I’m in the middle of reading what is so far a pretty awesome book: Ayesha Chaudhry’s Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition.
This is quite an experience. Parts of it are very triggering, frankly. Reading through all the medieval interpretations of Q 4:34 as well as the views of the jurists who followed the four Sunni madhhabs, was really something. Much of it I had encountered before, mostly through reading… but that was in dribs and drabs. The overall effect of all that delivered at one fell swoop was really, well… horrifying. Just bone-freezingly horrifying.
For several reasons: Because the misogyny of “the tradition” was simply undeniable. Because it kept mentioning things that had happened to friends of mine, or to me, or which had been reported on the news… and we had been assured that it is “unIslamic” and that “no true Muslim would do such a thing” or “this is a misinterpretation.” And it wasn’t true. Which brings me to the third, and in a way, the worst reason: Because they lied. Those imams, shaykhs, community leaders, study circle teachers, people we looked up to and trusted… lied.
I can’t count how many times down through the years that we were told in so many ways that marriage “according to the true teachings of Islam” is ultimately all about love and compassion. That while men and women have different roles in marriage, this is according to the design of the all-wise Creator, and therefore these differences are intended for the benefit of both of them, as well as for the benefit of the children, and society as a whole.
Well, not only does it turn out that this idea derived from 1950’s-’60’s functionalism (a very secular sociological theory devised by non-Muslims, btw—the horror!) rather than the Qur’an, the sunna or “the tradition,” but medieval Qur’an commentators and jurists to a man saw marriage primarily in terms of what men (aka not women, or even children) were entitled to. And among the things that most of these scholars held that a man is entitled to is an obedient wife. We’d heard that often enough… but with the edges of the definitions of “obedience” typically softened.
We heard different definitions of “obedience”—everything ranging from a woman performing her ritual duties properly, to obeying her husband in everything unless he commands her to do something sinful. But we never heard the opinion that a wife who, say, had been in the habit of meeting her husband with a smile but ceased to do so is “disobedient” and therefore should be admonished, separated from in bed, and if he deems it necessary, beaten. (!?)
This is the sort of interpretation that had me wondering wtf?? Since when does hitting someone for not being cheerful or welcoming enough make them more rather than less cheerful or welcoming? The author wryly points out that she can think of any number of reasons why a woman might not be in a smile-y mood (illness, tiredness… I’d add pregnancy or cramps or in-law problems) that have nothing to do with her attitude to her husband. But the scholars with this particular take on disobedience were not at all concerned with trying to understand why a wife might behave in a way that her husband finds less than satisfying, as the author points out—their focus was on what the husband is entitled to. He was entitled to a wife who pleases him. She however was not entitled to a husband who pleases her. If she got that, then that was a bonus, but she had no legal or moral right to it, in their view.
I thought I had heard or read most of the most emphatically misogynistic hadiths about a husband’s entitlements and a wife’s obligations already, but there were a few that I hadn’t encountered before, such as the instruction to men to “hang your whip where your family can see it.” The point that got me about that one was not whether hadith scholars would have graded it as authentic (I suspect not), but that many scholars evidently agreed with the sentiment behind it.
This was another thing—we heard that a man can’t hit his wife unless he has first talked to her about whatever-it-is that is displeasing him, and then refused to sleep with her (and that these steps pretty much ensure that a man won’t usually get to the stage where he’ll be hitting his wife, at least theoretically). And that if a man did hit his wife, it was to be “gently” with his hand, or a miswak, or even a handkerchief… and that this is nothing like a beating, much less any sort of abuse. But in fact, some medieval scholars argued that there is no obligation on the husband to discipline his wife in stages—he can scold her, separate from her, and beat her on the same occasion, or hit her before even telling her what he is objecting to. Some wrote about hitting wives with sticks, switches, whips, sandals and other objects. This puts a different spin on the often-used qualification of the hitting—that it is supposed to be “ghayr mubarrih.” While we were told that “ghayr mubarrih” means something like “not harmful” or “not violent” (which is absurd, given that striking anyone is intrinsically violent, but anyway…), how do you hit someone with a whip without harming them?? Sure, it may not break bones or leave physical wounds (depending on the whip used and the “skill” of the user…) but what scars would that leave on a person’s soul? Hitting someone with sandals—absolutely degrading.
But here I am getting off track again. Reading this stuff with a twenty-first century North American post-Enlightenment middle class urban eye. This was not the world of the medieval scholars who wrote that stuff. In their world, violence was ubiquitously visible in a way that it often isn’t in ours. We tend to push the many acts of violence that make our own world possible away, into other places (such as halfway around the world…) where we don’t have to see it or admit that it is there. They were much more upfront about the violence that kept their world together.
Even more to the point, many of the worlds that those we looked up to to interpret “the Islamic tradition” for us had come from were held together with levels of violence we hadn’t experienced. And to the extent that we encountered or experienced it, it deeply horrified us.
And so on down… this book dragged me back. Memory after memory came to me unbidden, and with them, waves of nausea. A man beating several kids with a stick. They’d been playing in a park. For some wrongdoing-or-other I suppose, but I didn’t see them doing anything wrong. The other kids watched as they he hit them. The violence when we lived with my in-laws. The screaming and shouting and after that the silence about what had just happened and the expectation that everyone act like this is all normal. The signs: “Warning: heavily mined.” The empty shell casings and hand grenades on the road, the twelve year old boys with AK-47s, and the bullet holes in the walls of abandoned houses. The stories of torture and disappearances….
When your world is like that, I suppose that a calm reasoned discussion of how to “ethically” hit one’s wife in an old book doesn’t seem all that out there. Because what is violence if not inevitable?
But some of those who we had looked up to had been converts. Who had grown up here. And not in the gang violence-scarred inner city, either. Why had they willingly bought into the myth that “the Islamic tradition” as passed down to us by “the great scholars of the past” has a vastly superior morality (especially where anything related to gender roles, marriage and family are concerned), and actively promoted it to others? Some of them might not have read all of these texts that Chaudhry discusses, but then why would they pass themselves off as having such great knowledge of the tradition?
I remember one of them assuring me that sex and violence are always connected and can’t be separated. Waves of nausea, again….
Who were these men, and why had they sought power over us? And who were these women, who thought they could make a home for themselves in such a straightforwardly patriarchal tradition as scholars or activists?
Blind, trusting faith. The power of wishful thinking. And for some, the seductive lure of exercising power over others. Claiming to have the keys to the tradition makes you the owner of the keys of earth and heaven.
Reading through what those scholars of the past said, I kept noticing scholars’ approval or acceptance of things that had happened (mostly to others, but sometimes to me) that we had been given to understand are “unIslamic” or a “misinterpretation” or “culture, not Islam.” That depends on how “Islam” is being defined, of course—and it was always a slippery category, I realized. The goal posts were always in motion, but if anyone would try to point that out, it would immediately be denied that anything had moved at all. Gaslighting. It enabled endless plausible deniability, and kept us unsure of where the lines were—and therefore, ever more dependent on those we looked to for guidance to tell us what is what. We thought they held our chances of salvation in their hands.
I particularly like Chaudhry’s discussion of contemporary conservative Muslim interpretations of Q 4:34. It was deeply disturbing and hilarious by turns. On the hilarious side, who would have imagined that a conservative scholar would plagiarize a column from “Dear Abby” and pass it off as what the Qur’an and sunna say about how to have a good marriage?? (just ROFL..) It was deeply satisfying to see her puncture the claims of a certain well known convert to have such a superior and deep understanding of Arabic that he even knows better than most Arabs how to interpret Q 4:34.
But at the same time, we’re back to the issue of truth, and those who play fast and loose with it. Arguments like that essentially rest on appealing to people’s ignorance and fear. Those making the “I have a sublime command of Arabic and even most Arabs don’t have this” argument in order to shore up their own interpretations of Q 4:34 bank on one of two things: Either the audience will be too intimidated by such a display of “knowledge” to object, or they realize that is going on but let the inaccurate claims about “the tradition” slide because they want to see Islam presented in a positive way (especially in front of non-Muslims).
But this is straight-up manipulation. In the era of the internet, how can it possibly work as a long-term strategy? Today, anyone who wants to (and who can read classical Arabic) can look up 4:34 in thirty or more medieval Qur’an commentaries with a few clicks of the mouse. Perhaps these leaders are banking on people’s laziness or gullibility? Or on people’s wish to believe that “the Islamic tradition” holds all the answers and their aversion to criticizing it?
But strategies and mundane considerations aside—HOW COULD THEY LIE ABOUT SOMETHING SO IMPORTANT??
How could they claim to be thoroughly familiar with “the Islamic tradition” right down to the legal texts and the Qur’an commentaries, and then quote snippets of these very selectively as of this is the whole story? How could they play word games, claiming that hitting is somehow not violent or abusive? How could some authors make polemical claims about abuse statistics that essentially boil down to tu quoque? Or to claim that some women “need” to be hit and find pleasure in it?
It’s not just that they made inaccurate, fallacious and otherwise bad arguments, that effectively maintained that abuse is not a “Muslim problem” and silenced women who were dealing with abuse. We were told that we had to believe what they said. That this is what “Islam says” or “the tradition says,” and only those who rebel against God or are unreasonably prejudiced or have surrendered to the evil desires of their nafs would not recognize it as just and fair.
Thing is, they lied, and as a result, we also lied to ourselves.
Some of them lied for the same reasons that we ended up lying. They had faith. They wanted to believe the best of God, the Prophet, and the scholars. They couldn’t square the circle of a misogynistic tradition with their own internal sense of justice, so something had to give. The tradition had to mean something else. The great scholars of the past must have somehow been talking about mutuality and harmony in a marriage between spiritually equal partners after all.
I wonder if this book will put a stop to this type of dishonesty. “The tradition” is now laid out before us in all its horror, so quoting the few bits and pieces of it that “sound good” (especially when decontextualized) won’t wash any more.
But who knows.