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Authority and the Abuse of Power
in Muslim Marriages
By Shaykh Seraj Hendricks
Presented at the Womens Conference
of the 2nd International Islamic Unity Conference in Washington
DC 8 August 1998, Omni Shoreham Hotel, Blue Room
"And among His signs is that He created
for you mates from among your yourselves so that you may dwell
in peace and tranquility with them. And He has ordained between
you love and mercy. Indeed in that are signs for those who reflect."
(Q. 30 : 21).
"None honours women except he who
is honourable, and none despises them except he who is despicable."
The above verse and prophetic saying and many others
in addition to these - form an almost natural part of our repertoire
of Islamic knowledge. Why and how did these sublime and divine
imperatives become buried in contemporary Muslim society? This
paper will attempt to explore the more fundamental causes that
underlie the appalling status of women in our society. I will
also in the process attempt to show that it is almost impossible
to de-link what occurs in a society at large from the specifics
of particular areas of interest. The macro, in other words, is
intrinsically linked to the micro. Symptomatic treatments are
no longer good enough. Another primary objective would be to
examine, from a Muslims perspective, the present state
of the house of Islam itself rather than non-Muslim and
orientalist perceptions and prejudices of Islam which are for
the most part legend. We shall look at the manner in which they
have constructed that house and the way in which they perceive
themselves within the broader parameters of that terrain.
In many ways marriage, as an institution, represents a microcosm
of what is in fact happening in the broader (or macro) social
and cultural lives of Muslim society. 20th century Islam has
been a chequered one one which has not only known its
isolated moments of glory but also moments of extreme tension
and animosity, and, at times, even perversity. The challenges,
demands, and tasks of the contemporary world that confront us
are immense and varied. Our responses to all of this, while not
exactly being immense, have indeed been equally varied. However,
the factors which precipitated these challenges need to be looked
at. In the opinion of scholars as diverse in their approaches
as Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1993 : 118) and Akbar S. Ahmad (1988
: 185) the impact of colonialism, stemming from the days of the
renaissance, cannot be ignored or even underestimated. Nasr locates
the awakening of Muslims to the realities of European power and
domination to Napolean Bonapartes capture of Egypt in 1798
(1993 : 118). This awakening was a rude and confused one. Instead
of it being accompanied by a sober and critical consciousness
of those factors (such as complacency and political corruption,
for example) which led to our decay or decline, it spawned in
its wake a spirit of internecine conflict rarely known at that
scale in the history of Islam. Besides, while conflict within
the Muslim world did occur before, they nevertheless occurred
within a context where Muslims enjoyed as world leaders
the necessary confidence to absorb the potentially disruptive
influences inherent in any conflict. With the emergent new colonial
order, however, and their confidence in tatters after being deemed
unfit to participate in that order even within the perimeters
of their own habitations, the prognosis seemed bad. By the turn
of the 20th century three broad and mutually hostile
streams of Islam had emerged. There was the neo-Kharijite movement
of takfir in the garb of Wahhabism and its antagonistic bedfellow
the rigorist Tabligh movement. There was also the millenialist
movement with Mahdis promises of liberation and salvation
to the Ummah. Finally there was the modernist apologetic movement
which viewed the shifting of technology and all other trappings
of the modern era to the West as a sign of Gods dissatisfaction
with the Muslims. By returning to the Quran and Sunnah (on their
terms) it was supposed, we could once again repossess our lost
camel. Beneath all this chaos, however, Traditional Islam sauntered
on albeit with uncertainty and trepidation in the
khanaqahs, ribats, and zawiyas of the vast silent majority. The
most disturbing feature of all of this was the fact that by now
all the elements for a community infected with a high potential
for internal structural violence were in place. With dispossession
come poverty, a high degree of insecurity, a demeaned self-image,
and other forms of crippling inferiority.
What is the significance of all of this in relation to the
idea of "myths and realities of marriage in Islam"?
It is almost a sociological axiom that within dispossessed,
impoverished, and disadvantaged communities the incidence of
violence and dominance of the perceived weaker "other"
are far greater than in more advantaged and economically secure
communities. From beneath the debris of shattered identities,
myths (in the popularly understood meaning of the term) have
a far greater chance of emerging and being accepted as realities.
This response can occur whether the dominant or oppressor group
is an imagined or real entity. In the former group we could place
the David Koreshs of our time and in the latter the bygone
Mahdis of Islam. What concerns us here, however, is the extension
of this myth-making as a product of social circumstances into
the family unit of Islam and particularly with regard to the
condition of women as wives in the marital situation.
"What factor, what catastrophe, took place to alter the
status of women so dramatically?" Akbar S. Ahmad asks (1988
: 185).He asks this question particularly in the light of the
fact that the social condition of women were much more favourable
during the earlier years of Islam. The answer he proffers, and
mentioned previously, lies in colonialism. While this might not
be true if meant in an exclusive sense and I will discuss
this later again - there is nevertheless a great deal of truth
behind the assertion if colonialism is intended as a major accomplice
in the process. As a Muslim with a South African experience of
a demonic apartheid system, I therefore tend to agree to a large
extent. My agreement is based on the view that in almost all
oppressed and disadvantaged societies two important but mutually
interconnected questions emerge, namely, the questions of power
and authority. While we are aware that that these elements are
open to abuse in any society they are nevertheless more so in
vulnerable conditions of social and economic deprivation. Men,
in their state of withdrawal and retreat tend not only to seek
out the security of the domestic environment but also an authority
and a power through which to redeem their shattered self-esteem.
The authority that is imagined and constructed under these conditions
is one accompanied by a sense of privilege. The burden of having
to bear authority with a sense of duty and responsibility is
far too great for a fragile and insecure ego. And where the notion
of privilege dominates there is a far greater potential for the
abuse of power. In this respect South Africa and the brutality
spawned by apartheid is a classic case in point. Black women
in South Africa were the worst victims of the structural violence
engendered by apartheid and the impoverished, sub-economic conditions
they had to contend with. Up till today South Africa has one
of the highest incidences of rape in the world (Agenda no.36,
1997 : 3). The index of wife abuse in these communities is hardly
any better. During the most brutal years of colonialism the global
conditions of Muslims were not much different to the victims
of apartheid. It was apartheid on a grander scale.
While rape might not have been much of an issue in the Islamic
world, the factors nevertheless, which led to the abuse of power
at the domestic level were precisely those factors which led
to abuse in the homes of the oppressed masses in South Africa.
With the Muslims stripped of their world leadership and dominance
new avenues of leadership and dominance were sought out. The
family, as we mentioned earlier, was the unfortunate victim.
But in pursuit of fairness to all, the reduction in the honoured
status given to women by Islam had already started well before
colonialism. During the latter days of a weakening Abbasid Dynasty
the growing despotism, hedonism, materialism, and rigid formalism
of Islamic Law had already started having an impact on the widening
disparities between men and women of those societies. Colonialism,
however provided the space for the final crystallization of these
When the full impact of this crystallization made its mark,
men suffered no conscience in parading themselves as inherently,
or even divinely, superior. Gender based notions of superordination
and subordination became entrenched as values and norms of Muslim
society. The result of all of these is the shocking state of
Muslim women in many Muslim societies today. They are abused,
physically and emotionally, in the name of a supposedly divine
conception of privileged authority. And none suffers more than
the wives at the hands of despotic husbands. It is this condition
which has led a prominent Human Rights author to observe that
"In many many Islamic states, paternalism remains strong
and causes cultural resistance to economic and social rights
which aim at ensuring equality between men and women including
equal access to education, equal pay for equal work, and above
all equality in inheritance laws which severely affect the right
to property. The maintenance of Shariah law, in conflict with
international human rights law, constitutes one of the major
systemic challenges to universal human rights in our time"
(Asbjorn Eide 1995 : 21). While Eide (like many secular intellectuals)
may be excused for their ignorance of Shariah law vis-à-vis
women, their observations about Muslim women in contemporary
Muslim society is fairly accurate. It remains however
and despite the observations and criticisms of others
the sacred duty of Muslims themselves to re-excavate and unveil
the truth about the actual status of women in Islam. But let
us return to the theme of privileged authority and abuse in the
marital situation. In the light of the fact that Islam had asserted
the equality of all human beings at the most essential levels
namely, the spiritual and intellectual, other notions therefore
had to be constructed to sustain this myth of inherent superiority
and privileged authority. Two notions based on my personal experience
and extensive discussions with equally concerned people emerged
in service of this misconception. They are, I might add, frighteningly
rife in South African Muslim society. They are the notions of
Qada and Qadr (determinism and predestination), and Sabr (patience,
fortitude, and endurance). A number of Muslim leaders, religious
counselors, and even parents in South Africa and I believe
elsewhere in the Muslim world too counsel abused women
with these two notions. Their suffering at the hands of tyrannical
husbands is a result of the decrees of Allah and therefore have
to be born with the patience expected of pious and obedient women.
To add insult to injury they are often told that their decreed
misfortune is a result of their laxity in executing the tenets
of the Shariah. The question I have to ask is simple : How much
more perversion are we as the ummah of Allah and His Prophet
Muhammad (SAW) expected to tolerate? We might as well expect
the Bosnians, Palestinians, Chechnyans and others amongst the
oppressed sectors of the Muslim world to accept their conditions
with equally fatalistic notions of Sabr. It is not only womens
rights that suffer under this rubble of contradictions but also
other basic tenets of Islam. Are we expected to forget the Prophetic
directive that "he who sees an abomination must change it
with his hands, and if he cannot then he has to oppose it with
his tongue, and if he cannot do even that then he has to reject
it in his heart". The Qada and Qadr of Allah and Sabr have
now become the handmaidens of those who wish to perpetuate instruments
of oppression that can eminently be changed by our "hands"
and "tongues". But then Allahu Taala will not
change the condition of a people until they change themselves.
And it behoves us not to forget that Allah does not lie.
If it is averred at this stage that Muslim male attitudes
are the products of blighting social circumstances and are therefore
not to be held responsible for their condition then my response
is simple. Unlike other man-made systems, we possess the immutable
example of our holy Prophet to which we can perennially turn
in our moments of need. There can be no excuse for bad behaviour
in Islam unless we choose to turn our backs on the Prophet. Ignorance,
however, is sometimes forgivable.
More specifically, could a religion that asserts "Women
are garments for men in as much as men are garments for women"
(Q. 2:187) deem women to be the agents of Shaytaan? Could a religion
that asserts that men and women are born of the same substance
(Q. 4:1), schizophrenically deem women to be intrinsically inferior?
Could a religion that asserts that no man honours women except
he who is in himself honourable, and that conversely, no man
despises women except he who is in himself despicable, be a model
for chauvinism and misogynism? More pertinently, could the ultimate
source of such a religion be one that is contemptuous of women?
Islam afforded women unprecedented rights unprecedented
even up to and including a large part of 20th century Western
and other secular societies. Western women according to Pickthall
"had to agitate
for simple legal rights, such as that
of married women to own property
to obtain recognition
of their legal and civil existence, which was always recognised
in Islam" (1979 : 166). She has the right the right to property,
exclusive rights to her wealth, the right to equal pay for equal
work, the right to the muta (or compensation) in divorce,
the right to social equality and educational opportunities, the
right to military service, the right to resist a forced marriage,
the right to terminate a marriage of an abusive husband etc.
And all these rights emanate from the example set by our Prophet
Muhammad (SAW) whose nature and character according to Sayyidatuna
Aysha was indeed the Quran (kana khuluquhu al-Quran).
It was in the light of these God-given rights that Imam al-Ghazali,
for example, asserted the right of a woman to unconditionally
separate from an abusive husband whether the abuse is
physical or psychological (and note how rarely we "moderns"
mention psychological abuse). In this case the services of a
third party a "thiqa" or trustworthy person
as Ghazali calls him or her may be enlisted to monitor
the behaviour of the husband. The final decision with regard
to reconciliation however remains with the wife (Shirbini Vol
3 : 260). Nevertheless, before we wax to idealistic about the
past we have to remind ourselves that there are many moments
in our history which evidence the fact that women, and women
as wives in particular, were not always perceived through the
same enlightened and liberating Prophetic vision of Muhammad
(SAW). However the role of men as husbands were seen, ironically,
with far greater clarity then than now. Their roles as leaders
of the family were seen in the light of an agent holding an "office".
The role of the agent would be deemed incommensurate with the
demands of the "office" if he failed to fulfill its
duties, responsibilities, and conditions. A classic example of
discipline with regard to offences against the "office"
is provided by the decision of Syedna Umar (RA) to allow
the utterance of three tallaaqs in a single articulation to actually
fall as three tallaaqs. This was contrary to its consideration
as one tallaq during the time of the Prophet (SAW) and the rule
of Syedna Abu Bakr (RA). His reasoning behind that was clear.
Men had started to abuse matters such as manner of instituting
divorces issues which others before them had regarded
with the necessary consideration due to all matters of seriousness
and importance. While there is a storm of a debate raging around
Syedna Umars decision I tend to agree with Sanaani
that his decision was a product of his ijtihad, or creative exercise
of the intellect, in order to discipline an uncalled for degree
of male frivolity (Sanaani 1998, vol.3, pp. 328-331). Unfortunately
today, both the roles of men and women are tragically misunderstood.
Even more tragic is the fact that they are misunderstood in obscene
favour of the men. The illegitimate consequences of this misunderstanding
are many :
- Women are now expected to unconditionally obey their husbands.
- Nafaqa (or material support) is a favour delivered by the
husbands and not a duty.
- The voices of women are considered "awrah" viz.
prohibited to be heard.
- Women have to cook.
- They have to be fatalistically patient with physical and
- Women cannot work.
- Women are not only half the worth of men but they are in
fact half human.
- Unconditional sexual labour is a duty 25 hours a day.
The list is endless.
For each of these and other expressions of chauvinistic madness
a host of Quranic verses and Prophetic sayings are produced
in the spirit of masculine literalism to do service in
support of these views. Paradoxically, in most cases the texts
they adduce are themselves in need of further interpretation
and clarification. The most problematic Quranic text for many
women is the following where Allah states : "As for those
women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct admonish
them first, then refuse to share their beds, and then (as a final
measure) beat them lightly. But if they heed your call then do
not treat them unjustly" (Q. 4 : 34). At the outset it would
do us well to remind ourselves that the Quran is the last document
in which we can expect to stumble across apologetics of any kind.
In its diversity of expression it represents the very spirit
of Divine freedom. It is in this spirit that the Quran addresses
in the most pragmatic of ways the physical, spiritual, intellectual,
emotional, psychological, and even biological natures of humankind.
The verse however cannot be used to support narrow chauvinistic
designs or to underpin notions of privileged masculine authority.
This is so for a number of reasons. Firstly, the verse assumes,
simultaneously, complete disloyalty and disgraceful conduct on
the part of the woman and total innocence on the part of the
man. After all a man can also be "Nashiz" (Q. 4 ; 128).
For this reason the first step is to admonish her so that he
could, through this step, determine whether there is a sound
reason for her behaviour or whether she is prepared to reform
herself. It becomes him in both cases to withdraw his admonition
and act with respect towards her (Husni 1347AH : vol2, p.42).
Secondly, the symbolic "beating" is not allowed to
result in injury to the person in any way. According to Ibn Abbas
(RA) the beating is not permitted with anything greater than
a toothbrush. If the beating does result in injury to her person
then she would have the right to sue him in a court of law despite
the fact that she might have initially behaved like a scoundrel.
He, in this case, would obviously be considered the bigger scoundrel.
Thirdly, according to Abu Zahrah, there is a school of thought
which holds that in the case of a Nashiz husband the lady would
be entitled to take him to court and get the court to mete out
exactly the same punishment against him according to the steps
depicted in the above verse (Abd alAti 1977 : 159).
Fourthly, The preferred position, despite the Quranic verse,
is not to beat even though the "beating" amounts to
little more than a symbolic measure. It is narrated that "Ata
ibn Abi Rabah said " A husband should not beat his wife
even after he has commanded or prohibited her from doing something
and she refuses to heed him. Let him rather express his anger
at her refusal for the Prophet (SAW) said The
best of you are those who do not resort to beating
(Bayhaqi)" (Sabuni 1990 : Vol.1, 447). Fifthly and
in keeping with our obligations to perpetually having to strive
towards realizing the spirit of Maruf (goodness) and Ihsaan
(excellence) in our lives it would do us well to remember
Syeditina Aishas statement that the Prophet "never
lifted his hand to anything or anyone except when he fought in
the way of Allah".
However, despite our pain and even our horror at the condition
of some of our Muslim women, we need not follow the route of
the Saadawis of today. Maimuna Quddus in her review of Dr. Saadawis
book Two Women in One observes "Anyone who has read the
journals of the so-called womens liberation movement in
England, for which Dr Saadawi often writes, will be taken aback
by the descriptions of matters once considered sacred, in a style
more appropriate to graffiti on a lavatory wall
wish to destroy the family, religion and society with their calls
for free sex, lesbianism, Marxism and whichever other fashionable
lunacies they fancy" (Ahmad 1988 : 194). We as Muslims have
Islam on our sides. And that Islam requires adab and respect
in whatever we do. While there are areas of weakness in our ummah
which demand a degree of firmness in approach, we also have to
remember that our convictions must be accompanied by dignity.
In conclusion I wish to state that while we have a legacy
of jurisprudence of which we can be proud - I am a proud Shafi
for example it nevertheless still behoves us to bring
the same dynamic energy to the interpretation and application
of Fiqh in contemporary times which we are still privileged to
witness in our past greats such as Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Malik,
Imam Shafi, Imam Ghazali and others. Moreover, it is unlikely
- had the spirit of Tabdi and takfir dominated the ethos
of mainstream Islam - that Islamic sciences such as Ulum
al-Quran, Mustalah al-Hadith, Qawaid Fiqhiyyah, Usul al-Fiqh
and many others, would have emerged in the way they did. In fact
Islam itself might have suffered the same fate of many of those
extinct, extremist groupings that spoke in the name of Islam.
But mainstream Islam was always there. Even during its darkest
moments when new and maverick movements dominated the stage at
the turn of the 20th century, mainstream Islam stood firm as
the repositories of the true spirit of Islam. Today on the brink
of the 21st century this spirit is reasserting itself with confidence
and with force. The challenges, however, which face scholars
of mainstream Islam is to present Islam in a manner which can
satisfy the needs of the contemporary mind. We have to look at
new paradigms, approaches, and methodologies. Admittedly, enormous
work in this direction is being done by some of our contemporary
scholars. But we need to, in the spirit of this conference, unify
our efforts that much more. We are in need, in other words, of
a greater synergy. Above all, we are need of what I might call
"a new iconoclasm". Rather than ranting about the permissibility
of pictures and the painting of them, we need to destroy those
false social, spiritual, intellectual and ideological "images"
of our Din which have alienated so many of our Muslims from the
liberating ethos of Islam. One of those false "images"
- or myths if we wish is the notion of power and authority
in marriages in Islam. What better place than to start with the
- Abd al Ati, Hammudah (1977) The
Family Structure in Islam. Indiana : American Trust Publications.
- Agenda (1997) Empowering women for gender
equity Vol 36 Durban, South Africa.
- Eide A., Krause C., Rosas A., (1995) Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights. Netherlands : Martinus Nijhoff Publications.
- Al-Husni, Abu Bakr ibn Muhammad (1347AH)
Kifaayat al-Akhyaar Egypt : Idaarat al-Tibaat al-Muniriyyah.
- Nasr, Seyyed Hossein (1993) A Young Muslims
Guide To The Modern World. Cambridge : Islamic Texts Society.
- Al-Sabuni, Muhammad (1990) Rawai al-Bayaan
(2 Vols). Damascus : Dar al-Qalam.
- Al-Sanaani, Muhammad ibn Ismail (1988)
Subul al-Salaam (4 Vols). Beirut : Dar al-Fikr.
- Al-Shirbini, Muhammad al-Khatib (ND) Mughni
al-Muhtaaj (4Vols). Beirut : Dar al-Fikr
© Azzawiya Masjid