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.)