This post was inspired by a recent discussion on fiqh and marriage in traditional Islamic law with Orbala.
Marriage in Traditional Islam
In traditional conceptions of Islamic marriage, a man is responsible for giving his wife clothing, shelter, and material provision. In return, his wife is expected to obey him and make herself sexually available to him at every possible time.
A man has the right to prohibit his wife from working and from leaving the house. He also has the “right” to physically discipline her if she disobeys him. He is effectively given complete control over his wife, sexually and domestically. Women are literally equated with helpless captives.
It is also notable that prior to the marriage, depending on the madhab (school of thought), a woman is generally required to obtain consent from her wali (guardian) to make a marriage valid. The wali must be male, and can be her father, brother, or even her son.
Marriage in the Qur’an
Traditional law is quite different from the Quranic model of marriage. Both traditional Islam and the Quran require consent from the woman to be married (4:19), but the Quran requires no wali. Child marriages are prohibited, as a child is too young to give informed consent. A woman must be old enough to enter into the marriage contract herself. There is no concept of a wali in the Quran.
Quranically, marriage arrangements are to be conducted through mutual consultation/consent (2:233, 4:24). Coercion, force, and harm are strictly prohibited (2:231, 4:19). In situations of suspected marital discord, reconciliatory steps must be taken, and arbitration is to be appointed (4:34-35).
Although men are primarily responsible for a family’s financial maintenance (2:233, 65:6, 4:34 qawwamun/spending from wealth), women may work if they wish. They are entitled to keep all of their earnings, since they aren’t responsible for the financial upkeep of their family.
Neither spouse has the right to prohibit the other from working or leaving the house, since the Quran explicitly acknowledges both men and women’s right to earn:
“And do not covet (Arabic: tatammannaw) what God has bestowed some of you over others. For men (is) a share (Arabic: nasibun) from that which they have earned (Arabic: iktasabu), and for women (is) a share (Arabic: nasibun) from that which they have earned (Arabic: iktasab(na)) and ask God of His bounty (Arabic: fadlihi). Indeed! God is ever Knower of all things.” 4:32
It is clear that verse 4:32 primarily refers to monetary earnings, since the word tamanna is used, meaning to “desire” or “covet” something. Fadl, meaning bounty, is also used. Men and women are both given the right to earn this “bounty.” There is also no differentiation between men and women with respect to how they accumulate it.
In the Quran, both men and women are required to seek knowledge in any way possible (20:114). They are repeatedly commanded to be active in wider society, and to aid one another through their acquisition of knowledge (9:71). All believers, men and women, are told to “wander in devotion to the cause of God” (9:112).
The Quran does not go into specifics on how a household is to be run, instead setting down basic guidelines and allowing shura to do the rest. It is understood in the Quran that marriage takes place between consenting and mature adults who are clearly expected to be capable of making decisions between themselves. This is in contrast to traditional fiqh, which restricts marriage to the equivalent of institutionalized female subjugation.
Traditional schools of thought assert that women are required to obey their husbands, and this encompasses carrying out household chores if the husband demands it. However, the Quran doesn’t obligate women to do housework at all. In fact, according to the Quran, even nursing one’s child is actually optional:
“Mothers shall suckle their children for two whole years; (that is) for those who wish to complete the suckling. The duty of feeding and clothing nursing mothers in a seemly manner is upon the father of the child. No-one should be charged beyond his capacity. A mother should not be made to suffer because of her child, nor should he to whom the child is born (be made to suffer) because of his child. And on the (father’s) heir is incumbent the like of that (which was incumbent on the father). If they desire to wean the child by mutual consent and (after) consultation, it is no sin for them; and if ye wish to give your children out to nurse, it is no sin for you, provide that ye pay what is due from you in kindness. Observe your duty to Allah, and know that Allah is Seer of what ye do.” 2:233
According to the above verse, a woman’s children may be given to a wet nurse. The woman’s husband is required to pay her wages.
In some cases, such as during ‘iddah (the waiting period after a declaration of divorce), a woman nursing her child is seen as doing a service for her household. A husband is actually required to give her monetary payment for her work:
“Lodge them where ye dwell, according to your means, and harass them not so as to straiten life for them. And if they are with child, then spend for them till they bring forth their burden. Then, if they give suck for you, give them their due payment and consult together in kindness; but if ye make difficulties for one another, then let some other woman give suck for him (the father of the child).” 65:6
The Quran is fairly flexible when it comes to marriage. It leaves a great deal open for the couple to decide. Unfortunately, traditional fiqh is replete with cultural and/or secondarily sourced details regarding everything from housework division to the type of perfume a woman should wear in the presence of her husband.
It is astonishing how quickly Quranic ideals are overturned to make room for unIslamic concepts put forth in the name of God. Traditionalists may see such observations as heretical or deviant, but we are merely returning to the original source of Islam: the Qur’an.
These are not “new, progressive” interpretations. These are simply core Quranic concepts that have been obscured into oblivion.
The Quran commands justice and reason. It is we, Muslims, who consistently fail to uphold God’s commands.
Traditional discussions about marriage are usually centered around “rights” and “responsibilities.” Obsessiveness almost always ensues–it’s practically a tally of “privileges” and “requirements,” morphing into a complex gender war: “Men have the right to obedience because they pay for everything! Men have the right to take multiple wives! Men have the right to sex!”…and so on and so forth.
It turns into a competition.
This is not what the Quran commands. God wants balance and harmony, not gender wars.
A few days prior, I was scanning the Quran to see if I could find any mention of a woman’s “responsibilities” towards her household. In the Quran, men are frequently addressed with regards to how they behave in a marriage, but women aren’t. I was mildly surprised to discover that there are only two instances in which women are required to do anything for their household:
- During a period of ‘iddah, if a woman is pregnant, she is required to inform her husband so that her waiting period can be extended to the duration of her pregnancy. (2:228)
- In a marital context, righteous women are supposed to be qanitat, or devout, and “guard in the Unseen with what God has guarded.” (4:34) This is open to a wide variety of interpretations, but it seems to indicate being morally upright in both the public and private sphere, as evidenced by the “Unseen.” It should be noted that this is a parallel responsibility–elsewhere in the Quran, men are similarly commanded to be qaniteen.
That’s it. Those are the only two places where the Quran actually obligates women to “do anything” in a context specific to marriage or divorce.
Men are always charged with responsibility, but their “right” to demand anything from their wives in return is severely curtailed. And when women complain about men, their complaints are turned into verses of God (58:1-4). The Quran actually seems biased in favor of women.
This stands in contrast with traditional Islamic practice, which often relegates women to second-class citizens on the pretext of “protecting” them.
According to the Qur’an, men and women are created equal from one soul (4:1). Some legislation in cases of inheritance, witness testimony, and financial management differs by gender, but men and women are equal in their individual agency as vicegerents of God (2:30). Their capacity for achievement and reward is the same (33:35). There are no strict gender-delineated roles outside of financial responsibility within a household. The Qur’an is indeed universal and timeless. It is we who restrict its guidance, whether consciously or unconsciously.
- Bukhari 4794, also Sunan Abu Dawud, Kitab Al-Nikah
- Ibn Muflih Al-Hanbali said, “It is prohibited for a woman to go out of her husband’s house without his permission, except in cases of necessity…”
- Sahih Bukhari 72:715, also Abu Dawud, Book 11, #2142 from Umar ibn Al-Khattab (although classified as da’if/weak)
- Taken from the Prophet’s alleged farewell sermon, Ibn Kathir: “And I urge you to treat women well, for they are like captives in your hands…”