Men and Women in Islam – The Superiority Debate


Leadership and the balance of power within marriage in Islam

men and women in islam the superiority debate

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) said: ‘Treat women kindly. Woman has been created from a rib and the most bent part of the rib is the uppermost. If you try to turn it straight, you will break it. And if you leave it alone, it will remain bent as it is. So treat women kindly.’ (Bukhari and Muslim)

Misogynists vs Feminists

The hadith of Adam’s rib typifies the battleground between misogynists and feminists.It has been appropriated by men to suggest that women are inferior to them, and opposed vehemently by women who reject the notion that they are crooked and less capable than men.

Culturally and historically, many have accepted that the rib signifies women’s inferiority – even though there is nothing in the hadith the implies this. Indeed the hadith ends specifically with the directive to treat women kindly.

In fact, this hadith is a depiction of the close relationship between men and women, an encouragement for men to be kind to women, to appreciate that they are different, and to appreciate that they complement each other. It is in line with the ayah in Surah Araf, where Allah Almighty says:

It is God Who created you from a single soul and out of it made its spouse to bring it comfort. (7:189)

Cultural Baggage

To understand the hadith as derogatory is to taint it with other traditions (outside Islam)( which have placed the blame on the woman – Christian tradition blames Eve. The Greeks had Pandora’s box, both suggesting that the problems faced by all of humanity originated from women. This misogynistic attitude underlies and perpetuates the oppression of women and the view that we are in the mess because of her. This view has no basis in Islam. The narrations blaming Eve are not at all from Islam. Allah Almighty did not blame Hawwa. He said:

Then they both ate of that tree, and so their private parts appeared to them, and they began to stick on themselves the leaves from Paradise for their covering.  Thus did Adam disobey his Lord, so he went astray.  Then his Lord chose him, and turned to him with forgiveness and gave him guidance. (20:121-122)

Allah Almighty used the dual form (muthana) of the verb ‘they (both) ate’. He didn’t say Hawwa ate from the tree. Allah Almighty treats women and men as equals – there is no distinction between them intellectually or spiritually.

Two halves of a whole

Men and women complement each other. It is not just one way round, with men complementing women or women complementing men. It is a two way street.

They have the same rights and responsibilities as they receive:

And whoever does righteous deeds, whether male or female, while being a believer – those will enter Paradise and will not be wronged, [even as much as] the speck on a date seed. (4:124)

The believers, men and women, are allies (awliya) of one another. They enjoin the ‘common good’ (al ma‘ruf) and forbid the bad (al munkar), they observe prayers (salat) and give charitable alms (zakat) and obey God and his Prophet. (9:71)

Men and women share a closeness

Returning to rib, the fact that Hawwa was created from Adam indicates their closeness and sense of belonging to each other.

Ibn Arabi commented on the hadith:

Made beloved to me from your world are women and perfume, and the coolness of my eyes is in prayer. (Ahmad and An-Nasa‘i)

Therefore he has a longing for her as she is part of him, and she is attached to him like an immigrant to his homeland. Wherever she is, she wishes to return home.

This is the explanation which is in line with shariah. The word haneen is about longing. She is longing for him like a branch for the root.

It is a complete misreading of this hadith to suggest women are inferior. Don’t over analyse this hadith. Don’t over complicate it. Don’t attach meanings to it that are not there.

Accepting differences and benefitting from them

The Prophet (peace be on her) is saying be kind to her, you cannot change her nature, don’t break her. The hadith, then, means that if a man wants to be happy with his wife, he should not attempt to mould her but accept her as she is. It can be taken as a beautiful hadith recommending tenderness and implying how a wife and husband should treat each other.

Women’s nature is completely different from men’s. They are wired differently. They think differently. The beauty of this is that we can use this difference to our advantage by complementing each other and completing what each other is missing.

The worst scenario is when spouses do not bridge the gender gap between them. They do not meet in the middle; they are on different pages and it becomes ‘my way or the highway’. This attitude of dictatorship is further reinforced by culture. Any problem in any marriage is seen as the wife’s fault. From an Islamic point such a view is not fair. Though it is the default setting promoted by culture. We sometimes take it as a fact that any problem in any marriage is caused by the wife. From a logical point of view this cannot be right. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t, so it is not fair to blame the wife for all the mistakes.

Misunderstood hadith

Another frequently misunderstood hadith which was narrated by Abu Said Al-Khudri is:

Once Allah’s Apostle went out to the Musalla (to offer the prayer) of Eid al-Aḍḥa or Eid al-Fiṭr. Then he passed by the women and said, ‘O women! Give alms, as I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you (women).’ They asked, ‘Why is it so, O Allah’s Apostle?’ He replied, ‘You curse frequently and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. A cautious sensible man could be led astray by some of you.’ The women asked, ‘O Allah’s Apostle! What is deficient in our intelligence and religion?’ He said, ‘Is not the evidence of two women equal to the witness of one man?’ They replied in the affirmative. He said, ‘This is the deficiency in her intelligence. Is not it true that a woman can neither pray nor fast during her menses?’ The women replied in the affirmative. He said, ‘This is the deficiency in her religion.’ (Bukhari)

Hadith should be seen in their context. In this instance, the hadith was said on Eid day – the Prophet (peace be on him) is exchanging light-hearted banter with women at time of festivity. He is teasing them by saying that though their testimony is considered half of a man’s, they are smart enough to control men, and when he then jokes that they are deficient in their religion, he explains that they are excused from praying and fasting during their periods, and so do not clock up as many salah as men. Ultimately he is asking them to be more grateful to their husbands.

This gratitude which he is promoting is not one-sided. It has been commanded for men as well towards their wives.

In Islam marriage is governed by principles not culture

Culture and customs tend to dictate how we deal with marriage but Islam came to clarify the way. Marriage should not be dominated by culture. It should be governed by rules of justice and fairness as are clearly mentioned in the Quran and one of these is ashiruhuna bil marouf (treat them with kindness):

And live with them in kindness. For if you hate them, it may be that you dislike a thing while Allah has placed abundant good in it. (4:19)

This is the principle between husband and wife: goodness.

Leadership in marriage

Kindness has to be mutual. Allah Almighty is addressing those in charge. Women don’t like this but it is Qur’anic that leadership has been given to the man. If he resigns this role and allocates his responsibility to his wife then Islamically we do not interfere. But if there is a conflict someone has to take the decision, and then the final word is the husband’s. Not the wife’s. Unless it is a matter of disobedience to Allah Almighty.

Allah Almighty appointed man a leader.

Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand. (4:34)

…And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable. But the men have a degree over them [in responsibility and authority]. And Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise. (2:228)

In a hyper-charged atmosphere where contentious equality issues between men and women are being fiercely and continually debated, and where work, social and cultural practices often fail to accord women their rights, this ayah can easily be plucked out of context and misunderstood.

Yet, this ayah is NOT asserting that one sex is superior to the other. There is no doubt that men and women physiologically and psychologically have different abilities and qualities. The capability of motherhood, for example, is exclusively granted to women. That does not make women more or less important, or worthy than men.

The words ‘men are in charge of women’ is NOT an indictment of women’s inferiority. In fact, it could even be argued that this very statement elevates women to a higher rank than men, as men have been put in a position of service to women. This ayah is stating that men have a responsibility towards women to both protect them and financially provide for them. They have been accorded this darajah (responsibility) and are answerable for their failure to fulfil this.

As this ayah is in not suggesting an inequality between the sexes, but referring to the responsibility men have been given to provide for women, it indicates that women have been granted a position of honour.

In most homes, the father is customarily the one who is called upon when there is something frightening or alarming within the home – children will call their father or a wife will call her husband. He is normally the protector of the house. He usually has an ability to lead and to fight. And a woman is usually foremost at nurturing and raising children. Her daily battles are no less important than a man’s on the battlefield. Indeed, one may say that her ongoing efforts are even more honourable than a one-off fight on the battlefield. Yet as the world has a tendency to judge worth according to how much income is brought in, as the woman’s work within the home is unpaid, for centuries her work has been devalued. Through ironically it is her input that enables the next generation to earn a living.

Caretakers, Guardians, Protectors

The ayah explains itself. The qawamun (which is the plural of qawaam), from the same root as aqeem-ussalat (take care of salah), is the one who looks after something. For example, Ibn Qayyim Jawziyya, the famous scholar, was the son of Qayyim al Jawziyya, who was the caretaker of the school. Thus his name means ‘the son of the caretaker of the school.’

Honouring Women

It is wrong to understand the role of the qawamum al nisa (caretakers of women) as dishonouring women. Rather it is an honouring ayah, in which the woman is being treated like a master or a queen, with someone to look after her needs and at hand for her protection. It’s a beautiful concept, which places the duty on the man’s shoulder. It alleviates the burden of making a living (without taking the choice of working away) from her.

Abusing Power

Giving men the duty to provide for women, in no way allows him the right to abuse, or oppress women, or wield undue power over them. They have the duty to support their family, so that the woman is able to raise her family and invest time in her children without being under pressure to financially support them as well. She has been given the obligation to educate and raise the new generation. This is an honourable mission.

It is misleading to pluck ayahs out of context. The package of Islam is one of fairness and dignity, and against oppression, so extracting an ayah and extrapolating a meaning that goes against this ethos suggests immediately that it has been misunderstood.

The Benefits of Childcare by Mothers

Households with more female figures are perceived to be more emotionally regulated. Statistics show that the increase in knife crime is linked to the fact that more and more mothers have been forced into the workplace. Once the care structure is broken, we have to bear the consequences. Unfortunately the financial reality for a vast number of families is that the high cost of living has driven wives and mothers into the workplace to make ends meet. Moreover the government penalises full time mothers through the tax system by making it more worthwhile for a woman to work than to stay home. By contrast, Saudi Arabi awards full time mother a salary in recognition for what they do every day.

The law was debated by the British Government to give full time mothers a salary but it was not passed. Yet, full time mothers should be compensated for their time. If a mother’s work is outsourced, it would quite quickly add up to a full-time salary. However, full time mothers are not compensated for the time and effort they put in, instead they are being punished for a being mothers.

If a man fails to provide for his family, is he still allowed to be the leader of the house?

As the role of leadership is linked to spending, if a man is not spending on his family, then does he lose his qiwama over them? It is disputed whether a man loses his position of leadership in the home in this scenario. By and large, if a man is in financial difficulty this doesn’t mean he loses his leadership in his home or over his children.

The Balance of Power within Relationships

Within marriages, mostly matters should be decided by a couple’s mutual consent. This should be the default. A marriage should be governed by mercy, love and tranquillity. As we know from the oft-quoted ayah in surah arRum:

And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquillity in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy. Indeed in that are signs for a people who give thought. (30:21)

Marriage is not about rights, but a relationship based on mercy. It is not about do’s and don’ts, or a competition to see who is better qualified and therefore entitled to more authority.

When there is a dispute the CEO of the family is the man. At that time, he has the final say, as long as there is no issue between halal and haram i.e. if he is not proposing something haram, the family have to follow his decision. This does not mean the father assumes the role of a dictator in the home. But if everyone is pulling in different directions and everyone has a different opinion, there would be no leadership or unity in such a unit. This does not mean woman has no rights or no say. It simply means that where there is a dispute with no obvious resolution, the final word, if it is in line with shariah, would be the man’s.

So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard.

Having set out the man’s responsibility, the next part of the ayah moves on to the woman’s responsibility. While he protects her, she too has a duty to protect him and his honour, and the honour of the family in his absence.

A good marriage should create the space for couple to decide matters with mutual agreement. It is about building families to take you to jannah safely.


Taught by Shaykh Haytham Tamim in the online Living Quran Marriage Series – Hadith Umm Zar