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Clothes Aren't the Issue

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Much of the problem is the 4:34 dance, which encourages this violence while producing interpretations that range from comical to shocking. A Muslim man in upstate New York, for instance, told his wife that the Koran allowed him to beat her with a "wet noodle." The host of a Saudi TV show displayed a pool cue as a disciplinary tool.

Modern debates over 4:34 inevitably hark back to a still widely used 1930 translation of the Koran by British Muslim Marmaduke Pickthall, who determined the verse to mean that, as a last resort, men can "scourge" their wives. A 1934 translation of the Koran, by Indian Muslim scholar A. Yusuf Ali, inserted a parenthetical qualifier: Men could "Beat them (lightly)."

By the 1970s, Saudi Arabia, with its ultra-traditionalist Wahhabi ideology, was providing the translations. Fueled by oil money, the kingdom sent its Korans to mosques and religious schools worldwide. A Koran available at my local mosque, published in 1985 by the Saudi government, adds yet another qualifier: "Beat them (lightly, if it is useful)."

Today, the Islamic Society of North America and popular Muslim Internet mailing lists such as SisNet and IslamIstheTruth rely on an analysis from "Gender Equity in Islam," a 1995 book by Jamal Badawi, director of the Islamic Information Foundation in Canada. Badawi tries to take a stand against domestic violence, but like others doing the 4:34 dance, he leaves room for physical discipline. If a wife "persists in deliberate mistreatment and expresses contempt of her husband and disregard for her marital obligations," the husband "may resort to another measure that may save the marriage . . . more accurately described as a gentle tap on the body," he writes. "[B]ut never on the face," he adds, "making it more of a symbolic measure than a punitive one."

As long as the beating of women is acceptable in Islam, the problem of suicide bombers, jihadists and others who espouse violence will not go away; to me, they form part of a continuum. When 4:34 came into being in the 7th century, its pronouncements toward women were revolutionary, given that women were considered little more than chattel at the time. But 1,400 years later, the world is a different place and so, too, must our interpretations be different, retaining the progressive spirit of that verse.

Domestic violence is prevalent today in non-Muslim communities as well, but the apparent religious sanction in Islam makes the challenge especially difficult. Some people seem to understand this and are beginning to push back against the traditionalists. However, their efforts are concentrated in the West, and their impact remains small.

In his recent book "No god but God," Reza Aslan, an Islam scholar at the University of Southern California, dared to assert that "misogynistic interpretation" has dogged 4:34 because Koranic commentary "has been the exclusive domain of Muslim men." An Iranian American scholar recently published a new 4:34 translation stating that the "beating" step means "go to bed with them (when they are willing)."

Meanwhile, shelters created for Muslim women in Chicago and New York have begun to preach zero tolerance regarding the "disciplining" of women -- a position that should be universal by now. And some Muslim men appear to grasp the gravity of this issue. In Northern Virginia, for instance, an imam organized a group called Muslim Men Against Domestic Violence -- though it still endorses the "tapping" of a wife as a "friendly" reminder, an organizer said.

Yet even these small advances, if we can call them such, face an uphill battle against the Saudi oil money propagating literalist interpretations of the Koran here in the United States and worldwide.

Last October, I listened to an online audio sermon by an American Muslim preacher, Sheik Yusuf Estes, who was scheduled to speak at West Virginia University as a guest of the Muslim Student Association. He soon moved to the subject of disobedient wives, and his recommendations mirrored the literal reading of 4:34. First, "tell them." Second, "leave the bed." Finally: "Roll up a newspaper and give her a crack. Or take a yardstick, something like this, and you can hit."

When I telephoned Estes later to ask about the sermon, he said that he had been trying to limit how and when men could hit their wives. He realized that he had to revisit the issue, he told me, when some Canadian Muslim men asked him if they could use the Sunday newspaper to give their wives "a crack."

Yet even those doing the 4:34 dance seem to realize that there's a problem. When I went back to listen to the audio clip later, the offensive language had been removed. And when I asked Estes if he had ever rolled up a newspaper to give his own wife a crack, he responded without hesitation.

"I'm married to a woman from Texas," he said. "Do you know what she would do to me?"

asranomani@muslimsforpeace.net

Asra Q. Nomani is the author of "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam" (HarperSanFrancisco).


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