Review of Academic Access Episode “Wife Beating in Islam? with Dr. David Solomon Jalajel”

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

A few weeks ago, I watched the following episode of Shoaib Malik‘s series Academic Access:


The following summary was taken from Ustadh Mobeen Vaid‘s Facebook post on this subject:

I recently took the time to listen to David Jalajel’s conversation with Shoaib Malik (inelegantly entitled “Wife-beating in Islam”) on verse 34 of Surat al-Nisa. The verse in question reads: “As for those from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and beat them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High, Exalted, Great.”

A brief summary of the discussion and Jalajel’s points are as follows:

– Jalajel rejects the plausibility of alternative meanings of daraba in the verse on linguistic grounds. These linguistic barriers include the absence of a preposition before the object.

– Juristic understanding of darb in 4:34 is analyzed, with views ranging from obligation to a large number assuming a stance of permission (mubah) with many additionally adding statements of discouragement.

– A linguistic analysis ensues reviewing commands and how imperatives are used in the Quran. This is paired with a discussion of the illocutionary force of language in various contexts to support the possibility of commands not necessarily implying instruction, but instead discouragement or prohibition. Included in this analysis is verse 80 in Surat Yunus where Moses says to the sorcerers: “cast [what spells] you are going to cast,” as well as verses where God says “whosoever wishes, then disbelieve” (fa man sha’a fa’l yakfur) which itself is an imperative command but is in fact being invoked as a warning *against* disbelieving.

– Having foregrounded these interpretive possibilities, Jalajel suggests that 4:34 can be alternatively rendered as: “leave them alone in their sleeping places, *instead* of beating them.”

– Although there is no precedent for this reading, the deprecation of darb here is justified through an appeal to colloquial disapproval for otherwise absurd or unwise requests. An example furnished in the lecture is of a child who wants to drop out of school and is told by his mother: “First look at what jobs are available for dropouts, then look at your friend who dropped out of school and cleans toilets, *then* drop out.”

– There is some additional discussion on the cultural biases of premodern scholars, including socially entrenched patriarchy and a valuation of women as subordinate to men. These conditions are said to have colored theological efforts, and that modern egalitarian societies create a different set of subjectivities which must be honored and valuated before approaching scripture and determining how scripture can be understood.

It goes without saying that this verse has been subject to considerable debate in recent years, particularly insofar as it is misunderstood by some as providing license for domestic violence. Nonetheless, many scholars have maintained the meaning of the verse while simultaneously citing the Prophet’s (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) example as having never hit his wives along with statements from him that disapprove of striking women. These hadiths are often combined with scholarly statements that firmly prohibit striking women…

In spite of his otherwise careful review, David Jalajel’s contention that the verse in question can be reconfigured as “leave them alone in their sleeping places, *instead* of beating them,” seems to test the limits of interpretive maneuvering. Appeals to colloquial speech bear little to no relationship to the verse in question, and the proposed “new meaning” requires one to reject 1) asbab nuzul and similar reports which provide context to the verse, 2) fiqh, 3) tafsir, and 4) a plain reading of the verse which is explicitly and unequivocally affirmative and not deprecative.

If taken as a serious approach to interpreting revelation, the usul presented would risk rendering revelation meaningless. Far from engaging in the difficult work of theology, even on an otherwise contentious and urgent issue which requires serious theological exposition, this strikes me as a sort of labile mockery of the wills of readers which can only stand when one takes an extreme bad-faith assumption of historical ignorance, oppression, and the integrity of religion (or lack thereof) as was transmitted within that context.

My Review:

I also listened to this podcast a view weeks back and found it highly problematic, albeit much better argued than the vast majority of cases I’ve seen made regarding this verse. Specifically, Dr. Jalajel tries to argue among other things that:

1) That he is a methodology which fits in with traditional standards.

2) That one’s interpretative choice would be based on culture.

3) That there are other places in the Quran in which an analogous deprecation is used.

4) That if we interpret the verse the way he proposes, the hadith’s which seem to indicate that some form of physical discipline is permitted can be explained in light of the verse.

I had issue with all 4 of these claims. Regarding 1, he actually sneaks in a non-traditional principle and ignores a traditional principle. The tradition doesn’t say “interpret the verse according to your present circumstances” the traditional perspective is “interpret the verse according to how *Arabs at the time of revelation* would have understood the verse.” Therefore, the cultural context of the 21st century is irrelevant except when passing a fatwa; it doesn’t say anything about the original intent of the verse. Nobody in the 7th century was thinking what Jalajel is suggesting, the proof of which is that none of the ulema said what Jalajel said. Fuqahaa living in the 8th-10th century specifically, and anywhere at any time prior to modernity generally, were closer to the cultural assumptions of 7th century Arabs than someone sipping their Starbucks in an office chair in 21st century New York. It therefore follows that the two cultural paradigms do not have equal interpretative weight.

Regarding 2, Jalajel erroneously claims that the difference between how we would look at male-female relations now, as opposed to in the classical period, is merely a cultural difference. This is false; the difference is *philosophical* and even *theological.* Once a particular worldview takes hold, it percolates into culture. Thus, while it is true that this difference is also *cultural*, that, in fact, is the result of Enlightenment and now postmodern philosophical ideas seeping into the fabric of society after several centuries of secular education. Once one is aware of this, Jalajel’s proposition essentially amounts to saying we can use Simone Beauvoir and Judith Butler’s philosophical assumptions to interpret the Quran. This is highly problematic.

Regarding 3, I stand to be corrected, but if I recall the only *Quranic* example Jalajel gave of deprecation is “whosoever wishes, then disbelieve” (fa man sha’a fa’l yakfur). However, the preposition used here is the faa’, not the waaw. This may not matter, but there is room for investigation here. My point is merely that even the analogy is not exact, and this may be the only (allegedly) place in the Quran where a deprecation is used with a waaw, which would weaken his argument. Furthermore, even in the case of “whosoever wishes, then disbelieve” (fa man sha’a fa’l yakfur), we have clear verses which clarify the punishment allotted to those who disbelieve, such that it is contextually clear. The same cannot be said for 4:34.

Finally, 4. How exactly are we going to reconcile hadiths which give *specific instructions* on the limits regarding beating? Perhaps he would try to go for “don’t beat your wives at all (as some hadiths state), but especially don’t beat them severely, on the face, etc. (as other hadiths state.)” I am concerned that this may not be as straight forward as Jalajel suggests, but I suppose we’d have to look at the entire corpus of hadith on this subject and see if there would be any problematic phrases which would seem to distance this interpretation.