February 24, 2014. 5:43 pm • Section: The Search
University of B.C. professor Ayesha Chaudhry is going to the source of Islam to make a case against what many people in the West believe is a global scourge: Religiously sanctioned violence against Muslim women.
Chaudhry makes the case in her new book that patriarchal Muslims are misinterpreting a key passage of the Koran, which has often been traditionally understood to allow husbands to hit their wives.
In her new book, Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition (Oxford University Press), Chaudhry offers non-violent readings of a key passage about male authority in the Koran, Verse 4:34.
“The fact is religious texts only mean what religious communities say they mean – and the meanings of these texts can change over time,” says UBC scholar.
Growing up as a young Muslim girl in Toronto, Chaudhry said she struggled with K. 4:34. “It appeared to say that husbands could hit their wives if they were disobedient.”
“Later, when I learned of Muslim scholars who interpreted this verse in ways that do not condone violence or inequality, I was puzzled as to why these interpretations were considered by some to be outside the Islamic tradition.”
Chaudhry has gone on to become an assistant professor with the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice and the Department of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies at UBC.
And she decided to fight back against what she feels is a dangerous and incorrect interpretation of the Koran, which many believe has led to sanctioned religious violence in many parts of the one billion-member Muslim world.
As a result of immigration there are now one million Muslims in Canada, making Islam the country’s second largest religion. (Four per cent of Metro Vancouver’s population is Muslim.) Her book is relevant in this country.
As Chaudhry says: “My book traces the many interpretations of this verse, and argues that Muslim communities have the ability to embrace non-violent interpretations, because religious texts mean what religious communities say they mean.”
Similar efforts to critically focus on the historical context of passages in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, the books at the heart of Judaism and Christianity, have been occurring for the past century and longer. They’ve lead moderate Jews and Christians to new Biblical interpretations and meanings.
UBC today released a helpful Q & A with Chaudhry on this passage in the Koran. Here’s an excerpt:
Q. Is it possible to read 4:34 of the Qur’an in gender-equal terms?
Yes. For example, the first sentence of Q. 4:34 can be translated as “men are in authority over women.” However, if we see this statement as describing life in 7th-century Arabia when the Qur’an was revealed, rather than necessarily prescribing what must happen for eternity, gender-equal interpretations become possible.
There are now more than one million Muslims in Canada. This mosque is in Port Coquitlam, B.C.
This line can be re-read to mean that “men were the protectors/breadwinners of women” in 7th century Arabia and can be understood as a historical statement of how things were in the past rather than how they should be in the present. This allows the Qur’an to represent the past while also reflecting social changes that allow for greater gender equality.
Q. What changes do you hope to come as a result of your book?
The fact is religious texts only mean what religious communities say they mean – and the meanings of these texts can change over time. The first goal of this book is to show that verse 4:34 can legitimately be read non-violently, and that the interpretation a Muslim chooses – violent or non-violent – says more about them than it does about the Qur’an. Muslims can and must hold themselves responsible and accountable for their interpretations.
The second goal is to give Muslims the interpretive tools to choose non-violent readings of this verse over readings that permit violence against women. It is only natural that modern Muslims look to our sacred text to protect women against gendered violence.
Finally, I hope that Muslims will see the relationship between the Islamic tradition and today’s Muslim scholarship as more harmonious, so that modern conversations enrich and carry on the Islamic tradition.