Domestic Violence And Islam: A Broken Relic From An Unforgiving Past

We must not let the prejudices and insecurities of ancient history shape the present
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As a man, commenting on the “patriarchy” is wrought with traps and pitfalls. It would be easy for me to say, sitting here in my ivory tower, afforded by the happenstance of cell division, that the glass ceiling has been shattered and gender equality is the order of the day. But that’s far from true. Data releases on the gender pay gap and the #MeToo campaign have revealed that unfairness and sexual harassment remain commonplace. And of course, these issues are absolutely worthy of conversation and I will address them in future blogs, but today I want to talk about another scourge of gender relations, still prevalent and still damaging and destroying millions of lives here in the UK: domestic violence.

We all know the statistics, and they’re horrifying: one in four women affected by domestic violence in their lifetime; two women killed every week by current or former partners and according to 2015 Women’s Aid report, on just one day that year, there were 1835 children and young people living in refuges. The numbers speak for themselves.

In the Muslim community, domestic violence is very much an historic problem and one embedded in the patriarchy of the distant past. 1400 years ago, at the time of the foundation of Islam, Arabia was a tribal land governed by men. Slavery, female-infanticide and inequality were rife. Although Islam ultimately reformed these practices, its application was strenuously resisted by the ruling elite, afraid its embracing messages of tolerance and fairness threatened their stranglehold on power. Unfortunately, this resistance persists in many circles today as a debate wages over interpreting Islamic religious scriptures.

Anachronistically, some Muslims still believe that domestic violence is sanctioned by Islam. This misapprehension hinges on the interpretation of a single verb used in the Qur’an (4:34) – daraba. Commonly, it is translated as “beat” in “And as for those women whose ill-willed rebellion you fear … beat them …”. Yet in 9 of its sixteen uses in the Qur’an, it is used to mean “separate” or “turn away from” and importantly, nowhere else is it used to mean “beat”, without qualification. It can also be used to refer to “consensual sex”, so an alternative translation reads: “As for women you feel are averse … go to bed with them when they are willing …”

The messages elsewhere in the Qur’an render domestic violence unacceptable, advocating relationships based on care, kindness, compassion and mutual consultation. In His Farewell Sermon, the Prophet Muhammad equated violation of women’s marital rights with a breach of God’s covenant. The translation of daraba as “beat” is quite simply incompatible with the tenor and message of the rest of Islamic teaching.

Domestic violence is a barbaric cultural practice. In Islam its origins lie in a brutal era, which resisted the positive and inclusive messages of a new religion, out of fear for its own societal position. We must not let the prejudices and insecurities of ancient history shape the present. Domestic violence is not sanctioned by Islam; it is a broken relic from an unforgiving past.

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