This article arose from discussion with a female Islamic friend, who was experiencing a crisis of faith with respect to the nature of her belief.
One area of concern was the conflict that she felt between following her own dreams and aspirations and following the dictates demanded by her religion’s dogmas and behavioural expectations for women. In particular, she was concerned that her family regarded her as having no ultimate say in her destiny, based on their understanding of Sura 4:34 of the Quran.
In responding to her, I located an article online that defended the Sura and then addressed the points raised by that author, who far from being horrified that his holy book authorises domestic violence, claims that the relevant verse is instead the cure for domestic violence.
This kind of repugnant denial of the reality of spousal abuse demonstrates the lengths that people will go to in order to defend their religious belief and to avoid having to confront a range of assorted, multicoloured elephants tap-dancing in their living rooms. It should serve as a wakeup call to all of us to make sure that we aren’t similarly justifying the inexcusable within our own religious traditions.
The Sura, or Verse and its translation
The “Wife Beating Sura” is contained within the fourth Sura of the Quran known in Arabic as “An-Nisa”, or “women”. It gains its name from the many references to women made in it. Having said this, the Sura is not simply about women, as it discusses issues of inheritance, orphans, children and marriage laws among others.
It is generally regarded as a “Medinan Sura” and therefore of being one of the later chapters to be revealed, most likely after Mohammed and his followers had been forced to migrate to Medina after fleeing persecution in Mecca.
The Sura itself is 4:34
[4:34] The men are made responsible for the women, and GOD has endowed them with certain qualities, and made them the bread earners. The righteous women will cheerfully accept this arrangement, since it is GOD’s commandment, and honor their husbands during their absence. If you experience rebellion from the women, you shall first talk to them, then (you may use negative incentives like) deserting them in bed, then you may (as a last alternative) beat them. If they obey you, you are not permitted to transgress against them. GOD is Most High, Supreme.
A fairly typical article in defence of it (written by a Muslim) can be found here.
I have used his preferred translation of the verse, but at the outset, I would point out that this is a very generous translation of the Sura. And despite this, the author has felt it necessary to include additional qualifiers that aren’t in the original text in brackets.
Thankfully, for us who don’t read Arabic, the Wikipedia entry on that verse contains alternate translations, none of which agree on the qualifiers and two which don’t include them at all. This demonstrates that making insertions aimed at changing the basic thrust of controversial texts is a common tactic of modern Islamic scholars, who want to make the Quran seem less threatening.
Interestingly enough, as I understand it, Islam generally holds that making modifications to the Holy Quran is blasphemy, but obviously not if it advances your argument.
In any case, these qualifiers are absent from the original Arabic text as are any indications that Allah is laying out a progression of events, rather than merely listing things to do to a rebellious wife in order of seriousness. For example M.K. Shakir translates the important section as “…those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in their sleeping places and beat them.” As can be seen, there is no hint of any stepped approach to the administration of punishment. It is simply a list of things to do.
The Submission of Women to Men in Islam
The first thing to note, is that the Sura relies on the assumption that a woman is the property and chattel of a man and that he can effectively tell her what to do and that she is required to submit to his decisions. If she fails to do so, she is being “rebellious” and Allah decrees that she may be punished for her transgression.
While this passage includes the expected submission of women to their husbands, the initial verse makes it clear that the submission required is much broader than that. Women are expected to submit to men as a category, not just to their husbands as individuals. Men are considered, “responsible” for women, in a way that treats them as if they were children.
This typifies the traditional patriarchal notion that women are inferior to men and not to be trusted with independent decision-making, or allowed to have any independent control over their lives.
Of course, in the 150 years since Western societies started actually letting women demonstrate their capabilities they have demonstrated exactly the opposite. While physically different, women are just as capable as men in every area that they set their minds to. Indeed over 100 years of psychological research has failed to find any evidence to suggest women are reliably inferior to men in any area. For a clear example of their ability one need to go no further than university graduations, were women consistently outperform men.
This last point is vital, as if god had ordained women to be inferior to men, science would have demonstrated this and proven it beyond doubt. Certainly, men and women are different, but neither is necessarily inferior to the other and thus the initial verse of the Sura is clearly wrong.
Domestic Violence: Where the Quran gets it wrong.
Irrespective of what the Quran says, spousal abuse is never acceptable. Regardless of the justification, beating any sentient, whether it be a person, or animal is wrong. Any god who claims otherwise, merely demonstrates that they lack the supposed attribute of being “good”. Even if the husband were to walk in on his wife cheating on him, he still does not have the right to attack, or physically abuse anyone. Certainly one could argue that doing so in such cases, would be understandable, but this doesn’t make it either moral, or virtuous behaviour.
The author of the article is overjoyed that “Abuse of a wife will not happen if the man learns to follow the clear commandments of God in this verse and in the order decreed. Abuse will only happen when a man does not follow these commandments, and thus fails to cool off and reason with himself or with his wife”.
Frankly this is a crock. As anyone with experience in DV will confirm, spousal abuse can occur without either partner laying a finger on the other. Psychological abuse is just as dangerous and immoral as physical abuse and perhaps even more so, because it is often not regarded as “abuse”. So, based on the fact that wives should not be rebellious, Sura 4:34 gives the husband a free hand to psychologically abuse his wife, as all he will be doing is “talking” to her.
Another reason that this is a crock, is that the threatened or implied threat of a beating is just as immoral as a beating itself. Intimidation, such as standing over the wife, slamming doors, throwing things and the like all are designed to remind the victim that failure to comply with the demands of the aggressor will result in these things happening to the victim, rather than the furniture. It isn’t subtle, but Sura 4:34 allows it, and indeed the reworked translation above encourages it in spades.
The author states that the “The theme of this Sura is to defend women’s rights, and countering injustice and oppression of women. Thus, any interpretation of verses in Sura 4 must be in favour of the women, not the other way around”. Sadly that is the author’s opinion and not contained within the Sura. Honestly read, Sura 4 puts women firmly under the control of the men with no way of breaking that control without going against the will of god. They either do what they are told, or face the punishment that Allah has ordained.
Even if one accepts the author’s argument that it gave women “rights that were first available to western women only a few decades ago, and some that still aren’t” (What that last is referring to I have no idea. I’ve read the Sura and can’t come up with anything), it still places women on the end of the male leash and a dog is still a dog, irrespective of how big the leash might be. The fact that Christianity and other religions, or cultures, have routinely supported the abuse of women is hardly a defence in favour of Islam also doing so.
The whole point of recognising the equality of women was to remove the leash, not merely make it longer.
Sura 4:34 vs the Ethical Principle
Clearly the author’s justifications of this text are a woefully poor excuse for the ongoing abuse of women. Even sillier it relies on the claim that a “believing” couple would never have any issues (conveniently ignoring non-physical abuse, as above) and that somehow this makes Islam somehow better than the alternatives.
But it doesn’t. In fact it merely demonstrates how its morality is in fact inferior to the Ethical Principle, “Act with Empathy”. If partners in marriage seek to understand the other, and treat them as they wish to be treated, domestic violence would not occur, as the partner doing the beating would have too much empathy for the suffering of his victim. To act with Empathy, one must accept the unstated premise that all people are equal and that none has any implicit, or arbitrary right to be considered superior to others.
Of course, a little empathy will probably reveal that most women would love to be banished from the bed of an obnoxious, violent partner. I can hear them screaming “punish me, punish me” all the way to the couch, where they settle in for a good night’s sleep free of fear and snoring.
Does anyone seriously believe that a Sura so lacking in basic empathy and compassion for the victims of abuse was dictated by a being even remotely worthy of being called god?
Obey me and my god, or go to hell!
Also, it is interesting to note that in an article addressing domestic violence, the author leaves us with a quite unsubtle threat:
“We have to know that we are not in this world to protect unrighteous behavior. We are in this world to be given a last chance to make the right choice and submit to God alone. Making the wrong choices will have consequences for all of us, both in this world and in the eternal Hereafter, for women and men equally.”
In other words, obey me and my god, or you will go to hell for eternity!
For now, let me just say that this is one of the oldest, most insidious, and most effective weapons in the religious zealot’s arsenal, particularly once you entertain even the slightest possibility that it might be true.
Once you are hooked on this, fear will dominate your every waking moment and nothing they ask of you can be considered immoral. Every natural defence against acting unethically, your conscience, integrity, personal morality and even common sense, becomes overwhelmed by the pervasive threat of eternal agony and damnation. Even independent thought becomes immoral, and those who choose to Act with Empathy become the agents of Satan, or perhaps even Satan himself.
Of course, in a typically hypocritical manner the threat is followed by the clearly contradictory reminder that:
“God is the Most Just, the Most Merciful”.
Let me state things clearly: If Allah allows the subjugation and beating of wives by their brutish, ignorant and often far stupider husbands, he is far less just, far less good and far less merciful than even I and not worthy of any kind of worship.
Are you a victim of Domestic Violence?
Are you, or is someone you know suffering from Domestic Violence, or abuse? Are you, or is someone you know perpetrating Domestic Violence? If so, do not hesitate to contact one of the excellent support services available.
For Australians The Domestic Violence Resource Centre of Victoria has an excellent and up to date list of contacts who can help.
For New Zealanders, the New Zealand Family Violence Clearing House lists contact numbers.
Safe Place Services also lists support line and website details for people in Australia and New Zealand
For people in the USA contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
For readers in the United Kingdom, Women’s Aid support a network of over 500 domestic and sexual violence services across the UK
For people in other parts of the world, the Australian Domestic Violence Clearing House lists a whole raft of services both within Australia and Internationally.