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«Nada Ibrahim and Mohamad Abdalla Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia A Critical Examination of Qur’an 4:34 Abstract This article examines ...»

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A Critical Examination of Qur’an 4:34

and its Relevance to Intimate Partner Violence in Muslim Families

Nada Ibrahim and Mohamad Abdalla

Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia

A Critical Examination of Qur’an 4:34


This article examines Islam’s position on wife beating in the context of intimate partner violence

(IPV). Though research indicates multiple causes of IPV, Islam is singled out as the main cause

for violence against women in Muslim societies, based on the interpretation of verse 4:34 (which seemingly supports wife beating). This verse is often interpreted out of context and Islam’s position on IPV is confused with the issue of nushuz (contentiously translated as wife’s disobedience, flagrant defiance, and/or misbehavior). The lack of accurate translations compounds the problem for English readers. This article critically examines the legal meanings and implications of nushuz found in verse 4:34 within the context of IPV; and the authors contend that contextual understating of this is imperative for positive clinical engagement with Muslim clients.

Keywords: domestic violence, intimate partner violence, Islam, wife beating, wife abuse, nushuz, wadribuhunna, qawwamuna, Qur’an 4:34 N. Ibrahim and M. Abdalla A Critical Examination of Qur’an 4:34 and its Relevance to Intimate Partner Violence in Muslim Families Islam is commonly portrayed as condoning wife abuse (in all its forms, especially wife beating).

While wife beating exists in most societies for various reasons, within Muslim societies the problem is usually attributed to the Qur’anic verse 4:34 that seems to legitimize wife beating - if read out of context. This is primarily due to a failure to understand Islam’s legal position on intimate partner violence (IPV) and the meaning and legal implications of the imperatives nushuz and wadribuhunna found in that verse. This article provides evidence from Islam’s primary legal texts and the views of leading Muslim scholars to demonstrate the prohibition of all forms of IPV. By extension, the article also explores Islam’s legal position on wife beating by critically examining the meaning and legal implications of verse 4:34. Using this as a framework, the article provides substantial theoretical evidence that establishes the invalidity of reading verse 4:34 as condoning wife beating and provides evidence contrary to the notion of wife beating. The findings of this article are crucial for researchers, practitioners, service providers and policy makers in the provision of culturally and religiously competent care when addressing issues of IPV and wife beating in Muslim societies.

Contemporary Understanding of DV and IPV Domestic violence (DV) is an umbrella term that usually refers to violence or abusive behaviors that occurs in a domestic setting, where a family member asserts control over another family member(s) (Hegarty, Hindmarsh, & Gilles, 2000). Domestic violence includes violence or abuse by a husband against a wife (or de facto), violence by a wife against a husband, a child against a

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the elderly (Hegarty et al., 2000). The most common category of DV is male partner abuse against females (Portwood & Heany, 2007). The United Nations estimates that at least one-third of women around the world are victims of violence, whether physical or sexual (United Nations Development Fund for Women [UNIFEM], 2007). In fact, DV is the leading cause of injuries to women of reproductive age in America (Portwood & Heany, 2007), and an estimated 87% of DV sufferers in Australia are women (Healey, 2005). Often the male perpetrator is not only known to the female victim, but he has also betrayed a close personal relationship with her, making the home, the greatest place of safety, a threat (Portwood & Heany, 2007). The body of existing research indicates that DV is not confined to any particular age, social status, or cultural, religious, socioeconomic or ethnic group (Vandello & Cohen, 2008).

Though domestic violence is a broader term that covers a wide range of abuse in a domestic setting, IPV is more specific. In the literature, IPV specifically refers to the domestic abuse of an intimate partner1 against another. Based on a multitude of definitions found in literature, IPV can be best defined as abuse in the form of physical, nonphysical or sexual coercion that takes place in the context of a close relationship between partners or ex-partners that results in (or has the potential to result in) injury, harm, or death, and is shaped by situation, society, relationship, and culture2 (Mitchell & Anglin, 2009; Matthews, 2004; Winstok, 2007).

This definition, among others, identifies the various dimensions of IPV, signifying the visible and nonvisible features of IPV that affect every aspect of the victim’s life. While recognizing the existence of female-perpetrated IPV, this article will focus on the most widespread form of evidence-based IPV, which is that of a husband against a wife (or partner).3 IPV ranges from mild verbal abuse to severe physical violence and sometimes even

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horrifying picture of how widespread and serious this phenomenon is (Portwood & Heany, 2007). The consequences of IPV on victims are far-reaching, costing the economy billions of dollars each year including health costs, psychological costs, neurological costs and social costs (McCloskey & Grigsby, 2005; World Health Organization [WHO], 2008). IPV behaviors comprise physical abuse or willful injury (slapping, hitting, punching, pushing, kicking, or biting); threats to hurt a partner, relatives, friends, or work colleagues; damaging property (furniture, residence, or pets) to frighten or intimidate a partner; emotional abuse (making a partner feel worthless, criticizing them, their looks, their dress, or putting them down constantly);

verbal abuse (yelling, shouting, swearing, or calling a partner names); financial abuse (controlling the money, taking a partner’s money by force, or not giving enough money to a partner); social abuse (controlling where a partner goes or preventing them from seeing their family or friends); sexual abuse (forcing a partner to have sex or participate in sexual activities against a partner’s will); spiritual abuse (forcing religious activities against a partner’s wishes or prohibiting a partner from participating in religious practices of their choice); and stalking (following a partner, repeatedly telephoning them, text messaging and emailing, or waiting outside a partner’s house or workplace without their consent; Matthews, 2004). Physical abuse has been recognized as nearly always being accompanied by psychological abuse that has a more profound and lasting effect than the physical violence itself (Krahé, Bieneck, & Möller, 2005).

Later on in this article due to the nature of the discussion related to verse 4:34, the discussion will be restricted to one form of IPV, that is, wife beating.

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most sites falling between 23% and 49%. Lifetime prevalence of sexual partner violence ranges from 6% (city sites in Japan, Serbia, and Montenegro) to 59% (Ethiopia provincial), with most sites falling between 10% and 50%. The reporting of either/both sexual and physical partner violence ranges from 15% (Japan city) to 71% (Ethiopia provincial), with most sites falling between 29% and 62%. Urban Japan consistently reported the lowest prevalence of all forms of IPV, whereas the provincial areas of Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Peru, and Tanzania reported the highest prevalence rates.

Research within the United States show that IPV is the most prevalent form of interpersonal violence (Ellison, Bartkowski, & Anderson, 1999). Statistics on IPV in America (Bureau of Justice Statistics [BJS], 2007) based on continuous data sets5, shows that one in four women annually experience serious assault by their intimate partners, with only one-seventh of the cases coming to the attention of the police. These statistics also indicate those men who beat their wives do so at least three times or more each year and 40% to 60% of those men also abuse children, with approximately 3.3 million children each year witnessing abuse to their caregivers.

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While IPV is a universal human problem, limited research has been conducted to reflect its prevalence in Muslim minority communities in Western countries. One such study on South Asian Muslim women in North America indicated that of those who screened positive for IPV, 24% experienced physical abuse perpetrated by partners during the previous five years (Ahmad, Riaz, Barata, & Stewart, 2004). In comparison, a study in Illinois on South Asian Muslim women disclosed a prevalence rate of 77% for women aged 18-35 years, college educated and employed (Adam & Schewe, 2007). Another study conducted in Boston on South Asian women

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Silverman, 2002). In contrast, South Asian women in London reported a prevalence rate of physical abuse within the previous year and lifetime as 14% and 41%, respectively (Richardson et al., 2002).

To date, no quantitative population-based study has examined the prevalence of intimate partner abuse among Muslims in Australia. Nevertheless, qualitative studies, case studies, and data from law enforcement, the criminal justice system, shelters and various other social service agencies, document the problem’s existence (Family Domestic Violence Unit [FDVU], 2006;

Ibrahim, 2001). Studies conducted at a national level in Australia (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2006; Mouzos & Makkai, 2004), examine IPV on the basis of age, marital status, educational attainment, gender, employment status, household income, relationship to perpetrator, and even country of birth, but fail to categorize IPV prevalence on religious group differences. Similarly, research that has included Muslims in the sample (FDVU, 2006) has failed to provide empirical evidence of prevalence rates of IPV for this community.

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Religious beliefs play a significant part in sculpting not only the way people live, their choices, and their social lives (Fam, Waller, & Erdogan, 2004), but also the attitudes and beliefs they hold towards IPV and its justification. In cases where violence is exhibited however, a difference in theological orientation between partners, especially if male perpetrators hold strong attitudes, creates a conflict in values, lifestyles, sexual behavior, social friendship choices, leisure activities, gender roles, child-rearing practices and other areas that affect both partners (Ellison et al., 1999). These perpetrators subscribe to an ideology of male supremacy perpetuated by their cultures of origin, where often women are given inferior status and/or women are viewed as male

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At times, religious texts may be misinterpreted and rationalized by these male perpetrators to justify their behavior (UNIFEM, 2001) and to induce shame, guilt, and distress in their victims (FaithTrust Institute [FTI], 2007); these justifications are used despite their contradicting traditional religious scholars’ emphasis on the differentiation in societal gender roles and not the supremacy of one gender over the other (Dangor, 2001). At other times, it is the attitudes of religious leaders that serve to exacerbate violence in families by their reluctance to deal with violence against women in their communities (Pyles, 2007), especially when the perpetrators are prominent in the community (FTI, 2007). In general, the communities’ shared racial, national, cultural or religious identities may be summoned by perpetrators to justify violence towards women and rationalize noninterference by the state (UNIFEM, 2001).

There are many more factors that contribute towards IPV, including male-dominant norms (Gondolf, 2002), increased marital conflict, sexual jealousy and accusations of infidelity (Wilson, Johnson, & Daly, 1995), lack of communication (Naved & Persson, 2005), low income or unemployed male partners, social isolation (Bell & Mattis, 2000; Dobash & Dobash, 1979), aggressive peer group behaviors and attitudes, stereotypical gender roles (Ellison et al., 1999), racism and political oppression (Matthews, 2004), alcohol and substance dependency (Bennett & Williams, 2003), situational justification of chastisement, childhood witnessing of marital abuse (Hotaling & Sugarman, 1986) and victimization, holding attitudes of hostility toward women (McKenry, Julian, & Gavazzi, 1995), and the lack of a father figure (Dutton, 1995).

Contrary to conventional belief, the scant literature on the influence of religion on IPV reveals that a stronger affiliation to religion significantly reduces the risk of IPV (Cunradi, Caetano, & Schafer, 2002; Ellison et al., 1999; Nason-Clark, 2004). This protection against IPV

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understanding of positive partner role identities, and conflict strategies that the religious institutions propagate (Ellison et al., 1999).

Research on religious involvement has found both direct and indirect effects in reducing perpetration and victimization of IPV in men and women (Cunradi, Caetano, & Schafer, 2002).

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