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Aasiya Zubair Hassan, Domestic Violence and Islam

by Pamela K. Taylor

The brutal and gruesome murder of Aasiya Zubair Hassan has prompted a great deal of soul searching in the Muslim community. National organizations, the local community, imams, Muslim social workers, activists and writers have all agonized over how the community did not do enough to protect Aasiya, despite evidence that her husband, the man charged with killing her, was known to be violent. They have called for imams to preach against domestic violence as against the standards of Islam, and for communities to stand in solidarity with Muslim women who complain of abuse, rather than counseling patience or questioning if there is anything they might have done to cause the abuse, or that they could change in order to avert future abuse.

To be sure, domestic violence is indeed against the teachings of Islam, and murder of family members is especially repugnant. The Qur'an teaches that men should remain with their wives in kindness, or separate from their wives with kindness, and specifically that they should not stay with their wives in order to do harm to them (2:229, 2:231). It offers a vision of spousal equality when it prescribes a decision making process within the family of mutual consultation (2:233), and labels both husband and wife with the term "zauj" (4:1 and others) and describes them as protecting garments for one another (2:187).

Physical and/or emotional abuse has no place in this vision of marriage. Indeed, when women came to the Prophet complaining of their husband's treatment, the Prophet admonished the men saying that those who treated their families poorly were not among the best of men. Mu'awiyah al-Qushayri, one of the companions of the Prophet, reports "I went to the Apostle of Allah and asked him, 'What do you say about our wives?' He replied, 'Feed them with the food you eat, clothe them as you clothe yourself, and do not beat them, and do not revile them." (Sunan Abu-Dawud, Book 11, the Book of Marriage, Number 2139)

Clearly, this understanding of Islam leaves no room for men domineering themselves over women, or for physical or emotional abuse within the family,

And yet, if all the soul searching the Muslim community has done these past few weeks is to have any effect, we must acknowledge that there are problematical verses in the Qur'an and there are certain hadith which must be countered. Unfortunately, the calls for the Muslim community to openly stand up against domestic violence, have been silent with regards to the parts of our scriptural heritage that have been and continue to be used to justify all sorts of barbarous treatment of women.

It is fact, nonetheless, that the Qur'an and hadith have been used to foster a culture of patriarchy so absolute that many Muslim men perceive it as their right to expect abject obedience from their wives. Some imams and scholars go so far as to say that it is a husband's duty to hit his wife if she errs, discussing at length the limits to such hitting: It must be done in such as way as to leave no mark, they say. It cannot be on the face or other sensitive areas, It should be done lightly, using a small stick, with little force. Others discuss the provocations that could merit such physical punishment -- ranging from those who say it is only in the case of adultery or flagrant breaking of marital vows, to those who say it can be for any sort of spiritual lapse, to those who allow it in any kind of open disobedience to the husband's wishes.

It should be acknowledged that none of these imams or scholars are advocating domestic violence as we think of it -- a man hitting his wife in rage, hurling abuse verbally and physically at her. Rather they are predicating a calm scenario, one in which the man first admonishes his wife about her lapses, then spends a few nights away from her bed, then finally resorts to a calm, reasoned, and limited physical punishment. Unfortunately, the effect of such pronouncements is that many men feel justified in their physical abuse, pointing to the fact that imams say it is ok to hit one's wife, while ignoring all the other limitations placed upon that hitting. Worse, they feel entitled and empowered by the patriarchal norms these imams and scholars preach, seeing themselves as the kings of their home, rather than as domestic partners as the Qur'an teaches and the Prophet modeled for them.

The fulcrum of this patriarchal interpretation is verse 4:34. Translations vary wildly, ranging from those defining men the the defenders of women to those who render it as men being in charge of women. (The Arabic word, qawamun, comes from a root which means to stand up, thus men are called to stand up for women.) The verse goes on to say that devout women protect that which Allah would have them protect in their husbands absences. Again, the interpretations vary wildly -- from those who read it quite literally, describing pious women as devoted to Allah, to those who take it mean women should be devoutly obedient to their husbands. It continues, saying that if men fear "nushuz" (understood variously as openly rebellion, adultery, spiritual negligence, or wifely disobedience), they should admonish their wives and then separate from them in sleeping arangements. And then the third phase -- the word used is "daraba."

Daraba is used for many, many things in the Qur'an, from sexual intercourse to parting company, from metaphorically striking a parable to physically striking a person or thing. The vast majority of commentators, have understood the meaning of 4:34 to mean hitting. Modern interpreters such as Ahmed Ali and Laleh Bakhtiar , have made a case that this interpretation is wrong.

Bakhtiar's argument is particularly strong. She described her approach to this verse in a lecture I attended two years ago. She told the audience that she went to many, many scholars and asked them, "Did the Prophet ever hit his wives?" To which all them replied, "No, he never hit his wives." This is directly supported by a hadith narrated by his wife Aishah, who reported "The Messenger of Allah never struck a servant of his with his hand, nor did he ever hit a woman. He never hit anything with his hand, except for when he was fighting a battle in the cause of Allah." Bakhtiar then asked the scholars, "And the Prophet always obeyed Allah, correct?" To which the answer was an emphatic "Yes, the Prophet was the embodiment of the Qur'an."

"Then, how," she asked, "do you explain that when he had problems with his wives, he admonished them, he refrained from sleeping with them for a month, but he never went to the third step and hit them? Was he being disobedient to Allah, or have we misunderstood verse 4:34?" To which, she says, the scholars had no answer.

Her answer is that we have misunderstood 4:34, and that we have to look at what the Prophet actually did after that month's separation -- which was to offer his wives the choice of divorcing him or remaining with him while resolving to avoid the behaviors he found so objectionable. While, she translates "daraba" as "to go away from them," (which is the most common usage of the term in the Qur'an), it seems that it might be better rendered as "to strike a bargain with them."

In either case, Muslim feminists often point to the fact that classical commentary also ignores a verse in the same chapter (4:128), which tells women if they fear "nushuz" from their husbands that they are free to reconcile -- presumably by admonishing and sending him to sleep on the couch for a week as described a few verses earlier when advising men what to do when they feared "nushuz" from their spouses -- or to seek divorce, which is either the third step in the process if you believe "daraba" means to go away from, or a final, fourth step after physically punishing him, if you believe daraba does indeed mean to hit.

Sadly, modern translators of the Qur'an infect the Qur'an with their own patriarchal assumptions, translating "nushuz" when it refers to women as "ill-will, "disloyalty and ill-conduct" or "rebellion" while translating it as "ill-treatment" or "cruelty or desertion" when it refers to men's behavior.

Again, we see the Qur'an setting up a parity between the spouses, each of whom has the right to a process of dealing with "Nushuz" on the part of their spouse, however one understands the meaning of "nushuz", and however one understands that process. But this parity has been completely ignored in classical commentary, and in modern Muslim culture.

Indeed, the overwhelmingly accepted interpretation of verse 4:34 posits men as being in charge of women to the extent that they become father figures, with the unilateral right to correct their wives as though those wives were children.

For any anti-domestic violence agenda within the Muslim community to be effective, we must come to term with this verse. We must be very clear that it can in no way be used to justify domestic abuse, and that it does not mandate the abject subjugation of women within the marital relationship. We must be firm that even under the most patriarchal interpretations, it does not give men the right to terrorize women, to harm them physically or emotionally, and to seek to dominate and control their lives.

Even more, it is time for the Muslim community globally to reassess the widespread belief that Islam mandates patriarchy. As a feminist and a Muslim, I believe that the Qur'an and hadith give us ample material to establish egalitarian families and societies. To do so, we will have to prefer hadith which establish the equality of all humankind and which show the Prophet living as a partner to his wives not a lord or boss over other other hadith which which subjugate women to men, much as advocates of patriarchy prefer the hadith which support patriarchy over those which support egalitarianism.

We will have to prefer interpretations of 4:34 that currently only a minority support, rejecting the notion of physical punishment for anyone, just as the Prophet rejected physical punishment. We must understand men as "qawamun" of women in light of verses that say, "The believers, men and women, are protectors of one another" (9:71). We must take 4:34 and 4:128 taken together, as echoing that sentiment, setting out how husbands and wives each can cope with a problematic spouse. We can no longer afford to look at 4:34 in isolation, as establishing the hegemony of men over women.

Similarly, we must look at verse 2:228 in it's entirety, rather than isolating the final line as though it gives men more rights than women. 2:228 begins: "Women who are divorced shall wait, keeping themselves apart three monthly courses. And it is not lawful for them that they should conceal that which Allah hath created in their wombs if they are believers in Allah and the Last Day. And their husbands would do better to take them back if they (the women) desire a reconciliation." (Note: The form of "they desire" makes it clear that the party desiring the reconciliation is the women, not the men.)

It then proceeds with some very dense language. Literally it says, "For them the like of that which is over them, and men have a degree over them." Again, the form of "them" is the feminine plural, making it clear that for women are the same things that are against women. This has been translated in various manners, but the most popular is "And women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable; but men have a degree of advantage over them."

This verse, then, commands women who are divorcing or being divorced that they should ascertain whether they are pregnant, and admonishes men to defer to women if the women wish reconciliation in light of the fact that they are pregnant, telling the men in no uncertain terms that women have as many rights as the men do, though men do have a degree (of flexibility, of advantage, of ease) over women in that they do not have to wait three months to remarry, and they are in an easier situation, as they do not face the physical, emotional and economic challenges of being pregnant and divorced.

Many have used this verse to shore up patriarchal notions, reading it to mean that men's rights are above women's rights universally and unequivocally. It is easy to read the verse that way, especially if the last line is taken out of context.

It is also easy to read in ways that are not patriarchal. Men's degree over women can readily be seen as 1) women having to wait three months before remarrying, a waiting period that men are not subject to since they do not get pregnant, and 2) women facing a more difficult situation regarding divorce because they also face physical, emotional and economic difficulties men do not face if they happen to be pregnant at the time the divorce is happening.

In fact, the verse is admonishing men to remember women's rights at a time when marital discord is likely to make men neglect those rights.

Like verse 4:34, verse 2:228 has been used to promote the notion of men's dominance over women. These patriarchal formulations contribute to a cultural atmosphere that enables domestic violence.

Domestic violence activists have long insisted that domestic violence is not about out-of-control anger, it is about controlling the life of one's spouse. They point to the fact that abusers such as Aasiya's husband, Muzzammil Hassan, do not lash out at, say, an employee who misses a deadline; they are able to control to whom and at what times they exercise violence. They usually hit women in places where bruises and cuts will not be visible, further evidence that it is not a matter of losing control, but of calculated intent to dominate, harm and manipulate a specific individual. Another example is that even in the middle of beating up their wife, if the phone rings, or police come to the door, the abuser is able to shut down his supposed rage, appearing and sounding calm and reasonable.

When religion is used to support notions that men are entitled to rule over women, we are only encouraging domestic violence.That is not to say that religion causes the violence; nor that Muslim abusers quote scripture as they lash out at their spouses; nor even feel justified by that scripture to commit the violence they do. It is quite clear that beating up one's wife, or hurling invectives at her, has no place in Islam; that even those who advocate a man's unilateral right to physically punish his wife do not enivision domestic violence, but a reasoned, calm, and limited response to severe provocation.

Rather, religion and cultural norms contribute to the abuser's feelings of manly entitlement. His expectations of being the boss of the home are validated and reinforced.

American Muslims are coming to grips with the fact that we have often turned a blind eye to violence in the home. Our leaders have come to understand when violence is ignored, or worse, when women are counseled to be patient, or asked what they have done to provoke such violence, they are complicit in the crime. That they have created a culture in which domestic violence carries no stigma, and thus abusers feel free to do as they like.

What we have not yet addressed, is how mainstream interpretations of Islam also contribute to an atmosphere where domestic violence can flourish.

The harsh reality is that even in cultures where domestic violence is soundly condemned, where abusers face stiff criminal sentences, domestic violence persists. Nearly 1200 American women lost their lives at the hands of a husband, boyfriend, or ex last year, according to the Center for Disease Control, and domestic violence is a problem in nearly 30% of all marriages.

Thus, we cannot expect to eradicate domestic violence among Muslims. But we can take strong and principled stands against patriarchal interpretations that enable abusers, and we can take concrete and significant action against abusers. I can only hope that the horrible death of Aasiya Hassan acts as a catalyst for much needed change.


And hold fast, all together, by the rope which Allah (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves; and remember with gratitude Allah's favour on you; for ye were enemies and He joined your hearts in love, so that by His Grace, ye became brethren; and ye were on the brink of the pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus doth Allah make His Signs clear to you: That ye may be guided.

Quran: 3:103
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