As a Muslim community in the U.S., what is our collective image of an abuser? Who comes to mind when we think of domestic violence (DV)? Do we imagine the likes of Muzzammil ‘Mo’ Hassan, the man who beheaded his wife at the Bridges TV studio in New York? Does abuse have to reach the level of gruesome for it to qualify as domestic violence?
Not according to Salma Abugideiri, a licensed professional counselor and Peaceful Families Project (PFP) founding board member. In fact, it usually takes a less graphic and more insidious shape like “religious abuse,” which Abugideiri includes under the umbrella of relationship abuses.
Misusing scripture or imposing one’s own interpretation of a religious text to manipulate another’s behavior and choices is one form of religious abuse. Religious abuse can take the shape of threats of polygamy or slandering a spouse and her relatives. As if it’s not enough that all societies-to one degree or another– stigmatize divorced women and relegate them to a lower status than married women, some abusive Muslim men will threaten to use what they believe is their “right” to unilateral religious divorce to coerce their wives into submission. At PFP’s cultural sensitivity workshop for those working with survivors of abuse, Abugideiri shared with participants examples of Muslim women who would not leave their husbands even when the abuse became intolerable because they wanted to protect their children from the rough terrain of single parenthood and its accompanying social ostracism. There are also countless stories of men who refuse to go through with a religious divorce even after civil divorce has been completed, therefore further abusing their ex-wives who feel unable to re-marry until they are completely unattached.
Those who are working with the abused in America often lack of nuanced understanding of Islamic teachings and how culture intersects with, and where it departs from, religion. This ignorance is a major deterrent for Muslim Americans who are considering seeking help. This is partially why most Muslims in distress prefer consulting with Imams on domestic issues over seeking a family or marriage counselor’s help. This additional responsibility of responding to their congregations’ psychosocial needs poses a challenge for most Imams who are not trained in marriage counseling and, in some cases, don’t know how to appropriately deal with survivors of domestic violence. So while mosques are under pressure to address DV, Islamically-oriented marital counselors are a rarity.
Bridging the gap between the community’s needs and the Imams’ readiness is still a work-in-progress. Many Imams have taken leadership roles in denouncing domestic violence through preventive measures such as dedicating routine khutbahs (sermons) to this topic or attending Imam trainings to help them develop skills to conduct effective interventions. Organizations in the U.S. such as Project Sakinah: Stop Family Violence Now and Peaceful Families Project have made great strides in studying the prevalence of and attitudes towards DV within the American Muslim community and developing valuable resources for all involved parties. Generally, however, efforts on this front are lagging behind those in the U.K. and Canada; for example, in Canada, a Muslim Marriage Contract Toolkit helps couples discuss and reject DV before they tie the knot.
For counselors seeking more knowledge on gender relations and domestic violence in Islam, the biggest head-scratcher seems to be the question of the widely misunderstood verse 4:34 in the Qur’an:
[Translation offered by Abugideiri]:
“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, 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 (qanitaat), and guard in (the husband’s absence) what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct (nushuz), admonish them first, then, refuse to share their beds, and lastly wadribuhunna, but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means of annoyance, for Allah is Most High, Great.” (4:34)
There is ample reason this verse is misunderstood; in fact, its common misuses have been termed as the DNA of patriarchy in Islam. The word wadribuhunna in this verse (left intentionally in transliteration so as not to endorse the common translations: “beat” or “strike”) has become synonymous with a scriptural permission to hit a wife for some abusers. Numerous scholars have come up with
Abugideiri explains that the purpose of this portion of the verse is to outline a process of remediation in marital conflict, starting with “talking,” a phase that “could take weeks to months on its own.” Most abusers completely skip this stage or don’t even know about it, whereas it may be that talking is all that is needed to resolve conflict. Another part of this verse that is usually misunderstood is the word nushuz. Nushuz is
commonly translated as “ill-conduct” or “disobedience,” but it means disobedience to God, not the husband. A man can also be in a nushuz state if he refuses to obey God or if he’s cruel with or distant from his wife, as understood from verse 4:128.
Given the varying cultural influences on Muslims’ understanding and application of Islamic teachings, counselors and service providers need not know all the interpretation debates in order to work with Muslim clients. What would be more effective, according to Abugideiri, is to focus on clients’ value system because “each culture and faith tradition contains values that support healthy families and individuals.”
Among the useful tools suggested to help empower survivors of domestic violence is the use of “reframing” cultural and religious values. For example, on the personal level, “shame” can be reframed so it is no longer a
“roadblock” or a tactic to silence- “it is shameful for a woman to break thefamily or air its “dirty laundry”” – but a “resource” of empowerment – “itis shameful for a man to oppress; to harm instead of protect.”
Islam forbids oppression and considers it sinful. Oppression is not just the tyranny of dictators, but also the all too common abuses in relationships, the silencing and the fear that doesn’t belong in families. We all have a responsibility to take a stand against DV. Well-trained Imams who won’t ask an abused woman to “be patient” and “go back” to save her marriage are more needed than ever. Well-informed and culturally-sensitive services such as marriage counseling, domestic violence shelters, and legal counseling have the best chance of helping Muslim families.
Layali Eshqaidef is an Arab Muslim activist and is part of the Communications team at