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"The best of you is he who is best to his wife." The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)
Apparently context matters. Who knew?
There exists a particular verse in the Quran which has often served as fodder for both Islamophobes as well as the defenders of patriarchal traditions of many cultures in the Muslim world. The sacred text of Islam is not unique in this respect. The Christian Bible includes verses cited by the patriarchal defenders of violence to justify their actions, including Ephesians 5:22 to justify abuse of women, Ephesians 6:5 to justify slavery, Proverbs 13:24 to justify child abuse and 1 Samuel 15:2-3, in defense of the settlement of this continent and the genocide of its indigenous inhabitants. Too many have read Sura al-Nissa 4:34 as justification for the physical abuse of women.
I would argue that it is patriarchal culture, not Islam or Christianity, not the teachings or practices of the Prophets Muhammad or Jesus, peace be on each of them, which sanctions and justifies violence against women. While Islam gets blamed by Islamophobes for violence against women, in this country (which is only 1% Muslim), relatively few of the three women murdered by their partners every day were killed by those who lean on a Quranic passage quoted out-of-context as justification. And still, for that 1%, how 4:34 is interpreted matters very much. Because the statistics on domestic violence suggest that although muslim women are no more likely to be targeted by domestic violence, than are non-muslim women, neither are they any less likely to suffer physical abuse. The most hopeful numbers suggest only a quarter of women suffer physical assaults during their lifetime. Other studies put that number higher. Noone seems to collect the data in this way, but the statistic above suggests that too many men are the ones hitting them. I know of no numbers tracking relationships where men find emotional and economic abuse sufficient to control their partners without risking criminal prosecution for assault.
Warning. I'm going to talk about feminism and feminist concepts, because I feel that they are important constructs through which to view the world in which we live. I do so knowing that many will dismiss the framing as unislamic, western. Dr. Margot Badran, an historian of women's organizing in majority-muslim nations has told us that muslimn women 'do feminism', even if they do not talk about it using that language. bell hooks called 'feminism', 'a movement to end the sexist oppression of women'. Or as a common slogan puts it, 'feminism is the radical idea that women are people.' As servants of Allah, we are told we should work for justice and oppose oppression. Taken together it is difficult to understand antipathy to feminism among muslims as anything but ignorance of the movement's history and intentions, or as a backlash against its goals, and by extension the goals of the Islamic faith which commands us to seek justice. Afterall it is difficult to reconcile a merciful and compassionate Creator who would have us be kind to the stranger and refugee, yet require us to hit, beat or scourge the mother of our children.
Historians who like to number things to explain the march of time say we are experiencing a third wave of feminism, as if all the history that matters is Western and that the history of feminism began at Seneca Falls New York in 1848 and with the authors who inspired those women to gather. But in doing so they overlook the work of the Prophet Muhammad who carved out what I suppose we are left to label the Original Wave of feminism. The Prophet brought the revealed Quran to a culture known for burying its new born daughters alive. And by the time he was laid to rest, Muslim women had rights to life, property, choice in marriage, support in divorce, inheritance, education, participation in their choice of occupation. We are told that Aisha reports 'that Allah's messenger never beat anyone with his hand, neither a woman, nor a servant . . . '. It would be thirteen centuries before women in non-Muslim societies began to catch up. It has been in my lifetime that domestic abuse was finally somewhat effectively criminalized across this country.
Yet, just as with the Backlash against the second wave of feminism, described by Susan Faludi in her 1991 book by that title, the advances proclaimed as the testemant of Allah, and the living example provided by the life of the Prophet met a retrenchment of the patriarchal world-view into which the Quran had been revealed.
Dr. Ayesha Chaudhry's 2013 review of the history of exegesis and juridical work which has sought to interpret the will of Allah with respect to that 34th verse has been described as a 'tour-de-force'. It offers what seems a comprehensive survey of the works of tafsir and fiqh from the four Sunni schools. (The author invites additional scholars to do the same for the Shia tradition, as well). She reviews written works in Arabic from pre-colonial authorities; and in Arabic, English and Urdu in written form, online, as well as audio and video programs from contemporary scholars.
Chaudrhy found that the pre-colonial scholars all seem to agree that Surah al-Nissa 4:34 should be read with qawwamun granting authority to husbands over wives and dribuhunna as the sanction of Allah for husbands to hit wives. The scholars and the jurists disagreed on the justifications, what constitutes nushuz. Yet they seemed to agree that their reading of nushuz justified what we now understand to be marital rape; i.e. a wife's refusal of sex would justify her being hit. They disagreed as well on the limits imposed on a husband who would hit his wife, with the options ranging from ghayr mubarrih, a non-extreme manner, with other schools stopping just shy of the hudood penalties reserved for state authorities. But each of them seems to have agreed that men may exercise disciplinary authority over wives.
I will leave it to those more familiar with the scholarship of Christian Theology to tell us how Christians are reclaiming their tradition to challenge the myths about their faith used to justify domestic violence. They face an easier time I would imagine, as at least among some Christians, only the 'red words' seem sacrosanct. It is inspiring to report robust developments among muslim scholars in contemporary times to reclaim our faith's feminist tradition.
Dr. Amina Wadud has likened patriarchy to shirk, the elevation of something which is not Allah in a heirarchy between a believer and her Creator. In her early book, she also read Surah 4:34 contextually as intended to impose severe restrictions the physical abuse of women which was accepted as a common existing practice at that time, by establishing a short list of steps to de-escalate the conflict before a man would resort to violence. But other contemporary scholars have also challenged the interpretation of the tri-literal root d-r-b found in the verse in question as meaning 'to hit'. Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar, the first woman to offer a cover-to-cover English translation of the Quran, reads that phrase of Surah al-Nissa 4:34 to mean simply 'go away from them' in reference to how husbands should treat wives during a conflict over her nushuz. That interpretation being another of twelve commonly applied to d-r-b.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. For thirty-one days we are asked to do what we can to raise awareness of domestic violence in our communities. But we must do more. It is said that the Prophet (pbuh) described being sad in our hearts about injustice as the weakest form of faith. Instead, we must find strategies for actively dismantling both the mythologies which support toxic misconceptions of masculinity, and the rape propaganda industry which gives rise to those myths. We must follow the lead of scholars like Dr. Asma Barlas and 'unread (the) patriarchal interpretations' of the canonical sources. We must aspire to the example of the Sunnah, to strengthen our faith by speaking out against the injustice we see around us, especially when it is within our own homes, and our own ummah.
We can recognize the best intentions perhaps of imperfect men in their attempts to interpret Revelation, and grapple simultaneously with how those interpretations served an existing power structure which privileged them as men. We can acknowledge that unearned privilege still benefits men today while complicating our efforts for just relationships with the women in our lives. We can recognize that the work begun by the prophets who came before us is not the last word on justice which we will be called upon to make real. We are no longer those people who bury newborns in the sand. If ours is a living faith, a faith for all people and all times, we cannot limit ourselves to an understanding of the Revelation penned by pre-colonial exegetes a millinium ago, but must continue to struggle to understand what justice demands of us in the here and now.
We are perhaps unlikely to experience universal justice in our lifetimes. Yet it is something we are commanded repeatedly as people of faith, to strive for in our daily lives. Itjihaad remains an ongoing responsibility for every muslim. Those who would close and lock that gate doom this faith to the dustbin of history. On the other hand, those who pay homage to the first commandment, iqra, those who can engage in the realities our communities face today, and those who can relate that effectively with their reading of a Quran and ahadith given to us 1400 years ago; those are the servants of a living and breathing faith which will survive our short time on this planet and serve future generations as well as it did the Companions on whose shoulders we stand.
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