Q 4:34–Don’t tell me pretty lies (cont.)

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)

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  1. #1 by Teddy3indc on December 14, 2013 - 7:36 am

    To strike a distance between them

    NOT……. To strike her

    • #2 by xcwn on December 14, 2013 - 2:59 pm

      That’s… imaginative.

      • #3 by Teddy3indc on December 17, 2013 - 3:18 am

        There are countless men and women who read the Quran without the lense of culture and traditions, who analyze the words, and who study them, in comparison to the other words within the Quran, that would agree.

        I simplified the analysis. The EXACT same things that a counselor would say if there was a disagreement in a relationship, is the EXACT same suggestion given here.

        Many men, those children that we call boys that seek to be oppressive to women in order to satisfy the weakness in themselves, attempt to manipulate religious ideals in order to justify their agression. These men are the adversaries. They are the ones that claim to understand justice, but hypocritically attack people that they are to see as their partners.

        Unfortunatly, when people like myself bring things to light, in defense of my partners and sisters, I am the one being attacked. I am always the one being called crazy.

        But then, I am one of the few “muslim” “men” that subscribes to this blog and comments every so often. I am one of those men that talks about this and exposes the hypocrisy in the religious circles and I call out the men out continuously.

        don’t treat me as the enemy

    • #4 by Vicky on December 16, 2013 - 4:02 pm

      This is reminding me of the time when a woman (a WOMAN) told me that this particular verse just allows the man to give his wife ‘a light tap’ with a miswak, nothing harmful at all, and only to be done if she really isn’t listening.

      No matter how you slice it, as authorisation for beating, as authorisation for smacking with a toothbrush, as authorisation for ‘striking a distance’ between you and your wife – the fact is that this instruction gives men power over women, allowing him to judge her as unreasonable or deficient in wifely ways or whatever and then to act accordingly. There are no verses telling women the grounds on which they can hit a husband, or tap him with a toothbrush, or ‘strike a distance’: only obedience, obedience, more obedience. This is the real issue here.

      • #5 by Teddy3indc on December 17, 2013 - 2:44 am

        You have got to be shitting me. I don’t, under any circumstance support the hitting of anyone let alone a man on a woman. Nor do I read the Quran that way or follow the be religious leaders. The judgement, btw , is nor if she obeys him or nit , it is about obeying the commands they both agreed to. The Quran.

        Additionally, because I don’t follow the hadith or religious concepts your argument should not be with me anyway.

        For further understanding go to my blog and research as you wish. Or look me up (teddy3indc) on YouTube and see what I actually say about this and more.

        Judgment without understanding. That’s the issues.

      • #6 by xcwn on December 18, 2013 - 11:52 pm

        Sigh. I suppose I’m supposed to think—wow, how wonderful that you don’t support hitting under any circumstances. And I realize just how low the bar is for “reasonable” discussions of marital relationships in the Muslim communities I have been involved in. Yep, that was pretty much how we saw things. We were “grateful” for husband who didn’t usually hit… never mind all the other stuff they did that was abusive but didn’t involve physical punishment.

        Thing is, hitting is only the tip of the iceberg… anyway, next post.

      • #7 by Teddy3indc on December 19, 2013 - 12:23 am

        It is only the tip of the iceberg. You are more than welcome to read or watch what I post. I’m sure you would find more to agree with than not.


      • #8 by Teddy3indc on December 19, 2013 - 8:44 am

        The God teaches ALL are equal.

        All are equal: Surah 3:195, 4:124, 16:97, 33:36-37, 40:40, 49:13

        Truth is Singular.
        Its versions are mistruths.

      • #9 by Teddy3indc on December 17, 2013 - 2:47 am

        Any relationship counselor would say that sometimes a couple should separate if they cannot agree. To strike distance between two objects is to separate by space.

        That is the meaning. Period.

        Warn and counsel. Seek counsel. Don’t have sex. Then finally separate.

        That is the verse and it works well with logic and reason.

      • #10 by xcwn on December 18, 2013 - 11:49 pm

        Err, no. The verse is talking about the man’s prerogative to unilaterally take certain actions against his wife. The wife does not have the same right in the Qur’an, she can only try to conciliate him. But any relationship counselor worth his/her salt would say that a relationship needs cooperation from both parties in order to be healthy—not punitive actions by one party against another, using shaming tactics or head games.

      • #11 by Vicky on December 19, 2013 - 1:39 pm

        FIrstly, I am a therapist. There is no way any properly qualified practitioner worth their salt would respond to a couple in crisis by ordering the man to leave his wife until her behaviour improves. That text is directed to the man, it gives power to the man, and in order to restore the relationship, the woman has to be more compliant – the onus for fixing the situation is all on her. There are no directives telling women that they can ‘strike [a distance]’ between themselves and their husbands if their husbands aren’t up to scratch.

        Secondly, there are huge numbers of people who do defend wife-beating based on that verse, some of whom water it down by saying it has to be done ‘softly’ and others who see no need to use the qualification. You say this is all a big misunderstanding. Are you going to walk into a refuge for battered women, whose torture was often justified Islamically, and tell the women this? How does that help them? I used to be a fan of the ‘it’s all a misunderstanding’ approach to scriptural interpretation, until I was confronted with the severe trauma-related mental health problems that one of my best friends suffered after being bullied for years over her lesbianism, right from childhood. As a religious person herself, she turned to her faith for comfort – and found people falling over themselves to reassure her, “We mustn’t hate the sinner, we must the sin, and so long as you don’t choose to ACT on your same-sex attractions, you’ve done nothing wrong.” They helpfully explained how her bullies and abusers were ‘judging without understanding’, which is the ‘real issue’ here. Alarm bells started to ring for me then, but it took me a while to realise that no one responds to rampant widespread homophobic bullying with, “We mustn’t hate the sinner, we must hate the sin, and so long as you don’t choose to ACT on your horrible demeaning thoughts about other human beings…” Even the comforting attempts at tolerance instruct my friend and others like her to behave in the right way and think the right things. You may not see it, but you’re doing the same thing here, by telling women who are discussing patriarchal abuse that they need to educate themselves, that they just don’t get it, they should read their blog and learn how to interpret Qur’an – as though the really important thing here is that women acknowledge your thoughts as correct.

        This isn’t about you. It’s about abused women and the justifications that are used to hurt them. You are making this all about you, especially when you write, “Unfortunatly, when people like myself bring things to light, in defense of my partners and sisters, I am the one being attacked.” Pause for a moment there. This blog post is about women who have actually been attacked, often on a regular basis – beaten up, abused, then left with zero spiritual support, because those around them didn’t see a problem with the attacks. Yet to you, being ‘attacked’ means a blogger with PTSD disagreeing that your Qur’anic interpretation is a.) positive for women and b.) widespread enough to have an impact. That says it all. Why do men who want to be women’s allies perpetually try to make everything be about them?

        You may object to wife-beating publicly, but you’re not going to get medals or thank-yous for upholding a basic standard of common decency. That’s the bare minimum anyone can do. It shows just how normalised the abuse of women has become when men seem to expect praise and pats on the back for trying to be women’s allies – because through this expectation men are confirming that what they’re doing is something special, different from the norm, and they feel they should be recognised for it. No, you are not the enemy, but trying to promote an interpretation of Qur’an that doesn’t encourage beating doesn’t make you a hero either.

  2. #12 by Laury Silvers on December 14, 2013 - 3:57 pm

    I recall when I first was confronting this abuse, [redacted] said to me the problem in the verse is not hitting it’s authority over women. He was right, but I wasn’t there yet and needed to deal with the hitting (why God used that word was more disturbing to me at the time than why God put men in charge of women).

    I know this book is going to open the conversation up significantly. She apparently has no time for apologists and sharply takes contemporary leaders to task.


    You should be a comedian, by the way.

    • #13 by xcwn on December 14, 2013 - 4:52 pm

      Good for him. My very low opinion of him now rises significantly… except that isn’t he one of those who was and is in favor of Muslims in North America being able decide their family affairs (marriage, divorce, etc) with imams using Sharia laws?

      How could he say on one hand that it’s men having divinely given authority over women that’s the root of the problem with wife abuse, and then at the same time publicly support the idea that Muslims have the right to use laws that from start to finish are about upholding male authority in the family?? How on earth does this even make sense?

      But then, I’ve seen this sort of thing on other occasions… oh god, next post.

      And thanks a lot for drawing everyone’s attention to this book, which looks totally awesome, and I can’t wait to read it. 🙂

    • #14 by Katiba on December 3, 2014 - 9:01 pm

      really vicky? no therapist would say get some distance on the issue, don’t keep going at it, give your partner some space to think and work things out? especially when this is talking about a woman who has engaged in a sexual relationship with a man other than her husband? (the meaning of nushuz). i hope you realize that in most other clutures, it would be immediate divorce, not this stage by stage approach that gives her a chance to consider if she really wants to lose her marriage through adultery.

  3. #15 by luckyfatima on December 15, 2013 - 12:40 am

    The message has taken of in US communities…there is also Sheikh Hamza Yusuf’s “Removing the Silence on Domestic Violence” video on youtube…might be too nauseating or emotionally exhausting to watch the whole apologistic enchilada, but he starts talking about “yidhrab” at about min. 17.

    But you are right, the whole conceptualization of marriage in the full ayah is not a healthy one.

  4. #16 by threekidsandi on December 16, 2013 - 2:50 am

    That is apologist spin, in my opinion. Smells like Taqqiyya, right? But you are the DJ, now, and they don’t like your remix, I am sure. But I love it. Thanks for putting it all in one place for me. I await your next song.

  5. #18 by Teddy3indc on December 17, 2013 - 3:36 am

    “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.”

    Correction. Any reading of the Quran by those that read it, is for them. The power structures within religion, if the person does not agree with it, can be discounted. If there is a reading of the Quran, which violates the Quran, then the authority goes away quickly, leaving only a positive, egalitarian Quran left, which does not violate the Quran.

    The people that accept an authoritative Quran, must therefore deny the authoritarian men who govern religion, thusly denying the religion itself. Any follower of the Quran that doesn’t see the Quran as condemning of the very men that say they read it, should reconsider the entirety of Chapter 6, which blatantly tells us that men of this cowardice will attempt to control by “fancy” words (Hadith) in order to guide people away from the Truth.

    All the understanding and comments that I read show that these despicable men are successful, because instead of people digging into the Quran to search for meaning, they condemn those that do. Instead of trying to change a system that is inherently flawed (the entirety of the religious concept) and replace it with a simple system (that which is in the Quran, and replicated by the Tao, and Buddist, and countless nameless ways of living that agree in 99.8% of situations).

    The problem isn’t “authority”. It is that people give authority to the worst of men. The old interpretation for me is DEAD. It doesn’t hold to the Quranic standard, just like the one’s who use it. It makes a mockery of any type of “Merciful” and “Loving” God and replaces that God with an immature Male domineering idea. False God.

  6. #19 by Coolred38 on December 18, 2013 - 4:37 am

    My question concerning this ayat is that, according to hadith, there are several meanings to every ayat but only best meaning should be taken as Allah only wants the best for his followers…yet time and again (as in this instance specifically) the worst meaning is taken, to beat. If the Arabic word used in the ayat has several meanings and one of them is a non violent approach (to separate) why hasn’t that been the default translation, why are Muslims even using “to beat” and arguing over its intended meaning to begin with? The whole intended message concerning women in Islam, according to Muslims and Allah, is that Islam uplifted women from a very low position, one of property to one of individual beings responsible for themselves in the eyes of God…so how can this ayat even exist to begin with since one of its meanings is “to beat” and God, in his infinite wisdom, would be well aware of the fact that Muslims would traditionally not use the better meaning and women would suffer a century and a half because of it while it was used against them?

    Narrow minded Muslims mixed with a short sighted god equals oppressed and abused women.

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