The Surah of the Women: Surah An-Nisa’

The Surah of the Women

Surah An-Nisa’

1.1. The Occident and its attempt to try to understand Islam

The current political situation in Europe and the Middle East confronts Islam and its believers with a challenging situation. On one side, there are the fundamentalists who are abusing a religion in order to pursue their own power-driven agenda. On the other side, there are the societies of the industrialized nations whose baffled citizens are trying to make sense of the warfare in the Middle East and the acts of terrorism that have at last reached Europe´s front yard. Unfortunately, the attempt to understand the current situation`s complexity is frequently colored by fear-driven biases and stereotypes. This is evident in the recent rise of conservative and right-wing parties in Europe. While some adherents of those groups are simply driven by their own biases, prejudices and fears, causing them to reject anything that is different from their own culture and belief system, there is, indeed, a great number of European citizens who are genuinely trying to understand Islam and its belief system. However, credible and reliable resources about Islam are scarce. In addition, Islam’s most essential and fundamental scripture, the Quran, leads in many cases to even more confusion due to its complex and hermeneutical language and the resulting lack of adequate translations.  Indeed, translating the Quran is a difficult undertaking.

This essay is based on an interview with the Iranian, in France residing, scholar Dr. Azmayesh, whose mission is it to demonstrate a version of Islam that protects and upholds human rights and values, particularly the rights of women.

1.2. The Surah of the Women and the emergence of a family unit during the Time of Ignorance (Jahiliyyah)

We will do this by examining the Surah of the Women, the Surah An-Nisa’, within the cultural climate and context during the days of the Prophet Mohammed. While the Surah An-Nisa is commonly utilized by fundamentalists in order to sanction and legitimize the maltreatment of women, this essay proposes quite the opposite, namely that the Surah An-Nisa’ aims to:

(a) secure women’s rights for autonomy and independency and to

(b) introduce the concept of a family unit to the tribal culture of the Arabian Peninsula during the Time of Ignorance

By examining these hypotheses, the essay furthermore introduces some of the challenges about interpreting and understanding the Quran. The Surah An-Nisa’ in particular demonstrates how a Surah´s meaning can be significantly skewed due to a lack of necessary in-depth background knowledge. Indeed, the Surah An-Nisa’ has been at the core of many controversial debates and its false interpretation has contributed to an image of Islam as a religion of hate and intolerance.

The following is a translation of two particular verses (34 and 35) of the Surah An-Nisa’ (Surah 4) as it can be found on an open to the public website:

(34) 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 husbands] 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. (35) And if you fear dissension between the couple, select an arbitrator from his people and an arbitrator from her people. If they both desire reconciliation, Allah will cause it between them. Indeed, Allah is ever Knowing and Acquainted (with all things).

Below the Suraht in Arabic:

(Taken from

1.3. The interrelationship among different Verses and Surahs

Before we begin to examine the verses’ meaning more closely, it is important to point to the necessity to examine them concurrently and how they relate to each other. Indeed, by examining the verses separately, one will most likely lose their true meaning and/or aim. It is even plausible to claim that a true understanding of the Quran’s verses and Surahs can only be attained, when examining them within the context of the other verses and eventually the Surahs that they are embedded in. One can go even a step further and claim that one can only understand the Surahs when they are examined within the context of the other Surahs that they are embedded in, until one reaches the corpus of the entire Quran which can only be understood when examined within the historical and cultural context that it was embedded in during its creation.

1.4. The historical context during which the Surah An-Nisa came into being

The situation of women during the time of Mohammad was dire. Polygamy was the norm and often, men had two or more wives whose place was the tribe’ s tent. The construct “family”, as we know it today, did not exist. Instead, tribal hierarchies shaped society and people based their identity on the status of their tribe. There were a number of small tribes (eshere) which functioned within a big tribe (ghabile). Mohammed’s family, for instance, was the Banu Hashim tribe and this tribe, in turn, was part of the Quraysh tribe. This tribal structure and hierarchy was the norm during Mohammed’s lifetime and constituted the frame for what is considered a family today. As such, while today the single unit of a family is by most defined as a committed relationship between two people, the tribal structure during Mohammed’s lifetime was based on a patriarchal system in which the man was on top of the hierarchy, thereby bestowing him the status of the only decision maker. As a result, every woman was completely at the grace of her spouse as there were no legal laws protecting her. If, for instance a woman did not conform to the man’s needs and desires, he could easily abandon her.

As such, Mohammad was confronted with different kinds of norms and laws during his lifetime. He was therefore not just a prophet and spiritual guide but also a statesman and leader, who dealt with worldly matters and societal issues. This meant that Mohammad had to scrutinize and revise preexisting laws and, if required, implement new ones. Based on this, we can differentiate between three types of laws that existed during Mohammad’s lifetime:

1. amdahi: these were the laws that had preexisted the time of Mohammad and that were signed and sealed by him, thereby legitimizing the continuation of their application.

2. tasisi: referring to laws that had preexisted the time of Mohammad and that were entirely rejected by him and replaced by new ones.

3. taghiiri: the last group refers to preexistising laws that were modified by Mohammad.

1.5. The Surah An-Nisa’: a social reform attempt

The Surah An-Nisa’ reflects a case of tasisi where Mohammed rejected a preexisting law that actively oppressed women and replaced it by a new one. A verse in the Surah states:

Men are in charge of women by (right of) what Allah had given one over the other and what they had spend (for maintenance) from their wealth.

Frequently, this sentence is put out of context and misused by men and women alike in order to justify a patriarchal society and the active oppression of women. However, quite to the contrary, this verse, and those verses adjacent to it, touch upon the topic of Nàfàgheh, which is aimed at the protection of women’s rights. According to the concept of nàfàgheh, it is a husband’s task to provide for his wife. Indeed, according to the Quran, a husband is not released from this responsibility even after the couple has divorced, until the former wife remarries. As such, the financial support of the family lies on the shoulders of men who are prohibited from withholding the wife’s daily alimony, even if she is wealthy and receives a high salary. In fact, what a woman earns she can keep for herself, while what a man earns he has to share with his wife and family. Evidently, this matter is a question concerning obligations and responsibilities and these topics are a part of the family law within Islamic law.

The second line of the verse, is often translated as:

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

Frequently, conservative and fundamentalist Muslims use this part of the verse in order to demonstrate how a well-behaved Muslim woman is ought to behave towards her spouse, while critics of Islam use it in order to demonstrate how Islam is inherently oppressing women. Upon closer examination and a more differentiated translation of each word, we can see that the verse distinguishes two types of women:

There are the a) salehat (= righteous women,  فَاصَّالِحَاتُ), ghanetat (= praying women, قَانِتَاتُ), and hafezat lel-gayb bimâ hàfida Allah (= women who keep protected the unseen (values) because Allah keeps them unseen and invisible, قَانِتَاتُ‭ ‬حَافِظَاتُ‭ ‬لُِلْغَيْبِ‭ ‬بِمَا‭ ‬حَفِظَ‭ ‬اللَّهُ).

One can see that the tone of the verse completely changes. Instead of “righteous women, who are devoutly obedient to men”, the verse conveys an image of women who are wise and who are the protectors of values. This part of the verse refers to those women, who are the protector of the values at home and who uphold the harmony within the home and the family.

The verse continues on to the second group of women, b) from whom you fear the resistance and no-familial harmony ( وَ‭ ‬اللَّا‭ ‬تيِ‭ ‬تَخَافُونَ‭ ‬نُشُوزَهُنَّ).

This part of the verse refers to those women, who are resisting their spouse and their family and who disrupt the harmony of the home because they cannot regulate their emotions and temper.

Based on erroneous translations as mentioned above, this verse is frequently used by men in order to justify the oppression of women. Yet, a new angle on this verse is that it was intended to advise the judges and the arbitrators of that time, who were confronted with the task to resolve the quarrels within a family and tribe. Indeed, during Mohammed’s lifetime it was common for people to consult with him about current societal issues. Judges and mediators sought Mohammed’s advice on how to deal with domestic disputes and quarrels that occurred within a family or tribe. This is in line with the changes that were occurring within the society of the Arabian Peninsula: many tribesmen were converting to Islam. Women became more resistant to the oppression that had pervaded society. Men who had been used to the women’s submission, had to deal with a new reality, namely women who were no longer willing to acquiesce to the role of the obedient woman. This case of resistance is also referred to as Noshouz. As a result, judges had to learn how to deal with this new situation, namely, an emerging society that was at last respecting the rights of all its members after years of blunt, straight out discrimination and ignorance. Therefore, the verse was intended for the judges and arbitrators to guide them on how to deal with any domestic disputes and offer guidance to men who were dealing with a difficult situation at home. The Surah does not give any man the right to abuse, harass or discriminate against any woman. Instead, the verse set the foundation for introducing the nucleus of a family, based on the union between two people, to the tribal society of the Arabian Peninsula and to thereby bestow equal rights to women and protect these rights.

1.6. The Surah An-Nisa’ and the case of Noshouz

In the next part of the verse, Mohammed offers advice to the judges and mediators how to guide men who are confronted with Noshouz. The verse states:

When you are confronted with the familial problems of Noshouz act towards them according to the following three steps:

1. advise them (فَعِظُوهُنّ) this form of the verb is derived from the root of the Arabic word mowezeh (موعظه‭ ‬engl: advise) and simply refers to advising women on how to deal with and cope with the situation at home,

2. leave them in their beds alone and abandon them (the woman) in the house and bedroom  Fahjorouhonnà fi mazaje’ehennà (اُهْجُرُوهُنَّ‭ ‬فی‭ ‬اُاْمَضَاجِعِ). This part of the verse advises men to leave the tent and vacate the place for the woman. While this sentence might at first glance seem rather harsh, it is important to note that it advises men to leave the house and take distance from the home. Today, we would probably say one leaves the house until the situation has cooled off. The verse continues:

3. end up by striking them (اُضْرِبُوهُنَّ fàzrebouhonna ) which refers to not satisfying their needs when they ask for favors or gifts.

It is particularly this last part of the verse that has been at the core of much controversy and discussion. At first glance, the most obvious meaning that one can derive from this verse is that men are permitted to simply hit and beat women. Period. Indeed, the word fàzrebouhonna is often used within the context of the penal law and misinterpreted as a permission to beat women. Instead, the verse advices a man to leave the house and withhold the alimony for a brief period of time, guided by the hope that the woman will change her attitude and behavior. Most importantly, this must happen under the supervision of a higher authority such as a judge or an arbitrator. The word’s meaning becomes evident when we examine the verse more closely:

The infinitive form of fàzrebouhonna is zarb (ضرب), which can be translated as to apply. For instance, the expression zarb seke (ضرب‭ ‬سكّه) refers to impregnate a coin. Yet, another expression would be zarbul masal (ضربُ‭ ‬المثل) which means to give an example. As such, zarb is an auxiliary verb. In the Quran, the word zarb is used 53 times, yet never in the context of beating, but always in the context of giving or applying. As such, zarb means to apply, fàzrebou refers to apply! and fàzrebouhonna means to apply to them! Hence, when we go back to fàzrebouhonna, it refers to applying a strike to them, not a strike physically but a strike by withholding the financial support and alimony (2).

If the woman changes her attitude, the “strike” must be lifted immediately. If she does not change her attitude and behavior at all, it is clear that the couple can no longer live in the same house. In this case, the woman and man should take distance from each other. They enter the phase of Shéghagh, separation. When this occurs, the wife either returns to her parental house or, if she is rich enough and owns a house, she can live on her own.

During the phase of Shéghagh, two mediators from each side of the couple are appointed by the court. Together they sit down in order to fix an alimony for the wife which is to be paid by the husband during the period of separation until the woman remarries.

Concerning the children, the former husband is not permitted to separate them from the mother as long as they are younger than 8 years. Instead, he must pay the children’s and mother’s daily alimony. Once the children have reached the age of 8 years, they move to their father, and from this moment on, the divorced wife receives the alimony for herself only.

The continuation of verse 34, verse 35, addresses the mediation between the husband and wife:

And if you fear dissension between the couple, select an arbitrator from his people and an arbitrator from her people. If they both desire reconciliation, Allah will cause it between them. Indeed, Allah is ever Knowing and Acquainted (with all things).

This part emphasizes that the white bearded sheikhs and old wise personalities of the community carry the responsibility to mediate between a couple that is caught in a fight. The guidance of the verse is directed at them.

The verse mentions specifically the words sheghâgh, which means dissension and separation, while the word tàlâgh refers to divorce. Although tàlâgh is not mentioned, fundamentalists frequently misuse the verse in order to justify the divorce of a wife who is deemed as having been disobedient. The word eslâh furthermore means to solve the problem, by for instance reconciliating with each other. Yet, if each one of the couple

holds on to their position, a separation should occur between them. As was mentioned, the word for separation that is used in this verse is shéghagh (not talagh = divorce). Therefore, in the case of a sheghâgh (separation), you, referring once more to a mediator, have to find an arbitrator (hàkàm) from the husband’s family and another arbitrator (hàkàm) from the wife’s family. The arbitrators should sit down together and confer about a solution for the couple. It is important to emphasize that the you directly addresses the wise elders and authorities of the community. It does not address the husbands who are in opposition to their wife. As such, the mediating role of the arbitrator is stressed here.

These two verses (34 and 35) guide the judges of the Muslim community how to peacefully settle a family quarrel. In the first step the judge(s) advise(s) the men on how to deal with the situation, then in the second step the couple is encouraged to reconciliate. If a reconciliation cannot be attained, the next step is to find two mediators, one from the wife’s family and one from the husband’s family, and to have them come together with the family in order to find a solution and settlement for both sides.

As was pointed out before, the verse sets the foundation for the formation of a family unit within the Arabian Peninsula´s tribal society during the time of Mohammed. It constituted a first step towards the establishment of women rights by proscribing men to simply abandon their wife as was frequently done during those days. Instead, the verse clearly defines rules and responsibility for men towards their wife. Through this, a social contract between the couple was established, which prevented men to simply abandon a woman as it pleased them. It is important to note the societal change that this verse propagated. For instance, while for most people in Western countries it may seem normal for a man to pay alimonies to his divorced wife, this thought was quite revolutionary back then. Indeed, the Quran does not give any right to men to behave aggressively or erratically towards women in or outside the house. Instead, it advises a couple to either live peacefully and respectfully with each other or to peacefully separate. Fighting and using any forceful behavior in order for men to impose their desires upon women is not legitimized nor propagated by the Quran.

In line with this, verse 19 of the Surah An-Nisa’ states that:

O you who have believed (the companions of Prophet Muhammad), it is not lawful for you to inherit women by compulsion. And do not make difficulties for them in order to take [back] part of what you gave them unless they commit a clear immorality. And live with them (women) in kindness. For if you dislike them – perhaps you dislike a thing and Allah makes therein much good.

This verse explicitly asks men to be kind to their wives, even when they sense a dislike towards them. The aim and the guidance of the Quran is to apply kindness, not disrespect, even when the couple finds itself in a state of dislike and absence of love. Of course, when a man and woman, a husband and wife, love and like each other, there should be no room for problems. Yet, even when the couple is in a state of mutual dislike, there is no room for rudeness. Both have to be kind to each other and control their ego from applying any physical force or verbal offensiveness.

There are a number of stories in the Quran that illustrate a harmonious and respectful relationship between a man and a woman, and emphasize the leadership role of women, in- and outside of the house. There is, for instance, the Surah of the Queen of Saba (Surah 34) who ruled over a vast kingdom during the time of Salomon. Rather than deeming the Queen of Sabah as an enemy, King Salomon invited her to Jerusalem and welcomed her with a big fanfare, showing his respect and his veneration of her. The Surah of the Bees (Surah 16) and the Surah of the Ants (Surah 27) both focus on the female´s leadership role who in both Surahs leads the tribe and overlooks the growth of the hive or stock. These are good examples of how women should be treated and the responsibilities and leadership roles that women should take on in society.

1.7. How was divergence from the original meaning able to occur? 

One might wonder why such great divergence from the original text was able to develop to begin with. That is, how can two completely different translations of the same verses develop?

Dr. Azmayesh suggests that there are multiple factors for why the Quran has been misinterpreted and abused for centuries. Three shall be named here:

1. Today, many scholars and religious authorities rely on Hadiths and Revayats. Revayats are fabricated stories that were attributed deliberately and incorrectly to the founder of Islam, Prophet Mohammad. Within these Revayats, there are direct quotations that are attributed to the Prophet, named Hadiths. Many contemporary religious scholars rely on these Revayats and Hadiths, which have increased exponentially throughout history, instead of examining the Quran directly. For instance, a central figure during the time after Mohammad’s death was a man named Abu Hurairah (Abū Hurayrah ad-Dawsī al-zahrani). Abu Hurairah was a notable scholar within the Jewish community, who had an in-depth knowledge of the scriptures of that time. He knew stories of the Old and New Testament that were only briefly mentioned in the Quran, such as the story of Noah’s arch. This skill made Abu Hurairah a very notable and respectable man during his lifetime. Three years before the death of Mohammad, he converted from Judaism to Islam. During the remainder of his lifetime, Abu Hurairah came up with about 5000 Revayats, which he based on his knowledge of Judaism and which he attributed directly to Mohammed. Today, there are a multitude of Revayats and Hadiths most of which are plain inventions, aimed at pursuing and justifying the goals of certain interest groups.

2. A second reason which shall be named here is the language of the Quran and the significant influence of pre-existing scriptures. Indeed, the language of the Quran is complex as it does not simply consist of one language (Arabic). Instead, it is an amalgam of different languages such as Aramaic and Syriac. As such, in order to understand the Quran’s words and terms, one must have a background in the Aramaic and Syriac languages. Translating the Quran word by word will result in plain wrong translations and misinterpretations. In addition, previous scriptures had a very significant influence on the Quran and as such, besides being knowledgeable of the Aramaic and Syriac languages, one has to be able to weave in knowledge about the ancient scriptures that preceded the Quran in order to begin to understand its content. People who translate the Quran must be aware of this influence and translate the Quranic verses accordingly. Yet, most if not all translations of the Quran that can be obtained in bookstores are either literal translations that do not take these details under consideration or they are translations of translations or commentaries of the Quran. This is similar to books of Shakespeare that have been translated into contemporary English, with added commentaries for better comprehension. That means, if the original translation has crocks, these crocks will be replicated with each translation. As such, it takes a high degree of linguistic, cultural and historical knowledge and versatility to be able to translate the Quran.

3. Lastly, Dr. Azmayesh explains that the Quran consists of three major parts, namely:

I direct teachings that are aimed at the development of the path of unity, the education of noble and virtuous behavior (Javan-mardi), and the propagation of a healthy society.

II questions that were posed by different groups of people to Prophet Mohammad (e.g., Christian and Jewish scholars as well as tribesmen and Bedouins) concerning different topics and

III Prophet Mohammed’s answers in response to those people’s questions.

1.8. Returning to the essence of Islam

This distinction is important and leads us back to our discussion of the Surah An-Nisa’. Namely, the Quran offers advises and teachings to people (I) and offers descriptions and direct accounts of the circumstances and societal structure during Mohammad’s lifetime (II & III). Yet, as we have seen in the example of the Surah An-Nisa’, the description of society back then is frequently mistaken for recommendations

made by the Quran on how to do things now, such as men should dominate and oppress women. Indeed, incorrect interpretations such as these have legitimized the beating, stoning and forced marriage of women for centuries. Dr. Azmayesh emphasizes that the Quran’s goal is to build a strong and just society. Laws and rules mentioned in the Quran were the initiation of this attempt which is continuing to unfold. As such, the principles mentioned in the Quran can be changed and adjusted if they serve the development of humanity and value everyone’s right. This is done by the principle of abrogation according to today’s needs and values. Dr. Azmayesh stresses, that time has come to introduce people to the essence of Islam which encourages people to do good deeds, and love, respect and value all human beings no matter what their race, religious or spiritual affiliation, or gender. This is the true essence of Islam as Prophet Mohammad propagated it.

Interview with Dr. Seyed Azmayesh by the International Organization to Preserve Human Rights (IOPHR)


2: In Arabic, to strike someone physically is referred to as jeld which can also be translated as skin. In the Quran, this word is used in the context of adultery where both parties involved are supposed to be punished with 100 beats each. In those days, adultery was a difficult case to deal with as it meant for a betrayed partner or family to lose their face in society. Men and women received the same punishment. The case of adultery is part of the penal law. Another case that belongs to the penal law is when a men strikes his wife. Here, a woman is allowed strike back the man according to the principle of talliun (an eye for an eye). However, this law is not set in stone. The woman can decide to forgive the man and withhold any punishment and/or ask for a financial compensation.

List of keywords:

amdahi: laws preexisting the time of Mohammad and that were signed and sealed by him, thereby legitimizing the continuation of their application.

Eslâh: to solve the problem

Fàzrebou: apply! (imperative form)

Fàzrebouhonna: apply to them

Ghanetat: praying women

Jeld: to strike (when referring to striking the skin)

Mowezeh: to advise

Nàfàgheh: alimony that a man has to pay to his wife

Noshouz: women‘s resistance towards their husband’s desires

Salehat: righteous women

Shéghagh: separation

Taghiiri: laws that were modified by Mohammad.

Tàlâgh: divorce

Talliun: the principle of an eye for an eye

Tasisi: laws preexisting the time of Mohammad that were entirely rejected by him and replaced by new ones.

Zarb: to apply (infinitive form).