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The Sad Silence about Muslim Wife-Beating

In fact, Westernized Muslim scholars strive to justify the practice on Islamic legal grounds. Muslim traditional society is a nested hierarchy in which the clan is an extended family, the tribe an extended clan, and the state an extended tribe. The family patriarch thus enjoys powers in his realm comparable to those of the state in the broader realm. That is the deeper juridical content of the Koranic provision for wife-beating in Surah 4:34:[Husbands] are the protectors and maintainers of their [wives] because Allah 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 Allah would have them guard. As to the women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them first, refuse to share their beds, spank them, but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means of [annoyance]: for Allah is Most High, Great. An essay by two Michigan State University Law students, Bassam A Abed & Syed E Ahmad, is cited often on Islamic web sites as a credibly modern interpretation of Surah 4:34. Abed and Ahmad begin with the legal principle that sanctions wife-beating, namely that the husband is the "governor" or "administrator" of the family.

The translator’s use of the term "protectors" in the first line of the aforementioned quote is in reference to the Arabic term of qawaamoon (singular:qawaam). Qawaamoon has been defined in various manners by different scholars and translators. Abul 'Ala Maududi, has defined qawaamoon as "governors" and as "managers". Qawaam "stands for a person who is responsible for the right conduct and safeguard and maintenance of the affairs of an individual or an institution or an organisation [sic]."

The authors explain:

The majority of jurists hold that the language of the "Discipline Passage" itself reveals a sequential approach to the discipline authorized. For them, the conjunction wa ("and") used between the various types of discipline signifies its chronological order. This approach guides a husband in disciplining his wife that is disobedient, regardless of how disobedience is defined. In following the disciplinary process, he must first admonish his wife, then desert her in bed, and finally physically discipline her as a last resort to marital reconciliation.

Beating is permitted, Abed and Ahmad explain, but only if it is done in a spirit of reconciliation:

The greatest controversy and misunderstanding of the "Discipline Passage" is in the final stage of the disciplinary process - "spanking" the disobedient wife. The reconciliatory purpose behind the passage’s "spanking" provision helps debunk the misconceptions surrounding this disciplinary stage. A husband is not to "spank" his wife if his motivation in doing so is other that such reconciliation. "Spanking" out of anger, for punishment, or for retaliation is prohibited, running contrary to the reconciliatory rationale. Similarly, a husband cannot "spank" his wife to humiliate her, cause in her fear, or to compel her against her will. Islam permits "spanking" to remind the wife of her disobedience and to bring her back to obedience so as to facilitate marital reconciliation.

Decisive in the above analysis of Surah 4:32 is the analogy between the husband and the head of a political subdivision or organization. The state in traditional society devolves its authority to the cells from which it is composed, starting with the family, which is a state in miniature, whose patriarch is a "governor" or "administrator." Traditional society is organized like a nested set of Russian dolls: the clan is the family writ large, the tribe is an extension of the clan, the state is an alliance of the tribes, and the relationship of citizen and sovereign is reproduced at each level.