WE CONTINUE OUR exploration of the meaning of qawwâm, as found in Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:34:
Al-rijâlu qawwâmûna ʿala al-nisâ’i… ‘Men have a degree over women.’
In Part 1 we found—in a nutshell—that the concept of qawwâm focuses on the responsibility and commitment of men to ensure the well-being of women, in cooperation with them. The power of men to oppress and abuse their womenfolk violates the intent of this âyah. In Part 2 we look further at the example of the Prophet ﷺ to further round out the picture.
Occasion of Revelation
Al-Wâḥidi narrates in his Asbâb Al-Nuzûl the following:
Abu Bakr Al-Ḥârithi informed us:
Around the time when the verse on retaliation was revealed amongst the Muslims, a man had slapped his wife. She went to the Prophet ﷺ and said: ‘My husband has slapped me and I want retaliation’. So he said: ‘Let there be retaliation’.
As he was still dealing with her, Allah, exalted is He, revealed Men are in charge of women, because Allah has made the one of them to excel the other….Upon which the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘We wanted something and my Lord wanted something different. O man, take your wife by the hand.’ ” 
There are a couple points of note to mention here.
First of all, the verse was revealed not as a rebuke to the woman, but to the husband who had struck his wife – as the âyah immediately sets out the correct method of resolving marital disputes.
The statement that men are qawwâmûna ʿala al-nisâ’ was not simply a statement of conferring entitlement or privilege, but of warning – that their position of authority is not one that automatically gives them the right to act in accord with their spur-of-the-moment emotions. Instead, they are required to hold back on their immediate reactions and follow a system of justice laid down by the Most Just.
Secondly, RasûlAllâh ﷺ enjoined gentleness on the part of the husband towards the wife, by instructing him to ‘take your wife by the hand.’ Considering the situation – where the woman had publicly brought attention to their marital dispute – one can imagine that the man was not in the most positive of emotional states. Nonetheless, he was expected to set aside his strong feelings in order to embody the meaning of qawwâm: a man of calmness, steadfastness, with a persistent commitment to justice as defined by Allah, one who approaches his wife with honor and respect.
Right and Responsibility of Financial Support
All of this focuses specifically on the first part of the verse, which states: Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other…However, there is a second factor that contributes to the issue of qawâma, and that is found in the second part of the âyah: …and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth.
Some may bring up the issue of a woman who lives alone and survives solely on her own income – do the male relatives of such a woman, whether her father, brother, uncle, or others, forfeit their position of qawâma?
What must be recognized in both asking and answering this question, however, is that such cases have been and continue to be quite rare when one looks at the financial independence of women globally. Both historically and to this day, due to a variety of circumstances and factors, women have been dependent on male providers – most often close relatives or husbands – to maintain them financially.
Islam is a religion that applies to all time and to all people. As such, the specific rulings of the Dîn encompass the general circumstances rather than particular exceptions. As with almost anything else, exceptions are not the rule.
Thus, while there certainly may be women who are completely financially independent and are not maintained by any man in any way, their situations are a very tiny minority compared to the numbers of women worldwide who are reliant upon men for their survival.
Nonetheless, the fuqahâ’ have spoken about women who are not receiving financial maintenance from men. In the case of a married woman whose husband refuses to spend upon her, it is said that he does not deserve to have the right of qawwâm upon her. In addition, the Shâfiʿi and the Mâliki legal scholars say that she has the right to demand an annulment to her marriage due to his lack of providing for her. 
It is also noted that the âyah states: Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other… The eloquence of the Quran and its perfection are such that Allah did not say that men are in charge of women because men are better than women; nor did He say that men are more virtuous than women. 
Rather, it can be said that some men may be better than some women, just as some women are better than some men – and neither gender, as a whole, is completely superior to the other.
RasûlAllâh ﷺ reinforced the main point:
Women are the twin halves of men. (Tirmithi) 
Each gender was created to complement the other, rather than to be set against each other as enemies.
Consequences of Abuse from Authority
In this is a reminder to all who might twist the Words of Allah: that He revealed the Quran in perfect justice; He is Al-ʿAdl, the Just, and His Justice is clear and evident to whomever is sincere, not seeking to govern others by their own inclinations or to their own benefit.
Having established the many layered meanings of what the status of qawwâm entails, it is also necessary to emphasize the consequences of abusing the privileges provided by it.
As to abuse and oppression by those in authority, dire warnings abound in the aḥâdith, and they serve as a direct counterweight to the power afforded by the role of qawwâm.
The Prophet ﷺ said:
Oppression will be a darkness on the Day of Resurrection. (Bukhâri)
Abû Tharr reported Allah’s Messenger ﷺ as saying that he reported from his Lord, the Exalted and Glorious:
Verily I have made oppression unlawful for Myself, and for My servants too, so do not commit oppression. (Muslim) 
The Prophet ﷺ sent Muʿâth to Yemen and said:
Beware the curse of the oppressed as there is no screen between his invocation and Allah. (Bukhâri) 
The Prophet ﷺ said:
There is no sin more fitted to have punishment meted out by Allah to its perpetrator in advance in this world along with what He stores up for him in the next world than oppression and severing ties of relationship. (Abû Dâwûd) 
Hârithah ibn Wahb narrated that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said:
Shall I not tell you about the people of Paradise? Every weak and oppressed one. Shall I not tell you about the people of Hell? Every harsh, haughty and arrogant one. (Ibn Mâjah) 
Noble Duty of Qawâma
The role of qawwâm is not be taken lightly – it is a duty and a weighty responsibility for which every single Muslim man will be held accountable on the Day of Judgment. The default regarding qawâma is not to consider it as the basis for male entitlement, but to regard it as being a serious matter which will weigh heavily upon one’s scale of deeds.
The life of Prophet ﷺ suffices as the ultimate example of qawâma, reflecting strength with compassion, firmness with gentleness, authority with empathy, and responsibility to be carried out without an attitude of arrogance or superiority. It is to this standard which all Muslim men must hold themselves in order to exemplify the true essence of masculinity. Thereby they may live up to the potential that was created in them and which is recognized by their Creator as the highest expression of masculinity.
 Asbaab an-Nuzool by al-Wahidi, page 51 (published by Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought; Amman, Jordan).