Eid al-Adha, the Muslim feast commemorating Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Ishmael, was Tuesday. Muslims frequently give special gifts (eidi) to those they love on such festive days, but in Muhammad Aslam’s home in Faisalabad, the great day came and went and Aslam had no eidi for his wife. In fact, she recounted later, he ignored her completely for the rest of the week. But that turned out to be the least of her troubles.
The following Friday, Aslam’s wife had made plans to go shopping with some of her friends, women from the area. She accordingly approached Aslam and made bold to ask him for eidi of 5,000 Pakistani rupees – that is, $47.13.
She didn’t get it. Instead, Aslam jumped up, seized her by the hair, and began beating her. Not content with the damage he could do alone, he called his brother, Muhammad Akram (no explanation is given in the Pakistani news item for the brothers’ identical forenames and different surnames). Akram, says the news report, “caught her by the arms while Aslam threw kerosene oil at her. They then set fire to her clothes.”
The poor woman is now in critical condition, with severe burns over 55 percent of her body. Pakistani police are hunting for Akram and Aslam, who fled the scene. But even if they are caught, the underlying problem will remain: Muhammad Aslam’s wife was the victim of entrenched and religiously sanctioned culture of violence against women, which still remains, and will victimize many, many more women.
Arguably, in burning his wife, Aslam transgressed the bounds of Islam. This is because burning as a punishment is reserved for Allah, who says in the Qur’an that he could have guided everyone to the truth, but instead decided to burn some people in hell:
And if we had willed, We could have given every soul its guidance, but the word from Me will come into effect [that] “I will surely fill Hell with jinn and people all together” (32:13).
According to a hadith, burning is solely Allah’s prerogative. In a controversy over some apostates from Islam having been burned to death – not because Islam doesn’t mandate death for those who leave the religion, but because of the way it was done:
Ali burnt some people and this news reached Ibn ‘Abbas, who said, “Had I been in his place I would not have burnt them, as the Prophet said, ‘Don’t punish (anybody) with Allah’s Punishment.’ No doubt, I would have killed them, for the Prophet said, ‘If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him’” (Bukhari 4.52.260).
However, as is so often the case, another hadith contradicts the idea that burning is reserved solely for Allah, and shows Muhammad himself ordering it as a punishment for those who had not come to prayer:
“The Prophet said, ‘No prayer is harder for the hypocrites than the Fajr and the ‘Isha’ prayers and if they knew the reward for these prayers at their respective times, they would certainly present themselves (in the mosques) even if they had to crawl.’ The Prophet added, ‘Certainly I decided to order the Mu’adh-dhin (call-maker) to pronounce Iqama and order a man to lead the prayer and then take a fire flame to burn all those who had not left their houses so far for the prayer along with their houses’” (Bukhari 11.626).
Also, in a religious and cultural environment in which it is believed that Allah could have saved all people but instead preferred to torture some in hell and that the proper punishment for a disobedient woman is beating (cf. Qur’an 4:34), it is not hard to see how Muhammad Aslam could have gotten the idea that the best way to deal with this woman who was pestering him for rupees was to cause her as much pain as possible.
Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood “family expert” Osama Yehia Abu Salama said last spring that “a woman needs to be confined within a framework that is controlled by the man of the house,” and that if a man beats his wife and she goes to a marriage counselor, the counselor should “show her how she had a role in what happened to her. If he is to blame, she shares 30 percent or 40 percent of the fault.”
Ghada Shahbandar of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights stated that Muslim Brotherhood members
do not believe that when domestic violence is present, the women should resort to the justice system or the legal process. It should be kept at home and under the protection of the family — that is their claim. And there is no such thing as marital rape because a husband is entitled to have sex with his wife any time that he wants….This has been in their rhetoric for ages.
Egypt is not Pakistan, but the Islamic beliefs and assumptions that underlie the Brotherhood’s position were almost certainly shared by the brothers Aslam and Akram – and today by millions of Muslims worldwide. Women, in this view, should be quiet and submissive. If their husbands deem them insufficiently so, they can brutalize them at will. For while there are hadiths that contain restrictions on how cruelly and ferociously a man can beat his wife, such limits are subjective – and contradicted by other hadiths in which Muhammad says, “A man will not be asked as to why he beat his wife” (Sunan Abu Dawud 2142) and “Hang up your scourge where your wife can see it” (Kash-shaf of al-Zamkhshari, vol. 1, p. 525).
And so Muhammad Aslam’s wife lies in a hospital bed today, critically burned for daring to ask her husband for $47 worth of eidi. Will Allah punish him for using Allah’s punishment on her, or reward him for scourging his disobedient wife? That is a question for the Islamic theologians and jurists. And that’s just the problem.
images courtesy shutterstock / Nils Z