Status of Men and Women

First Letter to Tahira

Dear daughter Tahira,

May you have a long life! I want to bless you with a wish that you may happily live to see your progeny flourish and prosper. Firstly, you will ask what this wish means. Even if I tell you that it is an affectionate blessing, you will ask the meaning of 'blessing.' If one has to ask for such a meaning, the wish loses its charm and effectiveness. A blessing, a subtle humour, and a melody or verse are effective only when they are spontaneously understood and absorbed. If you have to explain their meanings, they lose their spicy charm.

Daughter, I do appreciate all your complaints but whenever I write to Saleem, I always mean that you are included, too. I did not think of you and Saleem separately. But now I know that you are sensitive about it, and consequently I have keenly felt your special sarcasm that I, too, like other people, prefer a son to a daughter and consider a man better than a woman. No Tahira, you have misunderstood. This is simply beyond my imagination, but your sarcasm reflects depth of your vision and sensitivity of your feelings. I appreciate this, because I know if a woman's worthy emotions are not valued, how dangerous she can become. Listen dear daughter, do not ascribe a wrong meaning to this word 'dangerous'. It should be understood in the context I use it. I believe it is not difficult for you to understand the correct meaning of my words, since you have been hearing them a long time. A basic reason for the incompatibilities that have crept into our Muslim society is that man has disregarded the respect-worthy emotions of woman. It is a fact that he has never tried to understand woman. He has never considered her worthy enough of being understood. But has this neglect given him any peace? If your left eye is aching, can your right eye sleep peacefully?

Status of Woman under The Prevalent Laws

Tahira, in your mind you have quite easily concluded that since the "Sharia Laws" (Religious Laws) have been formulated by men, they give them an upper hand and tend to suppress women. There is no doubt that our prevalent ''Sharia Laws'' would result in the same mess. However, the reason is not as you have understood it. If we consider your reason to be correct, then men 'by nature' are such that they want an upper hand and want to overpower and enslave women. If you remember, I had analyzed this fact in a letter to Saleem, that there is no such thing as 'human nature'. What we call 'Nature' consists of something that he has brought along from his animal life. As far as animals are concerned, you never see a male keeping an upper hand over his female. As such, men cannot have this streak because of their animal instincts. Besides animal instincts, the qualities that manifest in 'human nature' are in fact the result of heredity, circumstances, education and nurturing. Therefore, it would be incorrect to claim that because our ''Sharia Laws'' have been made by men, they have given women a degraded position in them. Instead, it would be more appropriate to say that these laws had been formulated under such circumstances when tyranny, instead of justice, was the order of the day.

At that time, the 'woman' was hated. Hence, according to these laws and ideas, a woman's status was that of a down-trodden, enslaved and degraded being. These laws relate to our monarchical period and, as I have often repeated before, our prevalent 'Islam', too, was more or less formulated at that time. Life in this period, whether it concerned men or women had coercion as its prominent feature. For example, all the laws formulated at that time reserved all the rights for the ruling class. The ruled had no rights; they could only beg for the royal benevolence. They could not demand anything as of right. According to these laws, the landlord had all the rights, and the tiller of the land was treated as a servant. According to these rules a rich man could get all the luxuries whenever he wanted, and the poor received even their daily bread as a charity. In fact the poor got something, too, but this was only to save the giver from the influence of the evil eye.

So much so that according to these beliefs, a rich man could buy his paradise with his money, but a poor man had to cry and beg for his salvation.

It is so obvious, therefore, that in an environment where such laws and beliefs have been devised even for male subordinates, a woman cannot expect better treatment.

Influence of Christianity

In addition to tyranny, men were full of contempt for women when they made these laws. This had a particular reason.

As I have indicated on several occasions, our prevalent Islam is made up of the customary practices of Jews, the racism and personality cults of Zoroastrians, and the monasticism and priesthood of the Christians.

Christian priesthood had a very unwholesome image of woman. They believed that a woman was the source of all evils, because she was the reason behind poor Adam being expelled from paradise. She was regarded as a demon, because evil existed in the world due to her. Christianity thus regarded woman as the embodiment of all evils, and was, therefore, fit to be abhorred. Based upon this image, Christ's life of celibacy was regarded as the best model. The Christians went so far as to say that a woman did not even have a soul.

This reminds me of an interesting anecdote. We had a man named Prem Singh in our village, who practiced indigenous medicine. He took care of both humans and animals. Once mother had kidney pain and she wanted Prem Singh to prescribe some treatment. He said, "You do not have kidney pain." Since she had suffered this malady many times before, she insisted that it was her kidney aching. On hearing this Prem Singh said, "No Aunty, you do not have kidney trouble because women do not have kidneys." He presumed that men were the only ones having hearts and kidneys. What could mother have said to this quack? She just said to him, "Prem Singh, butcher Mohammad Deen slaughters a she-goat daily, and she has two kidneys just like a he-goat." Prem Singh replied, "Aunty it is different with a she-goat."

As I was saying the hateful Christian image of a woman filtered into Muslim society, too. This happened in the above mentioned cruel society. This was the period in Islamic Culture, during which women were auctioned in the market to be made into concubines, and everyone was free to buy and sell as many as he wanted, whenever he wished to. This business was legitimate according to Sharia; and is still so by the Sharia practiced by 'Mullahs'.

These were the circumstances under which ''Sharia laws'', were formulated, and which today are called 'Islamic'. To look for human dignity or actual status of women in these laws, is to deceive oneself. To justify these laws or to make them appear authentic, claim such as the following have been concocted: A woman has a defective mind; she was born out of Adam's rib, so like the rib she will remain crooked and if you try to straighten her, she will break but will not become straight; a nation which allows a woman's opinion in matters of state and public life would perish; and so on so forth.

Our Moral Code

On the basis of these beliefs and regulations, when a code of ethics was formulated, women were degraded in it as the following couplets read:

If a woman had a righteous character then she would not be called Zan (which means to beat), but would be called Mazan (meaning do not beat).

What a good thing it was that Jamshed said to his companion, that a woman's proper place is either behind the veil or in grave!

Remain alert even if you have a good woman. One's donkey should be tied securely, for even a friend could be thief.

If you want to hear something in more explicit words, then listen to the Heer of Waris Shah which reflects the society of Punjab and is always quoted like the Quran. I could have sent you a few relevant couplets, but the irony is that if I write some Persian verses, then I have to translate them; and if I say something in your own language, then I have to explain it as well. I do not understand what your schools and colleges are making of your generation? You forget your own language, and you do not learn any other well enough to be able to enjoy it. At least your generation is still tolerable, but I cannot say how the next one is being mould. But I forget, you and your generation are what we have made; and the future generation, too, will be whatever we will make of it. No one can blame the future generations. The behaviour of children reflects their training, or the lack of it.

Waris Shah

If a father wants to recite the writings of Waris Shah to his daughter, this could be embarrassing for him. Waris Shah's softest narration for women is that they are "Kanyan" of deceit. The word warrants a bit of analysis. In Surah Al-Yousuf, the famous quote of Zulekha's husband has been mentioned: These women are superb manoeuvrers (12:28). However, we present this saying as if God ordained it Himself. If ever you discuss women, somebody would immediately close the argument by saying, "It is futile to discuss women as God Himself has said: These women are superb manoeuvrers (12:28)." As such, no more reference is needed. Waris Shah, too, brands them as "deceitful" by following this 'revelation' of God. The word "Kanyan" (in Punjabi and Urdu) is essentially derived from an Arabic word "Kaida Kunna". It is, however, a very comprehensive word. You must have seen the cactus, called "Aak" (in Punjabi), generally found in the villages. It bears a fruit which looks like a mango, but which is extremely bitter. Its slightest touch on the tongue can make your whole mouth bitter; if a little gets into the eye, it can turn you blind. This is how you describe a "Kunni". It shows how a deceitful "Kunni" can be, and this is the picture of a woman as presented in our society. She looks like a fruit of paradise, but is extremely poisonous!

This was quotation from Waris Shah who is considered as representing the shallow section of our society, but how about the educated class of our people. They even present statistics to prove that a woman is stupid, uncouth and uneducated. In the first place, for ages you deny woman any access to knowledge, then you present her as uncouth and raw material to prove your point. Remember how from infancy Chinese girls were made to wear iron shoes, and when their feet did not grow, they were presented as proof that they could not even walk. (Before the Revolution it was customary to bind the feet of Chinese women, so that their feet could not grow, thus making it difficult for them to walk.)

Woman and Quran

All of these, dear daughter Tahira, were the results of the above mentioned laws and moral codes, which were the product of times mentioned above. However, the Muslim criteria of fixing the status of a woman, or man, are neither these social laws nor this moral code. For the Muslims, there is only one standard under the sky, and that is the book of God, which they profess to believe in. What status does the Quran endows for woman? The details are lengthy, but their gist reminds me of a joke which Allama Iqbal used to relate. He would say, "If I were not a Muslim, and I had studied the Quran like an ordinary student, then I would have concluded that this book was written by a woman, who was taking revenge on man, for the usurped rights of her community". If one studies the religions and cultures of the world, it leaves no doubt in one's mind that a woman has been pushed to extreme degradation. On the other hand, in the Quranic study it appears as if she has been favoured very much. For a start, the Quran has rejected the common belief that God created man (Adam) first and then woman (Eve) was created out of his rib. By now, you must have understood that according to the Quran, this very concept that human beings were created by a special couple called Adam and Eve, is wrong. The Quran, in effect, presents Adam as the representative of mankind or humanity.

Birth of a Human

The theory of evolution tells us that life began with a single cell that later divided itself into two i.e. an ovum and a spermatozoon. The Quran corroborates the same by saying: God created you from a single life cell and from it created its mate (for man a woman and for woman a man) and from them twain (4:1). In other words the single life cell swelled and divided itself into two and this continued until then a great number of men and women inhabited this world. And from them were created many men and women (4:1). You should note that the Quran does not discriminate between men and women by virtue of their genders. Their life source is the same, and they are like two branches of the same origin.

Zauj (One of a Pair)

The Quran calls both man and woman as Zauj; but in Urdu we call a woman the Zauja of a man. We do not call a man the Zauj of a woman. The Quran, however, calls both man and woman, Zauj to each other, meaning companions. Further, it does not say that the woman is a man's Zauj, and that the man is not. God addresses human beings and tells them: He has made Zauj among you (30:21, 42:11). Zauj means a friend and companion; which implies that men and women are each other's friends and companions. Accordingly, Zauj would mean the ones who are complementary to each other. Given this meaning, a man complements a woman, and a woman complements a man. They are Zauj to each other. The Quran has gone to the extent of saying, you are from each other (3:195). Therefore, no individual can call itself complete unilaterally.

After this, the Quran has negated the myth that 'Adam had faltered in the paradise due to a woman'. The belief of Satan trapping the woman and then the woman tempting Adam, who sinned and was then kicked out of paradise was rejected as has been mentioned in Torah of Jews. The Quran says that both man and woman are capable of compliance or defiance of laws; both can err and commit mistakes. Therefore, it said: Satan misguided both of them (2:36). Hence it is wrong to surmise that woman is responsible for all the sins committed in this world, and that the man is completely innocent.

Both Man and Woman are Respectable

Having seen the negative stance, let us explore the positive angle. The Quran ordains: Verily We have made humankind worthy of respect (17:70). This reference is not only for man, but for woman also. In the norms of the Arabic language when one wants to mention both men and women together, would say "Bani so and so". In the Quran, "Bani Israel" does not mean only men of Israel, but both men and women. Similarly when the Quran tells us: We created humans with aesthetic balance (95:4), this includes both men and women. The Quran always collectively addresses human beings, and not just men.

The Quranic Aim

By the way this point should make you understand the aim of the Quran, viz.:

(i) To develop human potentialities and to harmonize them in a balanced way. (Balance here means the appropriate and proper weight. Whatever weight anything is supposed to have, it should have just that. Everyone knows the importance of the exact or the correct weight of an ingredient in a doctor's prescription;)

(ii) The society in which people have to deal with each other should be balanced;

(iii) Humans and the forces of nature should also strike a harmonious balance.

In other words, the purpose of human life is to establish a balance. Now, when in the Quran human life refers to both men and women, is it possible that we can achieve this balance with only one gender (either men or women alone)? Can you imagine maintaining this balance by ignoring half of humanity altogether? A basic reason for all the imbalances in human life is the consideration of half of humanity as a whole. This deprives us of the benefits of a balanced way of life, as in general it remains incomplete.

This ignorance goes a step further. The half (which man considers as being human), has been further divided and sub divided to such an extent, that the very self of ninety-nine percent of humans has been discriminated against. Only those who belong to the "upper strata", according to their self-made norms, are considered humans. This is irrespective of any bias towards intellectuals like Plato, or to any religious leader. Every where you see the division and distinction of classes is prevalent. (But this subject does not fall into the inquiry your have made, so I shall not talk about it in detail in this letter.)

The Principle of Division of Labour

So Tahira, to maintain the balance mentioned above, what lines does the Quran draw? It urges you to think about and examine the universe; and the principle of the division of labour will be evident everywhere. The sun gives heat. Water is cool and provides moisture. Air has different qualities, and the provisions of earth are quite different. However, a seed is nourished by all these forces put together. All these forces work according to their own share in it. This division of labour does not recognize the superiority of one element over the other. Fire is in no way superior to water, because it provides heat and does not cool like water; in the same way water is not superior because it cools and does not give us heat like fire. Water and fire have different qualities and they have a place in the order of things; they are needed to keep the balance in our Universe. The merging together of one element with the other, fulfils each other's deficiencies. The seed needs both warmth and coolness for its nourishment. Since sun's rays lacked the coolness, the water provided it. In the same way water was deficient in warmth, and the sun provided it. As such, their correct function in the order of things is to amalgamate, so that the deficiency of one element may be compensated for by the other. But it would be stupid of the sun to think that it is superior, and that it can do something that water cannot.

Human society, too, can emulate the system prevalent in the universe. The principle of division of labour can be adhered here, too. In the human world man and woman are the two main 'beings'. They have qualities, which both of them share, but then they do have other characteristics which they do not share. The law that prevails in the universe applies here, too. One person's shortcomings are compensated for by the company of the other. In this respect one sex could be better than the other. This means, if men are superior to women in one respect, women are superior to men in another respect (4:32). Thus if one sex thinks that he or she is better because the opposite sex does not have the qualities which he or she has, it is a faulty judgment. The correct perspective would be to accept that one has a drawback which only the company of the opposite sex can complement; therefore, to complete oneself one might seek the other. s company. Hence one is no better than the other sex; rather one needs the other's company's to complete oneself. Consequently the Quran has made this the basis of relationship between men and women when it says: We endowed you with "Moaddah" and "Rahmat" (30:21).

Both these words require pondering upon. "Moaddah" ordinarily means love and attraction, but 'wadun' is that nail which connects two things that mutually strengthen each other. That is why a complete display of the qualities of a thing is called 'Madam'. At another place in the Quran, this kind of complete merging of a man and woman has been referred to as a "dress". The Quran says: You are for each-other like a dress is for a body (2:187).

The other word is Rahmat, which means provisions for nourishment. Nourishment and security of the kind you get in a mother's uterus. Therefore, We endowed you with 'Moaddah' and 'Rahmat' (30:21), would mean that mutual companionship of men and women nourishes and balances each other's capabilities. Hence if a man thinks he is superior to a woman, it is just his self inflated ego; it does not carry any weight in the scale of universal law.

Woman's Individual Qualities

As I have mentioned above, men and women have many qualities which are common to both of them, for example intellect and insight. Those aspects of life in which both have common qualities would work side by side. By virtue of the division of labour, mentioned before, a woman has been biologically endowed with the capability of giving birth and raising a child. This a man lacks. This female capability fulfils a basic need of the society, and thus compensates for man's great drawback. In this respect a woman is far superior to a man. A mother's lap is the first training ground of a child. The child would be what his mother makes him; and the entire nation would be influenced by this upbringing. That is why in the Arabic language (and in the Quran itself) the nation is named as 'Ummah'. The root of this word is 'Um', which means mother. Therefore, according to the Quran, a mother is responsible for building and moulding a nation. This is the one quality of woman, which man is deprived of. Just think of how colossal a burden of responsibility a woman carries, and how exalted her status is! A woman spends most of her life dealing with these responsibilities, and during that time she may be unable to participate in those activities which require effort and hard physical work. This role in society is fulfilled by man. He spends and uses all his time to exploit and develop the sources of nourishment. (This is what is known as earning the daily bread). It is, however, obvious that this cannot give man an upper hand over a woman. A woman supplements one of his deficiencies and he covers for one of hers. In other words the woman is productive or procures in one way, and man in another. One is superior in one aspect, the other is superior in another. God has made you superior to one another (due to having different qualities) (2:34).

The Quran reveals that it is because of your self-made standards that you believe that since man earns and spends his earnings on the woman, he is better being. (If one accepts the principle that the earners are better than the spenders, then the farmers should be considered better than the thinkers, philosophers and inventors; and the soldiers fighting in a war should be much lower than the labourers, because thinkers, philosophers and soldiers do not till the land and produce food). You have stretched this self-made criterion to such an extent, that a woman has started questioning as to why she was made a female, and not a man. The society that the Quran envisages can never raise such questions in a woman's mind. That is why God has said:

On the basis of whatever qualities you have been endowed with by God, you cannot discriminate against the other sex in such a manner, that the other one yearns for the same (4:32).

Men and women have different qualities depending upon their individual fields of work. The question remains whether both do their duties in the most conscientious and dedicated manner.

Those who work diligently and wholeheartedly in their respective sphere of activities will reap the benefits in the society. You should only wish for being able to do your best in your respective fields (4:32).

Common Capabilities

Aside from this division of labour, the remaining human capabilities belong to both men and women. Surah Al-Ahzab mentions all these capabilities, which can be attributed to both men and women:

If men have the potentiality to develop their personality by harmonizing themselves with the Laws of Allah, then women also have a similar potentiality; if men can be members of a movement that aims at world peace according to the inviolable Laws of Allah, then women also can participate in it by becoming its members; if men can restrain their capabilities so as to develop them within the laws of Allah, so can women; if men can vindicate the truth of their conviction through its practical implementation in life, so can women vindicate it; if men can remain steadfast on the path they have chosen, so can women; if men have the inexhaustible capacity to be more and more in harmony with the Laws of Allah once they are set on this path, so have women this inexhaustible capacity; if men can sacrifice lower values for higher values, so can women; if men can exercise control and do not violate the limitations set on them, so can women; if men can keep their sexual urge within the desired limits, so can women; if men can understand the Laws of Allah and focus their activities in life on them, so can women. Now if both men and women have equal capacities and potentialities, their results should also be the same for both of them. Hence both will enjoy protection and security, and all other such benefits and joy that will come out of their deeds (33:35).

Tahira, look at all these Quranic details and think! Is there any aspect of life for which it has said that man has a particular quality which the woman does not; that man can do this and a woman cannot; or that man can become this, and a woman cannot? That is why the Quran tells us, in clear terms:

The positive actions of both men and women would bring them satisfying results; both would experience heaven side by side; it will be the heaven of their home, of this world and in continuity of this life, the heaven of the hereafter (4:124). Nobody's toils would be wasted. (3:195).

You have seen Tahira, that according to the Quran:

(i) Both men and women have been endowed with all the human qualities. The objective of life is to develop all these qualities, and to use them most appropriately. Therefore on this account, there is no distinction between men or women. Both are entitled to 'enter paradise'. As such, there is no reason why one sex should be distinguished from the other.

(ii) However, due to the universal law of division of labour, there are certain duties that only a woman can fulfil. In this respect a woman compensates for one of man's great deficiency in society. But as a woman has to spend a great deal of her life fulfilling the call of these duties, she cannot earn her living. A man is thus called upon to fulfil this deficiency of the society. However, just as a woman cannot have an upper hand because she is fulfilling those duties which are impossible for a man to perform, in the same manner a man, too, cannot subjugate a woman by claiming that throughout most of her life she is incapable of earning her living.

(iii) Society's balance can be maintained only if all people perform their respective duties to the best of their abilities.

(iv) In this respect the life gets divided into two spheres. One encircles the duties of a woman only, and the other encompasses duties in which both men and women can participate together.

(v) Just as it would be wrong for a woman not to perform the duties exclusively assigned to her, in the same manner it would also be wrong to confine to her particular circle and to prohibit her from entering the mutual enclosure. Both such actions can cause the disruption of the society.

Men Rule the Women

After these Quranic explanations, let us now examine the verse that is causing you so much worry. This verse has been translated like this:

Men are rulers of women and because some spend on others from their earnings, they have been given supremacy over others. Therefore, good women are obedient and guard themselves against the unknown, even when nobody is looking. As for those women whom you are afraid would be disobedient, you should advise them, confine them to their rooms and beat them. If they listen to you and obey then spare them. Surely God is great (4:34). (From the translation of Shah Rafiudin)

Your anxiety is understandable because you have been reading the more common translations that arrive at the same conclusions which you have reached. These are the translations which men use to justify their use of the 'stick'. They present this verse as the 'Divine certificate or sanction'. This translation tells you that because they earn and spend on women, men are the rulers. A woman is thus duty-bound to be obedient to man; and if she is not, then he can beat her.

This is the position of women according to the common translations. Before I explain the correct meaning of this verse, I want you to understand an important point. When I say that our traditional translations do not give a correct understanding of the Quran, an objection is raised that as those learned translators were seasoned scholars of Arabic, how is it possible that they could not translate correctly? To day, we have Muslim countries whose mother tongue is Arabic, and if they, too, have not understood the correct meanings of the Quran, then who else would?

Why Translations are Incorrect

These objections carry weight. To refute this objection it is, therefore, absolutely necessary to know the facts. The scholars who translated the Quran were faced with the task of fixing the meaning of a certain word in the Quran, and in any case they had to turn to language experts. We had hundreds of Quranic explanations written in Arabic during the third Hijra century. Some of these translators are even considered to be authorities on Arabic literature. Take, for example "Tafseer Jalalain", in which equivalents of the Quranic words have been used. Our translators considered these commentaries as the main basis for the translations. In the same manner Arabs, too, consider these commentaries as basic criteria. That is, whatever has been written in these Arabic commentaries is considered as the correct meaning of the Quran. This would therefore tell you that whatever meanings have been expounded in our translations, or else whatever understanding Arabic speaking people have ascribed it is in effect that comprehension of the Quran which our predecessors have written about in their commentaries. For instance, let us examine a relevant verse (4:34). In this verse "Qawwamun" has been translated as Ruler. Our ancestors consulted the Arabic commentaries to understand the meaning of "Qawwamun." In "Kashaaf" its meaning has been written as "Musaitarin" which means "supervisors" and "Jalalain" had the equivalent word "Mutasalleteen" which means the one who imposes one's will on others. It is obvious that when our translators noticed that these scholars of literature and their commentaries have ascribed such meanings, they, too, translated it as "Ruler". This is the correct translation of the words which are the equivalent of "Qawwamun" as used in these books; but not of the Quranic word "Qawwamun". As such, we should try to understand how this faulty comprehension crept into these commentaries.

As I have mentioned before, these commentaries were written at a time when society was oppressed by kingship and our Sharia (Laws) had come under the influence of mysticism, Zoroastrians, Jews and the Christians. Tabari's commentary was the earliest, and the others are in fact a continuation of the same. Tabari fixes the meaning of the Quran according to the previous commentators. In quite a few of my articles I have mentioned how these commentaries came into being, and how they were arranged and collected. The history of commentaries reveals that it was quite easy to coin a meaning. All these commentaries are a reflection of that society and period in which they were minted - which is certainly not the glorious time of the Messenger of God (PBUH). It is thus obvious that the comprehension of the Quran as fixed by these interpretations would be prejudiced. To understand this fact, let us once again examine again the verse we have been looking at above.


We have seen that "Kashaaf" and others have understood "Qawwamun" as supervisors and imposers, and justified the beating of women from this verse. Our books mention the circumstances which led to the revelation of this verse. They tell us that a woman complained to the Nabi (PBUH) about her husband who had slapped her, who in turn advised her to take revenge; but when this verse was revealed he had to take his decision back. Another account tells us that the Nabi (PBUH) forbade the beating of women and that upon hearing this Omer® came and told him that after hearing this order, women had become bold towards their husbands. Thereupon the Nabi (PBUH) again allowed husbands to beat their wives. Following this, when menfolk resorted to the beatings then the women came back to him with many complaints. Once again, on hearing these complaints he told men that he disapproved of the beating of women; but when he wanted to allow the taking of revenge, then this verse was revealed. Therefore, the standing order remained that since men rule over them, they can beat the women. We are told by Ashath ® that once he was visiting Omer ®, when the latter happened to have an argument with his wife. Omer ® struck her, and then said, "Look, Ashath ®, remember three things that I heard the Nabi (PBUH) say: Firstly, a man should never be asked the reason for beating his wife; second, always say your "witar" (a prayer offered at night) prayers before you go off to sleep; and the third, I have forgotten."

It is not only that the men have been made rulers over you. There is yet another story attributed to the Nabi (PBUH) in which he is reported to have said that, "If ever I could order anyone to bow before somebody other than God, then I would order a woman to prostrate before her husband." To explain this there are more sayings, but these are not the sort of things that a father could write to her daughter.

These are the historical accounts, which have been written in our oldest books of commentaries, to explain the verse we are looking at. Owing to these commentaries, the "Qawwamun" have been considered as imposers and supervisors; and the same has been translated as 'rulers' by our translators. Accordingly, our laws of jurisprudence were formulated; and as such, Hasas in "Ahkam ul Quran" has attributed all the religious laws pertaining to the beating and confining of women, to these traditions and commentaries.

Another Hurdle

These traditions created another big hurdle. If the early scholars had attributed the meanings of the Quranic verses to themselves, then the later experts could have differed from them, but because the former attributed the meanings to the Messenger of God (PBUH), then their referred explanations became quoted as having been said by the Messenger of God (PBUH). Accordingly, out of reverence, nobody could dare disagree to them. Hence if ever anybody disagreed with these meanings, the immediate rejoinder was, "do you understand the Quran better, or is it the Messenger of God (PBUH) who knows more"? Now, which Muslim worth his salt could ever claim to know the Quran better than the Messenger of God (PBUH)? In this way the explanations in these commentaries gained the status of basic laws for all times to come. It is, however, very clear that these faulty interpretations were never rendered by the Nabi (PBUH); rather these emanated from those traditions which were practiced several hundred years after the death of the Nabi (PBUH). If the meanings had been got confirmed by the Messenger of God (PBUH), then he would either have got an authentic book written along with the Quran, or he would have written it himself and given it to the people. But the Messenger of God (PBUH) did not give any such book to the people (Ummah), and therefore, the meanings expressed in the books referred to above do not belong to him. The later comprehension belongs to our commentators and was fixed during the period mentioned above, but to give authenticity the practices cited are being attributed to Nabi (PBUH).

By now, Tahira, you must have understood how, "Qawwamun" in (4:34), was translated as 'imposers', 'supervisors' and 'rulers'. It would be of some advantage if I mention here a delicate point. It appears that somebody realized that some non-Muslims may object to the permission being given by the Messenger of God (PBUH) to maltreat women. Now see how they have tried to evade this objection. One account relates that when a woman accosted the Messenger of God (PBUH) and complained against her husband, she was allowed to take revenge. Then this verse was revealed, and the Messenger of God (PBUH) remarked, "We wanted something else but God ordered contrary to it". Tahira, do you understand what happened? The commentators tried to show that the Messenger of God (PBUH) wanted justice for women, but because God ordered something contrary to it, the Messenger of God (PBUH) was rendered helpless. Therefore, he had to concede and educate the people accordingly.

The inventors of this explanation saved the Messenger of God (PBUH) from this objection, but made the blame go automatically towards God. The severity of the objection increases when you think that even the Messenger of God (PBUH) felt the harshness of the Divine order. So much so, that he remarked, "We wanted something else, but God ordered contrary to it". It is very clear that this account has been conjured up later. The Messenger of God (PBUH) always kept his will in line with the Divine laws; and he always wished it so. He would never say that he wanted something else, and that God gave him something quite the opposite. Those people who say that throughout his life the Messenger of God (PBUH) taught what was revealed to him, should ponder as to why the Messenger of God (PBUH) would desire one thing, when God ordered otherwise.

Correct Comprehension of the Verse

 Tahira, I realize that you are impatient to learn the Quranic sense of that verse. But unless you know the background to the prevalent explanation, you will not understand the real meaning. I deemed it necessary to go into these details, before coming to the actual and real meaning.

First of all, note that this verse is not talking about a husband and wife. "Ar-Rijal" men, and "An-Nisa" women, in general, are being talked about. Therefore, the discussion concerns the duties of men and women in a society.

You have seen that the women, owing to their particular duties are unable to earn their living; and on the other hand, men have all the time to devote to this. Therefore, the Quran enjoins that according to the principle of division of labour men are the providers of the living. This makes the meaning of this verse quite clear that in society it is the duty of men to earn the living. This is because the principle of the division of labour tells us that men have more of one kind of capability, and women have been endowed with more of another kind. Since men can devote all their time to earning a living and the women are at times unable to do so; then the income of men should fulfil the needs of women. This arrangement would provide women with the necessities of life, and their capabilities would flourish. Women would thus be free to use their abilities for the goals assigned to them. This is the meaning of "Qanetat". "Siqaun Qanitun" means a canteen (a water canister made of leather) which is used for transporting water. After it is filled, the opening can be securely closed so that water would not spill on the way; but it would be available for when and where needed. If women have to earn their own living, then they cannot use their abilities that they have been particularly endowed with to fulfil certain functions. These abilities would thus be misplaced and wasted. This point has been further clarified by saying:the law of God provided them with their livelihood, so that they would be free to peacefully nurture what has been assigned to them, confidentially, that is, the care of the foetus (4:34).

Here Tahira, two things require serious thinking. Firstly, the Quran mentions these particular duties and commitments of women in such a decent manner and pointers, that even a father can talk to his daughter without any reservations. Secondly, our traditional translations and prevalent commentaries profess as follows: Men are rulers and supervisors over women because they spend their earnings on them; and in turn good wives are obedient and keep themselves chaste in the absence of men. This implies that it is the business of men to rule women; and it is enjoined upon women to obey men and remain chaste. It is, therefore, claimed that only women should be virtuous, obedient and chaste. However, in Surah Al-Ahzab, and in all the verses that have been mentioned before, the Quran enjoins that both men and women are required to have all these qualities. If it is necessary for a woman to be obedient, then according to the Quran, it is just as important for a man to be obedient. Therefore, the principle that only men are to rule and earn, and women to obey, is totally wrong. The relationship of men and women is that of mutual companionship. A mutual companionship completely negates the idea of one ruling and the other obeying. Both are, Zauj (companions) of each other, and both adhere to divine laws.

The Beating of Women

Let us proceed and examine the rest of the verse.

Since the commentaries have decided that men are to rule over the women, and that women are to obey men, then the rest of the verse in endorsing the first part was understood as: If a wife disobeys, then first she should be persuaded, thereafter, the mutual relationship should be discontinued, and if all these recourses are ineffective, then she should be beaten (4:34).

As written before, the reference here is not to husband and wife. We are talking about the duties of ordinary men and women. As said earlier, according to the principle of division of labour, men are required to earn and women, being free from such worries should, therefore, shoulder their own responsibilities to the best of their abilities. It is further stated that if women, despite this exemption, defy the principle of division of labour without any reason, as seen in some European countries, then it is necessary for society to halt this practice. If to copy men, they neglect their duties without any justification, then the human race could vanish. That is why it has been said that first, society should persuade them and explain that this trait of theirs would spell disaster. If, after this, they still do not listen, then they should be confined to the four walls of their homes. This would be like internment. If, however, they are still defiant, then they would qualify for corporal punishment, authorized by a proper court of law.

My dear daughter, this is the correct comprehension and sense of this verse. Our legacy, however, has been telling us that as men are the rulers and supervisors of women, they have a right to enslave their wives. Since the wife uses her husband. s earnings, it is her duty to obey him, and if she does not, then he has the right to use his stick and coerce her into obedience.

Tahira, this letter has become quite long and there are still many of your questions, which require replies. Anyway I shall definitely be writing to you again and the forthcoming letters will contain the answers to every query of yours. But please do not hurry me. You know that I have so many other things to do.

Peace be with you!

May 12,1953

Appendix to the letter above 

Certain queries regarding the following two points, were received after the letter above was published:

(i) Why is the inheritance of a girl half that of the boy?

(ii) Why are two women 'equal' to a man when giving evidence?

Both these topics were in my mind, and as I had written at the end of the letter, I was thinking of clarifying these and other related topics in subsequent letters. However judging from the number of letters I have received, readers are anxious about these two topics. Therefore, I have felt it appropriate that I should explain them sooner.

Girl's Share in Inheritance

Regarding inheritance, the Quran tells us that the share of one boy is equal to that of two girls (4:11). As I have mentioned in my previous letter, the Quran establishes a society in which men are the main earners, because the duties and responsibilities assigned to the women do not leave them with enough time to earn their own living. It is thus obvious that in a society in which the man is responsible for earning livelihood, he should get a larger portion when making an economic division. That is why, in inheritance, a boy's share has been kept double that of a girl. Girls have not been made responsible for their own, or their family's expenses. On the contrary, a boy has to bear his own expenses in addition to those expenses of his wife and children. As such, he should be getting the greater share.

On the other hand, in a situation in which men are neglecting their duties and it is feared that the girls would be rendered destitute, then the Quran gives authority that, in a will, a person can divide his property as he pleases and according to the circumstances. The division of inheritance as given in the Quran is only applicable if a person dies without executing a will, or if his will does not include all his property. The Quran is quite clear about this.

As you can see, the fixing of a lesser share for a girl neither lessens her rights nor degrades her status in the society, when compared to that of a man.

Women's Evidence

The second point is about evidence. Surah Al-Baqarah enjoins upon us that whenever you deal in loans, you should state it in writing and have two men to witness it. Further on it says: If you do not have two men, then make a man and two women as witnesses. The Quran itself explains why should there be two women. It is commonly understood that the verse means: if one of them forgets, then the other one reminds her (2:282). But the Quran has used the word "Tadilla" which is quite different from forgetting. Basically it means to get confused or become perplexed. Given this explanation for the word, let us come to the actual verse. This verse raises these questions:

(i) Why does it necessitate two women in place of one man?

(ii) Why has it been said, particularly about women, that if one is perplexed then the other would remind her?

From this it is commonly concluded that the Quran feels the women are less trustworthy and that their mental capability is less than that of men.

For trustworthiness, the Quran enjoins the condition of two even for men. Would you conclude this that the Quran does not also trust men? Was it for this that one man was not considered enough! Was another one considered necessary for evidence? It is obvious that the Quran does not mistrust one man. The only purpose, according to the Quran of having two men as witnesses is that if there is anything lacking in the statement of one, then the testimony of the other one would complement it. This is only to forestall any legal omission. The purpose is not to brand men untrustworthy. The purpose is to have absolutely reliable evidence, without any omissions. In the same way when the Quran makes it necessary for two women in place of one man, it is not telling us that women are any less trustworthy than men. Here, too, the aim is to have the most reliable evidence. Otherwise, as far as the comparative trust among men and women is concerned, the Quran gives both an equal status. For example where evidence in law has been mentioned, the testimony of one woman is just as acceptable as that of one man.

Now we are left with the second question as to why did the Quran specifically remark about women, that if one of them is confused or perplexed then the other should remind her?

Clearly according to the division of labour (which, as I have mentioned in my letter, refers to the duty of women towards bringing up and nurturing children and of men to earn the family's livelihood), some differences between biological constitution of men and women were necessary.

Psychological differences Between Men and Women

This difference is quite natural. Since physical characteristics do influence a person's psyche, men and women necessarily have psychological differences. In this respect, one resulting effect, which is quite clear is that, a man, after bringing income, is satisfied that he has done his duty towards bringing up his children. The woman, on other hand, is never satisfied that she has done enough, even after sacrificing all she has on her children. She wants to put in even the last reserve of her energy into caring for her child. If it were possible, she would physically keep her child in her heart. The hugging of the child to her bosom is the subconscious manifestation of this emotion. You have noticed that every woman in this world carries her child on her left arm. Why? It is because she wants to keep her child close to her heart, which is on the left side. What are the consequences of these psychological or biological differences between men and women? Many western scholars of psychology have done, and are doing research on this subject. Dr. M. Esther Harding has written an interesting book on this subject, called "The Way of All Women". In it he has written about the point we are considering:

If the men are asked to work where problems of human relationship are involved, they do not find it palatable, but the women on the other hand love such jobs. The women find it difficult, where they are required to define details of a problem with absolute accuracy. (Page 301).

Why does this happen? Nothing conclusively could be said about it, but Dr. Harding states that this is an ability which he has found generally common among the women he has tested in many practical examples.

If this research is correct, then you can appreciate how much the Quran has taken care of this issue. In the courts, the details of a case are normally argued, commented, discussed and questioned in a very critical manner. If the details of the case are not presented absolutely accurately, then this also affects the evidence in the case. To corroborate evidence, it is necessary that even the minutest differences are defined correctly. Women might have that psychological deficiency which has been mentioned above, and moreover by being busy with their particular duties, they may not have enough opportunities, as compared to men, to participate in such activities or problems. As a result, matters of dispute such as court cases where serious matters are discussed, a woman in general would not be able to explain the details correctly. The Quran has described the same phenomenon at a different place and in another manner. Surah Al-Zukhruf states that the Arabs used to believe that God had daughters. They used to say that their angels and deities were God's daughters. The Quran replied, (let alone the belief of God having children is absolutely ridiculous). Look at the dilemma, that even for off-springs they allocate sons to themselves and girls are attributed to God. They devalue a girl so much, that if a man hears the 'good news' of the birth of a daughter, he becomes sad and then says that it is God's child.

Those who have been brought up with a silver spoon and in jewels, in matters of dispute they are not very clear about their mind. (43:18).

To become perplexed in disputed matters, specially court cases, is the same that has been mentioned in Surah Al-Baqarah by the word "Tadhal" (mental confusion) By now you must have understood that two women in place of one man does not mean that women cannot be trusted, or that they are less brainy, or that they are given any privilege to rule women.

According to Dr. Harding's research, if women fall behind in issues concerning accurate details, the men are lacking in matters of public relationship. If one is deficient in one aspect, the other is deficient in another. Mutual cooperation can fulfil all the deficiencies in a society.

It should be made quite clear that the Quran talks in general terms and does not discuss the exceptions. It is not meant that proper education and training cannot make up for the deficiency in a person. The heavenly or ideal society professes that: a woman will have a flair for oratory and languages (56:37). Further to these explanations, it is to be noted that in respect of the two women, the Quran does not say that both of them are to give evidence one after the other, thereby making their testimony equal to that of one man. It says: if the one who is presenting evidence is uncertain due to some confusion, then the one standing by her should remind her (2:282). This makes it obvious that if the woman recording the evidence is not confused then any prompting by the other would not occur, and the testimony of a lone woman would be enough.

It is also evident that if girls are not adorned by jewels only that they would not be at a loss when problems in life are to be tackled; but when they are adorned with the jewels of education and proper training, they would be quite eloquent. In this case no standby woman would be needed for evidence. The Quran's laws in such matters are specifically conditional. When these conditions are not fulfilled, the laws do not remain operative. For example, if you do find water, then the law of dry ablutions becomes spurious.

This is all regarding this matter, as I have been able to understand from the Quran. As I have already mentioned in my letter, the different aspects of the relation between men and women*, and their position in the society, are in front of me, and you will see them gradually in my forthcoming letters.


* In respect of divorce, the Quran says men have a slight privilege over women, I shall refer to this at a relevant place.           Go to top