Islamic law in the West: Leave the Qur’an out of this, please

Judge Ike Turner presiding

I truly could not believe my eyes. In a New York Times article published on March 23, a German judge refused to grant a Muslim woman a speedy divorce on the grounds that her husband beat her. The reason for this refusal, according to the article, is that the couple came from a “Moroccan cultural milieu, in which it is common for husbands to beat their wives.”

This reason, in and of itself, is extremely disturbing. This man, according to the woman’s lawyer, “beat her seriously from the beginning of their marriage. After they separated, he called her and threatened to kill her.” The woman filed for divorce and requested that it be granted without the usual year of separation, because her husband’s behavior constituted an “unreasonable hardship.” The judge, however, did not think the man’s behavior constituted unreasonable hardship, because, as she wrote: “In this cultural background, it is not unusual that the husband uses physical punishment against the wife.”

According to the article, the judge issued a statement defending her ruling in which she “noted that she ordered the man to move out and put a restraining order on him…And she suggested that the wife’s Western lifestyle would give her husband grounds to claim his honor had been compromised.”

Even though I am not a lawyer or a judge, it seems painfully obvious to me that these reasons are completely ridiculous to justify denying a speedy divorce to a woman who was allegedly brutalized by her husband. Beyond the fact that applying German law should have been the primary imperative of the judge, citing that “men do this in Morocco” as a reason to keep the couple together is alarming and utterly disturbing iteration of multiculturalism.

Yet, even more disturbing was the other rationale, according to the article, for denying a speedy divorce: “The Koran…sanctions such physical abuse.” Condemnations abound, by different people for different reasons.

“When the Koran is put above the German Constitution,” wrote Christian Democratic Union general secretary Ronald Pofalla, “I can only say ‘Good night, Germany.’”

Muslims were equally horrified by her ruling: “Our prophet never struck a woman, and he is our example,” said Ayyub Axel Kohler, the head of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany in an interview.

“A judge in Germany has to refer to the constitutional law, which says that human rights are not to be violated,” said Gunter Meyer, director of the Center for Research on the Arab World at the University of Mainz. “It’s not her task to interpret the Koran. It was an attempt at multicultural understanding, but in completely the wrong context.”

Not only was it not her task to interpret the Qur’an, it was completely inappropriate for her to even cite the Qur’an as sanctioning the physical abuse of women. Muslim scholars have gone to great lengths in explaining that verse 4:34, which literally says that husbands may “beat” their wives, does not sanction the type of abuse that this Moroccan man allegedly meted out to his wife. Muhammad Asad eloquently summarized the views of Muslim scholars in his explanation of the Qur’an:

It is evident from many authentic Traditions that the Prophet himself intensely detested the idea of beating one’s wife, and said on more than one occasion, “Could any of you beat his wife as he would beat a slave, and then lie with her in the evening?” (Bukhari and Muslim). According to another Tradition, he forbade the beating of any woman with the words, “Never beat God’s handmaidens” (Abu Daud, Nasai, Ibn Majah, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Ibn Hibban and Hakim, on the authority of Iyas ibn Abd Allah; Ibn Hibban, on the authority of Abd Allah ibn Abbas; and Bayhaqi, on the authority of Umm Kulthum).

When the above Quran-verse authorizing the beating of a refractory wife was revealed, the Prophet is reported to have said: “I wanted one thing, but God has willed another thing – and what God has willed must be best” (see Manar V, 74). With all this, he stipulated in his sermon on the occasion of the Farewell Pilgrimage, shortly before his death, that beating should be resorted to only if the wife “has become guilty, in an obvious manner, of immoral conduct”, and that it should be done “in such a way as not to cause pain ( ghayr mubarrih)”; authentic Traditions to this effect are found in Muslim, Tirmidhi, Abu Daud, Nasi and Ibn Majah.

On the basis of these Traditions, all the authorities stress that this “beating”, if resorted to at all, should be more or less symbolic – “with a toothbrush, or some such thing” (Tabari, quoting the views of scholars of the earliest times), or even “with a folded handkerchief” (Razi); and some of the greatest Muslim scholars (e.g., Ash-Shafi) are of the opinion that it is just barely permissible, and should preferably be avoided: and they justify this opinion by the Prophet’s personal feelings with regard to this problem.

Moreover, there are some who do not even believe that the word wadribuhunna means “beat them” at all. In her forthcoming translation of the Qur’an, Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar interprets wadribuhunna as “then go away.”

Regardless, however, of what Muslims have had to say about 4:34, it is not a German judge’s place to cite the Qur’an as justification to keep a woman married to someone who allegedly brutalized her on a regular basis. It seems to me that this judge was either completely ignorant of what Islam and the Qur’an, or she has such a contempt for Islam that she sought to malign the Qur’an by using it in this terribly unjust ruling.

Unless she is completely incompetent, it is more likely the former rather than the latter. Nevertheless, this ruling may have significant implications: “For Muslim men,” said Michaela Sulaika Kaiser, head of a group that counsels Muslim women, to the Times, “this is like putting oil on a fire, that a German judge thinks it is O.K. for them to hit their wives.”

How disastrous. It is bad enough that there are Muslims who use the Qur’an to justify domestic violence; now we have a German judge who – wittingly or not – has done the same thing. Judge Datz-Winter, if you plan to issue another crazy ruling like this one, please, leave the Qur’an out of it.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at godfaithpen.com.


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