Tafsir Zone - Surah 4: an-Nisa' (Women )

Tafsir Zone

Surah an-Nisa' 4:128
 

Overview (Verses 128 - 129)

Equity That Cannot Be Maintained
 
The sūrah then moves a step further with family legislation as part of the general organisation of the society Islam wants to establish. It is a society based on the code God has bestowed from on high, not on changing worldly factors, which are often materialistic in nature and which often are to do with the production of goods and material riches.
 
If a woman has reason to fear ill-treatment or desertion by her husband, it shall not be wrong for the two of them if they should try to set things peacefully to rights between them; for peace is best. Avarice is ever-present in human souls. If you act with kindness and are God-fearing, surely God is aware of all that you do. In no way can you maintain equity between your wives, even though you may be keen to do so. Do not, then, be totally partial towards one to the exclusion of the other, leaving her, as it were, in a state of suspense. If you put things to rights and are God-fearing, God is indeed Much-Forgiving, Merciful. (Verses 128-129)
 
Earlier in this sūrah, Islamic legislation dealt with the state of rebellion or abuse when caused by a wife. It outlined the procedures that should be taken in order to preserve the structure of the family. At this juncture, we now have regulations dealing with abuse or desertion by the husband, which threatens the security and dignity of the woman as well as the security of the whole family. Feelings and inclinations might change. Islam is a system for life which deals with every detail and caters for every eventuality within the framework of its principles, values and the structure of the society it establishes.
 
If a woman fears being abandoned, which may be a step leading to divorce, the one legitimate thing God dislikes most, or if she fears being left in such a way that gives her neither the status of a wife nor the freedom of a divorcee, then a remedy could take the form of her foregoing some of her rights, financial or otherwise. She may, for example, choose to forego part or all of her maintenance which her husband owes to her as a duty. If he has another wife whom she feels he prefers, while she herself may no longer have her feminine appeal, she may forego her right to have her husband stay with her on alternate nights. If she foregoes any such right, that decision must be made by her on the basis of absolutely free choice. Thus, she makes such a decision only if she feels that it is a better option for her: “If a woman has reason to fear ill-treatment or desertion by her husband, it shall not be wrong for the two of them if they should try to set things peacefully to rights between them.” (Verse 128) By way of comment, a general statement follows to the effect that peace is better than quarrels, disputes or divorce: “For peace is best.” This should help substitute kindness for hard feelings, and strengthen the desire to maintain family relationships.
 
In dealing with the human soul, Islam takes man as a whole, and utilises all the means it has at its disposal to elevate it to the most sublime level it is equipped to achieve by its very nature. At the same time, it neither ignores this nature nor tries to force on it anything of which it is not capable. It does not set a target for people and tell them: this is what you have to achieve, whether it is in your power or not. On the other hand, it does not condone weakness or praise human nature when it sinks to a lower depth, under the pretext that it is part of reality. Nor does it tie it to the sublime by its neck and leave it swinging in the air, tinder the pretext of elevating human nature. Islam is a middle road responding to human nature. It can be described as ideal practicality or practical idealism. It recognises that man is a singular creature who can put his feet firmly on the ground and, at the same time, allow his spirit to look up to heaven.
 
In giving this ruling, Islam is dealing with man with all his characteristics, but where one in particular is singled out: “Avarice is ever present in human souls.” It is there all the time with all its aspects, material and spiritual. There may exist within the family certain causes which enhance the husband’s avarice with regard to his wife. If she foregoes part of her deferred dowry or other financial rights, she may satisfy his greed and preserve her marriage. Similarly, if she foregoes her right to have him stay with her on alternate nights, if he has another wife, she may satisfy his emotional avarice and save her marriage. But all this can only come about by her free choice, according to what she deems to serve her interests best. There is no imposition here on her, rather a dispensation which gives her the freedom to decide in a matter which concerns her.
 
Islam does not stop here with this particular form of avarice, considering that it represents all aspects of the human soul and its nature. Instead, it proceeds to touch on other feelings and motives: “If you act with kindness and are God-fearing, surely God is aware of all that you do.” (Verse 128) Kindness and consciousness of God are, after all, the most important motives. A person who acts on their basis will lose nothing. God is aware of all our motives and actions. To arouse feelings of kindness and consciousness of God and to address man in the name of God, who is aware of everything we do, is a very effective way of influencing behaviour. Indeed, it is the sort of appeal which ensures the best results.
 
Another example of the ideal practicality or the practical idealism of Islam is provided in the next verse: “In no way can you maintain equity between your wives, even though you may be keen to do so. Do not, then, be totally partial towards one to the exclusion of the other, leaving her, as it were, in a state of suspense. If you put things to rights and are God-fearing, God is indeed Much-Forgiving, Merciful.” (Verse 129)
 
God, who has created man, knows that he has feelings which he cannot control. Therefore, He has given man a way to direct these feelings, not to suppress or smother them. One such inclination is to be partial to one wife over and above other wives. Such partiality is beyond a man’s control. He cannot easily suppress it. Islam does not hold man to account for something which is beyond his control. It does not make such partiality a sin incurring punishment. Otherwise, man would be torn apart choosing between alternatives with which he cannot cope. Islam takes a realistic view and tells people frankly that they cannot maintain equity between their wives, keen as they may be to do so, because the matter is beyond their control. There are, however, certain matters that are within their ability such as fairness in treatment, distribution of time, financial support and other marital obligations. Such fairness goes so far as to include the occasional smile and word of kindness. This they are required to do in order to regulate their partiality not to smother it.
 
“Do not, then, be totally partial towards one to the exclusion of the other, leaving her, as it were, in a state of suspense.” (Verse 129) This partiality in outward treatment is what is forbidden because it deprives one wife of her rights and places her in a situation where she is neither a wife nor a divorcee. The prohibition is coupled with an effective appeal to believing hearts and a reassurance of overlooking what lies beyond man’s control: “If you put things to rights and are God-fearing, God is indeed Much-Forgiving, Merciful.” (Verse 129) Because Islam deals with the human soul with its unique temperament, which is the product of mixing a handful of clay with the breathing of God’s spirit, and with its ideal practicality or practical idealism, the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) was the complete example of humanity when it attains its utmost perfection. That perfection is achieved when all characteristics and abilities within man are allowed to develop in a balanced and mutually complementary way within the limitations of human nature. As the Prophet of Islam extended his fair treatment to his wives and distributed his time equally between them, he did not deny that in love and affection he was more inclined towards some of them than others. He recognised that that was beyond his control. He used to say: “My Lord, this is how I divide between them what I can control. Do not blame me for that which You control and I do not.”
 
But what happens when the marital relationship is so strained that it cannot be maintained? It may happen that both man and wife lose everything needed for a settled, happy family life. In such a situation, separation is better. Islam does not hold marital partners with ropes, chains and fetters. It maintains family life with affection, compassion, or else with a sense of duty and forbearance. If none of these elements can reconcile estranged hearts, Islam does not condemn them to a prison of hate, nor does it try to cover up a real and total breakdown of the marital relationship with a pretence of reconciliation that is only skin deep.
 
“But if the two separate, God shall provide for each of them out of His abundance: God is indeed Munificent, Wise.” (Verse 130) This is a promise by God that He will give to each of the separating couple out of His own abundance what will be sufficient for them. He provides for all His servants and grants them of His grace what is suitable for every situation, according to His wisdom and knowledge.
 
When we study the Islamic system as it deals with feelings, motives and prejudices and as it provides solutions for practical situations, we are amazed at people turning away from such a simple, uncomplicated method devised especially for human life. It leads people from their lowly position, along the road to great heights, always giving them what is suitable for their nature and capabilities. It does not impose on them any course leading to a higher level of sublimity, unless this has roots within their own nature. What is more, Islam attains a standard which cannot be achieved through any other system, and, all the while, it maintains its ideal practicality or practical idealism.