Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Qawaamah: The Essence of Masculinity

Originally published in Al-Jumu'ah Magazine (click here)

AMONG THE SEVERAL âyât that are considered points of contention amongst Muslims and non-Muslims alike, one stands out in particular:

Al-rijâlu qawwâmûna ʿala al-nisâ’i… [Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:34] [1]

Commonly translated as ‘men have a degree over them’ or ‘men are in charge over them,’ this verse is often quoted when discussing the social and domestic duties and responsibilities of each gender. While it is used to establish male authority, it is also unfortunately misused to discourage women from speaking out or seeking an end to family disputes or even abuse.

There are numerous arguments that seek to define or describe the position of a qawwâm. What, truly, is the ‘degree’ that men are given by Allah Himself?

How We Proceed

First and foremost, before looking at the specific âyah, we must establish the foundation upon which we address any issue. We can never start any discussion about the Quran without the understanding that it is complete and perfect, without fault. The Quran is a gift from Allah to all of humanity, for all time; each and every verse is a blessing, and a source of great knowledge and wisdom, the depths of which will never truly be known completely by any one individual:

This is the Book about which there is no doubt, a guidance for those conscious of Allah.  [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:2]

And if whatever trees upon the earth were pens and the sea [were ink], replenished thereafter by seven [more] seas, the words of Allah would not be exhausted. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.  [Sûrat Al-Luqmân, 31:27]

The words of Allah are not to be questioned in terms of their validity – whatever has been sent down in the Quran has been truly preserved with absolute perfection:

Indeed, it is We who sent down the Quran and indeed, We will be its guardian. [Sûrat Al- Ḥijr, 15:9]

With regards to how these Divine Verses are interpreted, however, it is much more than simply taking the words of Allah and making them mean whatever we wish them to say. Whenever we find Muslims committing sins or mistakes and then trying to justify them by using the Quran or Sunnah, we must know that the fault is never with the Words of Allah or His Messenger œ. Rather, the fault lies with fallible human beings who have both good and bad intentions, and who are influenced by their own time and culture.

Rather, there is a very systematic method that has been used since the time of the Messenger Muhammad œ himself. The process begins with the tafsîr of the Quran by the Quran itself, tafsîr of the Quran by the aḥâdîth of RasûlAllâh œ, tafsîr of the Quran by the Âthâr (sayings of the Companions), and tafsîr of the Quran by linguistics.[2]

The scope of this article will be limited to reviewing the linguistic meanings of the word, and taking a brief look at extant tafâsîr regarding the verse.

Q – W – M

From a literary perspective, the word qawwâm is rich with meaning, both literal and figurative. As ʿÂishah described, it was truly lived according to its full potential by the Messenger of Allah œ, whose character was the living embodiment of the Quran.

The root letters of the word Qawwâm derive from qâf, wâw, mîm – related to Allah’s Name, Al-Qayyûm. It’s also related to the word ‘qâma’ – to stand. When ‘qâmu’ is used in the Quran, such as in Surat Al-Kahf, there is a figurative meaning to it as well; mufâssirîn have said that it means to have a strong and firm intention, to have an unshakeable commitment. [3]

Thus, when men are described as ‘qawwâm’ towards women, it is an expression of how firmly committed and dedicated they are. Shaykh Al-Sha’rawi mentioned that the qawwâm of men with women is not limited to husbands with their wives, but rather, with all men towards all women.

The most obvious examples begin at home, such as fathers with their daughters, brothers with their sisters, and even sons with their mothers. In a more general context, it is that men are expected to deal with women in a truly sincere and dedicated manner, by looking out for their best interests, interacting with them regularly, and striving to protect them and assist them.

‘Qawwâm‘ projects an attitude of nobility and dignity towards women, one which respects them as fully capable human beings. This type of mentality both emphasizes and encourages healthy social relationships that begin at home and extend to the public sphere, thus ensuring a community that cooperates on a basis of goodwill.

Another figurative meaning of the word is exemplified in the form, qâ’imah:  to be persistent; thus, the commitment of men towards women is not an occasional thing, but a regular pattern. A father’s interest in his daughter is not momentary, but consistent on a daily basis. He is truly concerned with her well-being, is involved in her upbringing, and is a source of support and happiness for her. A son does not take his mother for granted, but is attentive towards her and sensitive to her needs. A husband is attuned to his wife, understands her personality and what she goes through on a daily basis, behaves with her in a manner that embodies both honor and respect, and connects with her regularly so as to grant her satisfaction and fulfillment in their marriage.

Masculine Commitment Exemplified

This commitment and persistence is not only emotional, but one that has another goal – that of encouraging and upholding justice, and correcting an individual who may stray from appropriate speech or behavior. A qawwâm is aware of that which is both pleasing and displeasing to Allah, and is both quick and wise in how he advises and rectifies those under his care.

The best example of how a man can advise a woman is the example of RasûlAllâh œ with his wives. There were several incidents during which RasûlAllâh œ reprimanded his wives for speaking in a manner that he did not approve of. Though his approach was firm, it carried weight—not due to harshness, but due to the fact that he was already loved and respected by them because of how he conducted himself with them on a regular basis. In fact, the very way in which he would correct their behavior was such that it engendered even greater affection and awe for his character.

For example, ʿÂisha narrates the following:

A group of Jews entered upon the Prophet œ and said: “Al-Sâmu ʿAlaikum,” (i.e. death be upon you). I understood it and said: “Wa ʿAlaikum Al-Sâmu w’l-laʿn (death and the curse of Allah be upon you).” Allah’s Messenger œ said: “Be calm, O ʿÂisha! Allah loves that one should be kind and lenient in all matters.” I said: “O Allah’s Messenger œ! Haven’t you heard what they (the Jews) have said?” He said: “I have (already) said (to them): “And upon you!” [4]


[The Prophet’s wife] Ṣafiyya heard that Ḥafṣa [Ṣafiyya’s co-wife] had said [about her]: ‘The daughter of a Jew'; so she wept. Then the Prophet œ entered upon her while she was crying, so he said: ‘What makes you cry?’ She said: ‘Ḥafṣa said to me that I am ‘the daughter of a Jew.’ So the Prophet œ said: ‘And you are the daughter of a Prophet, and your uncle is a Prophet, and you are married to a Prophet, so what is she boasting to you about?’ Then he said: ‘Fear Allah, O Ḥafṣa.'”  [5]

Interplay With Emotion

Yet another facet of the word qawwâm is that it overlaps in meaning with the word thabât – steadfastness, to be reliable, to be calm and not easily swayed or agitated. In this particular meaning is a great deal of wealth to be reaped, for it is this meaning which, if embodied fully, raises men to be truly excellent in their roles as qawwâm.

To be qawwâm is to make a conscious effort to put aside strong, passionate emotion, to step back and behave in a manner that reflects maturity and wisdom. Instead of allowing himself to be overwhelmed by his feelings – whether positive or negative – a man who epitomizes thabât is one who acts in a way that doesn’t automatically incline towards his own desires or wants, but in accord with justice. As mentioned in several tafâsîr, including Tafsîr Kashf Al-Asrâr and Tafsîr Al-Qushairi, men were given the position of qawwâm specifically because they are considered to be capable of that level of responsible behavior.

Tafsîr Al-Qushairi says:

[Allah] singled out men for strength and then increased their burden, for burden is [assigned] in accordance with strength. [6]

Tafsîr Kashf Al-Asrâr elaborates further:

He [Allah] gave the men more than the women because the burden is all on them, for theirs is the perfection of strength and the eminence of aspiration. They carry burdens measurable to [their] strength or measurable to [their] aspiration…Resolutions are made measurable to the folk of resoluteness.[7]

For example, one of the reasons that men were given the power of ṭalâq was because they are expected to be mature enough not to abuse the power.

Misuse of Responsibility

Unfortunately today, we see much the opposite – where some men allow their emotions to overwhelm and control them, such that they declare divorce (ṭalâq) over petty matters, and then try to avoid the consequences by claiming that they weren’t ‘in their right minds.’

In many other common cases, men will indulge in abusing their womenfolk, whether verbally and physically or by violating their Sharʿi-rights, and claim justification because they are qawwâm and believe that they are allowed to do whatever they see fit. Too many men believe that their power is unrestricted and that they are given license to privileges without any accompanying responsibility.

In short, the position of qawwâm has been warped into a twisted sense of male entitlement devoid of consequences or obligation to others.

More coming in Qawâma: the Essence of Masculinity (2), inshâ’Allah.


[1] http://quran.com/4/34

[2] Usool al-Tafseer by Dr. Abu Aminah Bilal Philips, pages 19-23

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TyC_9B6L8L8

[4] http://sunnah.com/tirmidhi/42/14

[5] http://sunnah.com/urn/637820





Anonymous said...

Not sure what to make of this sis. It starts out well, but then you interpret commitment as paternalism and strength as masculine. I can tell you that most of the women in my life have faced many more responsibilities and burdens and much more pain. They bear them with grace and steadfastness.

Furthermore, people need to realize that most bodies with such power in our world have oversight. The exception is husbands, as men don't care to correct each other. (They have really let us down in this regard. Men fear more to be seen as effeminate by defending women than they fear Allah, if they even notice their sisters suffering at all. The problem is deigning to see us in the first place. Men can afford to say, "Why should we help women? What's in it for me?" Imagine if women had that attitude. No more population.) So if our place is seen as subordinate and lesser -what do men say when they see a woman correcting her husband?- and criticism from us is so harshly punished and men are unwilling to regulate themselves, what have we to do?

Anonymous said...

It's horrible isn't it and that's why unfortunately some women leave Islam. Who wants to be married to a misogynistic hypocrite. The cultural ones are the worst. I know cause I'm married to one. It is preferred for me to stay at home and I have my whole entire marriage yet and at the same time I'm meant to feel like I haven't accomplished anything and am put down for it. So many of them fornicate to high heaven in their ''non-practicing days'', lust after non muslim women and then think they have the right to curse or condemn a muslim women for the pettiest of things.

Anonymous said...

I find this quote so funny "For example, one of the reasons that men were given the power of ṭalâq was because they are expected to be mature enough not to abuse the power."

I want you to explain this to my mom when she was trying to get divorce, and my dad completely abused this exact verse. In the end, my Mom gave him back his Maher (5000USD), that he paid her 25 years ago (after 5 kids). The process took 3 years, in a Muslim country under a Muslim judge. I am sure they were waiting for my mom to mature. I am sure she would completely agrees with you.

AnonyMouse said...

Last Anonymous - this article describes the standard to which men are *supposed* to be held - which sadly is not reflected in our reality.

I personally went through an awful divorce (also khul'), and yes, my ex-husband also used these ayaat against me. I had to give up more than my mahr. I had to fight for my khul' 3 times before I finally received it. So yes, I know how difficult it is.

The MEN are expected to mature and it has nothing to do with them waiting for us women to mature. They were given this authority, and rest assured that they will be held severely accountable for abusing it.

Mahvash Afzal said...

I have been reading your articles and I find that through your articles you are creating a much needed awareness among females who are made to believe that subordination to the wali (be it husband, father, brother)=salvation. I live in India and I have seen that most women do not even want to fight against abuse because the support system is so weak. They are married without seeking their opinions, their position is reduced to that of a house-maid and son on. They put up with the needling commentary and struggles rather than seek help because there is no help.