Domestic Violence: An Islamic Perspective

The emerging issues and concerns facing Muslim families as they go through the process of social integration has not been effectively addressed, either by the Muslim community itself, or by mainstream Canadian institutions. Domestic violence is one such issue that needs to be addressed in its entirety, both from an Islamic and contemporary approach.

Family violence is a controversial and complex issue, with serious ramifications for individual Muslims, as well as for their families and community. While it is unlikely that Muslims represent a disproportionate number of family violence incidents, the community as a whole has certainly presented its share of domestic violence cases for mainstream social institutions to handle.

Domestic violence affects everyone – men, women, children, the elderly, and the disadvantaged. It includes all ages, races, religions, societies, cultures and income levels. An estimated 300,000 Canadian households experience at least one domestic violence episode a year, and the majority of victims are women. But we do not deny that some men are also victimized by domestic violence and this problem must also be addressed.

In my work as a family therapist, I have observed that domestic violence often manifests itself through psychosomatic illnesses and depression, and not only among adults, but also among children. Underlying these visible and identifiable problems are the major issues of providing adequately for Canada’s culturally and religiously distinct groups — in this case, Muslim women and their families.

Many ethnic or faith-based communities, including Muslims, recognize incompatibility between their life experiences and current "power and control" models of clinical treatment. As one common definition puts it: "The implicit goal of this treatment is to separate the spouse, rescue the woman from [an] abusive union, and send the abuser to state-sanctioned group punishment, treatment, education and /or rehabilitation." In this traditional model, the counseling of couples is actively discouraged. At present, there are far too few Muslim- based professional organizations that provide specific therapeutic services to the community.

In the meantime, many individuals and families are caught in a difficult religious and cultural bind. There are established organizations claiming to promote culturally appropriate counseling for family violence, yet in reality they offer only one standard model of intervention. Many women and / or families feel that this style of treatment is inconsistent with their way of life because it lacks respect for their life experiences, perpetuates a racist view of their self-identity (i.e. "your ways are inferior") and is so rigidly limited in scope that it cannot fully accommodate the client’s needs and wants. This is particularly true for women; most seek only to have the violence stopped, and not to lose their families, financial stability, community position, or social status in their countries of origin.

Consequently, with no accessible opportunity to resolve marital conflicts and violence in their homes, some Muslim women seek help instead from informal sources in the community, which are often ineffective. The only outcome is a prolongation of their problems and increased suffering for them and their families. Meanwhile, the offending husband or partner (who may or may not be criminally charged with abuse) is left out of couple or individual counseling, unless he accepts a standard group program. If he refuses, he remains outside the entire therapeutic process and is highly prone to perpetuating the cycle of violence.

Clearly, it would be far more effective and helpful to identify the particular problems experienced by Muslim clients and build solutions through consultation with appropriate advisors and through co- operation with the local Islamic community. The focus should be on providing more flexibility in therapeutic approaches in light of an individual’s family values, and developing a reliable support network for women. The new vision should focus on creating violence prevention programs, and on setting up an appropriate therapeutic approach through a multidisciplinary balance that blends the ideology of absolute individualism, and the collective values of traditional indigenous minority cultures. This would necessitate collaboration between mainstream organizations that provide specialized domestic violence programs and the Muslim community, and joint training for both staff and volunteers, who must understand and respect the fact that the vast majority of Muslim women will not shed their religion or culture when they cross the threshold of an emergency shelter or social service agency.

The Islamic Perspective:

The universal need to define and explain the feminine gender has always been part of human history and is replete with divine stories and philosophical beliefs that deal with her innate nature and psyche. Regardless of geography, history, race, or culture, the composite picture of woman that emerges from these religious stories and philosophies depicts her as a poorly-developed psyche with serious moral, intellectual and psychological deficiencies. This subordinate image has determined her social, legal, and political status both in Eastern and Western civilization.

In the East, Confucius, Buddha, and Manu focused on woman’s moral and intellectual deficiencies to highlight her inferior status in relation to man. Greek thinkers, such as Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato assigned to her an evil and sinful nature, while Judaism and Christianity incorporated Greco-Roman philosophical views into their sacred texts – The First Book of Moses (or Genesis), and the New Testament, for example — and put them into practice. After all, it was the "Eve" of Genesis who was held responsible for brining upon humanity the burden of so-called Original Sin. These universalized beliefs in divinely ordained gender inequality promoted the development of a patriarchal family system that determined all aspects of a woman’s private and public roles and social status. Consequently, men — with their perceived divine authority — molded social institutions and places of worship to regulate women’s lives and consolidate male power. It was not until the social revolution of the 1960s in North America that things really began to change.

However, this monolithic view of woman was challenged nearly 1400 years ago in Arabia by the Qur’an, which categorically stated: "O Humankind! Be conscious of your sustainer, who created you of (min), a single (Wahidatin), soul or essence (nafsin), and out of it created a mate (Zawj), and out of the two spread abroad a multitude of men and women. And remain conscious of Allah in whom you claim (your rights) of one another …" (Qur’an 4:1)

By recognizing woman as a full-fledged human personality with an autonomous soul, intellect and morality, Allah made women and men alike as partners or "vicegerents" with full equality in social, political, educational, legal and religious affairs, across the full spectrum of family, society, and faith.

In other words, where women in the West had to persevere over generations of religious and political discourse to gain gradual recognition as human beings (which took until 1949 in Canada), the Qur’an stressed gender inequality as a central issue in its original agenda of social reforms.

The Qur’an also holds the original male-female human pair equally responsible for taking a different decision than Allah had advised, saying "Then the two of them ate of the fruit." (Qur’an 20: 115-21) By eliminating the question of Original Sin, and the concept that humanity was kicked out of the Garden of Eden because of "the woman," the Qur’an established an alternative paradigm for male-female relationships. "Among His signs is this: that He created for you mates (Zawj) amongst yourselves (males as mates for females, and vice- versa), that you may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put affection and mercy between your hearts …" (Qur’an 30:21) Therefore, any family system that perpetuates an unequal status between husband and wife transgresses the bounds set by Allah Himself in maintaining healthy and balanced relationships.

But here we are caught in a very sad situation. Most Muslims say that they uphold the Qur’an as their primary source of all social standards and ethics, yet when it comes to actual practice it seems that so- called "cultural traditions" are more influential in determining how we conduct our lives. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the treatment of women. Traditional attitudes and values, driven by androcentric political and cultural considerations and bound by limited contextual interpretations of certain words in the Qur’an, have been exploited to permit violence against women in families. Proponents of such abuse forget that the Qur’an transcends time and place, and was divinely revealed as an expression of eternal social values. Equality and justice are human realities, not fiction; and when human reality is out of sync with these eternal values, the result is great sorrow, misery and violence.

Consequently, the prevailing patriarchal family system that dominates in Muslim countries does not reflect the Islamic worldview on couple and family relationships in the light of current Qur’anic knowledge and Prophetic traditions and is in urgent need of critical reexamination. To continue to perpetuate culturally driven traditionalist views on gender relationships harbours the potential for even greater physical, psychological and emotional harm to the entire Muslim family. It can even result in the assimilation of Muslim family ideals into prevailing social values, without an understanding or awareness of ensuing and irreversible consequences.

I believe that implementing the preventive and restorative measures taught in the Qur’an will go a long way in addressing the growing issue of domestic violence and disunity. To that end, our top priority should be the education (or, perhaps, re-education) of the Muslim community. Violence is a learned behaviour, and unlike Freud or Darwin’s theories of the animal in us, we cannot make the excuse, "I cannot help it." The Qur’an reminds us that our God-given faculties of cognition and behaviour are under our control. It is our responsibility not to cause harm to others; thus, abusive Muslim men cannot blame their wives for their own actions.

Finally, we arrive at the inescapable fact that the Prophet Muhammad vehemently disapproved of men hitting women, (or vice-versa!) and that he never in his entire life hit any woman or child. In his last Khutba (or sermon), he advised men "to be kind to women — you have rights over your wives, and they have rights over you." He also said, "Treat your women well and be kind to them, for they are your partners and committed helpers."

On another occasion, he said "a strong person is not the one who can use the force of physical strength, but one who can control his/her anger."

Yet at this point in history, violence seems to have become a way of life throughout the world.

It is more important than ever that we find long-term solutions to it, especially for the vicious cycle of domestic violence. And it is my profound belief that Islam has a great deal to contribute to a lasting solution.