An Imam’s jihad against domestic violence

Dr. Aslam Abdullah is the Imam for the Islamic Society of Nevada (ISON) in Las Vegas. He discussed his experiences with and perspective on domestic violence within the Muslim American community with altmuslimah editor Najiyah Khan.

 : As the Imam for the Islamic Society of Nevada what has been your personal experience with victims of domestic violence?:

Dr. Aslam Abdullah: I have been involved with domestic violence cases from across the country since 1990. I personally have dealt with some 700 cases in the last 23 years and in each of those, the victim was always a woman. The abuse these women dealt with came not only in the form of physical violence, but also manifested itself as verbal, psychological or sexual abuse. I am not a licensed therapist, but as a religious adviser I did my best to address all these forms of torture.

I can recall dozens of scenarios. Often times, husbands and in-laws locked women in their homes for months, severing all contact the victims had with anyone but their abusers. The constant threat of divorce and daily taunts or insults are also common in most of the cases I have seen. “You have to be completely obedient to me, otherwise I will throw you out on the street!”

The women who had immigrated to this country, did not speak English and were unfamiliar with American culture and resources suffer the most I feel. But domestic violence is also prevalent among educated women raised in this country. Their education and confidence does not render them immune to abuse.

Many in the Muslim American community tolerate this behavior to keep up appearances and protect reputations. In most cases, the husband did not want to discuss the issue with me, while the women, who had reported the abuse to me, asked that I not reveal to their husbands what they had confessed to me. It is a constricting situation, but I do my best by lending a sympathetic ear, referring the victims to a local a counselor or shelter and, sometimes, encouraging them to report the violence to the police.

 : Do you think it is important to openly discuss domestic violence in the Muslim American communities?:

Dr. Aslam Abdullah: Very important, and yet a refusal to acknowledge and talk about this problem is one of the greatest obstacles to addressing domestic violence in our communities. Violence is anti-divine. Period. It destroys the sanctity of an individual’s body and soul, and it infects the family unit and ultimately the larger community. If a mother is made to feel inferior and afraid for her life, how can we expect her children to grow into healthy, peaceful and well-adjusted adults? It is an insidious disease that works quickly and silently. Unless we tackle domestic violence head-on, our communities will rot from the inside.

 : What would you say is one of the key challenges to stamping out domestic violence in the Muslim American community?

Dr. Aslam Abdullah: Many Muslim men, and even some women, think coercion and authority create a peaceful family but this is not what our faith tells us. Allah commands husbands and wives to be gentle and lenient with one another. I have heard speakers telling the husbands that it is permissible to strike their wives, provided no one is watching them! They tell men that it is their right to “discipline” their wives. This is nonsense; a marriage is built on mutual love, respect and mercy, not fear and intimidation. To say that men can punish their wives is a distortion of Islam, but unfortunately there are many people who remain unwilling to admit that scholars and translators made a mistake in promoting a culture of male superiority that is not established in the Qur’an.

 : You have dedicated many of the lectures that precede Friday prayers specifically to the topic of domestic violence. Tell us about that.

Dr. Aslam Abdullah: My intention was to use my platform to speak up about an uncomfortable, ugly issue that is usually swept under the rug. I wanted to remind people that although many Muslim men believe they sit a degree above women, Islam tells us that both genders are equal in the eyes of God. I have seen men, and even some women, hiding behind poorly translated and misinterpreted verses of the Qur’an or offering up misquoted hadith to argue that men can and should dominate their wives, even physically if necessary. Many men do not want to hear it but we cannot sit quietly when religion is being twisted to serve a male dominated culture.

 : In March 2014 you attended an Imam training offered by the Peaceful Families Project in northern Virginia. What were some of the key experiences you took away from that workshop?

Dr. Aslam Abdullah: The workshop gave me an opportunity to understand domestic violence from all angles– legal, social, moral, theological and familial. It was heartening to know that all the Imams attending the classes acknowledged this social malady and pledged to work for its eradication.. An Imam, just like any person, is the product of his learning experience. After the workshop I feel I am even more sensitive to the ways in which mosques reinforce an attitude of male superiority. Our vocabulary, how we organize our events, even the Qur’anic verses we quote and the hadith we narrate all generally present a chauvinistic perspective. And this perspective sows the seeds for justifying domestic violence.

 : There is great discussion as to the translation of the 34th verse of the Qur’anic chapter An Nisa. Some argue that it gives husbands the right to raise their hand to their wife. What do you believe has led to differing interpretations of this verse?

Dr. Aslam Abdullah: I have just completed a lengthy paper on this verse, which should be out in a month God willing. Basically, I believe the vast majority of the scholars translating this verse lived in patriarchal societies which caused them to lean towards an understanding of the verse that gives men superiority over women. They failed to grasp the essence of our faith, which aims not to have one sex dominate or discipline the other, but to create an egalitarian society that brings about dignity in all aspects of life. The verse does not give husbands any authority or control over their wives. I absolutely do not believe that the verse suggests a husband should beat his wife into obedience or submission. I believe that the misinterpretation of this verse has caused havoc in our family units and is responsible for the miserable plight of millions and millions of women throughout our history.

Najiyah Khan is a staff writer for altmuslimah and writes on a variety of topics, with domestic violence being her focus. She lives in the Washington DC area where she volunteers her time doing fundraising and outreach with numerous organizations.


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