Privilege in the Qur’an: Verse 4:34 and Verse 4:135

Verse 4:34 may be the most controversial verse in the Qur’an for Muslim feminists, and the deliberate mistranslation has already been tackled in this space. But what I want to do now is examine a different part of the verse, specifically the beginning, which has also been unsurprisingly interpreted in highly questionable ways in only the last few centuries. The beginning of the verse reads:

Men are the maintainers and protectors of women, for God has bestowed in bounty on one than the other. (Qur’an 4:34)

Which is a really, really crappy translation. And other translations are even worse and even further from accurate. Some translators go as far as to translate the second segment as “men excel over women” or that “God prefers one over the other.” This translation above, though seemingly vague, at least preserves an obscure sense of the original message. The first piece [men are the maintainers and protectors of women] has terrible, terrible word choice in the translation, which is partly because translators are dudes exerting patriarchal biases into egalitarian verses, and partly because (in this instance) the English language fails us. There isn’t really a single English equivalent for what the words maintainers and protectors are attempting to cover.

The word in Arabic used for maintainer is qawwamoona, and to fully illustrate what this means, I have to use an example from a different verse in which that word is key:

O YOU who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding equity and securing justice [qawwameena], bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God even though it be against yourselves, or your parents and kinsmen, whether the man be rich or poor; God stands closest to either. (Qur’an 4:135)

Oh yes. The word translated as “maintainers” means upholders of equity and justice. Why didn’t they utilize that entire phrase in verse 4:34 as it should have been when it makes the most sense in this context, and the most sense in the context of the entire Qur’an and its egalitarian inclinations, when they seemed to have no problem doing so when the exact same word is used in dictating the importance of nondiscriminatory justice amongst people of different families and classes and against oneself? Because that would require men to admit that they have enough of a tendency to be total sexist douchecanoes who consistently fail to uphold equity, enough to warrant a warning from God. (Though I have no doubt this can be twisted as well: God said only men can be justices! Uhm, no.)

Actually, let’s get that out of the way. Verse 4:135 is clearly stating that justice should not be made a plaything, and that last part God stands closest to [takes precedence over] either warns that justice is with citizens, not with those who rule over them with man-given power or privilege. Considering that the same word is used in verse 4:34, the verse is warning men not to attempt to control women.

‘Cause seriously, wtf does “maintainers” mean? Maintainers of what?

There’s a reason of course that this has been the translation of choice. Maintainers does not make it the warning and responsibility it is. Maintainers sounds like a right.

We can see, especially now that we have the correct concept in the first clause, the second suddenly makes sense. (Amazing what proper context can do!) Men have been given more responsibility in upholding equity because they are wrongfully privileged in society.

Men are the maintainers and protectors of women, for God has bestowed in bounty on one than the other. (Qur’an 4:34)

For God has bestowed more responsibility in securing justice and upholding equity. And this is made even clearer as we examine the Arabic word that was replaced with “protector.” The word is faddala which is used like 20 times in the Qur’an for everything between to trust and to elevate and to control. The most frequent use of the word is to signify wealth, and material wealth is mentioned in the very next clause, though that does not limit it to only this meaning. Arabic is beautifully and frustratingly fluid. But in a period of time in which men made (and still make–it might even be comparatively worse now if we’re talking about 7th century Islamic world) a considerably larger sum of money, money means power, and power means greater responsibility to contribute good to society… and a stronger warning and expectation to uphold justice.

In fact, the warning is given to women as well in the following sentence–wealthy women are responsible as well for being the guardians for whom they spend and for society:

Therefore the righteous women are devoutly loyal to God, and guard what God would have them guard. (Qur’an 4:34)

Interesting how only this part was translated this way, despite the fact that it’s the very next sentence and there is an obvious intrinsic parallel in the structure and message, and so naturally this would mean guarding society and securing justice in the same way. But apparently when women “guard” things it can only be sexual right? It can’t be something as enormous as society because LOL God wouldn’t trust a woman with that…

Men shall uphold equity and guard the justice of women for God has bestowed in bounty on one than the other, with what they may spend out of their wealth. And the righteous women as well are devoutly loyal to God and guard which God has [ordained to be] guarded. (Qur’an 4:34)

Also, “devoutly loyal to God” has been magically translated as “devoutly obedient to husbands” in certain translations. (Supposedly the argument for this is that the husband is always moral [men don’t make mistakes!] and so technically obeying your husband is like… omG blasphemy. Seriously, how can anyone say things like this and call themselves Muslim; you have just denied the most basic part of the faith in which you don’t associate things with God.)

40 thoughts on “Privilege in the Qur’an: Verse 4:34 and Verse 4:135

  1. 1. It can't be something as enormous as society because LOL God wouldn't trust a woman with that… LOOOL2. Shouldn't it be " and so technically disobeying* your husband is like… omG blasphemy. 3. Why not understand it as chose the women over the men? I mean, the verse doesn't specify. The men should take care of the women, because god preferred women and didn't want to oblige them to working? blasphemy? Awesome awesome post :D

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  2. Also, "devoutly loyal to God" has been magically translated as "devoutly obedient to husbands" in certain translations. I have the Asad translation of the Qur'an. He translates Therefore the righteous women are devoutly loyal to God, and guard what God would have them guard. asAnd the righteous women are the truly devout ones, who guard the intimacy which God has [ordained to be] guarded.Which reads to me as "keep your legs shut!" Yeah.Not having been raised Muslim or having learned any Arabic, when I read a translation of the Qur'an, I feel at a loss: I know that most translations are written from a patriarchal standpoint, and yet I don't have the tools to question that standpoint. Your posts on feminist interpretation of the Qur'an have been helpful in that regard.

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  3. zeina: The whole thing (without the ellipse) was supposed to read as "so technically [according to them] obeying your husband is like obeying God"–which is blasphemy, as we are not supposed to associate anything with God, including husbands.And yes, that's exactly what I was hoping people would see: it can just as easily be interpreted as preferring women.Galla: Ugh yeah. And Asad's translation is still better than Yusuf Ali's. What's there for intimacy is is closer to secret which is far from being, or at least not limited to, anything sexual. In that part of the verse addressing women there is mostly a sense of "something crucial to preserve" and we know from context that it's related to faith —> the practice of taking care of society as a practice of faith.

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  4. Yes, I have. I love that kyriarchy illustrates how different identities interact in different ways and in different situations, and I can definitely see the need for its ability to be so nuanced and use it often in most situations actually. But I tend to use patriarchy in this space when I talk about the Muslim community, because the word is rooted in institutionalized gender hierarchies (not that the Muslim community is more sexist than most others–sexism manifests itself in different ways in forms of violence other than physical) but because it's so apparent, that the word patriarchy serves a special purpose in its narrowed sting in specifically the circumstances making up the Muslim experience. If we stay within the Muslim community, there isn't a single circumstance in which a Muslim man is not valued more than a Muslim woman. Even with factors like classism and colorism and homophobia incorporating themselves in the experience–they will still prefer a male leader, will believe men make better professionals, and will prefer speaking to the man even in the presence of the woman, regardless of other identities.Of course, that may just be my experience and I'm limited in my experience as we all are. Maybe kyriarchy is just as suitable in these situations. If you have any thoughts you'd like to share Riven I'd be happy to hear them. =)

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  5. Oh i think you are right about the patriarchy and the muslim community. Kyriarchy caught my eye because among muslim women you get that oppression of other women like a mini oyramid. Converts and disabled women get to be at the bottom.

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  6. Yes, kyriarchy among Muslim women is a huge problem, and a strange development is that kyriarchy exists in weirdly gendered terms within the community as a whole because there's such segregation between men and women. It takes on its own life between the two divisions. Women, of course, are subjected to the harsher effects of it, usually inflicted upon them by other women.

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  7. Nahida, I absolutely love these ones of your posts, they teach me a lot of Islam. They make me hopeful, but they also make me very angry because of the many mistranslations and abuse of the words in the Qur'an. Like you said, most Muslims, even most Arab Muslims, don't fully understand everything in the Qur'an, and too often have the words been interpreted in a way to further patriarchal society and patriarchal needs and wants.Thank you for showing a different interpretation, which makes much more sense in light of the overall message of the Qur'an.

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  8. Pingback: Newsflash: A woman is not a “kind”, “baby” or “chick”. And guess what? We talk about more than men! | AntiDogmaSpray

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  10. Abdulla Masud

    The word “qawwamoona” means “Protector” and “maintainer”. We all know men have more strength then a women. And that’s what it says, men are protectors of their wives. They protect them from any kind of harm or pain whether it be physically or emotionally. And by “maintainer” it means that he maintains her clothing and food PROPERLY. He gives her what she wants and what she needs.

    Read this page:
    http://discover-the-truth.com/2013/12/04/quran-434-beat-them-wife-abuse/

    Love & Peace.

    Hope I was helpful. :)

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      1. Abdulla Masud

        haha you’re funny. Don’t mean no harm. Islam gives equal rights to everyone. Just agreeing to your points. And giving certain points, which does not contradicts your points. Anyway good luck with your posts.

        P.S. – Just curious, Am I the first “Male being” to comment on your post?

        Love & Peace.

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  11. Yasmeena

    Jazak Allah khair for this! I love this ayah because when I first read it, I had the exact same interpretation as you and it amazes me that some have interpreted/translated it as men having “to maintain” women because they’re naturally stronger or something, yet it’s obvious that almost the whole ayah is dedicated to giving women their rights. Also the reason why I had that interpretation immediately is that in Arabic (or the dialect I know, Modern Palestinian) “to raise/stand” is “qwm” and so I always thought of men being “qawwamoon” to come from the word “qwm” leading the ayah to mean “to raise/stand [for]” women’s status in the sense of giving them their deserved rights because men have male privilege. I have no idea if the word “qwm” is the root, it could just be the modern dialect, but I’d appreciate your feed back! :)

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    1. How did I approve this comment and somehow still miss it?

      That is pertinent and astounding information. Thank you so much! In fact, I wish I’d read this sooner… I really could have. Ugh. If you don’t mind me quoting you in the future (I would need your full name for a proper academic citation–and it won’t be online) I’d love to do it.

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  12. Hafsa

    What scholarly books do you read which holds the same interpretation??? I’m interested because this is honestly amazing and makes so much more sense than the mainstream interpretation

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      1. Sacharias

        Hi Nahida! Thanks for a superb website. I am currently reading Amina Wadud’s book Qurán and Women. My impression is that she makes a somewhat different interpretation. She translates “faddala” as “preference” but restricted to inheritance. What are your take on it?

        She also seems to translate “qawwamun” as a responsibility for men with regard to women to create a balanced and shared society. This is similar to your (if I understood it correctly) interpretation of men to “uphold equity and guard the justice of women”. However, this still seems to mean a kind guardianship or trusteeship that imply a hierarchy. This is also highlighted by Kecia Ali, who points out that it seems “impossible to remove all difference or hierarchy from this verse without doing violence to the Qur’anic text itself” (http://www.sistersinislam.org.my/news.php?item.42.46). What are your thoughts on it?

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      2. Hi Sacharias,

        I kind of expanded on this post with a recent one: https://thefatalfeminist.com/2015/10/28/reverence-the-wombs-that-bore-you-on-unearthing-a-female-legacy-transgressive-to-the-patriarchal-social-order/

        I don’t know if you’ve read it, but some of your questions might be answered. Apologies if you already have. TLDR; the hierarchies are observed by the Qur’an as side effect of human society, but not approved by it, and this verse in fact is ordering us to check it. I examine the use of command verbs to draw this conclusion concerning the difference between an observation and a means of worship.

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  13. This is so, so late, and I know the blog is closed now, and I’m miserable about it, but Nahida, if you see this comment, I’m going to be sooooo happppyyyyyyyy……

    This ayah has driven me crazy. It has so many possible interpretations, and while the traditional ones favor men, it’s quite clear that the verse is just as easily interpreted as favoring women. i.e. Men: “Men are guardians over women, so women should shut up and be obedient!” vs. Women: “Men are responsible for standing up for women’s justice, while women get to do the important job, which is guarding the Unseen just like God does…”

    See what I mean?

    I’m trying to write a complete and total analysis of this verse, but having read many many many websites on it, there are just so many aspects to its interpretation, and I don’t know where to begin or how to organize it. Wish mah luck XDDD!!!

    I found this blog very recently, after its closure. I’m grieving the loss of Nahida. :'(

    The better interpretation of this verse is clearly the one favoring women (God knows best), because throughout the rest of the Quran, men are constantly warned to uphold justice regarding women. In fact, Surah Nisa and Surah Talaq are entirely addressed to men (while adopting the female perspective), and are punctuated throughout, over and over, with warnings. Do not harm women. Do not take advantage of them. Let them live the same way you do. Take mutual counsel with them.

    The only thing I’m confused about, it why the verse reads “Men are qwm ala women.” The word “ala” means “over.” This seems to indicate that men are the supporters/protectors of justice OVER women and not FOR them, thus implying a hierarchy. I’ve probably gone wrong somewhere in my interpretation. Does anyone know where?

    Also, verse 2:233 specifies that men are financially responsible for the support of women during pregnancy and childcare. It then says “No soul shall have a greater burden than it can bear.” So why are men charged with the support of women? Because women must ensure the continuation of the human race, and men are to support them so that no soul has a greater burden than it can bear. Both genders have a joint responsibility and God does not devalue either. In fact, Allah seems to favor women more than men. For instance, when a woman complained to the Prophet about her husband, verses were revealed stating that men who divorced their wives dishonorably had to free a slave, fast two months, or feed SIXTY poor people. Sixty!!! All because of the lady’s complaint.

    Anyway, sorry for the long comment, but I would love for Nahida to see this. PLEASE GOD PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE

    Any insight on the “ala”/over thing? :))))))

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      1. Ayah

        Oh my God, Nahida, you saw my comment. I can’t tell you how happy I am right now. I thought you’d left the blog almost for good.

        I’ve been reading your blog for a while but have never commented. So now I’m going to say all the things I would have said earlier if I knew you still checked back here. First of all, your hair is beautiful. Secondly, you give me hope in humanity. Thirdly, one of the things this blog has shown me is the ridiculously, insanely wide range of interpretations each Quranic verse has. It’s given me a whole new perspective on the beauty and complexity of the Quran. This book can’t be from anyone other than God, and the way it reflects human nature is astounding. At first, I thought there were only two interpretations of 4:34: one entirely favoring men, and one being sort of egalitarian towards women. But now, I can tell that my previous view was horribly limited. So many verses that are commonly interpreted as favoring men can just as easily be understood as favoring women.

        I’m repeating myself. I don’t care. I always do this when excited.

        Are you going to respond to new comments on other posts too? From my understanding you’re not making any new posts.

        I’m sorry for these crazy-long comments, but I just have to. Being a Muslim girl is so hard sometimes, because when you feel that you finally have it all figured out, you encounter someone who tells you you’re less than a man, and uses twisted forms of religion to justify it–and you end up so thoroughly confused you wonder who was right in the first place. And then you have to go back and read the Quran again, and stabilize your mind.

        At least, that’s what happens to me sometimes.

        I don’t want to create extra work for you, Nahida, but I just realized how many questions I want to ask you now. I won’t ask them at this moment, but be warned.

        Noting what Sacharias said in their comment, I would say that 4:34 does imply a hierarchy, but it can easily be read as women being higher in the hierarchy–because men have to provide for them and not the other way round. I believe that men and women are absolutely equal in God’s eyes, and men are warned to keep justice regarding women.

        Regarding what Yasmeena said, that’s amazing…I’ve always wondered how I would interpret the Quran if I was a native speaker of Arabic. Would there be biases? Apparently, when read by a native Arabic speaker, this verse works in favor of women. That is something to be noted. Many traditional translators did not grow up speaking Arabic, and instead learned it in a class…and thus would not have this immediate understanding of the verse.

        Again, sorry. I need to go de-excite myself.

        Wait, that sounds weird…LOL. Never mind.

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  14. Salaam Ayah,

    Thank you first for the sweet comments and encouraging words. And thank you for the compliments on my hair! Those are always appreciated. Yes, I do still occasionally respond to new comments on all of the posts. I am flattered and humbled that you’ve said my blog has demonstrated for you a wider range of interpretations of Quranic verses. I’m startled and grateful that I’ve had any such impact at all.

    There is definitely an array of interpretations for each verse of the Quran. Someone of great dignity (unfortunately the name escapes me) is known to have said once that each Quranic verse harbors at least seven meanings, from the most literal to the most enlightening.

    Second, thank you for your insightful question. Actually, before I stopped writing here, it had been one that I’d meant to address. When I first read this verse, I too was thrown by the hierarchical perspective inherent in the preposition “over.” It is true that على has a spacial component, and that in our languages (both Arabic and English, and in other languages too) spacial components signify rank, and least in human understanding, where spacial directions exist and are assigned a value.

    However, the verse does not only read “over women.” Further down, it reads على بعض (over some, with a non-feminine noun). Actually, the first instance of على is necessitated, I think, by قَوَّامُونَ. Other prepositions could be used with قَوَّامُونَ , but in this case, قَوَّامُونَ على means to care for, but the meaning can change with the preposition. Since we have the preposition على, it is to take care of someone. This is important, because the most immediate meanings derived from the literal root (ق و م) is to stand up, rise up, revolt against, etc.–all revolutionary concepts. This strengthens the argument that to be a protector, maintainer, caretaker, is to rise for justice and against injustice. And since justice and injustice can only be byproducts of societal hierarchies, and not the hierarchies of الله, the hierarchal position of the preposition على is weakened by its reinforced social (human) ties rather than Divine origin through the confines of the language bending to our human understanding of space.

    So when the preposition appears again, later on in the verse, in على بعض (“Allah has granted some of them over others”) the proposition’s unique role in the human realm (social, financial, etc. rather than moral) has been made clear. Note that both “some” and “others” are non-feminine nouns in this verse. (Most people refer to this as the masculine plural, but I don’t, because there is no such thing as the masculine plural. In Arabic, like in most gendered languages, the “masculine plural” so to speak never exists because it can be used to address a group of both women and men. So I use the terms “feminine plural” and “non-feminine plural.”) Since the verse speaks of the wealth and social positions that have been granted to some over others, it is speaking of both societally disadvantaged men and societally disadvantaged women, and that it is the duty of those who have been bestowed more to be protectors and maintainers of those whom are treated with injustice.

    Let me preemptively address a concern that I know this interpretation begs–that since the verse cites Allah as having bestowed “more” (this word never appears but is inferred) wealth in some over others, the preposition على by this Divine citation is brought into the realm of morality (Divinity) rather than society or finance. This is insufficient to conclude that Allah places Divinely-sanctioned hierarchy whether “men over women” or the “wealthy over the impoverished.” It is true that poverty “comes” from God, and that wealth comes from God, but Islam (meaning the Qur’an) has been rather consistent that this is no demonstration of moral superiority, and it is the morals of the advantaged, rather than the disadvantaged, that are warned to be in most danger. That is, after all, why the affluent and able are called over and over again to check on their arrogance and “self-sufficiency.” Male privilege is “allowed” to exist the same way that disease, poverty, and strife is allowed to exist. Because God allows it, like all things that are. Nothing can exist without God, so it isn’t enough look for what is “allowed” to happen as what is Divinely sanctioned to happen. That is a different philosophical question altogether.

    I hope this has helped, and that you’re doing well, inshaAllah.

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  15. Hi! Thank you for the reply. I think it’s interesting to see how the Quran can be read as checking male privilege rather than justifying it. And it’s clear that abundant wealth is more of a test of character than poverty. (LOL, Pharoah was rich…and look what became of him.)

    Do you mean that “qwm ala” means solely “to care for someone or something” when used with this specific preposition? And that if other prepositions were used, then the meaning would be different? That makes sense.

    However, noting that qwm means to “stand up” or “establish”, the verse could also, in the most literal way, be read as “men are those who stand above/over women.” Which is wrong on so many levels. I know there is something wrong with this possible interpretation. The Quran is completely egalitarian everywhere except for (apparently) this verse. I know that God doesn’t do injustice to anyone, so I’m the one who’s doing something wrong here. There’s an issue with my translation somewhere.

    The verse also states that men are qwm over women because God gave some over others, and because they spend of their wealth. That seems like a strange conditional statement. Many–even most–self-righteous men who call themselves Muslim expect to have the position of “qwm” while not financially supporting their sisters, daughters and wives. The verse seems to suggest that ALL men are qwm over women because ALL of them financially support women. Which, as I stated, is incorrect. I’m pretty sure I’m completely overthinking this, but I’m so confused.

    In addition, the steps taken in 4:34–“advise them, avoid them in bed, and separate from them/cite them to the arbitrators”–seem to infantilize women. For instance, shouldn’t the verse say to “take consultation with them” rather than “advise” them? It all seems so one-sided, like men have to “advise” their wives because women aren’t capable of speaking for themselves. However, I know this can’t be correct, since other verses of the Quran state that couples should make decisions through mutual consultation. So one-sided “advising” seems really out of place. The difference is stark, since in 4:128, a woman who fears discord from her husband is supposed to reconcile with him together, rather than one-sided “advising.”

    And then there’s the phrase, “If they obey you.” The word used for “obey” can also mean to heed, comply with, or agree with. I think these definitions fit better. But shouldn’t it instead say, “If you agree among yourselves”? The verse suggests only women have to “comply,” whereas 4:128 says that if a woman fears discord from her husband, BOTH of them should compromise with each other.

    This verse has been giving me so much trouble lately. I’m just trying my best to understand it in a way that is compatible with the rest of the Quran and with morality. I realize I’m overthinking everything and there’s probably a simple explanation. All other verses dealing with marriage are either egalitarian or favor women, which is why 4:34 seems so out of place.

    Nahida, I fully understand that my crisis of faith is not your problem to deal with, and I know I’m asking way too many questions at once. I’m just so…confused. And kinda miserable. I’ve been studying this verse on and off for two years (!!!) and I think I should at least have some idea of what it means, but I’m still hopelessly stuck. I can’t carry out this discussion on any other website for obvious reasons (misogyny, bad translators, etc), so I’m trying to do it here, and I’m really sorry I’m demanding such detailed answers. I also emailed you, but the email has nothing to do with this discussion. Do you check this site’s contact form?

    Anyway. Thank you so much for putting up with my 4:34 obsession. I am sincerely, genuinely grateful.

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    1. OMG, I was really distressed yesterday and now realize how illogical some of my questions were. Nahida, please ignore them.

      The only thing I’m still concerned about is–can “qwm ala” be used to signify standing above someone or something?

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