Men are [qawwamuna 'ala] women, [on the basis] of what Allah has [preferred] (faddala) some of them over others, and [on the basis] of what they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are [quanitat], guarding in secret that which Allah has guarded. As for those from whom you fear [nushuz], admonish them, banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then, if they obey you, seek not a way against them (Wadud, Qur'an and Women 70).
In her analysis of the key concepts, Wadud's first concern pertains the nature of the term faddala, which seems to designate some sort of difference between men and women in the eyes of Allah. Is this difference based on gender or biological sex? To Wadud it is neither of them, as difference in the Qur'an is always measured in in terms of God-conscious piety, or taqwa (Qur'an and Women 62). Although she admits that the Qur'an seems to favor men in some of its passages, in terms of inheritance for instance, she argues that these differences are solely related to 7th century Arabia and that no unconditional biological or social superiority for men can be derived from them (Qur'an and Women 71). Even if verse 4:34 would be read in an atomistic way, Wadud's linguistic examination suggest that the verse basically boils down to the preference of “some” (ba'd) of them (in masucline plural) over others (in female plural). To Wadud this means that “some men excel over some women in some manners […] So, whatever Allah has preferred, it is still not absolute” (Qur'an and Women 71).
The second concept under Wadud's magnifying glass is qawwamuna 'ala, which signifies, according to one of the translators (Al-Zamakhshari): men being “in charge of the affairs of women” (Wadud, Qur'an and Women 71). Wadud contrasts this translation to others, which deviate from Al-Zamakhshari, thus questioning them all. For unknown reasons, however, she moves on in her examination by accepting the translation of Al-Pickethall, albeit limiting its significance to the level of physical protection and financial providing in the context of historical Arabia. Due to the child-bearing responsibility of women and their limited access to resources, male protection and male material sustenance were an absolute necessity in the arch-patriarchal time of its revelation. Not demanding of men to take their responsibility would have been a “a serious oppression against the women” (Wadud, Qur'an and Women 73).
Wadud then proceeds her investigation by reading in “front” of the verse, i.e. to tackle the issue in view of contemporary times. Considering modern “capitalistic societies like America, where a single income is not longer sufficient to maintain a reasonably comfortable life-style”, Wadud suggests that a narrow look on verse 4:34 can no longer solve today's issues (Qur'an and Women 73). However, that does not make the verse obsolete as it echoes the Qur'anic spirit of “an ideal obligation for men with regard to women to create a balanced and shared society” (Qur'an and Women 73), both on the material and moral level (Qur'an and Women 74). As such, the obligation is to great extent timeless.
The next term under scrutiny is quanitat, which bespeaks the issue of obedience. This time, Wadud persistently critiques and deconstructs some of its mainstream translations by hinting at the fact that the word is used for both males and females. Taking the whole of the Qur'an in account, the term signifies rather “good” than “obedient”, she writes (Qur'an and Women 74). As such, the term is primarily used to describe “personality traits of believers towards Allah” (Qur'an and Women 74) and can never just mean being “obedient to the husband” (Qur'an and Women 74-75).
A final term closely read by Wadud is daraba, or the scourging of women, which constitutes the third possibility in the process of settling disorder in marriages. Again, Wadud begins with doubting the accuracy of the translation, which does not necessarily indicate force or violence. Daraba is also used “when someone leaves”, she writes (Qur'an and Women 76). Even if daraba would mean physical violence against women, she suggests it should be read as another severe restriction of violent practices against women in 7th century Arabia – such as female infanticide, which was also prohibited by the Qur'an – rather than the final permission for “unchecked violence” (Qur'an and Women 77). Wadud stresses that systematic contemporary domestic violence is not in accordance with the overall spirit of the Qur'an because the verse ultimately aims at restoring peace in marriage. The latter goal corresponds to the overall Qur'anic ideal of harmonious marriages (Qur'an and Women 78). As such, harmful aggressors “cannot refer to verse 4:34 to justify their action”, because the “goal of such men is harm, not harmony” (Qur'an and Women 76).
Barlas: “No License to Batter Wives”
Drawing upon the translation of Ali, Barlas quotes verse 4:34 as follows:
Men are the protectors/And maintainers of women/Because God 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 God 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).
(Believing Women 184-185; emphasis by Barlas).
Similar to Wadud, Barlas analyzes the verse through the lens of two themes: the role of men as protectors and maintainers and the issue of physical violence against disobedient wives (Believing Women 185). Barlas starts her examination of the first theme by questioning Ali's translation, who unjustly added the word “strength” to the verse. By doing so, Ali “interpolates the themes of sexual differentiation and inequality into the Qur'an” and “transform[s] social responsibility [...] into paternalism” (Barlas, Believing Women 185). Barlas infers that a truthful translation would never point to an ontological trait of difference in the verse, but only to an economic one. In her next step, Barlas tackles the key concepts of the verse linguistically, starting with qawwamuna 'ala. For this task, she accepts Wadud's interpretation of “breadwinner”. However, she adds that this not a new idea but a reading “of much older vintage” (Believing Women 186). Quite remarkably, she quotes al-Tabari to back her up (Believing Women 186), after criticizing him throughout her book. Ultimately, economic responsibility does not make the husband “head of the household” as is the case in patriarchal definitions of “the father-as-father” (Believing Women 186).
Within the framework of the second theme, the issue of physical violence and obedience, Barlas' analysis sets off by adopting Wadud's interpretation of quanitat. The same goes for the term daraba, although she does dig deeper into the reasons why the latter should be read as a restriction and not a free-for-all. Provided that daraba actually means hitting women, Barlas suggests that other Quran'ic stories – Job striking his wife with “a little grass”, amongst others – indicate that daraba should at least be understood symbolically (Believing Women 158). Also, given the low status of daraba as the final option of resolution, striking can not be considered as a promising prospect for resolving problems. In the final step of her elaborations, Barlas raises doubts whether daraba signifies hitting at all. Referring to scholars such as Rafi Ullah Shahab and Hassan, “to prevent” or “holding in confinement” seem more plausible translations (Believing Women 189). In the light of the “many different readings” of the verse, Barlas writes that the verse itself “is ambiguous, and, to that extent, we should be willing to rethink our commitment to its centrality” (Believing Women 189). Similar to Wadud, she concludes that it is not acceptable at all to use the verse as “a license to batter wives, or to compel obedience upon them”, not only because “it is not the best meaning we can derive from the Qur'an”, but also because “it contradicts the Qur'an's view of sexual equality and its teachings that marriages should be based on love, forgiveness, harmony” (Believing Women 189).
ZIF: “a spiral of violence”
On its daring and provocative first page, ZIF's essay quotes verse 4:34 both in Arabic and, in a bold frame, in its German translation. The translation is from the ZIF itself and goes as follows:
Die Männer stehen ein für die Frauen, wegen dem womit Allah die jeweils einen vor den jeweils anderen ausgezeichnet hat, und weil sie (als die wirtschaftlich Unabhängigen) aus ihrem Vermögen (Unterhalt und Versorgung) ausgeben, Darum sind loyale Frauen (Allah gegenüber) ergeben. (Sie sind) diejenigen, welche die Geheimnisse (der Ehe, was nicht öffentlich gemacht wird und Außenstehenden verborgen bleiben soll), gemäß Allahs Weisung bewahren. Und wenn ihr annehmt, dass Frauen (einen Vertrauensbruch begehen, besprecht euch mit ihnen und (falls keine Veränderung eintritt) zieht euch (zunächst) aus dem Privatbereich zurück (meidet Intimitäten) und (als letztes) trennt euch von Ihnen (adrubuhunna). Wenn sie zur loyalen Haltung zurückkehren, so sucht gegen sie keine Handhabe (um Ihnen zu schaden). Wahrlich, Allah ist erhaben, größer (als alles Vorstellbare). (“Ein einziges Wort” 1)
Opening the essay with it's own translation mirrors the deep distrust of the ZIF towards mainstream translations. Throughout its essay, ZIF focuses upon biased and hierarchical translations by juxtaposing and contrasting them systematically. A point in case is the translation of qawwamuna 'ala, which is the first term they tackle. To some German translators, it means “to prefer” or “to be superior”; to others it suggests “responsible for” or “dominator” (ZIF, “Ein einziges Wort 24-25). Similar to Wadud and Barlas, ZIF settles at some point with “being responsible for”. Pointing to the economic aspect of the term, ZIF forcefully rejects any interpretation which reads male superiority into this verse (ZIF, “Ein einziges Wort” 27-28). Moreover, economic advantage should be linked to an overall striving for justice: being responsible is a chance for men “to prove generosity and justice” (“Ein einziges Wort” 30). Similar to the other exegetes, ZIF subsequently contextualizes this statement: “Because the verse addresses explicitly and solely economic benefits, the state and place of the women during the time of revelation has to be investigated” (“Ein einziges Wort” 31). ZIF closes its examination of qawwamuna 'ala by referring to hurtful contemporary patriarchal misreadings, which lead to limitations for women to engage in the public sphere.
In the same vein as Wadud and Barlas, ZIF subsequently focuses upon the issue of obedience and physical violence, albeit focusing on nusuz instead of quanitat. Frequently translated as malicious and recalcitrant disobedience, nusuz is a classical example of a highly gendered interpretation, according to ZIF (“Ein einziges Wort” 46). As soon as the word is used in the context of male behavior, for instance, it stops carrying its irrational connotations. “Why would the same Qur'anic attitude, described with the same term, be evaluated so differently, depending on whether it is used for men or women?” (ZIF, “Ein einziges Wort” 46).
Also, ZIF criticizes mainstream translations of daraba and asks why the concept of hitting women is “fundamentally accepted” by many translators (ZIF, “Ein einziges Wort” 36). This seems particularly erroneous because striking wives (lightly, as some translators suggest) seems a deeply illogical step third option to restore peace in a troubled marriage. To quote ZIF: “what good can it do to beat women lightly, if the previous removal of the husband from the private sphere did not work?” (“Ein einziges Wort” 39). “Revenge” could be a hypothetical answer to this question (“Ein einziges Wort” 43). But since the ultimate goal of revenge, and of verse 4:34, is to reach balance and peace, ZIF fails to see how this can be achieved by physical violence. Particularly because aggression is not defined at all. Can men beat women up to the point where “bones break”, as some commentators and translators infer (ZIF, “Ein einziges Wort” 38)? How can one measure “intense pain”, ZIF asks in the context of another translation (ZIF, “Ein einziges Wort” 38). Does it include psychological pain?
Reading “in front” of the verse, ZIF maintains that taking aggression for granted as a legitimate option to solve problems in contemporary societies “opens up a spiral of violence”, as experience and current research prove (“Ein einziges Wort” 36). “Can it really be done that beating women does not lead to some sorts of humiliation, even if it would only mean a symbolic act of a light strike?” ZIF does not think so and, as a consequence, rejects any sorts of physical violence unconditionally (ZIF, “Ein einziges Wort” 51). Moreover, similar to Wadud and Barlas, ZIF stresses that striking should also be rejected because it contradicts Qur'anic ethics of marriage (ZIF, “Ein einziges Wort” 39): “using violence when normative deviations are suspected is generally rejected by Qur'anic pedagogical concepts” (ZIF, “Ein einziges Wort” 52-53; 59).
In the final section of its essay, ZIF investigates alternative semantic meanings of daraba. In the same vein as Wadud and Barlas, ZIF concludes that it most likely means “distancing” and “separation” (“Ein einziges Wort” 57). It concludes with an appeal to the translators for more accuracy because women and girls will turn away from the Qur'an, “an important source of orientation in the development of their identity”, if they are confronted with “misleading translations and interpretations” (ZIF, “Ein einziges Wort” 63).
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