Thinking your way out of neo-traditionalism (III)

Unsurprisingly, Q 4:34 was a quranic verse that bothered us on a number of levels. It was one of those notorious verses that would get thrown into our faces, both by non-Muslims (how can you convert to such a sexist religion that demands that women obey their husbands, and allows men to beat their wives?) and by conservative Muslims who would invoke it as evidence that women shouldn’t lead or have power over men in any situation at all (no, not even to stand for president of a university Muslim student club). This verse disturbed us from an ethical perspective—how can it be just for men to hit their wives, even “with a miswak” (as one popular conservative interpretation has it)? And at the same time, this verse also gave us tremendous religious guilt. Were we being obedient enough? After all, the verse says that “righteous women are obedient.” If we even dared to doubt the morality of the directives in this verse, didn’t this mean that we weren’t righteous? And that we were defying God?

Today, I am deeply ashamed that I was one of those who felt that they couldn’t oppose the literal meaning of that verse. One of those who bought the “Traditional” apologetics, and repeated them to others.

And it was not because I didn’t know better, either.

There was a time when I didn’t know better. At least, not consciously. Because I was married to a man who rarely raised his hand against me, so I had the luxury of (almost) believing that giving husbands divine permission to “discipline” disobedient wives by striking them “with a miswak” would of course never lead to “real abuse” (aka a woman being beaten severely, or seriously injured, or killed—which was about the only thing that the conservative Muslims I had dealings with would have conceded is actually abusive).

So, I could suppress my occasional errant thought that perhaps treating a grown woman like a child who needs to be admonished and then given time-out if she doesn’t behave, and then if even that doesn’t work, tapped with a miswak is in and of itself abusive, because it is demeaning and and infantilizing. I could buy into the delusion that a man who is empowered with the teaching that he has a god-given responsibility to prevent his wife from disobeying God, even to the point of striking her, will stop at “just” tapping her lightly.

That is, until one awful night.

We were living in a Muslim country at the time, with my ex’s family. My ex was really angry with me, because I had prevented him from doing something that was both illegal and dangerous, and he evidently felt that I had unmanned him. He grabbed me by the wrist and upper arm, squeezing tight with both of his hands, and threatened to break my arm if I didn’t do as he said.

I could feel the strength of his anger, and of his hands. He could easily break my arm like a toothpick if he wanted, and he was quite angry enough at that moment to do it. And, I knew very well that he felt that he had the perfect right to do it, too, because I had angered him.

At that terrifying moment, I realized the absurdity of the claim that giving men a divine right to discipline their wives, using “only this much force and no more” has nothing to do with men’s physical violence against women. I realized that there was no point quoting hadiths about how “the best of you is the best to his wife,” or the words of the scholars forbidding husbands to leave marks or break bones when striking their wives.

There are no words to describe the absolute terror of such a realization.

(And seeing as this was the country it was, there was no point in trying to call the police. Or to hope that his family would intervene either—one of his sisters was in fact watching as the whole thing went down.)

But even after that horrifying experience, I still didn’t feel that I had any right to question the “Traditional” interpretation of Q 4:34. Insanely enough. I shoved that memory to the back of my mind, and refused to deal with it. Because I thought that you can’t argue with the texts—what the Qur’an says, and how it has been interpreted by the great scholars of the past. I even continued to justify the notion that a man hitting his wife with a miswak has nothing to do with abuse. I was that detached from my own lived experiences. I had been well taught to mistrust my own lived experiences and feelings, lest they misguide me.

It was years after that—after I had been forced to find a way to support myself and my kids, and so I had returned to school—that I could begin to unravel what I had been taught, and start to see the historical seams. And, it was a long and painful and really difficult process, that is still ongoing.

I couldn’t question Q 4:34 and its traditional interpretations because: (1) It is the Qur’an, aka God’s word, (2) traditional interpretations are based on the sunna of the Prophet, the interpretations passed down from the Companions and Successors and early jurists as well as (since we were neo-traditionalists) medieval jurists, who had a deep understanding of the Arabic language and the practice of the Prophet which I could never, ever have. (3) And, they had been guided by God, because “my community will never agree on an error” (as the hadith has it).

While there are a number of historical seams, I couldn’t see them at the time.

We simply didn’t question the beliefs we had been taught about the Qur’an and how it is to be interpreted. We had been taught that it is guidance for every people, place and time, and that the scholars of the past had interpreted it better than we could. It did not occur to us to read it as a text that originally addressed a seventh century Arabian audience, or to see the scholars’ interpretations as reflecting their historical and cultural contexts. Even after living for some time in an environment (overseas) in which violence was an overt part of daily life in ways that it simply wasn’t in my birth family, it did not occur to me that the Qur’an (and the scholars) presupposed a very different world than the one that I had been born into.

It didn’t occur to me that attitudes to violence (as with everything else) are culturally and historically constructed, they aren’t just “natural” forces. Nor did it occur to me to ask if the violent world that the Qur’an presupposed—that included inter-tribal raiding, the taking of women and children as war captives, and so forth—is the best that we ought to dare to hope for as believers aspiring to live ethical lives. There was of course a major inconsistency that I didn’t notice—somehow, it was ok for us to accept that slavery belonged to the past even though it was in the Qur’an, while marital roles couldn’t be questioned without going against what God wants. Even though in the Qur’an, family structures and slavery are clearly intertwined, to the extent that slaves and wives are spoken of in tandem in some verses.

As neo-traditionalists, we were taught that the Qur’an must be interpreted by the scholars of the past. Among their sources were the hadith. The hadith had authority because they preserved the sunna of the Prophet—and we were taught that the verses in the Qur’an commanding the believers to “obey God, and his prophet” directed us to follow the Prophet’s words and example as found in the hadith. Even though the hadith as we know them today did not exist when the Prophet was alive. Even though this way of reading the Qur’an takes these verses out of context.

While we were dimly aware that some Muslims today are skeptical of hadiths, we had no idea that in the first few centuries of Muslim history that the authenticity of hadiths and their legal value was the subject of serious debate. We were led to believe that the hadith collections of Bukhari and Muslim had been immediately and universally recognized by all true (aka Sunni) Muslims as authentic and authoritative, and that by questioning any hadiths that they contained, we would step outside of Islam.

We had been exposed to a limited selection of hadiths and sayings of early jurists, many of which had already been selected as proof-texts for particular legal arguments, so we had little idea of just how many diverse ideas are found in some of the early collections… or even in later ones. We also didn’t read hadiths in any historical context, so it didn’t occur to us to wonder why it is often the case that later hadith collections contain more (and more detailed) hadiths laying down limitations on women than some of the earlier ones.

It didn’t occur to us to wonder why there is much less information about female Companions than about male Companions, or hadiths related by female Companions—or to ask if the ideas we had been taught about how the women at the time of the Prophet lived were really representative of what had gone on at that time, much less what those women had thought of it all.

We also were taught that the Prophet was sinless and didn’t make mistakes (we had no idea that this issue was also debated by Muslims in the past…), and that it was preferable to follow even the personal details of his life if possible, right down to the way he ate. We didn’t use forks, for heavens’ sake, and we didn’t eat the food in the middle of the tray until the end, because that was supposed to be the part where that contains the most baraka. So, it didn’t occur to us to wonder of the Prophet really wanted or expected people living in a radically different society on the other side of the world 1400 years later to be tying themselves in knots of guilt because they couldn’t anaesthetize their consciences sufficiently to whole-heartedly agree that husbands have the god-given right to “discipline” their wives.

Nor did it occur to us to wonder how the social and political contexts of the scholars of the past—or for that matter, often of the present—shaped their attitudes to patriarchal control and violence in the family. After all, if you live in a society (as my ex’s family did) where the government can “disappear” you and torture and kill you for political “crimes”, whether real or imagined, what space is there to envision a society in which patriarchal violence isn’t used by the powerful to keep the less powerful in their places? What can patriarchal violence be but a force of nature, that at best might be somewhat limited in its application??

Note: I am aware that to some extent, there has been development among conservative Sunnis in North America when it comes to interpreting Q 4:34. There are even some neo-traditionalist voices raised today against any type of striking wives, even with a miswak. The idea that women can’t head Muslim student groups seems to have been marginalized at least for now, and increasingly, women play leading roles in MSAs. I am glad to see that there is some improvement. However, I am not convinced that telling husbands to “go away from” their wives as opposed to hitting them will really solve the underlying problem, when the man is still left in the position of having divinely-given authority over his wife.

In any case… for me, all this is “too little, too late.” Those of us who were made to feel deeply guilty and afraid of God’s punishment for daring to question that women can lead men in any situation, or to question that a man has the right to lay a hand on his wife, and who put ourselves through endless contortions in order to try to avoid realizing that in all conscience we couldn’t agree with such ideas… are still working through all that stuff. And having young whippersnappers tell us that “oh, didn’t you get the memo, Shaykh so-and-so says that Q 4:34 really means this….!” is just absurdly unhelpful.

But if anything, these new developments show that whether neo-traditionalists want to admit it or not, texts and religious teachings don’t have any meaning outside of particular cultural and historical contexts. And interpretations change over time. Those who taught us that the intepretations couldn’t change were more concerned with developing and maintaining their religious authority over us than about how their teachings were affecting real, live people—those naive believers who looked to them trustingly for religious guidance. (cont.)

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  1. #1 by Lucreza Borgia on January 5, 2013 - 4:23 am

    Please, don’t stop blogging

  2. #2 by charmedshiva on January 5, 2013 - 7:39 am

    I love the way this captures the problems with neo-traditionalist shaykhs and their communities. I’ve been through so much of that mentality. We’re definitely only shown a limited view; not at all given the pull historical picture.

    I just can’t seem to agree with the whole contextualize-and-legitimize approach of accepting Islam’s controversy and patriarchy. I’ve been hearing it a lot. It seems to be the way Muslims who have found themselves truly hurt and displeased by the controversy of Islamic teachings ease themselves and give themselves hope.
    Using 7th century Arab culture, as ugly as its certain parts were, to morally legitimize God’s teachings and His Prophet’s teachings? I see that as really backwards. It should be the other way around. I can’t agree that because the culture was violent and patriarchal that somehow that excuses Islam from its problems. I see religion as coming as a correction to corruption, even within a culture where corruption is highly ingrained. If Islam forbade certain common practices and left others, only setting parameters for already existing practices bu not eradicating them, then I see that as clear evidence that Islam saw those as perfectly moral practices. That’s the real problem. It’s not about “do those laws & practices apply today?”

    Is there a particular non-traditional interpretation of 4:34 you now accept, or is it just about the differences in attitudes toward violence between cultures and across time?

    • #3 by xcwn on January 6, 2013 - 12:59 am

      Charmedshiva—I don’t agree that historical contextualization is the same as legitimation. Some people do equate them, but I think that that is intellectually dishonest. The more we think about the historical context, the more difficult theological questions come forth… anyway, post coming on.

  3. #4 by mary on January 5, 2013 - 1:55 pm

    Yes, don’t stop blogging. All the unarticulated stuff inside my head is showing up as well written and well reasoned discourse on your blog. I finally feel that I’m not crazy. I really need this validation.

    I argued with a sheikh so many times about “beat them lightly,” but I brought the argument to him within the context of its one-sidedness – that a wife must “obey” her husband but there is no similar admonition that a husband must “obey” his wife; that a wife has been given no course to follow in dealing with a “disobedient” or bad husband other than that she must be “patient” and “forgive” him. And of course, he countered the “beat them lightly” phrase by glibly stating that the Prophet did not beat his wives. I asked this sheikh why this sounds more like a relationship between a parent and child than that of two adults, and I was reminded that the man has a “degree” of authority over the woman because it says so in the Quran. How, I wondered, does this translate into this amazingly insulting relationship? And how do we pick and choose which holds more authority, the Quran or the hadiths, when we are taught that Islam involves both? The

    The power of rationalization is huge. We can be told that we deserve to be struck or otherwise “punished” and it can be explained to us in great detail as to why this is so. But in the end, it rings false when we see these same men who are given authority over us behave in ways that are reprehensible. But it’s more than that. We sense that we are being belittled and degraded simply because there isn’t one single egalitarian thing in Islam. Again and again, the woman is an object, or a child. Lumped together with slaves. Can be obtained much the same way as one buys a horse, or a house, and a man can have more than one. We are emotional, hormonal, unstable. Men control everything in life – they have freedom, autonomy, can marry women just because they want to fuck them, and throw them away when they’re done. They make the money and decide how to spend it. And generation after generation of male scholars reinforce this system and tell young people to throw away modernity, it is bidah, do not question anything because it is just the shaytan whispering in your ear, and this holding on to tradition with a death grip prevents women from living to their potential and prevents societies from evolving towards a better standard of living.

  4. #5 by ki sarita on January 5, 2013 - 9:17 pm

    your story is chilling and powerful. I don’t know you but I am so glad you are safe and healing.

  5. #6 by mary on January 6, 2013 - 8:20 am

    What kind of God would permit one gender, the one who is generally bigger and stronger, to “beat’ the other?

  6. #7 by Chinyere on January 8, 2013 - 3:47 am

    I agree. Don’t stop blogging. For every one of us who comments, there are tons of others who are not for whom a lot of what you say really resonates. I was always an outsider looking in on various Muslim communities, wishing to be inside but finding a lot of these issues to be deterrents. It’s funny, how much of my early practicing Muslim adulthood I spent hearing people decry Dr. Aminah Wadud for leading the mixed gendered prayer, and then when I finally heard her say that, after accepting and propogating apologetic interpretations of Q4:34, that she rejects it…wow, what an epiphany. I was in a room of Muslim feminists and they were in awe with me at how…incredible it felt to reject what we felt we could never reject, the Qur’an, as one of our panelist put it, For He so loved the world, he gave His only…book.

    And that’s how you get people like me who come into the practice of Islam seeking peace and elevation and end up feeling imprisoned. And through your words and the words of those like you, this is how we liberate ourselves and reconstruct our spiritualities, inside or outside of the realm of Islam. Thank you!

  7. #8 by ki sarita on January 8, 2013 - 12:56 pm

    I feel the same although I was never a Muslim. There is a real depth to your writings that I don’t find often in other blogs.

  8. #9 by (._.) on January 14, 2013 - 9:28 pm

    I keep forgetting to post on this. I don’t want you to feel ashamed of thinking you could not challenge that verse. Or rather I did it too and see no reason to be ashamed. We drank the Kool-Aid. It just took years to piss it out.

    I’m not even ashamed of drinking the Kool-Aid. That was a foregone conclusion given everything I’d experienced beforehand. I was not in a psychological position to do anything but drink the Kool-Aid.

    Anyway, had a woooooooondurful experience with an alim recently who really ran the gamut of classic alim-power-positioning. Must list them and post them here. I think we need a database of these power plays, just lists of them that people could reference.

    • #10 by xcwn on January 14, 2013 - 10:08 pm

      (._.) — Yes, it sure did take years to piss out. 🙂

      I agree, I don’t think that there was any way in those days for us not to drink the kool-aid. This was many years before Amina Wadud would advocate saying “no” to the Qur’an—and when she did that, so many conservatives acted as if the sky was falling. It was barely thinkable even when she said that. The entire way that we had been taught to read the Qur’an, as well as to see ourselves as Muslims didn’t allow any space for us to do anything other than to try and accept it (or at least, to try to delude ourselves into believing that we didn’t have any ethical problem with it).

      Such a tragic waste of converts’ potential, really, in the way that so many idealistic people’s passion for justice was squelched or corrupted by this sort of thing.

      I’d love to hear more about your experience with the alim. Please do post his power-positioning ploys!

  9. #11 by rosalindawijks on April 13, 2014 - 6:03 pm

    “At that terrifying moment, I realized the absurdity of the claim that giving men a divine right to discipline their wives, using “only this much force and no more” has nothing to do with men’s physical violence against women. I realized that there was no point quoting hadiths about how “the best of you is the best to his wife,” or the words of the scholars forbidding husbands to leave marks or break bones when striking their wives.”

    YES! I remember a discussion on a Moroccan forum, with a Salafi guy debating with a pagan friend of mine. She said:”You’re not in touch with reality, dear boy. What do you think a wife-beater will do when his wife takes an Islamic book and says “But my dear husband, according to aya x or hadith y your actions are forbidden.” He will beat her dead with that book!”

    That Salafi guy was barely 20, a perfectly nice and meek guy and just married and she was a single mother of 43 and an ex-Oriental dancer who had dealt extensively with Middle Eastern communities. I realize only now that a llot of these issues also have to do with life experience…………

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