seem to suggest that authority is a necessary element of any group structure. It is not “generalized” or anonymous; rather, it is allocated to specific positions in the structure and is delegated to the occupants of these positions. Moreover, authority is not of one type or one dimension, since it can be instrumental or expressive, overt or covert, a privilege or a duty. Parenthetically, while authority is a requisite of any viable social system, it does not necessarily follow that it will be absolute, unchecked, inexchangeable, or unshared. It is possible, perhaps probable, that uncritical observers may be led to amplify overt, instrumental authority to the disregard of the equally operative but perhaps less conspicuous covert, expressive authority. Conclusions reached by such observers are hardly acceptable at their face value; they should be subjected to careful scrutiny and structural analysis. Generalizations have been made about the inferiority and subordination of women throughout history. Yet the new sociological insights into the nature of the power structures within the family may cast some serious doubts on the unqualified validity of such generalizations. Men may have “believed” themselves superordinate or superior and acted according to their own “definition of the situation.” Women also may have behaved at least externally, as though they were submissive and subordinate.” But whether they were actually so in all respects and always is an open question. This may have some interesting implications for the Muslim wife’s obedience to her husband and the perspective from which the problem has been viewed.

The authentic, textual basis of obedience in Islam is, as already indicated, the two statements of the Qur’an (2:228 and 4:34). The first of these declares that women have rights even as they have obligations in accordance with equity; but men have a degree above them. This degree is, some writers believe, evidenced in the fact that a woman is worth half a man in certain cases of inheritance and in the bearing of witness to some legal transactions. But this alleged evidence does not seem to explain the degree because the evidence itself needs an explanation. Both the degree and the evidence may better be explained by some other variables, such as role differentiation or role allocation.

The question of inheritance may exhibit some “arithmetic inequality” or lack of role identicalness; but it does not necessarily mean inequity, much less a categorical ranking of women as being half men in worth. Similarly, the question of the bearing of witness is raised in the Qur’an in a suggestive context. The Qur’an (2:282) stipulates that when a loan is contracted it should be written down and witnessed by two men. But if the two be not men, then one man and two women should be called in to witness, for if one woman forgets the other woman will remind her. The interesting fact here is that the passage speaks of the bearing of witness to such a transaction as a religio-moral obligation which must be discharged in the interest of justice and for God’s sake. Witnesses are strongly warned not to conceal the testimony lest their hearts become sinful, for God has knowledge of everything. If the Qur’an views the bearing of witness in this dutiful manner, a more reasonable conclusion would probably be the following: considering the testimony of two women equal to that of one man is a concession in the woman’s favor, aimed at lightening her moral burden and relieving her conscience, rather than a curtailment of her equal rights. Moreover this Qur’anic stipulation was probably made in recognition of the social fact that at the conclusion of such contracts women were not usually present; and if they were, they might not be interested enough or closely attentive to the degree that would warrant their responsibility for giving the necessary testimony. Thus, instead of disregarding the validity of the women’s testimony altogether or holding them as equally responsible and equally experienced in financial matters as men, the Qur’an took what Muslims may call a cautious position: it prescribed the witness of two trustworthy men or one man and two equally trustworthy women.

This explanation seems more consistent with the position of Islam on the general status of women. In various spiritual and mundane respects women alone are granted certain concessions and exemptions. For example, a woman is exempted from observing the obligatory prayers during menstruation and after child delivery through the early stage of nursing, a period which may extend from three to fifteen and forty days respectively. She is also enjoined not to observe the obligatory fast of the Ramadan month during such times. Instead, she must postpone the fast until she is physically fit. Moreover, she is not financially responsible for any person, not even for herself even though she may have possessions and capital. Whether she be a wife, mother daughter or sister, she is assured of adequate maintenance by the respective male whom the law designates as the provider. Beyond that, the fact that the Qur’an regards the testimony of two women equal to that of one man in certain contractual cases does not necessarily mean inherent mental deficiency or inferiority of women.

The Qur’anic passage clearly states that, in principle, women are capable of discharging the duty of giving testimony. Islamic law recognizes their right and capacity to do business independently. But not every woman is capable of discharging this duty or exercising that right. Nor is every man, for that matter. To qualify as a Witness, one must have a certain degree of practical experience sufficient to constitute reliability and insure justice. Lack of sufficient experience in some aspects of life is not a necessary indication of mental or human inferiority. Every person is lacking in one way or another. Women ordinarily lack sufficient experience in mundane affairs, but it does not necessarily follow that such lack is inherent, complete, or generalizable. In fact, women are the sole experts on certain feminine matters which may involve legal decisions, and their testimony in this regard is both conclusive and exclusive. In addition, there are situations in which the woman’s testimony may have a legal value equal to that of a man’s or even where her testimony may nullify his. For example, the Qur’an (24:6-9) states that if a man accuses his wife of infidelity but has no witnesses other than himself, he must testify by God four times that he is of the truthful and, a fifth time, that the curse of God shall be upon him if he should be of the liars. To establish her innocence and exoneration, the wife must testify by God four times that he is of the liars and, a fifth time, that the wrath of God shall be upon her if she should be of the untruthful.

The explanation of the degree of men above women still remains to be sought. Neither the giving of testimony nor the differentiated distribution of inheritance seems to be a satisfactory explanation. The Qur’an is, Muslims believe, self-explanatory in many respects. Some of its passages explain and are explained by others. A case in point is the question of the degree (Q. 2:228). There is a suggestive insight into the nature of that degree in the passage (4:34), the second of the two statements providing the textual basis of obedience. Here, the Qur’an states that men are qawwamuna ‘ala al-nisa’ which in all probability means that men are guardians over, protectors and maintainers of, or responsible for women. The degree of men above women is the former’s guardianship over and responsibility for the latter because, as the passage has put it, God has made some of them excel others and also because men expend their means. The degree is “operationalized” as the man’s role of guardianship, a role which is based on the differential capacities of men and women. It is this role differentiation, together with differential capacities, that may provide a satisfactory explanation of the degree.

It is probably interesting to note that the Qur’an does not state it categorically that men are superior to women or that God has made men excel women. The passage (4:34) is unequivocal in specifying the financial role of men as a factor in their designation as guardians of women. But when the verse speaks of excellence, it does not allocate it to any particular sex. Much less does it associate excellence with men exclusively. The interesting fact is, however, that almost all writers, Oriental and Occidental, classical and modern, have, with varying degrees of emphasis, interpreted the verse in question to mean the superiority of men to women. This interpretation is probably better understood as a reflection of certain psychological dispositions or of the actual status of women, which has been low on the whole, at least on the surface. The assertion, by some observers, of the categorical superiority or excellence of men is difficult to explain in terms of the spirit or even the letter of the verse. 

The verse declares that men are guardians, etc. of women. Guardianship entails authority of the guardian over the person (s) guarded. But authority is not the equivalent of power, much less of absolute power. Nor does it necessarily mean a dichotomous, absolute ascendance-submission relationship. The verse does not mention authority in any direct sense; at most, this can only be inferred as a function or consequence of guardianship. But authority is not the only function, because guardianship also entails responsibility. The distribution of both authority and responsibility is a dimension of the division of labor; it is not an affirmation of “instinctive” or absolute or mutually exclusive characteristics of the sexes.  

Moreover, there is a grammatical point that may be suggestive. The verse states that men are guardians, etc. of women because God has made some of them excel others. The Arabic original of the italicized objective pronoun (them) is the plural masculine. If taken literally, it would mean that God has made some men excel others. But if it is interpreted in conjunction with the first part of the verse, where men and women are mentioned, the pronoun them, though strictly masculine, can be taken so as to refer to both men and women. In this case, excellence is attributed to some generalized men and women. This would be based on the grammatical rule of taghlib, according to which a plural consisting of singulars differentiated on some levels may be identified by one of its components and still include the rest. For example, the sun and the moon may form a plural which can be called the “two moons.” It would seem that the referents of the objective pronoun them, of whom some excel, include members of both sexes for at least two reasons. First, if excellence is conferred by God on some men to the exclusion of other men and also of all women (a necessary conclusion of taking the original pronoun literally as a plural masculine), it would be difficult to explain why the Qur’an clearly designates men in general as guardians of women, or why it allocates rights and duties to the male sex on the merit of only some members thereof. Secondly, the object of the verb “excel” is defined neither by the masculine nor by the feminine pronoun, nor is the content of excellence specified in the verse. There is no direct indication of who is excelled or in what excellence is. Furthermore, it is a grammatical rule that the pronoun refers to the nearest preceding noun unless otherwise indicated. The nearest referent of the pronoun them in the verse is actually women, not men. If the interpreters of the Qur’an adhered to this rule of Arabic grammar, they would have concluded that God has made some of them, i.e., women, excel. But they, instead took the verse to mean that God has made some men excel. They went further to specify or define those who are excelled as women, and further still to conclude that men as such, not only some of them, excel and hence are superior to women as such, not only some of them. Such an interpretation and conclusion seem to draw no substantiation from the verse. They must have been reflections of the prevailing social conditions and mental dispositions. Not originating in any textual authentic declarations, they must have been adopted by men who actually believed themselves superior to women, in an age when external appearances probably lent support to such a belief, and in places where instrumental authority overcast expressive authority. The verse, which is somewhat equivocal, was adduced perhaps to rationalize those contemporary conditions and to give those men at least the appearance of evidence in support of their views, so that they would not be taken as contrary to the principles of religion.

In view of this analysis, a reinterpretation of the verse may be worth attempting. Men are guardians, etc. of women because men and women are not completely alike; they are differentiated and differentiable in various respects. Some of them, men and women, are endowed with what others, men and women, lack. In matters of guardianship and exercise of authority, men are generally more qualified than women and can better deal with the external problems of the family social system. Hence they are entrusted with the instrumental authority of the household. But this does not exhaust the quality of excellence, nor does it exclude the capacity or eligibility of women to excel in some other areas, e.g., expressive authority. If the two types of authority are “differentiated” but held to be equally essential to the family operation, then the question of the superiority of one sex to the other is actually irrelevant and hardly arises. But if they are “stratified” to present one type of authority as superordinate and another as subordinate, then whoever exercises the former type will be “superior” to the one who does the latter. However, it is doubtful whether students of the family would regard such a stratification useful or tenable.

At any rate, the idea that men are superior to women and have power over them without reciprocity or qualifications stemmed from sources apparently alien to the spirit as well as the letter of the passage under consideration. A contemporary Muslim sociologist has noted that the husband is entrusted with the instrumental authority for two basic reasons. First, since he is the party responsible for the general, and particularly the economic, welfare of the family, it would be unequitable and perhaps risky to allocate this authority to any other person. Secondly, this type of authority requires more rationality than emotionality. Because of their practical, acquired experience and external involvement, men are generally more capable of meeting that requirement. This is not to say that rationality and emotionality are mutually exclusive; they are complementary and indispensable to the family as a viable operative social unit. The investment of instrumental authority in the husband does not mean that he excels or is superior in every way. Men excel in certain respects and so do women. The husband’s authority is not the absolute or despotic type. It is restrained by the ethical principles of the Qur’an and in no way allows him to ignore his wife’s potential contribution to the decision-making process. It is a type of authority which, according to the same observer, is based on equity, guarded by compassion, and guided by conscientiousness, principles which underlie the husband-wife relationship in the Islamic scheme of society.

A contemporary Muslim theologian has drawn attention to an interesting fact. Islam requires leadership in every group activity, be it permanent or temporary. For example, whenever two or more persons congregate for worship, they must choose one of them who is best qualified to lead the congregation in prayers. Likewise, when they travel together, they must appoint one of them to assume leadership of the group. Leadership is, therefore, a requisite of any group activity and is to be invested in a person who is best qualified for it. What this seems to suggest is that the family leadership is not created for the husband; the “office” is not founded for the man. Rather, it is allocated to him and he is appointed to it because he is better qualified for the placement. This means that in his assumption of the family leadership the husband is bound by the rules of the office. If he violates the rules or abuses the office he ceases to qualify for it. His authority is not categorical, nor is his leadership unquestionable. They are neither imposed nor claimed, but allocated and subject to checks.

[The Family Structure in Islam by Hammūdah ʻAbd al-ʻĀṭī, p. 173-182]

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