Interpreting the word qawwamuna in the above verse is just such an ethical analysis, with human implications too tremendous to be left to amateurs. We will therefore turn to what some of the principal Imams of Qur’anic exegesis have said about it. One of the earliest tafsirs in print is by Imam Ibn Jarir At-Tabari (d. 310/923), who says:
‘Allah Almighty means by the verse 34 of surat An-Nisa’ that ‘men are caretakers of women’ in the sense that they are in charge of their womenfolk, in disciplining and guidance, respecting the rights that they [women] owe Allah and to them.
The phrase ‘because of that by which Allah has favored one over another’ means because of that through which Allah has favoured men over their wives, since men must give them their marriage payment (mahr) and spend of their wealth to support them, and save them their pains and effort: that is the favouring of Allah, Most Blessed and Exalted, of men over women, and is why they have become caretakers of them who have authority over them regarding those of their affairs that Allah has given them charge of. (Jami` Al-bayan fi ta’wil ay Al-Qur’an, 30 vols., Cairo n.d., reprint 30 vols. in 15, Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1405/1984, 5.57)
At-Tabari mentions, with a chain of transmission that ends with Hasan al-Basri (d. 110/728), that a man slapped his wife, and she went to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) who wanted to let her take retaliation or qisas against her husband [by striking him back in reprisal], but Allah revealed that ‘Men are caretakers (qawwamuna) of women, because of that through which Allah has favored one over another, and because of what they spend of their property…’; hence the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) summoned the man, recited the verse to him and said,‘I wanted one thing, but Allah wanted another.’
In fact, although the Hadith scholar, Imam Al-Baghawi (d. 510/1117) also mentions this event in his M`aalim At-Tanzeel, neither he nor At-Tabari can produce an acceptable chain of its transmission and trace it back to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) so for religious purposes, it is not well-documented enough to rely on for the verses interpretation, and At-Tabari’s first interpretation is sounder.
But whatever the original occasion of revelation or Sabab An-Nuzul of the verse, the intended meaning is not confined to that alone. As the Yemeni Shari`ah scholar and judge `Abdullah Mahfuz Balawi says, ‘The interpretive principle established by the scholarly consensus or ijma` of Muslim scholars is that the point of primary texts (of the Qur’an and Sunnah) lies in the generality of their lexical significance, not the specificity of their historical context. (As-sunnah wa al-bid’ah, Kuwait: Matabi` al-Wazzan, 1404/1984, 33)
In the light of this important principle, we will now examine and deduce the significance of this verse and its placement in the Qur’an (for the order is also divinely revealed), coming as it does after the provisions for Islamic inheritance in surat An-Nisa’. The Arabic grammarian and exegete Abu Hayyan An-Nahwi (d. 754/1353) says of the verse ‘Men are caretakers of women’:
‘Because Allah Almighty has mentioned [in preceding verses] the matter of men and women acquiring their appointed share and their estate-division inheritance, He [here] apprises them that men are in charge of the interests of women. The word ‘caretakers’ (qawwamuna) is an intensive form [indicating something done much]. The phrase ‘because Allah has favored one over another’ means because of Allah’s favoring some men over others, this man having been given more sustenance than that man, this man being better off than that one’, while the phrase ‘… and because they spend of their property’ means ‘upon women’. The word ma [lit. what, translated above in the citation of at-Tabari as ‘because of that through which Allah has favored,’ and secondly, ‘because of what they spend’] is [rather] ma masdariyyah or ‘the indefinite pronoun signifying a verbal noun’ in both instances. [Thus meaning ‘because of Allah’s favoring the one,’ and ‘because of their spending of their property,’] (Tafsir al-nahr al-madd min al-Bahr al-muhit, 2 vols. in 3. Beirut: Dar al-Janan and Mu’assasat al-Kutub al-Thaqafiyyah, 1407/1987, 1.45758)
Imam Fakhr Ad-Deen Ar-Razi is another exegete who considers the relation of the verse ‘Men are caretakers of women’ to other verses, bearing in mind that Allah Almighty has said [two verses previously], ‘… and not to long for that with which Allah has preferred some of you above others’ (An-Nisa’: 32), a verse that we said was revealed because some women made remarks about Allah’s favoring men over them in inheritance [by certain male heirs receiving twice the share of their female counterparts].
So Allah mentions in this verse that He only favored men over women in estate division because men are the caretakers of women. Although both spouses enjoy the usufruct of each other, Allah has ordered men to pay women their marriage portion, and to daily provide them with their support, so that the increase on one side is met with an increase on the other–and so it is as though there is no favoring at all. This clarifies the verses arrangement and order (Tafsir al-Fakhr al-Razi, 32 vols, Beirut 1401/1981. Reprint 32 vols. in 16, Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1405/1985, 10.90)
Finally, the more Fiqh-oriented exegesis of Al-Kaya al-Harrasi notes that while Allah has mentioned men’s support of women in verses such as the one in surat At-Tahrim ‘Let him who possesses plenty spend of his plenty; and let him whose provision is straitened spend of what Allah has given him’ (At-Tahreem: 7), in this verse ‘Men are caretakers (qawwamuna) of women‘, He mentions the necessary cause or `illa for this support, so scholars have naturally inferred from the two verses that whenever a husband is unable to support his wife, he is no longer her caretaker: she is not obliged to remain at home [should he request it] in any school of jurisprudence, and according to the Shafi`i school of th
ought, she is entitled to have the marriage annulled. He is no longer a caretaker or entitled to oblige her to remain at home because he has vitiated the objective of protecting her by marriage, for the aim of marriage is her security. (Ahkam al-Qur’an, 4 vols., Cairo n.d. Reprint 4 vols. in 2, Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-`Ilmiyyah, 1405/1985, 2.449)
The exegetes clarify how the meaning of qawwamuna or ‘caretakers’ involves legal rights and obligations on the part of both men and women. It entails that women have the right to security, protection, and to be free from the thought of having to support themselves. Even if a woman has millions, she is entitled to be completely supported by her husband and can have her marriage annulled if he is unable to. And it entails that a man has charge of his wife’s interests, supervision, and discipline.”