“Men are the qawwamoon (protectors and maintainers) of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they [the men] support them [the women] from their [the men’s] means.“ Qur’an 4:34
Most Muslims, and perhaps even some non-Muslims, are familiar with this contentious Qur’anic verse. The Arabic noun that translates to “protectors and maintainers” above is qawwamoon and its singular is qawwaam. For too long, we have assumed that men, and only men, hold this position of charge and responsibility because the verse most often cited and analyzed is none other than verse 4:34. The Qur’an teaches us that men are qawwamoon of their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, nieces and granddaughters, but are they also the sole qawwamoon of society at large and of society’s guiding moral principles?
If we examine two other Qur’anic verses in which this word appears, the answer seems to be an emphatic no. It is an undisputed fact among Muslim scholars that when the Qur’an addresses “believers,” it is speaking equally to both Muslim men and Muslim women. In the two verses below, we see that Allah commands all believers to act as qawwamoon.
يا أَيُّهَا الَّذينَ آمَنوا كونوا قَوّامينَ بِالقِسطِ شُهَداءَ لِلَّهِ وَلَو عَلىٰ أَنفُسِكُم أَوِ الوالِدَينِ وَالأَقرَبينَ
4:135 – O you who have believed, be qawwaameen[i] (persistently standing firm in defense of) in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives.
يا أَيُّهَا الَّذينَ آمَنوا كونوا قَوّامينَ لِلَّهِ شُهَداءَ بِالقِسطِ ۖ وَلا يَجرِمَنَّكُم شَنَآنُ قَومٍ عَلىٰ أَلّا تَعدِلُوا
5:8 – O you who have believed, be qawwaameen (persistently standing firm in favor) for Allah, witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just.
In these two verses scholars translate the word ‘qawwaameen’ to mean those who persistently stand firm in favor of or in defense of. In other words, “defenders,” which is closely connected to “protectors.” And yet, talk of a Muslim woman’s responsibility as qawwaam is rarely heard. We are long overdue to understand the valuable lessons behind these two Qur’anic verses commanding Muslim women to act as protectors, defenders and maintainers of justice. Unfortunately, in my research, I was dismayed to discover sparse women-focused explanations of these two verses.[ii] From the scant scholarship that is available, here is what I have extrapolated on how these overlooked verses can apply to our modern-day societies.
The verse 4:135 speaks specifically to family relationships; it commands believers, which includes both men and women, to maintain fairness, even if its defense requires standing up against their parents or their relatives or even their own prejudices. Verse 5:8, on the other hand, casts a wider net. It goes beyond the family unit to include society at large, by commanding Muslim women and men to remain just in their dealings with all people, even communities they might dislike.
These verses encourage women to stand firm in defense of their families, their society, their gender and themselves when they see injustice being done. Yes, men have been tasked with the responsibility of protecting and financially providing for women, but, as the two verses above demonstrate, this does not mean that women are feeble and fragile. Too often verse 4:34 is exploited to inculcate in women an exaggerated sense of dependency and victimhood and to fuel in men a misplaced sense of male pride, aggression and control, which, ironically, turns many men into abusers rather than protectors. Imam Suhaib Webb in his video lecture entitled “Women in the Quran,” explains how this interpretation is a misuse of the verse, because the word qawwaam, based on its Arabic verb form, denotes service and responsibility, not dominance of one sex over the other.
So the Muslim man’s responsibility as qawwaam, should be based on a strong sense of service and justice.[iii] And, if the man of the household is not standing up for what is right, or is the source of injustice himself, then the woman of the house continues to bear the responsibility of being a qawwaam. The two verses above make clear that both men and women have the intellectual and spiritual strength needed to stand as defenders of justice. They are allies in this fight –both are qawwamoon.
9:71 – The believing men and believing women are awliyaa (allies/protectors) of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger.
These few verses I mention above are not unique in expecting both Muslim men and women to take charge; indeed, the Qur’an is replete with such verses. In effect, that is the modus operandi of the Qur’an – speaking to the reader in a genderless tone. In fact, the two most commonly used expressions through which the Qur’an addresses its readers are يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ – which means “‘O’ humankind,” and يا أَيُّهَا الَّذينَ آمَنوا – which means “‘O’ you who believe.” Both expressions call upon all human souls. It’s important to note that although “’O’ you who believe” is masculine in terms of its grammar construction, whenever the word “believers” is used, as a matter of accepted principle, it refers to both men and women. The same holds true of the word “nafs” in Arabic, which can mean person or soul. Interestingly enough, the Qur’an always uses feminine pronouns and verb forms with this noun because in Arabic grammar it is considered a feminine noun, but again, whenever “nafs” is used in the Quran, it is understood that God is referring to both men and women.
Apart from the Qur’an itself, history and present-day also teach us how women have taken on this mantle of qawwammon to challenge oppression. In Muslim history, we have the example of Sumayya bint Khabbat who was the first person to die a martyr defending her right to freedom of religion, and the example of the formidable Nusayba bint Kaab who sustained multiple injuries while protecting the Prophet (peace be upon him) in the Battle of Uhud. Was their courage not inspired by the Qur’an’s command to stand for justice? In recent times, we can turn to the example of the scholar Sheikha Anse Tamara Gray who has been advocating for gender equality and justice within the family[iv], and Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman, who won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her leadership during the Yemeni popular uprisings[v].
So how did we miss that? That a Muslim woman is a qawwaam. And that being a qawwaam is a responsibility, and not a sign of superiority of one sex over another. I suspect this misconception happened because many Muslims, both men and women, read, listen to and preach the Qur’an as though it is primarily speaking to men, and women are an afterthought. I advocate we approach the Qur’an through the genderless tone in which it is written. Perhaps then, we will understand the specific responsibilities Allah has tasked us with as rooted in justice and service.
[i] Please note the shift from ‘qawwamoon’ to ‘qawwameen’ is related to Arabic syntax rules. The meaning of both these terms remains the same, as both are plural forms of the singular word ‘qawwaam’.
[ii] The only place I have seen a direct women centered discussion of these two verses is in the book, Men in Charge?: Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition, edited by Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Mulki Al-Sharmani and Jana Rumminger. (Oneworld Publications, 2015).
Muznah Madeeha lives and works in Qatar. She holds an MA in Sociology, a Diploma in Quranic Studies, and has studied Arabic.