A Traditionalist Critique of the Islamic Prohibition on Taṣwīr (Making Drawings and Statues of Humans and Animals)

A Caravan with the Pyramids and Sphinx Beyond (Joseph Austin Benwell , 1868)

To many Muslims today, it will sound patently absurd if someone were to tell them that it is a mortal sin for them to draw a cat. But some religious scholars would tell you that drawing a cat is an act of taṣwīr (the depiction of living things in paintings, sculptures and elsewhere), a sin for which God supposedly promises the severest punishment.

Mainstream Sunni Muslims today follow the opinions of popular religious scholars like Muhammad al-Ghazali, Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Ali Gomaa, who by and large have no issue with drawings and statues. Since neither Muslims nor their respected scholars have an issue with taṣwīr, it is largely a theoretical issue within Islamic law. There is, however, a minority of puritan Muslims, especially on the internet, who often bring up this issue, claim that a severe and even violent distaste for taṣwīr is the proper Islamic stance, and who categorically reject the opinions of mainstream scholars like al-Ghazali, al-Qaradawi and Gomaa.

Such Muslims generally represent the influence of Ḥanbali thought. They wish to hold strongly to tradition and to please God as far as humanly possible in the manner of Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal and his admirers, who went on to be called Ahl al-Ḥadīth, “The People of Tradition”, known as the Traditionalists in modern English-language Islamic studies. The fact that some command or prohibition sounds absurd is not sufficient reason to reject it. If there is a text commanding or prohibiting something, human reason has no authority to judge the command or prohibition; the only correct stance is to say “we hear and we obey”. If God, who is infinitely wise and just, commands something, it is the height of foolishness for one to critique His command, as if humans could ever hope to compete with Him in wisdom and justice. The Traditionalists include some of the most respected personalities in Islamic history, starting from Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (known reverentially as Imam Aḥmad) to the imams al-Bukhārī and Muslim, to many of the best known members of the Shāfiʿī and Ḥanbalī schools, such as Abū Ḥāmid al-Isfarāʾīnī (Shāfiʿī), Abū Isḥāq al-Shīrazī (Shāfiʿī), Ibn al-Jawzī (Ḥanbalī), Ibn Ṣalāḥ al-Shāhrazūrī (Shāfiʿī), Imam al-Nawawī (Shāfiʿī), Shams al-Dīn al-Dhahabī (Shāfiʿī), Ibn Taymīya (Ḥanbalī) and Ibn al-Qayyim (Ḥanbalī).

It would be a mistake to dismiss the Traditionalists as a narrow-minded group who refuse to listen to reason (which is how Western pundits and some reform-minded Muslims have portrayed them). By all accounts, the Traditionalists, despite their faults, were perhaps the closest group of Muslim scholars to the prophets mentioned in the Quran in their manners, their piety and their devotion to God. Their teachings continue to attract educated Muslims seeking pure and unadulterated Islamic teachings. When it comes to an issue such as that of whether drawing living things should be permissible or not, such Muslims would seek the opinions of these scholars, rather than relying on their own reasoning. An outsider may see this as typical of the irrationalism promoted by religion. Skepticism toward human reason can certainly be a sign of a lack of knowledge and sophistication. But it can also be a sign of a great deal of knowledge that has made one aware of the immense range of errors humans can fall into when they rely on their own cleverness. History is full of examples of humans who thought they knew what was best for them and who got things completely wrong. Read Plato’s Republic, which aims to describe how to create an ideal state of happiness and virtue in a city, but which would in all likelihood create a hellish nightmare if it were to be implemented in real life. Communism is another good example of the suffering and misery created by humans following their own cleverness. Aiming to free the masses from oppression, it ended up causing the deaths of over 100 million people in the 20th century. Since Muslims are blessed with teachings from God, it is common sense to give preference to His teachings and those of His Prophet rather than to one’s own reason. We can be sure that God and His Prophet are correct, while from our limited point of view, we can never be sure of the correctness of our thinking when it comes to complex and problematic matters of law and theology.

I am not a Traditionalist myself in the Ḥanbali sense, since I consider its extreme focus on hadith to be at the expense of the Quran. The Traditionalist scholars historically appear to be Islam’s best and most pious representatives, but I believe it is now possible to have something better by placing a much greater focus on the Quran and putting it back in the center of Islamic life.

This article seeks to answer the needs of Traditionalist-minded Muslims on the matter of drawings and statues. Below I translate an Arabic article I discovered a few years ago by a well-informed Traditionalist author who criticizes the supposed prohibition on taṣwīr. This article is significant because when even such a Muslim can find good reasons to doubt the prohibition on taṣwīr, this acts as supporting evidence for the mainstream Islamic practice of tolerating it. The author is an anonymous user of the Traditionalist internet forum Multaqā Ahl al-Ḥadīth (The Meeting Place of the Traditionalists) who goes by the name of al-Shaykh Muḥammad ibn Amīn.

The author’s notes are in parentheses, while translator’s notes are in square brackets. I use the word “statue” to translate timthāl, a catch-all term for all statues, sculptures, effigies, murals and other three-dimensional figures depicting humans and animals. I use the word picture, painting, image and figure mostly interchangeably, choosing one over the other depending on the context.1

Ḥukm al-Ṣuwar wa-l-Tamāthīl – The Islamic Ruling Regarding Pictures and Statues

Praise be to God. There has long been a legal theoretic issue of dispute, in fact since the time of the Companions, and that issue is this: Do we enact the literal meaning of a text or do we enact its spirit? Meaning, do we apply the text in its literal and apparent sense, or do we try to understand its spirit and rationale? The Companions differed on this. You are probably aware of the hadith on the ʿaṣr prayer in the Banī Qurayẓa affair. Some of the Companion understood [the Prophet’s instructions ] in their apparent form, while others tried to understand the purpose behind the instructions. The Prophet approved of the actions of both groups.

The issue [surrounding drawings and statues] is confused because there are texts mentioning instructions regarding the destruction of statues and the obliteration of pictures. Those who take these texts in their literal meaning would consider it obligatory to destroy every statue and obliterate every picture. Most of them [those who take the texts literally] consider photographic pictures permissible because they are merely the capturing of projections of light. And whoever prohibits this falls into contradiction since he is bringing together two mutually exclusive views.2

The other opinion is that the reason for the prohibition of pictures and statues was to prevent them from becoming means of shirk [assigning divine powers to other than God] or tabarruk [considering an object a source of blessings]. Forbidding statues does not require that they should be worshiped. If they are regarded with veneration by people, then this is sufficient to prohibit them in order to prevent this veneration from developing into worship. For this reason many of the ulema [scholars] consider it permissible to place pictures in debased places. It is permissible [in their opinion] for a rug to have pictures on it since it is stepped on by people, preventing the pictures from being venerated. It is also permissible to create statues without heads, since this makes them appear deficient. And it is also permissible to place a picture in a place where it cannot be viewed. It is not permissible to place a picture (photographic or drawn) on a wall, but it is permissible to place it between the pages of a book if one can be sure that the picture is not venerated (for example if it is not the picture of a sheikh or wali). The majority permitted pictures of living things that do not have rūḥ [soul or spirit], such as plants and nature. There are even those who permitted the creation of statues and pictures if it was certain that they would not be venerated. Al-Qirāfī [a Mālikī legal theorist of the seventh century of the hijra] used to make statues himself, as he mentioned in his book Sharḥ al-Maḥṣūr.

Two types of statues are mentioned in the Book of God [the Quran]: The first type are those statues that are worshiped instead of God. These are called tamāthīlaṣnām and anṣāb. It is obvious for us to say that these types of statues are prohibited for a Muslim to create or buy, since in such an act would be an aid in shirk. The second type are those statues that are not worshiped instead of God, such statues are not aṣnām or anṣāb. The Quran, in fact, mentions the creation of statues as one of the blessings that God bestowed upon Solomon :

12. And for Solomon the wind—its outward journey was one month, and its return journey was one month. And We made a spring of tar flow for him. And there were sprites that worked under him, by the leave of his Lord. But whoever of them swerved from Our command, We make him taste of the punishment of the Inferno. 13. They made for him whatever he wished: sanctuaries, statues, bowls like pools, and heavy cauldrons. “O House of David, work with appreciation,” but a few of My servants are appreciative.3

Here, God refers to statues as timthāl-s [statues] rather than aṣnām [idols], since they were not meant to be worshiped in God’s stead. This matter has to do with monotheism and faith and is a shared doctrine among all of the Prophets. There is no disagreement among the ulema that when it comes to the ʿaqāʾid [plural of ʿaqīda, beliefs regarding the nature of God and other matters] have not undergone change and that they have always been one and the same among the Prophets, for God says:

He prescribed for you the same religion He enjoined upon Noah, and what We inspired to you, and what We enjoined upon Abraham, and Moses, and Jesus: “You shall uphold the religion, and be not divided therein.” ...4

Many authentic hadith narrations exist that insist that the muṣawwirīn [figure-makers] are in the Hellfire, and that they will be among those who suffer the severest punishment. The reason for their punishment according to the texts of the hadith narrations is that they imitate God’s creation, and muḍāhāt [the sin the texts accuse them of] is the same as mushākala [the creation of the likeness of something], meaning that they create sculptures in the likeness of God’s creation, so that on the Day of Judgment they are told: “Bring to life what you have created!” Al-Nawawī5 says in his Commentary on Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim (14/84): “They [i.e. the ulema] agreed on prohibiting all [figures] that have shadows and on the necessity of changing them.” But Ibn Ḥajar6 adds in al-Fatḥ [his commentary on Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī] (10/388): “This consensus does not include children’s toys.”

There is conclusive evidence that the Prophet used pillows and utensils that had pictures on them, but he used to remove and wipe out pictures of crosses. It is also proven that he permitted children’s toys in the form of small statues/dolls, as is narrated from the Mother of the Believers Aisha, may God be pleased with her. Qaḍī ʿIyāḍ7 mentions that the majority of jurists permitted buying these dolls for the training of girls in matters pertaining to childcare, which is recognized as a worthy aim in Islamic law. While his information is correct regarding the permissibility of dolls, his reasoning is incorrect, since Aisha mentions a horse that had two wings; what relationship does that have with children’s education? The correct opinion is that children’s playthings are permissible for males and females without any karāha (legal disapproval), since they [dolls] are far away from the potential for veneration. One of our teachers used to say: “Children’s wisdom is greater than that of many adults, for you never find a child worshiping the doll he or she plays with.”

But if statues are an imitation of God’s creations, or creating their likeness, then that makes them forbidden and is considered a mortal sin according to the authentic narrations on the matter. But creating a likeness of God’s creations or imitating them could be done through making sculptures of soulless things like the sun, the moon, mountains and trees, and through making girls’ dolls and similar things that the texts explicitly permit. For this reason some of the ulema say that what is intended are those who create statues or make pictures with the aim of challenging God’s power, or those who think that they have a similar power to create as God has. God shows such people their incapacity by asking them to bring life to what they create. In support of this, Ibn Ḥajar, in al-Fatḥ al-Bārī [his aforementioned commentary on Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī], regarding God’s saying in His ḥadīth qudsī: “And who is greater in injustice than one who goes in order to create a creature like My creation?” interprets “goes” here to mean “aims”. According to this, the forbidden thing here is related to the intention of the maker [of the statue, etc.], whether the product is a statue or a hand-drawing of any image. It is mentioned in the Mawsūʿa al-Fiqhīya  [The Encyclopedia of Islamic Jurisprudence, a 45-volume work by Kuwait’s Awqāf ministry including opinions from all of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence, completed in 2005 after 40 years of work], in Bāb al-Taṣwīr [the chapter on figure-making]:

The majority of ulema agree that prohibiting figures does not imply a prohibition on possessing them or using them, for regarding the process of making figures of things that have souls, it is mentioned that figure-makers are cursed and that they will be punished in the Hellfire and that they will be among the most severely punished among the people, but nothing is mentioned regarding possessing pictures, and there is no accepted evidence for the existence of a reason for prohibiting the user of such figures. Despite that, there are narrations that prohibit the possession and use of pictures, but they do not mention a punishment or equivalent that imply that possessing figures is a mortal sin. For these reasons, the judgment regarding the possessor of pictures whose possession is forbidden is that they have committed a small sin... Among those who were aware of the difference between figure-making and the [mere] possession of figures were: al-Nawawī... and most of the jurists are in agreement with this.

As for narrations saying that the angels do not enter a house in which there is a figure or a dog, the likely intent are the angels of revelation and not others. For this reason Ibn Ḥibbān8 made this restricted to the Prophet , for the angels that are assigned to each individual would enter such houses, and God knows best.

The majority of the jurists have permitted the user of statues and pictures in houses if they are not placed on curtains or walls with the intent to view them with veneration, and if they are subject to debasement as in people stepping on them and so on. ʿIkrima9 says: “They used to dislike statues set up on pedestals, but they saw no issues with those which feet could step on.” ʿIkrima here is transmitting from [mentioning the opinion of] the Companions. Muḥammad ibn Sīrīn10 said: “They used to see figures that were spread out or stepped upon as different from those that were set up on pedestals.” Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr11 says in the Tamhīd (21/199): “This is the most balanced among the opinions and the most moderate in this matter and most of the ulema are in agreement with it. Whoever is fatigued with narrations [unclear meaning] will not oppose this interpretation. This is the best of what I believe about this matter. God is the helper toward the correct opinion.”

It appears that the permissibility of leaving alone figures and statues that are not venerated is the creed of the majority of the Companions, even their consensus. For they did not destroy statues and pictures in the countries of Persia, the Levant and Iraq, but they did so in India and the Arabian countries. That is because these things were not worshiped in Persia, the Levant and Egypt. They did not touch those enormous edifices and great numbers of statues which remain there to this day. Consider this anecdote:

Saʿd bin Abī Waqqāṣ (the conqueror of Iraq and one of those promised Paradise) entered the palace of Khosrow II in al-Madāʾin [Ctesiphon, the Persian capital, near modern-day Baghdad]. In that palace there were many figures on the walls and many statues. He did not destroy any of them, in fact they remain where they are to our day. None of the Companions criticized him or anyone else for this. This is a consensus from them regarding the permissibility of letting such things remain undestroyed if they are not worshiped in God’s stead and they are not ascribed holiness. Al-Tabarī says in his Tarīkh (2/464): “When Saʿd entered al-Madāʾin and saw its desertedness, and went to Khosrow’s hall, he went on to recite: “How many gardens and fountains did they leave behind? And plantations, and splendid buildings. And comforts they used to enjoy. So it was; and We passed it on to another people.”12  He performed ṣalāt al-fatḥ [ritual prayer performed after a conquest], which is not performed communally. He performed eight rakʿāt [units of prayer, plural of rakʿa] without pausing between them, and turned the hall into a masjid [mosque or prayer hall]. In it there were statues made of gypsum, of men and horses. Neither he nor the Muslims opposed their presence and left them where they were. It is said: Saʿd completed the prayer on the day he entered it, for he wanted to take residence in it [or take it as a seat of the new government]. The first Friday in which the Muslims gathered for Friday prayers in Iraq in al-Madāʾin was in the year 16 [of the hijra].” Also see the al-Dhahabi’s History of Islam (3/158).

In Khosrow’s hall there were colorful and life-sized pictures done in great detail. These pictures survive to our day. These pictures were, of course, not buried in the sand, rather, numerous companions entered this palace and stayed in it. How did they then not see the pictures which can be seen clearly to our day? Even if they were not able to destroy the pictures, they could have blotted them out through white-washing, and this does not require great expenses nor a large number of workers. It would have been easy for the ruling power to command that the walls be repainted. There is no other interpretation other than that they understood the hadith narrations regarding the destruction of figures as being specific to those which were accorded veneration or were worshiped in God’s stead. These pictures continued to be viewed, being described by historians and writers. Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī says in his Muʿjam al-Buldān [his famous geographical dictionary] (1/295): “In the hall there was Khosrow Anūshirvān picture, and that of Caesar king of Antioch, who was besieging it and fighting its people.”

The famous Abbasid poet al-Buḥturī describes them in his wonderful qaṣīda al-sīnīya [a type of ode]. He describes these pictures as having such detail that one could imagine them real, so that one would want to touch them to reassure themselves that they were mere pictures. He says in his ode:13

Sorrows attend my saddle. I direct
my stout she-camel to Madāʾin [Ctesiphon].
When you see a panel of the Battle at Antioch,
you tremble among Byzantines and Persians.
The Fates stand still, while Anūshirvān
leads the ranks onward under the banner
In a deep green robe over yellow.
It appears dyed in saffron.
The eye depicts them very much alive:
they have between them speechless signs.
My wonder about them boils till
my hand explores them with a touch.

The question here is: Why did the Companions let the pictures in Khosrow’s hall remain? Those who disagree with thus are incapable of answering this. One of them says that we should only follow hadith and disregard the actions of the Companions. This is strange, for is it imaginable that the Companions would randomly follow their own inclinations? Aren’t the actions of the Companions and their sayings an interpretation and illustration of the teachings of the Prophet ? We have not abandoned the Prophet’s sayings , and neither did the Companions, may God be pleased with them. Rather, they understood the texts in a way different from those who disagree with us. It is the Companions who narrated those hadith narrations to us. And it is they to whom those narrations were directed, therefore their understanding takes precedence in matters of dispute. And the ijmaʿ [consensus] of the Companions is one of the acknowledged sources of Islamic legislation. Additionally, all of the 73 groups claim to follow the Quran and the Sunnah, but the distinguishing characteristic of al-firqa al-nājiya [“the group that attains salvation”, i.e. from the hellfire]14 is that the group follows the Companions of the Prophet .

As for the claim that during all of those years they were too busy [to destroy the paintings and statues], I do not think the person saying that believes it himself, it is just that he cannot find a better argument. Was it too difficult for Saʿd bin Abī Waqqāṣ or one of the rulers after him to command one of the slaves to repaint those walls that had pictures? As for denying that the Companions had seen the pictures, this is obstinacy and denialism, for Khosrow’s hall is the biggest building in al-Madāʾin, and the fact of the Muslims entering it is a well-known and multiply-transferred piece of information that no one denies. It was full of pictures and statues and poems were written about it. This same hall became the center of government in Iraq until the building of the city of Kūfa was finished.

The sheikh Dr. Aḥmad al-Ghāmidī answered this criticism by saying: “These pictures and statues were not worshiped aṣnām, they were rather figures depicting past events, and perhaps there was a lesson or benefit in letting them remain.” I say that it might be so, and using the fact of their not being worshiped in his reasoning is the same as what I say. He also said: “Fifth, the prohibited thing is the creation of pictures. As for the narration from Ali, may God be pleased with him, regarding the destruction of figures, it refers to three-dimensional statues.” But they weren’t pictures only; the hall of Khosrow was full of statues as is the wont of kings. Ali himself ruled Iraq and did not order the destruction of any of its statues.

The mention of Khosrow’s palace is merely an example. In reality great statues have been allowed to remain not only in Khosrow’s palaces but in [the rest of] Iraq, the Levant, Egypt and Persia. Yes, certain worshiped statues were destroyed in Sindh [a province of modern-day Pakistan] and Transoxania when the Companions discovered peoples who worshiped them, as happened in the Arabian peninsula itself. But other than these, then no. A comical event was that one contemporary caller for the destruction of statues claimed that the Pharaonic statues had been buried in the sand and were not visible during the time of the Companions! Saying the in fact they hadn’t been seen until the past two hundred years. In this saying is negligence toward the books of history, for history books are full of information regarding the familiarity of Muslims with these statues. Al-Jāḥīẓ (who was a contemporary of the imams Mālik, al-Shafiʿī and Aḥmad) enumerated the wonders of the world, saying in his Ḥusn al-Muḥāḍara (3/65): “The ṣanam [statue of religious significance, singular of aṣnām] of the two pyramids is Balhawīya, also called Balhunayt [?] and called Abū l-Hawl by the common people. It is said that it is placed there as a talisman so that the sand would not overcome the Giza.” Yaqūt al-Ḥamawī in his Muʿjam al-Buldān (5/401) says: “On the corner of one of them (meaning the pyramids) there is a great ṣanam that is called Bulhayt [?]. It is said that it is a talisman for the sand so that it would not overcome the area of Giza. It depicts a human head and neck, and the top of its shoulders are like that of the lion. And it is very large. It has a pleasant appearance, as if its creator had recently completed it. It is painted a red color that survives to this day despite the great length of time and the distance of the years.” Also see the words of Ibn Faḍl in Masālik al-Abṣār (1/235) and the words of al-Baghdādī in al-Ifāda (p. 96).

The number of the Companions who entered Egypt was greater than three hundred, as al-Suyūṭī confirmed in Ḥusn al-Muḥāḍara (1/166). The first city they besieged was ʿAin Shams [today a suburb of Cairo] as is mentioned in Ibn Kathīr’s al-Bidāya wa-l-Nihāya (7/98). It is filled with large statues as ʿAbd al-Laṭīf al-Baghdādī mentioned in the sixth century [of the hijra], saying in his travelogue (p. 96): “Of that [type?] are the antiquities in ʿAin Shams. It is a small city the ruins of whose surrounding wall are visible, it appears that it was a place of worship. In it there are enormous statues carved from rock. The length of a statue is around thirty cubits, and its limbs are proportionally large. There is much writing on those rocks and figures of humans and animals of the unintelligible [ancient Egyptian] writing.” The Companions resided in al-Fusṭāṭ [today part of Cairo] and Giza, which are very close to the pyramids. It is worth mentioning that the pyramids themselves were covered in the language of the pharaohs, some of whose letters are in the shapes of birds and animals. Al-Baghdādī says about the pyramids (p. 92): “Upon those rocks there are writings in the unknown ancient pen, such that I did not find anyone in the towns of Egypt who knew of anyone who understood them. There is a great amount of these writings, such that if what is written was transmitted to pages of books, they would take up ten thousand pages.” Al-Masʿūdī mentions similar things in his history (1/361) and Ibn Taghrībirdī in al-Nujūm al-Zāhira (1/41).

Judging from all of that, the Companions who entered Egypt certainly saw the Sphinx and the pictures on the pyramids. These in addition to the statues in ʿAin Shams, about which there is no doubt that they saw them after its conquest and their entering the city. Denying that they saw them is obstinacy. These, in addition to the statues in the pharaonic cities of Memphis and others. It is more likely than not that they saw these too, due to the great number of the Companions and the length of their stay in Egypt. And it is these about which al-Baghdādī says (p. 102): “As for the statues, the greatness of their number and the enormity of their size, it is a matter that is beyond description and computation. The accuracy of their shapes, the meticulousness of their aspects and the carving upon them of natural facets is in truth a matter for wonder.” Despite that, we have not seen them [the Companions] destroy any of them. So were the Muslims incapable of destroying those statues? This is absolutely false. That is because they were able to destroy the fortress of Babylon and the walls of Nahavand in Persia, and they drilled through [the walls of] many of the fortresses they besieged, which were great fortresses that had armed guards that shot arrows at the Muslims during their drilling and destruction of them. Couldn’t they at least disfigure the faces of the statues? If this saying [that the Companions were unable to destroy the statues] is not an insult to the Companions then I do not know what is. Is it conceivable that non-Muslims were capable of building while the Muslims incapable of mere demolition? This is impossible.

To summarize, it is not permissible to hang any picture (including photographic pictures) if this has the potential of leading to veneration and the expectation of blessings from it (especially the pictures of sheikhs and leaders). But if one is safe from that (as in the case of one hanging his own picture or that of his child) then there is no issue with it. Any pictures that are in a place unlikely to be venerated, as on pillows and rugs, then there is no distaste for that. The same is true of statues. And there is no issue with children’s toys and dolls, for such things are not venerated. And if statues accomplish a benefit recognized by the Sharīʿa, such as for teaching or training (such as those used in schools for illustration and clarification), then they go from being mubāḥ [not forbidden] to mustaḥabb [recommended], they may even be wājib [strongly recommended or compulsory] in certain cases if they are a means of understanding the sciences and advancing in them. And God knows what the most correct opinion is.

End of the translated article

Translator’s Conclusion

It appears from the above discussion that one can conclude that the issue of taṣwīr is one of context. If a figure is accorded veneration for supposed metaphysical powers, it is prohibited to have it and use it. If it is not, then there is no issue with it. This means that the issue of taṣwīr is quite irrelevant to the lives of most educated Muslims, who find the idea of venerating a picture or statue absurd.

The issue is very similar to that of music (which I discuss here):

  • Neither taṣwīr nor music are mentioned in the Quran.
  • Neither are clearly and unequivocally prohibited by a command of the Prophet .
  • There is no good logical reason for prohibiting either; both have good and wholesome uses that do not cause any difficulty to the conscience or repugnance to one’s sensibilities.
  • Both of them are associated with highly sinful activities; taṣwīr with the worship of idols, music with maʾāzif (wild parties involving wine-drinking and half-dressed women), so that a Traditionalist wishing to be safe from sin would have a strong incentive to stay away from both regardless of any expected benefits.
  • The majority of the world’s Muslims refuse to take either prohibition seriously.

On the unreliability of the hadith narrations mentioning 73 Muslim sects, 72 of which are doomed to the Hellfire

There are a group of hadith narrations, not found in al-Bukhārī and Muslim, but found in various other collections, in which the Prophet Muhammad mentions that the Muslims will divide into 73 groups, 72 of which will enter the Hellfire, meaning that only one among these 73 groups will be saved. This one group is known as al-firqa al-nājiya (“the group that attains salvation”).

These narrations have unfortunately been a favorite polemical tool. Each group can claim to be al-firqa al-nājiya to imply that the members of every other group will enter the Hellfire:

But they tore themselves into sects; each party (self-righteously) happy with what they have.1

The truth of the matter is that these narrations are all likely corrupted or fabricated, and there is no authentic evidence whatsoever for the part that says “all of them will enter the Hellfire except one”.

The Kuwaiti Islamic scholar Dr. Ḥākim al-Muṭayrī (b. 1964, holds PhDs in Islamic studies from Birmingham University and University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco) has conducted a study (Arabic PDF – 3 MB) of all of the relevant hadith narrations regarding this issue. He mentions that Ibn Ḥazm rejected the narration, and that al-Shawkani considered the part that says “all of them are doomed save one” a fabrication. In the conclusion, he writes:

وعلى كل فكل طرق هذا الحديث مناكير وغرائب ضعيفة ومنكرة، وأحسنها حالا حديث أبي هريرة وهو حديث حسن، مع تساهل كبير في تحسينه لتفرد محمد بن عمرو به، وهو صدوق له أوهام خاصة في روايته عن أبي سلمة عن أبي هريرة، ولهذا كان القدماء يتقون حديثه كما قال يحيى بن معين.

All of the ṭuruq (the chains of narrators) of this hadith are objectionable and unauthentic. The best of them is the hadith of Abū Hurayra, which is a ḥasan hadith (i.e. not good enough to be considered authentic, but having an acceptable meaning and not clearly fabricated), provided that we extend it great latitude (i.e. lower our standards) for the fact of Muhammad bin ʿAmr being its only transmitter, who is known to be a truthful person who has awhām (plural of wahm, "confusion" or "delusion", meaning he gets confused and mixes up narrations), especially in his narrations from Abū Salama, from Abū Hurayra, and for this reason the early hadith scholars were cautious of his narrations, as Yaḥyā bin Maʿīn has mentioned.

Note that this best hadith that Dr. Muṭayrī refers to does not have the part that says “all of them will enter the Hellfire save one” (see page 24 of the PDF). The most we can learn from these narrations is that the Muslims will possibly divide into 73 sects (which could possibly be a randomly chosen number used to imply “a great many”, as is typical in Arabian usage).

In conclusion, there is no justification whatsoever for using these narrations to imply that Muslims from other groups will enter the Hellfire; anyone who says such a thing has uttered a falsehood, either out ignorance or dishonesty.

The Muslim World on the Eve of Europe’s Expansion by John J. Saunders

The Muslim World on the Eve of Europe’s Expansion (published in 1966), at only 136 pages, is a short and enjoyable history of the Muslim world in the early modern period, with interesting articles on the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Empires, the Mamlukes, the Uzbeks, Islam in Southeast Asia and Africa, the remnants of the Mongols in Russia, the Indian Ocean trade and the naval struggle between the Ottomans and the Christian powers.

Many interesting scenes from history are presented in the book; the siege of Vienna by the Ottomans; celebrations in Rome on the fall of Granada, the last Muslim principality in Spain; an Italian traveler who performs the Hajj in 1503 disguised as a Muslim.

The book is a collection of excerpts from other works. Each section is introduced by the fair-minded and able British historian John J. Saunders. The book is recommended to anyone who wants to enjoy a lighthearted and non-politicized introduction to the state of the Islamic world during the rise of European power.

Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy [Short Book Review]

Professor Jonathan Brown’s Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy is one of the best English-language books about Islam written by a Muslim (he converted to Islam in 1997). While the book’s focus is on the issues surrounding the authenticity and interpretation of hadith, it provides a good general history of the development of Islam’s intellectual tradition.

The book will contain many eye-openers for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. While rising many questions, the book does not generally provide conclusive answers.

The issue of violence against women (as in verse 4:34) is covered in great detail, although no solution is reached (see my essay A New Interpretation of Wife-Beating in Verse 4:34 of the Quran for a potential solution). On the issue of the stoning of adulterers:

...and so strong was the sense of duty to avoid carrying them out that Cairo’s senior judge chose exile over agreeing to execute two adulterers.

While the Egyptian scholar Muhammad Abu Zahra is mentioned in the book, his important opposition to the punishment of stoning is not (perhaps Dr. Brown was not aware of it).

This book’s most important contribution, I hope, will be to encourage other Muslims to write works of similar quality; fairly balanced and supported by a great deal of evidence.

Toward a Modernization of Our Understanding of Wife-Beating in Verse 4:34 of the Quran

In der Moschee by Carl Friedrich Heinrich Werner (d. 1894)

In this essay, I present a plausible framework in which traditional scholarly interpretations of 4:34 can be considered correct without this becoming support for violence against women. I argue that the error has not been in understanding 4:34 but in scholarly efforts to justify it. There is a new line of justification that has so far been largely ignored and not taken to its conclusion.

Islam is often called a misogynistic religion. But if one checks out traditional works of Quranic exgesis, one finds a striking phenomenon: Almost every scholar who has tried to interpret verse 4:34, in which a man is given the right to strike his wife in certain circumstances, has been at pains to place limitations on it, as Karen Bauer discovered in her study of the historical Islamic sources on this issue.1 There were no feminists in the 8th century pressuring these scholars to be politically correct. We are talking about a time when the Viking campaigns of rape and plunder against the rest of the world were just starting to take off (and would continue for the next three centuries). What was making these men of those supposed “Dark Ages” so sensitive toward women’s rights? I would argue that it was because they were humans and a chief feature of the human psyche is empathy. They had mothers, sisters, daughters and wives and did not like the thought of these loved humans suffering oppression and injustice.

Be that as it may, an uninformed reader who picks up an ancient Islamic text expecting to read things like “beat your wives, they are your property anyway” will be highly disappointed to find the depths and nuances of the Islamic discussions of the issue. Those who study Islam closely, the most important group being Western, non-Muslim scholars of Islam, are forced, often against their expectations, to respect it more and more.

Like the scholars of ancient times, and like Prophet Muhammad himself (as will be seen), many Muslims feel uncomfortable with verse 4:34 of the Quran. It is difficult to find a balanced and holistic answer that does not either defend wife-beating or that does not nullify the verse completely. This essay attempts to provide such an answer; taking the traditional meaning of the verse seriously while explaining how it fits within a modern society in which violence against women is rare and taboo (as it should be). To begin addressing the issue, the first principle we can state on this matter is this, which will help make the rest of the matter clear:

There is no such thing as humanely striking a woman.

Contemporary scholars who wish to defend 4:34, such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, mention that there are various restrictions in Islamic law on the way a man can strike a woman, as if this somehow justifies it. It does not. What needs to be answered is why the Quran allows any form of striking a woman at all.

Let’s now take a look at verse 4:34:

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, as God has given some of them an advantage over others, and because they spend out of their wealth. The good women are obedient, guarding what God would have them guard. As for those from whom you fear disloyalty, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, then strike them. But if they obey you, seek no way against them. God is Sublime, Great.2

The Arabic word qawwāmūn is translated as “protectors and maintainers” in English or something similar to it, and this leads to the verse sounding nonsensical. Why would the Quran go from the idea of financial support and protection for women to the idea of striking them in the same verse? The problem is that “protector and maintainer” is not exactly what qawwāmūn means. Qawwāmūn means “figures of authority who are in charge of and take care of (something)”.3 Verse 4:34 is about the issue of authority and law-enforcement within a household as I will explain, the idea of financial support and physical protection is only a subset of it.

Verse 4:34 establishes qiwāma, the gender framework within which Muslim families are meant to operate. The concept of qiwāma, along with that of wilāya (guardianship), have been a focus of concentrated feminist efforts that aim to defuse them in order to create gender equality within Islam.4 Despite their good intentions, which is the seeking of justice and equality, qiwāma cannot be attacked except through the use of far-fetched interpretations and false analogies. Below I will address feminist attacks on the concept.  Those who accept the classical scholarly interpretations of 4:34 and wish to find out how it can be justified in a modern society can skip to the next section.

In a chapter of the previously cited Men in Charge? Omaima Abou-Bakr tries to trace the way the concept of qiwāma developed in Islam. She mentions Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī by the Persian scholar Ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (d. 310 AH / 923 CE) as the “first” work of tafsīr (Quranic exegesis), going on to say:

Hence, not only did al-Tabari initiate and put into motion the hierarchal idea of moral superiority and the right to discipline (ta’dibihinna), but he also instituted the twisted logic of turning the divine assignment to provide economic support into a reason for privilege: ‘they provide because they are better, or they are better because they provide’.

The truth is that the pro-qiwāma interpretation of verse 4:34 starts not with al-Ṭabarī. It started as early as the Islamic scholar, prince of the Quran scholars, and Companion of the Prophet Muhammad ʿAbdullāh ibn ʿAbbās , in whose work of tafsīr5, authored two centuries before al-Ṭabarī, he says:

"Men are qawwāmūn over women" means umarāʾ ("commanders", "rulers", "chiefs"), she is required to obey him in that which he commands her. His obedience means that she should be well-mannered toward his household, she should watch over his property and [appreciate] the virtue of his taking care of her and striving for her sake.6

Incidentally, among other works of tafsīr predating al-Ṭabarī, also by two centuries, are the works of Mujāhid and al-Ḍaḥḥāk. Another early work of tafsīr is that of Muqātil bin Sulaymān (d. 150 AH / c. 767 CE), who predates al-Ṭabarī by a century and a half. He interprets qawwāmūn as musalliṭūn (“having lordship and authority”), a word that is largely similar to Ibn ʿAbbās’s umarāʾ, from the word sulṭa (“authority”, “dominion”).7 Al-Ṭabarī’s understanding of qawwāmūn was in no way new; he was following a tafsīr tradition that had been established centuries before him. The pre-Ṭabarī Ibāḍī scholar Hūd bin Muḥakkam al-Hawwārī (died in the last decades of the third century AH), reflecting a North African tafsīr tradition, also interprets qawwāmūn as musalliṭūn.8

Abou-Bakr goes on to conclude that al-Ṭabarī was responsible for the changes she mentions in the following passage:

Thus, the original direct meaning of qawwamun/bima faddala (financial support by the means God gave them) developed this way: 1) from descriptive to normative/from responsibility to authority; 2) introducing the noun qiyam (which paved the way to the later qiwamah) as an essentialist notion of moral superiority; 3) from the restricted meaning of providing financial support to a wider range of a generalized status of all men everywhere and at all times; and 4) from a relative, changing condition of material bounty on account of inheritance to an unconditional favouritism based on gender.

According to Abou-Bakr, an innocent and harmless verse 4:34 was over time given a patriarchal, male-centric interpretation by scholars like al-Ṭabarī. Such a narrative, if it were true, would certainly be strong support for the feminist cause. But Ibn ʿAbbas and Muqātil’s aforementioned interpretations are strong historical evidence against her thesis; the notion of qiwāma did not go from being merely about financial support among the early Muslims to something more later on through the harmful influence of tafsīr scholars; qiwāma was thought to be about authority from the time of the Companions. A second and equally serious flaw in her thesis is her considering financial support to be central to the verse’s reasoning. Verse 4:34 actually mentions financial support as the second, rather than the first, rationale for giving men authority over women. Let’s take another look at the relevant part of the verse:

Men are qawwāmūn over women as God has given some of them [i.e. males] faḍl [a preference, advantage, superiority in rank] over others [i.e. females], and because they spend out of their wealth.

The first reason for this authority is not men’s historical financial support of women, but a faḍl (“preference”) that God has given to men over women, as is recognized by Muqātil9. To clarify further, the verse can be rephrased as:

Men are qawwāmūn over women because 1. God has given men a faḍl over women, and 2. because men spend out of their wealth.

The superiority in rank, status or nature granted to men by God is what comes first, it is the main justification for qiwāma and has nothing to do with financial support as far as one can tell, since financial support is mentioned separately. The Arabic wording of the verse can be said to go out of its way to make this clear by using two bi-mās (“because”s) rather than one: because … and because … . It is quite unwarranted to collapse these two given reasons into one. It helps the feminist cause, but it goes against the more important cause of being intellectually honest with oneself.

The reason why God gives men a preference in rank over women is not given explicitly in the Quran, later I will mention some possible justifications for it. But we do not need a reason in order to act according to it, the same way that we do need a for the Hajj pilgrimage in order to carry it out. God commands, we obey.

There are many hadith narrations that mention women as deficient in intellect and morality. I make no references whatsoever to those narrations in this discussion; the “preference” I refer to is the plain meaning of the Quranic verse; it is a rank granted by God, the way an army grants different ranks to different soldiers without suggesting that the lower ranks are morally inferior to the upper ranks. The concept of men having a superiority in rank over women is not unique to 4:34, it is also spelled out in verse 2:228:

Divorced women shall wait by themselves for three periods. And it is not lawful for them to conceal what God has created in their wombs, if they believe in God and the Last Day. Meanwhile, their husbands have the better right to take them back, if they desire reconciliation. And women have rights similar to their obligations, according to what is fair. But men have a degree over them. God is Mighty and Wise.

Scholars, such as al-Wāḥidī, Ibn al-ʿArabī, al-Rāzī, Ibn al-Jawzī, Abu Ḥayyān al-Gharnāṭī and Ibn al-Qayyim, mention that women are intrinsically mentally and morally inferior to men in their justification for the Quran’s special treatment of them in the matter of testimony (a man’s testimony equals two women’s, with various differences and nuances among the schools).10 A strong argument against the mental/moral inferiority thesis is that the Quran treats women as men’s equals throughout, considering them equally responsible for their actions and held to the same standards. If women were as irresponsible and foolish as children as some scholars suggest (such as al-Wāḥidī, Ibn al-Jawzī and al-Rāzī, who mention that women are perma-adolescents, never maturing), it would have been only fair to treat them as children in the matter of duties, yet the Quran treats them as complete humans. Karen Bauer writes:

But if women were deficient in rationality, then why did they have spiritual responsibilities similar to men? Although the majority of exegetes simply took inequality for granted, several explained why such inequality was fair, just, and according to God’s will. Such interpretations may reveal more, however, about the worldview of the interpreters than they reveal about the Qurʾān.11

A modern work of tafsīr that criticizes the infantilization of women in classical tafsīr works is Tafsīr al-Manār by the Egyptian reformist scholars Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905 CE) and Rashid Rida (d. 1935 CE).12

From the above, we can summarize the evidence in support of the classical view of qiwāma as:

  • Classical scholarly works, such as those of Muqātil, al-Ṭabarī and al-Rāzī.
  • The opinion of the Prophet’s Companion Ibn ʿAbbas.
  • The wording of the verse, in which the primary rationale for qiwāma is given as a superiority in rank granted by God, rather than financial support.
  • The fact that the verse seems to switch from the issue of financial support to the issue of discipline if we accept the feminist interpretation that qiwāma has to do with financial support alone. But if we accept the classical view that it is about authority, then the verse makes perfect sense: The first part asserts that men are the chief authorities in their households; the middle part gives two reasons for this; the last part deals with the issue of what a man should do when this authority is challenged.

Laleh Bakhtiar’s interpretation of “and strike them” as “leave them” in her Sublime Quran is so far fetched that it is not worth addressing. Men in Charge? does not give it a mention and assumes that “strike them/beat them” is the correct interpretation. Despite the book’s attacks on traditional qiwāma, the question of why the verse mentions striking women at all is strangely not addressed in the book as far as I could find. It is quite far-fetched to claim that a verse that allows the male sex to strike the female sex is innocent of patriarchal concepts.

Another line of attack against qiwāma has been that of claiming that Quranic verses and principles are historically localized; they applied in the Arabia of the 7th century CE, but they do not necessarily apply today. Addressing this criticism would require another essay. The idea that Quranic principles are historically localized is debatable, it is against the understanding of the vast majority of Islamic thinkers and scholars. We can localize a verse in its historical context to understand its meaning and intent, but once we have extracted these, they should be generalized to all times and places. Historical localization would allow one to nullify almost any Quranic concept they want by arguing that it only applied to a particular time and place and not to another. The common and common sense understanding of the Quran is that while its context can help us extract its meaning, the meaning itself is universal. The default assumption regarding the meaning of any verse should be that it is designed to be applied by all humans for all time. Overwhelming evidence should be needed to prove that the meaning of a particular verse has expired or is irrelevant. In the case of qiwāma, there is no evidence at all that it is irrelevant today. There certainly is overwhelming desire among a certain group of intellectuals to throw the concept away, but that does not constitute evidence. Working for women’s rights is a good thing, but destroying the foundations of our understanding of the Quran in the process is not.

At this point, assuming that the classical interpretations of the verse are correct, we will examine how such a gender framework could be justified among civilized and self-respecting humans.

Domestic Violence in Islam

Domestic violence, as the phrase is commonly understood, is prohibited in Islam; a woman has the right to not be abused by her husband. This is the general rule; Islam does not tolerate cruelty and injustice toward anyone, whether man, woman, child or even animal. But verse 4:34 establishes an exception in the matter of authority and discipline in a household. The point of this verse is the establishment of a certain type of order within an Islamic household.

Throughout the world, the police have the right to strike a person who is about to break the law, for example a person who want to set fire to a building. The police are required to sternly warn the person to stop their behavior, and if they do not, they have the right to intervene physically and subdue the person to prevent them from doing harm. The right of the police to strike any citizen they want given the right circumstances establishes a certain type of order within society. It does not lead to a reign of terror; look at a peaceful and quiet Western town and you will find that that peace and quiet is protected by the existence of a police force who have the right to use violence when necessary.

Internal Family Law and Its Enforcement

In the West, law enforcement is the job of the police; they are given the right to use violence when necessary to carry out this job. Islam creates a second law enforcement jurisdiction that is non-existent in the West, that of the family, with the power of policing given to a husband (rather than a police force) within this internal family jurisdiction (later on I will discuss why this power is given to men rather than women).

Similar to the police, men are not allowed to abuse this authority. Police brutality and husband brutality can both be severely punished by the law. Verse 4:34 gives a man the authority to police his household. If his wife is about to do something highly damaging, such as trying to invite a lover into the house, he has the right to sternly warn her to stop and to use force against her if she does not.

Here, it should be stated that under Islamic law a woman should have the right to divorce any time she wants. If her husband is abusive, besides having access to agencies protecting women, she should also be able to threaten to leave him, and the police should be there to protect her rights and prevent her from being kept as a wife against her wishes. Middle Eastern countries have been notoriously bad at protecting women’s rights, this is slowly changing, and Islam can actually be used as justification for creating agencies that protect women’s rights.

Islamic law creates this situation inside a family:

  1. A husband has the right to police his household and to use violence in the extremely rare case where his wife wants to do something completely unacceptable in their culture and society.
  2. A woman has the right to leave her husband any time she wants.13
  3. A woman has the right to be free from cruel treatment and abuse, and has the right to enjoy the police’s protection from abuse.

In the vast majority of marriages (perhaps 99.99%), husbands will never have to use their right to violence, the same way that in a peaceful society the vast majority of people are never beaten by the police, despite the fact that the police have the right to strike any citizen when necessary. Islamic law, similar to Western law, creates a certain social order that does not do violence to anyone as long as no one tries to break the law. A husband’s right to act as policeman is irrelevant except in the extremely rare case when a wife, for whatever reason, 1. insults and threatens him by her actions, 2. does not listen to admonishment and 3. does not want a divorce. That is quite a ridiculous situation that very few couples will find themselves in.

A person may ask, if this verse truly applies to only 0.01% of marriages, why would the Quran have a verse about it? For the same reason that Western law has many clauses on the use of violence by the police despite the fact that only 0.01% of citizens are ever subject to police violence. The right to use violence is what matters here, not the actual use of violence. When a Western town gives the police the right to use violence, they do not do so because they like to watch the police beat people up, but because they know that if the police did not have the right to use violence, they could not deal with the extremely rare cases in which violence is needed.

You cannot establish social order without giving someone the power to enforce it. A law is useless talk unless there is someone who can enforce the law, and the enforcement of law in human society requires the power to use violence (only the power, not the actual use of violence). While Western law defines a certain legal code enforced by the police where necessary, Islamic law defines this, and also, in addition to it, defines internal family law (non-existent in the West) that husbands can enforce through violence where necessary.

Senseless Beatings and Cultural Mores

When talking about 4:34, people’s minds immediately jump to an imaginary or real wife who is beaten by a cruel husband. But that has nothing to do with 4:34. The violence in 4:34 is similar to police violence; if it is cruel, if it is senseless, if it is unnecessary, then that is forbidden and should be punished by law. 4:34 only justifies violence in cases where the couple’s culture considers the violence justified. The woman’s own relatives should be able to look into the case and agree that the husband’s actions were justified.

What situations could possibly justify a husband striking a wife? This is similar to asking what situations could possibly justify the police striking a citizen. If we think of good citizens being beaten by the police, we naturally find that cruel and unjustified. So to sensibly answer the question, we have to think of bad citizens, those who do deserve violence according to the law worldwide. A bad citizen would be one who is mugging someone, or trying to steal a car, or trying to rape a woman. People will generally agree that police violence is justified in preventing such citizens from carrying out their intentions.

Verse 4:34 deals with the issue of bad wives, the way that Western laws allowing police violence are there to deal with the issue of bad citizens (I will address the question of bad husbands later on). In regards to good wives versus bad wives, verse 4:34 has this to say:

The good women are obedient, guarding what God would have them guard. As for those from whom you fear disloyalty, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, then strike them.

The Arabic word that is rendered as “disloyalty” above is nushūz, which according to al-Rāzī has meaning close to “mutiny”, it is when a person acts as if they are superior to a figure of authority (as in a soldier acting in disregard of an officer’s rank).14 It literally means “to consider oneself superior”, the word can be used to describe a patch of land as being higher than another.1516

The word nushūz is vague and does not clearly define what situations deserve a strong response and which ones do not. I believe this is in order to leave it to each family, culture and society to decide it for itself. All wives probably know what their husbands’ “deal-breakers” are, things that he would consider a severe insult and a betrayal, and these things can be different for different people. The most flagrant case of nushūz is a wife trying to have an affair. In general, nushūz is any case in which a wife acts in disregard and disrespect to the Islamic social order that the Quran wants to establish within the family. Among forms of nushūz explained in the Islamic legal literature are, many of which sound antique or somewhat irrelevant today:

  • A woman refusing to engage in sexual intimacy with her husband without a valid reason.17 Ibn Rushd al-Jadd (grandfather of the more famous Ibn Rushd), in answer to a question, says that a man is not allowed to strike his wife if she refuses sexual intimacy unless she is doing it out of malice and spite and he fears she will continue to become more rebellious.18
  • Refusing to do housework. The Ḥanabalī scholar Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzīya (d. 751 AH / 1350 CE) considers it a duty, saying that the marriage contract assumes that the woman perform such services,19 while the Shāfiʿī jurist Abū Isḥāq al-Shīrazī (d. 476 AH / c. 1083 CE) does not consider housework one of her duties.20 According to the Spanish Malikī scholar al-Qurṭubī (d. 671 AH / c. 1273 CE),whether housework is obligatory depends on her social class; it is not obligatory for upper class women who expect their husbands to hire servants.21
  • Refusing to join the man in his home after marriage without a valid reason.
  • Inviting someone into her marital home against her husband’s wishes.

A technical, modern and pluralistic definition of nushūz would be:

A woman's acting in flagrant disregard of the terms implied by her marriage contract in her particular culture.

Is it acceptable for a husband to use violence against his wife for refusing him sexual intimacy, even if she is doing it maliciously, for example as a form of emotional blackmail? Most, if not all, people today will probably say violence is not justified; they should work out their issue peacefully or get a divorce. And perhaps that is the correct general principle today. What constitutes scandalous behavior that deserves a decisive response from a husband can change as humanity develops.

The Quran does not give us a strict definition of nushūz, allowing us to make its scope wider or narrower as our reason, conscience and cultural experience demands. Any case of a woman suffering violence in a way that is clearly unjust and unreasonabe can automatically be considered outsider the bounds of 4:34: In a Muslim society, a woman should never have occasion to say that her husband beat her without a valid reason. If that is true, her husband should be punishable by law, as is the opinion of Ibn Ḥazm.22 Scholars, however, have historically differed greatly on whether and when a man can be held accountable for striking his wife, some going as far as practically prohibiting all violence and others giving a man carte blanche to beat his wife whenever he wants.23 But thanks to the vagueness of the concept of nushūz, we are under to strict limitation in our ability to give it a reading that fits reason and conscience. In my interpretation of 4:34, if a wife was struck by a husband, it would only be justified in situations like this:

I tried to cheat on my husband, he found out and sternly warned me to give up the idea. I did not. He told me I should get a divorce if I don't want to be with him anymore, but what I want is to stay married to him and enjoy the benefits that come with it while having a lover on the side. We had a fight and he physically subdued me and took my phone away from me so I wouldn't be able to talk to my lover.

While in a Western country a husband in the above situation is required to let his wife do whatever she wants, only having recourse to divorce (the police will probably laugh at him if he was to give them a call and complain that his wife wants to sleep with another man), under Islamic law, a husband is given the authority to be the law-enforcer himself in such a case. This creates a situation in which there is zero tolerance for a wife acting against the interests of her husband. She is required to either accept to live amicably and faithfully with her husband or to get a divorce. Verse 4:34 ensures that there will be no “in-between” situations where a wife is only half faithful or respectful toward a husband, for example staying with him for the sake of the children while doing whatever she wants in her private life without concern for his interests. She is either fully committed to her life with her husband or she gets a divorce. While Western law tolerates all shades of commitment from full commitment to zero commitment between a husband and wife, Islamic law allows only full commitment or divorce, and gives the husband the right of violence to ensure that this will be the state of things in his family.

Theoretical Laws versus Real-Life Effects

Above, I have explained the theory behind verse 4:34. But that is only half the picture. Verse 4:34 creates a certain social order, a certain type of society, that an outsider may be completely unable to imagine from the wording of the verse. The type of society it creates is one in which it is unthinkable for a woman to flagrantly act in opposition to her husband and his household (the most glaring example being that of infidelity). It is as unthinkable for her to act thus as it is for a Western citizen to think of counterfeiting money. While in the West we do not live under a police reign of terror, we know that if we were to do something that severely threatens social order, such as making counterfeit money, law-enforcement will have something to say about it. We do not need the police to strike us to not make counterfeit money. We just know that in our society, in our social order, the making of counterfeit money is totally unacceptable and will bring down violence on the person who tries it.

In the same way, in an Islamic society, a woman knows that within the social order she lives in, she cannot act flagrantly in opposition to her husband; she knows that this is totally unacceptable in her society and can bring down violence on her. If there is a need for her to oppose her husband, she has the right to argue with her husband, to demand the support of her family and his family, to demand the support of women’s agencies, to sue him in court and to threaten divorce. These things ensure that her husband cannot abuse his authority and that her rights are not neglected. What she does not have the right to is acting in a way that damages her husband and his household. She is free to get a divorce; but while she chooses to be with him, she has to act in good faith toward him.

The “Rule” of Husbands

Giving husbands the right of policing does not make them tyrannical rulers, the same way that giving the police the right of policing and striking citizens does not make them rulers in society. Husbands and the police are both subject to higher laws that restrict their powers. In an Islamic society, both the husband and wife are subject to the law and its various restrictions. They are both servants of God who do their best to please Him. One of them, the husband, has the powers of the police delegated to him to deal with the extremely rare case of having to enforce internal family law. It is true that no sensible wife would act in a way that threatens her husband and his family, similar to the way that no sensible citizen would act in a way that threatens society and requires police action. But not all wives or citizens are sensible, therefore the law sees the need to give certain people the right to use violence against those rare wives or citizens that do not act sensibly.

In focusing on the extremely rare situations when violence becomes necessary, discussions of Islam and domestic violence ignore the overwhelming majority of marriages in which a husband striking his wife is considered unthinkable. It is like focusing on police brutality in a peaceful town and ignoring the 99.99% of the citizenry who live in peace and never have any dealings with the police.

A husband who habitually beats his wife is similar to a policeman who habitually beats citizens for no reason. Such a husband or policeman should be severely punished, and if they cannot stop their violence, they should be fired from their jobs (a judge should force the husband and wife to separate, and should fire the policeman).

Why Make Husbands Policemen?

Even if it is admitted that the mere right of using violence against a wife does not lead to an epidemic of domestic violence (and my experience of Muslim societies in Iran, Iraq and the United States illustrates this beyond doubt), one may doubt if giving men the authority to act as part-time policemen in their households is the best way to organize society.

The Quran’s theory is that society functions best when husbands are recognized as authorities in their households, with the power to act swiftly, decisively and even violently when their interests are seriously threatened.

The feminist (etc.) theory is that society functions best when a husband and wife have equal shares of authority in their households, somewhat similar to a country or company having two presidents.

Which theory is true? A great many scientific studies would be needed to find out beyond reasonable doubt which type of society functions best. Such studies should try to answer these questions:

  • Do women in devout Muslim households suffer more or less domestic violence compared other women?
  • Are women in devout Muslim households more or less likely to suffer depression than other women?
  • Are women in devout Muslim households happier and more fulfilled or less compared to others?
  • Are children brought up in a devout Muslim family more or less likely to suffer trauma compared to children brought up in a non-devout Muslim family, compared to children brought up in non-Muslim families from societies of equal development and prosperity?
  • What type of society is more sustainable? Devout Muslim societies are sustainable in that families can produce enough children to replace the parents. Western societies are all failing at this; they are all slowly going extinct.

Note they keyword devout. Considering an alcoholic who regularly beats his wife representative of Islam just because he calls himself Muslim is something only a propagandist would do. Any study of the effects of the Quran’s teachings, including the teaching in verse 4:34, should focus on people who actually take the whole of the Quran’s teachings seriously.

My contention, and the Quran’s, is that a devout Muslim society will function better and will be happier than either a non-devout one or a modern, liberal and irreligious one.

Verse 4:34 explains why God considers men worthy of the authority He has given them in their households:

Men are qawwamūn (keepers, protectors and authorities) over women, as God has given some of them an advantage over others, and because they spend out of their wealth. The good women are obedient, guarding what God would have them guard. As for those from whom you fear disloyalty, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, then strike them. But if they obey you, seek no way against them. God is Sublime, Great.24

The Quran gives two reasons:

  • Men are inherently (i.e. genetically) suited to the role of being figures of authority in their households
  • Men are the financial maintainers of women (by Islamic law)

The Quran’s contention, therefore, is that a family functions best when a man is the chief authority, because it is in the nature of human families that they function best when a man is the chief authority. According to the Quran, humans have evolved (for a reconciliation of Islam and evolution see my essay: God, Evolution and Abiogenesis) in a way that makes males different from females, and this difference justifies different roles within a relationship.

This difference does not mean that a man is given the right to do whatever he wants in his family. He is subject to the law and any abuse of his powers can be punished by law.

The question of whether men are really evolutionarily suited to be the chief authorities in their families cannot be settled by argument. It requires hundreds of scientific studies. Simply thinking of the 1% of men who abuse their powers tells us nothing about the 99% who do not. You cannot judge social policy by thinking of a few glaring bad examples. You have to study all of society. You cannot judge verse 4:34 by thinking of the hundred families in a Muslim city in which the husbands are abusive and ignore the 10,000 families in which the husbands are not abusive.

Bad Husbands

At this point a reader may wonder why there is a need for dealing with bad wives, while no similar clause exists in the Quran for dealing with bad husbands. What about a husband intent on doing harm to his family or wife?

Islam considers a man’s family an extension of himself. He is supposed to take care of it as a part of himself. This “sense of ownership” is designed to make him devoted to his wife and children, putting their interests on an equal footing to his own personal interests. In Islam, the family unit is arranged in such a way as to make it nonsensical for a man to try to damage it, for him it would be like shooting himself in the foot.

This “sense of ownership” seems necessary to motivate men to feel attached to their families and to work hard for its benefit. Without it, you get selfish, irresponsible and child-like men like some of those in the West who are focused on their own individual pleasures and interests at the expense of their families.

In Islam, the family man is a ruler of his own little kingdom, attached to it and its interests. In the West, this type of attachment has broken down for many people. This is perhaps an important reason for the low fertility rates of all modern irreligious societies. Men are no longer willing to bear the great responsibility of having to care for children. For a Western man, a child represents a serious risk and responsibility who does not add any privileges or advantages to his life. He would rather enjoy intimacy with a woman without worrying about children. For a Muslim man, things are completely different. For him a child is an addition to the family unit, which itself is an extension of himself. The law forces him to take care of his wife and children, but it also grants him the privilege of being the unchallenged authority in his household. He is granted a little kingdom and is held responsible for it.

When it comes to the issue of a bad husband, the Islamic social order of having the man as the chief authority in the household means that it does not make sense for a wife to be a disciplining authority over him. If the husband is bad, she has to use alternative methods that make sense within her position in the family:

  • Asking for support from her and his family.
  • Asking for support from community leaders, such as imams.
  • Asking for the support of government agencies.
  • Threatening divorce.

Devout Muslims and Habitual Wife-beaters

It is my contention that the more devoutly Muslim a man is, the less likely he is to be a wife-beater. There are hundreds of verses in the Quran that call him to be kind and forgiving. A single verse that allows violence in extremely rare circumstances is not going to be sufficient to wipe out the teachings of these hundreds of other verses from his mind. Any person with sufficient intelligence to understand the Quran will feel restricted by it in his ability to be mean and violent toward others, including his own wife and children, rather than feeling encouraged by it.

Conclusion

I have no respect for a man who beats his wife and will never befriend a man who thinks he has the God-given right to beat women when the mood strikes him. I am not unique in this regard. In the devout Muslim society I come from, a man who is known to beat his wife is considered a hooligan and a fool, a person unworthy of befriending. Yet we are all Muslims who take the Quran seriously, including verse 4:34.

Verse 4:34’s main function is a defense of Islam’s “patriarchy”. It makes it impossible to give the Quran a feminist reading that sees men and women as exactly equal. It gives men higher authority in their households and goes as far as delegating some of the powers of the police to them. This is a completely anti-feminist way of organizing society, and for this reason feminists who wish to “feminize” the Quran will be forced to either ignore 4:34 or to give it far-fetched interpretations (as Laleh Bakhtiar has done).

Those who have occasion to talk about 4:34 are generally middle and upper middle class people for whom domestic violence is unthinkable (and it is that way for me too). But saying that 4:34 is unnecessary because our men and women are mature and sensible enough to act as honorable adults toward one another is like saying the police are unnecessary because we sensible people do not plan to break the law.

The police’s main function is not violence, it is the protection of social order. By using violence against the very small minority of citizens who wish to break the law, a certain type of order is created that everyone follows. The same applies to verse 4:34. By giving husbands the right of violence against the extremely small minority of wives who desire infidelity and other ways of damaging their families, a certain type of social order is created where wives are required to be 100% committed to their families. 4:34 establishes a social order in which wives are either fully committed or get divorces.

The vast majority of wives are already fully committed and do not need violence to make them so, the same way that the vast majority of citizens are fully committed to being good citizens and do not need violence to make them so. But it is foolishness to say that social order does not need a policing power to protect it. Without a violent power protecting against threats to order, social order will break down, as seen in cases where the police abandon a town (such as during a police strike), which quickly leads to looting and rioting by irresponsible citizens.

The Islamic social order that requires wives to be fully committed functions peacefully and without violence in the overwhelming majority of cases; 4:34 ensures that there is a policing power that protects this social order and can respond to those extremely rare cases where this order is threatened.

People have the right to wonder if this is the best way to create happy families and societies. But without a great number of unbiased scientific studies there can be no conclusive answer. It might seem “obvious” to someone that this is not a good way to create happy families and societies, but this is just a personal bias unless they can provide statistical data to back up their opinion. There are faithful and loyal wives among both Muslims and irreligious people, but if devout Muslim wives are on average 50% more likely to be loyal, and their families are 20% more likely to be happy and to avoid being broken up, then that is all we need to know to tell us that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge the sociological consequences of the Quran’s teachings.

As Muslims, we believe that God knows better than anyone else how families and societies should be organized, therefore even if we dislike the idea of violence against women (as perhaps all of us do), we have to believe that God knows best. Even the Prophet Muhammad had reservations about 4:34. Al-Rāzī, in his aforementioned exegesis of verse 4:34, mentions a narration from Ibn ʿAbbās in which he says that a woman came complaining to the Prophet that her husband had struck her. From the passage, it appears that the Prophet would have liked to punish the husband according to the law of qiṣāṣ, but verse 4:34 is revealed to him confirming that the husband was within his rights. The Prophet is quoted as saying “We wanted something, but God wanted another thing. And what God wants is best.”

To summarize, verse 4:34 creates an informal police force made up of husbands. They are charged with the protection of the integrity of their families and are given the power of violence as a last resort in the carrying out of this duty. Any use of violence by a husband that falls outside of this definition can be punished by the law.

From the above discussion, feminist critiques like the following (from Men in Charge?, chapter 7) will be seen to be quite beside the point:

Dina, a lawyer who founded and currently leads an NGO in one of Cairo’s poorest areas, added another layer to this new understanding of qiwamah. She noted, ‘Since women and men today have equal opportunities to pursue knowledge, with women sometimes excelling more, it would be indeed irrational to expect an illiterate man to have qiwamah over a female university professor, in the sense of authority.’

It would be irrational for a female university professor to marry an illiterate man to begin with. Considering the less absurd example of a female university professor married to a male university professor, it will be seen that the man is given the authority to defend his household, an authority that he will likely never have to enforce, since his college-professor wife is likely intelligent and self-respecting enough, like most middle class wives, to not act like the immature and out-of-control person described above as a bad wife. Saying it is irrational for this male professor to have qiwāma over his wife because of his wife’s qualities is similar to saying that it is irrational for a peaceful town to have a police force. Islam gives him policing power to deal with the extremely rare cases in which it might be needed. If he is blessed with a good wife he will never have a recourse to it, the way that the police force in a peaceful town never have recourse to violence against the town’s citizens. The above excerpt from Men in Charge? relies on the paralogism that:

  • Good wives do not need qiwāma and its enforcement in order to make them behave in constructive ways in their families.
  • Therefore qiwāma-enforcement is not needed.

Qiwāma-enforcement, as has been discussed, is entirely about bad wives, therefore the fact that good wives do not need it is irrelevant. What they say is similar to:

  • Good citizens do not need law-enforcement in order to make them behave in constructive ways in society.
  • Therefore society does not need law-enforcement.

If it is admitted that qiwāma-enforcement is about dealing with bad wives, a person might argue that this means that in a society of enlightened and educated individuals we can do away with qiwāma, living as if verse 4:34 does not apply to us. This is the argument of certain activists; qiwāma may have made sense in a certain time and place, but it is certainly quite out of place in modern society. This thinking relies on the assumption that there are no relevant differences between men and women that would justify giving men higher authority. The assumption is that men and women are exactly the same when it comes to everything that matters, therefore there is no sense in treating them differently.

But is that assumption true? 4:34 says that there is something intrinsic about men that justifies God giving them authority over their wives. There is some genetic/evolutionary reason why giving men authority over their wives leads to better results for everyone involved. If that is true (and we either have to assume it is true because the Quran says it is, or abandon the Quran for containing a falsehood), then giving men authority over their wives in a modern family is just as relevant as it would be in an ancient family. There are thousands of situations that come up in a modern family’s life in which the question of authority is significant. Should the wife accept that particular job? Should the son be allowed to go out with that group of friends? Should the daughter be allowed to wear that particular dress? Qiwāma allows for discussion and argument while giving the man the right of having the final word, because of a superiority in rank that God has given to him, and because he spends out his wealth to care for his family (the reasons given in 4:34).

A feminist who appreciates everything said above may go on to say that she does not like to live with a husband who thinks he has the right of having the final word. But even in this case she is misunderstanding the purpose of 4:34. If she marries a husband as intelligent and educated as herself, he will probably be the type of person to work out all issues of authority without having to resort to saying that God has granted him the final word. It is only an extremely socially inept man who insults his wife by telling her he has authority over her. An intelligent and intellectually mature Muslim man will instead treat her like an equal, the way Prophet Muhammad appears to have treated his wife Aisha.

The final remaining feminist criticism would be her saying that she does not want to be subject to a man’s authority no matter how good of a man he is. She wants to be free and make her own way in the world without reference to a man. Islam’s answer is that she is free to not get married, but the general framework of marriage within Islam will always be the qiwāma framework, which is prescribed in the Quran and accepted by the vast majority of the world’s Muslim men and Muslim women. Rejecting qiwāma is similar to rejecting the Ramadan fast. One can come up with various logical reasons for rejecting fasting (it reduces worker productivity, for example), but since it is God who prescribes it, we have no option but to do as He says. Additionally, if 99% of women are quite happy to live under qiwāma while 1% of them dislike it, whose opinion is more authoritative? The radical feminist answer would be that any woman who refuses to agree with feminism is foolish and her opinions do not count. The humanist answer would be that as a human, her worth does not derive from how much of a feminist she is, and if the majority of intelligent and educated Muslim women do not have a problem with qiwāma, that is very strong evidence in favor of the traditional Islamic family.

Many women can probably be convinced to dislike qiwāma in the name of women’s rights. This is similar to the way that even today it is easy to convince workers to support communism despite the horrors it led to in the 20th century. Both feminism and communism promise a specific class of people increased rights, powers, and privileges, and few humans have the wisdom to reject such things when offered to them freely. Ask any Muslim woman, especially an unmarried and college-educated one, “Do you want as much authority as your (future) husband or less authority?” and she will probably say she wants as much authority. This is similar to asking a worker, “Do you wish your boss was legally required to share much of his wealth with his employees?”, the answer will almost certainly be a “Yes!” The problem is that we cannot build a civilization based on answering the average person’s desires. Legal systems and social order have to be designed by mature people who can foresee the long-term results of their actions; all societies that have embraced feminism have below-replacement fertility rates (they are slowly going extinct), and all communist societies are poor, unhappy, unfree and unproductive. Ending qiwāma might make a small minority of women happy, but what will be the long-term costs to the rest of society? If it is said that a woman shouldn’t have to sacrifice her freedom and independence for the sake of society, the answer is that actually she does. Islam asks both men and women to sacrifice many of their desires for the sake of the greater good. They are required to limit sexual partners even if this reduces their fulfillment; they are required to pray at inconvenient hours; they are required to not enjoy alcohol even though it is highly pleasurable to drink and many people are capable of enjoying it without becoming alcoholics. Pious Muslim women by and large see no problem with qiwāma because it is one of dozens of limitations God places on women supposedly for their own good and the good of those around them. A Muslim woman either has to accept that God is right in His commandments, or that He is wrong and she can do better outside of them.

Interfacing With Secular Law

It should be mentioned that most legal systems do not recognize the validity of the use of violence against a wife in any circumstance except in that of physical self-defense. For this reason Muslims living under such laws are required to follow those laws. By the fact of accepting to live under a secular legal system and enjoying its protection, one also accepts to abide by its limitations. Upholding the “social contract” inherent in living under a secular legal system takes precedence over applying parts of Islamic law that conflict with it. In Islam the protection of life, property and dignity are the prime purposes of the law, so a secular legal system that affords these things but prohibits applying certain branches of Islamic law is still largely in accordance with Islam.

Fighting Violence Against Women

While 4:34 teaches us that there are extremely rare cases in which violence against a wife is justified, this should not make us indifferent toward cases of domestic abuse. The Quran throughout it is opposed to injustice and cruelty, and needless to say this means that we should be opposed to injustice and cruelty toward women. Until recently Muslim societies (and of course non-Muslim ones too) were quite apathetic toward the issue of cruelty toward women. Things seem to be improving.

An intelligent legal theorist should have no trouble seeing that giving someone policing power is bound to lead to abuse if there is no oversight, therefore the creation of agencies protecting women against abuse should be an essential part of any developed Islamic legal system. Women should enjoy all of the protections of a country’s constitution and should have recourse to the authorities if they suffer abuse on the hands of their husbands, fathers or others.

It is not contradictory to fight violence against women while defending verse 4:34. It is similar to fighting police brutality while defending the police’s right to use violence when needed.

Reader Questions

Is a woman allowed to "beat" her husband if he plans on doing something terrible? (I mean beat as in to kick some sense into him, like a little slap or something...) Let's take your example of wanting to burn the house down

That is similar to the case of a citizen striking a policeman who wants to do something harmful. While her action runs contrary to 4:34, it is in accordance with other laws regarding the protection of life and property. So if her action is clearly justified, there would no reason to hold it against her, she can even be praised for doing the right thing.

In legal thinking, often numerous laws apply to the same situation all at the same time. It is up to the jurist to make sense of the complexities of the law and real life and come up with what is just and sensible. Islamic law is not made to be applied by senseless robots, but by intelligent humans who want to do what is just and right and kind in all circumstances.

[Book Review] Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S. Frederick Starr

Lost Enlightenment is a highly readable overview of the history of the Persian-speaking cities of Central Asia, an area that gave Islamic civilization the majority of its great philosophers and thinkers (Jabir ibn Hayyan, al-Khwarizmi, al-Farabi, Avicenna, al-Biruni, al-Ghazali)  and many of its great scholars (such as the creators of five of the six “canonical” hadith collections: al-Bukhari, Muslim, al-Nasa’i, al-Tirmidhi and Abu Dawood, the exception being Ibn Majah who, a Persian like the rest, came from Qazvin in Western Iran).

While the book is a good source of information on Islamic civilization’s most advanced and intellectually productive area, it is marred by the writer’s secularist bias. It is often implicit in his writing that he believes the more religiously faithful a Muslim is, the less capable of rational and logical thought they are. He often spends many pages arguing that a particular thinker was actually secular and only paid lip service to Islam (Ibn Sina, Khayyam). As for the devout Muslim thinkers he covers, he often cannot hide his contempt and his belief in the person’s narrow-mindedness and falseness of conscience (as in the case of al-Ghazali).

Errors

Lost Enlightenment is also marred by various errors. The writer’s grasp of the workings of the Islamic religion and its intellectual tradition is amateurish at best (despite his merits as a historian). Starr is guilty of incredible statements like the following:

Going still further, a new governor named Nasr, ignoring the Quran’s demand that apostasy be punished by death, in 741 struck a deal with the Sogdians that abolished all punishments for those who had reverted to their former religions.

He also writes in another place:

But Ghazali branded both thinkers posthumously as heretics and therefore, according to the Quran, punishable by death.

And yet in another place:

Those who follow the philosophers were not merely heretics but, he averred apostates. The Quran quite clear states that apostates must be punished with death.

The Quran does not prescribe a punishment for apostasy anywhere in it! This is an elementary error that even an undergraduate student of Islamic studies should not make.

Starr attributes to the scientist Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi a “weighty commentary” on the Quran, confusing him with Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, who was born two centuries later.

Starr writes:

Quranic prohibitions against depicting the human form were frequently ignored...

The Quran has nothing to say on the depiction of the human form. These elementary errors about Islam’s chief scripture betray a serious ignorance of Islam as a religion, in contradistinction to the author’s wide knowledge of Central Asian history.

Starr mentions al-Hakim al-Nisaburi as a critic and challenger of al-Bukhari who caused him to be expelled from Naishapur. This means that al-Naisburi was able to go back to the time 60 years before his birth to harass al-Bukhari. It seems that Starr confused al-Naisaburi with al-Dhuhali, who fits Starr’s descriptions. Al-Hakim al-Naisaburi was actually a champion of al-Bukhari, critical to the canonization process of al-Bukhari’s hadith collection, as is covered in detail in Jonathan Brown’s The Canonization of al-Bukhari and Muslim. This is all the more strange since Starr quotes Brown’s book multiple times in the pages dealing with al-Naisaburi.

Finally, some nitpicks: He says that Tus is 15 miles northeast of Nishapur. It is actually 43 miles away. He also writes:

Insurgents seized Basra on the Red Sea...

Basra is 700 miles away from the Red Sea.

In summary, Starr’s Lost Enlightenment is a good historical overview of the period it covers. Readers should be aware of its biases and should read books by other scholars to get a more accurate understanding of the topics covered.

A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani

A History of the Arab Peoples is a great general introduction to the history of the Arab countries and the history of Islam. It was written by the respected British scholar Albert Hourani (of Lebanese Christian descent). While not written by a Muslim, the book’s treatment of Muslims is balanced and fair-minded.

This book does not cover the history of other important parts of the Islamic world, such as Central Asia and the countries of the Indian ocean, therefore it should not be considered a complete history of Islam.

The Road to Maturity: On Dealing with Life’s Unsolvable Problems

Schale mit Blumen by Marie Egner (1940)

Every person’s life seems to contain problems that have no solution. Such problems can last for years, even decades. Among such problems are:

  • Poverty: A person’s life may be denied many joys and contain many indignities brought about by poverty.
  • Having a disabled child: An otherwise happy and wealthy couple may be force to worry and spend much of their time and energy in the care of a disabled child, without any hope of things getting much easier.
  • Having to take care of an elderly parent: There are people who spend years as part-time nurses, having to take care of a parent that cannot take care of himself/herself. The person may not be able to afford professional care, so that despite their life’s various demands, this extra demand is placed on them, sometimes for many years or a decade.
  • Illness: There are people who suffer from an illness that prevents them from enjoying the foods they like or the activities they enjoy. Some illness are uncurable and will put a damper on a person’s life for the rest of their lives.
  • Family problems: A person may have nearly everything they want, but their life may be made extremely difficult due to abuse or neglect from a spouse, meanness from family members, or having a child that constantly gets into serious trouble.

There problems are unsolvable in the sense that there are generally no quick solutions to them. We desire to live in Paradise on earth, having a peaceful and easy life that is not marred by any serious issues. We wish to live in a light-hearted comedy rather than a tragedy.

But that desire for perfect peace will never come true in this life, because that is not the purpose of this life. Ibn Ata Allah al-Iskandari says:

So long as you are in this world, be not surprised at the existence of sorrows.

Ibn al-Qayyim says:

God, glory to Him, created His creation to worship Him, and that is their purpose, as He says: “I have not created jinn and humans except to worship Me” [Quran 51:56]. It is clear that the perfect servitude and worship that is required of humans cannot be achieved in the Home of Bliss [Paradise], but can only be achieved in the home of affliction and trials.

Ibn al-Jawzi says:

The worldly life has been created as a place of testing. The wise person should fully habituate himself to patience.

We want to escape this world with all of its little annoyances and worries and inconveniences so that we can enter a world of perfect peace. But this desire is mistaken and can never be attained in this world. Even if we unexpectedly acquire great wealth, leave behind all of our worries, move to a different country, buy an amazing house, and find a great spouse, the excitement of all of these will wear off in a few day, and we will feel as if we are back to square one. Problems will start to haunt us again out no nowhere. The perfect spouse may end up not being so perfect. We may engage in a seemingly profitable business enterprise that brings us great fear and worry, perhaps due to choosing the wrong business partner. If the wealth is enough to make us needless of any extra work or investment, we may dedicate ourselves to making art, or writing novels or poetry, only to experience discontent and grief as people ignore or criticize our works. Meanwhile, in our new social circle we may start to be judged for all kinds of things that we dislike to be judged for, and this may make us feel inferior.

While films and novels often tell us that we can live happily ever after once we solve our problems, get rich, or escape our past lives, reality will always prove this false. This world is a place of testing. There is no escaping God’s tests, and He knows better than anyone else exactly how to test you. Even if you are the ruler of the world, God can defeat all of your plans and place you in utter misery if He wishes. There is no escape from God. Regardless of where we run to, He will always be there first, ready with the next barrage of tests designed to build us into better and worthier people.

If you suffer from a problem of inconvenience and think “This is too stupid, I shouldn’t be having to deal with this type of nonsense!”, you have actually misunderstood the test. If something makes you feel discontented, impatient, angry or unthankful toward God, then that is exactly the type of test you should be going you through. A test that does not hit you right where it hurts is not a proper test. You have to best tested for all that you have, each test should reach deep into you and tempt you to anger and ungratefulness.

The Building of Character

Ibn al-Qayyim says:

When God tests you it is never to destroy you. When He removes something in your possession it is only in order to empty your hands for an even greater gift.

God does not take sadistic pleasure in seeing us suffer. The purpose of His tests is to show us our true natures, our weaknesses and our absolute dependence on His mercy, and these things prompt us to seek to improve ourselves. People who are never shown their faults and weaknesses fail to develop. If we are unaware that a problem exists, we have no incentive to seek a solution.

Mostafa Sadeq al-Rafi’i says:

When I looked into history I found a small number of individuals whose lives mirrored the life-cycle of a grain of wheat. They were torn from their roots, then crushed, then ground in mills, then kneaded with fists, then rolled out and baked in ovens at high temperatures… just so they could provide food for others.

The best people you meet are not people who have been spared life’s troubles. They are people who been crushed again and again by life’s troubles until they have reached a state of near-perfect acceptance and humility, so that they no longer reject God’s decrees nor do they desire to escape their lives. They know God is in charge, and that He can cure them from their distress any time He wants. They look to Him for help and seek refuge only in Him. The poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, who suffered for years from a painful illness and from loneliness and nostalgia, expresses this type of thinking in his famous 1962 poem Sabr Ayyub (The Patience of Job).

For You is praise, no matter how long the distress lasts,
And no matter how oppressive the pain becomes,
For You is praise, afflictions are bestowals,
And suffering is of Your bounty.
Did You not give me this darkness?
And did You not give me this dawn?
Does the ground then thank raindrops,
But get angry if the clouds do not find it?
For long months, this wound
Has been cutting my sides like a dagger.
The affliction does not calm at morning,
And nighttime does not bring death to wipe out the agony.
But if Job was to cry, he would cry,
“For You is Praise, for suffering is like drops of dew,
And wounds are presents from the Beloved,
The stacks of which I hug to my chest.
You presents are in my line of sight, they do not leave,
Your presents are accepted, bring them on!”
I hug my wounds and call out to visitors:
“Look here and be jealous,
For these are presents from my Beloved!”
And if the heat of my fever approaches fire,
I would imagine it a kiss from You fashioned from flame.
Beautiful is insomnia, as I watch over Your heaven
With my eyes, until the stars disappear
And until Your light touches the window of my home.
Beautiful is the night: The hooting of owls
And the sound of car horns from a distance
The sighs of patients, a mother retelling
Tales of her forefathers to her child.
The forests of a sleepless night; the clouds
As they veil the face of heaven
And uncover it from under the moon.
And if Job cried out, he would say:
“For You is praise, O One who hurls fate,
And O One Who, after that, decrees the cure!”

If you are tested, instead of thinking “This shouldn’t be happening to me!”, consider it an opportunity to practice patience and a call to improve yourself. We never grow if we constantly turn our backs on our problems. Growth happens when we accept that this is exactly what we should be going through, this is God’s decree for us. If God wants, He can remove our difficulty in an instant. If we feel impatient and discontented, this is a clear sign that we are not close enough to God, that we are rejecting Him. We are, in effect, telling Him “We dislike this thing that You are doing to us O God and reject Your decree for us, we know better than You what should be happening to us, and this is not it.” You will meet many religious people who are stuck in this way of thinking. Their life’s difficulties, failures and missed opportunities are present in their minds and they blame God for not providing them with a better lot.

That is the state of a spiritually stagnant person. As for the best of the believers, they walk with God through life. They know He is in charge. They know that life’s difficulties are reminders from God that they should not put their trust in this world and that they should not expect to achieve perfect peace in it. Perfect peace is only achievable in the afterlife. Abdullah, son of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, asked his father one day:

"O Father, when will we ever achieve rest?"

His father looked him in the eye and said:

"With the first step we take into Paradise."

Rather than feeling discontented with life’s unsolvable problems, accept them and tell yourself that this is the fate that has been decreed for you. If you wish for a better fate, if you wish God to raise your status and remove the various indignities you suffer in life, ask Him to raise your status. Only He can help you. Ibn al-Qayyim says:

Whoever among the workers wishes to know his status in the eye of the King, then let him look at what jobs He gives him and with what He busies him.

If you want to have a better lot in life, if you want your life to be more meaningful and to contain fewer problems, then ask yourself whether you deserve it, whether you deserve to be given special treatment over the millions of people who are equally suffering. In reality, you want God to treat you as if you are special. Do you deserve such treatment? If you constantly turn your back on Him, if you only do the minimum He asks of you, if you never take refuge in Him and do not consider Him in charge, then you are giving Him no reason to treat you specially. If you want a higher status in life, become the type of person who deserves a higher status in life. Do your best to stay close to Him. You should ask Him for these five things in every prayer you pray (during prostration) (I have written my favorite Arabic prayer words that I say for these purposes):

  • To forgive your sins. Allahumma innaka affuwwun tuhibbul afwa faafu anni (O God, you are the Most Forgiving, and You love forgiveness, so forgive me.)
  • To guide you and increase your knowledge and wisdom. Allahumma zidni ilman wahdini li aqraba min haza rushdan (O God, increase me in knowledge and guide me to a better state of maturity than what I currently possibly)
  • To support you: Allahummanasurni wa anta khairun nasireen (O God, support me, and You are the best of supporters.)
  • To bless your time and works: Allahumma baarik fi aamali wa awqati (O God, bless my works and my times/moments.)
  • To make things easy for you: Allahumma yasir li amree (O God, make the matters of my life easy for me.)

As Muslims, the best source of guidance we have is the Quran. Always remember the saying of the famous Pakistani poet and scholar Muhammad Iqbal:

Of the things that had a profound effect on my life is an advice I heard from my father: "My son, read the Quran as if it was sent down specifically to you."

Make the Quran your guide in life and treat as if it was sent down to you this very moment. The Quran is not meant to be a reference that we leave on the shelf. It is meant to be a guide that is present with us through life. When you suffer difficulty and discontent, always go back to the Quran and it will teach you a new lesson every time if you persevere in reading it.

Difficulties are part of the design of our universe. If we want to mature and to be raised in status, instead of rejecting God’s decrees, we must accept them, embrace them and seek refuge and support only in Him. Only He can make things easy for us, help us mature, make our lives more meaningful and raise our status. And rather than expecting to achieve perfect peace in this life, we should accept its nature (that there can be no perfect peace in it), and we should instead put our hopes for our final rest in the afterlife.

The life of this world will never live up to our expectations. We always think if only we get this or that we will be so happy! But as soon we get there, we start to feel like we are back to square one. Life’s problems continue to haunt us. And there is no escape. There are elderly people who, having always rejected God’s decrees, continue to express anger at life for throwing problems and undignities in their faces. Do not be like them. Accept the nature of this world. If you want your life to be more meaningful, if you want your difficulties to raise you rather than degrade you, ask God to raise your status, and do what is necessary to please Him and convince Him that you deserve a better lot in life.

Intelligence: All That Matters by Stuart Ritchie

IQ and intelligence, as a topic of study in themselves, no longer interest me very much because they are largely a foregone conclusion for me. Long ago I was convinced of the very realness and importance of IQ and of the fact that it is largely a genetically-mediated trait. What interests me these days is applying the knowledge gleaned from this field to other areas of inquiry that interest me.

I made an exception for the very short book Intelligence: All That Matters by the young researcher Stuart Ritchie, hoping that it would b an authoritative summary of the field that I can refer other people to in my work. And the book serves this function reasonably well.

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