Islam maintains equality between man and woman where many rights and responsibilities

are concerened, and in the case of certain differences, there is recognition of the origin of

human nature and related differences in functions. The basis is the Almighty Allah’s

saying: “And their Lord hath accepted of them, and answered them: “Never will I suffer

to be lost the work of any of you, be he male or female: ye are members, one of another”

(Quran 3:195), and his saying: “Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has

Faith, verily, to him will We give a new Life, a life that is good and pure, and We will

bestow on such their reward according to the best of their actions.” (Quran 16:97) There

are traditions instituted by people, which are not commanded by the Lord of the people,

and which relegated cultural and social positions of woman and kept ways of dealing with

her in the darkness of earlier jahiliyyah.”

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women (affairs), because Allah has given the

one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means.

Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s)

absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear

disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and

last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of

annoyance): for Allah is Most High, Great (above you all).

Al-Ghazali (35-36, 154-157) reacts to the popular understanding and

implementation of qawamah, and views that the predicament of the religion is in

people who alter the discourse from its right direction, and elevate a weak hadith

to the position of clear verses and clear sounding hadith. He believes that

whoever has true comprehension of the holy al-Quran will know that there is

general equality between men and women, and that if man is given certain rights,

that will be in lieu of heavy responsibility, and not as a mere preference. The

qawamah of man in a family does not mean a loss of original equality, just as the

submission of a people to their government does not mean subduing and

subjugation. The social order has its natural requirement, which does not leave

a place for excess or for the extreme in its interpretation. The qawamah is a

responsibility before it can become an honour, and a sacrifice before it can

become a nobility, and it is not subduing. To him, the position of man to woman

and vice versa is rightly described in verse (2:187): “They are your garments and

ye are their garments.” And that in a Muslim home, there are limits prescribed by

Allah (Hudud Allah), which are referred to six times in two verses of al-Baqarah


In Islam, there are restrictions on a man beating his wife, which existed in

traditional earlier Arab society, and the Prophet condemned and warned against

beating a wife, and commended those who did not beat their wives (Abu Dawud,

hadith no. 1830). He disapproved of any beating that caused scars on the bodyGender and Sexuality: An Islamic Perspective 39

and of any form of abuse of a woman. There are other linguistic and cultural

implications to the understanding of this verse as well. Another verse is on the

interest of a man to replace a wife with another (‘istibdal) in verse (4:20-21),

which is permitted under the condition that man should not withdraw whatever

he has given to his present wife:

“But if ye decide to take one wife in place of another, even if ye had given the latter a

whole treasure for dower, take not the least bit of it back; would ye take it by slander and

a manifest wrong? And how could ye take it when ye have gone in unto each other and

they have taken from you a solemn covenant?”

A contention here is that why should a man be given an open ticket to

change a wife? This replacement is a solution to the problem of marrying more

than four wives as practised before Islam, and the inability to marry more than

one wife where there is problem with the existing wife. The verse should not be

read in isolation from human behaviour and nature, i.e. disloyalty, loss of beauty,

inability to attain sexual satisfaction and financial capability, as well as rights to

separation, and the control of Islam over gender relation and sexuality.

The above verse is connected to husband rights to separation (talaq). It is

not unconnected to verse (2:229) where a wife is also granted rights of separation

from her husband (khul‘): “There is not blame on either of them if she give

something for her freedom.” Here, she is also allowed to sacrifice financially for

her own liberation. The husband is not supposed to withdraw any given favour

in case he seeks a divorce: “It is not lawful for you, (men), to take back any of

your gifts (from your wives)”, while the wife will have to return what the husband

has given her when she initiates separation.

Polygamy (ta‘addud), often viewed as a practice that favours men, is

explained in verse (4:3). Although polygamy is allowed for men in order for them

to meet their natural sexual needs and to contribute in solving some social

problems, it is restricted to the ability to be fair and to maintain equality among

fellow wives. “But if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them),

then (marry) only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess.” However,

equality among fellow wives is measured by religious directives and cultural

norms, despite the fact that total equality may be impossible, most especially in

matters to do with love, due to personal characteristics of each wife. Al-Quran

(4:129) says: “Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it

is your ardent desire: but turn not away (from a woman) altogether, so as to leave

her (as it were) hanging (in the air).”


It is difficult to deny cultural and linguistic influences on the views and practices

of Muslims concerning gender and sexuality, as well as their reaction to them in

a modern context. This influence, however, is not restricted to traditional Arabian40 Sari 24

culture, and Muslim regional cultures and adopted foreign cultures also add to

that. Al-Ghazali (1990: 58, 174-177) frowns at the traditional interpretation of

qawamah, which equates it with traditional practices of political or tribal control.

He condemns the superficial understanding of wife-beating allowed by al-Quran

as a last measure to save a family relationship from collapsing due to the wife’s

disloyalty. To him, such an understanding contradicts Quranic and sound hadith

directives on mutual respect and coexisting between couples. Such a traditional

practice and understanding of verse (4:34), as well as Western perspectives,

seem to drive some scholars to claim that beating (darb) in this verse is metaphoric,

and that it indicates “abandoning” at home and not actual beating (Abu Suleyman

2001). However, this corrective measure of beating should not equal abuse, and

should be taken within general contexts on gender relationship (al-Ghazali,

1990:174-177). Al- Quran (4:34) itself directs: “But if they return to obedience,

seek not against them means (of annoyance).” A verse on the divorce process

says: “Either take them back on equitable terms or set them free on equitable terms;

but do not take them back to injure them, (or) to take undue advantage.” (2:231) The

Prophet suggested tenderness in dealing with women and the need for kindness:

“Take heed of the [best way of] dealing with women” (Bukhari, hadith no. 4787).

Cultural influence is present in interpreting a phrase in verse (4:34) which

justifies men’s management of affairs of women in a family, asserting that it

comes because of men’s elevated position in society over women and with the

payment of dowry, without considering some linguistic features of a sub-phrase

that contains a masculine pronoun, and without considering conventional

practices of family maintenance (Ibn Kathir, 1401H, al-Quran 4:34). The impact of

language on interpreting texts related to gender and sexuality might have pushed

‘Umm Salamah, a woman companion of the Prophet, to protest masculine linguistic

references (phenomenon of taghlib) in Quranic verses on events of hijrah and

matters of faith. “O messenger of Allah, I don’t hear Allah mentioning women in

hijrah events. Then verse (3:195) was revealed – “Never will I suffer to be lost

the work of any of you, be he male or female: ye are members, one of another” –

to reassure female companions (al-Tirmidhi, hadith no. 2949).

Using masculine references (pronoun or word) also influences the

interpretation of some verses and prophetic sayings. Al-Ghazali (1990: 69) refers

to a man who was forbidding women from attending the mosque because he

took a phrase out of context in verses (24:36-37) which indicates that some men

are worshiping Allah in houses of worship. “In them is He glorified. In the

mornings and in the evenings, (again and again), by men whom neither traffic

nor merchandise can divert from the Remembrance of Allah…” He criticizes this

blind interpretation of the texts, and reports bewilderment among women of this

surface understanding of al-Quran, questioning their understanding of other

verses that use the word rijal, men, such as (33:23) “Among the Believers are

men who have been true to their Covenant with Allah”, asking whether

trustworthiness and fulfilment of promises should be restricted to men alone.Gender and Sexuality: An Islamic Perspective 41

Meanwhile, cultural norms are essential in determining the meaning of the

phrase, “that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what

(must ordinarily) appear thereof,” in al-Quran (24:31). Al-Qaradawi, refuted an

assertion that head hair is included in ornaments or parts of the body that a

woman may not have to cover for strangers. He was of the view that consensus

is that woman hair is part of her `awrah, and that it has to be covered, and he

cited different opinions on limits of the allowed parts of the body that can be

exposed to strangers. Some of the opinions justify the need to cover the hair and

other parts with the need to limit sexual attraction.

Cultural norm is also essential in determining the rights and responsibilities

of couples as indicated in a clause in al-Quran (2:228) “And women shall have

rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable; but men

have a degree (of advantage) over them.” The term (al-ma`ruf) is what is culturally

acceptable, and the term (darajah) should be understood as a degree for men

above women in rights and responsibilities, and not as an “authority” as culturally

interpreted in some exegeses and translations.

Taken from Gender and sexuality: An Islamic perspective

By Ahmad Shehu Abdulssalam http://www.ukm.my/penerbit/sari/SARI24-06/sari24%5B02%5D.pdf