Dealing With Domestic Violence Against Women – An Islamic Perspective

The Forum on Women , Religion, Violence & Power recently interviewed Shaykh Muhammad Nuruddeen Lemu as part of a series of interviews looking to understand both public and private conversations about critical and timely contemporary societal issues.  

The topic of this interview looked at trying to understand the Islamic perspective on domestic violence and how faith leaders, particularly Imams and Scholars, should be at the forefront in tackling these issues and providing care and support to the victims. 

Shaykh Nuruddeen Lemu currently serves as the Director of Research and Training at the Da’wah Institute of Nigeria (Read his full bio here).

Below is a full transcript of the interview.

Shaykh Muhammad Nurudden Lemu

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your work?

I’m Nuruddeen Lemu, a 46 year old Nigerian Muslim who loves fishing, good books and good food. I love chatting about things that matter. I am also a very lucky person who gets heaps of free credit for work done mostly by the respectable family, friends and colleagues who surround me. I have six very interesting siblings, a super wife and three wonderful boys.

I work with the Da’wah Institute of Nigeria, a department of the Islamic Education Trust, an organisation established in the late 1960’s by my parents – Aisha Bridget Lemu and Sheikh Ahmed Lemu – and a good friend of theirs who is late now. My parents have been a major influence in my work. My mother, a retired Principal, has been very active in promoting education for Muslim women and greater recognition and protection of their rights and access to opportunities in society. My father, who retired as a Shari’ah court judge in the 90’s has always been active in interfaith bridge-building, clarifying misconceptions about Islam and dealing with religious extremism among Muslims. They have both received national awards for their prominent roles in education, charity-work and peace-building in Nigeria.

I have various affiliations with a number of other organisations and businesses, but spend most of my time as the Director of Research and Training at the Da’wah Institute of Nigeria. Most of our work at the Da’wah Institute focuses on meeting the capacity building needs of Muslim activists, academics, Imams and leaders who are engaged in countering religious extremism. We aim to tackle obstacles to better interfaith, intra-faith and gender relations in urban and rural areas. We also conduct other faith-based train-the-trainers courses in personal development, leadership and organisational resource management.

Recently, when asked to write a tentative motto for myself, I ended up with “Growth and contribution with compassion, wisdom and faith”. Looking at it again, I think I would add “fun” after “faith”.

What are your thoughts on Religion and Domestic Violence? Does your religion support domestic violence? If No, how so?

I think Domestic Violence is one of the most bizarre forms of violence and abuse in society. How can a person be abusive or violent towards the one he or she is expected to protect, cherish and love the most? How can the home, where virtue and charity are expected to begin, be the place where abuse, hurt and cruelty emanate from? How can a family which Islam and every major religion regard as the ideal abode for the up-bringing of our children – who are the youngest, most helpless and vulnerable gifts of God to us – also be turned into a place of physical and psychological torture? How can a relationship which is described in the Qur’an as possessing love (mawaddah), compassion (rahma), fairness (‘adl), and tranquillity (sakeenah) also be a home of pain, shame and bitterness?
God says in the Qur’an (30:21), “And among His Signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your (hearts): verily in that are Signs for those who reflect.”

Religiously inspired domestic violence should be an classic example of an oxymoron. Regretfully, some have found ways of trying to justify such ugliness in the name of Islam, religion, order and “peace enforcement”!
Islam categorically prohibits any form of domestic abuse or violence. In Islamic law, domestic violence and any other form of abuse is as bad as violence towards anyone outside the family. In some ways it is even worse than non-domestic violence. Marriage in Islamic jurisprudence does not deny a woman or man any of their legal rights to safety, security and protection from harm. Abuse and violence against a marriage partner is even worse as Islamic law expects that a husband (for example) would protect his wife from harm. What makes this situation worse is that the protector has turned persecutor and is undermining the higher intents and textually explicit purposes (maqasid) of the marriage.

Domestic violence is a moral and legal offence that should be prevented where possible and punished where necessary. It is up to the discretion (ta’zir) of legal authorities to decide what would be an appropriate punishment for domestic or any other form abuse or violence. The Qur’an (2:187) says: “Your wives are a garment for you, and you are a garment for them.” The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “None but a noble man treats women in an honourable manner. And none but a dishonourable man treats women disgracefully.”

One of the major roadblock activists have faced when dealing with issues of violence against women is that abusive men tend to find texts and interpretations of texts to justify their behavior. Are there really text that justifies these behaviors and how can activists deal with such issues?

Throughout history, people of all faiths have found ways of justifying various selfish and criminal behaviours by citing religious texts and interpretations of texts. Muslims are no different in this regard. However, anyone conversant with the rules of interpretation of Islamic (or other) texts knows that no single verse or text should be interpreted in isolation and with disregard for other texts related to the same subject, the intent of the texts and its context. Disregard for the accepted rules of interpretation of religious texts leads to a context-disregarding literal reading which all the classical schools of Islamic jurisprudence reject. Consequently, fair-minded Muslim scholars in various countries and people of good faith have continued to advocate for progressive social and legal reforms which have, in many societies, made the present better that some parts of the past, and the future, hopefully brighter than the present.

One of the most commonly misinterpreted Islamic texts used by some to justify domestic violence is Qur’an 4:34which lists a number of steps that a husband could consider taking in correcting a wife who deliberately disregards her marital obligations (nushuz). One of the steps mentioned is that he could “daraba” his wife. The word daraba is used in the Qur’an to mean many things, and has for a number of other reasons been very problematic for many scholars to translate and interpret. Daraba has been variously translated as “hit”, “tap”, “pat”, “strike”, “beat lightly”, “walk away”, “separate”, etc. Consequently, and also cognisant of the legal implications of violence or abuse of women in Islamic jurisprudence most ancient and modern Muslim scholars have been content to maintain that this permit (of daraba as “beating”) is essentially symbolic and not what would constitute abuse or harm (ghayra mubarrih). Classical scholars have therefore tried to explain such “light beating” (darban ghayra mubarrih) in ways that they believed would not legally be described as violent or abusive. They hence explained daraba as similar to lightly hitting with a “handkerchief”, the “edge of one’s dress” or a “chewing stick” (or toothbrush).

The problem some scholars have with the more distasteful interpretation of daraba as “beat” or “hit” is the explicitly clear objectives of marriage mentioned in the Qur’an as being love (mawaddah) and mercy (rahmah) and the fact that the practice of prophet Muhammad was that he never beat any of his wives even though they had disagreements which sometimes got him upset . He was reported to have said Muslims should “not harm (or hurt) or reciprocate harm”. In addition, kindness and compassion by a husband or wife (or anyone else) is usually preferred to seeking justice or equitable retribution. Any prescription for preventing divorce cannot be one that will have the tendency to actually lead to divorce.

The disagreement among scholars regarding what constitutes clear and fair interpretation of daraba has therefore been taken full advantage of by those who erroneously consider it a God given right to control their wives through violence. What is important for activists dealing with those who would like to justify abuse with religious texts is to search for the common ground within the diverse opinions. So, while scholars have and will continue to differ on the subject of what daraba actually means, they do have an agreement on what it does not mean. They do agree that it is not a blank cheque for men to strike their wives in a manner that constitutes a legal and moral abuse which is in fact punishable by a court and which can constitute a valid basis for divorce.

Thus jurists have upheld that anything which is injurious or leaves a mark on the woman’s body is actionable as a criminal offence, and that the woman is entitled to seek for divorce on that ground if she so desires, just as she is entitled to equitable retribution (qisas) or financial compensation (diyyah). This position is adopted in many personal status codes in Muslim countries, such as Jordan and Kuwait. Other countries including Pakistan have established a similar qisas and provision for financial compensation (diyyah).

Another challenge for activists dealing with domestic violence, as with any other abuse of human rights, is to find more creative ways of getting such crimes legally criminalised and actually punished appropriately. Implementation of laws even when they exist is another hurdle that can be better overcome if more fair minded scholars are carried along with greater cultural sensitivity. Often what makes some scholars and community leaders apparently apathetic to reform and the adoption and enforcement of such laws is that they sometimes feel that they are viewed as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution and who should be carried along.

Muslims always need to be reminded of the need to live life with God-consciousness (taqwah) and only follow decisions that one is sincerely ready to meet God with irrespective of the views of others, including scholars. The Golden Rule taught by all of God’s prophets must be lived by, especially at home – “None of you is a sincere believer until they love for their brother (in humanity) what they would love for themselves”. God in the Qur’an (39:18) praises critically minded people “those who listen to what is said, and follow what (they believe) is the best (meaning or) opinion.” The Prophet Muhammad is also authentically reported to have said, “Consult your heart, even if others give you fatwa (verdicts), upon fatwa, upon fatwa.”

Muslims should always remember the beautiful example (sunnah) of Prophet Muhammad’s own personal objection and disapproval of domestic abuse and violence, and the innumerable acts of love, fairness, compassion and gentleness he showed his family members even in times of domestic conflict. The Qur’an (33:21) reminds Muslims that “There has certainly been for you in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful example for anyone that hopes in Allah and the Last Day, and remembers God often.”

For many women who are religious especially in Africa, a first response to abuse by an intimate partner is to seek out help from their faith leader such as an Imam or Pastor. How would you advice such leaders to address this issue?

While Islam teaches the need for justice, it also places a high premium on forgiveness, patient perseverance and magnanimity. Unfortunately this is where another challenge and mix-up occurs in the apparent clash of virtues. Women and children are the most common victims of domestic violence, which is often perpetrated by the husband or father. And as many women (and young people) fear for their own safety, they are afraid to come forward, and domestic violence is therefore always under-reported.

Very often, religious teaching of compassion and forgiveness for the perpetrator of violence are invoked at the cost of justice, fairness and compassion for the victims. This is usually the first line of action by family members, community elders and religious leaders “to forgive the past and bring back peace into the home for the good of all”. This “forgive-the-enemy” approach, while often noble in its spirit and intent, easily becomes the only thing that is done. If not checked, this can gradually allow domestic abuse, violence, injustice and oppression to survive and even thrive. Sometimes violent and abusive individuals begin to derive a sense of immunity, as it were, from the religious principle of mercy for immunity. In this way religion is then taken hostage of by the irreligious and used as a shield to protect evil, impunity and ugly behaviour.

Religious leaders need to appreciate the need to redirect more preaching of and demands for compassion to the actual or potential perpetrators. Forgiveness should never be enforced by others and demanded from the victim, otherwise it simply gets turned into an ungodly strategy for perpetuating vice. The victim is actually the primary person in need of compassion from religious leaders, the family and community. Sincere compassion towards the victim would also lead religous leaders to correct the perpetrator and preventing recurrence through the enforcement of justice. Religious leaders should stand for compassion by standing for justice and leave it to the victim to freely choose to forgive or not, and the victim should never be made to feel any guilt for demanding justice. The Qur’an (5:8 and 4:135) describes those who stand for justice irrespective of their affiliation and feelings for others or the feelings of others towards them as “closest to godliness”, and “…so judge between people in truth and do not follow (your own) desire…” (Qur’an 38:26); “…for God does not love the aggressors” (Qur’an 2:190).

Sometimes forgiveness and a number of otherwise nice virtues are called in “for the sake of the children”. This should not be allowed to become another decoy that permits a bad situation to get worse for all, and especially the children. Children can often grow up as healthy orphans or with a single parent if surrounded by love and compassion. However, very few children survive the trauma of a broken home that is characterised by hatred, bitterness, abuse and violence. What is best “for the sake of the children” is a home without abuse and violence irrespective of whether the parents stay married or not.
Children do not choose the families they join; adults do. Responsible and God-conscious victims of domestic abuse, community and religious leaders should not force innocent, voiceless and vulnerable children to grow up in environments that expose them to the worst parts of their “parents” on a nearly daily basis.

If parents cannot live in relative peace and happiness with each other respecting their mutual rights and obligations towards each other, then let them (for the sake of their children and themselves) separate before their relationship degenerates into one of verbal, psychological or physical abuse. Where they fail to do this, the marriage may end in a more traumatic divorce than necessary. Conscientious adults should take full responsibility for the marital climate they create and which they choose to live in with their children. God in Qur’an 2:229 instructs that such couples should either “live together on equitable terms or separate (divorce) with kindness”. And while the Prophet Muhammad described divorce as one of “those things that are permitted but hated most by God”, it has been permitted because it can be a lesser evil to a marriage that is abusive or not fulfilling its purpose. The Prophet taught that “It is better to be in good company than to be alone. But it is better to be alone than to be in bad company.”
It is for all socially responsible adults, religious and community leaders to creatively come up with the most compassionate and sustainable ideal or “lesser evil” solutions to violent and abusive relationships, taking into consideration the more important critical needs of the most vulnerable victims. They should not allow the cultural taboos surrounding divorce, courts and “honour” to get in the way of sincere God-conscious compassion and justice.

Religious leaders however do not come out of a vacuum. They are groomed, trained and supported by others in the community. So while it is important for religious leaders and clerics to be more responsible for and do a better job at counselling, mediation or reporting families facing abusive or violent relationships, etc., it is also the responsibility of those who train, employ and sponsor them to take more responsibility for the outcome and products of their financial support and seminaries or institutions of religious education. One is reminded of the verse in the Qur’an (4:135), “O you who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding justice, bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God, even though it be against your own selves, or your parents and kinsfolk. Whether the person concerned be rich or poor, God’s claim takes precedence over (the claims of) either of them. Do not, then, follow your own desires, lest you swerve from justice; for if you distort (the truth), behold, God is indeed aware of all that you do!”

What are the consequences of violence against women to the societies in general and in religion?

Violence against women is violence against human beings – mothers, sisters, daughters and aunties, etc., and must never be condoned. There are numerous texts in the Qur’an and narrations from the Prophet Muhammad on the obligation to honour and to protect the rights of women. In fact the Prophet in one narration even used the quality of treatment that women get from their husband as a measure of the estimation of the faith of those men in the eyes of God. He said, “The best amongst you (to God) are those who are best to their women (wives).”

In fact, when a person came to Prophet Muhammad and asked, “Who among people is most deserving of my honour and best treatment?” He said, “Your mother”. He again asked, “Who next?” “Your mother”, the Prophet replied again. He asked, “Who next?” He (the Prophet) said again, “Your mother.” He again asked, “Then who?” Thereupon he said, “Then your father.”

According to the great medieval jurist Al-Izz ibn Abd al-Salam, “When you study how the purpose of Islamic law brings good and prevents mischief, you realize that it is unlawful to overlook any common good, or to support any act of mischief in any situation, even if you have no specific evidence from the text, consensus, or analogy.” Consequently, it is part of the religious duty of a Muslims to be concerned about every social problem or action that negatively affects anyone in the society.

The consequences of domestic violence against women are many. From a purely “self-preservation” or “enlightened self-interest” perspective, violence against women (or any creature) is not just wrong in the eyes of God, but also a violence against one’s self and a way of denying one’s self of God’s mercy. The Prophet Muhammad said, “God is not merciful to those who do not show mercy to others!”

The harm that domestic violence does to society and it various members is disgustingly troubling to say the least. According to the World Health Organisation and others, violence against women is a “global health problem of epidemic proportions” with no less than 30% (more than 1 in 4) of all women experiencing violence from an intimate partner in their lifetimes. Intimate partner violence is the leading cause of female homicide and injury-related deaths during pregnancy. Domestic violence is also the third leading cause of homelessness among families. Men who are exposed to domestic violence as children are 3 to 4 times more likely to perpetrate such violence as adults than men who did not experience domestic violence as children. About 85% of victims of domestic violence are women. And that only 25% of physical assaults perpetrated against women are reported to the police annually.

As these figures are global averages, one shudders at what actually is going on in societies where women have even less opportunities to speak out or do anything about their plight. It was shocking to read in The Huffington Post that even in more open societies such as the United States, more women (nearly twice as many!) died from domestic violence than the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq during the same period of time (between 2001 and 2012).
Domestic violence has numerous negative strategic and cumulative impacts. It results in injury and death, depression, alcoholism and drug abuse, sexually transmitted infections, abortions, unwanted pregnancies and poor care of the consequent children, school bullying, homelessness, loss of income, poverty and all its attendant problems that perpetuate various cycles of violence and other societal ills.

Very crudely, domestic violence messes up a society and quietly too. It is an insult on manhood and a shame on humanity. Everything must be done at all levels to eliminate it to the best of our abilities.

Prevention is key in ending #VAW; based on religious views, what are effective prevention strategies?

Need for holistic approaches: Like some of the other major challenges facing humanity, preventing domestic violence against women needs to be approached holistically and from every level of society. There is something for everyone to do – legislators, academics and teachers, politicians, social workers, law enforcement workers, civil society organisations, parents, media practitioners, community and religious leaders, celebrities, those in the sports and entertainment industries, and students – everyone! Some need a “carrot” others need the “stick”, many need both.
Many wonderful suggestions for preventing domestic violence from a religious or Islamic perspective have been made by others and are accessible online. I would however like to add or emphasize the following:

Better networking and outreach with religious leaders: Unfortunately in life, it seems that you do not get what you deserve, but what you strive and fight for. There is the need for better networking and information sharing between the various stakeholders in preventing domestic violence against women. There is a lot of work going on and heaps of research and statistics online, and some great scholarly works have been produced, but there seems to be insufficient effective networking with community gatekeepers and religious scholars in ways that are culturally or religiously sensitive but also reformist. I believe a lot can be done if greater attention is paid to the sensitisation and enlightenment (about the various issues related to domestic violence against women) of current, but especially the next in rank or the next generation of community and religious leaders. Tertiary students and the university environment is also critical in this regard.

Access to education and opportunities: I think an important longer term solution is to make men and women in society and the home become more respectfully interdependent on each other by choice. This would be fairer to all concerned. The family and whatever affects it is too important to be left only to men. Women in Islam have a much greater role and say in decision-making than what many cultures would tolerate. One of the greatest equalisers in this regard is access to holistic education to the highest level. Women should be given every God-given opportunity that life has to offer, and Muslims religious leaders need to be seen to actively counter unjust patriarchal structures.

Beyond academic excellence to character reform: While access to education is very important for many reasons, it is not sufficient. Less education, legal protection and economic opportunities for women naturally puts them at a disadvantage in preventing and countering domestic violence. So it is definitely important. However, there still seems to be a very high level of domestic violence against women in societies which have relatively good educational opportunities and legal protection for women. There is probably the need to look more closely at the type and quality of ethical education being given to young people. While academic excellence is important, there seems to be very little focus on character building and teaching compassion in schools. This is very relevant to gender relations as it is to any other relationships. These are what help us maintain our integrity and humanity when our egos are challenged by the trials of life. Among Muslims, a faith-based approach is often important in giving greater ownership, legitimacy and authority to such education.

Islamic scholarship, women and cultural patriarchy: From the perspective of Islamic jurisprudence, everything is permissible to people except what is clearly prohibited by the Lawgiver (God). The default assumption in Islam is freedom of choice, creativity, reform and action. There is however a lot of unfair patriarchal cultural baggage that has seeped into many so-called “Islamic perspectives” on various issues over the centuries. Fortunately, in every century there have been a few scholars that have worked to help Muslims appreciate and distinguish the cultural incursion from the eternal and essential ethical teachings of the Qur’an and tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (sunnah). For a more globalised world, more still needs to be done.

Most but not all these scholars have been men. However, I believe there is the need now more than ever before to have very competent female jurists studying and teaching Islam. This job of clarification of the status and role of women in society and other related issues cannot be left to only a few men. Fortunately some serious female scholars and mentors seems to be on the rise in the West and the Muslim world, but much more still needs to be done to support them. Along with their male counterparts, their voices need to be heard more loudly and more frequently.
Unfortunately some of the biggest obstacles and defenders of patriarchy and the status quo are also vocal women (and men) with very limited knowledge of the principles, methodological tools and objectives of Islamic jurisprudence. The challenge of unjust patriarchal structures is probably easier for women to identify, but probably easier for men to dismantle or reform, at least in the short term. Synergy and creative collaborations are needed in dealing with such challenges.

Better training of religious leadership: According to another distinguished medieval jurist Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, “The foundation of the Shari’ah is wisdom and the safeguarding of people’s welfare in this life and the next. In its entirety it is about justice, mercy, wisdom, and good. Every rule which replaces justice with injustice, mercy with its opposite, the common good with mischief, and wisdom with folly, is a ruling that does not belong to the shari’ah, even though it might have been claimed to be according to some interpretation…”
This is simply saying that the various interpretations of religious texts cannot and should not result in conclusions that go contrary to the explicitly clear objectives and purposes (maqasid) of the same texts. This simple yet profound rule of interpretation presented by such a renowned and distinguished medieval jurist is unfortunately difficult for many contemporary religious leaders and students of Islam to appreciate without trying to come up with a hundred and one qualifications and exceptions that swallow the rule. The primary reason for this is that very few of our brilliant minds get to study even an introduction to the principles (Usul al-fiqh) and objectives (maqasid) of Islamic jurisprudence.

More scholarship and popularization of these subjects will make it easier for male and female religious and non-religious activists and others to appreciate new scholarship and legal reforms related to the rights of women (and others), and not hastily dismiss these as unislamic products of “modernism” and “Westernization”. There are many young Muslims activists who feel paralysed by the dilemma of holding onto their religious identity and the position of their religious leadership on the one hand, while on the other hand being uncomfortable with the support given by religious leaders to some apparently unacceptable positions. Understanding the basic methodological tools and language of Islamic jurisprudence also allows for greater identification of common grounds and ways of communication that facilitate better collaboration with religious opinion leaders and authorities on issues of social reform. This will open the door to greater critical thinking and qualitative religious debates about Islam, social reform and a host of issues relating to women rights and gender equity.

My prayer: As always the candle of hope in the ability of the human spirit to make the world a better place is kept alive through prayers and action. I pray that in what I have said above, there is something that will in some way contribute to preventing domestic violence against women somewhere.

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