The Male is Not Like the Female : Gender Equity and Quran 3:36

(iii) “The male is not like the female”

The Quran recounts to us the story of the pious woman who, while pregnant, vowed to dedicate the coming child to the service of God. She had been expecting a son (who could serve in the Temple at Jerusalem), but went on to deliver a daughter. It is at this time that she (or God, according to a different reading) remarks, “The male is not like the female.” The statement is not clear-cut in indicating overall preference for either one of the genders.

Language-wise, there are three possibilities, and each of these views is a position held among Muslim scholars:

  1. to indicate preference for the male, i.e. the male is not like the female, he has the advantage of being able to serve in the temple (under Jewish ritual law) without the monthly menstrual interruption [Mawardi, and many other scholars of exegesis]
  2. to indicate preference for the female, i.e. the male I wanted is not like the female God gave me; God’s choice is necessarily better [Zamakhshari, Abu Hayyan; two prominent exegetes, both of whom are heavyweights in the Arabic language]
  3. to not imply any preference either way (simply that they are different), like red is not like green, nor is green like red. [Ibn Hazm]

Even if one takes the first or second interpretation, it is still contextual, and cannot be a proof-text for overall superiority of one gender, because:

From this post, along with the preceding three (1 2 3), it is clear that the Quran does not teach intrinsic superiority of either of the two genders. Certainly, an ordinary believing man cannot claim superiority over the prophetesses and spiritual heavyweights like Mary and Fatimah. Rather, the criterion is piety: “Indeed, the most noble of you before God is the most pious.” And believing men and women are expected to support, protect and help one another – not to deride nor to oppress one another (despite what too often happens in some Muslim societies).

— Suheil Laher

A Degree Over Women? Gender Equity and Quran 2:228

(ii) “A degree over women”

And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable, and men have a degree over them.” (Qur’an, 2:228)

The “degree” that men have over women, unspecified in the Qur’anic text, has given rise to a range of different suggested interpretations, some of which clearly hold little weight (such as the view that it refers to the beard!). The eminent traditionist-exegete Tabari (d. 310 H), after quoting all the transmitted opinions, concluded that the strongest view is that men are being instructed to unconditionally fulfill their duties and responsibilities in full, while being forgiving of women if they fall short in their duties; i.e. it is a degree of responsibility, rather than privilege. Tabari and others have narrated this view, with isnad, from Ibn `Abbas, an eminent exegete from among the companions of the Prophet.

According to traditional Muslim understandings of gender roles (I will not address Muslim feminist interpretations), men also are expected to lead the family unit (every social unit needs one person in charge, in order to function efficiently), but this leadership neither implies a superiority (remember when Abu Bakr was appointed Caliph, he said, “I have been appointed to lead you, but I am not the best among you”), nor is it supposed to be a means for overbearingness or tyranny. Rather, the relationship between husband and wife is to be based on love, compassion and cooperation, and includes consultation.

“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.” (Qur’an, 30:21)

“And the believers, men and women, are protecting friends one of another” (Qur’an, 9:71)

“….and whose affair is [determined by] consultation among themselves” (Qur’an, 42:38)

The alleged hadith, “Consult with [women] and then do the opposite of what they advise,” has no authentic chain of narration back to the Prophet (as pointed out, for example, by Sakhawi in al-Maqasid al-Hasana), and is likely a sheer fabrication. Among the more striking narrations showing that the Prophet (s) valued the opinions of women is the famous incident at Hudaybiyah, in which he acted on advice from his wife Umm Salamah on a matter of great religious and public significance.

Gender Equity and Quran 4:34

A previous post showed the basic spiritual equality of men and women, as derived from the Quran. We now need to look more closely at three verses that are sometimes misunderstood to conclude an automatic superiority for men:

(i) “Men are in charge of [taking care of] women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. ” (Qur’an, 4:34)

(ii) “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.” (Qur’an, 2:228)

(iii) “And the male is not like the female.” (Qur’an, 3:36)

(i) Men are qawwamun over women”

“Men are in charge of [taking care of] women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. ” (Qur’an, 4:34)

Firstly, the Qur’an has told us clearly that the criterion for superiority before Allah is taqwa, not gender:

“Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you.” (Qur’an, 49:13)

Indeed, no Muslim man would dare claim that, merely by being male, he is better than Lady Khadijah, Lady Fatimah, or the Virgin Mary!

Remember also that two verses before this (4:32), we were reminded that men and women have each been blessed in different ways by Allah. What the verse 4:34 is telling us, therefore, is that men have the responsibility of taking care of women, because (generally) their constitution and nature are such that they are more capable or working and providing physical protection and defense.

Secondly, note that the wording is not فضلهم عليهن (which would clearly mean: graced/blessed men over  women) but rather: بِمَا فَضَّلَ ٱللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍ literally: “has graced some of them over others.”  Shaykh al-Sha`rawi, the famous 20th-century Egyptian (male) scholar of tafsir, pointed out that although men may be graced/blessed in one aspect, they are less endowed in other respects, and that the two genders have complementary roles in which each utilizes their respective strengths to support the other. The 3rd-century theologian and polymath `Uthman al-Jahiz has pointed out several aspects in which women can be considered superior to men, including various positive traits of character (remember the Prophet (s) was described as more modest than a virgin in her chamber), and the fact that there has been a woman (the Virgin Mary) for whom Allah created a child without male involvement, but there has never ben a man for whom Allah made a child without female involvement. Contemporary female Syrian scholar Hanan Lahham expressed succinctly the logical conclusion to make from 4:34, tying together the concepts that were already known to earlier exegetes (mufassireen), even if they didn’t express it so explicitly. She writes that, “Allah granted to each gender characteristics that help them to perform their roles; the intended meaning is not a superiority of one gender over the other.”

The verse (4:34) also intimates that some women have certain superiorities over some men, and vice-versa. Thus, some women might be physically stronger, or more capable breadwinners, than some men. None of this is ruled out by the verse, nor by the labelling of men as maintainers, because as `Allamah Ibn `Ashur (a high-ranking 20th century Tunisian scholar) has commented in his tafsir, what the verse is describing is not a universal but a customary norm. (We may note, in passing that patriarchically organized societies have dominated human history for several millenia.) Even among pre-modern mufassirin, the possibility had been raised that this verse conveys that there are some women who are better than many men. In fact, the famous medieval linguist and mufassir, Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi, mentioned the possibility (suggested by the verse) that the term “men” (الرجال) in the verse (4:34) refers not to gender (for otherwise the term “males” (الذكور) could have been used) but only to those males who are deserving of being called “men” by virtue of their strength, wisdom and resoluteness. A lot of women would not be able to fully respect a man who does not live up to his expected role. Thus, many of the fuqaha allow a wife to annul the marriage if the husband is not able to provide financial support to his wife. (Of course, she has the option of remaining with him and being patient, and also the option of spending her own money on the household, and can expect reward from Allah for doing so, but she is not obliged to do either of these).


-Suheil Laher

Spiritual Equality of Men and Women

Umm Salamah asked the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), “Why is it that men are mentioned in the Qur’an, but we women are not mentioned?” In response, Allah sent down a verse1.

“Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so – for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.” (Qur’an, 33:35)

This is one of several Qur’anic verses that establishes the essential spiritual equality of men and women. Other verses tell us that believers – men and women – will receive light on the Day of Judgment, will enter Paradise, will not be wronged in the least, will be rewarded according to the best of their actions, and will be given provision without account. (See: Qur’an, 3:195, 4:124, 16:97. 40:40, 57:12).

Hence, Muslim scholars often mention a general principle:

النساء شقائق الرجال

Women are the counterparts of men.”2

This means that every right and obligation that applies to men applies equally to women, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. Remember that, given the societal setup and norms of 7th-century Arabia, the Prophet (s) was, naturally, spending more time with men than with women, and so the wording of his statements would nomally be addressed in the male gender. Hence, when we find hadiths about marying for beauty, or desiring to have children, or remaining faithful to one’s spouse, even though many of these hadiths are addressed to men, we are entitled to deduce a similar, reciprocal ruling for women.

Notwithstanding the essential spiritual equality of men and women, there are areas in which they are not identical, and some of these (like childbearing) are physiological and (in a sense) inevitable.

“And do not wish for that by which Allah has made some of you exceed others. For men is a share of what they have earned, and for women is a share of what they have earned. And ask Allah of his bounty. Indeed Allah is ever, of all things, Knowing.” (Qur’an, 4:32)

These differences do not mean men are superior, nor that women are superior. According to a report from Qatadah and al-Suddi (tafsir scholars of the Tabi`in, the above verse was revealed in response to some men who thought that they were entitled to double reward due to their gender, and some women who thought the punishment for their sins would be half that of men’s. 

Allah has made each gender unique and special in its own way, and we are expected to realize and accept this. 

To be continued — Part 2 examines three Quranic verses that are sometimes cited in support of an inherent male superiority, and shows how the verses do not support that conclusion.

— Suheil Laher


1Ibn Kathir judged its chain of transmission as good (hasan) in Tuhfat al-Talib, as did Ibn Hajar in Muwafaqat al-Khabar. Tabari mentions several similar narrations in his exegesis (tafsir).

2 These words are also contained in a hadith, narrated by Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi and others, but there is disagreement over one of the narrators, `Abd-Allah ibn `Umar al-`Umari, who was an upright man, but whom some critics judged to have poor memory. Nevertheless, Ibn al-Qattan apparently judged it as a sound hadith. And Allah knows best.