Are men superior to women in Islam?
A commonly misunderstood and misinterpreted concept is whether men are superior to women.
For a long time, men have enjoyed feeling that they are better than women and feeling that they are in the position of masters.
In the Quran, Allah Almighty says men have a degree (daraja) over women – which gives men a special status ‘above’ women:
And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable. But men have a degree (daraja) over them [in responsibility and authority]. And Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise. (2:228)
Frequently this ‘degree’ is understood to mean that men are superior and women are inferior. This verse is usually connected in tafsir books to the famous ayah in Surah Nisa, which is well known as ayat ul qiwama:
Men are in charge (qawwamun) of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. (4:34)
‘Ar rijaalu qawwamun ala nisai’ is usually translated as ‘men are in charge of women’ or ‘men are caretakers of women’. These two verses are the origin of the idea that men are better than women, because they have this ‘degree’ over women, so they are the masters. If they are the masters, that makes women subordinate to them, as a master can only be a master in relation to his servant. Is this the true meaning of the ayah?
Let’s look at the linguistic meaning first.
Linguistic meaning of daraja
From a linguistic point of view, there is no ambiguity: ‘daraja’ means degree. In Arabic stairs are called daraj because they consist of a series of steps, one higher than the next. It is clear from a linguistic point of view that daraja means one is higher than the other. However, what does it mean in the context of men and women? Does it mean he’s superior and she’s inferior? First, we have to be careful not to take the ayah and isolate it from the rest of the verses of the Quran. For instance, Allah Almighty said:
‘We have honoured the children of Adam.’ (17:70)
The verse says that all the children of Adam are honoured, not just the men, therefore there is no inferior or superior. In the eyes of Allah Almighty they are all the same.
O mankind! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female and We made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, (the) most noble of you near Allah (is the) most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah (is) All-Knower, All-Aware. (49:13)
Out of all people, Allah Almighty taught us that the most honourable among them are the best in taqwa (obedience to Him). He didn’t say the most honourable among you are men. Or husbands. From this ayah, we see how the Quran explains itself. How different ayahs work together to clarify each other. This is the best type of tafsir. The tafsir of the Quran from the Quran.
So we have explained the ayah in relation to another ayah in the Quran to understand its meaning. Next we look at what daraja means practically. What is the degree (daraja) of responsibility?
Is daraja a position of control? Or is daraja a position of honour and service. Honour and service are linked. This is why scholars connected them.
The concept of service is embedded in the word Qawwamun, which comes from the verb qama yaqumu, meaning the one who is ‘standing over something’, like a caretaker or guardian. Out of Allah’s attributes, we know that He is called Al Hay, Al Qayyum – the One who is Eternal and the One who is looking after the universe. The ‘qawwam’ is the one who carries responsibility. Allah Almighty has given the responsibility to men to maintain their family financially as well as protect them. They have to provide for, and look after the needs of their family. By nature, this is the role men have assumed since the beginning of time, and across the globe. Despite our different customs and cultures all over the world, it is still the norm that the man is main earner and the one with financial responsibility and the protector for the family.
The burden of responsibility
If there is a dispute between a couple which goes to court, the judge would say the husband is the man of the house and it is his obligation to provide. He would not say this to the wife. It is not her obligation. Therefore, the ‘degree’ that men have is not a position or a rank to show off about, but a burden, and indeed a degree of servitude. It is a duty, and a weight on the man’s shoulders, that he must work to provide for his family. The ayah is thus describing the degree of responsibility.
Unfortunately many people have extrapolated that men are better or superior to women from the ayah ‘But men have a degree (daraja) over them.’
Yet, the ayah is not saying that- it linked the daraja to spending not to superiority. It says in the ayah clearly in Surah Hujarat that ‘the best among you are those who are more mindful of Allah Almighty’. The ones who have the most taqwa. No one becomes automatically better because of their gender. There is no reference anywhere that men are closer to Allah Almighty because they are men.
When we read the revelation ya ayuha ladhina amanu, (O you who believe) which has been repeated in 89 verses, who is Allah Almighty addressing? Men alone or both men and women? He is addressing mankind. Where is the superiority here? Nowhere. Does a woman have less rakahs in her salah because she is a woman? Or pay less zakat? No. Is her hajj shorter than a man’s? Can she do three tawaf instead of 7? No. Then they are equal in their responsibility to Allah Almighty. It is wrong to understand that if the man is responsible, she has no responsibility.
In fact, the ayah is honouring women. They are being given the status of princesses. They do not need to get their hands dirty. The man has to get his hands dirty, to bring halal contributions to the family. If she wants to contribute that’s a different story, but it is not demanded from her.
The degree which Allah Almighty is mentioning is not of status that the man is better; it is responsibility. We see from the Quran that men and women are equal in their ibadah before Allah and in their supplications. No one is saying she is less capable. She is not prevented from any role in life, except being the imam of a mosque but that not make her less capable than men. The reason she may not be imam is that our worship is divinely prescribed, (tawqifi) so we may not innovate by introducing salah lead by women in a masjid, or on jummuah.
Let’s see how the Quranic verses were applied by the Prophet (peace be on him) in his own life. How did he deal with his wives? And how did he treat women in the community? Did he ever treat them as inferiors? Not at all. He said, by contrast:
The best among you are the best to their wives. And their family. And I am the best among you to my family. (Tirmidhi)
In his Farewell Sermon, he made a special point to highlight men’s behaviour towards women:
Verily your blood, your property are as sacred and inviolable as the sacredness of this day of yours, in this month of yours, in this town of yours. … Fear Allah concerning women! Verily you have taken them on the security of Allah, and intercourse with them has been made lawful unto you by words of Allah. You too have right over them, and that they should not allow anyone to sit on your bed whom you do not like.( Muslim).
The context of the ayah
When we come across an ayah and it seems incongruous with the rest of the Quran, the first thing to do is to open the Quran and read the ayah which precedes it and the one that follows. Or you might need to read a few ayahs before to see the bigger picture. If you just pluck a single ayah out of its context, it can be presented in a way that suggests the wrong meaning, either despite having a good intention or because of a bad one. To be understood properly, the ayah has to be connected with other ayahs on the same topic.
If we look at the ayah about men being the caretakers of women, it is inserted among the ayahs of Surah Nisa in which Allah Almighty is talking about the just distribution of inheritance and wealth. In the two ayahs preceding it, Allah Almighty stated:
And do not wish for that by which Allah has made some of you exceed others. For men is a share of what they have earned, and for women is a share of what they have earned. And ask Allah of his bounty. Indeed Allah is ever, of all things, Knowing. (4:32)
When you see the flow of the ayahs of this Surah you see Allah Almighty is talking about responsibility of men to provide and underling the wisdom of His decree. The ayahs proceed to advocating excellence towards all humanity:
Worship Allah and associate nothing with Him, and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbour, the neighbour farther away, the companion at your side, the traveller, and those whom your right hands possess. Indeed, Allah does not like those who are self-deluding and boastful. (4:36)
Would it make sense that amidst these verses, Allah Almighty is informing us that women are inferior to men?
All narrations have to be in line with Allah’s justice
Justice is a main principle in Islam, stemming foremost from Allah Almighty’s justice. He is Al Adl, the All Just. He does not discriminate against anyone. Certainly not women. That would not be just. We can have absolutely no doubt in Allah’s justice, so if any ayah appears to contradict this main principle of Islam, then there is something wrong. If it is not in line with the general direction of the Quran, we have to be careful and figure out its meaning.
Similarly, when we read ayahs like ‘Allah misguided them’ these verses are ‘Allah let them go astray’ when they wilfully disobeyed Him. He did not lead them astray or misguide them. Allah Almighty never allows those who are sincerely seeking guidance be misguided and then thrown in hellfire. This would not be fair. It would be dhulm (oppression). Yet Allah Almighty said:
O My servants! I have forbidden dhulm (oppression) for Myself, and I have made it forbidden amongst you, so do not oppress one another. O My servants, all of you are astray except whose whom I have guided, so seek guidance from Me and I shall guide you. (Muslim)
When we start with the premise that Allah is All Just and does not oppress anyone, then we have to put the ayahs in the right context.
In any organisation or country, we always need a decision maker to provide the direction and to take charge of it. Similarly the family unit needs a head, the one where the buck stops. Of course the head should take decisions with mutual understanding and discussion always with respect. But after the discussions, if the husband and wife do not agree, how do they move forward? If the head takes a decision which is not haram and not harmful, the family have to follow it. This is the recommended scenario.
Who is wearing the trousers
In some scenarios women might be more entitled to lead than him. As long as the couple are happy with this that is fine. That is up to them. This is not a legal issue. If the man is not capable or interested in it, then its fine for the woman to lead.
It may be that the wife takes the decisions in a family, and the husband is happy for her to take that role. Is he sinful for letting her? No. Alternatively, if they disagree and he takes a decision without his wife’s consent, would she still have to follow? Yes. For instance if he wants to go to Spain and she wants to go to Egypt. Otherwise, they will be going in endless circles.
Thus Allah Almighty has put a structure in place, so that when a couple cannot reach a mutual decision, men are given the final say (as the qiwama), so that the team is not derailed when they do not see eye to eye.
There is more disturbance in the community if no decision is taken, than if one party is given the right to lead the team – though this does not mean he necessarily gets it right always.
Delivered by Shaykh Haytham Tamim on 8th December 2020 as part of the Misunderstood Verses course. Transcribed by A Khan.
January 20, 2021