The only surprising thing about 'A Gift for the Muslim Couple' is that it surprises anyone.
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.”
What’s more, the propriety of wife-beating is reinforced in the hadith. Western apologists for Islam like to point to a hadith in which Muhammad held up a toothbrush in response to a question from his followers about the proper implement to use to beat one’s wife (he was brushing his teeth when they approached him). In practice, however, Muhammad himself didn’t always counsel such gentleness, and the early Muslims didn’t practice it. His favorite wife, Aisha, said it herself: “I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women.” Muhammad was once told that “women have become emboldened towards their husbands,” whereupon he “gave permission to beat them.” He was unhappy with the women who complained, not with their husbands who beat them.
Also, Aisha reports that Muhammad struck her – and remember, Muhammad’s example is normative for Muslims, since he is an “excellent example of conduct” (33:21). Once he went out at night after he thought she was asleep, and she followed him surreptitiously. Muhammad saw her, and, as Aisha recounts: “He struck me on the chest which caused me pain, and then said: Did you think that Allah and His Apostle would deal unjustly with you?”
Many influential Muslims in modern times take all this seriously. In Spring 2005, when the East African nation of Chad tried to institute a new family law that would outlaw wife beating, Muslim clerics led resistance to the measure as un-Islamic. A 2007 survey of hospital workers in Turkey found 69% of the women and 84.7% of the men agreed that under some circumstances a husband was justified in beating his wife. Among the acceptable circumstances were “criticising the male.” As many as twenty percent of women even in the reputedly moderate land of Tunisia are victims of spousal abuse.
In September 2007, the Islamic cleric Muhammad Al-‘Arifi explained on Saudi and Kuwaiti television, in line with the three-tiered approach counseled by Qur’an 4:34: “Admonish them – once, twice, three times, four times, ten times. If this doesn’t help, refuse to share their beds.” And if that doesn’t work? Al-‘Arifi asked his audience; one young man replied, “Beat them.”
“That’s right,” Al-‘Arifi responded.
Then he explained the parameters: “Beating in the face is forbidden, even when it comes to animals. Even if you want your camel or donkey to start walking, you are not allowed to beat it in the face. If this is true for animals, it is all the more true when it comes to humans. So beatings should be light and not in the face….If he beats her, the beatings must be light and must not make her face ugly. He must beat her where it will not leave marks. He should not beat her on the hand... He should beat her in some places where it will not cause any damage. He should not beat her like he would beat an animal or a child -- slapping them right and left.”
In January 2009, Australian Islamic cleric Samir Abu Hamza likewise echoed the Qur’anic injunction: “First of all advise them. You beat them ... but this is the last resort. After you have advised them (not to be disobedient) for a long, long time then you smack them, you beat them and, please, brothers, calm down, the beating the Mohammed showed is like the toothbrush that you use to brush your teeth. You are not allowed to bruise them, you are not allowed to make them bleed.”
Unfortunately, a light beating is often in the eye of the beholder. Sanctioning the beating of women in the first place will inevitably lead to abuse.
A prominent American Muslim leader, Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi, former president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), has said that “in some cases a husband may use some light disciplinary action in order to correct the moral infraction of his wife…The Qur’an is very clear on this issue.”
Indeed it is. So why should Hazrat Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi’s advice in A Gift for the Muslim Couple come as a shock to anyone?
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