“the most controversial qur’anic verse” reviewed in “reading religion”

The Most Controversial Qur’anic Verse

Why 4:34 Does Not Promote Violence Against Women

By: John Andrew Morrow

350 Pages

  • ISBN: 9780761872092
  • Published By: Rowman & Littlefield
  • Published: July 2020
  • $90.00 from publisher

John Andrew Morrow’s The Most Controversial Qur’anic Verse weighs in on the debate on Islam and the reinterpretation of the controversial gender Qur’ān verse, 4:34. The book confronts the pervasive masculinist lens that is evident in the classical and contemporary interpretations that “allow” (some form of) husbands hitting wives as a disciplinary measure to solve a marital conflict. Morrow links this to relatively high rates of domestic violence in Muslim communities. His daughter inspired this work: “She forced me to reconsider everything I had learned and everything that I had accepted as fact for several decades” (ix). The book is thereby an academic search for an answer to a historical and contemporary form of injustice against women. Morrow places the study within the field of Islamic studies. The ten approaches he has chosen are divided into ten chapters: Interpretation of the Verse by the Verse, in the Light of Directly Related Verses, of the Qur’ān as a Whole, of the Prophetic Traditions that Prohibit Disciplinary Domestic Violence, Prophetic Traditions that Permit Disciplinary Domestic Violence, in its Historical Context, The Reformist Interpretation, in the Spirit of Islām as a Whole, Allegorically and Vocalizations and Variants (Linguistically).

There is no academic methodology specified in this book. Because of the involvement in varying specialties and subfields in Islamic studies— namely, tafsīr (Qur’ānic exegesis), hadīth exegesis, historical context, mysticism, reformism—this study is highly ambitious in its multidisciplinary approach. Morrow takes multiple examples of social surveys. In chapter 1, he uses data on domestic violence worldwide (11–13) and data about domestic violence in relation to support of shari’ah (42–44); and in chapter 8, he uses data on the acceptance/ justification of domestic violence in Muslim countries (210–211). These figures mainly contribute to the argument that it is necessary to do this reinterpretation of 4:34, that an interpretation as “light” is not put into practice and shows that not taking a clear stance against harmful interpretation keeps allowing for an environment of high percentages of domestic violence.

Morrow neither explains nor makes a structured analysis linking the data to a general argument, but instead calls them “self-explanatory” (126). The former brings me to a more critical note: the book contains much of Morrow’s own opinion and at some point becomes polemical: ”While one may accuse me of blasphemy for questioning the meaning of the verse in question . . . the true blasphemers are those who believe that God has ordained domestic violence” (109).

The author’s study of diverse interpretations in source texts is impressive. He is unique for both the quantity—more than a hundred classical and contemporary tafāsīr (pl. of tafsīr) and fiqh (legal) texts— and the wide range of Sunni and Shia exegeses he studied on this verse: from scholars who prohibit striking women completely, (Dārami [d. 869]) and ibn al-Faras al-Gharnaṭī (d.1202/1203), 135), to scholars who follow the three prescriptions in sequence (Hamza Yūsuf, 29), to having sex with them (Leghaei, 143), to beat without leaving a mark (Ḥasan al-Basrī, 112), to beating “as long as it is not fatal” (116) and “so long the husband does not hit his wife more than one hundred times, he is not responsible if she dies” (118). He convincingly shows that the history of tafsīr offers many choices with which the implementation becomes rather dependent on personal preference.

From an analytical point of view, Morrow’s book addresses 4:34 as a whole, but he dominantly focusses on the interpretation of ḍaraba (possible meanings: to hit, to turn away, to go away, seclude, bring to attention). An elaborate discussion on scholars who address the prescribed sequence of the steps in 4:34 is notably missing: first a consulting conversation (wa‘dh), then taking some distance of the bed, and finally if that does not work, the option for ḍaraba. The option of hitting is almost ruled out if those steps are actually followed; shāfi‘ī (a school of jurisprudence) scholars e.g., al-Ghazālī, al-Mawārdī, al-Bajiramī) do not allow the husband to take on a step before he exhausts the one that is before it. The Hanafi scholar Al-Kāsānī stresses to minimize communication between the couple— eventually leading to alienation— and mālikī- and ḥanbalī- (school of jurisprudence) jurists emphasize the husband’s obligation to fully exhaust wa‘dh (admonish) before he takes a step towards harming the wife (Ibn Qudama, Mughni, book7,p.318). Morrow suggests that for men, the option of striking should also raise the question of the underlying structure of dominance and keeping control and critically discusses whether that should be an objective in a loving marriage. He could have taken this analysis to the level of underlying relationships: a conceptual analysis of the idea of the legitimization of the disciplining itself. Who is allowed to discipline whom, on which grounds, and how is personal (subjective) implementation prevented?

This study contains a textual study of core texts, discussion of other academic studies on core texts, linguistic analysis, analysis of data from social sciences, and personal reflections. Morrow clearly gives his own opinion (against hitting) but does not formulate his conclusion coherently. The book is not always well structured. For example, on page 127 in the chapter on Prophetic traditions, Morrow holds a polemic against takfiri-wahhabism (an excommunicating and extremist form of political islam), continuing to mention the concepts of misogyny and colonialism (128) and discussing immigration and using statistics on forced marriage (129).

However, this study can be praised for two points. It’s uniquely courageous for implementing a holistic and multidisciplinary approach within Islamic studies— which is still rare—and for the amount and wide range of source texts Morrow was able to study and include in the research. This gives the reader a detailed insight in the classic and contemporary diverse options Islam offers, yet convincingly argues to interpret ḍaraba in a nonviolent way.

Anne J.F. Dijk is a PhD candidate in philosophy and theology with the Extreme Beliefs Project at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and lecturer and chair at Fahm Instituut.

Date Of Review:

June 20, 2021