Open to Interpretation

Photo: Jesse Weiner Photography
Photo credit: Jesse Weiner Photography

What inspired you to explore this topic?

Growing up as a young Muslim girl in Toronto, I struggled with verse Q. 4:34 for obvious reasons. It appeared to say that husbands could hit their wives if they were disobedient. Later, when I learned of Muslim scholars who interpreted this verse in ways that do not condone violence or inequality, I was puzzled as to why these interpretations were considered by some to be outside the Islamic tradition. My book traces the many interpretations of this verse, and argues that Muslim communities have the ability to embrace non-violent interpretations, because religious texts mean what religious communities say they mean.

How does this verse affect Muslims?

Domestic violence is a problem in every community. Each community must address this problem in its own 
way. For Muslims trying to address domestic violence, this passage of the Qur’an could be a hurdle if it is interpreted as saying that husbands are allowed to hit their wives, or it could be helpful by condemning domestic violence as an un-Islamic practice.

Is it possible to read 4:34 of the Qur’an in gender-equal terms?

Yes. For example, the first sentence of Q. 4:34 can be translated as “men are in authority over women.” However, if we see this statement as describing life in 7th-century Arabia when the Qur’an was revealed, rather than necessarily prescribing what must happen for eternity, gender‑equal interpretations become possible. This line can be re-read to mean that “men were the protectors/breadwinners of women” in 7th century Arabia and can be understood as a historical statement of how things were in the past rather than how they should be in the present. This allows the Qur’an to represent the past while also reflecting social changes that allow for greater gender equality.

What changes do you hope to come as a result of your book?

The fact is religious texts only mean what religious communities say they mean – and the meanings of these texts can change over time. The first goal of this book is to show that verse 4:34 can legitimately be read non-violently, and that the interpretation a Muslim chooses – violent or non-violent – says more about them than it does about the Qur’an. Muslims can and must hold themselves responsible and accountable for their interpretations.

The second goal is to give Muslims the interpretive tools to choose non‑violent readings of this verse over readings that permit violence against women. It is only natural that modern Muslims look to our sacred text to protect women against gendered violence.

Finally, I hope that Muslims will see the relationship between the Islamic tradition and today’s Muslim scholarship as more harmonious, so that modern conversations enrich and carry on the Islamic tradition.

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