Muslim Sexual Ethics:

 a Difficult Verse,
 Qur'an 4:34

Many contemporary debates about “women’s status in Islam” hinge on a few key topics: the veil, polygamy, and a few Qur’anic verses that are seen to prescribe female subordination—to men in general and husbands in particular. The most important of these verses occurs in Surat al-Nisa’ (“Women”), the fourth chapter of the Qur’an. This essay will discuss verse 4:34 and the ways in which it has been interpreted both by traditional medieval scholars and by contemporary Muslims from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. The range of ways in which its key provisions have been interpreted illustrates both the presence of androcentrism and/or misogyny in some aspects of the Muslim tradition as well as possibilities for more egalitarian readings of scripture.

The Qur’an’s basic stance is that Muslim women are first and foremost Muslims, the religious equals of men (e.g., Q. 33:73). It refers to women and men as one another’s “protectors.” (Q. 9:71). Muslim marriage is described in terms of love and mercy (Q. 7:189; 30:21), and the Qur’an describes spouses as “garments” for one another (Q. 2:187). However, in a number of realms, above all marriage and divorce, Qur’anic rules are differentiated by sex, with men seemingly given greater rights and responsibilities.

Verse 4:34 is the clearest Qur’anic example of hierarchy between men and women. It presents numerous difficulties for translation, since so many of the words have contested meanings. My basic translation here leaves three terms in the original Arabic since they cannot be translated without taking a position on how they should be interpreted. Precisely these issues of interpretation will be explored in the following links, along with whether “strike them” (idribuhunna) is to be taken literally.

"Men are qawwamun in relation to women, according to what God has favored some over others and according to what they spend from their wealth. Righteous women are qanitat, guarding the unseen according to what God has guarded. Those [women] whose nushuz you fear, admonish them, and abandon them in bed, and strike them. If they obey you, do not pursue a strategy against them. Indeed, God is Exalted, Great."

"Al-rijal qawwamun ‘ala al-nisa’ bi ma faddala Allahu ba‘duhum ‘ala ba‘din wa bi ma anfaqu min amwalihim. Fa al-salihat qanitat, hafizat li’l-ghayb bi ma hafiza Allah. Wa allati tukhafuna nushuzahunna, fa ‘izuhunna wa ahjuruhunna fi’l-madaji‘ wa adribuhunna, fa in ata‘nakum, fa la tabghu ‘alayhinna sabilan. Inna Allah kana ‘Aliyyan, Kabir."

(Read other translations of verse 4:34.)

Interpreters from a variety of perspectives have addressed the key issues raised by this verse:

  • Are men “in charge of women”?
  • What are the characteristics of “righteous women”?
  • What is nushuz and what are its consequences?
  • May a man strike his wife?

The numerous possible interpretations of Q. 4:34 serve to highlight the role of human (and therefore fallible) intellect in comprehending scripture. The fact that so many different views exist as to what any particular word—such as daraba, “to strike”—shows that any attempt to fix the meaning of this (or any) verse once and for all is doomed to failure.

There is a sharp divide between traditional interpretations of this verse, which stress female obedience and male authority, and contemporary interpretations, which emphasize the financial component of men’s marital duties and the limits on a husband’s power over his wife. Many Muslims have gravitated toward the latter views, as they are more in keeping not only with modern sensibilities in general but also the Qur’anic portrayal of women in other verses as full human beings and partners in the relationship of marriage. Yet, however convincing one finds the progressive arguments that a man’s striking his wife is not permitted by Q. 4:34, it is impossible to remove all difference or hierarchy from this verse without doing violence to the Qur’anic text itself.

This is not a problem unique to marriage or to relations between men and women: the tension between equality in spiritual matters and hierarchy in worldly matters applies to many social situations addressed by the Qur’an (such as wealth/poverty or freedom/slavery). Nor is it unique to the Qur’an or Islam; such tensions exist in other scriptures and in other religions. These considerations do not help to determine the meaning of Q. 4:34 or to resolve the difficulties it presents for those Muslims committed to women’s equality with men. However, they serve as a reminder that no matter how one interprets this verse, one must not do so in isolation, but rather with careful attention to its full scriptural and social contexts.

Read more about "Men, Women, and Human Beings in the Qur’an"

Content by Kecia Ali
Senior Research Analyst, FSE
Revised February 11, 2003