“The Contemporary Muslim Woman” Series: Beating Women In Islam? The Ambivalence of A Toothbrush

GOATMILK continues its original and exclusive month long series entitled “The Contemporary Muslim Woman” featuring diverse Muslim women writers from around the world discussing a gamut of topics in their own unique, honest and eclectic voices.

The ambivalence of a toothbrush




Mona Sheikh

Re-reading Islamic textual sources is not the simple answer to patriarchal interpretations and practices among Muslims. The answer is beyond that of gender and linguistics. It is more fundamentally about broadening our concepts of religion and revelation. Muslim women should take the lead challenging narrow ideas about who has “religious” authority.

From the viewpoint of many Muslims a moderate and balanced alim [a learned one] is one who, defined by a minimum criteria, denounces harmful wife beating. While most of our traditional ulama and fuqaha [scholars] would principally agree on the un-Islamic nature of beating up women, many of the same clerics are however engaged in very peculiar debates on the ’Islamic’ legitimacy of gently nudging their wife(s) with a miswak [small wooden stick used to clean teeth]. Within this discourse the most moderate position acknowledges the material developments of time, and argue for the permissibility of a plastic toothbrush instead of the woody miswak. We have to realize that the image of male physical domination is not only created and upheld by islamophobes. It reflects a way of approaching ‘the sources to divine guidance’ that exists right in the midst of ‘mainstream‘ Islam.

The statements and fatawa on dealing with “a rebellious” woman are primarily based on a particular interpretation of the Quranic verse (4:34) and some other textual sources found in Muslim, Tirmidhi, Abu Daud, Nasai and Ibn Majah. This approach has cemented itself historically through e.g. Ibn Kathir, al-Tabari, Razi, al-Shafi or al-Nawawi. Many traditionalist scholars – it should rightfully be added – argue that it is just barely permissible, and should preferably be avoided, and they are justifying this opinion by ahadith [tradition or saying of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him] on the Prophet’s personal feelings with regard to this problem. And some again stress that beating, nudging or tapping should be a symbolic act, if resorted to at all.

When topics like wife beating comes up I hear many lay Muslims explain away their adherence to this discourse. Many are evidently uncomfortable with the toothbrush-tapping “but we have to remember that it is only allowed as a last resort”, the apology goes. We know this line of reasoning from other debates too, such as the discussions on the hudud punishments. Here the argument is that the procedural criteria for enforcing the punishments are so strict and demanding that they are almost impossible to implement. However those who have pushed for making stoning a part of legal sharia [Islamic jurisprudence] and implemented it as a punishment in our time have no history of taking such procedural criteria seriously.

Despite this, the reason why many Muslim still “principally” defend such ideas is that they don’t want to sell out from Islamic authenticity and are afraid of the consequences of taking the critical debate that is much needed today.

The apologetic reasoning is actually implying that part of Islam or ‘sharia’ is not really universally applicable or functional in its ideal form. The fear of being a “sell out” displays the tragic irony of the matter: It’s a matter of loyalty towards religion, faithfulness and the fear for not being a good Muslim. This fear, and the idea that scrutinizing the way we approach our sources of guidance is a sign of giving into the demands of ‘the west’ is highly problematic. Sticking to patriarchic interpretations and practices work in contradiction to what is commonly known as the purposes/maqasid of sharia: to be good Muslims; ethical human beings.

This is not about satisfying “western’ discourse on Islam as many Muslims would too quickly and hackneyed argue, when avoiding taking the critical and complicated debates among ourselves. On the contrary it is about becoming aware about who we acknowledge as authorities and why we do so. I continuously experience Muslims displaying an awkward discomfort with what they insist is ‘sharia,’ and still explain their dilemma away as a ‘very very’ rare rule to be implemented, an exception, or an almost impossible rule to implement. In terms of being good Muslims, what do we really gain of sticking to interpretations which are only “theoretical possible” or only applicable in an “ideal” utopia.

Several contemporary Muslim intellectuals have already challenged the traditional reading. These scholars often engage in philological or linguistic debate on the reading of Q 4:34 to denounce the “beating” translation of the Quranic verb idribu. The arguments are that Arabic is such rich a language that many meanings can be read out of the Quran. The weakness in these kinds of arguments is that they are based on an argument of ‘ambiguity’ and that every ‘reading is an interpretation’, which by the logic of the argument allows equal legitimacy for those interpretations that they do not agree with.

Ultimately the debate that should be taken is not only a linguistic one. It is not only to look at the Quran and approaching the ambivalence of the word, even though I recognize the discursive advantage in doing so. But our fundamental dilemmas would not be solved by such approaches alone. It is not either about counting the amount of “strong” ahadith on how to make a statement to a rebellious wife, nor to count the ones where the Prophet displayed his concern for gender equity. Nor is it about facilitating more female or feminist interpretations of the places in the Quran and the ahadith where, the practices related to Muslim women are deduced from. Unfortunately the problems of patriarchy in Muslim interpretation and practices are not solved if we alone focus on educating more females in the traditions of jurisprudence that is dominating the discourses about what constitute the Islamic.

The challenge for us today is more foundational and requires courage to question the premises of the knowledge that the middle-aged male ‘alim’ is shouting out from the minbar [pulpit] or writing in his bogus fatawa [religious ruling] on “women in Islam”. It is here that Muslim women should take the lead: changing the even discourse about what constitute the “Islamic” and who represents it.

Muslims and especially Muslim women suffering from silent acceptance of a narrow approach to religion should reconsider what is taken to be “religious knowledge” in the first place. As the Iranian scholar Abdol Karim Souroush has argued, keeping an issue within the five point scale from wajib [compulsory acts] (over mandub [recommended acts], mubah [neutral act neither seen as good nor bad], makruh [disliked] to haram [forbidden]) and moderating positions according to this scale is not sufficient to deal with the challenges that face Muslims today. An intellectual change is needed to broaden our understanding of what constitutes ‘Islamic knowledge,’ and thus what are legitimate sources – where to find our guidelines to ethical behavior.

Exclusively to rely on textual sources and their related sciences is based on a limited concept of revelation. As the European scholar Tariq Ramadan has argued in his recent book on Islamic ethics and liberation (Radical Reform) by basing our discourses and opinions on the reading of the Quran and the ahadith literature only, we are disregarding half of the revelation: the universe. Sciences that make us understand the universe, history, society and human relations are just as Islamic as sciences approaching the Quran and the ahadith. However these are often dismissed as being secular, thus creating an unnatural hierarchy between sciences and knowledge that ultimately are all human.

I know many would object to my argument, by saying that the Quran is the complete guidance from God. I am not challenging the right to maintain this belief, but pointing at the fact that our reading and knowledge about the Quran is ultimately human. And the way we decide to apply what is ‘in there’ is ultimately human. The authority we have given the ahadith literature is human. The way we have chosen to understand its function, as a practical guidance is human and historically contingent. Creating hierarchy between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ sciences is to create hierarchy between people and knowledge that again is based on a narrow understanding of who is dealing with the sacred. And in real world practices, I am tempted to say that the reverse hierarchy ought to be the case. Those we count as ‘our great’ ulama, the textual scholars are oftentimes the slumdogs of society who enjoy the reputation of being great scholars because they can readily (at least in some instances) quote our great ancestors.

In order to behave as ethical and spiritual human beings in accordance to universal principles of justice and equity, there is an important task ahead of us if we want to remain loyal, faithful and good Muslims. We should honestly ask ourselves what improves our sense of ethical behavior and our sense of gender equity. Look at the quotations and videos below: Are we really bearing the witness? Are we aware that many of our traditions and practices, exclusivist ideas of Muslim identity, have been institutionalized in a very narrow concept of the sacred and revelation. The conceptual history of religion within Islamic tradition is in desperate need to take a new route that does not reconstruct artificial divisions between religious and secular knowledge.

Some examples of the “miswak”-discourse:

In his book Gender equity in Islam, Jamal Badawi, member of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) Fiqh Council has written “In the event of a family dispute, the Qur’an exhorts the husband to treat his wife kindly and not to overlook her positive aspects. If the problem relates to the wife’s behavior, her husband may exhort her and appeal for reason. In most cases, this measure is likely to be sufficient. In cases where the problem continues, the husband may express his displeasure in another peaceful manner by sleeping in a separate bed from hers. There are cases, however where a wife persists in deliberate mistreatment of her husband and disregard for her marital obligations. Instead of divorce, the husband may resort to another measure that may save the marriage, at least in some cases. Such a measure is more accurately described as a gentle tap on the body…”

On the Arab Islamweb.net and several other fatwa banks, it is not unusual to find statements like the following: “The husband has the right to beat his wife (lightly) if she shows signs of ill-conduct.


The same trend is also normal in Europe. Some would remember the Spanish Muhammad Kamal Mustafa, who was sentenced for his book “Women in Islam” that instructs how a man should discipline his wife. It “recommends verbal correction followed by a period of sexual abstinence as the best punishment for a wife, but does not rule out a beating as long as it is kept within strict guidelines… to avoid serious damage, a husband should never hit his wife in a state of extreme or blind anger. He should never hit sensitive parts of the body such as the face, head, breasts or stomach. He should only hit the hands or feet using a rod that is thin and light so that it does not leave scars or bruises on the body.” The husband’s aim, the writer said, should be to cause psychological suffering and not to humiliate or physically abuse his wife. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3396597.stm





5 thoughts on ““The Contemporary Muslim Woman” Series: Beating Women In Islam? The Ambivalence of A Toothbrush

  1. Why would you keep trying to justify a religion that clearly and unequivocally advocates for beating one’s wife? The Koran does state that very very clearly. Rather than trying to wipe that away or saying it doesn’t matter, why don’t you see that as a sign that this is not truly God’s revelation? That God would Never advocate such action? It seems as obvious as the nose on one’s face to me…

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