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The Quranic Concepts on Gender Relations

AUTHOR: Dr. Zainab Alwani

The essence of the Islamic paradigm is grounded in the concept of tawhid, the Oneness and Uniqueness of God. The coherence of the central belief system in Islam is based on the relationship between the act of submission (to God) and its consequences in a state of peace. At the core of this relationship is the concept of tawhid (oneness of God), by virtue of which submission is transformed into a dynamic and ongoing act. That is the meaning of ‘ibada (devotion or worship1).

Muslims believe that God created human beings – men and women – to worship and serve Him as khalifahs, representatives or vicegerents of God. In Qur’an (2:30) “Behold. Thy Lord said to the angels. “I will create a vicegerent (trustee) on earth.”

God has entrusted humankind to function more effectively as khalifahs (vicegerents, agent, or trustee on earth), and this “Divine Trust” is the fulfillment of the “Divine Will.” As a result, a Muslim, by virtue of submission to tawhid, is committed to a lifetime of striving in the way of God to enjoin what is good and forbid what is wrong, altogether to fulfill the purpose of humankind’s duty as khalifahs/trustees.

The foremost quality of mind and character that flows from this commitment is a state of constant vigilance or an awareness of the presence of God, the All-Knowing. Tazkiya, or purification, is the important process of building this quality of God-consciousness, or taqwa.

The foremost quality of mind and character that flows from this commitment is a state of constant vigilance or an awareness of the presence of God, the All-Knowing. Tazkiya, or purification, is the important process of building this quality of God-consciousness, or taqwa. The Qur’an explained:
“Ó mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other). Verily, the most honored of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you…” (49:13).

In this regard, the only aspect by which one person is deemed better than another in the sight of God is that of his/her piety. Taqwa is at the heart of traits cultivated by the five basic duties of every Muslim, the pillars of Islam.2 These basic duties serve to build up the moral character of both the individual and the community. In addition, Qur’anic guidelines focus greatly on defining human relations, especially male/female relations by defining their roles, rights and responsibilities within marital relations, parent-child relations, family care, and with relatives, neighbors, friends, and colleagues.

“The Qur’an also outlines the relationship between human beings and the universe, which is described in hundreds of verses. The relationship that relates the universe to humankind is described in the Qur’an as taskir (meaning that the earth was made subject to humans to take care of it) (Qur’an 14:33). On the other hand, human beings are equipped to interact with the universe in a way that actualizes khilafah duties and establishes the feelings of closeness and harmony between man and universe, which is called umran.3 The creation of the universe should be utilized to understand the concept of tawhid and the significance of human relations. There are laws that govern the universe to maintain its balance and functioning, like the food chain. Lower forms of life help sustain higher forms of life. Plants sustain animals, both of which sustain humans. The Qur’an describes this connection,

It is He who sends down rain from the sky, from it you drink, and out of it grows the vegetation on which you feed your cattle. With it He produces for you corn, olives, date palms, grapes, and every kind of fruit, verily in which it is a sign for those who give thought. (Qur’an 16:10-14)

The same surah/chapter talks about the relationship between humans and animals:

And the cattle He has created for you (mankind) from them you derive warmth, and numerous benefits, and of their meat you eat. (Qur’an 16:5)

God has created laws and rules that govern our relationships in order to maintain balance and proper functioning. As far as human relationships, we should follow the model of the universe. The Qur’an illustrates this with a visual rendering,

And your Lord taught the bee to build its cells in the hills, on trees, and in people’s habitations. Then to eat of all the produce of the earth and find with skill the spacious paths of its Lord, there issues from within their bodies a drink of varying colors, wherein is healing for humankind, verily in this is a sign for those who give thought. It is God who creates you and takes your souls at death, and of you there are some who are sent back to a feeble age, so that they know nothing after having known much for God is All-knowing all-powerful…And God has made for you mates and companions of your own nature, and made for you out of them, sons and daughters and grandchildren. And provided for you sustenance of the best. Will they then believe in vain things and be ungrateful for God’s favors? (Qur’an 16:68-72)

The picture that the Qur’an illustrates reflects cooperation and a complementary relationship among the bees to fulfill their mission. Similarly, God has provided a mechanism to regulate and balance human relationships by prescribing behaviors that benefit relationships and prohibiting those that damage relationships. For example, God describes spying, mockery, and back-biting as prohibited behaviors that can destroy relationships,4 while being truthful, trustworthy, just, and forgiving maintains and strengthens relationships. At the family level, there are rights and responsibilities for each person in the family to practice, which further encourage healthy relationships. Human beings are encouraged to learn how to work together in order to accomplish their goals5”.

Since the Qur’an clearly explains the mission of mankind on earth as vicegerents of God, gender roles and relations are well defined. In order to establish an effective vicegerency as individuals, the Qur’an acknowledges taqwa (God-conscious piety) as the only distinction among mankind (men and women).

Quranic teachings clearly outline the gender relations through major concepts that promote gender equality and justice in all levels.

1) Zawjiya (Pairing), establishes equality and cooperation; “O mankind! Reverence your guardian-Lord, who created you from a single soul. Created, of like nature, its mate, and from them twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women—fear God, through Whom you demand your mutual (rights), and (reverence) the wombs (that bore you), for God ever watches over you” (Qur’an 4:1).

Islam teaches that all people are created equal in worth and value regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or class.

2) Wilayah (Protectors and supporters of each other) – The Qur’an outlines the relationship between men and women as partners (Awliyā’) of one another in establishing a healthy family and just society. The concept of wilaya establishes that men have no level of superiority over women, as God orders both genders to guide one another and keep each other in check. The Quran states in chapter 9, verse 71, “Men and women are protectors of one another: They enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil, they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity and obey Allah and his messenger on them will Allah pour his mercy for Allah is exalted in power, wise (9:71).
The verse outlines the foundation of gender relations as wilayah6 (protectors and supporters of one another), and defines the relationship between men and women as partners (awliya’) in establishing a healthy family and society. It further expands that concept to give each person (male and female) equal responsibility for their actions and fulfillment of religious duties.

Islam provides a framework within which people can fulfill their duty of serving God and fulfilling His will, the Qur’an emphasizes certain values that inform the thought and behavior of Muslims. Some of the main values are God-consciousness (taqwa7), Love, doing good (ihsān), justice (`adl), and equality (musāwah). All of the teachings of Islam are to be implemented and interpreted through these values which ensure that the guidelines and rules will be applied in a manner that is consistent with the objectives of Islam, rather than implemented in a rigid or piecemeal fashion that may do more harm than good.8

3) Qiwama: The third concept Qiwama is in the area of family, where the Qur’an assigns men to be financially responsible for the family;9 women are then free to take care of the family by being nurturers, without having the added stress of earning an income.

The Qur’an states, “Men are Qawwamun over women, because God has given one more (strength) than the other, and because of the sustenance they provide from their own means. Therefore, the righteous women (as-salihat) are devoutly obedient (qanitat), and guard what God would have them guard (hafidhat lil-ghayb)… (Qur’an 4:34-35)

Qawwamun conveys the notion of providing for and that the term is used prescriptively to indicate that men ought to provide for women in the context of child- bearing and rearing. It also does not necessarily mean that women cannot provide for themselves in that circumstance. The term qawwamun is not an unconditional statement of male authority and superiority over all women for all time.10

This variance does not negate the principle of equality; rather it is a sign of social complement and solidarity between people. Each gender has special qualities that, in general, lead each gender to be better qualified for a particular role. Due to the fact that women have the exclusive ability and responsibility for the continuation of humanity’s existence; men must fulfill the financial responsibility to maintain stability and balance in the family and society. Moreover, the roles are not mutually exclusive. It is a natural part of life for variance to exist between people concerning their strengths, abilities and qualifications.11 Therefore, Islam emphasizes women rights of education, work, and socio-economic and political development. Muslim women throughout the history of the Ummah played a significant role on socioeconomic development of their societies.

Some of the contemporary Muslim scholars12 explain the verse by emphasizing the male’s treatment of the female. The verse establishes the fundamental obligation for men, with regard to women, to create a balanced and shared society. The word qawwamun was mentioned in only three verses in the entire Qur’an; two of them call upon believing men and women to establish justice as an ultimate goal in any situation,

O you who believe stand out firmly for Justice as witnesses to God even as against your parents, or your kin, or whether it be against rich or poor. Follow not the lusts (of your heart)…(Qur’an 4:135).

The second verse states,

O you who believe! Stand out firmly for God as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart you from justice. Be just: that is next to piety. And fear God. For God is well-acquainted with all that you do (Qur’an 5:8).

Qawwamun in verse 4:34 refers to men’s responsibility toward his family to be fair and compassionate, as Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) exemplified through his sayings and actions.

Therefore, men are responsible for maintaining the family financially, and providing for a broad range of needs, including spiritual, emotional, and intellectual needs. Without this divine injunction, some men may not fulfill their financial responsibility towards their family (Abugideiri and Alwani 2003). While men are obligated to work in order to support the family, women may choose to work outside the home or may choose not to work, depending on the individual circumstance of the family.

Muslim women did not restrict the meaning of work only to the financial support of their families. They came to realize that each individual has special qualities that better enable them to perform a certain societal role; and society as a whole functions more effectively when that role is fulfilled. As the Qur’an says, “And in nowise covet those things in which God has bestowed His gifts more freely on some of you than on others: to men is allotted what they earn, and to women what they earn. But ask God of His bounty. For God has full knowledge of all things.” (4:32).

Muslim women work diligently on promoting social justice in all levels. They were actively engaged in the process of socioeconomic development of their societies. They became pioneers in establishing many social, educational and even political programs and institutions including schools, orphanages, hospitals, libraries, and other critical institutions. With this understanding, women became the conscience of society, to pinpoint what plagues the community and help in providing valuable solutions.

In conclusion, cooperation and complementary gender relationships leads to the fulfillment of humankind’s mission on earth: the healthy partnership wilayyah13 between men and women as khalifs14/vicegerents, stewards or God-agents on this earth. This mission should be maintained and enforced to help cleanse society from corruption and drive it towards peacefulness and purity.

  1. The concept of Ibadah has been beautifully explained by many traditional and contemporary scholars, such as: Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn al Qayyim al Jawziyyah, and many others. ↩︎
  2. The five pillars include belief in one God and Prophet Muhammad as His messenger, prayer, fasting, charity, and pilgrimage to Makkah once in a person’s lifetime if their finances permit. ↩︎
  3. Qur’an 45:13 – “And He has subjected to you, as from Him, all that is in the heavens and on earth: behold in that are Signs indeed for those who reflect.” Also see Qur’an 28:77 – “But seek, with the (wealth) which God has bestowed on thee, the Home of the Hereafter, nor forget thy portion in this world: but do thou good, as God has been good to thee, and seek not (occasions for) mischief in the land: for God loves not those who do mischief.” ↩︎
  4. Qur’an 49:11 – “O ye who believe! Let not some men among you laugh at others. It may be that the (latter) are better than the (former): nor let some women laugh at others: it may be that the (latter) are better than the (former): nor defame nor be sarcastic to each other, nor call each other by (offensive) nicknames: ill-seeming is a name connoting wickedness, (to be used by one) after he has believed: and those who do not desist are (indeed) committing injustice.” ↩︎
  5. Alwani, Zainab. “The Quranic Model for Harmony in family relations”: chapter of the book: Change from within: Diverse Perspectives on Domestic Violence in Muslim Communities. Edited by Maha B. Alkhateeb & Salma Elkadi Abugideiri. PP51. ↩︎
  6. The concept of wilayah is explained in chapter al Tawbah where God says, “Men and women are protectors of one another: They enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil, they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity and obey God and his messenger, on them will God pour his mercy for God is exalted in power, wise.” (Qur’an 9:71) ↩︎
  7. This concept is important in understanding the depth and degree to which the religion of Islam impacts the daily life of each Muslim. Maintaining an awareness of God’s presence and His will shapes the thought processes and behaviors in the individual, familial, societal and spiritual domains. It serves to determine priorities, direct decision-making, regulate interactions with others, and monitor one’s relationship with the Creator. It is often associated in the Qur’an with doing good (ihsaan) and is a protection from satanic influences. “Those who have taqwah, when a thought of evil from Satan assaults them, bring God to remembrance, whereupon they begin to see clearly.” (7:201) ↩︎
  8. See Salma Abugideiri & Zainab Alwani, What Islam Says about Domestic Violence: A Guide for Helping Muslim Families; (FAITH, second edition, 2008). ↩︎
  9. “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more than the other and because of the sustenance they provide from their own means…” (4:34). ↩︎
  10. Wadud A. 1994. Qur’an and woman. Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit Fajar Bakti.
    al-Hibri, A. Muslim Women’s Rights in the Global Village: Challenges and Opportunities, 2000-2001. The Journal of Law and Religion, Hamline University School of Law. 15(1/2)
    __________, 1997. Islam, Law and Custom: Redefining Muslim Women’s Rights, 12 Am. U. J. Intl. L & Policy 1,4.
    .Margort Badran, Islamic Feminism: What’s in a Name? Al-Ahram Weekly Newspaper, Available Online on: ↩︎
  11. Alwani, Zainab. “The Quranic Model for Harmony in family relations”: chapter of the book: Change from within: Diverse Perspectives on Domestic Violence in Muslim Communities. Edited by Maha B. Alkhateeb & Salma Elkadi Abugideiri. ↩︎
  12. For an in-depth discussion of verse 4:34, review the commentary of Muhammad Abduh and Rasheed Rida in the tafseer of Al-Manar, Sayyid Qutb in In the Shade of the Qur’an, and Al Taher Ibn Ashur in his tafseer Al Tahreer wal Tanweer. ↩︎
  13. Wilayah is a Quranic concept that highlights gender relations as protectors and supporters of each other. It will be explained later in this study. Recite Quran 9: 70-71 ↩︎
  14. Khalifs in this context was used in the Qur’an (Surah 2:30), referring to mankind’s mission on earth as stewards and God-agents to take care of one another and the universe.
    – A. M. Al Najjar, Khalifat al insan bayn al wahy wal ‘aql. 2nd ed. (Herndon: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1993). ↩︎

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