Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition. By Ayesha S Chaudhry. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp258. HB. 2013. £34.99
Ayesha Chaudhry is an Associate Professor of Islamic and Gender Studies at the University of British Columbia. The book under review is based on her PhD research on the topic of domestic violence in Islamic tradition at New York University.
Consisting of an Introduction, five chapters, Conclusion, useful Appendix and an extensive Bibliography, this book is based on the author’s experience of ‘growing up in Canada as the daughter of Pakistani immigrants with conservative Muslim values…balancing conflicting demands that stemmed from embodying multiple identities – Muslim, Canadian, modern, second-generation immigrant, Western, Pakistani, female – a process that was as painful as it was enlightening. For me, this often brought into sharp relief opposing values that could not be reconciled, no matter how much I tried; one often had to be chosen over the other.’ (p1)
As the author struggled to make sense of a traditional patriarchal vision of womanhood versus an unconstrained feminist notion of a fully liberated woman, she encountered a Qur’anic verse that prompted her to pursue doctoral research and carve out a career as an academic and author. I am of course referring to this Qur’anic verse: ‘Men are the protectors and maintainers (qawwamun) of women, because God has given (faddala) the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women (salihat) are devoutly obedient (qanitat), and guard in (the husband’s) absence what God would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct (nushuz), admonish them (first), (next) refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly) (wa dribuhunna); but if they return to obedience (ata’nakum), seek not against them means (of annoyance); for God is Most High, Great (above you all). (Surah Nisa: Verse 34)
Aware of Western media’s tendency to misrepresent Islam as a violent, backward and medieval religion, and, at the same time, Muslims unwillingness to often engage with the sacred text of Islam in a critical and investigative way, in this book the author focuses on a highly controversial topic, namely the issue of marital violence as projected in Islamic thought to ‘showcase the complexity and diversity of the Muslim intellectual tradition…’ (p19).
In Chapter One, the author analyses the multiple contexts of the above Qur’anic verse, highlighting the historical context of its revelation. This is important, for without a proper understanding of the historical background to the Qur’anic revelation, one can easily end up misinterpreting, if not completely twisting, its meaning and import. Chapter Two provides a detailed consideration of the above Qur’anic verse based on classical tafsir literature (Qur’anic commentaries), namely explaining the meaning of khawf (fear), nushuz (ill-conduct), fa-izuhunna (admonish them), wa-hujuruhunna fi’l madaji (abandon them in beds) and wa-dribuhunna (hit them). The author concludes this chapter arguing that classical commentators interpreted this verse with considerable flexibility, being mindful of the fact that the Prophet (peace be on him) – the recipient and undoubtedly the most authoritative commentator of the Qur’an (‘the walking Qur’an’ as described by his wife) – always behaved like a gentleman towards women, and encouraged his male companions to do the same. If the Prophet never abused, hit or beat up a woman, are his male followers (Muslim men) permitted to do so? Unsurprisingly, informed by the Prophet’s sunnah (normative practice), majority of the modern Qur’anic commentators have interpreted wa-dribuhunna with non-violent connotations. (p94)
Chapter Three represents an interesting analysis of how Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali schools of Islamic jurisprudence have presented this issue, each tackling the matter in their own ways, clearly highlighting similarities and differences between exegetical and jurisprudential approaches to gender relationship in Islamic thought and scholarship. By contrast, Chapter Four focuses on traditional, neo-traditional, progressive and reforming trends in Islamic thought, and how these approaches have tried to interpret the above Qur’anic verse. Some tried to assert the authority of tradition, while others focused on enriching the tradition by making it meaningful for the living community. The author of this book prefers a progressive approach.
I fully agree with the author’s observation that Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) was a versatile personality and, as such, he provides a flexible, inclusive and accommodating model that is more than capable of incorporating the diversity of both classical and modern Islam. Although the author’s progressive approach to the sacred text of Islam over traditional, neo-traditional and reformist approaches will not please everyone, this book is a valuable contribution on a controversial topic and it deserves to be read widely, not least because domestic violence is a real issue in every community including the British Muslim community and therefore it must not be swept under the carpet.
Muhammad Khan is author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (2013).