Sorry, wife-beating is un-Islamic

May 02, 2010 12:28 am | Updated 12:28 am IST

With scores of lives being lost every day across Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan owing to bomb blasts, terrorism is what comes to the mind at the mention of the phrase “Islamist violence.” But does Islam advocate violence as a means to settle political or religious disputes? Of course, the answer is no, and thankfully the Muslim clergy are united on this as can be seen from their recent fatwas against terrorism.

The learned scholars present here will elaborate further on Islam's condemnation of terrorism. But the issue I would like to raise is that of domestic violence. Do the Muslim clergy consider it un-Islamic too like terrorism? Unfortunately, they don't. On the contrary, most ulema regard wife-beating as an Islamic right. It is paradoxical that while terrorism is considered a violent response by the ulema, violence against women is legitimised in the name of the shariah. And it is my humble endeavour to prove that the theological sanction of wife-beating is flawed as it is based on medieval interpretations of Islamic texts.

TheNew York Times on March 22, 2007 reported that a German judge turned down, citing the Koran, a Muslim woman's request for a fast-track divorce on the ground that her husband beat her from the beginning of their marriage. The judge justified her ruling by saying that the couple came from a Moroccan cultural milieu where it was common for husbands to beat their wives as the Koran “sanctions” such physical abuse.

The judge was obviously quoting one of the most mistranslated verses of the Koran (4:34), which supposedly allows wife-beating. The mistranslated word is wazribuhunna which is derived from the root zaraba . Renowned commentators of the Koran including Ibn Kaseer, Pickthall, and Maulana Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, have rendered this word as “beat them,” albeit “lightly,” ignoring the fact that the word zaraba has various other shades of meaning. It is surprising that most translators of the Koran seem to have missed the context of verse 4:34. The verse actually talks about the various means at the disposal of a husband to bring about reconciliation with his wife and, obviously, beating the wife cannot be an option to sort out differences.

Out of the 50 times it occurs in the Koran, zaraba has been used 31 times in the meaning of “to explain by giving an example.” Only 10 times has it been used to mean “to strike” but mostly in the context of Moses “striking the rock” or the sea, and angels “striking the faces” of the sinners.

In 4:34 as a first step, when there is marital discord, the Koran advises the husband to resolve the conflict with his wife through discussions ( fa'izu hunna ). If differences persist, then as a next step, the parties are asked to sexually distance themselves ( wahjuru hunna ) from each other in the hope that temporary physical separation may encourage them to unite. If even this fails, the husband is instructed, as a third step, to once again explain ( wazribu hunna) to his wife the seriousness of the situation and try for to bring about reconciliation.

For instance, in pursuance of wazribu hunna , the husband may not be wrong in pointing out to his wife that if they do not resolve their differences soon enough, their dispute may go beyond the confines of their house and become a subject of gossip, which may not be in the interest of both parties. This would be true because if the dispute still remains unresolved, as a fourth step, the Koran requires the matter to be placed before two arbiters, one from the family of each spouse, for resolution.

If by wazribu hunna the Koran had meant the beating of wives, then it strikes at the very purpose of the verse which is to end the marital discord. For, how could the husband expect his wife to accept arbitration after beating her up no matter how “lightly”?

Thus, the translation “beat them” is clearly not justified in the context of 4:34. I, therefore, call upon the ulema to reconsider the present translation of this verse and bring it in conformity with the humanitarian teachings of the Koran and the Prophet.

( Excerpts from the speech of Faizur Rahman, secretary-general of the Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought in Islam, at a seminar on “Islam and non-violence” in Chennai on April 26, 2010. email: )

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