Discourse with fundamentalists of any ilk can be frustrating. Perhaps that’s why the great 12th century scholar, Imam al-Ghazali, wrote that engaging with those unable to listen was like competing with the braying of an ass.
He suggested that it was a waste of time – those who didn’t know that they didn’t know were beyond help. I can only agree with him. When you can only listen to the sound of your own voice, it’s difficult to hear others.
I had this kind of experience the other day in cyberspace when trying to explain that Muslims were not pathological wife beaters. The main protagonist was an evangelical, born-again pastor.
I do not mean to demean Christianity. But I do think we have to be honest: there are extremes in all faiths on this earth, and we always have to guard against the centre being judged by its fringes.
That is where the fallacy comes from that Muslims are wife bashers – from the patriarchal fringes of Islamic extremism. Wife-beating is an old chestnut, triumphally presented by ignorant Islamophobes to the world as a theological absolute.
“You beat your wives, your Prophet allows wife-bashing,” your Qur’an says it,” the pastor would crow, referring to Surat un-Nisaa (the Chapter of the Women) and its famous verse 34 – which we will examine later.
In the tradition of true-blue fundamentalism, his was a literalist reading, and no amount of argument could convince him otherwise. He entertained no room for nuance, metaphor or qualifiers of meaning – such as Prophetic Traditions or other Qur’anic verses.
When I told him that the Qur’an could only be interpreted through its core language, Arabic, he would say he could understand the Qur’an perfectly in English! Why would he have to study Arabic? And so it went. I was an apologist. I felt Mullah Nasruddin had a better chance of persuading Chuck Norris to wear a turban.
But it did get me to thinking. Violence against women is endemic in South Africa. Our community is not exempt from it. Who can forget the ‘Gadaffi’ killing in Mitchell’s Plain, for example?
Cultural aberrations aside, can Muslim men lift their hands against their wives? What is verse 34 in Surat un-Nisaa verse 34 really saying?
To answer we have to first examine what I would call the ‘qualifiers’, other Qur’anic verses and Prophetic Traditions dealing with the treatment of women. I’m not a Qur’anic scholar, but it doesn’t take much to realise that the Holy Book is a complex tapestry of many threads of meaning.
For example, when we are told that Ibrahim (as) is a ‘hanifan musliman’ (a sound monotheist) we immediately understand this because of other verses extolling his virtues. In fact, the Qur’an itself – which is the Creator’s voice – says that it has many paths.
But back to Surat un-Nisaa, verse 34, which says that should a wife indulge in disloyalty and misconduct, a husband should first admonish her. Failing that, he should withdraw from the marital bed, and failing that – the last resort – he should ‘beat’ her (lightly).
Taken out of context, as they are here, these verses appear bleakly patriarchal. But if we add context – Surat ul-Baqarah saying in verse 228 that men and women enjoy rights over each other – the picture begins to change dramatically.
If one considers that this is a statement made in the 7th century, it is ground-breaking – for just before the Prophetic era, the Quraish were burying their newly-born daughters alive in the graveyard.
In Surat un-Nisaa one quickly observes that preceding verse 34, issues such as who can marry, dowries, fair treatment of slaves and self-restraint are revealed. Verse 34 opens with men ‘standing firmly with’ or being the ‘protectors’ of women. This is hardly a chauvinistic discourse.
The second half of verse 34 deals with a worst case scenario of marital discord, and even then, verse 35 exhorts serious reconciliation before any kind of parting. If one adds Hadith to the context, the books of Bukhari and Muslim reveal overwhelmingly that the Prophet (SAW) ordered that women be treated kindly.
So how do we reconcile ourselves to verse 34 that uses the word ‘wa-dribuhunna’, which literally means, ‘beat them’? A look in any serious Arabic lexicon will reveal that the root word ‘daraba’ has a primary meaning followed by a myriad of other secondary meanings such as ‘shun’ and ‘separate from’.
In fact, there are over 50 different applications – and meanings – attributed to this one word. Like all Arabic verbs they are given context by their prepositions. But herein lies a problem. In the Qur’an there is no preposition.
Evidence points towards the Prophetic generation comprehending verse 34 as ‘beat’ or ‘strike’. However, their tafsir (or exegesis) reflects the softness and subtlety of the Prophet’s (SAW) character – something forgotten in our hard age.
Imam Hasan al-Basri, one of the greatest early scholars, echoes Hadith that – if forced to – one should tap one’s spouse very lightly with a miswak, or toothbrush. Furthermore, no harm could be done or marks left.
Other scholars assert that the miswak could only be picked up with a Qur’an under each armpit! And according to some reports, Imam Shafi’i (ra) was even against the lifting of a miswak.
So why the word ‘beat’? Of course, Allah knows best, but surely the emphasis here is on the very seriousness of marital discord? And, naturally, what our evangelical pastor – and the modern Shari’ah-ists – have profoundly failed to understand is that ‘beat’ in this Qur’anic verse is wholly symbolic.
For without its symbolic aspects to emphasise the very seriousness of marital conflict, verse 34 would contradict Prophetic Tradition and Qur’an, which enjoins gender justice.
Yusuf ‘Ali in his Qur’anic translation bases a lot of his interpretations on classical texts. His bracketed meanings frequently point to traditional commentary from Al-Jalalain to Imam al- Ghazali (ra). For why would he write in verse 34 ‘beat (lightly)?’
I think the answer is clear. Our Prophet (SAW) did not condone wife-beating, and nor did he ever smile upon domestic violence. Real men use miswaks for cleaning their teeth.