What Does the Quran Say About Women?
In the Islamic tradition, the creation of the human race was borne of two partners. Several verses in the Quran stress this fact and the Arabic word to describe these two partners is Zawj. The word Zawj in Arabic means two partners who were created from the same source, who both have equal worth and enjoy the same general rights, and who both have the same responsibilities toward their creator.
A Single Origin for the Human Race
“People, be conscious of your Lord, Who created you from a single being and created, of like nature, its mate and spread from these two, many men and women. Be conscious of God, in whose name you demand your mutual rights. Beware of severing the ties of the wombs; certainly God is ever watching over you.” (4: 1) This address is directed to the whole of humanity to remind them of the concept of the Oneness of their Creator and the common root of their race. People need to reflect on these simple, yet weighty statements. How did humankind come to this world? Who brought them? Through God’s will, we were created and have been given unique characteristics and talents to cope with the many facets of life. The power that creates knows everything about that which has been created and this power has the right to organize lives and to determine the norms and principles which should govern societies.
Human life started with a single decision from God and then humanity sprung from that common root. This makes the whole of humanity one family, connecting all people to one another. Therefore all societies, ideological or otherwise, that discriminate between people on the basis of skin colour, gender, or class have no real justification. So too, the long history of discrimination practices on the basis of gender should have been avoided entirely. Souls of males and females are equal in their uniqueness, complexity and right to be respected. They were created to complement each other. Each has a mission to fulfill and each has been gifted, in their own right, with the skill to fulfill this mission.
The verse above also underscores the importance of the family as the building block of society. Humanity started with a single soul that was complemented with its mate. The idea of starting humanity with a single family stresses the important role that the family plays in enhancing the ties between members of society. These ties; however, cannot be formed if the family unit itself is unhealthy or broken and Islam’s social system paid great attention to developing and strengthening the means which support and protect the family structure. A solid family unit cannot be established while one of the partners is being ill-treated, abused or wronged in any way. To this end, Islam paid great attention to establishing women’s rights as human beings at a time when this was a novel and revolutionary idea.
The verse above urges people to remain conscious of their Lord and to conduct their dealings and create their connections, fulfilling each other’s rights, with His pleasure in the forefront of their minds. There are two expressions we’d like to focus on, the first being God consciousness (Taqwa) which is understood and repeated throughout the Quran. The second expression is, “Conscious of the wombs” an equally important awareness, yet far more difficult to explain. It enlivens the feelings of the human being. The expression impresses upon the believer to be sensitive to the needs and rights of family relationships. It urges believers to avoid hurting, or committing injustice against those with whom we share a familial tie. Those who are ‘God conscious’ will also be ‘conscious of the wombs’ as they will remember that God is ever watchful over all of us. There is nothing we can hide from Him as He is fully aware of our deeds and even our innermost thoughts.
“It is He who created you from a single soul, and from it made its mate, in order that he might dwell with her (in love). When he covered her, she bears a light burden and carries it about. When she grows heavy, they both pray God their Lord, (saying), ‘If You give us a goodly child, we vow we shall (ever) be grateful.’” (7: 189) Females and males are created from the same soul; however, their functions are different. This difference is intentional and serves as a strength for both individuals, so that spouses can find comfort and tranquility in the company of each other.
“He created you from a single being, then from that (being) He made its mate; and He brought down for you cattle – eight kinds in pairs. He creates you in the wombs of your mothers, creation after creation, in a threefold of darkness. That is God, your Lord. His is the Sovereignty. There is no God save Him. How then you are turned away?” (39: 6) Humans have been created with certain basic characteristics which are common to every person who has lived on earth since the beginning of the human race. These characteristics distinguish us from all other creatures. Humans are created of a soul and a body. Islam provides a plan by which the needs, aspirations, and fulfillment of both the soul and the body are guaranteed.
This verse also refers to the stages of the development of the fetus in the womb. The verse mentions three levels of darkness, which modern medicine has helped us decode. The first level of darkness is formed by the placenta which surrounds the fetus. The placenta is surrounded by the uterus which represents the second level of darkness and finally the uterus is enclosed in the mother’s abdomen which represents the third level of darkness. Conception and development in the womb is at once a normal occurrence, as it happens every day, and a miraculous occurrence, as the stages of development are truly a marvel. This verse is a reminder that we must be conscious of God in all situations; the mundane and the awe-inspiring.
“People, We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is (he who is) most conscious of God. Indeed, God is Omniscient, Totally-Aware.” (49: 13) This verse addresses all humankind. The Creator is telling all people that we were created from a single source. The whole human race came from one pair: a male and a female. They were then spread into different nations so that they would learn about one another and work together. People should not, and are not in the eyes of God, valued according to their race, language, color, or nationality. All people have equal worth in the sight of God. The only standard by which their individual worth is measured is in their level of God consciousness.
Equal Worth of the Sexes
“The Believers, men and women, are protectors of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is evil; they establish regular prayers and pay the prescribed alms; and they obey God and His Messenger. God will have mercy on them. God is Eminent, Wise.” (9: 71) The verse describes the believers as “protectors” of one another. Offering protection requires a noble character which is built on courage and sacrifice and such attributes are part of the character of a believer. The believers are engaged in enjoining in what is good and forbidding what is evil. Such actions require a united front which is formed by the believers, men and women, standing side by side. They establish prayers and pay the prescribed charity due and obey God. They follow the commands of God and His Messenger (PBUH) and they are happy with whatever God and His Messenger (PBUH) decree for them. They will gain the mercy of God in this life as mercy is not meant to be enjoyed in the Hereafter only. If an honest life has been lived for God’s sake, mercy will be granted to the believers in this life as well. So what defines a believer? The believers possess four attributes: they enjoin what is right, they forbid what is evil, they establish prayers, and they pay the prescribed charity due. The subsequent verse promises equal reward for males and females, “God promised the believers, men and women, gardens under which rivers flow to dwell therein, and beautiful mansions in gardens of everlasting bliss. But the greatest bliss is the good pleasure of God. That is the supreme felicity.” (9: 72)
Another verse that states the equality of the sexes in rights and responsibilities in unequivocal terms, “For Muslim men and Muslim women, believing men and believing women, devout men and devout women, truthful men and truthful women, perseverant men and perseverant women, humble men and humble women, charitable men and charitable women, fasting men and fasting women, men and women who guard their chastity, and men and women who engage much in God’s praise, for them has God prepared forgiveness and great reward.” (33: 35)
The word Muslim means the one who submits. A believer is a person who believes in the truthfulness of the faith. The two words are closely linked together. They are two sides of the same coin. True belief leads to submission; hence submission is the epitome of accepting the faith. Devotion is the voluntary obedience that comes with submission and belief. True devotion emanates from an inner feeling not from an external influence. Truthfulness is an essential trait of Muslims. The Quran says, “It is those who do not believe in God’s revelations that forge falsehood.” (16: 105) Perseverance is an essential trait for each Muslim, to be able to fight back against temptation and to fulfill the undertakings of faith. A Muslim should persevere in adversity and when calamities strike. Humility in religion softens the heart and is obtained through standing in awe in front of God. Those who give charity do so to work towards purifying their inner self of greed and stinginess. Giving charity is an expression of gratitude to God and an awareness of the collective responsibility from members of the society. The verse implies that fasting is a trait which indicates that the reference here is to fasting which has become a habit for the believer. Fasting teaches the believer self-discipline. Guarding one’s chastity is a testimony for the strong control over the person’s lowly desires. Remembrance of God is the link that connects people to God. It allows the heart to shine with the light of guidance and reminds the believer to hold tight to this most trustworthy link. Those who enjoy these traits are promised a great reward, “for them has God prepared forgiveness and great reward.”
Same Reward and Punishment
And their Lord has heard them, and answered them, “Never will I let the work of any of you be lost, be he a male or a female, each like the other in reward.” (3: 195) God responded favorably to the supplication of the believers. The verse clearly indicates that God does not differentiate between males and females in the reward. Both sexes will be rewarded according to the same standard.
The same principle is articulated in the following verse, “And whoever does good deeds, whether male or female and he (or she) is a believer, they shall enter the garden, and not the least injustice will be done to them.” (4: 124)
The same principle is reiterated in the following verse, “We will give, whoever does right whether a man or a woman and is a believer, a life that is good and pure and We will bestow on such their reward according to the best of their deeds.” (16: 97) Both males and females are equal in the sight of God. Both are required to do good deeds and both will be rewarded equally. Good deeds are grounded in the belief in God. A strong faith in God instills in the believer the desire to perform good deeds. Good deeds are then transformed from sporadic occurrences to every day events in the life of the believer.
God promised those who believe in Him and carry out good deeds, a good life in this world, and a great reward in the Hereafter. The goodness of the worldly life that they are promised is not measured in terms of material gains only; there is more to a good life than money. A Good life is achieved when the elements of security, health, contentment are combined with God’s blessings. A good life is a life where the individual is continuously connected to God. Good life is a life when the individual lives in harmony with family. A good life is the best reward a believer can hope for. The same principle has been reiterated in verses (40: 40), (48: 5), (57: 12), and (57: 18). Equal punishments for males and females who transgress the law are prescribed, (5: 38) and (24: 2).
As Islam was being introduced in its entirety, new Muslims were eager to learn the codes that would shape their new way of life. Islam was a way of life that differed in many ways from what people were used to practicing. Old traditions and practices were replaced and people were born anew with the adoption of Islam. Their eagerness was rewarded with a grace from God and He answered all their questions. This verse answered one of the queries that Muslims asked, “And they ask you for a ruling about women. Say to them, ‘God himself gives you ruling concerning them, and the Scripture that is recited to you regarding female orphans whom you do not give what is ordained for them while you desire to marry them, and concerning the weak among children, and that you should deal towards orphans with equity; and whatever good you do, God certainly knows it.’” The verse answers a specific question about a tradition that the pre-Islamic Arabs used to practice; a tradition that abused orphan girls. The verse nullified that appalling and terrible practice.
Ali bin Abi Talha (RA) narrated that he heard Ibn Abbas (RA) explaining this verse, he said, “Before Islam the guardian of an orphan girl had the right to throw his garment over the girl, once he had done that, she was not allowed to marry anyone else. Her guardian can marry her if he so wished. However, if he did not marry her she would not be able to marry anyone else. He would have control over her wealth while she was alive and he would inherit her when she died.” (4: 127) The verse above came to put an end to this practice.
This tradition gives an idea of how orphan girls were treated by their guardians before Islam. Guardians were greedy. They were more interested in the wealth of the child under their care than in the child’s welfare. Similarly, they deprived young children and women of their inheritance rights. The argument used to support this oppressive practice was that young children and women do not contribute to the fighting power of the tribe, so they do not deserve to have a share in the estate left by a deceased relative. The vulnerable had no power and they could not defend themselves against such injustices. Islam came to reverse these unfair practices and replace them with fair and compassionate ones. This was not merely a sudden change in human behavior; it was the complete rebirth of a nation.
It is important to note that the rebirth that occurred was not preceded by introductory steps that made the change logical, nor was it the result of a revolutionary change in the life of the nation. The social change in the status of women and children and the new rights that they gained did not result because there was a change in society’s need for warriors nor was there a change in the status of warriors. Warriors were needed to protect the growing Muslim society. The move from a system that awards rights on the basis of status to a system that awards rights on the basis of being a member of society was brought about by the arrival of Islam. Islam established the principle of equal worth for all. The change occurred without a revolution but was brought about by a verse in a book that gave birth to a new society. The new values were espoused by the same people who lived on the same land and under the same economic conditions. The verse reminds Muslims again about the connection between values and the originator of these values. Every good deed is recorded and no reward will be lost.
“And you will never be able to do justice between wives, even though it may be your ardent desire, but do not turn away from one altogether, leaving her in suspense; and if you arrange a reconciliation and remain conscious of God, then certainly God is All-Forgiving, Giver of Mercy. And if they separate, God will render them both free from want out of His abundant bounty, and God is All-embracing, Wise.” (4: 129) God who created the human soul knows the nature of this soul. It is natural to aspire to that which one does not have. Therefore, God has provided individuals with the ability to control these desires and to refine them, but not to completely eliminate them.
Polygamous men, regardless of their personal feelings towards their wives, are commanded to be fair in their treatment towards their wives, in spending equal time with their wives and in providing equally for their wives. A man has to treat his wives fairly in all aspects of life that are under his control and men are warned not to deprive any wife of her stated rights. Men are again reminded of doing the right thing and to be conscious of God in their treatment of women.
If all measures to save the marriage fail and the marriage is dissolved, then God will provide for each one of them.
The following verses paint an ugly picture of one of the mindset of the Arabs in the pre-Islamic era. “When one of them receives tidings of the birth of a female, his face remains darkened, and he suppresses his grief. He hides himself from the people because of the evil of that which he was informed of. Shall he keep her with disgrace or bury her (alive) in the dust? Now verily evil is what they decide.” (16: 58) The verse describes the reaction of a father when he would receive the news that his wife delivered a baby girl; his face would turn black reflecting the anger and sadness he felt. Islam stated that there is no gender hierarchy in birth; a baby girl is like a baby boy: they are both gifts from God. The process through which a sperm-drop meets the egg and grows to become a human being is a miraculous process. The resulting new life, whether a boy or a girl, should be celebrated.
The following verses address the etiquette of the encounters between males and females. Islam pays special attention to maintaining the integrity of the community by avoiding situations where sexual desires are provoked. The society aims at creating a respectable and decent environment for the encounter between the sexes. Verses (24: 30) and (24: 31) give similar commands to both men and women to behave decently towards each other, “Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest. That is purer for them. God is aware of what they do.” (24: 30) Men should lower their gaze and be modest. This provides a framework for male behavior in the presence of women. Lowering the gaze and being modest require a degree of self-discipline and this self-discipline is motivated by the fact that, “That is purer for them. God is aware of what they do.” Similarly, women are also directed to behave modestly, “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest.” (24:31)
Relationship Between the Spouses
“It is permitted to you, on the night of the fast, to go in unto your wives. They are your garments and you are their garments.” (2: 187) This beautiful allegory elevates the interaction between husband and wife from a mere physical relationship to one of kindness, tenderness and protection. It expresses the security and comfort that each spouse should provide for one another and find in one another.
“They ask you (Prophet) about menstruation. Say, ‘It is a painful condition, so let women alone at such times and do not approach them till they are cleansed. And when they have purified themselves, then go in unto them as God has enjoined upon you. Truly God loves those who turn to Him, and loves those who purify themselves.’ Your wives are your tilth so approach your tilth as you may desire; but do some good act for your souls beforehand; and be conscious of God. And know that you are to meet Him (in the Hereafter), and give good tidings to the believers.” (2: 222-223) These two verses deal with several issues. The first issue is sexual intercourse during menstruation. The verse indicates that sexual intercourse during menstruation is not allowed. The reason for this prohibition is not explained. One should be careful in understanding the expression, “when they have purified themselves.” The verse does not mean that a woman during her menstruation is “unclean,” and as such she is considered a threat to holiness. Intimate relationship between a man and woman, short of having sexual intercourse, are allowable during this time. The verse also raises the objectives of the relationship between husband and wife to higher levels even when discussing physical intimacy between the two spouses. Sexual intercourse is not an end in and of itself but it is a means to a higher goal, the goal of the continuation of life on earth. A third point that verses postulate is the that the spiritual relationship between a man and woman is the indispensable basis for a healthy sexual relationship.
“And give women their bridal gift upon marriage, but if they of themselves be pleased to give up to you a portion of it, then take it with enjoyment.” (4: 4) This verse establishes the right of the bride to receive a wedding gift which will be solely hers to own and she has the right to use it when and as she sees fit. This single verse put an end to previous traditions that were common in the pre-Islamic society which robbed women of their rights in receiving and disposing of their wedding gifts on their own terms. Before Islam, a woman’s guardian, who would be male, had free reign in deciding whom she should marry; had the right to receive the wedding gift on her behalf and to dispose of it according to his own will. This practice resulted in many of these marriages being treated as business deals to benefit the guardians. This verse came to abolish these oppressive practices and give the woman the right to decide for herself.
It has been observed that a human baby needs a longer period to mature and become independent than the period required for a baby from any other species; and the education of children takes even longer. The objective of sexual relationships in the animal world is solely for the preservation of the species. Of course, the objective of human relationship goes far beyond procreation and sexual pleasure. The relationship between married parenting couples is a long term commitment to provide care and education for the children and prepare them to become active participants within society. Day-to-day life between couples does not revolve solely around sexual pleasure. Just like in the animal world, attraction is a powerful initial tool in bringing couples together to start a long term relationship. These considerations support the notion of building the relationship between couples on the foundation of the concept of family The sanctity of the institution of family should be protected.
Another aspect of importance of the institution of the family is that it provides an environment for the spiritual and physical security for the man and wife. Several verses discuss the spiritual and physical aspects of marriage and how they are inter linked. See verse (2: 223) which commands men to advance for themselves before sexual intercourse, verse (2:187) which describes man and wife as garments to each other, and verse (30:21) which indicates that the relationship between man and woman should be based on tranquility and mercy. They have been created to live together in a peaceful environment and family life is the Islamic answer to this need.
God created the whole universe on the concept of duality “and from each thing We created a pair, if you remember,” (51:49). As a part of the universe, the human race is created on the basis of the concept of duality as well. So, living in pairs satisfies the initial natural human disposition. God created this pair from a single soul. God made each member of this pair to be a cause of tranquility, security, comfort, and protection to one another. He made their union a source for sustaining life on earth. Because they were created from the same soul, they stand equal in the sight of God. They are treated equally by God in matters of reward and punishment. They are equal in a court of law, when they are involved in a civil dispute. They have equal rights in owning property.
Men and women have equal worth as human beings but they were created to fulfill different missions. God created each with the appropriate physical and psychological form suitable for the achievement of their respective missions. Along with the appropriate capabilities came a fair distribution of responsibilities. Women’s anatomy was created to allow women to bear children. Traditionally, a man was required to support his family. The verse alluded to the physical and psychological preparation of men and women to be able to carry out their respective tasks and also referred to the man’s responsibility in providing the financial support to his family.
Polygamy, Witnesses, Inheritance, and a Degree
“And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry such women who seem good to you, two or three or four; but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one or what your right hand possesses; this is more proper, that you may not deviate from the right course.” U’rwah bin Al-Zubair (RA) asked A’isha (RA) about this verse. She said, “Son of my sister, this is regarding wealthy female orphans whose guardians marry them for the sake of their wealth and beauty but they don’t give them their bridal gifts as they would have given other women.” This verse above came to abolish the unfair practice described by A’isha. If the guardians are not able to treat those in their care fairly, they should seek matrimony with other women. This removes any chance of abuse of the vulnerable. This tradition shows that Muslims continued to practice dishonest and unjust pre-Islamic traditions until the Quran once again commanded the believers to relinquish these practices and to be careful in their treatment of orphans. The verse insists upon the guardians to exercise justice. Justice is a moral value in Islam that needs to be heeded in all its forms and in any circumstance.
The verse provides a license for polygamy with a certain caveat: fairness has to be observed in the husband’s treatment of his wives. If a man fears that he will be unable to treat all his wives with absolute fairness, then he should not marry more than one wife. This license is a source of debate between those who are against and those who are pro the practice of polygamy. It has also been used as a spring board to launch attacks against Islam. We need to consider this carefully to show the rationale behind this license and the historical background for the practice.
Before Islam, the practice of polygamy was prevalent in Arabia and there was no limit on how many wives a man could have. This verse was revealed not to establish a new norm but to modify an existing norm. Men are not allowed to marry more than four wives with the caveat that they should treat them all fairly. Equal and fair treatment is a condition that must be fulfilled, otherwise polygamy is not permissible.
However, one could ask, why has Islam allowed the practice of polygamy to continue? Islam is a system which understands realistic, legitimate, and necessary human needs. It provides a system which endeavors to refine human behavior, neither ignoring it nor allowing the indulgence in desires without limits.
A system of polygamy which is based on the establishment of justice and the approval of all parties concerned provides a practical solution to social problems that have existed in societies since the dawn of time and will continue to exist till the end of time.
Islam provided a system of legal and restricted polygamy that ensures the rights and preserves the dignity of all parties involved. Islam allows polygamy but does not mandate it. Those who understand the spirit of Islam recognize that Islam does not condone polygamy for its own sake nor as a mechanism to abuse women for the sake of satisfying uncontrolled and unwarranted sexual desires. Islam recognizes polygamy as a necessary solution to certain social problems. It is the exception rather than the norm. It is not left without constraints or controls and should only be exercised under very special circumstances. The permission to engage in polygamy is controlled by the requirement of the fair and equal treatment of all wives. The husband must treat his wives equally in all aspects of life. Islam recognizes that humans have no control over their inner feelings. So, it is not logical to create laws controlling human emotions. Thus, the scope of the treatment that requires fairness does not include inner feelings or emotions. This exemption has been mentioned in the verse: “and you will not be able to treat women with absolute fairness, even if you tried keenly.” (4:129) Some tried to argue that this verse is a proof that polygamy is not allowed in Islam. This is not so. We cannot imagine that the Quran allows a practice in one verse and prohibits it in another. The scope of fairness in treatment mentioned in the first verse encompasses material and physical aspects of life like daily interactions and intimate relationships. Fairness is a necessity in satisfying the material and physical needs of the different wives. The second verse; however, points to the inability of human beings to fully control their inner feelings. Matters of the heart lie in God’s domain of control.
To reiterate, polygamy existed before the advent of Islam. Islam introduced controls and constraints to the practice of polygamy. Islam does not consider polygamy to be the norm but it is an exception that can be used in special circumstances. The fact that some Muslims abuse this license does not warrant its abolishment. The right to marry more than one wife is conditional on the ability of the man to be fair in his treatment of his wives. Fairness in treating all wives is a condition for the license to practice polygamy. Fairness should be observed by the husband in providing for his wives, and allotting equal shares of his time and attention. This condition does not apply to feelings and emotions, since these are beyond the control of human beings.
The verse ends by explaining the rationale behind all these rules, “that you may not deviate from the right course.” The right course is the just course. Justice is an objective of all Islamic laws and social justice is a requirement for a sound and healthy society.
The issue of right of a woman to be a witness in a court of law is indicated in the following verse, which describes the rules regarding lending and borrowing money, “Believers, when you contract a debt for a stated term, put it down in writing. Have a scribe write down justly the terms between the parties. No scribe should refuse to write, as God has taught him, so let him write. Let him who incurs the liability dictate, but let him be conscious of his Lord God, and not diminish anything of what he owes. If the party liable is mentally deficient, or weak, or unable himself to dictate, then let his guardian dictate justly. Call two witnesses, out of your own men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women, such as you choose, for witnesses, so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her. The witnesses should not refuse when they are called upon. Do not disdain to put it in writing for a future period, whether it is small or big. It is more equitable in the sight of God, more suitable as evidence, and more convenient to prevent doubts among yourselves; but if it be a transaction which you carry out on the spot among yourselves, there is no blame on you if you do not put it in writing. Have witnesses present whenever you make a commercial contract; and let no harm to be suffered by neither a scribe nor a witness. If you do such harm, it will be sinful conduct on your part. So be conscious of God. God teaches you. And God is well acquainted with all things.” (2: 282)
“Call two witnesses, out of your own men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women, such as you choose, for witnesses, so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her.” Two witnesses are required. The witnesses should be known for their integrity, and they should be agreed upon by both parties involved in the transaction. The verse offers an alternative to having two men as witnesses. If securing two male witnesses proved to be difficult, then one man and two women can become the witnesses. The reason for accepting the testimony of two females in lieu of a single male is mentioned, “so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her.” The error referred to here may result from the lack of business experience. Having another woman allows the two women to remind each other of the conditions of the transaction.
In other situations, the testimony of one woman is considered sufficient. This indicates that there is no intrinsic deficiency in the woman as a woman but different types of litigations require different number of witnesses. An example of this is the requirement of two male witnesses in some cases and in other cases four male witnesses is necessary.
The rules of inheritance are delineated in Surat Al-Nisaa (Chapter 4). The following two verses give some of these rules, ““God commands you regarding your children: the male shall have the equal of the portion of two females; then if they are more than two females, they shall have two-thirds of what the deceased has left, and if there is one, she shall have one half; and as for his parents, each of them shall have the sixth of what he has left if he has a child, but if he has no child and (only) his two parents inherit him, then his mother shall have the third; but if he has brothers, then his mother shall have the sixth after (the payment of) a bequest he may have bequeathed or a debt he may have incurred; your parents and your children, you do not know which of them is more beneficial to you; this is an injunction from God, certainly God is Omniscient, Wise. And you shall have half of what your wives leave if they have no child, but if they have a child, then you shall have one-fourth of what they leave after (payment of) any bequest they may have bequeathed or a debt they may have incurred; and they shall have one-fourth of what you leave if you have no child, but if you have a child then they shall have one-eighth of what you leave after (payment of) a bequest you may have bequeathed or a debt you may have incurred; and if a man or a woman dies leaving no parents or offspring, but he (or she) has a brother or a sister, then each of them shall have one-sixth of the inheritance, but if there are more siblings, they shall share one-third of inheritance between them, after (payment of) any bequest that may have been bequeathed or a debt that may have been incurred with no harm done to others; this is ordained by God, and God is Omniscient, Forbearing.” These two verses, in addition to a third one at the end of Surat Al-Nisaa, establish the basis for the methodology of distributing an estate among the heirs of a deceased person. These rules were detailed by the Prophet (PBUH) in some cases, and by the work of the scholars in other cases. We will reflect briefly on the interpretation of these verses. More details can be found in books on Islamic jurisprudence. The verses start by stating that these are God’s commands. He knows what is best for the believers. He is the Provider, and it is He who divides the shares among people. The male has twice the share of the female. When these verses were revealed, many of the Arabs who embraced Islam expressed their dissatisfaction with the new rules. They were used to the practice of giving most of the estate to those who can fight and provide protection for the tribe and they wanted this practice to continue. These objections were not appropriate nor were they warranted. God knows best what is beneficial for His servants. Thus, Islam came to change all of this; the female shall have the right to inherit. However, the female share is half that of the male. This division is not rooted in a feeling of patriarchal supremacy. It is congruent with the obligations that males are expected to undertake. It is the husband’s responsibility to provide for his wife and their children. The wife has no obligation to provide for her family. It is only fair that the male’s share of the inheritance to be twice the share of a female in the same category.
People are reminded that there is a rationale behind the legislation of these laws. Heirs whether parents or children should be treated fairly and objectively. God knows better who of them is more deserving than the other. These are God’s commands and they should be obeyed. God is Omniscient, Wise.
The responsibilities of a man towards his wife and children are referred to in verse (4: 34), ““Men should take full care of their wives with the bounties God has given to some more than others and with what they spend out of their property.” (4: 34) This verse organized family life and allocated responsibilities to each of the two human beings who are necessary for the establishment of a family in the first place. Allocation of responsibilities removes potential friction and competition between the partners and establishes the basic rule that any dispute should be settled by referring to God’s rules. The verse established the principle that males are responsible for taking full care of their wives. Males have been given this leadership role because of their intrinsic characteristics and because they are responsible for maintaining the family. The verse also prescribed a procedure for dealing with family disputes. These organizational rules were necessary to maintain the integrity of family life.
The division of responsibilities between the male and the female in a family setting is imperative if fairness is to prevail. Each has a role to play and each has been prepared for that role. Females are given the responsibility of child birth and child care. These are major responsibilities, but females have been created with biological and psychological characteristics which enable them to undertake such responsibilities. It is only fair that the other partner in the family organization be given the responsibility of providing the financial necessities needed to maintain the family. Males are given biological and psychological characteristics which prepare them to fulfill their prescribed roles as well.
The rationale for asking men to be in charge and to take full care of their wives rests on two fundamental elements: the characteristics that they were given and the requirement of providing for the family.