Islamic Studies in Malaysia: Three Ways to Beat Your Wife

With Malaysia’s antisemitic Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad set to speak at Columbia University today, it is a good time to examine some of Malaysia’s vaunted “moderation.” Last year in Malaysia, a sample exam question in an Islamic Studies course aroused the ire of a female activist. The story is here:

Lawyer and activist Siti Kasim has called on Education Minister Maszlee Malik to explain an Islamic Studies examination question for Form Five students on permissible ways to “hit a disobedient wife.”

“Is this what our Malay children (are) learning in school?? What is this Maszlee? Is this acceptable?

“What kind of trash are we teaching the kids in school?” she asked in a Facebook post alongside an image of the examination question.

No doubt Siti Kasim is deeply offended by Qur’an 4:34, which gives a husband the right to “beat” a disobedient wife, but she can’t bear to discuss it, she simply wants to dismiss it, not hear about it, not admit that it exists — “what kind of trash,” she rails, “are we teaching the kids in school?” What kind of trash? The Qur’anic kind, that neither she nor anyone else can ignore, unless that verse happens to have been abrogated, and 4:34 is not.

The question, which Malaysiakini has sighted [sic], presents a flowchart with the title “Ways to hit a nusyuz (disobedient) wife”.

The chart states two such ways – “Not too overboard that it would cause injury” and “Not on sensitive areas,” and requires students to fill in the third permissible way.

Although Qur’an 4:34 clearly tells a husband he may “beat” a wife, many modern commentators have tried to soften that permission by claiming it should be done “lightly” in order that there be no permanent injury. These commentators have, in their glosses to 4:34, also claimed that Muslim men are never to hit their spouse’s face, nor to hit them in such a way as would leave marks on their body. Muhammad himself once punched his wife Aisha in the chest, which caused neither a permanent nor a visible injury. As always, the Perfect Man showed the right way to do it.

The question originates from a Sept/Oct 2018 model examination paper for the Form Five Islamic Studies subject, issued by the Selangor Education Department.

Contacted later, Siti said students should be taught the Quran from multiple perspectives.

We should not be teaching our children such rubbish in schools.

Again, why is Qur’an 4:34 any more “rubbish” than any other part of the Qur’an — say, than 98:6, which describes non-Muslims as “the most vile of creatures,” or any of the more than 100 verses commanding Jihad? Siti doesn’t like 4:34, but she can’t deny that it is an unabrogated verse in the Qur’an. She can insist that the Qur’an “is all about mercy and compassion,” but the Qur’an itself begs to differ. Where is the mercy and compassion in  2:190-194, 4:89, 8:12, 8:60, 9:5, 9:29, and 47:4?

“There are many other opinions on the interpretation of (how to discipline wives). Why do we teach our children only one interpretation?”

Actually, the interpretation offered is considered a “mild” one, for it modifies the permission to “beat” a wife by insisting that it be done so as not to cause permanent injury, nor should it affect “sensitive” areas. In other words, “beat” a wife — but only “lightly.” Perhaps Siti Kasim would have wanted the question to focus on the ways to treat a disobedient wife before “beating” her — that is, by admonishing her, and then by banishing her from the marriage bed?

“If they really want to teach (this), teach all other interpretations too. Let them decide which is best in Islam in accordance to [sic] the Quran, which is all about mercy and compassion,” she told Malaysiakini.

The thinking here fascinates. A verse in the Qur’an prescribes “beating” a disobedient wife. But the Qur’an, Siti claims, is “all about mercy and compassion.” So that verse, which appears to be lacking in “mercy and compassion,” cannot possibly mean what it says. What other “interpretations” of being told to “beat your wife” does Siti think are necessary to qualify it as being all about “mercy and compassion”? Why isn’t she satisfied with the “mercy and compassion” that a Muslim husband shows when he beats his wife, but only “lightly,” taking care not to cause permanent injury and avoiding hitting her on “sensitive” areas? And doesn’t he “beat” her, the minimum necessary, for her own good? Like a wise father with an errant child? Doesn’t that show mercy and compassion? For Siti, apparently not. But she doesn’t dare claim forthrightly that 4:34 can be done away with entirely. She knows it’s not one of the abrogated verses. Instead, she rages on, insisting that it not be the subject of an exam question, not subject to “only one interpretation.” The permission to “beat” your wife, no matter how its harshness may be softened by the commentators, still means, despite Siti Kasim’s rhetorical tantrum, that a Muslim husband may “beat his wife.”

As for that exam question, the third acceptable way to “beat” your wife is with a bunch of grass or twigs, following the example of Job in Qur’an 38:44.. That sounds pretty mild to me. But it wouldn’t satisfy Siti Kasim. And she refuses to recognize that whatever “mercy and compassion” is to be found in, or teased out of, Qur’an 4:34 is there despite, not because of, its wording.

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