Recently, I encountered the claim that wadribuhunna has some meaning other than “beat them” in a speech given by Yusuf Estes in the film, The Mosque in Morgantown.
According to the film, the back-story of that speech was that Yusuf Estes had been invited by conservative Muslims to give a speech at the university in Morgantown. Given the timing, it appears that this was intended to counter the bad press that the mosque there had recently received due to its opposition to Asra Nomani’s quest to be able to enter by the front door and to pray in the main prayer hall. The talk was about whether “in Islam” women are treated as equal or with equity.
[Just lol at the optics of that---counter "bad press" caused by a brown woman publicly protesting discriminatory treatment at her mosque... by bringing in a white male convert who is well known to be conservative (and to have come from a Southern Baptist background) to talk about... wait for it... women in Islam. It's the sort of thing that makes me think that a Muslim Steven Colbert would never, ever be short of material. Hell, maybe I should consider a career in comedy. I suppose it's never too late.]
Anyhoo… Nomani googled Estes, and found a speech that he had given, in which he said that Q 4:34 allows a man dealing with a disobedient wife to “roll up a newspaper and give her a crack” or to use a “yardstick” on her, if his attempts to rein her in by admonishing her or refusing to share her bed hadn’t had the desired effect. Horrified, she wrote an article for the university student newspaper condemning the invitation of a speaker with such views.
The Muslims who had invited Estes were not about to back down, and went ahead with the event. Nomani and a (convert) friend, Christine Arja, decided to attend the talk and with yardsticks in hand, publicly put Estes on the spot. The controversy appears to have played a role in attracting a fair number of non-Muslim attendees, who sat and listened (and in some cases, smirked) as Estes ran through the usual well-worn apologetics that depend mainly on sound-bites and playing with words. Are women equal? he rhetorically asked, and then asked if it isn’t true that women have babies and menstrual periods and men don’t… so how can women and men be equal?
[That sort of word game---one can hardly call it an "argument"---is a good example of tilting against windmills (or making a straw effigy and clumsily trying to burn it). Do most of those Americans who support gender equality really think that most fertile women of reproductive age don't have periods and can't get pregnant, or that cisgendered men do or can?? How out of touch with reality does anyone have to be to think that Biology Is Destiny passes as an intelligent discussion of a complex social issue---and for an audience of university students? And that this would help counteract the mosque's image problem?? The mind boggles. Not to mention that Estes doesn't seem to have ever heard of trans* people.]
As he wound up his talk, Estes then raised the question of the meaning of wadribuhunna in Q 4:34. He asked an Arab in the audience what daraba means, and the young man answered that it means “hit.” Estes then called him to come up to the podium, and pointed him to a verse in the Qur’an, which uses the word daraba in the sense of God “coining” (a parable)—and asked him whether the verse means that God hits someone. Of course, the young man said no, and Estes claimed that wadribuhunna means to drive home a point.
[Very theatrical. And some racially charged optics going on here too, what with the white convert in a Salafi-style thobe and beard having his reading of the Qur'an confirmed by an Arab male. I can't help but wonder if it was prearranged....]
Nomani and Arja hadn’t expected this. Their plan to protest Estes’ views on hitting wives had now fallen flat. But Nomani is not one to give up easily, so she raised her hand and tried to question Estes further. However, he replied that he didn’t have time to take questions, and that if she did ask any he wouldn’t be able to answer—though she could email them to him. And with that, the audience dispersed, with some staying for the free food.
A young, pale woman in a headscarf was asked what she thought about the “give them a crack” statement made by Estes in the internet speech, and she replied that she didn’t think that hitting someone with a rolled up newspaper had anything at all to do with wife abuse.
[I stared at that pale face on the screen. Is she a convert? Hard to say, though she looks pretty white. Did she really mean that? Did she feel duty bound to defend Estes before the camera, because she felt that he was being ganged up on? Or did she honestly believe that hitting a wife with a rolled up newspaper is really not abusive?? Maybe she does. Or maybe she doesn't really, but is trying hard to make herself believe it, just as we used to try to make ourselves believe that a man who lectures his wife about how she should behave, gives her a time-out by leaving her to sleep alone, and hits her with a toothbrush isn't being abusive. I couldn't help but remember how my grandmother used to talk about those folks she knew years ago who used to claim that if your dog isn't behaving, you hit it on the nose with a rolled up newspaper. My grandmother had no patience for those kind of folks, and she would never even treat a dog that way.]
Anyhoo… so, from the perspective of the Muslims who invited Estes, all had presumably gone well. A fair sized crowd of non-Muslims had come out and been exposed to the usual conservative apologetics (aka dawah). No one in the audience (whether Nomani or anyone else) had had the opportunity to raise any inconvenient or embarrassing questions either, so nothing had apparently derailed the message that they had intended to communicate.
Watching that, I was struck by how very familiar it all was—the conservative Muslim group mostly made up of bearded male engineering and science students holding wildly anti-intellectual dawah events at their university. The free (apparently home cooked) food, laid out rather haphazardly in aluminum roasting thingummies. The conservative white male convert speaker, brought in to make the immigrant (and immigrant-descended) Muslims feel better about themselves—and not coincidentally, to counter, marginalize or win over other immigrant (and immigrant-descended) Muslims in the community who aren’t marching to the conservative tune. The spectacle of men talking about women’s “proper Islamic” roles… and the manipulative tactics used to silence any dissenting voices. The obsessive focus on the community’s public image while sweeping real problems under the rug…
…coupled with an almost total obliviousness to the “image” about the community that such events actually create, at least for any outsider who is reasonably discerning. The overall impression was: defensive, controlling, poorly informed, unreflective, chauvinistic, and even somewhat cultish.
So, what of Yusuf Estes’ apparent change of heart? If he really has now decided that wadribuhunna doesn’t mean “hit them,” and is willing to say so in a public forum (and the Arabs present didn’t challenge him on this either, which is even more remarkable…) then isn’t this a sign that a more critical attitude to wife abuse is developing among conservative Muslims in North America? Doesn’t this indicate that community tolerance for the use of Q 4:34 as a fig leaf for abuse is shrinking? Isn’t this likely to benefit women?
First of all, given the context of his speech, it appears that he was warned ahead of time about Nomani’s article—and perhaps also was informed by the organizers that she was sitting in the audience. It would not have been unreasonable of the organizers to suspect that her reason for attending the talk was to put Estes on the spot. Unsurprisingly, they would then have been looking for ways to out-maneouver her. What they absolutely did not want was more “bad publicity.” Estes himself likely realized that under the circumstances, keeping silent about his views on wife beating would be taken as proof that his views had not changed, and he was probably not enthused about the possibility of his “give her a crack” speech going viral either.
Was this a genuine change, however, or “spin” (or something in between)? Time will tell, presumably. I don’t claim to know what anyone’s “true intentions” are. I also don’t want to defame anyone, or to blame people for parroting what they have been taught is “Islamic” and that they have to believe (or at least, pay lip service to) or they are guilty of kufr and will go to hell. That was me, once. I get it.
But it does seem justifiable to ask whether these sorts of public pronouncements in dawah talks is really designed to bring about change—or it it isn’t mostly about protecting the “image” of the community and Islam. If it might not be a public relations exercise, basically, as well as a way to avoid having to deal with difficult questions that the youth in the community might well be asking.
One thing that makes me wonder how genuine this apparent change might be is the absence of any acknowledgement that there has in fact been any change. In the case of Estes, I would expect that if he was really interested in working to end domestic violence, that he would have admitted that yes, he used to think that yadribuhunna meant “hit them,” and that this was what he was taught and what he read, but that now he sees it differently because… and then to explain in detail why. After all, it is not as if a lot of people in the audience hadn’t read Nomani’s article (and likely also googled him) before coming.
It is also a red flag that no credit is given in this case to the hard work of Muslim feminists, who have spent years trying to find ways to reinterpret Q 4:34, and have had to deal with plenty of flak from conservatives as a result, as well as walls of denial that this is even an issue, because abuse doesn’t happen in Muslim families (!).
This is a good example of power and privilege at work—if it’s “only” women saying that Q 4:34 has been misinterpreted down through the centuries, then they can be ignored or laughed at or told that they aren’t scholars and don’t know anything, but when a few white or Arab Muslim men in America (who aren’t “scholars” either…) decide to promote this interpretation (while not giving credit to the women whose work they are building on), then this is worth listening to.
And this is the problem, really. It’s all about power and privilege. So, some (certainly not all) otherwise pretty conservative male speakers are starting to claim that yadribuhunna doesn’t mean “hit them.” Given the present political situation, with all the negative attention on Muslims in America and the tendency of shocking quotes from otherwise obscure imams to go viral, making such claims will likely seem increasingly attractive, at least to some. But what happens when the situation changes? And will words be translated into practice?
If the rest of Q 4:34 is still interpreted as a forever valid directive as to how Muslim marriage “should” be, then how can abuse really be combated? I can’t help but wonder if this new interpretation of Q 4:34 won’t function in a similar way, as a sort of bait-and-switch technique for da’is. Something to tell prospective converts, or young people who are starting to question their faith. Something to make conservatives feel better about themselves, to reassure themselves that Q 4:34 has nothing to do with abuse, of course… and effectively short-circuiting any critical discussion of either the verse or its history of interpretation. Meanwhile, the old interpretations don’t die, and can be invoked at any time in order to legitimize male control in marriage when this is thought to be necessary.
Ultimately, the problem is authority, and whose readings of the Qur’an are granted it. As long as ideals of marriage remain patriarchal, and community structures remain hierarchical (and patriarchal), then any kind of egalitarian reading of the Qur’an won’t have authority.
(next post… concluding thoughts)