Q 4:34—Don’t tell me pretty lies

A recent commenter made the claim that scholars give a number of different interpretations of Q 4:34—that while some translate wadribuhunna as “and beat them”, others say that it means “leave them alone.” I said I’d discuss this issue in the next post. Well, here we are… several weeks later. Yes, I’ve been putting it off. Not just because things are crazy busy at work and with family stuff, but because this is such a difficult issue to write about.

As far as replying to that particular comment is concerned, frankly, I am torn. Torn between being honest, and being… I don’t know, realistic? As well as by the haunting feeling that I should probably leave well enough alone.

If some people want to believe that wadribuhunna means “leave them alone”, why should this bother me? Surely this is a significant improvement on the nonsense we used to be subjected to (and let’s face it, that we also used to try to force ourselves and sometimes others to believe)? Speakers (usually male, though not always) used to unashamedly stand up in public at talks with titles such as “Islam the Misunderstood Religion” and claim that “beat them” supposedly “only means” giving a “disobedient” wife a single tap with a miswak, and that this has nothing to do with “wife abuse” or domestic violence. Surely I should rejoice at any evidence that less horrendous interpretations are gradually becoming popularized? If the vague idea that “some scholars” think it doesn’t mean “beat them” is gradually percolating down to the grass roots, it might stand the chance of reaching some woman who is being hit and thinks that “Islamically” she can’t resist.

But… a couple of things.

First of all, it isn’t accurate to claim that this is one of the scholars’ views on the meaning of Q 4:34. You simply don’t find it in any of the classical commentaries on the Qur’an. You find it in one translation of the Qur’an (the one by Laleh Bakhtiar), and in a booklet written by AbdulHamid Abu Sulayman, a Saudi-American man with a degree in International Religions–aka, he’s not a “scholar” if what is meant by the term “scholar” is an alim. He’s an Islamic activist who has been deeply involved in the doings of the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT). In other words, a couple of people who undoubtedly mean well, and seem to have a limited (mostly American?) audience, but who don’t have much clout. (Though some conservative Muslim community leaders in North America seem to be trying to popularize this interpretation—more on that in the next post.)

Now, if the Shaykh al-Azhar was publicly promoting this interpretation, or Ayatollah Sistani, or any scholar with extensive knowledge of Islamic law who is empowered to issue fatwas AND who also has a large conservative Muslim audience, then claiming that there is significant disagreement among Muslims about the meaning of wadribuhunna would have some validity.  But even then, it would only be a very recent development.

And it’s not as though such a new interpretation will ever be able to displace the older one—aside from the linguistic issues (is it really believable that for 1400 years, even experts in the Arabic language failed to understand that word correctly?) Qur’an commentaries written centuries ago are more easily available today than they ever were. Anyone with an internet connection can simply check out multiple interpretations of Q 4:34 in a few minutes. Anyone studying to be an imam reads commentaries like those. Khatibs quote from them. Scholars consult them. Anyone who is serious about understanding the Qur’an studies them too. In other words, these long-standing interpretations aren’t going to fade away or be forgotten. If anything, the opposite is the case.

But even if I was to suppose that this new interpretation is right—that wadribuhunna means “leave them alone.” Does it solve the problem of domestic violence and abuse? Will it prevent men from justifying abuse with religious excuses? I don’t see how it does. As long as the man is supposed to be “in charge” of the marriage in some way, shape or form, then when things aren’t going as the man wants then he will have a ready excuse at hand—because he is being deprived by her of his god-given “rights”, and therefore is entitled to act in order to obtain them.

And abuse is much more than hitting. The kind of marriage that some (though not all) of the supporters of this new interpretation have in mind seems to be the kind that is all too familiar to me—the husband seldom lays hands on his wife, because he controls her in other ways, and also, because she has internalized most of the messages about wifely obedience as a religious duty.

There’s a much larger problem here than parsing verbs. It’s about the larger vision of marriage, and of the worth of women’s lives. As well as larger issues of religious authority.

But. Thinking back to when I stuck in a really awful marriage and beginning to realize that I was probably going to have to leave because my kids were being harmed, I can remember that when I was in that state of mind, the last thing I would have needed to hear was someone going on about how Q 4:34 has been interpreted “historically,” or how right all the translators are who translate wadribuhunna as “beat them”, “strike them” or “hit them.”

What I needed to hear at that time was that my life has value and worth in its own right, and that nobody has the “right” to treat me as “less than.” And I needed to have that communicated to me again and again, because the idea that my life wasn’t really worth much and that as a woman I didn’t have the right to expect much from marriage had been so engrained.

And I needed to have the idea that my life is worth more than that communicated to me by Muslims. Because I needed to believe that I wasn’t rebelling against God by choosing safety and sanity over abuse. Because I needed to believe that I wasn’t being a traitor to my religion or betraying my community by leaving my marriage either. The fact that the few Muslim friends who were close to me at the time and knew what was going on kept showing me again and again through their actions that my life was worth more than that played a key role in enabling me to finally leave.

So, if that is what the idea that “some scholars” say that “beat them” is a mistranslation and that it should actually mean “leave them alone” is doing for some women—telling them that their lives have value and worth, and that God wants them to be safe and respected, and that they aren’t angering God or betraying their religion if they resist abuse or want a more fulfilling marital relationship—then why would anyone want to disrupt that with quibblings about history or dictionary definitions? Wouldn’t that just play into the hands of abusers??

And it isn’t only women who are being hit who need such reinterpretations. My (now-ex)husband seldom laid his hand on me. But the impact of living with the notion that a husband can strike a “disobedient” wife—even with a toothbrush or a handkerchief—was insidiously demoralizing, in my experience. As was the general discourse on marriage that we as female converts were constantly exposed to. It was a discourse that simultaneously insisted that a properly run Muslim marriage would give the wife indescribable happiness, and that wives are not really entitled to expect much from marriage. Because after all, your husband is your paradise or your hell, and a wife whose husband is pleased with her will be told to enter whatever door of paradise she pleases, and a “smart” and “wise” wife understands the magnitude of the husband’s divinely given rights over her and makes it her priority to serve her husband to the best of her ability. Because ultimately, she exists for him, and when you come right down to it, her life doesn’t really matter all that much. Neither on earth, nor in the afterlife.

Part of the reason why it was so demoralizing was that we didn’t really understand what we were getting into from the get-go. As converts, our sources of knowledge were very limited (in those pre-internet days), and there were enough pamphlets and speakers claiming that conservative Islamic marriage was “equitable” and a “beautiful balance” of rights and duties that suited men’s and women’s “true natures” that it was easy to think that “obedience” really meant something more like cooperation, with the husband only making unilateral decisions in very rare situation (that would almost never happen in reality, or so we thought) when the welfare of the family depended on it.

It was like the proverbial frog in the pot, with the water heating so gradually to the boiling point that it doesn’t realize what is happening until it’s too late. Any suggestion that the “beautiful balance” wasn’t working out “equitably” in reality was swept aside as a rare deviation supposedly caused by “following culture, not Islam.” So, we were taught to blame ourselves for our unhappy or even abusive marriages. We weren’t being good enough wives. We were still too “western” and individualistic. We needed to work harder on developing our taqwa—and on keeping the house clean, cooking, serving our husbands’ guests, and being obedient. If this didn’t work, then clearly we needed to try harder. And harder. Because we must be fatally flawed. We should be very grateful to be married at all, even though we didn’t come close to measuring up to those matrimonial ads in “Islamic Horizons” or the “ideal Muslimah” described in those books on Muslim marriage.

(cont.)

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  1. #1 by A on December 13, 2013 - 9:48 pm

    I don’t think it’s about failing to understand the word correctly, as much as it is choosing the better meaning. The lens we use in our interpretation determines our meaning. Remember that medieval scholars used the lens of patriarchy in their interpretations so for them there wasn’t anything wrong with translating the word as “to beat”, especially when they consulted hadith on matters of translation. And we know how misogynistically warped and unreliable hadith are. I get that you needed to hear that your life was worth as much as anyone else’s and that the re-interpretation wouldn’t have offered you that. But it’s offered me that because it’s meant a re-interpretation of God to me.

    As for fatwas and what scholars with big followings say, for people like me, nothing those scholars say have any bearing on my life. I don’t think of them often but when I sometimes happen to, it’s usually that they should get real jobs and actually contribute to society. I understand that I’m in a priveleged position to have the luxury of not caring about religious scholars’ edicts and that for many, what these scholars say affects their lives much more directly. All the more reason to rid these scholars of their power. A pipe dream, I know. But at least a shift has started amongst small groups of people scattered all over. Perhaps some ways down the line something bigger may come of this shift. Here’s to hoping.

  2. #2 by likeoldkhayyam on December 14, 2013 - 12:39 am

    Finally somebody “gets” it, and the idea that even with the reinterpretation of that verse that the idea of an Islamic marriage is messed up. It took me a long time to get to that point, or to recognize had I not been a Muslim convert who wholeheartedly swallowed the whole idea of the ideal muslim wife, I would have ended my abusive marriage probably in about six months. However, due to religious influence I kept trying, kept thinking that if I was just a better Muslim then my marriage would work. That maybe he was religiously justified in hitting me on occasion, that he had the right to have sex even if I was dead dog tired, that it was his islamic right to keep me away from my friends and family…..I feel so lost now.

  3. #3 by MK on December 15, 2013 - 12:32 pm

    Not just Laleh Bakhtiar but also in Ahmed Ali’s translation of the Quran (1988). This interpretation has been around for ages but was sadly never mainstream. Its been popular among certain Muslims those with a spiritual/academic/intellectual rather than strictly traditional interpretation of the faith.
    Its also been very prevalent amongst Quranist and hadith sceptic groups.
    It seems to be gaining currency these days but old interpretations die hard.

    • #4 by xcwn on December 15, 2013 - 1:28 pm

      Ah, yes, this translation—I’d forgotten about the “go to bed with them” interpretation (probably because, well, yuck).
      Anyway, here it is:

      “34. Men are the support of women as God gives some more means than others,
      and because they spend of their wealth (to provide for them). So women who
      are virtuous are obedient to God and guard the hidden as God has guarded it.
      As for women you feel are averse, talk to them suasively; then leave them
      alone in bed (without molesting them) and go to bed with them (when they are
      willing). If they open out to you, do not seek an excuse for blaming them.
      Surely God is sublime and great.”

      http://www.studyquran.org/Ahmed_Ali_Al_Quran.pdf

      Ok, so this translation renders yadribuhunna as “go to bed with them” and for good measure inserts “when they are willing” in brackets. A commendable concern with undercutting textual “justifications” for wife beating as well as marital rape. But this translation hasn’t managed to make marriage anything but a custodial relationship—and it can’t, because that is what the verse is about.

      “If they open out to you…” ugh. And that means? If they are sexually submissive to you? But whatever the translator had to mind exactly, the man is still in charge.

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