Book review: the most controversial qur’anic verse: why 4:34 does not promote violence against women

Barbara Castleton’s Bookshelf

The Most Controversial Qur’anic Verse: Why 4:34 Does Not Promote Violence Against Women
John Andrew Morrow
Hamilton Books
c/o Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group
4501 Forbes Blvd., Suite 200, Lanham, MD 20706
9780761872092, $90.00 HC, $85.50 Kindle, 350pp

Billions of people around the world mourned the destruction of the massive statues of Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley of Afghanistan. Why? Because for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike they represent something beyond the human experience – something supremely sacred. For Muslims around the world, the Qur’an is like that, a text whose words are held in such reverence that the idea of alteration is akin to apostasy. The Qur’an, the divine doctrine for approximately 1.6 billion Muslims, contains 114 chapters, some as short as three verses, while others unfold in complex and lengthy sections. Orally revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel over a period of two decades, 609-632 CE, the teachings and doctrines in the Qur’an are considered divine and immutable by most believers. To take issue with divine inspiration, to challenge its historic or modern interpretation, would certainly call up comparisons to the divisive discourses from the Christian Bible such as both Matthew 27:24-25 and Ephesians 6:5. The first verse appears to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus, an accusation that has for centuries led to the oppression of and violence against Jews. The second has historically been used to justify slavery and to call on slaves to submit meekly to their masters. Both verses have rightly been challenged by researchers and religious experts.

Dr. John A. Morrow’s current efforts to shine a rational, scholarly light on a contentious verse in the Qur’an is a truly formidable undertaking, not to mention a subject known to elicit extreme reactions and even venom from the public. Yet, Dr. Morrow, an academic and activist as well as a prolific writer on Islam, has chosen to shoulder the challenge of disputing the accepted interpretation of Verse 4:34, which states both in Arabic and in this English translation:

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore, the righteous women are devoutly obedient, 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, admonish them, refuse to share their beds, and beat them [emphasis mine]; but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance): For God is Most High, Great (above you all). (4:34)

In the foreword to his book, The Most Controversial Qur’anic Verse: Why 4:34 Does Not Promote Violence Against Women, Dr. Morrow explains that the project was triggered first by a beloved daughter’s birth, and second, by the passing suggestion of another scholar. As a man of prodigious scholarship and broad feminist commitments, Dr. Morrow had finally to face the elephant in the room, the infamous Qur’anic verse, placed in the chapter titled “The Women” (Al-Nisa’), which appears to grant husbands carte blanche to strike or beat their wives. At its core, the verse seems to promote domestic violence thus the author’s deep-water immersion into this quest and its investigation took his own faith to the mat, testing all that he holds dear including the inviolability of the Qur’an itself. If the Qur’an is never wrong, then how can the Qur’an propose these violent acts? “And beat them,” – three words that growl menacingly in the modern world, are laden with history, misogyny, and religious complicity. Morrow decided that an investigation of the phrase would require a 360-degree view of the verse and, so, in this volume, he has assigned a single focus per chapter. Thus, reader finds chapters named:

Interpret the Verse by the Verse
Interpret the Verse in Light of Directly Related Verses
Interpret the Verse in Light of the Qur’an as a Whole
Interpret the Verse in Light of Prophetic Traditions that Prohibit Disciplinary Domestic

Violence and others. Dr. Morrow has comprehensively investigated varied approaches to the verse by deconstructing the verse itself, analyzing verses related to 4:34, measuring the accepted interpretation of the verse in terms of Qur’anic doctrine as a whole, holding the verse up alongside other Prophetic teachings, and placing it in a historical context. In each case, Morrow has excavated ancient and modern writings on the topic, pitting researchers and religious scholars against one another in a 1400-year debate, one that crosses international boundaries and spans many religious belief systems.

In the first chapter, for example, Interpret the Verse by the Verse, Morrow probes the etymology of the consonant triad d-r-b, the root for daraba and the source for the specific 4:34 variant idribuhunna, widely held to mean “beat them.” However, Morrow asserts, with exhaustive evidence, that the choice to assign “beat them” to idribuhunna is akin to assigning truth to a single pattern in a kaleidoscope. While daraba does mean to beat, it is but one of fifty-eight separate and diverse meanings. Others include, according Morrow and other respected sociolinguists: to play; to make music; to sting; to express indignation and disregard; to separate and to part; to impose; to set forth, to travel, to move; to turn away from, to dispense with, to leave, to forsake, to abandon, to desert, to avoid, to ignore, to disregard or to shun. Despite this wealth of options, the predominantly male Qur’anic scholars and authorities have habitually embraced the more violent and demeaning “beat them”, thus modeling for religious and language communities across the globe a behavior antithetical to the Qur’an as a whole, as well as the Prophet’s broader teachings.

Arabic-speaking Muslim scholars and Orientalists have for centuries clung limpet-like to a single interpretation and have even expanded upon it. For example, in the late 1800s, Sufi scholar Muhammad Thana’Allah Panipati asserted in Tafsir al-Mazhari, “If she commits a sexual indecency, neglects her daily prayers, fails to fast during Ramadan, or does not complete the ritual bath after sexual intercourse or menstruation, he should hit her or imprison her, as he deems fit.” Other scholars may cushion the blows with semantically reduced violence, stipulating that it be less severe or even symbolic, but the onus remains with the husband without offering the wife an equitable measure of disciplinary religiosity by which to amend a husband’s flaws or restrain his negative habits.

With tragic irony, not to mention intermittent, yet palpable fury, Morrow interrogates a millennium of opinion, probing religious and human history for why a supposedly divinely communicated pronouncement would fail to provide safety and respect for the distaff half of the population. Utilizing recent and reliable statistics, he exposes the bruising realities of the actions of men against women around the world, delivering numbers on domestic violence, spousal killings, beatings, injuries, hospitalizations, and victims. He follows with documented figures from majority Muslim countries, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey, nations in which women experience domestic violence at the highest rates globally. For example, as many as 90% of women in Pakistan suffer through beatings and other forms of domestic violence. In Afghanistan and Turkey, the figures are 90 and 45%, respectively. In other words, for many women worldwide, including the Muslim ummah (community), violence against women is a norm, set in some cases by cultural tradition, and in other cases by religious complicity and judicial laxity.

The weight of history, commentary, law, and religious tradition that supports the accepted view of 4:34 positions this verse as a real “axis of evil”, one that sits at the base of a mammoth reverse pyramid of male-dominated thought. There, at the nether point of the pyramid, men have established and imbedded a belief that women are not just second or lesser than men, but, in fact, consigned to a sphere of value beneath livestock. To alter, realign, or challenge the idea that men have supremacy over women and thus, may punish or educate them with a stick, is far older than Islam. As Morrow writes, “As disturbing as it may be, the right of men to physically discipline their wives is as ancient as history. The Code of Hammurabi, which dates from nearly two-thousand years BCE, decreed that women must submit to their husbands, failing which the husband had the right to punish them physically for disobedience. Later Assyrian law also permitted the beating of wives. In early Roman law, a husband had the right to beat, divorce or murder his wife if she dishonored him” (p. 163). Consider that, with every morning prayer, millions of the world’s Jewish men recite a verse that declares, “Blessed are you Lord… for not making me a woman” (p. 70).

Place that phrase in any of the upper sections of our virtual reverse pyramid and you will have an idea of how the more punitive view of Verse 4:34 might have come to pass. Morrow’s book fills in every layer of bias, malfeasance, and assault promulgated against women. For over 4000 years, within the spiritual and interpretive construct of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, humans with vaginas have been denied agency and autonomy. A broader implication, and one revealed in the assertion that “God created man in His image and that He would not have created woman if it were not for man,” (p. 20) would imply that God chose to create an inferior being because He could not conceive a being that would be on par with men. Are we talking of a God with limited skills?

Even the Prophet Muhammad comes under painstaking scrutiny, though one of his wives reported, “The Prophet never beat any of his wives or servants; in fact, he did not strike anything with his hand except in the cause of God or when the prohibitions of God were violated, and he retaliated on behalf of Allah.” Yet, conversations attributed to the Prophet seem to tell a less benign tale. While Muhammad was recorded to have said, “The most perfect among believers in faith is he who is the best in manner and the kindest to his wife,” other sayings describe an incident when a woman ran to the Prophet and cried “foul” because her husband had beaten her, leaving visible abrasions. She told the Prophet that she deserved restitution, which was usually in the form of money. Muhammad agreed, saying that the woman was in the right. But then, from the heavens, God spoke and offered an opposing view: “Men are the qawwamun over women, because Allah hath made one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah has guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart and scourge them. Then, if they obey you, seek not a way against them.” Chastened, Muhammad admitted that he had thought one way about the violence and God, another.

Apparently, God’s will, as deciphered by men, still holds sway in the 21st century. A momentous, seemingly critical document on violence against women written by Muhammad Husayn Fadlullah, published in 2007, was initially lauded as game changing and timely, granting its author the moniker “feminist.” As one of six major ways women are demeaned and violated, Fadlullah asserts, “We have firstly the physical violence in which women are beaten. This form represents the most degrading human practice, since it shows that men are incapable of resorting to reason and logic to prove their viewpoint. It also does not prove that men are strong. On the contrary, it proves that they are weak, for only the weak are in need of unjust violence.”

However, before applause break out in the mezzanine, where many of the Muslim women are sitting, Morrow transports us through an analysis of Fadlullah’s document and on to a recognition, that, like God, Fadlullah disagrees with his own assertions when it comes to 4:34. In the lengthy text of his jurisprudential encyclical, he never mentions 4:34 by number. He avoids the one verse that specifically calls on husbands to beat their wives. Like a horse refusing to make a jump, Fadlullah balked at the gate. The reason may reside in an earlier writing about the Qur’an, Tafsir min wahi al-Qur’an, within which he comments on 4:34, saying, “‘And beat them.’ This is the third way, the way of beating, but it does not represent the unreasonable beating practiced by man in a state of agitation because of bad temper, psychological complexity, and the need to give vent to wrath, but rather a calm disciplinary beating that shows humiliation for her.” Oh, well if it is supposed to be educational, that makes all the difference. Not. Morrow, with his more recent and successful experience in social work as a cerebral banner, jumps in order to stress that in effective parenting, punishment and discipline are not designed to humiliate, but rather to educate. Yet, Fadlullah specifically uses the word humiliate, demonstrating that the goal of the beating is to demean a woman, to suppress her will to defend herself, and to keep her down.

Yet, all is not lost in the author’s eyes. Here and there in the Muslim world are others who are questioning the accepted truth of wife beating. Morrow sites Abdulaziz Bayindir, current scholar in Islamic jurisprudence and one of those charged with issuing religious edicts, and he explains how Bayindir went from “the husband who has provided solid evidence that his wife has committed adultery holds the right to leave her out of the marital bed and to beat her” (p. 208) to doing his own in-depth research on the topic and finding that “almost all the sources were manipulated” (Ibid.) Like Dr. Morrow, Bayindir looked, found, and documented how “False interpretations of the Qur’an and false prophetic traditions had contaminated his comprehension of Muslim scripture” (Ibid.)

Reading this religio-archeological debate is analogous to viewing a championship Wimbledon match with ideas bouncing from one side of the argument to the other as each player applies skill, study, and passion to the effort. The difference is that the winner of a tennis match will not change the course of life for billions of humans. “While I disagree with discarding Islamic Tradition and traditional scholars, as this amounts to tossing out the baby with the bathwater, I am equally convinced that fossilized religions have no future. They degrade, disintegrate, and return to dust. For religions to survive, they must be living organisms. They are like gardens that require care, cultivation, and pruning” (p. 189). If Dr. John Andrew Morrow can make even a dent in a 1400-year-old pattern of abuse, hundreds of millions of women will benefit and, he predicts, Islam itself will rise heavenward in the estimation of believers and unbelievers alike.

Barbara Castleton

Credit: Originally published in the Midwest Book Review “Reviewer’s Bookwatch” (Volume 21, Number 1) in January 2021.