A Husband’s Role in Islamic Marriage

Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made one of them to excel the other and because they must provide for them from their means; the good women are therefore obedient to Allah, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great.

We have all heard these words. We all know how male scholars have interpreted them to mean that men in islam are the guardians of women, leaders of the family, and women must obey their husbands because their husband excel them in strength and reason. But look again. Is that what it says. Islamic scholars are amazing in their ability to interpret the Quran to their liking. But why not simply read what it says? First of all, it says men are to work, and maintain women. And it says they must do this because “one of them excels the other”. But who excels?

“…and beat them”

Well, most of us know that intellectual work is considered a degree above manual labour. In the surah Allah clearly says that menial work, manual labour, is meant for men and men must work to maintain women. The obvious interpretation here then is that men are commanded to do manual labour to maintain women, since women excel in every other aspect than raw muscle. So Allah is demanding that men do the manual labour because women are meant for better things. Men are the worker bees to the women’s queen bee. So: Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made women to excel men, and hence men must serve and maintain them, just like slaves did the work for Pharaoh. And this is why men have to spend out of their pocket – their labour belongs to their mistresses/owners. This also means that we must read the rest of the surah differently. It says good women are therefore devoutly obedient to Allah. Women must be obedient by keeping men as their labourers. And the rest of the surah is written in a way in Arabic that makes it impossible to understand if it addresses men or women so men have naturally read it to say that it means men can punish women. BUT it could just as correctly be read the other way around! So this is what An Nisa 4:34 really says:

Men are the maintainers (labourers belonging to) (of) women because Allah has made some of them (women) to excel others (men) and because they must provide for them from their means (give up their salary to them, i.e. men are as slaves to women); the good women are therefore obedient to Allah, guarding the unseen (things men don’t understand) as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those (husbands and other men) on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great.

43 thoughts on “A Husband’s Role in Islamic Marriage

  1. Haha you are a genius, Fiona 🙂 You are doing a service that even modern day Muslim female scholar could not have dared to, because the centuries-old patriarchy is so etched in all their minds. Being a British woman who lived a more egalitarian lifestyle has sure been a bonus. And buckets of courage as well.

    Its high time we start re-interpreting parts of the Quran, especially ones that may look vague or unjust, to suit the modern civilized world better. And erase age old unfair patriarchy as well. Would take time though for it to happen. But the world is progressing that direction I would say.

  2. Hello, and welcome! I just had this from class – the sheik is an Arab, and a professor in Ancient Arabic. He said that the words are directed at men – but so are all that are not directed specifically at women. And he pointed at this surah as one that is ambigous. So it’s not coming from me 🙂 So, there you go!

  3. For those who do not know Arabic, it works a bit like ellas and ellos in Spanish. However, as I have had it explained to me by several scholars, in the Quran, ambiguity is not only a matter of language but of context. Sometimes the male forms are used to indicate all of mankind, and in other passages the female form is used the same way. So male and female can not only be interpreted linguistically, but also contextually. This is how islamic tradition and fiqh has developed in such a patriarchal manner – every ambiguity has been used to further the interests of men.

  4. //ambiguity is not only a matter of language but of context. Sometimes the male forms are used to indicate all of mankind, and in other passages the female form is used the same way. So male and female can not only be interpreted linguistically, but also contextually.//

    Wow, I didn’t know this. I have to verify this for myself. That’s some news right there. Gosh :O

  5. //This is how islamic tradition and fiqh has developed in such a patriarchal manner – every ambiguity has been used to further the interests of men.//

    Oh God, okay. Fiona, since you have been talking with some professors of ancient Arabic, I have some more questions which you can pass on to them, if you have the time (I salute you for keeping up this blog, while also managing real life responsibilities and time constraints). Such as when Arabic language first originated, and if, just if, Arabic when was first released, could have been a form of the old style of language, where each letter had it’s own meaning, and later the letters were combined to become a word, so the entire word had a meaning. Some ancient languages worked this way. I know, sounds really far-fetched, but we are dealing with languages over a thousand years old. Perhaps even Hebrew was this way?

    This is how a friend of mine has been interpreting the Quran, and coming up with a much more different meaning to it, which is more gender neutral, has concepts like reincarnation, no such thing as Hell-fire, we would be re-united with the divine at the end of some cycles, pantheistic vision of God, etc. Basically has similarities to Buddhism and Hinduism, and some words of Jesus too. He says an enlightened man wrote the scripture, but it may not be as much divine as we Muslims make it. Sounds way far-fetched, and more of depth than what common people are interested to know, but I am just letting you know since you are already on this journey and being smart about it, trusting your own intuition first and foremost. And the friend is not making things up, he said through some analysis he has been fine-tuning the meaning of each Arabic letter. He says the stray letters at the beginning of each Surah are an indication of how the scripture is to be interpreted.

    Perhaps later on Arabic was constructed to be more like a modern version of language. Maybe the latter people were confused on it’s method of translation, so they tried to take a good guess. And mixed culture, politics and patriarchy to it. Anyway, I just shared what I know that’s all.

  6. The friend is still studying the scripture in his way. Also the concept of God is referred to as third person non specific gender. So it can be she/he/it. And that God does not care about belief/disbelief more than being good human beings on earth.

    Anyway, one thing that was helpful to me, was him saying that whatever real enlightened people came to preach to others through the centuries, they usually brought a common message of how to be good human beings and being spiritual as such, and conducting gatherings on being more aligned to one’s self, not a religion with dogmatic rules and practises. Because after a person is balanced and more trained to be a good human being, they can easily discuss and come up with laws and rules that suit specific countries, and personal rituals that are helpful for them to be spiritual (which includes if a person chooses a specific spiritual path). So if a person knows this stuff, they may not need a scripture in the first place. Unless it is more helpful for them. But once again, its good to be careful about dogmatic laws, and matters such as misogyny.

    Anyway, I am not sure if the friend is right or not. But it surely makes more sense, his words, and I like them that way. The Quran still has an edge of patriarchy in his method of interpretation (none of the weird laws present though), such as the way the ancient stories are written (lesser female names than male ones). Anyway, once again I just shared this, that’s all.

    My main question to the professors is if there is ever a chance that Arabic might have have individual letters carrying a meaning, which jointly gives a meaning to a word. I am afraid it may never have crossed their minds and they may just laugh it off.

  7. The first part is ambiguous – it doesn’t specify which group Allah had preferred. Whilst plural masculine is used for a group including females, the feminine is never used to indicate male/s. So, the second part of the aya cannot be read gender interchanged.

    The ‘-hunna’ at the end of the verbs indicates *only* plural third person feminine. Otherwise it would suffix ‘hum’ at the end which is the plural third person masculine that can include mixed males and females.

    So literally the Arabic reads:
    faʿ’iZuu-hunna “and adominish them females”
    wa ihjuruu-hunna “and separate from them females”
    wa iDribuu-hunna “and strike them females”

    There is no way you can read “hunna” as referring to men.

    Interesting aside, the imperitive translated as beat or strike or hit uses Form 1 of the verb Daraba which is not the emphatic form. Namely, it excludes the English implication of ‘beat’ which results in injury.

  8. Also, I have found that sometimes Arabs (particularly those of a more secular bent) translating or explaining some of the more sexist parts of the language and culture, tend to … How shall I put it … Put the best spin on things even if it fudges the truth a little. It’s like saying jihad only means “spiritual battle against sin”. That’s the greater jihad, but it’s lying to say that jihad doesn’t also mean physical combat.

  9. As our professor explained it, this is only due to bias. We accept that them in the male form can mean all mankind women included, but not the other way around. The professor said that Allah does not have linguistical bias the way we do. There is no way we can claim that! 🙂

  10. I believe you. Just as I know that Arabs have always put the most patriarchal spin on things 🙂 Love your input!

  11. Assalaikum salaam

    It has been a great relief to read this blog and find some who are truthful about polygyny. Edith, I feel for you sister! I can tell you my story and see how things like age and death are overseen by people who promote polygyny. I came looking for help because my situation slowly became intolerable.

    I was a first wife. My husband married a second the way most do behing my back and lying about it. Then I found out and evertyhing went bad the way the pain does in polygyny. And my co was a very immature person. I had little to do with her but she wanted money and life becamse all about money because I had to make sure my children got what they needed. If it hadn’t been for the children I would have left. Anyway my husband is 10 years older than me and 15 years older than co. A couple of years ago he was diagnoced with Alzheimers. He was only in his late fifities and we did not suspect but he had been dizzy and forgetful and moody and feeling itchy and so we went to a doctor and he was diagnoced. And co went apeshit. When he became worse she kept complaining he wet the bed, he got lost, he broke things. Suddenly the schedule she had fought for every minute earlier became the other way around and she didn’t want him there. Finally she said he could not come at all. I tried driving him over there but she locked the door. And now I know I don’t need to stay with him because he can’t take the children anyway, and they are also soon big. So I feel – why stay now when I have resented him and been hurt by him for so many years? So now I have filed for divorce. And my children say they want rid of him because polygyny destroyed their life.

    Men marry polygynus with their dicks. They forget that they will be old, or die.

  12. @ Marilee I believe your husband gets what he deserves. He abandoned you when his life was still good, so he abandoned also the right to be stood by himself in worse times. I think you and your children are strong, self-respecting individuals. Women and children often have a tendency to let “heads of the household” step all over them in traditional settings. So good for you!

  13. Exactly so! He abandoned you and put you through the worst time of your life, now you abandon him and leave him to the worst part of his. Karma.

  14. Marilee, wow. That’s a story for sure. After visiting polygamy blogs, I am stunned at the stories the women have to tell. All I would say that I sincerely have a great deal of respect for women who remain strong in such kinds of intolerable settings, and have self-respect. Good for you to have left him!

  15. “They forget that they will be old, or die.” You are so right Marilee. Most of the polygamy discussions that I read are entirely predicated on the idea that the players will be in their prime forever. I support you for refusing to play the role of martyr during the second half of your life.

    Set your sights on meeting a man who makes you his center, or be single with happiness and with gratitude that this constant misery is not being inflicted on you.

  16. Merilee, your story tells that after what he did to you there was nothing left in marriage. Also seems both of you were not staying in marriage because of love because if there was any the sick husband will not be abandoned like this. I wonder why only serious illness and death (in Edith’s case) leads to wives standing up for themselves and taking any real action. Are they so much under husband’s influence/control or whatever that they don’t speak up and act while he is still capable/alive.

  17. Fiona, thanks for keeping the blog going. i am mostly silent reading these days but always check the blog regularly and enjoy reading all the great posts and comments. One question i had in my mind that i wanted to share with you in ace you can address through a post is that why don’t we see polygamist men sharing their experiences and discussing problems or bliss of their polygamous life. Maybe you can create a post that can engage polygamous men. If you or any readers knows about any blog by a polygamous man please share.

    Mariam, i enjoy reading your comments including the long ones. Keep posting 🙂

  18. Merrilee’s story reinforces what we know about women who agree to be second wives. When the husband was no longer useful to the second wife, she was happy to get rid of him. It reinforces what I’ve always believed, women who agree to be second wives generally have lower character which they have proven by not caring how their actions can destroy another woman (I exclude women who are genuinely forced into it).

    Merrilee’s story also gives us insight into children of polygamous men. They hated their father for what he did. So even though Merrilee probably stayed in her marriage for the children, as many women do, it actually wasn’t worth it. The children would have been fine if Merrilee divorced and spared them the years of watching her suffer in polygamy.

    Laila, I think we don’t see polygamous men sharing their experiences because:
    (1) they know they can’t justify their positions, many of them don’t even know Islam, so they can’t even justify it beyond what ‘fearthefire’ wrote. Did you notice ‘fearthefire’ didn’t try to answer any of Fiona’s rebuttals? They don’t have any answers, they can’t compete with intellect like Fiona’s (2) they are too embarrassed to admit they made a mistake and are miserable, after all they will look cuckold to other muslim men for not having ‘control’ of their wives
    (3) they are too embarrassed to admit they are claiming benefits to support their polygamous lifestyle in western countries – we all know they do it, and they know we know!

  19. From time to time, polygamous men have posted on Fiona’s blog. Their stories were mostly circling around “I thought my wife would soon accept the situation, but our relationship is deeply changed/disturbed, what shall I do?”. I guess it is natural the more unhappy men would find a blog like Fiona’s presenting a first wife’s – initially unhappy – perspective. From what people here tell, Islamic websites feature polygamous men sharing their allegedly happy experience with other men. Mark once said he was on those websites a lot when making his initial decision.

    So I guess they are sharing their experience quite happily, in more “appropriate” outlets (for them).

  20. And as for social benefits, polygamous men claiming various social benefits for their second or third family have happily told so on Dutch, German and some Scandinavian tv at the very least, sharing their name and showing their face. They are admirably well-consulted, legally, from what it seems, and know what they do is formally correct and cannot be taken from them because they appear on tv (often to mock their host country and its disbelievers publicly).

  21. Thanks Laila 🙂

    // I wonder why only serious illness and death (in Edith’s case) leads to wives standing up for themselves and taking any real action. Are they so much under husband’s influence/control or whatever that they don’t speak up and act while he is still capable/alive.//

    That’s a very good question. In some cases it may be the child custody is taken from the mothers, or the woman and children are left with lower monetary support if they divorce. But then. I see the same problem is with women in developed countries as well, where polygamy is an offense and could earn the wife and children enough benefits to live comfortably. I wonder this question too. If any women living polygamy could answer, it would be helpful. And please don’t feel embarrassed about it, we are chatting in a polygamy blog after all.

    lifeisgood wrote some very good points regarding polygamous men not sharing their experiences.

  22. By the way I have a question which is completely unrelated to the subject of polygamy. Since we have some real smart people around here, that’s why I decided to ask. If you don’t mind me asking, what’s your opinion on death penalty in countries? It’s a confusing topic for me, so you guys’ opinions are welcomed.

  23. I’m not really a religious person, rather an agnostic, but I do believe in the sanctity of life. Life is uniquely valuable, and the right to life is absolute. Pragmatically, I also believe that if we can not come up with a 100% fool proof method of establishing guilt, we can never mete out irrevocable sentences. But even when guilt is established, I don’t believe the state should kill people (let’s talk about war another time 🙂 ) – I don’t know if there’s a god or not, but I do know for a fact that if there is a god, it’s not the state.

  24. I like how you put it, Fiona. So you believe in preserving human life,, and valuing it as such. The death penalty is abolished in a lot of developed countries. I am not sure though if it would be a good idea to do so in developing countries. But I do support protecting lives and treating them as human beings even when they are criminals. Which means I am against the death penalty for the majority of cases. Some violent crime though, which could scar a person for life, or cause them to die, I am not sure of this way.

    In Nordic countries such crimes are rare anyway, unlike the developing countries. Anyway, a lot of human behaviour are a result of beliefs, so examining those beliefs, and creating changes as such for beliefs that are creating the detrimental behaviours, among people is a good idea. Also if the prisons serve as a type of rehab as well, instead of simply a place for punishment and perhaps dehumanizing the people there further, the way it is for Sweden and Norway, would also be good for the people in the society.

  25. Laila, I think your question- “Are they so much under husband’s influence/control or whatever that they don’t speak up and act while he is still capable/alive.” is the lynchpin of this entire problem, which wouldn’t exist without the complicity of the women. I don’t know the answer.

    I have just walked away from a relationship with a man that I have been trying to leave for 3 years. I thought that this blog would be the first place I would go to talk about it, but as it turns out, I can’t talk about it. Still, I wanted to address your reflection in some way at this time.

    Something came into my life which enabled me to see. And when I saw, I acted, and it was nothing at all like what I thought it was going to be. Because every thought I previously had about how I was going to leave was formulated inside the mind of someone who was falling into valleys, and trying to climb mountains. Once I saw, I stopped climbing the mountains.

    I don’t believe people have choices unless they can see.

  26. Oh Dale, of course you can’t talk about it. Let it become something which you really know has happened first, then talk about it if you want to.

  27. Salaam marlee

    I can understand and I don’t think you are doing a bad thing. Khul is allowed when a man is not providing and seing to your needs so you can build a new life now with somebody else if you wish. Caring for somebody is because of love and loyalty. I would have cared for my husband no matter what until he stopped loyalty between us by taking another woman and calling her his wife. I think I would have done like you. Don’t blame yourself blame him.

  28. Hi there, its really interesting to read ur blog, i read all 😀 for several years there was also a blog about a canadian woman and her troubles about polygamy. At the end she found freedom with another men,i dondt find it anymore. U know other blogs or experience from woman in polygamy?
    Are u still angry at ur first husband or did u forgive him,what would u think if he choose again polygamy. Its not easier to rest with ur second men. Or is it like an addiction and one time in polygamy and ur caught because of the feelings and desire for more mens? Please not be angry i am curios and want to understand. i am not in polygamy but have a friend is open to polygamy

  29. Hi Kiara!
    Sorry no, I don’t know of any other blog I could recommend.
    I did forgive my first husband, but only after he recognized I am his equal, with equal rights. I would not have been able to forgive him had he not.
    I have no desire to keep adding husbands to our family 🙂 I’m quite busy as it is.

  30. Dale, I’ve thought alot about what you wrote about “seeing”. I don’t know what finally allows us to see. If we knew imagine how much suffering could be saved? Maybe this lightbulb moment is a better example of qadr than any muslim has ever been able to give. There is something supernatural about and only once we see it are we able to exercise complete free will.

  31. Thank you for your thoughts LIG. I think the fact of consciousness is a mysterious paradox. We are changed when it floods into our lives. We yearn for it, but we cannot create it. But it looks as if it becomes available to us when we are receptive to it, and this happens through our preparation, diligent attention, humility, and the work of listening.

    I neither believe nor disbelieve in God. I don’t believe that one religion as any more proximity to truth than any other religion. But it is plain as day to me that religious people are so busy TELLING everyone what truth is that they are talking when the truth is spoken and can’t hear it, and for the same reason can’t see it when it is in front of them.

  32. I am trying to move on. It is not simple. I have so many questions for my husband that I must accept will,never be answered. I must accept they are no longer important.

    Why can polygamy be allowed? It brings only misery and pain and bitterness and hate.

  33. You are right Dale. My ex husband said it himself recently, he said he was deaf and blind to anything he didn’t want to believe. Well, good, by far too late for me to care much.

    Edith,

    What bothers me about mosques still condoning polygamy, is that they no longer condone slavery. Why the double standard? Why the hypocrisy? Both subjugate and cause pain and misery. Either both should be allowed in current times or neither. You should read Fiona’s post about it, it’s very interesting.

  34. //Why can polygamy be allowed? It brings only misery and pain and bitterness and hate.//

    Which is why I had deduced these rulings are from ancient patriarchal and oppressive culture, and purely man-made. And for this who believe in a God, nothing of the Islamic version of polygamy is from a Loving God. Period.

    I am hoping that with time, Muslims worldwide would enter a more enlightened state where rulings that don’t fit into that realm, such as related to misogyny and on aspects of human rights as they currently see it, would melt away. As for now, when we women choose a life partner, for several areas we should make sure his worldview fits into our’s.

  35. //You are right Dale. My ex husband said it himself recently, he said he was deaf and blind to anything he didn’t want to believe. Well, good, by far too late for me to care much.//

    Oh, you divorced already? How are you doing now?

  36. Hi Mariam,

    The scary thing about it all is this: you can choose a life partner that does seem to share your views, in fact, they seem to share your views for many years, then all of a sudden they pull the polygamy card from the deck!!!??? I’m doing great, thank you. Like Dale, I had my moment of vision and left and have not had a minute’s regret. I think you just know when it’s the right decision and the right time to act.

    But hearing about women who are suffering in polygamy really weighs heavily in my heart. Usually pain is caused to people by strangers who don’t care, but with polygamy it’s your soul mate, the person closest to you inflicting the most brutal pain that hurts every inch of the body. And people who try to distance themselves from their husbands, so as not to feel the pain so much, I feel sorry for them. Imagine learning how to love someone less, so the pain they are deliberately inflicting on you doesn’t hurt so much??? It’s truly twisted.

  37. Lifeisgood, this is one reason why I am currently more of a spiritual free thinker than an organized religion person, so the person I choose to marry won’t at least try to support his mis-actions through “higher power allowance” doors. I agree for many cases it is easier said than done. However, in the case of polygamy, it is clear cheating, so the man who supports such brutal method of cheating is at the end, still a cheater. So the woman could try to see it that way at least. And see what to do about her situation.

    Did your husband attempt polygamy? Just wondering.

  38. //Like Dale, I had my moment of vision and left and have not had a minute’s regret. I think you just know when it’s the right decision and the right time to act.//

    LIG, welcome to the sisterhood of no regrets ❤
    It's an amazing feeling, realizing you're free, the door's right there, open and in front of you, and all you have to do is walk through it. I haven't spoken to asshat in 6 months. Some days, it's like he never even existed (except I have all his crap I'm still storing for him, no idea why. I think it's time to have an e-bay selling spree…lol)

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