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A book discovered in a Toronto Islamic bookstore is causing an Internet uproar: A Gift for the Muslim Couple by the Islamic scholar Hazrat Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi advises Muslim men that “it might be necessary to restrain” their wives “with strength or even to threaten” them. It says that a Muslim wife is forbidden to leave her husband’s house “without his permission,” and that she has a responsibility to “fulfil his desires.” If she disobeys, he may “beat [her] by hand or stick” or “pull (her) by the ears,” but should “refrain from beating her excessively.” The only surprising thing about all this is that this book surprises anyone.
Nonetheless, the uproar is understandable, since so many Muslim authorities assure us that there is no sanction for wife-beating in Islam. “There is no basis in Islamic theology to support domestic abuse of any kind,” declared Qanta A. Ahmed, author of In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom, in May 2009. However, the Qur’an tells men to beat their disobedient wives after first warning them and then sending them to sleep in separate beds – a punishment that suggests that the Koran regards women as sexually insatiable and needing to be kept under control (4:34). This is, of course, an extremely controversial verse, so it is worth noting how several translators render the key word here, waidriboohunna.
Pickthall: “and scourge them”
Yusuf Ali: “(And last) beat them (lightly)”
Al-Hilali/Khan: “(and last) beat them (lightly, if it is useful)”
Shakir: “and beat them”
Sher Ali: “and chastise them”
Khalifa: “then you may (as a last alternative) beat them”
Arberry: “and beat them”
Rodwell: “and scourge them”
Sale: “and chastise them”
Asad: “then beat them”
Dawood: “and beat them”
This would not even be a point of controversy were it not for the fact that Muslim feminist Laleh Bakhtiar, in a new translation that has received wide publicity, translates it as “go away from them.” In light of this unanimity among the translators, both Muslim and non-Muslim, this seems difficult to sustain – it is hard to believe that all of these authorities on Qur’anic Arabic, spanning several centuries, got the passage wrong until Bakhtiar.
Still, her impulse to mitigate the brute force of this verse is understandable, as many Muslims today regard this verse with acute embarrassment. The convert from Judaism and Islamic scholar Mohammed Asad adduces numerous traditions in which Muhammad “forbade the beating of any woman,” concluding that wife-beating is “barely permissible, and should preferably be avoided.”
Unfortunately, however, this is not a unanimous view. Sheikh Syed Mahmud Allusi in his Qur’anic commentary Ruhul Ma’ani gives four reasons that a man may beat his wife: “if she refuses to beautify herself for him,” if she refuses sex when he asks for it, if she refuses to pray or perform ritual ablutions, and “if she goes out of the house without a valid excuse.”
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