Hizb ut-Tahrir, wife-beating and the obfuscation of Silma Ihram

Recently, a leader from Hizb ut-Tahrir Australia sanctioned the killing of apostates from Islam which has legitimate roots within Islam’s foundational texts. This week Hizb ut-Tahrir made the news again: The Australian reported about a video posted to Facebook by the Women of Hizb ut-Tahrir Australia, where two women demonstrated how Muslim men may discipline their wives (in accordance with Koran 4:34). The video can be seen here.

One positive was that the Islamic community in Australia spoke out unanimously against the video. Yet, as always, the wider discussion of how wife-beating may or may not be justified within Islamic ideology was lacking.

Despite the fact Hizb ut-Tahrir are a totalitarian Islamic group that believes in death for apostates and desires to impose sharia globally, in February Muslim activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied sought feedback from them after her appearance on Q&A where she declared “Islam is the most feminist religion”. In an attempt to deflect scrutiny away from Islam with regards to this video, she tweeted the following in order to make the issue about domestic violence rather than look at anything within Islamic doctrine that may condone wife-beating:

In Australia, >1 woman is killed A WEEK at the hands of partner(or ex). Domestic Violence, in all + any form, is unacceptable. End of story.

Silma Ihram, from the Australian Muslim Women’s Association, was interviewed on Sky News where she was nothing short of abysmal and apologetic. She criticised Hizb ut-Tahrir’s video but after being questioned about Koran 4:34, its understanding and application, she gave the following intellectually craven responses (bold emphasis mine):

You and I are not supposed to be interpreting that passage of Koran because you are taking a passage of Koran out of its context and out of the whole of the Koran and you are trying to act as an Islamic scholar.

…The explanation that is very clear in Islamic law is the one that is demonstrated and taught by the prophet Mohammed. So you’re taking a revelation from God and you’re trying to apply the English understanding of that particular verse as a standalone verse which is not what any scholar would do. Therefore, for people like you and me, if you look at the example of the prophet, if you look at the teachings of the scholars, you will find that there is nothing in that verse that permits any kind of domestic abuse.

[After the news host reads out Koran 4:34 (as translated by M.H. Shakir)] This is a very patriarchal interpretation of a complex Koranic text. Part of the problem with taking an English translation of a very deep Arabic text is that it does not look at what has been abrogated by approved Islamic scholars, what the context of it was, what the purpose of it was, what the other sources of translation are….

But in any interpretation of the Koran, and any application of Islamic law, it must reflect the overall purposes of Islamic law which are the preservation of life, the sanctity of the individual and definitely there is nothing that approves violence towards women. Now you’ve got two sources of Islamic law which are fundamental: there’s the Koran, which is very deep and complex, and you have the practice of the prophet. In his practice he did not approve of any kind of violence towards women. With his own wife, he would not allow even her father to discipline her. So the difference between this interpretation in English of the Koran and the practice of the prophet and the scholars’ interpretation is very different.

Silma Ihram’s obfuscations and confused logic are ultimately self-defeating. She argues that non-Muslims, and even a devout Muslim like herself, are “not supposed” to interpret Koran 4:34 (and presumably the Koran in its entirety) since we are not Islamic scholars. Moreover, the English translation somehow misinterprets Arabic and when we quote the verse, we are not looking at it in its proper “context”. This is a tired and essentially supremacist argument: that ‘translation’ is really the problem and we should only leave it to “expert” Islamic scholars to sort this out. Apparently ordinary people can’t look into this themselves and make up their own minds.

Yet surely, after 1400 years, the Koran’s “universal” and final revelation to man would have been adequately translated by now? If there is still any quibbling about Islamic text translations, then maybe the Koran should be rewritten so it’s intelligible? But alas….Muslims can’t rewrite the Koran because it’s the word of God and how could one dare to improve that?

Moreover, in a point that Ihram isn’t imaginative enough to logically deliberate unto, why would Allah ‘reveal’ the final revelation to Mohammed and humanity if Allah knew there were going to be so many difficulties when it was translated? Doesn’t that mean humans are doomed to keep continuing this task? If we keep getting translation errors, what’s the point of even trying to understand the Koran anymore? Why not give it up or perhaps admit Allah failed to make it simple enough for ordinary humans to understand?

The reality is that Islam’s foundational texts, including the Koran (plus traditional commentaries), the hadith and the sharia, allow for wife-beating and the mistreatment of women.

From the Koran – Sura 4, Verse 34:

Men have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because Allah has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. Surely God is high, supreme.

(Koran 4:34, translation by Dawood)

As Robert Spencer points out, Koran 4:34 is controversial and thus worth noting how several translators, Muslim and non-Muslim, deal with the key word ‘waidriboohunna’:

Translator Translation
Pickthall “and scourge them”
Yusuf Ali “(And last) beat them (lightly)”
Al-Hilali/Khan “(and last) beat them (lightly, if it is useful)”
Shakir “and beat them”
Sher Ali “and chastise them”
Khalifa “then you may (as a last alternative) beat them”
Arberry “and beat them”
Rodwell “and scourge them”
Sale “and chastise them”
Asad “then beat them”

Traditional Islamic commentators bear out the idea that beating a wife is permissible. Tafsir Al-Jalalayn is considered one of the most significant Koranic commentaries. It was composed by Jalal ad-Din al-Mahalli in 1459 and completed by Jalal ad-Din al-Suyuti in 1505. This is what Tafsir Al-Jalalayn says about Koran 4:34 (bold emphasis mine):

Men are in charge of, they have authority over, women, disciplining them and keeping them in check, because of that with which God has preferred the one over the other, that is, because God has given them the advantage over women, in knowledge, reason, authority and otherwise, and because of what they expend, on them [the women], of their property. Therefore righteous women, among them, are obedient, to their husbands, guarding in the unseen, that is, [guarding] their private parts and otherwise during their spouses’ absence, because of what God has guarded, for them, when He enjoined their male spouses to look after them well. And those you fear may be rebellious, disobedient to you, when such signs appear, admonish them, make them fear God, and share not beds with them, retire to other beds if they manifest such disobedience, and strike them, but not violently, if they refuse to desist [from their rebellion] after leaving them [in separate beds]. If they then obey you, in what is desired from them, do not seek a way against them, a reason to strike them unjustly. God is ever High, Great, so beware of Him, lest He punish you for treating them unjustly.[i]

Ibn Kathir (1300-1373) is viewed as one of the greatest classical Koranic scholars who was also a master scholar of history (qadi). His commentary on Koran 4:34 mentions how a wife can be disciplined and also gives insight into the general position women hold with respect to men (bold emphasis mine):

Allah said: (Men are the protectors and maintainers of women,) meaning, the man is responsible for the woman, and he is her maintainer, caretaker and leader who disciplines her if she deviates.

(Because Allah has made one of them to excel the other,) meaning, because men excel over women and are better than them for certain tasks. This is why prophethood was exclusive of men, as well as other important positions of leadership. The Prophet said, (People who appoint a woman to be their leader, will never achieve success.) Al-Bukhari recorded this Hadith. Such is the case with appointing women as judges or on other positions of leadership….

….(As to those women on whose part you see ill conduct,) meaning, the woman from whom you see ill conduct with her husband, such as when she acts as if she is above her husband, disobeys him, ignores him, dislikes him, and so forth. When these signs appear in a woman, her husband should advise her and remind her of Allah’s torment if she disobeys him. Indeed, Allah ordered the wife to obey her husband and prohibited her from disobeying him, because of the enormity of his rights and all that he does for her….

Al-Bukhari recorded that Abu Hurayrah said that the Messenger of Allah said, (If the man asks his wife to come to his bed and she declines, the angels will keep cursing her until the morning.) Muslim recorded it with the wording, (If the wife goes to sleep while ignoring her husband’s bed, the angels will keep cursing her until the morning.) This is why Allah said, (As to those women on whose part you see ill conduct, admonish them (first)).

Allah’s statement, (beat them) means, if advice and ignoring her in the bed do not produce the desired results, you are allowed to discipline the wife, without severe beating. Muslim recorded that Jabir said that during the Farewell Hajj, the Prophet said; (Fear Allah regarding women, for they are your assistants. You have the right on them that they do not allow any person whom you dislike to step on your mat. However, if they do that, you are allowed to discipline them lightly. They have a right on you that you provide them with their provision and clothes, in a reasonable manner.) Ibn `Abbas and several others said that the Ayah refers to a beating that is not violent. Al-Hasan Al-Basri said that it means, a beating that is not severe.

Ibn Kathir, Jalal ad-Din al-Mahalli and Jalal ad-Din as-Suyuti are significant figures in Koranic commentary and widely referenced by Muslims today. These tafsir are unabashedly honest and clearly refute apologists like Silma Ihram.

As contained in a canonical hadith, Mohammed struck his favourite wife, Aisha. One night, Mohammed believed Aisha was asleep and went outside. Without Mohammed noticing, Aisha decided to follow him. The following hadith shows Mohammed struck Aisha once he found out she followed him (bold emphasis mine):

He came (to the house) and I also came (to the house). I, however, preceded him and I entered (the house), and as I lay down in the bed, he (the Prophet) entered the (house), and said: Why is it, O ‘A’isha, that you are out of breath? I said: There is nothing. He said: Tell me or the Subtle and the Aware would inform me. I said: Messenger of Allah, may my father and mother be ransom for you, and then I told him (the whole story). He said: Was it the darkness (of your shadow) that I saw in front of me? I said: Yes. He struck me on the chest which caused me pain, and then said: Did you think that Allah and His Prophet would deal unjustly with you?

(Sahih Muslim, Book 004, No. 2127)

Moreover, according to another hadith, Aisha said she never saw any woman suffer as much as Muslim women (‘the believing women’):

Narrated by ‘Ikrima: Rifa’a divorced his wife whereupon ‘AbdurRahman bin Az-Zubair Al-Qurazi married her. ‘Aisha said that the lady (came), wearing a green veil (and complained to her (Aisha) of her husband and showed her a green spot on her skin caused by beating). It was the habit of ladies to support each other, so when Allah’s Apostle came, ‘Aisha said, “I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women. Look! Her skin is greener than her clothes!” When ‘AbdurRahman heard that his wife had gone to the Prophet, he came with his two sons from another wife. She said, “By Allah! I have done no wrong to him but he is impotent and is as useless to me as this,” holding and showing the fringe of her garment, ‘Abdur-Rahman said, “By Allah, O Allah’s Apostle! She has told a lie! I am very strong and can satisfy her but she is disobedient and wants to go back to Rifa’a.” Allah’s Apostle said, to her, “If that is your intention, then know that it is unlawful for you to remarry Rifa’a unless Abdur-Rahman has had sexual intercourse with you.” Then the Prophet saw two boys with ‘Abdur-Rahman and asked (him), “Are these your sons?” On that ‘AbdurRahman said, “Yes.” The Prophet said, “You claim what you claim (i.e. that he is impotent)? But by Allah, these boys resemble him as a crow resembles a crow.”

(Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 72, Number 715)

Furthermore, as contained in another hadith, men are permitted to beat women should they dare to ‘become emboldened’ (bold emphasis mine):

Do not beat Allah’s handmaidens, but when Umar came to the Messenger of Allah and said: Women have become emboldened towards their husbands, he (the Prophet) gave permission to beat them. Then many women came round the family of the Messenger of Allah complaining against their husbands. So the Messenger of Allah said: Many women have gone round Muhammad’s family complaining against their husbands. They are not the best among you.

(Sunan Abu-Dawud, Book 11, Hadith 2141)

The Prophet said: A man will not be asked as to why he beat his wife.

(Sunan Abu-Dawud, Book 11, Hadith 2142)

There are some hadith where Mohammed says not to beat wives and treat them well. However, as seen above, Mohammed permits beating and himself struck Aisha. Hence, when Silma Ihram says that there is nothing in the example of Mohammed that permits any kind of violence towards women, this is incorrect since there are reliable hadith that show this to have been the case.

Moreover, ‘Umdat al-Salik (‘The Reliance of the Traveller’) is a classical manual of Islamic law compiled in the 14th century by Ahmad Ibn Naqib Al-Misri. It is still a relevant and important manual of fiqh, and an authoritative summation of Islamic jurisprudence for the Shafi’i school within Sunni Islam. In addition, in 1991 ‘Umdat al-Salik was certified and endorsed for current use by the most important learning institution within Sunni Islam – Al-Azhar University.

In Book M, Section 10.11 (entitled ‘Dealing with a Rebellious Wife’) it shows how a husband can beat his wife – note how it mirrors Koran 4:34 i.e. first warn one’s wife with words, then don’t sleep with them and finally, if rebelliousness persists, hit them (bold emphasis mine):

When a husband notices signs of rebelliousness in his wife (whether in words, as when she answers him coldly when she used to do so politely, or he asks her to come to bed and she refuses, contrary to her usual habit; or whether in acts, as when he finds her averse to him when she was previously kind and cheerful), he warns her in words (without keeping from her or hitting her, for it may be that she has an excuse. The warning could be to tell her, “Fear Allah concerning the rights you owe to me,” or it could be to explain that rebelliousness nullifies his obligation to support her and give her a turn amongst other wives, or it could be to inform her, “Your obeying me…..is religiously obligatory”). If she commits rebelliousness, he keeps from sleeping (and having sex) with her without words, and may hit her, but not in a way that injures her, meaning he may not (bruise her,) break bones, wound her, or cause blood to flow. (It is unlawful to strike another’s face).

(‘Umdat al-Salik, M10.11)

Moreover, since Ihram insists Islamic scholars should be the only ones interpreting the Koran, perhaps she’d like to read what some of them say. Sheikh al-Qaradawi is one of the most famous and influential Sunni Islamic clerics in the world. He addressed this issue in his book The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam (1984), where he permits wife-beating in accordance with the Koran and sharia (bold emphasis mine):

Because of his natural ability and his responsibility for providing for his family, the man is the head of the house and of the family. He is entitled to the obedience and cooperation of his wife, and accordingly it is not permissible for her to rebel against his authority, causing disruption. Without a captain the ship of the household will flounder and sink. If the husband senses that feelings of disobedience and rebelliousness are rising against him in his wife, he should try his best to rectify her attitude by kind words, gentle persuasion, and reasoning with her. If this is not helpful, he should sleep apart from her, trying to awaken her agreeable feminine nature so that serenity may be restored, and she may respond to him in a harmonious fashion. If this approach fails, it is permissible for him to beat her lightly with his hands, avoiding her face and other sensitive parts.

Moreover, in 2007, then President of Al-Azhar University and former mufti of Egypt, Ahmad al-Tayyeb, confirmed the Islamic understanding of this practice:

By Allah, even if only one woman out of a million can be reformed by light beatings… It’s not really beating, it’s more like punching… It’s like shoving or poking her. That’s what it is.

In a recent example, Kuwaiti cleric Othman Al-Khamis cites Koran 4:34 and explains step-by-step how wives should be treated by their husbands (bold emphasis mine):

If a woman disobeys her husband, he begins by admonishing her. He does not move beyond admonishment, unless he despairs of this means, and his wife did not benefit from the admonishment. If this does not help, he moves on to refusing to share her bed. This is kept within the home, not outside. He does not share her bed. In other words, he refrains from having sex with her….This is a psychological measure of discipline against the wife. If this rectifies the situation – all praise be to Allah. If not, he can beat her, but the beatings must not be hard. He must not beat her like he would beat a man. The beatings must not be hard.

There’s a noticeable continuity between Islam’s foundational texts and modern-day Islamic scholars like Sheikh al-Qaradawi, Ahmad al-Tayyeb and Othman Al-Khamis. However, for Abdel-Magied and Ihram, it’s easier to speak about domestic violence or deflect attention away from Islamic doctrine than properly explore its role in wife-beating. And indeed, whilst domestic violence is a problem (which, incidentally, the Australian government treats seriously, condemns in the strongest possible manner and acts against), the far more pernicious problem of wife-beating within Islam is that it is divinely sanctioned by Islamic texts and the example of Mohammed (who is the perfect example all Muslims should emulate).

Hizb ut-Tahrir’s position on wife-beating is in accordance with canonical Islamic texts, traditional commentaries and the sharia – the video’s message was consistent with what these command.

[i] Jalal al-Din al-Mahalli & Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (translated by Feras Hamza), Tafsir al-Jalalayn, Amman, 2007, p. 89.