The Quran

How we know the Quran has not been corrupted like the Bible

The Birmingham Quran manuscript, dated 645 CE at the latest.

Why should we believe that the Quran hasn’t been re-written the way we believe the Bible has?

It is natural to have such thoughts. I have had similar questions and many other difficult ones that no one could answer satisfactorily for me.

Regarding the Quran, comparing it with the Bible is helpful, but we should keep in mind that the two books are not directly comparable. Only the first five books of the Old Testament, what we call the Torah or the Pentateuch, are thought to be inspired by God. These are the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Everything else in the Old Testament and the New Testament is a human record of things that took place; it is more similar to Islam’s hadith literature than to the Quran. Only the Torah is comparable to the Quran, everything else is comparable to hadith.

Even though the Torah is supposed to have been inspired in Moses by God, at its end we have the story of the death of Moses and what takes place after. That is one very obvious clue to the way the Torah was treated by its recipients; they thought they could add things to it if they saw a need for it. That is comparable to Muslims adding the story of the Prophet’s death to the end of the Quran as a new chapter or new verses added to one of the chapters.

The Catholic church believes the Torah has been changed but that its main message has not been lost. Followers of Conservative Judaism (representing a quarter of religious Jews) believe that Torah has been changed and modified but that it is still divinely inspired.

That is the situation with the Bible. An educated and open-minded person who reads it ends up concluding that it has likely been modified in some ways.

The situation with the Quran is completely different. Regardless of how educated and open-minded a believing Muslim is, upon reading the Quran they conclude that it has likely been perfectly transmitted. They do not find anything in it that hints at it being changed or corrupted.

The most important reason that I believe in the Quran has nothing to do with its history. Even if I had found it somewhere and had no idea where it came from or what religion it belonged to, the contents and the design of the book are sufficient to compel me to believe in it as a divine book. The most persuasive argument for the truth of the Quran is not its historicity, it is the aesthetic experience of reading it or listening to it. I can start reading it with the assumption that it was really written by a human or group of humans. But even if you try to build a strong fortress of skepticism while reading it, all that it takes is a few pages and the fortress is completely demolished. One is left with no choice but admit this is from God and that it is a great injustice and insult against God to suggest that it could have been written by a human.

Now, I am aware that since most people do not speak good enough Arabic to experience the Quran in that way, the aesthetic argument for the truth of the Quran will not work for them. You either have to take other people’s words for it or learn good enough Arabic to have the experience yourself. But the fact is that the aesthetic argument is at least half the reason why we believe in the Quran.

An atheist or Christian who comes up with logical arguments for doubting the Quran and thinks logical argumentation is sufficient for judging the book only shows their great ignorance of the nature of the Quran. The word Quran itself means “the Recitation”, the Quran is not a book of philosophy or textbook of law, it is something meant to be experienced, like a symphony. The aesthetic experience of the Quran is probably the strongest argument for its divine origin.

The beauty of the experience of the Quran is similar to any other powerful experience of beauty, such as looking up at the night sky in the desert. The experience by itself wouldn’t have been sufficient to launch a religion. Logic and philosophy are also needed, and the Quran has those too. It is an entirely logical book presented through such an incredibly beautiful symphony that one ends up strongly doubting it could be from a human.

The power of the Quran can even come out in translations, despite much of the beauty being lost in the process. University of Kansas professor Jeffrey Lang tells the story of how he began reading an English translation of the Quran out of curiosity and with a skeptical eye (he was an atheist at the time), thinking it was written by a clever charlatan. He went through an experience that many other converts have gone through. At first they believe the book to be a man-made work. A few pages in, they start to feel surprised that something so intelligent and logical could have come out of 7th century Arabia. Once they reach the middle of the book they are completely captivated by it and cannot put it down. Once they have finished the book, they experience an existential crisis that can last for years. They come close to admitting that there is a 50% chance the Quran is really from the Creator. But they do their best to avoid admitting that the Quran is more likely to be from God than to be from a human, because if that is really the case, if the Quran is even 51% likely to be from God and 49% likely to be from a human, the rational choice is to act according to the stronger probability. And that would mean that they would have to treat the book as if it is really from God, which means that they would have to do as it says and start living as Muslims.

None of the above has anything to do with the Quran’s history. Regardless of how the Quran has come to us, the fact is that it is a powerful and coherent book that compels belief in the one who experiences it fully and sometimes even partly. Regardless of the book’s history, the Quran itself is a very strong argument, a very strong piece of evidence, for its own truth and integrity. A false or corrupted book would be full of red flags to the reader.

As for the Quran’s history: the Quran’s primary form of transmission was not through manuscripts but through oral transmission. This is not surprising since the Quran was designed to be recited. We know that in the early Islamic period (the first two centuries) there was no orthodoxy, people freely discussed ideas and topics that were later considered heretical. The tafsīr of the Persian scholar Muqatil ibn Sulayman (d. 767 CE) was banned in Egypt until recently due to it containing things considered unacceptable to modern Islamic orthodoxy. But at the time he was writing, no one cared to go after him. We have a great deal of evidence in early Islamic sources like the 9-volume Muṣannaf of ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Ṣanʿānī (d. 826 CE) for the freedom of thought during that time. There was no authority at the time that could change the Quran and get away with it. If anyone tried to change the Quran and pass it on, they would have been noticed and corrected. There were never any councils or conferences of scholars trying to agree on one specific recitation of the Quran, everyone agreed on the same recitations without anyone forcing them. The culture of Islam after the Prophet’s death was such that it was impossible for any authority to force their views on anyone else. Suggesting that Abu Bakr, Umar or Uthman could have forced the Prophet’s remaining 10,000 or so Companions to follow the same corrupted Quran is so implausible as to be laughable. It shows complete ignorance of the political situation of the time, which made these early caliphs quite incapable of forcing any form of religious views on others.

Soon after the Prophet’s death , we had Companions living in Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen all reciting the same Quran and teaching it to students who also memorized it and passed it on. It is very unlikely that all of these geographically separated groups could agree on the same corruption of the Quran.

It is, of course, logically possible that some corruptions somehow crept into the Quran. It is just not likely. Similarly, it is possible that aliens built the pyramids in Egypt (we have no proof that aliens did not build them). But just because it is possible does not mean that it is likely. The rational opinion is that it was humans who built them. In the same way, the rational, historically-informed attitude toward the Quran is that it was very well-preserved and not corrupted, unless someone can show us very strong evidence that it was corrupted. But there is no such evidence.

The earliest Quran manuscript we have might be the Birmingham manuscript, which is dated by non-Muslim scholars to have been written in 645 CE at the latest. The Prophet died in 632 CE, so that manuscript was written within about 13 years of his death. The manuscript is only two pages, but the fact that it contains no surprises, that it fully conforms to the Quran we know today, is evidence for the integrity of the Quran. The same applies to every other manuscript that has been found. There are sometimes minor variations, but these could be explained by referring to a scribe’s error, or to a person incorrectly remembering a verse. While to a detractor of Islam such a manuscript would be “proof” that the Quran has been corrupted, a well-informed non-Muslim scholar would be aware that it was oral transmission that determined the text of the Quran, not manuscripts. Manuscripts were only offshoots of the oral tradition and had no authority to overrule it. Manuscripts were merely educational tools meant to make thing easier, but no self-respecting Quran transmitter would have relied on them. The importance of the oral tradition was also true in the field of hadith. A muhaddith (hadith scholar) was a person who studied hadith from memory. Even at the time of Imam al-Ghazali (d. 1111), there was a debate about whether manuscripts could be relied on, the oral tradition was so strong that people considered manuscripts to be mere toys. Even a hadith scholar who relied on manuscripts rather than his memory for transmitting hadith would have been laughed at.

You have every right to doubt the Quran’s authenticity and integrity. But educated people who have studied the matter deeply, especially those who speak good Arabic, know that the rational and logical stance toward the Quran is to assume it is entirely authentic unless someone can prove otherwise, similar to the way we believe the pyramids were built by humans unless someone can prove otherwise.

The situation of the Bible is incomparable to that of the Quran. Most educated Jews and Christians admit that the Torah has not been perfectly preserved, while most educated Muslims believe that the Quran has been perfectly preserved. The situations are complete opposites. This is not because Jews and Christians are more intelligent or open-minded than Muslims. It is because the historical evidence compels one to believe that the Torah has been changed, while the historical evidence compels one to believe that the Quran has not been changed.

Note that I am not saying the Torah has been greatly changed. I believe it is remarkably well-preserved and, like many Jews and Catholics, I believe that the changes made to it have not changed its meaning too significantly. This is not true of the rest of the Bible (the Torah only makes up about 16% of a Christian Bible I looked at). So the idea that the Bible has been “re-written” (as mentioned in your question) does not apply to the Torah, the only part of the Bible directly comparable to the Quran. The Quran itself has a very high opinion of the Torah that the Jews had during the Prophet’s own lifetime:

43. But why do they [the Jews of Medina] come to you for judgment, when they have the Torah, in which is God’s Law? Yet they turn away after that. These are not believers.

44. We have revealed the Torah, wherein is guidance and light. The submissive prophets ruled the Jews according to it, so did the rabbis and the scholars, as they were required to protect God’s Book, and were witnesses to it. So do not fear people, but fear Me. And do not sell My revelations for a cheap price. Those who do not rule according to what God revealed are the unbelievers.

45. And We wrote for them in it: a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and an equal wound for a wound; but whoever forgoes it in charity, it will serve as atonement for him. Those who do not rule according to what God revealed are the evildoers.

46. In their footsteps, We sent Jesus son of Mary, fulfilling the Torah that preceded him; and We gave him the Gospel, wherein is guidance and light, and confirming the Torah that preceded him, and guidance and counsel for the righteous. (The Quran, 5:43-46)

The Quran does not tell us that the Torah is so corrupt as to not be worth following for those who believe in it. It says quite the opposite, that it continues to be a valid statement of God’s commandments. The Quran’s attacks against the changers of the Bible is aimed at changes to the rest of it, in which various corruptions were added. The Quran never refers to the Torah as having been greatly changed or corrupted, it refers to changes to al-Kitāb, i.e. the Scripture, not to changes to al-Tawrāt, the Torah, specifically. The Quran continues to refer to the Torah in glowing terms and does not dismiss it.

It appears to me that you have been influenced by uninformed Muslims who attack the Bible without differentiating between its parts. We believe that the only part of the Bible that is directly comparable to the Quran, the Torah, is remarkably well-preserved, and we think of it the way many Jews and Christians think of it: that it is mostly from God and mostly true.

As for corruptions introduced to other parts of the Bible, that is comparable to the corruption of the hadith literature in Islam. The rest of the Bible is a man-made work mostly transmitting the words of people rather than the words of God (just like hadith), therefore it is far more liable to corruption and distortion. But what is said of the non-Torah parts of the Bible should not influence what we think of the Quran, because it is only the Torah that is comparable to the Quran.

The Quran also mentions al-Injīl as a revelation given to Jesus . This word is often translated as the Gospel. But we have no clear knowledge about this book. It may have been a short book that updated certain parts of the Torah and corrected errors that had crept into it. Jesus was meant to be a Jewish follower and reformer of the Torah rather than the founder of a new religion. The Gospels that are currently found in the New Testament are hadith-like human works that narrate the life and deeds of Jesus and may have very little relationship with the Injīl that is supposed to have been given to Jesus. Abdullah Yusuf Ali writes in his Quran translation:

The Injil (Greek, Evangel equals Gospel) spoken of by the Qur'an is not the New Testament. It is not the four Gospels now received as canonical. It is the single Gospel which, Islam teaches, was revealed to Jesus, and which he taught. Fragments of it survive in the received canonical Gospels and in some others, of which traces survive (e.g., the Gospel of Childhood or the Nativity, the Gospel of St.Barnabas, etc.).

Conclusion

The evidence for trusting the Quran’s authenticity is much stronger than the evidence for doubting it. Speaking as a historian, it is logically possible that the Quran may have been corrupted, it is just not very probable if you look into the circumstances of its transmission and the evidence of early manuscripts. The Quran’s beauty and contents compel us to believe in it and the historical evidence supports in that it does not challenge our beliefs. We are therefore acting rationally to believe that the Quran has been unchanged. A person who claims otherwise will have to present us with extraordinarily strong evidence because what they are saying goes against all of the evidence we have.

It is not impossible that 500 years from now evidence will be discovered that strongly challenges our views of the Quran, this is similar to the possibility of discovering, 500 years from now, that aliens really built the pyramids in Egypt. But the rational choice available to us at the moment, that is supported by the evidence we have, is that the Quran has not been changed, and that the pyramids were built by humans. Below is the Quran’s answer to those who attack the Quran (and the Torah) without sufficient evidence:

48. But when the truth came to them from Us, they said, “If only he was given the like of what was given to Moses.” Did they not disbelieve in what was given to Moses in the past? They said, “Two works of magic backing one another.” And they said, “We are disbelieving in both.”

49. Say, “Then bring a scripture from God, more conductive to guidance than both, and I will follow it, if you are truthful.”

50. But if they fail to respond to you, know that they follow their fancies. And who is more lost than him who follows his fancy without guidance from God? God does not guide the unjust people. (The Quran 28:48-50)

Suicide and self-harm in Islam

This is a sensitive but also important topic. I remember at my lowest and my worst, needing to connect myself to Allah. It was during college . I was dealing with clinical depression, I also had PTSD. I was extremely suicidal, and I had been self-harming since years. I knew little about Islam, so I searched what islam says about being suicidal, self-harm, etc to be comforted, but instead I saw verses of Quran condemning suicide& threatening with harsh punishment.

I saw ahadith mentioning how the ones who commit suicide will repetitively kill themselves in such a way in the hereafter. many Islamic websites saying it’s a sin to self-harm. On top of my struggles I was dealing with, I felt like I was carrying a heavy burden on the religious side .I tried to numb my depression and to stop my self-harm behavior and suppress my suicidal thoughts,but it got worse. I thought I was a bad person. Then it hit me, why would The Creator of heavens not understand

Since then I’ve struggled with my faith. I realize that I needed Allah’s comfort and not fear. Since its taboo, I can never speak about this. I have no sense of directions, but just guilt of so many years thinking I indulged in sinful behavior by being sick. I don’t think common people understand self-harm and the mechanism of it , Which I can understand. But Allah? It’s a dark place to be mentally ill & ive crossed many sisters who are told they don’t have enough faith and they too feel bad.

I appreciate the difficulty of your situation. The problem is that you have read a few verses of the Quran without taking the rest into consideration, which always leads to an unbalanced view of God. And you should never let other people color your understanding of Him. Regarding suicide, the Quran has only this to say:

And spend in the cause of God, and do not throw yourselves with your own hands into ruin, and be charitable. God loves the charitable.1

The Quran also says:

O you who believe! Do not consume each other’s wealth illicitly, but trade by mutual consent. And do not kill yourselves, for God is Merciful towards you.2

But this second verse is actually referring to one Muslim killing another, as can be seen from the fact that first part of the verse is talking about interactions between Muslims, and from the fact that in verse 2:54, the same wording regarding killing is used to refer to a certain group of Jews killing another group, rather than their committing suicide. Another piece of evidence is that the same wording is used in the same chapter, in verse 4:66, in reference to God commanding a group of people to fight another. Interpreting 4:29 as referring to suicide is a bit far-fetched for someone who is familiar with the Quran, although the literal wording of the verse can be thought to mean that.

In Ṣaḥiḥ Muslim there is the story of a man who commits suicide but who is assumed by the Prophet to be forgiven by God, and he himself prays for him. Imam al-Nawawī, in his commentary on the narration, says that this means that God judges each case of suicide individually, deciding whether it deserves punishment or not.3

Back to the Quran, regards those who have sinned:

Say, “O My servants who have transgressed against themselves: do not despair of God’s mercy, for God forgives all sins. He is indeed the Forgiver, the Clement.”4

It also says:

God does not forgive association with Him, but He forgives anything other than that to whomever He wills. Whoever associates anything with God has devised a monstrous sin.5

If you rely on the understanding of other people of the Quran, you get a skewed picture that reflects the person’s biases. But if you read the Quran itself, all of it, you get a balanced picture. You recognize that God is far more intelligent, kinder and wiser than any human. It is due to relying on other people’s interpretations that we end up questioning God’s wisdom and kindness. If we read the Quran itself, we see that it nearly always keeps things vague, showing us that for every rule there nearly always are exceptions, and that it is God who ultimately judges things. It is illogical to assume that God, who created humans, is less wise and kind than humans, or that His justice may contain faults.

God understands us perfectly. He does not want us to become lax in our faith, saying that He will forgive us regardless of what we do. It is for this reason that the Quran continuously reminds us to fear God. But that is only part of the picture. The Quran also continuously reminds us of God’s kindness and mercy, and the fact the He does not expect us to be super-human in our resolve and self-control:

God does not burden any soul beyond its capacity. To its credit is what it earns, and against it is what it commits. “Our Lord, do not condemn us if we forget or make a mistake. Our Lord, do not burden us as You have burdened those before us. Our Lord, do not burden us with more than we have strength to bear; and pardon us, and forgive us, and have mercy on us. You are our Lord and Master, so help us against the disbelieving people.”6

And do not come near the property of the orphan, except with the best intentions, until he reaches maturity. And give full weight and full measure, equitably. We do not burden any soul beyond its capacity. And when you speak, be fair, even if it concerns a close relative. And fulfill your covenant with God. All this He has enjoined upon you, so that you may take heed.7

As for those who believe and do righteous works—We never burden any soul beyond its capacity—these are the inhabitants of the Garden; abiding therein eternally.8

We never burden any soul beyond its capacity. And with Us is a record that tells the truth, and they will not be wronged.9

The wealthy shall spend according to his means; and he whose resources are restricted shall spend according to what God has given him. God never burdens a soul beyond what He has given it. God will bring ease after hardship.10

The God of the Quran is utterly just and kind. He never asks us to do the impossible, and He is always willing to forgive, and He understands us better than we understand ourselves. There is no human on earth as kind or understanding as God. God does not accept laxity in us, He always wants us to be better, for this reason He constantly commands us to strive to be better. He is not like a spoiling mother who will let us go to ruin by accepting our negative and selfish behaviors; He shows our true natures to us, like a good teacher and mentor. But He is always willing to forgive if we go back to Him with humility and submission.

If other Muslims do not understand you and quote random verses and narrations that make you feel misunderstood, this shows you the limits of human kindness and empathy rather than God. I recommend that you read the Quran many times (if you do not speak Arabic, a good translation would be Abdel Haleem’s), so that when someone quotes to you a random verse out of context you would be able to remember other verses that counterbalance it. There is no excuse for letting other people become middlemen between us and God when God has sent us the best book ever written.

Best wishes inshaAllah.

A Modern Explanation for the Quran’s “Wife-Beating Verse” (al-Nisa 4:34)

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 restrictions 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 “Dark Ages” so sensitive toward women’s rights? I would argue that it was because they were humans taught by Islam to see women as fellow humans, and a chief feature of the human psyche is empathy when this empathy is not blocked due to the dehumanization of others. 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 the more they learn about it.

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 interpretation 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:

There is no such thing as humanely striking a woman.

Contemporary Islamic scholars who wish to defend 4:34, such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, often 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 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 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. Muqātil 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 not 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 ʿAbbās 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 (I will later discuss what this authority means, whether it can ever be fair and just, and the limitations Islam plaes on it). 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 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 supposedly 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. As I will discuss below, this does not mean that men are morally superior to women, we can use the Quran to argue for the opposite. But to continue the discussion of rank, the Arabic wording of the verse can be said to go out of its way to make the separation between men’s rank and men’s financial support of women 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 and claim that the verse is merely giving men the duty of supporting women’s welfare.

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 and punishments, 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

Before we go on, 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 ʿAbbās.
  • 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 absurdly 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 to strike the female 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 belief 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 applies 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 today. 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.

If the Quran was written by the Prophet , then it would would make sense that its meanings would expire and would be limited to the narrow context of 7th century Arabia. He was only a human and could not foresee all eventualities. But we believe the Quran is from God, it is His unchanged Words, which means that we have to treat it like a book written by an infinitely wise person who could foresee the fact that humanity would continue for the next 100,000 years (or however long). If something was supposed to only apply to one circumstance and not to others, then God would have told us so. What we believe is that the Quran was written by the Creator to be applied for all time. Saying that God was so short-sighted that He gave a universal command in His book that does not apply any longer is a great insult against the Creator of the universe. The question then becomes about the nature of God: mainstream Muslims believe that the Quran is from the same Creator who designed the laws of quantum mechanics and who watched the universe age for billions of years before humans started to walk the earth. When such a God tells us men should have a rank above their wives in their households, He is not stuck in the mindset of 7th century Arabia but is speaking from a billion-year perspective. Those who argue for historical localization are saying the opposite; they are saying that God was not intelligent and wise enough to see beyond 7th century Arabia. Therefore a person who argues for historical localization should first prove to us that God is not as intelligent and wise as we tend to think.

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.

To explain how 4:34 can be implemented without this leading to domestic violence, the best analogy and the most relevant I have found is that of law enforcement. 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 appropriate 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.

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 possible reasons for 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 unreasonable can automatically be considered outside 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 no strict limitation in our ability to give it a reading that fits reason and conscience. In my proposed 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.

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, however, 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 terms of her marriage. 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 99.999% 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 to 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 the 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 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. We have on convincing scientific evidence for this at the moment, but we may have it in ten or twenty years. According to the Quran, humans have evolved (for a plausible 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 psychologically 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. How can a man carry out the “greater jihad” of working to make the world a better place if he has created a cruel and tyrannical kingdom at home? 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.

Not feeling at ease when reading the Quran

Whenever I read the Quran I don't feel ease at all. Especially the verses about punishment , war etc

The Quran is written to help the faithful deal with all of this life and the afterlife’s primary issues, which includes war in this life and God’s punishments in the afterlife. Certain chapters of the Quran, such as chapter 9 (al-Tawbah) are designed to be grim because they are dealing with certain extremely difficult situations that the Muslims faced.

What you can do is find which chapters you find inspiring and enjoyable and read those. Some chapters, like Maryam/Mary, are heart-touching without being grim.

The Quran guarantees religious freedom, so why don’t Muslim scholars believe in it?

I would be very thankful if you could answer me on my following question. In Quran is written: "There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in Taghut and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing."

But also on other places is talked about punishing or killing people who do things like for example: stopping being Muslim, having sex before marriage, being gay and so on. With punishing I mean punishing on this world, and not when we die. If we have freedom to be Muslims or not, why there is no freedom of doing some things that are against religion but don't hurt other people. I am really confused and i hope you can clear this topic for me. Thank you in advance.

Regarding the issue of religious freedom, you are right that the Quran guarantees it. The scholars, however, had to also reconcile various hadith narrations in which the Prophet Muhammad is mentioned as putting limitations on religious freedom. Another case is that of Abu Bakr in the Riddah wars; when some Arabian tribes wanted to leave Islam and stop paying the zakat, Abu Bakr did not let them but fought them until they were one again part of the Islamic state.

Out of these historical anecdotes, the scholars tried to come up with an interpretation of the religious freedom mentioned in the Quran. The interpretation they came up with was that Islam should not be forced on others, but that a Muslim should not be allowed to leave Islam. From their position of power and authority, it seemed only natural that this should be the case. Islam is God’s chosen religion, so people should be prevented from leaving it for their own good if not for anyone else’s.

That way of thinking went unchallenged until the last century or so. The new reality that Muslims found themselves in (being in a position of weakness rather than strength) forced the scholars to re-examine their interpretation of the idea of religious freedom. In the 20th century there was also a new movement to take the Quran more seriously than before. In the past, the Quran was treated as just a piece of historical evidence that stood side-by-side with hadith. In the 20th century, various new thinkers (Mustafa Mahmud, Muhammad al-Ghazali, Sayyid Qutb, Said Nursi, Ahmad Moftizadeh) arose who rejected this way of thinking and considered the Quran’s teachings superior and more authoritative than hadith. And with this came a new interpretation of various issues within Islam.

Out of this atmosphere came people like Mahmud Shaltut (Grand Imam of Al-Azhar from 1958 to 1963) ruled that apostates are only punished if they try to fight the Muslims and plot against them, that mere apostasy is not punishable, and more recently Ali Gomaa (Grand Mufti of Egypt from 2003–2013), who also says that apostasy is not punishable in Islam unless the apostates try to make other Muslims leave Islam. While this is not perfect religious freedom and not perfect freedom of speech, it is an important step in the right direction. Many clerics have yet to update their thinking on this matter, but that might happen within the next 50 years.

Regarding the death penalty for things like adultery and homosexual sex, this too, like the issue of apostasy, went unchallenged until the 20th century. The Egyptian scholar Muhammad Abu Zahra, one of the greatest scholars of Islamic law in the 20th century, rejected execution of adulterers saying that the historical evidence could be interpreted in a different way. Abu Zahra is not a liberal modernist, he was one of the religious scholars (ulema), and his opinion is highly significant.

Ideally, there should be a constitutional law that all Muslims and non-Muslims follow (as in Malaysia, although the Malaysian system has serious issues). Islamic law would be something that all Muslims willingly choose to live under, and anyone who wants to leave Islam should have the right to do so, so that they stop being subject to Islamic law and will only be subject to constitutional law that Muslims and non-Muslims agree upon.

In summary, the things you mentioned (killing apostates, adulterers and homosexuals) are all issues that have already been solved by respected scholars. What remains is for the rest of the scholars and preachers to catch up.

What to do if you cannot read the Quran very well

I want to read the Qur'an to get hasanat but my Arabic is bad and I might read wrong and I don't understand most of what I'm reading. What can I do?

You can listen to it from beginning to end many times, in this way you will get used to its proper reading. Afterwards you can start reading along while listening to it, and in this way you reading may improve.

Some people (including many jurists) say that listening to it does not bring the same rewards as reading, but there is no clear evidence for this opinion. Personally I prefer to listen to it with the voice of Mishary al-Afasi. I use an audiobook listening android app (Listen Audiobook Player) that keeps track of my place. It also allows me to speed up the recitation, I generally listen to it at 2.5x speed since this is the most comfortable for me.

As for improving your Arabic comprehension, that requires hundreds of hours of practice. One way you could do it is by using a book of Quran that has the Arabic and the English side by side, in that way you could read one Arabic sentence, then reading the English translation, then read the next sentence. In this way your brain will pick up the meanings of the words even if you do not formally try to memorize the meanings.

What to do if the Quran (in English) does not touch your heart

I have an issue I feel bad about. Whenever I read the Qur'an i can't connect to it. At worst I haven't even had a clear feeling it's from God. Idk why. Maybe because I don't know Arabic. But whenever I watch a religious video explaining the religion i feel very connected.

You could try different translations of the Quran, some of them have a very technical style that is hard to connect to. Many people like The Qur’an (Oxford World’s Classics) which is not available for free online. You can also try Irving’s translation, which is free.

And if that doesn’t work, but you continue to enjoy lectures, then that is fine too. Once you have understood the religion and follow it, you are free to worship God and seek spirituality in the way that works best for you.

My favorite way to feel spiritual other than listening to the Quran is to read my collection of Ibn al-Jawzi’s sayings, which I have published as a book and which you can read here for free.

What to do if all the negative coverage of Islam and online Islam-bashing affects you

I'm from India and I see a lot of negativity towards Islam and it saddens me very much. Filthy comments made about Islam and people who practice Islam. I usually do not indulge in such arguments/comments because there is no point but it effects me. Please help Jazakallah khair

That is a promise of the Quran come true:

You will be tested through your possessions and your persons; and you will hear from those who received the Scripture before you, and from those who do not acknowledge the oneness of God, much abuse. But if you persevere and lead a righteous life—that indeed is a mark of great determination. (The Quran, verse 3:186)

The best thing to do is go on with your life like normal. It is not our job to guide people, and especially not those who say nasty things about Islam. Our job is to practice Islam, which means to stay close to God, to obey His commandments, to be kind and generous.

The Quran’s command regarding dealing with such people is to ignore them (instead of engaging them and trying to change their minds),

So turn away from them, and wait. They too are waiting. (Verse 32:30)

So avoid him who has turned away from Our remembrance, and desires nothing but the present life. That is the extent of their knowledge. Your Lord knows best who has strayed from His path, and He knows best who has accepted guidance. (Verses 53:29-30)

The servants of the Merciful are those who walk the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say, “Peace.” (Verse 25:63)

When you encounter those who mockingly gossip about Our revelations, turn away from them, until they engage in another topic. (Verse 6:68)

So leave alone those who take their religion for play and pastime, and whom the worldly life has deceived. (Verse 6:70)

While some of what we hear and read can be very upsetting, this is nothing new. All of the prophets have suffered similar treatment. This is not a problem that can be solved, it is a fact of life, like bad weather. We have to accept that it exists and move on with your lives. Our focus, when dealing with non-Muslims, should be that the good and open-hearted among them should have an accurate view of Islam. As for those who dislike us, it is not our business to change them, they have already made up their minds.

The Prophet, , used to wish to have miraculous powers to be able to guide more people to Islam. The Quran’s answer was this:

Even if there were a Quran by which mountains could be set in motion, or by which the earth could be shattered, or by which the dead could be made to speak… In fact, every decision rests with God. Did the believers not give up and realize that had God willed, He would have guided all humanity? Disasters will continue to strike those who disbelieve, because of their deeds, or they fall near their homes, until God’s promise comes true. God never breaks a promise. (Verse 13:31)

The Quran teaches us that it is God who guides people. Even the Prophet could not guide people unless God willed it:

You cannot guide whom you love, but God guides whom He wills, and He knows best those who are guided.

For these reasons, we must not think it our duty to guide people. Our duty is to practice Islam, and to present an accurate view of Islam. What people do in response is their business, we cannot control their thinking, and we cannot force them to be guided.

What happened to Islamic civilization? Why did Muslims fall behind in science and technology?

I wanted your in depth opinion on a particular observation. Muslims, historically speaking, have been responsible for hundreds and thousands of scientific discoveries. What happened to us? Why are we in the stage we are?

Only 100 years ago, which is just a little more than one human lifetime, the Ottoman Empire was a sovereign Muslim nation that could stand up to any Western power. No Jewish colonizer would have dared to terrorize and massacre Palestinians when the Ottoman Empire was there to protect its citizens.

While many Muslims, including scholars, think that Muslims were always powerful, capable and thriving throughout history until modern times, this is mostly a romantic fairy tale told to console and encourage.

The Crusaders were able to take Jerusalem and other parts of the Levant from the Muslims in 1099 CE and ruled it for nearly 100 years. Where were the great Muslim powers in this time that they couldn’t take it back? The Middle East was a mix of weak and fractured “Muslim” powers, who were only Muslim in name but in general acted like any modern power, using religion to justify their actions while being under the influence and sometimes control of foreign non-Muslim powers.

The current weakness and powerlessness of Muslims is similar to their state during the Mongol invasions. Some Muslims thought the end of the world had arrived, thinking the Mongols were the promised Ya’jooj and Ma’jooj (Gog and Magog) mentioned in the Quran. The Mongols utterly destroyed the Sunni Muslim Khwarezmian Empire which controlled nearly all of Modern Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and parts of Afghanistan and Kazakhstan, and which had existed for 150 years, through the wholesale slaughter of men, women and children. After that, they went on to destroy Baghdad and Damascus, although the Abbasid Empire had been in decline for centuries before the Mongols arrived.

On the other side of the Medieval world, Muslims ruled nearly half of Spain for nearly 800 years, until 1492 CE (which is also the year the Americas were discovered). Just as they threw Muslims out of Spain, Christians went on to conquer two continents, spread Christian rule all over them, and eventually built the world’s most powerful nation there.

The Myth of Continuous Power Increase

There is a myth among Muslims that since they belong to God’s chosen religion, they should have been able to establish a globally dominant power that ruled the world forever. But God doesn’t promise us that. He promises that we will be tested:

You will be tested through your possessions and your persons; and you will hear from those who received the Scripture before you, and from the idol worshipers, much abuse. But if you persevere and lead a righteous life—that indeed is a mark of great determination.1

God also threatens us with His ability to remove us from power and replace us with others if we do not follow His guidance:

131. To God belongs everything in the heavens and everything on earth. We have instructed those who were given the Book before you, and you, to be conscious of God. But if you refuse—to God belongs everything in the heavens and everything on earth. God is in no need, Praiseworthy.

132. To God belongs everything in the heavens and everything on earth. God suffices as Manager.

133. If He wills, He can do away with you, O people, and bring others. God is Able to do that. 2

Verse 131 above mention’s God’s warning to the People of the Book. The Old Testament contains many promises by God that if His people disobey, He will abandon them to whatever that may happen to them, and that He will make others dominant over them. In the Book of Deuteronomy (part of the Old Testament, and part of the Torah), prophet Musa (Moses) says:

25 When thou shalt beget children, and children's children, and ye shall have remained long in the land, and shall corrupt yourselves, and make a graven image, or the likeness of any thing, and shall do evil in the sight of the Lord thy God, to provoke him to anger:

26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that ye shall soon utterly perish from off the land whereunto ye go over Jordan to possess it; ye shall not prolong your days upon it, but shall utterly be destroyed.

27 And the Lord shall scatter you among the nations, and ye shall be left few in number among the heathen, whither the Lord shall lead you.3

The Quran, too, mentions prophet Musa saying similar things:

6. Moses said to his people, “Remember God’s blessings upon you, as He delivered you from the people of Pharaoh, who inflicted on you terrible suffering, slaughtering your sons while sparing your daughters. In that was a serious trial from your Lord.”

7. And when your Lord proclaimed: “If you give thanks, I will grant you increase; but if you are ungrateful, My punishment is severe.”

8. And Moses said, “Even if you are ungrateful, together with everyone on earth—God is in no need, Worthy of Praise.” 4

Our relationship with God is not one where He constantly supports us just because we say we are His nation, unlike some Muslims and many Jews think. Here is the Jewish feminist author Naomi Wolf expressing her surprise at finding out (by reading the Hebrew Bible) that unlike what many Jews think, God does not promise them never-ending support just because they are “His chosen people”:

He never says: "I will give you, ethnic Israelites, the land of Israel." Rather He says something far more radical - far more subversive -- far more Godlike in my view. He says: IF you visit those imprisoned...act mercifully to the widow and the orphan...welcome the stranger in your midst...tend the sick...do justice and love mercy ....and perform various other tasks...THEN YOU WILL BE MY PEOPLE AND THIS LAND WILL BE YOUR LAND. So "my people" is not ethnic -- it is transactional. We are God's people not by birth but by a way of behaving, that is ethical, kind and just. And we STOP being "God's people" when we are not ethical, kind and just.5

She is not quite correct when she says “my people” is not ethnic. Jews are God’s chosen, but being chosen does not necessarily mean one is chosen for a good thing. Jews are God’s chosen in that He gave them many scriptures and throughout the centuries continuously sent them new prophets to guide them back to the Straight Path. He chose them for a specific test. Their being chosen is not just a privilege, it is both a privilege and a heavy burden. If they reject God despite being chosen, God sends the most terrible punishments on them, like He has done many times throughout history. Many Jews forget the burden and choose to enjoy the privilege of thinking of themselves as God’s chosen elite.

Our relationship with God is contractual. If we obey, He supports us. If we disobey, He stops supporting us and subjects us to unfriendly powers.

The story of the Jews is a good lesson for us. Many times in their history they were extremely powerful. After they left Egypt, they entered Canaan around 1446 BCE. They disobeyed God when they were about to overtake a city and live in it, so God punished them by having them wander in the desert for 40 years. They finally entered Canaan in 1406 BCE and completely conquered it by 1399 BCE. Once they become a sovereign power, they soon start to do evil, abandoning God, worshiping Baal or the Calf, practicing usury or allying themselves with irreligious foreign powers like Egypt. For this reason, as they rejected and sometimes even killed their prophets, every few generations God would send a powerful foreign power to destroy many of their cities and slaughter many of their people.

When they continued to reject God, He sent Babylon to conquer their lands and sent them into exile for 70 years. After that the Persian emperor, whose empire had conquered Babylon, allowed the Jews to return to their lands and reestablish themselves there. Their story continued the same as before, with them doing evil and being punished for it. In 70 AD, a few decades after they rejected Jesus and tried to kill him, they tried to escape the rule of the Roman empire. In return they had their city of Jerusalem utterly destroyed and hundreds of thousands of Jews killed.

The Arch of Titus, which commemorates the Roman victory over the Jews, among other things, still stands in Rome.

Titus, the Roman commander who was in charge of the Roman victory over the Jews, is supposed to have refused to wear a wreath after the victory, saying that he was only acting as a tool of God’s wrath over the Jews. Perhaps this was God’s punishment on them for their rejecting God’s prophet Jesus.

In Jewish history there is an important historical lesson; that just because a nation associates itself with God and claims to be His people does not mean they will always have God’s support.

Muslim nations have had a history similar to that of the Jews. Many powerful Muslim states have risen and fallen throughout history, and this process is not going to end. If we establish a caliphate like some Muslims dream about, and even if it rules the world for 1000 years, if most of the population abandons Islamic values and Islam becomes largely culture and tradition and not faith, then that caliphate too will fail. God will enable another Mongol invasion, or another invasion by the British and the French, to come and divide their caliphate and do with it as they please.

Christianity’s Place in Islamic History

Just as Islam faded in the Middle East and became little more than cultural tradition and ceremony, Christianity rose in the West. The Christians who conquered the Americas thought they were doing it for God’s sake. They read the Bible daily, they established Biblical law in their colonies, and they braved many dangers in order to establish families, villages and cities in empty and hostile lands.

God’s promise in the Quran came true for them for their deeds:

65. Had the People of the Scripture believed and been righteous, We would have remitted their sins, and admitted them into the Gardens of Bliss.

66. Had they observed/enforced the Torah, and the Gospel, and what was revealed to them from their Lord, they would have consumed amply from above them, and from beneath their feet. Among them is a moderate community, but evil is what many of them are doing.6

While it is common for many Muslims to think of Christians as nothing but heathens who should magically disappear now that Islam has come, Christians are as much God’s people as Muslims are, that is, they too have a contract with God, and if they uphold their contract with God, God will uphold His contract with them. If a Christian nation is more faithful, more eager to serve God, and more observant of God’s laws, then we shouldn’t be surprised if God gives them His full support.

This was the case in the Americas and much of Western Europe until 1900 CE. With all of the corruption present, the average person’s actions and thinking were still largely controlled by Christian ideals.

Today, things are different. The West has finally abandoned the religion that made it great. The only reason the West is great today is the momentum of the past. A Muslim may lose hope when they look at the United States and see its immense capacity to dominate and do evil throughout the world. But the United States is already past its prime. It is desperately trying to hold onto its past power, constantly threatening Russia, China and Iran, but incapable of doing anything about them as they continue to rise.

The United States has had a below-replacement fertility rate since the 1970’s. If it wasn’t for their continuous importation of immigrants, their population would have been shrinking by now. A decades-long below-replacement fertility rate is all that is needed to illustrate that a nation is failing.

It is a country’s population that gives a nation its economic, technological and military power, and once the population starts to shrink, its power will decrease, because there will be fewer people to innovate, and fewer people to consume the fruits of these innovations and in this way pay for further innovations. Today the United States can afford to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on military spending every year, and it is this spending that enables various military companies to continue innovating. But as the American tax base and economy both shrink, with this its power to spend will shrink. America is on a trajectory to become the next Portugal, once a global superpower, now almost a complete non-entity (unless it continues to import immigrants, but this cannot go on forever).

One illustration of the continuing fall of the United States is that of the world’s top 15 skyscrapers (those higher than 350 meters) finished in the past 3 years, 10 are in China, and only one in the United States. China continues to rise, the United States continues to stagnate and fall. America’s failing economy has no need for new office buildings, hotels and restaurants, since it already has more than its shrinking economy needs.

The answer to the question of why Muslims are so powerless compared to the West these days is that Islamic history ran into Christian history. Christian power was still rising when it clashed with an Ottoman Empire that was already past its prime, so the Ottomans didn’t stand a chance.

Today, Christian powers too are past their prime, and great change is coming.

The United States is unlikely to become a Portugal any time soon, and if Islam continues to spread, it might change into a new type of superpower without becoming irrelevant.

It should be noted that while China’s rise will probably be a good thing in the short-term, as its rise to power will probably prevent further significant US excesses for the next few decades, once it is firmly established as the world’s most powerful country, it could start acting like the US, forcing every other country to either become a de facto client state or get turned into a war zone.

The Long View of History

Even if Muslims establish a new global superpower that lasts for hundreds of years, it too can eventually fail and get conquered by non-Muslim powers. Imagine if this world continues to exist for the next 100,000 years. The story of Muslims being powerful then weak then powerful again might play out fifty or a hundred times more.

We humans want safety and security. We want to establish Paradise on Earth once and for all and then go on living in it. But that is not the purpose of this world, and dreams of establishing a Paradise on Earth are naive and futile. We are taught over and over again in the Quran that this world is worthless, that it will soon be over, that none of our deeds done in this world will last. The Quranic character Dhul Qarnain shows his appreciation for God’s message when he says the following right after completing building a structure for God’s sake:

He said, “This is a mercy from my Lord. But when the promise of my Lord comes true, He will turn it into rubble, and the promise of my Lord is always true.”7

For us Muslims, it is always about the journey, not the destination. It doesn’t matter what we accomplish in this world, because nothing we do will last. Everything we think we can accomplish, if God is really all-powerful, God can accomplish it in an instant if He wants. The point is not accomplishment in itself, the point is to follow God. What matters is the record of our deeds. No matter what we build, no matter how much power we have, we could see it all destroyed tomorrow. This has happened over and over again in history, though sadly we continue to fail to learn the lesson.

Why did God let the Mongols destroy Baghdad and Damascus if our purpose was to continue to gain power, wealth and fame in this world? Why did He let the Ottoman Empire, the last truly sovereign Muslim power, be invaded and destroyed? Why did He not allow the Arab powers to defeat Israel during their multiple wars?

Because this world is a test. It is not our purpose to build Paradise on Earth. Our purpose is khilafah, literally “to be stewards”. We are stewards of the earth. Our purpose is to take care of it by enjoining good and admonishing against evil, so that humanity continues, and so that the the earth does not become entirely corrupted.

A steward takes care of a farm until the owner returns, continuing the running of the farm as best as they can. It is the owner’s business what they do with the farm. In the same way, our job in this world is to continue be God’s stewards, God’s agents for good in this world, but it is His business what He does with this world, and whether He gives us power or takes it away from us. All that we can say is, “We hear and we obey.”

We are not seekers after power. The Prophet did not seek power, it was given to him. Neither did any of the righteous Rashidun caliphs. We do not seek to establish global dominance, or to carry out global war. Our job is to be God’s stewards, to walk on the Straight Path.

Being on the Straight Path does not require gaining power, and in fact the seeking of power is directly opposed to it, for the seeking of power always requires that one abandon one’s moral integrity. This is the story of every political party that starts out with high moral ideals only to become a nest of corruption and evil.

It is God who gives us power if we deserve it, and if the time is right, for His own purposes, and as long as it pleases Him, until He takes it away from us. As for us, we must be thankful and content throughout all of this:

No, but worship God, and be among the thankful ones.8

It is God who manages history for us. We are not in charge, God is.

No calamity strikes except by God’s permission. Whoever believes in God, He guides his heart. God is Aware of everything.9

No calamity occurs on earth, or in your souls, but it is in a Book, even before We make it happen. That is easy for God. That you may not sorrow over what eludes you, nor exult over what He has given you. God does not love the proud snob.10

God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is within themselves. And if God wills any hardship for a people, there is no turning it back; and apart from Him they have no protector.11

God has promised those of you who believe and do righteous deeds, that He will make them successors on earth, as He made those before them successors, and He will establish for them their religion—which He has approved for them—and He will substitute security in place of their fear. They worship Me, never associating anything with Me. But whoever disbelieves after that—these are the sinners. 12

Our job is to do good wherever we find ourselves, to worship God, to be kind and just, to follow His commandments as best as we can, and it is God who will establish us on Earth when He pleases:

God has promised those of you who believe and do righteous deeds, that He will make them stewards on Earth, as He made those before them stewards, and He will establish for them their religion—which He has approved for them—and He will substitute security in place of their fear. They worship Me, never associating anything with Me. But whoever disbelieves after that—these are the sinners.13

We can, of course, be political activists and social critics. We can constantly work toward social justice and the lifting of poverty. But instead of doing these by seeking power first, we do them without seeking power. We do what is right and just and kind toward everyone, and God, if He wishes, can give us power any time He wants.

Ibn al-Jawzi says in his Sayd al-Khaatir (“Quarry of the Mind”):

I reflected upon the envy that exists among scholars, and saw that its source is the love of the worldly life, because the scholars of the afterlife engage in love and do not envy others. What separates the two groups is that the scholars of the worldly life seek power and leadership in it, and they love to accumulate wealth and praise, while the scholars of the afterlife live in seclusion from these things, they fear them and have mercy toward those who are being tested by them.

Truly good and kind people, who fear God and take the afterlife seriously, do not seek power in my experience. Sometimes the right situation arises for a good person to rise and become powerful, as it happened with Saladin. Saladin wasn’t a revolutionary who grabbed power or a politician. He became powerful as part of his job as a military commander, and one thing led to another until he became a powerful ruler.

The writer Frank Herbert says the following in Chapterhouse: Dune, and I find them true from all that I have seen:

All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological
personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the
corruptible.

Power attracts the corruptible. Suspect all who seek it.

Scientific vs. Divine Explanations for Islam’s Decline: Islam, Christianity and Indo-European Genes

A mistake many people make, both religious and irreligious, is that when they discover a scientific explanation for something, they start to think that it means that thing is not from God. But it is a principle of God that He will never allow us to have direct evidence of His existence, therefore when God does something, it is always through scientific means, or He makes it appear to be that way. God will not carry out miracles that can be recorded and published on YouTube. The only time that we will have direct proof of the existence of God and the rest of the Unseen is at the end of the world. When the pagans requested that they see an angel before they believe in God, God’s reply was this:

Had We sent down an angel, the matter would have been settled, and they would not have been reprieved.14

If we ever had direct evidence of God’s existence, then there would be no need for faith in God. God does not want that to happen, therefore everything that happens to us must have logical scientific explanations. We can examine Islamic history to find out where things went wrong. But even if we discover every single cause and try to cure it, our success is not guaranteed.

The divine reason for the fall of Muslims is that they abandoned Islam in their hearts, while the scientific reason might be the demographic collapse of the Persian population after the endless flood of Turkic and Mongol attacks that devastated the great Persian-speaking cities of Central Asia (over 90% of Islam’s greatest scholars, thinkers and scientists came from these cities). The divine reasons precede the scientific reasons. If we disobey God, God will bring about logical and scientifically-explainable reasons for our destruction. And if we obey God, and carry out our stewardship in the best manner possible, God will inspire us toward whatever will give us success and power in this world.

Conclusion

As Muslims, our goal in life is not to acquire power, glory or supremacy in this world. Our goal is not to establish Paradise on Earth. We can appreciate technological and scientific accomplishments, and we can work toward them as part of our stewardship on Earth, but we must never lose sight of the fact that ultimately, everything we do is meant to serve God, and that a day will come when all of our worldly works will be destroyed as if they never existed.

In this world, we are stewards of a temporary farm, a farm whose Owner has promised to destroy in the end. We must never get attached to this farm, or seek its improvement or power over it as a goal in itself. We must never get attached to the idea of establishing a global power. Even if we establish one, it too can come and go like every other Muslim power in history. History will continue going in cycles, Muslims will rise to power, fall, and rise again. The only people who achieve success are those who fear God and serve Him in the best way possible. It is only the record of our deeds which lasts forever, everything else is temporary.

If Muslims are weak today, look again in 500 years, and they may be the strongest and most technologically advanced power on Earth. Look again in 1500 years, and they may again be weak,  oppressed and backward. It is God who gives and God who takes. If we are thankful and obedient, He will increase us and improve our station in life, and if we are ungrateful, He can always take it all away from us and subjugate us to others.

Note that I am not saying that Muslims should turn their backs on science and progress. I love science and technology and eager follow its news, and I look forward to Muslim societies catching up to Western ones. Last year Muslim-majority Malaysia overtook Japan in its scientific research output per capita, as the graph below shows, and that is a very hopeful sign for the growth of scientific knowledge among Muslims:

The graph shows the number of scientific research papers published by each country divided by its citizens in millions. In 2017 Malaysia produced 936 papers per million citizen, while Japan produced 892.

Other Muslim nations are shown tremendous growth in scientific research as well. Egypt today produces five times more scientific and scholarly research compared to a mere 15 years ago. Iran is on track to catch up with European countries before 2030. These are things to look forward to, but we should not lose sight of the bigger picture.

The purpose of bismillah

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The Arabs before Islam used to begin their works by naming their gods, saying “By the name of al-Laat” or “By the name of al-Uzzaa”. Other nations used to do the same. If one of them wanted to do something to please a king or ruler, they would say it is done “by the name of” that person, meaning that this deed would not be if it wasn’t for that king or ruler.

For this reason, when you say “I begin my deed with bismillah al-rahman al-raheem” (in the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful), it means “I am doing it by God’s command and for His sake, and not for the sake of my ego and its pleasures.

Shaykh Ahmad Mustafa al-Maraghi, Tafseer al-Maraghi.

Patriarchy in the Quran

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Stick to posting Islamic art and quotes. Otherwise, go learn about the patriarchy and power imbalances before flaunting your misogyny everywhere. May Allah guide you.

Islam is a patriarchal religion, where men get a degree of authority over their women in their households, and with that authority comes the burden of having to provide financially for all of their female relatives, so that in a devout Muslim society no woman will ever have to work, though they can if they want to.

That authority is balanced by the fact that a woman can get a divorce any time she wants, and she is protected by all of her male relatives against any abuses by her husband, so that if her husband abuses his authority in any way, she can always leave him to find a better man. The Quran calls on men to fear God, to be kind, to be just, and to defend the weak (which includes the women and children among them) but it also gives them authority in their households.

So while in Islam we believe in the equal worth of men and women, and in equal opportunities for both, the fact that God has given men a rank over women in their households is in the Quran, and ignoring this and pretending it doesn’t exist is throwing part of the Quran away because it disagrees with your preconceived notions, because you think your inane feminist-inspired moralizing is better than God’s guidance.

The Quran, 2:85: “Is it that you believe in part of the Scripture, and disbelieve in part? What is the reward for those among you who do that but humiliation in this life? And on the Day of Resurrection, they will be assigned to the most severe torment. God is not unaware of what you do.”

The Quran, 2:228: “And women have rights similar to their obligations, according to what is fair. But men have a degree [of authority] over them. “

The Quran, 4:34: “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women [qawwamoon, literally “people of authority who watch over and maintain standards…”], as God has given some of them an advantage [in rank] over others, and because they spend out of their wealth.”

If you have a problem with a patriarchal society, you are in the wrong religion.

I encourage you to learn Arabic and read the Quran to discover the wonders of a society where men are not considered worthless and disposable like in the West, but where they are respected as figures of authority, and where a woman enjoys the peace of mind that comes with having multiple God-fearing men dedicated to her welfare, knowing that she could never, ever be homeless or wanting of food and income while a devout Muslim male relative remains to her, knowing that she can marry and divorce whoever she wants, start a business, or do whatever she wants with her life as long as it doesn’t go against God’s commandments, enjoying a peaceful life among men who like her and respect her and will not let anyone abuse her.

You are free to leave patriarchy, which means all sustainable civilized societies (all societies that have an above-replacement fertility rate, i.e. that are not on the path to extinction like Japan and Western Europe), to enjoy life among some Stone Age tribe where matriarchy is the order of the day, or in the ghettos and trailer parks of America where men belong to their mothers and do not know their fathers, where non-existent fathers make a patriarchy a practical impossibility, since patriarchy means rule of the fathers.