Violence against women and religion

By Asghar Ali Engineer,

Religion is believed to be divine. It is divine in more than one sense. Firstly it is divine in the sense that its teachings are motivated by purest of intentions; secondly it is divine as its teachings are transcendent as religion exhort us to transcend what is to, what it should be in society as well as in our personal conduct. But soon after birth of religion it gets mixed up with customs and traditions already existing in society on one hand, and, on the other, powerful interests, often very negation of its teachings, begin to control it.

Support TwoCircles

Thus what reaches us is far from religion in its divine form but a mixture of several things. Its divine teachings diluted or even negated and we begin to perpetrate certain dogmas in all their rigidity resulting in several problems and resisting all changes. We even forget that what is divine cannot be against reason and human progress both material and spiritual.

Rigid dogmas and doctrines are not product of religion, as we often believe, but of human mind which itself is product, not of divine teachings but of existing social ethos. Also, theologians and priests acquire, for followers of religion, status of demi-gods. An ordinary follower entirely depends on these scribes and priests for their understanding of religion. Also, psychologically speaking, most human beings feel highly secure by following some ‘leader’ or ‘authority’. To think or act by oneself is quite onerous and avoided by ordinary human beings.

However, true religiosity consists in knowing, thinking and taking responsibility for ones own actions. Taqlid (mechanically following) is not a religious act as responsibility for what one does is not on oneself but on the leader whom one follows. Thus leaders acquire vested interest in their followers and anyone who effuses to follow becomes an heretic and is denounced, even ostracized.

I have said these prefatory words so that we understand real import of religion as against prevailing practices in the name of religion. Unless we discover the real spirit of original teachings we would continue to follow something far away from religion. It cannot be expected of any existing religious establishment to represent true spirit of religion. No establishment can ever represent true sprit of religion. They negate each other. Any establishment represents some form of interests and religion negates all forms of interests. It is an individual spiritual quest.

Today in all established religions we find women having secondary position. Religious leadership itself has become a male prerogative. Today all established religions represent patriarchal values and hence women cannot enjoy same rights and dignity as men. And this secondary position of women is sanctified through theological doctrines. Now no religion in its divine form can assign secondary position, much less vilify women. All human beings are creation of the Supreme Being. If at all women must have higher position as she partakes of creation through giving birth to human beings. If creation is a divine act, women too perform this divine act.

However, established religions, strayed from divinity, lost this divine dimension and patriarchy overtook divinity and women became subordinate to men and, at best became instrument of production rather than partaking of divine act. Conceiving and giving birth became her weakness rather than divine strength and even means of subjugation. And subjugation, in its extreme form, was enforced trough violence.

And since subjugation was theologized, so was violence against her. Thus violence against her came to be theologically justified in different religious traditions. Here we will discuss violence against her from Islamic theological point of view. When the Government of India passed the domestic violence Act, an Urdu paper from Mumbai Inquilab reported a statement of General Secretary of Muslim Personal Law Board that Government is depriving us of our Islamic right to ‘beat our wives’.

It was a shocking statement as there cannot be divine right to beat ones wife. What is the source of this statement? It is a Qur’anic verse 4:34. Now according to all traditional commentators like Tabari, Zamakhshari, Ibn Kathir and others this verse of 4th chapter was revealed when a woman complained to the Prophet (PBUH) that her husband slapped her unjustly so what should she do? The Prophet (PBUH) who always gave priority to justice over anything else and also always accorded equal dignity to women, asked the woman to go and retaliate.

This created a crisis in the patriarchal society of Arabs and men surrounded the Prophet and said if our women have right to retaliate how will we control our families? It was natural concern in a patriarchal society. The Prophet had to tackle this crisis, according to this story and hence he waited for divine intervention to tackle it as it was of grave proportion. The revelation came in the form of 4:34.

This story also shows that many verses were revealed in response to certain social situation and hence importance of that verse could be understood only in that context. In other words such verses cannot be absolutized, as our jurists and theologians tend to do. This verse today is being debated between modernists and traditionalists and being differently interpreted.

First, let us take traditionalist point of view in understanding this verse. The verse has been translated as under by Maulana Muhammad Ali whom I can describe as semi-modernist i.e. neither completely traditionalist nor completely modernist: “Men are the maintainers of women, with what Allah have made some of them to excel others and with what they spend out of their wealth. So the good women are obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded. And (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the beds and chastise them. So if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Surely Allah is ever Exalted, Great.”

I have underlined some words in this translation which are crucial in determining position of women in this divinely revealed book. We have already seen the context in which this verse was revealed. And to a great extent its meaning would also relate to this context. Traditional theologians and jurists read into it clear statement of subordination of women to men. The above translation, as I have said, is by semi-modernist theologian.

If we take traditional translation, it would be even more problematic from feminist viewpoint. The first underlined word in this translation is qawwam which the Maulana has translated as ‘maintainer’ but traditionalist translate it as ‘ruler’ or ‘authority’ and so translated it would mean ‘men are authority over women’. However, root meaning of the word is maintainer and protector. So the Maulana is much closer to the root meaning than traditionalists. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s translation in Urdu also supports this meaning.

The other underlined words are ba’duhum ‘ala ba’din. Muhammad Ali has translated it as “some of them to excel others”. However, Muhammad Asad, in his The Message of the Qur’an displays greater bias towards men when he translates these words as “God has bestowed more abundantly on the former (i.e. men) than on the latter (i.e. women). But again Maulana Muhammad Ali is much nearer to root meaning of ba’dahum ‘ala ba’din than Muhammad Asad.

Next the words ‘good women are obedient’ are interpreted as ‘obedient’ to men. The Arabic word in the Qur’an is qanitatun which can only mean obedient to Allah, not to men. And to be fair to the Maulana, in the footnote to this word he has explained “Obedient here signifies obedient to Allah.” Muhammad Asad has translated it as ‘devout’ which is closer to the root meaning of qanitat.

Another controversial interpretation is of the word what Maulana translates as desertion and Muhammad Asad as ‘ill-will’. In Qur’an the Arabic word for this is nushuz. The root meaning of this word is to rise, to protrude. Thus its more acceptable translation would be to rise up against husband. It can be interpreted as desertion or also, as one Maulana Shoaib points out sexual misconduct. For this meaning of the word, he refers to Prophet’s (PBUH) use of this word in this sense in his address after last Hajj known as Hajjat al-wada’.

The Qur’an, in this verse tells men that in case of nushuz (desertion, rising up or sexual misconduct) first they should admonish them failing which they should be isolated in bed and even then if they continue their nushuz then chastise (or beat) them. Now the Arabic word for chastisement used in the Qur’an is wadribuhunna.

The traditionalists argue that Qur’an clearly permits men to beat women (or their wives) though the Qur’an does not use the word wife but general word women. And that is why General Secretary of Muslim Personal Law Board gave a statement that this Act against Domestic Violence has deprived us Muslims of our God-given right to beat our wives. However, this translation (i.e. to beat them) is highly controversial and Muslim feminists and modernists are challenging it.

Then how Muslim feminists and modernists understand this word? Before we discuss this it would be better to point out that first major commentator of the Qur’an Tabari points out to few traditions (ahadith) of the Prophet which say that beating should be mere symbolic i.e. very light so as not to injure them. Tabari mentions the hadith that when asked how much can we beat? He was brushing his teeth with a brush; he lightly struck the brush on his body and said this much, no more. According to similar hadith also referred to by Tabari Prophet had a kerchief in his hand and he struck with kerchief and said this much and no more.

It is for this reason most of the translators write in the bracket while translating wadribuhunna ‘so as not to injure them’. In other words do not thrash them. But then if they are to be struck so lightly like with the brush or handkerchief, what is the use? Beating is supposed to be a physical punishment and punishment for rebelling or sexual deviancy (if at all nushuz means that as Maulana Shoaib believes) cannot be as light as that. It should be such as to physically hurt.

Thus one should rethink the meaning of wadribuhunna here. It seems the Prophet’s traditions referred to by Tabari may be later inventions. The word daraba translated as to ‘beat’ has no one meaning in Arabic language. It has several meanings. The meaning chosen should jell with the overall Qur’anic approach to women and not conflict with it. If word ‘daraba’ is translated as beating, it certainly conflicts with the overall Qur’anic approach towards women.

If one carefully studies Qur’anic verses about women it becomes clear that Qur’an gives equal status both to men and women and equal dignity to both as human beings. Qur’an does no where distinguish between men and women except in matter of function. Qur’an even refrains from using word ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. It often uses the word zawj i.e. couple which is much more equitable expression of marital relationship than husband and wife. Husband and wife indicate dominating and dominated relation.

Also, entire discourse in Qur’an about women is ‘right-based’ i.e. talks of their rights only and entire discourse about men is ‘duty-based’ i.e. talks of their duties only and repeatedly exhorts them how to behave with their wives. This was because in pre-Islamic Arab society women enjoyed no rights and were expected to discharge their duties towards their husbands. The Qur’an disapproved of this unequal relationship and enhanced her status by insisting on their rights and not on duties.

But patriarchal Arab society was not ready to accept such total transformation and with lapse of time again reversed the relationship and went back to original situation and hence Shari’ah discourse is full of discourse about her duties towards husband rather than rights though in view of clear Qur’anic verses jurists could not ignore her rights.

Also, Qur’anic verses talk of qualitatively different relationship between man and women. For example we find in verse 30:21 “And of His signs are this, that He created mates for you from your own kind that so that you might find quiet of mind in them and He put between you love and compassion. Surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect.”

In this verse we find true Qur’anic approach towards husband-wife relationship which is neither of domination and dominated but of love and compassion towards each other. It is not only of sexual pleasure and procreation either. Men can find peace of mind in them (li taskunu). Thus there is no question of Qur’an allowing men to beat their wives even in the event of differences between them.

Also, the Prophet (PBUH) never ever beat his wives. Who knew Qur’an better than the Prophet? If the Qur’an allowed beating of wife Prophet would have surely known this and in the event of differences with his wives he could have used physical force, even symbolically as hadith ascribed to him shows. But we do not find any such event in his life. Prophet (PBUH) treated his wives most respectfully and with dignity. He knew Qur’an does not permit wife-beating under any circumstances.

The Qur’an refers to his differences with his wives when they demanded more material benefit from him which he could not afford. He did not even quarrel with them on the issue and only withdrew himself and sat in a room alone. When Umar whose daughter Hafsa had married Prophet, came to know about this, he came to meet him (and Prophet met him rather reluctantly) and Umar advised the Prophet to beat his daughter Hafsa as she had defied him. One finds reference to this in the Qur’anic verses 33:28-29.

Umar was known for beating his wife since his pre-Islamic days but the Prophet (PBUH) refused to accept his unsolicited advice. The tension between the Prophet and his wives was soon resolved and normal relationship resumed. Yet in another verse men and women have been described as each others friends. Thus Qur’an says, “And the believers, men and women, are friends one of another. (9:71)

Thus we should try to understand one verse of the Qur’an with another verse or verses of the Qur’an rather than with the help of hadith. Qur’an’s authenticity can never be doubted though many ahadith (plural of hadith) are of controversial nature. Also, Qur’an gives norms and values and has transcendental dimension. Ahadith, on the other hand, are often product of patriarchal society and hence are to be treated with extreme caution.

Unfortunately all the commentators on Qur’an rely more on these ahadith than on the holistic approach to Qur’an as pointed out above. Even in formulation of Shari’ah laws, more reliance has been put on hadith than even Qur’an when several problems arose after the demise of the Prophet (PBUH). Most of the Arabs who embraced Islam were not in fact qualitatively transformed and social ethos and cultural values could not be easily caste away.

Thus patriarchy asserted itself again and again and even jurists could not completely disregard patriarchal values. Also, a theory was developed that the Shari’ah could incorporate the aadaat i.e. customs and traditions of the Arab society in which Islam was borne. This opened the door for much pre-Islamic practices to be incorporated into Shari’ah laws. In this process often Qur’anic transformative values were compromised.

Thus the word wadribuhunna also came to be understood under prevalent cultural and social ethos of pre-Islamic society. In fact Meccan society was more patriarchal than Medinese society which had matriarchal traces and hence treated women with more dignity. But many of the prominent companions of the Prophet originally belonged to Mecca who had migrated to Madina either along with or after the Prophet. They wielded great influence in reporting ahadith and interpretation of the Qur’anic verses.

A careful exegetical literature would show that no scripture can be understood apart from existing social cultural practices. In other words understanding of scripture is culturally mediated. Thus no commentary on Qur’an can be an exemption. Though Qur’an is divine, its understanding is surely human and not binding. Human understanding can change in changed circumstances.

A modernist or a contemporary commentator may differ from earlier interpretations. Many modern scholars of Islam maintain that Qur’anic values can be much better appreciated and understood in today’s circumstances when there is much greater awareness about women’s rights and dignity. And surely Qur’an’s transcendental approach can find much greater acceptability today.

Thus wadribuhunna should not be understood as chastisement but its other meanings must be explored to understand Qur’an’s transcendental dimension. Even in medieval ages some Qur’anic scholar’s like Imam Raghib Asfahani pointed out in his dictionary of Qur’an mufradat al-Qur’an that daraba ‘ala in Arabic meant male camel going near female camel.

If this meaning is accepted and there is no reason why it should not be expected as it comes from a great lexicographer of Arabic language, the meaning of the expression radically changes. It would instead mean go near them if they are persuaded after isolation in bed and they give up their nushuz through persuasion. Many other modern commentators have also adopted other meanings of the term daraba.

Thus an American Iranian commentator Laleh Bakhtiar who has created a comprehensive data-base on Qur’an translates it as under: “But those whose resistance (nushuz) you fear then admonish them and abandon them in their sleeping place then go away from them (wadribuhunna) and if they obey you, surely look not for any way against them; truly Gid is Lofty, Great.”(4:34) Laleh Bakhtiar The Sublime Quran)

Thus the medieval understanding of the Qur’an in such matters i.e. in women issues must make way for more modern and contemporary approach so as to give women their due which have been denied them for centuries and should no longer be denied today. The old approach cannot be sustained for long as women today are getting more educated and are active members of human workforce.

I hope Muslim intellectuals and supporters of women’s rights within Qur’anic framework would go for ijtihad (intellectual exertion for fresh approach) as it is long overdue.