October 20, 2012 By Najiya PP

Wife-beating and Feminist Hermeneutics

img34Recently, a friend of mine who does not believe in Islam has said about the violent, patriarchal nature of Islam with special focus on a verse which, she says, ask men to beat women. Her allegation is motivated by innocence-to clarify her doubt. But the verse in question has been used as a material for venomous campaign by some Islamophobic groups the world over. This is a summary of explanations furnished by the feminist scholars of Quran on the verse in question. The verse is the thirty fourth in chapter four (titled women nisa) in the quran:

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given The one more (strength) Than the other, and because They support them From their means. Therefore the righteous women Are devoutly obedient, and guard In (the husband’s) absence What God would have them guard. As to those women On whose part ye fear Disloyalty and ill-conduct, Admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); But if they return to obedience, Seek not against them Means (of annoyance). (Quran 4:34, Yusuf Ali)

Three generalisations can be derived from this verse:

(i)Men are the protectors and maintainers of women
(ii) A husband has the right to beat his wife
(iii) Also, patriarchy and misogyny deeply run inside Quran.
Asma Barlas, in her work Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of Quran, attempts to analyse these questions- first, does Islam’s Scripture, the Qur’ān, teach or condone sexual inequality or oppression? Is it, as critics allege, a patriarchal and even sexist and misogynistic text? And second Does the Qur’ān permit and encourage liberation for women? She takes Yusuf Ali’s and Muhammad Asad’s translation for this ayah. By giving a different interpretation for its meaning she argues that the Quran does not have to be read through a patriarchal lens. Asad translates the same verse,

“MEN SHALL take full care of women with the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly on the former than on the latter, and with what they may spend out of their possessions. And the righteous women are the truly devout ones, who guard the intimacy which God has [ordained to be] guarded. And as for those women whose ill-will you have reason to fear, admonish them [first]; then leave them alone in bed; then beat them; and if thereupon they pay you heed, do not seek to harm them. Behold, God is indeed most high, great!”.

It is relevant to quote verbatim Asad’s commentary on the verse:
“ It is evident from many authentic Traditions that the Prophet himself intensely detested the idea of beating one’s wife, and said on more than one occasion, “Could any of you beat his wife as he would beat a slave, and then lie with her in the evening?” (Bukhari and Muslim). According to another Tradition, he forbade the beating of any woman with the words, “Never beat God’s handmaidens” (Abu Da’ud, Nasa’i, Ibn Majah, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Ibn Hibban and Hakim, on the authority of Iyas ibn ‘Abd Allah; Ibn Hibban, on the authority of ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abbas; and Bayhaqi, on the authority of Umm Kulthum). When the above Qur’an-verse authorizing the beating of a refractory wife was revealed, the Prophet is reported to have said: “I wanted one thing, but God has willed another thing – and what God has willed must be best” (see Manar V, 74). With all this, he stipulated in his sermon on the occasion ofthe Farewell Pilgrimage, shortly before his death, that beating should be resorted to only if the wife “has become guilty, in an obvious manner, of immoral conduct”, and that it should be done “in such a way as not to cause pain (ghayr mubarrih)”; authentic Traditions to this effect are found in Muslim, Tirmidhi, Abu Da’ud, Nasa’i and Ibn Majah. On the basis of these Traditions, all the authorities stress that this “beating”, if resorted to at all, should be more or less symbolic – “with a toothbrush, or some such thing” (Tabari, quoting the views of scholars of the earliest times), or even “with a folded handkerchief” (Razi); and some of the greatest Muslim scholars (e.g., Ash-Shafi’i) are of the opinion that it is just barely permissible, and should preferably be avoided: and they justify this opinion by the Prophet’s personal feelings with regard to this problem.

Both Ali and Asad translates the word ‘daraba’ as ‘to beat’. Barlas argues that the word ‘daraba’ also carries meanings “to set an example” or “to restrict”.  She agrees with Amina Wadud’s argument that the word ‘daraba’ interpreted by some male authors as to strike a woman also means to set an example or restriction. “We also can deduce that the Qur’ān uses daraba in a restrictive rather than in a prescriptive sense by examining the historical context of this teaching. At a time when men did not need permission to abuse women, this Āyah simply could not have functioned as a license; in such a context, it could only have been a restriction insofar as the Qur’ān made daraba the measure of last, not the first, or even the second, resort” (Barlas,188). She also supports Wadud’s translation of the word “qawwamun” as bread winners not protector. She points that equating bread winner to the head of the family is a western feudal idea. Several verses from the quran have been used to support the patriarchal claims of superiority. By beating the wife marital disharmony is not getting solved but strengthened. It pondrers divorce rather than marriage. She quotes Sayyid Qutub who translated nushuz as marital disorder between the spouses, not disobedience to husbands. She emphasizes that this verse is not a permission to beat women but a strong restriction to the existing practices.

Laleh bakhtiar, the first American woman who gave an English translation to quran translates the verse 4:43 in “The Sublime Quran” as “men are supporters of wives because God has given some of them an advantage over others and because they have spent of their wealth. So the ones (female) in accord with morality are the ones (f) who are morally obligated and the ones (f) who guard the unseen of what God has kept safe. And those (f) whoes resistance you fear, then admonish them (f) and abandon them (f) in their sleeping places and go away from them (f). Then if they (f) obey you then look not for any way against them (f).” She uses the meaning ‘to go away’ for daraba instead of ‘to beat’. She gives three arguments for this.
1. The words “beat them” in 4:34 are a command, an imperative form of the verb. Yet the Prophet, peace and the mercy of God be upon him, never carried out this command. Even if one were to say that just because a word in the Quran is grammatically a command does not mean that the Prophet had to carry it out; it means it is permissible for him to do or not to do. The retort: He chose not to do it. Therefore, whoever follows the Sunnah of the Prophet should also choose not to do it.
2. The word interpreted as “to beat” for over 1400 years in the Islamic world has over 25 meanings. Why chose a meaning that goes against both the legal and moral principles of the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet?
3. The strongest argument for why the Arabic word does not mean “to beat” but rather means “to go away” is because interpreting the Arabic word as “to beat” contradicts the verse 2:231 which says  “When you divorce wives, and they (f) are about to reach their (f) term, then hold them (f) back honorably or set them (f) free honorably; or hold them back not by injuring them so that you commit aggression, and whoever commits that, then indeed he does wrong to himself; and take not the Signs of God to yourselves in mockery; remember the divine blessing of God on you and what He sent forth to you of the Book and wisdom; He admonishes you with it; and be Godfearing of God and know that God is knowing of everything.”

We start with a premise: Islam encourages marriage and while divorce is allowed, it is discouraged. The Prophet said: Marriage is half of faith. He also said: Divorce is deplorable.

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Posted in: Woman