Some imams in Australia still teach that the Koran permits husbands to beat their wives, with police reporting Muslim men are citing scripture to justify abuse. Now a new generation of faith leaders is working to undo the damage.
This feature is part of an ongoing investigation by ABC News edited by Julia Bairdand Hayley Gleeson into religion and domestic violence. Other articles in this series have examined Islam and Islamic divorce, mainstream Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church, Christian clergy wives, Hindu and Sikh communities, andJewish divorce laws.
Sitting in a small, modestly furnished room at the Heidelberg mosque in Melbourne's northeast one recent Friday afternoon, Sheikh Alaa El Zokm's brow furrowed as he recalled how, during a talk he was giving on domestic violence, a young Muslim woman had nervously raised her hand.
She was terrified of getting married, she told him, because her husband might interpret verse 34 of chapter four in the Koran as some other men did: as a licence to treat his wife badly and perhaps, if she disobeyed him, beat her up.
Sheikh Alaa nodded sympathetically, he said, and offered gentle counselling about how Islam "honours women", and the importance of love and kindness in marriage.Koran 4:34
According to one of the most popular English translations of the verse, by British-Indian scholar Abdullah Yusuf Ali, it states:
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 ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all).
The fact that a sheikh had even broached the issue of domestic abuse and Koran 4:34 in public is highly unusual; most Muslim leaders in Australia shy away from discussing it, partly to avoid the controversy it inevitably sparks.
But for the past year, the 29-year-old, Egyptian-born imam has been delivering a series of lectures — at mosques, Muslim community events, universities and Christian churches — in a bid to correct "misunderstandings" and promote respectful relationships.
He does this, he said, because he's seen first-hand the devastation domestic violence is causing his community, and feels compelled to intervene.
"There are very rare cases of individuals who misuse this verse as a reason for violence," Sheikh Alaa said. "[But] any saying that promotes violence will and must be challenged as it goes against one of the most vital principles of Islam" — that is, "mercy and tranquillity between a husband and wife."
The increasingly urgent question, however, is not just how the verse might be being interpreted, but how it is being taught.
Advocates have told ABC News a significant number of imams in Australia — many of whom have been educated in overseas institutions that champion patriarchal interpretations of Islam — are telling followers that 4:34 does allow men to physically discipline wives.
And, in the absence of any clear instruction from the country's most senior Islamic scholars, including the Grand Mufti, the consequences can be brutal, with police reporting that Muslim men are frequently citing scripture as justification for their abuse.
Family and domestic violence support services:
- InTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence: 1800 755 988
- 1800 Respect national helpline: 1800 737 732
- Women's Crisis Line: 1800 811 811
- Men's Referral Service: 1300 766 491
- Lifeline (24 hour crisis line): 131 114
- Relationships Australia: 1300 364 277
For decades 4:34 has been the source of intense debate over whether and to what extent Islam sanctions men's authority over and hitting of women.
Though scholars are divided on several points — including the correct English translation of the Arabic word wa-dribuhunna, which has been translated as "beat them" and "strike them", but also "separate" and "go away" from them — the verse states that a rebellious woman should first be admonished by her husband, then abandoned in bed and, finally, if her disobedience continues, beaten.
More than any other passage in the Koran it has been a thorn in the side of domestic violence workers and women's rights activists, who say it is fuelling abuse in Muslim communities and dissuading victims from seeking help.
Now, a new generation of imams is defying the status quo and speaking out to promote non-violent readings of 4:34 in the hope they might undo the damage done by decades of silence.
Faith leaders "absolutely" have a responsibility to discuss 4:34 with their communities, said Sheikh Alaa — to stress that it should never be used to condone violence. At the same time, he added, many leaders are unqualified in Islamic scholarship, and simply parrot literal translations they've picked up.
"An imam shouldn't be talking about these issues unless he's studied and knows what he's talking about ... It can be very dangerous if he says something that is not right."
'We need to be strategic about what we say in public'
Uncertainty over how the verse should be understood has persisted since last April, when the Women of Hizb ut-Tahrir Australia, a radical Islamic group, posted a video on Facebook in which two hijabi women claimed the Koran permits men to hit disobedient wives — gently, using small sticks or pieces of fabric.
"He [the husband] is permitted — not obliged, not encouraged, but permitted — to hit her [his wife]," one of the women said. "That is what everyone is talking about. It should not cause pain. Not harsh."
Just weeks earlier, Keysar Trad, then-president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, had suggested in an interview on Sky News that his religion allows husbands to beat their wives as a "last resort" after having engaged in counselling, though he quickly apologised for what he described as a "clumsy attempt" to explain a verse from the Koran.
Some Muslim leaders went into damage control, insisting such views were a "minority opinion" within Islam in Australia, and that it "should be made very clear to all Muslims" that there is never any justification for violence against women.
A statement signed by more than 30 Muslim figures, including a handful of clerics, asserted that, "Islam categorically prohibits and denounces the abuse of women" and "...there are countless Australian religious clerics who have publicly declared this to be the case".
And yet it did not specifically address the questions and confusion surrounding 4:34: How should it be interpreted? Why is there such disagreement among Muslims over its meaning and application? And why do so many faith leaders refuse to weigh in?
When ABC News first began reporting this series 18 months ago, questions about the links between 4:34 and family violence were swiftly shut down by experts and imams alike — partly out of fear that simply raising the issue would invite (or prolong) sensationalist media coverage and unwanted scrutiny on Muslim communities, who already feel under siege.
But after spending more than a year talking to Australian Muslims about this question it has become clear that imams are, in fact, divided, while key leaders have continually refused to engage at all.
The acting Grand Mufti of Australia, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, did not respond to several requests from ABC News seeking clarity on 4:34 (nor did his predecessor, Sheikh Abdel Aziem Al-Afifi, who died in July, just four months into his role).
The president of the Australian National Imams Council, Sheikh Shady Alsuleiman, has also refused to respond to repeated requests for comment over the past six months, including on his remarks that husbands have the right to forbid wives from leaving or working outside the home, including going into the backyard to "put up the laundry".
Women, too, are prone to tip-toeing around the verse: the fear that they might be seen as criticising or challenging all-male imams' authority is a strong deterrent, particularly for those who work in the family violence sector.
As one professional Muslim woman told ABC News, "We need to maintain functional relationships with these men, so we need to be strategic about what we say in public."
But advocates say the silence around the issue is only making it more difficult for victims to seek help. As one Muslim family violence worker in Melbourne told ABC News: "The repercussions of having people in authority basically give permission for violent and controlling behaviour has a ripple effect — it weighs down not only on families but communities as a whole."
There are a lot of different "view points" on the correct interpretation of 4:34, the worker said, "but let's sit down and have the conversation."
'Sheikhs in Australia recite a range of interpretations'
So then what should that conversation look like? Islamic scholarship, frequently tangled up in the politics of colonialism, can be complex, not only because it requires proficiency in Arabic language and grammar.
Conservative or traditional scholars argue 4:34 should be read literally, and it gives men authority and disciplinary privileges over wives: beating is permitted as a "last resort" in response to what they consider to be very serious transgressions, perhaps adultery.
Progressives like Sheikh Alaa, meanwhile, say it should be read in context with the Koran's broader messages of justice and peace, and the example of the Prophet who, they claim, "never hit a woman".
For them, the verse is a three-step process for addressing a wife's arrogance, or disrespect, toward her husband: couples should first discuss their concerns, separate from the marital bed and, finally, walk away or separate from one another.
It doesn't make sense to Sheikh Alaa that god would allow a man to beat his wife to fix a problem in his marriage. "How can you advocate hitting as a solution?" he said. "Which lady in the world is going to accept being hit?"
Women apply for most Islamic divorces in Australia, but imams often refuse to grant them. Muslim leaders have condemned domestic violence, though some still teach that husbands can control their wives.
Fatima* accepted it for years. The recently-divorced mother from Melbourne endured decades of physical, emotional and financial abuse by her husband, who she said would spit 4:34 at her to justify his authority.
"He was quite fluent in Arabic, but I'm not," Fatima said. "I was brought up in Australia, and relied on the English translation until I started learning Arabic myself. For years I took it literally, I believed he had the right, that I deserved it."
She might have fled the relationship sooner, she said, had she received different advice from faith leaders.
"I have heard sheikhs in Australia recite a range of interpretations of 4:34, but the most prominent one [advocates] beating or hitting," Fatima said.
"I've heard one imam say that a man has the right [to hit his wife] in the most extreme circumstances of nushuz [disobedience or disloyalty] ... So basically if he walks in and finds his wife having an affair ... if he loses his temper and hits her, then he will be forgiven for his first reaction."
Other imams, she added, "have said, 'Well, it [hitting] should be tokenistic; a husband can use a toothbrush or a scarf and cannot leave any marks or bruising — it's just to show that you are upset."
Of course, it's not only a scholarly or theoretical debate. Many Muslim majority states — including the UAE and Egypt — give permission in their legal codes for husbands to physically discipline wives.
And in 2016, an anti-domestic violence bill in Pakistan was deemed "un-Islamic" by the Council of Islamic Ideology, which advises legislators on sharia matters.
A husband, the council reportedly said, should be allowed to "lightly beat his wife" if, among other reasons, "she defies his commands and refuses to dress up as per his desires" or "turns down demand of intercourse without any religious excuse".
'What do Muslims want this verse to mean?'
Koran 4:34 can be read both ways, said Ayesha S. Chaudhry, an associate professor of Islamic and gender studies at the University of British Columbia — as either sanctioning violence against wives, or as prescribing a peaceful strategy for resolving marital conflict — it just depends on who's reading it.
Religious scholars in the pre-colonial period, she said, expected the Koran to support a patriarchal structure of marriage and could make a persuasive case that it did.
But scholars in the 20th and 21st centuries — a growing number of whom are women — have increasingly begun to interpret it in line with their