Muhammad Asad on 24:31 and 33:59

And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms [in public] beyond what may [decently] be apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their head-coverings over their bosoms. And let them not display [more of] their charms … [24:31]

My interpolation of the word “decently” reflects the interpretation of the phrase illa ma zahara minha by several of the earliest Islamic scholars, and particularly by Al-Qiffal (quoted by Razi), as “that which a human being may openly show in accordance with prevailing custom (al-‘adah al-jariyah)”.

Although the traditional exponents of Islamic Law have for centuries been inclined to restrict the definition of “what may [decently] be apparent” to a woman’s face, hands and feet – and sometimes even less than that – we may safely assume that the meaning of illa ma zahara minha is much wider, and that the deliberate vagueness of this phrase is meant to allow for all the time-bound changes that are necessary for man’s moral and social growth. The pivotal clause in the above injunction is the demand, addressed in identical terms to men as well as to women, to “lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity”: and this determines the extent of what, at any given time, may legitimately – i.e., in consonance with the Qur’anic principles of social morality – be considered “decent” or “indecent” in a person’s outward appearance.

The noun khimar (of which khumur is the plural) denotes the head-covering customarily used by Arabian women before and after the advent of Islam. According to most of the classical commentators, it was worn in pre-Islamic times more or less as an ornament and was let down loosely over the wearer’s back; and since, in accordance with the fashion prevalent at the time, the upper part of a woman’s tunic had a wide opening in the front, her breasts were left bare. Hence, the injunction to cover the bosom by means of a khimar (a term so familiar to the contemporaries of the Prophet) does not necessarily relate to the use of a khimar as such but is, rather, meant to make it clear that a woman’s breasts are not included in the concept of “what may decently be apparent” of her body and should not, therefore, be displayed.

O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters, as well as all [other] believing women, that they should draw over themselves some of their outer garments [when in public]: this will be more conducive to their being recognized [as decent women] and not annoyed. But [withal,] God is indeed much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace! [33:59]

The specific, time-bound formulation of the above verse (evident in the reference to the wives and daughters of the Prophet), as well as the deliberate vagueness of the recommendation that women “should draw upon themselves some of their outer garments (min jalabibihinna)” when in public, makes it clear that this verse was not meant to be an injunction (hukm) in the general, timeless sense of this term but, rather, a moral guideline to be observed against the ever-changing background of time and social environment. This finding is reinforced by the concluding reference to God’s forgiveness and grace.

– Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an

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Kabir Helminski on 4:34 and Wives Obedience to Their Husbands

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given them more strength than the other, and because they support them by their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in absence what Allah would have them guard. (4:34)

Some women will surely bristle over the above passage and the implication that women should be obedient to their husbands. Shouldn’t both partners be complete equals, they might ask? Why should one be obedient to another? How might we disentangle all the issues and motivations that enter into this equation? One important question to answer is: Does this verse describe an absolute rule that is essential to the ideal marriage, or is it merely meant to describe a practical working relationship? The expectations common today in some postmodern societies where women do work equal to men, and in some cases earn more and assume greater responsibilities than men, are very different from the conditions and expectations that have been typical for the last fourteen centuries. To take this verse as an absolute and rigid requirement contradicts the spirit of the Qur’an as a whole, which emphasizes using our intelligence and compassion. We also have the example of Muhammad’s marriage to Khadija, no shrinking violet, a woman of means and worldly accomplishment who was fifteen years his senior.

On the other hand, women who might find this verse absolutely objectionable may have something to learn from it. Most of us would agree that there are generally differences between man and woman in physical capacities and temperament. It is generally a man’s place to take a certain kind of responsibility for his wife and family; at the same time, a wife and mother will assume responsibilities according to her physical capacities and temperament. Realistically, we have different kinds of leadership in different situations, which benefits us as long as that leadership is intelligent and fair. Furthermore, there are different leadership styles, and the best leadership inspires cooperation and loyalty rather than merely dictating obedience. Of course, in agreeing to a marriage one would hope that both husband and wife consider the character of the person they are marrying, and in the end, either husband and wife, if a marriage becomes intolerable, can make the difficult choice to divorce.

A friend of mine with whom I discussed this passage had an insight that I would like to share. He said, “Perhaps men are insecure and vulnerable. Perhaps this obedience from the wife can help to support her husband in a way that he needs and will make him a better husband, and through this she will improve her own situation.” Clearly, if the suggestion that “the righteous women are obedient” is used by men to lord it over women, we have a problem. But if the passage can be understood by women in a positive spirit of cooperation, then it seems more likely the family could achieve a dynamic balance of well-being. It is important to remember that the Qur’an offers comprehensive guidance for living a spiritual life. Within the framework of this guidance, if a man does his part—supporting a family, living with kindness and equity—the wife’s cooperation and the husband’s consideration would both arise naturally.

– Kabir Helminski in Holistic Islam: Sufism, Transformation, and the Needs of our Time