Muslim Matrimonials and More

Articles and Essays on Marriage and Family in Islam


Authority and the Abuse of Power in Muslim Marriages

By Shaykh Seraj Hendricks

Presented at the Women’s Conference of the 2nd International Islamic Unity Conference in Washington DC 8 August 1998, Omni Shoreham Hotel, Blue Room

"And among His signs is that He created for you mates from among your yourselves so that you may dwell in peace and tranquility with them. And He has ordained between you love and mercy. Indeed in that are signs for those who reflect." (Q. 30 : 21).

"None honours women except he who is honourable, and none despises them except he who is despicable." (Hadith).

The above verse and prophetic saying – and many others in addition to these - form an almost natural part of our repertoire of Islamic knowledge. Why and how did these sublime and divine imperatives become buried in contemporary Muslim society? This paper will attempt to explore the more fundamental causes that underlie the appalling status of women in our society. I will also in the process attempt to show that it is almost impossible to de-link what occurs in a society at large from the specifics of particular areas of interest. The macro, in other words, is intrinsically linked to the micro. Symptomatic treatments are no longer good enough. Another primary objective would be to examine, from a Muslim’s perspective, the present state of the house of Islam itself – rather than non-Muslim and orientalist perceptions and prejudices of Islam which are for the most part legend. We shall look at the manner in which they have constructed that house and the way in which they perceive themselves within the broader parameters of that terrain.

In many ways marriage, as an institution, represents a microcosm of what is in fact happening in the broader (or macro) social and cultural lives of Muslim society. 20th century Islam has been a chequered one – one which has not only known its isolated moments of glory but also moments of extreme tension and animosity, and, at times, even perversity. The challenges, demands, and tasks of the contemporary world that confront us are immense and varied. Our responses to all of this, while not exactly being immense, have indeed been equally varied. However, the factors which precipitated these challenges need to be looked at. In the opinion of scholars as diverse in their approaches as Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1993 : 118) and Akbar S. Ahmad (1988 : 185) the impact of colonialism, stemming from the days of the renaissance, cannot be ignored or even underestimated. Nasr locates the awakening of Muslims to the realities of European power and domination to Napolean Bonaparte’s capture of Egypt in 1798 (1993 : 118). This awakening was a rude and confused one. Instead of it being accompanied by a sober and critical consciousness of those factors (such as complacency and political corruption, for example) which led to our decay or decline, it spawned in its wake a spirit of internecine conflict rarely known at that scale in the history of Islam. Besides, while conflict within the Muslim world did occur before, they nevertheless occurred within a context where Muslims enjoyed – as world leaders – the necessary confidence to absorb the potentially disruptive influences inherent in any conflict. With the emergent new colonial order, however, and their confidence in tatters after being deemed unfit to participate in that order even within the perimeters of their own habitations, the prognosis seemed bad. By the turn of the 20th century three broad – and mutually hostile – streams of Islam had emerged. There was the neo-Kharijite movement of takfir in the garb of Wahhabism and its antagonistic bedfellow the rigorist Tabligh movement. There was also the millenialist movement with Mahdis’ promises of liberation and salvation to the Ummah. Finally there was the modernist apologetic movement which viewed the shifting of technology and all other trappings of the modern era to the West as a sign of God’s dissatisfaction with the Muslims. By returning to the Quran and Sunnah (on their terms) it was supposed, we could once again repossess our lost camel. Beneath all this chaos, however, Traditional Islam sauntered on – albeit with uncertainty and trepidation – in the khanaqahs, ribats, and zawiyas of the vast silent majority. The most disturbing feature of all of this was the fact that by now all the elements for a community infected with a high potential for internal structural violence were in place. With dispossession come poverty, a high degree of insecurity, a demeaned self-image, and other forms of crippling inferiority.

What is the significance of all of this in relation to the idea of "myths and realities of marriage in Islam"?

It is almost a sociological axiom that within dispossessed, impoverished, and disadvantaged communities the incidence of violence and dominance of the perceived weaker "other" are far greater than in more advantaged and economically secure communities. From beneath the debris of shattered identities, myths (in the popularly understood meaning of the term) have a far greater chance of emerging and being accepted as realities. This response can occur whether the dominant or oppressor group is an imagined or real entity. In the former group we could place the David Koresh’s of our time and in the latter the bygone Mahdis of Islam. What concerns us here, however, is the extension of this myth-making as a product of social circumstances into the family unit of Islam and particularly with regard to the condition of women as wives in the marital situation.

"What factor, what catastrophe, took place to alter the status of women so dramatically?" Akbar S. Ahmad asks (1988 : 185).He asks this question particularly in the light of the fact that the social condition of women were much more favourable during the earlier years of Islam. The answer he proffers, and mentioned previously, lies in colonialism. While this might not be true if meant in an exclusive sense – and I will discuss this later again - there is nevertheless a great deal of truth behind the assertion if colonialism is intended as a major accomplice in the process. As a Muslim with a South African experience of a demonic apartheid system, I therefore tend to agree to a large extent. My agreement is based on the view that in almost all oppressed and disadvantaged societies two important but mutually interconnected questions emerge, namely, the questions of power and authority. While we are aware that that these elements are open to abuse in any society they are nevertheless more so in vulnerable conditions of social and economic deprivation. Men, in their state of withdrawal and retreat tend not only to seek out the security of the domestic environment but also an authority and a power through which to redeem their shattered self-esteem. The authority that is imagined and constructed under these conditions is one accompanied by a sense of privilege. The burden of having to bear authority with a sense of duty and responsibility is far too great for a fragile and insecure ego. And where the notion of privilege dominates there is a far greater potential for the abuse of power. In this respect South Africa and the brutality spawned by apartheid is a classic case in point. Black women in South Africa were the worst victims of the structural violence engendered by apartheid and the impoverished, sub-economic conditions they had to contend with. Up till today South Africa has one of the highest incidences of rape in the world (Agenda no.36, 1997 : 3). The index of wife abuse in these communities is hardly any better. During the most brutal years of colonialism the global conditions of Muslims were not much different to the victims of apartheid. It was apartheid on a grander scale.

While rape might not have been much of an issue in the Islamic world, the factors nevertheless, which led to the abuse of power at the domestic level were precisely those factors which led to abuse in the homes of the oppressed masses in South Africa. With the Muslims stripped of their world leadership and dominance new avenues of leadership and dominance were sought out. The family, as we mentioned earlier, was the unfortunate victim.

But in pursuit of fairness to all, the reduction in the honoured status given to women by Islam had already started well before colonialism. During the latter days of a weakening Abbasid Dynasty the growing despotism, hedonism, materialism, and rigid formalism of Islamic Law had already started having an impact on the widening disparities between men and women of those societies. Colonialism, however provided the space for the final crystallization of these differences.

When the full impact of this crystallization made its mark, men suffered no conscience in parading themselves as inherently, or even divinely, superior. Gender based notions of superordination and subordination became entrenched as values and norms of Muslim society. The result of all of these is the shocking state of Muslim women in many Muslim societies today. They are abused, physically and emotionally, in the name of a supposedly divine conception of privileged authority. And none suffers more than the wives at the hands of despotic husbands. It is this condition which has led a prominent Human Rights author to observe that "In many many Islamic states, paternalism remains strong and causes cultural resistance to economic and social rights which aim at ensuring equality between men and women including equal access to education, equal pay for equal work, and above all equality in inheritance laws which severely affect the right to property. The maintenance of Shariah law, in conflict with international human rights law, constitutes one of the major systemic challenges to universal human rights in our time" (Asbjorn Eide 1995 : 21). While Eide (like many secular intellectuals) may be excused for their ignorance of Shariah law vis-à-vis women, their observations about Muslim women in contemporary Muslim society is fairly accurate. It remains however – and despite the observations and criticisms of others – the sacred duty of Muslims themselves to re-excavate and unveil the truth about the actual status of women in Islam. But let us return to the theme of privileged authority and abuse in the marital situation. In the light of the fact that Islam had asserted the equality of all human beings at the most essential levels namely, the spiritual and intellectual, other notions therefore had to be constructed to sustain this myth of inherent superiority and privileged authority. Two notions based on my personal experience and extensive discussions with equally concerned people emerged in service of this misconception. They are, I might add, frighteningly rife in South African Muslim society. They are the notions of Qada and Qadr (determinism and predestination), and Sabr (patience, fortitude, and endurance). A number of Muslim leaders, religious counselors, and even parents in South Africa – and I believe elsewhere in the Muslim world too – counsel abused women with these two notions. Their suffering at the hands of tyrannical husbands is a result of the decrees of Allah and therefore have to be born with the patience expected of pious and obedient women. To add insult to injury they are often told that their decreed misfortune is a result of their laxity in executing the tenets of the Shariah. The question I have to ask is simple : How much more perversion are we as the ummah of Allah and His Prophet Muhammad (SAW) expected to tolerate? We might as well expect the Bosnians, Palestinians, Chechnyans and others amongst the oppressed sectors of the Muslim world to accept their conditions with equally fatalistic notions of Sabr. It is not only women’s rights that suffer under this rubble of contradictions but also other basic tenets of Islam. Are we expected to forget the Prophetic directive that "he who sees an abomination must change it with his hands, and if he cannot then he has to oppose it with his tongue, and if he cannot do even that then he has to reject it in his heart". The Qada and Qadr of Allah and Sabr have now become the handmaidens of those who wish to perpetuate instruments of oppression that can eminently be changed by our "hands" and "tongues". But then Allahu Ta’ala will not change the condition of a people until they change themselves. And it behoves us not to forget that Allah does not lie.

If it is averred at this stage that Muslim male attitudes are the products of blighting social circumstances and are therefore not to be held responsible for their condition then my response is simple. Unlike other man-made systems, we possess the immutable example of our holy Prophet to which we can perennially turn in our moments of need. There can be no excuse for bad behaviour in Islam unless we choose to turn our backs on the Prophet. Ignorance, however, is sometimes forgivable.

More specifically, could a religion that asserts "Women are garments for men in as much as men are garments for women" (Q. 2:187) deem women to be the agents of Shaytaan? Could a religion that asserts that men and women are born of the same substance (Q. 4:1), schizophrenically deem women to be intrinsically inferior? Could a religion that asserts that no man honours women except he who is in himself honourable, and that conversely, no man despises women except he who is in himself despicable, be a model for chauvinism and misogynism? More pertinently, could the ultimate source of such a religion be one that is contemptuous of women?

Islam afforded women unprecedented rights – unprecedented even up to and including a large part of 20th century Western and other secular societies. Western women according to Pickthall "had to agitate…for simple legal rights, such as that of married women to own property… [and]…to obtain recognition of their legal and civil existence, which was always recognised in Islam" (1979 : 166). She has the right the right to property, exclusive rights to her wealth, the right to equal pay for equal work, the right to the mut’a (or compensation) in divorce, the right to social equality and educational opportunities, the right to military service, the right to resist a forced marriage, the right to terminate a marriage of an abusive husband etc. And all these rights emanate from the example set by our Prophet Muhammad (SAW) whose nature and character according to Sayyidatuna ‘Aysha was indeed the Quran (kana khuluquhu al-Quran).

It was in the light of these God-given rights that Imam al-Ghazali, for example, asserted the right of a woman to unconditionally separate from an abusive husband – whether the abuse is physical or psychological (and note how rarely we "moderns" mention psychological abuse). In this case the services of a third party – a "thiqa" or trustworthy person as Ghazali calls him or her – may be enlisted to monitor the behaviour of the husband. The final decision with regard to reconciliation however remains with the wife (Shirbini Vol 3 : 260). Nevertheless, before we wax to idealistic about the past we have to remind ourselves that there are many moments in our history which evidence the fact that women, and women as wives in particular, were not always perceived through the same enlightened and liberating Prophetic vision of Muhammad (SAW). However the role of men as husbands were seen, ironically, with far greater clarity then than now. Their roles as leaders of the family were seen in the light of an agent holding an "office". The role of the agent would be deemed incommensurate with the demands of the "office" if he failed to fulfill its duties, responsibilities, and conditions. A classic example of discipline with regard to offences against the "office" is provided by the decision of Syedna ‘Umar (RA) to allow the utterance of three tallaaqs in a single articulation to actually fall as three tallaaqs. This was contrary to its consideration as one tallaq during the time of the Prophet (SAW) and the rule of Syedna Abu Bakr (RA). His reasoning behind that was clear. Men had started to abuse matters such as manner of instituting divorces – issues which others before them had regarded with the necessary consideration due to all matters of seriousness and importance. While there is a storm of a debate raging around Syedna Umar’s decision I tend to agree with Sana’ani that his decision was a product of his ijtihad, or creative exercise of the intellect, in order to discipline an uncalled for degree of male frivolity (Sana’ani 1998, vol.3, pp. 328-331). Unfortunately today, both the roles of men and women are tragically misunderstood. Even more tragic is the fact that they are misunderstood in obscene favour of the men. The illegitimate consequences of this misunderstanding are many :

  • Women are now expected to unconditionally obey their husbands.
  • Nafaqa (or material support) is a favour delivered by the husbands and not a duty.
  • The voices of women are considered "awrah" viz. prohibited to be heard.
  • Women have to cook.
  • They have to be fatalistically patient with physical and psychological abuse.
  • Women cannot work.
  • Women are not only half the worth of men but they are in fact half human.
  • Unconditional sexual labour is a duty – 25 hours a day.

The list is endless.

For each of these and other expressions of chauvinistic madness a host of Quranic verses and Prophetic sayings are produced – in the spirit of masculine literalism – to do service in support of these views. Paradoxically, in most cases the texts they adduce are themselves in need of further interpretation and clarification. The most problematic Quranic text for many women is the following where Allah states : "As for those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct admonish them first, then refuse to share their beds, and then (as a final measure) beat them lightly. But if they heed your call then do not treat them unjustly" (Q. 4 : 34). At the outset it would do us well to remind ourselves that the Quran is the last document in which we can expect to stumble across apologetics of any kind. In its diversity of expression it represents the very spirit of Divine freedom. It is in this spirit that the Quran addresses in the most pragmatic of ways the physical, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, psychological, and even biological natures of humankind. The verse however cannot be used to support narrow chauvinistic designs or to underpin notions of privileged masculine authority. This is so for a number of reasons. Firstly, the verse assumes, simultaneously, complete disloyalty and disgraceful conduct on the part of the woman and total innocence on the part of the man. After all a man can also be "Nashiz" (Q. 4 ; 128). For this reason the first step is to admonish her so that he could, through this step, determine whether there is a sound reason for her behaviour or whether she is prepared to reform herself. It becomes him in both cases to withdraw his admonition and act with respect towards her (Husni 1347AH : vol2, p.42). Secondly, the symbolic "beating" is not allowed to result in injury to the person in any way. According to Ibn Abbas (RA) the beating is not permitted with anything greater than a toothbrush. If the beating does result in injury to her person then she would have the right to sue him in a court of law despite the fact that she might have initially behaved like a scoundrel. He, in this case, would obviously be considered the bigger scoundrel. Thirdly, according to Abu Zahrah, there is a school of thought which holds that in the case of a Nashiz husband the lady would be entitled to take him to court and get the court to mete out exactly the same punishment against him according to the steps depicted in the above verse (‘Abd al’Ati 1977 : 159). Fourthly, The preferred position, despite the Quranic verse, is not to beat even though the "beating" amounts to little more than a symbolic measure. It is narrated that "Ata ibn Abi Rabah said " A husband should not beat his wife even after he has commanded or prohibited her from doing something and she refuses to heed him. Let him rather express his anger at her refusal for the Prophet (SAW) said ‘The best of you are those who do not resort to beating’ (Bayhaqi)" (Sabuni 1990 : Vol.1, 447). Fifthly – and in keeping with our obligations to perpetually having to strive towards realizing the spirit of M’aruf (goodness) and Ihsaan (excellence) in our lives – it would do us well to remember Syeditina ‘Aisha’s statement that the Prophet "never lifted his hand to anything or anyone except when he fought in the way of Allah".

However, despite our pain and even our horror at the condition of some of our Muslim women, we need not follow the route of the Saadawis of today. Maimuna Quddus in her review of Dr. Saadawi’s book Two Women in One observes "Anyone who has read the journals of the so-called women’s liberation movement in England, for which Dr Saadawi often writes, will be taken aback by the descriptions of matters once considered sacred, in a style more appropriate to graffiti on a lavatory wall…(these feminists)… wish to destroy the family, religion and society with their calls for free sex, lesbianism, Marxism and whichever other fashionable lunacies they fancy" (Ahmad 1988 : 194). We as Muslims have Islam on our sides. And that Islam requires adab and respect in whatever we do. While there are areas of weakness in our ummah which demand a degree of firmness in approach, we also have to remember that our convictions must be accompanied by dignity.

In conclusion I wish to state that while we have a legacy of jurisprudence of which we can be proud - I am a proud Shafi’ for example – it nevertheless still behoves us to bring the same dynamic energy to the interpretation and application of Fiqh in contemporary times which we are still privileged to witness in our past greats such as Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Malik, Imam Shafi’, Imam Ghazali and others. Moreover, it is unlikely - had the spirit of Tabdi’ and takfir dominated the ethos of mainstream Islam - that Islamic sciences such as ‘Ulum al-Quran, Mustalah al-Hadith, Qawa’id Fiqhiyyah, Usul al-Fiqh and many others, would have emerged in the way they did. In fact Islam itself might have suffered the same fate of many of those extinct, extremist groupings that spoke in the name of Islam. But mainstream Islam was always there. Even during its darkest moments when new and maverick movements dominated the stage at the turn of the 20th century, mainstream Islam stood firm as the repositories of the true spirit of Islam. Today on the brink of the 21st century this spirit is reasserting itself with confidence and with force. The challenges, however, which face scholars of mainstream Islam is to present Islam in a manner which can satisfy the needs of the contemporary mind. We have to look at new paradigms, approaches, and methodologies. Admittedly, enormous work in this direction is being done by some of our contemporary scholars. But we need to, in the spirit of this conference, unify our efforts that much more. We are in need, in other words, of a greater synergy. Above all, we are need of what I might call "a new iconoclasm". Rather than ranting about the permissibility of pictures and the painting of them, we need to destroy those false social, spiritual, intellectual and ideological "images" of our Din which have alienated so many of our Muslims from the liberating ethos of Islam. One of those false "images" - or myths if we wish – is the notion of power and authority in marriages in Islam. What better place than to start with the family.


  • ‘Abd al ‘Ati, Hammudah (1977) The Family Structure in Islam. Indiana : American Trust Publications.
  • Agenda (1997) Empowering women for gender equity Vol 36 Durban, South Africa.
  • Eide A., Krause C., Rosas A., (1995) Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Netherlands : Martinus Nijhoff Publications.
  • Al-Husni, Abu Bakr ibn Muhammad (1347AH) Kifaayat al-Akhyaar Egypt : Idaarat al-Tiba’at al-Muniriyyah.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein (1993) A Young Muslim’s Guide To The Modern World. Cambridge : Islamic Texts Society.
  • Al-Sabuni, Muhammad (1990) Rawa’i al-Bayaan (2 Vols). Damascus : Dar al-Qalam.
  • Al-Sana’ani, Muhammad ibn Ismail (1988) Subul al-Salaam (4 Vols). Beirut : Dar al-Fikr.
  • Al-Shirbini, Muhammad al-Khatib (ND) Mughni al-Muhtaaj (4Vols). Beirut : Dar al-Fikr

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