“As for those women from whom you fear rebellion (first) admonish them (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) hit them.” (4:34)
Amongst the verses of the Qur’an that troubled me, this one stood out. I tried many times to explain it in a way that made sense, but it constantly gnawed at my conscience. I had already started to look much more critically at many things in Islam when I heard about Rezeya’s story. She was an Asian woman in her fifties whom I had known for many years through her volunteer work for a Muslim charity. I would never have imagined what was going on at home if she hadn’t been present when I was discussing verse 34 of Suratu-Nisa with some friends.
She approached me privately after the discussion and confided in me that her husband beat her at home. She said he would do it for the slightest reason. In other ways he was a good man who cared for his family and provided a comfortable life for them all, so she endured the abuse, seeking solace in the knowledge that God saw her suffering and would one day reward her for her patience. When they moved from Pakistan to England, things improved slightly. Her husband was busy building up the family business, and she was busy with their six children. When the last of the children had moved out and her husband began to spend more time at home, the beatings started again. Rezeya was a very pious Muslim and never missed an opportunity to say extra prayers or recite Qur’an. Like many Muslims of non-Arab origin, she couldn’t understand Arabic, and it was only after learning English and reading translations that she eventually understood the meaning of what she had been reciting. She said that one night she came upon the verse giving permission for a husband to hit his wife. She spent the night crying alone in her bedroom. I told her that this verse didn’t mean her husband had the right to beat her. I said it more to comfort her than anything.
Of course I knew wife beating was an evil that exists in all cultures and all societies, but giving Divine sanction for a man to hit his wife – as the Qur’an does – surely only made things worse? I read books and articles about the subject and spoke to as many Sheikhs as I could. I was assured that the conditions and restrictions which the Qur’an placed upon wife beating amounted to a virtual ban, particularly since Muslims are obligated to follow the Prophet’s example and he never laid a finger on his wives* , saying “The best of you is the best to his wife.” These sheikhs said that the words ‘Hit them’ simply referred to a symbolic show of displeasure to be administered using a feather, handkerchief or the ever versatile Miswak. There were even some, so desperate to re-write ‘awkward’ passages of the Qur’an, that they claimed the words ‘and hit them!’ (wadriboohunna) actually means “and leave them alone!” or even “Make love to them!” The more I thought about such explanations, the more illogical and ridiculous they seemed. If it is true that the conditions and restrictions do amount to a virtual ban, then why have a verse saying ‘Hit them’ at all? As for hitting someone with a feather, handkerchief or Miswak, the very thought is ludicrous. But the most dishonest of all were the ones who tried to claim that “Hit them” meant “Leave them.” Or “Make love to them.” Not only does this reveal complete ignorance of Arabic, but it makes nonsense of the restrictions the prophet placed on the type of beating allowed. The fundamentalists, on the other hand, unashamedly proclaimed that hitting one’s wife meant exactly that, to hit her, plain and simple. Although I found their view distressing, I had to respect their honesty.
One day while browsing through the books at Regents Park Mosque, I came across one called “Marital Discord” by a professor of Shari’ah in Saudi Arabia. Although it represented the puritanical Salafi view, it was far truer to the context of the Qur’an than the explanation of the modernists. It quoted classical scholars to explain that ‘rebellion’ meant behaviour such as “Leaving the house without the permission of her husband, preventing him from sexually enjoying her and not beautifying her self for him.” To correct this behaviour one must first administer verbal admonition and next refuse to share her bed and finally:
“Perhaps the solution to the problem requires some harshness and toughness. There are some people who cannot be rectified by good behaviour and soft advice. Kindness and softness just makes such people more arrogant and haughty. However if they are met with toughness, then they respond by cooling down and ending their defiance”
They must be ‘taken by the hand’ and given a ‘light beating’, defined as “Beating which does not cause bleeding nor does one fear from it injury to life or limb or tearing of the skin, breakage or disfigurement.” The author quotes a saying from Asma a daughter of Abu Bakr: “I was the fourth of four wives of al-Zubair. Whenever he would reprimand one of us, he would break off a branch from the wooden clothes hangers and beat her with it until he broke it over her.”
The book also discusses what a wife should do if a man ‘rebels’ against her, which in the man’s case is defined as, ‘hating, cursing or abusing her.’ In response, the wife must also follow three steps, but they are very different from those prescribed for her husband:
“First, the wife should use all of her charms, intuition and wisdom to try to discover the reason behind her husband’s estrangement. She should study the causes in a subtle and clever manner.”
“Second, she should admonish her husband, reminding him of his responsibility in front of Allah towards his wife, such as proper behaviour and good conduct.”
“Third, the woman should try to please her husband to make things right. She should try to seek his pleasure. She should seek the means that will affect him and change his behaviour to a better way and provide solutions to their problems. This is what is alluded to in the Qur’an.”
“And if a woman fears rebellion or desertion on her husband’s part there is no sin for them both if they make terms of peace between themselves and making peace is better.” (4:128)
“That is, there is no sin upon them if they come to some kind of agreement between themselves in which she may give up some of her due rights in order to stay in the marriage. For example, she may give up some of her rights to maintenance or housing with her. Or she may give up all of either or both of those rights in order to remain under his protection in a noble marriage. Or she may give up part or all of her dower in exchange for his divorcing her.”
I had tried to convince myself that it was my instincts that were wrong and that I should just submit to the Divine word, without trying to apply my own defective reasoning to it. God cannot be wrong? I must be wrong, and I should simply accept that He knows that which I do not. But the doubts remained and I grew tired of trying to suppress how I really felt. I realised too that it wasn’t truly God I was questioning, but the words that I had for so long believed were His. In fact it was my conviction that if there was a God he was far greater and far more wonderful than to have such words attributed to him. I simply didn’t believe this verse was the ‘Word of God.’ I also knew that rejecting one verse undermined the whole Qur’an, but it was either that or lie to myself about how I truly felt. I soon found myself doubting other verses, particularly those about Hell.
“As for those who reject Our Signs, We will roast them in a Fire. Every time their skins are burned off, We will replace them with new skins so that they can taste the punishment. Allah is Almighty, All-Wise.” (4:56)
Muslim scholars are quick to point out that it is the skin that feels pain and that this is God’s way of emphasising the relentless and eternal nature of the agony the unbeliever experiences in Hell. Amongst the many forms of torture described in the Qur’an are drinks of molten brass and thorny fruit that shred the intestines and resemble the head of Satan. One verse graphically describes how the unbelievers will be melted from inside:
“As for those who disbelieve, garments of fire will be cut out for them; boiling fluid will be poured over their heads, melting that which is in their bellies and their skins too, and for them are hooked rods of iron. Whenever, in their anguish, they try to escape they are driven back therein and (it will be said): Taste the doom of burning.” (22: 19-22)
The scholar Ibn Kathir relates a saying of the Prophet regarding this verse, “The scorching fluid poured on their heads will pierce through the skull, flow into the belly, and strip away the insides until it reaches the feet. This is the melting. Then they will be made new again.”
“I’ve always found it difficult to square the idea of Hell with any sort of logic, let alone compassion,” I told Farouq, as we sat in the canteen at Regent’s Park Mosque. “What is there to be gained from torturing someone for eternity?”
“Doesn’t that frighten you?”
“Of course it does.”
“That’s the point! It is supposed to frighten you so much that you will be good!”
“There are lots of non-Muslims who are good!”
“Not believing in God is the worst thing you can do!”
“Many non-Muslims do believe in God.”
“Not properly. They associate partners with God.”
“So you’re saying believe in Islam or burn horribly forever!”
“No, not exactly.”
“What are you saying then?”
“Those who reject God.”
“OK, so believe in God – properly of course – or burn horribly forever!”
“Well if you must put it like that then, yes.”
“Do you think fear is a good way to make people believe?”
“Sometimes people need a little nudge to make them do the right thing.”
“I can see how that might nudge people into doing what you want them to do. Is that sort of believer God wants? People who obey him because they’re scared shitless? Frankly, I have more respect for those who refuse, even over their own salvation.”
“Well it’s not to make you believe. It’s describing how those who don’t believe will be punished.”
“You’re changing your argument now. OK then, why torture someone like that? What is to be gained from it?”
“Oh Hassan, just say your prayers, and God will answer you!”
The problem was that I was finding it difficult to say my prayers. They had become mechanical, and I began to skip them once I got home from school. One day I was sitting in a mosque after Friday prayer as the Imam started to make Du’a. I held out my hands in readiness to chant the collective Ameen with everyone else.
“O Allah, humiliate the unbelievers!”
“Oh Allah demolish the houses of the unbelievers!”
““O Allah, destroy… punish… debase… ”
As he said each line, I found I couldn’t say “Ameen” anymore. I hesitated for a moment silently holding my hands out. Then I put them down, got up and walked out before the du’a was finished.
I didn’t know what I believed anymore. I asked my fellow Muslims, whenever I had the chance, what made them believe in Islam. Most thought it was an odd question to ask. The replies I usually got were ‘Because I know it’s the truth’ or ‘Because Islam has given me certainty, peace of heart, changed my life’ or ‘Because I want to go to heaven’. But the answers didn’t satisfy me. Believing something is true doesn’t mean it is true, nor is experiencing peace or a better life proof that something is true.
“How do I know that God really did send down the Qur’an?” I asked Tarek, an old friend from SOAS.
“Hassan, you’ve read the life of Muhammad. You know he was a good man. Do you really think he made it up himself?”
“Firstly, how good he was depends on your perspective. Secondly, being a good person doesn’t prove the Qur’an is from God. Many good men claimed they received messages from God. Why should I believe one over the other? During Muhammad’s lifetime there was another ‘Prophet’ called Musaylama who claimed to receive messages from God. Of course we now call him the ‘false prophet’. But had he been victorious and not Muhammad, we would be praising his good character and declaring, “There is no God but Allah and Musaylama is the Prophet of God.”
“Musaylama never came up with anything like the Qur’an. You cannot find a book like it. Look at the wisdom and beauty it contains. You of all people should be able to recognise that it is the truth from God.”
“I really don’t know any more, Tarek. I really don’t know. Yes, there are many wise and wonderful words in the Qur’an. But there are also things that are not so wonderful. If my judgement is based purely on internal evidence, a completely rational and unemotional study of the Qur’an, then I have to say that there are things I find difficult to believe are the words of God.”
“Faith is not about rational study or reason. You used to tell me about how the Orientalists had studied Islam more deeply than many Muslims and yet were unable to see the truth because their hearts were closed.”
“But if the proof is not objective analysis and instead is an inner feeling, a personal revelation, then how do I know I’m not deluding myself? There are people who ‘know’ that Jesus is the son of God, others ‘know’ that Brahma created the universe, that Vishnu preserves it and that Shiva destroys it, and still others ‘know’ that space aliens abducted them. This sort of personal experience or insight is not proof. It is subjective and un-verifiable.”
“Un-verifiable by who and what, Hassan? By scientific tests? Even those who only accept the evidence of modern science or logic are following a belief, a belief that it is infallible. But there are more things in this world than can be grasped by science or logic.”
“Yes… perhaps, but then who’s to say one person’s belief is any truer than another’s?”
“Perhaps no one’s beliefs are better than another’s, Hassan. Perhaps it’s just a case of what works for you?”
“What if nothing works for me?”
I felt frightened and guilty about questioning Islam – frightened God would punish me in Hell, and guilty about having doubts when Islam – and more importantly Muslims – were under attack right, left and centre. I felt like a traitor to my brothers and sisters. I thought of a verse in the Qur’an:
“And some men worship Allah on an edge, if any good reaches him, he is content, but if trial befalls him, he turns back on his face, losing the world of this life and the Hereafter. This is the greatest loss.”
Was this me? The selfish fair-weather believer who believes only when things are going well, but runs away when things get tough? Was I about to lose it all – this world and the next? Should I suppress all doubts and stay loyal to Muslims in their time of hardship? Is that what being a good Muslim is about? Loyalty, even though it is to a lie? I found so much in Islam that terrified me about having doubts. The psychological pressure to suppress them was enormous. Questioning something I had believed in utterly all my adult life was hard enough, but when the consequences seemed so severe and the sense of betrayal so strong, doubt became unthinkable.