Socially constructed gender hierarchies are often justified by religious texts, logic, and even science. Muslim society is not immune to such deliberate distortions. To prove that Allah has appointed men as masters of women verse 34 of Chapter 4 of the Quran is the most quoted argument by Muslim males.
The verse, ar-rijālu qawwamūna ʿala -n-nisāʾi bimā faḍḍala - llāhu baʿḏahum ʿala baʿḍin wa bimā ʾanfaqū min ʾamwālihim, (4:34) is often (loosely) translated as that men have been made masters of women because some of them (baʿḏahum) are bestowed with superiority over a certain few (ʿala baʿḍin) because they spend over them. But the interpretation is not unanimous. While most of the Muslim world has used this particular verse to prove that Allah has made women subordinate to men, a lot of Islamic scholars argue otherwise.
Maulvi Syed Mumtaz Ali, a 19th-century Islamic scholar from Deoband, argues, “There is no mention of master and servant relationship in this verse and if anything, it proves eminence of women and puts men in a position of attendant and servant of women”. In his opinion the explanation of this verse by several scholars that men are masters of women because they provide for them doesn’t hold good on closer scrutiny.
Mumtaz points out that it is erroneous to translate qawwam as master and very few scholars have translated this word as master or lord. He quotes Shah Rafiuddin and Majid Shah Wali-Ullah translating this word as the one who establishes or takes care of. Another Persian translation known as Sadi’s translation of the Quran has translated this word as Karguzaar, which means servant or employee.
Moreover, according to Mumtaz, the verse says that some of you have mastery over some of the others and it does not talk about the genders of these ‘some people’. The verse does not explicitly say that men are masters of women, rather it tells people that some among them are superior to others. Nowhere in the verse does it say that these masters are men and the subordinates are women.
Mumtaz goes on to argue that even if we consider that the verse indeed talks about men and women then also “it doesn’t explain in what sense this superiority is being established”. Several scholars explain that the verse establishes male superiority in two senses, they are supposed to be ideologically more well-versed and also provide for bread. Again, Mumtaz disagrees. If men are superior because of learning and not because of their sex then how does the verse establish male superiority over females? Rather, the verse puts knowledge and learning superior whereas males claim superiority by keeping women away from education.
Arguing with logic, Mumtaz asks if we really consider that all women are subordinate to all men in knowledge then we have to admit that Hazrat Khadija, wife of the Prophet (PBUH), and Hazrat Fatima, daughter of the Prophet, had lower intellect than all the males. A Muslim believes that all men are masters of all women and cannot hold good here. He further asks can any man claim superiority to Rabia Basri, an 8th-century woman Islamic scholar.
On providing for food, Mumtaz believes that just because the father pays for children and employers for employees does not mean that they have natural superiority over them.
Mumtaz explains the verse that since men used to go on tours for trade and to earn money and women stayed at home they have been appointed as caretakers and servants of women. Since human society is unequal in capital, wisdom, and other social markers, therefore, a relationship between master and subordinate exists. The verse in his view establishes that men are caretakers, servants, or employees of women and have a duty to serve them.
No wonder most people didn’t like his explanation when published in 1898 but no Islamic scholar rejected him as a hypocrite. He is not the only scholar and several others have made similar arguments in the last 15 centuries. Mumtaz knew that people would not accept his explanation and thus wrote, “If my writings could safeguard the rights of a single old woman, anywhere in Hindustan, I would feel that I have achieved my goal”.