Book Review: Women in the Quran

Asma Lamrabet
translated from the French by Myriam Francois-Cerrah
Kube Publishing June 2016

Do you bring Islam to your feminism, or do you bring feminism to your Islam? Must we bend Islam to fit our modern sensibilities of women’s rights, humanism and justice towards both gender, or must we make compromises in our feminism to fit the classical interpretations of Islam that have always been skewed in favor of men?

In Asma Lamrabet’s Women in the Quran: An Emancipatory Reading (translated from the French by Myriam Francois-Cerrah), the author answers this question by declaring passionately and confidently that Islam has always considered women as equals to men. It is ‘certain biased readings, bolstered by patriarchal customs, which have rather legitimated these… inequalities.’

Lamrabet, a Moroccan pathologist and activist, blames ‘subjective human interpretation’ made by classicist, traditionalist and patriarchal interpreters, scholars, and translators for obfuscating the Quran’s essential humanist spirit. Islam in its original form, argues Lamrabet, doesn’t make distinctions according to gender, and certainly does not assign women a weaker spiritual status than men. Lamrabet distinguishes between an Islam that has been codified in centuries-old texts and a living Islam which women are struggling to re-negotiate in the light of a greater awareness of their rights as human beings to live in equality and peace with men.

Lamrabet goes further than the work of previous Islamic feminists by drawing upon the women in the Quran and deftly identifying archetypes such as: The Mother, The Governor, The Passionate Woman, The Spiritual, and The Sacrificial. Lamrabet’s classifications are especially compelling when discussing the excellent governing skills of Baklis, Queen of Sheba, or the insane passion of Zulaykha for Prophet Yusuf (peace be upon him) and her subsequent repentance for her wrongdoing.

There’s a refreshing refusal to dwell on women first and foremost as mothers, which male classical Islamic scholars tend to do. Lamrabet interprets the roles of Umm Musa and Asiah as parables to understand God’s tenderness towards women, and the value of piety and exemplary faith (Asiah disobeys her husband, the Pharaoh, in believing in Allah rather than following her husband’s religion), rather than focusing solely on their functions as mothers of the Prophet Musa (peace be upon him). Lamrabet draws the reader’s attention not to Maryam’s motherhood but to her “highly privileged spiritual station”, noting that God chose a woman rather than a man to be a symbolic link between Christians and Muslims.

Similarly, Lamrabet compellingly chronicles the lives of early Muslim women who stood up for their faith, and connects their resistance to political struggle. She writes of early Muslim muhajiratun (political refugees) Summaya, Zainab, Umm Sharik and Umm Kulthum noting their bravery, refusal to compromise, and willingness to even sacrifice their lives for their principles. This is in complete opposition to the modern portrayal of the Muslim woman as an oppressed victim unable to even raise her own voice.

A good case is made for women’s political participation through various examples from early Islamic history. In Surah Imran, the challenge from Muslims to Christians to participate in a theological debate called themubahalah asked for both men and women to take part. Similarly, women took part in mubayi’at, which included conversion, proselytzing, attending allegiance ceremonies, lectures at the mosque, and even being present in battle.

Lamrabet interprets mubayi’at as a political act, noting that the women took part in these activities of their own free will and independent agency. She argues against reductionism: the Prophet did not shake women’s hands during an allegiance ceremony. Classical scholars have used this as an excuse to invalidate the entire experience of women’s bayah, which Lamrabet castigates soundly in her discussion.

Lamrabet writes with verve and spirit, a tone which Francois-Cerrah captures well in her translation. Yet sometimes the style meanders and goes off into tangents where Lamrabet allows her imagination to supersede her arguments. Furthermore, some of Lamrabet’s circular arguments are stretched too far, diminished by her eagerness to make everything fit a modern feminist mold.

This is most apparent when Lamrabet deals with some of the contentions with verses such as 4:34 (it doesn’t permit wife-beating, but advises separation), 4:29 (making polygamy discouraged, but permissible in certain contexts), and other verses concerning inheritance, women’s testimony and the like. Lamrabet’s arguments will shore up those who already believe in Islam’s fairness towards women but will not convince those who are already certain that the religion is inherently misogynist.

Yet her writing is at its sharpest when Lamrabet excoriates modern Muslim governments and countries for obfuscating the revolutionary egalitarian spirit of Islam. She expresses justifiable anger in noting reform has taken 1500 years to come in countries like Morocco and Saudi Arabia: a willful theft of women’s rights for which adequate reparations have not yet been made. Her phrase ‘an aborted women’s revolution’ captures the essence of the conflict: a patriarchal backlash against the freedom and equality given to early Muslim women under the Prophet’s guidance.

Unusually, Kube Publishing have taken the step of distancing themselves from some of Lamrabet’s more radical positions. In a detailed introduction they say they do not necessarily endorse all the ideas in this work, but are publishing it ‘with a view to providing access to some trends in contemporary Muslim thinking.’ The note that the author’s interpretations are daring and ‘will no doubt be seen as problematic’ and remark on her ‘disregard for the hadith corpus.’ Her ‘sweeping judgments regarding ‘traditionalist’ understanding of Islam, by which she seems to be referring to the scholastic tradition of the past 1400 years, are unfortunately not substantiated in her work.’  The publishers have, ‘in an attempt to remedy this to some degree… included some end notes’ which refute some of Larambet’s points and correct others.

Whether the publishers fear Larambret’s book displeasing their conservative reader consumer base, or are trying to cover their legal bases, the caveat and endnotes detract from the overall reading experience. Still, perhaps this is a working compromise that guaranteed the text being published in its entirety. Whatever the case, it illustrates quite literally how contentious is the idea of women’s freedom and independence even within an Islamic framework, and how carefully women still have to tread in asserting their viewpoint on matters of theology, even when it is fully their Islamic right to do so.

This book review was first published in Sister-Hood magazine

Do Muslim Women Need Feminism?

That was the name of a laughable seminar organized by God knows who at the International Islamic University of Malaysia. The laughable part was the two speakers involved, as you’ll see from the event poster below:

Now, there’s nothing wrong with organizing a seminar on whether or not Muslim women need feminism, but what’s truly hilarious is getting two men to sit on a stage and tell Muslim women whether they need feminism or not.

Seriously, could this university not find any Muslim women to talk on the subject? I’m not even sure these two men were Malaysian, so I have my doubts as to whether or not they could even speak on the context of Malaysian Muslim women’s lives.

Anyway, after the seminar, an audience member posted on Facebook that it was every bit the car wreck you’d expect such a condescending event to be. The two men sat on stage and lectured the audience on how women are inferior physically, mentally and emotionally. They used outdated science, tired arguments, and bankrupt philosophy to ultimately conclude that Muslim women did not need feminism. From all accounts it sounds like they did everything except say that feminism is a Western plot invented by Shaitan to lead Muslim women astray.

It’s certainly possible to deny women their rights and use Islam as justification for doing so, look to misogynist jurists, scholars, and translators for evidence that women are inferior to men. But it is intellectually dishonest to do so.

Enough scholarship exists to prove that this is one the biggest scams in the Muslim world: the revolutionary spirit of the early years in Islam — where strong women were lauded, where equality was enshrined in the Quran, when the mechanisms for guaranteeing women their economic independence and their dignity were put in place — was trampled upon by men who could not bear to give up their privilege They misinterpreted, mistranslated, and twisted everything in order to come up with the same scrambled patriarchy enjoyed by their forefathers.

For many Muslim women who identify as feminists, and for many feminists who identify as Muslim women, here’s what the answer to the question looks like:

God, through Islam, gave me equal rights. Muslim men conspired to take them away. Feminism helped me to stand up and reclaim them.

A Letter to Tashfeen Malik

Dear Tashfeen,

You are dead and gone now, a lifeless body on a California highway barely covered by a blanket. Your legs splayed, your shirt ridden up, blood seeping from you and draining out onto the road. No different in death to the 14 people that you helped to kill killed only a few hours before you ended up the same way. An ignominous, cruel end, headlines around the world, and more questions than there are answers for what you did.

The news of the San Bernadino shooting, the 13th mass shooting in the United States this week alone, broke hearts around the country. When it emerged that one of the shooters, Syed Rizwan Farooq, was possibly Muslim, Muslims everywhere started to become afraid. When we learned that the shooting took place at a facility for people with developmental disorders, disgust rose. But to the news that you, the wife and accomplice of the shooter, Tashfeen Malik, were a Pakistani woman, I had the opposite reaction to fear. I became enraged. That’s why I’m writing this to you, because there are things that need to be said, from one Pakistani woman to another.

I don’t know anything about you other than that you were 27 years old, that you lived in Saudi Arabia, that you came to the United States as the wife of a Pakistani-American, and that you had a baby daughter. Were you a brainwashed victim of a husband’s violent ideology? Were you a good wife, loyal to the end to your ordinary-looking, middle class husband? Did you imagine yourself as Bonnie to his Clyde, guns blazing, together in life as well as in death?

Still, what grievance could have pushed you to put on tactical gear, take up weapons, and slaughter innocent people? Whether this was a “terrorist attack” or another “violence in the workplace” incident, I can’t imagine anything so bad as to make you leave your baby daughter behind, orphaned, defenseless. Imagine her legacy. The daughter of mass murderers.

You are the definition, the epitome, of a terrible mother.

I’m not even going to get into the issue of your Islam. I know nothing about your beliefs, your practice, your way of thinking, your upbringing. It’s clear that something went very wrong in your brain; whether or not you espoused any ideology, you had a propensity for violence. And if it emerges that you used Islam as your vehicle to express that violent streak, you will only be another in a long line of sociopaths and psychopaths who are doing the same thing all over the world – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, and Pakistan, where you and I are both from. There is nothing special about you in that respect. You are a cliche. You have lost your ability to shock or awe in the very predictability of your actions and your rationale.

But there’s one more thing. With your actions, you have smeared Pakistani women – 100 million of us at home, millions who live in the diaspora. With your act of blazing, outrageous and insupportable violence, you have done much to ruin what we have been working for, for longer than you have been alive. We Pakistani women, who are far more likely to be the victims of rather than perpetrators of violence, who are looking for equality and respect and dignity in our lives, who have to fight so hard to negotiate all the obstacles that our limiting and restrictive environments throw up in our faces.

There are Pakistani women that the world respects: Malala Yousufzai, Benazir Bhutto, Asma Jehangir, Nafis Sadik, Hina Jilani. Those who are educated and knowledgeable about the world remember these names, respect what they stand for. But the majority of the world, the uneducated, the unworldly, will forget their names — if they knew them in the first place — and remember yours when the words “Pakistani woman” come up in any context. We’ll have you to thank when Pakistani women are abused, reviled, spat upon, their children taunted and abused.

If you committed your act of violence for any cause, you failed to achieve your goal, but you achieved a different one: you dragged your Pakistani sisters into the mud. We have a word for that in Urdu: badnaami. You have done this to all of us. And it will take a long time for us to undo the damage that results from it.

Sincerely,

Bina Shah

The Myth of the Moderate Muslim

The World Wildlife Foundation recently put out the alarming statistic that the earth has lost half its wildlife in the past 40 years. Along with the Caspian Tiger, the Golden Toad of Costa Rica, and the Pyrenean Ibex, the Moderate Muslim has also died out or gone extinct, if you listen to the current discourse on Islam and terrorism. This organism has now entered the realm of mythology, and was probably last seen circa the summer of 2001, when it was still possible to self-identify as a Muslim and not be strip-searched at the airport when attempting to board a flight for any Middle Eastern destination.

In fact, I have a poster put out by the Muslim Council of America* that shows this magnificent beast in its natural habitat, wearing a colorful scarf on her head, with her arms around a Jew on one side and a Hindu on the other. The smile on her face speaks of tolerance, diversity, pluralism, acceptance. Ah, how it makes me long for the good old days, when Muhammed was just a name for your baby, and not the name of every other character on “Homeland”.

The use of the phrase “moderate Muslim” is troublesome to begin with – as Nathan Lean so eloquently writes in the New Republic, it comes attendant with its burdens of expectation.  Lean calls the idea of the “moderate Muslim” intellectually lazy because the “moderate Muslim” is shorthand for “the Good Muslim” (his words) or, “the Muslim who doesn’t want to kill us” (mine). And Muslims strive hard to fit the profile of what non-Muslims think a moderate Muslim looks like: someone who lives in America, perhaps, as opposed to Pakistan. Someone who espouses Western thinking on women’s empowerment, LGBT rights, who maybe likes to drink a little (or a lot), someone who definitely doesn’t wear the veil or grows a beard un-ironically. They have to work this hard to efface every aspect of their Muslimness that might scare non-Muslims, because their jobs, their social acceptance, and their security depends on it.

I asked Twitter, my informal pollster, what exactly the moderate Muslim is. “Spiritually ignorant, religiously apologetic, guilt-ridden, conservative about pork, liberal about vodka, confused, ambiguous” Shahjehan Chaudhry told me. “No such thing,” came another from Dream Big. “It’s just supposed to be common sense, none of the added stupidness on top.” Someone calling himself Enlightened Muslim wrote back, “Ordinary Muslims like you and me.” And Maida Sheikh, who sports a lovely grey scarf on her head in her Twitter display photo, wrote, “Me. I’m a moderate Muslim, oh wait, so are you. Isn’t ‘moderate’ a relative term?”

So in other words, everyone knows that the moderate Muslim exists, but nobody seems to really agree on what he or she looks like, how he or she acts, behaves, what she believes in, how he or she practices. Is a moderate Muslim someone who wears a face veil or a full length beard but hates everything ISIS is doing and wants nothing more than to live in peace? Is a moderate Muslim someone who goes clubbing and drinking but hates the United States for its policies vis a vis Israel and Palestine? Is a moderate Muslim a man with two wives who sends his daughters to school?

Let me say it right here: the “moderate” Muslim has always been a myth, or perhaps more of a mirage, a destination just ahead in the distance, and when you think you’ve gotten there, it recedes from your grasp only to appear further ahead down the road.

Before the Heritage Foundation invites me to become its latest scholar, let me explain. I don’t mean the usual tired argument that all moderate Muslims are terrorists in vitro, ready to give up their moderate disguise at the first opportunity to commit violence, as Pamela Geller attempts to assert with her crude attempts at mixed-media artwork on the buses of New York City. Nor do I mean that moderate Muslims are a silent and voiceless majority, useless in the face of Islamist extremism, and therefore their existence as the nearly 99% of Muslims worldwide doesn’t count on the world stage, as Bill Maher has explained countless times to anyone who will listen.

These gross oversimplifications of the status of the moderate Muslim aside, there is an even deeper attempt to drive the moderate Muslim out of existence – by simply denying that the moderate Muslim exists at all. “I think, therefore I am,” said Descartes. In today’s world where the intellect rules all, the “moderate Muslim” corollary is “You think, therefore you are not.” The argument goes like this: nobody would be a (practicing) Muslim if they thought hard enough about their religion. After all, that little black book, the Quran, tells them to kill non-Muslims, to enslave women, to be violent as a matter of ideology. Muslims define themselves by faith – which is, in today’s times, the opposite of thinking – and so faith and thought are incompatible. Think hard enough about what you are, and you’ll find you don’t actually exist at all.  To be a moderate Muslim is to not think about what your religion asks you to do.

Of course, this is an illogical argument, because it ignores what the Quran overwhelmingly requires Muslims to do: be kind and compassionate, practice charity, non-violence. The Quran asks Muslims to read the Quran and reflect on the signs around them as markers to the existence of God and the truth of the message. The Prophet instructs Muslims to tread the “middle path” – the path of moderation. There’s no need to call up chapter and verse to illustrate this – it’s all been done before by Islamic scholars and interpreters from every sect, race, gender, and geographical location. Anyone who denies that this is the greater tenor of the Quran is doing the equivalent of sticking his fingers in his ears and saying “LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU.”

What the Quran doesn’t do is tell Muslims how to define that path other than to “avoid extremes”.  And further compounding the problem is that the goalposts of what defines “moderation” change as our world changes. One year – say in the year 2000 — a moderate Muslim is a person who has a miniature copy of the Quran in her Volvo. The next, in 2001, it’s a Muslim who doesn’t kill people.

Islam doesn’t deny that violence or warfare exists in the world. The Quran tells Muslims they are restricted to fighting only defensive wars, and how to behave themselves during those times.  This instruction, in the 7th century, was seen as an extremely moderate, if not downright progressive, stance. That there could be limits on warfare, on how to behave with prisoners, on not killing captives and on insisting that widows and orphans be protected in the enemy camp was revolutionary. Today, with our ideas of humanitarian treatment of prisoners, legal rights and Geneva Conventions (and who listens to those anyway), it seems inadequate. In the Middle Ages, with their penchant for slaughtering everyone in the most gruesome ways possible, it would have been seen as downright cowardly.

(The demand on the “moderate Muslim” is to renounce any kind of warfare whatsoever — “give up armed jihad!” is the common refrain. I find this laughable, as nobody else in the world is told to get rid of their armies, weapons, expansionist, colonialist, imperialist, and other designs with quite the same conviction as the moderate Muslim. The “extremist” Muslims are presumably not listening, or too busy posing for jihad selfies)

So, in short, it isn’t whether or not the moderate Muslim actually exists. It is that our perception of what a moderate Muslim is is never a fixed point, because the definition of moderation is always evolving. And when it is imposed upon you by an outside force, rather than your own internal convictions, who could blame you for being “confused and ambiguous” or even, like a character in a Kafka novel, beginning to doubt if you even exist?

*This organization, too, is sadly mythological

Adoption and Islam

Last night I was involved in a Facebook discussion/debate with someone, who I’ll call K, who was elucidating the rules of adoption as they stand in Islam. He was somewhat berating people for spreading misinformation that Islam does not encourage adoption. Instead, he said that taking care of orphans is a central tenet in Islam – but there are certain rules and practices in the Islamic position that stand in direct contrast to how it is done and thought about in the West. And Western cultural thought and practice on adoption has influenced Muslims to the point that they do not look upon adoption as positively and enthusiastically as they should.

Islam is clear on adoption. Orphans are given a very special status in Islamic society, as people to be cared for, cherished, protected, and adopted. However, you are not allowed to hide the fact of a child’s adoption from her, nor are you allowed to hide her parentage, or pass yourselves off as the child’s biological parents. Adopted children cannot inherit their parents’ property under Islamic inheritance laws, although the parents can gift up to 30% of their property or assets to an adopted child before their death. Nor can adoptive parents absorb the orphan’s own wealth into their own: they can only serve as trustees for the child’s own wealth (stealing the property of orphans is considered a huge sin in Islam). Finally, adopted children must look upon the opposite sex members of their family as na-mahrem and observe proper moral behavior around them – many believe this means an adopted girl must veil herself around her adoptive father and brothers, for example – and they can marry anyone in their adoptive family.

There is a complicated Islamic history related to the ruling that an adopted child can marry into his or her adoptive family which I won’t get into right now, but go here to read up on it from the Quran (it involves an adopted son of the Prophet peace be upon him divorcing his wife whom the Prophet then m married, and the verse revealed in the Quran which made this a halal act).

K, the person who was discussing this issue last night said that under Islamic mores, a case like Woody Allen marrying his adoptive daughter Soon-Yi Previn would be no problem whatsoever. It cannot be classified as incest as it has been in the West. K’s idea was that the West has built up “false stigma” around adoption, stating that adopted children are brought up to falsely believe they are biological members of the family and as such, cannot marry members of their adoptive family later in life.

While I understand and obey the unequivocal laws of Islam in this as in many other issues, I hesitate to utterly condemn the practice of adoption as it is done in the West. I do believe that a child should not be brought up to believe he or she is the biological child of adoptive parents – and with interracial adoptions and adoptions from other countries, this is getting harder and harder to do – but I can understand why it was done in the past. Many children in centuries gone by were born out of wedlock, and either given up or abandoned by single mothers who could not raise their own children – either by law, or because of society’s harsh judgment of such mothers and their children. They were bundled off to adoptive homes in the hopes that they would get a better start in life. The identities of their mothers and fathers were hidden so that privacy and confidentiality could be protected. And adoptive parents wanted to be sure that the child never felt discriminated against or treated any differently from biological children – a very different outlook than Islam’s, which necessitates that while adopted children should be treated fairly, they are treated differently than biological ones.

This was a decision of compassion, and while it can lead to terrible mistakes like biological children ending up marrying each other or having relationships with each other without knowing that they share DNA, it’s hard to condemn it outright when the intention may have been to protect the child from stigma (not “false stigma” as K calls it but real stigma). We know, though, that this can cause a kind of psychological trauma to a child when he or she “finds out the truth”, but most adopted children speak of a sense of knowing that they had different origins than the ones presented to them as truth. Let’s say that adoption in itself is a psychological minefield that has to be navigated with great care and sensitivity, even when all the rules have been followed to the letter.

I also think it’s a mistake to draw a false dichotomy between the “West” and the “Islamic” world. In Pakistan, hundreds of children are abandoned every week in Edhi cradles and at orphanages: these children are often the result of extra-marital relationships. There are single mothers in Pakistan even though we don’t admit it and don’t talk about it, and even though a child without a father has no legal status in Pakistan. These children are adopted, and while they know that they are adopted, they have no way of knowing their parentage. What do we do in this case, beyond making it clear that they are adopted?

Also, in many Muslim countries there are children born to single mothers as a result of rape. Hundreds if not thousands of such children were born in Bosnia and the same thing is happening in Syria today. I can totally understand keeping the identity and origins of such children private and confidential in order to avoid the stigma of being a child of rape. Again, beyond making it known that the child is adopted, what is the more compassionate thing to do – advertise that the child was born to a single mother, and the father is unknown, or keep this to oneself?

When I mentioned these realities in the debate, I was told that we should be advanced enough in Islamic society to remove all stigmas related to rape and out of wedlock births. But the West is only just getting over these hangovers – Islamic countries are aeons behind in this respect. Women who give birth to children out of wedlock have even found themselves sentenced to death, as in the case of Amina Lawal in Nigeria (her sentence was declared invalid and she was later freed, but you can bet the stigma of having an illegitimate child will follow her and that child forever).

It is very easy to be unequivocal and dogmatic about anything, including Islam. But Islam is a religion of compassion and humanity, and we as its adherents are obligated to find creative ways to apply our religious obligations with those very qualities. I’m not confused about what Islam tells us to do. What I am confused about is how to implement that while still protecting orphans, which is also what Islam charges us to do. And shielding an adopted child, who is already the most vulnerable being on earth, from further censure, stigma, and discrimination, surely has to fall under that charge as well.

Your thoughts?

Does Islam Allow Wife-Beating?

Today I read an article by Qasim Rashid called “The Islamic Solution to Stop Domestic Violence”.  Cogently argued by the author, who is an American lawyer and member of the Muslim Writers Guild, the essay attempts to analyse the contentious verse 4:34 from the Quran, which has been interpreted for centuries as permission for Muslim men to strike their wives if those wives are rebellious or disobedient, to God or their husbands.

The verse translates to something like this:

Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.

Here is a little background on the verse.*

Historically the revelation of this verse happened when Sa‘d ibn al-Rabi‘  hit his wife Habiba bin Zayd on the face because she rebelled against him. Her father went to Muhammad and said: ‘I gave him my daughter in marriage and he slapped her.’ So the Prophet said: ‘Let her have her retaliation against him.’ But as she was leaving with her father to go do this, the prophet called them back, saying, ‘Come back; Gabriel has come to me’ and 4:34 was revealed (1).

Daraba has many definitions some of which are to beat, strike, hit, to shoot, fire, shell, to separate, part, to turn away from, leave, forsake, avoid.  Different translations can give insight into the ways these translators view the word.  For example, Yusuf Ali writes “(and lastly) beat them (lightly)”, Shakir says “and Beat them,” and Haleem marks “then hit them.”

Rashid says that the verse, with its layers of conditionality, and then taking into account the way Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, treated his wives (He specifically instructed his ummah, “Do not beat your wives”), cannot be taken as open season to beat up your wife in a violent way. Instead, the Muslim man must consider all his options, “actively foster reconciliation”, and then consider the final option, which still remains “chastising” your wife. And if you decide, not in anger, of course, but with rationality and reason, that you must still hit your wife, then do so only in a humane way, a way that will not leave marks upon the face, and that is in fact “healing”, as that’s one of the meanings of the word “daraba”, which people more commonly translate or interpret as to strike.

Now, I must at this point state that I’m a practicing Muslim who accepts the Quran as the literal, spiritual, and metaphysical word of God. The reason I don’t have any problem with verse 4:34 is because the word “daraba”, which has been translated and interpreted as “to strike”, has NINETEEN different meanings. One of which is “to heal” as pointed out by Rashid, but another is “to separate” as we see from the text I quoted above. And it’s that one that makes the most sense in the context of the entire verse: if you have problems with your wife, admonish her, do not sleep with her, and then, if the problem continues, separate. I do not accept at all that this verse meant that you can strike your wife, whether gently, forcefully, or anything in between.

It’s very telling that Muslim men, on the other hand, have accepted the most violent meaning of this word, and then twist themselves into pretzels trying to justify it, qualify it, conditionalise it (okay, I know that’s not a word, but forgive me), and propagate it. If the Prophet himself said “Do not beat your wives”, why on earth are you trying to contradict that? And then you embarrass yourselves and all of Islam by talking about this verse as a solution to domestic violence while advocating that women can be struck as a corrective measure for bad behaviour?

Why do you have to engage in mental gymnastics (to quote Urooj Zia, Pakistani journalist) so that you can feel okay about beating your wife? How can you beat your wife in a way that heals her or the relationship? Why must we always deal in irrationality to prolong our bloodlust for the patriarchy? As Asra Q. Nomani says, Indeed, Muslim scholars and leaders have long been doing what I call “the 4:34 dance” — they reject outright violence against women but accept a level of aggression that fits contemporary definitions of domestic violence”.

Instead, why don’t you read Muslim female scholars on the subject of verse 4:34, and their interpretations of the Quran, which I have to say are much closer to the spirit of Islam – the progressive, anti-establishment, anti-traditionalist revolution that came roaring out of the desert to challenge the accepted way of life amongst the Arabs of Mecca in the 7th century?

Here’s Laleh Bakhtiar’s translation of 4:34, taken from her 2007 translation of the Quran:

“Men are supporters of wives because God has given some of them an advantage over others and because they spend of their wealth. So the ones who are in accord with morality are the ones who are morally obligated, the ones who guard the unseen of what God has kept safe. But those whose resistance you fear, then admonish them and abandon them in their sleeping place, then go away from them; and if they obey you, surely look not for any way against them; truly God is Lofty, Great”.[41] “

And lest you think this verse in any way justifies men earning money while women are at home prohibited to work and earn their livelihood, I’d just like to ask you who was earning the money in the marriage between Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) and his first wife Bibi Khadija (may Allah be pleased with her)?

Here’s a list of women you should read, and their thoughts on 4:34 based on a quick search across the Internet.

  • Dr. Riffat Hassan – who calls the Quran the Magna Carta of Islam and believes that  the meaning of the Qur’an should be determined through hermeneutics — examination of what its words meant at the time it was written. She interprets 4:34 as being addressed to all men and women, and translates “qawammun” as anyone who earns money, regardless of gender. 
  • Dr. Amina Wadud – Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam, She says that the word “nushuz” in 4:34 means “disharmony, neutral in gender”. She also says the word “daraba” means not that you have permission to beat your wife, but the verse was intended to severely restrict practices already in place during the time of the Prophet. 
  • Dr Leila Ahmad, who teaches at the Harvard Divinity School (I can’t find any references online, but they’re in her book.
  • Fatima Mernissi, author of The Veil and the Male Elite

(thank you to Poppy Afzal Khan for this excellent list)

These feminist scholars who all know Arabic and have made it their life’s work to study Islam and the Quran and gender, argue that the verse is only one of many that have been interpreted in a way that is misogynistic, unfair, and against the intent of Islam to equalize men and women’s status. They argue that the Quran, the hadith and Shariah can be interpreted in a hardline way or a liberal way or a progressive way or a moderate way. And that there is a way to practice Islam that gives women full rights and respect, without reducing them to second-class citizens who must obey men, surrender their autonomy, agency, and bodies to the patriarchy.

In conclusion, I’d like to address my Muslim brothers and ask them why they just can’t come out and stand side by side with Muslim women, instead of continuing to keep them in second place? Why do they continue to insist that Allah subhana wa’taala meant for women to be inferior to men, when we all know that Allah created men and women of the same materials, imbued them with the same souls, has the same amount of reward and same amount of punishment for them in the afterlife? We can’t blame the Quran for its oppressive reading, says Asma Barlas. We can blame men and also women for those oppressive readings, that insistence on sticking to a system of slavery, that refusal to be courageous and accept that Islam means liberty and justice and equality for all.

*The verse has also been taken by most Muslims to show that men are breadwinners and are therefore in charge of women, who are by default childbearers.

The Arabic words in the verse most hotly debated over are:

Quwummun: breadwinners

Faddala: more excellent than, superior to (in the context of the translation above)

Nushuz: in the context of the translation above, “arrogance”, but also “rebellion”, “disobedience”

Daraba: in the context of the translation above, “to strike”

Is Music Haraam in Islam?

The other day a friend told me of someone who tried to convince her that music is Haraam, or forbidden in Islam. There are many people like that in Pakistan, who have listened to Wahaabi or Salafi thinking on the subject and have exchanged their own ability to think for themselves for the extremist ideology of a nation that has done much to erase every pleasure and source of relief to all human beings on the planet.

What a pity that person, a medical professional, was unaware that music was used by great Muslim medical scientists to promote healing in the body and mind. According to Kamran Pasha, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and writer, and also a practicing Muslim, who posted this article on Facebook about Music Therapy in Islam, “Whenever you hear a foolish Muslim tell you that music is haraam (forbidden), you should let them know that historically Muslims were the leaders in music therapy and considered music as a divinely blessed means of using sound and vibration to promote health and psychological balance.”

In the article, we are told how Turkish doctors have revived the ancient Islamic science of playing music to ailing patients in hospitals in Turkey. There is a scientific explanation of the different types of Arabic scales and what effect the early Muslim scientists felt each had on the body. No less than the great Muslim thinker Ibn Sina appreciated and used music for its beneficial properties. Just reading this piece opens your mind to the endless possibilities and blessings that music holds for us – surely something our Creator intended us to enjoy but also to use for the good of humanity.

Pasha goes on to share with us a modern Muslim scholar’s analysis of music in Islamic science and medicine, and says “The fanatics who speak out against music are out of touch with Islam’s great historical and scientific legacy.”

In this article, the PhD and scholar Ibrahim B. Syed says, “Currently there is an aversion to music by some of the Ulema (religious scholars) in the Islamic world. This paper analyzes the Islamic perspective on music and singing. It concludes that utilization of music as a therapeutic agent in Medicine is not haram or forbidden.” 

Syed goes on to say:

[Medical and scientific journals contain] dramatic accounts of how doctors, musicians, and healthcare professionals use music to deal with everything from anxiety to cancer, high blood pressure, chronic pain, dyslexia, even mental illness. During childbirth, music can relieve expectant mothers’ anxiety and help release endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, dramatically decreasing the need for anesthesia. Exposure to sound, music and other acoustical vibrations can have a lifelong effect on health, learning, and behavior. They stimulate learning and memory, strengthen listening abilities. Music has been used as a treatment or cure from migraines to substance abuse.


This paper is very long and detailed and contains tons of scientific evidence quoted from many sources about music’s benefits for the mind and body. It is worth a read, especially if you are unsure whether or not music is haraam or halaal.

Certainly music that promotes haraam activities such as drug taking or violence or promiscuity would fall into the former category, but anything that has such a great positive effect on human beings, animals, and indeed all of God’s creations cannot be categorically forbidden. If you are opposed to “Western” or “Eastern” music or music with instruments, you could listen to the singing of Islamic songs using only the human voice, or the recitation of the Quran, which is also a type of music on many levels.

But to ban music altogether is unbalanced, extreme, and makes something “haraam” of what is one of Allah’s many favours to us (“Which of his favours will you deny?”) which is expressly forbidden in Islam. Furthermore, it shows ingratitude to Him in the extreme.

Don’t close your ears and eyes to the many of Allah’s signs. He did not create us with the faculties of vision and hearing so that we could blind ourselves and pierce our own eardrums in order to please Him.

Update: one of my very kind readers has posted a link to another alim’s viewpoint on the permissibility of music in Islam here.  This sheikh says, very wisely: “To say that all music is forbidden in Islam doesn’t seem to agree with the balanced approach of Islam to issues of human life and experience”. 

Amazingly, after I posted the original link of this blog piece on Twitter, someone actually tried to argue with me that my post was invalid because I had not consulted any “alim” or “mufti” on the issue. When I told him that I had included the opinion of a Muslim scholar (the PhD holder Ibrahim Syed), he told me in all seriousness that an alim is not a scholar. 

Facepalm.

Another young woman told me that I had mentioned Wahabi thinking but said, and I quote, “kan u even explain wat it is?” 

It’s very simple. I quote the very knowledgeable Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy on the subject:

“Wahabism, which originated in the eighteenth century in Arabia, is a revivalist movement initiated by Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahab (1703-1792). Wahabis are ultra conservative in their outlook and believe in a strictly formal and ritualistic religion, prmoting a view of Islam that is diametrically opposed to the Sufi view, which considers religion largely a matter between Man and Maker. In its early years, Wahabism succeeded in destroying almost all shrines, together witih historical mnuments and relics dating to the early days of Islam for fear that they might take the status of shrine worship.” 

 

And, hand in hand with Wahabism is the school of thought of the Salafis, who

“seek the ‘purification’ of Islam by returning to the pure form practiced in the time of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) and his Companions. Among the most extreme manifstation of Salafism is Takfir-wal-Hijra. In 1996 the group is said to have plotted to assassinate Osama bin Laden for being too lax a Muslim. Pakistani Deobandis, most close ideologically to the Wahabis and Salafis… do not condemn suicide bombings, are strongly pro-Taliban, and many hard-core ones are heavily armed.”


*Please note that I am not an Islamic scholar. I am not giving a fatwa, nor am I authorized to do so. What I am doing is quoting alims/Islamic scholars who have given fatwas on the permissibility of music in Islam.