The Family: Then and Now

Wadud wrestles with problematic verses elevating men by highlighting the historical attitudes held towards the family at the time of revelation—a reality that inevitably shaped the text’s discourse. The first part of Q. 4:34 is a passage commonly cited to prove God’s preference for men over women. It reads: ‘Men are the guardians (qawwamun) of women, because of the advantage God has granted some of them over others and by virtue of their spending out of their wealth.’ Reflecting on this verse, she notes that a critical connection is being made here between privilege—that is, men’s role as guardians— on the one hand, and responsibility, or the financial provision for women’s needs, on the other.[1] Addressing a specific historical context, this verse presupposes, indeed is conditional upon, a specific type of familial arrangement: namely, one in which the husband earns, spending out of his wealth, and the wife stays at home. With regard to ‘the advantage God has granted some of them over others’, Wadud argues that this statement—rather than being a categorical expression of male preference—refers to the fact that men are given twice the share of inheritance (Q. 4:11).138 And this preference in inheritance, she continues, is precisely due to the solemn financial responsibility that lay solely upon men’s shoulders in that time.139 But what if the present time is radically different, in which large numbers of Muslim women have become breadwinners alongside men or even the sole breadwinners? This question is particularly acute in the African American context. As Wadud points out, slavery ‘precluded the idea of [Black] men serving as protectors and main- tainers’ and, due to enduring racism within American society, even after the abolition of slavery Black women—viewed as being less threatening than Black men—were more likely to gain employment, however poorly paid, becoming the providers of the family.140 Because Q. 4:34 squarely bases men’s authority on the assumption that they are the primary providers of the family, gender egalitarian female readers have argued that in a new context wherein both spouses are economically productive (including, of course, arrangements in which the wife is the sole earner) the husband would cease to function as guardian.141 Passages like Q. 4:11 and 4:34, then, need to be interpreted in light of contemporary circumstances, in which understandings of the family have shifted significantly.

Furthermore, the fact that the Qur’an speaks to the sensibilities of a given society does not mean that it endorses such social norms, upholding them as timeless models that are to be emulated by subsequent generations of Muslims. As Wadud puts it:

The Qur’an does not attempt to annihilate the differences between men and women or to erase the significance of functional gender distinctions which help every society to run smoothly and fulfil its needs ... However, the Qur’an does not propose or support a singular role or a single definition of a set of roles, exclusively, for each gender across every culture... Such a specification would be an imposition that would reduce the Qur’an from a universal text to a culturally specific text.142

This is not to imply, however, that everything about gender dynamics in seventh-century Arabia was problematic and to assume, rather complicates this (conditional) preference even further, since some men, rather than all men, are advantaged over ‘others’, including men and women. See ibid, 71.

  • 139 Ibid.
  • 140 Amina Wadud, ‘The Ethics of Tawhid over the Ethics of Qiwamah’, in Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition, eds. Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Mulki Al-Sharmani, and Jana Rumminger (London: Oneworld, 2015), 258-9.
  • 141 Ali, Sexual Ethics and Islam, 119. 142 Wadud, Qur’an and Woman, 8-9.

arrogantly, that we in the twenty-first century have finally gotten it right. On the contrary, there are aspects of family relations in the classical period that can be reclaimed by Muslim progressives in their struggle for social justice. In an illuminating discussion on mothering, Wadud points out that at the time of the Prophet, delivery and nursing were seen as completely unrelated tasks, for the mother was understood simply as being the one who gave birth, while it was the responsibility of the father’s tribe to nurture and raise the child.[2] This is why, Wadud observes, in the prophetic biographical sources there is no negative stigma associated with Amina, the biological mother of Muhammad, despite the fact that she sent him off to live with a wet-nurse, Halima, shortly after his birth.[3] In other words, in the world of the first Muslims, a societal distinction was drawn between bearing and rearing—a very different approach to motherhood that is at odds with understandings of the term today, in which the two acts are conflated. By using the formative Islamic period to historicize the role of mother, Wadud undermines any essentialist claims about motherhood—that there is something natural about this social function—and which are invariably invoked to legitimate, and thus to ignore, the burdens of care that mothers in general and single mothers in particular are expected to endure, as well as to exempt men from responsibility for familial care and housework.[4]

  • [1] the phrase in Q. 4:34—‘some of them over others’ (ba‘dahum ‘ala ba‘din)—
  • [2] Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 127-8. 2 Ibid, 128.
  • [3] 145 Ibid, 128 -9. 146 Engineer, Islam and Liberation Theology, 33.
  • [4] 147 Engineer, Islam: Misgivings and History, 98.
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