Q 4:34—Enough is enough

Laury’s comment on the last post pretty much wrote this post for me (thanks a lot!):

I recall when I first was confronting this abuse, M. Fadel 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.


Looks like an awesome book, and I can’t wait to read it. (Though it must say that it’s so sad that after all these years of Muslims in North America writing about women and Islam, that I get excited when I see something that’s actually honest instead of apologetic, because that’s just so damn rare. Honesty shouldn’t be rare—we should be able to expect it as a matter of course from our scholars and imams and academics and da’is. But unfortunately, it’s as scarce as hen’s teeth.)

But to business. Laury’s comment raises several issues for me:

  1. the question of willful blindness masquerading as “interpretation” or even as a straightforward reading of the Qur’an,
  2. the larger problem of patriarchal authority in the family, and
  3. the patriarchal authority of the “scholars” (aka men who studied for several years at the University of Medina, or for longer with shaykhs, imams, or anyone in North America who has somehow managed to become known as “shaykh so-and-so,” whatever his qualifications might or might not be).


“…Say: Is the blind equivalent to the seeing? Or is darkness equivalent to light?…” (Q 13:16)

Let me just say this baldly—as converts, we were basically taught to read the Qur’an very, very selectively.

We walked into communities (or read stuff written by people, mostly men, who belonged to communities) that were debating what relevance (if any) the Islams that they had been raised with had to their lives. These communities and authors were navigating environments in which the Qur’an, the Sharia, and pretty much everything to do with Islam were becoming increasingly politicized. And our North American Muslim communities had the added stress of trying to manage life as an insignificant minority, with the worry about losing their children.

Under the circumstances, the Qur’an was being called upon to be all things to all people.

It had to be a scientific miracle for the engineers and would-be med students, who wanted to be reassured that conservative approaches to religion did not conflict with the scientific methods that underwrote their studies (and future livelihoods). And also for those Muslims who wanted some sort of “scientific proof” that their religion was the only right one.

It had to be a revolutionary manifesto for the political activists who supported various “Islamic” revolutionary political causes… but it also had to provide a conservative political blueprint for a conservative, far-from-revolutionary society for those Islamists who were pro-Saudi.

It had to be an inspirational source of seemingly tolerant soundbites for those who participated in interfaith dialogue.

And, it had to provide the perfect “middle way” between cruel “cultural” practices that clashed with modern, urban, educated and middle class Muslim sensibilities, and the supposed immorality and sexual licentiousness allegedly promoted by “the West,” feminism, and secularists in Muslim-majority countries.

It is remarkable to me now, looking back, that despite all the matter-of-fact references to slavery and slave-concubinage in the Qur’an, that it didn’t really register with us. Partly because the whole topic made us very uncomfortable, of course… but also because the community “explained away” such verses as being no longer relevant. But at the same time, polygamy and disciplining wives and patriarchal marriage were said to be in accordance with what God wants. Anyone who dared to ask why slavery could be abolished without offending God, while patriarchal marriage and the unequal power relationships within it could not would be quickly told that the Qur’an is clear about how God wants marriage to work, and that opposing what the Qur’an says is unbelief (kufr). Period. There could be no wiggle room on this issue, we were told.

And it wasn’t only about what the Qur’an said, either. Because there were apparently an endless supply of hadiths that affirmed that women have to obey their husbands, that a woman who refuses to allow her husband to have sex with her will be cursed by the angels, that a woman who leaves the house without her husband’s permission will be cursed by the angels and by everything else that she passes by until she returns, that a disobedient woman’s prayers won’t be heard by God, that if it were permissible for anyone to make sajda before anyone else a woman would be told to bow down before her husband, that even if a woman were to lick the puss from her husband’s wounds she still would not have even come close to giving him his rights….

I and my convert friends encountered such hadiths and others in admonitory literature aimed at women (and mostly produced in India or Pakistan or South Africa). We wanted to believe that these were “just” inauthentic hadiths, and that the problem is “culture, not Islam.” Once I realized that this wasn’t the case, I hoped that if I could just read enough of that stuff, it wouldn’t hurt so much and I could figure out a way to more or less manage to be obedient enough that God wouldn’t be angry with me.

The fundamental issue here goes far beyond a husband’s “right” to hit his wife. It’s that the entire paradigm is so incredibly violent, in the sense that it profoundly violates women’s humanity (and men’s humanity too, in the end). What I had to do to myself in order to try and convince myself that these hadiths were “just” divinely given admonition that I should heed, for the good of my own soul. How I tried to believe that there was some kind of deeper wisdom behind such deeply degrading ideas of what a “good wife” is.

How I tried to help out a dear friend of mine whose husband had literally forbidden her to leave the house, so that she couldn’t take the classes she needed in order to finish her degree. I still can’t stop shuddering whenever I remember that one. She called me and asked me for advice, “Islamically,” on what she could do.

I knew that the answer was basically, “nothing,” because years before, I had asked a visiting senior scholar the same question. If a woman’s husband forbids her to leave the house, but she needs to go out in order to obtain the inheritance that a relative left her, could she do so, I asked. (I sent that question up on a piece of paper, of course—in those days, that was how it was done. Made it easier to ask difficult questions, because it was anonymous… unless of course the sister-censors chairing the session decided to, well, play the censor.)

The scholar was perturbed by the question. After all, it did place the “Islamic legal rights” of the husband and his wife in tension, which was my point in asking it. The scholar kept trying to side-step the legal issues involved by emphasizing that the husband did not seem to be behaving reasonably, and suggesting that the wife try to figure out what was bothering her husband and do her best to allay his concerns. But, in the end, he affirmed that a husband can forbid his wife to leave the house, and that she must obey him.

So, what could I tell my friend? I advised her to see if the courses she needed were being offered online, and to take them that way. Since this would not technically require her to leave the house (except for once, when she would need to go and pay her fees and buy her textbooks), then she would not be “disobedient.” And that was what she did.

The immediate problem was of course that her husband also had the “Islamic right” to decide that he wasn’t going to allow internet in their house any more, or that he wasn’t going to allow her to spend time online. I didn’t stop worrying about him doing that until she finished those courses, and did quite well in them too (which was remarkable, under the circumstances).

The larger problem was the degradation involved in the whole thing. The idea that he had this “right” to decide that she couldn’t leave the house in order to take courses, because in his god-given position as “head of the family” he had the “right” and “duty” to decide whether or not she had any time to spare after taking care of the kids and doing the housework and serving him. The idea that she couldn’t challenge this supposed “right” head on, but had to find some sort of “Islamic” pretext to work around it while not being able to admit even to herself that this was what she was doing. The idea that as her friend, this was all that I could do for her, “Islamically.”

This was abuse. Making women degrade themselves—even embrace their own degradation—in the name of “doing what God has commanded.” Abuse that doesn’t involve hitting, sure, but it mutilates. It leaves deep, wide scars.

Looking back, I am astounded at how we didn’t realize that men who believe such things–or at least, don’t think it is worth their while to openly oppose such hadiths and interpretations–clearly can’t be trusted at all. Because they can’t not be deeply horrified by this kind of stuff and still really believe that women are human. Any bookstore that sells books or pamphlets or CDs teaching this kind of thing, any shaykh or imam that pussy-foots around it with apologetics, any scholar who uses classical sources containing that stuff and skates over it… is like someone who passes by an atrocity in progress, shrugs his shoulders, and says “not my business.”

While the trend towards denying that Q 4:34 directs or allows men to strike their wives is “progress” of a glacial sort, it doesn’t really solve the problem of the pervasive violence of the texts. Which sadly enough is the point, really. Because to honestly address the underlying problem: to say that yes, these texts are violent, and to openly admit that they have to be read critically in their historical and cultural contexts rather than taken as blueprints for life today, and to teach people how to read these texts critically… would undermine the “authority” of the shaykhs and the imams. And of course they aren’t going to do that. Haven’t they spent the last several decades building up their “authority” by teaching people that they can’t trust their own judgment of what is just or moral, and that the “Islamic tradition” is divinely given and holds all the answers, and that they  need “ask a scholar” for guidance on everything?

, , , , , , , ,

  1. #1 by Anonymous// on January 1, 2014 - 6:15 pm

    The book is superb but unfortunately takes no account of how legal and tafsir literatures influenced or failed to influence court judgments (Tucker and others are good for this). Good on intellectual history, poor on social history. To be fair, it is primarily about tafsir.

    I would really appreciate a post on how patriarchal norms degrade men.

    • #2 by xcwn on January 2, 2014 - 2:12 am

      Err, that book isn’t out yet, as far as I can see. So how would you have already had the chance to read it?

  2. #3 by Laury Silvers on January 1, 2014 - 11:31 pm

    I was really tired the other day and couldn’t properly answer a question someone asked me about the problem with benevolent patriarchy in Islam….you know when men are doing patriarchy “right.” I said in my exhausted way, “Look ‘patriarchy’ is rape. There is no way to rape someone the right way.” It didn’t help, of course. But hey at least it was succinct.

    • #4 by xcwn on January 2, 2014 - 12:05 am

      Totally awesome answer. Yes, I totally agree. Religiously legitimated patriarchy is rape in the name of God. And it violates the mind and soul as well as the body.

      Reading the endless reams of apologia for “benevolent patriarchy” is yet more violation. It’s a man (or sometimes a conservative women) telling us yet again that we just have to take it, and aren’t we lucky that at least he’s doing it gently?

      Rather than trying to spin patriarchy, its apologists could better spend their time trying to understand why it is that they can’t seem to find fulfillment in egalitarian relationships.

  3. #5 by threekidsandi on January 2, 2014 - 2:34 am

    I remember rationalizing this away and accepting every excuse to maintain my belief system, until suddenly I realized the Mahram concept alone had frozen everything into a patriarchal society that created and perpetuated dependency from women. No matter how you explain this or that, there was no explaining Mahram away. Then I was free.

    • #6 by xcwn on January 2, 2014 - 3:24 am

      Ah yes, the joys of the mahram system. Or not, for those of us who weren’t “lucky enough” to have Muslim fathers, brothers, uncles or adult sons to accompany us when we traveled or to teach us tajwid or to stand up for us when our husbands were being awful….

      You’re right, it was meant to create and maintain dependency. Not only were we not supposed to be independent, but we were taught that it is shameful for a woman to be so.

  4. #7 by Anonymous// on January 2, 2014 - 8:39 am

    • #8 by xcwn on January 3, 2014 - 12:48 am

      Oh. So you grabbed it immediately and devoured it. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: