Need to address domestic violence & sexual harassment in the American Muslim community

This upcoming Friday in my sermon, I plan on discussing the issue of violence against women.  Moreover, I also plan to discuss the matter of sexual harassment, which in itself is a form of violence that can not only be physical but also psychological. As this issue is an international phenomenon that transcends borders, which includes differences in ethnicity and religion, I wish to address this issue within the American Muslim context.

We must be clear that physical violence against women outside of non-combatant situations or out of necessity of self-defense is strictly forbidden in Al-Islam.  A general rule in Al-Islam provided in a strong narration in Sunan ibn Majah is that Prophet Muhammad (prayers & peace be upon him and his family) said, “There is no harm nor reciprocating harm.” This rule transcends gender and age.  Aggression which causes physical and/or psychological injury to others is prohibited.  This instruction is in fact a spiritual guidepost, which we are to strive towards.

Moreover, Al-Islam is built upon the principle of mercy.  Our mere existence is a manifestation of Divine mercy.  Allah (Mighty & Sublime) describes Himself primarily to us in Al-Qur’an through His names of Ar-Rahman (The Merciful Benefactor) and Ar-Rahim (The Merciful Redeemer).  He (Mighty & Sublime) said in Surah Al-‘Araf, ayah 156, “My mercy has been extended upon everything.” It is narrated that Jesus (peace be upon him) stated, “Blessed are those who are merciful to others for the sake of Allah.”  Prophet Muhammad (prayers & peace be upon him and his family) further elaborated according to a sound narration through Al-Bukhari, Abu Dawud, At-Tirmidhi and Ahmad that “Whoever is not merciful will not receive mercy.”  Again, mercy for others is a spiritual condition in Al-Islam, not an option.

Beginning with family relations, domestic violence runs counter to the Qur’anic ethos.  In Surah Ar-Rum, ayah 21, Allah (Mighty & Sublime) clearly states “And from His signs, He created from yourselves spouses that you may dwell in tranquility, and He made between you love and mercy. Surely these are signs for those who contemplate deeply.”  Thus, the family life between husband, wife and children is defined to be a relationship, which projects peace, affection and protection.  Linguistically, the word for mercy (rahmah) has a relationship to the word womb, a womb being a place of nurturing, warmth and protection from external factors.  The best expression, which we can model our behavior in this matter, as in all matters, relates to how the Prophet (prayers & peace be upon him and his family) interacted with his wives.

Allah (Mighty & Sublime) revealed in Surah An-Nisaa, ayah 19, “And consort with them [your wives] in a good, kind manner.”  The Prophet (prayers & peace be upon him and his family) dealt with his spouses in a gentle manner both in ease and difficult times.  Even in moments when he corrected them, he never abuses them physically nor verbally.  A’ishah said according to a sound narration in Al-Bukhari and Muslim, “He [the Prophet] absolutely never hit anything with his hand, not a woman nor a servant, but that he only struck [anyone] in the path of Allah [during a time of war].” 

I’ve never heard a complaint about a Muslim brute, who beats his wife or fiancée trying to justify his abuse by the behavior of the Prophet (prayers & peace be upon him and his family).  Those who beat their wives normally do so out of the desire to subjugate their wives or out of anger.  The one who does such violence is merely displaying their psychological and spiritual weakness.  It is not a sign that he loves his wife as some abused women misinterpret his actions.  For the small percentage who misuse a particular ayah in Al-Qur’an to justify their wife-beating, they lack sound knowledge and have not followed the logic of Al-Qur’an to its logical conclusion.

Allah (Mighty & Sublime) in Surah An-Nisaa, ayah 34 says:

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women because Allah has given the one more strength than the other and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient and guard in the husband’s absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct admonish them (first) (next) refuse to share their beds (and last) strike beat them lightly; but if they return to obedience seek not against them means (of annoyance): for Allah is Most High Great.

Tafsir ibn Kathir narrates an incident in which a man from the Helpers beat his wife including marking her face in which the Prophet stated that “It is not for him to do that!”  Given that the Prophet (prayers & peace be upon him and his family) never hit his wives, the ayah above cannot be taken that a man has been given the right to beat up his wife or whip her with a belt. 

Majority of scholars of Al-Qur’an state that “strike them lightly” refers to tapping on the hand with a piece of siwak, which cannot even leave a red mark on a person with the palest of skin.  A person can pluck another using their finger and leave a red mark.  Though this may sound condescending, “strike them lightly” in light of this interpretation means to strike as a mere means of getting attention without causing any physical pain, in essence treating a recalcitrant wife who disrespects her husband as if he was reprimanding a child. 

In no way do the implications of this ayah mean that a wife has to take nonsense and disrespect from a man.  She has the right to complain to him and to also tell him when he is out of order also.

Relating to sexual harassment at the work place in particular, a man has no right to make lewd advances towards a woman and definitely does not have the right to places his hands on her.  This is a problem in some spaces in which men have positional power over women, meaning when men are supervisors over women.  Propositioning a woman to commit fornication or other sexual acts with the implications that she’ll keep her job, to be able to travel to specific conferences domestically or abroad, to be accepted for a fellowship and/or to advance her career is unlawful and illegal according to American law. 

Matters such as this happen, to single Muslim women in particular, in which women stay silent out of fear that they will get a bad reputation, be blamed for the harassment or fear of being fired.  Whether a woman wears jilbab and hijab or wears skirts and no headscarf is inconsequential.  Even if a woman is naked, as I’ve witnessed in Mali of women taking baths in the Niger River at dawn because they have no running water, that circumstance does not give a man the right to attempt to touch a woman.  Again, even if a woman is nude gives a man absolutely no right to touch her in anyway.  We must have zero tolerance for blaming victims when they are sexually harassed as sometimes men blame women for being raped because they are not dressed “appropriately.”

I encourage fellow preachers of Islam to address these issue.  Those of us with male privilege in the Muslim community have the primary duty to curb domestic violence and abuse that is perpetrated upon Muslim women.  It should not be the primary responsibility of women to fend off the brutes among us alone.


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