Surah 4: The Women, Part 1

Linguistic trivia: Arabic is a language of elisions. Vowels can elide forward into the vowel leading the next word, and consonants can elide backwards (!) replacing the consonant preceding them. Take a look at my transliteration of The Introduction and you’ll see many hyphens. Each of those hyphens represents a place where the words technically break, but the speech flows uninterrupted. The prime victim of elision is the word al (“the”). Often the A will be absorbed into the preceding vowel. The L might be replaced by the following consonant, but only if that consonant occurs on the tip of the tongue, the same place where Arabs produce their L sound. In the right setting, al can be reduced to a mere syllabic pulse. These elisions happen naturally when you talk fast, and it is now a formally understood quirk of Arabic pronunciation.

Case in point: Surah an-Nisa. It is written al-nisa, but say that fast enough with an Arabic accent and the L disappears into the N. Thus we transliterate it that way. And what does an-nisa mean?

unsplash-logoHasan Almasi

“The Women”

There are two grander themes in Surah an-Nisa: social welfare and true religion. So yet again, I shall divide this surah into two analyses, consolidating messages scattered amongst the 176 ayat. Today I’ll tackle the social welfare.

Social Welfare

Social welfare was a matter relevant to Muhammad’s experience. His father had died before he was born, his mother died when he was six, and then his grandfather (the next guardian in line) died shortly after that. Sometimes it is said that Muhammad was “thrice orphaned.” The rest of his upbringing was at the hand of an uncle, who cared for his nephew generously, even when that nephew started showing some “strange” religious tendencies. Muhammad later married Khadija, an older widow and keen businesswoman who’d had to navigate for her own needs in a man’s world. Seriously, if you want to break some stereotypes about Arabs and Islam, look up Khadija. She was actually the one who initiated the proposal to Muhammad, and I find their resulting relationship rather sweet and endearing. Muhammad also adopted a young cousin, Ali, who was just one son too many for Ali’s father to support. Muhammad’s own sons had all died in infancy and, except for Ali, his household was completely composed of women. When Islam became militant to conquer Mecca, Muhammad took to marrying some of the resulting widows in order to provide them with security.

Image result for wives of muhammad
His timeline of wives. The vertical black lines (left to right) are his starting ministry, emigration to Medina, and the Battle of Badr. (Note his long monogamy to Khadija until her death.)

All these circumstances might have brought social welfare close to Muhammad’s heart.

The first ayah presents humankind as all extended family, descended from one couple, who were created from the same soul. “Fear Allah…and fear the womb.” This passage is much akin to Jesus’s teachings, “Love the Lord…and love your neighbor,” but its wording emphasizes that all mankind is to be revered as essentially family. The Quran is careful as it goes forward to remind people that God sees how they treat each other and judges them for it.

Orphans are to be taken in as family (although traditions dictating the modesty of orphan girls before their wards show that adoption did not reach the same standing as blood). One of the greatest concerns is that guardians do not consume the orphan’s inheritance (the assumption is that these orphans were not abandoned). The orphans are to be taught independence and tested for responsibility as they approach puberty. Once they prove responsible, then witnesses are to be assembled and the orphans granted their inherited property. The general rule is not to take a personal fee out of the inheritance, but if the guardian is poor then some money might be requested. There is a golden rule on this subject, as the Muslims are reminded to treat orphans keeping in mind that their own children might become orphans.

One odd passage (ayah 3) says that if you are not sure you can treat orphans fairly, then marry women, up to four. If you can’t pay equal treatment to multiple women, only marry one woman, or marry your slaves. This passage is… weird, in no small part because it confronts us with three things that make us uncomfortable: marrying your wards, polygyny, and slavery. I am not looking to deal with those things right now, and just want to clarify the intent of this verse. All explanations I could create by myself were great interpretive leaps. The ayah prior was about not absorbing the property of orphans, the one after is about giving brides gifts and not taking their property. I considered that perhaps there was a custom to marry or betroth the female orphans (though the word here for “orphans” is not explicitly feminine) for their security. Perhaps ayah 3 was a limit to marry at most four, or only as many as you could be equitable to. Most of the translations made their own interpretive leap: “…marry [other] women…” I could not parse any source for “other” in the original Arabic. If you put “other” in the text, it sounds as if the general act of marrying women is an equal charity to taking care of orphans (but only if you can be equitable to them). That didn’t sound right either. So I searched the web and found this hadith (“contemporary narrative”) which reasons that the ayah is banning the practice of marrying orphan girls in order to take advantage of their beauty or property (presumably since the girls would have no family to advocate for them). It ties this ayah to the 127th, which does in fact condemn marrying female orphans (this time the exact wording is “woman orphans“) without doing them justice. This explanation seems possible, although the meaning is not inherently understandable in the ayah.

Women are given property rights. There are clear statements that a woman’s dowry and inheritance is hers. Grooms cannot renege on a dowry that has been agreed upon, even if the marriage is canceled. Ex-husbands cannot demand back a dowry upon divorce. The only way a man can benefit from his wife’s property is if they mutually agree to share it in part or full.


There are some inheritance laws which I’m not sure I fully understand. Before the estate is divided, all debts and special bequests (including a year’s housing and stipend for widows according to al-Baqarah 240) are paid out. The remainder is then divided according to family shape and relationships. The surah sets some fractions, but the fractions never seem to add up to a whole. For example, if a man dies with both parents and 2+ daughters, then 2/3 of the estate are divided between daughters, and the parents split the last third equally. Easy…except what do the the wives inherit? The next ayah specifies that wives inherit an eighth of the estate if there are children. Where will that eighth come from?

Here’s a simple calculator. Here’s a more involved calculator.

And of course, the mere three ayat that address this topic are not complete legislature. There is a lot of information missing, and I checked online and found that no other verses of the Quran deal with how to divvy inheritance. Where scripture fails, tradition must fill in. Islamic inheritance traditions are called ulm al-faraa’id (Science of Obligations). Take a read of this article if you want to explore some of the fascinating complications and the solutions academics must pay attention to. In fact, the math in these inheritance laws is believed to have fostered the development of al-jabr (“the [reconstruction of] fragments,” or algebra) in Muslim culture.

When we examine what is missing we can find some significance. Most critically missing is the inheritance owed to sons, and this is perhaps because it is assumed sons will already be the defacto inheritors and thus their provision needs no comment. The only comment about a son’s share is that it is to be twice the amount of a daughter’s. Otherwise, all children inherit, and presumably all sons inherit equally. This is not a primogeniture system! And that is perhaps the point being made. These ayat are about making sure that inheritance goes beyond the sons, ensuring provision for all surviving parents, siblings, and daughters. While indeed the sons are still the prime inheritors, these laws emphasize further family connections and duties. Even more than that, any relative, orphan, or person in need who attends your probate is to be given something from the inheritance. Granted the loophole that endowments can be made before this division of property might open up abuse of these laws.

That daughters inherit half the amount as sons rankles in light of modern feminism. The growing ideal is that men and women should be treated equal in all things. I don’t want to run off-tangent discussing that issue. I do want to point out that multiple ayat protect women’s property rights from the hands of greedy husbands or guardians. In some of the inheritance scenarios, women inherit the same amount as their male counterparts. That sons inherit double the amount of daughters is often justified that the women have no obligations to fulfill with their money. In this surah and in al-Baqarah it is clear that men are supposed to pay considerable financial gifts to their brides. Perhaps the inheritance rules are in place to facilitate marriages? While these inheritance laws might not promote strict equality, they are generally agreed to have raised women’s status in that time period. The remaining question is whether these laws can be fair in a society where women and men have more equal responsibilities and ambitions.

And another thing, you can’t inherit widows. Wives are not property. You can propose to widows, after they’ve had their appropriate four-months-ten-days (according to ayah 234 of Surah al-Baqarah), but the matter must be an agreement. As to slaves (often referred to as “those your right hand possesses”), I’m not sure what happens.

Marriage and Divorce

In a surah titled “the women” it is unsurprising to find that there are marriage laws concerning what kind of women men can marry. Ayat 23-25 are all about that. It is all described to men, and polygamy is a factor in play here. The incest rules are about what you might expect. A generalized explanation of the rules I don’t marry anyone in your immediate family, or anyone in your immediate family’s immediate family. This includes step-family. You cannot marry two sisters simultaneously. One which I’d never heard before: you are not allowed to marry anyone who nursed you or who was nursed by the same person as you. These laws only apply once you have converted to Islam, and any marriages you entered before conversion are still valid.

UPDATE 02/2020: Hello past me! Generalizing the incest prohibitions is unhelpful when the issue reappears 29 suwar later, since this generalization is inaccurate. So here is a chart of the specific relationships banned:

You are not allowed to marry married women, which is to be expected…unless they are slaves? There is no further study of that exception in the surah. It also follows that if you cannot afford to marry a free woman, then you can take a believing slave for a wife, since God sees no class distinction amongst believers. If you marry a slave, you must still go through the proposal process by getting permission from her family and paying to her a dowry. There is some translation confusion as to whether the slave should not be sexually loose or inclined to take secret lovers, or whether by formally marrying her the slave is elevated above fornicator or mistress. The sentence structure and vocabulary of this phrase is beyond me, but I can see that all translations of this passage assume many connective words to justify their meanings. More translations favor judging the character of the slave before marriage, but I personally lean towards the latter idea. The very next sentence is about marrying slaves being a concession to preserve poorer men’s virtue, even though abstinence would be preferable. So if this concession was done to abate a man’s lust, the ayah would have a more positive drive if it was ensuring those women received some rights and benefits.

Now, these slave-oriented passages completely confused me because I have no knowledge of the Arabian slave system. A married slave can be taken in marriage? Why would a sinful pre-Islam marriage be considered valid while a slave marriage not? Are slave family units intact enough to be asked for permission? How does one become a slave? There has not been enough material in the Quran yet for me to understand what slavery means in Islam. I did search online for some clarification of these passages and found a deep, hard analysis. That analysis cited some other Islamic laws (a category that extends beyond the Quran) about prisoners of war, the legal status of slaves, and the rights of owners. Among these rules was that slavery was a legal bond, like a marriage, and thus masters could require sex from their slaves without marrying them (shedding some light on the above paragraph, if so). It was very uncomfortable to read, but before I make any comments on it, I want to hear more information directly from the Quran itself to form an understanding of the religion’s core stance on slavery. So please don’t think I’ve passed lightly by a heavy topic. I’ll return once I have more primary source information.

It is striking to me how comfortable Islam is with divorce. Christianity is more focused around Jesus’s teaching “God hates divorce” and that marriage is more than just a legal contract. Although the teaching was not comprehensive or legal in nature, Christian cultures decreed divorce so evil that they even made light of the worst domestic crimes. Islam, by far contrast, says that two people who justly divorce will be individually blessed by God. If the community is worried that a couple’s marriage looks unstable, they might bring in representatives from both the husband’s and wife’s family in order to attempt arbitration. If the arbitration fails, then as long as the wife gets to keep her property and they part in fairness, there’s no guilt. Marriage is valued, but divorce is not demonized. It is acknowledged that people will not be able to live up to an ideal marriage (the given example is that a husband can’t really love all his wives in the same way), but that trying to live up to ideals is what is important to God.

In this surah we find less about the process of divorce, and more about the reasons for it. Perhaps a husband is looking to replace a wife. Perhaps a wife is concerned about unfair treatment or alienation from her husband. Although we do not see by what process a woman can initiate divorce, it seems clear that she can negotiate for one. This partially answers a concern from al-Baqarah that women have no means of acting against injustice on their own behalves. As far as an-Nisa goes, women are allowed take action against marital injustice.

Crime and Punishment

We have our first examples of crime and earthly punishment in this surah. Earlier sins and crimes were only forbidden out of fear for divine justice, but there are a few here that now come with mortal judgements. Contrary to popular belief, there are no death penalties. Yet. There’s a lot more Quran to read, but the lack of capital punishment in the following examples might surprise those with no prior knowledge, like myself.

The first example here is the punishment for adultery. It takes four witnesses to convict a wife of adultery. If convicted, she is sentenced to house arrest until she dies or until “God ordains another way.” House arrest could be a hard thing to accomplish among a migrant population. Unless you lived in a city, many Arabians were travelling merchants and herders. Note that slave-wives who commit adultery are only to be given half the condemnation of free wives. How do you halve a life sentence? And what is this “other way”? In some translations, it sounds like repentance, but no answer looks definitive to me. The next ayah is possibly a continuation and clarification. Some translate the next ayah as being about two men caught in explicit relations, but unless there is some hidden quirk of Arabic I’m not savvy to, the original text is really an undetermined “those two.” (Arabic, like many European languages, always defaults to the masculine forms of words when company is mixed.) Anyhow, the two guilty individuals are to be punished/dishonored. If those two repent and change their ways, then the punishment is turned away, for God is merciful and accepts repentance. Whether this verse is about two men or heterosexual adulterers, repentance and changed action can divert their punishment.

The second example is cases of accidental killing. If you kill a believing man, the punishment is that you must pay financial recompense to his family and release a believing slave. Unlike in Surah al-Baqarah 178, you don’t have to pay the victim’s family if they waive their right to it. If you were at war and the believer was on the other side, then you only need to free a believing slave. If you have no slaves, and cannot afford buying a slave to free, then fast for two consecutive months. If you kill a believer intentionally, there is no earthly punishment yet prescribed, just a warning about hell waiting for you.

The third example is not in the legal sphere, but the domestic. Ayah 34: the wife is to be in charge of her husband’s property in his absence. If the husband fears his wife is recalcitrant, he is given three levels of corrective action: teach her, deny her sex, hit her. This is unsettling on several levels. For a first, (unless there is an assumption that the husband is to take the case to an authority first) this ayah allows someone to determine justice by their own subjective initiative. This passage does not condone abuse (for God knows who is innocent and guilty in all things), but it does enable it. For a second, how does the punishment fit the crime? This is the heated debate around any punishment, from child discipline to criminal prosecution. Is physical rebuke an effective way to reverse a resistant disposition? And now that this surah has prescribed sexual denial and hitting as appropriate punishment, there remains to ask how does one measure an appropriate amount? For a third, why would someone need to go to such lengths when their religion clearly respects divorce? The Arabic word nushuuz (“high-handedness” as Abdul Haleem renders it) used to describe the wives’ transgression is the same word used in ayah 128 where a woman fears nushuuz from her husband. The remedy in the latter situation is to seek divorce. There is no equivalent passage allowing a woman to physically discipline a wicked husband. This passage disturbs a surah that insofar has promoted respect and consideration for women.

You’ll maybe notice that I did not object to that ayah on the grounds that hitting women is bad. The ayah isn’t about being allowed to hit all women, and makes clear that action can only be taken against those who embody evil rebellion. Now, I’m not particularly on the side of saying “absolutely no” to hitting women –rather, I believe in saying “absolutely no” to hitting anyone. For as much as our culture fantasizes about fighting evil by hitting it in the face…

Punching is the answer
Meh, those faces look evil enough

…I don’t know that we have a higher ground to stand upon.

Manifest Religion

So there are things in this surah that do not relate well to our culture. There is a strong dissonance between the values communicated and the values we (average westerners) hold. Because I wasn’t taught a great deal of Muslim history, I don’t have a sense of how well it worked in their culture either. When people who receive conflicting principles are left to apply them, the results can go contrary to the strict written word. For example, Torah Law most certainly prescribes death penalties, and yet you’ll find that in recorded history those death penalties were rarely enforced and often opposed (sources 1, 2, 3). This is because the Torah has two conflicting messages: kill humans as a penalty vs. humans shall not kill humans. Both messages are clearly stated at various places and times, leaving Jews to reconcile these conflicting values. That many Jews tend to favor not killing maybe derives from the Jewish diaspora’s vulnerable status in history.

Paradox values are a regular sight in the Jewish scriptures. How do you obey both God and parents when your parents are telling you to do something ungodly and yet the God-ordained thing to do is obey them? Jesus’s teachings were controversial because he taught which values took priority, even when his teaching ran contrary to strict scriptural adherence (as with Sabbath-breaking). His contemporaries understood that he was directly assuming the authority of God. To some, this made him dangerously heretical. To others, it made him Holy in a way different from any known prophet. Still, Christians struggle to reconcile Jesus’s prioritized values with their own and those of scripture. Our epistles preserve the earliest records of that.

That Muslims also have to handle conflicting values can be seen even in the inheritance article I’d linked earlier. An early ayah states that if someone dies with parents but no heirs, then their mother gets one third of their property. By default the father is left with two-thirds of the property and the male:female 2:1 ratio is consistent. But what happens when that ayah gets combined with one where a married woman dies?

Before continuing with the translation of verse 4:12 let us consider a situation where a woman dies leaving behind a husband and both parents as the only heirs.

The husband inherits one-half of the estate, there is no argument on this point. However, if we give the mother a one-third share then the father is left with only one-sixth. Should the male (father) not get twice the share of the female (mother) of equal degree and class?

This problem arose during the caliphate of Umar ibn Khattab (RA). After consultation with the learned companions the majority opinion was that the father should get twice the share of the mother, that is to say, the principle that the male inherits the share of two females is upheld. The father therefore, inherits one-third and the mother one-sixth

Islam, like other religions, has had to balance some conflicting principles even to the point of reversing strict scriptural adherence. Interpretive leaps must be made in order to ease the dissonance.

Surah an-Nisa puts forward principles of value for women. They have property rights. They have responsibilities. They can make choices. Their faith also leads them to heaven. They deserve gifts. A good wife is not to be acted against. Men are to treat women well, for otherwise they might be spurning someone full of God’s gifts. But it also has principles that can undermine that value. Men generally deserve twice the inheritance of women. One of men’s responsibilities is to oversee women’s responsibilities, and to punish as necessary. Female slaves can be stripped of their original marriages. When these values come into conflict, people must negotiate through their hearts and reason which values take priority and how to reconcile the conflict. In societies where only men are making the decisions, it might not be surprising that the scales tilt to manifest in men’s favor. How you see a religion manifested is not definitive of what a religion can be.

And of course, in the Quran, these principles are being freshly laid out and playtested as the religion gradually builds. The next message in the surah is going to assert Muhammad’s exclusive position as the only man who can resolve these conflicts. The social policies in Surah an-Nisa may very well have all been direct answers to questions that the Muslims were bringing to Muhammad. There are at least two ayat where God states to Muhammad, “And they request from you a ruling [about such and such], say…” He is the living conduit to God in their midst, and they are to take advantage of him fully to define true religion and settle conflicts accordingly. We’ll examine that message in next week’s post.

With peace! مع السلامة


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.