Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition Ethics, Law, and the Muslim Discourse on gender by Ayesha S. Chaudhry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 258 pages.)

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Hamid Mavani



The polyvalent Qur’anic text lends itself to multiple interpretations, depending
upon one’s presuppositions and premises. In fact, Q. 3:7 distinguishes
between muḥkam (explicit, categorical) and mutashābih (metaphorical, allegorical,
symbolic) verses. As such, this device provides a way for reinterpreting
verses that outwardly appear to be problematic – be it in the area of
gender equality, minority rights, religious freedom, or war. However, many
of the verses dealing with legal provisions in such areas as devotional matters,
marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance and bequest, and specific punishments
appear to be unequivocal, categorical, and explicit. As such, scholars
have devised certain hermeneutical strategies to situate and contextualize
these verses in a particular socio-historical context, as well as to emphasize
that they were in conversation with the society to which the Qur’an was revealed
and thereby underlining the “performative” (p.15) nature of the relationship
between the Qur’an and the society.
No verse is more problematic, in the sense that it offends contemporary
sensibilities and is quite difficult to reconcile with an egalitarian worldview
when dealing with gender issues, than Q. 4:34, which allows the husband to
discipline his wife if he deems her guilty of nushūz (e.g., disobedience, intransigence,
sexual lewdness, aloofness, dislike or hatred of himself). Ayesha
Chaudhry undertakes a study of this challenging verse by engaging the corpus
of literature in Arabic from the classical period to the seventeenth century; she
also includes Urdu and English sources for the post-colonial period.
She starts off by relating her personal journey from a state of discomfort
and puzzlement when she first came across this verse in middle school to a
defensive posture in trying to convince herself by invoking the Prophet’s
compassion toward his wives and in cherishing the idea that the Qur’an gave
more rights to women than either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament.
She began a more rigorous and nuanced study of this verse after equipping
herself with the necessary academic tools and analytic skills during her university
studies. Frustrated with the shallow responses and the scholars’ circumspection
as regards any creative and novel reading of the verse for fear
of losing their status in the community, she decided to do so herself with the
hope of discovering views that would promote an egalitarian reading. But ...

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