ISLAM—World's Greatest Religion!

Men are Protectors and maintainers of Women

Posted on: June 13, 2012

In The name of Allah,The Most Merciful,The Most gracious


by Salmaan ibn Fahd al-‘Awdah

Allah says:

“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women because of what Allahhas preferred one with over the other and because of what they spendto support them from their wealth.”[Sûrah an-Nisâ’: 34]

What does it mean that men are “protectors and maintainers” of women?  To answer this question, let us first look at the Arabic word that weare translating as “protectors and maintainers”. This word is“qawwâmûn” the plural of “qawwâm”.

This word – qawwâm – in turn, is an emphatic form of the word“qayyim”, which means a person who manages the affairs of others. Theqayyim of a people is the one who governs their affairs and steerstheir course. Likewise, the qayyim of a woman is either her husband orher guardian – the one who has to look after her and ensure that herneeds are met.

When Allah says: “Men are the qawwâmûn of women…” it means – and Allahknows best – that men are held liable for handling the affairs ofwomen and are responsible for the women under their care. A husband,therefore, has the responsibility of taking care of his wife,protecting her, defending her honor, and fulfilling her needsregarding her religion and her worldly life. It does not mean – as alltoo many people have falsely assumed – that he has the right to behaveobstinately towards her, compel her, subject her to his will, suppressher individuality, and thus heinously negate her identity.

His status as protector and maintainer is pure responsibility, pureliability, and not so much a position of authority. It requires fromhim that he uses his good sense, thinks carefully about what he does,and exercises patience. It means that he cannot be hasty and offhandedin his decisions. It does not mean that he can disregard his wife’sopinions and belittle her good person.

Why does Islam make men the protectors and maintainers of women?

The verse gives us two reasons why men are given this burden toshoulder. Allah says: “…because of what Allah has preferred one withover the other…” and “…because of what they spend to support them fromtheir wealth.”

A problem arises when it is said that men have a preference to women.Then we see all those organizations, establishments, and activists whocall to women’s equality stirring into motion, jumping up ready tofight over this point, and going off on all kinds of tangents in theirthinking. Rather, they should pause long enough to properly understandwhat it means when Allah says: “…because of what Allah has preferredone with over the other …” This proper understanding can only be hadin the light of the Qur’ân and Sunnah and their sound application.

Those who go overboard in asserting the rights of women and claim thatthe woman in Islam is oppressed and that Islam does not do her justiceare driven to the point where they transgress against the very textsof the Qur’ân and Sunnah. In the name of “equality”, they demandabsolute uniformity in matters of inheritance, in governance, and ineverything else wherein a distinction between the sexes is made,sometimes taking matters so far that it is the men who have to chaseafter the hope of equality with women.

This brings us back to the question of what the verse is saying. Is itindicating that there is some inherent preference of men over women,something that is built into their very natures? The scholars ofQur’ânic commentary have taken two approaches to this matter.

The first approach is to refer the matter of the verse back to thenatural makeup of men and women, with respect to their intellects,their different manners of thinking, and their natural strengths. Theyfound that men, by nature, are more hot-blooded, tending more towardsstrength and severity, while women’s natures are cooler, tending moretowards gentleness and weakness.

The second approach is to look at it from a legal angle – that Allahhas imposed upon men to pay dowries to the women they wish to marryand has made men liable to spend on women and provide for them. Thisis the preference that men have over them. Likewise, Allah has placedprophecy with men only, as there has never been a woman prophet. Inthe same way, Allah has made the offices of supreme politicalauthority and the obligations of jihad the exclusive domain of men.

The issue of testimony is also brought up in this regard, for Allah says:

“And bring to witness two witnesses from among your men. And if thereare not two men available, then a man and two women from those whomyou accept as witnesses – so that if one of them errs, the other canremind her.”[Sûrah al-Baqarah: 282]

Others using this approach have cited certain acts of worship, likethe fact that the Friday prayer and congregational prayers areprescribed only for men and not made compulsory on women.

The fact that men can have four wives while women cannot have morethan one husband, or the fact that men have the exclusive option ofimmediate divorce have also been advanced as an interpretations.

With respect to both of these approaches, there are two observationsthat we can make:

The first is that the followers of both approaches agree on apreference of men over woman on the basis of Allah’s words: “…becauseof what they spend to support them from their wealth.”

The second is that the opinions of the commentators regarding whetheror not the preferentiality refers to the natures of men and women isall based on their discretionary opinions (ijtihâd) with respect totheir understanding of the verse. In any event, it would be fair tosay that Allah has indeed singled out men for certain distinctions –prophethood, supreme political office, jihad, and military service,among other things – and this is because men have a nature differentthan that of women. This is a conclusion that all reasonable peoplewould have to agree upon. The obligation imposed upon men by Islam toprotect and maintain women should be seen in the context of thedifference in their natural makeup and that the purpose for this is tosecure the best interests of women.

Allah’s laws always accord with nature and take into consideration theunique gifts that Allah has bestowed upon each half that makes up thehuman whole – the man and the woman, so that those gifts can beemployed to their maximum effectiveness.

We must remain cognizant of the fact that both men and women areAllah’s creations. And that Allah would never oppress any of Hiscreatures. He prepares each of His creations to the purpose that heintends for it and bestows upon it the innate abilities needed tocarry out that purpose.

Allah has made it of the exclusive qualities of women that they fallpregnant, bear children, and nurse them. Therefore, she is by natureburdened with the care of what the union between a man and a womanbrings about, and it is an immense responsibility. Not only is it aheavy responsibility, it is a critical one, not something that can beapproached lightly, without the physical, mental, and emotionalpreparation that Allah has bestowed exclusively upon women.

On this basis, it is only just that Allah would burden the other halfof humanity – the men – with the task of fulfilling the needs of thosewomen and protecting them, and that He would bestow upon men theinnate physical, mental, and emotional qualities that would allow themto excel in doing what is required of them. Moreover, he would requiremen to be financially liable for the women under his care, since thisis a necessary consequence of the duties he has to carry out. Thesetwo elements are, essentially, what the verse is talking about.

It is interesting to point out that the examples given by thecommentators who follow the legal approach – things like prophethood,supreme political office, military duty, and carrying out certainreligious rites like the call to prayer and congregational worship –are merely consequential of the natural dispensation of men. Thereason these duties are suited to men is because men are not otherwisepreoccupied with domestic burdens that would prevent them fromcarrying them out.

Though prophethood, for instance, is an honor of the highest degree,it is by no means the cause of why men are the protectors andmaintainers of women. The distinction of prophethood can neither bederived from these duties, nor is it remotely indicative of anygeneral preference of men with regards to women. It is but a fact thatall the prophets were men.

Likewise, when we look at religious duties like making the call toprayer, leading the prayers, and giving the Friday sermon, we mustacknowledge that these duties were given to men by the decree ofIslamic Law. In no way do they necessitate that men are distinguishedwith every other possible legal ruling. Had Allah instead delegatedthese religious duties to women, this would not in any way haveprevented men from being burdened with their protection andmaintenance.

I must reiterate the point that the protection and maintenance givento men over women in no way implies the denial of the woman’sidentity, whether in the context of the home or her position insociety at large. It is merely a role to be played by men within thefamily environment so that this important social institution can beproperly managed, safeguarded, and upheld. The presence of a managerin a given institution does not negate or diminish the individualityor the rights of the others who share in it or of those who work forit. Islam has clearly defined what the protection and maintenance ofwomen entails for men – the care and protection, the manners andbehaviors, and all liabilities associated with it.

How the Prophet (r) put this duty into practice

The Prophet (r) was not an emperor who lorded over his family. When welook carefully at his life, we would find it the most eloquenttestimony of what we have stated above – that a man’s protection andmaintenance of women in no way entails obstinacy, compulsion, orsubjugation. ‘Â’ishah said about her husband:

“When he was at home, he was totally involved in housework.”

He was very clement. One of his wives woke up in the middle of thenight and discovered that the Prophet (r) was not beside her, thoughit was her night to have him with her. She tells us that she lockedthe door on him, thinking that he had gone to one of his other wiveson her night. When he returned after a short while to find that shehad locked him out of the house and asked her to open the door, sheconfronting him on why he had gone out. He calmly told her that hesimply had needed to go to the bathroom.

On many occasions, his wives would argue with each other in hispresence. He never got angry when they did. He always solved theirproblems with wisdom, gentleness, and sensitivity, never withharshness. This shows us what a man’s role as protector and maintainerof women is all about.

On one occasion, his wife Hafsah chided her co-wife Safiyyah bycalling her “the daughter of a Jew”. This was true, because Safiyyah’sfather, Hubayy b. Akhtab, was in fact a Jew who had died without everaccepting Islam. Still, such a comment was meant as a take onSafiyyah’s person, which was only more hurtful as it was coming fromher co-wife. So when she heard what Hafsah had said, she started tocry.

The Prophet (r) then came in and asked her why she was crying. She said:

“Hafsah called me the daughter of a Jew.” To this the Prophet (r)replied: “Verily, you are the daughter of a Prophet, your uncle wasalso a Prophet, and you are the wife of a Prophet, so what does shehave over you to boast about?” He then turned to Hafsah and said:“Fear Allah, O Hafsah.”

In an alternate narration, the Prophet is reported to have turned toSafiyyah and said: “Why didn’t you say: ‘So how can you be better thanme? Muhammad is my husband. Aaron is my father, and Moses is myuncle.”

Safiyyah was a descendant of Aaron (r). So, when Hafsah insinuatedthat Safiyyah’s being the daughter of a Jew was something bad, theProphet (r) showed Hafsah another way of looking at it: that Safiyyahwas the descendant of Prophet Aaron and that her uncle was Moses, andthat her husband was Muhammad (r), so there was no reason for her tobe ashamed.

Anyone who would take the man’s status in Islam as the protector andmaintainer of women and use it as a pretext to oppress women iscommitting a crime against Islam.

Islam has guaranteed women their rights as individuals, includingtheir right to have and express their own opinions. The Sunnah is fullof examples of this.

We have, for instance, where Khawlah bint Tha’labah complained to theProphet (r) about her husband who foreswore ever again having sex withher by the old pagan custom of claiming her to be like the back of hismother, whereupon the following verse of the Qur’ân was revealed:“Allah has indeed heard the words of the woman who pleads with youconcerning her husband and carries her complaint (in prayer) toAllah…” [Sûrah al-Mujâdlah: 1] followed by the verses abolishing thatoppressive custom.

We can look at the case of Khansâ’, who’s father married her off withher disapproval, so the Prophet (r) had her marriage annulled.

In another instance, a young woman complained to ‘Â’ishah, saying:

“My father married me to his brother’s son in order to raise hissocial status. However, I hate it.” When the Prophet (r) heard hercomplaint, he gave her the option of having the marriage annulled. Shesaid: “O Messenger of Allah! I have accepted what my father has done.However, I wanted to know that women had a choice in the matter.”

Then we have the story of Burayrah and her husband Mughîth. Both ofthem were slaves. When she acquired her freedom, she had the legalright of staying with her husband who was still a slave, or of leavinghim. She chose to leave him and he began following after her, crying for her to return to him. The Prophet (r) said to her:

“If only you would go back to him.” She asked: “O Messenger of Allah!Are you commanding me?” He said: “No. I am only pleading on his behalf.” She replied: “Then I have no use for him.”

On another occasion, a woman came to the Prophet (r), complaining that men are given the opportunities of military duty, congregational worship, and other things. The Prophet (r) let it be known that he wasvery pleased with her question and with her manner of address.

During the reign of the Caliph ‘Umar b. al-Khattâb, we have the story of a woman who rebuked him while he was on the pulpit about a decreehe wished to make. To this, he said publicly: “ ‘Umar is mistaken and this woman is correct.”

We can go on citing examples of women’s right to speak their own minds, even before the heads of state, not to mention their husbands.From this, we should be able to keep the status of men as protector sand maintainers of women in the proper perspective.

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