A previous post showed the basic spiritual equality of men and women, as derived from the Quran. We now need to look more closely at three verses that are sometimes misunderstood to conclude an automatic superiority for men:
(i) “Men are in charge of [taking care of] women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. ” (Qur’an, 4:34)
(ii) “And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable. But the men have a degree over them.” (Qur’an, 2:228)
(iii) “And the male is not like the female.” (Qur’an, 3:36)
(i) Men are qawwamun over women”
“Men are in charge of [taking care of] women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. ” (Qur’an, 4:34)
Firstly, the Qur’an has told us clearly that the criterion for superiority before Allah is taqwa, not gender:
“Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you.” (Qur’an, 49:13)
Indeed, no Muslim man would dare claim that, merely by being male, he is better than Lady Khadijah, Lady Fatimah, or the Virgin Mary!
Remember also that two verses before this (4:32), we were reminded that men and women have each been blessed in different ways by Allah. What the verse 4:34 is telling us, therefore, is that men have the responsibility of taking care of women, because (generally) their constitution and nature are such that they are more capable or working and providing physical protection and defense.
Secondly, note that the wording is not فضلهم عليهن (which would clearly mean: graced/blessed men over women) but rather: بِمَا فَضَّلَ ٱللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍ literally: “has graced some of them over others.” Shaykh al-Sha`rawi, the famous 20th-century Egyptian (male) scholar of tafsir, pointed out that although men may be graced/blessed in one aspect, they are less endowed in other respects, and that the two genders have complementary roles in which each utilizes their respective strengths to support the other. The 3rd-century theologian and polymath `Uthman al-Jahiz has pointed out several aspects in which women can be considered superior to men, including various positive traits of character (remember the Prophet (s) was described as more modest than a virgin in her chamber), and the fact that there has been a woman (the Virgin Mary) for whom Allah created a child without male involvement, but there has never ben a man for whom Allah made a child without female involvement. Contemporary female Syrian scholar Hanan Lahham expressed succinctly the logical conclusion to make from 4:34, tying together the concepts that were already known to earlier exegetes (mufassireen), even if they didn’t express it so explicitly. She writes that, “Allah granted to each gender characteristics that help them to perform their roles; the intended meaning is not a superiority of one gender over the other.”
The verse (4:34) also intimates that some women have certain superiorities over some men, and vice-versa. Thus, some women might be physically stronger, or more capable breadwinners, than some men. None of this is ruled out by the verse, nor by the labelling of men as maintainers, because as `Allamah Ibn `Ashur (a high-ranking 20th century Tunisian scholar) has commented in his tafsir, what the verse is describing is not a universal but a customary norm. (We may note, in passing that patriarchically organized societies have dominated human history for several millenia.) Even among pre-modern mufassirin, the possibility had been raised that this verse conveys that there are some women who are better than many men. In fact, the famous medieval linguist and mufassir, Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi, mentioned the possibility (suggested by the verse) that the term “men” (الرجال) in the verse (4:34) refers not to gender (for otherwise the term “males” (الذكور) could have been used) but only to those males who are deserving of being called “men” by virtue of their strength, wisdom and resoluteness. A lot of women would not be able to fully respect a man who does not live up to his expected role. Thus, many of the fuqaha allow a wife to annul the marriage if the husband is not able to provide financial support to his wife. (Of course, she has the option of remaining with him and being patient, and also the option of spending her own money on the household, and can expect reward from Allah for doing so, but she is not obliged to do either of these).